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How green is motorhome living?

August 21st, 2014 (by Steve)

11878 miles at just over 20 miles per gallon. That’s approximately 594 gallons of petrol. Or 2700 litres. We always knew that we’d get through a lot of fuel on our trip, but that’s A LOT of fuel. Around 35% of our budget for the trip ended up in the hands of big oil companies. That doesn’t sit particularly well with us, but it got us thinking about how green motorhome living is… and just to clarify, I’m not talking about painting a motorhome green:

Would we trade Bertha in for a motorhome like this? Absolutely!

So let’s start with the fuel, as that’s the most alarming headline. As a 24 year old vehicle, Bertha’s fuel efficiency and emissions aren’t the best. Using a carbon emission value of 8.91kg of carbon per gallon burned, on petrol alone we’ve possibly released around 5300kg of carbon over 8 months of travelling. In comparison with air travel over the same distance (0.277kg per passenger mile for 2 passengers), that would have been 6580kg and if we compare it with long distance rail travel (0.185kg per passenger mile for 2 passengers), that would have been 4394kg. Don’t get us wrong; it’s a lot of carbon, but suddenly motorhome travel isn’t looking as bad as first thought.

If we had chosen to do our travelling by train, we would have then had to think about accommodation on top of that (not physically “on top” obviously) and the heating and lighting carbon costs incurred there. As Bertha’s leisure batteries are hooked up to the alternator, some of the combusted petrol would have gone to recharging them, with the rest of the recharging being performed by our solar panel. We chose our electrical devices carefully in terms of consumption (for example “dumb” phones instead of smartphones and LED lighting throughout) and as we were using so little, we are confident we could survive off-grid indefinitely. So, aside from the one-time carbon cost of manufacturing the solar panel, our electricity usage was effectively zero carbon.

Re-sealing around the solar panel to ensure a watertight seal

As electric heaters use masses of power, we used our gas heater in low temperatures, as well as using gas for our water heater, our cooking (on the hob; we removed the oven to give us extra storage space) and our fridge (when parked up). We used approximately 140 litres of LPG in the trip (about £87 worth). Now I haven’t examined our domestic gas usage in terms of volume, but certainly in terms of cost you’d be talking about more than £87 worth of gas for 8 months. It’s hardly surprising that we used less gas than we would in a house, as it’s a much smaller space to heat. So from a gas-usage point of view, again, motorhome living is looking quite good.

Probably the one utility that we were most aware of in terms of usage though, was water. Unlike a house, you don’t have a pipe connecting you to the mains; the only water that you have in a motorhome is that which you carry and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Using figures from the Consumer Council for Water, a 2 person household with a low water usage (55 cubic metres per year) will get through about 150 litres per day. Bertha’s fresh water tank holds 40 litres. A full tank would last us at least 3 days of wild camping (unless we were hand-washing our clothes). So how did we reduce our water consumption?

  • When running the hot water, we caught it in a container until it got hot, then used that water later for cooking
  • We brushed our teeth from a cup so we weren’t running unnecessary water away
  • We didn’t use the shower in Bertha, instead washing ourselves from a bowl with about 2 litres of water
  • We didn’t wash ourselves as frequently as we would in “normal” life. Kiri and I had different ideas about when it was necessary to wash… to clarify, I’m the dirty one!
  • Flushing a chemical toilet only uses a cup full of water, as opposed to up to 13 litres with household toilets

Now I try not to have too many vices in life, but I love a good, hot shower, so it was a real luxury to arrive at a campsite and realise that we could have a shower or use a washing machine! So, motorhome living again is looking pretty good in terms of water usage.

Finally, we come to recycling. In the UK, we’re keen recyclers and try to put as little as possible in the bin. A couple of years ago we even experimented with giving up buying things in plastic for Lent. When travelling around, especially in different countries, things get a bit harder though. There’s no regular collection and different countries have different recycling facilities. Finding them was sometimes a bit of a challenge, so we couldn’t always recycle. One thing we did notice (and really like) was the “pfand” system (direct translation is “ransom”) in place in several countries. When you buy a bottle (plastic or glass), you pay an extra little deposit on it. Then when you’ve finished with it, you return it to the place you bought it from, and get your deposit returned. In the case of glass bottles at least, the bottles are re-used rather than recycled; probably a less energy-hungry process.

Overall, I think we’ve probably been living a greener lifestyle in the last 8 months than if we were living in a normal house. So is there anything that we can translate back into our lives in the UK? Maybe. I guess the main thing is that we’ve learned to be frugal with the resources we’ve had. However, there are some slightly more wacky ideas that we might try to follow up. As toilets are the biggest users of water, we might do some research into composting toilets. We also think that the idea of hooking up a solar panel to a 12V battery, then charging things from that might have some mileage. We’ll see!

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Cost of motorhome travelling around Europe

August 16th, 2014 (by Steve)

Once upon a time, a girl had a simple dream to travel around the world. She didn’t mind how. She didn’t mind where. She would just blow with the wind. One day, she met the boy that she knew she would marry. In the run up to their marriage, they talked about the dream and the boy liked the idea of it. Only he liked to plan things. So he started to ponder and research how best to stretch a small budget to see as much of the world as possible. Accommodation and transport would be the biggest cost; how could they be combined to save money? A motorhome. As planning intensified, it became clear that the geographical boundary would need to be mainland Europe… but how much does it cost to tour Europe in a motorhome? Enter pioneering data-lovers Adam + Sophie and Julie + Jason with very thorough accounts of their motorhome trips around mainland Europe. After scouring their records, the budget was set; £1000 per month.

