Day 273 At sea on North Sea to home.

The ferry crossing was smooth and uneventful. With my, by now, standard combination of gin and Stugeron, I slept like a baby. When I awoke, there was a soft pink glow on the horizon, visible through our cabin window. I couldn’t resist one last sunrise.

I quickly showered and dressed, and dragged poor Howard from his bed. We went up on deck, and watched a magical sunrise in the east, looking back towards Europe. It seemed such a very apt way to be saying goodbye to the continent that we had been exploring for the past ten months. It was really hard not to well up inside.

The sun shone on the drive back up to Fife from Newcastle through the glorious Borders countryside. We should have felt excited about being back in the UK, but perversely it was the sadness that our amazing adventure was over, that was the over-riding emotion.

Arriving home, if I’m honest, was a bit of an anti-climax. It just felt really peculiar leaving Oscar on the drive and coming indoors. The house was cold, since both the boiler and the Aga had decided to malfunction simultaneously. So rather than arriving back to a cosy warm house, it felt like entering a cold room, one of the drawbacks of not running the heating for months. The first night back in our own bed was ridiculous. Neither of us could sleep – the bed felt so soft and saggy after the very firm upper bed in Oscar. We tossed and turned and fidgeted, and at one point, at about 3am, we did consider going outside to sleep in the van!

We have now been home a few days, and are slowly acclimatising to all this space around us. The boiler and the Aga have been sorted, and the house is starting to feel more lived in again. I am savouring having a toilet and bathroom at hand, rather than walking across a cold field, especially in the middle of the night.

It has been lovely starting to catch up with family and friends, not to mention Doctor Who and Strictly Cone Dancing! Our sons are pleased to have us home again, and we have already spent a lovely weekend with the two younger ones in Edinburgh.

The really odd thing is, that already, the trip is starting to feel a little bit like a dream. Did we really travel to all those amazing places? Did we really travel 25,000 miles and visit 35 countries? So many amazing experiences. So many memories. We have been very lucky indeed to have had the opportunity to undertake such an incredible trip. For some, it would be a lifetime’s dream. For others, living in a small campervan for the best part of a year would be a nightmare! For us though, and I think I speak for Howard on this one too, it has been one of the best experiences of our lives.

Already, ideas are going through my mind – different destinations, new adventures. I think it will be hard to settle after such an amazing trip, but who knows what the future holds? I hope that for those of you who have followed the blog, that you have enjoyed being armchair travellers. I have really appreciated all your comments and input over the months. 

You will realise that I am a huge advocate of travel. I really do think it broadens the mind, and leads to a better understanding of our fellow human beings. Europe is an amazing continent. It’s diversity must be greater than any other continent on earth. No other continent can possess the same number of incredible old buildings, and the same amount of history on offer. It’s natural wonders and beauty are beyond words. I hope that I may have inspired a few of you to get out there, and see some more of this wonderful continent that is just on our doorstep. 

For now though, I am signing off. Thank you for travelling with us … until next time, a bientot!

Day 272 Amsterdam, Netherlands to somewhere in the North Sea.

Our last day in mainland Europe didn’t really turn out as planned. We had imagined a day exploring the beautiful city of Amsterdam. Unfortunately though, overnight Howard came down with a rather spectacular dose of the ‘squits’. Whether it was something he had eaten, or picked up on one of the campsites we are not sure, but certainly it could not have been more timely to be spending a night in a hotel with an ensuite bathroom! It is the first time on the entire trip that either of us had suffered from any tummy upset, and the practicalities of dealing with such a problem in a campervan with no toilet or bathroom facilities became abundantly clear.

Consequently, Howard was feeling rather washed out for our last day of sightseeing. We had planned a boat trip on the lovely canals, but decided that this would be imprudent, in view of events overnight. So instead, we just took a gentle wander around the canals, always within a safe distance from the hotel, just in case he needed to dash back to the room.

Nevertheless, we spent a very pleasant few hours just pottering around. It was a beautiful autumn day in Amsterdam. The sun was shining, and the leaves were fluttering down from the trees into the canals below. We stopped a couple of times in cafes, Howard substituting our, by now, regular morning coffee fix, with peppermint tea, to settle his stomach.

It is safe to say that we were both in quite a reflective mood, and had mixed feelings about returning to the UK. Our trip around Europe has been an absolute blast. We have been to so many places and seen so many things that it is almost impossible just now to assimilate. I’m sure we will reflect on it over the next few weeks, in order just to take it all in.

For both of us, we have visited countries that we had never been to before. For me, Scandinavia was a first, and I absolutely loved it. Although Howard had visited all the Scandinavian countries through work over the years, he had never had the opportunity to explore them in the depth to which we were able to do on this trip. Eastern Europe for both of us was a first, and a real learning experience. Iceland was an adventure! The thrill of seeing the natural wonders of the extraordinary place were tempered with the challenges that the weather threw at us. Campervanning with a pop-up in such extreme windy conditions drove us to seek out alternate accommodation on many occasions. Discovering small micro-states such as Liechtenstein and San Marino has been enlightening too.

Some of our fondest memories will be of the islands we have visited. There is something very special about islands, that gives them their own uniqueness – Sicily, Corsica, the Croatian Islands of Cres, Hvar and Korcula, the extraordinary Faroe Islands, and of course the amazing Lofoten Islands. All wonderful places. 

Other destinations we had been to before, but not for many years. We both loved our return to Venice, and will never forget the warm sultry evening we were sat having a glass of wine in St. Marks Square, when our eldest FaceTimed us to tell us that he had just got engaged – just magic! The Greece is somewhere we had travelled to in our youth, back-packing around the islands. This time, we visited the northern mainland, and were blown away with it’s beauty. Returning to Prague and Dubrovnik were an absolute joy.

We have been introduced to so many cities for the first time – San Sebastian, Santiago de Compostela, Porto, Lisbon, Seville, Cordoba, Rome, Palermo, Matera, Piran, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Talinn, Riga, Vilnius, Krakow – the list goes on and on. All have been amazing in their individual ways.

