Escaping from Colditz

Escaping from Colditz

The day that Colditz suddenly appeared on my radar was a delight and a surprise given that I had no idea where it was in Germany let alone the intriguing history that it would surely reveal to us.

One of the things I have come to enjoy most about travel, is the heart-beat that appears in-between our planned destinations. Research is great and creates a real anticipation, although for me nothing beats the moment when I find somewhere on the map that instantly changes our direction and takes us into new and unexpected territory. As I start to explore my amazing find, I feel in a surge of excitement rising up from my feet with the realisation that I have stumbled upon something special, unexpected and a priceless experience that will enrich our adventures. 

That was exactly what happened for us with our Colditz visit. Out of the blue, searching for a place to stay en route to Poland, I saw a castle icon. And with a mere click of the mouse it revealed its identity – Colditz. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind it rang a bell and then its war-time story started to connect as I started a little interaction with my mate Google. So our next destination was sealed and the next chapter of World War education could unfold. 

Colditz so much more than a prison 

Whilst Colditz Castle, infamous perhaps for its escapades from 1939-45, it is worth remembering that this is so much more than a prison  – and the town so much more than a poor relation ebbing to the flow of visitors destined for a Castle tour.  

Commercially renowned for the manufacture of ceramics, Colditz has a surprising tale to tell with its porcelain and stoneware production that date back centuries.  The mining of clay in the early 1700 put this little town, south east of Leipzig, on the map and changed its financial fortune forever. So when ‘dining’ turn your plate upside-down and if you see a small ‘cp’ mark on it, then you are eating off a piece of Colditz porcelain treasure.

The Castle

Ok, so back to the star of the show! The Colditz Castle is indeed the main draw here, it has to be said. This regal building has a rich history dating back almost 1000 years and has had more identities than Madonna; from a hunting lodge back in the Medieval days, to a psychiatric hospital, a State Poor House, a general hospital and, more recently a youth hostel. And that’s before two fires completely refigured it and it became the centre-piece for a War-based film. How can one building reinvent itself so many times and still remain intact and magnificent?

Built 30m up on a solid rock face, this impressive building packs an immediate punch as you approach the town from Grimma – which also looks like it’s worth a visit. With its recent cosmetic facelift, Colditz Castle maintains its integrity as an impenetrable and imposing watchtower across the Saxony land.  The once grey building now offers visitors a visual feast with its cream and yellow fortress walls and orange tiled roofs typical of this region.  You cannot fail to be instantly wowed by this initial view as you cross the river Zwickauer Mulde into the magnetic belly of the town’s historic centre.

Of course World War 2 tells many harrowing stories of Prisoner of War camps during its epoc and I set out with a mixture of anticipation and a desire to learn. Colditz is one of the many places during our war-torn history that symbolises bravery and a fight for freedom. Yet there was a twist to this story which we were about to experience as we entered the Whispering Gate of this High Security Prison.

The Extended Tour

Armed with an extended tour with Steffi, we immediately got access to the inner sanctum of the Castle, where we could throw ourselves into the lives of the guards, prisoners and life behind these imposing walls. The first thing to notice was the ‘guest list’ of this place. Whilst between 500-600 prisoners were imprisoned in Colditz at any one time; these were not just any old prisoners. These were high ranking officers who had a reputation for being serial escapees. A collection of some of the greatest, most creative and imaginative minds of the war all in one place! Engineers, designers and ingenious inventors – surely a recipe for some of the best bid for freedom stories of the war! And it is this fact that serves as the backdrop for the Colditz story.

Our exploration starts with an immediate sense of respect; these prisoners had something special about them and as we continued our tour, craning our necks to the lofty roof lines, you got the feeling that this Prison Camp was pretty unique. Getting access into prisoners’ quarters set out with a bed, wardrobe and a desk with views, this was not what I was expecting. And as our tour unfolds we heard stories of the fair treatment of the ‘inmates’ and how well fed they were and how, thanks to the Third Geneva Convention, their well-being was high on the priority list for their captives. A theatre where shows were masterminded (indeed perhaps even an escape or two planned), visits to the local pub, regular exercise outside the grounds of the castle were some such activities allowed for these prisoners of war. Let’s not forget though, that outside of these walls we are still talking about the ravage of war, battles and horrifying death. Although strangely as we walked through the castle’s gates, horror is not the first sensation that struck me; no sombre feeling that reaches deep into my soul demanding my tears. That I’m sure will come when we visit Auschwitz in Poland.

No, Colditz has a different vibe and even the staff portray a deep respect for the events that occurred here over that six year period. A respect for the prisoners’ fair treatment and the masterminded exploits of the imprisoned. And it is this theme of admiration and respect that emerges time and time again from our tour guide. Unlike so many other camps, there were no murders or intended deaths here. Only one man died. The Guards’ policy was not to ‘shoot to kill’, only to injury and yet in September 1944, British Officer Michael Sinclair was unintentionally killed when, after attempting to escape, he was shot in the elbow that then ricocheted into his heart.  He was subsequently buried with full military honours and a seven-gun salute. 

The Escape Stories

Colditz is immortalised by the tales of attempted and successful ‘Home Runs’ as they were called, each one captivating us during our tour  as we got the inside scoop on so many of the failed attempts and some of the 30+ successful ones.  The French, British and Dutch were the most successful, with the British attempting some 191 escapes; by far the most prolific activists. 

Some of the plans were hatched in the most ingenious ways, which goes to show the brilliance and resilience of the human spirit when faced with adversity how their determination is fuelled.  From tunnels, shafts, impersonating German guards and even dressing up as a woman; every method was a serious consideration conceived by genius minds, shared during furtive conversations and whispers in corridors.  

The escapees generally headed for the neutral territory of Switzerland, which alone was a journey full of hazard and danger. So not only did they have to get through the challenge of this high security prison, they still had to negotiate their onward journey to final freedom.

