My post-campervan holiday list

20181227_122238.jpg

Is it just us or does every campervan owner return from a long trip away in their ‘van with a long list of things that need replacing, fixing, taking out of the ‘van or buying.  For me, this to-do list comes into being a few weeks in to the trip.  I will have a bright idea or break something, find a sheet of scrap paper, usually the back of a campsite receipt or map, and a pen [these are on the list too, we always have a stack of them in the ‘van] and scribble down whatever it is I don’t want to forget.  The list will get shoved under my pile of t-shirts and as the weeks go by other things will come up and I will grab a pen and add it to the list.

Some of the things on the list are mundane replacements, things we must remember to buy when we are back in the UK.  Another packet of Kwells seasickness tablets is a good example of this sort of thing; this could easily get forgotten in the excitement of being home and only be noticed when I next start to feel queasy on a pitching and rolling ship.

Others things on the list are expensive purchases that are more challenging for two frugal folk to deal with.  These things will sit on the list for a while [at least one month] for due consideration before the money is spent.  New cycling shorts are this sort of thing.  We tend to do more and longer cycle rides in the warmth of southern Europe and this can highlight the shortcomings of the gear we have.  New cycling shorts clearly seemed important at the time to make it on to the list but at the moment we are minded to think that the old ones will do another year.

Replacement MP3 speakers could be on the ‘due consideration’ list as these also cost money, except that I find dropping off to sleep to a podcast on the MP3 player helps me deal with the constant ringing in my ears that comes with tinnitus.  The speakers that I have found suit me best have done many years regular use but they are no longer reliable and another set is urgently needed.

The reversing sensors on our Blue Bus started mis-firing part way through our holiday.  Annoyingly, they starting beeping as soon as reverse was engaged even if there was nothing behind the ‘van for many metres.  The Renault came with reversing sensors and we thought we would hardly use them, having managed without before.  But there is really no view out of the back window of the Renault and so these have proved to be a useful bit of kit.  At £170 to replace we will take a deep breath before we go ahead.

Some of the things on the list don’t need us to spend any money – hurrah!  We have carried a hairdryer in the campervan since we had it but realised on our last trip that we had never actually used it!  I have no idea why it took three years to realise that we both have short hair that dries quickly, particularly in the sun.  The hairdryer was taking up space we could use more efficiently and has now gone to the charity shop.

It has taken us sometime to get round to this but we have now put our music on a flash drive that plugs in to a USB on the radio of our Renault.  We had expected to be able to use the MP3 player through the van’s radio but this turned out to be impossible, perhaps due to the age of our MP3 player.  Then we had a flash [pun intended] of inspiration and tried a portable drive.  This works well and takes up much less room than the pile of CDs we had before.  Now we can rock to our whole music collection as we drive!

The temporary mirror inserts went on the wish list after the expensive Spanish mirror jousting incident.  We bought one each for the right and left mirrors on Ebay and hope these will be enough to get us home if the same happens again.  If these work, they will enable us to put off buying a replacement wing mirror until we can do this online from home and we can then fit it ourselves much more cheaply.

Living in the north of England with our wonderful soft water we didn’t realise kettle descaler was even a thing until we travelled abroad.  The mineral-rich hard water in most European countries might be good for our bones but certainly clogs up the kettle and the ‘van’s water pump, as we discovered to our cost last year.  In a two month long trip we will descale the kettle one or two times to keep it working efficiently and always keep some in the ‘van.

The list from each holiday is always different and partly tells the story of some of the things that have happened on our trip and the places we have been.  What does your post-holiday to-do list look like?

 

 

 

 

Is owning a campervan as carefree as we all make out? Does life really begin on the edge of your comfort zone?

 

09.21.2018 bilbao small
The spider looms next to the Guggenheim in Bilbao

You don’t speak the language and your much loved campervan is unhappy and slightly broken … a nightmare or just another day in a campervan travellers life?  Putting my trust in people and a system I don’t understand has happened to me so often I am starting to expect it but never find it easy; this is way out of my comfort zone.  People say, ‘Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.’  It seems to me this is where my adventurous spirit could shrivel and die, even when everything turns out fine in the end.

I am as guilty as anyone of writing about our campervan trips as carefree and relaxed but, as canny readers will know, this is only part of the truth.  I always say I love the campervan life because we have the freedom to choose where we will be, if we don’t like somewhere we move on and we take our home with you, no strange beds, just a different view every morning.  I am not lying when I tell you this and when things are going well it is truly an idyllic life.

