The above quote from travel writer Pico Iyer eloquently expresses some of my thoughts on why I enjoy travelling. Everytime we head off in our campervan I feel happy knowing I am setting off on a trip that will give me many chances to open my heart to new places and people and most certainly fall in love over and over again.
Travelling to new and familiar places I uncover different ways of living and new perspectives. Travel keeps alive my fascination and interest in people, history and nature as I see places, observe interactions and learn languages. These things encourage me to make connections and enjoy our differences.
For me being away from home is always a liberating experience. My brain is stimulated by seeing the everyday differently as well as seeing new sights and learning new stories. In my own four walls I am safe but I also become tethered to a schedule and travel injects the unexpected. The sights, smells and tastes of a different place open up new possibilities for my own life and stimulate creativity and interest. I don’t witness a shining light of revelation but by witnessing other people and observing that there is more than one way to be, I gradually understand humanity just a little bit better.
I am not suggesting that coming home is unpleasant. I like where I live and returning to Lancashire I will spend a few days adjusting and thinking through everything I have seen. This is my travel-wise state and it often results in tiny shifts in my life as I follow up on something I have questioned or learnt while I was away. I might remember how much better I feel from being outdoors all day and try and include being outside more in my day; I might increase the amount of language learning I do after being embarrassed with how little I know; or I might research further a period in history I had learnt about on our trip. I try and cling onto the open-heartedness of travelling as long as I can as I move around my local area and I resist getting back into habits. Eventually I will become comfortable in the workaday again and I know it is time to get back on the road.
Travel might feel like an indulgence but it has value. It is an annoying cliche but we often think of life as a journey and it is the travelling in my life that gives me the resources to make my way along that journey as the best person I can be until my big trip on this planet ends.
The clock on the oven says 3.34 as I walk carefully heel-toe, heel-toe off the wooden floor boards of our kitchen and onto the vinyl tiles of the hallway. I pass our bedroom, where my partner fortunately sleeps soundly and step onto the thick carpet of our spare room / study. There is no traffic on our dark and quiet road but I can see lights in the house across the way. The neighbour here has oxygen cylinders delivered and receives daily visits from the District Nurse and I remind myself that whatever pain I am in at this unsociable hour, there are others much worse off.
As I skirt the corner of the hallway and onto the striped and sligthly textured living room carpet I calculate how many of these nighttime walks I have done since I mysteriously did something to my lower back near the end of September when we were in Norfolk. The discomfort in my back developed into cramp-like pains down the back of my right leg that spasmed from the top of the thigh to my ankle. Within a few days this pain was waking me up at night.
I walk back along the hallway into the kitchen making sure every step counts. It is now 3.36, two minutes to complete one circuit of our small house and it only takes that long if I carefully take in all the corners. Sometimes I skip a section and then the oven clock has only moved on one minute since my last kitchen visit! There are not many times when I wish we lived in a bigger house but these night-time walks would be more interesting in a mansion and when we are away in our campervan I am basically walking on the spot!
I watch a neighbouring black and white cat saunter across our back garden before walking back down the hallway for another tour. I have found it takes at least ten minutes for the acute pain down the back of my leg to ease to something more bearable. Although the urge to go back to bed is strong, I make myself walk around for about twenty minutes before I return to my duvet. I hope my body will reward my self-restraint by allowing me a further three or four hours sleep but sometimes life isn’t like that and I am up again two hours later.
I have said before that to keep to our budget we always have some thinking time before we spend money. This might be a couple of days, a week or a month, depending on how many £s we plan to spend, but this rule goes out of the window when it comes to needing physiotherapy. You can get physiotherapy on the NHS but by the time you’ve reached the top of the waiting list your symptoms will either have gone away [a win I guess] or have become chronic and take longer to sort out. Keeping active is important to most people and I know we are lucky to have enough flexibility in our budget to spend the £55 per session for physio and for me, being able to choose what we spend our money on is an important aspect of financial independence.
The physiotherapist found an issue with my lower back and deduced that this had led to over-use of my piriformis muscle. This muscle in your hips is close to the sciatic nerve that runs down the back of the leg and if it becomes inflammed it can compress the sciatic nerve and cause pain.
For the last six weeks standing up is the only time I have a chance of being pain free and I now have breakfast standing up, I work standing up and occasionally watch television standing up. I try not to feel sorry for myself and don’t want to put my life on hold so, despite the pain, I have continued to walk and cycle. I am sure being upright during the day so much is good for me but I sometimes long to slob out for a while. I dream of curling up in an armchair with a book or kicking off my shoes, putting my feet up and watching a favourite programme. Instead, when I do sit down it is a brief moment with my back straight and supported.
But it is a full night’s sleep that I miss most. I pretty much always fall asleep easily but within a week of the initial injury I began waking in the dead of night with super-cramp down my right leg. There are plenty of suggestions for relief on the internet and I have absorbed these and shifted position and tried pillows in all the right places but frustratingly the only thing that helps a little is a heat mat [like a small electric blanket]. As every toss and turn is agony I am resigned to lying still and hoping I get at least four hours shut-eye before my brain can take no more pain and nudges me awake. No stretches or bed-based exercises give me relief and I know that walking is the only thing to do. Getting up takes effort and there are times when the pain is so intense for the first minute or so of moving around that the blood rushes from my head and I am at risk of fainting. I can’t put my head between my legs [I can hardly do up my shoe laces!] so I end up on the floor until it passes.
Some miracle manipulation by the physio that was worth every penny gave me a break from the night-time pain session for a couple of weeks in October but this has now worn off. This last week I can once again be seen, an exhausted and pathetic figure huddled in my fleecy dressing gown slowly making my way around our small house.
The frugal part of my brain had jumped at the chance to save money when, at my last appointment, the physio suggested I was doing so well I didn’t need to return for three weeks. Of course, this is a decision I am now regretting and my next session cannot come soon enough! Fingers crossed this is a temporary set back and I will soon be once again having long and sweet dreams until dawn.
