It had been a cold and frosty start to the day so we had a slow morning in our cosy camper van.
We were in a very pleasant spot on the outskirts of the medieval village Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon in Southern France.
The village was tiny and we had explored the fine buildings in this historic settlement the previous day so that morning we decided to explore a little bit of the surrounding countryside.
We walked first to the far side of the village, following a road which had a signpost with directions to “the station”.
There was no evidence of a railway and we thought it unlikely that there would be a station for a population of less than 250 but our interest was piqued so we started to walk in the direction indicated by the sign.
We crossed a beautiful mill stream and met a very friendly marmalade cat that followed us for a while.
It was surprisingly chilly but we were still amazed to come across an incredible wall of massive icicles sparkling in the sun at the roadside.
Shortly after seeing the icicles, a narrow track tempted us off the road and we walked for about 20 minutes along this picturesque incline.
As we crunched along the silver frosted grass we both felt the ghosts of travellers past – this was obviously a very ancient thoroughfare along which many pilgrims and other travellers had made their way over the course of many hundreds of years.
The path ended when it came to the road which had curled round the hill in a series of bends. Crossing over, we continued along the track which was still white with frost even though it was two o’clock in the afternoon.
At the top of the hill we caught sight of a long viaduct which stretched across the valley below. Perhaps there was a railway?!
As we reached the base of the viaduct we saw a notice for a “vélo-rail” which means “bike rail” in French. We wondered if the rails had been ripped up and a bike path built in its place but further along the road we discovered that our assumption was incorrect.
First we found a small 19th Century station building that had been faithfully restored to its former glory (so strange as it was literally in the middle of nowhere!)
We then saw some strange contraptions that looked like flatbed rail trucks but had bike pedals fixed on top to propel them along the rails.
There were also a couple of little passenger trains but like the vélo trucks, they were laid up due to Covid restrictions. What a wonderful view we would have had if we’d been able to cycle a vélo “truck” over the viaduct!
The following day we moved on to our next destination – a strange, isolated and tiny medieval village called Mourèze, built in the middle of a spectacular dolomitic limestone outcrop known as the Cirque de Mourèze.
It was very misty (really foggy in parts!) when we first started our journey but luckily it soon cleared up.
Soon we were enjoying fine views of vineyards as far as the eye could see, interspersed with minute villages, some with very narrow streets that were somewhat nerve wracking to drive through in a camper van!
We were able to park just outside the village of Mourèze (population approximately 150) and once we were settled we set off to explore.
The village consisted off a collection of mostly quite ancient cottages, a massive Church, a few Bed and Breakfast places and the ruins of an ancient castle.
Walking through the village didn’t take long and soon we were on the other side on one of the many hiking trails in this area.
As we walked, everywhere we looked we could see the amazing 160 million-year-old limestone giants, which had been eroded into strange shapes by wind and water over the millennia.
At first the trail resembled a dried up river bed but soon we were rock hopping our way up a more rugged path.
The landscape reminded us of the movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” when the school girl Miranda and her friends disappear without trace!
We weren’t sure how long the the trail was or where it came out and as the sun was beginning to dip in the sky we decided to retrace our steps rather than risk getting lost in this mysterious landscape.
After a night of absolutely torrential rain we left Amboise, and headed out of the Loire châteaux and river country towards the South of France.
Perched high up in our van we have a wonderful position to view the countryside as we drive along. This is perfect for us as we prefer to take the “scenic route” every time rather than the faster toll roads.
There was plenty of beautiful scenery on this leg of the trip but the constant rain over the previous week (and probably during the weeks before that) had created extensive flooding. Large ponds had developed in the fields by the side of the road and every small stream and river had burst its banks.
Along the way we went through a number of charming villages and once again, as during our previous visit in 2019, we were struck by how deserted most of them were. You could have shot a 12-pound cannon ball up the main street of each of them and no one would have stirred. It seems very sad that so many of these lovely French villages are in such dire circumstances.
We arrived at our stop for the night in the very romantic location of the supermarket car park at Ainay-Le-Château in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of central France.
The reason for our stop here was the large commercial washing machine in the supermarket car park which allowed us to catch up with our laundry without having to visit a normal laundrette. It was also a good opportunity to restock our pantry and fridge.
We were surprised to find that there was no Château at Ainay-Le-Château! However, there were some remains of 15th Century fortifications including the Clock Gate below.
We had been driving about an hour and a half, the following day, when we caught a lovely view of the snow-covered alps glimmering on the horizon. As far as I was concerned that was as close to snow as I wanted to be!
We had no snow chains, no snow tyres (although the ones we had recently bought were described as “all weather tyres”) and no spade. Apparently these are the minimum (legal) requirements for winter motoring in the Alps!
I had said before we started our trip to France “No Snow!” but less than two hours after that distant glimpse we started to see a covering of snow on the fields we drove past.
Not very long after that were in the middle of a snow storm!
The visibility was quite poor and the road started get rather slippery – just as we started to wind our way upwards on a series of alarming hair pin bends!
This was a bit of a worry to say the least but with great care and carefully ever upwards we managed to stay on the road it was great to see families sledging down snowy hills and having fun making snowmen.
We climbed higher and higher and it got snowier and snowier! Eventually we arrived at the small medieval village of Murol at an elevation of well over 1,000 metres!
As we drove up towards the village we caught site of a mighty looking 12th century fortress perched on a basalt outcrop. It looked very forbidding but apparently in non-Covid times it is a charming castle to visit.
