Guest Post – Gap Year Nomads

Guest Post – Gap Year Nomads

We love meeting new people on the road and hearing what brought them to travel. When we rocked up to a wild spot on the west coast of Portugal, there was a bumble-bee coloured van sat looking across the ocean. Of course it was only polite to see if they minded us parking next to them – and then we saw they were British. And that moment was the start of a fabulous evening, sharing food stories and a few tipples. Here is Emily and Lloyd’s story of their gap year in their self-converted minibus, Flora.

 

 

Flora’s Conversion

At the beginning of 2018, Lloyd and I hatched a plan to travel the world. We looked into backpacking, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail before finally landing on travelling the world in a van. For budget reasons, and for design creativity, we chose to self-convert a van.

I work in Marketing and Lloyd works in Sales, so you could reasonably assume that we didn’t have any DIY skills. I was handy with a paintbrush and Lloyd could change a lightbulb and put up a picture. Although beyond that, everything we learnt, we found on the internet. We followed anyone and everyone on Instagram who had converted their own vans for inspiration, we read blogs for tips on the best things to use and we watched videos on Youtube on how to put it all together.

 

We had saved around £3500 to spend on a van, and we would then save the same again to fit it out. We found Flora, a 15 year old LDV Convoy Minibus on Autotrader with around 17,000 miles on the clock. With no intention of buying that day, we drove up to visit the first van to get the ball rolling, and next thing we knew, Flora was ours. We drove her away on the same day. She had 17 seats and a roof rack – and she was ours.

Initially, we were very optimistic about the conversion; we spent a weekend gutting out the 17 seats, the plastic walling, the floor, the soaking cab mat and were left with an empty husk of a van. A bright yellow empty shell. After watching videos, we had planned to spend the following weekend cleaning, rust treating and priming. That weekend stretched from 1 weekend to 4. That was a bit of a wake up call.

 

Initially, we kept the van on my mum’s driveway as there was more space than outside our 2 bedroom house in Portsmouth. However, by August, we had insulated the van using Celotex boards, expanding foam and some recycled plastic wool, which was not as far as we were planning to be. We moved the van down to Portsmouth, and whilst we both worked full-time, our evenings and weekends were spent in Wickes, B&Q and in, on or around the van.

Our house is small and we lived in chaos. We ate Heinz tomato soup and ready made pizzas to save time in the evenings so we could make the most of the light. We gave up hobbies and socialising. We worked all day, every day and it was some of the most stressful times of our somewhat short lives.

We hit a turning point in early-mid October when it finally started coming together. We had finished the main components of the build and could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I was painting, Lloyd was completing woodwork pieces. I was put on garden leave in early November which was a real blessing. We would not have been ready to leave by the deadline we had chosen if it wasn’t for that, because not only were we converting our van, we also had to jump through the hoops required to let out our house.

 

We moved out of our house on December 31st. Trying to get the final few things completed for the house was a mad dash. We had electricians ripping up floorboards on the 23rd of December and replacing the fuse board. We received our gas safety certificate and, the day we handed over the keys, we collectively let out a sigh of relief, in part because we had only just finished cleaning the house that very morning.

Lloyd worked the first week in January, whilst I cleaned, painted, carpeted and packed the van. The day before we left, Lloyd fitted the gas, the diesel heater and we had an issue with the battery which needed fixing. Then like it was nothing, we started up the engine on the 13th of January, and we left the UK for the trip of a lifetime.

 

How we are finding it so far?

We are now eight months into our trip and we still cannot stop smiling.

We live with 75L of water which lasts us 4-5 days. We rely solely on solar power to charge our phones, laptop, iPad, lights, fan and water pump. We have a 13kg bottle of gas that has lasted so far and is still lasting us. We don’t have hot water, we don’t have a shower and we don’t have a toilet. We live with less now than we ever have before but feel richer with everything else we get to experience on a daily basis.

It was a steep learning curve. 15/20L of water a day doesn’t really sound as little as it is, but as the average use of a person living in the UK currently stands at 300-370L of water a day, so it’s a noticeable adjustment. We don’t have a shower so rely on boiling water from the kettle and using the sink and a flannel or a swim in the sea. We don’t have a toilet, which has been a source of many laughs, tears and midnight drives, but now our bodies are starting to get used to it.

It sounds like a nightmare, but really, it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s just not bad. We have this inexpressible freedom to go wherever the wind blows. Choosing where to park is easy now with so many apps and websites for camper vans, caravans, and other converted vans.

 

How we afford to travel

As I said earlier, we both worked full time, during which time, we saved enough money for us to travel for a year. On a budget of maximum £1000 a month, we are currently spending around £600 a month on all our expenses, for both of us. Food, fuel, travel costs which is split about a third each way. We currently don’t earn money on the road, and we’re not sure if we ever will, so we have saved enough for us to do the things we want to do for a year.

We are very lucky that there are so many places to free camp across Europe as this has saved us vast sums of money and it also means we have been lucky enough to have some of the most beautiful places as our back garden.

 

Our route and future plans

Our journey has taken us from Dunkirk to Lake Annecy, Lake Annecy to the Etretat Cliffs, along the coastline to Mont St Michel and the Cote de Granit Rose, to Bordeaux, Biarritz and Bayonne. We have petted wild horses in the Pyrenees, had our van towed in San Sebastian, drank cider in Oviedo and hiked the Ruta del Cares in the Picos de Europa.

When we first met Karen and Myles, we were in Portugal and cannot express how beautiful this country is. From the granaries in Soajo and the Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga to the street performers in Porto, we had the most incredible time exploring Portugal in our van. We carried on through Southern Spain and up the Mediterranean coastline for an exceptional month meeting family who met us in Barcelona, the Verdon Gorge and Antibes, before heading over through Switzerland & Northern Italy, where we spent a magical evening under the Tre Cime de Lavaredo. After a quick stop in Lake Bled in Slovenia, we met friends in Austria, before finally heading through Slovakia, a completely underrated country in our opinion!
Our journey now, will take us from where we are in southern Poland, up through Lithuania, Latvia & Estonia, where we are planning to take a ferry to Helsinki. We will then drive up and over into Norway in time for the Northern Lights around September/ October time (before we get snowed out), then we will head down for the Christmas markets in Germany & Czech Republic, before returning to the UK for our MOT in December.

 

If you’d like to follow along with the rest of our journey, you can follow us on Instagram: @ourconvoyage or you can check out our blog www.ourconvoyage.com.

 

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Sweden Road-trip Guide & Interactive Map

Sweden Road-trip Guide & Interactive Map

Sweden, western Europe’s best kept secret that has hidden depths and a diversity to appeal to every single visitor.

 

Sweden is such an unknown entity despite its musical foursome and Nobel Peace Prize inventor. It remains in the shadows of its geologically dramatic neighbour, Norway and yet stands firm in its own identity. As we headed off on our Summer in Scandinavia tour 2019, we had high hopes, Bucket Lists and anticipation of what this Nordic country could show us. Would it surprise and delight us as we searched for the ‘road less travelled’ or would people’s warnings of being boring haunt our expectations? Come with us on our road-trip as we create our own Swedish experiences that delve deeply into its culture and its landscape. Perhaps through our eyes you can then make up your own minds about what Sweden has to offer.  For a more detailed look at travelling to Sweden in a camper, then check out our comprehensive Top Tips Guide by clicking here. 

 

Our Sweden Interactive Route-map

As our initial offering, we present a comprehensive interactive map that gives you our specific route, visual treats with our images and co-ordinates of each and every place we called home. Click on the map image below to get access to our unique journey. 

 

Sweden – Did you know?

We love finding out about the country we are about to call home. So many interesting facts that create a really solid understanding of a place and its ‘raison d’être’. Here’s 15 things that we discovered from our research, Swedish friends and the locals we met along the way…

 

  1. Sweden has over 97,000 lakes! Yes 97,000. That’s a lot of lakes and they really are so beautiful. They tease you as you drive through the countryside, peaking their brilliant blue through the forest of green.
  2. There are over 350,000 moose and 260,000 reindeer so keep your eyes open. Strangely though, you are more likely to see reindeer especially in Lapland. Moose tend to be a bit more illusive and camouflaged amongst the trees.
  3. Alfred Nobel may be best known for his Nobel Peace Prize, although he made his fortune through the invention and selling of dynamite. 
  4. Sweden is approximately 1000 miles from north to south.
  5. Sweden has 56 days of complete daylight.
  6. Swedes use 54% of renewable energy and actually buy other people’s rubbish to convert. 
  7. Temperatures can average -16º in the north
  8. The nomadic Sami people are one of the world’s oldest cultures and were close to being wiped out by the effects of Chernobyl in 1989.
  9. Sweden used to have a real alcoholic problem and now booze is only available from Government-run stores in an attempt to curb the drinking culture. 
  10. 2/3 of Sweden’s landmass is covered by forest. 90% of properties are made of wood. The iconic red paint comes from a derivative of the important iron ore and copper mines around the country. 
  11. Sweden is home to the world’s first Icehotel, created in 1989.
  12. The Swedish Royal family are the oldest monarchy in the world. 
  13. The Sami’s calendar has 8 seasons each related to a cycle in the herding of reindeer. 
  14. Sweden has 29 National Parks
  15. Cost of living here is not as expensive as you might think. If you think up-market supermarket prices rather than Lidl then you will have the general cost of living here. 

