Thursday, 26 September 2013

Moto Camping Dordogne

Sunday 1st September 2013

We have just spent a few days driving east to the Dordogne region of France. During that time we stayed on some very pretty Aire's, one by a river and spent a day trying to catch fish. (One fish was caught). We tried to go out for dinner but found the only restaurant in the town closed and had a very hungry walk back to the van to cook for ourselves, and the next day we successfully found a huge all you can eat Chinese and Adam tried his first snail. He said it was gross and chewy. Maybe I'll try one in a French restaurant and not a Chinese. 

We also passed through Rocamadour again which we had been to a few months ago when we first came through France in our old van. Mia had never visited so we had another look round the city built into a cliff. That night we had our first run in with the Gendarmarie, the local French police, after they found us in a car park with a height restriction a lot lower than our van was. They didn't know how we got in but asked us to leave anyway.

The reason for our quick scoot across the country was that Adam's uncle David had planned a closing party at a campsite he worked at one summer, and regularly visits, when travelling around on his motorbike. Adam's dad discovered the campsite a few years back and we heard about the friendly staff, cool swimming pool and the relaxed and/or party atmosphere enough times to want to visit ourselves. The campsite welcomes people on motorbikes, and their friends, so we were welcome in a van!

We arrived to find Adam's dad, Jon, sipping a beer at the bar and when the handyman Glenn greeted us with a free first beer we knew we were gonna have a good weekend here. We spent the evening catching up, meeting the staff and eating the best steak I've ever had. I'm sure I've said that before about steak somewhere else but it was seriously good. Adam had a massive rack of ribs that he's wanted to try ever since his dad first started raving about how good they were, and I don't think they were a disappointment. 

The bar has constant classic rock playing and is decorated with all kinds of motorbike memorabilia and fancy dress wigs hanging up. We made use of those the first night as well as playing with the campsite dogs, Vincent, a German Shepherd with one ear, and Ollie, a dog that looks like a sheep. David and his friend Paul weren't arriving until tomorrow and they didn't know that Jon had whizzed over the day before to surprise them. 

The next day we lounged by the pool, some of us nursing hangovers. We could hear David and Paul's bikes coming a mile away and Jon went to hide. They were happy to have arrived having ridden through the night and couldn't wait to get out of their hot leathers and into the pool. Paul had spotted Jon's bike and tent so suspected something was going on when Jon came out to surprise them. Laughing and hugs all round. I think Adam gets his want to surprise visit people from his dad. 

The rest of the weekend consisted of ticking off the beers on our bar cards, or sometimes for me drinking three measures of vodka with peach syrup after I asked for vodka lemonade, arm wrestling, pool lounging, rib eating, trying not to fall out of hammocks and sleeping off hangovers in the shade. Great weekend.

David and Paul are continuing their bike trip going down to Grimaud on the south coast and then to Switzerland and Italy. Unfortunately Jon had to head back home to work but we decided to follow David and Paul and meet up with them again a bit later in Grimaud, our van being a bit slower than their bikes. 

White water rafting

Sunday 25th August 2013

Today Adam, Mia and I woke up to lovely sunshine again after the rain had cleared and walked across the road to meet our guide for a morning session of white water rafting down the river Isere. There weren't many people booked in for that day so we got a whole raft to ourselves. After kitting us out with our flattering wet suits and helmets our guide gave us some quick safety tips and we lugged the surprisingly really heavy raft down to the river. 

None of us had been white water rafting before so we didn't really know what to expect but I found it to be a lot easier than I thought it would be and really, really fun! Our guide let us take most of the control and just shouted out instructions, I can't remember the technical terms for the moves but he had us sitting in the boat, moving our weight left and right and right and using different rowing techniques to help us move the boat where we wanted to go. I didn't realise the raft would be so responsive and it was really enjoyable. 

