Sunday, 12 December 2010

The end of our adventures...?

8th - 9th December

Frosty journey homeOn the 8th we were still at the campsite as we had to wait at least 24 hours after the vet had carried out the tick treatment (required under PETS regulations) before we could check in to board the ferry, and the day was spent carrying out last minute jobs and ensuring we were all up together before we got back to Blighty.

On the 9th it was all very straightforward and we had a leisurely breakfast followed by coffee and Brie sandwiches (I couldn't stop buying bread and Brie, munching it then heading back for more). Soon we were on the ferry and the crossing was very quick. We were back in British waters before we knew it. We had no problems with the crossing at all and the customs staff who checked our van were very friendly with a good sense of humour. Again Nailz was the ice-breaker and he loved getting all the attention.

After a few hairy moments trying to remember which side of the road to drive on we were speeding back to Dorset on a lovely sunny evening watching another formidable sunset. We were relieved that there was no snow or ice after the horror stories we had heard while abroad and weather-wise it was comparatively comfortable.


Needless to say we are back in sunny Wimborne all safe and sound having had a wonderful five month stint abroad. We were even met with some lovely home-made soup made from the produce of the family allotment which was delicious - thanks Donna! It's very nice to be home.

Some big "thank-yous"

Us in Venice!Our adventure would not have happened were it not for the help of a number of our very good friends. Firstly Mic and Martin, who put in such a huge effort to get Gerty fit for our trip. We really cannot thank you enough! Mic and Martin have worked in the most extreme weather conditions including electrical storms, snow, downpours, sunshine - anything you can imagine - without the benefit of a good workshop, all on a driveway, and produced something breathtakingly beautiful yet practical, subtle and graceful yet protective and hardy. Gerty is a work of art. She has performed beyond our expectations and has kept us safe and warm in some very difficult conditions. There were often moments when we completely forgot where we were, because wherever we were, we were home! Thanks guys, so very much!


Gerty!At the start of our adventure I did say I'd put up some photos of Gerty to show her off and with all the activity over the last five months I've not done it (I'm not sorry!!). So here she is in all her glory, with photos courtesy of another good friend of ours Charlie!

It's worth noting a small number of details which are (among) my favourite features of the van (there are too many to list).

Solar Panels
Gerty from AboveWe didn't use electricity hookup once on our trip. All the power we used came from the sun (and occasionally boiling a kettle from a shower block!). Our lighting uses LED lights so our electrical consumption footprint was pretty low but it made our trip easier knowing we didn't have to rely on campsites and were using renewable energy for electric at least. I did flatten the battery once when I was using my portable studio for about 10 hours (laptop, audio interface, USB keyboard, stereo, lights - pretty much everything electrical I had with me running at once) but the battery was soon blinking away fully charged a few days later.

Wood Burning stove

Gerty's kitchen and wood burnerThis was a godsend when the temperatures plummeted as we got to the north of Italy and kept us sane as we headed through very cold temperatures in France. Lighting it in the morning was fun (it really focuses the mind when it's minus 6 outside), and evening spent watching "hippie TV" was a joy. It also meant I had a great excuse to indulge on steaks as we went round (trying the local beef was one of my highlights) as well as chestnuts which was another treat amongst many. Martin hand-made pretty much everything except the burner itself and the copper pipes which were beaten flat and used as brackets look amazing.

The Living Room interior

Gerty's Living roomBit vague I know, but when you spend a bit of time in the van you really lose yourself. Anything can be going on outside and you will be blissfully unaware, surrounded by beautifully-stained tongue and groove, French-polished ivy roots, an irish-knot engraved table and hand-made seat cushions (another big thank you, this time Marcia - they have been so comfortable!). Also have a look at the kitchen area - it's another Mic masterpiece - see the tiles and the perfect grouting around them? All done by Mic's fair hand.

The Garage

The Garage areaCheers to Dave for making the lead trays which sat in our "garage" area under the wet-suits and scuba gear to catch any dripping water. They really did the job. Functionally this area was key to our trip. With space to hang wet-suits and BCD's, a wood store, a space to keep the fold-up bikes and our other equipment and tools.

...and finally

Thank you for reading and leaving comment either here, facebook, twitter or flickr - it's been really nice to get little messages from home.

MattyRachelicusSo there we have it. We've been to a total of ten different countries, had a brilliant time, seen some inspiring sights, met some wonderful people, eaten some brilliant food and drunk some very nice wine, beer and brandy on the way. We can't wait to catch up with everyone (and bore you with over 30Gb of photos), so I'll now bring this blog swiftly to a close.

Will this be the end of our adventures?

No way.


For a FULL map of where we've been (if not the exact route), have a look here

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Heading home! Cannes to Calais

2nd - 8th December

Heading home

Cannes beachAlthough we were in a comparatively warm spot on the Cote d'Azure, we made the decision to start heading home. The wind had picked up a lot and heavy rain was forecast for the next few days. With northern Europe under a deluge of snow and ice (most of France was under about a foot of snow) we wanted to get back to Calais swiftly and safely, but after experiencing the wallet-emptying Autoroutes decided to take the slower, more scenic Route Nationale roads up the Rhone valley. From what we had learned from locals the Route National, or "N" roads, should be cleared. However we had also been told that no matter how good the French authorities where at clearing the road, if it came down in a hurry, snow would be a problem, so that meant that I could justify buying snow-chains! We also knew we would have to do a lot of driving and skimp on the sightseeing a bit, but this would leave something to see next time round.