One of us in our house [and its not me] has completed his Wainwright fells! Although we have been walking up Lake District hills together since the 1980s, he didn’t start determinedly ticking off his 214 Lake District Wainwrights until 1998. It was one of those significant birthdays that inspired him to begin and the team [in the photograph above] climbed the Old Man of Coniston to celebrate his 40th birthday, marking the beginning of his Wainwright journey.
The Old Man of Coniston was a strange hill to choose in some way as it was one we had already climbed together twice over the previous 15 years. It was, of course, because of the name and now it is our most climbed Wainwright as we go back every ten years on my partner’s significant birthdays and follow one of the many routes up this much-loved mountain. His birthday is at the end of winter and although we were lucky to have fine weather when he was 40, the photograph of the small select group of us on the summit when he was 50 shows a different side of the mountain. Only our son and daughter-in-law and our toughest friends wanted to climb the Old Man on a cold damp day and looking at the photographs you can hardly make out any of us for the low cloud and layers of waterproofs! For his 60th we decided to be sociable and moved his birthday hill walk to June and we were rewarded with a fine sunny day with a bevy of friends.
Unless you are a very organised Wainwright Bagger, as you get to the end of your Wainwright list you will have random hills dotted around the Lake District to walk up [or maybe this is just us]. Our visits to the Lake District became dominated by walks up these outlying fells and others that we had somehow missed on previous trips. Our climbs up, down and around the Wainwrights have perhaps sometimes missed the obvious and most efficient routes and I can often be heard saying, ‘Why didn’t we walk up this hill when we were there,’ as I point to the next pimple along the ridge. This habit of almost climbing the Wainwrights one at a time will be why we have also walked up and down Fairfield more times than I can count. As well as being a fine hill, Fairfield [above Ambleside] is often on the way to another summit. Keen Wainwright Baggers will complete the handful of fells around Fairfield in one long and tiring day. We go up and down again and again! Fortunately, it doesn’t matter how many times we visit I will never tire of the Lake District fells.
Those energetic hill walkers will probably climb two fells, Hopegill Head and Whiteside above Crummock Water during the same day as they are bagging Grasmoor and maybe some other surrounding hills. For whatever reason we hadn’t done this. It might be laziness but no matter, it just means that we had another glorious day walking in this area that was particularly special after several days of heavy rain.
We have set off up the small hill called Outerside above Braithwaite previously. On that day, a couple of winters ago the slight breeze in the valley became a gale force wind that made standing up almost impossible as we ascended and we were forced onto a low-level walk instead. Our second attempt at Outerside was on a sunny autumnal day and we enjoyed a relative easy day on the hills which was appreciated after the steep slopes of Hopegill Head and Whiteside the day before. Outerside was his 208th [out of 214] Wainwright.
On the same trip we also climbed up Haystacks from Buttermere for a second or third time. Haystacks is one of those fells I imagine we will climb again and again now his Wainwright list is complete and doesn’t dictate where we go as, even on a wet day, I was pleased to revisit this wonderful craggy hill.
Two years ago we set off up Froswick, an odd hill on a ridge that was still unticked. It was winter and Froswick had other ideas and in deep snow and strong winds we had to turn back. We finally ascended this fine hill in January this year. It was still cold, I was still wearing as many layers as a human can but the wind stayed away and we had a glorious day out [see the photograph at the end of this post].
His big finish was a fantastic hillwalking day on two neighbouring fells in western Ennerdale, Great Bourne and Starling Dodd. Starling Dodd was Wainwright’s last fell for the final volume of the Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells. He descended it in September 1965 with mixed emotions. That this was my partners final Wainwright on his list wasn’t planned but it felt so right. It was a clear and breezy day but there was no fanfare on Starling Dodd just big smiles. We had views across the Lake District and we reminisced about some of our favourite days on the hills. We hugged each other, took photos and texted our son. Walking back through the woodland by Ennerdale the sun came out and made the day even more perfect.
It seems our Wainwright Bagging days won’t quite be over after that final hill-top Wainwright-completion-bash. Since retirement we have climbed the Wainwrights together but before 2017 there were quite a few of the fells that I dodged, either because I had work commitments or just couldn’t be bothered to detour to. These 20 Wainwrights have now become a list and apparently our Lake District hillwalking will continue to be at least in part dictated by Alfred Wainwright until they have all been completed! Onward and upward as they say!
Earwigging we call it and I am always doing it. It is nothing to do with creepy crawlies, instead it is our word for harmless overhearing of other people’s conversations. On buses and trains and walking in the countryside and urban areas I sometimes listen in, a harmless vice that gives me pleasure. I enjoy the snippets of people’s lives that I hear and the insight into other worlds this can gift me.
Passing groups on a footpath when we are taking a countryside walk I will pick up only a sentence or two of a whole conversation. Two people approach deep in conversation and I overhear one exclaim to their friend, ‘ … And then to cap it all I found out he had forgotten to buy the toothpaste …’ From those few words I continue on my way making up a whole story in my head about what else had been forgotten, why he forgot to buy the toothpaste and why it mattered quite so much.
On public transport earwigging is different. Here some people speak loudly and clearly even though they are sitting together, they share longer conversations and I find myself getting sucked into their story. I often take a book to read on a train but if a real-life story is being unfolded on a nearby seat I discard my novel for something more interesting! People also speak loudly on their mobile phones on public transport and I get caught up in their half of the conversation and imagine the person they are talking to, where they are and what they are saying.
We have just returned from a splendid three weeks exploring Suffolk [a new to us county] and Norfolk in our campervan. We used public transport to reach places beyond the campsites, we walked miles and sat in lots of cafes and I have returned with a few earwigged conversations from that trip.
