Finally we have managed a few days away with some nice weather and a chance for Archie, our one year old Cocker, to get used to travel. Unlike Fred Archie hasn’t taken so well to travelling and really needs to learn the benefits. However this summer has been about awakening from Covid, building a workshop extension on our garage and making the garden more liveable so travel has been on hold.
First of all we had to drop my cousin home in Edinburgh and collect a few second hand parts I had bought for my Beetle. Chores done we headed for picturesque North Berwick. We had volunteered to recce the local camp sites for a meet next year with old friends and it looks like Tantallon Park fits the bill perfectly. Meanwhile parking the van in town and on the beach front was surprisingly easy.
North Berwick is a quaint wee town with plenty to occupy a couple of days. There are numerous boutiquey shops, bars and restaurants to while away some time. The surrounding villages, links coast, history and various other tourist attractions also offer plenty to occupy time. The town beach front offer views across the Firth of Forth of the Fife coast from the iconic bridges to the Neuk of Fife.
As well as getting used to travel this was Archies first experience of the beach. Frankly he hardly noticed – just chased his ball.
Further down the coast with the spectacular views from the A1 as it joins the railway along the cliff edge we reached Berwick-upon-Tweed and England, for the first time in 2 years. We planned to stay just inland at the Plough on the Hill where they offer Motorhome stopovers with hospitality and a lovely meal out. The views from the pub car park are quite stunning as is the nearby beach at Cocklawburn for a morning stroll and throw ball for the dogs. Strangely Fred really can’t be bothered chasing ball in the park but he will have a go on the beach.
Something we had been wanting to do since we moved to Scotland was to spend a night at the Kelpies to see them lit up. So it was back up the A1, lunch by the beach again in North Berwick, and off to Falkirk for the night. Helix park let you stop overnight for £5 which is well worth it to see the kelpies lit up. Even more so as we had arrived on a night when they would be colour changing as well. One cannot fail to be impressed by the Kelpies sculptures alone but lit and changing colour against a dark night sky they are simply something else.
Back in January we had plans for 2020 and then along came Covid-19. The van has sat on the drive except for a trip to gets its MoT and one to fetch my Beetle chassis from and deliver the body to Retrograde Autobody in January and another a couple of weeks ago to take the Polo for its annual srvice.
Now we are coming to the decision to cancel our 2 month Europe trip. Not that we are worried about our ability to stay safe but the changing rules across Europe and our lack of anything other than a bit of French and German should we become ill is disconcerting. Neither is traveling through England an attractive idea and who knows what sort of second wave or lockdown we may have to return to.
So what to do? Well we can travel all over Scotland in a couple of weeks time but here again there is likely to be a problem with campers and caravaners swamping us. We will just have to go easy and see how it all pans out.
Meantime the van has just had a tidy up, finish off a few details that didn’t get done last year, take the bike rack off – won’t need it for shorter trips at home and check the hob and water heater are both still working OK.
June and time for what has almost become a regular sojourn to the north west corner of France. The key thing this year was to really try out the van, its facilities and usability, particularly with Aire/Stellpatz style stopovers, wild camping and being off-grid. Some of those who follow our travels will already know we have an affinity for this area. We have visited Brittany many times since I first holidayed in Mousterlin as a kid in 1967. We visited several times with friends and camping by motor bike and then staying in various Gites until in 2006 when we bought our hose in Treboul. We loved the house and the place that we enjoyed until 2012 when we sadly had to sell. We have been back again over the past few years camping in the viallage and usually celebrating Sue’s birthdays.
We had booked a late afternoon ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe so even though it was Le Mans week it was very quiet as it didn’t land until 22:30. Fred was as comfortable ever in his new van and slept all the way. It was an incredibly calm crossing and we enjoyed a picnic and a beer in the rear saloon as watching a fabulous sun set. Sadly as we got close to Dieppe we could see that the weather was grim with Acuweather telling us there were thunderstorms in the area. Our plan was to drive to La Mailleraye on Seine near Rouen. Here there is a vet and a good Aire so we could make an appointment for Fred’s worming on the return trip. The drive was mostly dry and we arrived at midnight to find the Aire was full and we couldn’t find another spot in the village so wild camping it was in a car park by the Pont de Brotonne. Actually we had a very quite night after we moved away from a pond full of noisy toads.
We drove back to La Mailleraye, took Fred for a walk along the river bank where huge ships were hiding in the fog on their way upstream to Rouen. We bought croissants and had breakfast while we waited for the vet to open and booked Fred an appointment for two weeks time.
Our next port of call was to be Le Mans for the 24 Hour Race, see my blog from there. We used the peace and not used to our larger van got a shock when the toll came to 48 euro – that is going to be a bit of a game changer.Before we went into the circuit we needed a big shop up at Auchean to fill the fridge and wine rack for the weekend. We stayed at the circuit from Wednesday until Monday morning before we headed west to Finistère.
The journey to Treboul took us longer than we have been used to, again the bigger van thing. I am quite happy though that we are getting over 30mpg on what is afterall a tight new motor. It was mid afternoon before we got to E’Leclecrc to do another shop. Stocked and refuelled we headed to Camping Trezulien for two nights. It is a nice quiet little site on a hill side surrounded by woods and 10 minutes walk into the village (port du plaisance and shops).
