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Monday, 9 February 2015

A fond farewell and last post to our Devon Sundowner

Our travels in our new campervan are documented at Back On The Road Again Blog

Today we will make our last trip in our Devon Sundowner, as we drive to Todds, our nearest Devon dealer, to trade our wonderful van in for a new Devon Tempest.

We bought our Devon Sundowner in May 2007.  In the seven years and nine months that we have owned it we have driven 71,800 miles.  We have slept in the van for 679 nights on 322 campsites across Europe.  We had only owned the van one-week when we set off for a four-week trip to Poland.  In 2009 and 2010 we spent twelve-months living in our Blue Bus and travelled through France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Italy again, southern France, Spain and Portugal, returning to the UK on the ferry from northern Spain. Two years ago we took the van as far east as the Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine border.

We have loved owning a Volkswagen T5 and it has proved very reliable.  The only mechanical problem we really had was in the very south of Italy when a light appeared on the dashboard and wouldn't go away.  We found a VW garage and with a combination of poor Italian, a few English words and lots of gestures, we got the message across and they checked out the van and told us to come back in two day's time.  We had no idea what to expect and could only do as instructed.  We returned first thing on a hot and sunny day and pottered around the town while they fitted a new part to the catalytic converter.  Computer records informed them that the van was still under warranty and so there was no charge and we left pleased that VW had such a fantastic network of service centres.

In our ownership, the van has averaged about 32 mpg. It needed a new exhaust last year and, not surprisingly, we have worn out tyres.

In our opinion, the Devon Sundowner is a fantastic van conversion and the best there is on a T5. The piles of 'stuff' taking up so much space in our small flat at the moment are testament to the amount of storage space Devon fit in to the van.  The overcab space is huge and fitted chairs, bedding and other odds and ends.  At the back it has a 'secret' cupboard behind the toilet that feels almost bottomless: here we kept those things you don't need every day, the heavy duty jump leads, the tow rope, spare oil and even a spare kettle.

We have had so many special and fun times in the van but we know it is time to make the change, so this is our last post for our Devon Sundowner, the Blue Bus.  We hope whoever buys our van has just as much enjoyment from it.

Our travels in our new campervan are documented at Back On The Road Again Blog

Monday, 10 November 2014

Camping, camping and more camping

Although our summer holiday took up most of our holidays this year, we have managed to enjoy lots of weekend away over the past four months.

Highlights have included:

Walking above Haweswater in the Lake District 
Music at Upton Blues Festival

Looking over Morecambe Bay from the Fairy Steps in September sunshine

Cycling by the River Thames near Chertsey

The interesting Halo sculpture at Wycoller Country Park

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Eight: Money and The Tour de France

Tour de France race cars on the P&O ferry
We arrived safely back in Belgium and we were accompanied on to the P&O Zeebrugge to Hull ferry by a multitude of Tour de France race cars, two Gendarmerie cars, various sponsors vehicles and a Swiss team bus and accompanying five cars.  These vehicles are all part of the support for the Tour de France 2014 which this year has a couple of days cycling in Yorkshire.  So many French passengers on board made watching the France versus Nigeria World Cup football match on the boat even more of an occasion and the win was well and truly celebrated.  These travel companions also meant that the Mayor of Hull and the media were there to greet and photograph our arrival back in the UK.

The costs for this years holiday were as follows:

Diesel (2,280 miles) £302
Food & drink bought in supermarkets etc £538
Cafes and ice creams £188
Camp site fees (mostly ACSI low season rates) £286
Other bits and bobs, including motorway tolls £122
Ferry (return with evening meals) £466
Total £1902

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Seven: Hand cream and unisex toilets

The Loire River just before the storm
The search to find Carol’s favourite hand cream took a few thousand miles but we can report has now ended.  As some friends will know, the Olive and Almond cream by Le Petit Marseillais is an essential part of Carol’s beauty routine and we had looked for the distinctive pale green tins in every supermarket we visited.  We thought we had an early success when we found it in one Carrefour but all four tins they had remaining had been opened and tried.  However, Auchan in Le Mans came up trumps and the van is now loaded up with a year’s supply.

