Covid crisis

This story happened on: 24/01/2020

After years of persuasion my wife finally relented and agreed to a long term winter holiday in Spain. She likes the seasons you see. So do I. I like Spring, Summer, Spring, Summer repeat.

The loose plan was to sail from Portsmouth to Santander on Brittany Ferries then drive across Spain to Cadiz turn left and work our way along the coast towards Benidorm over a two month period from late January to late March.  

Having secured Pet friendly cabins for the outward and return journeys. We booked them at the beginning of July as they are like gold dust through the Caravan and Motor Home club (CAMAC).

Our outfit of Hyundai Santa fe and Lunar Clubman SE was ready, all the necessary travel documents, insurances and what if’s done we were on our way.

Now I don’t like to take chances so even though we had a 5pm ferry to board I took the decision to travel down to Portsmouth from the Wirral the day before and stop over at a lovely site recommended by fellow club members, Dibles Park, some 13 miles from the Ferry terminal. This allowed us a good night’s sleep, great breakfast and a leisurely stress free journey to the Port.

Travelling with a dog on a ferry is not without its complications. The exercise deck for dogs although painted green is covered and try as we did my dog, thinking she was indoors, was reluctant to relieve herself on it for over 24hrs.

At Santander we had decided that as it was now 6pm to stay over at a nearby campsite San Juan. The small campsite had clean toilets, showers, electrical hook up, free Wi-Fi, an onsite bar restaurant and hotel which was popular with the locals. This is always a good sign for value and good food. I especially liked the measures being a G&T drinker. “Senor you tell me when to stop pouring” the very friendly owner Diego Pablo told me. I slept well that night.

Next morning we were awoken early by loud barking from the valley. Noise travels in Spain and take it from me everyone owns really big mastiff guard dogs that bark, a lot. I have learnt to take ear plugs with me when away in the van anyway, in Spain they are a must.

The next stop was the club site at Regio. It was pretty cold travelling over the mountains to Salamanca, the snow-capped mountains picture postcard in their image.  Regio is a nice big site, again with splendid facilities and a restaurant attached to the hotel that serves excellent meals and offers a takeaway service. Free Wifi and plenty of room to walk the dog and handy for the city of Salamaca.

The following day we made for a site just outside Caceres, best stop over so far. All the usual facilities each pitch having its own on suite toilet, shower, free Wifi, washing up and water. A fully serviced pitch all for 18 euros a night. At the back of the site there is a lovely 3 mile walk that takes to the old town of Caceres, well worth a visit if you’ve a mind to it.

The further south we travelled the warmer it became. Our first long term stop was to be at Playa Las Dunas, Purteo de Santa Maria which is a large town just outside Cadiz. The site is spacious and well run. It boasts a very good restaurant that opens early in the morning to provide freshly baked bread. We had noticed on all the previous sites that the pitches were more compact than we were used to in Britain and France. This seems to be a Spanish thing.

We were however, lucky to get a larger than average pitch at this site. Once set up I tried to set up the satellite dish which I intended to couple with my Sky + box only to find the Astra 2 satellite we use in the UK does not extend its coverage down to Southern Spain unless you have a satalite dish the size of Jodrell Bank. All was not lost the site provides free Wifi, alas without a Wifi booster it was pretty poor and so my smart phone became the Wifi feed for evening TV.

Pureto de Santa Maria whilst not the prettiest of towns but it does have a thriving shopping centre. There is a weekly market, reasonable restaurants and a nearby hyper store. Interestingly if you go a little off the beaten track you’ll find yourself in a kind of shanty town on the outskirts. Poverty is pretty wipe spread and something of an eye opener.

