Friday, 28 March 2008

El Diablo – Roving TVRs Tour of Spain, 2007

Jasper had advised us to aim to be at the port in Portsmouth early because of the Friday traffic. Chris & I arrived at 5 pm for a 9 pm scheduled departure! We were about to head-off to while away some time visiting the Spinnaker Tower, when several other TVRs pulled-in behind us, so we continued through the Bilbao check-in and joined the queue that had already started to form. Having parked, we said our "hellos" and confirmed that our fellow travellers were indeed joining the "El Diablo" tour of Spain. This was to be the fourth running of the "Roving TVRs" tour organised by Jasper Gilder, with an added stop in Portugal, but our first. We headed-off to (where else?) the bar to get to know one another.

Other TVR owners joined us through the course of the next couple of hours. Making the crossing were a Sagaris, a Tuscan, a Tuscan 2S Targa, a Tuscan convertible, a Tamora, a T350T, a Chimeara, a Griffith 500, two 4-litre Griffiths and their owners and occupants. By the time boarding time came, old friendships had already been renewed and new ones were being forged.

The cruise to Bilbao lasted until early on Sunday morning, so there was lots of time to continue getting to know one another, as well as check-out the other on-board activities, including the "Biscay Dolphin Research Programme", which has a team permanently based on-board. Apparently, 25% of the world's marine life can be found in the Bay of Biscay, and the trip is popular with Whale and Dolphin watchers, as well as mini-cruise enthusiasts.

We didn't meet James Haynes and Deb Horne, travelling in James' new Marcos T50RT (third off the production line) until we were on-board. James, a veteran of the tour who previously drove a Cerbera, was the "Black Sheep" in more ways than one. Jasper had warned "I can guarantee James will have insulted you in someway but, as you will know by the end of the trip, its his way of getting to know folk – I just think he's very shy and reserved under it all" and James soon warmed to the task!

We arrived in Santurzi (Bilbao) about 7.00 am, and immediately set-off on the first leg of our journey – a 240 miles drive to Zamora, much of it through snow covered mountains.
The tour included two honeymooners, Darren and Michelle Catley, who were not only married on the morning of our trip, but had actually brought-forward their wedding when the scheduled crossing time changed a few weeks earlier!

Most of us intended to stop after a short distance at the Vitoria-Gasteiz services. However, despite the fact that Jasper provided an excellent Road Book with directions for the whole tour, I decided to rely on my "SatNav" and after having passed the rest of the group, managed to misread its directions and take a wrong turning, followed by Darren. Sorry, Darren! Darren's and Michelle's early tour tribulations then were exacerbated when the throttle stuck open on their Tuscan. Fortunately, the problem was remedied fairly easily with bike chain grease, and their honeymoon tour then proceeded without further mishap.

The Roving TVRs tour is based on accommodation in Parador Hotels and our first experience of these at the Zamora Parador - a fifteenth century renaissance palace – did not disappoint, although our entry to the town was delayed by street closures for the "Vuelta a Castilla y Leon" bike race.

Trevor and Janet Lovell were also first-timers in their Chimeara, which they hadn't previously had the opportunity to drive at the speeds possible on some of the long, straight and empty Spanish roads, so it was only on the journey to Zamora that Trevor discovered a quite serious vibration through the steering at higher speeds. Aided by the ever-resourceful Paul Abbott, who was a seasoned Spanish traveller and spoke the language well, travelling with his son, Chris, in a T350T, Trevor found a garage in the local town, which diagnosed and repaired a buckled front wheel and set-up the wheel alignment – all at an exceptionally reasonable price.

The next leg of our trip took us into Portugal for the first time in the tour's history, through breath-taking scenery to the beautiful Pousada (Portuguese equivalent of Parador) at Belmonte. The former convent is on the side of Mount Esperanca with fantastic views across the valley to Mount Estrela. Excited at our visit, the management had laid-on a gala dinner for us. Everyone agreed that the food accommodation and location were perfect, including Vitor, a previous friend of the tour, who made a two hour journey from his home in Porto to spend the evening with us.

The next day we drove in convoy with John Gray and son, Andy, who did the navigating in their Griff 500, and Jasper, in his Sagaris, to Guadalupe, stopping en-route for a photo-call at Roman ruins on one side of a bridge across the Azutan Reservoir. The drive, incorporating all sorts of terrain, including a sort of series of causeways across water-meadows, and a spectacular twisting mountain-side descent into Guadalupe was one of my favourites.

