Saturday, 28 April 2012

The rain {sic} of Louis XIV

Day 5 - 26.04.12 Chateau Chambord and Blois - oooops got my order mixed up :-/
Château Chambord, France

We got up early and left our pretty spot in Orleans to head over to Chateau Chambord, once home to Louis XIV amongst others.  We avoided the paid car park next to the chateau in favour of a cheaper car park further away which meant a 15 minute walk along a path which would perhaps have been pleasant to walk along had it not been raining non-stop for the last day (it has).  We were contemplating spending the night at the aire on site until we learnt it cost 20 euros for just a parking spot with no services apart from a bin…not likely.  Upon arrival we saw the castle cost 9.50 euros to enter unless you were under 25 so after a little stretching of the truth at the counter Ali got in for free.  I’m not sure if I’m more pleased at free entry or the fact that when pushing 28 I can kid someone I’m 24! 

Chateau Chambord, Loire Valley, FranceThe chateau was utterly breath-taking.  Huge, extravagantly decorated rooms and a stunning double helix staircase through the centre.  We climbed all the way up to the top floor for some spectacular views of the river and grounds.  On our walk back down the somewhat muddy path, the skies opened and we once again were reminded why we’d intended to skip France altogether, the weather here SUCKS. 


Our wild camping spot beside the river in Blois
Our plan after the castle was to drive through to Amboise and stop over for the night in an aire I’d seen online.  Our route however took us through Blois, a city too beautiful to drive straight through.  It was exactly what I was hoping the Loire valley would be.  We spotted a long car park on the opposite side of the river and about 10 other campers so we headed over and parked up beside the river.  It’s great how encouraged campervans are here, it makes our life so much easier and the spots we can spend the night are really beautiful.  Blois itself is full of picturesque streets, stunning churches and a huge cathedral.  It’s a bit more touristy than some of the other places we’ve seen so
far but it’s so beautiful you can understand why. 





Rain stopped play


Day 6 - 28.04.12 – Amboise 

Camping l'Ile d'Or in Amboise
The next step on our journey is a relatively long drive but we decided to avoid the busy Saturday roads and the driving rain and instead headed to a nearby campsite.  We had hoped to keep our overnight stops free wherever possible but the constant rain had left our solar powered batteries low and the both of us longing for warm showers.  The campsite is a scenic spot on the South banks of the river facing the castle.  Our overnight stay cost around £10 but offered all the electricity and water we could use, proper toilets, washing up sinks and of course those gloriously welcome hot showers.  Once again it rained all day with very few short let ups so we settled down in the van with DVDs and the duvet.  Very little else to report except that we’re well and truly fed up of the rain!  We’d love to explore France more because what we’ve seen so far is amazing but the rain really is putting a dampener on the visit so tomorrow we hit the road south in the search for sun.

Disney on steroids


Day 4 - 27.04.12 – Chenonceau and Amboise

This morning we headed back into Blois central go to a launderette we’d spotted the previous day.  Sadly the washing, like everything so far in France, cost more than anticipated.  Prices really are high here and you have to go well out town to designated shopping areas to bag a bargain, particularly where food is concerned. 

We took another wander around the beautiful Blois town whilst waiting for our washing and bought some postcards to send home to the family.  Once we were done we headed back to the van and got on the road to Chateau de Chenonceau.  We had hoped to park up in nearby Chisseaux at a free aire we’d seen online but on arrival all we could find were very expensive campsites so we carried straight on to the castle.  
Chateau Chenonceau

The Chateau wasn’t quite as big as we’d expected but in a stunning setting on the river and looked like a fairytale home.  The surrounding gardens and outbuildings were totally gorgeous.  It was an incredibly relaxing place to be despite the tourists.  Wandering around felt like we’d dropped into a Disney cartoon.














We couldn’t stay over in the car park by the castle either so we headed off to nearby Amboise 20 minutes away.  The stopover was just a small but relatively centrally located car park.  A short walk and we were at the castle in the town.  A much more fortified castle than the previous two but still with a very attractive front.  The town is very tourist driven and prices are again high.  It’s a very picturesque place but we’ve been somewhat spoilt by our recent stays in Orleans and Blois which were both less pushy on the tourist front.
Amboise in the Loire Valley, France
Chateau Amboise

Again pics to follow when we're on a better net connection.

Dear France, please stop raining. Lots of love Chris and Ali.

