Last year, we – that is, Martin and Jane Wells – gave up our jobs, rented out our house and set off on a two-year tour of Europe. In March we came back to the U.K. for the usual van repairs and MoT, see friends and family and take stock. Now, we’re back on the road for more mid-life crises and adventures...
The race to Croatia begins at Calais
Thursday, March 29
Sully, Vale of Glamorgan
Marianne is back from her culinary and cultural visit to Kerala in India and we have made plans to pack up the van – such as it is – and clear off. We have a quiet night in on Thursday, to hear of her adventures and look at the pictures of her bathing with elephants, then we enjoy our usual Friday night in the Wetherspoons in Penarth before saying our goodbyes on Saturday morning.
Saturday, April 1
CL, Newent, Gloucestershire
To ease ourselves back into van life, we’re taking a slow and relaxing tour of southern England, at the end of which we plan to head back to Wales for our final goodbyes, check the van into Byron’s workshop, get it properly fixed and then head to Dover, via Derby (more goodbyes) and start the tour part II.
First stop is a CL in Newent, in the Forest of Dean. Accessed via a long farm drive, it’s a lovely spot, just on a strip of concreted road on the edge of the farmyard. There’s a toilet and a shower in the nearby farmhouse and for £15 it’s a cheap little stopover. If you’re of a hiking disposition there are lots of routes but we just wanted to familiarise ourselves with the van again.
Sunday, April 1
Wysdom Caravan Site, Burford
Not far from Newent is Burford, one of the prettiest towns in the Cotswolds. The campsite, just outside the old part of town, is small, quiet and just 10 minutes from one of England’s little gems – a largely unspoilt market town confined to one, long picturesque hill. There are about six or seven pubs to work your way through, plus restaurants and antique shops etc. It’s the sort of place David Cameron comes to when he wants to buy Sam a new pair of Hunters.
Sunday isn’t the best day to start your visit but we had a good, long walk around the town; then another. The next day we did more or less the same, had a few more halves in a few more pubs and on the Tuesday, while dodging the showers, we, er, went to see a few more, telling ourselves that the walk up and down the big hill into town was compensating for all the beers!
Wednesday , April 4
CL, Streatley, nr Reading, Berkshire
There was no real reason to drive all the way around Oxford, through the leafier parts of Berkshire and hole up in this bizarre little hamlet just a few miles from Reading... apart from the fact that it meant I could visit my old GP in Peppard Road and get another year’s prescription for my blood pressure and cholesterol medication. He was good enough last year to give me a year’s supply and this time his fellow GP (his less accommodating wife) would only give me four months. Still, not bad.
After my appointment, we had a quick drive into Reading, bought a few things from Hobbycraft and made, then cancelled, plans to catch up with some of my old workmates at Thames Water. Still, we did manage to drive past it on our way to...
Thursday, April 5
Campsite, Tilshead, nr Stonehenge
It seemed a lot easier to get out of Reading than I remember, and very easy to get to Stonehenge, along the M3. It was our first sight of this ancient monument and, although we were some way off as we drove past, it seemed smaller than I was expecting. About five or six miles further on towards Devizes we found a small, friendly campsite on the edge of the village of Tilshead. It’s a pretty one-pub place and after tea on Thursday evening we paid the Rose and Crown a visit to sample their local brew and chat to the three locals propping up the bar. We won’t rush back.
Friday, April 6
Tudor Caravan Park, Slimbridge
Another old favourite – one of the best-located campsites in the south-west and always good for a walk and a bike ride. On Friday evening, we just had a walk to the Tudor Arms, adjoining the site, for a few beers and ciders while on the following day we retraced familiar steps to Frampton-on-Severn, trekking along the towpath to this charming place which boasts not only the largest village green in England, but also two excellent pubs. On Sunday, we did the route again, this time on our bikes (avoiding the pubs) and had a meal at the Tudor Arms. This place never disappoints!
Monday, April 9
Baltic Wharf Caravan and Motorhome Club site, Bristol
Up early on Monday and off to Bristol for a last catch-up with Joseph and Georgia before we head back to Europe. After pitching up, we had a walk around the harbour quarter then showered before heading back into this chic part of the city to meet up. We ate like kings at an all-you-can-eat joint then said our farewells before stopping off at a pub hidden away before the wharf. Here, it was blues jam night and the young hopefuls hitching their guitars to the crusty old geezers in the house band puffed, wheezed, wailed, crooned and howled their way through a number of classics, including Stormy Monday (natch), before we disappeared into the night, beaten by the sticky heat and the noise.
