So, how was your trip?
Open roads, rugged mountains, wandering long-horned cows, winding river valleys, terraced vineyards, sparkling seas, ice lakes, snowy peaks, colourful markets, majestic cities – these are just some of the sights we encountered on our recent tour of Europe.
Up to now this blog has been focusing on the wonderful food and wine products that we encountered along our route, while including some small insights into our daily lives. However, on a recent trip home the question I most frequently encountered was “So, how was your trip?”. This made me realise that, while friends and family are definitely interested in the food, they really just want to know about the trip itself – the sites we’d seen, how the van ran, whether or not we used our bikes, where we tended to park for the night and how we managed to not kill each other on such a long trip. So for this post I am reversing the focus, writing mainly about the trip with a nod to some of the foods we enjoyed on a day-to-day basis.
Before leaving home we had devised a draft route. The route was really just an indication of direction, ensuring we didn’t double-back on ourselves trying to reach some of the major food and wine destinations. Apart from our ferries and a few meet-ups with friends along the way we had no set itinerary – we could simply flow at our own pace, pausing or racing as we saw fit. The route did not set out the specific roads we would use to get from place to place – this we left to our trusty Sat Nav (GPS), Lucy. Generally speaking we set Lucy to avoid motorways and tolls, and so she brought us through some stunning countryside and rustic villages with no planning whatsoever on our part.
Due to time constraints we had done minimal research before we left home. We had planned the first 10 days or so in detail with the intention of doing further research as we travelled. I had brought a guide book for France and one for Europe and intended to do any additional research online. Alas, this approach didn’t quite work as intended. For one, our access to the internet was far more intermittent than I had hoped. Also, while the “France” book was sufficiently detailed and included many food and drink highlights, the “Europe” book covered too many countries to describe any of them with any great depth. We were only two or three days into Spain when I realised we simply didn’t have enough information and were therefore going to miss some beautiful experiences. As couldn’t locate a bookshop stocking books in English I bought Kindle versions of guide books for both Spain and Portugal – the best €20 I spent on the entire trip!
For the most part we stuck to the original route, deviating only slightly to take in unmissable spots highlighted in our guide books. Setting off by ferry from Rosslare we headed through Wales and on to Cornwall. Sunshine highlighted the best of the countryside which, being so close to home, had quite a familiar feel. Foodie delights included buttery, crumbly Cornish pasties from Rick Stein’s café in Padstow. We found some stunning overnight parking spots around the coastline. Near Penzance in south Cornwall we left it a bit late to find parking one night and, as the light was fading quickly, we cheekily parked in a field by the side of the road. A few minutes later we heard voices and saw flashlights outside the van in what we suspect was the owners checking us out. They must have decided we were harmless as they left again without a word. We woke up the following morning to the most spectacular view of St. Michael’s Mount from our window.
From Cornwall we headed to France, again by ferry. An old college friend had very kindly offered to let us park at her house just outside Paris and after a quick skirt around Normandy we headed there for a few days. Joanne raved about her local bakery and brought us down to try their baguettes and croissants. We’ve both eaten plenty of baguettes and croissants in the past and wondered what was so special about the ones in Croisy-sur-Seine. She was not wrong – the baguettes had a dark and smoky crust and a glistening, warren-like interior – far removed from the pale and spongy baguettes we have grown accustomed to in Ireland. The croissants were called “pain au chocolat aux amandes” and were absolutely sublime – rich, sweet, savoury and decadent all rolled into one.
We travelled by train into Paris for a tour of the sights. Paris is, of course, beautiful but if I’m honest it was not our favourite city of the tour. That award would probably go to Seville, a charming and vibrant city full of wonderful tapas restaurants and playful energy. It was perhaps the sun that made the Spanish cities more appealing than the French – it rained almost the entire time we were driving down through France and we were very happy to get through the mountains and into Spain for some warmth and the ability to get out of the van to explore.
We both fell in love with Spain within a few days of being there. We’re still trying to put our finger on what it was that appealed to us so much. It was probably a combination of factors – the quality, variety and price of food in the supermarkets, the hugely varying landscapes, the warm and friendly people and, of course, the weather. Portugal, too, was delightful, affording us a staggering mountain drive, impressive beaches and some memorable seafood dishes, although not always for the right reasons! We didn’t get to see much of Lisbon as we couldn’t find suitable parking for our oversized van. We weren’t too disappointed, though, as we were really enjoying the countryside and small towns more so that the bigger towns and cities.
