The Shining – Italian East Coast

After getting lost only the once we arrived late at the final stopping point for our heavy cargo, the Tipis are destined to be used in a yoga retreat on the olive farm. Bazz and Liz bought the traditional ancient Trulli five years ago and had totally rebuilt it and turned it into a comfortable home, they also had a small flat in the nearest town where they live in the summer when holiday makers rent the Trulli for holidays. They have both lived in Italy for a few years and missed nothing about the UK, who could blame them, everyday breakfast and lunch was eaten by the pool and once the morning mist had burned away the temperature would be 21 degrees at 11am even in winter. The poles were offloaded onto the flat roof section of the house and the van (and we) groaned a huge sigh of relief, the space between the top of the tyre and the wheel arches looked normal once again…

The Trulli is a stunning round building, 6ft thick walls and a stone cone shaped roof with tiny windows in the walls, almost like a stone roundhouse. Trullis are found in this part of Italy and are nestled everywhere through the countryside, peeking out from huge masses of prickly pear cactus and olive groves, other than Bob and Helga next door, who moved here from their native Belgium 12 years ago the rest of the houses and olive groves are owned and farmed by Italian families, all out everyday working together to gather the olive harvest and get it to the local press – 20 Euros gets 100kg of olives pressed and bottled into a huge silver container, given that the local lady next door to the farm uses a litre a week at least it is no wonder that they all need so many trees, a good large mature tree on a good harvest can give around 150kg of olives, this amount would produce several litres of olive oil… Bob and Helga were both fantastic musicians. Helga a classical pianist and Bob had been a drummer in his band for years but now they both taught music students over the Internet from a room in their house.

I love Italy, the food, the friendliness of the people, the countryside… I now know I could never live here though, the constant obsession with looking good where even going to local shop meant getitng dressed up is too much, I have no problem with caring about appearance but in Italy it seems materialistic, vain, too uptight, that said the women and men looked incredible all of the time, I hpwever am too happy in a tunic and pair of jeans and bare feet or flip flops (on a smart day) The scenery though… wow! Now we are through the industrial side it’s everything and more that I thought it would be, the drivers are insane…in a fantastic way, my ‘Toad Of Toad Hall’ style driving fits in perfectly, aim, drive and then look… Just don’t faff around, if the driver behind you wants to come past they’ll flash their lights to tell you they are overtaking, they’ll toot with the horn once to tell you they’re there and twice if they want to get past and can’t, nobody gets offended, the horn is an instrument on the car as much as the accelerator, no road rage, no malice, just matter of fact driving…I feel totally at home on the roads… In the whole drive across Italy we have only seen one accident… Say the same for a four day trip via M5, M4 and onwards? I think not…

The streets are like something from a film set, perfect, no doubt you are in Italy. Such simple dishes of food that taste of a million things, even service stations have coffee bars where fresh coffee and pastries are eaten by locals not just by people hauling themselves up the motorway…  Liz and Bazz have been so kind, feeding us, taking us out to their local eating place where the Antipasti for two was shared between four adults and a child and seemed to last forever, after 12 dishes I stopped counting. For a vegetarian, Italy is a wonderful place to eat, the Italians do not understand the concept of vegetarianism as such, they believe such good meat should not get missed out on and often a bit of Parma ham is thrown into something vegetarian because they don’t see it as ‘much meat’ – Still, so many of their meals do not include meat at all, we have eaten the most incredible homemade pastas and local vegetable dishes, in this small village not a single thing comes from more than sixty miles away, almost everything comes from only ten miles away. The markets are stunning, row upon row of colourful veg, cheese, fish, baked goods, pasta, olives… The way we should be in the UK, a bunch of beautiful plump grapes costs €1 per kilo!!! Liz buys all her food from the market and on average spends €15 on all fruit, veg and cheese per week…As we strolled around the bustling Monday morning market in the sunshine I can’t help but wonder what the hell we are still living in the UK for.