It was a wet and windy day and we decided to take the train into Norwich to see the sights of this lovely city. The train was surprisingly quiet but a few seats behind us a young woman was chatting on her phone to someone. At first I was watching the Norfolk countryside and not really listening to her conversation until I heard her say, ‘OMG, you’ll never guess what’s happened.’ Immediately, I was all ears! She elaborated further to her friend, explaining that while she had been on the phone she had received a message from the bass player of her band and he had resigned. This was clearly unexpected news and inconvenient as they had a gig coming up in the next few days. I was disappointed when she got up to leave the train stopping me hearing more about how the band would cope without a crucial bassist.
On the same train there were two guards, which seemed a bit over-the-top for so few passengers but appeared to have something to do with re-training. After they had checked tickets, the two guards had plenty of time to sit and chat between stations and chose seats near us. They talked solely about trains! After one had put forward his personal plans for the Felixstowe line they began riffing and bouncing across the aisle all the problems that can delay a train and whose responsibility it was to sort it and pay compensation to passengers. Their list became darker as they delved deeper. ‘Leaves on the line, that’s Network Rail,’ one said, ‘And cows is them too,’ replied the other, until their list ended somberly with suicides and they sat in silence remembering.
In a Norwich cafe we sat at a table next to two women who were having a much needed catch up. One was describing in detail the stomach aches she had been experiencing for some months. ‘I thought it was a milk allergy,’ she explained but apparently substituting soya, oat and coconut milk made no difference. After excluding other things from her diet and trying various medications her doctor suggested she change her teabags, ‘As you know I drink gallons of tea,’ she confided to her friend. I was amazed to hear that the teabag change did the trick and she was cured.
In another cafe in Ipswich I gained an insight into the working life of a hazardous waste collector. While he waited for his takeaway coffee he described the irresponsible behaviour of some businesses to the cafe worker. He shared stories and photographs of unsecurely wrapped, unlabelled and unidentified materials that businesses leave, expecting him to remove them out of their way. I could only hope he was handsomely paid for his diligent work.
Other fleeting conversations are equally surprising but less about earwigging. We were sitting at the outside tables at a cafe attached to a garden in north Norfolk when the waitress appeared and began removing all the sachets of mayonnaise from the box on our table and all the other tables. ‘The rooks take these and eat the contents,’ she told us. It seems Norfolk has clever gourmet rooks with a preference for mayonnaise as she was confident that they would leave the salad cream alone.
I get words muddled up all the time and sometimes these muddled words are more fun than the real word. While washing up at a Suffolk campsite I was telling a fellow camper that we had walked the Angles Way [named after the post-Roman Germanic settlers in East Anglia] from Beccles to Lowestoft along the Waveney River. She told me how much she liked Beccles and that there were some good walks there. ‘I don’t know the Angles Way,’ she told me, ‘but we have followed the Angels Path.’ Now that sounds like a much more heavenly route!
Judge me if you wish for my earwigging but I suggest if you see me on a bus or when you are out for a walk just be careful about what you say!
On social media sites I have read posts from fellow campers who have experienced price rises on their trips to mainland Europe this year. Everyone’s holiday experience is different but I was prompted to compare our spending during our 50 days travelling around Germany and the Netherlands in May and June against previous trips. As I say, everyone spends their money in their own way and so comparisons are hard but we are fairly consistent in what we buy. As usual on this trip we stayed on campsites and stellplatz, making as much use of our ACSI card as we could; we consciously didn’t drive as far as we might have done in the past and we are two wine-drinking vegetarians who mostly cycle and walk all day. We have a budget for our trips but, apart from the diesel, didn’t actively cut back on our holiday spending as we were so excited to be back in mainland Europe! Below is the detail of what we spent and my thoughts on increases.
Diesel €429 / £369
Of course, diesel prices have increased over the last few years but we only drove around 2,000 km while we were away on this trip [we could have travelled that far in Scotland]. We were never in a rush and this slow travel approach kept our diesel costs down. Also, our Renault Master likes being in mainland Europe and gave us its best mpg ever at around 39 mpg!
Supermarkets €664 / £571
The cost of food in Germany and the Netherlands varied compared to the UK for individual items but overall we spent about the same as we would have had we been at home. We are both vegetarian and have a weakness for delicious German veggie frankfurters, garlicy vegetable spreads and German beer so stocked up on these. We do take teabags with us!
Including the two dozen bottles of beer and half-a-dozen bottles of German wine we returned home with, our supermarket spending was the equivalent of €13.28 / day and 20% of our spending. Looking back at previous trips comparison is complicated. Last time we were in Europe was 2020 in France and we spent an average of €18.87 / day but we did return home with around two dozen bottles of wine. In 2018 in Spain we averaged €12.05 / day and also came home with a similar amount of wine. From these figures I would say that food and drink has increased a little but no more than in the UK.
Cafes, ice-creams and eating out €616 / £530
Wow! That is a lot of treats but it is one of those things I am loathe to give up. Stopping for coffee or beer and cake at a German cafe or bar is a fun part of our holiday experience and it looks like we did this loads. If we were trying to save money we could definitely have cut down on this. This amount is about 30% more than we would spend at home but this has nothing to do with it being more expensive than the UK. We just couldn’t resist the lure of a cafe and it soon mounts up. We had some lunches out, lots of ice-creams, some beers, plenty of coffees with cake but didn’t have an evening meal that wasn’t cooked in our campervan and this is something we would normally do. Given this, the €12.32 / day we spent is quite a staggering amount and appears to represent increased cost in Germany and the Netherlands as we have never spent anything like this amount in the past.
Overnights €1,137 / £997
It is a couple of years since we have travelled in mainland Europe and we certainly noticed how the cost of campsites has increased, as it has in the UK. Even making as much use as we could of our ACSI card this was a big chunk of our holiday spending, averaging about £20 / night and 32% of our spending. Even the stellplatz we used were around €15 a night and others could save lots of money if you sought out free stellplatz with no EHU and used your own facilities.