Tuesday was Sue’s birthday so first thing I marched Fred down to the boulangerie fro fresh croissants and pan aux chocolat. A morning walk around past our old house, a peek at the garden that has become so well established after we remodel it, and then down to Sables Blanc and around the headland into the port for lunch at La Griella. Now driving all that way for pizza may seem odd but they aren’t any old pizza, they are a paper thin base with wonderful toppings. We had our usual with our litre of house red and even our usual deserts. We have been going there since it first opened and the lady who owns and runs it remembers us from quiet winters evenings huddling in the warm around the same pizzas and a litre of house red.
We set out from Treboul not sure of where we would be pitching up and headed through low cloud on Mendez Homme to Morlaix and then the coast road to St Brieuc and Dinard. Frankly I expect a more sonic road along the Cote d’Amour but we hardly saw any of it. There does seem to be a lack of aires in Brittany but we eventually found a nice spot at St-Jacut-de-la-Mer, an interesting little village if we had been minded to stop and explore.
We were planning to a bit more of the D-Day beaches so we headed past St Malo, Mont St Michelle, Avranche and St LO before we got to the museum at Utah Beach. Incidentally we have been to St LO twice before, once in the ’80s when we stopped at the Hotel de l’Universe and again in the ’90s when we spent the day in A&E having been knocked of our bike. We took a look at the Aire at Utah beach which looked decidedly scruffy and they wanted paying. A couple we met there commented that it was the worst they had seen so we decided against staying and headed for Arromanches, Gold beach on D-Day, and the municipal camp site in the town centre. We were there at the same time last year but strangely the town was quieter despite it being just 2 weeks after the 75th anniversary events.
The following morning we took a short drive to the gun battery at Longues. Four 150mm guns atop the cliff would have done a lot of damage and were seemingly taken care of quite quickly. Three are still fairly intact but the fourth must have taken a direct hit that penetrated the bunker. The resultant explosion within was catastrophic.
Our next stop was the British cemetery at Bayeaux, the beautifully kept resting place of some 4000 souls who gave their lives for a better Europe. We wanted to pay respect, to say thank you and finally to apologise for the unforgivable emayhem that is Brexit. Walking around the cemetery pondering the waste of youth was quite sobering. It is so sad the number of graves whose occupant is unknown and the memorial to the many hundreds who don’t have marked graves. Interesting to see the other nationalities, not just commonwealth but also Russians, Americans and many Poles. The cemetery is just one of several British but also of the large USA cemeteries, Canadians, French and of course Germans.
Back to Arromanches we parked on on the overnight cliff top Aire with a view out to sea. From there it was possible to put into perspective the extent and sheer genius of the mulberry harbour that for a few weeks landed many of the troops and a large proportion of the vehicles, equipment and supplies. It was clear from its position and topography why the location was chosen and the the Germans would have least been expecting it there. On the cliff top is a small memorial garden created for the anniversary. It is in 2 halves and represents Bill Pendell who landed as a solider and as an elderly D-Day veteran. The ghostly figures emerging from the surf have been very cleverly executed. The sunset lasted sometime and was quite spectaular as was the sunrise the following morning. As we were leaving we could not help but admire the absolutely mint and drop dead gorgeous Aston Martin DB4 Superleggera in the car park and nice to see it being used.
We headed next for Pegasus Bridge at Ouisterham stopping to look at the Canadian museum at Juno beach. We passed by the museum at Pegasus Bridge last year but decided to actually go in this year. It was the only one we had paid to go in and it was interesting enough to make it worthwhile. A short drive away took us the Melville Battery that was the farthest east of the D-Day landings. The gun batteries had been heavily targeted beforehand but the invaders, largely commandos and free Belgians, were surprised to find only old WW1 Yugoslavian field guns.
Our next task was to find somewhere for the night. We had mistakenly imagined that there would be plenty of Aires along the coast. There weren’t, and to make matters worse it was a very hot and busy Sunday so those few that there were (an they only had a handful of spaces each) were rammed. As a result we carried on all afternoon until we reached the large Aire at Honfleur. It too was rammed but a very kind Belgian camper offered to move over and make space for us. The next morning as people moved on we were pretty quick to grab a space on the waters edge. Although very touristique Honfleur has a certain “je ne said quoi” that we could never tire of. It was Saturday and very busy so we kept away and the following day Sunday we made do with a short amongst the throngs around town. Monday was much quieter but still oppressively hot as we took a walk into town for dinner. I think it was probably the same restaurant on the quayside that we ate in last year and the food was excellent helped by the atmospheric location.
From our pitch with a view across the river we were able to watch the otter and his family and the bird life in the roadbeds opposite. It was hot and sultry when we went to bed than night so we left the roof vents open. In the small hours a terrific electric storm blew up and deposited huge quantities of rain. I was vaguely aware of the storm until that is I started feeling rain inside the van. So great was the deluge that it had bounced up off the rood and back into the roof light. So here we were at X o’clock in the morning dancing around with towels and bowl trying to mop up while Fred eyed us sleepily from our bed where he had been since the first flash of lightning and rumble of thunder.