We have seen so much history. Magnificent amphitheatres in Rome and Sicily, Roman temples in Agrigento, Sicily, troglodyte dwellings in Puglia and Matera, prehistoric rock carvings in Arctic Norway, standing stones in Corsica, so many churches, cathedrals and mosques I could never count! I have learnt so much European history along the way, and have a much better understanding of what makes this continent tick.

For me, the natural wonders have been my highlights. Although I have loved seeing all these cities, it is really nature that rocks my boat. I adore mountains, and we have seen these in abundance – early on in the trip, the Picos de Europe in northern Spain and the Sierra D’Estrala in Portugal, and the wonderful Sierra Nevada in Southern Spain. Then there were the magnificent Julian Alps in Slovenia, the Dolomites in Austria, the Alps in France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Italy, the Tatras mountains in Slovakia, and the utterly stunning mountain ranges in Iceland and Norway.

Then there were the fjords – so many fjords, all absolutely breathtaking. The Norwegian fjords, of course, but for me, the Eastern Fjords in Iceland were an absolute highlight.

Then there were the coasts – the rugged north coast of Galicia, the classic Amalfi, the vibrant azure waters of Croatia, Greece and Corsica, the barren Arctic coast in Iceland, and the stunning rocky cliffs of Nordkapp, to name but a few.

To name a favourite amongst all of these would be impossible. We have loved them all, and each has it’s own very special character and uniqueness.

Much of this trip was not just about seeing new (and old) places. It was about experiencing different cultures, and above all, about meeting different people. Throughout Europe, we have been universally welcomed in every country. It has been an absolute delight to have met so many kind and helpful people along the way. I think in the entire year, there are literally only a couple of occasions when we have been met with any rudeness, and on each of these, it has been some bureaucratic official with a clipboard in hand, probably on a bit of a power kick. The people we have met throughout Europe have been genuinely warm-hearted, and incredibly gracious towards us as visitors. I look back to an absolutely freezing cold morning in Iceland, when Howard and I sought refuge in a coffee shop in a remote village in the Eastern Fjords – definitely the only visitors in town, as we had the whole campsite to ourselves, and there were no guest houses, let alone hotels. The two elderly ladies sat in the corner, knitting, asked us of our plans. ‘Going south’, we said. They both consulted with each other, and then the Icelandic met forecast, and told us, shaking their heads, ’No, don’t do that’. They promptly sent us up to the swimming pool, which doubled up as a ‘tourist information office’, which really meant that the man at the desk at the swimming pool would also help the occasional tourist who passed through. Within half an hour, armed with maps and campsite suggestions, we were driving round Iceland in completely the different direction to which we had intended, avoiding a massive low front which plagued southern Iceland for most of the following week. It is simple acts of kindness, like this, that we will remember most.

How can we ever forget the lovely Danish couple, Birtha and Neils, who met us for ten minutes in a campsite in Seville, and invited us to stay with them when we reached Denmark. Who would do that in the UK?!

Of course, one of the hardest things about this trip has been leaving family and friends behind. It is something, for me, that was going to be one of the biggest challenges of this adventure. I needn’t have feared. Almost on a daily basis, some of my lovely friends have What’s Apped me, day and sometimes even night (you know who you are!). Our children have been perhaps less attentive, and despite starting this blog really for them, they have periodically phoned up to ask, ‘Where are you now, then?” All three though have been out to visit us, Edward to Croatia, Thomas (and Katy, his fiancee) to Iceland, and Oliver to Norway, which has been lovely. Oliver probably thought he had pulled the short straw, when we announced when we picked him up at Tromso airport, that he was doing a long road trip with the ‘rents’ to Nordkapp, the most northerly part of mainland Arctic Norway. It turned out to be a definite trip highlight, managing to bag the most uncharacteristically splendid weather window, and seeing Arctic Norway at it’s magnificent best. He even managed to join ‘The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society’, and sleep in a flimsy pop-up tent in the most northerly campsite in mainland Europe!

More recently, we have met up with other friends and relatives. Howard’s brother and his wife came out to join us in Corsica, and we met up with other friends in Tuscany and Corsica, which was lovely.

When we set off on this adventure, Howard and I had absolutely no idea how well we would cope together in our tiny little van. In fact, it has been wonderful, I can honestly say that. We have both loved each others company, and bar one incident where Howard lost me on a ferry, barely a cross word has been spoken. Living and sleeping in our lovely little VW has been joyous. There is something very magical about sleeping ‘up top’ in a Cali – comfortable and cocooned, but being very aware of the nature around you. Waking up to magnificent scenery out of your ‘bedroom’ window is a privilege, and lying in bed at night listening to lapping waves, cicadas clicking, owls hooting or even winds howling is a very special experience indeed. I am going to miss all of this, and going home is going to feel very strange, I suspect.

For tonight, though, we have one last ferry crossing from Amsterdam into Newcastle. Boarding the ferry this time, was uncharacteristically painless. We arrived early, and were almost immediately beckoned onboard, by helpful staff, who greeted us warmly. ‘What’s going on here then?’, we thought. Grimaldi should take us lesson from this bunch. Customer service extraordinaire.

So as I type, Howard is sending up the zeds, exhausted from his spell unwell. Before we retired for the night, we sat on the deck, reflecting on the trip. Already we have itchy feet, and we haven’t even got home yet. Perhaps a trip around the UK beckons, who knows?! 

One thing, for sure, is that the star of this entire adventure, is a little blue Cali called Oscar. He has done us well, climbing up mountain hairpins, negotiating the snowy roads on the NC500 in Scotland, squeezing into tiny car parks and spaces no other campervan could, driving us over 24,000 miles in 35 countries, and providing us with a warm and comfortable space to live in. Latterly, we have even started to refer to him as ‘home’, and Howard had taken to checking on him last thing at night, if we are staying in a hotel or guest house. 

