After an 8 month roadtrip around the UK and Ireland we were itching to go further afield so we decided a while back that we’d try and head to Spain for winter. It worked out well that we’d return back to England beforehand to see family for Christmas and we had a lot of bits to organise while we were home too.
Firstly Helga needed her drive shaft fixed as it’s been awkwardly clicking every time we take tight bends. We also discovered my passport had been damaged by airport staff putting a sticker across my photo which peeled the paper off. It must’ve happened a couple years ago in Egypt but I guess I didn’t realise quite how damaged it was until we returned home. It was a huge step back as the passport could take 5 – 10 weeks! My goodness, that definitely wasn’t part of the plan.
In the meantime I scrubbed mould off Helga’s ceiling, remade some curtains and cleaned all our seat covers while Craig changed our fuel filter, secured our wing mirror that used to blow in the wind and fixed our leaking grey water pipe. We also had a couple of freezing cold nights which are always worrying when you own a little motorhome. This time was more worrying as we were staying at my mums house which meant Helga didn’t have our body heat or a bit of heating on. So Craig delivered hot water bottles to our camper, placing them on her boiler and beside the water pump. It even dropped to -4° one night so we actually had to move back into her for a night to do everything we could to prevent the pipes from freezing. It was a bitterly cold night and we woke to ice on the inside of the windows, Helga’s grey waste and water tanks were frozen but it seems to of all thawed ok.
My passport ended up arriving really quickly, after about 15 days and that’s with all the Christmas and new year holidays in between. But our next problem was France still had it’s borders closed due to the omricom variant of covid. We really wanted to reach Spain from France as it’s about £120 for the ferry vs £550 direct to Spain. But we looked into it and to drive through France would cost us about £200 in fuel, and that means extra driving for our old camper too. So Spain was an option still, the big problem was it was fully booked for 3-4 weeks. Even if an earlier sailing was available there was still a risk that France would open but we’d be stuck with the expensive ferry as it didn’t offer a full refund. Or what if we found a sailing in one weeks time but by then Spain changed their rules and we had to quarantine on arrival. There were so many variables and we were stressing out. One option was to explore a bit of eastern England while we waited to enter France but as I checked the Spanish ferry site I noticed a booking available for two days time. This meant we would feel safe to book it as the chance of covid rules changing in that time were very slim. So it was booked! And it costs a whopping £570. It was about £490 for the ferry and £77 extra for a cabin. We would normally just grin and bare a recliner seat but this crossing is 34 hours with two nights sleeping so it just made more sense to get the cabin. The price also included breakfast and dinner so overall we were happy to have it all booked and finally have a plan in place!
The next day leading up to the ferry was beyond stressful. Our car insurance said we only had 60 days of European cover, which we knew was wrong but it certainly got our hearts pumping while they read through our policy and corrected themselves. The biggest headache of all though was trying to fill out a health form to enter Spain. You can only fill it in 48 hours before arrival and seeing as we had such a long ferry journey it meant we could only start the form at 8am the morning of departure.
We were supposed to receive a QR code but it didn’t come through so I called their help line who only spoke Spanish and when they heard how poor my Spanish was they just hung up. I emailed them repeatedly with no response, I called Brittany ferries too who basically said yes they have quite a few problems with the website but there’s nothing they could do to help, at which point I said “what happens if the QR code doesn’t come through?” and she said we wouldn’t be allowed to board the ferry. After a couple of hours my code finally came through so I was feeling more optimistic. Craig’s however hadn’t been emailed to us. We tried retrieving the code from different devices, redoing the form with different email addresses, had family try on their laptops and iPhones but still no luck. I even tried calling the Spanish number again with me speaking into google translate and it was actually working, he understood what we were asking and I thought – this is it, I’m a freaking genius!! But he spoke too fast and quietly through our laptop for google translate to actually translate what he was saying and in the end he just said “los siento, los siento…” (sorry in Spanish) before hanging up on me. We even contacted our Spanish friend to try and get her to translate for us but she was abroad and had a different time zone and would you believe it the helpline was only open until 1pm!!! So it was too late by the time she woke up. Craig was convinced that was it, there was no way we would be on the ferry tonight but I was still hopeful, I don’t think you can rely on technology, there must be exceptions. We packed up quickly and drove to pick up a prescription which of course had a big delay and meant I had to run up and down the high street trying all the pharmacies. We swung by my sisters for a very quick farewell and a bowl of homemade soup and then headed straight for the port.
While Craig was driving, our Spanish friend was trying to get the code for us using a different VPN, I was tweeting Brittany ferries and any Spanish tourism sites for help and I was on hold to various numbers but to no avail. Craig still thought we’d have to cancel the ferry and we could have to wait a week or more for availability. Finally we got to the Brittany ferry office and explained that we were in desperate need of help. Within 5 minutes the lady had filled in the form for us, received the QR code and printed it out. My goodness, we were so relieved when we had that piece of paper, but I was also angry, so angry that no one helped us today, I asked Brittany ferries if they would be able to help us when we got to the port and they said no which caused us so much stress, then they happily helped us in less that 5 minutes.
