Two Backpacks

Loch Lomond

Chapter 27 - We're on our way to Spain!


            Having spent a few weeks visiting my family in Devon and Ron’s in Glasgow, Scotland, Ron and I are about to embark on the next leg of our adventure – a road trip to Spain.

            Our time in England and Scotland has allowed us both to meet our respective families, get acquainted and catch up on all the news and gossip.  

            While in Scotland, Ron took me on a tour of his favourite haunts around Glasgow, including The Barras, a famous band venue where Ron spent many a night in his younger days.

            We also took the high road to Loch Lomond on a grey, blustery day with dark clouds scudding across a leaden sky. The hills around the loch were shrouded in mist, the distant shores only just visible, while white-capped waves out on the loch danced to the wind’s tune.

            Our latest purchase is a cheap, second-hand, red Vauxhall hatchback. Nicknamed “Matilda” – after the Australian song Waltzing Matilda – our prized possession made the four-hundred-and-forty-five-mile return trip from Exeter to Glasgow without trouble. Now we’re hoping Matilda will do us proud and get us to Spain without mishap.

            During our travels in Southeast Asia, we learned about housesitting, where property owners post online for someone to care for their home and possibly a pet or two while they’re away on holiday.

            It seemed a great way to eke out our monthly budget. Once I’d written up our bio, I posted it on a few of the most popular sites. Within a week, we began to get offers, one of which was a four-month housesit in Marxequera, a tiny village near Gandia on the Spanish Mediterranean.

            The owners wanted us to care for their pet cat, Biggles, and look after their villa, pool and orange grove. Their only stipulation was that we have a car, as the owners needed us to take their cat to the vet regularly.

            After numerous emails and phone calls, we secured the sit and agreed to be in Gandia on the eighth of June, 2010.


            My daughter waves us off from her home in Exeter on a sunny spring morning as we set off for Plymouth. We’re due to catch the overnight ferry to Roscoff, France.

            ‘It seems strange being back on a ship. Feels like I should be down in the crew’s quarters,’ I say as we lug our bags into our cabin for the night.

            ‘Did you sail on this route?’ Ron asks from our double bed.

            ‘No. Our ferry sailed to Spain, but it was still a booze cruise with loads of people worse for wear most of the voyage. I had a few run-ins with hung-over passengers and one particularly obnoxious inebriated man.’

            ‘What happened?’ asks Ron, intrigued.

            ‘I’ll tell you all about it over supper. Come on, let’s go and explore.’


            Our sailing is restful, with no storms or rough seas, thank goodness. The ship docks at four the following morning, and we’re up and in our car by the time the crew lower the ship’s ramp.

            ‘We need to find a layby and change the headlight settings,’ comments my helpful partner as we drive along the quay following the directions out of the port.

            I’m behind the wheel and finding it difficult to adjust to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. ‘You keep an eye open for somewhere to pull over,’ I suggest, groping for the gear stick.

            We find a layby outside the dock gates and pull over.

            ‘You put on the headlight deflectors, and I’ll get the satnav set up, Ron.’

            We both set to work and, ten minutes later, are on our way again.

            ‘I’ve set the satnav to take us on the country roads; there’ll be less traffic. I’m going to take my time while I get used to driving on the Continent. We’ve got plenty of time to get to La Rochelle before it gets dark.’

            The countryside is delightful, with rolling hills and fields growing various produce, including artichokes which I’d only seen on supermarket shelves before.

            Our journey south takes us through picturesque small villages. We stop for a picnic lunch, surrounded by open fields and hedgerows where red poppies nod in the summer breeze.

           Opening up the hatch, I lay out our lunch of crusty fresh bread, Camembert cheese, tomatoes and sliced ham while Ron pours two cups of coffee from our flask, the coffee courtesy of the facilities onboard the ferry.

            Refreshed and ready to go again, we clamber back into the car, this time with Ron driving.

            ‘How far do you reckon we’ve got to go?’ he asks once we’re ready to set off.