 

Sweden – Our Top 10 Highlights

Trying to limit our favourite highlights and experiences from our 34 days is a tough one. With canals, magnificent coastlines, beaches, forest, archipelago and mountains, how are we meant to choose? Although select I must for the sake of your reading eyes.

 

1 – West coast beaches, for coastal lovers

From the minute you cross from Denmark over the famous Øresund Bridge, which is an experience all of its own, Sweden embraces you. The draw of the beaches are always strong with us. There’s something about the sea that just connects deeply with me. From the star fortress at Landskrona to the Royal Palace at Helsingborg, there are spots all along the coast to enjoy the sea. The views of Denmark and the Konberg Castle of Hamlet fame are so appealing and a great way to start a Swedish adventure. 

Check out our gallery of images below.

 

2 – Göta Canal – for water-sport enthusiasts

Stretching from Gothenburg in the west through two major lakes over to the eastern Baltic shores at Soderköping, Sweden’s Göta Canal is a must-see. It’s one of those ‘off-the-beaten-track’ places that only the Swedes tend to visit. Following the canal along its navigational route, gives you a unique view of Sweden’s countryside as you sweep over it on small lanes passing through authentic Swedish villages. Tempted by canal tow-paths bordered with artwork and pink floral cheerleaders, the Göta canal will delight you with its simplistic elegance. Whether you choose to do all or part by boat, SUP, cycle or camper, this central southern region has it all. For more information on the canal, check out our dedicated blog here.

Check out our gallery of images below.

 

3 – Stockholm, for city-break lovers

Sweden’s capital provides a unique stage for the humble visitor. First it has 14 archipelago that need exploring. Then there’s the old town (Gamla Stan) with its historic buildings, cathedral and Royal Palace. And the modern face of Stockholm with it countless museums, canals, Art Gallery underground stations, grand architecture and parks, all combine to give you a holistic experience. Whilst we’re not great city fans, having created our own ‘Alternative Tour’ of the city, we could certainly see the potential for a good 3 day visit here. Check out our City Tour Guide with a twist here.  

Check out our gallery of images below.

 

4 – The Baltic coast and Höga Kusten for outdoor lovers

In dramatic contrast to the west, Sweden’s east coast has the influence of the Baltic Sea. Thousands of year’s worth of natural history is evident along these shores. And it is here where you will experience Sweden’s most authentic personality. From Iron Ore mines dating back to 17th century at Galtström to atmospheric fishing villages tucked away in coves that still rely on the sea for their livelihood. Characterful red, stilted houses that sit on the water’s edge will transport you back to another era. Fågelsundet is the most incredible example of Sweden’s genuine fishing legacy and it will have you magnetised for hours as you step back in time. 

And as you head ever north in search of Santa perhaps, the Höga Kusten or High Coast is a sight to behold. 10,000 years of history engraved into this land where the forces of nature have collided to create the world’s highest coastline. Archipelago, lakes, forests of pine home to bears and moose give this region a secret beauty that so many by-pass. Stretching out from Härnösand to Örnsköldsvik, you can discover a treasure of untouched land, that is now protected by UNESCO, such is its importance. And it has been voted as Sweden’s best area of outstanding natural beauty. 

At 286m above sea, this coastline is a record breaker and each year it’s still growing; an estimated 8mm per year. With its plunging coastline, deep forests and lakes and dramatic mountains, the High Coast is a must for nature lovers and hikers. The Skulekogan National Park is littered with hikes ranging from boardwalks suitable for wheelchairs to day-long hikes with shelter cabins for the more adventurous. Why not experience the High Coast Trail which is a gruelling 78 mile (129km) trail that takes in the complete stretch of the UNESCO region and takes between 5-7 days. 

Check out our gallery of images below.

 

5 – The Midnight Sun for Bucket List seekers

You can’t come to Sweden in the summer and not head north for a glimpse of the Midnight Sun. It is one of the most incredibly special parts of our trip. Coming from UK, we always have that balance of light and dark. Sometimes one rules over the other more dominantly, although there’s always a yin and yang. Although not so in Scandinavia. Here one is the king for at least 2 months.

Our first initiation was actually in Grenen in the northern most peak of Denmark. And whilst it is too far south to be the traditional midnight sun, the balance of light to dark was most certainly tipped in the favour of the day. As we headed further north, that dominance grew more and more and it enthralled me. Do you ever remember those conundrums at school? If you were plunged into 24 hours or darkness or 24 hours of sunlight, how would it impact on your life? 

I never imagined that I would be living that question. How tricky to manage sleep when it is light all day. The sun never dies; it has a perpetual circle where the light gives life to all its subjects. Midnight and the bees are still collecting pollen, the birds are still singing and animals are going about their normal daily habits. Our sleep patterns were definitely affected, as were our energy levels. Bizarrely although I would wake up regularly wondering what the time was, I rarely felt sleep-deprived. My productivity and creativity went through the roof, energised by this most incredible deLIGHT.  We could travel as far or as long as we wanted without the darkness forcing us to bow to its supremacy. Although the most amazing insight has been, how quickly the body adapts to this phenomena. After a mere two weeks living and breathing the midnight sun, we rarely even thought about it. Our minds learnt, our bodies shifted and soon we were living life like a Midnight Sun local. 

Witnessing the never sinking sun will remain one of my most memorable moments. As we scampered to the top of  Arjeplog’s mountain in Lapland, at 2345, we watched in awe as the sun’s arc kissed the horizon gently and then continued on its passage into the next day. What a humbling experience. In the far north, you can bare witness to this incredible event, depending on the weather until mid-July.  

 

6 – The Arctic Circle 

One of my three Swedish Bucket Lists was to stop at the Arctic Circle. Whilst I’m not a trophy hunter, I’ve never travelled so far north and to reach the Arctic Circle seemed momentous for this home-bird. Plus there’s always something to learn from these landmarks. 

I hadn’t realised that the circle is not a static line – it is forever shifting. Whilst it is approximately on the 66.5ºN axis, it can move up to 48ft every single year. The Arctic Circle is defined by the tilting of the earth away from or towards the sun, which can fluctuate around 2.4º every 40,000 years. This is known as the precession.

How incredible to come face-to-face with this incredible lineage. We arrived on the longest day of the year and it was damp and grey, although to me, the weather mattered not a jot. It was amazing to park up here and feel the energy of the place and its symbolising of universal movement. 

 

7 – Lapland’s Wildlife, for the nature lovers

Someone told me that north of Stockholm, Sweden becomes boring. And whilst we respect everyone’s travel experiences, I was determined to decide for myself. For us, it was anything other than boring. We adore wildlife, nature and forests, and Sweden has them all in bucket loads. Long, straight roads taking you north through the wilderness piques my interest, as hidden behind the wall of trees is a whole existence beyond our comprehension.

Whilst I would love to have seen a bear, they remain an illusive beast for us and so we had to satisfy ourselves with reindeer and the odd female moose. What a privilege they were. On deserted roads we often found ourselves travelling alongside a small family of reindeer as they decided which way to roam. They were so close and so tame. We even saw one on a beach! Well even Ruldoph needs a holiday! 

If you are lucky you may see Sea Eagles, Golden Eagles and Rough-legged Buzzards. We saw the latter although everything else was hanging out with the bears on our trip. One of these days we’ll see one, of that I am sure.  However, the anticipation was enough to have our eyes peeled like oranges.

Check out our gallery below.

 

8 –  Jokkmokk, gateway to Laponia and the Sami

Sweden is full of culture – and it seems that in every pine needle from the endless forest treasures, there will be an ancient legacy held in its pores. The further north you venture, the more you will learn about Sweden’s Sami, who have been recognised by UN as indigenous people, granting them permission to maintain their identity, practices and semi-nomadic lifestyles.

If you really want to understand Sweden, then look deep into the soul of the Sampi – which is Sami territory. Nestled in the heart of the Arctic Circle, Sami communities support their ancient heritage dating back thousands of years. Their partnership with the earth is key to their culture and there is no better a place to learn about their lives than in this region.

Having passed the heady heights of the Arctic Circle, 4 miles up the road is the small town of Jokkmokk. In summer it has a deserted feel about it, almost as if tumbleweed would look at home here. And yet when you venture into its avenues you uncover a colonial feel. As the epicentre for Sami culture, Jokkmokk is a must-visit destination if you want to learn about this important part of Sweden’s tapestry. The Ajtte Museum is your first port of call and for a mere 90SEK (£7.60) you can easily while away a couple of hours learning about Sami’s nomadic life in the wilds of Laponia.  Then a saunter down to the incredibly helpful Tourist Info centre and Sami craft shop will arm you with plenty of Sami knowledge.  

