Category Archives: Travel

Warmer Winter: Spain & Portugal

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Where has the time gone?

At the time of writing there is only one week until our ferry from Le Havre back to Blighty.

So, Autumn and Winter: We spent a long time at Camping Didota in Oropesa del Mar after the big drive back from Croatia, took up jogging, got in guitar practice every second day, and stood by as the temperature crept down from the high 20s to loitering between 16 and 20.

Eventually, it was time to move further south for nicer climes and we made our way over to Portugal, via a huge, beach-side camp at Mazarron, an Aire on the harbour wall at a marina, and a very run-down ‘tropical’ site between Malaga and Marbella – not such an aesthetically pleasing part of coastline.

South of Cadiz we found an ideal little site with lots of sun, high-speed internet, and farms around it, but there was absolutely nothing to do and nowhere you could get to without the rigmarole of rearranging the interior of the van and driving, so three nights proved enough.

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Mazarron’s seafront; Chocolate Salami in Portugal (no meat); A gorgeous sunset; A Red squirrel in Altea

We crossed into Portugal mid-December, time enough to meet with Chrys’s Aunt and Uncle who have a house in Lagos, near where we stayed in Alvor. It was hanging on to the low 20s, very well priced and very pretty, alas the quirky camp was quite full and we ended up in the furthest possible spot from everything, at the bottom of a steep hill, where the Wifi signal was dire.

Arriving at the decision to go back into Spain, we drove past Seville and found ourselves in the strange, half-built town of Humilladero, home to a swanky new camp which had approximately five guests in residence. While cold at night, the temperature ‘soared’ to the mid 20s by day, giving us the hottest weather we’d had since Slovenia.

altea spain crystal clear waterCrystal clear water of Altea

Christmas was imminent and, against our saner judgement, we decided to go back to Benidorm for a bit of life, only to find the camp had misled us about space, offering the equivalent of some adjoining waste ground if we wanted it. No.

Thankfully, just around the corner from Benidorm is Altea, an altogether different experience: Not a vulgar highrise or mobility scooter in sight, but a quaint promenade with restaurants, cafes, and its own castle. The camp had space, enabling us to avoid a Mary and Joseph tale of woe for Christmas.

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Altea promenade by night; Around the Old Town

Come the day, we adorned the van with a tiny LED tree, roast turkey dinner with most of the trimmings, and space-savvy gifts. Though the camp hiked its ACSI price from €16 to €19 from January 1st, we decided to stay put, fearing less enticing accommodations if we left, and drove away on the 28th, back to Oropesa for a couple of nights before the mammoth drive to the border, and then up through France to Le Havre, where Neelix has an appointment with the local vet before we board the ferry back to Portsmouth on February 7th.

2picsFinal photo opps on the beach at Oropesa the day before leaving Spain.
(We’ve been cutting our own hair before you ask)

The Big Drive Back

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Departing Starigrad on the Friday morning, we expected our journey to take between seven and ten days. The first step was the long winding route back up Croatia’s coastline, in order to save on tolls, do a big Lidl shop, and find a place to change our remaining Kuna back into Euros.

As it happened, we managed all of that and driving 30km through Slovenia without having to purchase another 7-day vignette, and make a decent dent into Italy on the first day. We spent our first night at a free Aire beside a football ground in a small town and were up early in the morning to drive another 500km to Pisa, which was close enough to the route to see.

We found another free Aire in Pisa, just fifteen minutes walk from the tower, but were too done in to contemplate finding a piece o’ Pisa pizza, and were asleep by nine.

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Some random building we saw. Looks like it needed a bit of work.

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Italian non-toll routes are decidedly awful. The road surfaces are severely dilapidated to the point where we suspected we were doing damage to Scooby’s chassis. This tied with an intense rain and thunderstorm (which we had to pull over and wait out, unlike the local drivers who seemed content to speed through giant flowing rivers of rain as if there were no risk!), we decided that paying €35 in tolls was better than €300 to a garage when the wheels fell off.

Still, toll roads, smooth and quick as they are, get boring fast and although we eventually reached the French border a lot sooner than planned, we were then faced with more mountain passes to find the Aire we’d chosen. Said Aire, in the pretty town of Sospel, could be seen from the road in both directions, but there were no signs or obvious directions as to how to get to it, not what you want at the end of a long day. After about forty minutes, we spotted a tiny, nondescript unmapped ramp alongside the road that led us down to the Aire which, contradicting the information provided, turned out to be free!

We had to drive back down the mountain in the morning (always worse than the ascent) and had planned to take a look at St Tropez, Port Grimaud, and Sainte-Maxime on the way. All three turned out to be impossible to get to due to grid-locked late-season tourist traffic. Our impatience for queuing got the better of us and we persevered on to a campsite for the night for some much-needed hook-up and a shower outside of the van’s tiny bathroom.

P1010179The elusive Aire of Sospel

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We reached Cap d’Adge the next afternoon and stayed in an overpriced Aire near the port for the night, next to a British lady who seemed to be seeing the world on her own from an aged motorhome, which was awesome (she must’ve been at least 75). The plan was to camp near the border the next night, and tackle the stressful round-Barcelona route early in the morning.

However, we made such good time on the way down we decided to keep going and at around six-thirty, made it to Torredembarra, the same camp we’d used right back at the start. With only three weeks left before they close for the winter, we were as glad to see them as they were of the business, and we slept soundly for five nights back in a comfortably familiar place.

