Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Interviewed like superstars!


We were interviewed recently about our travels by the lovely Annette over at Campingly.  Follow the link below to read it.  It was very exciting to fill it out like we were famous!

Bruges by night


Day 163 24.12.12 Bruges 
 Christmas time in Bruges complete with Xmas tree
Bruges famous canals.  Perfect for winter walks.
Chris was feeling much better when we awoke so we got up quickly and headed out to the nearby supermarkets.  They close on 24th and most don’t re-open until 31st so we have lots of stocking up to do.  It takes a lot longer than expected as all the locals are stocking up too and we end up with a lot more chocloately goodies than actual food. You can’t come to Belgium without trying their truffles right?  It’s offensive or something.  For the second time in as many days we were approached in the beer aisle by a local looking to help us select the best brew.  They really do love their beer here and they like to make sure the tourists do too!

Bruges Belfry tower and festive shopsBelfry tower in Bruges, Belgium complete with Christmas ice rinkAfter an early lunch we headed back into town.  There’s still a surprising amount of tourists around and everywhere is very busy.  We enjoy walking along the canals and discovering some pretty spots we’d missed the day before.  The queue dies down long enough for us to nip inside the Basilica and enjoy the extravagant altar and stunning stained glass windows.  At 8 euros each though we opt not to climb up the Belfry tower.  The rain holds off all day and makes for a much more pleasant time exploring. 

It soon gets to dusk and all the Christmas lights come on.  They’re so much classier and more traditional than back home and really add to the look of the town.  The shops continue to amaze with their festive displays, one of the shops which specialises in old wooden toys is particularly lovely and looks like its straight out of a fairytale.  Bruges is really a very lovely city which some gorgeous views to take in.  We’d hoped that it would be quieter than it is though and the multitude of tourists does dampen the appeal slightly.  Nonetheless we’ve really loved it here and been bowled over by its pretty charm.

Bruges by night at Christmas time with added fairy lights!

As the night starts to get colder we head back to the van.  On the way we spot an awesome looking bar on the way home named Bauhaus.  It looks quirky and fun.  It’s also attached to a hostel so we figure it can’t be too expensive and drinking is festive right?  I seem to be making a lot of excuses today!  It was a great little place, perfect for people watching as lots of backpackers thousands of miles from home back friends to spend Christmas with.  It was a very welcoming place and to see so many people in a position similar to ourselves made us feel right at home.  The beer was pretty good too! 

In Bruges


Day 162 23.12.12 Bruges 
  
Views along the canal in Bruges, Belgium

I awoke early to find the familiar drip drip dripping on the roof has ceased as the rain had finally stopped.  We got up excitedly and headed into town.  Minutes after leaving the van the rain started again but we gritted our teeth and get walking to the centre.  The edge of the city was market by a huge castle style gate, a very grand entrance indeed!

The walk in to town was very quiet, with many shops now closed for Christmas.  Even the big supermarkets are shut from 25th to 31st so we’ll have to stock up!  After a little while of strolling along picturesque little cobbled streets we hit the first of the large squares with its grand gold facades.  There are some very beautiful buildings here but we rush on to the main market square with its huge Belfry.   It doesn’t disappoint!  The tower looms over a massive square of stunning buildings.   In the centre is a large out-door ice skating rink surrounded by Christmas market huts, the smell of which is heavenly!  The heady mix of mulled wine and sugary waffles is hard to resist!

Bruges canal walk views
We pop into the tourist office only to discover that you have to pay for a map of the city (something we’ve never experienced before) and you also have to pay to use the toilets (not impressed)! We decide to just use the street maps and wander around our own way.  The city unfolds in front of us and is much bigger than I’d anticipated.  We’re soon back by the canal and enjoy a walk along the bank taking in all the pretty houses along the way. 

The architecture here is picture perfect and at every turn there’s an adorably cute view to take in.   After a while the rain that has plagued us since our arrival clears up and makes our exploring much more pleasurable.  We come across so many wonderful buildings of such beauty it’s hard to believe people actually live in them.  The window displays in the shops are all decked out for Christmas and look very pretty even to a big bah humbug like me!  The chocolate shops are an exercise in will power as rows upon rows of handmade truffles accompany delicious looking yule logs.  One such shop even had a kitchen next door with windows all around so you could watch the chocolatier work his magic.

Bruges town hallAfter too long ogling chocolates, hunger kicked in and we duly obliged by walking back to the van for some lunch.  We picked up a freshly roasted chicken en route as a tasty festive treat.  We planned to head out again in the late afternoon to see the city lit up in all its festive glory.  Sadly Chris was feeling under the weather so settled down instead for a nap whilst I wrote up our exploits so far for the blog and sifted through the mountain of pictures I’ve taken so far.  Chris was feeling a lot better when he awoke from his nap so we grabbed some dinner and settled down to a DVD.  Fingers crossed he’s back to full health in the morning.

Rain rain go away


Day 161 22.12.12 Bruges

We awoke mid-morning to a very damp Oostende.  We reluctantly got up and plotted a course for Bruges. The first parking spot we had in mind turned out to be situated on the main ring road surrounding the city, which didn’t look too conducive to getting a good night’s sleep!  We drove on to a Lidl down the road to get some shopping done and spotted a quiet residential area behind it.  There was plenty of space to pull in alongside a school which we assumed would now be closed for Christmas so we parked up down there after picking up some goodies at the supermarket.  There’s a small petting zoo/farm attached to the school with chickens and bunnies which I must admit adds to the appeal for me!  Yay bunnies!

Unfortunately the rain continued for the rest of the day.  It was very heavy and utterly unrelenting.  After a little while of hoping it would die off soon we bit the bullet and made a run to a nearby McDonalds to look up the weather forecast for the next few days.  Thankfully it looks to dry off from tomorrow lunchtime until Christmas Day so I think we’ll just chalk up today as rain stopped play.  We snuggled up in the van and watched a DVD, read and chatted.  We’re both raring to visit Bruges but the rain is just horrendous so it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Worst apocalypse ever.


Day 160 21.12.12  Oostende

Wells despite our best intentions we slept in until late morning.  On the plus side the scheduled Mayan apocalypse seems to have passed without too much bother! 