The Colditz Cock 

Bar far the most elaborate of them all though has to the epic Colditz Cock – where a team of British Officers designed and built a glider that they planned to launch from the roof behind the Clock Tower, that was hidden from guards’ view.  Such an elaborate plan brought together thanks to a book in the prison library on ‘how to build an aircraft’, constructed behind an artificial wall in a tiny space with tables at the ready for the temporary runway. Fortunately the gallant attempt was superseded by the end of the War and the surrender of the Colditz Prison to the Allied forces. Interestingly there is only one photograph of the constructed plane and all other evidence was destroyed – the reasoning behind which we can only imagine.  

Beyond the castle

Outside of the castle, which is the main reason for many people’s visit, the town itself is a beautiful and strangely serene place despite its master’s reputation. With a subtle market square with café bars, I was struck by the surprising lack of tourist tat that so often accompanies itinerary hot-spots such as these. Throughout the town, architecture as creative as the prison escape plans will feed your eyes and intrigue your soul as you inevitably walk towards the panoramic bridge viewing point. Here you will gaze in historical wonder at the yesteryears of this evolving masterpiece that has stood the test of time and will be forever immortalised in people’s memories and hearts. 

Get yourself to Colditz

Colditz was an intriguing experience. From the facade, this impenetrable building defies you to even think about escape let alone successfully complete what they called a ‘Home Run’.  Yet within its walls you get a strange fusion of bravery, ingeniousness, creativity, solidarity, resilience, craft and above all respect. This is the one thing I have been gifted from my visit. Whilst war is a terrifying and horrible waste of life, the Colditz story shares something more colourful and offers a sense of how strangers with differing beliefs, can not only live and work together they can also create a peaceful culture built on respect and compassion. Perhaps after all there is hope for humanity.

Some practicalities

  • There are two tours available. The first is one hour duration from 10.30am that is €8 per person. The second is called the Extended Tour which can take up to 2.5hrs, depending on the passion of your guide. If you get Steffi, then you will be blessed with the best ever tour host. This tour costs €18 per person and gets you into cellars, rooms and up staircases that the other tour will not. So in our opinion completely worth the investment.
  • From April to October, there are three Extended Tours available; 1030, 1300 and 1500. And November to March there are two; 1100 and 1430. 
  • You can get access to just the museum for €4 and then do a self-tour.
  • Colditz can be reached from either Leipzig in the west, Dresden in the east or Chemnitz in the south.
  • If you are camping, then Campingwald Colditz is a large site just a mile up hill from the castle which out of season costs €20 for a pitch and two people. You can get an ACSI discount if you have a card.
  • Parking for the town is generally limited to 2hrs and is chargeable, which can feel restrictive. We found a free parking area next door to Lidl supermarket, which accommodated our 7.5m motorhome, which is right in the shadow of the town. We parked here for over four hours without any problems. 
  • Tours for the castle get busy in high season, especially as this is on the Tour Itinerary from Berlin. So worth checking availability to avoid disappointment.
  • For more information, check out www.schloss-colditz.com  
Five reasons to visit Zeeland

Five reasons to visit Zeeland

Ever thought about a visit to Zeeland? Could you even pin-point where Zeeland is on the map? I’ll be honest I didn’t, so I promise I’m not being judgemental in any way. Isn’t that the amazing thing about travel – we learn every day… Although I implore you, visit Zeeland now!

For most of us crossing from UK to Europe via Calais we are given plenty of options. Heading south gives us access to the sunny climes of Provence and the Côte d’Azure or may be Spain is in our sights. Perhaps it’s Italy and beyond to Greece. Turning right (after a few hours of travel) offers us the joys of Normandy and Brittany and their incredible coastlines. Or there is left! Left passed Dunkirk, Bruges and Antwerp and there we will find the treasures of Zeeland. A series of islands and peninsulas that make up The Netherland’s Zeeland region.

As a traveller, I have held a slightly skewed view that travel must be curvaceous, mountainous and breathtaking in its presentation for it to feel memorable.  That picture-postcard vision that will have Instagram hearting all over the place. Although what living on the road for over two years has taught me is that beauty comes in many forms and it is not a mountain lake fringed with snow-covered tops that is the ultimate definition for a travelling student! I have come to appreciate the beauty in the flatter landscapes, as it too has charm in its formation and the creative story that goes on beneath its soil. Zeeland is for me, a perfect example of this type of beauty that has had me mesmerised from day 1.

Zeeland, translated as ‘Sea Land’ is The Netherland’s most westerly province that has the smallest population of its twelve regions. Tucked away just above Antwerp, this enormous delta landscape which is made up of 25% water from three different rivers, has had a tempestuous yet now commanding relationship with the sea. Throughout history the ocean was once Zeeland’s nemesis, with the North Sea reclaiming its lands with epic floods and high tides. Now, living by their moto ‘I struggle and emerge’  Zeeland has really taken charge and shaped their land to enable a sustainable life amidst the water that still tries to defeat them. After the last flood of 1953 where over 1,800 people were killed, Zeeland invested in the most incredible Delta Protection project that would see flood defences built between the islands to ensure the safety of their fragile existence. Today’s Zeeland landscape is a testimony to the inhabitants rising up to create a home that would no longer be challenged by nature and in fact would become its greatest income generator, through tourism.

 

With the context set. we can now begin to explore what this incredible landscape has to offer the humble traveller and how to while away a week or two enjoying the fruits of Zeeland’s historical labour.  Having an all too brief excursion around these parts, it is very clear to me how this region benefits the visitor and here are five reasons why turning left at Calais and taking a visit to Zeeland deserves its place on your travel agenda.

 

1. Water sports

If you love to take to the water, then Zeeland offers you plenty of options. In safe waters, whether it’s a Stand Up Paddle Board, Windsurf or Boat, this is a haven for water lubbers. With little islands to explore and interconnecting waterways you have plenty to explore under sail power. With so many marinas on Zeeland’s shores, you’ll be spoilt rotten and many campsites are attached to these marinas giving you a chance to get on board and get your feet wet!