Roll the clock forward a few months and the boy and girl were… stuff this, I’ll stop talking in the third person. We thought that a year would be a good time frame for travelling, so we’d need £12000 once we’d bought the van. Our first year of marriage was a very frugal one as we put aside as much money as we could on top of what we’d already got in savings (from regular saving over many years as well as wedding gifts), but we reached our target amount. To cut a long story (which is all documented in this blog!) short, we finally set out on the trip 3 months after we’d originally planned, having spent the budget for those 3 months on getting Bertha prepared… and living during that time. Add a month back in the UK in March, seeing family and having more repairs performed on Bertha, and we ended up spending 8 months in total on the road… coming in a little under budget.

Now one thing we learned from our pre-trip research was that as there are many different ways of travelling and many different types of motorhome, there’s no right answer to the question “how much does it cost?”. Add exchange rates into the equation (when we started our travels it was 1.17 euros to the pound, and it peaked at 1.27 euros to the pound) and even if a right answer existed, it would be subject to change. In efforts to try to give a broader idea of costs (i.e. not just our own), here are links to cost breakdowns from other European motorhome travellers:

And us? Well, we travelled 11878 miles over 242 days between 2013 and 2014. These figures though hide the fact that in reality ours was a trip of two halves where we did things differently in the second half. On our first loop, we travelled 7368 miles as opposed to only 4510 miles in the second loop. Both loops were roughly the same length (122 days and 120 days respectively) but by co-incidence we only drove on 91 of those days on each loop, giving an overall mean of 65 miles per driving day.

Most of the costs of a motorhome trip are dependent on how many days you’re on the road… apart from fuel, which depends on the number of miles that you’re travelling. So, what was the damage?

  • Adam + Sophie – 17p per mile in a 7 year old panel van conversion
  • Julie + Jason – 17p per mile in a 21 year old a-class motorhome
  • Stu + Sarah – 27p per mile in a 5 year old coachbuilt motorhome
  • Us – 26p per mile in a 24 year old coachbuilt motorhome

However…it’s worth noting those that these figures are based on cost of fuel rather than fuel efficiency. As we found out, the price of fuel varies massively between countries, so assuming that a high cost of fuel correlates to low fuel efficiency isn’t a given. Additionally, fuel efficiency can be affected by many things; quality of fuel at pumps, the terrain and driving style to name just some. However, does choosing a coachbuilt van over a more streamlined a-class or panel van conversion make a difference in cost? It would appear so. Does the fuel type make a difference too (Bertha being the only petrol van)? Maybe… in hindsight it might have been cheaper for us to convert her to run on LPG, but we have no concrete figures to back up that suggestion.

So moving on from the cost of travel, we come on to the cost of living. This is so subjective; if you were to stay on a campsite every night and eat out at restaurants the whole time, of course your cost of living would be higher than if you were to aim to stay on aires / wild camp and cook in the van the whole time. There’s also the question of whether you take toll roads when you travel and how many galleries / museums / attractions you choose to pay for. For this reason (and because we’ve all used different categories!) it’s unfair to directly compare how the different couples chose to live on the road.

However, there is an interesting comparison between the first loop of our trip and the second in terms of what we spent. On the first loop we covered a lot more ground, and were at the receiving end of great hospitality at a lot of different projects that we helped at. We also took ferries from Greece to Italy, then from Spain back to the UK (rather than from France), which made a massive difference, as did the unexpected Swiss breakdown. With the second loop, we travelled at a more leisurely pace and were a lot more self-sufficient (although we were treated like royalty by the people we visited in Germany + Belgium).

loopcomparison

But overall, leaving petrol aside as we’ve already determined that it’s based on mileage rather than how many days you’re on the road, this was the distribution of costs:

pie

Food + drink covers supermarket shops and everyday eating
Overnight stay covers campsites, guarded car parks etc
Utilities covers water, electricity, gas (for cooking + heating), clothes washing, phone + internet etc
Supplies covers toiletries, video camera tapes etc
Treats covers meals out, entrance to attractions, beer, wine etc
Transport covers tolls, vignettes, public transport, repairs to Bertha

Whilst this could be broken down further into costs per country, we’ve found from our own figures that this can actually be misleading. Where we were about to cross a border from a “cheap” country to an “expensive” country, we made sure that we stocked up on food and fuel in the cheap country. Similarly, we would let supplies run low in the more expensive countries if we knew we were moving to a cheaper country. This had a smoothing effect on the country averages; making the expensive countries seem cheaper and the cheaper countries seem more expensive. But then again, the definitions of “cheap” and “expensive” countries is subjective.

So, the moment you’ve been waiting for; the total cost per day of life on the road for us was… wait for it… £33.45. Much cheaper than living in London!

overallcost

However… it should be noted that none of these figures include vehicle tax, vehicle insurance (which isn’t insignificant if you’re full-timing), travel insurance and breakdown cover. But, the good news is that depreciation on second hand motorhomes (or in our case an eleventh-hand motorhome!) is minor if you take care of it. Once the adventure is over, should you choose to pass on your home to another keeper, it should be possible to get back near enough what you paid for it (or at least that’s what we’re hoping).

There are many more caveats that could be added to this data, but hopefully this gives a rough idea of what your trip around Europe in a motorhome might cost. Go on, you know you want to!