Tuesday, April 10
Wild camping, Captains Wife, Swanbridge
Well, this was something different – a night outside the local pub, prime position on the seafront. What could be better? Well, we’d cleared it with the pub to stay there, as long as we had a meal and, in the end, we had quite a night, with our friends the Paynes and the Bowrings enjoying the food and the Tribute, before we adjourned to the Seashore Grill for our final Tuesday night quiz of the year.
In the morning, we dropped the van off at Marianne’s and swapped it for the BMW she’d kindly let us use for a few days, while the van was – hopefully – being fixed. We ran a number of errands before spending the night with Kathy and Jeff, and their son Adam, who cooked a wonderful curry.
In the morning, we had the crucial call from Byron – yes he was back from Benidorm, yes the part had arrived and yes he could do the work that day. Without further ado, we dashed back to Marianne’s to get the van, then dropped it at the workshop in Pontyclun for it to have the heating element fitted.
“It’ll be ready by about seven,” said Byron, so we spent the intervening hours shopping, generally pottering about and spending the afternoon playing with Grace (still on her Easter hols). At about 6.30 we had a call from Byron to say he was just putting the van back together and we were okay to pick it up but when we got there, calamity – he was still up to his neck in the job and he’d also found two leaks on the cold and hot water pipes!
Jane, bless her, shed a few tears. To be fair, it was all getting to be a bit much but when the work was finally done and we’d settled the bill with Byron it was handshakes all round and we were back on the road!
After one more night with Marianne (undoubtedly the real heroine of this story) we packed up our things and headed for the final leg of the U.K. journey – back to Derby.
Friday, April 13
House guests, Mickleover, Derby
A blessedly trouble-free drive up to Derby where we had a busy weekend planned. We were staying with our good friends Ian and Della (last seen in Platja d’Aro In October) whose hospitality is always wonderful. On Friday night, we ventured out for an early drink at the Cow (the Black Cow as was) at Dalbury Leys before Ian treated us to his speciality, lasagne.
The next day, after breakfast and a lovely run-out to Kedleston, we left them in peace and went a-visiting and a-goodbying to Jane’s dad and Kath, and her 96-year-old grandmother, still living happily and independently in Chaddesden. We made it back to the Louches in time for The Grand National and a wash and brush-up before we all took a taxi to Duffield and the perfect end to our U.K. stay – the 50th birthday party of our friend Helen Ellis.
The weather was wonderful, the food – a hog roast – was a treat, the gin, prosecco, beer and wine was plentiful and the music, courtesy of Malcolm Reeve and his singing partners, simply brilliant. With all the old gang in attendance, it was a fantastic night and we left Derby on Sunday morning wondering if this part of the country – our roots – was where we really belonged and where, once we had got the travelling bug out of our system, we would end up. It’s a tough one!
Sunday, April 15
CL, Barfrestone, Kent
This little pitch-up spot, tucked away in the courtyard of a very plush farmhouse a few miles north of Dover, was where we would spend outer last night in the U.K. It could not have been more perfect. We reached it late in the afternoon but there was still plenty of sunshine left to explore the little village of Barfrestone, little more than a collection of beautiful grand old homes sprinkled around an 11th century church. There is one other reason to come here, though – the incredible micropub, The Wrong Turn, situated at the top of the village, just beyond the church. Here, for a couple of hours on Sunday evening, we sat in the snug interior, chatting to the barmaid and drinking very good and very reasonably priced beer and cider. At the table next to us, we heard a local light-heartedly bad mouthing Derby. He stopped, of course, when we told him where we hailed from and then spent the next half-hour or so swapping stories of the old place. It turned out he had worked at the railway for a few years and his son was now studying at the university, a state of affairs which forced him back to the city more often than he would like.
By now, it was getting late and we really shouldn’t have had another drink... but then the landlady brought out a free plate of pork pie for us! And we thought this place couldn’t get any better.
After the party on Saturday and the micropub on Sunday, England really was doing its best to keep us here.
