For various reasons, which I explain on the new blog, I’ve decided to create a new one to write about our travels from here on in.
This blog will remain for everyone to see and peruse but if you are interested in continuing to follow our journey in the future then please hop on over to bonvanageblogtoo to keep up to date.
If you click on the ‘follow’ button on the home page of the new site you’ll receive an email as soon as a new blog post is published.
I’d just like to say a BIG thank you to EACH and EVERY one of my followers and occasional readers here at bonvanageblog for your company throughout the, almost, five years that I have been writing about our travels.
I hope that you’ll continue to follow our updates but, if not, thank you anyway for your interest in our story.
Oh how time flies. I wrote the last blog post just before the campsite was due to reopen on 4th July some nine or so weeks ago whilst we were still self isolating having just returned from France. Today will be our last day here before heading north to visit family and friends. It will be a long overdue visit as we’d been planning to do the rounds when we returned from France in June but the Covid rules and regs put paid to that idea. No matter, we will be very happy to have a change of scene after being in the same spot for the last eleven weeks.
Since the campsite opened on 4th July it has been very busy. Judging by the amount of shiny new tents we have seen this year I’d guess we had a significant number of first time campers. With all the uncertainty that is going on perhaps those that usually head off abroad have decided on a staycation this year. I can’t say I blame them because making plans with the ever moveable feast on the quarantine rules for those returning from Europe can’t be easy. Or maybe after such a long period of confinement and restriction people were ready for the outdoor life and more freedom. Whatever the reasons, the campsite has been at near full capacity for much of the time since opening. Which can only be good for the owners as it is a small family business.
One thing that has remained constant in line with the last two summers we have worked here is the weather. When we arrived towards the end of June we said we would embrace whatever weather came our way and not grumble about it. Well that rule lasted all of a millisecond or at least until the first blanket of mist arrived a few days after we’d settled in. I spent much of my childhood and early twenties on holiday in Cornwall but I never remembered experiencing the extremes of weather that we seem to get nowadays. Maybe it’s just me looking back with nostalgia at all those endless summers that all seemed like the summer of 1976. I admit I can remember one whitsun week at Perranporth where it rained Every. Single. Day. But that was the only time I remember. Even then I begged my parents to let us stay for the full week when they suggested cutting the holiday short by a day or two. Or maybe it’s just that living in a van we are in tune with the weather much more due to the limited space we have. Or maybe we are just whingers. Suffice to say, once again, I have been an olympic complainy pants about the weather this summer.
I try not to be like it but I just can’t seem to help myself. It’s not as if I’m one of the poor unfortunates under canvas trying to hold down a tent in gale force winds and torrential rain whilst the rest of the family hastily gathers up all the sodden sleeping bags and other camping paraphernalia to cram into a car that seems to have shrunk in size since they arrived. I’m sure those first time campers who maybe usually go abroad but thought this year that camping would be a fun option in these strange times have revised their opinions now. Judging by the amount of tents in the bin every morning many may never camp again.
August brought gale force winds and torrential rain at times and the modern family tents just aren’t up to the job. Ditto gazebos, awnings, pup tents and wind breaks. The site is pretty well drained but with the amount of rain we’ve had it would have been impossible to keep things dry. Hey ho, that’s the way it goes and we did see some very stoic families making the best of it continuing to smile throughout.
Even though the site has been nearly full we’ve been working less hours this year as the family are covering more hours themselves to try to recoup some of the income they will have lost during April, May and June. Their Covid measures have been well thought out with a traffic light system for the shower blocks and limiting the numbers using the facilities at the same time. It has worked very well for the most part with the majority of people respecting and adhering to the new measures. It has meant, though, that our hours have been spread throughout the day from an early morning, mid morning, afternoon, early evening and late evening clean of one of the shower blocks which has limited our flexibility on getting off site as we could only be off site for a couple of hours at a time before it’s time for the next clean. We knew this year was going to be different and, on the work front, we have just got on with what needed to be done as it’s been important that people feel safe and secure on their holiday. But. I can be a little too OCD for my own good when it comes to cleaning which can drive me nuts at times.
Cabin fever has been my constant companion. I’ve tried to maintain some sort of routine with my language lessons on Skype and my daily exercise routine but keeping the motivation and momentum going has been a struggle at times this year. Doing my daily stretching routine inside the van when it’s pouring with rain outside was never really going to work but I managed to adapt it enough to feel that at least I’d done something. But it’s not ideal.
This will be our third year working at the site and, even though we only do two to three months here, for us, a car-caravan-awning option would be better suited to campsite warden life. The electric bikes are great and we wouldn’t be without them but the flexibility of a car to run about in would have made life a bit more colourful. But we can’t have it all and we still love our van and prefer motorhome travel when in Europe.
