Exploring Northern Hungary in a Campervan

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The view over the Danube from Visegrad Castle

Some years ago we travelled to Hungary, equipped with a guide book, a couple of maps and a postcard with useful phrases in Hungary’s difficult language, such as, ‘Can we camp here?’  This was kindly written by my Hungarian friend who sympathised with how difficult Hungarian is for English people to learn.  ‘It will be hot,’ my cold-loving Hungarian friend had assured me; she often told me how unbearably hot a Hungarian summer is and so we took shorts and t-shirts.  As it turned out it was a particularly wet late May and early June and our most worn clothing was our waterproofs!

All the same we had an amazing time exploring this interesting country, although due to time constraints [and work] we only saw a small chunk, we did explore areas less often the haunt of sun-loving travellers.  We toured around the north of the country, driving into Hungary from Austria and leaving via Slovakia.  Our first stop was the charming town of Kőszeg that is full of beauty and surrounded by hills and trees; in the rain we had it to ourselves.  Known as the ‘Jewel Box of Hungary,’ with cobbled streets and colourful buildings it is certainly worth stopping here to explore the lovely square and the castle.

Our first Hungarian campsite was near the large thermal spa at Buk.  The receptionist didn’t speak English but did speak German and so we muddled along and I didn’t need the postcard of useful phrases.  Taking an evening walk through the many baths and tourist shops we were amazed how popular taking to the water here is.

Driving through fields and vineyards towards the Danube, we stopped at the lovely town of Tata that has a ruined castle picturesquely set by a lake.  An event was being held and local people, young and old, were dressed as ancient Magyars and practising with bows and arrows.   Here we had our first Hungarian soft ice-cream on a cornet, the ice-cream dipped into melted chocolate creating a crisp chocolate layer to bite through to the sweet ice-cream.

On the River Danube we found the slightly down-at-heel campsite run by the Hotel Honti in Visegrad and settled in for a day or two.  Exploring the town on a Sunday morning we came across a procession along a colourful flower-strewn path to the church.  Another walk took us up the hillside to the stunningly-positioned castle.  There are ferries on the wide river here, including to Budapest.

Mátra Kemping Sástó was a newly refurbished campsite at the time of our visit and had the best facilities we encountered in Hungary.  The large well-organised site on the hillside above Gyöngyös has bungalows, a hotel as well as camping pitches.

The Mátra mountain range has Hungary’s highest peak Kékestető (1014 m).  From the campsite we walked through beautiful beech woodland on well-marked paths, stopping at a roadside stall for sweet tea with lemon before heading up the steep section.  You can drive to the top of Kékestető and the tree-covered summit gives you no view to reward your effort unless you climb the look-out tower.  We returned on a different footpath which gave us wide open views down to the plain below and was a wonderful walk, even though we missed the path back to the campsite and ended up in the lower village and had to walk back up the hillside.

We had a beautiful drive around the northern valley of the Mátra to the city of Eger the next day, through attractive villages and vineyards where the grapes for Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood of Eger) are grown.  After stocking up in the supermarket and buying our favourite calorie-laden lángos [deep fried flat bread smothered in garlic] for lunch we explored Eger.  This city is packed with stunning buildings, narrow streets and pretty courtyards.  Most interesting was the one minaret that remains of the ten built here in the Ottoman era.  This and the Baroque mansions, the wide plaza and the castle make the city an interesting mixture of styles.  Hungary understands how to create a welcoming cafe and there are plenty in Eger; despite the lángos we found space for good cake with coffee.

Nearby is the Bükk National Park and here we sought out the Beehive Stones near Szomolya.  The rural roads were so heavily potholed we had to weave along the road and we almost gave up but we were glad we persisted and found somewhere to park.  Szomolya has a cherry festival in July and is another wine-growing area.  On our walk we passed many cave houses, some of which are now used as wineries.  The Beehive Stones are a feature of this area and are unusual stones of tufa rock with oblong recesses or niches cut into them.  Although there are various theories, it is thought these may have been for keeping bees, hence the name.

We had hoped to camp at Thermal Spa Bogács that evening but after the unseasonable weather the grassy field was sodden and in heavy rain we moved on to the campsite at Mezokovesd that has since closed.

