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Trip report: being crazy in Pamplona, surfing on the Atlantic and kayaking in the Ardèche
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Here below some of the most fascinating photos from this camper trip to France and Spain. Together with the photogallery, you will find a funny and interesting trip report full of info and anecdotes describing the whole travel itinerary. If you haven't read them yet, check out all travel info and precise itinerary here:



Freedom is the absence of constraints of any kind. It's a complex concept and a bit utopian too, because the desire for freedom is a constraint itself, as it requires to run away from everything that binds and conditions. Every choice is also a sacrifice.
But what's my point? Um... I don't know. But it's good to consider these aspects when traveling by camping van. It is one of the more free ways to travel, but it does have its own limitations. In short, if freedom is an unreachable absolute, it is possible to get close.
On the evening of the 5th July 2013 two friends and I left the Italian Riviera and with eagerness and joyful absence of plans we set off in the direction of Spain. It was a Friday night after work and we were on board of a Mercedes Vito with a roof-top tent. The urgent goal was to cover as many kilometers as possible to get closer to our destination.
After five hours of boring highway between Liguria and French Riviera, we stopped at Aix-en-Provence when it was already 1 AM. We parked the van under some trees and we went to sleep, homeless-like.
That first night we had some difficulties to get used to the beds of the Vito and we were already tired when we woke up.
In the city center there was a wide pedestrian promenade. France is famous for the Eiffel Tower and the steep prices in bars and restaurants and, in fact, the breakfast we had was more expensive than necessary. It's also true that we were saving a lot of money by sleeping in a van, so we could afford some luxury gourmet.

We left early, taking turns at driving. Crossing the French plains on the highway isn't funny, but there are worse things in life, like non-alcoholic beer and mosquitoes. The important point was to get closer and closer to our destination. Montpellier, Narbonne, Carcassonne (a beautiful view), Toulouse, Pau... In the afternoon we finally left the motorway and we headed towards the Pyrenees. We stopped in the charming medieval village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (which at first we translated with St. John the Hog's Foot, and we could continue with squalid word games for hours and hours, until the sun set among the hills). From this town departs the Camino de Santiago, a very good business, and in fact it was full of tourists. Deservingly so, as the citadel is beautiful.
St Jean Pied De Port
St Jean Pied De Port - This quaint town is on the Santiago de Compostela trail.
A few miles later, we arrived at Roncesvalles Pass and then in Spain. We drove down to Pamplona, our first destination. It was seven o'clock in the evening when we entered the town, greeted by surreal images. Groups of hundreds of people, all dressed in white with red scarves and belts, walked the streets. It was in fact the first day of the week-long San Fermin festival. I thought I knew enough about it after reading "Fiesta", by Ernest Hemingway (a great novel, better written than this page… or so it is rumored). However, for some strange reason, every information about the "clothing style" had not entered my mind.
Pamplona San Fermin
Pamplona - San Fermin - All roads of Pamplona's town center get completely full.
We parked next to other vans, in a large area, not far from the center, dedicated to campers. Here hygiene was just an abstract theory: drunk people were sleeping in the flowerbeds, that were also the bathrooms, and a strong wine smell hovered everywhere. Considering that it wasn't dinner time yet and that the fiesta had begun just few hours before… the night looked very promising!
We climbed up to the walls of Pamplona and its historic center. Our regular clothes made us feel extremely inadequate. So we entered a Chinese shop and we bought the typical San Fermin clothes for a few Euros. We returned to the van, we dressed up, we put on some cheap shoes (there was broken glass everywhere, so flip-flops were not recommended) and wearing our bright and beautiful white dresses we started to party.
It was a real mess. Crowded alleys, drunk people, music, people dancing, strong smells… We ate some bocadillos with jambon serrano (ham sandwiches) and we drank wine and sangria, but mostly we wandered randomly through the city.
In Pamplona, during the week of San Fermin, every morning at 8 AM it is held the "encierro", the bull run. We walked along its route, looking for a good observation point for the next morning. We memorized a small square in a good location.