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Bertha vs. Bertha

August 13th, 2014 (by Steve)

The clash of two titans. One has travelled thousands of miles, bringing chaos to transport systems; the talk of the media in the UK despite it being near the end of its journey. The other is, of course, a hurricane. Yes, as we settled down for our last few nights of the trip, we were ready for anything.

Our penultimate destination was the lovely town of Montreuil sur mer. We’re not exactly sure why it’s “sur mer”, as it’s not even near t’ mer, but nevertheless it’s a lovely town. Our aire for the night (two nights in fact) was a gravel car park next to the town petanque club. We thought we might be in for a bit of a noisy night when a van load of boy racers rocked up, skidding around, however they were just there for a civilised game of boules. Lovely really. What was a shock to the system though was the number of British numberplates we saw and British speakers we heard. Maybe it was some kind of gentle introduction back to life in the UK, but it was a bit strange to be able to understand so much of what was going on around us. Whilst the wind did pick up overnight in Montreuil, we’d hunkered down in the shelter of a larger motorhome and slept soundly. So, we think our Bertha won round 1 of the meeting with the other Bertha. It might have been through hiding / cowardice, but that’s still a win!

montreuil

With mixed feelings we headed up the coast to Calais, for our final overnight stop of the trip. Night 241. That’s a lot of nights… and we couldn’t help but be happy that we would be returning to the UK to some kind of familiarity and normality. But at the same time, this has been our life for the last 9 months… well, longer than that if you count all of the time spent preparing Bertha too. Were we ready to give it up?

frenchweather

We’d heard a few horror stories of aires in Calais not being safe, so we mused on whether we might have an extra story of robbery and intrigue following our stay there. Happily for us, but sadly for the interest of the blog, the only excitement was the return of Bertha (the storm that is). After a night of torrential rain (as our Bertha didn’t leak, we’ll count it as a draw rather than a victory for the other Bertha), we chomped down on a pain au chocolat before heading to the ferry… on which we consumed a croissant each too.

ferry

And then we were back on British soil. Accompanied by a “Home” playlist compiled by Kiri (including Billy Joel, Kate Rusby, Green Day, Martyn Joseph, Bright Eyes and of course Lynyrd Skynyrd), we remembered to drive on the left and were home before we knew it.

So that’s that then. 4510 miles covered in the last 4 months to add to the 7368 covered on our first leg.

loop2

What next? Well, we’ve put Bertha in for her MOT (our van, not the storm), and now we’re catching up on 4 months of paperwork – tax return here I come!

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Another breakdown (in communication?)

August 10th, 2014 (by Steve)

“I don’t think I could cope if we broke down today”. We’d just topped up with petrol in France; being forced to go with SP98 (the 98 refers to the amount of octane in the fuel), as they had no SP95 which we normally go for. We knew that SP95 E10 (the E refers to ethanol) wouldn’t work in Bertha, but we were fairly sure that we should be fine using SP98. A little doubt remained though as we switched our wipers to full to try to clear the torrential rain from our windscreen. With visibility down to about 50 metres, we slowed right down. Suddenly… BANG.

rain

A bang is never a good sound to hear in Bertha. Especially not when coupled with the oil warning light coming on. Either we’d run over some foreign object, or that was a misfire. Fortunately, by now we’re dab hands at breakdowns (this being the 3rd of the trip), so with hazard warning lights on, we drifted to the side slowly, at which point Bertha’s engine cut out. Good. Something in my subconscious told me we would be better off the motorway and as we were inches before a slip road, I tried to turn the engine back on. Just the standard turning over and a clicking sound… nothing more. It was difficult to see whether it was smoke, steam, or just spray coming from Bertha’s bonnet, but deciding that caution was the best option, we grabbed our coats, hi-viz jackets and warning triangle and bundled out of Bertha.

We needed to call our breakdown company, but without much credit left on our phone (deliberately, as we were only 4 days away from returning to the UK), the first job was to top up. Which we needed to do online. By now the rain had eased to a steady pour and we could see that there was no smoke coming from Bertha, so we hopped back inside (along with several gallons of water), onto the laptop, got online and topped up the phone (getting an extra £2 credit – bonus!) before calling Britannia. They then reminded us of the breakdown rules on French motorways. As we didn’t want the hassle of walking to the SOS box and really didn’t want to disturb the police we tried the ignition again… which fired up immediately with no warning lights. Cautiously we crawled off the motorway and reconstructed our breakdown configuration, whilst I pondered the higher grade fuel we’d used and whether that might be the cause.

breakdown

When we called Britannia again, the hold music was, ironically, “Happy“. I spoke to a guy called Steve, who said he’d pass on our details to IMA. Shortly afterwards IMA called us and I spoke to a different guy called Steve who told us that a recovery truck would be with us within an hour. So we had lunch; one of the benefits of being in a motorhome when you break down!

When the French mechanics arrived (neither of them called Steve), I explained the situation in broken French (although IMA Steve said that he had told them already). The mechanic then pointed at the non-illuminated oil light and said that we’d have to go to a Peugeot garage. Not good news; we hadn’t had a particularly positive experience with a Peugeot garage in Switzerland. After turning Bertha round, we hopped out of her and watched her being winched onto the back of their truck, giving the fresh water tank a good old scrape on the ground on the way. Accompanied by Queen and the Bee Gees we headed in the direction we’d just come to the Peugeot garage, where Bertha was unceremoniously dumped outside… again, with a good old scrape of the water tank.

berthaontruck

At the Peugeot garage reception, our mechanics took charge, explaining that there was a problem with Bertha’s oil and that we should call our breakdown company to get a taxi to a hotel. Ummm… sorry? They then disappeared, leaving us unsure what was going on. Eventually a Peugeot mechanic sauntered over and asked where the oil leak was. It was apparent that we were in the midst of another breakdown – this time in communication. We got the bi-lingual IMA on the phone again to act as translators whilst someone checked the oil level (unsurprisingly, this was fine) then started to fiddle around with the carburetter.

