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!

We're back in France and its STILL raining!

Day 156 26.09.12 Carcassonne

In the morning we headed to a different internet café to book ferry tickets back to the UK for 2nd October, giving us around a week to get up to Calais.  It’s likely to be quite a whistle-stop tour of a few of the major cities en route but we’re keen to get home to replace the laptops and get the window sorted (amongst many other Van Diesel fixes!).  

The one place I was particularly keen to visit was Carcassonne which happily is on the route back up to Calais and a decent enough distance away for us to maintain the momentum we need to get there on time!  We headed over to the supermarkets on the edge of town to fill up on food, drinks and petrol as they’re all cheaper in Spain than France and then got on our way. 

We arrived at an aire in Carcassonne which whilst not in the safest looking of areas, had plenty of other campervans and enough people around that we were satisfied we could leave Van Diesel and go exploring.  As soon as we reached the centre just a short five minute walk from the aire, the rain began to fall and get progressively heavier.  A warm welcome from France!

Despite the appalling weather, the charm of this historic location shone through.  It’s easy to see why the fortress is a UNESCO protected site.  Inside the fortress walls you find many tourist shops, fancy restaurants and small museums although thankfully it doesn’t seem as pushy on the tourist front as some of the other fortified towns we’ve visited – perhaps that’s just because of the rain though!  We visit the cathedral, tower and the main castle, although all only on the outside as the entrance charges are pretty steep.  We also take a walk up on the fortified walls for a better view over the town and the ville bass (aka lower city) were you find the majority of Carcassonne’s residents.  It truly is a very beautiful place. 

After a while the rain becomes too much so we head back to the van.  The aire has a water tap so we fill up the van and decide to test out our water heater that we had fixed in Portugal.  Sure enough the water is soon toasty warm and I dive in the shower to get washed up.  It’s the first hot shower I’ve had in about 4-5 months and its pure unadulterated bliss!  

Once I tear myself away from showery warmth I discover the rain has stopped and the sun has come out.  I decide whilst Chris is showering to go back into town and get some better pictures of this lovely place.  Bathed in the late afternoon Autumnal sunshine, Carcassonne is a joy to behold.  The views over the lower town with cute houses and dozens of red and orange trees are delightful.  Everywhere looks so beautiful in this light and I spend a good little while wandering around snapping away on the camera!

In the evening I make some notes on what we’ve been up to in order to make blog updates easier on our return and then we settle down for an evening film.  Whilst we both adore the sunny weather I must say it’s quite nice that tonight it’s cool enough to snuggle up under a duvet for the first time in a long while!

My Girona

Day 155 25.09.12 Girona

We awoke to find that the park near our parking spot was playing host to a huge morning market so we got up to go and take a look.  There was a huge range of items on offer from clothes and jewellery to fruit and veg.  It was a real bustling place and we managed to pick up a few bargains, including some new shirts for Chris and a replacement purse for me.

After a long chat we decided that we would take our trip back to the UK sooner than anticipated.  We left the UK without a single tangible map, as everything was on the laptops.  Since they’ve been stolen we’re more than a little stuck so we’re headed back home to get fixed up. After some lunch we went to a nearby internet café to go online and get the SatNav coordinates for some stops through France on the way up to Calais.  Unfortunately we ran out of time and the café was so annoyingly slow and rubbish we didn’t get to book ferry tickets.

Despite fears about leaving the van we decided to go for a look around town.  I’d been really looking forward to visiting Girona and we were determined to leave Spain on a high note.  We certainly weren’t disappointed!  Girona is a fantastic city with some utterly stunning views.  You can really feel the influence of nearby France in the style of the buildings and the overall feel of the place.  Walking along the river offers some truly lovely views, with the brightly coloured apartments as well as the stunning cathedral all reflected in the still water.  From the Romanesque Sant Pere de Galligants to the Gothic Collegiate Church of Sant Feliu, Girona is certainly not short on impressive sights.

