Spring in Northern-Spain
As a family, we wanted to make the most of the two-week Easter Holiday: close by each other, living adventures and enjoying ourselves. Not aware that this trip would bring along a radical change.
Ever since our trip to Sweden, last winter, we were considering to go camping in Scotland. Unfortunately, we decided to let go of this idea, due to all the problems surrounding Brexit. I feared we would lose too much of our precious time because of strikes at the border.
So we decided to revisit last winter’s original plan to travel across Spain and Portugal. Although there wasn’t much of a plan. The full version of our travel schedule? “We’d like to go to Portugal through Northern-Spain”. Both Liene and I had our agendas fully booked the week before we left. So we only started looking for places to stay the night on Friday night, right before we left.
We had to book one night in France and one in Spain. From there on, we’d go camping in Portugal. The first stop in France was close to Angoulême. A place with great meaning. When Liene and I just got together for only two weeks, we went to Brossac with a couple of friends, 13 years ago. We snuck out and wandered around Angoulême as two little lovebirds. No way we were going to skip on this place!
But our trip didn’t really start until we crossed the Spanish border, left the highway and drove into the mountains. As usual, we had no idea what was coming our way. Neither in terms of landscape, or weather. We were packed for both summer and winter.
As for the material we had with us, those who know me, also know I’m always fully prepared for everything.
On the second day, after a 500 kilometer drive and just past Basque Country, we finally left the boring highway. We’d travel as much little roads as we could, from now on.
La Cabaña de Maria
Once we left the highway and drove into the mountains, the landscape started changing rapidly. Big roads made way for double and even single lane roads, rolling up and down through the mountains of Cantabria, all the way to Fresnedo. We were constantly amazed.
Yes, we hoped to see some beautiful mountain ranges, but the landscape we found ourselves in, trumped all expectations. Think of a mixture between rough, rocky pikes that transferred into green, fertile valleys. Sloping at times, only to turn scarily steep the next moment. We discovered another amazing view behind every corner. Even on this grey day, the landscape’s colors popped out bright and bold. We could only imaging those colors on a sunny day…
After a bit of searching and texting with “Maria”, we eventually arrived at our first destination in Spain. The last one with a roof over our heads as well.
We found ourselves at a 1.000 meter altitude, surrounded by a mild breeze and mountaintops covered in mist. We were all alone on the top of a mountain, amidst green fields running down the steep mountainsides, straight into the valley. In the distance you could spot a lonely farm or shack. This was just the perfect setting.
We started our first day in Spain the way we like it: all alone on the world, surrounded by nature and no one else but each other. Our children were over the moon as well, but needed some more time to adjust to the new daily pace. This resulted in the occasional fight and nagging. Luckily this came as no surprise: by now we know our kids need the time to adjust to freedom and relaxing. Just like we do. Away from the tight daily schedules, school and a life full of rut. Experience taught us our kids would turn into two happy, wandering adventurers within two days.
Maria was a beautiful, lively Spanish farmer’s wife, only a couple of years older than us. She was in perfect health and – even more important – wouldn’t stop talking. In Spanish, ‘cause she didn’t know a single word of English. There was no way of stopping her. Only speaking cartoon Spanish, we tried to understand what she was saying.
After I told her “Hable Espagnol mas calma” and gestured she should slow down, we started to understand things. Eventually we had a cozy chat, enjoying her homemade chorizo, ham, bread, cheese, milk and yoghurt she brought with her from her farm, 10 kilometers away.
After a nice night by the fireplace in La Cabaña de Maria, Liv woke us up and urged us to come check out the sunrise. Which was stunning indeed! A first glance through the window showed us an overwhelming landscape, bathing in the morning sunshine. I put my head outside the door and immediately got punched in the face by the wind. Wind speeds were reaching at least 100 kilometers an hour. Luckily, our shack was constructed well: when inside, we absolutely didn’t notice the weather. Our kids took to the swing and were pushed the wind, which they found came in very handy.
By 10 a.m. the wind calmed down and we set out. Before we drove to our next destination, we promised Maria to visit her farm and show the kids the newborn calves.
We knew which village to head for, but had no clue of the street or house Maria lives in. So we stopped everywhere, only able to ask “Maria?”. Often answered by “Ah, Maria!” followed by an explanation we couldn’t understand. So we just followed the direction people were pointing in.
Eventually we heard a scream coming from an alley and saw Maria jumping of her tractor and running to us. With a big smile on her face she told us to follow her and her husband, sitting on the tractor, laughing and enjoying themselves. A sight that instantly warmed our hearts.