Day 3 25.04.12 - Orleans

After a restful night in our lovely aire beside the Loire we discovered that Orleans is not where the sunshine has been hiding after all.  We had a lazy morning hoping the rain would die off but after deciding that we weren’t going to be that lucky we bit the bullet and trundled off in the rain to the city centre.


 Orleans is a beautiful city and it’s a huge shame the weather is so terrible today.  I can’t help thinking that the views by the river would be so much lovelier in the sunshine.  We visited a stunning cathedral and the architecture on the whole is gorgeous and very typically French.  Sadly the rain did put a bit of a dampener on our day, as too did the kind French driver who soaked us from head to toe by speeding through a deceptively deep puddle!  I’d love to come back and revisit this city when the weather is nicer.  Nonetheless we have had a really nice day in Orleans and are planning on spending another night in the aire by the river.

Tomorrow it’s an early start to avoid the traffic and we’re off to see some of this regions famous castles.

And before you worry we're getting too cultured, here's a shop called Willys *snigger*



Wednesday, 25 April 2012

From rainy Rouen to dinner by the Loire


Day 2 - 24.04.12 – 

We made a very early start from the beach with high hopes of reaching Orleans for the night.  The free motorway was blissfully quiet and we made great time for a stop off at Rouen for lunch and a quick look around.  
French motorways are AWESOME! 

Staircase in Rouen cathedral, FranceRouen cathedral, FranceWe parked up by the river in a large car park near a travelling circus and headed over to the town.  The cathedral was beautiful, if a little creepy looking.  There was something of the Mines of Muria about it!  The town itself was very typically French with lots of wooden fronted buildings and winding streets.  



We came across some interesting sites including a shop named Simon, one named Gary and a donkey wearing Action Man rollerskates.

Aire by the river in OrleansThe drive to Orleans was similarly quiet and on the most part relaxing.  The views on our way through the Loire valley have been utterly stunning.  The head south seems to also solved the problem of where France had been hiding the sunshine.  It’s much nicer and far less rainy down here!  We parked up for the evening in a beautiful spot on the opposite side of the river to the centre of Orleans.  We packed up a small picnic and headed to a nearby viewing spot for a lovely dinner on the banks of the Loire.  We’re very much looking forward to exploring the city in the morning.

Oooops

A quick apology to the couple whose comment I deleted yesterday!  The downside of French wifi is that it translates the tabs in blogger to French!  The french GCSE I did 11 years ago wasn't exactly very web savvy so I'm working blind until I can figure out how to change it back!  Anyhow thanks for the support, its lovely to know this is being read by other campervan owners who may pick up some tips or inspiration :-D

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Goodbye and Bonjour!


Day 1 - 23.04.12 - 170 miles travelled

Being the traitors we are, we set sail for Calais on St George’s Day.  Having arrived at the port 3 hours early (nice one Ali) we sat around for a while and then managed to get an earlier ferry.  The crossing was fine and we arrived in a rainy, grey Calais around lunchtime. 





Our stop for the evening was a free aire named Stella Plage, around an hour south of Calais.  After a few hairy driving moments (roundabouts are hell and our van hates hills), we spotted some French campers and our home for the night.  

The area was wonderfully silent between two huge sand dunes.  A quick scramble over the sand dunes led to a stunning beach with sand as far as the eye can see.  It was really quiet too, just a few French families flying kits and looking for shells in what was now glorious sunshine.  After such a dreary start to our trip, this lovely little spot was just what we needed. 


The clouds didn’t look to stay clear for long, so we picked up some food at a cheap local supermarket and settled down in the van with munchies, a DVD and an early night.    

Tomorrow we're up early and off to Rouen for lunch.

Monday, 23 April 2012

We're heeeeeeere

And in Ali's determination to not be late for the ferry, we're 3 hours early. Ooooops.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Second time lucky?

Well here we go again!  The electrics are (mostly) sorted and the van is pretty much all packed.  We'll be up nice and early to make our way to Dover for the lunchtime ferry to Calais.  Here's hoping for a smooth journey!

We're both a bundle of excitement and nerves but we can't wait to get started on this exciting adventure.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

If you like it, then you gotta put some locks on it.

Security has always been a huge concern for us. It was the main reasoning behind getting a panel van as we felt it would present a harder target to would-be thieves. The van also comes with an immobiliser which is a pain to constantly have to turn off but worth its weight in gold if it stops someone driving off with our home!   We've also got a safe box bolted to the van's chassis to keep vital van contents safe.