In February this humble town takes on a whole new guise as it erupts with its 400 year old Winter Market. On the first Thursday in February, the market begins, and the Sami come from miles around to sell their handicraft. Visited by tens of thousands of people from around the world, the market is unique, in part because of the harsh winter conditions through which the Sami seem to live effortlessly. 

Not far from Jokkmokk, you can further expand your Sami understanding by entering into the heart of Laponia. This is a fabulous landscape famed for its partnership between man, history and nature. This region vibrates with Sami culture, geological significance and intense natural beauty. Hence is another of Sweden’s World Heritage sites thanks to its symbiotic relationships. With nine Sami communities, rocks dating back 2,000 million years and an often inhospitable landscape, you can begin to appreciate the geological importance of this off-the-beaten track region.  Deep lakes, high mountains, gushing rivers and thriving forests all combine to offer a natural wonder to all who enter through its gates. Why not take the road from Porjus and start your Laponia adventure, seeing the road before you melt into the arms of the snow-covered mountains. Check out the Naturum Centre, where their passionate staff will share their knowledge of the area and the nomadic Sami people. 

Check out our gallery below.

 

9 –  Icehotel, Jukkasjärvi – for thrill seekers

I don’t know about you, although being cold is not really my idea of fun. Although when we headed to Swedish Lapland’s northern most reaches of Jukkasjärvi, there was one big, cold Bucket List tick to be had for me. The Icehotel is an incredible and world-renowned establishment that fuses art and nature together under one snowy roofline. The first hotel of its kind was founded in 1989 and since that time 29 winter Icehotel Art Galleries have been uniquely created and duly melted thanks to Mother Nature. With the extraordinary talents of artists from around the globe, the Icehotel has become a winter institution for those looking to experience the Northern Lights, winter sports and sleep in rooms made of ice.

And now, sleeping in your own personal art gallery, can be a year-round activity thanks to the newly created 365 Icehotel. This is a permanent construction made possible by solar panels energised by the 24hrs daylight. Enjoy a tour around these uniquely created suites and partake in a little drink from the Icebar with glasses carved out of ice and dressed in Arctic capes that ward off the chill. For an intimate look at our Icehotel experience – camped up in their campingplats, we hasten to add, check our blog and video here.

Beyond the hotel, Jukkasjärvi can stand proudly as having its own landmark for visitors which makes a visit here doubly worthwhile. Check out the Sami church with its incredible carvings and the Museum and restaurant that have recreated Sami life underneath the canvas. Try a Coffee Cheese – that will blow your mind. 

Check out our gallery below.

 

10 – Abisko National Park, for nature and hiking lovers

Just when you think your Swedish adventures are about to come to an end, you arrive in Abisko. With your vehicle laden with supplies before the expensive heights of Norway, you make your way along the E10. Now this is no normal road. This is the piéce de resistance of border crossing routes. With the landscape taking a dramatic turn from the grey outlook of Kiruna, you will find your mouth quiet literally wide open. I defy you not to gasp in awe at this incredible panorama. Granite boulders strewn like giants’ tiddlywinks, crystal blue waters and ice-white waterfalls cascading from the still snow-capped mountains. This is the world of the Abisko National Park. 

Armed with your hiking gear, this is the starting point of the world’s most famous hiking trail – Kungsleden. Created back in 20th century the King’s Trail is over 240 miles (400km) and is as demanding as it is long. It crosses peaks and valleys, passes through mountain villages where reindeer husbandry is evident and meanders around lakes, tarns and rivers. And it all starts (or ends depending on how you see it) in Abisko. You can do parts of the walk from here and the Stora Sjöfallets National Park, where the trail also passes. Or choose to do the whole thing using the cabins along the way to rest and sleep. We chose just to do a small section at Abisko following the path of the canyon and it was absolutely stunning. 

Abisko implores you to stay for more than a day, with its full range of walking trails suitable for everyone. With a cable car going up to the mountain, surely from here the Midnight Sun and Northern Lights are a guarantee. It is known to be one of the best parts of Sweden to see the lights and with it microclimate, offers the sun worshipers great chance to see the never sleeping sun. 

This was a real highlight to our 34 days in Sweden and has our memories dripping with evocative images of ice-blue canyon waters, classical u-shaped valleys and towering mountains. And as Norway beckoned, we were eased into the geological masterpiece that we would soon be calling home. 

Check out our gallery below.

 

Practicalities

 

Getting there

Arriving into Sweden is easy, despite its northerly position. Flights to Stockholm, as a major international hub, are a breeze. In fact there are no less than four different airports to choose from;

  • Stockholm Arlanda Airport (ARN)
  • Bromma Airport (BMA)
  • Västerås Airport (VST) 
  • Skavsta Airport (NYO)

There is the train from Denmark across the Øresund Bridge which takes you straight into Malmo, Gothenburg or Stockholm.

Ferries are plentiful offering you travel from:

  • Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania
  • Poland
  • Denmark
  • Germany
  • Russia
  • Norway and Finland

If you are coming by road then it does depend which direction you are coming from and indeed from which country. There are three main country routes into Sweden;

  • Via Finland you can cross the border at Haparanda on the E8.
  • Via Norway; from the north the E10 entry into Abisko is an outstanding route or on E6 in the south, crossing at Seläter.
  • Via Denmark crossing the Storebælt and Øresund Bridge (which are chargeable.) 

 

If you are travelling with your camper, then why not check out this comprehensive blog offering you our Top Tips for Touring Sweden in a Camper?

 

Things to remember

A couple of tips worth remembering whilst you are in this delicious country.

  • Sweden has its own currency – Swedish Krone  –  SEK. We used XE.com to get a handle on the exchange rates.
  • Sweden is generally a cash-less society, so don’t load up with too much of the paper stuff. Just your pre-loaded cards will do fine. Even for small amounts, cards are generally used. 
  • Shopping in Sweden is more expensive than some of its European cousins further south, although in comparison to say UK, is on a par in many ways. Prices particularly in the cities will be significantly higher as a general rule.
  • Swedes are great linguists and many will speak excellent English, although coming armed with a few Swedish phrases will be appreciated. 

 


 

Our Conclusions

Sweden has been a fabulous experience. Three Bucket List ticks and a host of fabulous memories to add to our Travel Journal. Warmth, generosity, community spirit and an enchanting land await you. Sweden stands firmly in our affections for all that it has given us and is another country we can add to our Must Return To list. We hope that this inspires you to put Sweden on your travel agenda and explore it wealth of natural, historical and cultural offerings.

 

 

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Icehotel, Sweden – where nature and art fuse

Icehotel, Sweden – where nature and art fuse

The Icehotel, a sensory experience that goes deep beneath your skin, penetrates far beyond your iris and seeps profoundly into your soul. A place where you can sense, touch and see the simplicity of nature fusing with art, nestled in the heart of the Arctic Circle. 

 

Visiting the Icehotel has been on my Bucket List for years; for as long as there have been cobwebs in the corner of my bedroom.  And as our 2019 Summer in Scandinavia road-trip with our camper took shape, I knew that a visit was inevitable. My Bucket List was about to get a great big, fat tick.

I had been in touch with the Icehotel and found out that we could park our camper at their campingplats. So that was it – we set our course north. With my mind focused, I planned our route through the spine of Sweden searching for moose, reindeer and the Midnight Sun along the way.  All the while my excitement began to blossom. Quietly at first and then it transformed into a galloping herd of stallions.  With every day, my anticipation became as sharp as a razor blade and my fear of disappointment lurked surreptitiously in the shadows. Would the reality create an overcast sky on my sunshine bright hopes? We were about to find out.

 

Check out our video for a real visual submersion into our adventure.

 

Our Arrival

Once we had  parked up in the Icehotel’s official campingplats, we took ourselves off for the 4.00pm tour. I might as well have been in Santa’s Grotto as I took in the image before me. The first thing that struck me was the simplicity.  Wooden cabins, called the ‘warm rooms’, stood in avenues each with their own rooftop decoration. They had an earthy feel about them and they fitted into the winter woodland environment perfectly. In between the cabins, statues of all shapes and sizes caught my eye, the hotel making sure that the art theme was consistent, inside and out. The roofs covered in moss and grasses gave them a sense of camouflage amongst the insatiable 24 hour daylight that blesses this part of the world in June. And in the distance, the blue tones of the river Torne sparkled with mischievousness. The river is such an essential component to the Icehotel’s existence, as we would soon learn. A river that, with its crisp coldness speeds eastwards to a destination known only by the river gods, creates a playground for Europe’s white-water rafters. 

“And what of the Icehotel?” I hear you cry. Well beneath its own natural grassy canvas, this incredibly understated palace of ice pulled me in along its boardwalk. If I could have run up to it, like a lover towards the embrace of their long-lost partner, I would have. Although a certain amount of decorum is needed, surely? Decorum and patience.

Check out our gallery below.

 

Icehotel History

Sweden’s Icehotel is the first of its kind in the world and is the brain-child of Yngve Bergqvist who was inspired by Japanese ice-sculptures. After inviting some sculptors to become instructors in Jukkasjärvi, in 1989 Bergqvist built an Igloo art gallery, and it was from this seed that the world-renowned Icehotel was conceived. Year by year, as each unique gallery of rooms melted back into the arms of its creator, the Icehotel brand grew from strength to strength and now has global recognition. 