Across the road from the site lies the very pretty beach with beautiful white sand. We were allowed to take the dog on it being responsible dog owners we made sure we cleaned up after ourselves too. She loved playing in the lapping waves. Further down to our right lies a forested area with lovely walks through. A paved promenade extending from the town some five miles to the marina is lovely to walk run or cycle on. Being a keen cyclist I was out early doors most morning seeking out quiet roads for a 30/40 mile round trip ride. Following one downloaded route I found myself riding along the hard shoulder of a motorway. Expecting to be stopped any second by the Guardia Civil I was so happy to see other cyclists also using the hard shoulder. It turns out cyclists and other slow moving traffic, Tractors, horse and carts, are permitted to use certain sections of the motorways in Spain, unbelievable.

So here I was at the end of January and I was out riding my bike in short sleeves and shorts back home my mates were contending with end of the world storms and bitterly cold weather….smug? you can bet I was.

We spent two weeks at Playa Las Dunas, made some great friends and had started to build up rather nice tans. We were hearing reports of panic buying breaking out back home due to the concern over the corona virus outbreak in China yet here in Spain everything was laid back. Crisis? What crisis?

Our next stop was Ronda. What a beautiful location. Set high in between two mountain ranges we stayed on the camping El Sur site which is located a mile outside Ronda. The pitches are all hard standing and there are a good number to choose from ACSI card is accepted and the wonderful staff do everything they can to help make your stay as enjoyable as possible. At 17 euros a night for a two week stay this was excellent value for such a lovely site. Top notch facilities free wifi excellent bar and restaurant.

Ronda is a lovely town to visit and draws thousands of tourists every day of the year. Many members have spoken of the wonderful sights and historical locations to visit here so I won’t go over old ground.

As a cycling goes this place is a mecca for cyclists. Many pro cyclists train here during the winter months due to the temperate climate great quiet roads and fantastic routes. I was in cycling heaven, every morning at dawn I was up and out for a 40 mile ride which equated to 1500m of climbing….every ride. On some rides when slowly climbing through gorges to the high peaks I would be joined by curious Griffin Vultures looking perhaps at a large tasty meal in the event of a heart attack. These magnificent creatures grow to a meter in height with a close to three meter wingspan. They soar to some 36,000ft and thrive in the area.

Whilst in the area a visit to the famous Camnito del Rey was called for. Mrs Jones doesn’t do heights so she left me to it. What a fantastic day. Top Tip park at the finish near the north car park and take the bus (ticket included in the online booking price) to the start near the south car park. The parking at the start is difficult and heavily congested at all times of the year whereas the North Car park is virtually deserted.  Take a small haversack with food and drink with you, it’s a long old walk. This is a bucket list must do experience and I whole heartedly recommend it.

After two weeks of thrashing myself around the mountains on the bike the wife decided it was time to push on. Now the downside of an open plan in as much as you struggle to decide on where to make to next. In a motorhome it’s not so bad but towing a 7.3m caravan it’s a different story. Turning around and changing your mind when you get to a site is tiresome so one has to pick carefully.

Our next stop was Camping Aula de la Naturaleza Cortijo San Miguel, Nerja. This is a former avocado plantation turned campsite. Many of the trees remain and fresh fruit is freely available. The site is family run and situated just off the N340 a mile outside the popular town of Nerja. Jose greeted us and showed us some pitches that were available because of the sites location it is pretty much busy all year round. The two initial pitches he showed us were small but needs must. You leave your outfit outside the gate whilst you speak with the owner and sort out a pitch. When I brought the caravan through Jose immediately changed his mind on the pitches he had shown us. Instead he showed to a much more open piece of land that was home to two donkeys, a goat and a horse, now penned in on smaller paddock.

This area was reserved for large motorhomes and it seems us with a large outfit. This was a much better option large flat pitch along with five other motor homers.

This is a very friendly site not affiliated to ACSI or any other camping clubs as far as I can see. Prices are geared towards long stayers of which 60% of the campers are. If you stay for three nights its 26 euros a night, over three nights its 25 euros, stay for a month and its 400 euros which works out at 14 euros a night. That is for two people, the dog, electrical hook up and free wifi. It’s a great location, across the road a mere 400m away is the Playa Playazo, a large sandy beach that stretches down to the town of Nerja itself.   