The weather has cleared up too, the rain has stopped and there are even a couple of blue spots in the sky.  We headed into town and first spotted an impressive tall ship on the inlet from the sea.  It was a lovely marina with lots of boats of all sizes.  Further into town we came across Oostende’s main highlight, a large Gothic cathedral.  Sadly a little mucky on the outside but the building is still very attractive.  Inside the very unusual, abstract stained glass windows are very beautiful. 


Onwards through town we spotted several rather cute looking buildings and some large but poorly maintained large statues.  There aren’t really too many sights to see here but it’s a pleasant enough place to be.   There are an awful lot of people with dogs around and the dogs seem to be welcome inside most of the shops which takes a little getting used to!  After a little more exploring we come across an Aldi mini-market and stock up on the local delicacies of beer and waffles before heading back to the van for a late lunch. 

We head back out again after a little while for another look around town.  Everywhere is geared up for Christmas, there a small festive market as well as an out-door ice skating rink in the main square.  The speakers on the streets even play some Xmas tunes, thankfully none of the uber-cheesy ones!  It seems strange to walk from all this festive cheer and then be at the beach minutes later.  There’s a huge stretch of gorgeous sand to enjoy and in the warmer months this is no doubt a much busier town.  At the moment though we seem to be the only tourists!

There’s a definite chill to the air as it gets darker and we head back to the comfort of the van.  Despite our earlier unsuccessful attempts at starting the vans heating, today it has decided to work.  It’s great news and will definitely make our trip more comfortable!  As it’s got dark, lots of other campervans have arrived to join us, all of them Belgian and very swanky.  Van Diesel looks like a scruffy oik in comparison! 

Later in the evening we headed back into town for more exploring.  The tall ship looked lovely lit up with golden Christmas lights and the cathedral too was very beautiful lit up from below.  Aside from some of the temporary bars set up for Christmas, town was very quiet.  We popped into one of the many chip shops for a take away treat before heading back to the van for dinner, a film and bed.   
      

Belgium bound

Day 159 20.12.12 Dover to Dunkirk to Oostende

We were up early to do some last minute packing and to say our goodbyes before hitting the road to Dover.  The weather was horrendous with some major downpours causing a lot of spray and poor visibility on the motorway.  Thankfully all the other drivers were being cautious and we reached Dover unscathed and early.  Despite a very choppy looking sea, the ferry journey was surprisingly smooth for which we were very grateful!  As luck would have it we wound up being the first vehicle off the ferry, a nerve-wracking affair especially after a false start of the engine (performance anxiety!).

Traffic out of Dunkirk was busy and the weather grey and drizzly, not much of a warm welcome. We drove on into Belgium towards the sea-side town of Oostende and parked up in a free aire beside a pretty lake.  A very pleasant and extremely quiet spot.  We settled in for a late afternoon nap after having little sleep last night.  Afterwards we had some dinner, watched a film and did some reading before bedtime part 2.  We hope to be up bright and early tomorrow to explore the town.  It feels great to be back on the road and nice to be back calling Van Diesel home.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

We're off again tomorrow!

We're back off on the road tomorrow and very excited indeed. We've got a few last minute bits to pack then we're ready to go.  We'll be updating the blog as much as possible to keep you all filled in on our adventures!

To stay in touch why not 'like' our page on facebook here:
http://www.facebook.com/LifeOn4Wheels.co.uk

We often post a status on there if we don't have the wifi for a proper update.  And when we do post a blog update, you'll also get a post in your facebook news feed with a link straight to it!

If you're more of a twitter follower then you can find us @lifeon4wheelsUK and I promise to be better at updating it this time around!

Wish us luck!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Finally some good news - we're off again!

Good news everyone!

Van Diesel is back up and running and has been behaving herself for long enough we've decided she deserves a holiday.  We've booked some ferry tickets and next Thursday (20th) we’re off!  The ferry drops us off at Dunkirk since our first stop will be Belgium.  We’re hoping to spend Christmas in one of the beautifully romantic cities of Ghent or Bruges. After that we’ll be heading down Eastern France before visiting Chris’ brother, his partner and their new baby in Geneva, Switzerland.  Further south afterwards to the Cote d’Azur and from there the plan goes a little wishy washy as to whether we turn left towards Italy or right back to Spain.  It’ll be a shorter trip this time as our insurance runs out at the end of March and I don’t think we can afford to renew it!

If anyone has any recommendations of places to visit on our vague idea of a route let us know and be sure to come back next week to follow the next leg of our European adventure! 
Life on 4 wheels 2 – the winter edition. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Finding motorhome breakdown cover for UK and Europe

With a campervan the age of Van Diesel it’s essential to have breakdown cover.  I have to say finding a company to cover us was a real challenge.  What were the problems?

  • Van Diesel is 18 years old and most companies only cover vehicles under 15. 
  • Secondly whilst most companies offer a UK and Europe policy they only allow 30 days outside of Blighty in one chunk, which was no good for us. 
  • Thirdly we had to find a company that covered all the countries we wanted to visit within their policy.
  • And lastly they had to not cost the earth!

In total I contacted 17 different UK companies without success.  AA was the only company who met all the criteria we required but due to Van Diesel’s age they placed a whopping surcharge of the cost of their cover.

I posted about our difficulties on the site and in no time at all I had responses from two very helpful readers who both recommended we contact German company ADAC (big thanks guys!).  After a quick look at their website I got in touch via email and soon enough I had a reply saying that they would cover all of our needs for just 96 euros, their flat rate regardless of vehicle age!  We were also covered to be out of the UK for the whole 365 days of our policy if we so wished!  I filled out the forms, paid up and in no time at all the confirmation documents landed on the doormat.

They provided us with a local number for each country to ensure any breakdowns were responded to as quickly as possible and that we’d speak to someone who knew the country and its road systems well, as well as of course speaking the local lingo.

We hadn't been on the road long when the van refused to start early one afternoon in a Bilbao car park.  We called the Spanish representative and just over an hour later a tow truck arrived to take Van Diesel to a garage we’d agreed with the ADAC rep.

A few homeless hours later it became apparent we wouldn't be getting the van back for the night.  ADAC called to let us know and said they would arrange for us to spend the night in a hotel, unless we wanted to pick a hotel up to the value of 69 euros each and have they pay for it.  After a stressful day (and content that anywhere with hot showers would be wonderful) we opted to let them go ahead and organise it for us.  Shortly we received a call to tell us that we would be put up for the night in a lovely 4 star hotel close to the garage fixing Van Diesel.  They even offered to pay for a taxi to take us to the hotel and then from the hotel to the garage but we declined since it was such a short walk!  We just turned up, flashed our passports and it was 4 star luxury, hot showers and endless wifi until the very last minute before we had to check out!  Fantastic service!