On the home stretch now we had to return to La Maileraye sur Seine for Fred’s passport appointment with the vet. We arrived at the Aire on the river bank in time for lunch and got a nice pitch with a view. It was another hot afternoon watching the odd ship and a few barges plying to and from Rouen before we took a stroll and Fred for his appointment. Now Fred doesn’t like vets but he entered willingly, probably because it was cool. However as sun as the vet pulled his top on Fred made for and sat by the door. He redeemed himself when told to get on the scales which he made straight for and sat down, that impressed the vet and his assistant. Next into the surgery without an argument but once on the table the image of the thermometer and the needle must have entered his head so he struggled until we put him back on the floor. And then the worming tablet, ooh a treat and that went straight down. Job done! Followed by a pleasant evening by the river, a bottle of wine and make up lost sleep the night before.
Finally returning to Dieppe we made the Aire on the sea front in time for lunch. There was an event, the end of a major sailing event, taking place on the quayside. We recalled the first times we had used Dieppe 25 years ago when the ferry went right into the old harbour to the liner terminal that used to be on this quayside before it was all redeveloped and the pavement restaurants and cafes prolifilated. It was a very windy evening kicking up dust and ozone that made it quite difficult. Nonetheless we ventured along the quay for our last meal out and of course it had to be Moules Frites, and very nice it was too.
So here we are, up early, tanks emptied and on the ferry home. Have we enjoyed ourselves – but of course – we can but hope circumstances continue ton allow us these trips. One way or another they will be that much more of an adventure after we relocate to Scotland. That in itself makes this trip more poignant as I have, we both have, enjoyed Le Mans, Brittany and Normandie, to the point of having a home in Brittany for several years, for the best part of 30 years. Living in Scotland might well mean that any trips across Europe we make will be farther and longer rather than just popping across to the nearest bit.
And how did the van perform? It was brilliant. Easy to drive and travel in and very comfortable to live in. Easy driving gave us a good 30+mpg and we had no problem getting in and out of places or parking despite its size. Apple CarPlay navigation was excellent and only managed to catch me out twice. The facilities we have installed; the kitchen, equipment, toilet / bathroom, bed and power systems all worked excellently. Even so there are a few things that aren’t quite right or quite simply failed but we wont worry about them until the summer is done and we can spend some thought and time to rectify or redo them.
And a foot note; Over the years we have done the 600km blast from Dieppe to the west of Brittany and Douarnenez many times. Firstly on bikes then in our C Coupe and 250CLK Mercs and finally in our V6 Vito and our T5 and T6 Transporters. Certainly by bike and car we paid scant attention to speed limits. I had 200mkph out of my FJ1200 and 250kph out of my 350CLK. WE have been flashed by many speed cameras and in particular one near Lorient and always joked that all they had was a picture ion Sue in the passenger seat. However with the VWs I have always intended, if not succeeded, to be good and now with the Crafter it really isn’t possible to be or much point in being anything else. The first night off the ferry as midnight approached I was get a little impatient to get to a stopping place for the night and finally I been caught for doing 87kph in an 80 limit.
An important reason to have the van ready before June was our 24th visit in 30 years to the “Circuit de la Sarthe” for the Le Mans 24 Hour WEC Sportscar race. Over the years we have camped at the circuit off the back of a motorbike with the army of the great unwashed, at club camp sites away from the circuit, in the car on the main car parks and recently in our T5/T6 vans again at the circuit. And while conditions have improved by Saturday and Sunday they still become a bit unsavoury. So this year was luxury with our own comfortable facilities to the track.
Taking Fred is limiting as he is not allowed on Friday pit walk and while he is allowed in all the public areas it is not fair or right to take him in amongst the really tick crowds. Otherwise he is absolutely fine amongst the noise of the race cars and all night long as they roar past every few minutes. Unfortunately he is not that interested in the racing so we have to work to keep him occupied. What does bother him though is the camp site fireworks at night which tend to be worse on Friday and Sunday.
Despite the limitations we camp near Arnage. We can watch racing and qualifying from here and we walk in to the circuit and watch from the kart circuit just before the main straight and stands. We also enjoy a few walks around the pit village and all the concessions and of course a few gold plated beers and coffees. These days that have neat reusable plastic beakers and glasses with artwork for each year. They charge you €1 a piece but they are great souvenirs and perfectly usable afterwards.
This year a highlight of the pit village for me was on the Aston Martin stand. They had on display 2 of their new top end cars alongside the first of a limited edition of hand built DB4 Superleggera. Built as a track ready collectors car it is to say the least drop dead gorgeous. However if you want one you also have to buy the new modern version and as a pair they are £6M + VAT. The press are valuing the DB4 at least £3.1M +VAT.
The race itself was the usual mix of 4 classes of GTE cars in amongst Prototypes. The fast cars lap at around 3′ 20″ and the slower production based cars at around 3′ 50″ which makes for interesting racing once they get mixed up. The only way to follow the race is to listen to Radio Le Mans, an English language station that broadcast all week from qualifying to the end of the race. During the night we manage to get 6 hours sleep only woken when the pace car comes out and the cars bunch up and the engine note drops. Winning the race is about outright pace and good management – just think by 13:00 on Sunday the cars have basically completed 11 Grand Prix distances and still have one more to do and will have completed close to 4000 miles by the time they see the chequered flag.
