That Time In Catalonia When The Van Went BANG!

A European road trip sounded like the best idea ever…

Even more so when we only hatched the idea 5-6 weeks beforehand. In late 2008 after an eventful trip to Amsterdam for Tiny’s 21st birthday, I had been well and truly bitten by the travel bug, and with the two of us both having a spare few weeks coming up, I decided to throw the idea out there. With Tiny on the way to converting his VW Transporter into a pretty tastily equipped camper, he didn’t take much persuasion. And soon enough a ticket was booked on Brittany Ferries Plymouth – Santander service. In what felt like no time, we were loading up the van and heading off to Plymouth early on a late November morning to board a rocky ferry over to Spain.

Typically, the one day we’re leaving England, it’s lush!

And rocky it was, with some seriously choppy waters as we sailed past the east coast of France. Trying to eat our food was a real adventure in the ferry cafe, and some people were getting seriously worried about their vehicles in the hold. But after an eventful 24 hours on board that included us realising we should buy a map – we had no guidebook, map or sat nav – watching Tropic Thunder, and being woken at 5am in our lounge by some wasted inconsiderate Irish pr**ks, it was time to climb back into the van and we nervously rolled the VW onto European soil…

First moments…

We rolled off the ferry on a brisk Monday lunchtime in Santander as we flickered between nervousness and excitement. The only real plan we had that day was to head towards Laredo, where Tiny had heard there might be surf. The big man adapted admirably to driving abroad, and on the other side of the road, and we were soon rolling on our continental road trip.

I guess this guy had a long drive back to Monaco from Santander…

After a stressful first night where we couldn’t find the camp site we wanted near Somo and slept in a rainstorm, we settled into van-living life and hung around the Santander area for a few days. Tiny took the time to surf the Sardinero in Santander, whilst I did my usual thing of wandering off and exploring the city, and took the chance to test my – at that time – extremely basic Spanish. A bit of a hiccup followed on the Wednesday, when we nearly got stuck in an underground car park thanks to the surfboard on top, and we finally moved on on Thursday to Bilbao. We spent a few hours driving around the city streets, and intended to visit the Guggenheim, but somehow failed to find a car park…

This is as close as we got. Epic fail.

Over the next couple of days we cruised through Pamplona and Zaragoza as we headed west. Although we didn’t have a particular destination in mind, Barcelona started to appear over the horizon, and started to appear very tempting. It turned out our minds would be made up for us…


We hit the B-20 around the outside of Barcelona late afternoon and suddenly things got very hot in the van. We quickly pulled over and saw the steam from the engine, so decided to sit for a while and let it cool. Warning triangle out and all. But it was a worrying sign that we couldn’t ignore. After a couple of hours and a topping up of the water in the radiator, we got moving again, and carried on. However the confusing amount of roads around the Barcelona metropolitan area had seen us carry on along the coast, passing Badalona and Montgat. Once we hit Mataro however, the van had truly had enough. We pulled into the city, and eventually stopped next to the train station. The extreme amount of engine smoke told us the van had given up the ghost.

This is exactly what we didn’t want to happen…

Disaster. Our transport and accommodation was blown. It was a good thing we had European travel insurance of course…

MASSIVE silver lining!

Because it landed us with a lush NH Hotel room in Mataro, which due to the state of the van’s engine we ended up having for a whole week! If there was a silver lining to such a disastrous breakdown, this was it.

From here we had a base to explore the region and also take the RENFE Rodalies train into Barcelona. As I alluded to on a previous post, this was the beginning of my love affair with BCN. However Mataro itself ended up being the source of some amazing nights, in particular the Saturday where we discovered the awesome Birrateka bar in town. A concoction of super cheap Mahou beers, awesome burgers and some fantastic laughs meant it turned into one hazy night, and it was the perfect recipe to our breakdown blues.

We eventually got the van back the following Friday, but the expense it cost Tiny meant we had to curtail the rest of the trip, and this meant we drove from Mataro to Clermont-Ferrand, slept, and then drove all the way up to Calais – through a packed Paris via le Peripherique – on the Saturday, and finally all the way home by 5am Sunday. It was a pretty heroic effort by Tiny, and we probably should have taken some more breaks…

Bidding farewell to European soil for now…

Whilst it certainly wasn’t the trip we might have expected it to be, it was an eventful couple of weeks, and most definitely unforgettable. And hopefully we can do it again in the future with a more reliable van!

Have you ever been on a European road trip? And was yours more successful than ours?


4 responses to “That Time In Catalonia When The Van Went BANG!

  1. Pingback: That Time We Drove France in a Day | That Time In·

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