So before I get weepy-eyed, I will just say one thing. ‘Three cheers for Oscar!!!”.

Day 271 Cadzand, Zealand to Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Today we awoke to a definite chill in the air, despite the forecast predicting a sunny day. Even after my hot shower, it took me a full hour to dispense with the goosebumps I had woken up with. There was only one other set of campers on our site, on the far side of the grassy field, so we had the luxury of having the wash blocks essentially to ourselves.

I had been woken this morning by the sound of geese, and thought that perhaps some migrating geese had landed on the lush green grassy site. However, as we sat drinking our morning tea, the culprits of the noise revealed themselves. A group of six lovely white geese paraded across the path in front of us, and proceeded to walk into the orchard, and feast on windfall apples – they were in goosey heaven!

Packing up the van, everything was damp. There was condensation on the topper, and despite leaving it out to dry over the chairs, in the end, we had to pack it away still wet. There is something though about flat places, that does something special to the light. Just as in the wide flat expanses of Suffolk and Norfolk, the skies here in Zealand have a special quality – more luminant than further inland.

Zealand is made up of a series of islands, joined by bridges and tunnels. We decided to plot a route through this coastal part of the Netherlands, on our way to Amsterdam. For our morning coffee destination, we picked the medieval town of Middelburg. It’s cobbled alleyways harp back to the sea-trading days of the 16th century, with many of the street names reflecting it’s past -‘Beer Dock’, ‘Grain Dyke’ and ‘Timber Dock’. The town sits on a bend in the River Arne, close to the windswept coast. The main square is quite spectacular – huge, with the impressive town hall buildings, the Stadius, taking up one entire side. We found a charming little coffee shop, and sat in the sun and enjoyed the world passing us by, very pleasant indeed. Before leaving, we had a look at one of the three Abbey Churches, and stuck our head in a couple of shops, searching out a flag. The latter drew a blank, but we were surprised to learn that the Dutch flag is, in fact, red, white and blue, and not orange as we had expected. The orange colour, so much associated with the Netherlands, derives from William of Orange apparently.

Our next stop was the charming little town of Veere, a short distance away. This maritime town, that sits on the Veerse Meer, owes it fames to it’s association with Scotland. In 1444, the Lord of Veere, Wolfert IV van Borssele, married Mary, daughter of James 1st of Scotland. As part of the dowry, van Borssele was granted a monopoly on trade with Scottish wool merchants. So, after looking around the pretty harbour, we couldn’t resist taking a peek at the ‘Scotze-Huisen’ or Scottish House, two merchant’s buildings, dating from the 16th century. The small museum had a shop, and I went in to to ask if they could sell me a Netherlands flag. The answer was ‘No – only a Saltire’! It certainly was a fine town, although apparently it’s wealth diminished with the decline of the cloth industry.

Finally, it was time to leave Zealand, and make our way to Amsterdam. It is maybe somewhere we might return to another time – it seems like a cyclist’s heaven – no hills and tons of cycle lanes. In fact, the biggest danger in Zealand in avoiding the multitude of bicycles. I did feel moderately guilty for not at least getting out our bikes, but sadly we know have a schedule to stick to, since we have booked our ferry back to Scotland. Another trip, perhaps.

The drive into Amsterdam became increasingly tedious, as the traffic levels increased. To make matters worse, Boris went into ‘stupid mode’, and went into long periods of silence, when we needed him most. Certainly not matching up to his namesake!

Eventually we arrived in the city, and found our hotel, in the canal district. It was a tight squeeze parking Oscar, but he is tucked up fine in the courtyard of the hotel. We wasted no time in getting out to see this wonderful city. The overwhelming thing about Amsterdam is…..Yikes! So many bikes!!! Everywhere you turn they are coming at you, from all directions. Bicycles are clearly the main form of transport in this city – there are literally thousands and thousands of them. The whole city is cycle friendly, with cycle lanes on every road, and they appear to have more space on the walkways than pedestrians. Don’t get me wrong – I applaud this as a means of transport. It also must mean that Amsterdamers (is that right?) must be some of the most fittest city dwellers, with all this daily exercise. But the thing is, after spending the afternoon and evening walking around this amazing city, I appear to have developed an irrational fear of bicycles! They speed around the place with complete disregard for pedestrians, and I have no doubt, must be a major cause of admissions to A & E. Howard ended up having to hold my hand, whenever we tired to cross a road.

Cyclists apart, we had a lovely time exploring the city. The canal area is just charming, then as we you got nearer to the Central Station and the Old Town, the character started to change. The rather overwhelming pungent smell of cannabis started to pervade the air, and a number of ‘Coffee Shops’ snd shops clearly selling pots of the weed became evident. At the Central Station, the number of bikes chained up was quite extraordinary. How the commuters ever find their own bike at the end of the day is beyond me!

We took a free ferry along the river to the other side of he city, just because we could. By now, the sun was setting, and the city took on a very different feel. We walked back towards the canal area, and found a lovely cafe for our evening meal. 

It felt quite sad, since this will be our last whole day in mainland Europe, before we catch the ferry back to the UK tomorrow evening. Consequently, there will be no blog tomorrow night, as we will be at sea. We plan to touch base back in Scotland, before deciding if we have the stamina for one final flush around the UK. We will see?!

Day 270 Esh-sur-Sure, Luxembourg to Cadzand, Zealand, Netherlands.

We woke up to a very damp and driech morning in Luxembourg, having experienced heavy rain overnight. Thankfully, we had put the external topper on, mainly as a form of insulation on these increasingly cold nights upstairs, but it served us well in all the rain. Everyone around us on the campsite awoke a little bleary end this morning, thanks to an incredibly inconsiderate German Big White who pitched up at 1am, and inexplicably, decided to park in what was effectively the seating area for the Big White opposite us. What’s more, they decided to back in, revving their engine, and shining their lights into Oscar. When we woke up this morning, we couldn’t quite believe where they had decided to park, so close to the other German Big White, effectively on their pitch. The pleasant German lady stepped out of her van with a lot of disbelief on her face. Of course, the offenders were still asleep, tucked up in their van.