After a couple of minutes during which we heard the word “carburateur” being spelled out on the phone to IMA, the phone was handed back to us and we were alone once more with Bertha. The guy at IMA (sadly, not Steve) then explained that “a line” going into something that he didn’t know the name of (I suggested “carburetter” and he enthusiastically agreed) had been loose and was now fixed.

We’re not really sure why Bertha was carried 15km out of her way just to re-attach “a line” (which, with the help of the guys at TalbotOC.com we’ve diagnosed as the connection to the idle cut off solenoid), but hey ho, we were on our way once more with the only cost being the tiredness from an emotional rollercoaster (and possibly a little more damage to our fragile fresh water tank)!

carb

Hopefully that will be the last big drama of this trip, but with Bertha’s namesake storm getting ever nearer, who knows?

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Bertha in Binche

August 8th, 2014 (by Steve)

As we arrived into the province of Luxembourg (in Belgium) from Luxembourg (the country) having missed seeing Luxembourg (the city)… all very confusing… we realised that our view of Belgium as a flat country was incorrect. You see, as we passed through Belgium on the outbound leg of our second loop we experienced a very level country of Flemish-speakers. Coming in from the south, it was a different picture with rolling hills and a French-speaking population… as well as amusingly-named towns… I wonder if they’re M+S?

bras

After spending a night next to a babbling brook in the south east of the country, we ventured to Binche to help at a church there for a few days. Charles + Frances are friends of our parents and they lead the Eglise Protestante Evangelique de Binche. We’ve tried to visit a church most Sundays of this trip and at times it’s been a bit daunting to go to a new place where we don’t know quite what to expect and how we will communicate. Church should be a place where we join with others who have a similar outlook and focus in their lives, but actually, sometimes our fear of potential awkwardness and the unknown become a barrier. Some Sundays it’s been much easier to just spend quiet time together in Bertha.

But in Binche we were in safe hands with Charles + Frances. After getting Bertha plugged in and being given a very warm welcome, a hot dinner and a refreshingly cool bed (sometimes it gets a bit hot in Bertha), we joined them on Sunday morning at their church. Kiri was set to work on the djembe during the songs as well as painting a picture of a doorway to illustrate the passover story. Charles had provided me with a rough outline of his talk in French, which I was just about able to follow, but it was good to tune my ear in to Frances’ translation into English too! After the service we had some lovely conversations with other church-goers, although due to our poor language skills some of them had to be quite simple. And then our first Sunday roast in a very long time!

At every project that we visited in the first loop, our focus was on how we could serve. This might have been our sole project of the second loop, but we still had the same focus; offering to help in any way that we could. Although we jet-washed some peeling paint on lintels, washed and vacuumed a car and helped to lay part of a new floor in an art + prayer room, we came away afterwards feeling like we’d received far more than we’d given.

On Monday evening, we joined Frances + Charles at their English conversation group; a great bunch of local people who meet together to practise speaking English. We’d timed our visit pretty well as it coincided with a barbecue they were having, where we had great fun as well as great food. Occasionally the conversation would lapse into French (or even Dutch!) and we’d be straining to catch the gist of what was going on, but most of the time everyone was really keen on practising their language skills. Which worked well for us! One particular moment of joy for us was the amazement that the local Belgians had at seeing chocolate cornflake cakes that Frances had made.

On Tuesday, Kiri was invited along to a ladies’ group meeting where she shared about our trip with the ladies of the church. She talked about the people we’ve met on the road and the qualities that we’ve learned from all of them. There was then a discussion about the variety of churches that we’ve been to (when we’ve been brave enough to actually go to church!) and how all of us are part of one body.

Throughout our few days with Charles + Frances, mealtimes were probably the times we valued most, and not just because we ate some incredible food. As we ate, it was great to talk deeply with them about our faith, our lives and our aspirations for the future. We’re not particularly good at small talk, so it was refreshing to get into deep conversations with them, as well as joke around at times too. It was then a great privilege to all pray together before we departed in Bertha.

charles+frances

On a different note, it appears that the media have been going crazy over Bertha’s return to the UK. So, as the BBC asks “What will Bertha bring to the UK?“, we’ll break our silence. You’ll be pleased to know that before we left Belgium, we stocked up on beer.

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Homeward bound

August 1st, 2014 (by Steve)

Walked barefoot in the Black Forest? Tick. Eaten its namesake gateau? Tick. Ticks? Nope (thank goodness)! Now how do you match that? Well, our plan was to see some of the stunning Pfälzer Wald; a low mountain region with great walks through beautiful woodland, rocky outcrops and lakes. What did we end up seeing? Well, something along the lines of this:

rain

As the torrential rain laid siege to Bertha we re-evaluated. We could hang around and hope that the rain would clear, or we could move on. But then we would miss out on seeing something beautiful. It’s a situation we’ve been in so many times on this trip; with a limited number of days and a limited amount of money, we’ve had to miss out some “must-see” places. We’re also getting to the point where we’re so used to seeing new places and having new experiences, that our understanding of “normal” is probably skewed with unnaturally high expectations. Maybe a kind of cultural indigestion (thanks to Uncle Richard for coining that phrase). This is also coupled with a sense of guilt that we’re not making the most of the privilege of travelling. So, to soothe the inner battle, we did as we’ve done many times before and promised ourselves that we’ll just have to come back at some other time, when we can fully appreciate it.