Littered with bars and cafes it makes pleasant walk into town. Nerja is a lovely town, the balcon du Europe is often featured in members write up when visiting Spain, a natural outcrop of rock which resembles a pier is a popular spot with tourists. The balcon is lined with large palm trees they in turn have been colonised by hundreds of African parakeets who nest together atop the trees.

Surrounded by mountains Nerja enjoys a warm microclimate all year round we enjoyed daily temperatures of 20 to 26 degrees for the end of February throughout March.

By now disturbing news was emerging about the corona virus outbreak in Italy where thousand’s had died and now it had taken hold in Malaga and Madrid but still the mood in Nerja was one of calm bars and restaurants continued to serve, the shops were running as normal and panic buying was just something we read about in the news happening in other countries.

Friday 13th March. Almost prophetic this was the day Spain went into panic mode.  A trip to the Mercado confirmed our worst fears, empty shelves people wearing gloves and facemasks piling the trolleys high with tinned goods and toilets rolls. I bought sufficient for our needs and no more.

It was reported that night that Spain president would be imposing a state of alarm at 0800hrs on Monday morning. Now I had been enjoying the glorious cycling to be had in the area so decided to get one more in before the state of alarm was imposed. Saturday morning I was out on the road as usual for 7am when I got back at 12 noon I was faced by an angry campsite owner’s wife who told me in no uncertain terms that cycling was forbidden. I was confused until Jose her husband explained the Mayor of Nerja had decided to impose a local state of alarm on Friday night. We were on lock down. No walking on the beach, no exercise, only one person in a car, you could only go out for food, medicine, to tend to a vulnerable person, essential worker or returning to your natural place of habitation. Fines for non-adherence started at 600 euros and increased.

The mood on the camp was one of stoic resignation and a WWII spirit emerged. We spoke to more people on the camp over the next three days than we had done in the preceding three weeks.

By now we were checking Brittany Ferries website two or three times a day so far our ferry for the 22nd March was still running. So everything was ok. We made the best of it, social distancing was the norm and we adjusted quickly to the new normal. Our intention was to leave the campsite on Thursday and make our way back across Spain to Santander for the crossing home on the Sunday. We rang the overseas travel Dept of the CAMC and the wonderful staff checked to confirm our crossing was still on for the following Sunday.

Others on the camp decided to make for home and were busy packing up and leaving. There was an uneasy air about the place. Many on the site weren’t due to leave till May.   

Each day we checked to ensure our ferry was still running and all was fine until Tuesday morning when the campsite owner’s wife announced she was closing the site down and everyone was to leave. Some forty couples were required to up sticks and go home.

In record time we had the van packed up and ready to leave. Reports were coming in that all campsites had been closed rumours abounded and it was difficult to get accurate and clear information.

We decided to make for Caceres again and having checked with the site they confirmed they were still open and would look after us. I was beginning to get a taste of what it’s like be a refugee.

Wednesday morning, nice lie in intending to stay a few days here before making for Burgos where we had been reliably informed a campsite was open where we could wait a few days before making for Santander on Sunday morning for our 5pm crossing home. Checking the Brittany Ferries website sharply woke me, our ferry had been cancelled, no email or text message just a blunt message on their website. I rang CAMC who confirmed that this was indeed now the case.

There was now only one course of action I could think of that would enable us to get home…. The Eurotunnel.

Breaking camp again in record time we left for Calais. Only 1100 miles all campsites in France had been closed and there were rumours and news reports stating that the border between Spain and France was closed. I put on a brave face and reassured my wife that everything would be fine whilst under the surface I feared we were destined to be stranded here living the life of a traveller.

We only stopped for fuel and it was beginning to go dark as we neared the border with France. Would we be allowed to cross. There was a heavy police presence but we were simply waved through, the relief was huge.

I was grateful to my wife who doesn’t like towing took the wheel for a couple for hundred miles allowing me to rest.

As we drove up through France we noticed that the only Aires that were open were the ones attached to petrol stations all the others had been closed off.