So will we be back next year? Well the jury is out n that one as we have been so many times and it will be a long way from Scotland just for a weekend. Perhaps we will just have a Le Mans party instead.
So the time came, exactly 4 months to the day the van was delivered and we were setting out on its first adventure. The naval term would be “Sea Trials” except were doing it on land. We had planned a week away to Cornwall and back visiting friends old and new on the way.
Loaded up at around 3750kg the van travelled well and made for easy driving. Aiming for Devon and Exmouth the first night would provide a mix of single and dual A road as a well as a bit of motorway without having to push it. Clearly silly season is upon us when we tried to stop for coffee on the A27 and the lay-by we normally use was blocked by a 40 tonne artic – not his fault though – it was the idiot with the caravan that had literals pulled into the entrance and parked up with his legs and step down. It makes you wonder if they should be allowed…
We were hoping to try a mix of camping including pub stop overs. So the first night we looked for a small Camping and Caravaning Club certified site. The first one we found, Grindlebrook Farm, looked dreadful and we turned around straight away but a trip down a nearby lane took us to Forringdon Caravan Site. A nice property with adequate facilities and although their listing says no dogs Fred was quite welcome. The following morning we popped down to Exmouth and parked up on the sea from for coffee. The Social Media links on our back door worked their magic and we got messages on Facebook and our Blog.
Our next stop was a visit to Dartmoor and an afternoon and evening with Tim and Carole, we haven’t seen Tim for 35 years or more. Getting the van in and out of their tight driveway was a lesson of what is to come but we managed. We ate at the Old Inn at Widicombe in the Moor and tasted our first experience of pub car park camping. A very peaceful night with the odd owl and a cuckoo in the morning. We were sold on it.
The next morning we headed into Totnes for a quick shop and a cup of coffee before heading for Cornwall and and a beach for Fred. The Camping and Caravan Club site at Westgate bay provided a perfect location although the staff were a bit difficult about providing a decent sized grass pitch without electric but relented in the end. The surf was busy and there was plenty of beach for Fred to run around on.
We had a couple of visits to do in Cornwall. First we were keen to show the van off to Mirko at Premium Camper in Wadebridge. Mirko did the California Roof and the furniture for Van Blanc, our T6, and he has been following our build of this van. Suffice to say he seemed impressed.
Our second visit was to see Steve and Sue Rogers who recently retired to St Agnes. Dinner with them was at their local, the Victory Inn and another night of pub stopovers. After dinner we had a stroll across the heath toward the coast and the settled to watch a crimson sunset from the comfort of the van. The following morning we took a drive into Penzance to buy lunch and dinner and stopped by Marazion for coffee and to let Fred have dip in the sea.
We headed for a CC&C site at Tavistock but were disappointed by the unfriendly welcome so we left. A fairly quick drive across Dartmoor found us at California Cross near Kingsbridge where another and this time friendly CC&C site restored our faith in the club.
From California Cross we headed East for West Bay at Bridport in Dorset where we were meeting cousin Stuart and Marina for pizza lunch at our favourite Watch House Cafe. Before lunch we were able to talk along the beach under the Dorset Jursaic cliffs. It was a glorious morning with a flat calm sea with clear views as far as the Isle of Wight. The first car park would not allow Camper Vans but looking further just around the corner was a car park with bays specially for Motorhomes, we had arrived.
Our last night was at the C&CC site in Salisbury before a visit to Jason at Absolute Audio. In a couple of weeks time they are going to have a poke around the VCDS for me and see if we can change a couple of things. On the way home we payed a visit to another company who are going to do a bit of work for us in a couple of week but lets keep that a surprise. Unfortunately they have some large speed bumps in their access road and our side step bottomed on it and is badly damaged. I knew it was low so it needs looking at.
We pitched up for a couple of days at a campsite overlooking the fjord at Trondheim and got the washing done. A nice site with an elevated pitch looking out over the mountains with more fabulous sunsets. The morning we moved on we went into the city for a wander around the city centre shops, a mixture of old buildings, rough wooden build with smart wooden fronts, modern concrete and glass and traditional houses and of course coffee and a cinnamon bun at a pavement cafe. One interesting sight was the collection of traditional wooden fishing boats of the type that would have been the mainstay of the Shetland Bus all moored up by the central station.
Leaving Trondheim we decided to head inland to Roros, a small town in the east close to the Swedish border that was the heart of the old copper mining industry and is now a World Heritage site. The town centre is made up of very traditional timber buildings including two main streets of shops similar to those we saw earlier in the day in Trondheim. There are many buildings, houses and shops, built with rough wood structures some with and some without smart wood fronts. At the mine workings themselves you can see the conditions people worked in and how they extracted the ore and alongside are ranges of old buildings of rough timber construction with grass roofs that housed workers and tradesmen. The camp site we found here was ridiculously expensive with poor facilities, a dreadful example of ripping off visitors.
We decided to follow a lesser road through through wooded hills that were either wild or mainly sheep farming. Along the way we found our first of several traditional wooden churches. The road eventually took us alongside Storsjoen lake and on to Hammer on Mjosa lake where we stopped for the night. The only thing of interest here was the construction of a new tower block hotel that will be the world tallest timber building.