Luxembourg beckoned as our final unique country of this trip. We crossed the border from a cloudy Germany and immediately entered a long tunnel, before emerging into sunny Luxembourg. Now I didn’t think that weather respected borders… but I’m willing to be proven wrong! In fact, the sun remained for the whole of our time in Luxembourg (apart from at night obviously). Our first stop was quite urban, in the town of Dudelange where the motorhome parking was situated between a skate park and a boule court (pitch? green? piste?) – an interesting clash of cultures! The second was in Redange after a gorgeous drive winding through woodland and along tree-lined arrow-straight Roman roads.

luxembourg

It was here, in Redange that thoughts turned to the UK. To home. Well, actually, we’ve been thinking about this for a while (our ferry tickets back to the UK are already booked), but as I filled in my first job application it suddenly felt real. We’re on our way home. In our home. It’s all a bit twisted… what does “home” actually mean? Bertha’s our home. Wherever Kiri and I are together, that’s home. But also the UK is our home. St. Mark’s Kennington (the church we worshipped at in London) is our home. Before we left for the trip, several people warned us that we might find a place that we like so much that we’d end up settling there, but it’s family that draws us back to the UK. They’re home too. There’s no single place or group of people that can represent the concept in its entirety.

After a couple of nights in Luxembourg, we removed a cricket which had taken up residence in one of our roof vents (we’re willing to open our home to others, but not if you’re going to chirrup throughout the night!) and took advantage of the cheap petrol on the border.

And look at that – we’re back in Belgium! We might be homeward bound, but we’re still going to appreciate the view on the journey.

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Barefoot in the Black Forest

July 31st, 2014 (by Steve)

There is no doubt that Bertha is a miracle on wheels. How else could a 24 year old motorhome make it so far through Europe? However, occasionally her performance is a little sub-optimal and so it was with her brake lights. During our weekly checks, we noticed to our horror that they weren’t working. Nada. Zilch. Kein licht (as they say in Germany). So, we checked the fuse first… intact. Next was a bulb check (although strange that 4 bulbs would go at once)… all fine. Finally I dug out the wiring diagram and followed wires for a while. I found plenty of loose wires… but then they’ve always been like that (we guess previous owners liked to play with electrics!), but multimeter readings at various points in the circuit showed no voltage.

This is the point at which we were pleased we were due to visit family near Stuttgart; they’re German speaking and they arranged for us to visit a mechanic nearby. In the meantime, we adapted our driving style to be smoother as well as making occasional use of rear fog lights when braking (well, you’ve got to improvise). It’s not as if we brake much in Bertha anyway; “slow” is her preferred speed setting.

Prior to seeing Catherine, Michael + Jessica, we parked up for the night in the beautiful town of Esslingen, up by the castle. This location afforded us stunning aerial views of the vineyard and town in the evening light and we added a brief interlude to our twilight stroll to watch locals playing boule. This is the life!

esslingen

And then to Böblingen. We had barely stepped through the door when our clothes were in the washing machine and we were being treated to a traditional Schwäbisch dinner of maultaschen and spätzle coupled with a tasty local Schönbuch beer. Correction from earlier… THIS is the life! Happily replete after such a warm welcome and with the promise of the first proper bed and non-campsite shower in over 3 months we settled in for a great weekend.

Whilst it can sometimes be difficult to get out of Bertha’s bed due to headroom and the ladder, it’s even harder to get out of a proper bed… but for different reasons! Having dropped Bertha off at the mechanics we were introduced to the first of many riches that this part of Germany has to offer. Chocolate. More precisely, the Ritter Sport chocolate factory where we had a free wander around the museum before stocking up in the outlet shop. Upon our return to the house, we got stuck into a bit of gardening in the afternoon… well, actually it was Kiri doing most of the work. Then in the evening we all ventured to Schlemmen am See; one of many “fests” happening in the area with local restaurants providing tasty offerings, accompanied by good music. Enough to make you want to dance (well, some people anyway!)

schlemmenamsee

The following morning, a guided tour of some nearby woods was punctuated by a call from the mechanic; Bertha was fixed. The problem was the switch above the brake pedal; whilst the original part is no longer manufactured (quelle surprise… oh wait, that’s French!) the mechanic had found a Renault switch that worked just as well (ooh, that’s French too!) and had fitted it; all for £25 or so. Bargain!

brakeswitch

Sadly, as has happened so often in Germany on this trip, the rain arrived for the day, stubbonly refusing to move on. Nevertheless we ventured to a local organic farm which was having an open day, refusing to let the weather put a dampener on proceedings. As well as livestock, we appreciated seeing old farm vehicles, including cars that had been adapted to run off wood burners during the war when petrol was scarce. But the highlight for us was the chainsaw carving. Now I’m not sure how to word this to avoid making Kiri sound scary, but she loves chainsaws. I’m not quite so passionate about power tools, but I was still transfixed by the guy carving stuff out of wood (he was in the early stages of sculpting a frog, we think).

bioland

After offering hospitality in the only way possible we know with Bertha (i.e. a cup of tea!) we were treated to another local dish for dinner; a thick lentil soup with sausages. So tasty! This was followed by another treat; watching the film “About Time“, which made us nostalgic for the UK and, slightly surprisingly, London (considering that we had previously vowed that we wouldn’t return there after this trip).

