Lunch in Modena

“I don’t like Italy too much, but when I go on holiday, I miss it very much.”

We talk with our friend over lunch in Modena. As we have become accustomed, the produce is superb; wonderful olives so full of flavour, buffalo mozzarella with an inside of pure creamy goo, Parma ham, preserved courgettes, bread, and a Gorgonzola Capable of making your eyes water. I opt for tortellini, a dish which has its roots firmly in the local area, its delicious. We also make light work of a hefty bottle of red between us.

I have spent much time on this trip wondering, worrying about finding happiness, and so it’s a relief when I can readily recall the things that make me happy during the conversation; family and friends, music, riding my bike, design and interiors, and of course, food and drink.

I have written about how good it was to arrive in France, with the abundance, and quality, of the produce. To that end, Italy is a sort of France plus plus, with the added bonus of being more at ease, and more playful than the French appear on the surface. It’s undeniable that a smile breaks from the face of an Italian more freely than that of its neighbour, and the fuss made of our daughter is touching.

Our friend seems a little embarrassed as “there’s not much to see in Modena.” I tell him that the colours of the buildings, the cobbled streets, deli shops selling hams and cheeses, tailors’ windows, and the public buildings may be the norm for him, but for us they are a visual treat.

I am not a romantic man, but italy is a romantic, and infectious place. I’m looking forward to spending more time here…..

 

Speaking, not speaking.

Speaking, not speaking.

Another van arrives and dithers around for a minute, before turning around and parking in front of us. An older couple get out, our eyes meet, and for once they don’t pretend we haven’t seen each other. The lady comes over with a smile and says hello. They are French, though their English is excellent. After a bit of a chat, the husband joins us too, he is also very smiley and friendly. Most odd.

We talk a little about how long we’ve been in our vans, are we on holiday, where have we been…… I’m taken aback.

“China”

“China?!”

‘Yes” she says laughing at the madness of it.

“Wait, China?” I say again, confused. “You drove to China and back in your van?”

It turns out they took part in an organised trip with a number of vans to drive to China and back, via Russia, and the ‘Stans’ (some of which I have to pretend I’ve heard of).

This is incredible, these people are incredible, and indeed a very rare breed. Mainly because not many people ever go to these places, certainly not overland, and not (without being rude) a bit later in life.

They are the breath of fresh air I need, and in fact, camped out for two night by the side of Lac Cenis, we chat with two or three friendly and slightly mad couples doing something different with their vans.

Since we left Britain 5 months ago, I can count on my two hands the amount of people I have had a conversation with beyond a seemingly reluctant exchange of hellos. People in our age demographic, certainly less than five.

This has been a real shock to me, and frankly a huge disappointment. Before we left, we began to open up, and try to connect with people doing similar, travelling longer term, or even living in their vans. We found a few, mainly on instagram, and some blogs like ours. Though, if you look through social media, it would seem every man and his dog are at it. Casual shots of women in bikinis taking solar showers in remote beach spots from the backs of their vans. Guys standing on roofs triumphant from their 8 hour hike in the high mountains…..

All I can say in my personal experience, thus far 12,000 km of it, is that this, is bollocks.

Every day we turn up to old people in £75000 motorhomes sitting around in their chairs, doing fuck all. I can’t for the life of me understand what it is they ARE up to actually. It appears they stock up before they leave home, and never venture from the saftey of their vans. The first thing they do when arriving at a spot, is get the satellite to auto tune itself, shut most of the blinds down, and stay put. Quite why they feel the need to leave the comfort of their own homes is beyond me, and what they tell their friends on return is an even bigger mystery.

As you may be able to tell, I find myself irked by this. A large part of the trip for me was to connect with people, and see how other peoples lives looked, not necessarily lives in vans, but how their ‘normal’ lives are, and alas, I’d have had a more enlightening experience in solitary confinement. It is true, and fair to say, my language skills are all but absent (except a little french). I accept that to that end I am as much a part of the problem as anything else, but honestly, language or not, the body language, behaviour, and general interaction, has been at best, closed, and worst, non existent.