But there are anxieties and I do share them on the blog.  The Greek Tragedy shook my confidence massively and demonstrated so clearly how quickly a relaxed and enjoyable trip can abruptly end.  My obsession with checking we are in gear when we are parked even on the flat has not gone away and can be irritating for Mr BOTRA.  If I don’t check and double-check I am unsettled and return to the ‘van expecting it to have once again rolled in to a wall or worse.

You probably all know those signs of anxiety; I get that sense of dread, the sickness low in the bottom of my stomach, feeling on edge, irritable with the people I love and unable to concentrate.  This is the worried me and no amount of deep breathing will quell the anxiety when I think a crisis is around the corner.  But I do relax while we are away and it is while I am travelling in that carefree manner I enjoy that I am hit the hardest when something goes wrong.  Picture the scene … The sun feels warm on my arms, I am smiling and unaware that a problem is on the horizon, then wham!  From left field something we hadn’t even thought of happens to our campervan and everything changes.

With modern ‘vans it seems there are so many things that can go wrong, more than I could list or dream of.  In September we had only driven 30 km from the port in Bilbao in Spain and our Blue Bus started beeping and flashing red lights in alarm.  The power steering had failed!  Who knew this could happen!  Fortunately we were in a car park, rather than on an autovia and after Mr BOTRA wrestled the 3.5 tonnes of our van into a safe and shady place we rang our breakdown.  Once again we were trying to deal with a complex technical problem on our campervan in a foreign language, with a phrase book that was written before power steering was invented!  We had little idea what was going on and were totally in the hands of the garage.  Déjà vu!  This has happened now in Greece and in Italy as well as Spain, never in France or Germany where our grasp of the language is so much better!

Although we deal with the phone calls, the breakdown lorry driver, the rearranging of our plans, each of these incidents doesn’t make me grow in confidence, each one gradually chips away at my courage and my certainty of the freedom of the road.  I can no longer fool myself that all will be well.  For weeks after an incident the sense of dread about what will happen next invades my brain regularly.  What will be the next problem to come along, slap me across the face and say, ‘You didn’t see that one coming did you?’

Given all this anxiety, the temptation might be to only travel in the UK but I’m not a quitter and certainly not quite ready to give up my passport just yet.  The benefits of continuing on the edge of my comfort zone are visiting exciting and beautiful places.  I work hard at keeping those dark worries in check by planning and preparing for [almost] everything and paying for the best insurance money can buy.  Fingers crossed 2019 will bring some incident free trips!

 

 

 

Arran: My first encounter with this lovely island

P1120252
The dramatic landscape of Goat Fell on Arran

The internet suggests there are up to 5,000 islands around Great Britain, although the exact number seems to be hard to be sure of and there are certainly plenty of these I have never heard of, let alone visited.  Another source gave a figure of 82 islands that measure more than 5 sq km.  This is still a higher number than I might have guessed at and one that made me ashamed of how few of our islands I have taken the trouble to get to.  It was time to visit an island and an autumn trip to Arran, off the south-west coast of Scotland was planned.

Goodness knows why I have never been before as we found so much that delighted us on Arran.  The craggy mountains around Goat Fell are perfect walking country; Glen Sannox is simply stunning; the stone circles at Machrie Moor are impressive and fascinating; the coastline near Blackwaterfoot  and the walk through boulders to the basalt cliffs of The Doon is stunning and the sheltered bay at Lochranza is picture perfect.  I loved pretty much everything about the island.

Thanks to the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) on Scottish ferries, getting to Arran is now more affordable and it was just over £45 return for our 5.4 metre long campervan.  We needed to have a frugal holiday due to our expensive year but also like to support campsites and so we stayed on three of the islands campsites [see below] and did a few nights wild camping too.  Wild camping is popular on Arran and some places can get busy at weekends as Arran is a perfect place to visit in a campervan.

We didn’t visit any tea shops, although I am told they are excellent, but we did support the Arran economy and bought excellent local cheese in the cheese shop, local beer at the brewery, good local oatcakes and delicious local bread in the Blackwaterfoot Bakery.  These all went very well together and didn’t last long.

Arran was a great start to my plan to visit more of the islands around Great Britain.  The big question is where to go to next?

Campsites we used on Arran

Lochranza Campsite – a beautifully situated site that is well kept.  The site is grassy with some hard-standing pitches if it is wet and there are open views.

Seal Shore Camping  – this site at Kildonan has lovely views out to sea and clean facilities.  The site is sloping but while we were there they were building some more level pitches.  The site is next door to a bar.