When we arrived at the square where the race would start the following morning, we saw the bulls, locked in a fence. There we met an Italian fellow who behaved as he was the worldwide top encierro expert. He had already been numerous times in Pamplona. He explained us that during the week Pamplona is less chaotic and thus more enjoyable. In addition, we were reassured about possible dangers: just fifteen people had died in the bull race in a hundred years. Sure, quite often someone broke an elbow or a leg… It didn't look like small damage to me, but he explained us that they were very negligible problems.
The expert spoke with complacency, but I was convinced that his life was pretty pathetic. I started imagining that in Pamplona he had lived the only glorious moment of his existence. I suppose it must have been at his first San Fermin Festival, in 1997: he had had an affair (just kisses, no sex) with a completely drunk girl, who had then vomited on his trousers. From that day on, he had begun to idolize Pamplona, coming back year after year in the hope to relive those moments of glory, or at least to be able to boast with friends when we was back home. He was never able to repeat that huge success, but one day, in 2004, a bull hit him with the tail, thus reinvigorating his passion.
Despite my sarcastic imagination, the festival of San Fermin was sincerely fascinating. We started again wandering through Pamplona. Alcoholism is a necessary component of the festival, so we adjusted to the common behaviour. It was 2 or 3 AM when we went to sleep.
The next morning we woke up at 6 AM with the hope to find a good place to watch the bull run. Being the first Sunday of celebration, there were a lot of people around: Basques, tourists, runners and drunks from the night before.
Despite the chaos, we found a place in the square we had noticed the day before. Only two people were in better position than us. They told us that they had taken place just after midnight. In fact, they were quite hysterical and paranoic: when we looked in their direction, they got angry as they feared that we wanted to rob their place. We were moved to pity.
The audience was large, quivering and dressed in white. There were people climbing on the walls of the buildings in order to view the encierro. Many runners were in the street to run with the bulls and try to touch their horns, hence showing their courage (or insanity). Some had the GoPro camera strapped to theie chest… ok, this was clear madness. The police drove away from the road the drunks and everybody wearing a backpack. People perched on the fences were thrown in the middle of the track.
There was a bell sound in the distance. The multitude of people on the race course began to run. Some faces went from smiley to frightened and many bodies attempted to climb over the fences.
The bulls suddenly appeared, impressively strong and fast. In two seconds they run through the part of the course that we could see from our place. In those quick moments, we noticed someone falling to the ground.
The tension level in the crowd suddenly dropped. Some people were disappointed because they hadn't seen anything, while others began walking towards some important destination we didn't know. There was an injured person on the road who was rescued by the police. Shortly after some cows run by. No-one considered them, poor things: the show was all about the bulls.
We started walking too, following the crowd towards the bull arena. The "Plaza de Toros" was the final destination of the race. We entered it with many others. By climbing and pushing and shoving, we found a place with view on the centre of the arena. It was an impressive sight.
Pamplona Plaza De Toros
Pamplona - Plaza De Toros - The bull arena of Pamplona hosts exciting and questionable shows.
The stands were full of spectators who were singing and shouting. In the arena, there were hundreds of people: the ones who had run with the bulls, and many others. They all wore the usual white and red uniforms, of course.
At the end of the race, the bulls were locked inside the stables and then released one at a time inside the arena. At that point, all the people on the pitch had to face the bull, with a certain amount of craziness.
It was a funny show. The bull ran from one side to the other and everybody ran away. The cowards were teased by the audience who shouted "Stuuupiiid stuuuupiiid" in Spanish. The bravest ones tried to touch the bull's horns or even better to jump over it. In this case they were applauded. Someone, inevitably, was gored. A fat guy fell to the ground and had his trousers ripped off. His white ass remained in display for the spectators' enjoyment.
Pamplona Bull
Pamplona's bull - A bad moment for one person, but a great moment for the crowd.
We left the arena and the delirium continued around the city. Parties and people everywhere. Then it was the moment for the traditional processions of Pamplona, which were very unusual. There was a hardly understandable mixture of sacred and profane icons: crucifix-carriers and clowns that made fun of bishops and popes walked side by side. There were music bands playing religious music and bands playing funny tunes, there were giant statues and irreverent puppets. There were jokes and dances.
San Fermin
San Fermin - Entertaing processions are held around the city.