When we got to the farm, she apologized to us for smelling bad. As far as we could understand her, she had been fertilizing the land and Maria stood behind the dung cart when the seal of the spray nozzle broke down. Meaning she was covered in cow dung. She laughed about it, shrugged and rambled on in Spanish. While I tried to keep up with her, I looked around and got deeply impressed by the landscape surrounding the farm. These people live in a beautiful part of the world. Life isn’t easy in these parts, but you get a lot in return.
Meeting Maria was a nice encounter, very warm and cordial, even intense. We travel to find nature and quiet, but it’s mostly these sporadic encounters with other people that linger on.
Back on the road! Towards our first camping spot.
Unfortunately, it’s forbidden to go wild camping in Spain. And although we bumped into a lot of great spots to set up our tent, we decide to stick to the rules. The weather is always a bit more complex up in the mountains, especially during spring. We were sure there would be plenty of sunshine during this trip, though. But nevertheless, our route was decided on by the weather maps: avoid as much rain as we could, head straight for the warmth. That’s why our next stop wasn’t that far away from Maria’s shack. Just a three-hour drive. By travelling short distances – this drive was 250 kilometers – we had enough time to choose alternative roads. My routes were a combination of Google Maps and my Garmin CX276, equipped with topographic maps.
On Google Maps I’d select the longest drive in time, ‘cause this usual leads us to the prettiest mountain passes and dirt roads. When Google couldn’t satisfy my needs, I’d just select “Curvy Roads” on the Garmin device. This always lead us to the more adventurous roads.
The road from Fresnedo to Cabuérniga was beautiful. We slowly descended into the valley. Eventually we arrived at Cabuérniga, at an altitude of 800 meters, in a green valley, still surrounded by the mountains. We could as well be in Switzerland, only the Spanish cottages in the distance gave away we were in a Southern country.
The weather was cloudy, but temperatures were nice. At least during the day. At night, temperatures would drop to just above the freezing point. But we were prepared, we would manage to stay here for two nights.
In the end, there wasn’t a lot to do here. The view was amazing, but I felt caged on the camping site. Luckily we were the only people staying here, which we really enjoyed. The nearby village was as typical as they get in this region. Deserted by day, the only living souls you’d encounter were dogs, cats, cows and horses. The proof that there had to live someone in the village. But only the local cantina was bustling with life.
The local food was great, though. Frying stuff seemed to solve every culinary challenge here.
It felt great to catch a breath instead of driving tons of kilometers. But by the start of the second day, the urge to head out started to grow again. I noticed my right rear tire was running flat, the day before. Something I couldn’t solve until all our stuff was packed. Since our rooftop tent and awning were adjusted into the ground with pickets, the downwards pressure would make the car loose its balance when I jacked it up to remove the tire.
I started packing in the pouring rain and used a portable compressor to put enough pressure on the tire so I could drive onto a harder surface. Once I reached the better surface, it didn’t take long to find the cause for the flattening tire. With a tire kit and a stopper the problem got solved in no time.
Rio de Luna
I’ll try my hardest not to only use superlatives in the next description. But the road we took from Cabuérniga to Rio de Luna was the second most beautiful road I ever travelled. The prettiest one, until this date, is Sognefjellet in Norway.
According to Google Maps there were three roads heading for Rio de Luna, with a difference in travel time of half an hour to an hour. I opted to enter the GPS coordinates into the Garmin GPS and went with the option “Curvy Roads”. After five minutes of calculating, Garmin came up with a 250 kilometer drive, which would take me four hours to complete. Including stops, this would result into a five and a half-hour drive. The route looked promising with a lot of height differences, which indicated a lot of mountain passes to explore.
We climbed and swung on very diverse mountain roads: passing grasslands, forests, valleys and mountain sides with sharp rocks. We drove deeper into the mountains. Vegetation got scarcer and more rough, temperatures dropped. The dark clouds above us made the entire picture even more gruesome. Once we got to the first mountain pass, we reached an altitude of 1.260 meters and the most amazing view on a stunning mountain plateau.
The first descend already set the mood. We got treated with herds of wild horses and young foals running free and grazing on the plateau. Everywhere we looked, there were horses. In the middle of the road, on the side of the road or deep down the valley. Our kids are true horse lovers, so they went bonkers. A lot, since we kept encountering these herds. I think the words I heard most during this trip were “ooh, horsies”. The same went for calves, donkeys, storks,… by the way. We have never seen so many storks. In the air, in their mighty nests high up in the trees, on top of the ruins of churches or houses,… Or just gracefully circling above everything else.