Cannes to Avignon

On the road to AvignonOn the 2nd we left Cannes and headed in leisurely fashion towards Avignon to avoid the Alps as much as possible. This meant taking the coastal road as far as St Raphael, then heading up a slightly mountainous road into the Frejus forset. After this scenic drive with Another wonderfull sunsetwonderful panoramas of the surrounding white-topped mountains, we stopped at the scenic town of Aix-En-Provence to see the town that gave the world Cezanne. We didn't stop long as we still has a lot of driving to do to get to our scheduled stop at Avignon, which we arrived at after dark. We settled into a carpark in between two rivers as the temperature dropped to minus figures. It was a pretty cold night and we had to make some modifications to the van to ensure we retained more heat for the next night, such as covering over vents and ensuring the side door was fully sealed, which made a huge difference, and made for a more comfortable nights sleep.

The walls of AvignonThe next day we were up and had a lovely walk around Avignon to the food market in the centre of town. There are loads of stalls and it reminded me a bit of Wimborne market except that all the stalls were foody stalls from seafood to spices to cheeses and meats, anything you wanted could be found here. Around the town of Avignon are spectacular defensive walls which make for an amazing backdrop. With the morning mist over the river, the scene was complete.

Avignon to Lyon

Fortresse de MornasLater that day we pushed on towards Lyon, our next scheduled stopover. Not far from Orange, jut north of Avignon, we stopped off at some castle ruins perched high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Route Nationale and the motorway, La Fortresse de Mornas. We climbed up to the ruins which afforded some superb views of the surrounding countryside.

With a couple of detours we didn't quite make it as far as Lyon before the snow started to come down pretty heavily, but we found a friendly truck stop retaurant who let us stay in their carpark for the coldest night we had experienced. The temperature was down to -6 degrees when we pulled up, so I an only guess what it was in the middle of the night!

Lyon to Dijon

Cold morningThe following day the carpark was frozen solid but again with a good fire we were soon warm and toasty in the van. Having survived our coldest night in relative comfort we again hit the road, where our next target point was the keen town of Dijon. After getting lost in Lyon we were soon speeding north again, with jolly tunes being played over the radio, when we were told of a traffic problem ahead on the A6 motorway. As we were on the parallel "N6" road I felt confident we would miss the problem, only to find that my French listening skills weren't as good as I'd hoped. In the distance we could see lorries and cars speeding by on the A6 as we ground to a halt miles from a junction we could use to access the motorway. Hours later we had barely moved, crawling along at a snails pace which did afford the unexpected advantage of me being able to nip across the road to pick up a delectable cream cake and walk back to where the van was!

Also on the way we came across a christmas market in full swing in a little village. We stopped by and the smell of mulled wine was everywhere. They had lots of lovely home-made crafts and nick-nacks for sale and all the clubs from the village, such as the local martial arts club, were raising money for charity by baking cakes and selling the afore-mentioned mulled wine. there was a lively atmosphere and we almost parked the van there for the night as we both had a hankering for some of the beverages on sale, but decided that we still needed to make up some time we had lost in the jam, so on we went. We ended the day in a rest aire in a little village of Beaune just south of Dijon.

Dijon to Reims

Ice vomitOn the 5th we had a good look around Beaune which is another lovely walled town. Here they keep millions of litres of wine ageing below the streets, in the numerous wine cellars of the town. It's a really pretty place and the snow covered roofs added to the festive feel.

Moet & ChandonAgain we pushed on north, this time towards the town of Reims and again we spent pretty much the whole day on the road. Everywhere was a blanket of white from the recent snow, but we had timed our trip so we would miss all the precipitation. We stopped in a little picnic spot which was covered in snow near the Champagne town of Epernay.
Just as Beaune keeps loads of wine under it's streets, Epernay is the spiritual home of Champagne. There is a road called Champagne Avenue where all the big name Champers producers have their bases. It's really big and plush, but unfortunately as we had arrived late in the day we didn't get any tasters. Ahh well...

Reims towards Calais

On the 6th we continued our trip north through the Somme area and passed a large number of war graves of British and Canadian forces. They were out in the middle of nowhere and hundreds of graves at a time, a sombre reminder of the events that took place here.

We ended the day a little more north in a picnic spot which was covered in snow with lovely views of a white countryside, just south of Ardres where our vet appointment was the following day. We awoke to the coldest morning yet, as we were exposed on a hill in the middle of nowhere though (with mysterious mountains of potatoes for company). Outside the temperature was a chilly -6.5 when we woke up and there was ice on the insides of the windows! Brrr! Once the fire had defrosted us we then arrived in the town of Guines, where we found our final campsite. We then got Nailz in to the vet for his check-up (required for the PETS passports scheme to return to the UK) which was no problem at all and the vet in Ardres was very good.