Eventually, as Andy’s birthday approached, we left bound for Oropesa del Mar, our other ‘second home’ camp, via Castellon where I could raid the giant Carrefour for functional non-space-filling gifts.

This was all back in September, so another two months have crept by with little to no movement. We’ve slept in the pitch nearest the sea, which has provided a lullaby to doze off to for all that time. Next, we move further south towards Portugal.

Croatia

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As Croatia is not part of the Schengen Agreement, for the first time since we’d left the UK, we had to show our passports to an official as we crossed the border. Our first stop was a camp at Rovinj, part of a huge holiday village that was so big it was very easy to get lost in. Swimming in Croatia is thwarted by the need for jellyshoes to avoid urchins (not essential, but advisable) and the craggy shoreline, which means a lot of beaches are just rocky slopes into the water.

Two nights at the camp proved to be enough, as August turned to September, and the families all packed up, the hugeness of the place and distance to walk to everything (including usable wifi) rendered it unworkable, so after a second night we moved down the coast to Pula, where we found a smaller, simple campsite on a jut of coastline.

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The swimming issues were still partially in place, but the water was enterable without fear of treading on something spiky due to its clarity and the boats moored up that meant the sea floor was smoothed over. Here, I finally got to revisit Scuba diving for the first time since Thailand in 2012. Though the instructor informed me in no uncertain terms not to expect anything on the same scale, I was, as ever, astonished just to be able to breathe underwater, and we found an Anemone with scores of tiny florescent fish living on it.

When we left Camp Runke after five nights, we drove into Pula with the intention of seeing the famous mini-Colosseum, as Rome was off the table due to mileage and Andy’s previous experience of driving in it (“don’t bother!”) Technically we saw it, though as it was a Saturday and there was a festival on, screwed if we wanted to stop!

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So we headed around the corner, hugging the coastline, in the general direction of Zadar and Split, stopping for two nights at Selce, an adorable town with boats moored up along a gorgeous promenade, winding down from the season. The campground we chose, as seemed to be the case with many in the country, was on an incline and difficult to level the van effectively, but the surroundings made up for it.

Upon departing Selce, we embarked on a long day of zig-zagging coast road. The optimistic nav system estimated about two hours, but the hairpin bends and speed limits that rarely went north of 50kmh slowed things down a lot. Every corner was home to an unspoiled turquoise bay, or a tiny clutch of houses, backed by the looming cragginess of the mountains and, across each bay, any of Croatia’s thousands of islands, looking aridly lifeless from afar, but every now and then a town would appear nestled in a cove.

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We camped at another hillside location, with pitches rammed between trees at all sorts of odd angles and the nearest thing to a beach so far. The water was still clear, allowing us both to snorkel around looking at the sizeable fish that ventured close to shore.

By this point, we were having to make a decision on a trip back, as the insurance had capped our mileage, if we continued further south to Split, without a ferry crossing to Italy, we’d be cursed with driving the entire length of the country twice.

In Zadar, the next day, we looked into the ferry timetables and the only options were 10-hour overnight crossings, fine if you were allowed anywhere but the deck with a dog. So we explored Zadar’s attractive harbour area, sat on the musical steps (wind and water create a pan-pipe sound), got up close to Roman ruins, and meandered up and down the narrow lanes of olde.

P1010098Zadar’s musical steps

We spent another couple of nights at the camp and made our decision to call time on Croatia after 11 days, and begin the daunting 1,500km, six-day drive back to Spain, where the weather was still like a pristine British summer…

As it turned out, no sooner had we crossed back into Slovenia, the refugee crisis effectively closed Croatia’s borders, resulting in huge waiting times at all crossings.

Slovenia

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Our first point of order after crossing from Austria, through Italy, and into Slovenia, was to get a vignette in order to use their major roads. €15 for seven days capped our time in the country, but it didn’t matter as we had such a great time there.

We went straight to the huge (and only) campsite at Lake Bled, one day ahead of the renewed ACSI low-season rates. The emerald green lake is home to a tiny island with a church at its centre, dozens of wooden rowing boats slowly creep across the surface, along with paddleboarders, people swimming the kilometre from shore to the island and back (I had a go on our final afternoon). The camp was also home to the most nationalities in one place we’d encountered so far, almost every country was represented.

We stayed five nights and spent the first day ambling around the perimeter of the lake, about 8km in total, visiting the town of Bled, and sampling the local delicacy, Bled Cake, which was a sweet tooths dream.

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Top: The church at the centre of Lake Bled.
Bottom: Nom-nom Bled Cake; Neelix at the Dog Bar; the lakefront ‘beach’; Neelix navigates

Fortunately, the sun returned with a vengeance the following day (after a fair bit of rain and mud), and we rented one of the row boats for an hour to paddle to the island, captained by Neelix, and relaxed on the little beach in front of the camp.

We walked 5km to Vintgar Gorge, taking us through tiny Slovenian hamlets, up farm tracks, through 30 degree heat and, ready to collapse on arrival, discovered the gorge was another 1.6km from one end to the other, plus the 5km return journey. But it’s beauty trumped the aching legs and gallons of sweat, I proclaimed it to be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, like something edited out of a Lord of the Rings scene, just pure serenity, the clearest water yet seen (I know we keep saying that), roaring waterfalls, and not yet marred by the presence of a Starbucks.

