Portugal – So Many Things to Do, See, Eat and Drink

We spent 30 days in Portugal, travelling from North to South. You’re never far from the coast in Portugal, but we found some of our favourite spots inland and ended up zig-zagging between coast and country.

The weather while we were in Portugal (early November – early December) was mostly hot and dry. Unseasonably so. We met a number of local people who commented on how unusually dry the year had been and how the autumn was usually much wetter especially in the hills. The dry weather was wonderful for us tourists, but for the locals it was worrying with tragically severe forest fires earlier in 2017 and many people’s agricultural income affected.

A few stats

Number of nights spent in Portugal: 30

Number of different overnight locations: 21 (of which 3 were campsites and the rest were parking spots, most of which were free but 2 were paid). We didn’t use our ACSI Camping Card at all in Portugal, two of the campsites we used were part of the Orbitur group who have a string of campsites down the length of the country. You can get a discount card for Orbitur which might be worth considering if you want to spend a lot of time in Portugal, their campsites were well placed but in my opinion the facilities needed a bit of investment for the price. The other campsites that were open tended to be ACSI prices anyway even if they weren’t part of the scheme, a lot were closed for the season in the north of the country.

We found plenty of spots for grey/black waste and water, some of these were in supermarkets – Intermarche in particular. We bypassed most of the Algarve and didn’t encounter any issues with free parking. Police either ignored us or just gave a quick salutation, we don’t tend to indulge in ‘camping’ behaviour (i.e. tables and chairs outside) outside of campsites which might have helped, we don’t know.

Average ‘camping’ cost per night: £3.59

Average total spend per day: £35.73.

Number of miles driven: 1215 miles in Portugal. Our average fuel (in)efficiency was 23.18 MPG. Our cost per mile was 22 pence. Fuel in Portugal was pretty expensive, but cheaper fuel could be found in Supermarkets (particularly Intermarche). Apart from that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the cost of fuel, grab it where it’s cheap.

We used toll roads in Portugal because it was quite difficult to avoid them completely. There are two types of toll roads. One is more traditional and uses tickets that are collected at the start of the journey and the toll is paid on leaving the main road (avoid the Via Verde lanes unless you have a Via Verde device). The second type uses automatic number plate recognition, the easiest way to pay for these is to register at the drive through stations, but there are only four places to do so. More details can be found on the website here.

Lots of towns and villages have traffic control cameras that will turn traffic lights red if you are speeding, this slows down traffic particularly in 50kph zones, but can be infuriating when you think you’re under the limit. Slow right down in towns and villages.

Finding overnight locations in Portugal

For overnight locations we mostly used the information available through the Camper Contact app (called Parkings in the app store), or Park4Night. Sometimes we found locations on the searchforsites.co.uk website but it generally had less information that the other two apps. We don’t carry the ‘All the Aires’ books as – we find that the apps are good enough.

You can find the map of the parking locations we have used here.

Best Bits

We loved the inland areas in Portugal. The Peneda-Gerês national park was particularly beautiful with it’s granite mountains. No denying that the beaches are beautiful, but we were surprised by the variety and interest inland. We will definitely be back to explore more. We also enjoyed our walk on the Paiva walkways and would like to go back and explore that region more. We just want to go back!

There are so many castles, forts and monasteries that it would be difficult to choose the best. The best of the forts seem to be inland on the defensive border with Spain. We ended up deciding to visit at least one of each on this trip and probably didn’t chose the best ones, but that leaves more to do next time.

Porto was amazing – Lisbon had been visited before and is also a great city. Port is good value if you avoid buying it in the tourist resorts, but don’t expect a major bargain.

The sound of surf when at the beach became so ubiquitous that we missed it when we headed inland. We aren’t surfers but we enjoyed watching the surfers and playing in the surf where it seemed safe enough. We did miss swimming in the sea though and I can see why there are so many river beaches in Portugal – far too cold in the winter though.

Portuguese cakes and pastries were incredible. I tried a different variety everywhere I went. Most cakes are egg, sugar and nut based and can be sickly if consumed in excess, although somehow I couldn’t stop myself. From the guardanapos, which looked a little like custard sandwiches, to my favourite honey and walnut biscuits, which looked dry but tasted like a soft nutty gingerbread.

