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!!!”.