Lockdown bound: tracking our journey through Europe and the COVID-19 outbreak

We are safely in lockdown on a site in the UK now and doing ok. Maybe the last year spent on the road – with our “the plan is, there is no plan” approach – was a helpful experience. We are already used to not seeing our friends and family so much, going out and spending less, and cutting out lots of things we don’t really need (because they weigh too much!) 

Friends abroad are seeing signs of lockdown easing – they can go to the pub in Vietnam 🙂 Here in the UK, there’s lots of discussion about tracking apps and data and privacy. This got me wondering. Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course. With the open data now available, I wondered if I could track our homeward journey through the unfolding pandemic. How close did we come? Where might we have been exposed?

Good practice from a data visualisation perspective. And, an interesting challenge in terms of exploring tracking, risk, exposure, contact and transmission, etc. I used R Studio – free open source software – to create an interactive map to display and animate our movements through the georeferenced case data. 

The amount of open data around the pandemic is impressive. It has been an important asset in understanding what works in terms of controlling the spread of COVID-19.

I used time series and individual case records from the John Hopkins University and data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

Thanks to the authors of the following R packages, for making creating the mapping app so straightforward: shiny, leaflet, geosphere, tidyverse, leaflet.minicharts, vov

Update on van life costs

Two of the most read posts on the blog are “How much does it cost to run a campervan?” and the update I did after a few months in the newer, bigger motorhome, “75 days into our van life and European adventure – progress and costs”. I promised another update – so here’s the fun facts, figures and stats after 9 months…

Average Daily Costs

Adding up all the costs – except the one huge outlay for the purchase of the van! – and dividing by the number of days gives a headline spend of £54.85 a day. Here’s how that breaks down:

As mentioned in other posts, we can’t treat everyday like a holiday. We try to spend at least a little cash in every town we stay, but we certainly don’t eat out everyday. For us, it’s part of the adventure – cooking in the van and entertaining ourselves, making it a home from home. That £21 a day on Shopping/Social covers, for 2 adults and 2 dogs: food, drink, boring shopping (scourers, loo roll, washing up liquid, dog poo bags), toiletries, new clothes and shoes when things wear out, dining out and socialising, art galleries, cinemas, attractions, etc.

Various Van Costs covers up-front, ad-hoc and regular costs like insurance, the GPS tracker subscription, MOT, servicing, repairs and purchases like chocks, winter tyres, snow chains. That covers about 18% of our total spend, which is probably more than we might have set aside for contingencies. Worth considering that if anyone is budgeting for a similar trip.

Fuel – about 15% of our daily spend – works out at about 18p a mile.

Our average spend per night on site fees is down to £6.20 – this is mainly due to us getting much more comfortable wild camping. Park4night has been invaluable, highly recommended. In December, we stayed just 9 nights on a site – so that’s over 70% wild or free camping.

Thinking ahead to winter camping in Austria, we invested in a fixed LPG tank. This has bumped our gas costs up for now, but every time we fill it costs just £10-12 instead of around £35 to swap a bottle. It will have paid for itself after another 10 refills. An 11kg bottle (which holds around 20 litres of gas) lasts 9 to 12 days at the moment, whereas in summer it lasted well over a month.

We avoid tolls mainly – in France, Spain and Italy, for example, you just don’t get to see the little towns and villages and while they might save time, they’re often longer journeys in terms of miles and diesel. This cost is mainly Eurotunnels, a few ferries and the bridges in Denmark.

Finally, I think we’ve been very well served by EE using our phones and mobile data abroad. 4G signal is usually available, with the exception of Germany where it was really patchy, which surprised us. Watch out in Andorra, which is not EU, so the free roaming did not apply – Flight mode on 🙂 Signs so far point towards us still being able to use UK allowances in Europe after Brexit – I really hope so. We’ve used a bit more data in winter, settling in on a night to watch a box set on Amazon or Now TV.

Miles, MPG and Diesel Costs

Average miles traveled per day: 45

I use an app called Simply Auto to track some of our expenses – diesel, lpg gas, camp site fees, MOT, repairs, etc. Plotting the mileage figures against the dates shows we’ve been quite consistently on the move around that 45 miles/day average:

Countries visited: 20

UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Monaco, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Andorra, Spain

We’re on to our second ‘lap’ of Europe now, heading into Italy after Christmas and New Year along the Costa Brava and the south coast of France.