We have been treated to the sites of Ostuni a beautiful old town with a winding maze of streets which sit like a white beacon on top of the hill 40k northwest of Brindisi and Alberobello, the Trulli capital of the world, which looks totally eccentric, the old town is a mass of over 1000 Trulli’s forming small streets and spilling down the side of the hills, it is like walking on another planet.  The Trullis are still lived in by families who sell knitwear, linens, liqueurs and the most incredible almond milk chocolate slabs I have ever eaten right from their door. After sampling a dozen liqueurs we finally settled on a few small bottles of prickly pear, hazelnut and chocolate chilli and hiccuped our way back to the van… We have stuffed ourselves full of amazing food and met some incredibly lovely people… It feels like we have been here forever. Over a few drinks one night I told Bob my opinions on the monetary system, how we wanted to ‘opt out’ of the systems that we have been entered into without any consultation, how I felt showing Tom this way of life would only ever help him, it’s far easier to leave a non money led life and join a money led one than to the other way around – far from the bemused look and million questions he simply said – ‘ah man, you should have been a 70’s chick, you’re a proper hippy living decades later, I haven’t met anyone with ideals like this since the 70’s how fab to see those days are still living on, I thought they were lost forever!’ A compliment but tinged with sadness that he thought his views were a lost cause, when we left I gave him the Daniel Suelo book, in exchange he gave me an album he recorded 15 years before when he lived in Belgium, inside he wrote ‘Thomas, Andy and Clare, never leave the unbeaten track xxx’ – never have I been more sure that I most definitely will not… Friends made for life.

By now we had been sleeping in the van for 2 weeks, 2 adults, a child and 2 dogs, carrying all food, clothes, medical equipment, repair equipment and such like, living in a floor space which measures 2ft x 4ft when the bed is folded up to seat position and 2ft x 2.5 foot when it’s in the bed position. Things are starting to become cramped, mud was getting everywhere thanks to the dogs and child running all over the farm and the hugely sticky red clay like soil which clung to anything that touched it. We needed to think about heading off and getting some time on our own as a family, without driving deadlines or sightseeing, just time to sit, stroll, play, do nothing. The guys at the farm suggested we head just south of a town called Vieste, surrounded by incredible National Parks, the hope of open campsites and plenty of stopping places filled us with enthusiasm and after 4 days of wonderful hospitality we decided to head off, we had plenty of time to kill before needing to reach Paris on the 10th and the thought of 7 days at the beach was perfect… 2 hours of driving later we reached the coast, the views were spectacular, one one side huge arches carved through the rock out in a turquise blue sea, mountains and forests on the other side, just for the drive it was worth coming… This would do perfectly…! Our joy and excitement was short lived as we passed campsite after campsite with gates shut, ‘NO SLEEPING’ signs everywhere…Nothing open anywhere along this beautiful stretch, we would have to head to the nearest town. Arriving at dusk neon lights for ‘Sexy Shops’ flickered and hotel shutters were pulled down, there was not a sign of life in the place, any minute I expected to see a swarm of zombies come dragging around a dark corner… The place looked like a worse version of Newquay surrounded by Beirut high rise which had been heavily shelled, all inhabitants frantically packed up and driving for the hills… There was no way we could or would sleep here in the van for the night, after two weeks of stubbornly searching out somewhere to stop each night we would stay in a hotel. We had a choice of two, one wanted 70 euros for the night without breakfast, the other, nicer by a smidgen from the outside and wanted 65 Euros for the night with breakfast. The horror movie theme continued from zombie world outside to haunted hotel inside…we were the only people staying and the girl at the desk was an incredible ghostly shade for an Italian, not the bronze image of health we had seen everywhere else…We took the lift silently to our floor, the door whined open onto a dimly lit hallway with a single dusty dresser sat against the wall, onwards stretched door after door, I would have believed Kubric based the set for The Overlook Hotel here if it wasn’t for the fact that he never left the country… No point looking forward to a comfortable bed, rock solid mattress and pancake pillows were the style here, were we really in one of the most stylish countries in Europe or had we spun off a cliff and ended up in some type of purgatory?… At about 10pm trying to drift off on our concrete slab droves of escapees zoomed through the town, suitcases piled high on the car roofs, strapped down with ropes and old belts tied together as makeshift ratchets, the traffic continued until daylight, loud enough to keep us restless all night and yet invisible in the darkness of the night. Breakfast was as beige as the decor, we paid our fee, feeling totally robbed… what a rip off, this wasn’t low season, it was non existent season… To soften the blow we took all of the complimentary soaps and showered the caked on red mud from dogs in the bathroom…

