In December of 2020, I travelled from Torrevieja on the south coast of Spain to my hometown of Wexford on the south coast of Ireland and back again. A lot of Irish people do this trip, albeit in reverse, for holidays every year. They hop on a plane in Dublin and 2 hours later they’re here, basking in the Spanish sun.
But, I was doing it in a 17-year Hyundai which I had affectionately named Shitbox Shirley.
At Christmas. (yay!)
In the rain. (boo!)
On my own (yay!… ok not quite, I had the dogs with me on the return leg).
It wouldn’t be like me to make things difficult for myself, but this was a new level even for me.
The Shitbox – My chariot for the next 2800km
Shirley lived up to her name, she was a proper shitbox. If you are unfamiliar with that term, car nerds use it to describe an old, cheap car that is utter garbage but still has some redeemable qualities.
In Shirley’s case;
- No two body panels are the same colour.
- Only 3-wheel trims remain.
- All 3 trims are different (of course).
- One tyre had a slow leak but was fiiiiiiiiine.
- The steering wheel is… corroded? Coming apart in your hands? Let’s go with both.
- The radio doesn’t get any reception and the CD player doesn’t play CDs.
- The parcel shelf hinge was broken on one side
- The sun visor clips were broken
- … you get the idea.
However, the 1.1L petrol engine was solid. It made a few creeks when the aircon was on but that really was about it. And that’s another thing, it had working air-con. As well as one touchdown electric windows and (apparently) a new clutch.
So naturally, I looked at this and thought it was an IDEAL candidate to drive across 3 countries in winter.
Driving across Spain in 1 day
Including a quick pitstop to drop off a foster dog myself and Caroline had been minding, a total of 854km from coast to coast was what lay ahead. This wasn’t going to be some kind of Cannonball attempt sadly (maybe someday 😏). The car is old, has no service history and I’m confident it had never driven this far in one go. Concerns about the car’s well-being aside, I was excited.
I LOVE driving, and the thought of driving literally all day was making me giddy. Despite some people thinking it was a nightmare, the idea of spending 9 hours behind the wheel, seeing new places, listening to music and podcasts and just chilling out in my own company was like my idea of pure bliss. I had also seen very little of central Spain.
I left the house at 9 am (ish) to drop the dog off. Rasty was getting his own road trip that day, going to his forever home in the Shetland Islands. His transport to Scotland was a little delayed so I hung around until it arrived at 11.30 and didn’t get on the road until 12. We had him for around 6 weeks and it was difficult to say goodbye, he was the best doggo.
I’ve no photos of the contents of the car, only one from the third supermarket haul. The boot was basically floor to parcel shelf with alcohol. All told there was about 100L of wine, as well as a few bottles of bubbles, a few litres of Gin and some whiskey. Not a single bottle of beer, which I was going to regret just a few hours after leaving home!
The roads in Spain are phenomenal, you can crush 3-4 hours of motorway in the blink of an eye. The service stations however are not so phenomenal. My first stop after dropping off Rasty was about an hour inland from Valencia. I was grateful for packing the camping stove, kettle and some Nescafe for “emergencies” because the tea/coffee situation was dire. I’m surprised I lasted that long without a coffee stop, to be honest.
The place I stopped had lukewarm ditch water with powdered milk and sugar served as an all-in-one mixer for 3 quid… so I made my own ditchwater. I did partake in a bag of Lays and some Haribo though. Gotta keep your strength up!
There is some really nice countryside in this area of Spain, the road takes you through a ridge of hills and down into a huge bowl. From the top of the hills, you can see all other sides of the bowl which are sparsely populated. Almost crater-like.
The road takes you right past Teruel Airport, which now serves as plane storage and breaking. I didn’t stop to take a photo, but here is one from Google:
You can see the motorway running right alongside it. When I was driving through, in December 2020, the place was jam-packed with planes, parked up due to COVID. It was like something from the apocalypse, even more so because I was the only car on the road!
I had planned on arriving to Bilbao in daylight, but waiting around for Rasty to get his bus had delayed me by a few hours. This meant I arrived at Zaragoza for a pitstop at dusk and left in darkness, with a classy meal in between.
I had another 3 hours to get to Bilbao, which meant if I hadn’t got delayed I would have made it in daylight, but such is the way of the road trip.
The dark drive to my end destination was a fairly uneventful 150km/h blast through the night. The car sat at over 4000rpm for 3 solid hours to get me there. Pretty impressive really.
The Niva pictured above was sadly the only joy I got from the hotel. After over 11 hours on the road, I was gagging for a cold beer. BUT, due to COVID the hotel bar was closed. To add insult to injury, the 3 vending machines which I could find were sold out of beer.
Not willing to be defeated so easily, I went down to the car and opened a box of my mother’s red wine and drank it out of a paper cup, sulking, like a grown-up. I didn’t drink as much as I intended, partially because I fell asleep and partially because tomorrow morning I had to get on a ferry and hungover ferry trips are zero craic.