The lady came over to talk to me, seeing that I was observing the situation. ‘What should I do?’, she asked.’ ‘They have parked on top of us!” A few minutes later, the culprit appeared from his van. A heated discussion ensued in German, which I didn’t understand. Howard, who was ear-wigging, thought that the man had said that they were leaving this morning anyway. I couldn’t help but feel that this was no excuse at all, since he had effectively woken up at least a half of the campsite with his parking antics. What made it ten times worse, was that there were three free pitches right by the entrance, that he could have driven straight into, without disturbing a soul. Not long after, the guilty looking German slunk off out of the site, with the nice German lady shaking her head in disgust after him. ‘He must have personal space issues’, Howard muttered as he left.

Excitement over, we quickly breakfasted and packed way, conscious that our next destination was a good couple of hours away. However, everyone seemed to want to come over and talk to us this morning – always the way when you’re in a hurry. One Luxembourg lady with a California wanted details of where we had got our topper from – she wanted one! I duly gave her the link to the California club website. Then a Belgium chap came over to talk, seeing all our flags. He asked where we were going to next. ‘Belgium’, we replied. He enquired where. In true unplanned style, we confessed that we would probably decide in the next ten minutes, but it would probably be a toss up between Ghent and Bruges. ‘No question,’ he replied. ‘It has to be Bruges.’

So that is how we ended up heading towards Bruges this morning. 

Within no time at all, we had crossed over the border into Belgium. The first part of our drive was a little like a culinary tour – passing by Rochefort (as in cheese), and Ardennes, then Brussels (as in pate). Apart from the modest Ardennes hills, there is a reason why Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands are called the ‘Low Countries’ – they are incredibly flat. Having just driven through the  Alps just a few days previously, the landscape seemed incredibly dull. I realised, as we were driving, that it is stunning mountainous landscapes and seascapes that I love more than anything, preferably both at once, and I always struggle with flat places. Howard tried to explain to me the history of these three countries, having read all about it last night while I was typing. Over the centuries, they have been combined and broken up, often a major component being religious divisions between Catholics and Calvinists. He recalled visiting Leuven in Belgium some years ago for work. Here, the two universities, the Catholic and the Protestant ones, divided up the journals to their libraries by alternate years, so that each would only have half the journals!

Eventually we arrived in Bruges, just after lunch. We parked by the river and walked into the Old Town. I’m sure many of you have visited this lovely city, but for those of you who haven’t, it is picture postcard perfect. The cobbled streets lead towards a large central square, the Markt, with the stunning belfry clock tower on one side, and on another, a row of wonderfully colourful buildings, with the characteristic crow-stepped gables, forming a real picture. We walked on to see the Burg Square, and then St. Salvator’s Cathedral. The whole city is a true feast for the eyes, and not surprisingly, was busy with visitors.

In the fourteenth century, this Flanders city was a the heart of the cloth trade, and as such, was a key member of the Hanseatic League, the powerful trading alliance in Medieval Europe. British wool was imported and woven into fine cloth here, and the Flemish weavers, including those in Ghent and Ypres, then traded with goods such as hogs from Denmark, spices from Venice, gold and silver from Poland, furs from Bulgaria and hides from Ireland. The whole old town seems to ooze history, and it is hard, at times, not to think you are walking on a film set.

Being in Belgium, I had hoped to indulge in chips and mayonnaise, but was dissuaded from this by Howard. Instead, our crepe smothered in hot chocolate sauce (Belgium chocolate, of course) was probably even worse for us than chips.

We eventually dragged ourselves away, and went in search of our campsite for tonight. Unexpectedly, we have ended up just over the border in the Netherlands tonight. Both campsites we had selected in Belgium turned out not to be open, not before we had driven to the coast near Zebrugge. The first appeared to have vans inside, but when we pressed the intercom, we were told that they had shut for the season.

So we had another half hours drive across the border to a campsite in Zealand. It is clear to us, that most campsites this far north in Europe are now closing down for the winter, in contrast to the campsites we experienced further south in Spain, Portugal and Italy at the beginning of our trip, many of which stayed open all season.

We have now visited all the countries in Europe that were on our imaginary ‘list’ when we started this trip. The nights are closing in, and becoming colder, and so reluctantly we have decided that it is probably time to start thinking of returning to the UK. There is a huge part of me that wants to just turn round and start all over again, but I know we need to return. There are so many other places that we would have liked to have visited, and others that we think we may return to someday.

For now though, we have the Netherlands to explore. Just half a mile across the border, and I have already spotted my first windmill. Next on the list – a little mouse with clogs on! 

Day 269 Metz, Moselle, France to Esch-sur-Sure, Luxembourg.

We awoke to a misty morning, such that we could barely see the bank on the other side of the Moselle River. However, within an hour of first light, the sun slowly started to burn away the mist. Wisps of mist slowly rose from the water, giving the whole scene a very ephemeral feel. A grandfather and his grandson stood on the river bank twenty yards or so away from us, fishing. Within just a few minutes, they were hauling out the most enormous fish into their net. It was possibly a pike, we couldn’t tell from our distance. However, after admiring it and showing it to the other fishermen, it was duly returned to the river. Fishing always seems a bit of a pointless activity, to me, if you are just going to throw your catch back, but each to their own. I read in the Lonely Planet that ‘Pike in Green Sauce’ is one of their favourite dishes in Luxembourg – sounds revolting, and I made a mental note to avoid the fish as we travel on to our next destination!

