When record temperatures scorched Western Europe last summer, husband Bob and I bundled up in windbreakers and sweatshirts in a cool, coastal sliver of the continent. If the heat wave caught us, we would have headed to the mountains or a cooler coast. That was the beauty of traveling in a rented camper van with a month to wander as we pleased.
With nothing but cool, clear skies ahead, we stuck with our plan of hugging the Atlantic coast from Bordeaux south almost to Lisbon. My aim was to amble down every cobblestone street lined with centuries-old houses, at least poke my head inside every Gothic cathedral and capture it all with my Canon Rebel. Bob’s was to hit the area’s best surf beaches.
Camping made it surprisingly easy. We found campgrounds near every historic locale on my bucket list and every beach on Bob’s. Tourist season was at its peak, yet none of the dozen campgrounds we visited was full.
Bob chose a compact camper van over roomier models with Europe’s narrow city streets in mind. Small as it was, our Volkswagen mini had everything we needed to sleep, cook and eat. The only essentials we had to buy were a blanket and two coffee mugs. We rented the van from Bordeaux’s Blacksheep Adventures for 80 euros a day, roughly $90.
Our first stop was Messanges, where we chose Camping D’Albret Plage from among several campgrounds along the beach. Our site cost 13 euros per night, half what we’ve paid at many campgrounds in the U.S. Most of the campgrounds we stayed in over the next four weeks were just as affordable. The one amenity I missed was toilet paper, which only the priciest campgrounds supplied. (Maybe I should be grateful. Remembering to keep a couple rolls in the van was good training for our COVID-induced shortage.)
The waves at D’Albret Plage were so good that Bob surfed twice the first day. Our second day, we tried out the nearby Velodyssée bicycle trail. The 745-mile trail is Europe’s longest, running from Normandy to the Spanish border. Bob and I rented bikes at a shop just off the paved trail. The Velodyssée took us through an evergreen forest on the outskirts of several coastal towns. At lunchtime, we followed signs into the town of Léon, where we made sandwiches with bread fresh from the bakery oven.
One city I couldn’t miss was Spain’s San Sebastian, where I’d fallen in love with the quaint old quarter on a visit two decades ago. I was upset when I realized after checking in that the campground a surfer told us overlooks San Sebastian actually overlooks Zarautz, 14 miles away. Bob didn’t mind; Zarautz had great waves. I warmed to the place on my run the next morning as I watched the sun rise over the ocean. I felt even better when I realized we were just a 15-minute walk from a commuter train into the city. Our roundtrip tickets were a bargain compared to the cost of city parking.
We started our visit to San Sebastian with a funicular ride to the top of Monte Igueldo, where we enjoyed the view of the city hugging La Concha Bay. Later, we strolled along the beach, admiring the finely detailed sand sculptures. We ended our day in the old quarter’s beloved tapas bars. I tried a savory crab spread on a toasted baguette slice and a small potato-and-onion omelet. Other tapas featured serrano ham, sliced on the spot from cured legs hanging above the bar.
Old-World Ways Survive
At our first stop in Portugal, public transportation once again made the trip from campground to city quick, cheap, and in this case, fun. It was a small passenger ferry we took from Darque to Viana do Castelo. The 10-minute ride gave us a panoramic view of the city with the Basilica of Santa Luzia overlooking it all from a hilltop. We walked back to Darque later that evening by way of a 140-year-old road-and-rail bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. The iron lattice between the two levels reminded me of his tower, if the tower were lying on its side.
The next day, Bob and I got a lofty view of the city and beyond from the basilica’s dome. Our trek started with a funicular ride and ended, though I swore it never would, with a climb up a narrow, winding staircase. The view of the city, river and beyond was worth every step.
Most places we visited hinted at their traditions – a man in a Basque beret, a woman fluttering a fan; Nazaré flaunted them. We arrived in the port town at dusk, as women were taking down racks of sardines and octopi they’d been drying all day on the beach. Each was decked out in a print head scarf, colorful blouse, knee socks and a skirt billowing out over layers of petticoats. Widows had their own custom of dressing from head to toe in black. A man selling dried fruits and nuts wore the region’s traditional black sash, stocking cap and knickers tucked into striped socks.
Nazaré’s regard for tradition includes its food. Freshly baked pᾶo Alentejo, with its crisp crust and moist, chewy inside, was the best bread we ate in a continent known for great bread.
In recent years, Nazaré has claimed to have the world’s biggest waves. Looking down at the beach, I figured that was a joke. I changed my mind wandering through the old stone Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo, remodeled as a surfing museum. Photos inside show the enormous waves winter brings. Placards alongside surfboards tell of the men and women from around the world who’ve caught Nazaré’s 70-foot waves.
Historic Villages Delight From Above and Below
Bob and I veered inland to France’s Basque and wine regions for our last week on the road.
Our first stop was Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where pilgrims typically start their trek along the Way of St. James to the alleged site of the apostle’s remains. Hostels were filled with hikers when we arrived. Yet we found plenty of open sites in the municipal campground, just a block from the village’s main street. At 11 euros a night, it was the cheapest place we camped.
I loved walking along the pedestrian streets between whitewashed Basque houses, with their red and green shutters and window boxes overflowing with flowers. When we’d seen enough from the street, Bob and I took to the 13th-century wall encircling the village for a different view.
Before leaving town, we stopped at the bustling farmers’ market, where Bob bought pistachio tapenade and artichoke hummus. Seventeen euros seemed expensive until the vendor threw in a generous bunch of sun-dried tomatoes. We put the tomatoes and tapenade to good use with pasta I cooked that night.
Our next camp site cost almost four times as much as the one in Saint-Jean, with good reason. Yellow! Village in Gironde surrounded a beautiful lake with kayaks and pedal boats for guests and also offered had two heated pools, water slides, restaurant, bar and daily organized activities.
The region’s highlight is the medieval village of Saint-Émilion. Bob and I spent a sunny day
rambling along the narrow pedestrian streets, poking our heads inside shops and galleries. I couldn’t resist climbing to the top of King’s Tower, where I had a bird’s eye view of the tawny limestone buildings topped with barrel-tile roofs and the surrounding vineyards stretching in every direction as far as I could see. Later, we climbed below the streets to tour the catacombs and massive monolithic church monks carved out of a limestone plateau eight centuries ago.
After returning the van in Bordeaux, we spent the night at an Airbnb. I felt like a queen sleeping on a real bed with our own toilet steps away. Walking those steps in the middle of the night, though, would have been even nicer if I’d been able to look up once again to the sight of a million twinkling stars.