We've made some other additions ourselves intended to be extra deterrents.


A hasp on the back door with a round padlock helps to make this otherwise weak point a lot sturdier.

We picked this up off eBay for around £15 including postage and got it bolted on by the mechanic when we had the MOT done.  We then sprayed it with a grey primer to prevent rust.


Another handy tip we picked up on a motorhome forum was to lock the driving seat in its furthest forward position so the van cannot be driven away.  We push the seat all the way up to the driving wheel and then push a long shackle padlock through the holes in the seat rail to stop it being moved back.  A really cheap and simple idea which will hopefully make our van a tougher target.

It should really go without saying that removing any valuables from view is essential every time you leave the van.  Petty crime is common but often opportunistic, with thieves preying on easy targets where smashing a window can result in a handful of goodies.  We always remove the sat nav and take the fascia off the CD player.  Many thieves often assume these gadgets may be stored in the glove box so its a good idea to leave this wide open to show its empty.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Danger! Danger! No voltage?

Turns out we're not getting that ferry after all.  This whole process has been a huge and very steep learning curve for us.  Unfortunately this means we've made some mistakes along the way and long story short, the electric set up wasn't as we had hoped.  This has led to a very stressful couple of days as we tried to figure it all out, pleading to get parts sent quickly and googling furiously.  We could probably have got the van finished for tomorrow if we stayed up all night and rushed ourselves silly but even then we don't know for sure.  With that in mind we've amended our tickets for a ferry crossing on Monday.  This gives us plenty of time to be sure everything is as we want it before we get overseas.  We're both pretty gutted to be honest but c'est la vie!  <---see my French is coming along nicely already!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

We've set a date!

The van is ready and we're much better at driving it so we've booked our ferry crossing!  We had initially hoped to start out journey in Bilbao, Northern Spain as its where we went on our first holiday together and a place close to our hearts. Sadly the ferry crossing was going to cost us almost £500!  Getting to Northern France costs £50 so that's where we're headed!

The crossing to Calais is around lunchtime on next Thursday (19th) and from there we'll be heading south to Spain via a few scenic stop offs in the Loire Valley.  We can't wait!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Choosing your campervan

Choosing the right campervan for a trip can be a minefield.  As complete novices we needed to put in some serious research time into what to look for when buying a campervan and how to avoid some of the common pitfalls of this type of vehicle.  The most important thing is finding the best van for you and your needs based on some of the following factors:

Do your research to get the best camper for your budget Budget

Obviously the money available to spend on the van will dictate what you can expect to be able to buy.  One great thing about campervans is that they don't depreciate in value as much as normal cars do.  There are vans on the market for every budget and of course the specs go up with the pricetag!  Depending on what you will be using the van for will dictate the facilities you need.  If you are intending to stop over on campsites with full facilities do you need a toilet or shower on board?  If you're wild camping like us then the answer is a definite yes!

Size vs comfort

With campervans it is often a compromise between choosing a van big enough for you to live in whilst ensuring its small enough to be usable.  Whilst a giant motorhome with all the mod cons can be an attractive prospect, if you're looking to do a trip like ours its a no go.  A smaller camper is easier to drive on narrow roads, cheaper to run and easier to find parking spaces for.

Security

Security is a very important factor to consider.  For a trip like ours you need a van you can happily lock up and leave whilst you head off sight seeing.  With all your belongings inside, this can be a pretty daunting prospect!  Having an immobiliser is essential to stop the van being driven away and a safe box inside that is bolted to the chassis is another great way to keep your passports and other essentials safe.  When choosing a van, take a good look at the locks and check the van for weak points especially on the back doors, a common soft target.  Attaching an extra security measure such as a hasp and staple lock is advisable.  Other visible deterrents such as steering locks, clutch bars and even wheel locks can be helpful.

Try as you might, a determined thief will always be able to break in given the right time and equipment, the objective is to make your van look well protected and a harder target than the other vehicles around you.

Mechanic bills can get very expensive! Parts and Reliability

When your van is your home, reliability is a huge consideration.  You need to able to get from A to B without any problems and should the worst happen you need to able to get the van fixed easily.  Choosing a popular make with readily available parts will make your life easier and your repair bills lower!  Checking over the engine for wear and tear is a must so take along an experienced friend if possible!  If you're buying in the UK or any other rainy country then rust is your worst enemy.  Scour the van all over for any signs of rust, common spots can be around windows, door edges and wheel arches.  Small areas of surface rust can be easily treated with Kurust or other rust remedies but larger and deeper rust patches can cause serious problems and should be avoided.  Never be afraid to walk away from a van, the wrong one can ravage your pocket and turn your dream trip into a nightmare!


