Overseas package holidays
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Nick Harding visits sites near Madrid and Salamanca – finding time to climb a staircase to heaven
The big question is: do you get to Spain by ferry or drive through France? My partner Lin and I opted for the former, mainly because time was a factor. We were limited to a week away in May, and it made for an easy start to drive from home to Plymouth, hop on the 24-hour ferry to Santander, and then complete a four-and-a-half-hour drive to our first campsite (all booked via the Club).
We had two specific destinations – Madrid and then Salamanca, which lies just over 200km to the north-west of Spain’s capital. The latter may be unfamiliar to some, but our next-door neighbour was quick to advise that we simply had to go there.
So we did... but our first booking was at the Arco Iris campsite, around 20km west of Madrid’s centre. When we arrived at 8.30pm the reception was closed, but help was soon forthcoming, and we received plenty of advice as we checked in. Despite being out of season, the campsite’s restaurant was open until 10pm, so we had time to get sorted on our pitch and wander down for our evening meal – highlights being the most delicious of gazpachos (cold soup has no right to taste as good as this) and in-season asparagus cooked to perfection.
It’s easy to be bamboozled by a city of Madrid’s size so my advice is to plan ahead. On our first day we caught a bus from just outside the campsite entrance to the nearest town, Villaviciosa de Odón, then a second bus to the Principe Pio bus/tram station in the centre of the capital. We stepped pretty much immediately into the Jardines del Campo del Moro (‘Moorish Camp Gardens’) – an ideal place to stroll on a sunny morning.
We were also close to the final resting place of Francisco Goya: the Museo Panteón de Goya, in the Ermita (‘Hermitage’) de San Antonio de la Florida. This Neoclassical chapel is adorned throughout with his paintings, and was the perfect introduction to one of Spain’s foremost artists.
Nearby we also found a traditional restaurant, Casa Mingo, where we dined under cover outdoors on tapas including olives, cheese, salad and bread.
We repeated the journey on the second day, this time taking the tram across town and hitting Madrid’s museum quarter. We were set on just one, initially – the Museo Nacional del Prado, widely cited as Spain’s premier art museum.
Frankly, it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it is a little overwhelming, as typically there are some 1,800 exhibits here. We spent four hours looking at artworks, our own highlight being The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. The audio guide was a great help, offering instant expert commentary on paintings by the likes of Velázquez, Picasso, El Greco, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and more.
Our next stop was Los Gatos (‘The Cats’) café – a bar just a quarter-of-a-mile walk from the museum. Quirky décor included a dentist’s chair, cash registers and a petrol pump!
Like any European capital, public transport in Madrid is very good. Nevertheless, we opted to walk back to our usual metro station via the touristy and pricey Plaza Mayor and lots of side streets before emerging at the royal palace and gardens – a stunning part of the city.
Despite Madrid’s grandeur, we were looking forward to Salamanca and our next site, Camping Regio. We took our time driving there, with coffee and fuel stops, and saw birds of prey along the way (subsequent checks suggested both golden and booted eagle, and possibly vultures).
The campsite is part of a hotel complex, and check-in was at the hotel reception. The hotel’s facilities were up and running, as were the campsite’s own bar/restaurant and shop. That gave us an easy decision for our evening meal, with the chance to have some quick chats with other guests. Staff quickly pointed us in the right direction for the bus to the centre of Salamanca, which is around 5 or 6km away.
It is known as ‘The Golden City’ on account of its sandstone architecture and is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe (behind only Oxford and Bologna). There are some 30 major churches and Salamanca’s Old City has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. You’ll also find the Baroque-style Plaza Mayor, said to be Spain’s most beautiful square. I’m not going to disagree with that.
Our first stop involved climbing the 198 steps of the Clerecía Towers. We were rewarded with stunning 360˚ views across the city’s intricate clay-tiled rooftops and beyond, even spotting nesting storks! Not for nothing is the ascent known as an Escalera al Cielo (‘Stairway to Heaven’). It certainly set the scene before we visited the city’s two cathedrals as well as the shell-clad Casa de las Conchas and the Convento de San Esteban (monastery).
Our second day in Salamanca began with a meander through the small town by the campsite, Santa Marta de Tormes, where there are shops, supermarkets, bars and restaurants.
Then, having returned to Salamanca, our first stop was Casa Lis, an Art Nouveau and Art Deco museum, containing collections of toys, dolls, porcelain, furniture, enamelware and more. It is the most glamorous setting with its stained glass – originally it was a private palace.
There was just time to visit the covered Central Market, where vendors were finishing their days and packing up – somewhat aptly, as this is what we did when we got back to the campsite!
There was time for one last highlight on the ferry back to England, where, early in our four-hour journey, we were fortunate enough to spot around 20 dolphins seemingly at play in the Bay of Biscay – a surprisingly stirring vision and a perfect way to end a great trip.
If Nick has inspired you to visit Spain, see camc.com/overseas to book a ferry and campsites. A nine-night trip from 1-9 October 2023, including ferries, would cost £1,150 for two people in a motorhome staying four nights at Arco Iris and three nights at Camping Regio. This is an exclusive package price for Club members – for more information on package holidays visit camc.com/overseas-holidays/overseas-package-holidays.