 

2. Birdlife

If like me you are a twitcher, then this is a bird-lover’s paradise. From Oyster Catchers, Grebes and Geese to Harriers and Terns this region is rich in birdlife. Take your binoculars and be ready for a feast.  Especially great during the spring as the new-borns entertain with their investigative antics.

 

3. Beaches

For some reason, I never really pictured The Netherlands or Holland having a beach culture. I can’t tell you why – I guess windmills and clogs took up the space in my mind when it came to creating an impression of what the country had to offer. Well I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Zeeland has some of the nicest iconic sandy beaches we’ve seen since New Zealand – strangely enough. Miles of uninterrupted dunes and North Sea plages that have the crowds a-flocking when the sun comes out. And with the on-shore breezes don’t be surprised if you see a kite or surfer or three.

 

4. Cycling

One of the many things that The Netherlands and Holland are well known for is cycling. In fact I would go as far as to say that bikes rule! You give way to them on roundabouts, generally and they have their own dedicated road network and traffic light system. Ferries accommodate bicycles for free and every village, town centre is littered with racks and all shapes and sizes don the streets. I don’t know about 9 million bicycles in Beijing in Katie Melua’s 2005 song, I think The Netherlands is a serious contender for that record – if you pardon the pun. Bring your bike or easier still hire one from the many bike stores in every town and get to feel the province at a slower pace. Smell the air, really see the scenery and feel an integral part of Dutch culture, perhaps without the blue hair though!

 

5. Culture and History entwined

Zeeland in particular, although also its neighbour Holland, is steeped in culture and historical prowess. From the emergence of windmills in 15th century to assist with drainage of the dykes, to Zeeland’s more modern battle with Mother Nature’s elements and their trade routes to the rest of the world – this region has it all. To see the engineering feats of the Delta barriers, constructed following the 1953 floods just blow your mind and are strangely artistic in their design and their spirits. What saviours they are.

And come just a little further south-east to Rotterdam and Dordretch and you start to experience the importance of the Dutch mariner. Their barges sailed up through the North Sea and down through Europe by way of the rivers that converge at the Zeeland Delta connecting the whole world and facilitating global trading.

In fact Dordretch is Holland’s oldest town, which is easily seen in the architecture and the old quays that hold ancient mariners’ tales from their travels. There’s a real buzz during the last weekend in May when they hold their annual Steam Festival along the quay. Paddle steamers and boats of all shapes and sizes cruise up the river pipping their horns. And alongside their road vehicle compatriots steam is seriously the name of the game. Traditional costumes are everywhere as steam enthusiasts show off their prides and joy. Well worth a visit.  Check out their website here.

And on top of that the UNESCO site at Kinderdijk is a must see. 19 of the finest 15th century windmills I have ever seen line the dykes to protect the land from flooding and they were a major influence in securing the inhabitants’ livelihoods. Today they still operate although as museums giving them a new role in holding the integrity of the past showing how they shaped both history and the landscape over the last 740 years.  It is free to get into the site and walk or cycle the dykes or for a small fee you can gain access to the museum and the canal hop-on and hop-off canal boat ride. Check out their website for more details and even download their free app that shows you how to get the best from your visit.

You can reach Kinderdijk by waterbus from either Rotterdam or Dordretch on the 202 route. It takes only 30 minutes to get there and bicycles go free. For €8 per person return (from Dordretch) you start your unique experience with a water perspective of these important waterways that still buzz with the activity of tourism and trade.

 

So how does a visit to Zeeland stack up for you now? I genuinely hope that a place that was perhaps not even on your radar now is a consideration at least.  Whether you travel by plane to Antwerp, Rotterdam or Amsterdam, or come by camper, a visit to Zeeland will not disappoint. Its architecture, culture, landscape, natural beauty and its abundant outdoor pursuits will have you entertained plenty.

Camping in Zeeland is easy with each island littered with independent, ACSI sites and the odd Camperplatz thrown in for good measure. This interactive map will give you a sense of our highlights and camp sites, although you will not be disappointed or stuck for somewhere to stay.  Why not check out Search for Sites for a robust directory of options in this lovely area?

Maiden Solo Voyage

Maiden Solo Voyage

With our trip back to UK full of long To-Do-Lists and high priority actions that were more strategic than a plan for battle, having a weekend sojourn with my bestie was just the tonic I needed. Three years is a long time not to see your nearest and dearest and whilst I love the ability to Skype and FaceTime, it’s never quite as good as seeing someone in the flesh. So as one of our lovely followers aptly named our meeting – it was going to be a weekend of Gin-Wagging and two Birthday celebrations to boot.

I became starkly aware when my anticipation of the weekend had moved from purchasing a few bottles of Rhubarb and Ginger Gin and getting our meals pre-prepared, that actually this was my first solo trip without Mr Sunshine! Whilst I have driven Scoobie on my own, not for more than five minutes and both events resulted in a war wound. So as you can imagine my anxiety suddenly increased at the thought of 100 miles without my right-hand man.  Still our travel lifestyle has always been about confronting fears head on. Fear these days really doesn’t stop me, although it does make me just a little bit more mindful – which is no bad thing.

The day approached to embark on my maiden voyage to Bristol Airport to pick up my ‘bestie’. With the fridge packed, a full tank of LPG despite the UK shortage and all we needed for a fun-filled weekend of RnR, I headed off. And what a trip it was, save a small graze on the wing mirror when my battle was lost with an oversized tractor who thought he was king of the Somerset roads. Aside of that, all was well with Scoobie and my it was great to be back onboard our faithful chariot.

Here are our highlights should you decide to put North Somerset on your list.

Bristol Airport 

You can get into the drop off zone with your moho. Although you have to park across 2 parking spaces, getting in and out was doable. £1 for 10 mins.  For ease, there are a number of lay-bys about 10 minutes away, where you can pull in to wait for flight arrivals. This makes it slightly easier than waiting around in an expensive car park or trying to get into the short stay parking areas, which have limited parking options for 7.5m+ vans.