Heading further east, we meandered towards Tokaj, following the River Tisza.  Tokaj is the home of delicious, golden and sweet wine that is valued far and wide.  The town is attractive, surrounded by hillsides covered in vineyards, nesting storks on the rooftops and old buildings.  There are no shortage of independent producers and shops selling the wine and there are plenty of opportunities for wine tours.

Our final night was spent on the edge of Sárospatak; any further east and we would be in Ukraine.  Once again the campsite had a hostel for school groups, as well as the camping pitches.  The next day we crossed the border into Slovakia and began our return west.  We enjoyed exploring some of the natural areas and off-the-beaten-tracks parts of Hungary but realise that we had only dipped our toes into this wonderful country.

Travel Cook Eat have an informative post about travelling in a motorhome in Hungary.

Campsites we stayed at:

Romantik Camping, Buk The facilities were faded but the showers were very hot and roomy and all water hot, no marked pitches, near to large spa resort.
Kek Duna Camping, Hotel Honti Panzio, Visegrad A small site behind a snack bar and next to hotel, grassy with some trees.  There was a five minute wait for hot water, showers clean, toilets dated.
Matra Kemping Sasto, Matrafured Newly refurbished site, with marked grassy pitches in trees, new facilities with hot water, by a small lake and walking
Zsory Camping kft, Mezokovesd Marked pitches in a spa complex, shabby reception and facilities but hot water and very good showers.  This campsite has now closed.
Camping Tengerszem, Sarospatak Grassy, marked pitches, some trees, facilities shabby and water only lukewarm

Recommendations for Campervan & Motorhome Travel Books

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A selection of campervan and motorhome books

For those days when I am at home rather than travelling in our Blue Bus, I travel in my head by reading about other people’s journeys.  Not surprisingly, I particularly have a weakness for buying travel books where the author stays in a campervan or motorhome and I can live the lifestyle vicariously through the pages of someone else’s trip and maybe learn a thing or two.  If you are interesting in reading some of these travel books then read on for recommendations.

Over the years, I have noticed that these campervan and motorhome travel books can be divided into two sub-categories.  There are those where the campervan or motorhome is the main event; these are all about the pleasure and fun of the ‘van lifestyle.   The second category is books that are about a journey where the motorhome is incidental and just a practical and affordable way to travel.

My own journey with these books started when I read Hazel Jackson’s, Europe in a Motorhome; A mid-life Gap Year Around Southern Europe as part of my planning and preparation for our own mid-life gap year.  I found this an excellent and well-written book that was useful before we headed off on our own trip around Europe.  Helen Jackson and her partner, bored with the nine-to-five, took their teenage son on a journey in an RV called The Beast, selling their home and possessions.

Leaving winter behind Helen Jackson slept in a different place almost every night and packed in all sorts of activities.  She has her share of anecdotes about robberies and small disasters, as well as friendships and beautiful places, all told with humour and sensitivity.  She gives a good sense of what such a trip would be like and although Hazel Jackson’s trip was very different from our own in a small VW campervan, it was both a useful reference and an inspiration for our own journey.  This book might inspire you to take a gap year but even if it doesn’t it is a good read from beginning to end.

Falling into the second category of journeys that just happen to be in a motorhome are some of my favourites.  Some are out of print but you should be able to find them second-hand.

Helena Drysdale’s Mother Tongues, Travels through tribal Europe, focuses on the author’s search for the minority languages in Europe.  She travelled around in a motorhome, with her partner and children and she tells lighthearted tales about the scrapes and difficulties they experienced.  To save money Helen Drysdale and her family mostly wild-camped and they had a number of interesting experiences in sometimes beautiful and sometimes dodgy areas.  She certainly has a way of engaging with strangers to explore the story and she writes well.  The book is also a fantastic opportunity for the reader to reflect on how the language we use everyday shapes our attitudes.