P1000940The stunning Vintgar Gorge. Scatter my ashes here.

Though the huge trek to the gorge wore us out, with so little time available in the country, we wasted none of it in driving 30 minutes to Vogel, for the cable car trip we’d had to skip in Switzerland. Quite the connoisseur of various modes of transport by now, Neelix was nonplussed with the cable car itself, but gazed in a perplexed manner from the top of the mountain at the minute features below. Against the €435 odd it was going to cost the three of us at Jungfrau, Vogel’s cable car journey came for the comparably ample cost of €31.

We were sad to leave Bled in the end, but with one day left on the vignette, we were Croatia bound the next day, stopping off to explore the Slovenian capital of Ljubjana, sampling delicious local ice cream and wandering through a medieval market, before going on to a camp at Pivka Jama, deep in the woods, and also deep in the 80s, highly reminiscent of my Yugoslav accommodations from a family holiday in 1985. But it only served to add character.

No sooner had we passed border control, we said we’d definitely revisit Slovenia in the future. It’s awesome

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Above: Our row to Church Island
Beneath: The Vogel cable car, loads cheaper than Switzerland

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Switzerland & Italy

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After leaving the muggy Stuttgart, we headed south west through the Black Forest and crossed back into France to pick up some LPG (easier to come by) in the Alsace Region and then journeyed back to a free Aire halfway down towards Switzerland.

In the morning we drove the rest of the way, forking out a costly €42 for the privilege of using Swiss roads. The vignette costs the same regardless of when you buy it, but only runs to the end of the year! Helluva cost for our planned seven days there!

The country’s natural beauty soon won us over and we drove first to Zug, where we found a sizeable lay-by next to the lake, which would become our wild spot for the night. Pretty as it was, Switzerland has so few roads that it was only quiet for about two hours in the middle of the night, seems the commuters started by car/train/bike around 4am!

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Our wild camping spot at Zug

Unrested, we continued on towards Lake Lucerne, even more stunning than Zug but in a sexy-and-it-knows kinda way. We paid just shy of €50 for one night in a lakeside camp and trekked through the 30 degree heat 5km into town, watching the paddle steamers ferry tourists across the lake, people and dogs swimming, and hordes of Chinese tourists pointing their iPads at everything.

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Around Lucerne

Andy had been to the region several times as a preteen and was prepared for the price shock: The smallest tub of ice cream (thinking cinema sizes here) was €4.50; a bottle of water €3; a cuckoo clock €700! We sprung only for the ice cream, and a steamer ferry back across the lake. Neelix, by now, was over his sunbathing quota for the day and hid beneath the benches on deck.

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In the morning we forged on in the direction of Lauterbrunnen and Jungfrau (the ‘Top of Europe’) where, again, a night’s camping costs a good €50. More shocking was that the discounted price of a train/cable car up the mountain was €175 each, plus half again to take Neelix. A little web research informed us we could do a similar trip in Slovenia for about €20 each. Sold.

This setback would not ruin our time at Lauterbrunnen, miraculously it was free to hike up to the mountain waterfall (partially inside the mountain). Nevertheless, we cut our planned two nights at Camp Jungfrau in half before we went broke and drove up a huge mountain pass beside a glacier on route to the Italian Lakes…

P1000672Lucerne by night from across the lake

 

The chalets, cows, and postcard shots began to wane after we drove through the 17km Gotthard Tunnel towards Lugano, and the Italian speaking region blurred ever more confusingly to the point we couldn’t remember if we’d crossed the border. This has been a common occurrence the more we’ve moved around; architecture and vistas resemble other nation’s archetypes: the southernmost swath of Germany looks Swiss, northern Spain and southern France are similar etc.

What was most telling that we’d reached Italy was the sudden change in driving style: Cars began pulling out in front where there was little to no gap in traffic, overtaking on blind bends, and generally seeming very impatient with pedestrians, mopeds, slow moving camper vans. Yup, we’d reached Italy!

P1000612Neelix deciding whether it’s worth a swim

 

With the driving manners, so too went the quality of roads around the lakes Como and Lugano. Scooby rattled and shook as we headed down cow-paths in search of our first night’s stop at a dilapidated (but free!) Aire in Voldomino. That out of the 20 or 30 spots, only one other camper turned up should’ve been telling, and the power didn’t work either. But free is free!

As in France, if you’re avoiding toll roads in Italy, going relatively short distances takes forever. The secondary routes wind and twist and have roundabouts almost every kilometre. We’d moved from one side of the lake to the other in about three hours. The second night in Italy was spent at a pay-per-hour Aire by a lake in Gavirate, behind a cafe blaring the rather awesome local radio station.

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Lauterbrunnen: The waterfall – a little timid at the height of summer – and the giant glacier visible through the clouds

 

From Gavirate we drove to another pricey Aire by Lake Lugano. The area was a lot nicer, far more in keeping with our predictions of Italy (having only visited Venice and Rome before); crumbling Roman ruins, lush mini-castles, lots of pizzerias, chic looking people on Vespa’s. We were also treated to free fireworks across the lake.

P1000797P1000779P1000786P1000784Baveno, looking like textbook Italy

The financial and mental tolls of moving from Aire to Aire had been driving us a little mad for a while but as mid-August passed, the ACSI discounts began to recommence, and we opted to drive back into Switzerland, to a camp in Locarno.