Stanton Drew – Druids Arms Inn – Motorhome Pub stopover

One of the things we have enjoyed about coming back to UK is experiencing the Pub Stopover scheme. I guess similar to France Passion, it has been lovely to camp out at a public establishment and enjoy their local tipple. The Druids Arms didn’t disappoint with its charming stone village houses, Standing Stones and narrow roads, there was plenty of charm. The car park is just past the pub on the left and is up on the upper tier. Although the ground is on a bit of a slope, nothing that a set of chocks won’t resolve. Talking to the owner, they have big plans to develop the car park to make it more attractive to motorhome visitors. For the moment, you are blessed with great views across the fields with the sound of church bells to gently rouse you in the morning and the prospect of fresh eggs from the hens all named after the pub’s staff. We arrived too late to sample their food, although I did promise that we would give them a great plug here in return for our free night’s stay. For more details click HERE.  Their co-ordinates are 51.365715  -2.579927

Bath Marina Campsite – A4 Bath

Bath is one of the most alluring Spa towns I know and it draws me back time and time again without hesitation. Its blend of history, architecture and natural beauty entice the humbled tourist to sample its offerings. And let’s not forget the shopping that presents unique boutiques as well as your brand name shops.  And what better way to enjoy Bath’s deliciousness than by stopping overnight at the Bath Marina Campsite. It is only 2 miles from Bath on the A4, which you can reach either on foot, by bike on the adjacent canal or by one of the many buses that pass by on the main road. For £2.50 you will arrive in the hub of Bath ready to walk your socks off.

The campsite is a fairly large site with 64 pitches and is open all year round, although I would advise booking, as it was really busy when we arrived. Large hard-standing pitches are available at a price of £28.40 per night (prices quoted at April 2018 for a 7.5m van plus two adults.) Each avenue of pitches has its own drinking water station and grey waste dump and the shower facilities, whilst look very basic are clean and efficient. Sometimes it is just worth paying a price for the location and accessibility. Parking in large towns and cities is so difficult for us motorhomies that having somewhere like the Bath Marina site is a bonus.

You can find out more by contacting them through their website at Bath Marina Campsite. Their co-ordinates are 51.388. -2.403617

Bath Spa

Iconic Bath where you can learn, discover, shop, eat, people watch, walk and rejuvenate. So many appeals to the mind, body and spirit. If it’s a walk around the historical studded town; The Pump Rooms with its World Heritage status shows off the most ancient religious spas of Northern Europe or perhaps Bath’s Cathedral would please you. The Royal Crescent will stop you in your tracks and through every street you will get a sense of history balanced with an elegant modern face that honours its past.

If you fancy being more in the now than the past then why not indulge in a spot of rest and relaxation. Bath’s natural thermal springs make this town a focal point for well-being and no better a place to visit than the modern twist on Roman baths at the Thermae Spa. This 21st Century building has history at its heart together with your well-being on their agenda. With two hour slots available you can enjoy three floors of relaxation delights; from an outdoor rooftop pool that overlooks Bath’s historical roofline to a heady bath in the basement with its lazy river flow that makes you feel weightless; or may be the Wellness Suite that gives you diverse range of multi-sensory experiences.  Why not commit to some personal well-being and check out this luxurious Spa although watch out for weekends when it is incredibly busy and you will have to share the space! Check out their website for more information; Thermae Bath Spa

Chew Valley Lakes

The home of Yeo Yoghurt this stunning rolling countryside is full of Somerset sumptuousness. Whilst the roads are narrow in places and tractors here are kings of the road or so they think. So driving with caution is necessary for your sanity to stay in tact. After leaving Bath, a trip to the Chew Valley Lakes is more than worthwhile. Although there looks to be no camping opportunities, for a day-time stopover, the Picnic areas on the lake are well worth a visit. Parking isn’t easy for motorhomes as you can see from the picture, although there are larger spots on the coach parking area if it’s too busy to park lengthways. 

The Chew Valley Lake is the 5th largest in UK and is renowned for great fishing. To park in the official car parks is £2 all day.

So as I look back at my Somerset road-trip I can feel proud of my solo efforts and joy of not only being able to share our home with my bestie, also being able to get to see a stunning part of the country. A triumph for my solo confidence and an elevation in my capabilities. And yet again proof that we can overcome our fears as they are only hidden in our minds and are so often not reality. Step out of your comfort zone and surprise yourself in how easy and joyful life can be. 

The journey back to Blighty

The journey back to Blighty

Here we are half way through our trip back to Blighty and I felt inspired to write down my thoughts as we navigate our way through this strange period of our nomadic lives.

Operation UK, as we have lovingly called it, has been a journey full of the usual texture and colour that we have come to expect from our adventurous lives. Although I must admit as we prepared for our temporary homecoming, it had an odd hue of grey around the edges as I struggled to get my head – and my heart around going back.

As I reflect back to December, when our plans became more real, I remember the deep sense of dread which seems to be a recurring pattern when we consider a trip back to UK. It’s a really strange sensation as I picture ‘the return’ which fills me with uncertainty and anxiety. I’ve never been quite sure what has driven this feeling for my homeland. Although I embrace it, as I have every other emotional response we’ve had since we hit the road two years ago.

Our first trip back was Christmas 2016 for a mere three weeks and it was a whirlwind visit to spend precious time with friends and family. As I recall, this ‘return’ had a more intense fear to it, as we had only intended to travel for a gap-year whilst we sold some property, although such was our love for our new lives that we decided to keep going. So this trip was filled with an anxiety that played out some very strange scenarios for me;

Would we want to  stay? 

Would we harbour deep-seated regrets for all we had left behind? 

Would there be a surprising desire to return to our roots and bricks and mortar?  

I think it was the anticipation of these questions and doubts that nibbled away on the inside of my ego.  Although thankfully none of them came to fruition and with a fervour in our heels, we hopped, skipped and jumped our way back to our new European homeland to seek out more life-enriching experiences.  Our trip had been affirming, comforting and full of lovely reconnections, yet nothing held us back from the happiness we have found as nomads.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that having done it once I could come back to UK with a certain degree of confidence in my soul. Although this latest trip was for longer…. This could be up to three months! How would I cope with that and what unexpected nuances would influence our travelling landscape?