Heidi’s Alp, One Family’s search for storybook Europe by Christina Hardyment is one of my will-read-again favourite motorhome related books.  Christina Hardyment is a prolific writer and in this book she travels around Europe in a campervan called Bertha with her four children for eight weeks or so.  They visit sites relating to childhood stories, exploring Andersons Fairy tales, Heidi’s Alp and Pinocchio’s Italy and bringing these places to life for the children.  This is a joyful & honest personal tale with interesting information about these stories.  ‘Our journey was not dependent on the places we found, but on how we chose to see them,’ Christina Hardyment tells the reader.  This is a charming book, the highlight of which is a night in an Alpine hayloft, reliving Heidi’s story.  A great read for those of us who have never grown up, Christina Hardyment will bring back happy memories of old favourites and reveal stories you never knew.

Susie Kelly is a writer who lives in France and Travels with Tinkerbelle: 6,000 Miles around France in a Mechanical Wreck was motivated by her realisation that she had visited very little of her adopted country.  With her partner and dog, she bought an elderly campervan and travelled in a circuit around France exploring the history and culture along the way.  If you are looking for a guide to owning a motorhome, this isn’t the book for you, but if you are looking for ideas of places to visit in France, this is a great start.

Martin Moran, climber and mountain guide who died recently in the Nanga Devi region, had a plan to climb all the Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet in Scotland) during the winter months back in 1985.  Along with his winter clothing and ice-axe, his wife and a motorhome were key to making this possible.  His book The Munros in Winter is more about the difficulties of winter mountaineering than about motorhoming but the sense of comfort he found each time he returns to the motorhome shines through.

The Coast Road: A 3,000 Mile Journey Round the Edge of England by Paul Gogarty won awards when it was published in 2005.  As relevant today as then, this is a journey around the English coast and an account of how those coastal communities are faring.  This travel book has that liberating feeling of a road trip with a purpose and he approaches most places he visits with sensitivity and enthusiasm, although I take issue with his initial description of Morecambe as, ‘After sedate Southport and bubbling Blackpool, Morecambe looks as if it has suffered a recent terrorist attack.’  Paul Gogarty is an excellent travel writer and I forgave him this slip and learnt many things from this well-researched book.  From my notes I also see that my other small criticism is that he spends more time in the south than along our northern coasts.

There are any number of motorhome travel books out there that want to tell you how funny / hopeless / quirky they are.  These books are often self-published and with some of the writers you will wonder how they even made it across the Channel.  Here are examples I have read:

Many people like to name their motorhomes and in How Katie pulled Boris – with an American Motorhome (RV) in Europe by Keith Mashiter not only is the RV named but also the car they towed as well.  Written in a format that is more personal diary than travel literature, this couple take a large RV-type motorhome to France and Spain during autumn and winter and the book might be of interest to others contemplating a trip in a similar size vehicle.   Keith gives details of road numbers, prices paid, campsites used, places they ate, attractions they visited.  He gives a very clear idea of what it is like travelling in such a huge motorhome and the practical difficulties they faced because of the size of the vehicle they took.  He occasionally includes small vignettes of the people they met and encounters they had with other motorhomers and campsite owners.  This is not a book that gets under the skin of France and Spain, they are very clearly passing through and this is not introspective travel writing.  It is clear and concise and based on their experience

Two Clots in a Camper by Steve Coppard – This book has at its heart an appealing idea; two novice campervan owners on their first long trip in France, Spain and Portugal, written in a chatty style.  However, there is too much concentration on the beer, wine and food they partake in during their trip to be of any real interest as travel literature.  If this is your cup of tea then give it a go.

One Steppe Beyond: Across Russia in a VW Camper by Thom Wheeler.  Thom Wheeler and Jo set off in a VW bay window called Max to Estonia. There they hear about the possibility of work in Vladivostok and enterprisingly set off across Russia.  Thom’s account is honest and interesting.  This means that the reader is told when his relationship with Jo is tested and when they are naive in their dealings with Russians. This innocence and sense of adventure gets them through and they enjoy the kindness of strangers many times. The book doesn’t give lots of practical details about shopping, banking or driving in Russia although he does tell his reader when the roads run out and they have to take the train and when they can’t access any currency.  We hear about the problems getting a visa and crossing the border and the constant checking of papers. The narrative is interspersed with facts about a place. I couldn’t help but admire their spirit, travelling across Russia in 1997 and the beauty of the landscape in many places came through the words. The book also manages to give some sense of the vastness of Russia and the spirit of the people.

