Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Mini Motorhome Holiday...

Day after getting back to England and the phone rings...

"Your not in Pisa anymore are you?"


"Damnit... want to come on a motorhome holiday?"

Russell, an old friend and at one point housemate, had been following mine and Kerry's journey through this blog and the VagabondingAdam facebook page, and had decided he'd had enough of life at home and was going to embark on a motorhome trip himself, albeit for 5 days, but still getting away from the norm.

Parked up in Ypres (I'm asleep in the back!)
He had hired a monster of a motorhome from a company in England and, along with his friend Alison, was set to gun it down to Pisa to meet us. It was only when I posted it was 'good to be home' on Facebook that he rang me. In our hasty retreat back from Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel  we had scuppered his plans of a surprise rendezvous.

However the van and ferry were booked and he offered that I accompany them along on the trip, wherever it may take them. All, very generously, free of charge! So I wracked my brains for the next few days thinking of where to go. South for some heat? West for some History on the Normandy coast? Or North in to the Netherlands for some culture? Russell made the final decision and we were destined for a round about trip to Amsterdam.

Picking the van up mid afternoon we made good time to the Euro Tunnel and was cruising through France to the outskirts of Belgium and our first stop... Ypres. I had, however, forgotten one very important point from living with Russell for six months. His snoring! And now I was locked in a reverberating fiberglass van with him! The last time I looked at my watch was 4:15. I then woke up at 6:15 and was exhausted. I wondered how the hell Alison had managed to sleep being nearer to Russell but she seemed fine. I was not. Throughout the night I'd asked myself how I'd get through the next 4 days. And had come to the conclusion that I could not!

The next day I asked for Russell to drop me off at the nearest service station. I had to go home. I couldn't live on 2 hours sleep and I didn't want to ruin Russell and Alison's holiday. So we pootled to the services and I soon discovered I wouldnt be able to cross the carriageway to then hitchhike North to the ferry crossing. I had succumbed to heading home, but was now on the southbound carriageway. We all had a chat over a service station sandwich and it was decided that I'd sleep in the van whilst the pair looked around Ypres and we would go from there.

I got a couple of hours of lovely sleep and felt a lot better. I was back in the game... and had decided that a few bottles of wine and we going to bed 5 minutes before Russell may mean a happier night. We headed north and stopped off at one of the numerous war memorials dotted around the Belgian countryside. The first was commemorating a Canadian battalion that perished and the second was a huge expanse of graves from differing allied forces.

A number of the graves were labeled as "a soldier of the war" or something of similar effect, denoting that they could not identify some of the fallen that were buried here.

I've been to the grave sights before with school, but re-visiting never deadens the sombre feelings and thoughts that accompany such a moving place.

After a quick pasta lunch cooked in the lovely modern van we shot up the road towards Bruges. I was very keen to visit Bruges, being a huge fan of the film 'In Bruges' and its dark comic morals that unfold unexpectedly. A must watch in my opinion, and definitely one of the top ten films in my book. However, we navigated around the city looking for parking that would facilitate the height of the van. Driving such a big vehicle in cities is always a pain. And my motorhome parkings android app didn't help us much at all. I had near enough given up, opting to head up the road a bit more and head to a known parking spot Kerry and I have frequented often in Rotterdam. But Russell was more persistent and it paid off. We followed the ring road round the city and found a whole load of motorhomes parked on the side of the road next to a canal. Not the most picturesque of places, but somewhere a few minutes walk to the centre of town.

Walking through the streets was just as described in the film. Picturesque, quaint, old. "Why would anyone want to come to fucking Bruges?!"

You could tell we were getting in to the more Dutch part of the country as canals wound their ways through streets. There was no efficient cycle paths and city layouts just yet though.

We wandered through the squares and streets, using NavFree to guide us in Pedestrian mode. We had to jump out of the way on more than one occasion as horse drawn carts charged past us as if we weren't there. I couldn't quite pick out the bar that Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson frequented when we got to the main square but opted for the nearest, authentic looking Belgian bar and ordered a large local beer. Of course large here is a proper stein (1 litre) and we all sat supping away, watching the hustle and bustle of the city. The famous bell tower was at the other end of the square. I did have a quick look to see if there was a dent in the pavement. (watch the film)

After we were suitably lubricated (well, Alison and I atleast... one bonus of having a personal driver! (Russell)) We made the fair trek to Rotterdam, crossing over or under the river the wrong way, but safely navigating to Mine and Kerry's favourite overnight stop in the Scheidam district. The windmill was lit up as usual and we hunkered down for a nice dinner, bottle (or two) of wine whilst watching the wildlife on the canal a few feet away.

That night we discussed and browsed on the map to see if we could make it in to Rotterdam center. It was about 3 miles away, winding through past canals and then along a very straight road. So the next morning we set out, walking at a steady, yet leisurely pace. Shops started to build up as we entered in to the more central area. We were stopped as a huge section of the road was lifted up vertically infront of us. A boat was passing on the canal below.

All the while we were walking in the Euromast tower was looming in the distance. I hadn't seen it before on other trips to Rotterdam, but now it's shape silhouetted against the clouds and we headed for it's base.

It cost us around 10 euros each to go in to the tower and make our way up to the 'Crows nest' observation point. It was pretty cold when we got out on to the decking, but the views were spectacular. I felt like I could almost see the sea from up here and the city looked spectacular with the park winding itsway through the concrete jungle. I tried re-tracing our footsteps back to find 'our' windmill and van, but got a bit lost after I positively identified a KFC we had walked past!

I do have to say that I let myself down though. We started up the see-through galvanised metal steps towards the 'Space tower' extention of the tower, which raises you up another 85 meters, but the height and the wind really got to me. I had to come back down. Alison felt the same vertigo, but Russell was fine and ambled up the steps and in to the pod type lift that then takes you up to the top, circling the tower as it goes. Again my fears have let me down, but I already felt ill from being at the crows nest, let alone another 85 metres. Oh well, I guess it means I've got to go back!

We had a convoluted journey back to the van, trying to use the train system but not being able to buy a ticket, then standing gormlessly at the other end as we were stranded behind the barriers with no ticket to get out. But we made it back to the van after a little time convincing the conductor we would buy a ticket and continued our journey up in to the north of Holland, towards Amsterdam.

The little spot I had in mind for parking the van was a bit of a dodgy one. We had been there before with Mia and, whilst there was a lot of obvious van living activity going on, were awakened one morning by two, nice, but insistent police officers who said we couldn't stay. I chose not to disclose this story to Russell and we parked up in the general vicinity of some dutch motorhomes and made the short, 20 minute stroll to the ferry where we were met by a spectacular display of yellows, reds and oranges as the setting sun disappeared behind Grand Central Station across the water.

That evening we ambled around the city, trying out some coffeeshops and taking in the sights of the red light district, which if I must say, was looking a bit worse for wear. Perhaps its the time of year?

Amazingly Russell had never been to Amsterdam before. We spent one whole day chilling out and doing a bit of souvenir shopping, not really having the time or money to spend half a day on the water, or whizzing round the dungeons. But I hope our short visit has inspired Russell to come back.

The homeward journey was one big long push from Amsterdam right the way back to the train terminal at Calais. I'd had a good week with Alison and Russell. I hope my knowledge of the cities and the parking spots made an otherwise pain in the arse (arriving in a city with a motorhome) that little bit easier.

I'm also glad I hadn't hitchhiked home after the first night. I combated the snoring by wedging the mattress from the lower bunk in to the opening of the top bunk, wearing my music headphones and making sure I was a little inebriated every night. A good excuse I think!