A selection of cakes – they may not have the sheer artistry of French patisserie, but they are sweet and satisfying

Portuguese seafood is also exceptional – in my opinion Atlantic seafood is much better than Mediterranean. Try percebes (goose neck barnacles) and the mussels will always be good.

Other stuff

We did a lot of supermarket shopping in Intermarche. They seemed to have the widest variety of produce and also sold French cider which was very important. They also sometimes had motorhome facilities and self-service laundrettes.

Every supermarket sold Bacalhau – dried and salted cod, usually from Norway, stacked in great heaps in the supermarket – you can smell it. Don’t be put off by the smell though, once soaked and re-constituted it’s just pleasantly firm, slightly salty, cod that makes great fishcakes and bakes.

Paul was very disappointed with the Portuguese varieties of Strongbow and Somersby cider which were mixed with apple juice for a unique taste that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike cider.

Not quite Cider

Most people speak some English, from supermarket checkouts to tourist offices, although this made us feel very lazy it did help us interact as our Portuguese is limited to stock phrases.

Eating out was good value but not as cheap as it was 2 or 3 years ago. A product of the exchange rate but also of the general rise in the cost of living. A meal for two could easily come in for under €30 if you stick to local dishes and wine. Meal times are far more aligned to UK times than in Spain, but still our experience was that it doesn’t liven up in restaurants until 8pm.

For walking and cycling routes we used tourist information and wikiloc. We didn’t buy any detailed maps, on the occasions we wanted to we couldn’t find anywhere selling them and I think you’d have to buy in the bigger towns or order online. Many waymarked routes had been impacted by forest fires and tourist information offices were always very well informed about the latest status of paths.

Visit! Don’t just do the Algarve, see the west coast beaches, the mountains, the history and the culture. Compared to France and Spain it’s a compact country and easy to take in a bit of everything in one holiday.

Travelling in the UK – A Financial Summary

As we are now on the continent, we though it might be useful to summarise how we got on with travelling around the UK in our motorhome.

You can read our Scotland Summary and Wales Summary, but around our visits to these two countries we spent time in England, and our time in England was mostly of a different type than our travelling time with much more emphasis on friends and family.

Generally though we found travelling around the UK a lot easier than we had expected. We spent plenty of time in England on campsites because it made sense for the things we were doing, but when we wanted to travel and ‘wild-camp’ we didn’t find it particularly difficult. We also noticed that many communities are starting to get to grips with motorhoming as a leisure activity, and although there are plenty of moaning minnies out there we are sure that we will start to see a lot more motorhome friendly parking options with services like the one we found in Canterbury and the one being proposed in our home town of Exmouth.

We have spent 162 days motorhoming in the UK, around 44% of the year, so we thought it would be a good time to take stock financially. So how have we got on? I’m sure it will come as no surprise to the people that know me to find out that I have a spreadsheet where I record all of our spending and track it against our budget. 

Our budget for the year was a pretty generous £25,000, in total we have spent £11,484, which is 46% of our budget…BUT…we have had our major expenses (touch wood) of MOT, repairs and servicing, insurance etc during these months.

Here’s a breakdown of our overall spending.

Communication – getting online and phone bills

Gifts – presents for birthdays and special occasions

Motorhome – insurance, service and repairs and accessories

Travel Expenses – Fuel, tolls and ferries. Daytime parking.

Leisure – Eating out, drinking in bars, tourist attractions and activities

Other Bills – Travel Insurance, Storage costs and other bits that don’t fit anywhere else

Living Costs – Groceries, Gas, Campsites, motorhome services (ie waste disposal and water) and other general living costs. Here’s how the Living costs broke down in more detail

We have massively overspent on Bertie. not just the costs of MOT failure, but also a complete set of new tyres and fixes for various habitation faults i.e. the water pump and the gear mechanism for the roof. We have also been guilty – no, strike that, we don’t feel guilty at all – of picking up lots of bits and pieces to make our lives more safe and comfortable; additional locks, a new mattress etc.

We have also overspent on groceries – as we wander round the supermarkets we really believe that we are being frugal, but the reality is that we shop for what we want to eat, rather than shopping for what’s cheap and we don’t want to change.