What really impressed us, was running into eagles. We spotted one majestically circling above the fields. We had never seen such a big bird. The second encounter can almost be described as “up close and personal”. This eagle slowly crossed our road, only two meters above our car. Impressing.
The same goes for the landscape we were driving through. A vast plain going up and down. A giant mountain range on the background, towering high and mighty and dark above the landscape. Phenomenal. The landscape also turned more desolate. In Belgium we suppressed nature with concrete and “civilization”. What happened here, is the complete opposite. Nature tolerates the road. A road which, despite its length, was the only exception crossing the landscape. Villages grew smaller and more scarce, until they disappeared completely. Every few kilometers we drove through hubs of one or two streets, leaving them before we could speak out the names of these places.
This is the landscape I love, I was sold! The day passed by and we kept gently driving upwards, until a little road led us across the last valley and took us to a mountain range where we could oversee the entire area. We ended up at an altitude of 1.800 meters. A small tunnel brought us to the other side of the mountain where we started a short, but steep, descend. Once more, we found ourselves on a green mountain plateau, 1.100 meters above sea level. This was our next stop.
We doubted for quite some time about where to stop next. We decided on a dated camping site with very basic services, just to get as close to wild camping as we could.
Our welcome was one we’re used to, by now: cool, stern looks, short and distant talks. Two old men were staring at us. In our best cartoon Spanish we asked if this was the camping site. Which got confirmed by a short “si”. Followed by “Valle”… This situation was evolving straight into a Mexican stand-off.
Eventually one of the two men approached us and pointed to the meadow behind the fence. Turned out we were the only people on this camping site as well. Excellent! Apparently tourist season wouldn’t start for another week, during the Semana Santa, the Spanish equivalent of our Easter Holiday.
We parked the car with the opening of the tent eastwards, at a spot the sun could reach a soon as it rose. This way, your tent dries faster in the morning, when you want to leave.
We opened the rooftop tent, put up the awning, rolled out the sleeping bags, set up a table and we were done. I also got the BBQ campfire out. There are few places where you’re allowed to build a fire. So I bought a big, foldable BBQ. This way, we could cook our meals and still had a fire to keep us warm during the night.
At the very least, the view we had was amazing. From between the trees we could spot the entire plain, which stopped where a small village began, at the foot of a giant mountain. We felt like we were camping in the Rocky Mountains, or at least the light edition. We felt straight at home. All alone on the world, only spotting a lonesome visitor once in a while. We had space. Fresh air. The beauty of nature. All we could do was sigh in happiness.
Our lives took on a steady, slow outdoor pace. Everything needs time: waking up, eating, making coffee, doing the dishes, looking for wood, washing clothes,… Everything turns into an activity for which you couldn’t be hasty. Slow life, excellent life!
On a hike to the village we got surprised by a stork, gracefully taking off and circling in a wide turn around us.
We hoped to find a bakery in the village, maybe even drink a cappuccino if we got lucky. Alas! Once more, the only proof of people living here, were the animals that roamed the streets. We could’ve danced in front of the church with our pants down, nobody would’ve noticed.
Despite the lack of warm water and temperatures dropping two degrees Celsius below zero at night, we were utterly happy. We would wake up to our tent being frozen on the inside. We slept wearing thermal underwear and warm sweaters, but we slept like babies. The more basic it gets, the more we enjoy life. It brings out the essence of being together. And that’s what we love.
There are few things that are more pleasant than hurdling around a fire on a cold night, enjoying the heath. Only to go to bed together, finding that same heath close by each other. We were like a nest of puppies in our rooftop tent.
In the meantime, the owner of the camping site grew more friendly. It turns out these people need time to adjust to others as well. He often apologized for the lack of warm water, he even took me with him to show me where the water pipe broke down. All I could do was tap him on the shoulder and say “No problemo!”. We really didn’t mind. We washed ourselves with cold water and on the warmest hour of the day we had a “kattenwasje” (“kitten wash”), as Liene would say.
But time came to get on with our trip. If you stay in one place for too long, the magic fades away. Always leave at the height of your stay, still hungry for more, still desiring. That’s how memories are preserved the best. Also: it was time for a hot shower.
After the morning sun had dried up our tent, we left. When our children hugged the old man, the last bit of gruffness faded away from his face. Such a beautiful sight!
The night before, we decided to make our way for Portugal. That’s where the nice weather was, a 350 kilometer drive away.
