Guest contributor: Nick Peecock on his trip to Africa in a BMW 635CSi
After our last European adventure (ten countries in ten days with my navigator), we decided to take my 1988 BMW 635CSi to Africa. Sounds quite impressive, but actually it’s not that hard. One of the easiest routes to the African continent is via Spain, across the Mediterranean and into the Spanish-controlled city of Ceuta. From Ceuta you can make your way into Morocco, although we decided against that this year. As this was a holiday (although not a very relaxing one) we decided to break the journey up into several stages, taking in some great scenery (both urban and rural) along the way. I also thought it would be a good idea to visit Portugal on the way back, as well as explore parts of Spain that we’d not previously seen. After working out a realistic route – whereby we could get to our destination and have a few hours to relax and explore – and booking all the hotels, ferry crossings, and toll road payments, we were ready.
We left early on a July morning bound for Folkestone on the south coast of England where we could get the Channel Tunnel which links us to France by a 35 minute train journey. The cars are driven onboard the train and you sit back and relax whilst you travel under the English Channel at around 90mph. Before you know it you’re out onto the fantastic (if very expensive) French Autoroute system.
We had no hotel booked for the first night but we were hoping to get to Bordeaux; however, we didn’t quite make it. After 550 miles driving and not much sleep the night before, we decided to stop on the outskirts of Noirt. We knew we had another 550 miles to go the next day to get to our booked hotel in Madrid, so after some wine and local food, we got an early night. The next day we made an early start and headed towards Spain. It wasn’t long before we were eating up the miles through the deserted dry plains of La Mancha.
The car performed its duty extremely well, eating up the miles and keeping on track for a late afternoon drink in Madrid. The sat nav took us into Madrid without any problems and it’s something we relied upon heavily to guide us the 4,100 miles across the Iberian Peninsula; in fact, I do not know how we’d have coped without it.
After spending two nights in Madrid, it was on to Ronda in southern Spain, around 350 miles away. We headed straight down the motorway network towards Malaga and turned off onto some wonderful mountain roads. We got into Ronda in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel (a parador which was once the town hall) and went in search of wine and tapas.
The next day we were due to sail to Africa so we made our way towards Algeciras. The ‘scenic’ route from Ronda to Algeciras was like no other road I have been on. Yes, there was terrific scenery, but the road was very badly potholed and had some large dips and extreme adverse camber which meant the car was thrown around a lot. Eventually we got to Algeciras and made our way through a maze of roads to the docks. There we waited to get our high-speed ferry to cross the Mediterranean.
Driving off the ferry and into Ceuta was an experience. The streets were packed with parked cars, tiny roundabouts, one-way systems, and road works. Finding the parador turned out to be a little more difficult than it looked on the map, but we eventually did and the car was parked in a covered area provided by the hotel. We stayed in Ceuta for two nights before returning to the mainland. Some of the roads in Ceuta are very steep with tight twisting turns as we found out on our way to one of the city’s viewpoints.
After returning to the mainland, we headed north towards Seville and our next destination, Carmona, staying in another parador which was once the Palace of King Pedro I.
After a night in Carmona we headed towards the town of Merida located in the south west of Extremadura, close to the Portuguese border. Merida boasts some of the best preserved Roman ruins anywhere in Europe. After a quick lunch, served very efficiently and quickly, we headed towards Evora in Portugal.
By the time we got to Evora we had clocked up 1,992 miles, less than half the total distance of our journey! After exploring Evora and its Roman ruins and Chapel of Bones we enjoyed a fantastic meal at Fialho’s before retiring to our hotel.
Next stop was Lisbon and a quick look round the Palacio de Queluz, on the outskirts. Our hotel was in the Lapa district of Lisbon, a short drive from the Palace according to the sat nav.
Unfortunately as we got into the busy centre of Lisbon the sat nav froze and so we had to find somewhere to park and fix it. Luckily for us, European cities are much more car friendly than those in the UK and offer a range of car parks within the centre. With the sat nav fixed we carried on to the hotel, watching carefully for pedestrian crossings, which seemed to operate very differently in Portugal to those in Britain. The narrow cobbled streets in the Lapa district gave the car’s suspension a good work out, but we arrived safely at the hotel. Most hotels seem to have underground car parks, and this was no exception, but they are often tight with steep ramps which can cause problems for long cars like the 635. On leaving the hotel after our two night stay, I managed to scrape the exhaust on leaving the car park as it bottomed out on the steep ramp.