After lunch we returned to the van and, a bit sleepy, we headed towards San Sebastian. An hour later we were on the beautiful bay of La Concha that the city overlooks. The arc of beach is very popular and enclosed by two headlands and an island. We walked to the town center, then we stopped to doze and sun bath on the beach of the second bay of San Sebastian, Zurriola. Back to the van we drove just outside the city, where there was a nice camping among the hills. We showered and settled and then we returned into the city center by a comfortable bus.
San Sebastian
San Sebastian - Arguably one of the best beach cities.
The pintxos (San Sebastian tapas) are small tasty dishes. They cost from one to four euros, depending on the ingredients, the size and the restaurant. To fill one's stomach at least five must be devored, sometimes even 10, and they are so tempting to make it very difficult to stop. We spent the evening wandering from bar to bar to enjoy pintxos and beers.
After a restful night in the camping, we went back to San Sebastian by van. Here we rented two canoes (one double and one single) at a sailing club. By haggling a little bit we got a good price: the only condition was "don't get our of the gulf". Obviously, it was the first thing we did. As an excuse, we could always say that we had understood that we shouldn't go out of another gulf, like the Gulf of Biscay.
Pays Basque
Pays Basque - A kayaking trip may lead to some beautiful scenery and cliffs.
Moreover, a kayak trip of the bay of San Sebastian would have been short and uninteresting. Instead, we paddled along the cliffs to the west of the city and it was a very interesting three hours.
It was a beautiful landscape with impressive rock walls. Accustomed to the Ligurian Sea, we noticed two major differences: the long ocean waves and the vegetation on top of the cliffs. There were green meadows instead of Mediterranean trees.
Kayak San Sebastian
Kayak at San Sebastian
We arrived at a wild rocky bay bordered by a beach of large stones. We landed in order to explore two wooden huts that we had noticed. They were in poor condition, but in the past they had probably been two good shelters for some fishermen or for some hippies eager to escape modern civilization.
Civilization was ok for us, so we paddled back to San Sebastian. We sailed along bars and swimmers and we returned to the harbor.
After a little more beach life in the city we were back to our van and we headed west. We stopped early to admire the panorama on the city from Mount Igeldo. There is an entrance fee and on the top of the mountain there are a playground and a huge hotel. We began noticing that in the Basque Country (and in Spain in general) they have really overbuilt the coasts. Luckily, the view over La Concha bay was amazing.
San Sebastian
San Sebastian from Mount Igeldo
We resumed our peregrinations by motorhome, aimlessly, following the road along the coast. We met beautiful viewpoints and beautiful beaches, but also towns ruined by too many constructions.
Zarautz, for example, was clearly overbuilt. However, it had the advantage of being a haven for surfers thanks to its long, wide beach.
Pays Basque
Pays Basque
Getaria was smaller and more characteristic, with its nice marina. Zumaia was quite chaotic, but the nearby cliffs were fascinating.
When it was dark we stopped to dine in Mutriku. It had to be a quaint fishing village, and indeed it was... with an annoying skyscraper in the center. Too bad. That criminal condo completely ruined the town, which otherwise could remember the Italian Cinque Terre.
We asked some suggestions to a local old man, who was glad to help and led us to a hidden restaurant. It was a very good idea: fresh seafood, generous portions and reasonable prices.
At that point, we just had to find a place to sleep! We went back to the van and we drove west. We stopped early in a large car park on the sea-front, overlooking Barreiatua beach, just before Ondarroa. We opened the rooftop tent and, two lying "at the first floor" and one on the roof, we easily fell asleep.
We woke up well rested. The landscape immediately put us in a good mood: a large beach, a rocky island and some cliffs to explore. We walked to the village of Ondarroa for breakfast. The modern buildings were no masterpieces of contemporary architecture, but thanks to the river and the beaches the town had its own charm. We went back and we walked at the feet of the cliffs, exploring the wildest stretches of coastline.
Meanwhile, the parking lot began to fill up. When we noticed that someone was asking for an entrance fee, we realized that it was our time to leave. We had already spent all our "parking ticket" budget in San Sebastian, where it had been impossible to find free parking places.
