The Rapid Trip North

Traveling across Europe in lock-down: March 2020

Simon Thompson

Sometimes what starts out calmly and enjoyable finishes in a crazy insane rush. This is what happened when I took my mother on what was planned to be a quiet and leisurely road trip from her home in the east of England, down through eastern France, across into Spain and down to my brother’s home on the Costa del Sol.

Simon in Caceres, Spain

We had been watching the news, so we were aware of continued Covid-19 transmission in China and also now in Italy, but we felt like it wouldn’t really impact our trip. We were, however, prepared with gloves and hand sanitizer and used it when we needed to, but things hadn’t blown up in any way to what they resemble now.

Mum-enjoying-some-Gigondas-France

We had allowed 3 weeks to drive down with time for birding, wine-tasting and a little exploration along the way. I had 2 target birds to find (Hazel Grouse and White-backed Woodpecker) and mother really wanted to see a Great Bustard – we had directions for all three, so we thought we had a really good chance of doing a clean-up! Driving down through France is always a delight as we stayed off the autoroute for much of the time; stopping at bakeries for French baguettes, good cheese and a bottle or two of red wine. Birding was typically wintry as we drove south and the weather matched with continuous cold rain at times. Winter in Europe has never been one of my favorite seasons.

We meandered through small villages and ancient towns; highlights on the way down were Common Cranes and White-tailed Eagles near Troyes; White-throated Dippers and Grey Wagtails in a beautiful old village east of Lyon; wine tasting in Gigondas with Cirl Buntings and Blackcaps in the surrounding fields and a fly-past of French planes trailing red, white and blue.

Pont-au-Royans-France

We drove across a low pass in the Spanish Pyrenees into Catalonia; beautiful forests and mountains with Red Kites, Common Buzzard and Mistle Thrush in the fields, before spending the night in the ancient city of Vic. It was somewhat sobering to see the main plaza emblazoned with the photos of the imprisoned leaders of the independence movement.

The weather improved a lot as we drove south along the Spanish coastline, enjoying company with English expat friends, sampling Spanish red wine and enjoying several good tapas meals along the way. El Hondo National Park near Alicante is always good for a few hours to catch up with Marbled Teal, Red-knobbed Coot and other Spanish specialties before visiting my brother near Estepona.

Main Plaza, Vic, Spain

As we enjoyed a family reunion, the international news kept getting stranger and stranger – with restaurants and hotels closing all around us, forcing us to make a decision to leave early and drive as fast as we could back towards the English Channel. Our first stop was actually planned, but not for as brief a stay as we had. The fortified town of Trujillo was spectacular but strangely quiet and we felt lucky to end up in a nice hotel tucked into the castle walls. We had stopped to see the Great Bustards on the plains of Extremadura the previous evening and pick up dinner supplies, as eating out was looking like a very bad idea, but it would have been nice to spend a lot longer in this beautiful town.

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

It was two more long days of driving to get to the ferry back to Dover. Our last night in Spain was without breakfast (and coffee!) and it was the same as we drove through Bordeaux and north through France. Shops and restaurants were closed and lunch was a sandwich from a French truck stop; so much for French cuisine! Thankfully we found a small hotel near Paris that was open and even more opportune was a grocery store which we hit as soon as it opened. We had heard there was a shortage of toilet paper back in the UK, so a 12-pack went into our cart, along with wine, cheese, groceries and food for the rest of the journey north. Looking back at our shopping experience, we really didn’t have much idea what we would find when we got to the UK and should have stocked up with a lot more!

This map shows our starting point in Southern Spain.

Anyway, we got to the ferry a couple of hours ahead of time, after our GPS took us through right through the center of Paris, and thankfully safely out the other side and onto the correct road to Calais. It was now beginning to feel a little more surreal with all cars heading north having GB license plates, very few passenger cars on the ferry, and the customs agents all wearing masks and social distancing enforced. As the ferry left the continent it was cause for celebration and our first cooked meal for 3 days – good ol’ English fish and chips washed down with some ale!

Once back in the UK, our arrival was strangely devoid of instruction. No one handed out information or even mentioned that we had just arrived in from Europe, but after a lot of research we decided to start our first 2 weeks of quarantine – which continued even longer with the English lock-down 2 weeks later.

Oh yes, during all of this mess, we never did get time to look for Hazel Grouse or White-backed Woodpecker – maybe next time.