And we have been very poor at controlling our internet usage. We found that many of our devices – particularly the apple ones – treat our MiFi device as if it’s a bottomless well of data. It looks to them just like any other WiFi that you have at home and so assumes that there are no limits. We had to do quite a lot of tweaking to change the settings to reduce data use and even then we are still finding our home habits of surfing whenever we feel like it difficult to break. As a result we have overspent on data top-ups. This will be even more important to control when we get into Europe where our data limits will be further restricted by providers; despite the removal of roaming charges many providers still have limits and restrictions when data is used in Europe.

Otherwise all of our other costs are slightly lower than expected, so we’re pretty happy. Many people say that motorhoming in the UK is far more expensive than in the rest of Europe, but with the current exchange rate I think that costs will be pretty similar across the southern European countries. We will be able to compare and contrast once we’ve done a bit more travelling.

On a final note, with our initial income from selling our car and various refunds on bills, plus our income from renting out our house and the general rise in investment value of our savings, our net worth in in purely numeric terms is slightly higher than when we left. I suspect we’re not quite beating inflation though and of course investment values can go down so we’ll have to see what the future brings.

Country Summary – Scotland, the most beautiful place in the world?

We have managed 6 weeks and 2 days in Scotland on this trip, covering only a small part of the country and even then managing only a small sample of what is available in each area we have visited.

While we were here Scotland was proclaimed the most beautiful country in the world. Is this correct? Well we haven’t been everywhere, but Scotland is the place we keep coming back to again and again; without ever getting bored and despite the sometimes awful weather. In fact the occasional prolonged period of rain just makes any respite feel full of possibilities.

With the sequence of low pressure systems working their way over the UK we certainly had our fair share of bad weather on this trip and that modified our plans with less kayaking, fishing and mountain walking and more cycling, coastal walks and tourist attractions. Sadly we didn’t see the Northern Lights, despite two solar activity spikes while we were there; the weather was too cloudy where we were.

A few stats

Number of nights spent in Scotland: 44

Number of different overnight locations: 32 (of which 5 were campsites and the rest were parking spots, most of which were free but 4 were paid)

Average ‘camping’ cost per night: £3.22

Average total spend per day: £20.48. This seems very little compared to our costs while in Wales, but just happens to reflect that we did not have to buy any Motorhome stuff while we were in Scotland.

Number of miles driven: 1450 miles in Scotland. Our average fuel (in)efficiency was 23.01 MPG which we were pretty happy with given the roads we were driving on. Our cost per mile was 23.4 pence, which reflects the high cost of fuel in the highlands as well as our fuel efficiency.

Finding overnight locations in Scotland

For overnight locations we mostly used the information available through the fantastic Scottish Motorhome Wildcampers facebook forum, we also used http://searchforsites.co.uk, and our OS maps to identify possible locations. For campsites we used UKCampsite.

You should not get confused between motorhome parking and the right to ‘wild camp’ via the Land Reform Act. Access to land in motorised transport is not covered by this legislation and so you are subject to parking byelaws or landowner’s demands. Having said that, there are a multitude of publicly accessible parking spots as well as parking locations on private land (National Trust for Scotland, RSPB, Forestry Commission and Scottish Heritage are a few of the bigger landowners who have been known to tolerate motorhome parking – often on an informal basis and not consistently at all locations). 

You can find the map of the parking locations we have used here.

While in Scotland we became increasingly aware of the pressure that some believe is being exerted by the volume of motorhomes on the road using (or abusing) facilities. There was a fair amount of content in the Scottish press on the subject, it will be interesting to see how this pans out.

Driving in Scotland

Scottish highland roads may be single track but they are also blessed with a multitude of passing places that are well signposted, usually with white squares or diamonds on top of posts. The majority of road users know how to use passing places not just for passing people coming in the opposite direction but also to allow overtaking. We found our reversing camera invaluable for keeping an eye on vehicles approaching from behind (as well as helping us reverse into the passing places) and our only caution was to avoid being forced into passing places that were too soft to take Bertie.

We had half a dozen ferry crossings on the CalMac ferries, all of which were very easy and there are always plenty of helpful staff around if you have any questions. Different ferries have different rules, some ask you to pay on board and some ask you to pay in advance at the ticket office, some accept bookings for specific crossings and some operate on a first come first served basis. All the relevant information can be found on their website where you can also buy tickets and book crossings (where it’s possible for that particular service). The CalMac ferries operate a Road Equivalent Tarrif (RET) which is meant to make the fares equivalent to driving the same distance, it means the crossings are very reasonably priced. Motorhome prices vary according to motorhome length – under 6 meters, between 6 and 8 meters and over 8 meters (including bike racks/boxes etc) – height does not make any difference. We did need help to avoid grounding on one ferry crossing (Tobermory to Kilchoan), but the staff are very practised at placing boards under wheels. If you want to avoid grounding then choose a crossing as close to high tide as possible, but if you cant then don’t worry, you’ll get help.  

