Helena Drysdale, her husband and two daughters are travelling Europe in a motorhome. Their mission: to investigate the re-emerging "tribes" of the continent.

Inspired by washing dangling from Basque balconies, I tackled our own stinking bag. We had been reduced to retrieving clothes, picking off the worst filth, then putting them back on Xanthe and Tallulah. Their trousers were stiff with sea salt. As for me, I was now wearing Richard's Y-fronts, a fact Tallulah was keen to announce to passers-by.

The ordeal began with a shower. This is an unusual event since we rarely have enough water and, simultaneously, enough gas to heat it. We also avoid them because our shower is so cramped that Richard - not a huge man - has to manoeuvre sideways to get through the door. I stood in a bucket, thus warming my feet while thriftily catching the soapy water. Into this I submerged almost the entire contents of our wardrobe.

Adding a French powder that claims to wash simply by soaking - efficace sans frotter! - I left them for a day. They emerged clean enough, but now it was raining, so they could not dry. A whisper of warm air rises from the gas that powers our fridge, and over this I draped our sodden rags. Festooned coat hangers dangled from handles, the ladder, over the sink and cooker. When we opened the fridge, dripping loads had to be shifted aside, gathering grime on the way. Condensation fogged the windows.

We turned on our heater, a spanking Eberspacker just installed under the table at vast expense. Like a departing Intercity 125, it took off, and soon the clothes were slightly less wet. But next morning, inexplicably, our battery was flat.

On a wet winter's day, this is a lonely coast. There was no one to lend a hand. A flat battery means not only our vehicle fails but our house too. We have no light, heat, cooker, water pump, no flushing loo. With small children, this was not a happy prospect.

Eventually two cars appeared. Trailing jump leads, Richard went for help. In one car a couple were kissing; in the other they were rolling joints. He opted for the joint- rollers, but their battery wasn't powerful enough, so he had to interrupt the lovers. Soon we were rocking over the dunes, damp clothes swaying in our faces, off to Guernica market.

It was a market day, in 1937, when Guernica was flattened by saturation bombing by the fascist Condor Legion. Immortalised in mute horror by Picasso, Guernica is a potent symbol for Basque nationalists.

Draped across the facade of a bar was a banner saying "Presoak!". I had seen this throughout the Basque country. Presoak, presoak. Were the Basques telling me something about my washing?

We went inside. The bar is the local headquarters of the nationalist party Herri Batasuna. We tried to order drinks, but only Basque is spoken here, no Castilian - what we call Spanish. A woman named Idurre who spoke English explained that HB is the political wing of Eta, much as Sinn Fein is of the IRA. In fact, they have strong links with Sinn Fein, and she herself spoke with an Irish accent. Presoak, she revealed, is Basque for prisoner. The banners demanded better conditions for "Eta revolutionary soldiers" in Spanish jails.

The rain never stopped. Mould spread along the cushions under Tallulah's sleeping bag. Our clothes began to smell. We had to wash them all again. And like a washing machine going round, the whole cycle was repeated. We even had another flat battery. Our new heater was to blame.

The moral of the story? Use a launderette.