For the second part of our winter journey, we pondered how to escape the cold without leaving Europe. Our choice was the western side of Europe, and so we set off without a precise plan.
Our further journey began in France, where initially, we had no great expectations. However, France turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The people were extremely friendly, especially towards our large dog Momo. Moreover, we could enjoy delicious cheese everywhere, and our new stove (you can find more information about it in our article on stoves) was easily supplied with enough alcohol.
Colmar is a city that everyone should visit at least once. Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who created the Statue of Liberty, was born here. In 2006, Colmar erected a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty. But Colmar has much more to offer, including a picturesque old town where you can stroll for hours. We took a break in a small crêperie and enjoyed delicious crêpes.
In the fall, we visited the wetlands on the southern French coast and were delighted. The area was deserted, and we could even drive our Quest to the beach and spend the night there. In the summer, it’s not so easy because many people visit, but in the winter, no one bothered us. We took long walks on the beach and in the surrounding plain, which looked fantastic. A special highlight is the flamingos you can see here.
Tip: If you visit this place towards the end of summer, look out for the salt pans. Salt is harvested here, and towards the end of summer, the pans turn pink, creating a beautiful color display.
Especially in the fall, Avignon exudes a special magic. Wine is cultivated here, and in the autumn, during or shortly after the grape harvest, you can admire the grapevines in beautiful colors. We often stood in the vineyards, fascinated by the play of colors. Tip: Try the first Federweißer and enjoy it while gazing at the beautiful fields.
Dune du Pilat (the highest sand dune in Europe) in Bordeaux
If you are in this area, you must visit the Dune du Pilat. This natural wonder is truly unique. During the off-season, when fewer tourists are around, you can have the “desert” (which isn’t really one) all to yourself. It’s even said that a hotel was swallowed by the dune. Unfortunately, our previous camping spot was destroyed by a devastating fire six months after we had visited. Tip: During the winter season, many parking lots are free, so don’t worry about parking fees.
Parc naturel régional du Haut-Languedoc
We didn’t expect much as we drove through this area, but we were absolutely thrilled! The route led through a beautiful hiking area with many great viewpoints. There are plenty of hiking trails for long walks. Our hike took us to Mont Caroux and along the Sarre de Majours. Here, we were even allowed to camp with our tent - it’s allowed here! Tip: So, bring your outdoor gear and lace up your hiking boots!
Chemin de la Mature
This hiking trail on the French side of the Pyrenees was our first encounter with the approaching winter. It can get quite cold up here, and we even experienced our first snowfall. Nevertheless, we undertook a beautiful hike along a path carved into the rocks on a cliff. An impressive hiking trail! Tip: Leave the drone at home! Ours was damaged here. The cliff is closer than you think!
Spain became our comfort zone. We spent a total of 5 months in Spain, both in the fall/winter and spring. Food is cheaper here than in Germany, and in the winter, milder temperatures beckon, at least in the south. In the spring and summer, we recommend exploring the north, which has much more to offer with its rugged coasts, mountains, and beaches than the south.
The only desert in Europe and a filming location for many movies. Whether it’s Indiana Jones or Game of Thrones, when a desert landscape is needed, filming happens here. We were more than impressed by this desert.
- You can drive to the desert with any vehicle; a 4x4 car is not required. The roads are wide and well-maintained.
- The rock formations are spread across the desert, so you’ll need to drive from one place to another to see them all.
- Be sure not to enter the military area - that is strictly prohibited.
On the second day, despite the strong winds and military jet exercises in the area, we hiked and enjoyed our three days away from it all.
Granada is known for a special highlight, the Alhambra. You should definitely visit this impressive architectural masterpiece. We arrived early and were among the first groups to enter, as we had purchased our tickets online.
Our tips for visiting the Alhambra:
- Be sure to buy tickets in advance; it saves nerves.
- To avoid an expensive tour guide, we downloaded all the information from the internet, which was a bit cumbersome but saved us €25.
- In the fall, it can rain in Spain. We visited the Alhambra on a rainy day, and even though it was warm, we got soaking wet because many buildings are not covered. So, be sure to bring an umbrella or raincoat.
Tarifa is THE ultimate surf spot, but besides the great beaches, we also discovered something very special. Tarifa is full of old abandoned places, mainly military installations. These are rarely locked in Spain, so you can easily peek into the old buildings. Some of them are old surveillance posts, while others remained a mystery to us.
Our tip for Tarifa: Disable your roaming! Tarifa is very close to the Moroccan coast, and your SIM card quickly connects to the Moroccan network. Since we had three SIM cards, we had to pay €3x60 in roaming fees for just 3 minutes of internet in the end.
El Palmar de Vejer (Surfing)
It’s not so much about the small town here, but rather about what you can do in winter. The coast and beaches are perfect for learning to surf. Jo attended a surf school here in the first week of December. Here’s the related article. The waves are suitable for beginners, and it’s pleasantly quiet here in the winter.
(In the summer, surfing here isn’t ideal due to the many bathers.)
After our long stay in Spain, we encountered some difficulties in Portugal. Portugal simply wasn’t our country, even though it has beautiful sights to offer. In the end, we only spent 3 weeks in Portugal.
A big city was on our list - this doesn’t happen often. Lisbon is an exciting mix that you can immerse yourself in. Even the drive over the big bridge, which resembles the Golden Gate Bridge, shows that this city is something special. A walk into the city is definitely worth it, but don’t let the crowds stress you out. If you’ve had enough, stroll along the harbor where you can admire huge container ships. This reminded us a bit of our “hometown” Hamburg.
By the way, Lisbon has a large and beautiful central park that you can explore as well.
Our top tip: Be sure to visit the LXFactory in the Alcântara district. Here, you’ll find extraordinary boutiques and cozy restaurants, all in old factory buildings. It’s worth browsing, and perhaps you’ll find a special souvenir or lovely trinkets for your van.
Here, you’ll find the highest waves and the bravest surfers in Europe. Big-wave surfing is a special and life-threatening sport that is practiced only here in Europe. In the winter, the waves can reach heights of 15 meters. Be sure to stop by and watch this impressive spectacle, but leave your swimsuits at home.
We had visited Porto in 2017 and liked it even better than Lisbon. Porto is small, colorful, and down-to-earth. There are small restaurants everywhere, and the colorful houses right on the water even made it to the Windows desktop background. You should definitely try Port wine because Sherry (yes, Port wine and Sherry are the same) can only be called Port wine if it comes from the Porto region. Instead of tasting Port wine in the big factories, we have a hidden gem for you!
Our Porto secret tip: Leave Porto! Yes, you read that right. By train, you can easily reach the beautiful Douro Valley, where one vineyard follows another. In between flows the Douro, over which the Port wine barrels used to be sent to Porto. There are some small Quintas (wineries) where you can taste one or two Port wines while enjoying a magnificent view of the valley. There are no tours here; you have to do those in Porto if you’re interested in the production process, but you can support the small local farmers who produce excellent Port wine.
Furthermore, you should head north of Porto and not miss two things there:
Francesinha, a kind of sandwich that often contains meat (but is also available vegetarian). But beware: it’s greasy, and you’ll be full for three days.
Amendoa Amarga is a digestif made from almonds. It’s very, very tasty, but don’t overindulge! ;-)
After completing this tour and experiencing windy weather in Portugal, we decided to continue traveling further south. Since traveling to Morocco was not possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, we chose to spend the next few months in the Canary Islands. To do this, we booked a ferry (where dogs were allowed) from Huelva to Tenerife.
What we experienced on the Canary Islands will be covered in the next article!