After breakfast, we packed away, and thanked the lady owner profusely for such a lovely pitch. We had been warned by a couple walking their dog by the campsite, as we struggled to open the entrance gate to the campsite the night before, that the proprietor had a fierce reputation. Consequently, on check in, we had been politeness personified, which clearly paid off, and resulted in us being such a prime spot by the river. A French couple that followed us in, driving a Big White, appeared to get the sharp side of her tongue. My understanding of French is not good enough to understand what they had said to her, but they got send to the end of the campsite, with no view. Mindful of this, we made a point of thanking the lady again, and I received a huge hug, and was invited to come back again. A bit like the Cybil Fawlty of campsites, I suspect!

From our campsite last night, we had spotted a castle, sat high on the hill, a little along the river bank. Consequently, we couldn’t resist popping along to the local village to take a look. It turned out that this was the ‘Chateau des Ducs de Lorraine’ (Castle of the Dukes of Lorraine), built around the 13th century. In the town was the Old Clock Tower from 1294, which housed a cell, where apparently  in 1619 , a ’witch’ called Alicon Bartholomy was imprisoned, before being burnt to death, for the crime of poisoning through witchery spells. I must say, that the whole town looked a little dilapidated, after the pristine town of Ribeauville yesterday, but maybe more authentic perhaps.

It was only a short fifteen minute drive and we found ourselves crossing over the border into Luxembourg. Initial impressions of the country were rather underwhelming. After the stunning scenery in the Alsace yesterday, with it’s wonderful medieval towns, we suddenly found ourselves driving through flat arable farmland and rather ordinary looking towns, with rather characterless buildings. Frankly, we could have been driving through the back end of Cranleigh (no offence meant to my friends who live in Cranleigh!). We made our way into the capital, Luxembourg City. Luckily, we found ourselves a parking space next to the Square of Liberation, and set off for a wander. The city basically sits on two levels, with the old town high up on the hill, and the newer city down below, around the banks of the River Alzette. An elevator is provided for those who do not wish to climb either up or down. We grabbed a coffee in a pretty pedestrianised street in the old part of town, and then set of to explore. We took a look inside the Notre Dame Cathedral, and then followed paved lanes to the Palace Grand-Ducal, the winter residence of the Luxembourg royals. In the square opposite the palace is the building of the Luxembourg Parliament – an elegant building, but pretty small. It reminded me of a Rowan Atkinson song that we used to listen to as students, called ‘Do Bears?” In it, there are the lines, ‘Is the Pope Catholic? Is Luxembourg small? And do hairy bears sha-la-la-la in the woods?’ It always used to make us laugh, and for some reason these lyrics came to mind, as I considered how small the parliament building was. I’m guessing though, that only those of us of a certain age, will have the slightest idea of the song I’m talking about. Howard has just You-Tubed it, and is sitting opposite me as I type in utter hysterics!!

We then found a lovely walkway around what was left of the ramparts, which gave us a birds-eye view of the city below. On the way back to Oscar, we passed by the ‘Maison de l’Union Europeenne’, an information centre about the EU. Inside the lobby were all the flags of the EU lined up. I must say, I found it ironic that it was the Union Jack that sat proudly next to the flag of the EU. Howard insisting on posing next to the two adjacent flags – maybe a historical shot in the future? I must say, that I warmed to Luxembourg City as we walked around it. The old historical centre was quite charming, and the whole place was vibrant and buzzing.

Tour completed, we headed out of town and into the country again. We headed to a place called Esch-sur-Sure – a hamlet on the banks of the River Sure, that sounded interesting. As we were approaching, we luckily spotted a lovely campsite down by the river, just half a kilometre short of Esh. We had originally sourced another camping ground about half an hour north, but this one looked so nice that we just drove in and checked in. Of all the campsites that we have stayed in, this one had to have the least bureaucracy of them all. In some campsites, we have been asked to deposit two passports, fill in multiple forms with name, age, DOB, car registration, home address, camping card number, home and mobile phone numbers – it goes on and on. Here, the lady just took 17 euros and the deal was done, and told us to go and pick our own place.

We quickly set up, and then took the lovely little riverside walk into Esch-sur-Sure. It is a gem of a place. Old, quaint, set on a steep hill, with a beautiful church and a fort at the top of the hill. We climbed up the narrow cobbled street, and then took a stone path up to the fort. At the top, we had magnificent views back over the town, and along the river to where our campsite sat. My initial impressions of Luxembourg were swept away – this place has character in shed-loads.

We climbed back down the hill, and rewarded ourselves with a drink on the terrace of a bar, popular with bikers. It would have been a peaceful spot, overlooking the oxbow bend in the river, had it not been for the bikers, constantly revving their engines whenever one of them left. Why do they do that revving thing?!!

We then made our way back to the campsite, and reflected on our day over tea. Our expectations of this place were, I admit, not high. However, we have been proved wrong. Luxembourg may indeed be small, but there are some rather charming places here, if you take the time to find them.

I fear, though, I will go to sleep tonight, with the Rowan Atkinson song ringing in my ears. ‘And do hairy bears sha-la-la-la-la in the woods…’!!!!

Day 268 Colmar, Alsace to Metz, Moselle, France.

We woke up to sunshine in the Alsace, and were quick to pack up and leave our view of the concrete wall. Within minutes, we were in beautiful countryside, vineyards in all directions. We found ourselves driving on ‘Route des Vins D’Alsace’, on roads meandering through the vineyards, intermittently passing through gorgeous little villages and towns.

We came to one town called Bennwihr, where we stopped to take a photo of the church, with it’s unusual tiled roof. Adjacent to the church, was a memorial for those who died in the first and second word wars. Interestingly, there was also a plaque in memory of the 71 young men from the town who had been conscripted into Hitler’s Third Reich in the Second World War. Having been returned to France following WW1, Alsace was annexed by the Germans during WW2, and in total  140,000 Alsations were forcibly conscripted into Hitler’s armies. These men were known as the ‘Malgre-Nous’ – literally ‘Despite Ourselves’, since the majority went to war against their will. This is one of he reasons that Strasbourg, in the Alsace, was chosen as the seat of the Council of Europe, and later as the home of the European Parliament – as a symbol of hope of future Franco-German, and pan-European cooperation. After WW2, Alsace was once more returned to France, but throughout the region, the influence form Germany remains, both in architecture, and place names.