To that end, we are thinking of placing ourselves for several weeks in the the coming months to try to establish a connection, a feel for a place, maybe even make a friend or two in different areas?

I mean, it’s not like weve publicly come out and said we want nothing to do with the Europeans after all…..

“It stinks in here!”

Since we left the UK, Mabel’s observational skills have come along nicely, though her timing and use of language to express such could do with a little tempering. Out of the mouths of babes, eh?

Of course, she’s not wrong, it does stink. It stinks so bad that you can not only smell it, but taste it when you breathe through your mouth.

We are of course in France, and the source of the stink I write about today, is our fridge. It’s laden with several types of cheese, fresh salad ingredients, wine, and garlicy cured meats. It’s no secret, I love France. I am a foodie, who loves drinking, and mountains, why would I want to look anywhere else? Except Italy perhaps…..

We had a slightly disappointing time travelling down through the Black Forest. The roads can be very steep, the van’s oil leak had got to the point where it needed attention again, and our overnights (based on not really being able to travel around freely) left us wanting. I was keen to leave Germany, and cross the border into France, partly because I can speak a tiny bit of french, and partly because I have spent some time in France holidaying in the past. I guess ultimately, after 4+months of exploring, I craved a bit of familiarity.

The girls had a scheduled stop in the UK, so I was home alone for ten days, and so after dropping them at Basel airport, I headed back north to find a garage to fix the van. Easier said than done. But, after a day of head shakes, and looking anywhere but at our van, I found a place to take it on, and not only that, they could do it the next morning. The details are dull, but a few hundred euros, and a simple parts swap later, the van hasn’t leaked since, and with a few more improvements I’ve subsequently made, its running better than ever.

Once fixed, I hopped in the van in the blazing sun, and drove over to the Alsace region in France, where I took some much needed time for myself.

Nice simple food, a bottle of something chilled, relaxing in the sunshine, is how many people like to relax.

Bagging eight cols….. and the brutal planche des belles filles over four days, maybe not so much……but it certainly helped me to unwind, and regroup ahead of the return of the two women in my life.

Having had such a nice few days, I was keen to show Liz the sights I had seen, and so we pottered down from there after I collected them, south through the Jura mountains to where we stand now, just west of chambery perched on the edge of the hottest lake in France with the alps before us. The views are (in my opinion) the best weve had since Norway, and genuinely breathtaking, The climate is favourable, and we’ve treated ourselves to a couple of nights at a campsite so we can all unwind, and enjoy the feeling of a bit more space.

I bloody love France!

Clean sections is clean work.

I asked Sylvie if she’d like a haircut before we left. She went a bit shy, a bit red, and didn’t really know how to answer. She asked if I thought she needed one.

She didn’t, but I thought it was a nice gesture to ask. I was indifferent either way, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d be in the mood to do it anyway. After a day, she said, in slightly broken English, that she thought it would be nice. On our final night, the four of us enjoyed a meal, and some wine, and when our little ones were in bed, she went to wash her hair.

I took my tool belt, picked out my favourite pair of scissors and a comb, gowned her up, and began.

The wide tooth on my comb carves a neat line through her wet hair, from her crown, over her occipital bone, to her nape.

It is a feeling I love. The cleanness of the section, and the ease with which I do it makes me happy.

She has nice hair to cut, and a good head and face to work with. We hardly speak whilst she has her cut, and, under no pressure, I find myself enjoying the freedom to create a new shape for her.

I know she was nervous before, she said she doesn’t like getting her hair cut. It’s a complement that halfway through she says she feels relaxed; though she needn’t tell me, I already know. She sits with her eyes closed and head slightly bowed, and I can feel the calm in us both.

As I finish with my scissors, I scrutinise my work. It’s nice, opening up around the eye socket has lifted her face, and the texture is looser and more playful. It suits her spirit.

I was a good hairdresser.

moving on

Most days we move on. We pack down the van, plot the coordinates into our sat nav, and head for pastures new.

Each day we arrive fresh and new. A chance to begin again.