We managed to meet up with a number of friends and family along the way. (I think 76 days with just one person would be too much for anyone, no matter how in love you might be!) We spent a few days with Joanne and her family in Paris, then met up with my good buddy Rachael and her family in Albufeira for dinner and a good natter. I was delighted to catch up with my cousin Peter and his family in Antequera as I hadn’t seen him in years and hadn’t met some of his children. Antequera also turned out to be one of the surprise gems of the trip with stunning scenery and a vast array of tapas restaurants.
We also met up with an Irish couple, Justine and Dave, who had made contact with us after hearing us on the Derek Mooney show. Justine and Dave have spent a few years travelling around Europe and have just embarked on a six-month trip around Spain. They have a wealth of experience and we were delighted to pick their brains on camper van life. They gave us a grand tour of their giant American motorhome and treated us to a lavish lunch. Dave had previously worked as a chef and his food was as beautiful as it was bountiful. They recommended a great (and cheap) campsite a little further along our route, where we later stayed for a few nights. This was one of only three occasions when we paid for overnight parking on the trip and the only time we spent in a bona fide campsite. (The other two occasions were in regular carparks.)
Our van was great in almost every way except for climate control. It has virtually no insulation and, being dark green, absorbs the sun all day long. Our only method of cooling was to leave the windows open, which lead to another problem – mosquitoes. After a few sleepless nights we installed a mosquito net, which was a little claustrophobic but did the trick. The heat in Spain eventually got the better of us and we decided to head back into France, where we thought it might be a bit more bearable. We booted through north-eastern Spain, pausing only for one night in beautiful Roses, where I had spent a number of holidays as a kid. We queued for an hour outside the Dali museum in Figueres before abandoning in favour of a dodgy burger at a nearly touristy café.
Back in France we rediscovered some of our favourite foods – tins of cassoulet and tubs of rillets had been missed – but found little respite from the heat. We decided that our enjoyment of the tour would be ruined if we didn’t sort out our climate control problem, so we decided to head straight to Lithuania, where we would have enough language skills and local knowledge to get air conditioning installed without it costing the earth. We could then continue with the rest of the trip in comfort.
En route to Lithuania we stopped in Chamonix in the French Alps for a few days. Chamonix really took our breath away – it was absolutely stunning, from the first view of the rugged mountain tops in the distance to actually being up the mountain at nearly 4,000 meters. The cable-car to the top of the mountain was one of our more costly excursions, but it was worth every penny.
From Chamonix we continued through the Alps into Switzerland, where again we were mesmerised by the breathtaking scenery. We also spotted a possible business opportunity – a Hi-Ace van with a pizza oven installed in the back, making it the perfect portable pizzeria!
Our Sat Nav didn’t have maps installed for either Switzerland or Germany, so we were on our own. The temperatures were now quite comfortable, so we picked a few towns in Germany to visit en route. The small town of Schiltach in the Black Forest was listed in our guide book as one of the most beautiful towns in Germany and it did not disappoint. We also visited the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart to bring our van back to her birthplace!
Despite all the wonderful food we managed not to gain any weight over the course of the trip. We stuck to our regular meal times and kept sticky delights (such as the aforementioned pain au chocolat aux amandes) as occasional treats only. We rode our bikes as much as possible and made daily use of husband’s beloved kettlebell. We did lots of walking and hill climbing both for exploration and for exercise. We ate a huge amount of salads as the ingredients were available in wonderous abundance and, more importantly, because they required little preparation and no cooking in our boiling tin-can of a van.
Now that the hottest part of the summer has passed we intend to take off again for another short trip before winter makes the roads impassable. We plan to go to Italy and possibly as far south as Sicily, where I’ve heard the food is a melting-pot of various cuisines with Italian, French, Moroccan and other influences. I will, of course, keep you up to date as we travel.
The photos in this post were taken both by myself and by Arūnas with his trusty Samsung Galaxy 3. I have updated the Gallery with some photos of our village in Lithuania and will update with further photos from the trip in the coming days.