Just before we set out on our epic route back through France, to quote the famed Mr King, ‘I had a dream’…  Said dream gave me an absolute clarity about our trip to UK and the role it played in our lives today and tomorrow. It wasn’t so much a ‘going back’ as an opportunity to consolidate a base on which more years of travel could be built on. That realisation brought me a resounding peace and in a flash of that waking moment, I said goodbye to dread and hello to positive purpose.

So often during the course of the last two years I have been reminded of my work as a life coach and the insights that clients and I create to heal their suffering. And here was yet another lovely lesson from my own story book… When things look difficult or tricky, hard or upsetting, then explore whether, within its fabric, is a positive purpose – a reason that that situation, interaction or person is in your life. Once we see this perspective, it makes our handling of it so much easier.

Added to this, an important conversation with a friend gave me the ‘ah-ha’ I sought to the source of my ‘RETURNING’ fear.  Because we decided to swap our corporate stress for a more fulfilling sense of happiness, adventure and simplicity, coming back had the shadow of historical ghosts that lined up ready to suck me back into the nightmare of our previous lives.  My fear was more about what the UK represented for me; a place where for too many years we struggled with stress, mental fatigue and people-pleasing traits that called the shots and that sent our lives into a seemingly uncontrollable spiral. A place that we chose to leave behind and one that we never want to return to, having found the enriching life of nomads.

With clarity of heart and mind we stepped on snowy UK shores with a determination that continues to drive us even into our second month. What was more interesting was that our arrival was exactly two years to the day that we had left for European shores. Was that a strange twist of fate or merely a co-incidence? I’ll leave this to your own imagination, as to ponder on its significance seems futile for us at this point. Perhaps it will become clearer at another junction of our lives, although for now we’ll put it down to co-incidence.

Intent on meaningful connections, productive selling, even more positive purchasing and a little milestone Birthday, we initiated our operation with the strategic character of a battle-field.  A busy month has had our feet not even touching the ground and our to-do-list reducing day by day.

With a bit of an April respite as we housesit back on home turf in Taunton, a place that we proudly called home for four years, we smile at the way we have reacted to being back on the farm where it all started. Our old house next-door is now occupied by new tenants and as they make it their home, our memories strangely don’t feature in any wistful recollections. We simply feel grateful for all that was and all that is right now. Having this stationery sojourn feels comforting and known as we complete the next set of tasks from our list.

One month on, we are making excellent progress on the financial foundation and the social reconnections are being beautifully restored and whilst we sit here on a wet and grey UK day feeling just a bit jaded from our exploits, we know that we are doing well and navigating our intense journey with teamwork. We must though during this next phase of housesitting, allow our bodies (and our livers if we’re honest), take a rest and whilst it is important to see all our lovely friends and family, we must not to fall foul to the old people-pleasing beasts that lurk in the wings of our life’s stage. We must ensure that we continue to put our well-being first so that we may live our lives with the same energy we have up until this point.

And don’t get me wrong, my wanderlust is rising up from my feet with the eagerness of wild horses ready to run through wilderness, although for now this is not where we are meant to be. Our travels will resume soon and in fact there is plenty of adventure to be had in this phase of our lives. It is just shaped by a purposeful need to get our house in order so that we may move forward with greater certainty and confidence.

What will the next chapter bring? That we don’t know, although what we do realise is that with our partnership, love and resilience we can navigate it all with the deftness of a coursing river.

 

Viva España

Viva España

Travelling through Spain over the last two years has been an enlightening experience that has taught us plenty, surprised us consistently and captivated us completely.  Ever since our first steps on these shores, when we set out on our nomadic adventure in March 2016, each of our three return trips to Spain have opened up our eyes to a rich culture, a diverse landscape and an enthralling history. Above all Spain has wriggled its way into our affections and allowed us to see beyond its ‘Costa’ reputation.  A deep respect for this fascinating and bountiful country has grown within us and leaves us wanting more.

As we have completed this year’s exit from this delightful country, it feels appropriate to track back our Spanish travel trilogy – three visits in three separate years – in the vein hope to capture some of our adventures and highlights as we uncovered this much misunderstood southern European country.  The Interactive Map below represents the Spanish adventure that we have embarked on and whilst it still remains an incomplete jigsaw, it has created enough intrigue for us to return each winter to put a few more pieces into our Spanish Masterpiece. Click on the map for an extensive compilation of Points of Interest, campsites, wild spots, co-ordinates, images and links to old blogs and videos that we have taken during our time in this land of fiesta and passion.

To accompany that we have offered a short write up on each of the seven regions we have allowed our wanderlust to play in the hope that it might inspire you to return to the map to pin point exactly where we’ve been and called home. Enjoy this Spanish Compilation and let it whet your adventurous spirit.

Aragon’s special three!

This landlocked region of north-eastern Spain cries out for attention as so many flock for the coastal fringes of Spain’s Costas. Although the sun seekers’ loss is a traveller’s gain as this northern territory offers history and scenery in poetic partnership.   Aragon’s very first offering as you drive through the Somport Tunnel is the once grand, Canfranc Estacion, calling for you to rest your eyes upon its 365 windows and half a mile long platform. A ghost station that demands your respect even in its abandoned state.

The mountains beyond offer you monasteries and chiselled hamlets with religious acclaim, not to mention the panoramic vistas across to the Pyrenean foothills. And of course you can’t pass by en route south without calling in to see Albarracín with its medieval wall-city, Moorish fort ruins and its 16th Century Cathedral.  Perhaps a night in Teruel, Spain’s highest town will tempt you to observe its Mudéjar architecture, a fusion of Gothic and Islamic styles that is unique to the area.