Driving gingerly we arrived at the supposed location of our site for the night but it was nowhere to be found! We drove further along the snowy road but no camp site was evident so we retraced our steps. We then drove round the small town, still with no luck.
Eventually we gave up. We would have to stay the night in the car park! We counted our blessings that we didn’t need to plug in to get power due to our new and excellent lithium battery. We also had enough water so all was well.
The only concern we had as we settled down to a glass of wine was whether we would be snowbound the following day!
During the night it did indeed snow but the fall wasn’t too severe and the roads weren’t too bad – fortunately a snowplough had cleared some of our route.
As we worked our way downwards the snow disappeared and we breathed a sigh of relief!
It wasn’t long however, before we were driving past fields of white again but as we approached our destination – the historic settlement of Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon – it disappeared once again although it was freezing cold!
Despite the chilly temperature we decided to explore the historic centre which is famous for the Commandery of Saint Eulalia – a medieval “hospital” established by the Order of the Knights Templar.
This was built in the 12th Century to provide hospitality to travellers and pilgrims.
The village is really tiny and was absolutely deserted that evening.
Unfortunately nothing was open but it was still very interesting to walk around the ancient lanes and alleyways and imagine how things might have been in the time of the Knights Templar.
Our journey along the River Loire continued. We left the elegant city of Saumur and followed the wide fast-flowing river to the little village of Chouzé-sur-Loire, where we stayed the night in an Aire close to the local Church.
We arrived early enough to go for a lovely walk by the river where we saw some traditional working craft of the area.
Until the end of the 19th Century and the advent of the railways, the waterfront was a hive of activity with a bustling port and boats being loaded with goods such as wine, slate and cereal crops. From here water boatmen transported goods along the length and breadth of the River Loire and joining other rivers and canals to move the goods to the sea and more far flung places.
There was a small mariners museum which we would have loved to visit but unfortunately it was closed due to Covid.
Walking back along the river bank we were lucky enough to see a lovely sunset which lit up the Loire in layers of reds and golds.
On the road again the next day we stopped in Langeais — attracted by the promise of another château.
The town was gracefully laid out with rows of three storey terraced town houses in wide avenues that reminded us slightly of the English spa town of Bath.
We walked through a narrow alley where we gazed longingly at the pre-Covid menus, wishing we could go into a gorgeous restaurant with crisp table linen, attentive (and handsome) French waiters and eat some wonderful food. Alas! It was not meant to be.
At the end of the alleyway stood the commanding Château de Langeais which has a manual drawbridge – one of the last in existence. The château was built around the middle of the 15th century and is famous for being the location for the marriage between Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany in 1491.
That afternoon we arrived in Amboise which also boasts a stunning château, once home to the French Court. Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots also spent her early life there.
Part of the town is on an island (called Or Island) in the middle of the River Loire. This is where we stayed!
On the island there were also a few small cottages, a restaurant, a large park (next to our camper van site) and an ancient chapel – Chapelle Saint Jean.
This lonely rather stark chapel was once part of a large monastery built by Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in the 12th Century.
Amboise itself was a delight to wander around – there were many half timbered houses, interesting architectural features and cobbled streets but of course the Château dominates the town.
We climbed up a long flight of steps at the side of the Château and ended up on the same level as the top of the tower. The view was amazing!
Rather than take the stairs down again we walked down a lane where we discovered a long row of houses carved into the rock face. These cave dwellings, known as “troglodyte homes” were the result of widespread quarrying of the building material called tuffeau which began in the 11th century.
Some of the caves are now empty or used for storage but many of them are still cute (but dark we imagined) little homes.
Further down we came to another small 15th Century château called Château Clos Lucé where Leonardo da Vinci lived his last years until his death in 1519.
We were very sad that we were unable to go round the Château and even more disappointed that we couldn’t see the models of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s most impressive and inspiring machines in the château grounds.
We walked back through the town to the old centre where we bought some delicious bread and really wonderfully fresh baked apple tarts to eat back in the van.
The trip from Trébeurden to Huelgoat was only 65 kilometres so we left at 4.30 pm thinking that would be plenty of time to make it before curfew started at 6 pm.
What we didn’t anticipate how much the narrow country lanes and the twists and turns could slow you down when driving a camper van.
So there we were, driving along at 5.59 pm behind a very slow car with still quite a way to go! Would we get stopped for breaking curfew? Would the camp site we were heading for close its gates on the dot of 6pm?
The sun was setting as we passed through the village of Huelgoat and for a moment the spectacular sunset put the anxiety of breaking the curfew out of our minds.
By 6.10 we had made it to our stop for the night, thankful for not getting in any trouble and happy to see the gates still wide open!
The next day we followed the walking path out of the council “Aire” (parking where camper vans can stay overnight) through a wooded area alongside a lovely gurgling brook.
It wasn’t long before we started to notice some massive moss-covered boulders scattered along the way. These exceptionally large ancient rocks gave the woods an ancient mystical quality and we weren’t surprised to find out later that the area had many Arthurian legends attached to it.
We also later learnt that these woods, containing oak, beech and chestnut trees, are among the last vestiges of the ancient forest that once covered inland Brittany.
Some of the trees, like the boulders, were covered in the softest of green mosses – it was an enchanting sight.
As we continued our walk through this magical setting we came across a clearing at the centre of which was an amazingly beautiful evergreen tree.