We use campsites for a number of reasons and the first one is that I love being on campsites! I enjoy meeting people, nipping out to collect the morning bread rolls for breakfast and I am happy going out cycling or walking for the day feeling confident that the Blue Bus is safe. That said, we do like to find a quiet and isolated pitch! What has changed me is Covid-19. We appear to have been extremely lucky and neither of us have suffered from Covid-19 but we could have caught it while we were away and quickly become too poorly to travel. Being ill in the ‘van isn’t a lot of fun and with no solar panel my anxiety levels would have been sky high without at least having EHU if we had to isolate in the ‘van for a week!
In 2020 in France we averaged €17.61 / night during August. The cost has probably gone up there too but German campsites have always been more expensive than France.
It would be hard to average £20 / night using campsites in the UK in 2022 and the reasonable cost of overnights is a big plus for travelling in the EU.
Trains, buses and ferries €210 / £180
We just missed the bargain €9 a month rail travel tickets in Germany as by the time these were available we had no plans to catch more trains. C’est la vie! The trains got us into cities, we crossed the Elbe on numerous ferries and used the Edam to Amsterdam bus service. We rarely had to pay for parking and train fares were generally cheaper than the UK.
Entrance fees €113 / £97
We were exploring so we paid to go into a few places as we travelled around. Prices for castles and museums were similar or less than in the UK.
Miscellaneous €143 / £122
This covers occasional wi-fi, washing machines and a few gifts for folk back home. Wi-fi availability in German was patchy, some campsites provided it, some didn’t, sometimes it was excellent and sometimes it was only just better than dial-up!
DFDS Newcastle to IJmuiden ferry return fare for two and a campervan with all meals £705.
When we first stopped working the nine-to-five jobs in 2017 we budgeted to travel across to mainland Europe twice a year. This was when the ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge cost about £500. This 40% increase in the cost of the ferry means that in 2022 we decided to only travel by ferry once during the year as our savings, while resilient enough, are feeling a stretch as everything increases in price
The cost of the DFDS ferry seems reasonable compared to the cost of our Brittany Ferries Portsmouth to St Malo trip in 2020, which cost £864 in high season!
Total cost of our 50-day trip – £3,551 / £71 per day
At £71 / day you can’t call our Germany and Netherlands trip a cheap holiday. Our August Brittany trip in 2020 cost us £84 / day but this was partly due to the ferry and wine stocks. A more similar length trip of 50 nights in Spain in 2018 cost us about £500 less. On this trip we spent £3,084 [approximately £60 / day] and given that the Portsmouth to Bilbao ferry was around £200 more than our DFDS ferry that seems like good value.
Inflation is here and doesn’t look like it is going away in the short term but the enjoyment we get from travelling around mainland Europe makes the cost worthwhile and I know we are lucky to be able to afford it.
We had never visited the Netherlands before this year. We had not even had a cheeky cheap-flight weekend to Amsterdam before 2022. Of course, we meet Dutch people in France, Spain, Italy etc. They are keen campers, often speak excellent English and like to chat, but this was our first chance to see them on their home turf.
Part of the reason why we have previously skipped the Netherlands was about ferries. We have been loyal customers of the Hull to Zeebrugge ferry run by P&O. This service ceased in 2020 and after the appalling way P&O treated their staff earlier this year we don’t plan to use them again. For the first time we travelled with DFDS from Newcastle to IJmuiden [the IJ isn’t a typo and it is pronounced eye] an overnight ferry that takes you within a few kilometres of Amsterdam. From IJmuiden it is an easy drive into Germany and after some weeks pottering around eastern Germany we opted to head back towards IJmuiden and spend the final week of our time away exploring a little corner of the Netherlands north of Amsterdam.
I hastily learnt a few words of Dutch before we reached our first campsite but I only ever had to use these to be polite. The receptionists at each campsite spoke English, as did the assistants in supermarkets, waiting staff in cafes and pretty much everyone else. Their competence in a second language humbled me every day! It certainly does no harm to learn how to say hello, please, thank you and sorry but I was relieved I never had to get my tongue around all those Dutch double vowels and say much more.
The Netherlands is home to ACSI and each of the campsites we stayed at was part of the ACSI card scheme and offered a discount in the low season and they were all good value. We were there towards the end of June and there were some campsites that had moved onto high season but still plenty of choice of places to stay. Each campsite was also well organised, handing us leaflets about the local area and, most importantly for us, had local cycling maps.
To say the cycling in the Netherlands was blissful is really an understatement. For this English cyclist I felt I must have entered a parallel universe where cyclists, pedestrians and car drivers all moved around in transport harmony. Most cycle lanes were segregated from cars but were often shared with pedestrians. Occasionally on a country lane we had to share a road with car drivers but the mass of cyclists ensured the cars had to drive carefully. At junctions, cycle route signposts used a numbering system that was mostly easy to follow and I was impressed by the superb way the Dutch ensured smooth cycling.
I expected the Netherlands to be crowded as there are over 17 million of them packed into a smallish country but the areas that we travelled in were often rural and green and we were pleasantly surprised by all the wildlife we saw. Hares lolloped around fields, geese were everywhere and sitting on our pitch at the campsite at Lelystad on the shores of the Markermeer, a vast freshwater lake that was once the sea, we were entertained by a flock of sparrows who flew bravely in for crumbs, some even sitting cutely in the Blue Bus’ doorway.
Cycling around the Oostvaardersplassen, a large nature reserve by Lelystad, we followed the dyke around the Markermeer, joined by terns flying and diving overhead. On the pools and reeds of the Oostvaardersplassen a marsh harrier caught our eye and as we were accompanied by a cuckoo call. Taking the well-signposted cycle paths inland, I was excited to see a grass snake slithering off the path just in front of my bike and disappearing among the giant hogweed plants. To top the day off, we pulled into the visitor centre and sat on a bench watching a stunning pair of sea eagles circling overhead, catching the sun as they tilted their wings.
