Below is a longer version of a piece I wrote for the Yorkshire Post about our 3,000-plus mile trip around Europe in a Mazda Bongo van – me, my partner Ellie and our baby son, Harry….
IF you could have six weeks off work, where would you go?
For me, it would be hiking in the Himalayas with the promise of cold beer at the end. That option was out of the question when the chance for a long break came up – it would be too pricey and, at only eight months old, our son Harry was too little for trekking poles.
When the idea for a “little drive round Europe” was casually dropped into the conversation, there were quizzical looks from the grandparents.
I am sure they would have preferred us to go to Center Parcs but the seed had been sown and the campervan had been purchased (the amusingly named Mazda Bongo; 16 years old; one careful Japanese owner; sleeps four, about the size of a VW camper).
So, off we set, leaving Hull on an overnight P&O ferry for Zeebrugge with just a vague notion that we wanted to race south through France (chasing the sun), cross the Alps and visit some interesting caves and lakes in Slovenia and Croatia.
Things didn’t quite pan out as we expected.
Crossing the high Alpine passes – including a snowy Col Agnel at 9,000ft – was truly memorable, although for me the horror of a near-breakdown at the summit still gives me palpitations. Ears popping with the altitude, the Bongo’s response to the pressure was to lose some coolant (or was it air-con water?) from beneath the engine, the sight of which brought me close to a nervous breakdown. Frantic phone calls – miraculously the signal was perfect – gave me some reassurance all was well but I spent the next 40 days “whittling” – my new favourite word – about the Bongo.
I also did plenty of fretting about the absence of roadside barriers on the high mountains, a fact that did not bother the cyclists and the 100 or so Porsches racing for the summit.
Crossing into Italy on day six, it became clear it was almost too hot to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the van. In fact, the further we got from our home town of Huddersfield, the more our problems seemed to mount. The end-of-my-tether moment came in a field in Slovenia, not far from the spectacular Skocjan caves, a particular favourite of Harry who enjoyed hearing his shouts echo around the huge chambers.
Almost 1,000 miles from home, the field in question was grandly described as a campsite and cost us 17 euros for one night. Overgrown, infested with flies and next to a swamp of noisy frogs, it was also lacking shade. By morning the sun was beating down, our baby thermometer showed 42 degrees and there was no escape until the kit was packed away – a 30-minute job involving dismantling and packing away the bed/seats, cot, small tent, elevating roof, stove, camping seats, table, kettle, sterilising equipment, thermal window covers, water carrier, fridge, gas bottle and about 30 other items. By the time we had done, Harry was crying (though in the shade and in front of an electric fan, in case the grandparents ask) and we were close to tears as we vowed to head to cooler climes.
Heading north – which meant scrubbing Croatia from our itinerary – was the best decision we made. After a superb drive up the Soca valley and the 50 hairpins of the Vrsic pass, we dropped down to the impossibly picturesque lakes Bled and Bohinj before we decided to leave Slovenia after just three nights. It was too hot and the few campsites we could find were a tad expensive. As our modest pile of euros dwindled, it was time to renew our quest for cheaper camp sites. After a one-night stop in Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps we were ready to head back to the tourist heaven of France.
Though we originally discounted spending much time in France, the lure of the patisserie (and tarte aux fraises), not to mention the cheaper camping, pulled us back.
Heading slowly up the Alsace wine route allowed us time to stop and properly stare for the first time in days. And by now Harry had become adept at staring and smiling at strangers, his favourite ‘victim’ being middle-aged ladies.
Though I prefer beer, the Alsace wine route was a revelation. After two nights beside a river at lovely Colmar, we had a properly relaxing five-nighter in a tidy, tiny campsite outside Ribeauville, a town that takes its ‘France-in-Bloom’ obligations very seriously. We were now happy, having finally found a more affordable campsite – just over five euros a night.
The pretty villages on the wine route could have occupied us for weeks but we decided to leave Alsace and head for the Somme region.
A couple of days visiting war cemeteries and museums – it was pouring with rain; steamy Slovenia was a distant memory – it was time to feel the sand between our toes again as it had been days since we had seen a beach (Punta Sabbioni, a spit of land facing Venice, felt like weeks ago.)
Our second ‘beach holiday’ saw us reach Bray-Dunes, near Dunkirk, and then we ‘discovered’, over the border in Belgium, the beauty of Ostend; I had images of rusting ships but it was nothing like I imagined. A perfect promenade pram push was topped off with fries and seafood from a beach hut. The irony of ending our adventure with eight days in ‘boring’ Belgium (it isn’t) wasn’t lost on us. We found ourselves in a party atmosphere in Gent on National Day (July 21), having previously enjoyed fireworks in France on Bastille Day (July 14).
By the final night in Bruges, we had driven just over 3,000 miles (but never more than 200 miles in a day, in case grandma asks) and had used 27 campsites in five countries. Harry had sampled ice cream in Italy, croissants in France, fries in Belgium and beer in Germany (well, a lick of a bottle) – and even tried a little beach sand for good measure.
He had dipped his toes into the Adriatic, the icy North Sea and lovely Lake Garda and chatted with ladies and babies from Amsterdam to Zeebrugge.
After 40 days away, we were relieved to deliver Harry safe and well – apart from a few insect bites – back to the grandparents. The campervan ordeal, erm holiday, was over. It was time to start planning another.
* For information about ferries go to http://www.poferries.com