Curiously, it had a fence round it but there was no information about it at all. Two things piqued my interest – firstly, there was a definite atmosphere created by this tree, the type of feeling that gives you goose bumps, and secondly there was a deeply worn path round it forming a perfect circle. We wondered if there were locals that could tell us if there were some kind of rituals associated with the tree but there was absolutely no one around and an Internet search has come up with nothing.
Our path took us to a group of old stone cottages on the outskirts of the village.
Crossing over the road we continued our tramp along an ancient trackway which we followed as it circled round through the village and back to the stone cottages.
Our next stop was in a commercial site near Vannes a medieval walled town which sounded lovely. Unfortunately the town was much larger than we had thought with sprawling suburbs and lots of traffic and people. We stocked up with a few essentials at the supermarket and spent the night in an official site with power and water. The next day we set off for somewhere quieter.
We decided to head away from Brittany to take a look at the Loire Valley for the first time in our lives. Our first stop was a very quiet spot called Juigné-sur-Loire.
This was a small village – not far from Angers – famous for its slate quarries that date back to Roman times. Throughout the centuries the quarries have provided slate for roads, piles, stakes for vines, walls and for building houses.
In 1348 slate from here was used in the reconstruction of the Beaufort-en-Vallée castle, and in 1367, slate quarried at Juigné-sur-Loire was used to repair the castle in Angers.
We were surprised to learn that after The Great Fire of London in 1666, slate from the quarries was also used in the reconstruction of London.
Considering 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the municipal buildings of the city were destroyed, that would have required a lot of slate to be dug out of the ground, shipped down the Loire and across the Channel to London!
The slate quarries are closed now and the 27 hectare site has been turned into a fabulous recreation area. Paths meander through forests of beautiful trees and around undulating open areas where you can see the remains of the slate that had been mined there over the centuries.
Some of the trees growing in this beautiful area are unusual for this part of the world as a microclimate exists due to the mounds of slate warming the earth. This warm earth allows the growth of trees such as Lebanon Cedar and Corsican Pine – more normally found in Mediterranean regions.
We walked for a long time and got a teeny bit lost, then realised we didn’t have long to get back to the van before the 6 pm curfew. The last part of our walk was at a smarter pace than previously and fortunately we arrived in plenty of time in the end.
We stayed the night for free in the parking area of Le Potager de Garennes (Garenne’s vegetable garden) part of the Domaine des 2 Moulins (Two Windmills property).
The farm shop was open when we arrived and walking in we realised that as well as selling delectable fresh fruit and vegetables, there was a small winery as well. Sadly we weren’t able to do a tasting but of course we did buy a bottle or two (very drinkable!) as well as some delicious fruit and vegetables.
The following day we were driving alongside the wide and very full River Loire. The Loire is the longest river in France and surely must have the fastest current judging by the incredible flow of water rushing along while we were there.
The road winds right alongside the river and takes you through some lovely typical “shabby chic” villages, past wine cellars advertising tastings and cliffs with caves where amazing homes and wine stores have been built. The caves were the end product of the cliffs being quarried for tuffeau stone.
We arrived at town of Saumur which has been a major equitation centre since 1783 when the military cavalry school was built. The very first thing we saw was the famous French military riding academy. This is one of the most prestigious classical riding academies in the world.
Fortunately there was some training being conducted over the jump course so we were able to witness an instructor from the famous Cadre Noir putting one of the cadets through his paces.
As we drove through the town we could see the famous Chateau de Saumur perched up high in a hill so we decided to drive up there for a closer look even though we wouldn’t be able to go in. Sadly we missed out, among other things, on the Museum of the Horse inside the Chateau.
Even though we were unable to go inside the Chateau, it was definitely worth the detour as it was lovely to have a close view of this fairytale castle and the glorious views it commands over the mighty River Loire.
We feel so grateful that we have the freedom to travel through France in our camper van during these Covid times.
Having the opportunity and the privilege to walk somewhere different every day and drive through beautiful countryside is very special and it’s hard not to feel rather guilty when so many friends and family in the UK and the Netherlands are stuck in their homes unable to leave except for local walks or to go food shopping (or to go to work in certain situations.)
In France there is currently a 6pm – 6am curfew but that doesn’t affect us as we are happy to be back on our home on wheels during those hours – besides, there is nowhere to go as all pubs, bars, restaurants etc are closed.
During the day, we only venture out for daily exercise and have managed to keep food shopping to the absolute minimum by stocking up very well in the Netherlands before we left.
Of course, visiting chateaux, museums, or art galleries, going on wine tours or having tastings, etc are not possible so there’s no sightseeing to be done in that way but we are content to enjoy the ever-changing countryside and the wonderful sea views. In the words of that wonderful Nina Simone classic “Ain’t got no……got Life…”
After staying near St Malo for a couple of nights, we headed inland to a very nice sounding village called Plesin Trigavou where there was an old disused railway track which had been converted to a walking/cycle path.
When we drew up to the car park, we realised that we had already stayed in this rather out-of-the-way village in 2018! The reason we had headed there the first time was because the area boasts a wonderful collection of 65 megaliths probably dating back to 2000 BC.
On our previous visit of the site we both felt it had an extraordinary atmosphere and returning there, we still felt that same sense of mystery, it is quite an astonishing place to visit!
Our daughter Hannah and husband Pieter had recommended a free camping spot on the coast of Brittany near Trébeurden, a former sardine port.
We couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and that we could park for free in a place with such glorious views. France is definitely the number one country for camper vans!