Anyway, we were on our way! We pulled up in the queue 6 hours before departure and walked across to Aldi to buy some snacks and baked beans for the ferry in case they don’t sell them in Spain, and then we began making some egg fried rice back in the van. Low and behold as soon as Craig started frying the vegetables the queue began moving! We just decided to stay put, which was rather awkward with cars having to go around us and eventually a staff member walked our way so I politely asked if there was a better spot where we could move to for dinner and he let us park in another lane which was a relief. We were shocked how many motorhomes there were in the queue, there must’ve been over a hundred and they were all the fancy ones that cost the price of a house.
We had to sit in the queue for hours and it was bitterly cold, only about 2° so we couldn’t wait to get on the ship. A young chap dressed in a very formal uniform greeted us on level 7 of the deck and pointed us towards our cabin. It’s the first time in all of our travels that we’ve had a cabin on a boat and not a seat so it was all very new to us and we couldn’t believe how nice the room was – it doesn’t take much to please us mind you. The only cabin available when we booked was a two berth wheelchair accessible one which meant the room was huge! And we even had an en-suite! Judging by how close all the other doors were our room must’ve been 2-3 times bigger. We even had a tv, desk, fresh white bed sheets and towels and a fake window on the wall which looked like we had a balcony with a sea view.
We departed at 10pm and just had a little walk around the ship before we went to bed. We couldn’t believe how many people were already sat down and enjoying a pint of beer, it actually felt like a proper little cruise and even more so because everyone was over 60. We felt like royalty getting into a real bed and laying horizontally but even still I didn’t manage to sleep a wink which was a shame. The boat was rocking gently from side to side and car alarms were audible from the decks below us.
At 8:30am we headed to the dining area for our continental breakfast. They had mini bottles of Tropicana, cereal, fruit salad, bread buns, yogurt and a variety of pastries. I couldn’t find any coffee so I asked a member of staff who was French and he said “yez ze coffee iz ere or you av stronger, better coffee around ze corner”. There were a couple of proper coffee machines so we helped ourselves to three cappuccinos each and spent a couple hours grazing on food.
We were feeling pretty grim after breakfast though, it was all too sweet and we were starting to feel sea sick so we watched trashy tv and nibbled on some of our snacks for lunch. We didn’t spend much time outside our room but we did manage a couple of strolls on the deck for some fresh air and both times we saw dolphins or porpoise not too far from the boat. Because this trip was so rushed I didn’t know much about the sailing, I had no idea that the Bay of Biscay is in fact a great place to witness cetaceans. It’s also renowned for having extremely rough conditions and since taking our ferry I’ve heard horror stories from people doing the same sailing as us but they couldn’t leave their room because the boat was rocking so much, everyone was vomiting and the breakfast was flying everywhere. Looking at the sea we had I’d say it was as calm as it gets.
For dinner service there was a system in place so they could stagger the guests. A letter was printed on everyone’s ticket and each letter had a time allocated. We were very lucky to be the first group in letter A at 18:15 because the last group didn’t eat until 21:15! Holy moly I can’t imagine having to wait until 9pm to eat, especially when I’m feeling rough and sea sick. I was actually very surprised at how fancy the dinner service was, I expected it to be cafeteria style and put all three courses on a tray but we were sat down and given menus. The food was included but we had to pay for any drinks so we got a couple of pints. We looked around at the other guests and 90% of them had grey hair, we were the youngest people onboard, and the best thing was there weren’t any kids. Craig had a tuna carpaccio for starter and I had a sort of mini rice dish with avocado and roasted peppers. For mains we both picked paella, but mine was a vegetarian version which basically meant I got the same, rather small rice portion as Craig but his was piled with meat and seafood on top while mine was empty. So I wasn’t quite full and ordered some more bread buns. After so many sweet things for breakfast Craig picked a cheeseboard for dinner while I had Creme brûlée. Overall I was quite impressed with the food, I was worried the vegetarian options would involve mushrooms which I hate.
We ended up getting a later night than we wanted because some silly tv show about botched plastic surgery had us wanting to wait and see everyone’s results. We were due to arrive at 7am the next morning but we knew we’d only need ten minutes to get ready so we opted to sleep in but the damn ferry put an alarm through the speaker system at 5:45am. It was quite gentle music to be fair but there was no snooze button so it just continued for about 15 minutes. Once we were back in our campervan staff came around and checked everyone’s temperature for covid and then we ended up having to sit and wait over an hour before our level of the car deck was allowed to disembark. But eventually we were driving off the giant ship and the rising sun hit our faces, boy did it feel good.