Monday, April 16
Camperstop, Bruges, Belgium
Exactly a year to the day since we last crossed the channel we were at it again, this time on the much shorter route to Calais via a P&O ferry. Despite the fact we were dreading it (we are, after all, Brittany Ferries fans) it turned out to be incredibly straightforward and painless. We even got on an hour earlier after arriving at the port at around 10.30am, thanks to our decision to break the back of all the congested motorways the day before.
We didn’t hang around in France, instead heading straight for Bruges where we knew there was an excellent €25-a-night camperstop just outside the old town, right by the marina. We made it here shortly after lunch and by three or four in the afternoon we were having a good look around on our bikes, ready for a more detailed look on foot in the evening.
For those who love Europe in all its chocolate box and well-preserved glory, Bruges ticks all the boxes, although it seemed to have lost a little of its allure since the last time we were here, about four or five years ago.
Tuesday, April 17
We both wanted to make sure that we didn’t leave Belgium without experiencing something of how the First World War had impacted the country and, in this of all years, there is no better place to achieve this than Ypres. It’s a good drive here from Bruges, and not really on our route, but it was an easy decision to come here, a decision made even easier after we cycled into the town on our first evening to witness the Last Post played at the Menin Gate.
We arrived at least half an hour before the 8pm ceremony but we still found ourselves at the back of the crowds who come here every night, many from around the world and many, too, from Ypres itself. The town really does align itself closely with the British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died here in such numbers (more than 300,000 soldiers are buried in cemeteries around the town and its northern neighbour, Paschendaele. Local firemen sound the Last Post at the Menin Gate every night, and have done since 1927, their notes accompanying the laying of wreaths by old soldiers, new recruits and families with a direct connection to one of the combatants whose names are carved in the stones of this remarkable monument.
The following day, we cycled to the Tyne Cot cemetery about seven miles north of Ypres, the largest Commonwealth war grave in the world and a place that cannot fail to bring on extreme emotions in all who visit it.
Earlier in the day, we’d also visited a temporary exhibition of 600,000 little pottery figurines, all hunched together in a field close to Ypres. Each one symbolised a life lost in the battles on Belgian soil.
Thursday, April 19
After all the somber reflection of Ypres, we headed for the more upbeat culture offered by Ghent, one of Belgium’s most beautiful cities. It had been recommended to us by a friend who’d worked nearby and it didn’t disappoint. Once we’d found our way to the campsite (€25 a night!), located right on the river by a large multisports complex, we wasted no time in cycling into the centre and having a good look around.
Like Bruges, Ghent is founded on water but unlike its neighbour to the west it has a much younger, progressive feel about it, much like Amsterdam. To get a better look, we took a 45-minute cruise along the waterways and found this to be a brilliant way of learning a little of Ghent’s history, and why the people have earned the nickname ‘The Troublemakers’. Without going into too much detail, they have always been religious non-conformists.
Friday, April 20
Panorama Campsite, Gulpen, Holland
Our second country of the trip already and we’ve only been back on the continent for less than a week! We wanted to stay at least a night in Holland and after we found this site, on the top of the Gulpernberg hill in the southernmost region of the country, Limburger, we ended up staying three.
For a start, the weather couldn’t have been better... glorious warm sunshine throughout. As for the campsite, it had a great pool, a nice bar, friendly staff and, as its name implies, spectacular views around the region.
On the first day, we relaxed and took stock of how far we’d come and how far we still had to go. We got the awning and ground sheets out for the first time and then just recharged our batteries, helped by a few glasses of the local brew in the bar.
On Saturday, we gathered up our strength ready for a long walk into the town, down a very steep hill. In the end, it took us nine minutes to walk down into what was a delightful little town, full of interesting little bars, shops and a brewery, with its own beer garden. We ended up at the Lion of Flanders bar where locals were sat outside in the sunshine drinking a selection of very interesting Belgian beers. We said we might be back the following night... but by then we were feeling righteous and teetotal.
The walk back up the hill took just 10 minutes but left us enough out of puff to convince us that popping back into town on a whim wasn’t an option. Thankfully, a display of hot air balloons in the valley next to the campsite was enough to keep us amused for the rest of the night.