Five days of rest were what we were in need of and Camp Riarena supplied this with perfect efficiency: Nice bathrooms, a warm-enough pool, good WiFi, and plenty of uninterrupted slumber. The only drawback was, initially, bad weather, which turned the soily ground into sludge.

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P1000842P1000750P1000704P1000696Some of Switzerland’s insane amount of amazing views

 

After resting up it was back on the road to carry on toward Slovenia. For the sake of available mileage, we chose to go via Italy rather than Austria and instantly regretted it with more of the terrible backroads and roundabout after roundabout. We were very close to punching the Nav system as it declared “at the roundabout…” every ninety seconds.

Fortunately, the roads began to improve as we left the lakes and tunnels around Como (which was no more impressive than Lugano or Maggiore, for all the attention it gets). We stopped for the night short of the Stelvio Pass at Tirano, a functional but expensive Aire in a pretty little town nestled between looming hills.

In the morning we tackled the Stelvio Pass, as popularised by Top Gear, and so now M25-levels of manic with everyone and their grandma wanting to say they’ve driven it. I merrily gave up driving duties to Andy, which entailed some three-pointers to get Scooby around some of the tight bends, but we saw several double-our-size campers and even a coach! From sunny high 20s at the bottom, the temperature dropped to just 9 degrees at the summit.

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Stelvio Pass: The way up…

...the way down

…the way down

Our next designated stop was one of two free Aires in Bolzano, both of which ended up looking like we’d get murdered if we stayed, so we opted for a lakeside Aire about 10km south, which ended up costing 25% more than advertised, but at least we woke up intact.

The rest of the day was spent driving out of Italy and back into Austria, where we found a wild camping spot at a viewpoint halfway up a winding mountain road, complete with geckos on the trees and a breathtaking view of the valley below.

Czech Mate: Germany & Austria

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From the sophistication of Berlin, we travelled south to Bach’s stomping ground of Leipzig for a couple of nights, and then on to Dresden, where we joined a line of wild-camping MH’s along the riverbank and meandered through the architecturally-rich centre of town, and bought some Czech Crowns for our next sector.

The following day we drove across the border and down to Prague, drenched in heavy rain, and successfully found a parking spot near the centre. As we walked in, the clouds gave way to blistering sunshine while we took in the gothic buildings, a guy on a stag-do dressed as a baby trying to get hugs off strangers (British, naturally), and sampled a weird tubular concoction of sweet-bread.

Our attempts to camp in the Czech Republic were less successful and our Nav system took us along a gravel trail a couple of km’s into the forest, which we eventually had to reverse out of, but were thankful of having a van rather than a coachbuilt motorhome, which surely would’ve gotten stranded. When we eventually did find the camp, it was a timewarp back to an era before Hymers and Dethleffs’ – where there were only tents and everyone stared at the strange alien object cruising in. Somewhat mercifully, there were no spaces available and we drove back over the border and found a quiet parking space in the woods for the night. The creepy, dark woods.

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Prague

Morning came and we weren’t slain by backwoods psychos, so continued on to Saxon Switzerland (nowhere near actual Switzerland), an exceptionally pretty area of lush greens, waterfalls, streams, and the tallest trees imaginable. We strolled through the forest into town, unable to take Neelix aboard the tram, and hobbled back to the camp after a good 10k roundtrip.

Two days later (one restricted largely to the van due to heavy rain), we ventured further south to the towns of Freiburg and Marktleuthen, via the huge Bastei bridge, a stone monolith of yore that boasts vertigo-inducing views of the valley below. Unfortunately all the history was in German. Soon after we found ourselves venturing back across the border for a second crack at the Czech Republic. Our desired camp, much like our last attempt, was almost impossible to find. Several earthquake-sensation roads later, Camp Karolina appeared on some signs. I admired its initial similarity to Camp Crystal Lake, sans hockey masked lunatic, but we got a good night’s sleep there and spent the remainder of our currency on Sprite, a Mars bar and a heave-inducing local sweet bar called ‘Margot’, which was like sculpting clay covered in chocolate.

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Top row: Our camp at Saxon Switzerland; Neelix with the German ‘Mika’ poo-bag dispenser; around the Bavarian towns of South Germany

Lower row: The Bastei bridge in Saxon Switzerland; one of the Schlosses viewed from the top; the vile Czech excuse for chocolate; a much-hyped but ultimately drab waterfall

 

From Czech, it was back into Germany in a general southerly direction, via the super cute city of Bamberg. We spent a night at a free Aire in Cadolzburg, serenaded by the sounds of a musical at the local Schloss. The next day we stopped off at Nuremburg, where we happened on another music festival, plus a small gay pride event. We stopped for the night just outside Munich, at Sulzemoos, another free Aire, in the blistering heat, and for the first time five months, we ate a McDonalds. (Neelix sampled a couple of fries and a bit of the burger patty).

The McDonalds dinner proved a mistake as we both felt like crap the next morning and ended up staying at the Aire all day in a haze of fatigue and too much heat.

After our much needed day of rest, we continued south into the postcard landscapes of the Alps, looping around the Austrian border into Sound of Music city Salzburg, and stopping for the night at Bischofsweisen, a free parking area at the foot of a ski resort and stomping ground for cow-bell clad bovine, who just pass through munching on the grass and, if you get close enough, will make an attempt on your clothes too. The chiming of their cowbells provided a soundtrack for much of the evening.

