Perhaps everyone has within them the desire to wander, fancy-free. I certainly have and believe that I know the best way to achieve it. However, please don’t tell anyone the secret since there are already too many in the know – it’s via that king of the road: the motor caravan. Ah, you might think, real gypsies do not own motor caravans; they travel around in those wonderful horse drawn caravans shaped like a fat, lower-case ‘i’. And of course some do, but most do not.
When I wrote The Battle for Stow some years ago I interviewed gypsies who were attending the Stow Horse Fair, that controversial coming together of the tribes beloved by the travellers and feared by many of the residents. It was not an easy task since many of them were, rightly, suspicious of snoopers. However, one man did have a smart motor caravan and to help break the ice I told him I owned one too.
“What ya got?” he asked with interest, so I told him the make and model.
“Wanna sell ‘er?” he retorted instantly.
Not surprising perhaps since trading is what the fair is mostly about – and some of the gypsies I met confessed that they also have proper houses like the rest of us.
We have just returned from a ten day holiday from our Spanish village in the motor caravan. Some friends find this odd, assuming that a holiday is what we go to Spain for, whereas to us it is just another place where we live. The trip started in Spain then on to southern Portugal, after that to the UK and finally back to Spain – all in the motor caravan and without flying or taking ferries.
As usual the trip involved the very minimum of planning; the main objective being to explore Portugal which we reached on the second day. Arriving quite late we found, purely by accident, the walled city of Elvas and a convenient overnight spot in a car park in nearby club land where we parked opposite the local pigeon fanciers club.
The defensive walls of Elvas are unusual in that looking from above they form a star-like shape rather than the usual rectangle or circle – interesting. And, as we walked through the narrow archway into the city (definitely not motor caravan friendly), we were thrilled to find a fascinating web of even narrower streets, many leading up to the grand central plaza dominated by a fine white church. Elvas was a charming introduction to Portugal and there we dined on Portuguese pork and golden fish washed down with local wine and - no port.
The following days fell into our usual pattern. I went for a run whilst Margaret prepared breakfast; we showered then chose some destination from the map that looked interesting. We then drove there mostly by secondary roads, having lunch in the van at some nice spot along the way. On arrival we searched for a parking place big enough for the van, explored the place and if we liked it stayed, later finding a bar then a restaurant and so to sleep. If we did not much like a place we travelled on and sometimes had to find somewhere to park up for the night in darkness which can be difficult.
Our best night was spent overlooking a wonderful bay on the Atlantic coast a few K from the small inland village of Carrapteira. There we sat in the wind-buffeted van watching the sun set over the ocean then gradually spreading its fiery red illumination across the whole sky whilst we drank red wine and listened to romantic hits from the sixties. That night we ate in the van and woke to a beautiful dawn.
The worst night was in the coastal city of Lagos where we arrived in darkness and parked up in a potholed stretch of waste ground dotted with other vehicles like ours. In the morning we woke to the sound of a JCB digging a trench near our van.
But how did we get to the UK on this trip? You’ve probably guessed. On the way back we fulfilled a long term ambition and visited the Rock of Gibraltar. In retrospect I was more excited by the sight of the place as we approached from Algeciras than the actual visit though, once clear of the near frictionless border control, it is fascinating to walk across the airport runway in order to reach the city.
Once there it does seem odd to be spending pounds rather than euros and even odder that they leave the wallet so much quicker. It’s also a little weird to pass Holland and Barret (twice), to observe policemen on the beat wearing the old spiked helmets and to see so many fish and chip shops. I had a huge disappointment though. I entered a pub and asked the smiling barmaid if they sold real ale.
“Sorry love,” she said kindly, “you won’t get that on the Rock. Doesn’t travel you see.”
I refrained from giving her my lecture on Indian Pale Ale and sulkily ate my fish and chips. They were good, though pricey. Probably much better than a hedgehog baked in a ball of clay. Do gypsies really eat hedgehogs? I’d like to try that – I think.