We had a fantastic walk from the headland (called Bihit) where we were parked, to the town, marvelling at the sea views and as we approached the town, the endless stretch of sandy beach.
We met quite a number of others having a stroll or on a serious walk and without fail, they were very friendly and said “Bonjour” as we passed by. Not all the walkers wore a mask but everyone maintained appropriate social distance.
We ended up (as we so often do) gazing at boats in the small marina, at the other end of the long stretch of beach. It might have been small but it was protected by an amazingly mighty sea wall. We imagined how ferocious the weather and waves must be in stormy weather to require such an edifice .
Just next to the marina was the entrance to the headland which was connected to Ile Milliau (Milliau Island) – only accessible when the tide is out.
There wasn’t enough time to cross over that day so we contented ourselves with a walk around the fabulous headland where we marvelled at the wonderful shapes of the wonderful pink granite rocks found in this part of the world.
We walked back in time to enjoy a fantastic sunset. That night was the last night before the six pm curfew began. It took a while to dawn on me why a constant stream of cars was drawing up and parking next to us. Then I realised with the start of the 6 pm curfew the following day, this would be the last time locals would be able to come and view the sunset for who knew how long. You really don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone!
The following day we drove round to the car park near the marina so we could hike over to the Ile Milliau.
The tide was still on the way out when we arrived but the sand spit between the mainland and the island was clearly visible so we started to clamber over the massive boulders and rock hop our way down to the beach.
Rock hopping is not my strongest suit but with Jonathan’s occasional steadying hand, I made it to the beach in one piece.
Going outside my comfort zone was well worth it as the island was glorious. A narrow path skirted its circumference and we walked past wonderful, oddly shaped, granite boulders glowing pink in the sunshine and lots of golden gorse in full flower.
The rocky northern tip of the island reminded us very much of Cornwall – just over the water in the southern-most tip of England. All part of the same original land mass we supposed.
It was a great place to feel the wind in our hair and to gaze out to sea.
Circling back on the other side of the island we came across a row of cottages which have been renovated for paying guests. The oldest parts of these buildings stem from medieval times. In the north-eastern gable-end is a relatively well-preserved but very small medieval monastic cell (3.5 metres (11 ft) by 4.5 metres (15 ft) and its height is 2 metres (6.6 ft)).
Just behind the cottages is a spectacular example of a gallery grave which was built in the Neolithic era. In an adjacent field to the grave (called locally Ty Liac’h) aerial photographs have shown traces of about twenty prehistoric circular huts.
We arrived back to the beach in plenty of time before it was covered again by the high tide, and walked across the short distance to the mainland. As the tide was further out than when we made our earlier crossing, there wasn’t quite as much rock hopping to do!
Our stay at Trébeurden was the highlight of our stay in Brittany – thanks for the tip Hannah and Pieter!
Mud seems to be a bit of a recurring theme in our travels recently. After leaving Ferme L’Horloge, near the tiny village of Tardinghem, 20 kilometres from Calais (where we got bogged on our first night), we headed south towards Veules-les-Roses, in the Normandy region of France.
Although we didn’t leave the farm until midday, the ground was still covered in a beautiful thick frost which looked like someone had painted everything with a sparkling silver magic brush.
As we left we saw a group of people in the field behind and wondered what they were up to. The previous day we had seen model airplanes being flown so thought that’s what was happening this time.
Then we heard a engine leap into life and realised that one of the people was about to take off in a microlight aircraft!
Up he went into the frosty air while his poor family were left shivering watching his progress. It must have been freezing up there!
Leaving the enthusiasts to their devices we left for what turned out to be a three and a half hour drive (including a stop for some lunch). In places there were still patches of ice on the road so we took it very slowly and carefully.
We arrived at the “Aire” (car park that allows camper vans overnight) just outside Veules-les-Roses and found just one other van and a number of cars parked.
The surface was mainly grass and the remaining spots where we could potentially park looked extremely soft and skiddy. We were determined not to get bogged this time!
So we sat at the entrance for a few minutes waiting for some cars to leave before attempting to park. Quite soon two cars left so we started to move towards the place one of them vacated.
Suddenly our wheels started to slip and slide and Jonathan tried to ease the van out of the soggy mud. We were stuck again!
Fortunately he had an idea! Find two pieces of wood and put them, crossed over each other, under the tyre that was really bogged. The top stick redistributed the weight of the van allowing us to roll off the the larger stick underneath, stopping it from sinking into nasty, muddy mess. Thank goodness Jonathan went to Boy Scouts when he was a boy!
After another wait more cars departed and we were finally able to find a nice dry spot and relax.
The reason the car park was quite busy on a cool winter’s day was that there was a lovely walk from there to the beachfront at Veules-les-Roses.
We set off to explore and were surprised to see imposing white chalk cliffs on the shore – almost identical to the famous White Cliffs of Dover. A very grand sight.
Having walked along the beach on the way we decided to circle through the village to get back to our camping spot. We saw some very beautiful cottages, some super elegant houses and an interesting 13th Century Church.
Our next destination was a lonely beach in the romantic sounding place St Martin-de-Varreville, not far from Omaha and Utah Beaches, where the D-Day landings took place.
The beach was long and lonely, the weather was blustery and it started to rain as we walked along the sand so after a bit of a tramp we headed back to the comfort of the van.
That night our van shook and trembled as the wind howled around it. It was very cosy in our warm bed and we felt so grateful we weren’t in a boat, having to get up and check our anchor at frequent intervals!