Andalucia – Home to Bullfighting, Flamenco and so much more…

This is Spain’s second largest region stretching from its south-western most borders with Portugal right across to the south-east fringes. It is one of the most diverse regions as it binds together mountains, coast, wetland and dunes, embraced by the most enthralling historical wrapping you can imagine. With Christians fighting against the Moors, who from their North African neighbour, set out to conquer the whole region within four years. The Moor’s dominance is clear to see throughout the region with Cadiz, Granada, Seville and Cordoba show-casing their Moorish dominance and architectural influence.

Although don’t be bewitched by their impressive buildings at the expense of Ronda, for its precarious habitation above the stunning El Tajo gorge is a sight to be seen. The iconic arches of the Puente Nuevo bridge built high above the valley floor, connects the old and new town and its atmospheric prowess certainly commands your attention.

Deep in the mountains north of Cadiz, you will find the Pueblo Blancos – villages of built entirely of white stone, most of which are nestled within the heartland of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park. Grazalema is our favourites with its steep, cobbled streets and authentic village ambiance, you feel humbled by its beauty. And just further east, past Granada the Sierra Nevadas provides humble abode to the isolated mountain retreats of Las Alpujarras – the most authentic place to experience Spanish artisans. The journey through the mountains is a delightful step back in time which will pique your cultural curiosity.

To the far west, mention must be made to the diverse landscape of Doñana National Park – an important wetland area for wildlife in particular the protected Iberian Lynx and Imperial Eagle. Twinned with the Camargue region of southern France, Doñana is of significant importance and has become a UNESCO World Heritage site and whilst no doubt impressive – it is the draw of the eclectic, Wild West-style town of El Rocio that captivates many explorers with its cult status pilgrimage in late May.  El Rocio defies description and is just one of those places you have to visit and see with your own eyes, although be warned if you go in the festival season in May (or to be more precise 50 days after Easter Sunday), you will be sharing the experience with 1 million other people intent of participating in this unique gathering of brotherhood members.

Whilst many descend upon the Costa del Sol with Marbella, Torremolinos and Malaga at its heart – it is beyond the sprawling mass of high-rises, villas and Golf Courses where you will find the truest and finest mountain experience. 50km from Malaga and the Guadalhorce National Park – Spain’s Lake District entices you into to hike this mountainous region. With special mention of course to the infamous El Caminito del Rey, one of Europe’s most dangerous walks through the canyons of the Garganta del Chorro, which is something that simply must be done. The Land Beyond Malaga is something else and must surely be witnessed by us.

And last, and by no means least – if getting off the beaten track is an important part of your travel ethos, then the Sierra de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas is the cherry on the cake. In the centre of Olive Grove central just east of Jaén, this mountain region which represents the largest National Park in Spain, is one of those places that has cameras clicking and visitors muttering the immortal words of ‘Ooh’ ‘Ah’ and ‘Wow’ several times a minute. So much wild beauty that the sandy beaches of the Costa’s simply can’t compete with – whilst pretty in their own way if you can see beyond the concrete jungle. Andalucia – the most diverse and wondrous region of Spain.

Castilla y Leon – the big UNESCO three

Having high anticipation of our Spanish exploration when we arrived early March to snow, we were somewhat amused. Where was the iconic sunburst that we had planned on enjoying? Where was that illusive blue sky that Spain is so famous for? It certainly wasn’t in this northern region of Spain. Still, regardless of minus temperatures, we were determined to enjoy our virgin experience of this mighty country and especially as there are three major UNESCO sites in a golden triangle.

First of all you have Burgos, capital to this Castilla region and packing a mighty punch with its ‘still in tact’ medieval Cathedral. Still in tact is a gross exaggeration as this architectural feat defies the laws of erosion. This is a fine example of Gothic design and is most famous for its tomb of El Cid. Entry is only €7 and to walk around this stunning piece of art – whether you love churches or not, quite honestly is irrelevant. You cannot walk away from this experience without being humbled by its prominence.

2.5hrs down the road you will find your second UNESCO site and this was our favourite of the three. As from the moment you walk from the origins of the immaculate Roman aqueduct down the steps towards the old town, you realise that Segovia is full of historical splendour. Cobbled streets that wind their ways uphill give you a great vista across the Spanish landscape and within the city walls, every corner you turn is yet another throwback in time. You could almost imagine yourself in a Dickensian novel. And whilst the cathedral is undoubtedly a work of art, it is the Disney-style Alcazar that truly owns the town and our affections. Whilst it has been renovated and in fact is still work in progress, this is a wonderful sight that goes well beyond the crass Instagram pose. Segovia’s buildings and her resident storks that often do a flypast, are just mesmerising and a day is simply not enough – just a flavour. Spend more time here if you can as its history and architectural charm will render you speechless.

Just two more hours west towards the Portuguese border you will find the third UNESCO, which if you’re not already sensationalised-out, will leave you with warmth and charm. Salamanca different yet again to its siblings with the river and its bridges creating the first impression. With the somewhat sprawling new town on the other side of the river, you wonder whether the inner sanctum will stack up and that is a big resounding YES. Within the city walls you have a blend of cosmopolitan energy mixed with historical prowess that as you climb the steps towards the fortress gives you a bird’s eye view of the town below you. It is full of character and with its sandstone walls will entice you to stay awhile.

 

Catalonia

Receiving big media coverage in 2017/18, this north eastern region of Spain has been, and continues to battle for independence. Catalonian’s passion for their unique identity is evident around the region as their express their feelings with flags, posters and yellow ribbons. Irrespective of what the world may think about the politics, Catalonia is host to some seriously beautiful countryside, cities and culture. It packs a real punch when you look at Barcelona! What more could you ask for from a city?  Art, class, history, architecture beauty, coast, texture.  However you feel about cities, Barcelona will impress.  And that’s before you look beyond Barcelona and see the richness of Monserrat and the limestone pinnacles that rise out of the earth, housing the most incredible Monastery. And what of the charming seaside town of Sitges? These are just some of Catalonia’s gems that need our time and admiration.