Shortly after we had some problems in Santander and took the van to a local garage.  After several hours the grumpy mechanic claimed Van Diesel was unfixable and we should call a tow truck as it wasn't safe to drive.  Since we were struggling to communicate and utterly freaked out, we put the mechanic on to the ADAC rep who explained in no uncertain terms that if they were going to declare the van unfixable (and thus ADAC would have to repatriate it to the UK) then the mechanic better be damn sure it wouldn't drive.  The van was then put immediately back up on the ramps and the mechanics were out in force to get it fixed.  Sure enough a little while later the unfixable van was magically fixed!

After that Van Diesel behaved for quite a long while…until the big break down in France on our way home.  The pipe connecting the turbo to the exhaust split clean in half and Van Diesel sounded like a tank!  Once again a quick call to ADAC and an hour later local garage tow truck arrived to get us.  ADAC stayed in touch with the garage to translate to us the problems and the possible solutions.  When it became apparent that the van could not be fixed in time for our ferry the following week, the representative suggested that ADAC would get the van shipped back to the UK and pay for us to fly back.  They texted us details of the nearest airport and the available flights for the following day.   They arranged everything with the garage and made sure we had given them all the documents they’d need.  The representatives we spoke to were incredibly helpful and very sympathetic to our nightmare of a situation.

The following day we got a 175 euro taxi to the airport, we booked ourselves a 330 euro flight back to Gatwick and once in the UK spent 20-odd quid on getting back to Chris’ Mums. 

ADAC kept us informed as to when the van would be back in Britain and it arrived at our designated garage in 2 and a half weeks.  They explained it would have been quicker if not for our breakdown having happened the middle of nowhere!

Not long after we sadly received a letter to say that since we had claimed so much they would be cancelling our policy.  As sad as this made me I can understand that we did need so much help in the first 6 months of our policy that a further 6 months would be too much of a risk for them.  Nonetheless, it didn't feel great to be back at the drawing board!

It’s now been over 2 months since the breakdown and after a fair few calls to Germany I have finally been reimbursed for the trip back to the UK.  It seems like a long time and I have to say I did start to get a little annoyed at the delay but I’m sure I would've had a similar wait with any other company.  Despite saying they would only cover the first 30 euros of any taxi journey, they have in fact reimbursed us for the whole 175 euros!  I’m over the moon that they've paid the entirety of the cost of our return to England as well of course as shipping back Van Diesel (no doubt a very costly affair!).

I have to say that I would hand on heart thoroughly recommend ADAC to anyone in need of breakdown cover.  Their policy is fantastic value and the service we have received is nothing short of exemplary.  A breakdown situation can be stressful at the best of times, but even more so when your vehicle is also your bed for the night!  Add onto this the fact you’re in a foreign country where you can’t communicate with the mechanic and you are in for a ton of stress.  Having an experienced, cool, calm and collected ADAC representative on the end of the phone in a time like that is an absolute life saver!  So thank you yellow angels for your superb service.  We’ll certainly miss you!

Britannia Rescue, you have a LOT to live up to! 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Our top 10 places to visit in Spain


After putting together our list of top ten places to visit in Portugal I moved on to writing one for Spain and came up against a big problem.  We could easily come up with our ten favourite places but putting them in some kind of order?  Utterly impossible!  There were so many cities we visited that we fell in love with and we just can’t pick a favourite, so instead I’m putting this list in alphabetic order!  Once again we did mainly visit only coastal towns so there may be some amazing cities inland we missed out on. So without further ado, here are our top 10 favourite Spanish cities.


1. Barcelona


Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, lit up for La Merce festival
Despite the less than pleasant way our last visit to Barcelona ended, it remains one of our very favourite cities.  We've been fortunate to have visited twice now, both times during La Merce festival held every September.   The festival is phenomenal and features firework displays, human towers, concerts, a show at the magic fountain and the insane Correfoc which has to be seen to be believed (all free by the way!).  In addition, lots of the attractions and museums offer free entry or special exhibitions over the 4 day festival. 

Barcelona has so much to offer that you’ll need at least a week and a lot of energy to just cover the main sights!  For us the legacy of Gaudi’s architecture is one of Barcelona’s biggest draws, especially Casa Battlo, Park Guell and of course the famous Sagrada Familia.  When visiting the cathedral, be sure to take a tour of the towers.  It costs extra but you can go high up into the spires, look over the edge of precariously placed balconies and get a much better appreciation of the masterpiece, as well as superb views over Barcelona’s rooftops!  Barcelona’s zoo and aquarium are both excellent attractions, the MNAC art museum situated in the pretty National Palace is also well worth a visit.  A trip to Barcelona wouldn't be complete without the craziness of the renowned shopping street Las Ramblas full of street performers, artists, market sellers and busy cafes.  If that’s not your thing then just a short walk away, you will find yourself in the stunning Gothic quarter with its bohemian feel amidst glorious architecture.  

I could go on for days about all that there is to do in Barcelona, that’s before I even mention the world renowned nightlife!  There’s so much to see and do you’ll be spoilt for choice!  Plus the combination of a lively city with a relaxing beach makes for a great all round holiday.  For me though, I have to say my favourite thing about Barcelona is its atmosphere and the way the city makes me feel.  Barcelona always seems so alive, so vibrant and just buzzing with excitement.  I've never been anywhere quite like it!


2. Bilbao


Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain
Bilbao is one of the classiest cities I've ever visited.  The city is pristinely presented and the locals are immaculately turned out too.  Whether you’re strolling along the river or relaxing in one of the many parks, every square inch of Bilbao is neat and tidy. Take a short walk anywhere in the city and you’ll be sure to bump into a unique yet beautiful sculpture.  Even the benches and street lights here are quirky.  It really feels like a lot of thought and imagination has gone into the design of Bilbao and it has definitely paid off.

The main highlight here is Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim museum on the banks of the river.  The building is an extraordinary array of curves in metal and glass that flow beautifully.  Outside you find several exhibitions including a giant metal spider and a puppy made out of flowers!