Feeling totally dejected, no chance of a beach holiday here the only other option was to head North. We had planned of visiting Venice, Verona and Lake Garda anyway, maybe here we would find a place to truly stop for a few days. After 4 days off we were back to long haul driving, Venice is around 2 days from here, we will have to stay in hotels on the way, the weather is much colder as we head north, snow chains are compulsory, from Garda we can take the Mont Blanc tunnel and head through France along the border of Switzerland, drop in and see a friend on the way past and continue through to Paris, by stopping the French side of the tunnel and then Dijon we could reach Paris for the 10th December as planned…

The hotels are an unexpected cost indeed, having originally planned on staying in the warmer weather South for a while and then making a mad 3 day dash through Northern Italy and France it meant we would need to pay out for at least 10 days accommodation we weren’t planning on… Now a few miles from Venice we have spent the last two nights stopping in places which are non descript and other than taking in some average scenery feel we have wasted days, bargain hotels have been found for both nights though thanks to booking each of them on the morning of the day we were staying, continuing this way we will save ourselves at least 300 Euros, we have paid between 30-40 euros a night slashed from as much as 95 euros a night, this coupled with the fact that most Italians around here speak such poor English that we can book a double room and set Tom up on a camp bed from van knowing the receptionist can not be bothered with the effort of arguing with people who cant understand what she says we are scraping back on the overblown budget…So far we’ve had no problem at all and not been stopped once, the Italian love for children means Tom is welcomed in with open arms, as are the dogs at every hotel we have stayed in so far, he even gets his fill of breakfast the next morning at no charge!

So onwards to Verona we go, staying in a private flat within the walls, the last part of Italy has been a let down – mostly because it has been closed and out of season but on the flip side I can not imagine being here in crowds of tourists either… certainly South of Verona I can say the itch has been scratched…

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Aliens In Antibes – Onwards To Italy

Awoken by the prison dawn chorus we dragged ourselves up for another day on the road, it was Monday and the day we needed to deliver the tipi…having slept lightly at best, listening to every noise in the car park I had begged Andy only the once to get up and check the van in the night, certain I could hear our beloved tipi poles being taken to be chopped up for firewood or fence posts…’they are safe’ he assured me and told me there was a man on the little desk downstairs all night (the next moring I realised this was just a ploy to stop me worrying and get me some sleep…it worked perfectly)…at the first signs of daylight I breathed a heavy sigh of relief that we all had made it through, had a shower which I got out of feeling more dirty than when I got in and tried to prepare myself for another day of staring at never ending roads.

Having loaded up belongings, dogs and child we were back on the road…Two hours later, having gone nowhere, stuck in traffic and feeling jaded with seeing so much from only the view of a van cab and we made the call to ring London and tell the buyer to tell her client that we would be delivering the next day instead…The nights draw in so fast and having planned on arriving at midday and finding ourselves not even halfway there by 2pm we knew putting the tipi up today would be impossible…

Part of the trouble of travelling this time of year is that it gets dark so early, it takes half an hour just to pull out all of the bedding, remove everything from the front of the cab so Tom’s bunk will fit across between the two doors, make Tom’s bed, move everything from the back and stuff it onto Tom’s bed, pick up the stacks of books that have slid across the back of the van that day, empty out 100 items from under the bed to get something at the back, put the 99 items you don’t need back again, move the dogs and tie them up somewhere near enough to the van so they can see us and won’t bark at the shadows and not so near that they can’t tie us up in knots with their leads, keep a close eye on Frugal the puppy who now waits for us to corkscrew his tie point into the ground and turn our backs before setting to work enthusiastically digging it back up again…set up our bed, find our bedding, empty 98 items from under the bed, replace 97, put the thermal blinds up, move everything else from our bed and all our clothes for the next day back from the front cab and then think about the jig needed to make something to eat…by this time it is half light at best – keep in mind all of this and add in the darkness from the beginning, trying not to drop things in the dark, scratching around the dimly lit van to find your socks, stopping Tom from vanishing into the far reaches of a car park and you have something to avoid if at all possible… something that so far we have failed to avoid… all the same, aiming to get sorted by nightfall limits our driving times massively, we need to start looking for somewhere to sleep by 3pm and hurriedly looking by 4pm…