We were once again on the Markermeer when we camped by the elegant town of Edam, this time on the opposite shore. Here there was plenty of bird life too. Geese called as they flew overhead, oystercatchers screeched along the shore and swallows swooped around the ‘van. We both really took to Edam, it is a charming town that was perfect for wandering around and stopping for a relaxing beer. It has pretty canals, wooden bridges, smart houses and, of course, cheese shops and seemed a charming [but expensive] place to live in.
I enjoy a chunk of well-matured gouda but wasn’t prepared for the Dutch enthusiasm for cheese. We were inducted into this passion at Alkmaar’s cheese market. This is held on Fridays and has a lively and festive atmosphere, with the baffling traditions explained in Dutch, German and English. The most exciting part of the event is watching the cheese bearers, wearing colourful straw hats and white trousers and shirts, vigorously carrying large round cheese around the square on wooden barrows and others tossing them onto a wooden cart. The Dutch visitors loved it and couples enthusiastically queued up to be weighed on the large cheese weighing scales and have their photograph taken. I felt we had arrived at a truly special and buzzing occasion and yet this happens every Friday!
Parking a campervan in the Netherlands was fairly straightforward. We didn’t meet any of those dreaded height barriers and only had to pay to park in Alkmaar and at Zaanse Schans, where the windmill photograph at the top of the page was taken. Zaanse Schans is a large and fascinating open-air museum with enough windmills to satisfy everyone, many of them still working. The museum sits along the banks of a river and also has cheese making demonstations and delightful wooden houses. It is only about 25 km from IJmuiden so perfect for your last day in the Netherlands before the ferry, if you are travelling back to Newcastle like us. It cost us €11 to park for the day and entrance to the museum is then free, although you do have to pay if you want to look around some of the windmills. They had a dedicated space for motorhomes and campervans and we had plenty of room to park. If you arrived here by bicycle you would save on the parking charge.
We used the DFDS Newcastle to IJmuiden ferry, an overnight service that suited us well as Newcastle is only a few hours from home. IJmuiden is just north-west of Amsterdam. The ferry is comfortable and with evening buffet and breakfast it cost us about £700 return in 2022. It arrives in IJmuiden in the morning giving us all day to drive to our first campsite. We found the roads across the north of the Netherlands to be excellent with no tolls and no traffic jams. I enjoyed exploring the Netherlands so much I am sure we will be back to visit other parts of the country in the future.
This is a story that I hope will make you smile or [if you’re an old romantic like me] might even bring a lump to your throat. Buy the September 2022 edition of Campervan Magazine [in the shops now or subscribe] and you can read about how we revisited our budget honeymoon-in-a-tent destination in our campervan and compare how the Isle of Skye was then [it was the 1980s when we got married] and now.
Big weddings were less of a thing in the 1980s but even so there was little that was conventional about our honeymoon. The article begins …
To be honest I can’t remember how the conversation went but somehow I was persuaded to spend our honeymoon camping in a tent on the Isle of Skye along with 14 other people!
Campervan Mag September 2022
Back in the 1980s we had just purchased our first house, had little spare cash and we travelled to Skye on the cheap. We packed the tent and scrounged a lift in our friend’s olive-coloured Vauxhall and along with those 14 other people, we camped at Glenbrittle Campsite for a week. It possibly isn’t the start to married life I would recommend but we’re still together 38 years later!
In 2022 we returned to Skye in our relatively luxurious campervan, the Blue Bus. Crossing the bridge to Skye I thought wistfully about the ferry journey we had made back then.
The Fairy Pools, a series of clear waterfalls and pools from Coire na Crieche, are along the road through Glen Brittle. We must have passed them every time we went away from the campsite but back in the 1980s we didn’t give these a thought, they were just another of Skye’s picturesque corners. Driving by in the 21st century it is clear the falls have become a tourist hot-spot. I had read about this but hadn’t realised the scale of their attraction until I saw the mind boggling size of the car park.
Not surprisingly the cost of camping has increased somewhat in the last 38 years. Glenbrittle Campsite is not the cheapest and as I wrote in the article, we paid, ‘£32 for one night and calculated we could have enjoyed a three-week-long honeymoon for that much in the 1980s and still had change for beer!’
What never changes is the jaw-dropping landscape and revisiting our romantic walk up to Coire Lagan [in the top photograph] was as impressive as I remembered. We followed our youthful newlywed footsteps to this wonderful place and remembered how awestruck we were when we escaped the group and first came here. Sometimes it is a mistake to return to somewhere with special memories but it can be a positive thing too.
If you can’t get hold of a copy of Campervan Mag, you can read the full September 2022 article from this page of my blog.
This year we explored the River Elbe from Dresden in the south-east of Germany to Cuxhaven in the north. Following this long river in our campervan turned out to be a fantastic way to be both focused and relaxed on a trip. We explored so many attractive towns and cities and spent days cycling and walking through glorious nature reserves. The Elbe took us to parts of Germany we might not otherwise have reached and broadened my knowledge about this fascinating country.
I first travelled along the banks of the River Elbe in 1992. We arrived on the overnight train from Köln, changing in Dresden for a train to Prague. While our six-year old son charmed the other passengers in our compartment, shyly accepting sweets and drinks, I was enchanted by the river. The railway line follows the Elbe through the rugged narrow gorge of the Sächsische Schweiz, it was magical and I knew I would return. Roll forward a few years and our summer holiday began with a ferry from Harwich to Hamburg. This time I was on [rather than alongside] the River Elbe and I stood on deck as we chugged along the wide river into the massive port of Hamburg. This has to be up there as one of the best ferry trips I have ever taken, it is a shame it no longer exists.
The River Elbe is 1,094 km long. It rises in the Czechia mountains that border Poland, winds through Czechia until it eventually settles on heading north and crossing the border into Germany. After Dresden and Meissen, the Elbe flows across the North German plain towards the North Sea. The cities of Wittenberg, Dessau and Magdeburg sit on the Elbe before you reach Hamburg. And yet, it is the pasture and marshes of the Elbe’s floodplain that characterise the river through much of its German journey.