Bilbao also hosts numerous excellent museums, a stunning old quarter and sumptuous parks, including one high above the city with impressive views.  The train station is another lovely building with a jaw dropping stained glass display.  I’d also heartily recommend whiling away a few hours strolling along the banks of the river, soaking up the views.  Bilbao is equally beautiful by night too, particularly with the exceptional Zubizuri bridge all lit up.   

All in all Bilbao is a perfect little city which is incredibly well taken care of.  There is a strong community feel and clear family values here.  We've visited twice now and I’m still surprised by quite how perfect it all seems! It could all too easily seem a little too like Stepford, but thankfully the architectural flair and imagination of the city really helps it break the mould. 


3. Cadiz


Sunset and fishing boats off the peninsula of Cadiz, SpainWell it will come as no surprise to any readers of the blog that Cadiz made it onto this list.  We only managed to spend two days here thanks to an absence of decent parking but we fell head over heels for the place.  As a small peninsula, Cadiz is an easy city to find your way around which makes you feel at home very quickly.  Another big bonus is that it means you’re never too far from the sea, which around here is sapphire blue and gloriously warm. 

The main square is home to an impressive cathedral with a grand gold dome on top.  This square is very much the central, bustling hub of town both day and night.  There are some Roman ruins to visit and the stunning interior of the casino should not be missed.  Cadiz also has lots of parks, including my favourite which is full of dinosaur sculptures, a big waterfall, vividly coloured flowers and a lot of Alice in Wonderland style topiary.  It was such a great place, all on the cliffside overlooking the sea.

Cadiz is a fantastic place to watch the sun set over the sea, with lots of cute fishing boats bobbing on the water.  The locals were out in force to watch it too and at the end they all clapped.  This was probably one of my favourite moments in all of our travel, truly heartwarming. 

We felt instantly at home in Cadiz, there’s a very welcomingly and friendly atmosphere.  There’s a large gay community and a lot of tattooed and pierced people which makes it feel a lot more accepting than other parts of Spain.  We really did love Cadiz and had it not been for the poor parking I’m sure it would have been difficult to tear us away.
  

4. Cordoba


The red and white arches of La Mesquita mosque in Cordoba, Spain
Whilst we mostly toured the coast of Spain, we felt that Cordoba would be worth the long drive inland and we were right!  We parked up on the opposite side of the river to the main centre which afforded us magnificent views of the historic city.  The Roman bridge takes you over to the Moorish centre with its many architectural delights.  The famous Mesquita (mosque) is the main draw and well worth the sizable entry fee.  When we went it was a little too busy for my liking but it didn't particularly detract from what is an amazing experience.  No picture can do justice to quite how astonishing the seemingly everlasting rows of archways are!  In the centre you find a cathedral which is very beautiful but also very at odds with the Moorish style of the rest of the building.   I have to say I prefer the Mosque with its intricate carvings and bright colours, it totally blows you away. 

There are many other architectural gems in the old part of town as well as some wonderfully fragrant orange trees.  In the more modern centre we came across some attractive statues, fountains and parks as well as a number of other great looking buildings.  You’ll also find a archaeology museum and a fine arts museum, both free of charge with an EU passport (or an English accent if you forget your passport!).  There are also some well-preserved Roman ruins. 

Cordoba is also well worth a night-time visit when all the buildings and the Roman bridge are all lit up in a sympathetic way.  If only for the Mesquita alone, Cordoba should be on your list of cities to visit but it really does have so much more to offer.   The panorama of all the Moorish buildings from the riverbanks really does take some beating and shows that Cordoba is much more than just the home to one of the most famous buildings in Europe.


5. Gibraltar 


The rock of GibraltarI know our new-found Gibraltarian friends would not appreciate their home being in the list of ‘Spanish’ places to visit but we felt no visit to Espana should be without a trip to the British territory.  We had an amazing time here and certainly owe our wonderful tour-guide Mark thanks for that.  We took us up to the top of the rock where we explored caves, military tunnels and met some monkeys.  They are very cheeky indeed and totally chilled out around people. 

The views from the top of the rock are phenomenal and on a clear day you can see over the straights to Africa.  For us Gibraltar offered  a home from home and a chance to fill up on all the foods we’d missed being away from Blighty.  It certainly was bizarre to go and fill up on traditional pub grub in a very English pub and then stroll out into 40 degree sunshine!  There’s a lot to see and do in Gibraltar and the mix of influences due to its proximity to Spain and also Africa make for a great melting pot of cultures.  Aside from our trip up the rock, we particularly enjoyed the botanic gardens and a stroll around the marina.  Gibraltar is also home to some great beaches. 

I have to say, walking into Gibraltar across the airports runway is pretty terrifying but it definitely sets the place apart!  We found Gibraltar incredibly welcoming and great fun.  It offers much of what we love about the UK with Southern Spain’s glorious weather and coastline.  Gibraltar feels very safe indeed and has a very tight-knit community.  I must admit spotting monkeys on your walk into town would never get old for me!  It’s an unusual and beautiful place that I’m sure we’ll return too.



6. Girona



Rooftop view over historic Girona in Northern Spain
Girona was the last spot we visited in Spain and I’m so glad we did.  In a word, Girona is CHARMING.  It feels like a city straight out of a fairytale.  You can certainly feel the influence of nearby France in many of the buildings.  Our favourites were the Romanesque Sant Pere de Galligants and the Gothic Colleciate Chruch of Sant Feliu.  There are lots of other gems to see though and everywhere you turn the view is photo worthy, I was scared I’d fill up the camera!    The centre of town is full of cute shops; little patisseries, cafes and bakeries, all housed in stunning buildings.  I can’t reiterate enough quite how adorable this place is!

The best way to see Girona though is from atop the ancient walls surrounding the city.  High above the cobbled streets you can really appreciate the beauty of the city set against the rolling green hills behind.  There are lots of towers to climb and every view is picture postcard perfect. 

Back on the ground, a walk along the river is a must to appreciate the colourful houses and old bridges.  We didn’t get to spend a great deal of time in Girona but we were certainly blown away by how picturesque the city was.  Hopefully we’ll get to come back someday.



7. Granada


View of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain from the gardens of Generalife
Granada is nothing short of stunning.  We were completely bowled over by the Moorish influenced architecture dotted about town.  The large cathedral is particularly impressive, as too are many of the university faculty buildings.  Even the café and shop buildings here are astonishing.  The Moorish influence extends to the shopping quarter too and there’s a real bohemian vibe to the place as it’s such a varied mix of different cultures.  The centre of town is dotted with sculptures and huge fountains as well as plenty of attractive green spaces.  Wandering through town took us so long as we were continually stopping to admire our surroundings and take a few pictures.