It was impossible to be this close to the Black Forest without venturing there, so for the first time in Germany we got to experience what it’s like to be in a normal car on the autobahn. It’s such a different feeling being in a car that’s overtaking slow motorhomes rather than driving your home on the inside lane, struggling to reach 90kph! Our destination was the Barfusspark (or barefoot park) in Dornstetten. With naked feet, we set out on a 2km trail through woodland (and a little bit of meadow) that took our exposed tootsies over gravel, pebbles, water, bark, pine cones, glass beads and mud. Now that’s a novel way to experience the Black Forest – it was great fun and my feet felt very invigorated as I washed and scrubbed them (with a patriotic brush!) at the end.

barfusspark

After a leisurely picnic (during which a large dragonfly landed on my head) we meandered our way through the Black Forest to Nagold where a local delicacy awaited. Yes. Black Forest Gateau. In the Black Forest. It would be rude not to! So much tastier than any reproduction we’ve had in the UK. By chance, there was a classic car rally there at the same time, providing unexpected entertainment as we munched. According to their definition, Bertha only has 6 more years to go before she qualifies as classic… the label of “vintage” (as applied by the 2014 Summer Special of Practical Motorhome magazine) will have to suffice for now.

nagold

Sadly we had to say farewell the following morning, but Catherine softened the blow by arming us with half of the contents of their fridge. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with them and it was great to explore an area with local people who could point out hidden gems.

So here we are. Day 227 in the Big Bertha household. Kiri has a revelation:

Steve? We live in a van. I’ve only just noticed. It’s so weird

Do you think it’s time we made our way back to the UK? Maybe.

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Ups and downs in Bavaria

July 24th, 2014 (by Steve)

We like mountains. We also like toboggan runs. So when we heard that if we ventured a little further south of our planned route we could go down the longest summer toboggan run in Germany, we were there like a shot. Well, maybe not quite that fast; we hadn’t consulted Bertha about going back to the mountains and she obviously wanted to take her time. Alpsee Bergwelt was our destination; a short distance from Immenstadt.

After our rather tame experience of a toboggan run in Slovakia, we didn’t want to get our hopes up too much. Sitting in the car park at the bottom, we noted that lots of toboggans were being held up by people in front of them, so realistically, we probably wouldn’t be able to go that fast. After our chair lift ascent (yes, we could have walked, but the chair lift looked more fun!) we waited in a queue for an hour for our opportunity to weave our way down the mountain, hoping that we wouldn’t be stuck behind someone slow.

toboggan1

And then it was our turn. Our game plan was to both be in the same toboggan (higher mass leading to higher velocity) and not to use the brakes. Our briefing on how to use the brakes (we listened politely) bought us extra space between us and the toboggan in front. We were off. Now our thinking was that health and safety would dictate that it must be possible to do the whole run without touching the brakes (unless we caught up with the person in front). That worked out pretty well for us until the 4th corner. It’s simple physics really – an object will continue to travel in the same direction unless a force directs it otherwise (Newton’s first law of motion para-phrased). Well, the track guided the toboggan around to the left. We were leaning forward, with our seatbelts loose. It’s fun trying to brake when you’re hanging out of the right of a toboggan, travelling at speed around a left-hand corner, held only by a loose seatbelt. But, technially we didn’t actually fully fall out! We still maintain that it is possible to go down that course without braking… you just have to lean perfectly into every corner. Nevertheless, we touched the brakes a little in addition to our leaning for the rest of the corners on the 3km course. At 10.50 Euros each (including chair lift) it was a little too expensive for us to do it again immediately, but we wanted to!

toboggan2

After a night in Immenstadt, we chose to venture along to Lake Constance. Now we’d previously read about Ju + Jay’s experience of the German Alpine Road and as a result had decided to avoid Bad Tolz and the south east of Germany. We might like mountains, but Bertha’s not a fan, so the Deutsche Alpenstrasse wasn’t on our agenda… until we saw this sign:

alpenstrasse

Sorry Bertha. We hoped that the western end of it wouldn’t be too punishing and that we would have patient drivers behind us. Let’s say we had patient drivers behind us. In good weather I’m sure the views are even more stunning than they were in the rain. At least we had plenty of time to see them as Bertha puffed and wheezed up and down the winding roads. One part was even like the toboggan run in the way it wound downwards, hugging the hillside… only experienced at a much slower pace!

alpineroad

The rain didn’t clear up… in fact it intensified and only Kiri was brave enough to venture the kilometre or so to the lake from our next overnight stop location. I stayed with Bertha because I wanted to keep dry make sure she was ok after a stressful couple of days.

After a very wet night (it just didn’t stop falling!) we headed straight up the main roads towards Ulm. Just as we were approaching, we saw signs warning us that the “umwelt zone” started in 3km. Those two words have been tinged with bitterness for Bertha ever since we received a letter from Germany in October last year informing us that “Unforunately [sic] no environmental badge can be issued for your vehicle”. And here we were, heading straight into the forbidden land. I immediately panicked and pulled off the road at the next exit, at which point Kiri pointed out that the satnav was bringing us off the main road in 2.4km.