Enjoy the ballad of the ding-dong cows for yourself…

The following day we headed to Berchtsgaden intent on seeing the famous Eagle’s Nest, but were thwarted by the ridiculous prices for the bus ride to the peak (€17 each plus half again for the dog). Weighing it up, we decided against the expenditure, hoping for better vistas over the coming weeks.

We drove slightly disappointedly from the area back into Austria, along the central route towards Innsbruck, where we’d visited a few years earlier, and found an Aire at Schwaz, which turned out to be free due to dysfunctional service machines. It was still in the thirties when we arrived, but the weather had other ideas and ushered in a huge thunderstorm as night fell.

austrialakewildcampingatlakeWild camping alongside a crystal clear, emerald green lake in Austria

 

From Schwaz, we re-entered Germany at Füssen to visit the fairytale castle from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Nauschwanstein, as well as the manor house at Linderhof. Dogs were, of course, not allowed in the castle, so we settled for the 40-minute uphill hike to see it up close. Aires in this tourist-heavy area were rammed, so we drove back into Austria to wild camp on the shores of Lake Plansee, where we’d passed earlier in the day. The crystal clear water was too inviting to pass up and we both had a dip to cool off as well as another in the morning.

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Linderhof Schloss; the enchanting Nauschwanstein castle; and one of many chalets on the road from Germany to Austria

 

It was almost time to meet up with our friends Sergei and Kevin in Stuttgart, so we headed up the Romantic Road, but found it to be almost anything but. Some cute vistas and chalets, a traffic diversion as well, but the castle was clearly the peak, so we ended up (forced by the diversion) back to our old friend Sulzemoos for the night.

On Friday, we drove a few hours west to Stuttgart where we’d reserved a pitch in a city campsite, just 4km from the centre. The temperature was still roasting, 39 degrees when we arrived. We met up with the boys on Saturday, had steins of beer and Raddler in the park, during yet another of Europe’s let’s-celebrate-anything festival, a picnic by the lake where a wedding was being conducted, and took in some music after dark.

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Roasted sweet bread in Prague; the inside of Nauschwanstein Castle; Dresden’s ornate palacy thing; off-season chairlifts at the ding-dong cow Aire; beautiful Bamberg; Sergei and Kevin doting on a demure looking Neelix during the festival of randomness in Stuttgart

 

As with seeing our other friends and family back in June, it always makes me a tad homesick, although their description of the British summer put paid to that!

Our final day at the camp was spent trying not to move in the mugginess and fantasising of that frosty Austrian lake. Eventually, Mother Nature bestowed upon us an almighty cooling thunderstorm to take the edge off.

Since leaving Germany, we’ve ‘done’ Switzerland, some of Italy – including the Stelvio Pass!, and are now in at Lake Bled in Slovenia, where we rowed a boat around the lake earlier.

 

Days away: 179
Trip Miles: 8,013
Trip Kilometers: 12,924

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From Paris-ish to Berlin

Mont St Michel

After three nights sweltering in Cap d’Agde, our resolve was to reverse our planned route to escape the heat for the sake of Neelix (and ourselves), so we headed North West to the French outcrop of Brittany.

The first night of the mammoth 1000km trip brought us to a free Aire in the little town of Bourganeuf. It was still hot, but we found Scooby a space in the shade of some towering conifers. Beyond a gothic chateau opposite, there was little to see, so the following morning we drove another full day until we stopped at an Aire beside a lake in Nord-Sur-Erdre, where a strange thumping and shoals of migrating people caught our attention…

Turned out that the town was hosting a two-night music festival about 2km from the Aire, featuring a whole host of people we’d never heard of – and Sting.

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Bourganeuf, France

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Nord-Sur-Erdre, France

With the back doors wide open to the lake, the stars beginning to poke through the cloak of nightfall, we dozed to the sounds of Englishman in New York and If I Ever Lose My Faith.

The following day we finally made it to the cooler climes of Brittany, though the heat had stalked us and our hike to the awesome Mont St Michel a couple of days later brought with it sunburn. The next day it rained like hell.

Over the following three days, we made our way along the coast due north, stopping in free Aires and visiting the small harbour towns and Normandy beaches, finishing our second stint in France at Fecamp, an Aire so popular it had spilled over to a second car park and was rammed with wall-to-wall motorhomes.

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Mont St Michel

July 11th saw us bid adieu to France and (whatever-it-is-in-Flemish) hello to Belgium. As we’d visited Ghent and Bruges before, it served only as a transitory overnight and, by the following afternoon, we’d made it to Rotterdam to look at some canals and windmills.

We finished out first night in The Netherlands in the cheese-themed town of Gouda, sampling the national dish of chips smothered in sauce, and taking a walk around the postcard-esque town. For the next three days we utilised the final ACSI discount period at a camp near Eindhoven. Where it rained. And rained. And rained. But there was a giant trampoline and no kids around so I didn’t care.

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Juno Beach TankFecamp

 

<<< Normandy towns and beaches: Hermanville, a tank at Juno Beach, and Fecamp

 

Three nights at Camp Rainyskies was enough and it was time to venture into Germany. Andy had never visited Deutschland other than a flight connection at Frankfurt, and I’d only been through it on the way to Poland in 1994, so neither of us had any set expectations, and our first task was the possibly daunting one of obtaining an Umweltplakette – a windscreen sticker that states your vehicle isn’t spitting out toxic death fumes, thus allowing you into inner city areas. Without it there’s a hefty fine.