We reached Antibes just before dusk and found somewhere to stop only a stones throw from Marineland in Antibes busy, smelly, noisy industrial area, next to a main road and a train track… Marineland for those who do not know is thought to be the destination for 2 of the most recently captured dolphins from Taiji in Japan – home to the annual mass (brutal) slaughter of dolphins and whales (all but 4 from the whole pod in this case were killed, the babies left to down in nets as they panicked, 2 adults taken for a life in captivity and 2 others set free to a doomed certain death – they are reliant on their pods for survival) The captured dolphins will perform tricks for people until they die early, easily replaced, captive for the rest of their miserable lives, their trademark ‘smiling mouth’ ever fooling people with the incorrect belief that jumping through hoops for a peep on a whistle and a dead fish is something that comes naturally to them, that they enjoy to do, rather that swimming wild and free with their families…The huge poster shows an Orca whale jumping over the sign, another creature kept in a watery misery – for our entertainment…I refrained from defacing the posters, there was no point handing out leaflets to people coming in to tell them what their ticket fee was supporting, the place was shut for winter, time to train up the new captives before summer…If you haven’t seen it I urge everyone to watch ‘The Cove’ it uncovers the truth behind dolphin cove’ in Taiji and why the Japanese fishermen and polive are so protective and wanting to keep the place a secret and away from public knowledge, it also shows ex-trainers who now realise the error of their ways and openly discuss how the captures in Japan supply organisations who use ‘conservation’ (Sea World and Marineland to name just two) to hide behind while making fortunes from their acrobatic animal shows…

By the time we had set up it was dark, we were knackered so decided to treat ourselves to dinner out. What a site we must have been, walking along a derelict piece of dumping ground, the sea on one side, two dual carriageways and a bust railway line on the other leading out of Antibes, here, people are too wealthy to walk, they drive everywhere. Following the bright lights we stumbled upon an expensive looking Bistro, far to high class for us to go into, but we were hungry, tired and cared not what they thought…The only other diner, an older gentleman sat alone, diagonally to us, I could see him wince at the bedraggled, noisy, unwashed sight before him as we pleaded with Top not to stroke the oil paintings, knock over the expensive glasses and smear food over the immaculate white tablecloths…We ate quickly and in silence, other than the crack of lobster coming from our observers table and Tom trying to bounce his voice off the walls…once out it was off to bed, ready to put the tipi up in the morning…

The next morning we found the house easily, helped along by the fact that it was nestled in the most exclusive road in the area, not many houses to choose from. Winnie the housekeeper let us in. We gasped at the immaculate shining example of a modern manor house before us, even for a hotel this would be a big place….Winnie had worked on yachts and cleaned houses for the wealthy for 18 years, she and her husband had worked for this family for just 2 years, since the house was new…the family only come in June and stay for 6 weeks a year, the rest of their time is spent in their other 5 houses…By a long way this is the most wealthy family we had ever dealt with…The man in Godalming with the electronic field around his mansion which blasted me as I tried to press the gate intercom has been pushed down to second place (don’t tell him though, I am sure he is overworked enough as it is) The money here is astounding, the yachts, the super yachts, row upon row upon row of them, most only used for a few weeks a year, along with the fast cars and mansions.  While chatting to lovely Winnie she told me she had not been back to the Philippeans in over 14 years, her husband who has 4 children has not seen his youngest (aged 14) for 8 years, they post money back to support their families, the air fare at 1500 Euros is needed more in cash than it is in a visit…Two worlds collide… A paddle in the sea, a sit on the beach spoiled by the noise of the busy roads nearby and I was ready to get some air, some space, not manicured greenery but real open space, we were temporarily saved by a good stomp through a park with a forest in the middle, letting the dogs and boy run wild for a while…