Never Ask Why by Barbara Phipps  This travel book isn’t quite what I expected.  I assumed it would be a tale of a woman in her 50s, grieving after the death of her husband, setting off on a journey in a motorhome to heal and discover herself; the book does cover this subject area but in a surprising way.  The first section is about Helen; it is two years since her husband suddenly died and she decides to take control and buys a motorhome.  Helen has an open and relaxed attitude and the reader feels confident that she will enjoy travels in her van.  She has an urge to get away but worries about her two sons; they both still live at home, have good jobs and are in their 20s.  Strangely, for someone who seems to have a good rapport with young people from the encounters we read about, Helen struggles to communicate with those dearest to her and she doesn’t tell her son’s about her travel plans or her wish that they would move out of the family home.  The novel gives a light touch to relationships and events and I found I wanted more depth to her characters to understand their actions.  In the second part of the novel we are transported to a different world of drug taking and murders and for some time this appears to have no connection with the first part of the novel, until the two worlds collide.  Homorously and sometimes a little clumsily, Helen tells her reader how she learnt lessons from the people she meets on her travels and this was an interesting and diverting read.

Allie Sommerville’s Uneasy Rider, Confessions of a Reluctant Traveller – This claims to be an ‘antidote-to-travel book!  Allie Somerville has written a book with a collection of stories about travelling in their camper van. This is not a then-we-went-here chronological travel book, Allie has grouped incidents together under chapter headings, for example small problems with the van and money concerns.  Some chapters refer to just one incident and I simultaneously cringed and smiled at the Parador chapter when they struggled through narrow Spanish streets; rather them than me.  Allie Somerville looks for the humour in situations and tries to convey this in her writing, which is a difficult task. However, she does manage to transmit to her reader the delight to be found from touring in her campervan, the pleasure of meeting various fellow campers and the entertaining encounters you can have at a campsite.

Do any readers have their own favourite campervan or motorhome travel books?

Bridgewater RHS Gardens: #surprisingsalford #47

The RHS [Royal Horticultural Society] has come to Salford!  Even though I had read the news reports, it wasn’t until I visited the site of the RHS Garden Bridgewater that I appreciated the scale of the project to transform the 154 acre site near Worsley into a new garden.  Visits to the building site are being offered regularly and I would encourage anyone to book a tour.  It is a fantastic opportunity to see how the RHS are resurrecting this site and turning it into an amazing garden.

Worsley New Hall was a magnificent Victorian mansion surrounded by elegant gardens, with terraces and a lake.  Demolished in the 1940s and the site used by a garden centre and scout groups, the RHS are now making changes that remember and respect the past and also take horticulture and conservation into the future.

On our guided tour we began by looking across the site of the Welcome Building, where visitors will arrive when the gardens open.  In front of this will be a new lake and gardens that will lead you to the 11-acre walled gardens.  As building work is still very much ongoing our tour took a circuitous route around the site to stand in one corner of what will become the walled Paradise Garden.  Planting has now started on this site and we could begin to get a feel for what a stunning space this will be.  This walled garden area will also have a kitchen garden area, where food for the cafe / cafes will be grown.

Walking through the woodland we met the rare breed pigs who have been doing a tremendous job of clearing the ground for planting.  We reached the terraces that were once formal gardens below the hall and looked over the currently drained lake.  Our knowledgeable guide told us about the horticultural apprentice posts there will be here, the increasing biodiversity that will result from the planting and management, the links with the community that have been made and the educational opportunities the garden will provide.

We cycled to Worsley but negotiating the roundabouts to the M60 and the last section along Leigh Road are particularly busy and unpleasant.  We were told they hope to open up access from the canal and that will be much better for pedestrians and cyclists.

RHS Garden Bridgewater opens next year, although the whole site won’t be complete for many years.  That means you won’t need an excuse to visit every year and we will certainly be going along to see what it looks like when it isn’t a building site.

Camping Le Fonti & Climbing Monte Ventasso in Reggio nell’Emilia, Italy

The SS63 across the Appenines from Tuscany in to Emilia Romagna is a fantastic drive.  The road winds around the mountains with different and more amazing views at every corner.  We were heading towards Modena but were enjoying the area enormously and in the mild spring weather we opted to stay at Camping Le Fonti near Cervarezza Terme (Busana) for a few days and enjoy some mountain serenity and walking.