For the most part the Elbe was either in the DDR [German Democratic Republic or East Germany] or formed the border between the DDR and West Germany from the end of the Second World War until 1989. The legacy of this is lush riverbanks of wildflower meadows, farmland and wetland wildlife reserves with dykes to try and stop flooding. These dykes are often well away from the river, giving it space to flood naturally while still [hopefully] protecting villages.
When I learnt that the Elbe [like many / most German rivers] has a cycle path alongside it, I bought the guidebooks and started planning. In 2020 [BC – Before Covid-19] I had a pile of guides and maps and notes galore from my research for a trip from the source of the Elbe to Cuxhaven and the North Sea. Of course, that didn’t happen and in this AC [After Covid-19] world and taking into account the high cost of diesel following the Russian invasion and war in Ukraine the trip became something simpler. We concentrated on the section of the Elbe from Dresden to Cuxhaven, saving a considerable amount in diesel.
We used the Bikeline Elbe Cycle Route Part One and Two guidebooks in English. Cicerone now produce an Elbe Cycle Path guide that I am sure is excellent. I also got hold of useful brochures from this website. In many places the cycle route runs on both sides of the river and this, and the many ferries [see the end of the post for more on ferries], made circular day rides easy to plan. We travelled up and down the Elbe for about four weeks, often only driving about 50 km between campsites. You could do the trip more quickly!
Maybe it was because we weren’t in a rush, or the flat landscape or the rural areas with less urban stop-start driving but our campervan gave us the best mileage per litre of diesel we have ever got from it [the equivalent of about 39mpg]. Maybe with about 65,000 miles on the clock our Renault Master is just run in! Either way, we only filled up four times in our whole seven-week trip and one of those was just to take advantage of slightly cheaper diesel!
The cycling was really the highlight of the Elbe and I would recommend the river to anyone who enjoys pedaling through flat green countryside, stopping in pretty towns and villages for a beer or an ice-cream. Below are brief overviews about some of the wonderful places we visited as inspiration for anyone considering a trip to Germany as well as a section about the Elbe ferries at the end. This previous post has the list of campsites we used.
This city has changed since 1992 when the Frauenkirche was still a pile of rubble and the pedestrianised Prager Strasse a wide Soviet showpiece boulevard. Don’t miss the transformed Prager Strasse and a walk around the roof-top terrace of the late Baroque Zwinger Palace.
Meissen is delightful and I should never have left visiting it for so long. The view of the town from the Elbe is spectacular, the streets are attractive and if you like up-market window shopping or sipping a glass of local wine in a pretty square then this is the place for you!
Mühlberg & surroundings
This sleepy little town surprised me. Mühlberg has a magnificent convent church, a pink town hall and other inviting corners along its cobbled streets. Our campsite pitch was idyllic and from Mühlberg we cycled up and down stream through a rural area that was packed with wildlife.
Celebrated as the place where American and Russian forces met at the end of the Second World War this is an exceptionally attractive town with a striking castle and a big square that is perfect for people watching. The only thing that spoilt our visit was the heartbreaking sight of magnificent brown bears that are kept in the enclosed moat.
Internationally known for its association with the Protestant reformation, Wittenberg is lovely enough to visit whether the activities of Martin Luther in 1517 interest you or not. The main streets, lined with open water channels that were once part of the Medieval water system, take you to a handsome square and the town has a ring of parks.
On a sunny day a visit to the fairytale gardens of Wörlitz Park are hard to beat. Rowing boats slide under elegant wooden bridges, a flat-bottomed ferry crosses the lake from a kneeling Venus statue. Across lawns you catch glimpses of follies and peacocks potter around the Gothic House. I am not sure if it is real!
In the 17th century the Princess of Orange-Nassau chose to put her summer palace near to Wörlitz and insisted the village name be changed to Oranienbaum. Orange trees line the garden walks and the palace faces a square with a metal orange tree sculpture. Beyond this House of Orange symbolism there is an Chinese garden with a pagoda and a charming tea house.
The Bauhaus art school was a radical movement that combined art, crafts and technology in 1920s Germany. The Bauhaus Building in Dessau is an icon of modern architecture and the innovative Master’s Houses, that can also be visited, are inspiring. I was thrilled to be there.
The city of Magdeburg is lively and energetic with many fine sights. For me the most inspiring was the last building the architect Hundertwasser designed, Die Grüne Zitadelle. Taking a tour around this amazing unsymmetrical structure with lush garden roofs is an opportunity to see a different future for city housing.
North of Magdeburg we spent a few days cycling through the woodland and flower-rich wetland meadows between Jerichow and Burg. Jerichow has a large and impressive brick-built monastery and the town of Burg retains some of its medieval fortified walls.
We only spent a morning in Tangermünde but could easily have stayed longer. This historic town on the banks of the Elbe was at its height in the 15th century when it was a member of the Hanseatic League. Numerous brick Gothic buildings tell the story of the town’s wealth, along with the almost entirely preserved city walls and fortified gates. I want to return and stay in one of the town’s pretty timber-framed houses on its cobbled streets.
Havelberg & Werben
We cycled to the quaint town of Werben from Havelberg [on the River Havel where it joins the Elbe], taking the ferry across the Elbe. Werben celebrates its storks and has plenty of them. I felt privileged to get the chance to look down on tiny chicks in a stork’s nest from Werben’s gatehouse and tower.
The town of Dömitz has large star-shaped 17th century fort. The elbow-shaped defensive entrance tunnel proved useful for shelter in a hail storm. We watched the hail bounce off the cobbles while staying dry. From the fort’s remaining bastions there are views of the Elbe and the new road bridge. When the sun returned Dömitz was also the place to try DDR softeis [ice-cream].