The Costa Brava region is delightful – a craggy coast with hidden bays, peninsulars and a classier waterfront than its southern cousins. Secret villages that provide a creative retreat like the charm of Salvador Dali’s home Cadaques and L’Escala, just around the bay is another delightful place. If you are looking for more of a city vibe then Girona might fit the bill, with its young community, music and flower festivals, we’re sure that its chic streets might lure you.

If it’s off the beaten track you long for, then the likes of hiking in the Monserrat mountains or even an exploration of the small yet beautifully formed Peralada and Besalu could well appeal and it is tucked away in these countryside hamlets that you will find hidden history of warriors defending their land and diverse locals looking to live in harmony together. Not much has changed over the centuries.    No tourists, just the ghosts of a time past and a few locals on a day out from the city.

Catalonia is rich in landscape and history – both ancient and modern and all we can do is to watch their evolution and enjoy their offerings.

Extremadura – land of the Raptors

The highlight for us of this land-locked region has to be Spain’s largest and newest National Park – Monfragüe (pronounced Monfrauway). Tucked just east off of the highway, this vast Park is home to the most incredible wildlife; most significantly its raptors and other birdlife. Monfrague with its reservoirs and rolling hills and mountains play host to 9th century castles with history seeping from every stone of its remnants to cave dwellings showing us a life way back when. And if that isn’t enough, the park is home to many protected breeds of birds such as the majestic Black Stork, Egyptian Vultures, Imperial Eagles and White-bellied Swifts. You can take a bird-watching tour and be guided around the birds’ safe havens, although taking your own tour will give you amble opportunity to see clouds of raptors take to the sky and nest up in the craggy rock faces.

Whilst these region has undoubted other highlights, for us this was the stand-out and is a very special place to watch wildlife thrive in an unthreatened environment. It’s a timeless landscape that will have you enthralled.

Murica – Jewels amongst the Greenhouse Mecca

Murcia at first glance feels like it is one of the least explored regions we have visited. And yet as I pin-pointed our highlights I was surprised by how many amazing little gems we found. Beyond the sea of Greenhouses, which is central to Murcia’s economy, your wanderlust will be seriously exercised. For example how about the delights of the craggy Cabo de Gata coastline where the rocks look like they have been hand-chiselled?  Or the architecture from the Romans through to modern day designs in the vibrant city of Cartagena? Or the mesmerising display of Aguilas during its February carnival period that will have you feeling like you’re in Rio de Janeiro or somewhere in a Mardi Gras?

Perhaps something more tranquil and authentic would better suit your needs, if so then look no further than the Ricote Valley, just an hour away from the region’s capital Murcia. This quiet, off the beaten track valley is donned with citrus orchards that omit their mesmerising aromas and blossoms in early spring. Authentic Spanish villages where no English will be spoken, allow you to be transported into a period where life has been untouched by modern technology. Bodegas, with their home-made liquor and markets full of local produce will make you feel like you are in the heart of traditional, old Spain, leaving behind the images of the greenhouses and hotel strewn coastlines.  Murcia is a little bundle of delights and not just a region to be passed through to get to the resorts east and west. Charm, history and genuine Spanish life will magnetise here and ask you to stay awhile.

Valencia Community – Rich in Fiestas and Traditions 

Reaching down to Benidorm and the Costas in the south, through to Denia and Castellon in the east and north of the region, the Valencian Community has tradition and fiestas at its heart. In the region’s capital, Valencia and Denia in particular, the greatest spectacular is in March where we defy you to not be engaged in this region’s atmospheric celebration of Las Fallas, where massive statues are built for St Joseph’s day on 19 March and then burnt a week later. With processions, traditional costume and a party vibe, March in this region is one of the best places to be in Spain.  And that’s without the Semana Santa celebrations. 

Valencia as a city satiates every single sense and appetite. For those who love the modern scene, then the futuristic museums will wow you and as you walk through the yoga filled parks that place themselves in the old river bed, the old town and ancient bridges will delight too. Valencia really has it all and is a wonderfully sensual city that I imagine you simply can’t get enough of.

All things Spain in one place

24 hrs in Girona, Catalonia

24 hrs in Girona, Catalonia

The first thing that struck us as we arrived in this Catalan city was how quiet it was. I suppose we have comparisons of London, Birmingham, Paris even to benchmark it against. Few cars lingered at the lights and few people were rushing from street to street. It was lunchtime and a Friday in mid-winter, so perhaps the Spanish siesta was dawning or may be this was just the city’s quiet heart-beat.

As our exploration began, only the deep resonance of the Cathedral bells that vibrates through your veins and the odd fusion of seagulls and parakeets seem to pierce the silence. And yet Girona could so easily be missed off the travellers’ agenda in their haste to head south to coastal retreats or in the mad dash north with their luggage crammed with Rioja and Chorizo. And it is true for us too, as it has taken us until our third Spanish road trip to drop in and say ‘hi’. So what is our view of this proudly Catalonian city after our brief sojourn ? Let’s see if we can give you a flavour of our experiences and then may be it will prompt you to go and make up your own minds.

As with most cities we’ve visited in the last two years of being on the road, there’s the old and new. And of course it is generally the ancient face we come to admire, as the outer fringes of industry and high rise where people create their homes and their business, has little to offer the curiosity seeker. Girona in that respect is no different. Nestled just below the foothills of the Pyrenees, Girona is blessed by stunning surroundings however your entry to the city is made. We came from the south west, Manresa to be precise, and our route through the snow-capped, densely forested mountains was a great set up for our city tour.

In the Spanish guide books there is little space dedicated to Girona. Barcelona and Seville certainly win the competition on that score. Although don’t be fooled by its lack of representation, as when we made our way from our inner-city camper park along the edge of the Devesa Park with its plethora of larch trees, I felt the anticipation grow. Despite the railway that dissects the old from the new, yet again we were struck by the lack of noise and buzz. A quiet station, few trains, only its metalic presence gave it away.