We did all get a bit out of sequence during the rapids and there was no hope for me rowing in time with the others when I got uncontrollable giggles whenever we got soaked or bounced around in the raft by the rapids. When we came to a calmer stretch our guide stopped the raft and told us that if we climbed onto the river bank we could jump in and swim downstream to a calm eddy behind a big rock. We got out and he rafted downstream a little to meet us. 

Adam went first and successfully made it to the calmness behind the rock in the middle of the river. I was up next and jumped in to the freezing water. I didn't so much swim, was more just dragged along downstream. I only made it to the rock as Adam put his arm out to catch me. We waited in the eddy for Mia, but unfortunately she was too far away from the rock and just floated past us, past our guide and ended up in the shallows a bit further along. Where I also ended up when we tried to get back to the raft. 

After rafting through some more calmer waters as well as rapids the guide asks us if we want another swim behind the boat. Adam is the only one to volunteer this time and jumps in for a freezing swim behind us. We had a bit of trouble dragging him back in the raft again! 

The scenery around us was beautiful. Some clouds were still floating around through the valley we were in and we passed through a huge gorge where we were surrounded by rock. We came across another rafting group ahead of us who were taking it in turns jumping from about about 5 meters up on the rocks into the water and floating downstream. We stopped our raft nearby for a go but Adam was the only one who got out and disappeared round the corner to jump. Mia and I sat in the raft waiting to hear the splash and for him to come floating past us but we could only see people from the other group going past. I was about to get out the raft and see if I could have a go myself, after seeing other people doing it I thought it looked pretty fun, I didn't want to at first because I didn't hear the guide say where we would end up if we floated down the river, but after seeing it was just round the corner and not miles away, I wanted a go. However that is when we see Adam walking back down to the raft after chickening out of the jump! He is not very good with heights and when the guide said he could hit the bottom of the river when he jumped, that confirmed his decision that he should not be doing it! I didn't get to jump then as I had left it too late :(

It was a really fun morning and definitely something I would like to try again on different rivers, maybe even with more rapidy bits!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Summer in Sainte Foy!

Saturday 24th August 2013

After a few days drive down through France (including the sat nav taking us down a dirt road that only farmers in their tractors use to get to their fields), the landscape started to change and the accent started. When we worked in Sainte Foy last winter we went down the mountain a few times to Bourg St Maurice if we needed to use the supermarket or fancied a McDonald's. The mushed brown snow always made it look a bit dreary compared to the crisp white slopes. But when we drove through on Thursday it was sunny, bright and the window boxes had bright flowers. It was a pretty little town. We stopped at the McDonald's mainly for the wifi and I finally bought a new pair of flip flops at the shop next door, stopping myself from buying a pair of board boots on sale.

We drove a little further up the mountain on the only road leading to Sainte Foy, mostly in 2nd gear, poor little Mildred is no good on even the slightest upward slope. The view kept getting better and better and it really bought back what an amazing time I had their previously, only now their was no snow on the mountain, still looked beautiful though! We parked in the middle of the resort and popped down to the bar for a drink, only a few locals who owned chalet's their were around making the most of the warm sun before it started getting colder. 

Mia seemed pretty impressed with the scale of the mountains having never seen any before and we walked up the grassy nursery slope for a quick look around. We were hoping the lifts would still be running for bikers going up the mountain so we could go up and see even more of the view, however we found the first lift had been completely removed and their were trucks around working to install a new and faster one in time for the winter season. We took a look at the chalet we worked in to find that without the snow the plants had taken over covering
 most of the stairs and the entrance to the building.We moved our van just down the road to the car park where a paddock had been set up for horses. Some tiny kids were having riding lessons on teeny tiny ponies which was really funny to watch as they bobbed around all over the place. We watched the sun set with the company of a big horse and some wine. 