So we crossed the border and went straight to a small industrial town where we’d located a TUV branch, consulted my mild-German knowledge and miraculously managed a good 90% of the conversation in German! €5 later, we have the green badge!

Windmill near RotterdamGouda, NLGouda, NLCheese shop in Gouda

The Netherlands: One of many windmills southeast of Rotterdam, the cheesy town of Gouda, its fairytale-like centrepiece, and a shop of their eponymous queso

 

We made the most of the Germany’s über-efficient roadways to get to Kassel and eventually Göttingen, where we spent the night in a small Aire outside of the town. In the morning we drove north to Wolfsburg, found a near-central motorhome parking lot and walked through the 35 degree afternoon into town centre to explore.

In the morning we walked around the local Schloss, and paid a visit to the Volkswagen Automuseum. As VW’s ancestral home is Wolfsburg, it’s a game of spot-the-non-VW. The museum was replete with VW Beetles of yore (including Herbie!), vans, and a precious few T25’s similar to our very own Suzanne-the-Van. The drawback of this trip was having to go individually so the other could dogsit in the car park.

Convertible Beetle, Basket Beetle & Wooden Beetle, and my childhood hero

Classic Convertible Beetle, Basket-Weaved Beetle & Wooden Beetle, and my childhood hero

After Wolfsburg, we rocketed down the autobahn to Berlin, where we’d found a strange Aire-cum-campsite on the outskirts, charging just €20 a night (good, for high-season). On the Monday, the three of us hopped on a U-train from nearby Tegel and, twenty minutes later, surfaced in the centre of Germany’s capital city. Neelix was perplexed by the train, seemingly unsure how to sit without keeling over every time it braked or gained speed.

A tiring foot tour followed: The river to Brandenburg Gate (big), the Holocaust Memorial (people taking selfies inside seemed odd), a preserved section of the Berlin Wall (touching), Checkpoint Charlie (tiny!), plus Gendarmenmarkt Square, Bebelplatz, Berlin Cathedral, Mitte, Alexanderplatz, and a trip out to a suburb that seemed to be streetwalker central, even in the middle of the day! Berlin also gave us the chance for Andy to buy a replacement camera for the one stolen, and both of us some replacement clothes for the ones threadbare and/or impervious to being cleaned, thanks to the giant Primark store. We finished off with haloumi wraps back in Tegel and a long, much-needed sleep.

Out n’ about in Berlin:

Wolfsburg SchlossBrandenburg Gate, BerlinHolocaust Memorial, BerlinmemorialBerlin WallCheckpoint Charlie, BerlinDog on the subwayBerlin

Days away: 147
Trip Miles: 5,991
Trip Kilometers: 9,663

RouteMap_270715

Spain: Amigos, Calor, and Ladrones

IMG_2729a

We left our beloved camp at Oropesa Del Mar and began the drive south to meet up with Los Amigos Part 1.

The first stop was an overnighter at an Aire in the little town of Segorbe, which didn’t have much going on, but was free, free, free! Next, we intended to wild camp somewhere in the city of Valencia, which entailed compromising with some mental road layouts (5-lane roundabouts!?) and, as it turned out, no spaces fit for a 6.5m camper, despite best efforts.

Still, we saw a lot of the city this way, its beautiful lilac trees, the idyllic mini-parks, and the less-so rush hour. After about two hours of demented navigation suggestions from the route computer, we headed out for the free Aire at Turis.

Hammock Time

Hammock Time

Neelix is checking out the poo bags

Neelix checking out the poo bags

Turis proved to be a non-starter due to the fact the Aire is located in an industrial estate, with low hedges and no shade on a very hot afternoon.

Another couple of hours’ driving brought us to the small resort town of Cullera, where we stopped for the night on the side of a quiet road, with a little tilt (fun for showering in!). In the morning we hiked up to the castle that overlooks the town, steep but worthwhile. It was €3 entrance but ye olde ‘no perros’ sign prevented us from going in, so Neelix protested by peeing on the wall.

The next morning we drove out to a free Aire, which sits in the shadow of a creepy old monastery, to utilise the facilities and drove on to Oliva, for a couple of nights at Rio Mar campsite, which had a clunky, disorganised charm, underscored by the bizarre aviary at the entrance, home to budgies, fat cuckoo things, and three ducks (plus an unhatched egg!). The day’s best achievement was that we managed to finally put up the hammock we bought in 2007.

Finally, the day came to journey on to the place where we would meet our good friends from home, Shona and Karla: Benidorm. As a pre-‘Dorm excursion, we stopped by Moraira and Calpe on route, wowing ourselves at their azure water, which Neelix even swam in without coercion.

Benidorm with the girls

Benidorm with the girls

The Spanish Manhatten

The Spanish Manhattan

Neither of us had ever been to Benidorm (nor seen the show) and had mixed expectations at best. Andy said it was supposed to be Spain’s answer to Blackpool, elsewhere it was referred to as the Manhattan of the Algarve. I’ve been to both of those and they weren’t so bad… right?

No.

The upside of the jaunt, other than seeing our friends, was that our choice of camp, Armanello, is really well done out, with two pools, more aviaries (less weird menagerie) and lots of space.

We’d intended to wait for our friends before experiencing the town but, as there was a birthday to celebrate, we took a walk in to buy a cake. The sight of Union Jack bunting everywhere and numerous mobility scooter rental notwithstanding, the first thing we saw was a rather portly chap wearing nothing but a mankini and attempting to grope a shopgirl. Eyebrow raising.