Thankfully for Tim (and for me), he has been able to use the office for his music practice which he has pretty much taken advantage of on a daily basis. He has more music in his stable now and has a smaller speaker for a compact travel option as we are planning some travel scenarios in the future without the van. Whilst Covid hasn’t killed our enthusiasm for travel, the plans are on hold for a little longer until things settle down a bit more.
We’ll be thrashing out some options and details in the coming months.
Well, what can I say? We’ve landed firmly on our feet once again. In my last blogpost we were in limbo in France with a dodgy gas system meaning no heating, hot water or fridge. I’m pleased to say that a motorhome dealer in Chinon came up trumps and, even though they were really busy, they took pity on ‘Les Anglais’ and booked us in the following day to take a look at the problem. In truth we probably both looked like we needed a good scrub. A cold shower or warm water in a bucket is no substitute for a proper shower. Of course we could have just gone to a campsite but we’re made of sterner stuff.
Fortunately my French came in handy although it’s not as easy as you would think understanding someone in a foreign language when they’re wearing a mask. But I managed. We dropped the van off first thing in the morning, killed a couple of hours in the supermarket over coffee and cake and returned two hours later to find a fully working fridge and boiler. Merveilleux.
Our next pressing concern was thinking about the timing of when to get back to the UK. Looking online and hearing from others in ‘the know’ it seemed that campsites in the UK were likely to be able to open again from the 4th July. With the new two week self isolation rule in place for anyone arriving in the UK from anywhere outside the Common Travel Area (Republic of Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) we were running out of time to get that done before starting work. (If we still had a job).
What to do.
In the end I sent an email to the owners of the campsite where we’d (hopefully) be working to see what their thoughts were. Like everybody else they were still waiting on the go-ahead from the government on the reopening date but were hopeful for the 4th July. They assured us we would still have a job but with less hours than last year. That gave us just a couple of days to decide on our options. Meanwhile my brother offered us a patch on his drive to park up for the two weeks we needed to (thanks Richard:). So that solved that problem. However he was in Suffolk and we needed to be in Cornwall so we asked the campsite owners if we’d be able to arrive two weeks early and self isolate on our staff pitch. It made more sense anyway as we’d have plenty of space and wouldn’t be coming into contact with anyone. Not that we felt we were any risk to anyone.
As soon as we got the confirmation that we were welcome to come back two weeks in advance of the proposed re-opening of the campsite we booked the ferry. DFDS ferries, as always, came up with a very good price for the four hour crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven which meant less driving than the Calais-Dover route and Brittany ferries weren’t operating their services for anything other than freight. We felt much happier once we made the decision to book the ferry as we felt like we’d been circling the airport the previous week procrastinating on our future!
It’s always a culture shock arriving back in the UK after an extended period away as all the roads feel like they’re super busy. Once we arrived on the outskirts of Salisbury we took a break for some lunch in the Tesco carpark. We really felt like we just wanted to be back in France. Although we didn’t get out of the van we could see a huge queue of people waiting to go into the supermarket. Throughout the whole of this pandemic we have been extraordinarily lucky to have never had to queue to get into a supermarket. Not in Spain or France. And we are extremely grateful for that. As I’ve said on the blog before we have been fortunate not to have felt completely restricted, isolated or frustrated during the last three months or so.
So here we are again at the campsite. As soon as we arrived it felt like we hadn’t been away.
The self isolation guidelines state that you can only go out in your garden and you aren’t allowed to leave the boundary of your property. We have taken that to mean that anywhere within the campsite is fair game for us to walk around.
It makes such a difference having that freedom and space, especially when you live in van.
So there we are, even though our plans for this summer haven’t worked out as we were expecting them to and we haven’t been able to spend time with family and friends yet we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome in the circumstances.
The government has now given the green light on the opening date of 4th July so we just have six more days to do before we can get on with the next chapter.
We did a big shop in France before we left to tide us over in our isolation period but you can be assured that Tim will be clearing the shelves of pork pies as soon as we’re free to go the supermarket here.
So, as the title of this blog post suggests, we are back on the road again after having left the chateau last Sunday. With things opening up again in France and people being free to travel outside their localities we thought the time was right to get back out into the world and have a change of scene.
In all we spent nearly eleven weeks in lockdown with our hosts and two other helpers. Our situation couldn’t have worked out any better really and we are very grateful to Jenny and David for taking a chance on two refugees from Spain in our hour of need! Ironically it was probably the most sociable time we have had in a long time. With our fellow helpers, Bernice and Ronnie and owners Jenny and David we shared many evenings with meals, music and laughter together.