Sunday, we got the bikes down and explored the top of the plateau on which the campsite sits. After the 45km-plus exertions of Ypres, we were glad to just trundle along the flat for three or four kilometres and then return to the van. With a storm brewing, we just managed to get the bikes back on the rack, get them covered and then get the ground sheets and chairs away before the rain. A proper electric storm in the night justified our prudency and kept us awake, too.
Monday, April 23
Camperstop, Cologne, Germany
While in Holland we had lots of discussions about how best to get to see Cologne, whose Cathedral is the largest gothic church in the world. We could drive to Aachen, or Duren and then get the train into the city. Or we could drive north and find a garage that would sell us a permit to allow us and the van into Cologne’s exclusion zone. Or we could just forget the whole thing and continue south, avoiding the city altogether. In the end, the nice people at the campsite in Holland, just 50 or 60 miles from Cologne, made our decision for us and gave us the address of a garage in Aachen where we could buy the TUV sticker (a steal at €7) and drive into Cologne where we knew there was an excellent camperstop just 5km from the city.
Sticker on the van, we found the stop without fuss then set about exploring this fantastic city, taking in the Cathedral (missing the ‘wow’ factor, sadly) and Rhinepark, on the other side of the river. We also had a lovely early evening drink in the ‘Schwimmbad’ bar next to the camperstop at which we decided that one night in Cologne was probably enough on our budget and our time constraints.
Tuesday, April 24
Campsite, Wertheim, Germany
By now we were in full ‘get me to beach on time’ mode and that meant covering 100-200 miles a day to get us to Croatia within a week. So, we managed about 150 and found a campsite sandwiched between the A3 autobahn and the Main river. Arriving mid-afternoon, there wasn’t time to do much more than walk to the two main attractions in the area – a huge upmarket retail park, Wertheim Village, and the enormous, glittering palace that is Erwin Hymer World – a spectacular giant showroom for the Hymer family of motorhomes and caravans. If you’re looking for a €130,000 Niesmann and Bischoff monster with all the trimmings, this is the place. It even has a free camperstop in the grounds, including EHU, and receptionists and shop staff that look like they’ve walked out of a Laboratoire Garnier advert.
Back at the site, we sampled the local wheat beer and snacked on curry, sausage and chips at the campsite cafe before settling back in the van for the night and watching Burn after Reading, the Coen Brothers comedy starring George Clooney and Frances McDormand.
If we’d had more time, we’d certainly have spent longer here in this part of Germany. The cycle paths along the river look amazing and there were some lovely little villages in the area.
Wednesday, April 25
Camperstop, Regensburg, Bavaria
Another 150 miles south-east brought us to this historic town, home during the war to a Me109 factory and an oil refinery. Despite this, it escaped the wholesale devastation visited by the Allies on similar strategic sites and its lovely medieval centre, complete with very impressive cathedral (smaller than Cologne’s but with oodles more charm), has survived more or less intact.
The camperstop is located in a Pay and Display car park right on the Danube and, like many in Germany, is completely free. It’s also just a short walk from the town centre so, once we’d parked up and the evening rush-hour traffic had subsided, we went in for a walk around, taking in the cathedral and the quaint narrow streets in its precincts.
Again, this feels like another place that deserves more than just an hour or so of our time. An interesting sausage bar by the river and a good-natured anti-fascist rally in the town centre attest to that. But we are on a mission and Austria awaits.
Thursday, April 26
Camping Putterersee, Aigen, Austria
With the longish journey south through Germany mainly confined to the impressive autobahns, we really didn’t get much of a sense of how the landscape was changing as we made our way into Austria. At a service station just north of the border, we prepared to do battle with bureaucracy in buying the necessary GoBox – an electronic toll device that any vehicle over 3.5 tonnes has to have to travel on all the major roads in the country. In the event, it couldn’t have been simpler and after parting with €85 (€5 for the box and €85 to preload it and get us to Slovenia) we were on our way.
Another 10 miles or so and we were over the border. Almost instantly, everything seemed greener, more fresher and more alpine. The spectacular landscape offered another Sound of Music moment at the turn of every corner; the houses all seemed to be ski lodges, haphazardly scattered around the lush fields; even the town centres looked liked they’d climbed out of a muesli advert.