Today, Alsace has a unique character from the rest of France. Many of the towns wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy-tale, and the scenery is sublime, with undulating hills covered in vines, and many topped with castles. The region, as well as being famous for it’s wine, also is a gastronomes treat, with a profusion of Michelin starred restaurants, and every town bulging with charcuteries, patisseries and shops selling traditional fare such as preserves and it’s Munster soft cheese. Alsace is also known for it’s storks, more than 400 pairs, and everywhere you look, there are storks nests. Howard spotted one wandering amongst the tents on last night’s campsite, and many of the buildings, particularly churches, have a large nest of twigs and branches sat aloft.

We eventually made our way to a lovely little town called Ribeauville, where we spent several hours, pottering around, and of course, having our statutory coffee. This medieval town is just so pretty, with it’s coloured timber buildings and cobbled lanes, with glimpses all around through gaps in the houses to the the vineyards beyond. We climbed the hill, through an old stone arch to the ‘Picturesque Quarter’ – if anything, an understatement! The whole town was beautifully kept, and nearly every house had a profusion of flowers tumbling over window-boxes. Occasionally, we stumbled across little squares, with fountains, and restaurants and cafes on every corner. This place is stunning, and it knows it! I can’t believe that I had never even heard of it, before today. 

We stopped to buy some bread and quiche for our lunch, and then I spied a shop that caught my eye. It was selling brightly coloured jackets, made from a patchwork of different fabrics. I couldn’t resist going inside and trying one on. It looked like something a hippy might wear, not out of place in ‘Woodstock’, but when I tried it on, I immediately thought it would make the perfect ‘campervan’ jacket. Even Howard liked it, so it was a done deal.

We slowly wound our way back to Oscar, and only then did we decide where to go next. By now it was 2.30, and we carefully selected a campsite near Nancy that sounded nice. However, not long after setting off, as I sat reading the details, I realised that it had closed 2 days earlier. So we rapidly had another change of plan, and headed for to a campsite just beyond Metz.

The campsite is situated on the banks of the Moselle River. Ironically, having started the day on the ‘Route des Vins D’Alsace’, we finished the day on the ‘Route des Vins de Moselle’. It makes us sound like vinos!

The contrast in tonight’s pitch from last night’s couldn’t be more striking. As we arrived, the lady asked us if we would like a river-side spot. As we drove into it, the sun was just starting to set, sending a wonderful orange glow across the river, highlighting the autumnal colours of the trees on the bank opposite, and reflecting in the water – just stunning. 

Tomorrow we head the short distance to Luxembourg. For tonight though, it would seem wrong not to drink a glass of wine, to celebrate the Alsace and Moselle regions. Cheers!!

Day 267 Jungfrau, Switzerland to Colmar, Alsace, France.

Today, we left our lovely campsite in the Jungfrau, and moved further northwards, back into France. The drive initially was through the glorious Jungfrau valley, but quickly we were onto motorways, and the driving became tedious.

We plodded on, shortly diverting into Germany, before arriving in the Alsace. Many of the place names had German sounding names, despite being back into France. Of course, as Howard pointed out, Alsace used to be part of Germany, prior to WW1.

We headed to the beautiful medieval town of Colmar, capital of the Alsace wine region. It was like stepping into a film set in the middle of the 15th century. The Old Town is a profusion of stunning medieval timbered buildings, painted in different hues of pastel pinks, ochre, blue and greens. Through the old town runs a canal, with low stone bridges, such that it has been named ‘petite Venise’. The cobbled streets lead to pretty squares, some with fountains and statues – all very elegant. Many of the streets are named after the tradesmen who used to work here. So there is La Rue de la Poissoinerie, (the street of fishmongers), the Rue des Boulangers (bakers) and the Rue Des Tanneurs (tanners, for those not familiar with French). There seemed to be a profusion of food shops, either charcuteries, selling the various meats and sausages, several chocolatiers, and some lovely cake shops.

We stopped in a square by one of the stone bridges, and had a late coffee and a bite to eat. Next to the restaurant was a small wooden jetty, from which half hour boat trips were departing from. I say boat, but they were really electrified punts, sitting incredibly low in the water. Howard and I can’t resist a boat trip, so we purchased our tickets, and spent a pleasant thirty minutes touring the canals. The only problem was our helmsman, a young, rather full of himself Frenchman, who took great delight in persistently rocking the boat, to scare the tourists. Once might have been amusing, but half an hour of this nauseous rocking became rather tedious. I suspect, that if the Koreans in the boat had stopped shrieking every time he did it, he would have soon stopped his antics. I wouldn’t have minded, but the life jackets were left sat on the bow – pretty useless if actually needed.

Boat trip completed, we had a wander around this stunning old town. The area around the Old Tanners quarter was especially picturesque, and the Cathedral made from a warm ochre stone, with some interesting green tiles on part of it’s roof, held centre stage.

Tour complete, we returned to Oscar, and headed to our campsite for the night. Howard had rejected the campsite nearest to town because of it’s poor reviews. Instead, we came about ten kilometres out of Colmar, to a campsite in the shadow of a hillside covered in vineyards. Sounds nice, I hear you say? Wrong. It is shite! Since we are only staying one night, the French receptionist has given us the smallest, noisiest pitch on the site. It is adjacent to a bend in the road, so cars rev and change down gear right by us, and we are looking out at a concrete wall. It is unquestionably the furthest pitch from the wash-blocks, at least a five minute walk (in fact, 5 minutes 30 seconds – I timed it). Personally, I would have moved site, but Howard is tired from driving, and uncharacteristically ‘didn’t want to cause a fuss’. Strange, since earlier today we was full of gusto, as he shouted at a Swiss driver who cut him up on the motorway, some combination of the words ‘arse, stick it up’ and ‘hole close over’, if my memory serves me correctly!