Of course there was a lot of work to do but we were free to get on with what suited us which is exactly how we like to work. Tim was just starting to see the fruits of his labour in the garden with strawberries (when Bella the puppy hadn’t already got to them first!), courgettes, peas, spring onions and lettuce being sampled.
He’s a bit bereft at having to leave his ‘children’ just when they were doing so well but needs must. Growing vegetables will definitely be on his agenda if we ever go back to being in one place on a permanent basis. As will making music. Being at the chateau Tim was able to get back ‘on it’ with his saxophone playing as he had the space and didn’t need to worry about upsetting the neighbours. He’s experimented with some new types of music and surprised himself in the process on how much he has enjoyed it. If you’d have said to me a few years ago he would enjoy playing Ibiza Dance Club Classics I’d have never have believed you. But there you go. When there’s no Big Band to hand you have to find alternatives.
So there ends another chapter of our travels and it’s on to pastures new. Except, it doesn’t quite feel like pastures new. We’ve spent the last week on an aire (which used to be a former campsite so has plenty of space) on the edge of the Loire a few kilometres outside Saumur.
For our first week out and about we planned to do nothing. Which we have achieved with flying colours. Other than a trip into Saumur by bike and a nosey around the former troglodyte village a short walk away we’ve barely moved from the campsite.
We were pretty tired and needed a bit of rest and relaxation before deciding what to do next. Now feeling recharged and reenergised we’re in a dilemma what to do next. If everything had gone according to plan we should have been arriving in Yorkshire today to spend the week on a CL site a mile or so from where my parents live catching up with them and frequenting any Wetherspoons within a twenty five mile radius. With campsites still closed in the UK and anyone arriving from another country having to self isolate for two weeks we decided we were better off staying put in France. Shops, bars and restaurants have reopened here and things are slowly getting back to normality. Everything is pretty quiet though and not as busy as you’d expect but with this being quite a touristy area it’s not surprising.
Until the UK government make a firm decision on the reopening of campsites we are in a state of limbo. Our job was due to start at Lanyons Holiday Park at the beginning of July but that is on hold until they know if, or when, they can reopen and what strings might be attached to that. It might be that if they aren’t able to open the shower blocks, bar or pool then they may be able to run the site without two extra pairs of hands as it is just a small family run business. Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see. Also, as it stands at the moment, we’ll need to self isolate for two weeks on returning to the UK which is a bit tricky without an address.
Anyway, aside from those dilemmas our most immediate pressing issue is that we have a problem with our gas supply. Since we’ve been back in the van we seem to have lost the pressure so the boiler won’t fire up which means no hot water and no heating (not that we need heating at the moment). Yesterday the fridge died as the gas isn’t getting to that and today we can only use one burner on the hob as there’s not enough pressure to have two going at once! It’s likely to need a new regulator but we’ve found a garage in Chinon that deal with that sort of thing so we’ll ask them to take a look tomorrow.
In the meantime I’ve been having cold showers telling myself it’s just a state of mind whilst Tim has gone down the boil the kettle route.
Today I’m doing a one pot cookathon as everything has defrosted in the freezer. Fortunately it’s only a small freezer so we should be able to eat our way through it all in a few days without having to waste any of it.
It’s hard to believe we are into our seventh week of lockdown life here at Chateau de Jalesnes.
Time has flown by here in our little bubble away from the realities of the pandemic.
It’s been a productive time both in terms of the work we’ve done in and around the chateau but also on our respective little projects we have. I’ve used this quiet time to squeeze out as much as I can from all the down time that we have. Well, maybe not the blog as, once again, it’s gone by the wayside. Keeping all the plates spinning isn’t really my forte especially when procrastination has an annoying tendency to play its part.
This will be my first update in about a month as the blog has been put off week after week. But today I was determined to get a blog post out come hell or high water. So, quoi de neuf?
We’ve had a variety of things to do here most of which have been outside. Normally the wedding season would be in full swing by now but unfortunately nearly all the weddings have been either cancelled or postponed until next year. Most of the weddings that happen here are for couples and their respective family and friends arriving from overseas, mainly, the United States, Australia and the UK and with Macron declaring a firm ‘Non’ to opening up the French borders anytime soon postponements and cancellations have been trickling in.
But the grounds still need looking after and with spring arriving with gusto combined with mixed weather for two weeks or so the gardens have been growing at an exponential rate. It’s like the forth bridge. We can’t keep up. No sooner is the grass cut, the flower beds weeded and the paths cleared it all needs doing again. It’s a beast but we’re not complaining. It’s enjoyable work but you don’t get long to admire the fruits of your labour before it’s time to start again.
The vegetable patch is starting to show signs of edible things although the lettuces suffered after Bella the puppy flattened most of them. We sampled some of the first strawberries last night. For some of the bigger jobs reinforcements have been comandeered in the form of ‘boys toys’ like the rotivator and the monster chipper machine. There’s enough woodchip now to last a year or two I would imagine.