The issue I’ve had is, each day, the new day, means facing the same old me. We have driven for 10,000 Kms, we’re into our 9th country, and the one thing I have learnt, is you cannot outrun yourself.

I wanted to strip myself back on this trip. Get away from all of the shit that I felt clogged up my life; to feel light, happy, and grateful.

The last 110 days haven’t quite gone to plan. I find myself, again, sat in a beautiful location, at odds with myself, torn between who I am, and who I want to be.

I think I’m a better person than I was (though thats not hard). I knew that I would find elements of the trip hard, especially emotionally, but knowing something will be tough does not equipe you for when it comes.

I want to start writing the blog again, but feel like my mindset has been such an over bearing factor in our trip so far that not mentioning it seems somehow insincere, and posts feel like they lack context.

So tomorrow morning we will pack down and move on to a new destination. And like before, I will be there ready and waiting for me when we arrive, trying to be a better person than I was yesterday.

 

Well, since i last posted we have smashed out the kilometres, and have not only dispensed with Oslo, but Stockholm too on our way back south and east.

I’ve always liked having a plan, and part of the trip was to try and let go of that a bit, though its not easy. As we near ‘completion’ of each country, I find myself becoming itchy to get on with it, and get to the next place. It’s not a problem as such, but we have both flagged up the speed in which we move, and whether we are still rushing a little too much.

I loved norway; I can’t remember if I’ve Said it before, but it is the most spectacular and beautiful place I’ve been. That said, by the time we got to our most northerly point, I was desperate to turn around and start heading south again. I’ve tried to have a think about it, I don’t think I felt homesick, truth is, I’d been through a bit of a rough patch, and I guess I just wanted to draw a bit of a line underneath it all. Whatever the reason, we put in some longish stints in the van, and found ourselves high up in a campsite in Oslo days after we were in Kristiansund, our most northerly point.

Oslo was a mixed bag for me, it will be amazing, and we have said we will return, once the building work has finished. I read that an old industrial area (I’m sure it was approximately 1 square kilometre) had come into the hands of the city, and as a result, a large area around the waterfront is in development at the moment. A bit of a shame, though the vision for the future is most impressive, and the architecture is a treat.

The opera house as its centrepiece is complete. A solid wedge of white stone rises from the sea like an iceberg. Walking up the slanted side of the building affords a great view of the harbour and over what will eventually be the new Munch museum, but right now, its covered in cranes and concrete. I loved this building, and the use of space, you could walk all over the roof, makes it a real triumph.

Along the strip is a collection of high rise buildings collectively called the barcode. Designed by a trio of architects, it too is an impressive new pice of architecture in the city, the gaps between being as important as the buildings themselves.

After being relieved of £40 a night to stay on a slightly grim campsite (showers and electric are extra!) we headed off, and over the border. First stop in Sweden is an obvious one. Having been on the road for 2 1/2 months, we have compiled a small list of things we need for the van. And so, to our favourite flatpack outlet, the heart of everything Swedish, the lifeblood of the country, we found ourselves sharpened pencil and tape measure in hand, wandering the yellow (and blue) brick road around Ikea.

Returning with our swag, we needed to replenish food stocks, and so keeping the blue and yellow theme, we were pleased to see that unlike Norway, Sweden has Lidl supermarkets.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned the cost of Norway before, but shopping in Norway is depressing, food is so expensive. I guess a mixture of climate and the fact that so much of the land is un-farmable puts a strain on costs.And the fresh produce you can get your hands on isn’t the best. Hunt the most expensive thing in the shop soon got boring, So now to have a lunch of ciabatta, tomatoes, cheese, cucumber and grapes has been a joy, even if  it is all from the budget German supermarket.

Delighted with our haul of bounty, and able to breathe a sigh of relief that we may well be able to regain control of our spiralling budget, we hopped back in the van, next destination Stockholm.

more cycling in norway

following on from the trollstigen, and a great overnight at the visitor centre, allowing for an early morning wander before the coaches arrive, we set off heading for Geiranger. A stunning and gradual roll off the top of trollstigen down to our ferry over to eidsdal and on our way along a beautiful winding road to Geiranger.