By the next morning we were Italy bound and after a quick spin around the Formula 1 track in Monaco and a 2 hour crawl as we scraped and wound our way through Monte Carlo I was desperate to get out, enough was more than enough, I could look at ‘things’ no longer, the money, the constant buzz of traffic, the trains and the sirens, the fumes which scratched the back of my throat, I had reached the limit…  We clung to the cliffs, winding around hairpin bends, through countless tunnels for another hour before reaching San Remo, we were in Italy! I felt good!…this was where the ‘holiday’ would begin, the warm sun, the fresh air…my wait would have to last longer than I hoped, San Remo to Pisa is mostly motorway veins running coursing through industrial blood… Thousands of greenhouses clung to the cliffs before each tunnel, row upon row, gleaming in the sun with factory smoke pouring out in the backdrop.

After countless more tunnels we started the Aire search, nothing in sight, no campsites open, Aires less readily available than in France, most roads too busy or too narrow for our huge load to park overnight, all parking signs threatened to tow us away while we snoozed.  I had registered us for a vineyard and farm stop scheme before we left, the book would give us the maps to hundreds of small farms and rural sport on our journey which would let us sleep the night for either a small fee or in exchange for buying some home made pasta or local honey… I expect the book and membership card will be waiting patiently for us on the doormat when we get home…It was dark…Having tried and failed to find somewhere with room to park up at several different places we went for a final attempt and took an exit from the motorway to a small seaside village called Lerici, one of the few places which (though noted as a wealthy persons holiday retreat) was not a millionaire’s playground or a rough port…our high spirits soon dashed when we found ourselves winding down a steep narrow road to the beach front, squeezing down lanes between tall old houses, there was not a chance of stopping here, it is hard enough to find space in these little spots as a van, let alone a van with 24ft long poles on the roof. We had been driving solidly since 10am it was now 8.30pm, we had eaten every meal on the road.  These dark searches were becoming a regular event, definitely one of the bad things about travelling in winter, one of the only good things about the darkness coming in early is that you get the chance to suss a place out for sleeping over in the dark which gives a better representation than during the day.  In all of my travels I remember many times when I have stopped on the side of the road in a ‘perfect spot’ when was daylight only to realise I had made a totally wrong call once it got to nightfall…places change in the dark.  This whole trip would have been a breeze in the summer, but in winter with stopping places few and far between it was becoming a total pain.  We could drive no further, we needed a break from the road, especially the dogs and Thomas, a hotel would have to be the answer, there were 5 hotels open in Lerici, all along the sea front, all very expensive looking and all but one full up thanks to a big business meeting which was taking place the following day.  The second most expensive hotel has one double room left, a combination of my poor Italian and the receptionist’s poor English told me we would be charged 108, 118 or 180 Euros for the night, even at 108 Euros this was at least 100 Euros too much…but what choice do we have? Drive to the next port side town knowing there was as much chance of stopping there than there was here? Drive through the night when we were both exhausted? Park up in a no stopping zone knowing we would almost certainly get woken at 2am and get moved on with nowhere to go, we could not afford a hotel this expensive but totally defeated, grubby and road-weary we accepted our fate, this place had parking, the dogs would be left in the van and our belongings would be safe and secure.  Wearily we drove off up the dead end street to turn around and park up in our expensive parking space…As we turned the corner to back up, there it was, a huge, flat car park! Not just a car park but a car park with a camper van in it, the lights were on, and behind the camper van a huge motor home which clearly was going nowhere soon as it was up on jacks and had a cable running directly up to the mains electricity wire overhead…To be sure I knocked on the camper van window, the van was from the Netherlands, inside was a thick set lady reading a book and wearing a very frilly floral dress and a knitted cardigan making her look decidedly frumpy, as she came to the window she straightened what looked like a very bad wig, I could see her thick 5 o’clock shadow in the light from the car park, she gruffly told me that she had been parked there for a few nights with no trouble, after Thomas had gone to sleep we chatted to her further and it turned out she had been travelling around Italy for some time just stopping here and there and never had any trouble. In one right turn we had saved ourselves at least 108 Euros! We realised the next day that we had only got 50 Euros left on our travel card, we could never have had the room anyway! Yet again, as on every other occasion on our journey so far we had found what we needed – It is rare we worry about something that doesn’t end up solving itself in the long run, yet we waste such a lot of energy projecting forward and worrying about things that almost always are out of our control – I have been reading a lot recently about how money affects the way we live to the extent that most of us live in the past and future (debt and credit) but not the present, and the present is just that, a gift, if we learn to do it wholeheartedly…There is a verse from a song sung by Joan Baez ’ If living were a thing that money could buy, Then the rich would live and the poor would die’ It lead me to read the book by Daniel Suelo – The Man Who Quit Money.  Daniel tells how along his journey to becoming money free he noticed the way humans rarely live in the moment, in the present, the way animals do.  Most animals do not worry about their next meal or where they will sleep, they live in the moment and as a rule get what they need all the same, their lack of worry might mean they east a bit more one day than another but they do not starve or have nowhere to sleep, every moment of every day they get what they need.  The journey so far has allowed me to learn to fear the future less and enjoy each moment as a gift that it is, having read his theory I have tried to see each day travelling this way and so far have had no doubt it is the right way to exist, in Lerici I had a wobble for the first time, how could this theory really work, a hotel was not provision for us really, was trusting this method a way of just avoiding accountability …as we turned the corner to the car park I got my answer, just like a few nights before when for no reason I could understand I turned down a random country lane and found us a perfect Aire to sleep in for the night, this was the confirmation I needed that fearing the future immediate or distant makes no difference, I have been given all the belief I now need to live in the moment and appreciate the present, what a wonderful way to learn a lesson!  We slept soundly, strolled around the stunning village, photographed the beaches and houses with washing hanging out on the balcony giving the impression of the town being a huge patchwork quilt rather than a place people lived.  The sun was hot, onwards we drove, we were nearly in our final dropping point and could rid ourselves of these poles!