The highlight of Granada is of course the Alhambra Palace.  Whilst getting into the place is a logistical nightmare (arrive early OR ELSE), it is certainly an attraction not to be missed.  Tickets aren’t cheap but you do get a lot for your money.  Your ticket also gives you a specific time to visit the Nasrid Palace, the most well-known part of the palace, and thankfully ensures it is not too busy when you get there.  I spent the entire time amazed at the beautiful intricately carved archways and stunningly detailed tile work.  It really does have to be seen to be believed.  The gardens are also magnificent and so sprawling that it’s easy to find a quiet spot to relax and enjoy the surroundings.  There are waterfalls and fountains galore, all amidst pretty, brightly coloured flowers.  Without a doubt, this was one of the best places we visited on our travels.

Regulars of the blog will also know what a great time we had at Granada’s Science Museum, which definitely deserves a mention here.  Entry was a reasonable 6.50 euros and there is so much to see and do for your money.  It’s full of interesting, interactive experiments on all sorts of aspects of Science.  It really is a place where they encourage you to get involved and try things for yourself which makes for a great fun day out.  I particularly enjoyed the butterfly house and the temporary Dinosaur Exhibition.   

I’m certainly glad we made the trip inland to visit Granada.  We spent about a week here in total and had a great time.



8. Pontevedra



14th century church remains in Pontevedra, Northern Spain
I must admit I’d never heard of Pontevedra before we left the UK.  Its description in the guide book sounded nice so we opted to give it a try and I’m so happy we did.  When you’re on the road, a great parking spot can help make a city and our spot in Pontevedra was fantastic.  We pulled up alongside the river by an extraordinary looking bridge, a short ten minute walk from town and across from a gorgeous park.  Part way down the river we found a man-made beach that was very busy with the local teenagers and looked like a great spot to hang out.

The city itself is full to the brim with interesting and very varied architecture.  There is a real sense of design flair to be found here and even the most ordinary of apartment blocks will be adorned with stunning bright white, iron-worked balconies.  Café culture is alive and well and everywhere you turn well-healed ladies catch up over coffee whilst couples share some tapas.  There’s definitely a lot of money here and as a result the city and its architecture are very well looked after.

The ruins of the 14th century church are certainly worth checking out as too are some of the working churches which are also very impressive.  There are many nice plazas and a huge park to relax in.  Pontevedra’s student population give the city a youthful atmosphere but there is also a strong community feeling and again families here seem to be very close.  Whilst there aren’t as many attractions as some of the other cities on the list, Pontevedra is an architecturally stunning city on the banks of a lovely river.  It’s quirky, a little different and well worth the visit.    

9. Seville


Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain
It’s hard to know where to start with a city of so of amazing things to see!  My favourite place in Seville has to be the Plaza de Espana.  I instantly fell in love with this spectacular square and we went back to visit so many times during our stay.  The combination of the stunning tile-work, adorable bridges, colourful flowers and huge fountain make for a phenomenal place to visit.  The adjoining park is amazing too. It’s utterly huge, plays home to several museums and is full of fountains, lakes, topiary and sculptures.

Another must-see attraction is the ginormous cathedral with the stunning Giralda tower alongside it.  It’s an astonishing piece of work from every angle.  The old tobacco factory and the Torre de Oro are must-sees too.  We really enjoyed the art museum and the archaeology museum which are both free with an EU passport.  The art museum is particularly remarkable and we spent a good few hours strolling around. 
The most enjoyable thing for us in Seville was just to ditch the maps and just stroll around the streets.  The Moorish architecture here is probably the most astounding of all the places we’ve visited and even along the back streets you can find some jaw dropping buildings.  The Moorish tile-work which adorns so many buildings here makes Seville a wonderfully colourful city and nothing short of beautiful.

One spot that sadly doesn’t seem to get mentioned too much in the guidebooks is Setas de le Encarnacion, a space-age looking structure with undulating curves of metal on top which look like the tracks of a bizarre rollercoaster.  The building looks like it fell right out of a sci-fi movie.  You can get the lift up to the top and wander around.  It’s an incredibly odd experience which offers 360 degree views of this awesome city, definitely recommended!

No section on Seville would be complete without mentioning the heat.  It was a humid 44 degrees when we visited and stayed that hot until late into the night.  If you’re not a fan of sweltering heat, you may want to avoid the high summer!  Despite the heat we both fell utterly head over heels for this fantastic city.



10. Valencia


Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, Valencia. City of arts and sciences in Valencia's riverbed park, Spain.
Last but certainly not least we have Valencia, another city full to the brim with things to see and do.  We arrived into the town to be greeted by the quirky-looking and very colourful train station.  From there you soon come across the main town square, filled with astounding buildings including the fanciest post office I’ve ever seen!  Valencia is incredibly grand with extravagant Baroque facades adorning so many of the buildings here.  Special highlights include the gorgeous Marques de dos Aguas, the large cathedral and the more modern but no less impressive ‘House of Dragons’.  The Marques de Aguas is also striking on the inside, with some of the most wonderfully extravagant and palatial rooms I’ve ever seen.  Both the old and new market buildings are also lovely, the former is designed by a friend of Gaudi’s and very much reflects his signature style. 

We also really enjoyed a visit to the Gothic silk exchange building which offers free entry to enjoy its UNESCO protected interior of magnificent gargoyles and stunning stained glass.  Also free and well worth a visit is the extensive fine art museum. 

Our favourite thing in Valencia however has to be the Science Park and Oceanarium both found in the vast park built in the old riverbed that surrounds the city.  Whilst very expensive, the oceanarium gives you a chance to get up close to a beluga whale, dolphins, sharks, penguins, seals and many others, all amidst breath-taking space age architecture.  The other buildings that make up the Science Park defy belief and seemingly physics!  How most of these buildings stay up is mind boggling.  It’s an absolute joy to walk amongst these works of art and sheer genius.  By night the area is all lit up and is even more spell-binding.  I cannot enthuse enough about this magical place.

Together the futuristic science park and the grand old buildings in the centre of town make for a city that is truly unforgettable.