The Icehotel is a exclusive concept. Each winter a totally new personality emerges, as artists from around the world are invited to submit their ice visions. A totally unique, annual Art Gallery that temporarily showcases its masterpieces before the spring sun dawns from behind its winter curtain.

In March, ice is harvested from the frozen river Torne, which offers up its 80cm thick treasure ready for its transformation. Two ton blocks are cut from the motionless winter river and stored in a massive refrigerated storage unit until the next season’s construction is ready to begin. And as the first snow begins to fall, a special combination of ‘snice’ – snow and ice, blend together like the mortar between bricks. Within six weeks, the main structure is ready and the artists arrive, tasked with turning their visions into an icy reality – within just two weeks! What an evolution. A special artistic expression that has such a short lifespan of beauty. 

 

 

The Icehotel Tour

On the nose of 4.00pm, our guide Jenny took us on one of the four daily tours. We started off at a structure that looked something like an aircraft hanger. Two arched frames that act as the backbone for the winter hotel. And as I looked to the ground, electric cables were neatly encircled on the earth as they wait, in summer hibernation until their autumnal cue. Here is the very foundation for the winter hotel. Of course, now in full summer, this year’s hotel has already melted back into the earth, its soul waiting patiently for a reemergence in October. For now we can only imagine how Icehotel 30 might look.

The refrigeration storage unit, which is the paternal belly of the Icehotel, is home to the precious blocks of crystal blue ice. Priceless cubes that not only morph into works of art the following autumn, they are also shipped across the world for companies’ PR creations. It is here that the Ice Bar glasses are created and where ice has become a growing commercial commodity – who would have thought it?

Now for the exciting bit… the rooms of the year-round 365 Icehotel and the obligatory Ice Bar.

 

365 Icehotel Experience

As the doors of the main 365 Icehotel slid back, they presented to my eagerly awaiting eyes, the hotel’s world of ‘snice’. I felt the tingle of anticipation rise from my toasty warm feet. Donning our Artic capes and gloves that would shrivel Superman into a melted puddle of fear, I waited for the moment of revelation. The coldness immediately hit my face. Yet it was as if I had been invited to run naked into the warm Mediterranean Sea – there was nothing holding me back. 

I couldn’t help being mesmerised by a column of ice in the hotel’s entrance that held some river plants in beautiful animation. Art of a different kind; nature in immortalised suspension. I gingerly touched the ice and was instantly drawn to its velvety feel. I’ve been so conditioned to see ice as a substance to freeze your skin, and yet this had the opposite effect. Smooth, silk-like and soft to touch, like a crystal glass yet with an energy and life breathing through its inanimate pores.

The Icehotel’s 20 Rooms/Suites are accessed by reindeer covered sliding doors, that gave me permission to enter into  a magical new world. A archway of sparkling ice that had an eery and surreal light to it. Along the corridor, doorways invited me to an artist’s mind, represented by skilful carvings from pure, virginal ice. Different themes that were birthed from their creativity. Some rooms evoked a real wow, whilst others demanded my reflection asking me to stop a while and listen. Whilst the silence was deafening, a couple of rooms greeted me with softly playing music, like a lullaby for the restless child. A bed covered with reindeer rugs invited me to stay underneath its protective shield while the unforgiving ice-cold air threatens to crumble even the bravest resolve.

And yet strangely, as I wandered from room to room like Alice in Wonderland, I found myself glowing in delight. I felt cold, not once. Perhaps it was the adrenaline of excitement coursing through my body. Although could I have stayed the night? Yes I think so. Although of course, I say this with the confidence of knowing that I had the comfort of our warm camper waiting for us up the road.

The intricate detail of the artists’ craft can only to be applauded and to view this living and breathing gallery was a complete privilege. Where else can you see such incredible designs that have such a fragile existence and that cry out to be admired before they succumb to their watery grave?

Check out our gallery of Icehotel rooms by clicking the image below. 

 

 

The Ice Bar

Of course the obligatory drink to warm my soul was the grand finale. Glasses made of ice were filled with evocative colours, brighter than any rainbow, which made my eyes pop. Carefully, with hands limited by enormous mittens, I scooped up my Wolf Paw cocktail and allowed the unique vessel to touch my lips. With dexterity and mindfulness, this in itself was a skill to master. Although once nailed, resistance to return for a topup was futile. 

The entire room was also constructed with ‘snice’ and embellished with ice carvings and decorations. Protecting our bottoms from the cold were reindeer hides that brought a little colour to the ice-blue hew of the room. And yet, this wonderland landscape was anything other than bland. It was mesmerising. With music vibrating gently around the room, the joy of being dressed ready for the Artic with a drink in hand, was a total privilege and one I will never forget. 

One of the most fitting endings to this whole experience was a symbolic committing of our glasses back to the river. Throwing this priceless vessel back into the arms of the Torne that first gave it life, was surprisingly moving. Knowing that this receptacle, born from these waters could return to it, presented the ultimate recycling gesture. What a great finale to our Icehotel experience.  

Check out our gallery below.

 

Icehotel Activities 

The Icehotel experience is so much more than just sleeping in an ice room. Getting a flavour of the surrounding area and soaking up the Sami culture is an important part of the adventure. There are the mountains, the river, nature and its wildlife, all taking on completely different characteristics depending on the season. Whether it’s the Northern Lights, the Midnight Sun, ice sculpting lessons, snow sledding with huskies or just visiting the local Sami museum, church and Sami Homestead, there is plenty to keep you entertained. For more information check here. 

Check out our gallery below.

 

Icehotel Practicalities

Whilst the Icehotel may seem as though it is at the end of the earth, nestled in the heart of the Artic region, it is surprisingly easy to get to. 

Driving – it took us just over five days to drive here from Sweden’s High Coast. Although this was a saunter – it can be done more quickly if you are prepared to drive more miles and hours. Equally, if you are in Norway and the Lofoton Island region, then it is around 120 miles (under 200km) from Narvik. 

Flying – There are flights into Kiruna from Stockholm which is just 10 miles (15km) from Jukkasjärvi. From mid-December to early March you can fly direct from UK’s Heathrow airport to Kiruna in 3.5hours. 

Staying at the Icehotel – prices vary according to the season you want to stay and whether you want to stay in a ‘warm room’ or one of the Ice Suites. As an example, staying in a 365 Hotel room in the summer would be an investment in the region of £215, which includes breakfast, the sauna facilities and a tour. For more information and booking information, check them out here.

Daytime tours –  If you are in the area, then you can just visit for the day and do a tour times of which will vary according to the season and are offered in Swedish and English. 

Winter Tours; 349SEK

Summer Tours; 295SEK

Camping If you have your own camper, then why not stay here overnight in the warmth of your own home while still experiencing the uniqueness of the hotel? One of their 10 pitches will cost 350SEK, which includes electric hook up and the use of the sauna and showers at the main hotel reception. 

 

 

Our Closing Thoughts

 

Nature’s art breathing with simplicity and mastery

The Icehotel has seamlessly blended a commercial concept with nature – without exploitation. Using what Mother Nature gifts each winter, they have designed a modest and humble venue that honours the environment, art and Laponian culture. A visit here is so much more than just an overnight stay in a hotel. It is an experience, an adventure that allows you to be present with this symbiotic relationship between man and the earth. 

And so did disappointment come to visit? Absolutely not. The Icehotel was so much more than I imagined. So simple and earthy yet grand in its interaction with nature. I will never forget my journey to the Icehotel.

 

For more information check out the Icehotel’s website and Social Media Channels.

Twitter: twitter.com/icehotel_sweden
Facebook: 
facebook.com/icehotel.sweden
Instagram: 
@icehotelsweden
Youtube: 
youtube.com/icehotelchannel

 

Acknowledgements 

We were hosted by the Icehotel for this trip who neither reviewed nor approved this story. Our reviews and opinions are our own.

We would like to give thanks and credit to all the 365 Suite artists, some of whom we may have featured in our photography and video. 

Early Spring | Nando Alvarez and Liliya                                                      Raindrop prelude | Eryk Marks and Tomasz Czajkowski 

The Drift | Friederike Schroth and Fabien Champeval                                Out of the box | Wilfred Stijger & Edith Van De Wetering

Lost & found | Jens Thoms Ivarsson and Petri ”Bette” Tuominen              Téckara | Javier Opazo

The Invisible Invincible | Nina Hedman& Lena Kriström                            Oh Deer | Ulrika Tallving & Carl Wellander

Mermaid Fitness | Nina Hedman and Magnus Hedman                             Wishful Thinking | Marjolein Vonk & Maurizio Perron

Kiss | Kestutis and Vytautas Musteikis                                                         Living with Angels | Benny Ekman

Melting Pot | Rob Harding and Timsam Harding                                         Hydro Smack | Julia Gamborg Nielsen & Lotta Lampa

The Victorian Apartment | Luca Roncoroni                                                 You Are My Type | John Bark & Charli Kasselbäck

Dancers in the Dark | Tjåsa Gusfors & Patrick Dallard                                Once upon a Time | Luc Voisin & Mathieu Brison

 

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Flower Power – visit Holland’s Tulips

Flower Power – visit Holland’s Tulips

 

The Dutch province of Holland is famous for many things; windmills, canals and of course tulip fields and Keukenhof. What better way to immerse yourself in Dutch culture than a springtime visit to this northern European destination, becoming part of the visual tulip fairytale. Why not join us on this Bucket List adventure as we share the colourful highlights of this veritable Dutch feast in this visual storybook. 