Continuing our journey north, we spent a couple of nights at Saumur on the Loire and were able to cycle along the river and return on the opposite bank.  The Loire cycle route is well sign-posted and not as flat as you might expect as it often takes you away from the river and the busier roads.  We had our lunch overlooking a small lake in a wood of tall pine trees set high above the river that only lacked an Osprey to make us feel in Scotland.  It was a splendid day’s cycling and we were lucky to reach one of the few cafes we passed within only a minute or two of a massive thunder storm.  We remained warm and dry with hot chocolate and ice-cream while the rain beat down on the bikes outside and the only downside was the soggy saddles we had for the last few kilometres.

Unisex toilet and shower facilities have been the most common set-up on French camp sites and they make perfect practical sense, making best use of the available facilities.  Reading some of the reviews in the camp site guide, they are clearly not liked by everyone but really if you are not happy sharing with different sexes then camping in France probably isn’t for you.  Gender really didn’t enter in to the equation when Anthony heard someone using the next door cubicle to him one morning; the groans and moans the occupant made were really uncalled for in a shared facility.
The pronunciation of French continues to cause us difficulties, although we do our best and always try and speak some French when we first arrive at a camp site or use a cafe or shop.  While walking and cycling most people greet us with a hearty ‘Bonjour!’  On these encounters we have heard more different ways of pronouncing ‘Bonjour’ than there are varieties of French wine, making  us sure we will never master this language proficiently.  A French phrase that we thought was from the world of ‘Allo ‘Allo only and had nothing to do with real life French was ‘Oo La La!’  However, when France beat Switzerland so resoundingly last weekend, to our delight the French man sitting next to us uttered this wonderful phrase.

An old farmhouse in the Eure valley
Another valley, another Voie Verte; this time north of Chartres in the Eure valley.  We camped at Marcilly sur Eure at a site mostly used as an overnight stop by English vans.  The Voie Verte follows the Eure valley for about 20kms and was surprisingly pleasant cycling in this little frequented area.  The cycle route follows an old railway line and is good tarmac and flat cycling through the Cheshire of France.  The Cafe de la Gare in Ezy-sur-Eure is worthy of special mention in a country of cafes; it was a charming and individual cafe run by Annie and watched over by her vicious Yorkshire Terrier.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Six: Cat sculptures and Bastides

A stone cat sculpture in La Romieu
We dragged ourselves away from the mountains and the second-to-very-few showers and started to head reluctantly north.  We made it as far as La Romieu, a perfectly formed village that was too pretty for even the best chocolate box.  La Romieu has a local legend about the woodman’s daughter, Angeline and her cats that saved the village.  Angeline loved her cats; however, in 1342 a terrible famine hit the village for many years and the locals were desperate enough to eat the local moggies with the exception of two that Angeline was allowed to hide in the attic.  When the famine ended and the crops again started to grow, these were quickly eaten by the rat population that had multiplied unchecked with the lack of cats.  Fortunately, Angeline’s two cats had had kittens and these cats were able to chase and kill the rats, thus saving the village from further starvation.  Now stone sculptures of cats can be found on window ledges and walls, charmingly sleeping and creeping around the village.

Brantome on the river Drome
The countryside around La Romieu is undulating and dotted with large farmhouses and rural villas but is mostly fields of cereals and fruit trees and woodland.  We followed one of the local way-marked walks and after meeting a couple of groups of pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostela near to La Romieu we didn’t meet anyone else for over 10kms.  The Collegiate Church in La Romieu is on the pilgrim route and is a World Heritage Site.

Heading even further north we crossed the rivers we had met in the Massif Central; we crossed the Garonne in Agen, the Lot in the pretty market town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot and the Dordogne in wine soaked Bergerac.  We crossed Bastide country; these fortified towns generally from around the 13th Century all originally followed a similar design with a fortified rampart and a central square surrounded by arcades.  Some of these Bastides have survived more complete than others.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Five: Posh Showers and Pilgrims

We tore ourselves away from the lentils and volcanoes and made it to the Pyrenees.  OsmAnd told us our altitude as we drove past Lourdes and climbed up the mountain road to Gavarnie.  The air was cooler at around 1,300m above sea level and in the evening it was soon long-trousers and jumpers weather; items of clothing we had banished to the back of the wardrobe since leaving England.

