The crazy Brit in calf-length Bermuda shorts warned us that Spain does not have supermarkets. His precise words were “You can buy tractors ten to a penny, but a lettuce…No chance!”
Slightly miffed, off we marched to the Carrefour Supermarket to stock up on supplies before we crossed the border into Spain. We loaded our trolley with unbelievable bargains, including 2lb of chicken thighs for just €3.
Other than Chris, nobody else eats chicken thighs in our family but Chris assured us he would pull the chicken from the bone. We wouldn’t notice and the price was just too good to pass. He filled half our trolley with chicken thighs.
We congratulated ourselves and smugly gloated about our cheapskate purchases. Over the next week we would claw back our budget and eat like kings.
As the final item rang through the checkout, the grand total was revealed…
€204 Euros!! Sweet Jesus! What the hell happened to all of our bargains?
Confused, we examined the receipt and noticed that none of the deals had been deducted. With our trolley full of chicken thighs, we marched off to Customer Services ready for a battle.
We pointed energetically at our receipt and then at various promotional signs around the supermarket. The Customer Services lady nodded in a knowing way. She slipped under the desk and reappeared with a leaflet displaying all of our bargains. ‘Oui’ we agreed. There they are!
And then she pointed to the small print at the bottom…
“Avec une carte” – With a card.
A fuzzy haired customer behind us (obviously earwigging to our conversation) started flapping a Mastercard beside my ear, wittering in French that I needed a card if I wanted to claim the amazing deals.
We were crest fallen. We could not afford to make these silly mistakes. Taking some pity on us, the Customer Services Lady agreed to refund most of our groceries – but not the chicken!
We were stuck with the half a trolley of useless chicken thighs and an extortionate bill for the privilege.
As we walked dejectedly across the carpark, I was reminded of the ‘Expensive Sausage’ from Guerande. The ‘Expensive Sausage’ that only Chris would eat was now replaced by the ‘Expensive Chicken’ from St Jean de Luz.
I wondered if we would ever make a mistake that the whole family would enjoy.
With another blow to the budget, we had no choice but to recoup our money by spending the next four nights on free Aires.
The first Aire was a dusty carpark five minutes from Monastery Irache. Local signs led us to an Old Pilgrim’s trail, walked by thousands of Pilgrims from all over the world. As we reached the top of the hill we noticed a queue of people holding small plastic cups. Chris read the nearby information board; which he thought read ‘free wine’.
With a new burst of energy we marched over to a small faucet on the wall. Low and behold, free red wine flowed from the tap. Apparently the resident monks provide 100 litres of free wine each day to visiting pilgrims.
With a quick look around, Chris quickly pulled out his 2 litre bottle from his rucksack. Needs must – but our conscience prevailed and we opted for a small cup instead.
Noticing the Monastery was open Lola and Chris slipped inside the wide wooden entrance, whilst Jonah and I looked after the dog under the shade of some strange knobbly trees. After only five minutes, Chris emerged with a rather red-faced Lola. Apparently as they were walking silently around the inside courtyard, they were approached by a furious Monk, shouting aggressively in Spanish for them to get out. Having never seen a Monk before, poor Lola was scared out of her wits! She insisted on going home because her day had been ruined by a “bloody ‘not-so-Godly’ Christian”.
The next Aire was situated at the rear of a small village at the foot of some imposing cliffs, housing hundreds of Troglodyte dwellings. Initially they looked like a series of black doorways carved into the rock face, but on closer inspection we found 3 bedroom dwellings with kitchens, fireplaces and worn numbers above each door! They were apparently inhabited until the late 1960’s before being decommissioned.
Lola was quite taken with the thought of living in a cave and promptly added it to her bucket list.
Our third Aire was rather uninspiring. We were the only motorhome on a huge granite carpark next to a school sports centre at the top of a hill. The only positive was the 360◦ panoramic view over the surrounding towns and villages. To our left, a magnificent mountain range framed and completed our view.
After a few games of catch and bat and ball, we ate dinner and settled down for a family movie. The door was open to encourage the warm breeze into our home.
As we lay in our beds later in the evening Lola interrupted our silence by complaining that the skylight above her bed kept flashing blue. I checked her skylight (which was fine) and returned to bed. Moments later I launched out of bed – our skylight was flashing blue too.
“Something is going on outside!” I shouted.
We all leapt from our beds and propelled ourselves out into the darkness of the night. It was a very hot, balmy evening, so we stood mostly in our underpants. What a sight it must have been! Four semi-naked people and a dog, in a carpark looking at the sky.
Within seconds the sky either side of us lit up in a motion comparable to a wave washing ashore. Beautiful colours of purple, yellow and blue. Another minute later and the silhouette of the mountain was uncovered by a magnificent luminous rolling light.
