A typical free stopover and a little about how campervans work

Just in case anyone is interested and doesn’t know already, this is what a typical facilities are like at a freebie stopover.  In the UK it’s hard to understand that anything would be freely given, but in Europe this is very common. Of course, there are lots of stopovers which are not free and we are also staying on formal campsites too, but this is just an indication.

This stopover is in Castello de Paiva in Portugal and is on the corner of a very large market square.

The mechanics of the facilities are really straightforward, but we can still remember how daunting it seemed and how much complex stuff there was to remember when we hired our first campervan six or seven years ago.

The grating that you can see under the mothership is for grey water – this is the water from the sink, shower and washbasin.  There is a hundred litre holding tank and a big tap inside the mothership that dumps this water, so we just need to park over the grating and open the tap.

The metal drain cover with a sort of star shape in the top is for black water. That means the toilet cassette!  Our toilet is a Thetford unit – which is a really common brand. It has a removable tank that you can carry to the disposal point.  It holds about 20 litres. You add a chemical to the cassette each time you empty it and that helps to control the odour and to break down the contents a bit!  Sounds yeuchy but you soon get used to it! It’s best to use cheap brands of toilet paper in cassette toilets to make sure it breaks down easily.

The pillar on the left of the picture contains two taps – one is for fresh water and has a screw fitting.  We have a hundred litre tank on board and a hose dedicated for drinking water to fill up. Across Europe there are a couple of different sizes so we have some brass adapters which convert the different screw threads to a hozelock connector.  

On the other side of the pillar is a press tap for rinsing the toilet cassette. This separation is important and the tap for rinsing does not have a connector so in theory no mistakes can be made.  In practice when we are filling the fresh tank, we wipe the tap down first and we flush the first few litres away to make sure we are getting fresh water.

We tend to travel with the freshwater tank full.  There are two schools of thought. Obviously this loses efficiency – its 100 Kilos, but we are often not on hookup and sometime (like in Porto) in locations where there are no facilities at all, so we prefer the efficiency cost and the peace of mind that we are self sufficient.

When we are off-grid, the limiting factor is the loo – 20 litres does not go very far 😉  We have an extra toilet cassette but we left it in the UK – we didn’t think we would need it for this trip.  We may need to revisit that decision!

To locate the stopovers, we have a few tools.  Often there are signs at the side of the road indicating a motorhome dropoff.  We have smartphone apps from a couple of suppliers and a big ‘Camperstop’ book.

Once we research a few days of places to go and things to see, the camperstop network is the next thing we check.

Here you can see the grey water grate, the black water drain cover and the fresh water and rinse water pillar on the left.


A very strange journey from Ponte de Lima to Porto.  We always have the sat nav set to avoid toll roads (not because we are penny pinching, we just want to see more of the country than you see from a motorway).  Anyway, the sat nav – which knows the length, width, height and weight of the mothership – took us through the middle of a town where there was not enough room for two vehicles abreast and some corners were bloody tight around sticky-out buildings and balconies.  On top of that, we did 20km of cobbled back roads and although they look great and we are sure that are really hard-wearing, the mothership rattles and shakes and anything over 20kmh risks losing fillings. So we were a mobile roadblock for a while down cobbled country lanes with a 50kmh speed limit and us doing 20.

On arrival at Porto, things got hairy again – we blindly followed the satnav down a 3 metre wide two way road with various twists and turns and down a 15% gradient to the camping stop.  We looked it up afterwards only to find that Sally was right – this was the main road down to the riverside! Eeek!

Anyway, the camping stop was on the banks of the river Douras about 2km from Novo Porto. It’s a free site with no facilities at all – in fact it’s just a piece of disused land with an abandoned building overlooking it.  It would have been another great drone shot but there is a heliport just over the river – so not a great idea! Relax and beer….

Next day and it was a very long day out in Porto exploring the town, including – shock – horror – an evening meal out on the town – T had codfish and S had lamb.  Great meal, then a slightly wobbly cycle back to mothership.

Next day and it was out exploring again, this time sticking to the south side of the river.  Cable car to the top of the hill and a slow walk back down and an evening at Sandemans touring and sampling the port *hic*.  Another meal out and a slow walk back to mothership. The weather is on the change properly now and it was a cold and windy stroll back to the ‘ship.

The following morning we were determined to find a better route out of town so we drove down to the coast along the Douro river road and we found a great route back to the main road south.  Next stop is a hilltop village on the way to the famous Paiva walkways.

Castelo de Soutomaior, Spain and Ponte de Lima, the first stop in Portugal!