The next morning came with the promise of some fine weather and we decided to go a short way further up the lake and back to the lakeside campsite at Lillehammer that we liked so much a couple of weeks earlier. We booked in for the 3 nights and eventually staying 4. We were rewarded with warm sunny days and beautiful vistas and sunsets across the lake. The centre of the town is an attractive shopping street with traditional shops and cafes so of course more coffee and cinnamon buns. There is a large park area by the lake great for Fred who made the most of the opportunity to swim and chase the ducks.
Eventually we had to tear ourselves away and hope for decent weather further west. We decided to chance it and head towards Bergen. Our route took us over the spectacular Hardanger Plateau. A spectacular wilderness of lakes and today people and a main road with 4 meter snow poles at 4200 feet above sea level. The height being significant as the van trip counter passed 4000 miles at the same time. We descend from the plateau through steep gorges with massive water falls at Voringfosen and down a spiral road tunnel. That night we found a camp site surrounded by huge cliffs at the end of the Eidfjord.
Next morning was bright and sunny as we headed along Hardangerfjord toward Bergen. To cross the fjord the road loops through a tunnel onto a long suspension bridge the other end of which disappears straight into a tunnel and a blue disco lit roundabout. As we neared Bergen we decided to avoid the city and head south for the ferry on to Stord Island where we found a neat little camp site on the waters edge at Lervik. It was a damp evening but we had views across the sea to the mountains beyond that were lit by the setting sun. In the morning we were woken by the fast catamaran passenger ferries full of commuters of kids coming to school.
The following day we decided a route back inland. We headed south across the islands and the east along the side of fjords and lakes. The weather turned filthy wet as we headed into the mountains again. A car stopped in front of us and the the driver jumped out in the pouring rain – turned out he is a number plate spotter and wanted to photo my personal plate. As we pulled away around the next corner was massive cascade of water falling off the mountain, a sign of things to come. The road started to climb and narrow as it wound its way through steep gorges, along the side of cliffs and over high passes. All the time there was a torrent of water falling off the mountains all around us, the weather may not have been nice but it was spectacular. High up in the mountains the road ran along the top of a dam and can’t have been wider than 3 metres, it was single track for miles and just wound in and out of rocky outcrops and lakes, it was a wonder how they built it. Finally it descended down an amazing zig zag but not before we passed through a cascade off the mountain onto the road. That night we pitched up on a camp site in Roldal a huge green space with just a few camper vans dotted around on the only bits of hardstanding we could find.
With the weather improving and after a quick look at the local timber church we set off to see Eidsborg stave church. It was a cool but bright morning as the road climbed through the mountains and past lakes and reservoirs and eventually through wooded gorges and valleys. The stave church at Eidsborg is part of the Telemark museum of old buildings and industries including a canal. The church is in a beautiful setting as is a well preserved example. After lunch we carried on south alongside the same lake for most of the afternoon until we found a campsite for the night at Treungen. Nice though it was the ducks couldn’t keep away, obviously used to scrounging crumbs. It was too much for Fred and in the end we just let him off his lead and he was after them up to is neck in the lake but at least they stayed away after that.
By now we were a long way south and with just a few days left in Norway we had to chose between driving around aimlessly or finding somewhere to put our feet up for a few nights. We went to Lillesand on the south east coast and were getting a little frustrated before we took a side turning on the off chance. After several kilometres and a long dirt track we came to an un-inspiring camp site we turned back and saw signs fo another and thought that we might as well have a look as we were there and what a gem it turned out to be. The small camp site at Bufjord is mostly static vans with a few touring pitches by the water. The facilities block has been newly constructed with large shower rooms and very disabled friendly and there was a decent mini market a short walk back up the lane. The weather was fine if a bit chilly at night but with fabulous start nights. Being the end of the season we were the only campers so we Fred had space to run, chase Oystercatchers and have a dip in the sea. Altogether a lovely lite to remember and only a short drive from the ferry.
Finally the day came to head for the ferry. A really dreary wet day with little to do other than work out where to stop for the night in order to be at the ferry at the crack of dawn. We ate out for the first time, at McDonalds in Kristiansand, two chicken sandwich meal deals for £16!! We had thought about wild camping at the ferry terminal but decided against it an found a small campsite nearby where several others had pitched up waiting for the morning ferry.
Our ferry crossing to Hirtshals was comfortable and uneventful and by midday we were on the road south towards Zwolle in Holland for an evening with friends and for Fred to visit the vet to get his passport stamped. On the way we needed to find a couple of camp sites, the first one in Flensburg came easily but we struggled the following night eventually finding somewhere just into Netherlands. After a pleasant afternoon and evening with friends we headed for the Tunnel and after a night at a large site in the Belgian seaside town of Nieuwpoort we were on our way home.
And here we are, happy campers after 5 weeks and 5442 miles away.
Would we do it again? In the blink of an eye yes.
But we have come home with a new plan – Van Blanc is sold and a VW Crafter LWB conversion is on its way.
Finally after 2 weeks and 3500 miles on the road we have stopped for a break. The past few days have been spent chasing or running away from the weather. Norway’s climate is never going to betropical but after a couple of good months it has turned decidedly below the seasonal average for August. We expected cold and occasionally wet in the north but it was 5-8 degrees below average and not much better in the south.