The Parador at Guadalupe was a fifteenth century hospital, and stands next to the Cathedral at which Christopher Colombus received a blessing before setting-off to discover America (as it turned-out), and the Royal Monastery – a world heritage site. The medieval town of Guadalupe seemed largely untouched by time. Unfortunately, despite the idyllic location, the Parador staff was unused to catering for groups our size, and not everyone got the meals they ordered – 'though I was OK as I had asked-for salmon, which is the one meal they had plenty of!

Next day we set-off following James & Deb, and Keith Fensome, in his 4-litre Griff. This was an exhilarating trip combining long, fast roads, and sweeping mountain bends. Around lunch-time we started looking for somewhere to eat and, after slowly cruising around a couple of towns and villages, to the usual accompaniment of admiring looks and attention from the locals, we stopped at a rather scruffy looking café. The inside was no more attractive but the Tapas lunch served was scrumptious and very inexpensive, as seems "par for the course" in inland Spain.

As we left, we caught a glimpse of Raja and Liz Raja-Rayan, in her Tuscan convertible, followed by John and Andy, heading through the town. The weather, up until now, had been warm, and we enjoyed travelling with the roof off, but the clouds had started to gather, and that was the last "top-down" opportunity during the holiday, as the weather became decidedly wet and gloomy. We decided to try and follow a course across country, but ended-up on a rough track, entirely unsuitable for TVRs, as had Liz and John. We therefore back-tracked and found our way back to the recommended route to the Parador at Carmona, near Seville.

Carmona Parador is a fourteenth century Arabic fortress on a cliff-top with stunning views overlooking the fertile plain of the river Corbones, approached through narrow cobbled streets, and the restaurant laid-on a feast with our own printed "TVR" menus – but by now, you're getting the idea – this is the way to see Spain!

On Friday, we had arranged to meet for lunch with the rest of the group at a Tapas Restaurant – La Tinaja – built into a cave near Guadix – the centre of cave dwelling in Spain. We followed Liz, as she knew the way, only to find that someone had thoughtlessly built gates, which were locked, across the road she had last used. Still, we were the first to arrive at La Tinaja, but were soon joined by James and Deb, with Keith, and Ken Clover and Laura Stone in their Tamora, who had all made an early start from Carmona (but that's another story) and had time to visit Guadix Circuit, which was the venue for the next day's track event.

The engine on Ken's Tamora had died coming-up the hill to the restaurant, and it was soon apparent that the battery was discharged. A few 'phone calls were made and it was arranged that, after lunch, we would get Ken's car started with jump leads so he could take the car back to the circuit to be looked-at by its mechanics – which he duly did, taking most of our group with him and leaving just myself and Chris, John, Andy, Debs and Laura to while away a couple of hours at the Restaurant with a few bottles of wine. It turned-out the 100 amp fuse between the alternator and battery on Ken's car had blown, probably due to loose connections, so the fuse was replaced, and connections tightened, and that was that.

Our home, for the next three nights, was the "Hotel Forrestal El Senorio de Rias" near Diezma. The only way to get to it is via a track which winds precariously down one side of a gorge and up the other side to the Hotel. It's not the sort of road you'd want to drive at night, and I didn't even like to contemplate the thought of meeting anything coming the other way in the daytime!

We were joined, at the hotel, by John and Linda Simpson, who had flown across from Leeds for the weekend, having attended previous tours but been unable to join El Diablo because of work commitments. Gerjo Timmerjee had also driven his Griffith 500 down from his home in the south of France. James Elliott and Richard Roberts, with their partners, had driven in their Chimaeras from Gibraltar, and Neil and Caroline McLeland, who had been last year's honeymooners, and subsequently emigrated to live locally, drove across to spend the weekend with us.