We work hard but play hard too. The owners, Jenny and David are the best. They’re easy going, let us get on with the tasks we’re best suited to and bake us biscuits, cakes and hot cross buns and invite us for dinner or a barbeque at least twice a week. With the resident musician to entertain us occasionally it’s not too much of a hardship.
So lockdown doesn’t really feel like lockdown for us and we’re extremely grateful for that. Ironically the once a week trip to the supermarket is always a highlight and a welcome change of scene for an hour or so. Fortunately at about midday on a Saturday it has always been really quiet so we haven’t needed to queue even for the checkout.
So going forward then, from today we have a little more freedom to get out and about here in France. We’ll no longer need to take our ‘attestation’ form with us saying why we are out and at what time we left home. We are free to roam up to one hundred kilometres from home. We’d planned to get out on the bikes today but it’s pouring with rain so that’s been put on the back burner for now.
We’re still unclear on how long we will stay in France though. Boris made his announcement last night on relaxing the rules of confinement in the UK but it’s still an unknown if any campsites are going to be opening up in the UK this summer. Our job down at the campsite in Cornwall was due to start at the beginning of July so we still need to wait and see if that materialises.
We still have our original ferry booking for 12th June to return to the UK but without knowing if we have a job to go back to we’re reluctant to return. As much as we’d like to return to see family and friends we don’t want to be stranded in the UK and not be able to get back into France or Spain if their borders are still closed.
Macron has intimated that French borders will be closed until at least September. We’ll just have to wait and see.
One thing is for sure though our winter plans for this year have now been curtailed.
We’d planned on a backpacking trip to South East Asia but, for now, we’ll leave that in the ‘for sometime in the future’ pile.
A few blog posts ago it was the end of February. We’d just left our rental house in Portugal where we’d spent four months. It was a much needed prolonged break from travel. A time to have a complete change, feel part of a community again and try on a different country and culture for an extended period. I wrote, then, about how our four months had been a success but:
‘We’re happy to be back on the road and eager to see where life takes us next’.
At that time, I think it’s fair to say that we could never have foreseen how drastically our ‘loose’ travel plan of visiting Sardinia and Corsica would change in such a short space of time. However, I also wrote at the end of that blogpost:
‘We also like change. Change is good for us. Change challenges us. Gets us outside our comfort zones’.
And that is one of the things I love about this lifestyle. Nothing is set in stone. We can change our plans or adapt them if we want to or our plans can change due to things outside our control. Fortunately, most of the time we are in control.
Living full-time in a van is an alternative lifestyle that will throw up the usual challenges like where to get post sent, specialist insurance, registering with a doctor, visiting a dentist, what to do with all your stuff, prolonged confinement in poor weather etc etc . But sometimes other challenges arise that are outside our control.
This came to the forefront of our minds when the UK government ‘strongly advised’ UK nationals to return home during this pandemic. Normally returning to the UK for an extended period of time for whatever reason wouldn’t be a problem as we could stay on a campsite. Unfortunately, when tougher measures were introduced to contain the virus all the campsites closed, including the small Certified Sites and Certified Locations affiliated to the Camping and Caravanning Club and Caravan and Motorhome Club.
We are a big fan of these privately owned little sites that allow just five vans and they are always our preferred sites when in the UK. However, being affiliated to the ‘big’ clubs the same rules have been applied to them during this pandemic. They had to close. There is one just a mile and a half from where my parents live which we absolutely love and would have been an ideal place to self isolate for the first two weeks. Then we could have been on hand to be active in the community there.
Many full-timers are on the driveways of family or friends or other kind hearted people who have offered a space for those in need of it. It’s a shame as I’m sure many CL and CS sites would have been happy to accept just one full-timing van onto their site providing a bit of income for them in these strange times.
We would have found a solution but fortunately we have landed firmly on our feet in coming back to the chateau. It’s a bit surreal in a way as we can be oblivious to the outside world here if we choose to be. We have the freedom to walk the grounds. We have peace and quiet. Wifi. Satisfying work to do. It makes me feel a bit guilty really when so many other people are suffering right now.
This weekend the chateau should have been full of wedding guests. It doesn’t look like there will be any weddings anytime soon. There’s still work to be done though. We’ve made the most of the spring weather getting out in the grounds. The vegetable patch has been dug over, paths and flower beds have been weeded, herb gardens planted, grass mowed and seeds sowed.
I never used to like gardening. I always found it a chore. That was in the days before podcasts though. Now I can get an education whilst weeding, planting, mowing and sowing. I’ve just got to work on my concentration. Never a podcast goes by without my mind wandering off all over the place.