Me on the steps up to the chalet we worked in and the installation of a new chair lift

The next day we thought we'd try walking up the mountain without the help of the lift as it was such a nice day. There is a village where in the winter it is abandoned as you can only ski there but it is accessible in the summer if you trek over. We started the walk with the best intentions however after a few hours of up hill mountain walking we only reached the car park of where most people park and then walk to the village. We had seen butterflies, crickets, flowers and raspberries on the way up as well as the glacier on the other side of the mountain so we ate our sandwich in the car park and made our way back down. Our excuse being we had run out of water already and my feet weren't used to not wearing flip flops anymore!

Today we drove back down to Bourg and booked ourselves on a white water rafting trip down the river Isere for tomorrow. We're hiding in the van at the moment on a rubbely strip of wasteland near the river waiting for a storm to pass over (very loud and thundery), but apparently white water rafting is most fun after it's rained so I'm not complaining. I'm just loving being back on a mountain!

A quick stop in Belgium

Monday 19th August 2013

At this point in our trip we were not quite sure what to do next. The short version of the story is that Adam is waiting to hear if some work is available in America on a two month contract that could bring us some more money to travel on if all goes to plan. However the firm are still in talks about the contract so nothing is confirmed yet, they just know that Adam is available to work at short notice. The downside is that we don't know if/when this is happening. Our plan before this was to start the trip in the Netherlands, go down through France, hopefully over to Germany for a little bit and then onto Italy for the later months of the year. Only problem we have now is we don't want to get all the way to Italy to have to turn around to get ready to go to America. With a few emails back and forth we have decided not to put any plans on hold and if they need us we will have the appropriate amount of time to return.

With that sorted then we have decided to make a quick stop in Belgium, get to the south of France for some sunshine, visit Sainte Foy in the Alps, where we did our ski season, as we'd like to see what the mountains look like in the summer, and then get the ferry from Genoa, northern Italy, to Palermo, Sicily, and drive up through Italy. That should take us up to about October/beginning of November. Then we'll decide on what to do over winter, to ski season or not to ski season?!

So back to our few days in Belgium. We got to Antwerp and with a little research found that a lot of vans park for free on the quay-side of the river Scheldt. This was found easily and we walked into the city center. We found a festival going on in the square outside the cathedral with a brass band playing and lots of ladies dancing in what looked like home made colourful outfits. There was one heavily pregnant lady that danced and marched past us nearly all afternoon, not dispirited by the drizzle!

Band and dancers
We found a hidden street that had been mostly untouched since the 1500's, behind a big wooden door, and home to a veery expensive restaurant. It was really pretty. We had a pizza as the band and dancers paraded past us every 15 minutes. The next day we went back in to buy some chocolates and went on a flip flop shopping mission as ours were braking. Only Adam was successful though. Mia got to try a Belgian waffle though.

1500's street

1500's door and Antwerp cathedral

There was a beeeautiful sunset the night before we left and today we crossed the border to France, ready to make our way down the twisty roads to the Alps. I'm actually really excited to see mountains again!

Sunset in Antwerp

Friday, 13 September 2013

Chilled campsites, trippy truffles & Efteling

Thursday 15th August 2013

After the busy and hectic time we had had in Amsterdam and Rotterdam we decided to go explore the more rural and quiet parts of the Netherlands. We wanted to take advantage of the hot sunny weather by relaxing at a campsite but also some excitement too. We decided to Google theme parks in the Netherlands, having loved Parc Asterix so much in France, and found not far away was a park called Efteling, the biggest theme park in the Netherlands and one of the oldest in Europe. Based on it's own fairy tale characters unique to the theme park as well as the old classics like Hansel and Grettel. Quite a lot of it was mostly aimed at younger kids but the roller coasters lured us in.

Before that however, on Monday Adam wanted to check out where his dad and two uncles, with their parents, had lived for a few years when they were very young in a town called Hellevoetsluis. We found the bungalow with no problems, set in a very nice shady area from all the tall trees. We then found a campsite nearby, after trying two that were full. It was also Adam's birthday and his mission was to celebrate by relaxing in the sun, which I think we accomplished pretty well, with some fizzy wine and a chocolate cake.