Our Talbot Express Sienna campervan

Why we chose the Talbot Express Sienna

For us budget was the number one concern!  The more money we spent on the van the less we would have for the trip so we took a long time to find our bargain.  When we saw it we knew it was the right option for us.  The van is a steel bodied panel van for security.  It has a double sized shower room and a great 3 ring hob with oven and grill catering well for our needs.  Its the size of a normal works van making it easy to park  and as a Talbot, parts are not difficult to find.  The only downside we've found so far is the lack of power steering, but this just wasn't an option on our budget!  For more info on the specs of our Talbot, see the our van page.

Ensure you're insured!

Finding insurance was a nightmare so we thought we should put together a quick guide to save other people some of the legwork!

Many insurers would simply just not insure us because we haven't had our licenses for two years.  The other problem was finding adequate European cover for our journey.  This left us with only one company that would cover us, Herts Insurance.  Despite these limitations they gave us a pretty good price for a very comprehensive policy.

Having never bought insurance before it was a steep learning curve to make sure we asked all the right questions like:

How much time can you spend abroad?

Policies tend to only offer 30 days of European cover as standard.  For those that offer longer, say 90 days, be sure to find out whether this can be used up in one trip.  Often with 90 day allocations these are limited to 30 days at a time.

Which countries will the insurance cover?

Many insurers will cover standard Western European countries but will decrease the cover to only third party, or nothing at all if you venture over to slightly riskier locations like Morocco or Croatia.  Make sure all the countries on your route are covered.

What information do they need when you travel?

Be sure to call your insurer before you leave and ask what information they need from you.  They will most likely want to know where you are going and your travel dates, without this information you may find you aren't covered. 

Are the contents of your van covered?

Our policy also protects the contents of our van up to the value of £1500, its good to know we're covered if someone breaks into the van.

Is breakdown cover included?

With some policies you may also get breakdown cover.  Unfortunately if your van is over 15 years old, finding cover is pretty difficult.  Added to our requirements for 365 days European cover, we simply could not find a breakdown cover policy to meet our needs at all!

Can you get a discount for club membership?

A lot of camper policies give money off to members of camping and carvanning clubs.  The discount isn't usually enough to offset the membership cost but if you're already signed up, its a handy bonus.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Money, money, money

Despite being 'the world's local bank' HSBC wanted to charge me a fortune for using my card abroad and getting cash out so we set about finding alternatives!

Bank accounts for using your money abroad

Moneysupermarket pointed us in the direction of Norwich and Peterborough building society.
Their Gold Light current account promises no handling fee, free ATM withdrawals and no charges for using your debit card, perfect!  There is a low usage charge of £5 a month if you have less than 5 transactions a month, but other than that, its no strings attached.  The set up was a bit long winded and there were a fair few hoops to jump through but we got there in the end and the card arrived.  You can use the card at any Visa cash machines and internet banking is included.

Prepaid cash cards for travelling

Unfortunately due to 'not being on the electoral roll', Chris was refused an N&P bank account!  CRISIS!  Assuming we'd find similar problems with other banks, we started looking into pre paid cards.

Caxton FX Europe traveller card
Again on the advice of Moneysupermarket we found Caxton FX Card.  Their Europe Traveller account allows you to top up a card with up to 50,000 Euros in a year (7,500 at a time).  It can be used for free withdrawals at Visa machines anywhere in the Euro currency area and used like a debit card in shops.  The set up was simple and the customer service incredible.  The card arrived in no time, was easy to load with money and the exchange rate was one of the best we've seen.  Highly recommended!

 


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Powered by sunshine

To give ourselves extra power on the road and make the most out of the Mediterranean sunshine, we fitted a solar panel on the roof of our camper.



We chose an 80 watt semi flexible panel from eBay, from a seller in Hong Kong.  This cost £280.25 with free shipping.  In the UK the prices tend to be upwards of £550, so if you can afford to wait a little longer for delivery it's well worth it. We went for semi flexible so that the panel could be stuck flat to the roof of the van and be relatively hidden from view.  The glue renders it virtually impossible to steal and the design makes it so sturdy you can apparently walk on it (although for the price I wouldn't want to give it a try!)