For the first week we weren’t really feeling like we were in confinement. Then the food supplies dwindled. The snacks ran out after three days. What can I say? I’m an all or nothing kind of person. Budgeting chocolate or crisps just doesn’t work for me. We’d done a last shop at Lidl on the day we left Spain as we knew we had to self isolate here for the first two weeks. The owners and the two other volunteers did offer to shop for us but we’re resourceful. We’d survive. Odd combinations of food make a nice change I think. By the end of last week we were down to the tin of haggis.
Our friends Sam and Chris gave us the tinned haggis to try when we visited them in the Highlands in May 2018. Sorry Sam but it was still in the cupboard at the back of the van. But, needs must when the devil drives so the tin of haggis got eaten. Even if it was a few months out of date. It did taste better than it looked.
It’s the last day of our confinement now so we’ll be able to stock up on supplies again.
We have our ‘attestation’ forms at the ready if we are stopped on the way to the nearby Super U.
It’s going to feel so different to the last time we were there though.
This last week has seen unprecedented decisions being made around the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We came to the decision on Sunday 22nd March that our time was fast running out in Spain as it was finally confirmed that all short term accommodation, including campsites, had to close by 26th March. We were still on the aire at Úbeda in north eastern Andalucía mulling over our options.
We were down to just two vans by this stage, us and the French. The German, Belgian and Spanish vans had decided to call it a day and repatriate themselves to their homes. I suspect we’d have done the same at the time they had if we’d had a home to go back to. As we’re ‘full-timing’ in our van and our house is currently rented out this wasn’t an option for us. When we return to the UK to see family and friends we normally stay on a campsite but by this time all the campsites in the UK were closed as well. Mmm, what to do? So we chewed over our options. And chewed a bit more. Finally we came up with a Plan A, B, C and D. Fortunately for us Plan A came through so we didn’t have to get the ball rolling on B, C or D.
We sent an email to Jenny and David at Chateau de Jalesnes in France where we have volunteered through Helpx twice before to see if they needed any help and would be willing to take us. Our reasoning was that they have plenty of space where we would still be able to work in exchange for our keep, we would be completely out of the way from other people to self isolate and it would be likely we could stay long term. We had an email back the same day to confirm that we were welcome as we could self isolate there without any problem and, due to the current situation, there were only Jenny and David and two other helpers there.
So, on Monday we packed up, filled up with diesel, went to Lidl to do a shop to tide us over for our two weeks of isolation and hit the road. We were stopped by the police in Spain going through a small town south of Ávila. After my attempt at speaking Portunol (a mangled version of Portuguese and Spanish) the officer called over his colleague to deal with the ‘Inglés’. The officer was exceptionally polite referring to us all the time as Timothy and Jane and after a passport and driving licence check and a few questions about why we were travelling, where we had come from and where we were going etc we were on our way again with firm advice to get a move on.
A five kilometre queue of traffic greeted us coming up to the border with France at Irun in Northern Spain. From what I’d read we needed an ‘attestation’ form stating why we were travelling to be able to cross the border into France. As we had no access to a printer, and I didn’t know if we would be able to pick up the forms at the border, I’d written two forms out by hand which was apparently acceptable. I was sooo glad I had written them out as the first word the officer said to me as we went over the border was ‘attestation’. I hadn’t filled them in though as the five valid reasons for travel didn’t include ‘repatriating to home country’ (which we weren’t going to do but he didn’t need to know that). He just accepted that we had the forms and told us to fill them in on route.
The whole route would have been pretty much stress free had I not had a nagging anxiety that if we were stopped in France and quizzed about where we were going we would be prevented from going there and directed to go straight to Calais. I had decided that if we were stopped then I would be honest as I know I would unravel under even the mildest of interrogations. I’m a hopeless liar and they would see through me straight away.
Sticking to the autoroute added an extra sixty kilometres to our journey but when we finally came off it we only had twelve kilometres to do on a minor road which didn’t go through any towns or villages to get us to the chateau so the likelihood of being stopped was considerably less. Ironically the exit off the autoroute for the final stretch went right past the Gendarmerie National and we were expecting the game to be up, to be stopped, fined and sent packing back to Calais but there was not a single police car in sight. We arrived at the chateau and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
We’re now in isolation for two weeks and have, very generously, been put up in one of the apartments in the chateau with our own entrance so as to keep us separated. We have been working in the garden for the last few days which has been just brilliant after nearly two weeks of being ‘van-bound’.
We are so grateful to be here and know that we are super lucky to be able to be outside in the grounds without the restrictions that everybody else is going through.
Nobody knows how long this situation is going to go on for.
France has just announced a further two weeks of lock-down until 15th April.
It looks like we’ll be here for some time.
Keep safe, keep washing those hands and keep optimistic.