We zig-zagged down the 11 hairpin bends of the ornesvingen-eagle road, knowing full well that later I’d be going up (and down) again on my bike. As the cruise ships loomed, and we neared the town it became clear that our plan for a campsite on the water was not what we hoped it might be.

i’m not writing the blog with a view to cause offence, but i am in the business of being honest. As we pulled up in the car park before the entrance to the site, i turned to Liz, and informed her, “I’m not staying here tonight, i need to get out of here, it’s a shithole and its already doing my fucking head in”

fortunatly Liz hastily found us a great little spot about 4km out of the town, sitting in a little bowl up the side of the mountain, the campsite afforded us hot showers, and chance to reset the van, and me the chance to take a cooling dip in the stream that was 20 meters from where we pitched after my epic ride.

Ive tried to describe Geiranger four times, and deleted it each time, but allow me to say, look at the pictures on google, read the descriptions online, but if you ever get the chance to go, don’t bother, really, just don’t. Norway has so much to offer, you don’t need to end up here.

the only positive thing i can think to say, is that it gives you great motivation to leave, and so i did, twice. As mentioned, i climbed the eagle road, which was a punchy bunch of switchbacks which affords a pleasant view from the top, and a fun descent. Switchbacks always allow a good opportunity to mix it with the cars, and i claimed a good few scalps on my way back down.

The following morning i was up fairly early, had my tea and cereal (with extra oats) packed my banana and puncture kit,  and headed back down into the town (which is a shithole by the way). Today, i was going to ride up Dalsnibba. Fortunately my usual casual attitude, and lack of knowing what was coming paid dividends. I set off knowing it is quite a big climb (category 1 no less) but had no idea, it was probably the single largest climb I’ve ever done. Starting at sea level (if you can see it through the cruise ships exhaust fog) it climbs for 20km to a total of 1500 meters above sea level (though for some reason this link and profile stops short https://www.cyclingcols.com/col/Dalsnibba maybe they got cramp :)) as i make my way to the top 2 hours later, and the terrain flattened off, i allowed myself that same moment to enjoy the view, and feel pleased with my effort. Ahead, the lake at the top stretches out before me, and then i see it, the brown tourist sign telling me the viewpoint is 5km to my left…….

the last 5k was 10%, and though I didn’t have much more left, i made it to the top without stopping. Being the great tourist and athlete that i am, i briefly had a glimpse at the view i’d Worked so hard for, ordered and scoffed a hotdog from the catering van at the top, text Liz to say I hadn’t died, and hammered it back down.

Trollstigen

Trollstigen

“And this is the trollstigen” I say, waiting for the page to load on my phone so I can show my cycling mates.

They all acknowledge the image, and my phone goes back on the table as I carry on selling them my pipe dream.

That was last year as I was cycling in the alps. This trip was just beginning to become a reality. The house went on the market after I returned from France, and there was a chance that I meant what I said  back in bourg st Maurice.

366 days later, I take Mabel’s seat off the back of my bike, give the chain a squirt of wd40, swing my leg over the bike and set off. It’s a warm day, but with a stiff breeze blowing. I ride for a while, and though I know the climb is looming, I still cant see it.

The rocks are rising up all around me, the stream tumbling down, and soon I am surrounded, except for 10km of 8%.

I love the foot of a climb. I love the intimidation. Little me is going to go up that huge mountain under my own steam. Am I? I’m not very fit, and it does look steep!

Cars, motor homes, vans and coaches grind their way up the narrow pass, the smell of burning clutches around each hairpin. “Fuck it, its to late now mate, best get on with it!”, I say to myself.

Trollstigen is a wonderful climb. Compact, consistent, and amazing views.

As I near the visitor centre at the top, I briefly allow myself to feel proud; I feel relief, I realise I enjoyed myself, and I get to tank it back down as fast as I can as a reward.