Tomorrow we will be leaving early, and hopefully we can find a more picturesque site to stay the night. I’m sure Alsace is beautiful, just not where we have ended up tonight. At least my anger at leaving the EU is being tempered a little, if this is the best the French can offer us!

Limited photos since – you guessed it – their WiFi doesn’t work either!

Day 266 Jungfrau, Switzerland.

The Jungfrau region of Switzerland has to be one of the most spectacular places on earth! It is a narrow flat-bottomed valley, surrounded on both sides by towering mountains, including the Jungfrau mountain itself, as well as the Eiger and Monch mountains, all exceeding 13,000 feet. After long deliberations last night, and after speaking to several people who had implied that unless the weather is favourable, you could end up spending £150 on a journey to see nothing but clouds, we decided against doing the Jungfraujoch railway. When we woke up, it was cold and cloudy, but after breakfast, small patches of blue started appearing in the sky.

So we donned on our walking boots, and set off down the valley. Our walk took us through some of the most stunning alpine scenery that you can imagine, with the constant ringing of cow bells in our ears. The valley floor is flat and grassy, perfect pasture for cows and goats. Most of the cows here have bells around their necks, and the geography of the mountains is such that the sound reverberates around the valley, like a wonderful percussion orchestra. It was a magnificent sound, and when the distant church bells joined in for a while, it was better than a night out at the RSNO (well, almost!). As we walked further, we started to see parascenders jumping down from the towering cliffs, and catching the thermals, as they slowly zig-zagged down to earth. A couple, however, free fell for much longer, attired in strange ‘flying suits’ like bats, that clearly added air resistance, and slowed their fall. Then, at the very last moment, they triggered their parachutes to open, and came thundering down to the ground. Howard and myself did actually parascend last summer in the Swiss Alps with our god-daughter, looking out over Mont Blanc. On that occasion though, we were both firmly tethered to a professional, on a tandem jump, and we took off from gently sloping grass, rather than the top of a vertical cliff. It was indeed great fun, and I could see how these guys get addicted to the adrenaline rush.

Today though, we were happy just to watch, for we had other modes of transport in mind. At the far end of the valley, we came to the Cable car station that takes passengers up to the Schilthorn mountain, at 9,748 feet. It is the cable car famously used in one of the James Bond films, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.

We opted to take this part of the way up, to the alpine village of Murren, since the web-cams were indicating that the cloud base was too low to have an visibility right at the top. 

We jumped into the Cable Car, and as it started it’s implausibly steep ascent up the side of the mountain, the tannoy started playing the James Bond theme tune. Rather corny, but quite fun!

At the top, we had a lovely wander around the pretty village, so typically Swiss – clean, tidy and organised, with a profusion of window boxes with colourful red geraniums. We opted for a late lunch in a restaurant with a terrace, with a panoramic view of the mountains – just brilliant.

After lunch, we wound our way back down the mountain, and re-traced our steps back along the valley floor. The cows and goats, by now, seemed ready for milking. One farmer’s wife came out and called her goats, which just like dogs, came running to her. A little further along, a young girl had clearly been instructed to take her goat for a walk, or at least to move it to other pastures. The goat, however, had other ideas, and seemed to be leading the girl up the hillside by it’s long tether. I guess you can get naughty goats, just like disobedient dogs!

By the time we arrived back at Oscar it was nearly five o’clock. Our Irish neighbours were just returning from their day out up the Jungfraujoch. They reported that it was absolutely teeming with tour groups following flags, and immediately Howard and I decided that our day out had been much more enjoyable. Maybe for another time, perhaps.

For now, though, I have just been challenged to a game of table tennis. Hopefully, this time I can reek my revenge after my previous humiliating defeat – wish me luck!

Post script – I won!! Still the reigning Marriage Family Table Tennis Champion!

Day 265 Malbun, Liechtenstein to Jungfrau, Switzerland.

It continued to snow overnight, and by this morning, there was a dusting of snow on all the surrounding mountains. When Howard went down to check on Oscar, he reported that ‘the boy’ was also covered in snow. Within an hour of first light, the clouds started to clear, and patches of blue appeared in the sky. The scenery looked magical – a real winter wonderland. 

Before breakfast, we had a quick wander around the village. Already a bus load of walkers had appeared, a family were out with their sledges, and the ski lift had commenced operation, although, as far as we could tell, there was no-one on it.

After breakfast, we slowly descended from 1,600 metres back down the mountain, down a  seemingly never-ending series of hair pin bends. We made our way to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, a short distance away. I’m not sure what I expected, but was pleasantly surprised by this pristine little place. It had one wide pedestrianised street, full of public artworks in the form of sculptures, mostly contemporary. We visited the museum shop and purchased a flag, and then set of in search of a coffee shop. I can officially declare that, to date, Liechtenstein has set the record for the most expensive coffee on our tour of Europe. At £10 (yes, you heard correctly!) for two coffees, by far eclipsing Venice and even Norway, this tiny little place has managed to put itself top of the list. We had expected Monaco to win hands down, but having been unable to even park in the principality, we will never know if it could have claimed the prize.

No matter, it was a good coffee, and the loos were very clean, which is often our sole reason for stopping. To our surprise, walking back to Oscar, we came across two tour groups of Koreans, dutifully following their tour leaders flag. I don’t even need to tell you what Howard did next, but you will understand me, when I tell you that I followed the flag all the way back to the van. Such little things really seem to amuse him these days!

We headed off westwards, very shortly passing back into Switzerland. We joined the motorway, and drove for about two hours, before we came to yet more stunning scenery. First we passed lakes, with mountains as their backdrop, then the peaks started to become more and more impressive. Passing through frequent tunnels, we first came to Lucerne, then Interlaken, which as the name implies, sits between two impressive lakes. We then got into real wow factor scenery as we approached the Jungfrau. The mountain ranges here are truly spectacular, with perpendicular towering cliffs on either side of a narrow valley, following the course of a gushing river.