Camping Le Fonti is open all year round and has plenty of shade under chestnut and beech trees for the heat of summer.  In spring it is quieter and the site offers an ACSI discount and pitches on the higher parts of the site out of the trees and with panoramic views over the surrounding countryside.  From our lofty pitch we could see the distinctive crags of the flat-topped Pietra di Bismantova a few kilometres away, dramatic in the evening sunset.

This is a large and rambling hillside site at 1,000 metres above sea level and in season it has everything for family camping with a restaurant, shop, organised activities and indoor pool.  We don’t really need these things and were grateful to get fresh bread every morning, heated facilities in the chilly evenings and good hot showers.

The campsite is family-run and when we arrived mama was on reception.  Although she spoke limited English we received a friendly welcome and managed to order bread [that her husband delivered in the morning] and get hold of a sketch map for the walk up Monte Ventasso, a steep-sided 1,727 metre high mountain that is clearly a popular walk from the campsite.

Monte Ventasso proved to be a fantastic full-day outing.  The way-marked path initially climbs steadily through beautiful sun-dappled beech woods dotted with wood anemone, primroses and wild crocuses.  If you don’t want to walk to the summit you could just go as far as the chapel and refuge at St Maria Maddalena and picnic here enjoying the marvellous views over the Secchia valley.  Alternatively, in hot weather you could take the woodland paths to Lago Calamone, a pretty glacial lake below the mountain that is perfect for summer bathing.

We had lunch at the refuge below the rocky crags of the east flanks of Monti Ventasso before carrying on.  The steep, narrow and rocky path up the east ridge was exposed in places but brings you to the wide and grassy ridge to the summit.  We passed a curious wooden hinged figure on the way and met our first other walkers of the day, a German couple who were also on the campsite.

The summit is marked by a cross and we had views of the distinctive Pietra di Bismantova and a wide flat valley.  Lago Calamone was immediately below us and in the further distance were higher snowy mountains.  We took the direct route down that was steep and difficult.  We reached the picturesque Lago Calamone and sat watching a group of young men enthusiastically playing football on the shore.  We climbed upwards  across scree slopes of large boulders and below the craggy face of Monti Ventasso to join our previous path, returning the same way, stopping for a rest and chocolate bars at the view point.  We returned to our campervan tired but happy after walking about ten miles and climbing about 742 m of ascent.

Directions: From the A1 take the exit for Reggio Nell ‘Emilia and follow the SS63 to Cervarezza Terme. The campsite is signposted beyond Castelnovo ne Monfi.

 

 

Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers

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‘Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.’  From Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides

Spend a lazy half-an-hour searching for travel quotes on the internet and you will find oodles and oodles of them.  I do this occasionally when I am struggling with my writing and looking for inspiration for my own words; on one such occasion I discovered the quotation above.  I made a note of it because the quote resonated and seemed to have some truth in it.  Since then I have come back to it regularly and mulled it over.

It is a certainly a comforting thought that when I can no longer physically travel, I will continue to take journeys in my head.  I like the thought of being able to play voyages out over and over again as often as I like.  Those of us who have older friends who no longer travel as much as they once did will have witnessed the joy of this.  Talking about my own travels can spark memories in these friends and give them a chance to reminisce and recall journeys they made and tell me their own travel stories from the past.

Perhaps my travel memories will be particularly strong.  Being observant is part and parcel of being a travel writer, I make notes, take photographs and try and fix a place in my memory.  Once I return home I spend my time editing photographs and writing travel articles and blog posts about my experiences and what I have seen.  This process keeps the journeys constantly playing out in the forefront of my mind and they stay with me longer than if I had returned to another job.

The memories don’t disappear and therefore the trip doesn’t really end when the copy is sent to my editor or posted on the blog.  I find I can be thinking about something else / anything else and a thought comes in sideways.  I might be planning our next trip or doing something as mundane as wondering what to cook for our evening meal, a connection is made and recollections of a place will suddenly pop into ‘the quietest chambers’ of my mind.