 

A teary sight

There are a handful of our travel experiences that have made my eyes leak and my first sighting of Holland’s tulips is certainly up there with the best of them.  There’s something very special about that first sight, first taste, first burst of an emotional connection to a new place – once seen, never forgotten.  And that is how Holland’s tulips will be for me. 

Great Easter weather brought the crowds to Holland and I was concerned that it might feel too claustrophobic. Especially as trying to find somewhere to stay was looking tricky. We finally managed to get the last spot in a great little campsite, which happened to be a tulip farm – how perfect was that? From our courtyard position, the vibrant yellow stripes made the darkest of moments light up.  Like an excited puppy ready for its walk, I felt like skipping to my first, up-close-and-personal tulip experience. 

As I stood amidst a field of tulips with the heady scent like freesias, my bucket list entry firmly got a tick and with sighs like a love-sick school girl, I drank in the vision.

Rows and rows of sunshine yellow, deep purple, scarlet and pink stripped flowers filled my sight. And adorably the rogue pink tulip that made its unwelcome appearance in a row of homogenous yellow blooms gave me a sense of allowing myself to ‘stand out amongst the crowd’. 

It was lovely having a field of tulips beside our ‘home’, yet my insatiable appetite craved more. I wanted to expand my experience. So with our bicycles (no electric needed here), we tootled off in search of the technicolored carpets and we were not disappointed.

 

Where to find them

While the corridor of colour reaches from Den Haag to Haarlam, the main concentration of fields can be found between Noordwijk and Lisse. 

And our advise? Park up somewhere and get your bikes out, as the smaller roads between these carpets are often narrow and busy with onlookers. To really experience these parcels of pleasure, riding the excellent network of cycle paths gives a totally sensory experience.  Go to the Tourist Information or any hotel or campsite in the area and you will be given a map that shows you the current year’s fields and the best cycle routes to reach them. And of course they are free to view.

Lisse is the central hub of tulip county and is where the famous botanical gardens of Keukenhof can be found. More on that in a moment. 

 

The fields

Memories of Provence struck me as we started to see acres of multicoloured fields. The lavender just crochets the landscape with its fragrant purple flowers. Holland’s tulips do something similar. Rows upon rows of coloured stripes that would have looked at home woven into Joseph’s Techni-coloured Dream Coat. Farmers walking up and down the rows picking out the anomalies, making perfect lines of tulips. And in truth, I’m sure the display we saw in the third week of April was minuscule compared with two weeks prior. Still, seeing colour combinations sitting side by side showed me how well nature’s palette works. It’s a very special sight even towards the end of the season. Check out our gallery below. 

 

 

When to go

Timing is everything in the world of tulips as Mother Nature has an uncanny knack of following her own rules. The bulbs are driven by the seasonal changes in temperature and how warm or cold the soil is. If the spring weather is warm, then the fields will bloom early and the opposite is true if there’s a cold spell. So it’s best to check a site like this to see what’s happening in the tulip world. 

If you have the flexibility, Holland’s tulips have a three week season and the general advice is to visit mid to late April. Although if you have to stick to more stationary dates, then in March you are likely to see the crocus, the daffodils and the hyacinths, which then surrender their space to the king of flowers – the tulips. Around the same time, especially in Keukenhof, the azaleas and rhododendrons start to display their power, so there’s always something pretty to look at. 

 

 

Visiting Keukenhof’s flower power

Let me paint a picture of your Keukenhof experience.

Imagine being in a 3D artist’s studio with pallets of every colour of the rainbow, with each one having at least 50 shades of gr…. colour!  If feels as if you are in a space of virtual reality or a parallel universe, where colours know no bounds and light has a spectrum to bend the most static of perspectives. 

This 32 hectare ‘garden’ is a pleasure zone offering 800 varieties of tulips alone. Then add the azaleas, rhododendrons, daffodils and hyacinth and you have a plethora of visual delights. The 7 million bulbs are planted at different depths in the soil so that throughout Keukenhof’s season (Mid March to Mid May) a different treat will greet each and every visitor. 

The craftsmanship here is beyond description as the blend of flower beds, pathways, lakes, rivers and sculptures just hold your interest for hours. The colour combinations and flower varieties will take your breath away. Then in a flash you realise that these treasures are just temporary – a mere three weeks. Somehow this impermanence adds to the experience as you acknowledge the huge eraser that will certainly wipe out this picture perfect painting in a matter of months. 

Every year new themes are built into the Dutch gardens and for 2019 it was Flower Power – the strength of flowers. Their ethos is using flowers to connect people from across the world who come together to enjoy the gardens. And just walking through this landscaped haven, you really get that power sinking deep into your heart. 

Whether you have children, disabled family members and or dogs, Keukenhof accommodates us all in their beautifully crafted gardens. Easy to navigate paths weave from one section to another, with water features, sculptures, a maze, restaurants and boat rides if you wish. Keukenhof is a must. 

Here’s just a few of the 800 varieties that I captured on our visit. Click the image below for our Gallery.

 

 

Keukenhof practicalities

You can buy tickets either on line or at the entrance, (on line being €1 cheaper.) Prices on line are:

€17 per adult;      €8 children aged 4-17;     infants aged 0-3 are free

Allow at least three hours to wander around this world of artistry; take time out and rest your feet by enjoying a mint tea and apple pie, perhaps partake in a cornet of homemade fries and mayo or just sit and contemplate at any one of the hundreds of benches dotted around. This is not a place to rush. Although come early if you want to beat the crowds.

It will be busy; an average of 1.4 million people visit during this tiny botanical window, so be mindful of this. Although despite the crowds and Instagram dressed models, the flower combinations are so mesmerising that they transport you to your own personal Narnia where the crowds are mere dots of colour.

And finally don’t worry about the weather. Whilst you may think that brilliant sunshine is the only way to see this divine garden, the rain creates such a photographic canvas with the drips of water from the petals, enhancing every shot. 

 

Our Keukenhof visual storybook

My instinct says that to inspire you to visit, words alone will not suffice. A sensory experience such as Keukenhof needs multimedia, so sit back and indulge for a few moments as we attempt to capture the images of this wondrous and magical place. Check out our gallery below by clicking on the image and then sit back and watch our short video.

 

 

 

Practical tips for your visit

Given the small window for Holland’s tulips, putting some plans in place before the spring hits Northern Europe is wise. So check out these Top Tips.

  1. Book your trip between end of March and end of April.
  2. Leave booking your Keukenhof tickets until a week before you visit so you can check the forecast.
  3. Book accommodation well in advance, whether that’s a hotel or campsite. If the weather is particularly good or you plan to visit over Easter then this part of Holland attracts many visitors. 
  4. It’s worth remembering that the dates for schools’ Easter holidays differ across Europe, so there could be a three week period where visitors take the opportunity to travel here. 
  5. Many of the blooms in the commercial fields are farmed for the Tulip Procession which is generally mid April. (2019 it was April 13th). It’s a procession of floats and cars decorated in flowers and this famous carnival travels from Noordwijk to Haarlem starting at 9.00am until the early evening. For more information, click here.
  6. Many of the fields are accessible for photographs, unless the farmers are feeding or de-heading the plants.  So respect their signs for privacy.
  7. Remember that these fields are working farms.
  8. Don’t pick the flowers, unearth the bulbs or run between the rows as you may damage the plants.
  9. Hire or bring your own bikes as the cycle paths are so good, extensive and flat that getting around this area is easy. 
  10. Take the opportunity to visit the coast whilst in the area as there are miles and miles of golden sandy beaches.
  11. Arrive at Keukenhof early to avoid the tour coaches that generally arrive between 1030 – 1100am.
  12. If you can time your visit around 27th April, then why not extend your stay and experience Koningsdag – King’s Day. Now that is a real cultural explosion. 

 

 

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Our Portugal Road-Trip Guide

Our Portugal Road-Trip Guide

Portugal, a gem on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsular may be the farthest west of its European neighbours although don’t let its distance fool you. This is a chocolate-box of goodies that, once you open will have you hooked. After 40 days and 40 nights exploring this Iberian beauty in March 2019, we have plenty to share of our adventures both inland and along its award winning coast.

Whether Portugal is new to you or may be just a little known, let us inspire you to consider travelling to this western treasure. Sit back and indulge yourself in thoughts of how Portugal could become your next expedition as we share our route highlights, discoveries and delights.