Middleton’s Caravan and Camping Park – This level grassy site at Lamlash is handy for the shops, places to eat and shoreline in Lamlash.  The facilities are clean and it has good hot showers.

 

 

 

Go the extra mile it is never crowded

P1070396.JPG
A quiet corner of the Lake District

You might laugh [please do] but when I came across this saying recently my literal mind skipped it’s metaphorical intention and took its meaning to the letter [I often do this].  My thoughts wandered to when we have walked an extra mile or so on a beach or in the hills or cycled just that bit further and felt smug as we left the crowds behind.  The saying is spot on; going that extra mile often takes us to a quiet corner and to somewhere special that we can embrace as our own for a short time.  By just taking a bit more effort I can enjoy an undisturbed experience of a location with the space and tranquillity to really see, smell and feel the place.

The quote attributed to Wayne Dyer, author and self-development guru, is, ‘It’s never crowded along the extra mile.’  After thinking about all those idyllic places we have found it eventually dawned on me that this quote isn’t to be read literally and instead encourages everyone to believe that by putting in the extra effort you can reach the top.  My mind turned to those times when I have gone the extra mile on a task.  Doing just the minimum required can be an easy option and I have times when I need to cruise through jobs because my mind is preoccupied with other stuff.  But I feel much better about myself when I put the extra effort in and give my absolute best.  And yet, the number of people who will reach the heights of the elite in any field is limited [or never crowded] and unfortunately not everyone can be outstanding otherwise outstanding becomes the average.  For myself, I don’t expect to be award winning, I go the extra mile to compete against myself, stretching my performance and improving my skills.

I consider myself a slow writer; certainly each time I write a travel article or blog post I spend hours rigorously writing, editing and re-editing.  I do this for two reasons; I am certainly terrified of the shame of making a mistake that makes it in to print [although they do and I have to deal with it] but I also want to produce work I can feel proud of.  I constantly review, learn new techniques and apply these and I feel that my writing has improved over the years.  I don’t go the extra mile for promotion or a higher salary, my editor is not pushing me to write differently, I am self-motivated to do better and throwing together a piece of writing with the minimum effort has never been an option.  By going the extra mile I might not reach the top but I do maintain my self-respect.

 

 

 

 

 

Wing mirror jousting!

09.23.2018 Visit to Artajona (9)
The Blue Bus parked at Artajona in northern Spain – a perfect place for jousting!

The mishap came as a bit of a surprise.  The road from Torla to Aínsa in Aragon is a secondary road but a good one and we were pottering along in the sunshine, enjoying the views over the Rio Ara and of the villages perched on hilltops.  The road has a white line down the centre but the carriageways are on the narrow side and the light traffic was driving considerately giving enough space to oncoming traffic.

Coming towards us were two massive white motorhomes in convoy.  The leading motorhome was taking up more than his fair share of the road and we moved over to the edge of the road to ensure everyone could pass by safely.  We assumed the big guy would do the same but it seemed he too had been watching Game of Thrones and fancied a bit of wing mirror jousting with our Blue Bus.  Bang!  We both cursed him as our passenger side wing mirror was slammed inwards and the glass broke.

We know this isn’t a tragedy, it is really just one of those things that will happen to lots of people in campervans.  Those big wing mirrors are a perfect target after all and this is the first time we have broken a wing mirror in our 13 years of having a ‘van.  The idiot in the motorhome didn’t stop – to be honest there wasn’t really anywhere safe to stop – and we limped along for a couple of kilometres until we found a lay-by to pull in to.  Shaken we gave each other a hug and investigated the damage.  The glass of the main mirror was shattered but fortunately the small blind spot mirror at the bottom was still intact.  The mirror no longer responded to being moved.  Our only consolation was that the big white motorhome would most likely have the same damage to his wing mirror and we hoped his replacement mirror was even more expensive than ours.

Our Renault has no internal central mirror, so the wing mirrors are essential.  We had a go at fixing a shaving mirror we carry in to the housing of the wing mirror to help the driver see behind but we couldn’t get this to work.  We have since found that you can buy temporary ‘mirrors’ and may invest in one or two of these.  After some thought and consideration we felt it was safe to drive using just the blind spot mirror for the remaining 25 kms to Aínsa.  Although this mirror is small it functioned pretty well.

A call to our breakdown sorted out a garage that was expecting us and the mechanics there spent some time ensuring they were ordering the correct mirror for our Renault.  The next day it took them 15 minutes to fit the new wing mirror and it cost us around £200!  An expensive jousting session.