We were making a beeline for a small ACSI site in the heart of the country and by early afternoon we were there, having located it a few miles off a main road, close to the Putterersee, allegedly the ‘warmest lake in Austria’. By now, the weather was quite lovely and the clouds of the previous day were clearing. With the forecast set fair for the next few days, we decided to stick around and enjoy what this little site had to offer.
For a start, it had one of the best toilet and shower blocks we’d ever seen. The view over the lake was pretty impressive, too, and when we took the short stroll into the town around the shoreline, it too turned out to be a little gem – quaint, spruce and with everything you could want, including a bank, a TIC/library and a number of bars and restaurants. On our final night – the Friday – we had a drink at the Harlekin and enjoyed a pleasant evening, apart from the fact that everyone was smoking inside, even the two barmaids!
Saturday, April 28
Camping Slapic, Duga Resa, Croatia
It says something about our haste to get to what has always seemed to be the promised land of Croatia that we fair raced through Slovenia. We did, though, manage to have lunch in this sub-Austrian alpine land, formerly part of communist Yugoslavia, after taking on board some vital provisions at Lidl. Before that, though, we’d had to pick up another toll box at a service station just across the border line. Another €35 (€10 for the device and €25 to preload), another box to stick in the inside of the windscreen and we were on our way to Croatia.
I don’t suppose we were in Slovenia for more than two or three hours. The road to the border slices through a narrowing part of the country, giving us just enough time to see that the scars of the old regime still remain –the grim-looking factories and oil refineries dominate the skyline, offering a harsh contrast to the amazing mountainous landscape we’d left behind after driving through the extensive tunnels under the Alps. And though there were still plenty of ski chalets, they were heavily outnumbered by the gulags of crumbling tenement buildings that lined the way alongside the generally well-maintained motorways.
Croatia, initially, didn’t seem much different but when we got to the hinterland and the little town of Duga Resa it blossomed into a lovely rural idyll, helped by ‘one of the prettiest rivers in Croatia’ running alongside it.
Another lovely shower block, and fantastic weather helped, so instead of staying for another one-night stopover we stayed for two and soaked up the sunshine and the lovely atmosphere at the lively bar before packing up on Monday morning and taking the 85-mile journey to our first coastal destination, the island of Krk.
Monday, April 30
Camping Resort Krk, Croatia
Another, year, another adventure, another country, another problem with the van. It started innocently enough as we were trying to find our way to the main toll road to take us away from the very tight,winding, uphill rural roads away from Duga Resa. At one point I checked the handbrake to see if it was still on, such was the feeling of ‘drag’ as I was trying to get up even the mildest of inclines. I passed it off as a cold engine but it didn’t get any better and even on the flat of the toll roads it still felt as if we were going uphill.
As we neared the toll bridge to take us over to Krk, there was a smell of burning coming from the front brakes and the amber warning light on the dashboard came on, alerting us to worn front pads. We had to get to a garage – and fast.
Luckily, there was one a few miles away and we headed straight to it. Even more fortunately, it was open and the extremely helpful owner spoke perfect English. There was already a motorhome on his ramp getting a new water pump fitted but he said he could have a look at our van in about three hours. So, we had a walk to a nearby campsite, then the beach, then the town and, after about two and a half hours we went back to the garage to find them ready to deal with us.
“It’s probably not the brake pads, if you’ve just had them fitted before you came away,” said the owner. “It’s more likely to be the clips which have got stuck... does it feel as if the brakes are always on?”
“Yes, yes it does actually,” I said, boyishly thrilled that his diagnosis matched my experience.
About half an hour later he said he’d had the wheels off and, yes, the clips were stuck but all the hard braking we had done on the hills had burned the pads down and scorched the discs. At some point in the future we would need them all replaced. He added that he had cleaned the brakes, the clips worked and we could go on our way – the 20km or so to our planned campsite on Krk.
He took the van for a test drive and everything seemed okay so we drove off, having paid a very reasonable €50. Sadly, the drag still remained, the handbrake didn’t feel right and the warning light was still on (“that’s because the cable has burned out,” said the garage owner, worryingly).
So, once we’d got to our campsite, we resolved to get the job done properly back at the original garage (good English counts for a lot when it comes to dealing with mechanics abroad, we’ve found).
Still, before then (probably next Monday or Tuesday) we’re going to make the most of the excellent, warm weather and the beautiful countryside and the modern, busy, well equipped campsite where we find ourselves.