Best Bits

It’s always difficult to pick the best bits of any trip to Scotland, any visit is made up of every experience not just a hand picked selection. But if forced to pick out some of the best moments.

Dumfries and Galloway: One of our unwritten rules for our adventure is that we should go to places we’ve never been before. Dumfries and Galloway was a revelation, only just north of the Lake District but so much quieter with beautiful coastline, high rounded hills, mossy forests, castles and abbeys (oh and a lot of bogs, don’t forget the bogs).    

Seafood: No trip to the west coast would be the same without a good sample of seafood; fish and shellfish are plentiful and scrumptious whether as part of a fish supper eaten with your fingers or a more upmarket seafood platter.

Falkirk: Falkirk gets the prize for the best all round day out with the Kelpies, Falkirk Wheel and mountain biking, all in an industrial town.

Otters and Sea Eagles: We saw numerous otters in Scotland, probably the best day was when we saw both an otter and a sea eagle in close proximity on the isle of Mull.

Torrisdale Bay: In a country full of scenic places this was one of our favourite spots to sit in the van and watch the sea.  

The standing stones on Arran: In a dramatic setting of moorland backed by jagged mountains this collection of standing stones just kept going (and we could have walked further and found more).

Other stuff

We visited a fair few castles and other historical locations. Historic Scotland has plenty of free attractions but if you want to see the bigger places then it is worth buying a membership or a tourist pass. An annual membership is £47.25 and depending on where you go could pay you back in half a dozen visits.

Although Ordnance Survey maps cover Scotland, because of the difference between Scottish and English land access rights the approach to marking paths is different. This means that there are a lot of paths which just aren’t shown on the map. There is an amazing resource online at walkhighlands.co.uk, which has many walks of all different grades across the whole of Scotland (not just the highlands).


Country Summary – Waylaid in Wales

When we started out on our adventure, we had decided to use Wales as a route to Scotland. The plan was to hot foot it along the Welsh coast and take in a few highlights as a way to break up the journey. Scotland was the goal. 

The beauty of our current lifestyle is that we can change plans if we want to – we have very few things set in stone and so long as we manage to meet those few commitments anything else is up for grabs.

So when we found ourselves taking longer than expected just to get through Permbrokeshire we knew that we were unlikely to make it to Scotland and gave ourselves permission to linger a little longer in Wales.

Coupled with this we were also finding out about our travelling proclivities. We didn’t really know how we would feel about travelling, whether we would prefer wild camping to campsites, whether we would want to drive long distances or short, whether we would stay in one place for a long time or move on daily. It turns out that we like moving daily (or every two days) but we don’t tend to move too far. Wild camping is great, and usually available in convenient locations for outdoor activities, but it is a nice treat to get the BBQ, table and chairs out every now and again in a campsite.

A few stats

Number of nights spent in Wales: 52

Number of different overnight locations: 37 (of which 9 were campsites and the rest were parking spots, most of which were free but some were paid; we were pleasantly surprised by the wild camping available in Wales)

Average ‘camping’ cost per night: £5.45

Average total spend per day: £57.56 (this includes all spend over this time, even if it was not directly related to our travels and is roughly in line with our budget)

Number of miles driven: I don’t know, we didn’t record it, something I’ve started to do.

Finding overnight locations in Wales

We mostly used Searchforsites to find wild camping spots, and UKCampsite to find campsites.

We also used our Ordnance Survey maps to find parking spots, usually looking for the picnic table icon that designates picnic spots. Some picnic spots have height barriers or are locked overnight, but the majority offer secluded parking that is away from town centres and residential areas and are usually near walking routes and bike trails. In addition the parking is rarely demarcated so there is no stress of trying to squeeze into a spot that is too small. Google maps street view was very useful for checking out parking spots in advance for anything that might stop us from being able to use it.  