And then our first real sight of this unassuming city, carrying a historical weight on its shoulders, emerged as we approached the river.  With copious bridges that span a trickling River Onyar before the Pyrenean snow melt fills the riverbed, we felt immediately transported  into Girona’s soul. The colourful five or so storey buildings proudly hang their Catalan flags, propaganda and washing from their balconies like it’s a natural part of their decor, giving it an almost scruffy, yet lived in feel.  It reminded us a lot of the Pontevecchia in Florence just on a smaller and quieter scale.

Crossing the bridge felt symbolic as little did we realise that entry through the archway would take us into the heart of this somewhat somber city; the facades of the river-fronted buildings belying its inner sanctum. I’ve been trying to think of an adjective that best describes Girona’s historical old town and I think somber real does it for me. The streets, whilst full of Italian-style shops selling sumptuous clothes, shoes and leatherware are generally narrow and dark. I felt as though I wanted to sand blast the streets to bring it back to its former glory. Although in the darkness lies the truth of its history, so to remove it would be to strip away some of its legacy.

The dakness aside, in contrast the city’s cathedral and monuments are almost albino white, matching the distant Pyrenean mountains that provide the backdrop to the cityscape.  With a minimalist style to their exteriors, simplicity shrouds this city. It is not out to wow you in the same way Seville does. It invites you to enter its inner hub and engage with its historical tale that spans back some one thousand years.

The main thing I learned from my guide book was to head for the Passeig de la Muralla – the city walls – as this offers a terrific bird’s eye view. And indeed what a great piece of advice. So often visiting cities we feel like ants as we try to get a full experience of the majestic buildings, somehow missing part of the jigsaw by being on the ground. Yet from above we were able to see the full picture emerge and the city’s modern day identity trying to converge with its historical father-figure.

There are a number of entry points to this upper fortress passage. We started at the Cathedral end and worked our way south. En route to its maze-like entry, we passed the Banys Àrabs, the Romanesque Baths, which is very much intact and for €2 you can gain entry to this ancient masterpiece. A point to note, during the winter this is only open from 10-2 so be warned if a visit is on your list. Sadly it was shut for our city tour. Still, onwards we climbed up the seemingly never-ending stairs that lead to the walls, where towers positioned in battle readiness gave us a lofty view of the streets below.  The walls have been lovingly and sensitively restored allowing us to walk in the footsteps of warriors who were set on defending their realm. What a terrific way to experience this compact old town.

Back down at street level, we found the river again, where still few people graced the pavements. Yet a handful of hardy Catalonians brave the crisp winter’s grip that has taken Spain by surprise this year, sit outside for their early afternoon beer. Shops selling an enticing array of pastries more suited to a French boulangerie border the streets, reminding the visitor of its neighbour’s influence on its language and culture.  Having thought we were finally getting to grips with Spanish vocabulary, arriving in Catalonia is another challenge altogether for our foreign tongue. So many variants remind you that the locals here are set on creating individuality and independence even if they have been ruled against it.

The Jewish quarter was one of the largest communities in Catalonia back in 13th century, living harmonious alongside their Christian neighbours. Although after racial attacks, a massacre and persecution, the Jewish population either converted or were expelled from the country. Their community is called the Call, translated as the ghetto and museums today tell of their harrowing story whilst the street, with its intricate alleyways and cobbled lanes still hold their sombre secrets. It is a street with little light, which somehow seems befitting and symbolic of their story, with buildings leaning precariously close together as if in some sort of constructive solidarity.

It felt odd to me as we left the solemnity of the street’s ghostly past that the faint and gentle sound of a street musician should break the historical spell, as he played to his unappreciative audience on the steps of the Cathedral. Except for me who felt compelled to offer him rapturous applause for his musical talent.

The Cathedral like so many, regales in its architectural glory with steep steps climbing to its doorway, as if forcing you to make the commitment to reach its religious sanctuary.  Sitting strangely alongside its Jewish neighbours, this city paradoxically shows how two different factions of the community can coexist.

One final pièce de resistance, if my French isn’t completely out of place in a Spanish write up, is La Plaça de Independence, just on the other side of the river. A huge square with café-lined archways that set the scene for a small yet power symbol of the fight for independence back in the early 17th century. Whilst today dogs walk, cycles create wheel-track patterns in the sand and Instagramers look for the ultimate pose, there is a strange message carried through the ages about fighting for your right for liberation. A fight that still is very much alive, if not yet a battle won.

And so this university city with its throng of youngsters, musical festivals and weekly markets does have plenty to offer for a day’s visit. Modern one side and ancient the other, an eclectic mix that offers the visitor an day of intrigue, good quality walking and an insight to city holding onto its historical identity.

So how would we sum up Girona? Whilst it may not sparkle like its Spanish siblings, Girona has character and with its compact streets and bird’s-eye fortress promenade, it offers up a unique perspective of a yester-year that gently asks to be remembered. We are glad we came and we would definitely would recommend a visit here, although it did leave us sadly wanting. Whether it was the austere feel, the dark streets or the quietness, there was something missing for us. That said, come make up your own mind – it must be experienced even if only for its city walls.

Our Recommendations for a visit to Girona

  1. Come in spring or autumn as there will be more life to the place and it will certainly feel warmer.
  2. Start your visit in the morning when you will experience the smell of Girona from the plentiful Boulangeries.
  3. Do tie your visit into a Saturday as the market in Devesa Park is one of the largest I have ever seen with hundred of vegetable and clothes stalls. Markets are always a great way to experience the ‘real’ city and its locals. And Girona’s population is incredibly diverse.
  4. Do the City Wall walk first so that you can gain a real perspective of the place.
  5. Experience at least one of the many restaurants as Girona is famed for its classical Catalonian fare.
  6. Visit museums before 2pm as they tend to close for siesta.
  7. Avoid using the ATMs in town – every one I tried wanted to charge me commission. So come prepared with plenty of cash.
  8. Hotels are just on the outer edges of the old town and are within walking distance.
  9. If you come with your camper as we did, then there is a dedicated and secure car park right in the centre of the city within 10 minutes walk of the old town. For €12 you can stay for the night and it has full services as well.  41.983905 2.813767