As two of the most popular European destinations for full-timing motorcaravanners seeking winter sun, Spain and Portugal actually offer year-round interest. Yes, it can get mighty hot in summer. But then with Spain as mountainous as it is, and rectangular Portugal edged by coastline on two of its four borders, there are opportunities to escape the heat and feel the breeze of the uplands or the sea.
Look out for classic scenes of the Iberian Peninsula – idyllic olive and citrus groves, stunted cork oaks, the sweet blossom of the almond trees, the vineyards of Rioja (Spain) and Porto (Portugal), and the Moorish influence in the architecture of both countries.
It doesn’t matter what time of year you go, there will be something to tempt you for an all-year-round tour of Iberia.
Top five things to do in Spain and Portugal
See The Pyrenees in spring and summer. As many are wending their way home after a winter on the slopes, the mountains burst forth with magnificent wildflowers, including wild lavender, saxifrage and orchids.
Visit the ancient Portuguese city of Porto and the Douro river valley, famed for Port wine, and the very birth of the country in the 12th century. Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage city, the Douro Valley a World Heritage site. Visit a wine-producing quinta, join in the grape harvest, or simply enjoy a wine tasting in the perfect location.
Enjoy the sea breeze swept off the Atlantic along the Alentejan Coast of Portugal, where miles of sandy beach are lined with surfboarders making the most of the pounding waves. The Costa da Galé runs unbroken for 40 miles. Or explore the dunes of Praia do Monte Velho. Further south along the coast, you'll find many smaller, intimate beaches, the 'Prainhas' and magnificent cliff top walks.
If you’re after wilderness, try the Parque Nacional de Monfragüe in the Extremadura region of western Spain, or the Sierra de Aracena, one of Andalusia’s prettiest locales. Consider also the barren landscape of Sierra de Alhamilla, for desert-like vistas where many a spaghetti western has been filmed.
When to visit Spain and Portugal
Spain's cultural life revolves around the fiesta – and every single city, town and village has one at some stage throughout the year. Some last a day, others a week or even a month.
Some of the biggest and most famous include Las Fallas in Valencia during March, where giant papier-mâché structures are set alight, Los Sanfermines – or bull-running – through the streets of Pamplona in July, and La Tomatina during which hundreds of thousands of squashed tomatoes are thrown at one another in the town of Buñol, just for fun! Carnival, which takes place in many towns and cities, runs during February and/or March (depending on the date of Easter).
You'll find many fiestas across both Spain and Portugal are based upon religious activities – Easter being the largest and Assumption Day (15 August) an important Catholic holiday. In Portugal, you'll also find pilgrimages to Fátima and the Festivity of the Crosses in Montano, both during May.
Portugal also has its fair share of big events, including the International Chocolate Festival in Óbidos from March to April, the Portugal Rally (a part of the FIA World Rally Championship) in May, the Lisbon Festival in June and the National Gastronomy Festival, held in Santarém, during October and November.
Cheap overnight stops
Like Germany and France, both Spain and Portugal are blessed with a network of Aires de Service, specific motorhome stopovers that are either free to use or involve a small charge (typically between €5 and €8 for 24 hours). Most provide essential facilities for emptying waste water and cassette toilets, filling up with fresh water and dumping rubbish; some of the facilities are operated using a token, available from a nearby shop or tourist office. If you are likely to use aires significantly, it’s worth keeping hold of a supply of tokens so that you’ve always got access to the facilities, even when offices are closed. Most sites are safe and secure although it is not recommended to stay overnight at aires within motorway service stations. It is always worth having a back-up option if you arrive and don’t like the look – or feel – of the aire. A very good guide in English is All The Aires Spain and Portugal, which provides listings with photographs of all available aires.
A fun alternative for visiting specific Spanish regions, mostly in north east Spain and along the southern coast, is España Discovery, an annual scheme that utilises farms and vineyards (bodegas). On the purchase of an annual guide listing the details of all the places, you can stay for one night free of charge. It’s a great way of getting to know these particular regions – you’ll get to chat to the producers, have tastings and potentially purchase (without obligation though) the produce. Similar to the France Passion scheme, there are just 150 available stopovers with España Discovery.
Motorhome access and information
Motorways in Portugal tend to run north to south with the capital Lisbon as a hub. The E01 motorway takes you from Seville to The Algarve, a toll motorway. Indeed many of Portugal’s motorways are toll roads, and the tolls must be paid for in advance or the vehicle fitted with a Temporary Electronic Toll Device (DEM). For more information about pre-payment or purchase of an electronic collection system, and to find out which roads are affected, check online. On many of the Portuguese motorways there are no toll booths, so you cannot pay as you travel.
Spanish motorways are also subject to tolls, though these can be paid at toll booths along the route. However, if you are spending some time touring Spain, or travel regularly to the country, it could be worth you purchasing a VIA-T Box, which automatically collects payment (from your credit card or bank account) as you pass through specified lanes at the toll booth.
As with all countries in Europe, it’s necessary to have the correct documents and equipment in your motorhome. Passports (photo ID must be carried at all times in Portugal), driving licence (the minimum age for visitors to drive is 18 years in Spain), vehicle registration and insurance documents are all necessary. It is also compulsory to have a warning triangle in Spain, though two are recommended for the front and rear of the vehicle, and, while visibility warning vests are not compulsory to be carried in the vehicle, they are compulsory as soon as you step out of the vehicle, so essentially, you need one for each travelling person! These are recommended in Portugal also (they’re mandatory for residents).
But don’t go skiing in Spain’s Sierra Nevada and then shoot straight across to Portugal with winter tyres on the vehicle – they’re prohibited in the country, although snow chains may be used appropriately.
Other rules of the road include the payment of on-the-spot fines in Euros immediately (or you may find your vehicle confiscated) in both countries, the prohibited use of full headlights (main beam) in built up areas around Spain, but the compulsory use of dipped headlights in poor daytime visibility and tunnels in Portugal.
Check your speed carefully too in Spain, as speed limits are lower for motorhomes up to 3.5 tonnes than cars – 100km/h on motorways and dual carriageways, and 90km/h and 80km/h respectively on 1st and 2nd category roads.
While it is illegal to carry bikes on the back of a car in Portugal, it is acceptable on the rear of a motorhome providing the additional length is no more than 45cm. In Spain, it is no more than 10% of the length of the vehicle. A square ‘hazard’ plate measuring 50cm by 50cm should be attached to any overhanging items (such as a moped or bicycle) in Spain. These are obtainable from companies such as Fiamma. (It is also compulsory for cycle helmets to be worn by all children under 16 years). If you’re towing a small car behind a motorhome, this should be on a four-wheeled trailer, not an A-frame.
Motorhome parking is generally good, but height barriers can occasionally be an issue. Diesel and LPG are both widely available; you can check out where LPG is sold in Spain by looking online. And be careful, particularly in Spain, of ‘mock’ incidents, where other road users pretend there’s something wrong with your ‘van and flag you down. Keep all doors locked and your mobile phone, keys and money off the dashboard.
How to get to Spain and Portugal
If you're on an extended motorhome tour and time is no object, of course pottering south along the west coast of France and crossing the Pyrenees is a wonderful introduction to Spain. The quickest motorway routes from France are the E70 to northern Spain (the route continues to A Coruña in the northwest) and the E15 to south-east Spain.
By boat (generally 24-hour crossings with the compulsory purchase of an overnight cabin), Brittany Ferries operate from Portsmouth or Plymouth to Santander and from Portsmouth to Bilbao, both on Spain's northern coast. There are no direct ferries from the UK to Portugal, so the port at Santander is the closest for the purpose of visiting Portugal.