Much has happened throughout the world since my last blogpost a week ago. The COVID-19 virus is an ever present feature of everyone’s lives. Spain went into a ‘lock-down’ situation the day after we arrived in Úbeda. France followed suit two days later and a similar situation is fast approaching in the UK. It’s unchartered territory at the moment.
The announcement came last Sunday that Spain would be effectively closed for business from Monday. In light of this announcement, and the fact that we’d heard that campsites were closed to new arrivals, we deemed it prudent to pitch up at the aire in Úbeda where we’d have access to all the services we’d need and isolate ourselves as much as possible. As I mentioned in my last blog post the normally popular aire was uncannily quiet when we arrived. There were just five of us with five nations represented. French, Belgian, Spanish, German and English. Chatting to our neighbours we were all in agreement that we would hunkerdown and wait out at least the first two weeks to see how things developed.
We collectively visited the police station around the corner on Tuesday to ask about the possibility of hooking up to some electric as a couple of the vans don’t have solar panels. On Wednesday afternoon a friendly electrician arrived, asked us how many outlets were required and sorted us all out with electric which we are all extremely grateful for.
From what we’d read we would be able to go out for necessary trips to the supermarket, pharmacy or doctor. Everything on Saturday had been calm in the supermarkets with just the obvious difference that most people were wearing gloves and one or two had a mask on. We’ve been fortunate in that we haven’t seen any of the panic buying situations that other areas have experienced. The local Lidl and Carrefour supermarkets are well stocked and quiet. We walked up to Lidl yesterday and all was quiet. We couldn’t go in together and had to maintain our distance between other shoppers but it was so quiet it wasn’t a problem. It’s the new normal now. They’ve also moved out all the other crap useful things they sell like tools, clothes, stationery and the like to allow more space to move around. Personally I’d like to see that rolled out in every Lidl throughout Europe but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Meanwhile back at the van we’ve been keeping ourselves busy. We’ve likened it to being in the Big Brother House except without all the egocentric wannabes. Unlike the Big Brother House we also have books, internet, music, and our own space……..all seven metres of it. We’re used to living in a small space though but it will be the first time we’ve been confined in one position for more than a week without being able to do our daily walks, work, volunteer or other normal things we take for granted. So far, so good. I’ve been able to do my exercises with my dumbbells outside the van everyday which always makes a difference to me mentally. Tim has been putting his electronic saxophone through its paces. I’ve been able to practice my French with our neighbours, although I try not to burden them too much! I have plenty of downloaded language learning material to get through and have a plan to follow to help keep me focussed.
Friends of ours, who were staying on a campsite near Seville, were told on Wednesday that the campsite would be closing and to make alternative plans. In other words to get themselves back to the UK. The Gov.uk website was stating on Wednesday that all hotels and short term accommodation in Spain would be closed by the 24th March so travellers were being advised to start planning their journeys to their home countries. By Thursday the information had changed slightly in that it was now saying that the Spanish Government was expected to order that hotels and short stay accommodation (such as short-stay campsites or caravan parks) must close in the coming days. So we’re still not sure if we’ll be moved on.
After hearing the news from our friends and reading the Gov.uk website, I fell into the trap of having a mooch around on a few news sites and forums. Normally I don’t follow news sites, social media or message boards for a reason as I find that things can, quite often, get blown out of proportion. I’m not disputing the seriousness of this challenge we are all facing but, for me, I prefer to turn the volume down on the amount of media I consume so as to try keep things in perspective. I’m being more vigilant with myself and trying to avoid anything but the necessary information we need to make decisions over the coming days.
Two Dutch vans arrived on the aire last night who were on their way home. I didn’t speak to them myself but they were under the impression that all campsites were closing and so had decided to call it a day and return home. Our Belgian and German neighbours have decided to do the same and left this morning. So we’re down to three vans here now. For us, we’d prefer to stay where we are as the longer we’ve isolated ourselves the less of a risk we are to other people. And it’s warm here! If we are asked to move on and return to the UK then we will move onto Plan B. So far this situation hasn’t happened but I’ve a feeling it might be on the way. The police have swung by a couple of times this morning but have just given all of us a wave of acknowledgement.
Despite the stories of panic buying there are signs that lots of people are working together, checking on neighbours, setting up online support groups, keeping in touch, shopping for those that can’t etc which is heartening to see. Here in Spain, a call went out on social media several days ago asking for all Spaniards to come to their windows and show their thanks with caceroladas (the bashing of pots and pans) in appreciation for all the hard work that health care staff are doing to care for their patients and contain the virus.
Three Spanish flags have appeared this week on the balconies of the flats opposite the aire presumably to show solidarity.
So there we have it, that’s our situation at the moment.