All of the wild camping spots we found en-route have been added to Searchforsites. You can also find our map of locations here.

We didn’t ever feel unsafe or threatened while wild camping, although we did spot some interesting car park based activities. Most people were friendly and chatty and only once in Amwlch did we get a negative reaction to parking for the night.

Driving in Wales

There are a lot of good, newly improved, A-roads in Wales which are great when getting from place to place. This is contrasted by a lot of single track roads leading to some of the more interesting locations. However, when compared to some places in Devon (i.e. the South Hams) there was nothing that really phased Paul and very rarely did I feel a need to suck in my breath and thereby try to make me and Bertie narrower – it doesn’t work, but it makes me feel like I’m adding value.

Our Sat Nav (Garmin Camper) was good at navigating us to avoid low or weak bridges but we found that it had a lot of ‘accessibility unknown’ roads which sometimes led it to recommend a route that wasn’t practical. Only on one occasion did we have a major argument with it, when it tried to send us down a cycle route. We found we often changed the route to one of our choosing after looking at our maps.

Where we knew we would be driving down long stretches of single track lanes we would use the Ordnance Survey maps and Google Street View to double check for access issues. But generally there were plenty of passing places.

There are some great public transport options to some pretty remote locations in Wales, which opens up additional options for getting to places or back from walks. We often think that if a bus can get somewhere then we will be ok, but the downside is the risk of encountering a bus in a narrow lane. Bustimes is a great resource for finding out bus timetables and maps of bus routes/stops.    

Best Bits

It’s difficult to pick out the best bits from this trip, Wales has a lot of diverse opportunities for spending quality time outdoors, which is why we stayed there for so long, but here are some of the things we particularly enjoyed:

Wild camping near Dale in Pembrokeshire. This spot, with it’s view of the twinkling lights of Milford Haven and the ability to launch our Kayak straight into the bay, was ideal for us. Shame we didn’t catch any fish for our supper.

Spotting Puffins at South Stack on Holy Island, Anglesey. We have had some great wildlife experiences, but watching the puffins while listening to the cacophony of the many seabirds on the cliffs was awesome. This is somewhere I could have spent days and days.

Snowdon via Y Lliwedd. Parking at the Lookout carpark on a sunny evening with great views of Snowdon, getting the bus so that we could do a one way walk, and finding out that it’s not always the most popular routes that are the best.

Black Covert picnic spot. Finding our first wild camping spot that wasn’t on one of the online directories. Cycling into Aberystwyth along the Ystwyth trail and spending the evening walking the shorter trails alongside the river.

Coed Y Brenin. The beautiful gorge of the Afon Mawddach and the adrenaline thrill of some proper downhill Mountain Bike trails, our first for years.

Fairbourne to Penmaenpool in the Kayak, yet again the Afon Mawddach, but a very different side to the river which was broad at high tide and a myriad of small channels and dead ends at low tide. This was probably the wild camping spot where we encountered the most motorhomes, I think there were 5 at one point, so it didn’t feel very wild!       

Other stuff

We had much fun trying to pronounce place names in Wales for bus drivers. It’s actually pretty phonetic as a language, so once you have all the sounds sorted it’s easy to pronounce. The problem is that we had a tendency to forget and use the English sounds, and also that the words were very slow leaving our mouths, making us sound as though we’d been slowed down to half normal speed. We were always understood though and only gently mocked. We used this guide.

We encountered lots of 3G/4G black spots, especially while wildcamping. But as we were moving nearly every day this wasn’t too much of an issue. We would just pull over in a layby once we found a signal. We didn’t find a lot of free WiFi, mostly because we didn’t venture near towns very often. Pubs were the best opportunities for a bit of downloading and an excuse for a pint.

Although we mostly focussed on outdoor pursuits, we also took some time for other activities. Castles abound in Wales, from ruins to castles that are still in use as family homes today. We saw a few, and I think my favourite was the ruined Dryslwyn. We also enjoyed the Botanic Gardens and finding events such as the Criccieth Food Slam.

There are plenty of places we would still like to visit in Wales, if we had more time we would have spent a couple of days in Cardiff (and taken in the Dr Who Experience), and also spent some time in the Mumbles – it was half term week when we were in the area and seemed a bit busy. I would also have liked to spend more time in the borders, and of course there are lots of places we would return to. So there will be no problems filling up another visit.