Although we had just installed a brand new (and expensive!) lithium house battery which means we can have the heater on whenever we want and not fear we will run out of power, we decided to go to a “proper site” for a day or two where we could plug in to mains electricity and boot up our laptops and other electrical equipment that need mains power.
We could also fill up with water and drain away the grey waste water there, as well as empty our chemical toilet. We found one not too far away that was still open in the winter months (and during Covid restrictions) in a village called Rothéneuf about five kilometres from St Malo.
For those of you who love to read, St Malo is the city in the wonderful book All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, where one of the main protagonists, Marie-Laure, and her father flee to during World War II. (Very highly recommend this book!)
Rotheneuf is just over five kilometres from the centre of St Malo and is famous for being the birthplace of Jacques Cartier, the first European to map the Gulf of St Lawrence and the shores of the St Lawrence River which he named “the country of Canadas”.
Sadly, because of Covid, we were unable to go round the museum or see the famous “rochers sculptés” (rock sculptures carved in the cliffs of Rothéneuf by a hermit in the late 19th century/early 20th century). In the course of 49 years the hermit carved over 300 grotesque and bizarre faces and figures into the rock.
The first evening there we were contented with a stroll round the town but the following day we decided to do a more significant walk to St Malo.
It was an interesting route that first took us along the road for a while but then we were soon on the massively long and wide beach leading to St Malo.
The tide was out which left hundreds of metres of firm sand to walk on. We had forgotten how massive the tidal races were in this part of the world – apparently St Malo experiences some of the biggest tides in Europe.
The tidal range can vary between low tide and the open sea by over 40 feet (about 12 metres). We didn’t witness it but the intensity of the incoming waves are apparently a wonder to behold, a sight much beloved by photographers and artists.
To cope with the onslaught of the waves, Saint-Malo equipped itself with breakwater defenses that have become emblems of the city. These are more than 3,000 wooden piles, roughly 10 feet high, installed originally at the end of the 17th century (and replaced over time) to absorb the impact of the waves and protect part of the citadel.
It was great to see that even on a cool winter’s day, the beach was being really well utilised with scores of people out walking their dogs, dozens of kite and wind surfers and even land yachts skimming over the golden sand. It still felt gloriously uncrowded!
Of course there were no cafes open in St Malo so we came prepared! After a walk on the glorious 17th Century ramparts we found a seat and cracked open our thermos and made a nice strong cup of tea!
On the walk back we kept mostly to the promenade which again was well patronised but we felt safe as everyone wore masks and were careful to keep their distance.
New Year is the one time that the normally law abiding and dutiful citizens of the Netherlands go absolutely wild and act just a little bit crazy.
It’s as if on that one night they let off all the pent up energy they have accrued but sublimated over the course of the previous year.
This energy is expended by setting off the most amazing, incredibly noisy, colourful and numerous fireworks that I have ever seen. In every part of the country – even the most sedate suburbs and the normally quietest of villages – massive explosions fill the air, making it sound like you’re in a war zone.
Fireworks are fired off continuously by seemingly almost every household – and this goes on for hours and hours. Young and old take to the streets to experience what appears to be to outsiders, as total mayhem.
At the start of 2020 we experienced this crazy chaos for the first time and were totally blown away by all the explosions that went on for hours!
This year the Dutch Government totally banned householders from letting off New Year’s fireworks and naturally because of Covid, public displays couldn’t be held either.
The normally well behaved and obedient citizens rebelled and although the fireworks weren’t quite as loud and didn’t go on for quite as long, there were enough deafening explosions and beautiful displays of colourful rockets lighting up the skies to feel that 2021 was well and truly welcomed in.
Our New Year celebrations were a lot more low key than the previous year but we had a great time anyway – playing games in the early part of the evening and then sitting outside for an hour before midnight and into the early hours. Even though the night was very frosty we were warmed by a cosy log fire and an overhead gas heater (and some red wine too!)
We were allowed two adult guests and it was great to share the evening with Hannah and Pieter’s friends Ryan and Jess who were obliged to leave Australia when the restaurant they worked in at Melbourne Casino “Dinner By Heston” went broke around the time of the Covid outbreak. Under 13s aren’t included in Covid restrictions at present in the Netherlands so happily Ryan’s son also joined us.
The days after New Year were quiet – we spent a lot of time at home, leaving the house only to go for walks – short ones on very rainy days and longer ones when the weather permitted.
Just before the 12th day of Christmas we took down the Christmas tree and the rest of the decorations. The poor tree was dropping needles profusely if you so much breathed in it so it was well and truly time.
Putting away all the Christmas ornaments always feels like the real start to the New Year and it was with this in mind that we decided we should try to venture a bit further afield in the campervan.
We had read that people who live permanently in their campervan had been travelling through France successfully so we decided that’s where we would head.
There are so many spots where you can wild camp in France and unlike in many other European countries, quite a number of official campsites stay open over winter.
So on 8 January 2021, we set off for our first destination, a remote farm deep in the French countryside situated midway between Calais and Boulogne – roughly 20km from each.
Considering how remote the farm was, we found it very easily even though it was dark by the time we arrived. There were no other customers there so we followed the neatly spaced line of cones thinking they indicated where vans could park.
Whoops! Moments later we realised that the cones were indicating where not to park! Yes we had that sinking feeling – our van was bogged!