We climbed up onto the old city walls for a better view over Girona and were blown away.  It’s such a charmingly adorable place to be.  Whilst much of the walls have been heavily restored, it makes for a great way to experience this gorgeous city.  We were both very much taken aback by how pretty this place is.  There is a real relaxed feel to the old streets and everywhere you turn provides another picture postcard view. 

After a little while we both began to feel uncomfortable being away from the van so we headed back. I’m so glad we could come and visit Girona and hopefully we’ll get to return another time in better circumstances!

Picking up the pieces

Day 154 24.09.12 Barcelona

I headed over to the shopping centre for 10am when it usually opens to use their wifi to find a place to get the window fixed.  Sadly being a bank holiday in Barcelona it was closed which meant that the back-up plan of getting a load of cardboard and tape was also a no go.  I headed back via where the van had been broken into on the off chance they’d dumped my purse on finding it empty but no joy sadly.  I stopped off at the Ibis hotel to ask about nearby internet café’s and they very kindly allowed me 20 minutes free use of their internet services without me even explaining why I need it, very much appreciated!

I soon found out that the bank holiday meant everywhere in Barcelona would be closed.  Given that we didn’t feel safe in our parking spot and hadn’t seen any others in Barcelona, we had spoken about heading to Girona so I found us a Carglass there.  Still a little shaken we decided it was for the best to get out of Barcelona and get to Girona to have the window looked at there.  It was a huge shame to have to leave Barcelona before we wanted to since we had lots more festival related plans and didn’t even get to say bye to Rob.  It was for the best though in the end and we hold no bad feeling to what remains one of our favourite cities.

Along the way to our next destination, the van was misbehaving somewhat so we pulled over in what turned out to be a beautiful hillside spot.  After some fiddling under the bonnet we were back on the road.  Onwards to Girona we drove, arriving at Carglass 4 minutes after they closed for their siesta time – the bad luck continues!  We waited around in the van for 2 hours until it reopened.  The guy on reception spoke no English but understood the Spanish my sleep-deprived brain could muster explaining the situation and begging for his help.  He put me on the phone to a very helpful woman at their head office who informed me that replacing the glass would be a long wait of at least a week but instead we could have the team install some plexiglass.  That would plug the gap for now and be free of charge.  Result!  They did a great job and we were very thankful indeed!

We drove on to a parking spot beside the river near Girona centre and had a short walk around the nearby area before settling down for some much needed sleep.

The awesome birthday that ended in a trip to the police station

Day 153 23.09.12 Barcelona

Happy Birthday to meeee!   Today is Ali’s 28th Birthday so we’ve got a busy day planned.  Our first stop after a lazy morning is an all-you-can-eat restaurant next to the Sagrada Familia.  We met up with Rob and headed inside to fill up my main 3 food groups of pizza, pasta and ice cream in the shadow of the gorgeous cathedral.  After filling ourselves to the brim we waddled over to the metro station to head into the centre of town for a trip to the zoo.  Yes I am having the birthday of a 12 year old!

The zoo is based inside Ciutadella park and is absolutely huge.  It’s a bit of a strange layout but has a great range of animals to see.  There’s also a dolphin show but having just seen one in Valencia we didn’t bother with the massive queue to watch Barcelona’s version.  We got to see some great sights including a very cute baby chimp and some rather over-excited penguins!  It was a very fun afternoon and I had a great time cooing over all the animals and taking pictures.

After several hours we headed back to the charmingly named rock bar ‘The Bollocks’ for a couple of beers before the ‘Correfoc’ fire parade.  On the way we caught a glimpse of the scaled down children’s version which still includes lots of kids with fireworks on sticks!  This is the Barcelona health and safety I warned you about.  As you can see, some of the children involved are pretty young!  They’re all wrapped up in fire-proof ponchos and masks though and seem to have great fun! 