We had been recommended our campsite by a lovely couple who were on the pitch next to us in Tuscany. They live in Switzerland, and had suggested this campsite as one of their favourites. Taking tips from locals is always a good call, and indeed, the setting for this site has to one of the most stunning locations on our trip. That said, it also happens to be one of the most expensive sites, but I guess that we are in Switzerland, after all.

Within minutes of arriving, we seemed to be the centre of attraction. First, a lady from Ireland came over to chat, and admire all our flags. Then a man and his son from Liechtenstein, pitched next to us in another California, came over to take a look. He was immediately impressed that we were flying our new Liechtenstein flag, and seemed very intrigued by our topper, which we had put on for the first time in three months, to keep in the warmth. I must say, without even a front windscreen cover for insulation, the two of them must be absolutely freezing in these conditions.

Once set up, we went for a walk along the valley. The sound of cow bells rang out all around us, and we stopped at one farm and purchased some home made cheese, being sold from an honesty box outside. I am always a great fan of places with honesty boxes. It suggests a type of community that is trusting of people. They are commonplace in small villages around the West Country, and we have also come across them in the Channel Islands.

After our walk, we decided to try the campsite restaurant, given the thumbs up by our California neighbour. It was in fact so popular, that we had to sit outside, with blankets wrapped around us for warmth, since all the inside seats were taken. We opted for cheese fondu, a real blast from the past. We calculated that it was probably about thirty five years ago that we last had one. The were all the rage in the seventies and eighties, and we used to frequently have friends round for supper for a fondu. The first few mouthfuls were indeed very tasty, but after ten minutes or so, we both became rather underwhelmed by lumps of bread covered in melted cheese – and certainly not good for your cholesterol! Still, it is a Swiss national dish – so when in Rome, as they say!

We have been mulling over what to do tomorrow. Initially, we had considered going on the Jungfraujoch, the railway that takes you to ‘the top of the world’, well – to the top of the Jungfrau, in actual fact. The weather isn’t looking too promising though, and it is a huge expense to travel for three hours on a train, to see nothing but cloud. So instead, we have opted to just go walking at lower levels.

Tonight, we are tucked up inside Oscar, with the heater on, and Howard is wearing his Iceland socks to keep warm. I still can’t believe that only three days ago, we were sunning it up in Corsica! But all good things come to an end, I guess.

P.S. I have eventually managed to upload all the Corsica photos, if anyone interested.

Day 264 Lake Maggiori, Italy to Malbun, Liechtenstein.

What a difference a day makes! We awoke this morning on the shores of Lake Maggiore to light drizzle and low cloud over the mountains around the lake. It was so misty, in fact, that we could barely see across to the other side of the lake. I pootled off to the shower wearing my shorts and sandals, as I had done for the past three months, but on my return, quickly changed into my trousers and fleece – there was a definite nip in the air.

After breakfast, sat inside Oscar, another change from our usual pattern of al fresco dining, we headed off along the lakeside. It was not long before we reached the Swiss border. The border guards just waived us on, without checking our passports, but we had to stop in any case, in order to buy a Swiss vignette to allow us to drive on the motorways.

A little further along the lake, we stopped at the pretty town of Locarno for a coffee and to pick up some Swiss Francs. Howard had a bit of a scare when he went to buy some more diesel, and the machine gobbled up his card. The petrol station was unmanned, as is quite common throughout Europe, but fortunately another customer managed to help him retrieve it. Once bitten, he then opted to buy the fuel with cash.

By now, the rain had really set in, so it really wasn’t a day for photography, which was a shame, since the mountain scenery should have been exceptional. Instead, we continued on our way, deciding to make a slight diversion north-westwards to visit the principality of Liechtenstein.

Our journey involved driving over the San Bernadino Pass, high up in the clouds. At this point on our trip, the temperature dropped to 2 degrees centigrade, and it started to snow. The visibility was poor, which was such a shame, since peering through the murk, the mountains looked stunning.

What a contrast from just two and three days ago! We left Corsica in temperatures of 34 degrees or more. It was 27 degrees when we arrived in Nice on the Cote D’Azur, and now it was only just barely above freezing. The one and only campsite in Liechtenstein still hadn’t returned our email, to confirm if they were in fact open or not, and at this point, we made an executive decision. We opted not to camp in these conditions, and quickly searched out a room on the internet. Howard chose a hotel up in the mountains of Liechtenstein, in their only ski resort of Malbun. It sounded more rustic than the other standard rooms on offer.

By the time we had climbed up to 1,600 metres, the snow was coming down so fast, it was almost a white-out. We quickly scrambled inside the hotel, which thankfully is warm and cosy. Our room has a balcony, with what promises to be spectacular views of the mountains, if, and when, we can see them!

Hopefully, by the morning, the sky will clear, and we can take a proper look at this tiny country. We have read that it is the 6th smallest country in the world, but per capita, the richest. It has been a mini-state since 1806, and has a constitutional monarchy, with a democratic government, like the UK and the Netherlands. It is land-locked between Austria and Switzerland, and is only 62 square miles, with a population of 37,000. Although not in the EU, it is a member of the UN and the European Free Trade Association. It has been known in the past for being a billionaire tax haven. Indeed, despite it’s limited natural resources, it is one of the few countries in the world to have more registered companies than citizens!

Tonight, we ate out in a pleasant restaurant across the square. Howard had traditional Liechtenstein cuisine, which as far as I could gather turned out to be a glorified version of macaroni cheese, with battered onions and a venison frankfurter on the top. He ended up stealing most of my grilled vegetables, which seemed to be the only healthy thing on the menu. We probably should have opted for the cheese fondue, which we only rejected because we thought it sounded too fatty. The staff were dressed in what appeared to be Tyrollean costumes, and spoke in German. For once, Howard was able to show off his language skills, since unlike me, he speaks a little German. 

Tomorrow we travel back into Switzerland, but not before exploring a little more of this tiny country. Hopeful, fingers crossed, it will have stopped snowing by then!