We watched in awe as the light spectacle continued for over half an hour. In our whole lives, Chris and I had never seen anything like it. The absence of any sound cast an eerie, surreal feel to the night.
Our position on the hilltop could not have been a better platform for watching such an impressive, one-in-a-lifetime display of Mother Nature – even if we were slightly exposed!
Suddenly the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Anticipating a storm Chris yelled for us all to get inside. With the door locked safely behind us, we all gathered on our bed in the pitch black, our faces pressed to the tiny windows on each side.
The breeze turned into a forceful wind at frightening speed. The trees that only moments ago stood still in the carpark were now bent over struggling to keep hold of their small roots. The sound of thunder rumbled overhead and the soft and silent light display was replaced by angry bursts of fork lightning. The rain started – not in small droplets but as a huge sheet of water engulfing us in its wake.
As we laughed and jeered from the warm comfort of our bed, Jonah suddenly shouted “RAIN!”….
Lola followed “ON OUR HEADS!”
The rain water started pouring through our skylight, our mattress getting soaked in the process. The kids and the dog scarpered leaving Chris and I trying desperately to open and re-seal our skylight. As the lightning struck directly above us, it casted much-needed light, exposing the cause of the problem….one of the branches of the swaying trees had caught in our skylight preventing it from closely properly. We had to make a choice, a) go outside, climb the back of Colin in the eye of the storm, or b) punch our hand through the fly screen and remove the branch from the inside. We opted for b).
One broken window and a drenched mattress later the excitement was over. Our budget would be hit again for unexpected repairs, but it seemed a reasonable price to pay for the memory of the most exhilarating storm we are ever likely to encounter at the top of a hill in a clump of metal!
Our final Aire was at Sam’s Place at Mont Blanc. Sam was a lovely little Spanish man and the owner of a ‘camping car’ dealership. We were assured that he would be able to fix our repairs. He welcomed us to stay overnight in a car parking space opposite his carwash. He walked us to a shed in the corner of the forecourt, which doubled as a toilet and basin.
We turned up with a list of issues 1) A broken bike carrier (from our argument with a speed bump), 2) Broken skylight (from the storm), 3) Broken front door (from an overzealous Chris in windy weather) and 4) two broken blinds (again, from an overzealous Chris).
‘Sam’ did not speak a word of English – but that didn’t stop him. He looked around ‘Colin’ and waved his arms, commenting on each breakage in super-speed Spanish. Neither Chris nor I understood a word. Chris looked at me, I looked at him, our silence embarrassing. So in the only universal language I know, I took Sam to each broken item and asked him if it was a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’. Sam understood and we managed to sort out one of our three issues.
It turned out that Sam’s place was just a 5 minute walk from the medieval town of Mont Blanc. It is a lovely place and we happened to arrive on a weekend where the entire town was celebrating a ‘Playmobil’ festival. Every business had an extravagant Playmobil scene in its shop window – the kids loved it.
The following day after a restless night at Sam’s place (he didn’t tell us about the train station at the rear of his forecourt), we drove 100km to a campsite at Sitges. We planned to spend a couple of nights on a campsite with a direct bus route to Barcelona – the destination of our honeymoon some 12 years earlier.
I’m not sure if we arrived during a gay pride event or if Sitges was just a popular campsite for gay couples, but I think we were the only family on the site. It was great. Our camp Italian campers next door were fantastic company and took a shine to Chris (who seems to attract gay men!). We were treated to daily commentaries of the goings-on of the entire campsite and everyone on it. I shall miss them, their tight denim cut-offs and their little micro caravanette.
Our bus trip to Barcelona was not without its problems. We successfully paid for our ticket on the coach that arrived on time, only to be told (after we purchased our tickets) that the bus didn’t go to Barcelona after all. As the bus driver offloaded us at the curb-side, he pointed to the coach that just overtook us, and said ‘That one does!’
Half an hour later as we stood waiting for another bus in the hot afternoon sun, two men pulled up in a white van. They got out, each wearing a pair of dungarees, and promptly removed the bus stop. Throwing the heap of metal in the back of the van, they drove off without a word. We were dumfounded. It is just our luck that on the one day we needed to catch a bus – the bus stop was decommissioned. It might have had comedic value if we were not so hot and bothered.
My sense of injustice kicked in and I stomped off back to the campsite, spitting feathers about ‘Murphy’s Law’. I hadn’t walked too far when Chris suddenly launched himself desperately in front of a coach. They might have removed the bus stop – but he was going to make sure the coach stopped one way or another!
Our tension gradually dissipated as we sat comfortably on our way to Barcelona on an air-conditioned coach. I congratulated my hero on his bravery. He replied that he would rather be hit by a bus than have to cope with my moaning all afternoon. I smiled. He knows me well.