A couple of 1 euro bottles of beer later we join Rob and find a spot for the proper Correfoc.  Finding a spot alongside the road but with a side street to run down and hide is crucial for scaredy-cats like me!  The parade started with some big fireworks in one of the large squares and then began to move along the huge Via Laietana towards us.  The parade consists of groups of people with drums building the atmosphere followed by groups with fireworks on sticks spinning around and showering the street with sparks.  Lots of (possibly insane) locals run into the parade and dance around under the umbrellas of sparks.  As the parade builds, along come the big floats of demons and dragons spraying fireworks from their nostrils as they zig-zag along the road.  These huge monsters come awfully close and resulted in Rob and I running for cover a few times. Chris on the other hand was very brave and stayed at the front, although we did have to help put out a guy whose hair was on fire!  The Correfoc is an absolutely amazing experience and I’m so lucky that this year it fell on my birthday!

After an hour and a half of the correfoc craziness we had to head off to get down to the beach in time for yet more fireworks over the ocean.  Tonight’s display was certainly a step up on yesterdays and really did wow us all.  It was simply superb.  It was so special to not only see the great colours light up the sky but also for them to be reflected so clearly in the sea below.  Barcelona certainly knows how to put on a show!

Once the show had finished we decided to head up to the rock bar for a nightcap.  Along the way we saw that the correfoc was still going on! 

After a quick beer we headed back to the van.  Sadly this is where my birthday went sour as we discovered that the van had been broken into.  Both our laptops had gone as well as my watch and a purse (thankfully empty).  Absolutely gutted.

We went to the nearby Ibis hotel to ask them to call the police for us as my phone battery was dead and Chris’ not far off.  They informed us the police wouldn’t come out for a break in and we’d have to go to them.  He gave us a map with the nearest police station and I set off there whilst Chris went back to the van to keep it safe as the burglars had smashed a window to get in.  I have to say that the Spanish police were worse than useless and incredibly rude.  Having spoken to them only in English they set about making obscene comments about me in Spanish which they thought I couldn’t understand.  Nevertheless I had to play nice as I needed their help.  After half an hour or so of leaving me in the waiting room while they drank coffee and talked about me, they handed me some forms to fill out for myself instead of questioning me.  They got me to run back to the van and get the van driven over to the police station so they could look at the broken window and then handed me a crime report filled out in writing a 6 year old would be ashamed of.  All in all it was a horrible experience that was not how I’d hoped my birthday would end.  Up to that point however I am thankful to have had a really great day.

We attempted to drive up to Rob’s hotel so he could help us with charging phones and getting everything sorted the following day but there was nowhere to park so we headed back to around the corner from our previous spot.  We patched up the window best we could and settled down for the night.  I can’t say I slept at all but Chris managed a few hours.

Gaudi's wacky wonderland

Day 152 22.09.12 Barcelona

Gaudi's Park Guell in Barcelona - beautiful tiled bench
Barcelona skyline from Park GuellPark Guell in BarcelonaWe managed a little bit of a lie in today thanks to the workmen on the nearby building site not working weekends.  I must say we both appreciated the absence of our usual pneumatic drill alarm clock!
After some lunch we headed over to the nearby tram stop to meet up with my friend Rob who has flown in from Nottingham to spend my birthday weekend with us.  It’s great to see him and we waste no time in picking his brain for all the Notts gossip we’ve missed while we’ve been away.  We swap stories and catch up whilst on our mammoth walk up to Gaudi’s Park Guell. 

The entrance to Gaudi's Park Guell in BarcelonaGaudi's Park Guell in BarcelonaThe park is a wonderland of bizarre architecture and Gaudi’s trademark brightly coloured tilework.  The free entry means the park is busier than we’d like but it’s a great place to visit regardless.  We walked up to the highest point, a huge cross atop a hill, which offers phenomenal views of the city and out to sea.  It also provides a rather scary drop if you fall off the very slippery, uneven steps – a small insight into Barcelona’s health and safety there, more to follow!  Up there we also encountered a hilarious busker trying to pull off some old rock classics in a very thick Spanish accent, making up for what he lacked in talent with buckets of enthusiasm!

We then walked down to the main part of the park with the famed tiled salamander – impossible to take a picture of without somebody else posing alongside it!  Up the stairs you find beautifully domed ceilings with more lovely mosaic work.  Upwards again takes you to the terrace with its sea serpent styled bench which snakes around the edge, again adorned with stunning mosaic designs.  The park really is a lovely place to be and even on a busy day like today there are corners of calm to be found if you stray a little off the beaten track.