The last 80 kilometers we grew tired of the Spanish plains. Yes, they were very impressive, but we choose mountains above endless vineyards and olive groves anytime. We did find a pretty route along the border that swung over the mountains towards Portugal.
At that border lies the little village of Rio de Oro, divided into two parts by a river and the border.
Before we headed to camping site Cepo Verde in the Montesinho Natural Park, we had to stock up on food and petrol. The confrontation with the “big” city of Bragança wasn’t all that. Coming from the wild beauty of nature and rough mountain landscapes, we suddenly drove amidst noisy motorbikes and cars with loud beats pumping out of the windows. The urban jungle is not our kind of jungle. After we got our hands on the last Pasteis de Nata in a local bakery, we headed for the nature reserve.
We didn’t see a lot of the natural park or Portugal, by the way. We always enjoy being on the road and make sure we spend a lot of time doing just that. Once we arrive somewhere, we mostly occupy ourselves with our kids. Making sure they have enough freedom to roam around and explore.
On top of that, the car is fixed underneath our rooftop tent. Which is set up quickly, in about 20 minutes, including the awning and stuff like tables, chairs,… Taking everything down takes the same amount of time. But breaking everything down and setting it back up, only to visit a local village for a couple of hours, is too much of a hassle. That’s why we only visit villages, embark on little excursions,… while we’re on the road.
We do enjoy hiking, but to do so properly, you need to stay in one place for a longer period. Which doesn’t always happen. Every trip has its advantages and disadvantages, I guess.
It was a bit busier at the Cepo Verde camping site than we’re used to. Luckily all spots were big enough to not experience any nuisance from other campers. People were coming and going all the time, mostly spending one night before continuing their trip. Especially elder people with caravans. Who were real eye-openers, by the way.
When strolling around the camping site at night, we would often hear them laughing, teasing, having a good time,… in their campers. Which sounded like music in our ears. We truly hope we can grow old in such a light-hearted, happy way. But what really surprised me, was the fact that grey ‘n old people aren’t grey ‘n old at all. We had a lot of conversations with them, mostly because they addressed us on the subject of our daughters: “so sweet, so nice, so good,…”. Makes you stop and listen, don’t it? J
As soon as we told them what we were doing, they mostly nodded: “yes, we did exactly the same with our kids. But now they’ve moved out, we’re truly free”.
We met a Swiss couple of around 80 years old. They had been travelling for six months and were on their way back to the Atlas mountain range in Morocco. Hmmm… I got slightly inspired by their plans.
Another couple was on their way back from Porto and planned to head for Turkey. On motorbikes. They were 70 years old!
This trip totally changed my mind when it comes to old people with caravans. They’re not old. They’re sneaky, happy people, enjoying life!
As usual, we wanted to get back on the road after two days. Especially since the weather was going to turn.
This time the decision on which way to go, was crucial. I really wanted to head for Galicia, Liene desired the Portuguese or Galician coast. Continuing our trip also meant driving shorter bits, back where we came from, and returning home at a high pace.
Eventually we followed the nice weather: we would look for a coastal spot where it’d be warm and dry for at least two days. Llanes in Asturias turned out to be that spot. Quite the drive, but I’d gladly make the effort for a bit of sun and the happy faces of my three ladies.
If you know me, you also know I’m not into beaches. Especially when it comes to Southern countries where people literally get stacked on top of each other and pay crazy amounts of money, just to see the sea and feel a bit of sand. I really hate that trend and that kind of herd behavior.
However, I do like spending time at the coast. As long as it isn’t manmade. But since we were travelling off-season and my three girls looked at me with their puppy eyes, I caved.
Liene told me she had found a nice place. The descend from Portugal over Castilia Y Leon, over the Asturian mountains, turned out to be phenomenal. I already regretted leaving the mountains.
In the meantime, rain was pouring all over the country. Which meant I had the questionable honor of setting up everything in the rain. I guess that’s part of it as well.
After 45 minutes of struggling, everything was set up nicely. I was soaked and my shoes were filled with water.
Longing for a hot meal, we went down to the camping site’s restaurant and enjoyed one with a stunning view on the turbulent sea. The food wasn’t that great, though. Think Cuisina Fritura: fry everything and it’ll taste okay. It didn’t. And we paid as much as we did for our five previous nights of camping all together. We made it to the coast for only two hours, and already I wanted to run away screaming. So we huddled together in bed. Tomorrow all would be better.