 

14 things we learned and discovered about Portugal 

1. Portugal’s countryside so often felt like the ‘green, green grass of home’. With rolling hills and a lusciousness that had a feel of UK, Portugal had an instant appeal. No parched lands; instead acres of green pastures that felt instantly comfortable.

2. Portugal has a strong affiliation with UK dating back to 1386 with the Treaty of Windsor. That alliance is still in place today and so the two countries remain intrinsically linked and there is evidence of this everywhere. From red pilar boxes and telephone kiosks to the warmest welcome from a gracious population.

3. Like every country Portugal has its motorway network, some of which are payable. Although for the whole of our 40 days we navigated our way around the country without touching one single motorway. 

4. On paper the Portuguese language may look similar to Spanish, yet the sounds are completely different. Although with a few basics we were understood. That said a lot of tourist Portuguese speak English, whilst the locals in towns do not, so be prepared. Check out our Getting by in Guide to languages, where you will learn essential phrases for Portuguese on Page 55.

5. Portugal has a rich cultural and historical diversity. With influences going back to the Romans and through to the bloody battles between the Moors and Christians, scars are etched into every town.

6. Portugal has the best coastline we have seen throughout Europe. If you want long stretches of iconic golden sands, that would feel at home in any Caribbean Holiday brochure, come to Portugal.

  1. Portugal has been shaped by seismic activity for thousands of years due to the close proximity of a number of major fault-lines, evidence of which you can see all around the coast. In particular, the earthquake of 1 November 1755, which destroyed Lisbon, impacted hugely on the Algarve coast thanks to the resulting tsunami. The more recent tremor of 1969 further moulded the coastline and the threat of earthquakes remains a constant threat to the Portugal landscape. So be mindful of this as you hike the coast.
  1. From a gastronomy viewpoint, Portugal will not disappoint. You must try Naters; a sweet pastry tart filled with cream-custard. They are a delicious if not a decadent treat. Then there’s the fish, which with a coastline as extensive as Portugal’s, you can guarantee taste and quality.  And do not forget the Douro Valley for its tawny and ruby alchemy – Port. This is elegance personified and is a Portuguese must.
  1. Portugal is a proud nation with values that give it an authentic and classic feel. Families are honoured, the earth is nurtured and respected and their heritage fiercely protected. Everywhere we travelled there was a depth and character to their towns, traditions and people. Sometimes those invisible yet intrinsic features of a country are what create the meaningful memories of a trip.
  1. Cork production is a major industry, especially in the Alentejos and Algarve regions. Roads are bordered by cork oak trees that stand naked; their bark stripped for this local commodity that, once processed is made into all nature of products from shoes, handbags and bottle stoppers. Check out Loulé for its cork selling shops which will have you mooching for hours.

11. Whilst Portugal’s flag may well be green and red, be in no doubt that yellow is more akin to Portugal’s natural hew – especially in spring. From the tiny yellow balls of the evocatively smelling Mimosa and the Ice flowers along the coast, to Lupins and Daisies – yellow covers every vista you see. 

12. I learnt that with so much time on the coast I became really dehydrated, despite drinking four pints of water a day. Being in the salt air, so consistently does make hair and skin dry out – so drink plenty of water.

13. Intermarché is well set up with washing machine facilities (€4-€8 for a wash and €2 per 20mins to dry). Some even have drinking water, waste and toilet cassette dumps too. Also if you travel in a campervan, then most of Lidl supermarkets have motorhome specific parking bays.

14. Camping is cheap in Portugal. For 40 nights we spent less than €100, which makes it by far the cheapest country we have stayed in. 95% of our overnight stops were either free because we camped wild or in cheap Aires. We had one night in a commercial campsite which cost us €25, although it did have every facility and activity you can imagine.

Click on the image below to see our floral gallery

 

 

Our interactive route map

Over 40 days, whilst we travelled around 800 miles, we really didn’t even scratch the surface of this fair land. Still it has made enough of an impression that we will return without argument or dispute. 

Below you will find our comprehensive Interactive Route Map that shows you the routes we took, our POI and the overnight stops that we called home. Click on the map to see the detail.

 

 

Getting the most from your trip to Portugal

There is so much gorgeousness we could share with you, that it’s difficult to know how best to present it. So after much deliberation, we have decided to structure it shaped around Portugal’s mainland regions – well the ones we visited! Each section has a Quick Reference Guide so you know what to expect (based on our experiences). 

As we haven’t seen the whole country, a guide like this is always a little bias and incomplete. Although our intention is to simply share our love for the places we explored, and hope it might inspire you to visit some of those off-the-beaten-track places that we loved so much. 

 

Portugal’s sunshine state – Algarve

Quick Reference Guide 

  • The central area of Algarve is great for golf courses, marinas and nightlife
  • Capital Faro, is the main airport servicing the region
  • West is best for dramatic coastal scenery
  • Alvor is where we found some of the best rock formations – go at low tide to walk amongst them
  • Algarve has one of the world’s Top 100 Beaches – Praia de Marinha
  • It has some of the best coastal hiking using way-marked walks
  • Is one of the most built up and touristy regions of Portugal
  • If you love water sports or want to visit the famous caves, it’s best to visit from May to September when the weather calms. Winter and early spring is great for dramatic waves and so is often too rough for boat trips
  • Cheap Aires for campervans are available throughout the region ranging from €4 – €9 many with electrical hook up 
  • Eating out is cheap and fish is particularly good along this southern coast. 

 

Whilst Portugal’s Algarve is one of the most ‘go to’ destinations, there are so many more delights along the coast and inland that will enrich your visit. For example the authentic and cultural joys of Loulé with its Saturday market and traditional way of life. Or try Silves with its ancient walled city and castle that is the largest of its kind in the region.

Paradoxically not all of Algarve’s draw is the golf courses and nightlife. Go west and you will be treated to an art form fit for a king. It has a coastline carved by the ferocity of Mother Nature; from Armacão – Lagos you will be awed by the sheer beauty of this coastal artistry. Known as the Rocky Algarve, the coves, caves only accessible by boat, and cliffs will have you kneeling in some sort of bizarre ritual of respect. Such is the beauty of the rock formations along this coast that they seriously compete with those we saw in New Zealand. 

So if you are a photographer, nature lover, geologist or hiker, the Rocky Algarve will have you speechless. Here, we have profiled five hikes that will take in some of the best scenes along this coastline – there are more although sadly a foot injury prevented any further exploration. 

Do check out Alvor, which is a stunning little seaside fishing town. It comes with a diversity that will entertain all manner of visitor. From its coastline extraordinaire to its white sandy beach and lagoon to the genuine fishing culture, Alvor will steal a little of your heart. The fishing community is key to this little town, away from the commercial hub. The community of fishermen’s huts that provide shelter from the sea’s wroth and the atmospheric estuary, offer a great composition for any artist at sunset. The cobbled streets of the old town are pretty much wall-to-wall restaurants  although out of season it is cute, if not a bit touristy. Check out A Tascado restaurant (R. Pedro Alvares Cabral 19).

Sagres is the furthest point southwest of mainland Europe and so a visit to its fortress and lighthouse is a must for this reason alone. For a mere €3 you can enter the grounds and loose yourself for an hour in the maritime history that goes back centuries. The limestone pavement reminds you of nature’s role in the region and the kamikaze fisherman that hang off the 100ft cliffs looking to catch their supper will colour your visit beautifully. 

Before you leave this seaside town, visit the São Vicente lighthouse, if only to take your first glance at the Wild West coastline that has wind and surf as it natural sculptures. Framed by the pink, yellow and purple Ice flowers, you will feel drawn to move north as the salt air massages your face with anticipation.  

Check out our gallery by clicking on the image below.

 

Wild West Coast

Whilst geographically not classed as one of Portugal’s regions, it seems important to have a section dedicated to this incredible stretch of land. It touches each of the country’s five mainland regions so seems worthy of specific mention.

Quick Reference Guide

  • Approximately 500 miles in length from Cabo de Sao Vicente in the south to Caminha in the north
  • Home to the largest surf in Europe – Nazaré where the World Championship are held in October
  • There are few signs of mass tourism along the southern shores – just quaint fishing villages
  • Fishing has been a crucial way of life here; look out for ancient Islamic village at Amado Beach
  • Roads are lined with mimosa and eucalyptus trees
  • Wild camping is tolerated along much of the coast – just be mindful of the National Park restrictions in high season
  • Bird life and photography opportunities are enormous, especially rock nesting storks  
  • Getting around Lisbon can be tricky – head inland to Évora to avoid it and its toll bridges
  • Has the best and most diverse coastline we have ever experienced
  • Visit the unique town of Costa Nova and her candy stripped fishermen’s houses
  • Great area for cycling with its quiet roads and coastal boardwalk routes

In all our years of travel we have been blessed with some incredible coastal scenes from India’s Goan beauties to New Zealand’s belles… And yet nothing prepared us for the raw essence of Portugal’s western coastline. Battered by Atlantic winds and views out towards US, this route will stun you into silence. There are two major hikes from Sagres that show off the full extent of this coastline’s magnificence; The Heritage Way and The Fisherman’s Way. The latter particularly has become a bit of a pilgrimage by backpackers as they make their way towards Porto Covo in the north.