            ‘I’m not sure,’ I reply, fiddling with the satnav that seems to have reprogrammed itself while we’ve been enjoying our lunch. ‘Around two hours. Let’s get going. I think I’ve sorted out the route.’

            We pull up at the Formula 1 motel on the edge of La Rochelle an hour and a half later. It’s been a long day, and we’re both grateful to find a clean and comfortable room waiting for us.

            ‘I’m too tired to go out tonight. Let’s find somewhere to eat and have an early night,’ I suggest once we’ve unpacked.

            Up early the following morning, we breakfast at the motel and then drive into La Rochelle. With a clear blue sky and a gentle breeze, we’re determined to spend the day exploring.

            La Rochelle, situated on the west coast of France, was once a busy port for commerce and fishing. Now, two medieval towers guard the entrance to the port, still used by its fishing fleet, but it’s now also a popular tourist attraction.

            Ron and I wander the cobbled streets surrounding the port area, intrigued by the tiny shops that line the lanes, drawn by curios and fresh produce, including an assortment of cheeses and traditional French bread.

            ‘Let’s have another picnic,’ I suggest, spotting a store tucked down a narrow alleyway. I grab Ron’s hand. ‘Come on! You choose which cheeses you’d like while I grab a loaf and some French pate.’

            The shop owner welcomes us with a smile and is happy to cut slivers of cheese for us to taste.

            Ron decides on a creamy Brie and a tangy Roquefort for me.

            Back on the main walkway around the port, we find a shaded bench and tuck into our lunch. Ron has also purchased two local beers, which, in the heat of the day, are just what’s needed to finish our meal.

            Relaxed and content, we sit and people-watch for a while.

            ‘The beer’s making me sleepy,’ I say to Ron, laying my head on his shoulder. ‘I haven’t felt this relaxed for a long time. If only we could stay a little longer.’

            ‘I know what you mean, but we’ve got to get moving tomorrow to reach Gandia on time.’

            We spend the remainder of the afternoon wandering along the dockside, marvelling at the magnificent yachts moored on the still blue harbour waters before retracing our steps back to our car and returning to our room for the night.


            We drive south the following morning, passing through picturesque villages, towns and countryside. But as we journey towards the town of Pau, our destination for the night, the skies grow dark. Ten minutes later, the heavens open.

            ‘I think I’d better pull over. It’s difficult driving in these conditions,’ decides Ron, leaning forward to peer through the teeming rain slamming against the windscreen.

            A few minutes later, we pull into a small layby. The loud, constant rain drumming on the car’s roof makes conversation difficult. Ron turns off the engine. All we can do is sit and wait for the storm to pass.

            ‘It looks like the sky’s lightening on the horizon. Do you want some of the bread and cheese we bought for lunch?’ I ask, thinking it’ll be at least an hour before we can continue along the now-flooded road.

            ‘Hmm, I think you might be right. Where did you put the shopping bag?’

            We lunch again on bread and cheese and wash it down with a shared bottle of beer.

            Gradually, the rain eases. Small patches of blue sky appear.

            ‘I think we should make a start. We’ve still got another hour’s drive to reach Pau.’ Ron steps from the car and stretches. ‘The road looks okay, but there’s still quite a bit of surface water. We’ll have to take it slowly.’

            It’s my turn to drive. I climb behind the wheel and turn on the engine. It splutters and then catches.

            ‘Phew! I thought we might be in trouble, that maybe the water had got into the engine. It was torrential rain!’ Ron looks relieved. ‘I didn’t fancy having to walk to the next village for help,’ he adds.

            We set off again and arrive in Pau just as another downpour begins. Our satnav guides us to our hotel for the night. We’re relieved to find there’s a small restaurant serving supper.

            ‘Let’s get something to eat and then settle down for the evening. There’s no way we’ll be able to go out tonight,’ I suggest as a loud clap of thunder crashes overhead.

            Our route the following day takes us to the Pyrenees. By mid-morning, we can see distant snow-covered mountain peaks. By noon we’re beginning a long climb up into the mountain range.