Lonely Planet showed us a thermal spa which was just north of Rome.  Viterbo was the residence of popes in the 13th century, 1000 metres up in the mountains and 45k inland from the motorway but just about the right place for us to stop for the night, from the mountains we could cut down around Rome to rejoin the motorway without losing much time…Tomorrow morning we could swim in the mineral rich healing hot waters of the thermal pools for only 12 Euros each and 8 Euros for Tom.  We could also have a decent hot shower for the first time since we left the UK. At 4pm we pulled into the car park of the plush spa, it’s impressive marble front telling us we had reached Termi de Papi.  We agreed with security (aided by plenty of hand waving and large arm gestures) that we could sleep in the car park for the night…One of the most renowned spas in Italy, visited by all of the popes and graced with the presence of Michael Angelo and we were sleeping in the car park for free, too perfect to be true!

After a very smug sleep we strolled across the car park in the morning sunshine and headed for the hot pools, even better than we had imagined, shallow enough in the hot end for Thomas to walk around and for us to wallow, a hot shower and clean clothes which we washed and dried at our previous stopping place and we were indeed some very happy campers. An Austrian man we met in the pools told us he had just driven from Bari which was 90 minutes North of where we were heading and made it in one full day drive…if we left before lunchtime we could be at the olive farm by nightfall… So, this is where we are headed as I write, we have passed Rome and cleared Naples, now heading over the hills to Foggia, we hope to reach the farm by late evening…Onwards from here we can relax a little, we will spend a few days at the farm and try to figure out just how we are planning to cross the Alps or Pyrenees in mid December in a van which even with snow chains ‘doesn’t do snow’ – Until we write again, Ciao for now xxxx

Inmates and freezing France

As I write we are now three full days into our ‘voyage’ stunning forests and mountains whizz into a blur through the passenger window and, just like all other long journeys, eventually even the most stunning scenery bores the eyes…so with the outlines of the trees perching on mountains etched into my brain I turn my attention to writing up our journey before I forget it all…