After our day trip to the Nordkapp we opted to stay in Alta for an extra day. The weather was cold but bright and we needed to shop, wash the van after the dirty tunnels and there is a an area of prehistoric rock carvings worth seeing nearby the camp site at the Alta Museum at Hjemmeluft. The museum is at the centre of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes 45 prehistoric sites across the area. Around the museum itself are stone carvings depicting daily life and stories from as long ago as 4500BC. They were discovered beneath turf in 1973 and would have originally been a the shoreline but are now several meters above. They depict people and animals, farming and hunting and they also have boats firstly with just a few people but in the end with many. And all this in the Arctic 6000 years ago.
The next morning we set out for Tromso for no other reason that it was the major city and warranted a visit. We decided to use a couple of short ferry crossings to shave some distance off and the route took us down some smaller roads. There were several small glaciers either side of the road and at one point we passed below one where the melt was shedding a scree of stones and boulders down the mountainside to the fjord and the road had had to be tunnelled through.
The weather had been miserable most of the day and it was late afternoon by the time we got to Tromso’s one and only camp site in the city. A modern site and very regimented but oh so busy that the nice new facilities were overloaded and very expensive. And so after a very damp night with our kit stashed all over and under the van out of the rain we woke the next day for a look around the city. I cant say that we were overly impressed but at least we looked and had coffee and a bun outside a smart cafe.
Back on the road the next place we wanted to visit were the Lofoton islands. It was a pleasant afternoons drive and we ended up on a campsite by the shore in Harstad. However nice though it was there were several families of ducks that drove Fred mad and he us! WE had intended to drive to the western tip the next day but the weather forecast was not good at all so we decided to head south. We drove through some dreadful cloud bursts to a town called Furske that was having some kind of music festival. We pitched up at a site on the edge of town and hid amongst the trees from the weather and listened to the noise of the festival until the small hours.
Still the weather forecast was bad. It wasn’t much better further south but we decided to make tracks anyway. Up early and on the road we made the first 100 miles to the Arctic Circle centre, where it was only 7C, by 08:00. It was here that we saw the last herd of reindeer. It was going to be a long day, 400 miles to Trondheim, and to start with being a Sunday the roads were quiet but by late afternoon we became embroiled in weekend traffic until we reached the camp site. It is another expensive site but we decided to stop for a couple of days to do laundry and write blogs in the hope that the weather will improve a bit in the coming days.
We got to bed extra late on Sunday, we were too busy writing blogs and listening to the wildlife at Skibont. Not to mention that dusk wasn’t until nearly midnight and I don’t know if it ever got fully dark all night. So we managed a wee lay in until gone 07:00 and subsequently didn’t hit the road until 09:00. Today would be a short journey, when I looked the next site in Alta up the site finder said 66 miles which of course was as the crow flies. In reality it was 135 along the shores of the fjords some “follow me” roadworks through tunnels and rock falls and over a couple of passes and a short ferry crossing.
As it turned out today’s views the most spectacular yet. As we drove along across the other side of the fjord we could see snow on the mountains and numerous small glaciers between them but the best was to come. We stopped for lunch in a lay-by next to a large UK registered motorhome with a covered trailer containing a car and a boat. We watched an attractive lady drive an articulated tarmac truck in to clean the back out and get told off by the highways people – all very interesting. After lunch as the road climbed up a pass we noted that the pine trees had given way to stunted silver birch. As we crested the pass the view that unfolded before us took our breath away. The fjord was turqoise with snow capped mountains and glaciers beyond. The stunning scene was further enhanced by reindeer grazing at the road side. Difficult to believe that in WWII the battleship Tirpitz was holed up here until the RAF managed to sink it.
There are 3 camp sites in Alta all next to each other on the banks of the river. We chose the last in the row and were not disappointed. We booked in for 2 nights with the intention of doing a day trip to the Nordkapp and back the following day. A day ahead of our contingency plan which was useful. We were up early on Tuesday for the final push. It would be about 150 miles and 4 hours and we planned to have lunch there, admire the view and send some postcards.
Did I say earlier on this page that the views that day had been the most spectacular yet? Well forget that, yes they were good but the awesomeness of the land and seascape on the final part of our Journey to the Top of the World was simply gobsmacking. It was a cold, grey, damp and sometimes wet day but that was immaterial.
We headed North out of Alta climbing on to a treeless wilderness plain. The road was long and mostly straight for the best part of 50 miles. There were Sami (the local indigenous peoples) camps and settelements at the side of the road and stalls selling their goods. On the hillside and beside the river there were occasional holiday cabins, skidoo’s for sale. A real wilderness, that must be inhospitable in the extreme in the winter but so much life going on. An then there were the reindeer herds, hundreds of them in large tracts of crudely fenced land and to think Sue had been worried about seeing just one.
Eventually we got to the small town (if it could be called that) of Olderfjord with fuel, shops, campsites and a hotel that we thought might be the last civilisation after which the road followed the coast line for 60 miles. Sometimes shiny new 2 lane and others barely 5 metres wide with uncomfortable drops off the edge. The views out across the Porsangen Fjord and the mountains beyond were stunning as were the clouds with sheets of rain where they met the sea. Still people lived and worked along the way mostly fishing but also still bailing hay obviously for winter feed and one guy who was the local helicopter service. Along the shore there were family groups and rafts of Mergazer and Goosander ducks with the occasional Wigeon and Long Tail ducks.