The biggest difference between the west and southern sibling is its quietness and the lack of tourism. I recognise that we visited out of season, yet this aside, there are no high-rise hotels or gated residential estates, south of Lisbon at least. Just Portuguese working towns who go about their business to the exclusion of visitors. Partly because so few come this far north as they choose to hug the southern coasts. Although we implore you to check out this area. 

Explore the coastline and learn how ancient and modern fisherman live their lives. The remains of an Islamic fishing village can be found at Amado Beach just south of Carrapateira and a more modern view of life on the ocean waves is hidden in an alcove just south of Almograve. Watching how the fishermen navigate the treacherous waters around this volcanic coast is mind-boggling. You cannot miss the evocative and visually appealing fishermen’s pontoons at Carrasqueira just ten minutes from Comporta. Their rustic wooden platforms that extend out into the lagoon is a masterpiece waiting for the amateur photographer, capturing the essence of their formidable mariners’ lives.  

And if you happen to be bird-lovers, then watching the kites and storks will be timing-wasting enough. Especially unique is to see the storks nesting precariously on pillars of rock on the coastal edges, seemingly blissfully unaware of the danger of their house of choice. It is here that the battle between life and death is played out as peregrine falcons attack the storks in search for their precious eggs as a breakfast treat. The best place for this theatre ensemble is at Sarbadão Lighthouse, just south of Almograve Beach, which is pinned on our map. 

Another great place to watch the storks’ antics is at Comporta, just south of Lisbon and the Sebútal peninsula. This small fishing community, amidst the salt flats, dunes and lagoon, seem to have adopted the storks as their emblem and fiercely protect the nesting pairs. Church towers, roof-light windows and pylons are acceptable residences for these magnificent birds and you can easily while away an hour watching their territorial antics. 

The Wild West characteristics alters so dramatically like the chapters of a thrilling novel. From the south with its craggy rock and inhospitable landscape looking like something from the moon to the miles of golden sandy beaches further north. Dunes, pine forests and eucalyptus dapple the landscape and you can be in awe at how the coastline changes its look more often than a Kylie Minogue concert. Try not to miss out the charming villages of Vila Nova da Milfontes, Porto Covo and Peniche. Further north towards Porto, you must see Costa Nova, which is iconic for its candy stripped fisherman’s houses that have centuries old tales of mariners’ lives. 

Click on the image below to see our gallery of this wild west coastline 

 

Alentejos

Quick reference Guide

  • Portugal’s largest region, spanning the whole width of the country
  • Roman hub Évora is its capital
  • Cork production capital of the country
  • Neolithic evidence strewn throughout the inner uplands around Évora

 

Alentejos encompasses both the joys of the coast and ancient history that combine to honour deeply held traditions and cultural heritage.  If you travel along the eastern edge where Portugal rubs shoulders with its neighbour Spain, you can imagine the intrigue that this is likely to offer. Battles for supremacy and territory, fortresses for protection and towns set to historical high alert. Whilst we didn’t see much of this eastern bord, we did have our first steps on Portuguese soil at Mértola. 

Nestled in the heart of the Natural Park, its lofty position high above the river is the epitome of this fortress style town. Its castle walls still in tact, its cathedral sat on the site of an ancient Mosque and its Roman bridge giving you just a few clues as it to its historical heritage. 

Further west unfolds more Roman secrets – who knew their armies travelled so far west to conquer, build and dominate. Évora is a classic example of this. Capital of Alentejos, Évora has amazing city walls, museums to satisfy the curious and the remains of a Roman temple. Its central square is charming as you settle for a coffee and a Nater and just around the corner the must visit Chapel of Bones.

Click on the image below to see our gallery

 

Central Region 

Quick Reference Guide

  • Home to the Surfing Capital of Europe, Nazaré
  • Costa da Roca is the furthest point west in mainland Europe closely followed by Peniche
  • Check out the amazing geology of the Peniche peninsula 
  • If the weather is calm, catch a boat for €25 to the island of La Berlenga
  • Watch the windsurfers on the sheltered waters of the lagoon at Figueira da Foz
  • Visit the most beautiful and authentic walled village of Obidos
  • Drive the inland Atlantic Ocean way and see the devastation of the 2018 forest fires
  • Visit the charming village of Costa Nova and her candy-stripped fishing houses
  • Pop across to Aveiro, which is known as Portugal’s Venice with its small canal network
  • Drive inland to Viseu, which is the centre of granite production and explore its ancient buildings and street art
  • Take the N2 route and enjoy its beauty

 

Perhaps you are or have visions of becoming a surfer dude – and if so then Nazaré has to be a destination stop for you  and your board. This home to the largest waves in Europe – scaling a humungous 30m. With its unique factors of on-shore winds and underwater topography, it creates perfect professional surfing conditions and is why the European Championship are held here every October. What a spectacle that must be. 

For geologists, once more this coastline will regale you with its tales of evolution as strata form the most incredible pieces of natural art out on the Peniche peninsula. Their composition seems so different to other craggy areas of the coast further south, leading to a thesis or two from the academics about the different seismic influences in this region over the epoc. 

For lovers of history and culture, a short trip to Obidos will certainly appeal. This picture postcard walled city is charm personified and whilst compact and bijou, scale its walls and you will see how size has no impact on this village’s delight. Cobbled streets, terracotta roofs and rustic buildings give a medieval feel to it, coming straight out  of a Dicken’s novel. We had too little time here although enough to entice  us to return. 

We absolutely adored the coastal route north where our final coastal destination was Costa Nova. Shaped along a narrow strip of sand dunes, with golden sands one side and a lagoon the other, this town proffers more maritime history. Over and above this, visually  this  place is one that Instagram must surely adore. With its candy-striped houses it felt like you had walked on the film-set of a Willy Wonky candy making factory. It was truly  magical to see how the fishermen lived centuries ago in their brightly painted houses. What a delight it was to cycle around this appeal and almost delicious town. Do check out the fish market where you will be amazing by the variety of marine life  you can purchase. Clams were our gift of the day – truly delicious.  

Viseu – whilst its superficial greyness and busyness didn’t do much for its reputation, when you enter its hub, it was quite lovely. The vernacular that takes you just 200m uphill is the first surprise – second is that it is free. The route scales you up to the hilltop, on which the museum and cathedral are based. The gardens and parks built within the bosom of the city are charming and the riverside is just cute. Whilst you might imagine the street art having a negative visual impact, I actually think it is quite an endearing feature to the town. 

Click on the image below to see our gallery

 

Northern Region

Quick Reference Guide 

  • Porto is the capital of this region
  • Home to the famous Douro River valley and its Port drink
  • Find a Quinta and do some Port tasting along the ancient river as it carves through 586 miles
  • Continue your N2 route through the most beautiful mountain ranges
  • Visit Lamego and the Nossa Senhora dos Remedios
  • Turn right before Peso da Régua and drive along the Douro Valley’s most beautiful route N222 to Pinhão
  • Catch the train from Pinhão to Pincho – one of Europe’s most beautiful train rides €7.80 pp
  • Take a boat ride from Pinhão up the Douro river €10 pp per hour

 

Whilst Porto may well be the biggest draw of northern Portugal, if cities are not your thing, then a quick calibration of your compass to the east will reward you plenty. You have the central draw of Lamego, which is certainly worth a visit, in our book. Its characterful and pristine old town are gorgeous and its fountain clad avenue that leads the eye and the feet towards the mammoth 686 steps up to the Church of our Lady of Remedies which will get your heart pumping.  

And then you have the Alchemy of the North…. The Douro Valley. This depicts everything you can imagine about the partnership between man and nature working in harmony. With nature’s role taking the lead part in this staged masterpiece, you will be rewarded with fertile soils, carved terraces, curvaceous lands and a network of vineyards. Clinging to every inch of this landscape looking to capture the sun’s powerful rays, these vines are the very source of the tawny nectar that graces our table with cheese. Port, that magnificent and elegant tipple stakes its claim to the Douro valley and with the sparkling waters of the river, this must surely be some sort of Utopia. At the beating hub of the valley is Pinhão, a classical working town where the locals collaborate with each other and the land to produce not only history and a productive export, they also create a cultural experience for the visitor. Pinhão and its Douro is a must. Check how to make the best of our visit by clicking here. 

 

 

 

 

And finally…  Portugal’s answer to Route 66  – N2

The longest continuous road in Portugal, the National route N2 is a must if you enjoy getting off the beaten track. Whilst the newly built motorway infrastructure may well be favoured by those who need to travel far and fast, it will certainly not enrich your life like the N2. Covering around 450 miles, this road covers the full length of the country; north at Chaves to Faro in the south. Winding your way through valleys, forests, mountain ranges and river floors, this is a beautiful road to encounter, in part or as a whole. 

We drove two sections of the route; the first was south from Almodõvar in Alentejos to just north of Loulé. The second was north from Viseu to Chaves as we finally and with heavy hearts, exited Portugal back into the arms of Spain. 