As we closed in on Calais I knew we needed to get the dog to a vet for the customary examination and worming tablet. We have stopped on an Aires and managed to get a few hours sleep. I was worn out.

On waking we drove a further 100 miles then pulled into a garage for fuel and to see if there were any vets nearby. We were in luck and one kindly agreed to see the dog immediately as we drove to the vet surgery we were stopped by the Gendarmes who ordered us to get back on the motor way. It took a tense ten minutes of talk in broken French to explain why we were going to the little town. They allowed us to go to the vet’s but duly checked ten minutes later to see if we had actually attended there.

Next job was to book a crossing on Eurotunnel, the internet is a wonderful thing and we quickly booked for the following day, 24 hrs needed before the dog is allowed back into Britain after her examination.

Worrying that all the Aires would be chock full of escaping tourists we stopped at one 150 miles from Calais. It was quiet, spacious well laid out with clean and ample facilities and all free. By 12 noon I was snoring my head off having driven since 9am the previous day bar a two hour nap.

The next day we made our way to the Eurotunnel where the excellent staff made the booking in process simplicity itself. Although a couple hours early they simply put us on the next available train and 40 mins later we were back in England. Never have I been so relived.

In every crisis the first casualty is always communications. Information is hard to come by and what information you do get is often wrong. The staff at CAMC were wonderful they did everything they could to help us get home and I can’t emphasise enough how very important that was to us.

In this current climate we don’t know when we will be venturing abroad again. The pandemic has scuppered most but the very brave from holidaying and Brexit is an unknown. Certainly whilst we still have our beautiful dog, travel abroad without the Pet passport scheme will be a bureaucratic and costly exercise to say the least. Fortunately we live in a beautiful country well catered for with excellent CAMHC sites and CL’s.

AnotherDavid commented on 31/10/2020 12:08

Commented on 31/10/2020 12:08

You really seem to have had a difficult time at the start of the emergency and i wouldnt have liked to be in your shoes. However we had friends caught up in it who were luckier. Their home was let and they had no reason to rush back and were more fortunate with their site. The owner allowed them to stay as residents and looked after them really well , doing their shopping etc.

If I read your story right it was a first trip and not one to be forgotten but totally untypical, I have been traveling on the continent since 1980 and twice  a year for the last 20 without mishap and as long as our health permits have no intention of willingly stopping . You have survived extraordinary circumstance and I think it would be a shame to give up

brue commented on 31/10/2020 20:46

Commented on 31/10/2020 20:46

Thanks for the story, a true adventure for the wrong reasons but glad you got home safely!

Let's hope we can all look forward to better things. smile

Barry Jones commented on 02/11/2020 09:05

Commented on 02/11/2020 09:05

Thank you for the kind comments, this was our third yearly trip abroad in the caravan. Our two previous month long trips were spent touring France.

The overall experience of this trip has not put us off ever going abroad again once the situation with COVID improves.

Being a dog owner brings with it some minor problems which under the Pet passport scheme were alleviated somewhat.

However after Brexit there is no guarantee that the scheme will continue meaning a four month pre plan to be able to take the dog with us at some £300 costs in vet fees and that is the issue that deters us. 

I have some knowledge and experience of pandemics and understand the management and control of it. Expect the situation to last two years.

That aside we had a wonderful eight week adventure. Met some lovely people and but for the panicking campsite owner, would probably have had a less stressful return journey.

That aside we learnt a great deal on this trip and will use that knowledge when we are able to once again venture abroad. Whilst we have previously always used ferries we will be using the Eurotunnel from now on. Far less messing about.

Thank you again for your lovely comments. 

DavidKlyne commented on 02/11/2020 15:36

Commented on 02/11/2020 15:36

Thanks for sharing, that was quite an adventure!!!!  Going into 2020 I am sure many were concerned how Brexit would pan out in terms of placing barriers in the way of touring abroad, we still don't know but COVID seems to have taken over completely. It will eventually sort itself out but one thing is for sure you won't forget that holiday for a while!!!

David