The picturesque island town of Hitzacker has a long history of tourism and it is still a popular place to visit with a car park big enough for motorhomes and an overnight parking area too. The small touristy town of timber-framed houses has plenty of places to eat and some interesting independent shops.
We stayed a few nights on a campsite between Bleckede and Lauenburg and enjoyed some glorious days of cycling. In a country full of attractive towns, Lauenburg, strung along the bank of the Elbe, stands out for being particularly delightful. The countryside is green and dotted with handsome farmhouses and tidy villages. We were lucky enough to watch a barge being carried up the massive boat lift at Scharnebeck too.
The Elbe is a busy shipping waterway by the time it reaches Hamburg, which might be my favourite German city [although there is lots of competition]. I find the huge container port fascinating, the city’s energy addictive and the number of beautiful historic sights captivating. We arrived by ferry from Finkenwerder and walked through the Old Elbe Tunnel under the river. If you’ve never been, put Hamburg on your list!
Across the Elbe from Hamburg is an area called the Altes Land. This large fruit-growing area is both wealthy and scenic. We cycled around the numerous orchards and spent a day in the town of Stade, pottering around the historic centre and visiting the open air museum learning about the symbolism of the decorative features on local buildings.
Cuxhaven is the end of the road for the River Elbe. Here the wide river is busy with shipping as it flows into the North Sea. Cuxhaven is a fishing town and seaside resort. Along the coast the sandy beaches are vast and you can hire a strandkorb, a covered seat for two, for protection from the wind.
Bridges and ferries
All of the Elbe ferries we used carried bikes and passengers, even the small ones, while larger ferries carried a few cars too. We paid between €3 and €5 to cross the river, the price seeming to have nothing to do with the width of the river!
Many Elbe bridges were destroyed during the Second World War by retreating German troops. With no need or desire to re-establish those connections across the Iron Curtain during the Cold War there are still a relative small number of bridges across the Elbe. Another factor is that the Elbe regularly floods and bridges need to be long enough to span the floodplain and have an elevation that can cope with high water. This makes them expensive to build!
At Neu Darchau, which found itself in West Germany after the Second World War, we came across a campaign to stop a new bridge across the Elbe. On the opposite bank is Darchau, which was in the DDR. The re-connection of the two villages when Tanja, the local ferry made the first trip in 1989, is remembered and celebrated. At the ferry slipway we read about the ferry, admired the lovingly-made model Tanja, and learnt why these small communities see no need for a proposed massive bridge across this green section of the Middle Elbe Reserve.
In May and June 2022 we spent seven weeks touring Germany and The Netherlands. We caught the DFDS ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden and explored at a slow pace, staying at 21 different places during our trip for up to four nights. We made good use of our ACSI low season discount card.
This is a large grassy site surrounded by trees. It is mostly level but some pitches can be slightly uneven. The facilities are cleaned regularly & the five minute showers are roomy & hot. The free wifi is good and the site is peaceful. The check-in process seemed a bit long winded & the automatic barrier wouldn’t recognise our number plate. We stayed here on the way there and back & walked through the forest to the nearby village. It was about £25/night in May and a couple of £s more in June.
An extremely peaceful & green site with marked pitches. We had a view over a pond from our pitch and there was lots of birdsong here. No bread is available & the facilities are dated but clean with hot showers & indoor wash up sinks. There are walks and cycle routes from the site. The ACSI price includes 4 kw/day of electric which was enough for us in summer and the site is around £15 / night with an ACSI card.
This is a level & nicely laid out parking area with clear pitches. On arrival you need to book in at the sports centre. There is some road noise but trees do screen it. The facilities are 2 toilets & 2 showers for each sex and these are clean with hot showers. A pitch costs about £12.50 a night.
This large site is by a lake with a number of camping fields, no defined pitches & a long cable might be needed. There is some road noise. The facilities are clean but the showers a bit hit & miss for temperature. No bread was available when we visited. There is good cycling from the site & the railway station for Magdeburg is about 2kms away. The site cost around £20 a night in May.
This is another large campsite where long electric leads are needed. We received a friendly welcome in German & bread was available daily. The facilities are clean with hot continuous & adjustable showers but just 1 hook to hang your clothes & the shower heads are at chest height (we got used to this)! The cycling and walking from the site are fantastic. It cost around £17 a night in May.
Situated on a small lake and on the Elbe Radweg (so plenty of cycling options) this is a grassy & fairly level site with facilities reached by a flight of steps. If you can’t manage the steps there are a few hard-standing pitches on the same level as the toilets. No English was spoken at reception. The facilities are clean & modern & the showers hot, adjustable & roomy. The site is by a small town with a convent church, a supermarket and bakery and cost about £20 a night.
This green & tranquil site with marked out pitches was a big hit with us. English was spoken at the friendly reception, bread was available & the facilities were clean with hot adjustable showers. The site is on the Elbe Radweg and just 4kms from beautiful Meissen This was the most expensive campsite we stayed at, costing about £27.50 a night but still our favourite.
This large site is by a small lake and has mostly marked out pitches. The showers were cramped with poor lighting, were €1 for four minutes & were hot. The rural site has plenty of walking and cycling options. We paid around £22 / night which includes approx £3 for 3.5kw of metered electric.
There is a stellplatz at Wörlitz with EHU but that gets busy & is around €15 so we opted to have our own space on the large level car park for €5 for 24 hours. There are toilets from 07.00 until 19.00 and the car park was quiet and is very near to the beautiful park.
We stayed here for a night during a holiday weekend and so didn’t see it at its best & had a small cramped pitch. The campsite is by the Elbe and there are some lovely pitches with views. The showers are €1 each & are hot but you don’t have much room. The electric is metered & the owners are friendly but don’t speak much English. To get hot water at the washing up sinks you have to pay 50c. The site has a small bar and is about 2kms from the centre of the town in an industrial area. This cost around £21.50 / night.