We thoroughly enjoyed this exhilarating drive which is favoured by motorcycles and bicycles although can equally be relished by drivers too. Passing through such gems as Viseu and Lamego, it is just worth a cruise.

 

Some practicalities

Before we leave you with temptation running through your veins, let us leave you with some practicalities about your stay in Portugal. Whether coming by camper, plane or cruise liner, here are some tips that might be helpful. 

 

  • Fines are heavy if you enter a motorway by mistake without a vignette. Not all tolls are manned, so either set your navigation to avoid tolls or buy a vignette that will last for the duration of your stay. We decided against it as we didn’t feel the need to use them although your circumstances might require faster travelling. Check out this website for comprehensive guidance about Portugal’s Toll Routes.
  • Wild camping in Portugal is easy and profuse especially along the west coast where the volume of campers diminishes. We saw plenty of people parking in forbidden areas, which seemed to be tolerated out of season. I suspect the further into April you go, the trickier it becomes. Parking is not allowed in National Parks, so beware of the GNR’s presence and ensure no ‘camping behaviour’.
  • Portugal caters well for those on wheels as there are very cheap Aires along the coast and towns inland, which will cost you between €4 – €9 per night with services.
  • Most towns have speed restricting traffic lights. So as you approach they will turn red and then immediately green.
  • Drivers are sedate and respectful we found, making travelling through Portugal very pleasurable.
  • We were lucky with the weather when we visited, although if you visit during winter and early spring, be prepared for a variety of conditions. Layers is the name of the game. Being on the Atlantic, it is often windy.
  • Portugal is on Western European Time (WET) – so operates the same as UK time, and an hour behind its European cousins.
  • Portugal has a wide variety of Supermarkets from Lidl, sometimes Aldi, plenty of Intermarché (which was more expensive than Lidl) and a few Leclerc in larger towns/cities. Pingo Doce was a nice store that was generally cheaper and slightly better quality than Lidl.
  • Petrol and Diesel was more expensive than Spain – averaging around €1.39. The cheapest we saw was €1.23 at an Leclerc in Santagem and the most expensive was €1.45.
  • LPG was available throughout the country, although not at every garage. We had no problems with filling up our Gaslow tanks.
  • If you want fresh produce there are markets everywhere – some towns have their own market halls for everyday fruit and veg, whilst others have special Saturday markets. If you want daily bread, go to a Pandeira.
  • Credit cards are widely available although we suggest you take plenty of coins for Aires, washing machines and for tips.

 

Closing thoughts

Portugal wowed us. After a visit 15 years ago, we experienced the central Algarve with its golf resorts and marinas, which weren’t our cup of tea. Years on, with less stressful lives, more time and an open mind to travel diversity, we have been able to appreciate the Algarve. More than that, we have been able to relish in the fruits of Portugal’s inland gems and road less travelled destinations. Portugal has definitely leapt ahead to warrant a place in our Top 5 Favourite European countries. We have really appreciated its natural and cultural joys. We hope if you have the chance to come, that you too may feel inspired to travel this amazing country and feel richer for the experience. 

 

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7 Highlights of Évora

7 Highlights of Évora

Come to Portugal and immerse yourself in so much more than golden sand between your toes. Whilst the beaches entice any sun seeker, Portugal cries out to be heard on the historical stage. A saunter inland will open up a history lesson that will give your Portuguese experience a depth and context that will not disappoint. And it is the Alentejos region’s capital Évora that offers our classroom today… Come on in and check out our highlights of this ancient capital steeped in Roman and Gothic ghosts.

 

Where to find Évora

 

Évora is one of those places that whilst is built up on the outside, offers a compact and charming presence on the inside, sheltering its Roman ruins, cobbled streets and ample churches by protective city walls. Évora sets the scene for battle, conquests and supremacy which vibrate in its very foundations. And such is its importance that it has earned itself UNESCO status and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns network according to Wikipedia.

No more than 2 hours away from Lisbon, Évora is in easy reach, albeit probably not in a day trip. We headed east from the coast at Comporta for a bit of a beach break and found some amazing off-the-beaten track routes through rural Portugal. Surrounded by landscape littered with ancient megaliths, Évora has a real tale to tell going back 5000 years!

The Roman’s took charge of Évora in 57BC where baths and much of the city walls remain as a testimony to this period. Nearly 600 years later the Moors conquered Évora and they ruled for over 400 years until the Portuguese took charge in 1166. Much of Portugal under the reign of King Alfonso was released from Moorish rule and its identity today is significantly shaped by this epoch. Since then Évora has endured more battles and each time it seems that this small town has been a stalwart standing the test of time and war. 

With Évora’s colourful past, each building knits together a visual storyboard to entertain its visitor and these are the magnets that draw thousands of tourists each year. We took our bicycles in to the city, which is not to be recommended as the streets are steep, cobbled and a lot of them are one-way making it difficult to reach places. So we suggest using the map below to do a self-guided tour. Click on the map for an Interactive Tour of Évora.

 

Évora’s 7 Highlights

 

1. Aquaduct

The Roman Empire is known for its engineering prowess and the aqueduct is one of their legacies still visible today. And Évora’s aqueduct is a great example of their genius. We were lucky enough to be able to park alongside this magnificent and ancient symbol and just a two minute stroll through the city gates, and you can walk the length of the structure to its origin (38.57596, -7.91292).  What is lovely to note is how the houses are built into the arches. There are examples of this throughout the town; modern supporting ancient, what an interesting symbiosis. (38.57147, -7.90975)

 

 

2. Praça do Giraldo

Évora’s beating heart can be found in the Giraldo Square. Not really square, more of an oblong, although characterful none the less. It is here that you will find the Tourist Information office which we suggest is your next station stop for a map. A useful phrase is Posso ter uma mapa por favor? Can I have a map please? (38.57063, -7.90941)

From here you can look up towards the regal Saint Antonio church, which has so much personality yet is dressed in simplicity compared to the Gothic architecture that frames the Square’s edges. Giraldo invites you to stop for a coffee and people watch or may be indulge in a Portuguese Nater, especially good if you have a sweet tooth.

 

3. Roman Temple and Cathedral

Perhaps one of Évora’s most famous landmarks are her Roman ruins. (38.57259, -7.90729). The temple known as the Diana Temple is in the heart of the museum quarter and somehow conveys a robustness about the Roman Empire. It has itself so much history with its identity changing throughout the centuries. Its role has evolved from being part of the castle, an abattoir and a log store. The ruins are in a remarkable condition and with the backdrop of the Cathedral and the little park, it’s a lovely area to hang out for a bit.  Do check out the view from the edge of the gardens, overlooking Évora’s rooftops and to the city’s exterior. 

 

4.  Town Hall and Roman baths

This old palace is now home to the political hub of the town and its area. This is a magnificent Square bordered by a church and financial buildings.  Entry into the Town Hall is permitted for free, as are the Roman baths, which we wish we had visited. (38.57228, -7.90963)

 

5.  Chapel of Bones

Aside the Roman ruins, Évora’s other significant draw is the Capela dos Ossos – Chapel of Bones. (38.56873, -7.90884)  For a €5pp entry ticket you can get access to this most eery and yet fascinating place of worship and meditation. This tiny 16th chapel in the grounds of the Church of St Francis is a thought-provoking visit. Built by monks as a solution to the growing number of cemeteries around the town; they interned the bones and in a bid to honour the dead, decided to put them on display within the structure of this building. 5,000 corpses today form the fabric of the chapel; bones and skulls don the walls, the pillars and the architrave. It is the most bizarre form of art; art that holds a message for its viewer, prompting them to think beyond the visual display in front of them – the transitory nature of life. The Chapel makes you reflect on the journey of life and how we rush through the days without pause for the moment. It’s a sobering visit. 

 

6.  Church of St Francis

Whilst dropping in to pay your respects to the bones, you may be forgiven for feeling so overwhelmed that you miss the Church of St Francis, which is the main body of this area. It sits on the roots of a church dating back to 1200’s. Its Gothic design is impressive and as you walk into the longest nave of any Portuguese church, its gilting will wow you. There’s gold everywhere. It really does deserve a short visit. 

 

7.  Cycle/Walk around the city walls

After the reflections from the Chapel of Bones, heading to the gardens just beneath the church brings your mind back to the beauty of the world. (38.56734, -7.91001).  There were lots of repairs going on when we visited, although I imagine it is full of splendour in the summer months. With its bandstand and peacocks, it’s a lovely place to wander. And from here you can access part of the upper walk around the walls, feeling the past beneath your feet. And then continuing your route on the lower level, you can trace your steps back to the beginning of your walking tour and end up at the aqueduct once more.

 

 

Évora – our conclusions 

If you love history, culture and context, then Évora will be a great place to visit. If you need a break from the coast, Évora will satisfy your need for curiosity – just for a day. Its cobbled streets are not just atmospheric, they are a piece of history’s jigsaw that will leave you understanding just a little more about Portugal. It will leave you richer for standing in the footprints of our ancestors before we head back to the inevitable draw of the western sunsets and crashing waves. We highly recommend this little detour in your Portugal tour. 

 

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