MattyRachelicusBack at the campsite we joined two other British couples (the only others on the site) for drinks, singing (once we were all well oiled) and some impromptu mouth organ playing. We had a great time, but the next morning I had a very heavy head!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Parma, Cinque Terra, Genova, Monaco, Cannes and Mandelieu-La Napoule

28th November - 1st December

Lago di Garda to Parma

Chilly start to the morningAfter checking out of the campsite we moved further round the Lago di Garda to a very small but elegant village called Bardolino. We spent bit of time sipping coffee in one of the many coffee shops by the harbour before Lovely fireheading off again towards Parma, a fair bit south. En route we stopped to visit another little town of castlemaggiore, but only for a quick pit stop. Again we passed banks of snow and were grateful that Martin had put a wood burning stove in the van for us to keep the cold at bay. It was quite a drive and with the nights well and truley drawing in it was dark before we got to Parma and again we were able to see the town during a very quiet period.
We stopped just outside the town at a little church surrounded by snow and got a fire going before bedding down in our nice and toasty home. The following morning we woke to a winter wonderland and when the sun poked his head over the snow-covered mountains the scene was complete. Again the fire came into it's own and it was a real pleasure to step out into the cold to enjoy the frosty morning and then scamper back into the warm and cosy van.


Snow-capped mountainsWe had to get some cheese from Parma and we had passed a dairy just up the road before we came off the main drag and set up camp the night before. There we found a busy (always a good sign) shop selling the farm produce and couldn't resist a taster. It was really nice and not as overpowering as I had expected. It was aged 36 months, so was the good stuff with plenty of character, but also a slight delicacy to it which made it irresistible. Naturally I couldn't decide whether I liked it or not so after a few more tasters (and a prod from Rachel) I had to get my wallet out and buy some.
Soon we were again on the road heading south towards La Spezia, on the coast, and on the journey we were surrounded by immense, snow-capped ranges of mountains. It was a fantastic journey and we took our time so we coukd admore the scenery as it slipped by.

Cinque Terra

Cinque TerraWe were heading to a part of Italian coastline called La Cinque Terra which is five villages set into rugged coastline. We walked down the small high street of Manarola to the harbour where the rough sea was hammering the jagged coastline. The village was very pretty with vibrant, colourful houses perched precariously on the cliff edge. On the edges of the village and up sheer slopes were the olive and wine groves which make the regions exports of oil and wine, reputed to be among the best in Italy, and cultivated seemingly from the rock itself. We had a wander among the groves and the maze-like paths which the farmers use to access the pretty inhospitable land.


Triumphal ArchLater the same day we were in Genova and again we hit the town during the quiete period which meant we were able to have a nice drive round the town and stop for a wander in the main square. Dominating the Piazza Vittoria is a massive Triumphal arch similar to that found in Paris and just as impressive. There was a nice vibe to the town and we enjoyed our brief visit, but we needed a place to stay and the centre of a major port wasn't it so we headed on further down the coast to Savona where we found a lovely little pace alongside the beach for the night. Also as we were by the coast the temperature had gone from a chilly -1.5 degrees inland near Parma to a comparatively balmy +11 degrees by the sea so we had a very comfortable nights kip.

On the seafrontThe next morning brought more sun and the views of the beach with the suns rays reflecting off the sea was near perfection. We were nearing the French border and spent the day, with another brief interlude for lunch in another sleepy seaside town, cruising the coastal road down into France. It was quite a journey and included some amazing views so it took till dark to reach the border.


Almost as soon as we entered France we encountered it's amazingly expensive motorways and so decided pretty spontaneously that it was time to take "Gerty" to the next level - and get on a formula 1 circuit. To do this we detoured into our tenth county of the trip, Monaco!


MonacoThis was a bit hairy, driving round the little country as we didn't have a clue where we were going and at one point I managed to drive into a tiny cobbled street, almost getting stuck in a hotel driveway (one of the big name hotels too). Still, after two laps of the country, we managed to get her onto a part of the road they actually use for the F1 races - the bit by the harbour, which I was really overexcited about. I would have loved to get her through the tunnel but to be honest I couldn't find it, having no map at all. Nevermind, I'm sure Hamilton and co are shivering in their cold F1 cars (they don't have heaters, let along a wood burner) fearing for their livelihoods.


Cannes beachWe zipped back onto the motorway as it was getting late and we wanted to get on, coming off at Cannes. I had been expecting a polished, glitzy romantic town but I was sorely dissapointed. It was just like any slightly tatty touristy sea-side resort (maybe we hit the wrong part of town) but regardless we found our way to the coast (better known as the Cote d'Azure) and found a lovely place right on the sea-front to curl up for the night.

Mandelieu-La Napoule

Cannes seafrontOn the 1st December we awoke to another beautiful view of the sun trying to break through the clouds after a rainy night. It took a while but we did end up with another gorgous day which we spent exploring the small town of Mandelieu-La Napoule, just down the coast from Cannes and walking along the Cote d'Azure sefront. On the night we made our way back to the Cannes sea-front where we had spent the previous night to fall asleep with the sound of the sea crashing onto the beach.