We continued our drive on the winding road that runs along the sea. Now the coast was steeper and wilder (luckily it was too difficult to overbuild here). We stopped on a hill above the sea, with a beautiful view over Lekeitio.
Lekeitio - A pretty town with surfing opportunities.
We parked and we went walking in a forest and then on a large green lawn. We enjoyed some truly remarkable views. Lekeitio seemed like a nice town, with lots of buildings, of course, but not too messed up. By van we went into town. As usual we had a hard time finding a parking place, but in the end we did it. We walked to the harbour, where we had two tapas, and then to some beautiful and popular beaches interrupted by a river that we had to cross. It was low tide, so, holding all our things high above the head, like African women (but we were whiter and clumsier), we managed to wade.
We arrived at the long beach at the foot of the green hill mentioned above. In front of the town there was also a small island connected to the mainland by a subtle sand strip. We went to visit it, but soon the tide began rising and we hurried back, before getting stuck on the island. We wanted to rent a surf board, but the intensity of the waves had dropped and there was nothing more to surf. So we had the idea of trying the SUP, but there were no boards available. We liked Lekeitio, but it was a bit naughty with us.
Lekeitio Island
Lekeitio Island
Anyway, it was good just to walk around and enjoy the beach. To carry out some "typical" activity, we tried the pelota rackets. They were heavy: the arm got tired right away, but by hitting the ball well in front of the body it was possible to launch the ball at exceptional speeds, thus putting in danger the lives of all other sun-bathers.
We wanted to go back to the van. A reasonable demand, I'd dare to say. However, with the high tide it was impossible to wade the river. The landscape itself had changed: the wide beaches had become much narrower and many rocks disappeared.
At the end we found the right way to reach the van and we resumed our car trip. The road left the coast and became a little bit less interesting. We got to the highway and drove to Bilbao. For such a big city, it was surprisingly easy to get downtown and to park a short walk away from the Guggenheim Museum.
Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
Bilbao - A modern and lively city, to be visited.
This innovative edifice, built in 1997 to give luster to Bilbao riverfront, is one of the finest examples of modern architecture. The curves of its metallic walls have unusual shapes and reflect the sunlight and the river ever-changing colors.
Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
It was almost sunset, so we couldn't visit the interior, but there were a lot of people walking on the riverside to admire the Guggenheim Museum and the surrounding quarter.
We moved into the city center and our excellent first impression of Bilbao was confirmed. It was a beautiful city, rich and well-kept, where history and modernity successfully coexisted.
Bilbao - An original place for SUP.
There were many restaurants offering fixed menus from 15 to 25 euros. We chose the one that attracted us more and we had dinner outside, in a lively alley.
It was quite late when we got back to the van and we left the city. We drove on the highway and then in country roads, in the direction of San Sebastian, until we found an isolated place where we could park and sleep.
We woke up surrounded by trees and green hills. There was a farm closeby and nothing else. Then, suddenly, a train came floating in the air, among the trees. We woke up a little bit better and we realized that the railway was probably hidden by the vegetation.
We drove to Zarautz, where we rented two surfboards. The waves were pretty low, but it was ok for a longboard and ideal for beginners.
We left the gigantic beach and we drove to Pamplona. We arrived about at 5 PM to watch the Corrida. In fact, every evening at six PM, during San Fermin week, the bulls who had run in the encierro were killed in the Plaza de Toros. It was a show we didn't approve, but we wanted to judge by person.
On Wednesday the city was less crowded, but there were still many drunk people dressed in white. Especially around the arena there was a lot of chaos.
Regular tickets were sold well in advance, so our only chance was to find some dodgy persons for black-market tickets. It wasn't difficult to recognize the shady sellers, so after some time spent bargaining and looking for the right offer we spent between 20 and 35 Euros per person. We entered the arena and went up to the stands.
Since we had already been in the Plaza de Toros we knew what to expect. However, the confusion was multiplied by 42. Everybody drank and ate and shouted and sang while the bands played loud music. There were takeaway pizzas, big pots where they were cooking beans, cooler bags full of alcohol, hot-dogs, desserts... They were all drunk and generous, offering food and drinks.
Corrida - The show on the pitch is cruel, but in the meantime there is an extremely funny show on the bleachers: the Spanish crowds go crazy with drinks and foods and songs.