Chris and some of the other "co-pilots" opted for a lay-in, on Saturday, and joined those of us who headed-off bright and early to the Guadix Circuit, pausing only to top-up our fuel tanks at the nearby Gor Services, later in the morning. Once all the drivers had assembled, ex racing river, Clive Greenhalgh, the circuit owner (and former owner of the "TVR Central" dealership) briefed us on the track rules for the day, including flags and signals. Although I have attended several runway events before, this was to be my first real track-day, and by now I was feeling pretty nervous. Clive was telling us about the changes and improvements that had been made to the track, which I knew from my more experienced colleagues was already impressive and technically demanding, but I'm afraid they didn't really register. The next thing, Clive was leading us around the track in his Lamborghini to show us the racing line.

Then we were off… but not for long; I must have managed about half a lap before I was the first to spin. I then managed a few hesitant laps before returning to the Pits to seek help! Clive had made it clear that he and his two sons (both racing drivers) would be on-hand to provide help and advice, but I sought-out John Simpson who I learned had a great deal of experience with TVRs, track and motor sport competitions. John took me for a hair-raising demonstration drive and then sat-in as my passenger to coach me around the track. It helped enormously and through the rest of the day, my confidence in, and enjoyment of the Tuscan, grew and grew, although my appreciation of the fact that the car is far more capable than I am was also reinforced.

During the course of the day, there were one or two more spinners, but no harm done. All too soon the day was over, and Jasper called the drivers together in one of the Pit Garages. "Bring your helmet, Richard", he shouted. Uh, Oh – now what had I done? It turned-out that there was a prize, whose winner was selected by Clive and Jasper, for the most improved driver of the day, and that was me! The prize was a few laps of the circuit in a Radical SR3 Track Car driven by Michael Greenhalgh – which I can only describe as totally exhilarating, and it took quite a while to wipe the stupid grin from my face even 'though, back at the Forrestal, the drinks were on me!

Sunday was a free day. Several of us headed for the coast, and found the sun. Chris and I drove up to the Sierra Nevada with John and Andy but we couldn't make it much above about 1,500 metres because the snow line was quite low, and tyre chains were required. Nevertheless, we enjoyed more beautiful scenery.

Next day we drove the 300, or so, miles to the Parador de Cuenca, a former 16th century convent perched on the edge of a gorge on the outskirts of Cuenca. A metal footbridge crossed the gorge to a part of the town which seemed to defy the laws of gravity. The "Casas Colgadas" (Suspended Houses) clinged impossibly to the cliff edges. I'm scared of heights, so crossing the bridge with its metre-high handrail was among the greatest challenges of my holiday, but it was worth the effort just to explore and soak-up the atmosphere.

Our final night in Spain was to be spent at the Parador de Lerma. The weather still wasn't up to much, so Chris & I set the SatNav for the most direct route, only by-passing Madrid, and making the most of the Autovias to arrive by early afternoon. Lerma's Parador is a past favourite of the Roving TVRs and, once again impressed. The former Ducal Palace, approached through narrow cobbled streets dominated the "Plaza Major" overlooking the town. We had lunch in the comfortable bar area, which occupies the whole of the central courtyard, before an afternoon stroll; then, in the evening, the whole group dined together, at a huge table, for the last time, in an area of the restaurant set-aside for the purpose, and exchanged memories of a very successful trip.

The weather for the drive back to Santurzi was foul. I managed to get lost in Burgos for reasons best not gone into here (Oh – alright, then, the SatNav was set wrong) but eventually found my way back to the right route. We were a little alarmed to be waved-over by a Policeman as we were entering the Port, but it turned-out he just wanted to take some photos of the car!

Jasper organised a visit to the Pride of Bilbao's bridge on the return voyage, and we were shown around by the Captain, no less. The statistics that stick in my mind are that she burns 96 litres of fuel per minute (making our TVRs look positively frugal) and, on the bridge, we were 30 metres above the waterline, but only 6.5m of the ship are below it! After a meal at Langan's and a few final celebratory drinks, we retired to our cabins and a nice lay-in the next morning. When we did finally drag ourselves from our beds, we found that the sun was shining, and spent most of the day on the deck.

The ship docked about 5.00 pm, and we said our final goodbyes on the car deck - to friends old and new - before heading-off to our homes throughout the country, vowing to meet again on next year's Roving TVRs tour, if not before.
Our Tuscan, which, sadly, was battered in a tornado during a holiday in the Pyrenees, last year, and spent months off the road under repair, performed its 2,500 miles faultlessly - demonstrating that there can be no better "Grand Tourer"..Viva Espana!