So far our journey has consisted of incredibly friendly people, breathtaking views and freezing night time temperatures. We knew calamities would arise on this journey, and we started off well by arriving in France without a French road map… With us we had every book on France you can imagine (and any other country you care to mention within Europe)… A fantastic spiral bound 200 page road atlas of Italy but nothing for France…!  Upon realising our dilemma we also realised our European travel card could not be actioned for a further two hours, leaving us in a Roscoff service station at 7.30am with only a ten euro note to buy water and a map and get on our way, typically our style we are still yet to buy a more detailed map than the one we could afford at that moment, so we are making our way merrily around France with one of the a cheap fold out variety which accurately identifies all of the motorways in France (to save toll money we decided before leaving that we were not using any of the motorways…) we are navigating our way around France with a map which tells us exactly which roads not to take… We have had a child with temperatures in the top 30’s and I’ve damaged my thumb somehow which now means I cannot pick things up in my left hand…the car charger for the only phone which works here has broken, the ‘universal’ one we purchased from a service station here seems to actually be universal in another universe and, as we have no way of hooking up to the mains, any charge we have has to be used wisely and eeked out for as long as possible…other than that we are making good progress, the client in Monaco doesn’t want the tipi until Monday, and lucky too as our progress has been slow and steady hence we are still over 450k away from her today (Sunday)…

We scraped though the check-in at port in Plymouth as a standard vehicle, trying to merrily hush the comments from a terribly jolly fellow in his Chrysler who (standing right next to the check in booth) loudly joked that ‘the check in guys were just looking for their extra long tape measure to check the length of us…!’ Doing our best to be direct without looking hurried we scanned the dogs microchips, went through the standard tipi jokes and Native American ‘wah-wah!’ war cry, smiled and thanked our stars that our check in agent had taken a liking to us and chose to ignore his colleague who muttered ‘that way over 7 metres!’ on several occasions… Off we went at 10pm, loading our 7.8metre steed into the hull of the boat… Watered the dogs quickly (they had to stay in the van throughout the journey) and after several excited trips running around the boat, looking at every shop and waving England goodbye from the deck, Thomas dragged us off to our cabin where we would get our heads down for the night, in the morning we would wake up in France ready for a marathon journey!….

Of course dropping an hour from our limited sleep quota sleep didn’t help the fact that we dragged ourselves out of our slumber the next morning late and with gritty eyes, neither did the fact that the crossing was rougher than rough. I woke up sliding down the bed at some ungodly hour and continued to doze on and off all night with bizarre dreams which flitted somewhere between Titanic-esque and a living picture of The Great Wave off Kanagawa… Little did we know when we all blearily sat at the table in the self serve cafe the next morning we were only third from the front for the people to first exit the boat, the groans were louder than the revving engines as we tumbled down the steps to our parking level, fumbling for keys and dropping items of clothing in the rush to try to get started and moving before facing the shame of being overtaken while still inside the ferry…

Our first journey took us just under 500k from Roscoff as far as Saumur on the bank of the River Loire and within Troglodyte Valley where mushrooms are the local produce thanks to the 10tonnes of horse poo dumped daily by the 400 horses kept at the local stables, currently used by the Olympic team and home to Cadre Noir ‘dancing’ horses. Here we stayed on a deserted campsite on an island in the middle of the river, which was due to close the following day… Us knackered and Tom wide awake after an unbroken sleep the night before, he finally gave into sleep around 10pm and we woke the next morning raring to go and enjoying some much needed sunshine…