All was better. The contrast between the next morning and last night couldn’t be bigger. Sun shining, waking up in the tent heated by the sun, with the sound of the waves in the surf greeting us. It looked like a promising day.
Whatever we wanted, whatever we would say, our little puppies were in for a beach day. Period. Fine by me. I enjoyed the sun, wrote down some things I wanted to remember and occupied myself with drying our stuff.
The camping site was located at the side of a steep hill, so everyone could enjoy the view of the sea. This place was a bit busy for my taste as well, but by local standards it was dead quiet. About twenty other tents were set up. Given that there were 500 spots on this site, that wasn’t all too much. Enough space for everyone.
If we would’ve arrived here during peak season, no way I would’ve set up shop here. I’d rather have slept in the car along the highway. But I admit, this felt like a pleasant stay. Around noon I joined the girls at the beach. And this is when things went fast…
There weren’t a lot of people at the beach. Just a couple of locals, their dog and us. Our little puppies quickly won the dog’s trust and started playing with it. After an hour or two we started chatting with the owner of the dog, a pretty young girl, going to college in Madrid (as part of a foreign exchange program, if I understood her correctly). During holidays she returns to her hometown to surf and to work as a lifeguard.
To make a long story short: we had been thinking about getting a dog for about two years already. But we still hadn’t found the perfect dog. And as it happened, we were immediately in love with this girl’s dog. And so were our daughters!
After a bit of googling and the advice of the girl, we knew our dog was going to be this breed as well. I noticed the determination in Liene’s eyes. And when she has that look, mountains can be destroyed, seas can be split and I’m not going to be the one who stands in her way.
At 11 p.m., after hours of calling, turning the internet upside down and another couple of calls, Liene had found an official breeder. He had one puppy available and was willing to get all the paperwork done, in no time. In no time, means waiting for two days. In the Caignie universe, two days feels like eternity. But going home without a pup, wasn’t an option. So we waited!
Well… We couldn’t have seen this coming. Now we had to stay for two days in the same area. Which meant we had to head home in two days, instead of three. With a puppy in the back of the car.
We decided to rent an AirBnB nearby the breeder’s place and wait there until we could go pick up the puppy. A good idea, since heavy winds and rain were coming our way fast.
We found a nice little house in Àvin, a mountain village only ten minutes away from our new friend. We’d spend an extra night there, so the two month old pup could get used to us before it had sit out the way home.
We lived two nervous days. Our kids were excited, and we got pretty nervous as well. The forest fire across the valley didn’t help either. Tension rose, inside and outside the house. Fortunately, the fire turned out to be controlled and on purpose, to stimulate the fertility of the nearby fields. Pretty impressive!
Luckily our neighbors – the brother and parents of our AirBnB host – were very hospitable people. We got invited for a cup of coffee and the entire family joined us. What a hospitality! The long and open conversations were incredibly enriching! And in the meantime, time flew by.
Eventually we got word we could go pick up our puppy. One thing I can tell you: it’s no walk in the park to go get a pup at someone who only speaks Spanish. Especially when you got tons of questions on how to take care for the dog. I feel like I’ve used Google Translate more in that one hour than in the rest of my life combined.
Once we picked up the pup, we stayed one more night before heading back to Belgium as soon as possible. To give the pup a home, but also because we had to make it back in time for my mother’s Easter brunch.
We did stay one more short night nearby Poitiers, at an old Parisian police officer and is Mauritian wife. Despite them being a lovely couple and the great location, we were too focused on getting home.
Although the last two days of our trip were dominated by the emotional rollercoaster that is bringing a dog into the family, we were all overwhelmed by our adventures.
Northern-Spain is a hidden gem! I had a very stereotypical image of Spain. I thought it was an artificial coastline, featuring tons of tourist traps, sunburnt Englishmen, drunk Dutchmen, and people trying to get into beach clubs.
To be honest, that’s still how I see the country. But now I know there’s more to Spain than all that. Like the most beautiful nature, kind, hospitable people in an inhospitable landscape and extremely agreeable to stay there off-season!
On top of that, spending two weeks together, just with the family, close by each other, made us so happy! Sleeping in the rooftop tent on just a couple of square meters turned out great as well. It was the first real test for the tent, and it did great. As a family, we’re already hungry for more. We got inspired for our next trips. But first we’re going back to work. Only to head out again, as soon as possible.
And yes, we will return to Maria and her cows, the camping site at Rio Luna, Sylvia and her mother Carmen Maria’s house, the Cantabiran and Asturian mountains,…
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