Perhaps travel changes how my mind works and in more complex ways than I can ever explain.  My travel-related research takes in the attractions, the history, the people and culture of a region and this breadth might help my mind establish new associations, tying together the new and old experiences and journeys.  Perhaps these exciting labyrinthine links are one of the reasons that travel is so addictive.

A number of bloggers discuss travel addiction or dromomania.  Like any addiction it seems that the constant new sights and sounds that travel provides can deliver a contented high to the brain.  The brain likes this pleasurable sensory overload and will ask for more of this travel-gratification.  While loving travel can be a demonstration of a passionate and adventurous nature, needing travel to thrive could be considered obsessive and damaging.  And if this travel high only delivers if you visit new places you are on a road to compulsive journeys that take you way off the tourist trail.

I’m not concerned about dromomania.  I am happy returning again and again to the same destination, there is always something new to find even in a well-visited area.  Even in a familiar area, when we are travelling our days are packed with new experiences and this can be intoxicating.  Yet, what I love the most on a trip is the stripped-down nature of our travelling life, everything feels happily straightforward, we are mostly in control of what is happening [although not always] and have the freedom to take each day as it comes.  Whether we are an hour away from home or in a foreign country, I am always eager to relax, explore and get under the skin of a region.

We had a year travelling a few years ago and we had a ball but we both knew that we didn’t want to go for so long again.  This was for various reasons but the main one was wanting to keep other relationships alive. Travelling for two or three months at a time is our compromise that works fairly well for us both; I get my fix of travelling that sustains me through a few months at home.  Then I enjoy being where I am with my travel memories playing out over and over again in the quiet recesses of my mind until it is time to get our Blue Bus back on the road again!

 

Pat Conroy wrote many novels including The Price of Tides and The Great Santini.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Campervan Gap Year Dream vs Reality: Tips for Full-time or Long-term Campervan Trip

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Our VW Devon Sundowner in Italy

Travelling full-time or for around 12 months in a campervan is becoming increasingly popular, for people of all ages, including among those of us who are too old to have had a gap year. If you are yearning to make that long trip, you might be wondering how you can make this adventure happen, and does reality match up to the dream. In 2009 we were two people in our late 40s early 50s, with jobs that paid the average wage for the UK and yet after a few years of planning and saving we were able to set off and do just that. Here are my tips to help you plan your own dream trip:

  1. First Buy Your Campervan
  2. Saving Money so you can Afford the Trip
  3. What to do About Working When you Come Back
  4. Living for 12 Months
  5. What Clothes do you Need?
  6. Dream vs Reality

1. First Buy Your Campervan

We bought our first campervan in 2005 but felt that this traditional VW was too small for full-time travel. By the time we set off on our adventure we owned a Devon Conversions VW Sundowner; this is a long wheelbase VW and has an on-board toilet but no bathroom. For many people this ‘van would still be much too small for two adults to live in for 12 months but for us it worked perfectly, small and discrete it never felt too big but it had everything we needed.  That said, we pretty much stayed on campsites all the time and we were in the warmer parts of mainland Europe.  Whether you have a huge RV or a micro-camper, my top tip is try out your ‘van for long holidays before you commit to 12 months in it, think about whether you want to wild camp all or most of the time and see how your outfit works for you.

We had owned the Sundowner for two years before we set off travelling, we had been away twice for over three weeks at a time and we were familiar with the ‘van and knew we could live in its confined space. Also after two years the van and the conversion had bedded in and any niggles had been sorted and problems ironed out.

Of course, some people travel full-time in a caravan and you might want to consider that option too.  If your dream trip is to southern Europe for three or four months during the summer then you could save loads of money and just take a tent.

2. Money, Money, Money

Unless you can work on the road – and then that makes it a whole different trip – or have won the lottery, you will need to save some money before you travel.  Before we went travelling we put away what we hoped was enough to live on for twelve months.  In addition to this travelling fund we chose to save enough for a further six months to cover the period when we got back home and were looking for work. Tracking your spending for a year or so before you travel helps you know what these amounts will be for your own lifestyle and will vary depending on what you eat, how often you visit restaurants, how many attractions you take in and whether you use campsites or free camping. On our year away we spent £19,900, you can do it cheaper or you can spend a lot more.