Another 400k driven taking in scenery as it flashed by. The Limousin region is stunning, the countryside so pretty, we passed stunning aires all with just enough people sleeping over to feel safe, but not so many to feel crowded, a cafe nearby, toilets, electric and water, onwards we pressed, each aire more idyllic  than the last, each with more incredible views… ‘This is what it’s all about’ we thought, freedom of the open road, driving your home around, stopping whenever the urge took you… Onwards we pressed to Aubusson, roughly 90k on from Limoges and 90k before Cleremont-Ferrand where we would join the motorway to Montpellier and hopefully make up some time on our current 40mph average speed… Our guide book said “a wonderful aire, one of the nicest in the area, free water, electric, wc and showers and just a short walk from idyllic historic town with creperies and cafes which are open all year” as we pulled into the carpark dusk was upon us, the ‘camping cars’ sign definitely directed us to the carpark and the signs upon entry told us this was indeed our aire, the cafes and creperies ‘open all year’ were closed…’all year’ meant not in November, in just the same way ‘water, electric and WC’ meant an old clapped out, un-lit portaloo in the darkest corner of the Tarmac slab…. Still, parked next to a couple of smart looking motorhomes  we set up the table and cooked dinner, feigning enthusiasm that this would be fine for the night…now…I’m not sure if it was the number of men walking around with chainsaws slung over their shoulders (this was just hard grafting men straight in from a days tree felling among the thousands of trees which lined the roads on the way down- of course) or the endless testosterone fuelled screeching and wheel spinning up and down the road next to the carpark bringing flashbacks to the time I parked up for the night near the beach in Lawn – Australia, only to be rudely awoken by the local ‘youf’ doing handbrake turns only feet from my van in the pitch black, daring each other to get closer with each go, while the others circled around blocking us in and screaming ‘WE’RE OUT OF CONTROL’ through a megaphone until the local blue heelers arrived flashing lights and all to tell them to ‘rack off’ … But by the time Tom’s bed was made up, dinner was eaten and the washing up done the town and carpark had a bad atmosphere and upon seeing someone vanish into the shadows to take a piss no more than 10ft away from my boy who was merrily sat on our bed playing with his toys, it was decided the flickering orange glow from the lights overhead was not enough to let me rest easy for the night…The trouble is, driving around with a camping loo, a tipi and 4 sets of tipi poles at 24ft long you draw attention to yourself, and sleeping in carparks on a Saturday night in the wrong place was going to draw the wrong attention…  up we packed and off we drove well into the night, following the upwards winding roads, following nothing more than gut instinct which told me to take a turning up a most unlikely looking lane… finally after two hours of driving, here was home for the night, we stumbled upon an aire in the middle of nowhere, perfectly secluded away from town crowds but secure in front of a large old farmhouse and shared with just one other motor home who’s inside lights were glowing and booming male voices were so welcoming… Finally settled down for the night we dozed on and off to the sound of a huge rave in the field no more than half a mile away, quiet enough for a child to sleep but too loud for an adult to totally switch off too…the noise being a wonderful comfort however that we were in a safe and happy spot for another freezing night of no sleep…Incidentally Thomas is warm as toast with a double thickness sleeping back, thermals, pyjamas and two thick blankets…which he seems to enjoy gloating about each and every morning…

Today we have travelled 450k (completely unwashed) 1400 metres in altitude over mountains, crossing bridges and going through tunnels all giving the most picture perfect views teamed with the smell of hot break-pads and burning clutch as we made our steep 5 mile descent…we made Montpellier for dinner time, leaving us a four hour drive tomorrow to put up the tipi and then be free of time restraints as we make our way down to Tuscany…maybe sticking to a rigid schedule is the cure to not getting ourself into such trouble?…I speak too soon of course…our sleeping place tonight is a Formula 1 hostel style hotel just outside Montpellier, the fence around the parking area is topped with razor wire, there are CCTV cameras on every corner and the view from our window is a very, very large and gloomy looking prison… 8pm must be lock in time as I can hear the inmates shouting to one another through the barred windows… So having driven around the corner, away from beady eyes to take the tipi canvasses off the roof to be locked in the van overnight, we retreat to bed, the dogs are thrilled not to be shut up in the van for the night, we are thrilled to know we have warmth and a hot shower in the morning in the shared facilities, we are safe, the hotel is very basic (costing 24euros for a 3bed room what can we expect) but it is clean and our beloved black steed is sitting outside at the mercy of anyone who happens upon her… Let’s hope she’s ok in the morning!!!

For now we will bid you adieu and I will try to add photos as soon as I work out how! Xxx