There was such abundance that hot dogs, full glasses of sangria, sandwiches and much more were continuously launched left and right, up and down on the stands. Everyone, including us, was stained with wine: it was impossible to avoid that alcohol and food bombing.
The first bull entered the arena. The band played a short, energetic motif. The crowds sang loudly. There was a lot of excitement and we were having a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, the bad side of bullfighting (the bullfight itself) was about to come. The picador, a knight with a long spear, entered the arena and began to hurt the bull, weakening it. The bull tried to gore the horse, that was blindfolded and wearing an armor.
Then it was time for the Banderilleros. They ran against the bull and with a quick move they stuck the banderillas (small flags) into the bull's neck. I appreciated their courage and their agility (nothing protected them), but it was an unfair clash: one animal against a group of men (there were also the "peones", with pink drapes, who distracted and tired the bull).
Pamplona Corrida
Pamplona - Corrida
Finally, it was the matador's time. The show was all his. With elegant moves, he made the bull run just past him. At one point, the bullfighter was delivered a sword. He continued in his games of skill. When he judged that it was the right time (the animal tired, the audience attentive, the show successful), the matador let the bull attack, he deceived him with the movement of the cloth and tried to thrust the sword in the animal's neck.
However, the attempt failed. The bull, in pain, was furious and ready to run. The peones distracted him. The audience whistled and protested.
The matador picked up the sword, fallen in the sand, and resumed his moves. Time of the killing came again, but the young bullfighter was guilty of another miss. Offensive chants rose up from the crowd. Everyone laughed at the matador.
The bull was bleeding, tired and confused. He slowly approached the edge of the arena. The peones confused him with their ample fuchsia cloths. The matador made one last attempt with a sword. Missed again. The audience covered him with insults. One of the peons, with a knife, stabbed the bull's neck and the animal collapsed to the ground.
The bands played a powerful and cheerful tune. We had no words, but the Spanish crowds were used to the bullfight and they continued drinking and singing and laughing. The show went on.
Some people, all dressed in traditional Basque clothes, entered the arena, someone riding a horse. The bull's head was tied and dragged out of the arena. The blood was soon swept away from the sand and the second bull came into play.
Meanwhile, the public ate all kinds of food. Behind us there was a German family, surrounded by Spaniards who offered tens of hot dogs to the plump father. The mother had a terrified expression on her face and she didn't react while spurts of wine hit her on the head. The daughters, two girls about fourteen years old, were bothered by young drunken Basques, who tried to kiss them. We laughed out loud when we saw that the father was distracted by the food while his whole family was at the mercy of events.
Delirious moments, a super-orgy where anything could happen… but, in the end, there was no violence in the stands. Although everyone was continually struck by objects, sausages and spits, no fights broke out. Any discussion was quickly calmed down by a drink.
The second bullfighter of the first was much more skilled than the first and he was repeatedly applauded by the audience. His movements were fluid, in full control of the situation even if from the stands the bull always looked too close to the matador.
Killing time came. One stroke of the sword, thrust in the right place, was enough to kill the bull and end his suffering.
The bullfights continued with four other bulls. However, the crowd was increasingly distracted. The show, for us, was in the stands.
We were almost shocked when we left the bullfight. Is it a degrading show, or a tradition to be preserved? For the bulls is it a torture, or a much more honorable fight than what happens in the butcheries? Does it make sense to be scandalized, whereas animals killed in bullfights are only a small fraction of those killed every day to produce food? Sometimes the bulls have the opportunity to receive the "grace", if they fight in an extraordinary way. And if they perish, as it happens almost always, they are slaughtered and eaten.
Honestly, I would never hurt an animal and I think that the bullfights are unjust. On the other hand, I am afraid that if a person eats meat – as I happily do – can't be too scandalized without looking slightly hypocrite.
With these questions in mind we walked around Pamplona. There was always some party going on in the streets. In an alley we met a good band and a banquet with various types of "chorizo ", offered by the district. We ate a lot and we drank beer at a close bar.
After a lively, beautiful night, we went to sleep in the van. In the morning we woke up pretty early and we drove towards the coast. This time we left the Spanish Basque Country and we stopped at Hendaye, France, just beyond the border.