We saved this money by down-sizing our home, doing without stuff and treats, selling everything we didn’t need through Ebay and working hard.  For a few months, during the year before we set off I was juggling three jobs to contribute towards the savings. This was hard going but I had the motivation to get through a short period of stress to meet a clear aim.

Fluctuations with the Euro and Sterling made our planning more tricky and this will still be an issue.  At the last minute in 2008 it became clear that thanks to the collapse of the banks and recession we had to save a few more thousand to cover our living costs as we were getting considerably less for our hard-earned pounds. We were lucky that a chunk of well-paid contract work turned up at just the right time.

We didn’t rent our property while we were away as we wanted to have it there should we need to return home in an emergency but this could be a good option for some people. The downside of our approach was that we also needed the money to keep the flat ticking over.  We stopped any unnecessary bills such as broadband and telephone but continued insurance and minimum payments for utilities; at the time this was an additional £4,300.

A problem we found was that no one was able to offer affordable contents insurance for our empty flat, even though the site we live on is secure.  Instead our son came to stay every couple of months to check the flat, clear the mail and ensure we were complying with the insurance. We were lucky that he was available to do this.

3. Giving up the Nine to Five?

Unless you are made redundant and have a large redundancy pot to spend on your trip you will need to decide what to do about work. We both resigned, leaving our jobs before we set off travelling.  Another friend managed to secure a sabbatical and his job was kept open and this is a fantastic option if you can get it and it is worth asking but it will depend on your employer.

We believed [rightly it turned out] that we were both highly-skilled individuals and that at least one of us would find work that paid enough and was within commuting distance of our home in Salford in six months or less. The risk that we were wrong about this did increase thanks to that recession. You will know your local job market and how easy or difficult this will be but I would guess if you are based in a smaller town this could be hard, unless you have much needed skills or are willing to commute further.

What made a big difference to our circumstances was that having down-sized we were mortgage-free. This meant that we did not need to earn as much as we had in the past and jobs at even minimum wage would have been sufficient for us to keep the wolf from the door. As it turned out we both secured reasonable jobs within three months of getting home.

4. Living for 12 Months

Just to be clear – being away for 12 months is nothing like a holiday.  For me it was much better that a holiday.  Unlike a break from work, you don’t go through one week of unwinding and another of gearing up to go back to work.  Full-time travel gives you an opportunity to be unshackled from being a wage slave, wake up without an alarm and plan your own day and we found this completely relaxing.  All we really had to worry about was where we were going to go next and what we would eat that day.  Life becomes fairly stripped down and simple and this is a liberating and exciting experience.

We deliberately kept our trip flexible.  This meant that we could spend as long as we wanted in different places.  Slovenia hadn’t really been on our list but we were so bowled over with the country we spent a month there and we were delightfully surprised to find that Austria was a great place to spend August.

Being away for 12 months does throw you together as a couple (unless you are travelling alone). We had been married for over 20 years and were confident that we could deal with this but it certainly isn’t something to do with a shaky relationship.  I found that spending every day with my partner meant I got to know him even better and love him even more. We did talk about this and there were times when we did our own thing.  If you need your own space then I would suggest that you discuss this, think through how often you need to get away on your own and how to make it happen.  Sometimes just a half-hour morning walk on your own to get the milk is all you need.

5. What Will You Wear?

Our VW didn’t have unlimited amounts of storage space and we travelled light. The numbers of items of clothing we took are below to get you started in thinking about this practical issue [where there are two numbers the lower one is my super-lightweight travelling partner]. You will notice there is no posh frock in the list and almost all of these items are technical, quick to dry and robust kit from specialist clothing manufacturers.

  • Shorts – 2 pairs each
  • 3/4 length trousers -2 or 3 pairs each
  • Trousers – 3 pairs each
  • Skirt – 1 [just me]
  • T-shirts or shirts – 8 each
  • Jumpers – 2 or 3 each
  • Long-sleeved tops – 1 or 4 (one of us does not feel the cold!)
  • Nightwear – 2 sets
  • Underwear – 6 pairs of Lowe Alpine / Helly Hansen / Rohan pants each
  • Footwear – 2 pairs of sandals, 1 pair walking shoes, 1 pair of outdoor shoes and 1 pair of Crocs each

We also packed cycling shorts, swimming costumes and each had a fleece jacket and cagoule / waterproof jacket.