Happy birthday!
The next day Mia hired a bike from the campsite and we all cycled into the nearest town for a look around. We were on the coast so cycled past the lighthouse to a cafe for a cake and a drink (and free wifi), before cycling to a canal for Adam to whack out his rod. He was determined to catch a fish after trying and failing all day the last try. Mia and I amused ourselves drawing windmills and birds until excited yelps alerted us to a potential catch. Adam had caught a tiny silver fish and was panicking with what to do next. I was summoned to get the net to help get it out the water and then Adam spent the next tense few minutes trying to untangle the fish, the hook and the net from each other so we could get it back in the water. I was surprisingly disturbed by this and didn't want the fish to go back into the water with a hole in it's mouth and probably die. I don't mind fishing if you're gonna kill it straight away and eat it but this seemed kinda cruel! I was assured he'd (I assume he was a he) be ok and off he swam back to his fishy friends and maybe the fish hospital.

On Thursday we headed towards Efteling to try and find a place to stay nearby so we could get their early for the day. We found a campsite just round the corner and a walkable distance to the theme park, and considering it was another 10€ to park in the Efteling car park this was pretty handy. 

When we were in Rotterdam we bought some truffles from a smart shop and we were curious to try them. Truffles started becoming more popular in the Netherlands when mushrooms were made illegal a few years ago and their popularity has risen with different strains being grown. They are formed when the environmental temperature does not rise high enough for a mushroom to form and the 'roots' grow underground to form the truffle and the active ingredient is psilocybin. 15 grams of Atlantis truffles promised strong intense colours and dreamlike visions. We had nothing to do on this slightly drizzly day before Efteling and it was a quiet campsite so we tried them out.
It's recommend not to eat beforehand so Adam ate his first thing in the morning. After seeing his funny reactions to things (staring at the curtain patterns a lot) I wanted to try mine so did later in the afternoon. The taste of the things were gross, a nutty texture but tasted like a muddy field with a bitter aftertaste. After about an hour I started to notice tiny movements more, like the wind rustling leaves, as it developed the leaves started to look a bit pixelated and at the height of it symmetrical patterns emerged and moved around kaleidoscopically. Colours did become more vivid and you just notice patterns in everything, mostly symmetrical ones. It was definitely something to experience outside as most things just became really interesting to look at. You do not 'hallucinate' and see things that are not there, nor are you completely unaware of what you're doing. I was fully aware I was staring at my kindle screen saver for 20 minutes while Adam & Mia looked at me quizzically! Adam & Mia put on the Harold & Kumar Christmas movie and I watched as Christmasy coloured snowflake shaped patterns kaleidoscoped on the screen then fell asleep. I did have a big giggly phase in the middle as well but can't remember what I was laughing at. There were no after effects the next day and as psyclobin occurs naturally in the brain anyway, all you do is increase the amount of it, their were no toxins going into my body to hurt me, it was just a relaxing and fun experience. (Hope that last bit reassures you mum if you read this!)

Today we got up early and walked to Efteling. The entrance gate looks pretty spectacular with a huge thatched building shaped into points. The whole park was beautifully kept with flowers and gardens everywhere which added to fairy tale effect and the roller coasters were awesome. There was a 4d WWF film about pandas and saving the animals, a stunt show featuring trained birds, horses and a massive mechanical 5 headed dragon beast thing that breathed fire, a museum showing the process of their characters being made and a lot more. They even had Adam's favourite Netherlands snack, a bami, available in hot vending machines, so a good day all round!

Tomorrow we're looking to leave the Netherlands behind to visit Belgium. Chocolate is calling us.

Pointy entrance to Efteling

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Meeting friends in the Netherlands

Sunday 11th August 2013

Whilst back home we heard that our good friend and once former flat mate, Mia, had quit her job and wanted to do a bit of travelling herself before deciding on any future plans. It was perfect timing for her to fly out to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam after our week at OHM festival. Adam and I had been to Amsterdam twice before, once for a long weekend a few years ago and most recently for New Year in 2011. Mia had never been so we were expecting to do some touristy stuff.