            ‘Come on, Matilda!’ shouts Ron as he changes down a gear to tackle a steep incline.

            The road winds up through the hills. We pass a fortress high above us, wedged into the rock face. The roads become narrower the further we climb until there’s only enough room for two cars to pass with care. An hour after leaving Pau, we reach the French border with Spain. We’re nearly six thousand feet above sea level, and Matilda’s still going well.

            I’ve got our passports ready, expecting the border guards to stop us. But as we approach the two soldiers standing at the side of the road, they wave us through with a smile.

            ‘I suppose that’s one advantage of being in the EU,’ I comment, stuffing our passports back in my travel bag. ‘I still can’t get used to not having to show our passports, though.’

            Once through the checkpoint, we must navigate the Col du Somport (once a popular route for soldiers, merchants and pilgrims to the tomb of St James, following the path from Arles to Aragon) and the Col du Pourtalet.

            ‘I’m a bit worried about how the engine heats up on inclines,’ comments Ron as he leans over and bashes the dashboard with his hand. This is followed by a sigh of relief when the heat indicator slowly slides back to an acceptable level.

            ‘It’s fine. Don’t worry. Matilda’s doing okay,’ I reply, changing gear. We begin our descent, via numerous hairpin bends, to the main road that will take us to Zaragoza and our hotel for the night.

            Unable to find a Formula 1, we’ve booked into an Express Holiday Inn. It’s a bit over budget, but it’s been a long, tiring day, and neither of us fancies driving around town looking for somewhere else for the night.

            Showered and changed, we decide to go for a walk hoping to find an inexpensive restaurant for supper. Cloudless, rose-tinted evening skies have replaced the rain encountered in France, the warmth on our skin a welcome from the cold of the Pyrenees.

            ‘I’m tired. Let’s have something to eat and get back to the hotel,’ suggests Ron. ‘Besides, all these restaurants, while they look great, have menus way beyond our budget.’

            He’s right. We’re both tired and wouldn’t appreciate the food. Instead, we find a Tesco supermarket, purchase a cooked chicken, cheese, a crusty fresh loaf and a bottle of cheap wine and eat supper in our hotel room.


            The following day we make an early start and reach Gandia by mid-afternoon.

            We’ve arranged to meet the villa’s owners, Tina and Les, in Gandia in two days.

            Parked a block from the seafront, Ron and I wander the busy streets, looking for somewhere to stay. We haven’t considered that it’s the Spanish holiday season, and most hotels are full.

            ‘I think we’ll have to take a room in the Gijon Hotel, the one on the seafront, Ron. Time’s getting on; we need to make a decision soon.’

            ‘I suppose so, but it’s really expensive. Let’s book for the night and look again tomorrow,’ suggests Ron.

            While our room is double our budget, it doesn’t reflect the price, with worn, tired furniture and fittings.

            The following morning, we’re lucky to find a nearby hotel, the Cibelas Plaza, which has a vacancy. We’re pleasantly surprised by the clean, modern room and are even more impressed when the receptionist says the room rate includes breakfast.

            We check in early that afternoon and, with our bags unpacked, decide to explore a little more.

            The Gandia beaches are clean, with plenty of volleyball, football and exercise areas. We spend the day wandering along the coast, exploring the small harbour before finding a spot on the white sand to sunbathe for a while.

            ‘It’s lovely here. We’ll have to come back once we’ve settled in,’ I murmur, brushing sand grains from my now pink legs.

            We meet Tina and Les, a British expat couple, at a small café near our hotel. The initial meeting goes well – a relief for us all, I’m sure. We then follow them in Matilda as they drive out of Gandia.

            Our route takes us upward through twisting and turning narrow lanes lined by orange groves. A left turn brings us to the villa, a beautiful white stucco, single-storey property nestling in a valley between towering hills and orange trees.

            ‘Is this it?’ I exclaim as I pull on the handbrake. ‘It’s amazing, Ron! And look at that pool!’

            ‘Looks like the next four months are going to be quite something!’ remarks Ron with a broad grin.