6. Dream vs Reality

How did our 12 months travelling around Europe match up to the dream? Well I certainly wouldn’t have missed it for the world and here are some things I learnt:

  • Distance didn’t matter – some days we would only travel a few kilometres to a different campsite with a new view.
  • We did lots of things and saw so many new places but not every day was fun-packed – there were days when we just chilled and those were good days too.
  • We stopped worrying if we didn’t get to see every ‘must-see’ sight, it was our trip not a bucket list. We missed out all sorts of things we might have crammed in if we hadn’t been so relaxed, including Rome and Florence.
  • There are still chores – we still had laundry and van cleaning to do but they always happened somewhere different and were always much more fun than at home.
  • Despite being married for over 20 years, the trip gave us space to get to know each other even better and after living in a small space for 12 months our partnership was stronger.
  • Books – we book swapped rather than take e-books. These book swaps were from other campers or from campsite libraries and often resulted in interesting finds and amiable conversations.
  • Mainland Europe is not an homogeneous place, every European country is different with varied ways of doing things, different cultures and new products available in the shops.  We loved this difference then and still do.
  • Be open to meeting new people and new experiences – within your own safety boundaries!
  • We walked and cycled almost every day, keeping fit was easy with so much time.
  • The weather isn’t always sunny. We travelled through France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Italy again, France some more, Spain and Portugal. It is surprisingly cold throughout inland Spain and Portugal from December to March and we mostly hugged the coastline for the milder weather.  Even so for the three months from January to March in Spain and Portugal we had 38 days with some rain, more details here.
  • We didn’t book any campsites and only had a problem in Austria during August in one area because a large campsite was closed for refurbishment and that had a knock-on elsewhere.  Some sites in Spain during the winter were busy but we always got a pitch.  This may be more difficult these days as there are more people travelling.
  • What we missed most was our son and daughter-in-law and paying for them to fly out twice during our year was a great investment. They met us in self-catering cottages we had booked and this made a real difference to our enjoyment of the year away.
  • Other things I missed were Radio 4, crumpets and good tea bags!
  • The time goes very fast!
  • When I returned I didn’t really want to go back to work and our gap year gave me the motivation to start saving for early retirement.

Middlewood Locks: #surprisingsalford #46

Salford in snow 2 Feb 200904
Looking over Middlewood Locks back in 2009

I regularly walk along Oldfield Road in Salford and when I do I always stop and look at the view over the river to Manchester.  The panorama takes in Beetham Tower, completed in 2006, and something of a novelty for some time.  I only took my camera the day it snowed in 2009 and you will notice the lack of tall cranes in the photograph.  This was the height of the economic downturn and it looked as if Beetham Tower might stand alone.  I always thought that if any area was crying out to be a green space it was this one and would imagine sitting on this gently sloping bank with a picnic looking across at the bustle of Manchester and this always changing and interesting view.

Middlewood Locks is part of the 15-mile long Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal which ran from Salford to Prestolee, near Little Lever, from where one arm ran to Bolton and another to Bury.  A spectacular breach in 1936 on the Bury arm led to the canal’s eventual closure.  There are long-term plans to eventually restore the canal and the first section from the River Irwell through the Middlewood Locks development is complete.  From there the line of the canal followed the railway line to Salford Crescent and Agecroft.

Instead of my dreamed-about park, the recession ended and the cranes returned.  Over the last few years the large site has been developed [along with many other sites in Salford] for housing [or a neighbourhood as the developers call it].  When complete the site will have blocks of flats, townhouses, gardens, offices, a hotel, restaurants, bars, shops, a gym and parking.

What makes this site attractive for a Salfordian is that, after being closed for access for so long,  we can now walk from East Ordsall Lane along the small section of canal through the development.  Eventually we should be able to walk from the River Irwell path to Middlewood Locks.  I could now sit and have that picnic by the canal.  The pictures below were taken recently along the pleasant landscaped path showing the views to Manchester and the lovely Ordsall Chord bridge.  Not all of Greater Manchester’s developments provide this sort of access and it is appreciated.