After Shona and Karla arrived the next afternoon (with the heavenly elixir of Dr Pepper), we took another walk in to find some good Tapas and, thankfully, much of the previous day’s horror was likely still hungover in the various highrises that blot the skyline. We found a decent Spanish-run outlet for food, and sauntered up and down the front, dodging the scooters and drunken revellers.

Hilltop camping

Hilltop camping

Neelix wants to see everything

Neelix wants to see everything

After four days, the girls flew home and we spent one extra night at Armanello and the daily temperature seemed to soar. Neelix spent all day panting, but we were heading futher south for our next meet near Almeria for Los Amigos Part 2.

With a 355km drive ahead of us over a three day period, we planned to split the journey into three, wild camp or go for free Aires on two nights, and a campsite on the third for the demanding power-suck of the fridge.

The first Aire was in the small town of Lorqui, shoved alongside a disused park, and a roasting 33°C (the van thermometer peaked at 43°!) It wasn’t yet 2pm, so we decided to go further, and headed to Mazarron, a journey so hot that the route computer simply gave in and had to have its own little igloo built around it with one of the thermo-shades and air-con pumped in. Note: Air-con = essential.

The next day we drove further down to the town of Vera, replete with the first Bullring we’d seen and tooled around a little by the adjacent coast before heading to a commercial Aire a few miles from town. A curious endeavour – the Aire surrounds a Tennis Academy and stretches up the side of a steep hill overlooking The Hills Have Eyes-like desert plains. But it was nicely done out, cooler from the breeze higher up, and provided a great starry night sky. In the morning we made the final leg down past Almeria to Aguadulce.

Benidorm a bit of culture

Benidorm: A tiny bit of culture

Sunday gave us an early start to meet Andy’s sister Lizzie, and bro-in-law Chris, in Aguadulce town. Unfortunately their off-cruise excursion only gave us a couple of hours to catch up over a sandwich and a drink before they had to head back to their ship in Almeria. We headed back north, away from the arid landscape and searing heat, eventually stopping back at Camp Rio Mar in Oliva for food, Maxibons, and a long sleep followed by a resting day.

After the second night at Rio Mar, we drove again for three hours north past Valencia back to Oropesa, rounding the trip off nicely where this blog post started. We setup and took Neelix to the beach for some swimming practice. He still tends to assume anyone in the water is drowning and claws madly to lead you back to shore, but it cooled us all off hugely and we got an uninterrupted 10-11 hour sleep to refuel.

Marina D'Or - with blackpool lights!

Marina D’Or – with Blackpool lights!

Marina D'Or - with blackpool lights!

More illuminations

On the 13th, we took a drive in nearby Castellon so Chrys could indulge his Jurassic World demands: Negotiating a ticket to the right movie, calling on a kind local to work out which seat I’d been assigned, and then trying to follow the plot in dubbed Spanish was all worth it as the film was awesome.

After a few more days at Oropesa, which saw the heat gradually crank upwards to panting levels (Neelix, not us) we started to think about the next sector, and so drove north back to Torredembarra for one night, and again the next day into Sitges to meet Andy’s friend Rus (Los Amigos Part 3), who is working in Barcelona for a few months.

A day ambling around the town was marred by the discovery that somebody had, somehow, broken into Scooby, ransacked their way through our stuff and made off with Andy’s camera, Chrys’s UK wallet, a little tin box full of random bits n’ bobs (probably mistaken for a cash box), and, crucially, the Nav computer. A tad distressed, we abandoned the plans to wild camp on the street and went instead to El Garrofer just outside Sitges where we cancelled cards and licked our wounds.

As El Garrofer was a high-end camp(€€€), we rapidly resolved to continue making our way north to cooler climes, soon discovering we were pretty much just accompanying a Europe-wide heatwave, and stopped for a night at Platja D’Aro, then, on June 29th, crossed the border back into France and headed for a low-cost camp at Cap D’Adge to wangle a fax from the DVLA to temporarily replace Chrys’s stolen driver’s license. Stress.

Neelix in the sun

Sun dog

Roman ruins

Roman ruin on the sea front

It’s the last day of June now and, sadly, things have been affected by the robbery, though we were thankful the fiend completely missed some more crucial kit, we were both mourning the loss of ‘stuff’. Rationalising that stuff can be replaced, but worrying about things we may have missed, and the loss of photos from the camera, has made it hard.

Over the next week or so, the current plan is to gradually move north towards the Alps, where we hope it’ll be just a little cooler, then weave up through Germany to northern Europe throughout the month to let the worst of the heat pass, so Neelix can run down hillsides once again without fear of collapse.

There’d be better photos this month if the reprobate hadn’t made off with the camera also : (

Days away: 121
Trip Miles: 3,598
Trip Kilometers: 5,803

Spain, Part Trés

Neelix stays still for once.

Today sees us 12 weeks into our journey of discovery and Tapas. It’s also our last day at Camping Didota, in the strange sub-Vegas resort of Oropesa del Mar.

Tomorrow, we chug off in the direction of Valencia to explore the city a bit, then head south to a place neither of us has ever experienced: Benidorm.

We’re meeting our great friends Shona and Karla there, so to hell with any local naffness. Plus I really want some bad food.