Anthony looking over to the Cirque de Gavarnie
During the daytime it was back in to shorts in the sunshine and we have to say that the Cirque de Gavarnie is the most spectacular natural World Heritage Site we have seen yet.  We walked up to 1700m to an alpine meadow viewpoint above the Cirque de Gavarnie on a less travelled route that we had to ourselves.  We enjoyed our picnic with a ring-side seat over the valley, entertained by the Alpine Choughs and the Griffon Vultures above our heads and then we crossed fast flowing glacial streams and walked through woodland down to the bowl of the Cirque itself.  Here there is a hotel and a terrace that has a spectacular view of the Cirque and is just the place to enjoy a beer (€8 for two being as you ask).  We took the easy route back down to the village with the other pilgrims and resisted the temptation to buy a fluffy whistling marmot in the gift shops.

We retreated back down to the valley for some cycling, as the Col du Tourmalet is still not open.  We chose an ACSI camp site in Argeles-Gazost next to the Voie Verte that follows the Gave de Pau valley.  We were surprised to find the camp site very busy so early in the season and we are not sure if the attraction is the proximity to Lourdes, the entertaining rabbits on the site or the plush shower rooms that wouldn’t look out of place in a four star hotel.  Each shower room is individually designed and the poshest has a sink set in a boulder.  The site also has a series of swimming pools, including a circular rapids section and swimming against the current was hard work.  The camp site bar is showing the football every evening and we watched France resoundingly beat Switzerland 5-2.

The river Gave and cycling on the Voie Verte
The Voie Verte cycle route we had come for follows an old railway line through the valley and small villages to the edge of Lourdes and most of the other cyclists we met were lycra-clad boy racers.  We stopped in the village of Geu to see the Lavoir that was prettily set by a stream at the top of a hill and spotted a pair of Egyptian Vultures.  Lourdes and the number of people there is beyond our comprehension and all we can say is that we enjoyed some good ice-cream and Anthony got a puncture in his back tyre.

We took the van out to high up in the Vallee du Marcadau and walked up the river Gave, walking past gushing waterfalls, through an abundance of flowering Azalea bushes and in to green mountain pastures.  We spotted a Dipper in the fast flowing stream, such a small bird holding its own in such energetic water and certainly doing some White-water dipping.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Four: Brocante and relaxation

Entraygues-sur-Truyere across the river Lot
We stumbled upon a lovely camp site in Entraygues-sur-Truyere thanks to the Rough Guide and ACSI.  With a lack of churches in the area, the Rough Guide was forced to mention other activities and included a passing reference to lovely cycling along the Lot valley from Entraygues.  When we found there was an ACSI site there for €12 it seemed worth a look.

Entraygues-sur-Truyere is on the confluence of the rivers Truyere and Lot and is an attractive village with a few touristy shops and restaurants, some wonderful medieval buildings, a chateau and a charming camp site.  The site has everything you might need, including plugs in the sinks, good sized pitches with hedges and helpful staff.  The wi-fi is free and easily available from all pitches too.   The weather has been enjoyably hot and we are resorting to cooling down the red wine in an evening before we drink it!

The Flea Market
After browsing around a large and varied Sunday flea market in the village, exclaiming at some of the prices for the stuff on sale and pondering on the possible use of other items we set off to try out the cycling.   The Rough Guide was spot on; we found very pleasant cycling with only light traffic along the D107.  The route is mostly flat as it follows the river and we enjoyed an easy 30kms route to the small village of Vieillevie and back, which left us with plenty of energy to explore the old streets of Entraygues in the evening.

The Tourist Information Office in Entraygues is a pleasure for those of us who like things well organised.  The excellent selection of walk leaflets are displayed so that you can easily choose from a range of walks between 6kms to 13.5kms in length, with leaflets available in either French or English for €0.50 each.  We chose the 13.5kms length walk which took us up the hills behind the camp site and had a lovely day out.  We enjoyed seeing so many butterflies and walking through a variety of woodland and upland meadows with views across the Lot valley and back to the Puy-de-Dome.

Walking above the Lot valley
We have relaxed in to our holiday very quickly and in response have been pottering through France quite slowly; we are both clearly born to meander through life.  However, a bit of planning one evening revealed that if we are going to reach the chilly heights of the Pyrenees on this holiday we need to get a bit of a move on before it is time to return home, so we will be hitting the road again but not before we have celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.