Hendaye - The French part of Pays Basques boasts some amazing scenery.
We would have loved to rent a hobie-cat or a surfboard, but, strangely, there was neither wind nor waves. We quickly admired the long promenade and we decided to have a walk along the wild coast to the east of the city. The large bay was in fact closed by a small peninsula with steep cliffs and green fields on the top.
So we reached the beach under the cliffs and we continued walking until we met a beautiful, unusual landscape. There were rocks, crevices, islets and reefs populated by seagulls. We explored the place, we swam and we took some photos. We fell asleep on a rock, lulled by the sound of the waves.
It would have been nice to spend hours and hours walking along the coast, but we couldn't run the risk of being trapped by the high tide, even if it would have been an exciting experience. So, after a while we decided to follow a steep and uncomfortable trail leading up to the top of the cliffs. Here we found some well-kept paths and green lawns. There was a great view over the sea and the shore.
After having explored the place, we decided to take the unconvential way to return to the van. That meant leaving the seaside, walking through meadows and over fences in order to reach an imposing abbey, and then going downhill until we arrived at the beach and our van.
Tired but happy, we drove to the nearby city of St Jean de Luz, where we found a seaside campsite (its fanciful name was in fact "Du bord de mer").
We didn't waste time, so immediately after having parked the van, we walked to the beach. That July the Atlantic Ocean was hot, almost as much as the Mediterranean Sea, so it was a pleasure to take yet another dip.
There was also a little bar that proposed some inviting pre-dinner drinks. For 8 euros it was possible to have six oysters and a glass of champagne. We could see the sea and the oysters tasted of sea-water… "tout se tient". Their soggy consistency may seem disgusting, but we liked it.
For dinner we walked to Saint Jean de Luz town center. Wicked men had told us that it was only ten minutes away from the campsite. Instead, it took us an exhausting half an hour.
Saint Jean De Luz
Saint Jean De Luz - A nice town with lots of good seafood restaurants.
The effort was rewarded by the beautiful old town. There were many tourists who crowded the restaurants. We studied the fixed price menus and we picked a bistro. We ate clams and snails and mussels and then a rich fish soup. After the chocolate mousse, we were very satisfied: a more typical French dinner was utterly impossible.
We wandered around the city and we walked along the beach, hoping to find the shortcut to the campsite suggested by those evil men. It was just another proof of their wickedness, because we walked for a lifetime and a half without finding our way back. We had to give up. We went back to the train station, we hailed a taxi and we returned to the campsite comfortably and in style.
The next morning our plan was very vague as usual, but we certainly had to drive for several kilometers to get closer to the Ardèche Gorge, our next destination.
We also wanted to stop in Biarritz for a short visit of the town, but the heavy traffic made it impossible to find a parking place. So, offended by the situation, we took the highway and drove to Camargue, 570 kms away. After a six hour drive we finally found the desired parking place, at Saintes Maries de la Mer, in Biarritz's face.
Saintes Maries de la Mer is a beautiful seaside town. Its small white houses are very characteristic. While we were walking along the marina, we noticed many people boarding a boat that was about to leave. We joined them even if we were sure that someone would stop us… but no, no one asked for our tickets.
The boat left the harbour. We were offered a few drinks. The view from the boat was nothing special, just a long and flat sandy coast, and when the boat with those strange people headed out to the sea we wondered what was happening. Most likely it was a sect of crazy people willing to commit a mass suicide. Instead, at sunset the boat started to go back. When we arrived at the port we immediately left that senseless organized trip and we resumed our walk around town.
We chose a restaurant with the usual "fixed menu method". Then we watched a horse fair (horses are one of Camargue's major tourist attractions: a ride through swamps and flocks of pink flamingos is a beautiful way to enjoy this region).
For the night we drove to a remote dirt road, in the middle of a quiet and dark dunno-what. We had a good sleep in our comfortable van.
Camper in the Camargue
We woke up in a beautiful moorland, featuring ponds and quiet flamingos. We wandered for a while in that characteristic landscape, then we headed north.
Click here to continue with the second part of the trip, to the Ardeche river in France.
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