Suddenly we swapped places (not physically, as that would have been tricky whilst driving) and I was keen to carry on (there were sure to be more signs) whilst Kiri was keen to stop and look up the extent of the low emission zone online. I was in the driving seat, so I won the brief conflab and we ventured on. We only saw one more sign on the dual carriageway, which I interpreted to mean “warning, parts of Ulm are a low emission zone”. After that, no more signs and we happily pulled into our stop for the next few nights amongst motorhomes young and old. Kiri went for a little explore whilst I double-checked the extent of the umwelt zone online. Oops. We’d driven slap bang through the middle of it and were now parked inside its limits. Time to move on!

It’s quite hard to drive whilst you’re kicking yourself, but I somehow managed it as we hurriedly and sheepishly left Ulm. I didn’t really want to climb the highest church tower in Europe anyway. No matter what spin I try to put on it, I goofed. I should have done the research that I’d done for all of the other German cities – there’s even handy information online (overall map and detailed maps). It doesn’t matter that when you put it into perspective a 40 Euro fine is comparative to some of the tolls we’ve paid in other countries…. and we’ve had to pay no tolls in Germany and we’ve been able to drive as fast as we want(!!!) on some of the best quality roads in Europe. We’ll await the letter in the post with a German postmark. Never have I been so happy to see a road sign in my life:

endumwelt

And then I looked in the rear view mirror to see that we’d left the bathroom window open. Not having a good day!

I was going to write “hopefully there won’t be too much more drama”, but in all honesty, it’s the drama that makes this trip interesting. This trip isn’t the 100m; it’s not even the steeplechase; it’s an obstacle race. And that’s so much more entertaining to run.

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Melting in Munich

July 19th, 2014 (by Steve)

So this is what it feels like to be in a country when it wins the World Cup. You know, it’s quite a good feeling… England should try it. And we were there when it happened. By “there”, I’m talking about a proper locals bar, where everyone knew each other and there was only space for us on bar stools at the back. During the match we got chatting to a lovely German lady… mainly about England actually. Her choice of subjects included Maiden Castle, Red Dwarf, Monty Python and the war (she mentioned it once, but I think she got away with it). We could hardly get a word in edgeways and it certainly provided a surreal backdrop to the events on the big screen. Add in the free schnapps for every goal (apparently the semi-finals had gotten a bit messy!) and the least passionate swinging of a football rattle that we’ve ever seen and you’ve got a great evening, topped off with the result we were all after.

worldcup

From Cadolzburg, we headed down towards Munich via overnight stops in Weissenburg and Neuburg an der Donau. So many “burgs”; each being a pretty walled town and each celebrating the World Cup win in some way or another! The further south we ventured, the sunnier and warmer the weather became and the more wild and wacky the other motorhomes became (not that we’re jealous or anything!).

burgs

Our stop in Munich was a farm to the south of the city, so we ended up taking in most of the sights of the ring road during our circumnavigation. It was worth it though as we parked up in a lovely rural spot with a few other motorhomes, a couple of friendly dogs and everything else you’d expect from a working farm.

After an afternoon of planning and an early night, we headed in to a city of chiming bells and lederhosen. With no fixed agenda (aside from avoiding the scorching heat as much as possible), we casually wandered around the city taking in the endless stalls of cherries and the countless human statues. We stopped for a while by the synagogue, marvelling at the monumental stone cladding before moving on once again. Even with the sustenance of a cool icecream, the heat was too much by 3pm and we retired back to the farm, to find Bertha moonlighting as an oven. Not really what we needed, but quite handy when it came to cooking our München weißwurst for dinner.

day1

Day 2 in Munich got off to a bit of a slower start due to our need to hand-wash some clothes, however we were rubbing shoulders with the rest of the crowds in the centre by lunchtime. Having taken in a lot of the city in our previous wandering, we took more time out to people-watch and appreciate buskers. As with all cities, you get such a mix of talent; concert-hall standard string players within a coin’s toss of people with squeaky devices in their mouths just doing it for the money. After spending a bit of time listening to a group of Spanish musicians, we ventured inside Heilig-Geist-Kirche where a “Garden of Eden” exhibition was being set up. The church was being adorned with trees, branches and other assorted foliage, whilst overhead a flock of origami birds hung, suspended in mid-flight towards the altar. A great use of the space!

church

Back out in the main street, we became aware of an increasing police presence. In Athens we kind of expected that level of policing due to the almost daily protests, but not in Munich. It was only when we walked on a little further that we realised the reason. Behind crowd barriers was a gazebo over a table and display stand. Next to it was a stage with a public address system. And all around were placards protesting against a proposed Islamic centre in the city; labelling all Muslims as terrorists. I’m not surprised there was a large police presence. Several passers-by asked the police why they were just standing there whilst the speaker on stage shouted and gestured wildly. I guess it’s about free speech, but is that level of extremism and hatred acceptable? Not in my eyes. Why can’t people live together in harmony, embracing diversity?