At the top of the Fjord the road crosses to Mageroya island through a 6.8km tunnel. As you drive in it starts to drop until it is eventually 212m below see level. Shortly after we stopped at a road works waiting for a “follow me” through a tunnel and watched an Eider family with still very small chicks. The roadworks inside this tunnel turned out to be cleaning with big spray trucks washing the roof and walls (these tunnels are all rough hewn from the rock) and here I have a bone to pick – we had to go through is in both directions and it cost me 80NKR (£8) to get the van anywhere near clean again.
Immediately after this tunnel we came upon Honningsvag which seems to be a bustling small town with tourism (there was a small cruise ship came into the harbour), fishing and other shipping or perhaps oil related services. Continuing up the road with just 21 miles to go we passed a large and recently built Scandic hotel before climbing high across the very wet and windswept moor until we came upon the Nordkapp visitor centre at 71.10.21N. They charged us 55NKR (£55) for the pleasure but after 2390 miles we were hardly going to turn around. The temperature was as low as 7C but we just had to do the photos before seeking shelter in the visitor centre. So we had made it, an itch well and truly scratched.
After a hot dog and a bun in the visitor centre and sending the obligatory post cards we set off back to Alta. Of course the same journey was just a retrace, and that tunnel, but we knew where to look for things. We stopped and got a great view of a Black Throated diver on a pond on the moor and got fabulous views of 2 pairs of Golden Eagles soaring above the road. By now we were suffering from reindeer overload so it might be time to start looking for some for the BBQ when we get further south to warmer weather. As we got closer to Alta the weather did improve and we returned to a not unpleasant but still chilly evening.
A couple of things that have struck us are the number of different countries cars and campers have come from apart from the obvious Scandinavian and Northern European. We have seen Russian and Ukrainian, hardly what we expected, Italian and Spanish, hell of a long way, and even one Australian BMW bike but we have seen precious few British certainly in Norway. Sue saw a car a few days ago and we passed a VW camper and then there was that Burstiner motorhome wit the trailer. On the way back from the Norkapp to Alta we sa a UK plated Unimog type camper and big 4×4 van camper with UK plates but that is it. Another surprising thing especially to and from the Nordkapp was the number of cyclists laden with tents and luggage battling the elements, the hills and tunnels and the traffic to reach the Top of the World – to be frank they must be bonkers.
Our crossing to Kristiansand was smooth and took just over 3 hours. The Colorline fast ferries are large vessels and a cut above your average cross channel fries. The terminal in Kristiansand spilled us into the into town in the middle of the afternoon and we were soon on our way north. The next week was going to be all about travel as we wanted to get to the Nordkapp first and then meander back south taking in sights and detours on the way.
It was another cooking hot afternoon when we dropped off the main road to find a small camp site by the lake at place called Hisoy. The sun was so hot that Sue and Fred had to sit in the van with the blinds down to avoid it and it hardly cooled down all night. Like most Norwegian campsites it was a mixture of caravans, campervans, motorhome and cabins but on this site someone was staying in a full on Kenworth long nose semi tractor.
Fred woke us about 06:00 on Thursday so we were soon up, dressed, breakfasted and on the road. Some of the road from Kristiansand to Oslo is now motorway but there was one section under construction and boy do the Norwegian road builders know how to deal with rocks. Sadly Norway has fallen in love with road pricing and every so often there is a gantry across the road that collects your registration number. We found just a few of these before so at least we have an account but there is no escape for foreign tourists as their agency will collect the tolls.
We came off the motorway before Oslo to take a scenic route to Lillehamer. It was picturesque but not a very good road and busy so for the second half of the journey we opted for the main E6 road (that would take us to a 100km short of the Nordkapp) that was equally busy and still pleasant enough. On the way into Lillehamer we looked up local campsites and found one by the lake. Fred managed to get a swim in the lake and bark at the ducks so he was happy. That evening we started to notice the lengthening days as sunset was getting later and the light it left over the lake was stunning.
For Friday our plan was to make it past Trondheim to a camp site we stayed at last time but first a trip to the supermarket for fresh provisions. By the time we were on the road it was already busy and for much of the way it was a frustratingly slow Norwegian cautions speed limit dawdle. We crossed over the vast wilderness at Oppdal where the road summit is over 2000 feet eventually reaching Trondheim in the Friday rush hour. Finally we got to the campsite at Steinkjer and the same pitch we had last time overlooking the lake where we could watch the Merganzer ducks among others dividing for food.
We made an early start on Saturday and this time the road was quiet. We were aiming for Mo i Rana but in the end made it way past there. The road passes through a mixture of geography and terrain but whatever there are a lot of pine trees. Like the rest of the journey there were several tunnels and todays longest of 8.6km is going to take some beating. Sue was on the look out for Elk and was rewarded with one this morning a bit off the side of the road. Long before Mo i Rana and beyond there were significant roadworks where the road is being widened and realigned. We saw the beginnings o this last time so it is going to be a long term project. That afternoon we crossed the Arctic Circle and continued to Nordnes campsite for the night. The van is taking the journey well in its stride and passed the 2000 mile mark just a few short of the Arctic Circle. By now the weather was much cooler, about 16C during the day and 10C at night.