Oropesa with it's marina from the nearby hills

Oropesa with it’s marina from the nearby hills

Since our last update, we set up home at the nice campsite here, approximately 100 feet from the sea, which sends us to sleep in a perpetual lullaby of waves each night, backed by the chirping cicadas of the overgrown campsite-no-more over the wall. It’s quiet, well kept, and a lot of people here seem like they intend to stay for months rather than weeks.

We ventured into nearby Benicassim a couple of times, hiked from the camp the 5km into Oropesa searching for a market we never found, replacement flip-flops (they do not like everyday wear), cut our own hair (quite successfully), and taught Neelix to negotiate incoming waves and swim a little to cool down – temperatures soared as high at 38°C at one point! See his graceless lolloping here:

Andy got his action cam on a few times, strapped to the grill of Scooby: See at 8x the speed for true rollercoaster effect along the hairpin turns on the way to Morella!

Christmas came as well and we managed to angle the hardly-ever-used satellite dish to find a German channel broadcasting Eurovision. The commentary wasn’t quite Graham Norton, but we waved our arms a little as the UK dwindled into it’s usual almost-last place.

So, it’s still a slow, lazy life in the sunshine, as summer comes to northern Europe we’ll weave our way back and experience some new countries – promise!!

Group shot for this month

Group shot for this month

Route map so far with next section planned

Route map so far with next section planned

Days away: 84
Trip Miles: 2,116
Trip Kilometers: 3,405

Click to enbiggen:

Oropesa del Mar

Oropesa del Mar

FARTons - yes really

FARTons – yes, really

Benicassim

Benicassim

We love a boardwalk

We love a boardwalk

Sunrise on the beach

Sunrise on the beach

Pebbles like Brighton!

Pebbles like Brighton!

Neelix endorsing Oropesa

Neelix endorsing Oropesa

Big ant, big leaf!

Big ant, big leaf!

 

Neelix stays still for once.

Neelix stays still for once.

First slab o’ the trip: UK & France

Mountain Snow

Week One: Beginning Monday 2/3/15

To ‘ease us in’ to life in a 6×2 metre van, we opted to spend the first week-to-10-days in the UK, doing rounds of friends and family to bid them farewell.

Two nights at Chrys’ parents, two at Andy’s sister’s, then a night each at Basingstoke and Eastbourne, a brave attempt at Wild camping on a beach at Pevensey Bay, then two nights at a campsite near Tonbridge before a final Wild night on Dover seafront before our 05:50 shuttle to Calais on the morning of March 12th.

Neelix T. Dog is, so far, bemused by the strange new quarters.

France: 12/3/15 >>> 22/3/15

Arriving at Calais around 8am local time (after a 4.30am wake up), we’d long since plotted a route as far south as we could drive in one day, to reach warmer climes. A campsite in Vendee was to be our first night’s stay in Le France. This ultimately had to wait a day as driving proved so draining (and expensive), we ended up staying about an hour away from our destination, in a free Aire at La Roche-Sur-Yon.

La Rochelle  forest

A €92 driving expense came from Toll Roads, a cost we underestimated, ramped up further by Autoroute taking us the wrong way and, when we left to rejoin the same freeway in the reverse direction, we were charged TWICE by the system, once for exiting, once for re-entry.

After about 7 hours rocketing south, with temperatures as high as 22 degrees according to the optimistic reading in the van (seems about 5 degs over the truth), we pulled into the Aire at La Roche Sur Yon, made some dinner and fell into a long, long sleep.

The following day, we took a walk through the town, which proved to be quite bland and uninspiring at best. Finding internet access was hard, and finding an open Boulangerie proved even more challenging. Of course, with dog in tow, curiously sniffing and then peeing on everything, nipping into shops requires a fair amount of compromise.

Roullet                 Florac Bridge

We lucked out with a small supermarket and headed back to the Aire, packed up, and drove another hour or so to Camping La Grisse in near-but-far Le Givre.

The camp was out of season and cold, heavy on the creepy, which, for me, is a plus. We paid for two nights with hook-up, but were disappointed to find that there were no hot showers, none of the on-site taps worked, and the reception was hardly ever manned so finding out the wifi password took most of a day.

On the Sunday, we drove to La Rochelle, which was mercifully populous (and open!!) enough to negotiate a couple of baguettes. The Aire here, albeit free, evidently hid its service points from the many campers in the parking lot, and we elected to move on to the next one, in the tiny village of Nersac, another hour or two’s drive south.

Mountain Snow  Back doors view of the Med at Sete

France is notable for some ultra-scenic drives when Autoroute is instructed to ignore toll roads, and we stopped several times over the next few days to take photos and breathe in some amazing sights.

These days took us south to Cahors, the the Alpine region of Florac, both of which rated high on the prettiness scale, but rain eventually scuppered the aesthetics. Leaving Florac provided us with the most adventurous driving day to date, along tiny, windy mountain passes that were more like tarmacked cow paths, going so high we found reached the snow. What Autoroute told us would be 2.5 hours ended up around 7.5, and we paid an expensive cost for an Aire in the town of Millau.

Millau

The hurrah moment of reaching the Mediterranean at Sete the following day was also marred when clouds came and it rained for what felt like forever. Still, I was hellbent on everything improving in the next few days.

Sete

We spent one more night on route to Spain, about two hours’ from the border, in a post-apocalyptic excuse for an Aire, and drove the twisty, turny mountain roads once more to cross over into España!

Crossing over into Spain