Average miles between fill-ups: 392

Average fuel efficiency overall is at 30.6 mpg, but it’s been noticeably worse over recent months. We were a bit heavier with extra guitars and have occasionally had to run the engine to top up the leisure batteries. In the UK, with shorter grey days, the solar charger couldn’t keep up with our demands. (Mainly me, working on the album on the laptop!)

Average price paid for a litre of diesel: £1.22

Here’s how different countries compared…

Average price paid over 33 fill-ups from April to December 2019.

Several times now, we’ve found it’s worth a small detour into Luxembourg to fill up. Lots of French, Belgians and Germans do the same – you can see them queuing at the first station over the border. Andorra – a tax haven – was full of French and Spanish shoppers buying duty free booze, fags and fuel. I’ve never seen so many petrol stations in such a small area! The Spanish price was surprising low – but again that was just over the border from France, luring folk in. 

At the other end of the scale, Sweden, Italy and the UK came in at or over the £1.30 mark.

Estimated Annual Costs

Our house is still rented out, so we’re aiming to stay in the van for a full year. Looks like we’re still on track for around £20,000 – probably just over now, with a few repairs and additional van costs like the winter tyres and snow chains.

Questions?

Happy to answer any questions anyone might have. If you’re planning a similar trip or there’s something I’ve not covered here, you can message via the facebook page, @howaskew on instagram or on twitter. Go on, ask me how many times I’ve had to empty the loo. (You can probably guess how many times Bev’s done it.)

What’s the plan?

After a spell in the UK – band gigs in September, a trip to Scotland, recording the new album, catching up with our Newcastle friends and seeing our families for early Christmas celebrations – we set off early December, more or less back to our “the plan is, there is no plan” approach, practicing the art of bimbling…

  • seeing some sights and enjoying our freedom to travel around Europe (while it lasts)
  • living more simply and more healthily, being outdoors, eating well
  • spending more time together, and seeing friends and family
  • playing more music, writing new songs
  • heading towards Austria to test our winterised van and do some cross country skiing 

That should take us up till mid March. I’ve started keeping an eye open for stats and data science project work, but until then we’ll just keep rolling, looking for gigs along the way.

Icons made by Smashicon, Those Icons and OCHA from www.flaticon.com

Charts made in RStudio, using dplyr, ggplot2, countrycode, ggflag, maps, mapdata

Denmark

After our moonlit flit from the wild west of Sweden to Denmark, we had a lazy day wandering forest trails and eating Bev’s van-baked blueberry pie. Then, with a few days to fill before my next gig in Odense, we had time to explore some of the sights of northern Denmark…

  • Strandby Church – a really striking modern design
  • The so-called sunken church – only the tower remains, as the rest was demolished after being repeatedly buried under drifting sands
  • Grenen Beach – at the convergence of two seas. We joined thousands of Danes and tourists to wander to the end of the spit of sand and ‘stand with one foot in the Skagerrak and the other foot in the Kattegat’
  • Råbjerg Mile – the largest migrating sand dune in Northern Europe. A bizarre and eerie sight, some distance from the coast
  • Aarhus – with a fantastic botanical garden and distinctive art museum
  • Middlefart – we stayed by a marina by the Lillebælt bridge and caught a glimpse of harbour porpoises at play

Live ‘On the Roof’, Odense

The last gig of our summer tour was at a cool bar in Odense – PåTaget – which is literally ‘on the roof’ of a multi-story building and car park right in the middle of the city. There was a fantastic jazz, blues and folk festival on – with the likes of Larkin Poe and Jamie Cullum and UK bluesman Lawrence Jones playing. One of the Jam Days festival acts, a Faroe Islander with the awesome stage name ‘Johan Solo’ hosts a regular jam night at PåTaget and I was booked to play an acoustic set before the jam. It went well, great bar, fun bar staff, friendly crowd. Johan jammed with me at the end of my set, adding a cool electric guitar solo to my song ‘Cold Wind’.