After a few futile attempts to get out of the ever deepening mud ruts we decided to stay put and see if we could get help from the farmer the following day as it was already getting late.
The next thing we knew, another van had arrived and seeing us parked on the grass must have thought like us, that it was safe to park between two of the cones. Of course before we could warn them they became bogged too.
With our broken French and their equally broken English we ascertained that they had the additional problem of their water pump not turning off and all their water had drained away so they badly needed to fill up. They decided to call the farmer who very kindly came out straight away to pull them out of the mud and then gave us a tow too!
Once we were on a flat piece of gravelled land behind the farmer’s enormous shed we settled down to dinner and a great night’s sleep. The following day we woke up to a beautiful crisp and frosty morning and a lovely view!
After examining the muddy mayhem of the previous night we went on an excellent walk along the leafy country lanes to the tiny village of Tardinghem (population roughly 150).
It was a glorious day and despite everything being closed (including a lovely microbrewery and brasserie near to the farm) it was great to have a change of scene and have a really long walk in the beautiful French countryside.
From the village we took a footpath through the fields towards the beach.
From the beach we could see the nearby Cap Gris Nez ( Cape Grey Nose) one way and Cap Blanc Nez (Cape White Nose) the other.
More amazingly though, the day was so clear that the White Cliffs of Dover were clearly visible – more than 30 kilometres away over the Channel. Apparently the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez are the closest point of France to England from their English counterparts at Dover.
We really couldn’t have been luckier- just a couple of days before European countries closed their borders to travellers from Britain we made it back to the Netherlands in the nick of time for Christmas!
We had gone to England from the Netherlands because our Schengen visa-free period on our Australian/NZ passports was almost up. To avoid being penalised for overstaying we went over for a little more than two weeks in order to return to Europe using our UK passports.
After our two-week quarantine was up we headed for the ferry terminal in Harwich. Fortunately, we were allowed to stay the night in the car park at the terminal so we couldn’t have been closer to the queue to get on the ferry.
We woke up in the dark before 7am and were shocked to see cars and trucks already lined up at Border Control – the ferry wasn’t due to depart until 9am – and the queue was moving already!
We dressed hastily hoping that we hadn’t got the time wrong or the ferry wasn’t leaving earlier than advertised. We were in the queue within minutes and were through passport control by 7.30am.
The officials at border control were very thorough, inspecting underneath the van with powerful spotlights, checking through the interior and filming the whole search! Finally they were happy and we drove through into the queue for boarding which happily was at a standstill and gave us time to enjoy a cup of tea and eat breakfast!
We were on board before 8.30 but 9am came and went with no sign of departure. At 10 am a message came over the public address to say they were still loading trucks onto the ferry. Finally at 11 am – two whole hours late – the engines fired up and we slowly moved out of the harbour into the murky grey channel heading for the Hook of Holland.
We wondered why on earth we were so delayed but once back in the Netherlands we realised that there must have been a rumour that European borders would be closing and some trucks had made a run for it out of Harwich.
The irritation of being delayed two hours faded completely when we realised how fortunate we were to have escaped getting trapped in a British port car park over Christmas along with the many thousands of truck drivers trying to get back to their families.
The day before we left England we had a quick visit to the pretty historic town of Bury St Edmunds – our first and only opportunity to buy some Christmas gifts.
It felt quite strange and a little bit weird to be wandering around the shops after two weeks of being confined to barracks but good to experience some “real life” again.
The following day we left our spot at the bottom of Simon’s garden in the depths of the Norfolk countryside and before heading for Harwich drove to Cambridge where we had a wonderful visit with my sister and her husband.
Unfortunately due to the new Covid restrictions, my other sister who lives in London was unable to join us as planned but it was great to also catch up with my nephew, his wife and their daughter.
As we were not allowed to meet inside we wrapped up warmly and had hot soup in the garden – luckily it was a very sunny and reasonably mild day.
Our two hour delay aboard the good ship Stena Hollandica meant that we arrived late for Jonathan‘s birthday celebrations.
We were talking so much that I completely forgot to take photos but we took away some precious memories instead.
Our daughter Hannah and her husband Pieter had organised some very special food to be delivered and Hannah made the birthday boy’s special favourite- apple pie!
The following day we had our first Christmas celebration with two friends of Hannah and Pieter’s which was a lot of fun.
As all the shops except for supermarkets were shut there was no last minute shopping to be done so we wiled away the days before Christmas with wrapping presents, more entertaining, going for lovely walks and watching our favourite Christmas movies.
Christmas Day itself was a whirl of eating great food, present giving and games. We were so immensely grateful that we were able to spend the festive season with Hannah and Pieter. Our original plan was to spend this time with our son and daughter-in-law and other family and friends in Australia but getting back there was almost impossible.
We counted ourselves extremely fortunate that we not only had a welcoming family in the Netherlands but also narrowly escaped getting stuck and spending a lonely and miserable Christmas in a traffic queue of thousands of vehicles in England!
After an unusual and rather sparse birthday lunch in Valkenberg in the southern province of Lindberg in the Netherlands, it was time to celebrate rather more grandly at our daughter and son-in-law’s home in Pijnacker near Delft.
We knew there was going to be something special for dinner but it was the most wonderful surprise to find out we were going to have a gourmet meal prepared by the Chef from the very swish (and our favourite) Restaurant Calva.
With restaurants in the Netherlands having been closed most of this year due to Covid, the team at Calva hit upon the idea of preparing inspiring meals to a certain point and delivering them to their patrons’ homes with videoed instructions on how to finish off and “plate up” each course.