After a little while more of looking around we part ways with Rob and head back to the van for dinner.  In the evening we head into the city for the fireworks.  We’re early so head to a little rock bar we’d found a couple of days ago for a drink.  Its thankfully happy hour so only a glorious 1.50 euros a pint, quite the bargain considering we’re a stone’s throw from Las Ramblas!  The music and punky décor were great too. 

We picked up Rob from the metro station and head down to the beach for the firework display over the sea.  The show was fantastic although not quite as good as we remembered it from our previous trip.   Hopefully tomorrow’s will be!  We walk back to the van through the Ciutadella park where they have erected a huge screen with karaoke songs on.  It’s quite late by this point but there are still crowds of people, couples and families all singing along and dancing to the music.  It’s an amazing atmosphere that really makes you smile.  Back at the van we go straight to bed to get plenty of sleep for tomorrow is MY BIRTHDAAAAAAY!

A waterfall down the side of a cathedral

Day 151 21.09.12 Barcelona

Light show on Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona for La Merce festival
Light show on Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona for La Merce festivalChris is feeling a little run down after all of our recent walking so we opt for a lazy day.  We head over to the local shopping centre with our laptops to do a little covert charging!  Our parking spot at the moment is between two very tall buildings so our solar panels aren’t getting a great deal of charge at the minute!  After charging up the laptops, phones and camera (the centre security weren’t too vigilant) we headed back to the van for dinner.

Light show on Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona for La Merce festivalLight show on Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona for La Merce festivalThe evening plan was to head up to the Sagrada Familia to watch the light show, a new event for this year’s La Merce festival.  We arrived a little late to find the show was just starting.  This meant we ended up on the edge of the crowd at the very far side with a pretty poor view.  Even still the show was very impressive, so much so we opted to hang around until the next show in an hours’ time to get a better view.  We found a perfect spot right in front of the cathedral and waited for the next show.  Boy was it worth it!  The show featured huge waterfalls cascading down the cathedrals spires and flocks of brightly coloured birds fluttering around the arches, all in time with an emotive soundtrack. There was even a section where the cathedral went black and then appeared to be sketched in pencil in front of us from the ground up.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it!  I took a couple of videos as well as a lot of photos, hopefully between them they go some way to getting across how magical this event was.

I’m so glad we waited around to catch the show the way it was intended.  We grabbed a beer and then headed back to the van, still in awe of the wonderful display we’d just seen. 

A whistlestop tour of Gaudi's finest

Day 150 20.09.12 Barcelona

La Pedrera by Gaudi in BarcelonaSadly the pictures I took to go with this post were on my laptop which got nicked L so I’ve decided to use a couple of pictures from our visit to Barcelona two years ago so you can see where we’re talking about!

We spent most of the morning in the shopping centre nearby, charging up our gadgets and updating the blog.  After some lunch we walked up to the Sagrada Familia to enjoy the views.  I have to say we were both a little disappointed with some of the recent restoration work as it seems a little softer and more rounded than the previous stark, sharp spires.  Apparently they’ll have all the work finished by 2026, just 140 years since they started!

La Sagrada Familia by Gaudi in BarcelonaCasa Battlo by Gaudi in Barcelona, SpainOnwards we went to look at Gaudi’s stunning La Pedrera building with its undulating façade.  Just down from here you find another Gaudi masterpiece in Casa Battlo which I have to say is probably my favourite building in the world!  Quite a statement but this place is just astonishing.  Unfortunately it’s also a whopping 20 euros plus to get in!  We visited a couple of years back when it was a fair bit cheaper and were just blown away by the architecture.  There’s barely a right angle in the whole building, it just flows from one room to another with phenomenal smooth curved features.  It’s a thoroughly amazing building and a real shame we were priced out of a second visit.

We enjoyed a long walk around this side of town, taking in the architecture before heading wearily back to the van.  Barcelona is an amazing city but exploring it really does take it out of you!