Here’s Johan in action…

Hungary: Balaton and Budapest

We didn’t really have a plan for Hungary – no surprise there! We’d seen Lake Balaton on the map – it is huge, 78km long – and heard about it from a German chap we met at the camp site in Venice. When he was young, in East Germany, he liked to visit Balaton because it was like a ‘mini-West’ and you could get things like ‘Coca Cola’! We’d pass it on the way to Budapest.

Then, on the morning we set off from Slovenia, we got a reply from Gábor Ádám, the owner of a vineyard in the Badacsony wine region who holds regular wine-tasting events with music. How had googled ‘Balaton blues music’ and found Sabar wines and emailed on the off-chance as this seemed to fit with our ‘playing gigs in cool locations’ ambitions very well….with the added bonus of wine!! Gábor suggested we meet to discuss it.

Lake Balaton and Badacsony

We arrived at the most stunning location imaginable… gentle slopes covered in grape vines, warm sun and extinct volcano hillsides scattered all around. It’s this terrain that gives the predominantly white wines of the region a delicious mineral taste. Gábor introduced us to his range of wines, which were amazing. How certainly felt the effects, drinking in the hot sun! I was designated driver and with a zero tolerance blood alcohol limit in Hungary, I had to be very sensible.

Gábor already had a big event booked for the coming Saturday, which we were welcome to attend and perhaps join in, but he suggested the Friday evening for a small concert. This meant we had a week to explore the Badacsony region and the northern side of Lake Balaton. We found a nice campsite a few km away right on the lake – perfect for paddleboarding and taking it easy for a week. During that time, we also visited Tihany, famous for its lavender, and the ‘geological interpretive site’ of Hegyestű .

The Friday evening arrived and the weather was perfect for an outdoor event on the terrace, with the sun setting over the vineyards and volcanoes. Gábor and his wife Krisztina provided a delicious spread of meats, cheeses, breads (and Orsi’s pancakes for dessert!). Everyone enjoyed How’s music and we were both able to sample a good deal of Gábor’s wine, thanks to the fact that we were camping at the vineyard. We met some awesome people and were blown away by their hospitality… hopefully we will be back this way one day!

Budapest

During the week, How had heard back from the Yellow Zebra bar in Budapest with a booking for the Saturday night. Sadly, this meant we missed Gábor’s big event, which would have been great to attend, but we can’t pass up an offer to play the capital city… its a great opportunity.

We tried to make a quick dash across the country, only to be delayed when the road was closed for 3000 bikers coming the other way along Lake Balaton! It took them 35 minutes to roar past, with much honking, waving and glad-handing from my passenger seat. A pretty amazing sight! Most were dressed up, it looked like something from a Mad Max movie.

Eventually we arrived in Budapest and found a campsite about 3km out from the centre of the city, on the ‘Pest’ side. The Yellow Zebra was a 2500HUF (£6) taxi ride away. It’s a pretty cool little cellar bar. The gig went fairly well – with locals and tourists enjoying the original songs as much as the well known stuff.

We did a bit of research on what we wanted to see in Budapest. We want cheap, dog-friendly and photogenic! It was going to be very hot and public transport with the hounds looked tricky. We decided on a walking tour of:

  • Chain Bridge. First permanent bridge across the Danube in Hungary.
  • Shoes by the Danube. Sixty pairs of bronze shoes to commemorate the Jewish citizens shot by the river by Hungarian Nazis during WWII.
  • Fisherman’s Bastion. A fairy-tale like Neo-Romanesque building on the Buda side the river, which gives great views over to the Pest side.
  • Buda Tower. A 600 year-old bell tower that has somehow survived every siege, attack and war waged on Budapest during that time. The bells in the courtyard ring every hour.
  • Outdoor eating in Erzsebet Square. Pizza, burgers, beer… and water for the hounds. Perfect!
  • Film location spotting, including. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy; Blade Runner 2049; A Good Day to Die Hard; 12 Monkeys; The Alienist and Citizen X.

We liked the city – the scale of the buildings, everywhere you look, is very impressive. We went back the next night to visit the ‘ruin bars’ and tried some Hungarian specialties – goulash and ‘chimney cake’. All good!

With the weather in Hungary set to stay so hot (34°C!) for a while, we thought we’d move on and set off north for Slovakia.

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