A unique aspect to this different type of takeaway is that each weekend one of the “guests” receives a bonus – Tom, chef and co-owner of Calva makes a personal appearance in their kitchen and cooks an extra course – free of charge. On this particular occasion we were the lucky ones! As an extra bonus, Tom generously gifted us with a celebratory bottle of delicious red wine!
The meal was superb and Pieter and Hannah did an amazing job of putting the finishing touches to the rest of the courses after Tom left. What a great celebration!
I was also lucky enough to receive some generous and fabulous gifts including a token for a massage treatment, a hair “makeover” and a very special Advent Calendar from the Body Shop.
For those who have never seen an Advent calendar, they have 25 “windows” and each day before Christmas, starting on 1 December, you get to open one. When we were children the calendar had a Christmas themed picture, often the Nativity scene, usually with lots of glitter over it, and behind each window was another picture of say, Santa’s sack, a reindeer, a Christmas tree or other symbol of the festive season.
More recently some Advent calendars have had a Christmas themed chocolate behind each window but the one I received was on a whole different level! Behind the “windows” were a whole range of fabulous Body Shop products.
Such an excellent gift for a late November birthday girl as every day during December I received a lovely gift – for example, a hand cream, shampoo, or a gorgeous shower gel, a moisturiser, body butter or a cleansing face mask! It was truly “the gift that keeps on giving”!
Our stay with our daughter and son-in-law was rather short this time as we realised that our Schengen visa-free 90 day period on our Australian/NZ passports was almost over. A dash across the channel to the UK was required so that we could reenter the EU on our British passports in time for Christmas. We feel very fortunate to have dual citizenship!
Early in December we drove to the Hook of Holland in our camper van and boarded the Stena Britannica for Harwich.
The five and half hour journey felt quite relaxing – probably because we didn’t have to navigate or steer or do anything at all in fact! Quite a change from other ocean passages on our boats “Bali Hai” and “Sunday”!
We had fairly rough seas and heavy winds but you could hardly feel a thing on the massive nine-storey car ferry.
Arriving at Harwich in the pitch dark was fine until we came to a diversion which took us on a long traipse through wet, dark and narrow country lanes. No fun in a left hand drive camper van late at night!
We ended up being diverted from our diversion because the road had flooded and ended up going through some extremely dodgy and tiny back lanes before finally arriving at Jonathan’s brother’s house in darkest Norfolk very late at night.
Because of Covid the UK was in tiered lockdown and we were obliged to quarantine for 14 days. Thankfully, Jonathan’s brother Simon and his partner Ruth generously allowed us to camp at the bottom of their back garden and share their cosy home during the day.
The first morning we were there we had a beautiful surprise when we woke up – it had snowed!
There was only a little sprinkling of white but it looked so beautiful – there is something very special about waking up to snow and it made us feel very Christmassy!
The following day there was a rare air frost – freezing mist all around that turned the bare tree limbs to shimmering silver. The little village looked like an old fashioned Christmas card!
It was really lovely to spend time with members of our family but particularly as there were some gorgeous Bengal kittens to play with!
Sadly, while we were there, two of these cute little kitties went to new owners but on the bright side, their Mum, a young male cat from an earlier litter, and one of the babies stayed behind..
Two weeks of quarantine went quite quickly despite being confined to the very tiny village of Rushford – population of around 60 people, no shop, no pub but one very ancient (14th century) thatched church.
We went for some nice walks around the village most days and also went for a couple of drives around the country lanes in Simon’s new electric car.
Despite the short days and the often drab and grey weather, the English countryside has a stark beauty during the winter months.
The day before we left to return to The Netherlands we were fortunate to attend a traditional Christmas service of Nine lessons and carols in the village church.
The Church was completely lit by the glow of hundreds of candles arranged on ledges around the walls and a gigantic Christmas tree (donated by the local Manor House) in one corner. It was so atmospheric!
The service was meant to start at 5pm but by 5.20 there was no sign of the vicar. It started to feel a little like we were in an episode of the TV series the Vicar of Dibley!
Just after 5.20 the rather eccentric female vicar fell through the door and puffed up the aisle saying “I’m so sorry I’m late but thanks for waiting. I was sure we were starting at 6 not 5!”
The rest of the service went without a hitch although none of us were allowed to sing – due to Covid of course. The nine carols were sung by the four person choir – three ladies and one very ancient gentlemen with a very loud but strong and reasonably melodic voice. They actually sang quite well but it was sad not to be able to join in although the vicar did (rather subversively we thought) encourage the congregation (about thirty or forty of us – with three to a pew almost a full house!) to hum along (behind our masks) to the last carol “Hark the Herald Angels sing”.
It wasn’t easy to hit the high notes with our mouths closed but we all appreciated the opportunity to join in and sort of sing communally for a change.
This traditional service was such a wonderful example of the English spirit. We especially loved the way the organisers broke with tradition and decided to read a poem or a piece of prose as well as their allocated “lesson”.
Our friend the ancient chorister read “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear although, as he said, it didn’t have much to do with Christmas except it “mentions traditional seasonal fare – mince and quince – and was about love”!
Another person read a section about Christmas from that great favourite of so many The Wind in the Willows and someone else read the poem called King John’s Christmas from A.A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six” that starts
“King John was not a good man
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.”