We were away sharp on Sunday morning and again the roads were very quiet. This afternoon, 7 days after leaving home, we passed 2000 miles. Our aim was to get a little way past Narvik before stopping. We had an easy journey through some very big scenery stopping on one occasion to admire it and finding we were close by the WWII concentration camp. Just before that we had both seen an Elk on the road margin before it scuttled off into the woods. We ate lunch on small ferry just before Narvik and were looking forward to stopping for the night. Well this had to be the longest stretch of road with no campsites and we were contemplating a wild stop. Fortunately though we found a pleasant site next to a wildlife reserve that apparently has abundant bird life – except of course when we visit although we did see a red squirrel on the drive which fortunately Fred did not.
Driving through Norway is often slow and always torturous. Distances as the crow flies are great but by road they are twice as far. I am sure Fred, being a Spaniel, understands this. They can be tedious at times but rarely boring. It is easy to become blasé about the stupendous scenery that is seemingly endless. One could take a million photos but never capture the essence of bowling along through this fabulous place.
Well at least to the Nordkapp which is the most northerly point in Europe.
Two years ago we drove up the west coast of Norway as far as the Arctic Circle before turning for home through Sweden. Ever since then we have regretted not going further north in Norway even though we would not have had time to get to the Nordkapp. So now here we are on that journey for 5 weeks. Our plan is to get to the there reasonably swiftly although without busting a gut especially driving through Norway.
We set out on Sunday 29 July to catch the shuttle to Calais. For several days before Eurotunnel had been having tremendous problems caused by the heat wave and high traffic levels at the start of the school holidays. It seems that the air conditioning in their ageing rolling stock could not cope with the heat and the hot vehicles so that carriages were being taken out of service causing delays of many hours. However by Sunday things looked better so when we arrived everything was apparently running normally – that is only 30 minutes late. Waiting in the camper van park for our slot to be called we were one of many VW campers – at a guess about 1/3 of the vans there were VW of all ages. Oh and we had the first rain for weeks – but of course we were off on our travels.
Hitting the road north from Calais the Sunday traffic was busy and it was still raining. After about half an hour we crossed the Belgian border and it started to warm up. The autoroute through Belgium was extremely busy slowing to a crawl on several occasions. Our intention was always to get through Antwerp and into Netherlands before stopping for the night. Antwerp didn’t disappoint and we queued all the way up to and beyond the Kennedy tunnel even on a Sunday.
Once in the Netherlands we came off the motorway at Ousterhout to find a campsite. The surrounding area seemed to be a leisure park with a lot to choose from but in reality most were holiday camps or static vans. We stopped at one that was ASCI listed but as the lady totted up the extras it came to €40 for nothing special so we made our excuses and left. With a bit of snooping we soon found a site. A few miles away, it was bit old and tired but it was fine for the night and substantially cheaper at €13.50 and no formalities.
It was a hot night and we all had difficulty sleeping. We struggled to get Fred to stay in his bed but a bit of forceful persuasion eventually did the trick and we all got some sleep until about 06:00 when he decided it was time to jump on the bed and wake us.
On Monday 30th our plan was to reach the Danish border, about 400 miles away but the autobahn gods had other ideas. It was 30C and more for most of the day so we were running fast with the air condition blasting. Our first big problem came approaching roadworks joining the A1 near Osnabruk. We both saw the sat nav direct us off to the right but as we moved over I noticed the road signage was different and by the time we looked back at the sat nav we were committed. Annoyed and frustrated we drove about 7 miles to the next junction with queuing traffic on the opposite side that we were going to have to come back through. We had lost about half an hour.
Back on the move we stopped briefly for lunch with an eye on making the border by 17:00. Our plan ran it to trouble when we hit the back of a queue caused by a recent accident in the roadworks ahead. In all we sat there for about 2 hours with an outside temperature that maxed at 36C – it wasn’t fun. Once they cleared the accident and the traffic was on the move again we dove through many miles of 2 lane restrictions with more queues around Bremen and on to Hamburg. Hamburg was another nightmare, it was rush hour and we crawled through the Elbe Tunnels and into 30 or 40 kilometres of roadworks where the A7 going north is being widened.
By now we had given up on making Denmark and so dropped off the motorway to find a nearby camp site. What we found was a holiday camp site around a small lake. They even had a beach with loads of activities for kids. The touring pitches were a free for all which despite our having driven around the lanes off the autobahn was right next to it. Whatever the facilities were superb so we ended up clean and refreshed. It was another very hot and stuffy night.
We were up early the next morning, 31 July, courtesy of Fred and on the road where even at 09:00 it was 28C. After the previous day our drive was spectacularly uneventful and we made Hirtshals by 14:45. At the camp site by the beach our details came up on their system and we pitched just a few places away from where we had before. After a walk around town we had planned to sit out for the evening but the inevitable happened, the wind got up, the sky clouded, there were claps of thunder and the heavens opened so that was that until later when the sun set with a gorgeous orange turning to red glow.
Wednesday 1st of August and we were off to Norway. We killed time with a walk around the extensive German fortifications for the big guns that were there to protect the straight. And then before checking in top the tank up with cheap Danish diesel and a trip to the supermarket for a few essentials. Finally after 865 miles arriving at the ferry terminal for our 12:15 sailing to Kristiansand.