We spotted the castle visit on one of our research sites and as it was almost on our route, we did this as a driveby on the way into Portugal.

The castle is awesome – we had seen couple of photos but we ‘knew’ that with an entry price of 2€ that it would not be great.  Wrong again – the castle is part of a hotel and conferencing complex and is in excellent preservation. We spent three hours exploring the castle and grounds and although the conferencing suite was in use, the castle and grounds were almost deserted.

We also collected some huge chestnuts from the gardens (boiled them and had them for breakfast the next morning).

Late lunch in the Mothership in the castle grounds and back on the road for our trip into Portugal and Ponte de Lima.

The drive into Portugal was really interesting: as we came down through the hills, the first thing we noticed was all the bonfires.  No idea why there are so many and none in Spain – perhaps different laws regarding wildfires, but that first Portugal afternoon, and every day since, we have noticed lots of fires – towns, countryside – everywhere! Odd!

First impressions of Ponte de Lima were stunning – it’s a small town set on a wide river with a roman era stone bridge.  Fan-blimmin tastic. The camping stop was next to the river right in the middle of town. No facilities, but great location! We did a few KM walking the town in the evening and there are a couple of wide tree lined promenades by the river including musical lamp posts.  Yes, they pump a local broadcast from the lamp posts – it’s very neat!

Pizza in the van for dinner and a Denzel Washington film from hard disc.  A great first afternoon in Portugal.

The next day we did 30 km by the river with bread and cheese for lunch and back to mothership mid afternoon and set off for Porto.


Pontevedra is almost on the west coast of Spain, it’s in an area known as the Spanish Fjords. We spent a lazy afternoon walking around both the hilltop town and following the river Lerez which winds around the base of the old town.  Pontevedra is another town on the pilgrim’s path network to Santiago, so the scallop shells feature a lot in the architecture. Dinner was a huge stew made by chucking almost everything we could imagine into a big pot and letting it simmer for one film.

The next day and it’s a cycle ride out of town to Pazo de Lourizán – a dilapidated palace that’s been home to the forestry research service since about 1940.  The trip was a 50% washout, no-one is allowed in the palace – it’s pretty derelict, but we did wander out around the formal gardens and greenhouses. Lunch was bread and cheese down by the river and leftover stew for dinner. We started to feel like an old spanish couple, sitting on a wall near looking for shade enjoying a beer and just watching the world go by.

It was great to get out on the bikes again after about a week off and we managed 32km with the hill up to the palace being a nasty 4km including 2km of dirt tracks after we got a little lost ahem. Well, we knew exactly where we were, but not where anything else was.

First blood on the motorhome is a broken sunscreen/flyscreen on one of the Heki rooflights.  We hope we can get that sorted in a few weeks as a warranty repair when we get back into Spain – there is a Dethleffs dealer in Seville.

Santiago de Compostela

Even a pair of atheists have an attraction for the cathedrals – if you have read many of these posts, you will have noticed that already.  And after Lourdes, we didn’t expect to see another cathedral or basilica quite so impressive. But the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela comes pretty close. Every year tens of thousands of pilgrims make the journey here on foot, horse or bike, following a network of pilgrims paths.  They all head here to Santiago de Compostela https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santiago_de_Compostela and to the church that suposedly houses the relics of St James son of Zebedee (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James,_son_of_Zebedee) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santiago_de_Compostela.

The camperstop is a very large parking area dedicated to campervans and coaches.  It’s about 15€ per day, but that’s without electric and no fresh water. On the plus side, there is a row of shops next to the parking area and we managed to snaffle some WiFi, always useful!

A 3km walk from the camping stop and then a tour of the town culminating in a visit to the Cathedral.  A wonderful building.

Lunch was at an excellent tapas restaurant and we picked up some of the local almond biscuits (yes, some more).  An evening spent doing 3 weeks of laundry in a spotlessly clean fully automated laundrette. And a late night catching the F1 GP on a German free to air satellite TV channel and up very late the next day and beginning the journey south to Portugal – again taking a pilgrims route.


From Leon we set out roughly eastbound towards Santiago De Compostela. We knew that we would not make it in one day, but we had some camper stops programmed in. The first 40 km from Leon were wonderful – the road followed the pilgrims route (or the other way around) so we saw many backpackers as we drove steadily down the highway – many with the scallop shell associated with pilgrims of St James (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camino_de_Santiago).

After 40km, our route diverged and we were on the main route west. Our programmed camper stop ‘on the outskirts of the a national park’ ended up being an industrial estate and for the first time ever we said, ‘Nope’ and we selected another stop this time in Lugo and drove the extra 40km.
Another four letter place name.