Mia, Adam & I
After waiting for an hour and a half in the 15 minute maximum waiting area of the airport we got a text from a friend back home saying Mia couldn't get hold of us and was waiting in the long term car park. I'm not really sure how but eventually we were able to contact Mia, maybe smoke signals, and we saw her strolling towards us with two back packs and an excited grin on her face. 

On our way to a campsite with an impossible to find entrance we came across an industrial estate with a few old rusty campers dotted around it. Never ones to pass up on a free place to stay we parked up outside the local fly tipping area (a mattress  broken glass and a computer table) and took a stroll down to the pedestrian ferry from North Amsterdam across the River Ig to the Central Station in Amsterdam.
We started off with a tour of some of Amsterdam's finest coffee shops and had a peak at the red light district in all its daytime glory. Mia had had an early flight so we didn't do much else that day and went back to chill at the van. It was later in the evening when we were in a less than sober state that we were stood outside the van when out of the darkness what can only be described at a bright yellow bob sleigh kart rolls past us without a sound with a mans head just visible sticking out the top. Weird night. 

The next morning we woke up to a clean street, the dustbin men had clearly been busy. However there were a few guys making sure they had some work on still by unloading 7 massive office tables onto the street. Not long after that a knock on the van signaled it was time to move on. If we've been told correctly I think that it used to be legal to park a camper van in most places in the Netherlands but then it became illegal and now it's been changed back to legal but really it's up to the mayor or whoever is in charge in that area. We were told we weren't allowed to sleep over night in this area and asked to move on. That's fine and no problem for us, but since we weren't going to sleep in the van anymore after being woken up we moved  to park round the corner and headed back into the city.

We went to visit the Amsterdam Dungeons which I had been to before but was looking forward to seeing again. Actors take you on a tour of dungeons telling you stories of Amsterdam's past including witches, torture, ghosts and psycho magicians. It was fun and creepy. It was a really hot day so we walked a little outside of the center to find a really nice park with a canal lake running through it. I love parks in city's as they're full of so many different people to watch. It was packed, full of bicycles and very relaxing, even though opposite us a guy was trying to take a hundred arty portrait shots of a tramp and his dog and a kid was running in circles around us trying to catch bubbles.

On our last day in Amsterdam we took a canal boat tour. There was information coming out over the speakers about the city but mostly I just liked getting to look at the buildings without worrying about being hit by a stray bicycle or tram. There are loads of house boats on the canals which were really pretty and I learnt that because land was short in Amsterdam it was divided up into narrow strips and sold on which is why the buildings are so narrow and tall.
Waiting for our canal boat
We left Amsterdam the next day to go meet our friend Alec just east of Utrecht, who was driving from home in England to his base camp in Germany where the army have stationed him recently. Again we were going to stay on a campsite but on the way found a bit of wasteland being used as an occasional car park. We had a few beers, a camper van curry and a good night laughing a lot. We didn't get moved on that night but we did get a lot of beeps from passing cars trying to wake us up, the locals didn't really like us not paying for the campsite either.
Adam & Alec
We had never really experienced this before. Having spent most of our van dwelling time in France and Spain, where they mostly don't mind where you park as long as it's legal and not disruptive. A lot of Dutch people only ever holiday in their motor homes though so maybe they are just very protective of their camping culture. We don't mind paying for a campsite when we need one and enjoy going to them, but they can be expensive and sometimes we don't need the facilities, just a place to park, so if we can 'wild camp' somewhere we will.

Today we headed towards Rotterdam and found a nice place to park under a windmill, by a canal in Schiedam. It's a designated camper van space so hopefully no policemen knocking or beeping! We don't have much planned here apart from maybe feeding the ducks, spent quite a lot of money in Amsterdam so need a bit of a spending break!

Our van in Schiedam