Once again an icecream called – possibly the best icecream of our trip so far (yes, that is a big claim). As you leave the Hofbräuhaus (because obviously you would be in there if you visited Munich!), turn to your right and walk for maybe 50 yards (sorry, metres) and you will see “Schuhbeck’s Eissalon & Joghurteria”. I had a fiery ginger icrecream, whilst Kiri opted for chilli chocolate, which we munched on whilst watching a professional human statue interacting with and entertaining the crowds.

statue

It had been ordained that dinner would be currywurst and chips, so at 6pm we headed to a stall in Viktualienmarkt, where we’d seen them advertised. Well, it was 6:02pm actually. Guess what time they shut? What followed shall be forever known as “The great currywurst hunt of 2014”. Maybe that’s a little unfair – it was easy to find currywurst… just not with chips. Maybe in Munich it’s more traditional to have it “mit semmel”, but we like it with chips! Having traversed most of the city, we finally located a stand by the Hauptbahnhof, where we not only found it with chips; we had a choice of “rot” or “weiss” sausage and heat of curry sauce. So, against the idyllic backdrop of the station taxi rank we sat and ate. Nom nom!

As we venture onwards, I will leave Munich a changed man. I can’t say that I expected the city to change my outlook on life, but I’ve seen things that have opened my eyes. Yes, I now believe that I could probably rock the lederhosen look.

lederhosen

That could be me…! I’ll leave you imagining that…

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Fußball und Achterbahnen

July 14th, 2014 (by Steve)

We’ve crossed a lot of borders in Bertha within the last year. Some crossings have been totally uneventful; you can hardly tell that you’re in a different country. Others have been a little more fun (for example Serbia to Macedonia!), whilst the crossings of other borders have elicited certain feelings, despite no visible boundaries. The move from the Czech Republic back into Germany falls into the latter category; we drove straight past the borders that 15 years ago I had waited at for 4 hours in sweltering temperatures, yet emotions were stirred. On the one hand we were back into familiar territory; it felt a bit like a homecoming, but on the other hand we were sad to be leaving the eastern European cultures.

We stopped just over the border for a quiet night at an aire with free facilities (a rarity in eastern Europe) and had a lie-in until 10am (again a rarity, but this time not location-specific!). And then on to Nürnberg… well, Fürth to be more precise, where we parked up and planned to walk into the centre to watch Germany vs Brazil on a big screen in the central square. It’s not only in England that the best laid plans of mice and men fall apart due to rain… the heavens opened and we didn’t really fancy venturing out. With no TV in Bertha and limited internet data allowance, we couldn’t watch the match, unless…

semifinal

Yes, that is a neighbouring motorhome, whose owners kindly left the curtains and blinds open and if you squint, you can just about make out a bright rectangle which is their TV. From our vantage point it was impossible to see details of the match (the rain-smeared windows of Bertha and her neighbour making it a vaguely psychedelic experience), but we got the gist once we realised they weren’t just doing multiple replays of one goal. Fürth motorhome neighbours, we thank you.

The following day Kiri was not particularly well, so after I’d been to Lidl to stock our cupboards a little, we decided to cancel our dinner reservation for the evening (ooh, get us… a dinner reservation! More on that later). Instead, we had a short (and soggy) wander around the beautiful old town of Fürth, stopping to stock up on some more tapes for the video camera and treating ourselves to a DVD, which we watched in the evening. The rain conspired against us once again as we ventured into Fürth the following morning, with the main highlight being a council worker killing weeds between cobbles with a flamethrower… und why not?!

furth

Our need for facilities caused us to move 12km down the road to another beautiful town; Cadolzburg where we planned to park up for a few days to do some web design work. By this stage I too had succumbed to the cold, but as we still had our appetites, we decided to venture out to dinner, having made another reservation. Now we haven’t eaten out much on the road (apart from street food) in order to keep costs down, but we’d been given some money by some close friends to spend on a meal on the trip. We wanted to spend the money wisely, so when we found a restaurant where your meal arrives at the table via a rollercoaster, we were sold. Kiri did very well at managing my excitement to make sure that it wouldn’t be an anticlimax when we got there, but even she was excited by the time we stepped through the doors.

Upon arrival, we were given a tablet (of the computer variety, not of the Matrix “red pill” or “blue pill” variety) and an A4 page of instructions and told to find table 5. Once seated, we ordered our drinks via a well-designed user interface on the tablet and within a few minutes, they had whizzed down the rollercoaster track to our table. Very cool. Having ordered our food in the same way, we spent the next 15 minutes open-mouthed as we watched food and drink speed along over our heads to other tables. When our food arrived, we dispensed it from the pots (the delivery mechanism) onto our plates and tucked in, still entertained by the delivery mechanism to other tables. The temptation to order more food and drinks (just so we could see them being delivered) was very strong, but we somehow resisted, taking our tablet to the till to pay before departing with huge smiles etched on our faces.

rollercoaster

We shared the aire with another British motorhoming couple overnight and planned to invite them around for drinks the following evening, but sadly they were moving on. Instead, for the first time in nearly a year I settled down to do a bit of paid web design work… and it felt good. I hadn’t realised quite how much I’d missed a task-centric way of life until I started planning out the job in hand; it bodes well for our return to a slightly more conventional way of life when we get back to the UK. I’m learning a lot on this trip from living life in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ve embraced the chance to experience life at a different pace and in a different style. I’m not sure that I could cope with full-time motorhoming indefinitely though.

Perhaps it’s the crossing back into Germany, or perhaps it’s the addition of some work into our routine, but it feels like the winding up of our adventure has begun. It’s a similar feeling to the one that we had when we crossed into Portugal near the end of the first loop; the finish line was in sight. But whilst there are still teabags in the cupboard, tread on Bertha’s tyres and new beers to taste we’re still having an adventure. We’re not finished yet.

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