Back at the van, I upload my stats to my garmin account, and in the evening scoff two Daim bars as a little well done to me.

We drove the van up today,

and after we got out to take some snaps at the visitor centre, we climbed back in, and onwards, upwards….eh? hang on, what’s this? It would appear the visitor centre is not at the top of the climb, non?

“Oh for fucks sake” I say to Liz, surrounded by breathtaking scenery. “It doesn’t count”. Liz is looking around thinking of photo opportunities, then we both say almost simultaneously “We could stay here tonight, and travel on tomorrow”

And so it was; I got to do the troll ladder all over again. This time reaching the top.

 

 

The north

Another week on, and we are almost at the most northerly point of our trip. We were planning to head all the way up to Trondheim, but as mentioned, life with a toddler in a city isn’t that much fun, so having had a look at the map, despite Trondheim looking like a nice place to visit, the 350km round trip just doesn’t add up.

Driving around norway is slow going. The speed limits rarely exceed 80kph, and the roads themselves are twisty, narrow, and mountainous. The only time we ever really trouble the speed limit is in a tunnel, pointing downhill, with the wind behind us! Hence the want to head south again, oh, that and the fact were overspending every day, the budget is getting hammered!

That said, Norway is the most beautiful place i have ever been to.

Strangely, i feel like I’ve taken the least amount of pictures here. I find myself reaching for my phone to try to capture another sublime view, but i know that a) it won’t look anywhere near as good as in real life b) it will eventually become just another view as i scroll through the pictures in the future, and c, (the main reason i don’t bother), is that there will be a view equal to, or better than the last just around the other side of the mountain.

at the tender age of 35, I’d Never seen a glacier before, and a bit like busses, i’ve now seen two in a week. The first involved some interesting hiking. One review suggested a leisurely 3 hour round walk to the glacier, i’m sorry, but fuck that. When you are balancing over washed away bridges, scrambling over rocks, and there are ropes along the way to help one rappel safely down again (all with a toddler on your back), then one is not engaging in a leisurely walk.

The worst part, is three days later, our stopover was a mere 300 meters from another glacier. Typical!

Still, a good bit of exercise.

weve wound our way past waterfalls,

stopping to refill drinks bottles at the roadside with freshly melted chilled water.

obviously, we have negotiated fjords like they are going out of fashion,

and as said, each more impressive than the last,

And then there is the sea. The clearest, bluest, most magnificent expanse of wet I’ve set my eyes upon.

Our 25 year old non turbo diesel, van has been an absolute trooper here in norway, and deserves a special shout. It’s noisy, rattley, awkward to change gear, and slow, but it has taken on the mountains like a boss. First gear hairpins on gravel roads, the lot, this old girl has been brill.

Honestly, if you gain anything from this blog, rob a bank, sell your kids, whatever you need to do to get the funds, spend some time driving around Norway.

Time for change

Denmark was supposed to be my new happy place. I would lust after it once we left, and at the end of our trip i would convince Liz that we should move there, if only for a year.

But it didn’t really feel like that in the end. I don’t know exactly why, some of it was down to me, and some of it, i think, is when people talk about denmark, they mean Copenhagen and the east. Anyway….

After a very quick stop off in skagen (there was a cruise ship in dock, this experience was a strong affirmation that a cruise is the last thing on earth I’d like to do) we headed to hirtshals and took the ferry to kristiansand. The weather was horrendous the night before the crossing, which complemented perfectly the location of our overnight

but some warming soup was made, the blinds pulled up,  and a crap nights sleep was had as i tried not to imagine our solar panel being ripped from our roof and smashing every van on its flight into the abyss.

Gladly we awoke in one piece, and had a very pleasant crossing. We have been here a week tomorrow, and i just love it.

The scenery is something else! Quite how you could tire of it is beyond me.

for once i find myself a bit stuck for what to say, as i just cant do it justice with my limited vocabulary and crap humour, so all i will say, is promise yourself, that you will visit Norway, drive from kristiansand to stavanger along the 44, then pick up the 13 and drive up to Bergen.

Sublime