So that's our list of our top ten places to visit in Spain and what to do when you're there, let us know what you think!


Monday, 12 November 2012

Our top 10 places to visit in Portugal

Firstly I should probably mention that we mainly travelled along the coast of Portugal so we missed out on some of the great cities inland.  That said, after much deliberation here are our top ten favourite places to visit in beautiful Portugal.

1. Porto


Porto's UNESCO protected riverbank view from Vila Nova da Gaia.Choosing a winner was incredibly difficult, but Porto just pipped the competition to the post.  We parked up in Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite side of the river, home to the famous port houses.  This meant every time we ventured into town we were able to enjoy the UNESCO protected view along the Porto riverbank, truly a sight to behold.  Porto rises up from the water in tiers, from colourful riverside houses up to the churches and cathedral high on the hill.

On the Porto side of the river you find lots of street sellers and waterside cafes with a real bohemian feel.  Whilst there are people selling boat tours and plenty of tourist info offices, Porto feels refreshingly un-touristy.  Even on the busiest days, there are plenty of winding side streets full of architectural treasures where you can escape any crowds.  It’s a city where you can spend hours just wandering around, being wowed by the buildings around you.  Even the high street plays home to some magnificent architecture especially the charming Art Nouveau styled Majestic Café.  Our highlights of this beautiful city include the huge cathedral, the stunning Ingreja do Carmen church and the lovely Jardim Palacio de Cristal park which offers phenomenal views of the city.  The jewel in Porto’s crown however has to be the riverside view so be sure to get yourself over the bridge and grab a seat to really appreciate it.  In fact do it twice as the view is very different but just as impressive at night time!

One last piece of advice?  Bring a strong set of legs and a comfy pair of shoes, Porto is STEEP!


2.Sintra


A very close second comes the fairytale wonderland of Sintra.  High up in the mountains, the centre of Sintra is a charming maze of cobbled streets, full of cafes and shops.  Across the road you find the national palace, with its grand Moorish influenced rooms, extravagant furniture and flamboyant ceilings (PRO TIP – visit on a Sunday morning to avoid the 7 euro entry fee).

Palcacio da Pena in the Sintra mountains
The main reason why Sintra fell in second place is the difficulty of getting around to the different attractions and the costs involved.  There’s no doubt Sintra has some outstanding places to visit but you’ll need very deep pockets to see them all!

The costs meant we didn’t visit the Moorish castle or go inside the Palacio Nacional de Pena.  We did go into the gardens at the Pena Palace and spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.  The ticket permits entry to the outer section of the palace where you can enjoy the quirky architecture and you can also climb up to the highest point of the park for superb views of the brightly coloured palace and all of Sintra. 

We also visited the wonderfully bizarre Quinta da Regaleira and its unique gardens.  I cannot recommend a visit enough!  Full of fountains, grottoes and castle turrets, the gardens make you feel like you could be in a fairytale storybook.  If it wasn’t for the fact we got incredibly thirsty and a coke cost 3 EUROS(!), they would’ve had to drag me out kicking and screaming at closing time!  Sintra on the whole, whilst a little too touristy, is an adorable city with magnificent views and an abundance of greenery.  It truly is a magnificent place to visit with lots of attractions, just make sure you take plenty of Euros with you!


3. Lisbon and Belem


A main square in Portugal's capital Lisbon
In third place we find Portugal’s capital and the suburb of Belem 6km out.  Thanks to the 1755 earthquake, the centre of Lisbon is lacking in very old buildings.  Nonetheless there are plenty of attractive sights, including the Elevador de Santa Justa lift, Rossio train station, the Moorish castle and the Basilica.  Keen to save money we didn’t bother with a visit to the zoo or aquarium, although I must say I’ve heard great things about both.  A major highlight for us was a trip on one of Lisbon’s famed old-fashioned trams.  It’s a fantastic way to see the city and avoid walking up the steep hills!  Don’t let the hills put you off though as some of the viewpoints, especially Largo da Graca offer spectacular panoramic vistas of the capital.    The main detraction however was the sheer number of unscrupulous types hanging around hoping to prey on tourists.  It’s hard to relax in an atmosphere when you feel the need to keep an eye on your valuables at all times, and consistently get hassled by people trying to sell you sunglasses and cannabis!

The saving grace of Lisbon however is its suburb of Belem where we parked up beside the river. This is where you find many of the sights you associate with Lisbon, including the famous Padrão dos Descobrimentos statue.  Belem is also the home of the ginormous Monastario do Jeronimos, an awe inspiring monastery with stunning cloisters.  High on the hill you will also find the Palacio de Ajuda.  Unassuming from the road, the interior is one of the most extravagant I’ve ever seen.  Visit both on a Sunday morning for free entry!  In addition, the UNESCO protected Tower of Belem on the riverbank is a must-see.  Belem lacks the seedier edge of Lisbon and is brimming with wonderful sights.  Be sure to take time to explore if you decide to visit the Portuguese capital.


4.  Aveiro


Painted boats on the river in Art Nouveau treasure-trove AveiroAs huge fans of Art Nouveau architecture, Aveiro was certainly one of our favourite cities.   We spent many an hour ambling around enjoying the beautiful buildings and I took a ridiculous amount of pictures!  There’s a really pleasant, relaxed atmosphere to the city.  It seems to run at a slower pace than most, perhaps everybody else is taking time to enjoy the scenery too!  The river running through the centre certainly adds to the appeal and on a still day reflects all the stunning buildings beautifully.  The lovely painted boats they use for river tours complete the look perfectly. 

The Art Nouveau style means Aveiro is a bright and colourful place, a real feast for the eyes.  Whilst there are no major attractions to visit, we’d certainly recommend a trip to the central park (once they’ve finished the renovations it’ll be superb).  The façade of the Art Noveau museum and the little café in the courtyard are also definitely worth visiting.  A relaxing walk along the river enjoying the views of the buildings, the different pretty old bridges and the unique looking new ones is another highlight of this lovely city.







5.Alcobaca


Just one of Alcobaca's stunning views.Whilst we mainly travelled along the coast of Portugal we did make a detour inland to visit Leiria, Alcobaca and Batalha, all of which made our favourites list so were definitely worth the trip!  Alcobaca scored the highest due to its fabulous views and lovely laid-back atmosphere.  Nestled amongst sweeping pine covered hills and with numerous parks, Alcobaca is wonderfully verdant.  The main highlight of the city is of course its magnificent monastery which towers above the main square.  Inside you find impressively carved tombs and wonderful ceilings. 