This turned out to be a wise decision (despite its accidental nature), as the next day was going to be interesting.
The Ferry from Bilbao to Rosslare
The next morning was a beaut in Bilbao. Which was good, because I had a ferry to catch!
Another perk of travelling during COVID times was the roads were dead quiet. The hotel was only 20 minutes-ish from the ferry port, but I assumed I’d get lost and left 2 hours before I was due to board.
When I got to the port there was a small queue for the ferry, maybe 50ish cars and 10-20 trucks/lorries. I had about an hour to kill at this stage so I decided it was the perfect time for some essential maintenance and changed Shirley’s wiper blades. I had picked up a set before leaving knowing I would need them for Ireland.
Shortly after this came the most stressful experience of the entire trip. Customs decided, oh let’s pick on the Irish guy on his own.
They pulled everything out of the car, opened all my luggage, took the car’s documents into the office for what must have been 20 minutes, took photos of the VIN number, took up the carpet in the front of the car… it was an intense search. The only this missing was a sniffer dog, but only ‘cos he was preoccupied with another vehicle!
Don’t forget some grumpy Spanish cop had taken all of my documents into his little office and I hadn’t seen him since. Passport, driver’s licence, car docs… EVERYTHING. He barely left me with my wallet! I jokingly asked did he want my library card as well.
In the end, it turned out the Spanish government hadn’t processed the ownership of the car into my name and it raised some red flags in their system. I had to show them a document I had on my phone to say it was ongoing.
After that, I was good to go. Again, regretting the lack of beer at this point, but at least I had the world’s strongest ibuprofen to kill the migraine which had now developed.
The harbour in Bilbao is huge with multiple piers to shelter the harbour from the swell coming in from the Bay of Biscay (which has an almost constant large swell coming in from the Atlantic at all times).
It took about 20 minutes to leave the harbour and get out into the ocean, in which time I had dinner and a pint in the flat calm water of the harbour.
As soon as we rounded the final pier, the ship started rolling from side to side with a level of severity which meant when you walked the halls you had to time your steps with the ship being level, otherwise you got tossed into a wall. Up and down waves are usually fine, but getting rolled from side to side is awful!
I was envious of the countless truck drivers who sat in the bar skulling pints because no more than 10 minutes into rolly polly time, my stomach began to turn. I wobbled down to the cabin and lay on the bed for the next TWENTY-FIVE HOURS. I’m lucky that I’m quite happy to lay there watching movies!
I went out a few times for air/a walk/stretching/my sanity and saw this most of the time…
The sea was relentless, not helped by the fact that as soon as you clear the bay of Biscay you are straight into land’s end, which is another notoriously bad stretch of sea. It took a few hours to clear there and make it up the Welsh coast a bit before the sea calmed down.
Customs in my home port of Rosslare was a little more straightforward. Seeing the Spanish reg on the car, a very friendly customs agent greeted me with “H e l l o , c a n I s e e y o u r p a s s p o r t p l e a s e”. At least she had a sense of humour when she heard my Wexford accent.
Turns out she was a neighbour of my parents and her husband used to work with my dad. Wexford is such a small place! After a short 15-minute drive from the port, I was in my parent’s kitchen, drinking tea and spending time with the whole reason I came home:
I was worried about driving Shirley at home in the dark. I didn’t have reflectors to adjust the headlights in the dark and it was my first time driving a LHD car on Irish roads. But, it was fine.
I had planned on spending a few weeks at home before the return journey, but with talk of “lockdowns” on the news I end up only staying for 4-5 days before catching the Ferry to France for the longer drive back south, in the hope of making it before New Years.
Ireland – France – Spain on the return trip
And that was that – I left Torrevieja at around 9 am on Saturday and arrived at my parent’s house in time for dinner on Monday evening. My particular ferry time meant only one night on board, but almost 2 full days. I boarded Sunday morning and arrived on Monday evening.
The drive was great, with loads of places to stop and have full meals if that’s what you wanted. The majority of stops had picnic areas so you could cook your own food if you were prepared enough. This was during COVID too, so during normal times there would definitely be no issues.
It is a long sailing and the ship (at the time of writing this) is quite small. Given the route of the ship, I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you think you can save significant money over going to France. Time-wise, you are not saving much time going from Spain to Ireland or driving to Cherbourg and getting a shorter Ferry.
Since publishing this a new ferry has been put on the Rosslare-Bilbao route which is much more fit for purpose. My parents took it in the campervan on only it’s second outing on the route and said there was no issue with the ship rolling. Which is great news! (I was coming up in a storm I guess).
The 2 Spanish and French ferries are roughly the same price though, so going from Spain saves you a tank of fuel. You’ll need to crunch the numbers yourself if you plan on taking a similar trip.
If you are thinking of doing a similar trip and want to know any more info, gimme a shout on twitter 👋