We were now heading back towards Spain and our next stop, the old university town of Salamanca. Before we left Potugal, we stopped off at the supposedly haunted Castelo de Almourol.
Around 300 miles of fantastic roads and scenery passed before we arrived at our parador in Salamanca. The hotel is set just outside the old town, but has fantastic views of the cathedral. After spending an enjoyable evening in the town, which has one of the oldest universities in Europe, we headed back to the parador. The next morning we headed into Galicia and the city of Santiago de Compestela, famous for its cathedral and pilgrims.
We stayed in a fantastic parador next to the cathedral in the city’s main square and enjoyed great local seafood and wine for lunch and supper.
The weather in Galicia is quite different to that of the south, with mist and rain quite often being the norm, not that it spoilt anything for us. The next day we moved up to the north coast and the town of A Coruña, famous for being the port from which the Spanish Armada sailed from in the 16th century. After leaving an extremely tightly packed underground car park we headed towards the parador at Santo Estevo, a converted monastry in the picturesque valley of the Rio Sil. We left Santo Estevo the next day in very thick fog which made driving difficult. The sat nav had another glitch and ended up sending us into the garden of a very bemused local! Soon we found ourselves under hot sun and blue sky at Las Medulas, the amazing scarred landscape left behind by Roman gold mining.
Our next stop was the Picos de Europa national park and the parador at Fuente De. The drive to the hotel, once into the park was hard work. The roads can be narrow, very twisty, and occasionaly blocked by cattle!
It took us a lot longer to get the hotel than we had anticpated but once there a glass of the local wine helped to relax us after the seven hours of hard driving that day. The scenery was terrific but the clouds were low, making a trip to the plateau in the cable car not so inviting.
After spending two nights at Feunte De we headed towards our final destination, Bilbao, around 250 miles away. As we got into Bilbao, we realised the sat nav was not happy again. This became more apparent as we seemlingly drove around in circles without getting any closer to our hotel. In the end we decided to drive towards the centre and hope the sat nav would sort itself out, which thankfully, it did. After a drink or two and a visit to the Guggenheim followed by a fish supper in the old town we retired to our hotel in preparation for the big journey home the next day.
Driving out of the underground car park the following morning, the front spoiler and rear exhaust were badly scraped on the very steep ramp. I’m so glad I didn’t lower my car.
We now had an 880 mile journey back home and had to get to the north coast of France in time for our tunnel crossing. It wasn’t long before we were back on the French autoroutes and into rain.
Heading back up towards Bordeuax we ran into some very heavy rain, never a good thing we you need to be making swift progress.
It wasn’t long before the rain cleared and we back in sunshine again. This time we were very glad we were heading north, as the southbound carriage was blocked by a serious accident causing tailbacks that went on for many miles.
Eventually we made it back to Calais, some 750 miles and twelve hours after leaving Bilbao. This averaged a very respectable 62.5 miles per hour which is something impossible to achieve for a similar distance in Britain. We even had time to stock up with food and wine at the Cité Europe before heading towards the tunnel terminal.
Once back in Britain the roads got progressively worse, and after having driven over 3,500 miles on the right hand side of the road, I had to remember to stick to the left. We finally arrived home, some 17 hours and 883 miles after leaving Bilbao.
Although the car is almost 25 years old, it still works extremely well as a Grand Tourer, having the comfort, speed, and space to fulfill all our needs. Despite it being driven hard (we made full use of the higher continental speed limits) it used just half a litre of oil in 4,100 miles. I’ve had the car for almost 13 years and it’s been maintained to a very high standard, one reason why it’s still so reliable. If you’re going to take your car on a journey like this you have to accept that you cannot be too precious about it. Car parking dings and dents are not a great worry for me, but being sensible about choosing a parking space reduces the risks, even though it may annoy or bemuse your fellow passengers. This is the third and longest continental trip I have taken in the car and I can’t wait to go back and do it all again.
Words and images © Nick Peecock