Also well worth a visit are the castle ruins high on a hill.  It’s a steep walk and whilst the ruins themselves won’t blow you away, the views from the top certainly will.  From this vantage point you get panoramic views of this picturesque city with its huge monastery and traditional white-washed buildings, all set against gloriously green hillsides.  Alcobaca is very well maintained (more so than a lot of its neighbouring cities) and has a pleasant, welcoming feel.  Everything happens at a chilled out pace here and with such superb views it’s the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by.


6.  Batalha monastery


Gothic Batalha monastery, a must see!
Batalha monastery is a definite MUST SEE.  A UNESCO heritage site, this Gothic masterpiece is simply awe inspiring.  The exterior is incredibly ornate and stunning from every angle.  Inside the main hall is surprisingly stark, although on a sunny day light pours through the huge stained glass windows and lights up the floor in a host of bright colours.  The Founders Chapel can be entered for free and is quite probably the most impressive room I’ve ever seen.  The sheer scale of the room needs to be experienced to be believed.  It centres around a phenomenally ornate tomb once again decorated with light from the stained glass windows.  Around the edge are many more wonderfully detailed stonework tombs in differing yet equally beautiful styles.  The incredibly high ceiling is decorated with star shapes that look like pretty snowflakes.  It truly is an unforgettable room.

Given that Batalha was one of several large monasteries we were set to visit over the next few days, we didn’t pay the rather steep entry fee to look around the rest of the inside including the unfinished chapels.  I must say having visited the other less impressive monasteries afterwards and looking at Batalha pictures online, I really wish we had explored it further.  There isn’t a great deal else to visit in Batalha but it’s only a short drive for a day-trip from Leiria and Alcobaca, both of which merit a longer stay.


7.  Valenca do Minho


Views of Spanish Tui for Portuguese fortress town Valenca do Minho
Valenca do Minho is the first place we visited in Portugal as it lies right on the Northern border with Spain and is walkable from pretty Tui which offered a free aire with services.  Known as the ‘shopping fortress’ locally, Valenca is a sweet little town enveloped by huge fortress walls.  You are welcomed to climb up onto the walls and wander around high above the city, which itself is atop a big hill overlooking the Minho river.  We had great fun scampering around the walls, nipping in and out of turrets and looking down to the remains of the bastion.  The views from the greenery of Valenca, across the river to Tui and the hills behind are simply jaw-dropping.  I really cannot put into words just how gorgeous it is up there!

The buildings in town are very pretty, although aside from a couple of pretty churches there aren’t many sights to visit.  The only downside of Valenca for us was the over-touristification (yes it’s a word, I just invented it!) of the place.  There are an awful lot of very similar shops and restaurants so all the owners are vying for your custom.  They aren’t as pushy as many places I’ve visited but I still felt a little uncomfortable pottering along the main street.  That said, it’s easy to avoid the shops as the real draw of Valenca lies in exploring the old fortress walls and taking in the spectacular views.


8. Obidos


High up on the fortress walls of Obidos
Obidos is similar in many ways to Valenca as it too is an old fortress town high on a hill.  Valenca pipped it to the post with its stunning views over the river but that’s not to say Obidos is without its charms.  Obidos’ very high walls lead around to a large castle which looks impressive but rather sadly has mostly been turned into a hotel so you cannot look around inside.  Walking around on top of the walls is great fun but a pretty hair-raising experience!   The walls aren’t very wide and can be particularly slippery in places.  You are rewarded for your bravery though with gorgeous views over the traditional red tiled roofs in town and out across the surrounding green hills.  It’s definitely well worth it if you can conquer your nerves, just wear decent shoes!

The centre of town is a charming medieval labyrinth of cobbled streets filled with shops, hotels and cafes.  It’s all very well-maintained and there’s lots of vividly coloured flora which makes for a very pretty place indeed.  Whilst Obidos has embraced tourism, it has retained much of its traditional charm and remains an adorably pleasant town to walk around.

I should also mention for campers that there’s an aire nearby with services that’s free from 9am till 5pm.  Perfect for a day out!




9. Leiria


The hill top castle in floral LeiriaOur 9th spot goes to the pretty spot of Leiria, one of the most colourful towns we’ve visited thanks to an abundance of beautifully vivid flowers that seem to have sprung up everywhere!  The town is dominated by a huge castle high on a wooded hill in the centre of town.  The entry fee is a perfectly reasonable 2.10 euros each and well worth it.  There’s a lot to see and you’re welcome to scramble around the old ruins and explore the interior alone.  Visiting attractions in Portugal is much less controlled than in the UK.  You’re left to your own devices a lot more and its makes for a better experience in my opinion.  The high point of the visit was the long room with a wide balcony taking in stunning, panoramic views across the pretty town.  We also got to climb up onto the roof of the highest tower for more fantastic views over the rooftops of town and also down over the rest of the castle.

The rest of Leiria is well looked after with some very pretty buildings and lots of green areas to relax in.   The main square is very attractive and a relaxing walk through town along the river Liz makes for an enjoyable afternoon.  During our visit we also enjoyed a walk up to the hill on the other side of town where there is an impressive church with more great views.  Whilst Leiria on paper does not have the jaw dropping appeal of some of our other places, it’s an incredibly pleasant place to spend a couple of relaxing days and the castle offers a great value for money day out. 


10. Lagos


The last spot on the list, may come as a bit of a surprise as it goes to *drum roll* Lagos!
  
Lagos, the best coastline and beaches in the Portuguese Algarve.
We weren’t particularly reserved in our overall dislike of the Algarve and as one of its main destinations Lagos does suffer from a lot of the brash tourist nastiness that destroys the attraction of Portugal’s south coast.  That said it also has a lot more to offer than we initially gave it credit for.  There are some very pretty churches, lovely parks and impressive old fortress walls.  You can also escape the ex-pat bars and tacky t-shirt shops by visiting the attractive marina, a much quieter and very relaxing spot.

The main reason Lagos makes this list however is its outstanding coastline.  The beaches here are picture perfect, with golden sands and turquoise sea.  The imposing jagged rocky coastline breaks up the coast into lovely sheltered coves.  The view from Ponta da Piedade is what Lagos is all about.  High up on this hill you can see for miles along the craggy coast and is it nothing short of stunning.