2018 Oct Carol Kubicki wing mirror (1)
Fixing the mirror in the garage

Sedan: Add it to your wish list

Sedan (3)
The massive fortification in Sedan

For anyone with a campervan, motorhome or a caravan there are two good reasons for visiting Sedan in northern France.  Firstly for around €9 a night you can stay at the Camping Municipal de la Prairie.  This municipal site is easy to find and is pleasantly placed by the river Meuse, with moorings for boats alongside the site and an open aspect that helps it feel more rural than urban.  We were greeted warmly by the member of staff who gave us a map of the town and told us enthusiastically about the castle and told us we could pitch where we liked on the grassy site.  The ground is a little uneven but nothing the levelling blocks couldn’t deal with.  The sanitary facilities were not the most up-to-date but were clean and the showers were good and hot and we don’t need much more than that and you can’t expect much more for the price.

Sedan is handily placed for us to reach our ferry at Zeebrugge but we arrived with enough time to visit the second reason to visit Sedan.  It has what is claimed to be the largest medieval fortified castle in Europe.

It is about a 15 minutes’ walk to the castle from the campsite and it is as magnificent and immense as you could hope, with an impressive curtain wall around the castle and courtyard and lovely views over the town from the corner bastions and the ramparts.  We explored the dark corners, alleys and stairwells that were designed to confuse the enemy and from the information boards learnt how the castle had grown over time.  I was particularly fascinated by the view into the interior of a round tower that had been enlarged over the years and seeing the interactive scale model of the castle in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian First Battle of Sedan.  The Second Battle of Sedan was in May 1940 during the German invasion of France.

After exploring the castle, we strolled around the town that has a history of cloth-making; some think that upholstery from Sedan gave the Sedan chair its name.  We found narrow streets and charming shops, lovely botanical gardens and bridges over the river Meuse.  Sedan also has an open and covered market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

 

Finding beauty and tragedy in the Dolomites in Italy

05.27.2018 Celina and Vajont valleys (10).JPG
The village of Casso sits high on the slopes of the valley

Northern Italy is pretty much all jaw-dropping beautiful.  We had been driving through green alpine valleys, stopping often to stand and look in awe at the craggy mountains above and the ice-blue river we were following.   Leaving the stunning River Cellina valley we followed the Torrente Cimoliana to the pretty village of Cimolais, all the time making a note to come this way again.  We drove over the Passo di Sant’Osvaldo coming down to the village of Erto.  Ahead I could see a scoured hillside, devoid of trees or vegetation, this certainly looked out of place.  We stopped the ‘van to take it in, at first wondering if this was a quarry but quickly realising the mountainside was too steep for such activity.  The scale of the ‘M-shaped’ scar on the hillside was hard to take in but we realised we were looking at a landslide.  What we didn’t realise at that moment was how devastating the landslide had been.  We had stumbled upon the Vajont Dam and the legacy of the disaster that occurred here on the night of 9 October 1963.

The Vajont Dam, a 265-meter high arch dam was in 1963 considered an amazing construction that created a large reservoir in the mountain valley.  The dam was well built and still stands as it withstood the unprecedented destructive power of that night.  On the 9 October 1963 a huge slice of the mountain slid in to the reservoir behind the dam.  Around 260 million cubic metres of rock hit the water and this created a massive wave that breached the Vajont Dam, the displaced water rising high and pouring with unimaginable force in to the Piave valley below, gaining speed all the while.

We stopped below the Alpine village of Casso that clings to the mountainside.  From here we could see the scar on the flank of Monte Toc and look down on the Vajont Dam that stands as a memorial to the thousands who lost their life.  We walked below Monte Toc trying to take in the scale of this avoidable disaster.  As the dam was planned and built many people warned about the geological instability of the area and the risk from the dam but corrupt and powerful institutions failed to listen.

We drove down the mountainside to the town of Longarone.  This lovely town is below the dam and in 1963 it was flattened by the tsunami of water that poured over the dam.  In the moving museum in the basement of the modern church there are photographs showing the aftermath and the names of people who died.  It is estimated that around 2,000 people were killed that night and I thought about all those lives cut short.

Although I left feeling somber, I was glad we had stopped to learn about this disaster that has left its mark on this beautiful landscape.

For photographs of the reservoir and the destruction of the landslide take a look here.  Today the Parco Naturale Dolomiti Friulane has been created to bring tourism back to this incredible and beautiful area.

05.27.2018 Celina and Vajont valleys (13)
In the museum in Longarone