We may have finally been heading to Barcelona, but we had no idea where to get off. We looked for anything that might jog our memory or look familiar – but nothing. We opted to watch our fellow travellers. Surely, we thought, the majority of people would disembark at the centre of town? Our theory worked.
We arrived at Las Rambla just as the early evening rush hour began. Holding on to our kids’ hands for dear life, we walked up and down the strip, taking in the architecture, the food markets, the colourful locals and the street entertainers.
After 12 years, it was like visiting the splendid city for the first time. The hustle and bustle of people, bicycles and beeping taxi’s still has an allure for Chris and I. We will always love Barcelona. However it is very different sightseeing with two children in tow. You cannot relax for one moment for the fear of losing one of your most prized possessions.
We decided to catch a bus home around 9pm – but from where we had no idea! We traipsed up and down trying to find a coach that might head back to Sitges. Looking for a No.35 in Barcelona at night is slightly more chaotic than a no. 35 on Royal Parade, Plymouth.
Thankfully Chris’s logic paid off and we arrived back at our campsite safely. The next morning we said farewell to our camp Italian campers and drove to Mont Roig, 140km south of Barcelona.
Our campsite at Mont Roig was initially planned as a one-night stopover, but when we were guided to our pitch and realised that a small sand dune was the only thing dividing us from over 3 miles of sandy white beach, we decided to book another 7 nights.
Immediately the kids kicked off their sandals, shed their clothes and jumped into the sea – closely followed by the dog. They spent the whole day either in the sea or playing on the sand. That evening, we moved our table and chairs to the beach, ate dinner together and watched the sunset with a glass of wine.
Our first morning in Mont Roig was very memorable, for two reasons. The first was that I decided to run the length of the beach in an attempt to improve my fitness, and the second was an early morning dip in the ocean in all of our clothes (because I thought I was going to die of exhaustion!).
A new morning routine was set… A run with the dog, a family swim and breakfast on the beach.
Life was simple. No gadgets, no shops, no restaurants, no bars, no tourists, no clothes and no hassle.
On our third day, we watched in disbelief as a gigantic American RV, towing a car and a catamaran tried to manoeuvre into the pitch beside us. It was ostentatious and rather flamboyant compared to our modest ‘Colin’.
We watched in fascination as the sides of the van glided out, the satellite went up, the steps came out and the canopy dropped down.
Who lived in a house like this? We pondered…
We were expecting a posh, well-to-do retired couple to gradually ease themselves out of the van, so when a man sporting a vest and braces holding up a pair of tired tracksuit bottoms emerged, we were rather surprised. His ‘Chuckle Brother’ haircut complimented a magnificent 1970’s moustache and brown tinted reading glasses. A cowboy hat finished off his ensemble.
His wife was a larger-than-life character with peroxide blonde hair, a black dress (exposing the mid-rift) and gold heeled sandals.
A ‘GB’ sticker confirmed that they were indeed British.
The challenge was on – could we guess their profession?
With such a lavish van, and the best of everything, we rattled off a few professions before we finally agreed on a ‘Benidorm Duet Act’ that probably involved ping-pong balls.
The following morning as we were walking back from a mid-morning stroll along the beach, we came face-to-face with the ‘gold sandaled Queen of the RV’. We called ‘Good Morning’ and asked politely if she had enjoyed her first evening.
“I slept like a bloomin’ log!” came the response.
We slipped easily into a conversation over the next hour. She introduced herself as Stella. Her husband was Brian. They had been travelling since the 23rd September. The sad and abrupt loss of a dear friend had inspired them to pack up everything and leave the UK.
“Life is too short” she concluded – A much used phrase I have heard from many travellers so far.
That morning we put the world to rights on the beach. We skipped from morbid musings to belly-laughter as we shared our stories and our hopes for the future.
It turns out Stella was a Neonatal Sister for 44 years. Brian had just retired as a Senior Manager of British Steel. A tacky Benidorm act they were not! Genuine, fantastic, down-to-earth, kindred spirits they were!
Lesson: Never judge a book by its cover.
Later that day we were invited for tea and cake in the RV. It was our first taste of luxury since leaving the UK. Brian and Stella were generous and welcoming – they had worked hard and taken risks to achieve their RV and their dream. We loved their thirst for life and their refusal to grow old. Just the previous night, three bottles of red wine and a date with Led Zeplin had led to snogging and skinny-dipping in the sea! They were certainly not your bingo and crotchet type of OAPs!
We have met some really interesting people on our travels so far, but I have to say, Stella and Brian are our favourites so far.
We were sad to leave them yesterday – but something tells me that we will see them, or hear about them again soon.
People who embrace life like that do not hide in the shadows. They are bright, vivacious peacocks who are proud of their vibrant feathers.
Judge them at your peril. First impressions can be very deceiving.
This blog is dedicated to the finest Chuckle Brother and his Ping-Pong-firing lady!