So there’s our list!  Hope you enjoyed it.  Let us know what you thought, did we miss anywhere?!  

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A quick update...

So, we're still in Surrey.  The mechanic has taken the turbo off Van Diesel and it looks like this.

The cast iron pipe that goes from the turbo to the exhaust has split completely.  Trying to find a replacement for the part we need has been an absolute nightmare!  Being an old van means the turbo isn't in production and getting a new one made would be very expensive, especially considering we only need the pipe.  We decided instead just to get the pipe itself made.  Cast iron re-builds are incredibly costly though so we've found somebody to make it out of stainless steel for us.  We dropped it off with him yesterday and it'll take 1-2 weeks for our shiny new part to be ready.  

Sadly with the turbo off we can't drive Van Diesel back to the house so we can't get on with any of the freshening up work that needs to be done.  Until we know the full costs of all the work we can't make a firm decision as to what we'll do next either so we're kind of in limbo at the moment!  

We're trying our best to stay positive and have our fingers well and truly crossed that everything will turn out well.  I'm hoping to use this bit of free time to write some new articles for the site on what we've learnt so far and Chris is getting on with writing his book.  We'll keep you all updated as best we can and hopefully we'll be escaping the winter chills soon!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Homeward bound


Day 158 28.09.12 From Toulouse to Blighty

We were up early to fill out all the appropriate documentation and get ourselves ready for the airport.  The taxi arrived a fashionably French 15 minutes late to take us away.  I have to say leaving Van Diesel not knowing when we’d be reunited broke my heart.  At least there were some nice views for the van to enjoy in the French countryside!

The taxi journey cost a whopping 175 euros!  Watching the meter tick up was awful but I suppose we’d have spent the same, if not more, on petrol to get us to Calais.  I’m trying to look at it that way at least as the breakdown cover only compensate up to 30 euros on taxi journeys!  At the airport we headed over to the Easyjet desk to buy our tickets.  I have to admit the temptation to act like I was in a film and book a ticket to anywhere pretending I needed to stop the love of my life getting on a plane and leaving me forever was very tempting.  But reality prevailed and I bought two tickets to Gatwick.

Between the two expenditures we’d maxed out our travelling debit cards and I had to resort to my UK account card to get out money for lunch (thanks HSBC for the £1.50 charge on that!).  We had a while to wait until flight time so looked around for somewhere to get lunch.  Unfortunately everywhere was extortionate even for an airport!  Our measly lunch of chicken wings for Chris, a pasta pot for me and a bottle of Fanta to share cost over 16 euros!  The service was appalling too!

Afterwards we went through all the checks and thankfully I didn’t have to expose my embarrassing pocket pants secret!  We called Chris’ mum to tell her when we’d be arriving and she informed us that Chris’ brother and his girlfriend were due to arrive at Gatwick within half an hour of our flight so we could all travel back together.  Such a strange coincidence!  Our flight was on time, uneventful and we met up with Chris’ brother and his now very pregnant girlfriend and headed back to the Surrey homestead.

So there we are!  It’s certainly not the way we’d hoped to end this part of the European tour but that’s life.  It’s nice to be back home catching up with family and friends and hopefully it won’t be too long until the van is back.  We’re going to see how much all the repairs cost and take it from there.  Fingers crossed we’ll still have enough money left over for our planned tour of Italy to escape the worst of the UK winter! 

Huge thanks to everyone for your kind messages of support after the break in and breakdown.  It’s lovely to know that there are people thinking of us and following our journey.  Hopefully we’ll have some good news for you soon!

Our luck goes from bad to worse


Day 157 27.09.12 Somewhere in the middle of nowhere

The aire’s sign said it was 5 euros for 1-6 hours and then free between 8pm and 8am.  We decided to get up early to leave before 8am so our stay would only cost us 5 euros.  We generally hate paying for aires but the security here along with the opportunity for a shower made it worthwhile.  When we woke up however we found that the barriers on the front of the aire were up and so I must admit we drove straight out with no need to pay!  The place was a hive of activity so I don’t think we were the only ones to have spotted this loophole!

Our plan was to drive for 3 hours or so north and settle down in a quiet spot we’d seen online before travelling on to Limoges the next day.  The van however had other ideas.  Everything was going fine until all of a sudden the accelerator pedal started making a hissing noise and the van itself started to sound like a tank. 

Given that we were on a toll road we made our way to the nearest exit before stopping.  For some reason, French toll roads have one (expensive) designated break-down company to tow you and no other companies are allowed to!  We called our breakdown company ADAC who advised us that once we’d moved far enough away from the toll booth to be considered no longer on the toll road, they’d send somebody to pick us up. True to form within the hour a local garage hour arrived with his tow truck and took us to his garage. 

He then in typical French style told us it was lunch time and buggered off for an hour and a half!  We were left in the waiting room were we watched Futurama reruns in French and drank over-priced hot chocolate.  We also made friends with the garage’s security, an overly friendly and very cute dog!

After a very long wait the mechanics finally spoke to the breakdown company with some bizarre comments.  They seemed convinced that the problem was with our turbo and that the turbo had been an after-market modification.  Given that we have all the original paperwork for the van we know that it was definitely built with the turbo on!!!!  The garage told ADAC who then told us (nobody there spoke a word of English) that they could bodge a fix in a weeks’ time or order a part that’d take 3 weeks to arrive and may not work!

ADAC said that we were welcome to wait for the part to arrive but given that they too were unsure about the prognosis of the garage and their ability to fix the van they had another alternative.  They offered to ship the van back to the UK and offered us up to 500 euros worth of transport costs to get ourselves back.  Given that either way we’d miss our ferry and we had no interest in staying in the middle of nowhere for 3 weeks we opted to head back to Blighty.  ADAC texted us with details of flights for the following day from Toulouse to Gatwick and we managed to organise a taxi to the airport through the garage.  Being in the middle of nowhere, getting public transport would have been a nightmare! 

Still reeling from this bizarre turn of events we headed back to the van to pack, suddenly becoming very aware that we only had two small backpacks between us!  The receptionist at the garage gave us a couple of ‘bags for life’ to use and we set about cramming everything we could into our minimal luggage!  I must admit this included filling my combat trouser pockets with several pairs of pants – fingers crossed they don’t search me at the airport!