Leaving Portugal after so long was a bit of a wrench but a welcome wrench as we shot straight across the Algarve and into Spain. We headed straight for the Province of Jaén in north-eastern Andalusia. It’s an area that we’d cut across in 2016 when making our way from the Costa Blanca to Córdoba to meet our friends Di and Chris for a couple of days. We’d had a few days, at that time, to get from east to west but absolutely loved the area and wanted to see more so earmarked it for a future visit.
The province of Jaén is the largest producer of olive oil in the world accounting for twenty percent of the worlds market. According to Wikipedia 66 million trees grow here covering 550,000 hectares. It’s fair to say that it’s enorme. A huge patchwork of green.
The province also boasts four natural parks. On our way across the area in 2016 we met a chap called John who gave us various co-ordinates and advice on where to stay and what to do in the area so we dug them out to have a look. He’d recommended a 128km via verde (cycle track on a disused railway) running from Jaén to Puente Genil. We headed for an aire just outside the little town of Doña Mencía.
It never ceases to amaze me the facilities that are put on for motorhomers in some European countries. We parked up at the aire adjacent to the via verde for just three euros a night. Can you imagine that next to the Camel Trail in Cornwall? You probably pay three times that just to park for the day. All facilities were there. Showers, water, waste disposal and electric.
We ended up staying five nights and explored the area by bike and on foot. Apart from the obvious draw of the cycleway there are several good walking trails in the area as well. We had the pleasure of watching several pairs of vultures circling above and below us on our afternoon walks.
So thank you to John wherever you are now for all the good info you gave us. As I’ve said on the blog before, when travelling there are so many unanswered questions that go through my head. How many olives are there? How many trees? They surely can’t harvest all these by hand like we saw in Greece? If they do then there must be a mass influx of seasonal workers? Who owns them all? How did they water all the trees in the olden days? Do the owners have a detailed map of all their trees or is it in their head? What’s the maintenance plan? Is there ever a day in the week when you don’t hear the buzz of a chain saw in the background? And so the questions go on.
Another of John’s recommendations was the Segura Natural park east of Úbeda. Cazorla is a perfect base to explore some of it with a handy aire located at the top end of the town with spectacular views looking out over the olives below. It’s just a big layby really but as laybys go it got a thumbs up from us.
Cazorla is in a superb setting with craggy mountains above and thousands of acres of olives below and boasts several historic monuments. There are many walking trails, most of which you’d need a few days to complete but we set off up the steep hill to join one of them to see how far we’d get before turning back as there didn’t appear to be a viable circular route.
After an hour and a half of mostly uphill climbing we were heading through patches of pine forest. The shade was welcome as it was roasting hot but then we saw some pine processionary caterpillars. When we looked up we could see their nests in the trees and all looked to be empty.
For those that don’t know, these little creatures can be harmful to people and pets. The hairy caterpillars are part of the moth family. I won’t bore you with their life cycle but just say that they feed on pine trees in nests. Then between February and April they descend from the trees and make their way to the ground in a long chain (hence the name) searching for the next place for their life cycle. They’ll eventually disperse to go underground for the next phase of the lifecycle. They pose a risk to animals and humans at the stage when they are marching across the ground. Those hairs are the cause. If they are threatened, stressed, prodded or poked they can eject their hairs which act like tiny harpoons and can penetrate and irritate exposed skin. Generally dogs lick affected areas thereby transferring the hairs to their tongues resulting in itching, swelling, vomiting and even death.
We carried on for a while but were seeing them in increasing numbers so whilst I sat on a tree stump consulting google Tim hopped from foot to foot. After telling him that I was sure it was just animals that were at the most risk I thought I’d check just to be on the safe side. I read out the end of the second paragraph ‘the pine processionary caterpillar has even made its presence felt amongst dog owners themselves, causing painful, itchy rashes, or at worst, fatal anaphylactic shock’. So I asked him if he wanted to carry on. Stupid question really. He was off back down the hill like a greyhound out of the starting trap.
Having retraced our steps we took the road up out of the town in the opposite direction and were rewarded with more spectacular views.
After a few days soaking up the surroundings of Cazorla we headed to the aire at Úbeda forty or so kilometres away to get some washing done.
We arrived in Úbeda this morning in search of a self service laundrette to find parks closed, events cancelled and most people in the supermarket wearing plastic gloves. The aire, which we’d stayed on a few days ago, was practically deserted. There’d been probably in the region of twenty before.
We took a stroll into town earlier this evening to find, other than two or three cafes and some mini supermarkets open, everything else is closed.
The Coronavirus has been rumbling around in the background of our travels for the last two weeks but today it looks like preventative measures have been ramped up considerably.