The traditions that began in the time of our forefathers, poems that reminded us of our childhoods, sentimental readings, the smell of candle wax, the scent of pine needles, the fairy lights on the enormous tree, the familiar carols, the ancient readings and the mince pies and mulled wine in the open air after the service, all combined to evoke the spirit of Christmas in us.
As we walked in the direction of home along the lane in the velvety darkness we felt delighted to have been part of such a quintessentially English start to Christmas.
We were in Maastricht, the city where that treaty was negotiated in 1992 – the one where EU members decided to introduce a common currency, the Euro – which was eventually fully adopted in 2002 – except by the British of course!
The city has a reputation for being a thriving cultural hub – second only in the Netherlands to Amsterdam for national heritage buildings – so it sounded promising.
We stayed at a lovely marina with very grand entrance gates and the ruins of a medieval castle rising high up behind the spot where we were parked.
The marina was an easy and interesting bike ride away from the city centre and once on the outskirts we left the bikes and walked through the quaint pedestrian lanes and alleyways.
The Het Vrijthof is a beautiful square in the center of old town Maastricht, paved with old cobblestones and surrounded by trees. Sadly the many very nice restaurants and cafes that encircle the square were all closed so it looked rather drab and uninteresting.
We walked from the square and came upon the St Servatius Basilica, a Romanesque cathedral with atmospheric crypts and many treasures which unfortunately we didn’t get to see.
As we walked through the beautiful arches to the west of the basilica we were surprised to see another church right next door.
This was the medieval Church of St John which was originally built as a baptistery for the Basilica of St. Servatius. After the 17th century it became a church in its own right and is now a Protestant Church whereas the Basilica is Catholic.
We were fascinated by the ox-blood red paint on the 15th Century tower of St John’s Church and wondered why the beautiful stone work had been covered.
We discovered that the tower (and much of the Church) had been built in the local yellow marlstone which is extremely soft and porous so the paint was applied to protect it from the elements.
One of the highlights of Maastricht was coming across an enchanting water mill apparently owned by one Godfrey of Bouillon in the eleventh century AD and which after his death, passed into the hands of the Prince-Bishop of Liège.
As we walked down the little alley from the water wheel we looked through a big window where we saw bakers busy baking bread and delicious looking pies- apparently from flour ground in the mill we had just seen.
We walked round the corner and found a wonderful bakers shop full of delicious treats and bought some lovely crusty rolls and a fantastic traditional Dutch apple tart.
The following day was my birthday and to celebrate the day we decided to ride our e-bikes to the picturesque and historic town of Valkenberg aan de Geul.
It was apparently only 11 kilometres away (roughly seven miles) which sounded perfect as it was a fairly nice day. Unfortunately it took us twice as long as we had expected due to our reliance on Google maps! Note to self: download a Dutch cycle path app. before our next bike adventure!
The ride itself was very pleasant but I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit sad that because of Covid we couldn’t stop at one of the pretty inns and restaurants scattered along our route for a relaxed and cosy lunch.
I don’t want to make mountains out of molehills but it was quite surprising to see some quite steep hills on our route! Most of the Netherlands is flat as a tack but not the province of Lindberg – it most definitely has hills!
Valkenberg is a really pretty town that depends heavily on tourism. Sadly the place was almost deserted when we were there and the many colourful restaurants and cafes were closed.
My birthday lunch turned out to be takeaway frites with a huge dollop of frite sauce eaten on a bench outside. Not the usual long lunch but the frites were absolutely delicious!
Valkenburg proudly boasts the remains of the only hilltop castle in the Netherlands – hardly surprising as it also has just about the only hill!
There are also underground caverns in the town created by the Romans when mining marlstone. These can be explored by foot or “slow train”. Other attractions include spas where normally visitors can bathe in natural hot springs but of course, were closed because of Covid.
We climbed up to the castle and enjoyed the hilltop views from the base of the ruins.
It was interesting to find out about the work of the Dutch resistance during the four year and four months German occupation in Second World War and to see how parts of the city were rebuilt after their destruction in the war.
Our return trip also took rather longer than anticipated as our “quicker” route home included a massively long and winding hill which was a struggle even with the help of a our e-power.
After what seemed ages Jonathan noticed his battery had lost a lot of power and he was concerned that we wouldn’t have enough to get all the way back “home” again. So we toiled up the rest of the hill pushing our bikes and after a long haul to reach the top, wound our way through the suburbs to arrive back to the van in the pitch dark!
Coddiewomple: The dictionary definition is “To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination” – I suppose that means we are definitely coddiewomplers!
Unable to travel further afield due to COVID restrictions, we decided to “travel in a purposeful manner” to get to know the Netherlands more thoroughly.
From Overloon we made our way towards a “vague destination” – in other words, somewhere interesting to stay.
The first place we meandered our way to was the unlikely named ‘t Zand, a small hamlet in North Holland.
We had arrived in the dark and had to phone up the owner of the site to get the code to plug into the keypad at the gate. It was so dark we almost ran over a low fence but eventually we found a good spot and plugged into the power.
The following morning we woke up to a magnificent site – a beautiful windmill, just metres away from where we had spent the night.
The elderly owner of the land came to see if we had settled in OK and told us that the windmill, which was originally built in 1631 in the neighbourhood of Leiden, had been purchased in 1865 by his grandfather and moved to ‘t Zand where was used as a flour mill until the 1920s.
It gradually fell into disrepair but in 2011 it was moved to its present position and restored by a team of volunteers.