This newly developed 50 place camping area is in trees & by a hotel. The site has new modern facilities & self-service touch-screen check in (available in English). The check-in machine gives you a card that is used to access all the facilities (EHU, toilet emptying, water, showers) & updates to show what you have spent. We had some difficulties figuring out how to use this for the showers but eventually got there and had excellent hot showers. We saved money by switching the shower off while we lathered up & this way could shower for around 30c. The automatic system went wrong somewhere & didn’t charge us for extras & so it was good value at just the basic €15 / night!
While reception is lovely, the rest of this site is slightly rundown. It is near to the town with reasonable sized pitches that are marked. The facilities are also scruffy but we appreciated the good hot showers that are adjustable, continuous & spacious & have a sink. The site is near the river & has a small cafe at reception where bread is available. With the tourist tax we paid almost £27 a night.
A small & pleasantly arranged site with some marked pitches that slope a little, 4 bathrooms & additional toilets. The showers are temperature adjustable, hot & clean. The site is near to the large fort & by the town. With showers & metered electric this cost around £22/night.
A prettily laid out rural and grassy site that is Dutch run, this is a well organised campsite with morning bread & a restaurant. The facilities are kept clean but the showers were only just warm enough for me & cost 50c for 2 mins, so if you have long hair you need lots of 50c pieces! It is on Elbe cycle path and there is plenty of good cycling. With an ACSI card this was about £19/night.
A large woodland campsite that is geared up for transit overnights. It has a large sanitary block that is dated but functional with good hot continuous showers. Toilet paper is on a large roll outside the cubicles. With an ACSI card this site cost around £15.50 / night.
This rustic and green farmhouse site has bushes & trees around the narrow, somewhat cramped pitches. The showers are dated but very hot & adjustable. Bread is available & the site sells local apple juice & a few other food items. The site is just 5kms from the train station for Hamburg & on the Elbe Radweg so there is plenty of good cycling in the area. Around £21/night.
An ACSI discount card site with marked pitches, clean & modern facilities & indoor wash up. It is by an airport & planes took off during the daytime. Fresh bread is available at the snack bar. The push button showers were only just warm but the facilities were clean. The site was around £17/night.
A busy site by a lake, the reasonable-sized pitches are grassy & some were marked with hedges. Tokens give a four minute shower which were good & hot in clean & modern facilities. Reception was friendly although no English was spoken. No bread was on sale & there are no nearby shops. Excellent cycling in the area. The site was around £17 / night.
The pitches are laid out in small groups on this campsite with central facilities that are clean, with roomy showers for five minutes that are just warm enough. There are trees and bushes and lots of sparrows & geese on the site. Free wifi that is fast is provided. Fantastic cycling from the site around the nature reserve & into Lelystad. With an ACSI card this cost about £20/night.
A large rural site with unmarked pitches mostly arranged around the edge of fields. The free wifi was good. The facilities are clean & it cost 50c for a four minute shower in a roomy cubicle but the water was only just warm enough. Bread is available at reception every day. There is good cycling in the area including to Alkmaar and the coast. With an ACSI card this cost under £19/night.
This is a large popular and crowded site on the Markermeer. Tokens provided timed showers that were variable, the block near reception was better & cleaner with hotter water. There is access to the beach & the site has a bar & restaurant. Edam is a delightful town & is about 15 minutes walk away. Regular buses to Amsterdam leave from the bus station This site cost around £20/night with an ACSI card.
Taking a photograph of our breakfast table for the #warcoffee community on Twitter [check out Yaroslava Antipina @strategywoman to get a feel for life in Kyiv during the war] I realised how many gorgeous and useful things we have in our campervan that are regular reminders of our happy travels around Europe. Of course, we drive a French Renault van but the European theme doesn’t stop there, we have picked up things we like and need in many different countries.
Our rustic wooden bread bowl in the photograph is used for our continental breakfasts and came from Slovakia, back when it was part of Czechoslovakia. We took a backpacking railway trip to the Tatras in 1992 and managed to squeeze this beautiful bowl into the rucksack, along with a bottle of Czech beer! It is perfect for breakfast and dinner bread.
Our honey of the day might be from Shropshire [we always pick up local honey when we are travelling] but the wooden honey spoon was bought in the idyllic Italian village of Sorano in southern Tuscany. We were visiting a friend who lived there at the time and she showed us the sights and took us into the town for a meal. Browsing around a shop packed full of wooden chopping boards and spoons I admired this honey spoon and she generously insisted on buying it for me. I am so glad I didn’t point out anything more expensive in the shop and feel sad that we have lost touch but I think of her everyday when I use the spoon.
When it comes to slicing those large crusty continental loaves we use a steak knife from a village shop in Slovenia. A bread knife isn’t something we have room for and the steak knife does the job. The glass plates with blue swirls are from one of those interesting French hypermarkets that I could browse around for hours and the jolly teacosy with the stylish red radish pattern is from Denmark. We slum it with teabags when we are camping but still use a teapot. Our camping teapot is from Blomus, a German company who make quality stuff that we grabbed as a second-hand bargain on Ebay. The handle folds down making it perfect for stowing in one of the cupboards in the campervan.
While my mug with the blue flowers is another Italian find from the beautiful Malcesine on Lake Garda and gives me pleasure everyday, Anthony’s mug is from the Serra da Estrela in Portugal. We enjoyed our time in this stunning mountainous area of Portugal so much it is lovely to have a reminder of it on a daily basis wherever we are. The tray our teapot sits on has a map of Salford that includes our former home. This was a thoughtful retirement gift from a friend so we could show people where we lived.
Our evening hot drink mugs [yes we have mugs for different drinks!] are Morecambe mugs, so we never forget where home is now! Mine has a picture of the Midland Hotel and Anthony’s has Morecambe in big colourful letters and Eric Morecambe’s iconic specs.
These are all small treasures that are both useful, hold precious memories and make me feel blessed. None of them cost us an arm and a leg but all of them are cherished.