We stuck the solar panel down using the mighty powerful Sikaflex 252 (eBay £16.50 plus P&P) and then sealed around the edges with standard kitchen sealant.  We chose an anti bacterial version as we also needed to use it in the bathroom (Wicks £6.19).  We drilled a hole in the roof to feed the wires through and again sealed this up with lots of waterproof sealant.





<--- The wires come into the van via a neat join in the carpeted roof and fit in tightly alongside our Zig unit control panel, making it as inconspicuous as red and black wires can be!




---> They feed into our 20amp dual battery solar regulator which prevents any power surges.  Again this came from Hong Kong via eBay and cost £63.49 with free postage.  The cables from the regulator are then pinned to the wall and neatly hidden behind the cushions all the way down to one of the storage boxes where the batteries live.  We have 3 fully sealed L100 deep cycle leisure batteries.  This way we can always have one attached to the van and two to the solar panel.  The batteries were again an eBay find and cost £65 each plus P&P from a UK seller.



<--- We then have this meter which attaches to the solar control panel.  It tells us what power we are getting in through the solar panel and how much charge is in the two batteries attached.


---> The last point in the chain is then the inverters, these take the power from the batteries and convert them to 240v sockets so we can plug in and use our electronics.  We have two 300 Watt inverters we picked up on sale in Maplins for £29.99 each.  Underneath the socket they also have a handy USB port for charging phones and the camera.  We have chosen low wattage consumption electronics wherever possible but this set up gives us a good few hours of TV watching per battery, more than enough for a cosy DVD before bed.

Please note, we are by no means experts at this and I wouldn't like to suggest this is the best set up for everyone to follow but it seems to work for us :-)



So how much does it cost to fit a solar panel to a campervan?


Item

Specifications

Shop

Price

Solar panel80 Watt semi flexibleeBay £280.25
Solar regulator 20amp dual batteryeBay £63.49
AdhesiveSikaflex 252eBay£16.50
SealantAnti-bacterial waterproofWicks£6.19
3 x leisure batteries12v 100ah 750 CCAeBay£65.00
2 x Inverters   300 watt - DC12v to AC 230v  Maplin  £29.99 each
10 metres of cabling   40 amp 4mm cable    eBay    £15.00    
3 pairs of battery clamps Quick release fitting    Halfords   £8.99 each

TOTAL

£657.19


This may sound like a large amount but it gives us the complete freedom of not needing to use paid aires and campsites and being entirely self sufficient.  It will also all add to the value of the van should we come to sell down the line.




MOT? OMG!

Well today was the day of our first nerve-racking MOT!  We know the van had a fair amount of work done not too long ago but nonetheless we were pretty worried as she'd been out on the driveway stood still over the cold winter months.  We also couldn't find any information about the cam belt being changed and knowing they can be an issue in campers like ours we were expecting to have to shell out for a new one.

The van did fail the MOT but only on a stretched handbrake cable!  The cam belt is almost mint condition and aside from a couple of minor advisories our little camper has a fresh bill of health.  The mechanic is hoping to fix the handbrake cable tomorrow and then we should have her back on our driveway.  It's impossible to explain how relieved we both are!  Once the camper (which we really should give a name) is back then we'll be booking our ferry to France!

Technorati claim code: QEK43B28MP2Z

Saturday, 7 April 2012

So how did we get here?

We've come a long way baby!

It's hard to know where to start on a blog like this.  Whilst we'd love to start with a post about the first amazing place we encounter on our campervan tour of Europe, it feels so wrong to not at least acknowledge all the hard work and effort that got us to this point.  We aren't rich by any stretch and getting the money together has been a hard slog.  Chris has been working pub jobs and lugging around stage equipment for bands at Rock City whilst Ali has been working as an Online Marketing Analyst.  We've been living on a shoe string for over a year, spending only £125 a month each on a crazily cheap flat and making do wherever possible.

The oddest thing about our plan to drive a camper around Europe is that neither of us could drive!  We hit the lessons hard and both passed first time (thankfully!)  Having never owned cars, never mind campers, we had to do a lot of research to find the right one, hopefully we have!  We've done a fair few modifications on the van which will be documented separately.  We've had to learn about leisure batteries, solar panels, campervan security, insurance, breakdown cover and all sorts of other things!  It's been a huge amount of effort but we're sure it will pay off in the end.  The van goes in for an MOT on Tuesday and then *fingers crossed* we'll be able to book our ferry over to France and hit the road!