Our rough plan for the next three months had looked like this: Take three to four weeks to make our way across Spain to Barcelona, catch a ferry from there to Sardinia, spend a few weeks on Sardinia before hopping over to Corsica for a look see, then back onto mainland France, up through south-eastern France into Switzerland, maybe a bit of Austria before landing in Germany towards the end of May as I’m doing a weekend course with donkeys somewhere in Bavaria. It was a very loose three month itinerary.
Fortunately we only really ever make loose plans as you never know what is around the corner.
It looks like Spain, as I write, is going to announce a lockdown of the entire country.
So that’s it. Our prolonged stopover in Portugal came to an end last weekend. We’re back on the road. We moved out of our rental house and back into the van almost a week ago. It’s time to take stock methinks. I wrote in the blog at the beginning of our stay that after nearly four years we felt we needed a break from travelling and van dwelling to relax, recharge, regroup, reset, reflect and reboot. Over the last four years we’ve had breaks from the van of between three weeks and two months whilst we’ve been volunteering through Helpx where we’ve worked in exchange for accommodation and food. The last four months, though, was the first time we’d a) stayed in one place for more than two months and b) done so on our own terms without any undue commitments. One of the reasons we treated this period as an experiment was that we were curious to see how we would feel living in, what is effectively someone else’s house, for a significant chunk of time and whether it would be something we would be happy to do again (and again) in the future.
When we started our travels in April 2016 we considered three options when deciding what to do with our house in the UK: use it, sell it or rent it out. We chose the latter as that made more financial sense to us. Leaving the house empty for a large part of the year would cost us money in bills and if we sold we’d have to consider what to do with the cash. There was also a bit of fear in there that if the house price train were to gather considerable momentum then we would have just fallen off the back of it and would maybe struggle to scramble back on to it if we wanted to buy again in the future. So we rented it out. And all has been well.
So getting back to my point we wanted to see whether, if we needed a break from travelling and vanlife, renting and living in a fully furnished holiday let would suit us. We don’t have possessions now other than what is in the van so it’s not like we have been missing the creature comforts of our own home. All the things we use on a daily or weekly basis (other than kitchen equipment) came with us into the house so we weren’t without anything that we constantly use. There are other things to consider though. Feeling at home isn’t just about the bricks and mortar you’re living in. It’s also about where it is. Community. That sort of thing. It’s one of the reasons why we chose Aljezur for an extended stay as we have connections there.
Having spent some time in 2016 and 2018 helpxing at Donkey HQ we already had a few connections. And, of course, the donkeys were a huge draw for me as I love spending time with them. Tim was looking for some musical connections and was fortunately welcomed into the Aljezur Bombeiros band with open arms. In the time leading up to Christmas he was extremely busy with not only the Bombeiros band but a choir and the occasional jam session. Since the New Year things calmed down considerably as he felt the choir and the jam sessions weren’t really for him so he let those go. He would have liked to start a small group, and did try to get something going, but it’s difficult for that sort of thing to gain momentum especially when you know you are only going to be spending four months somewhere before moving on again. After the first two months, where he’d been busy with the band things became very quiet and he felt like he needed more to do. He did a few jobs like fencing at Donkey HQ but would have really liked to get his teeth into a project that involved tools of some sort.
And that’s the rub really with this lifestyle. Everything is a compromise. You can’t have it all. It’s difficult to maintain strong relationships within a community if you aren’t there for much of the year. We can’t have hobbies like growing our own vegetables or have animals or a man cave for whatever men do in man caves. It depends on your interests really. Our only transport is the van and our bikes. It wasn’t a problem to drive the van off for an afternoon or two but there were times when we thought a car would have been great to have. Tim would have maybe found some music further afield. The bike isn’t ideal for transporting instruments and the accoutrements that go with them. I suppose we could have hired one but we decided not to. Perhaps we will in the future.
Staying put for four months, however, allowed us to focus on our respective interests. For me I focussed on my language learning whilst Tim spent a big chunk of time honing his skills on the electronic saxophone he bought last year.
So, in the end, was our extended stay a success? Apart from a couple of quiet weeks in January, four months for me was fine but it was a little too long for Tim. For me, if we rented somewhere without the donkeys and the dogs to occupy me then one or two months at a time would be just about right. The idea of a bolthole is extremely attractive but I don’t think we are there yet in making a commitment to it. We still like the freedom we have. We still want to travel and experience new countries so even if we had somewhere to go back to we wouldn’t really be there very often. Renting somewhere for a period of between a month and four months is the best compromise for us at the moment if we feel we need a break from travelling or the van.
So all in all our experiment was a real success. We also like change. Change is good for us. Change challenges us. Gets us outside our comfort zones. Four months ago we immediately settled into our little house on the hill. Last weekend we immediately settled out of it and back in to our van. We’re happy to be back on the road and eager to see where life takes us next.