This was a great little stop in a great looking town. It was tricky to find and very tricky to get back out again – Sally sat nav got confused and there were some very steep hills to negotiate. But the Camper stop is a large tarmac area halfway up a hill and on the edge of a lovely park. A freebee and with water and sewage drop off.

T found an abandoned unfinished building and set up for a drone shot the next morning. We walked the town and explored the city walls – pretty impressive that they are almost complete!

The following day and a quick flight with the Mavic, then pack up and ship out. Sally satnav got very confused and we almost drove over a pedestrian bridge trying to get out of town. Some tight manoeuvring and a lap of the city walls later, we were on the right road.

Our dashcam footage might be a little toe curling at times, wonder if we can export it – we’ll check!


We parked at the roadside in Leon for an hour waiting for a way into a parking space.  And then an evening checking out the cathedral and the nunnery and then back to the van for grub.

T has done without whisky for a couple of months now and felt he deserved one, so out came the 10 year old Laphroaig.

Next day we started we started off with a tour of the local museums. By about mid-day, there was a gap in the car park that meant that we could actually get out – kid you not, the camper stop is a shared car park and the cars are so close that you can’t get the camper out of a space if the space beside is occupied and if there is a car in front.  You have to wait for a maneuvering space to be able to leave!

Another first for us was the milk vending machine in the shopping centre over the road from the camping stop – fresh milk by the litre – just pop your bottle in the slot and put some euros in!

After lunch we set out towards Santiago with another stop planned on the way.

Santilla del Mar and Gijon

They say Santillana del Mar is the town of three lies: it’s not holy (Santi), it’s not flat (llana) or anywhere near the sea (del mar).  Strict planning rules date back to the 16th century and cars are banned. Or so we thought from our research! The village is wonderful and as we are way out of season it was not inundated with the many coachloads that it sees in the high season. But there were plenty of cars – it turns out that residents are allowed to drive the cobbled streets.  So the photos look amazing, but there are still cars bouncing around.

The town is almost completely taken over by tourism – there are many shops all selling local produce – but they are all selling the same local produce – citron tarts, almond biscuits and local cheese.  All products are great, but not sure that every shop needs to sell them!

We expected to spend half a day here and stop overnight – there is a free area put aside for campervans, but as we only spent a couple of hours wandering around we pushed on a little further and headed for Gijon.

The Gijon camperstop was picked at short notice by putting a pin on the map halfway between Santilla del Mar and Leon.  Sometimes there is not much planning involved – sorry!

Anyway the camperstop overlooked a formal park and was just emptying out when we arrived – it was full of TV and movie company vans – they had been filming something in the sandy surfing bay just along the coast.  We never did workout what! The park and coastal walk has a series of art installations, so the evening constitutional was a clifftop walk interspersed with pondering sea views and sculptures.

Next morning it was off reasonably early bound for Leon.


The municipal campervan site is at the top of a very steep hill with stunning views of Bilbao. We cycled down onto the city dreading what the ride back up would be like.

We spent the day cycling around the city but mainly visiting Bilbao Guggenheim, reminding ourselves of the question “Just what is art anyway?”

The ride back up the hill was fine in the end – a little punishing but we did it!  

We only stayed overnight in Bilbao – it would have been great to stay longer, but we need to be in a specific place on a particular date in November so we need to crack on.

The big cities have never really appealed as camper destinations anyway – it’s normally necessary to park way out of town and commute, which is not what this trip is about. We said that we would come back here by ferry one day and do it and the surrounding area properly!  

As it is, given the size of the town we did well to find a place within 3km of the city c


Bakio & Gaztelugatxe

Bakio has a free camperstop that includes water and W/C.  The camperstop is in a great location overlooking the town.  Pretty quiet except for some surfer dudes here to enjoy the good waves in the bay. But the reason for our trip here is to visit the isolated hilltop monastery at Gaztelugatxe.  

We started with a 2 km cycle ride to the car park and stayed off the main road – instead taking a tarmac road now closed to cars.  We now know why. The gradient passed 20% in some places and we arrived at the *starting* point for the adventure as sweating, gibbering wrecks.

The adventure comprised walking down a 15% slope for about 2 km, then across a stone walkway a few meters above the sea, and then climbing about 300 steps onto an isolated island where a very small monastery has been built.

Suffice to say that everyone slept soundly that night.  We got up so late the next day there was not even time to explore the town before setting off for Bilbao.  But we did note that the north coast of spain is wonderful – we have toyed a few times with the Bilbao ferry and never got around to it.