We loved our first full season of winter camping… Christmas and New Year on the Costa Brava, northern Spain – winter sun, medieval villages, catching up with our pals Tom and Zoe, paddleboarding on boxing day, midnight grapes in Girona, the Dali museum in Figueres…
After that, we trundled across the south of France, through the Camargue region, where they speak Catalan, and have bull fights, and flamingos, more gorgeous medieval hill towns – like St Paul de Vence, all snickleways and art galleries.
We sped through Italy, through some areas that had really
suffered in recent floods, stopping to admire some new places like Mantua, Valvasone,
Palmanova. We had a fantastic and hilarious weekend in Trieste with our friends
from Newcastle, Aston and Edy, who relocated there last summer with their kids,
Daisy and Lily. Great place to park the van, 100 yds from Piazza Unita!
Then, with some serious weather threatening, we made a dash up to Austria – Bev driving us through the Dolomites and over the Brenner Pass. We made it to our campsite in Leutasch one night earlier than planned. Fortunately, they had space and we were all set up before a huge dump of snow on the day we would have been traveling. An amazing week cross country skiing, beautiful ‘winter wonderland’ scenery and great exercise.
Then into Germany, more lovely medieval towns (a bit of a theme!), a little detour to catch a gig by jazz guitar maestro Martin Taylor, even sneaking in an extra cross country ski trip at Bodenmais. Heading inexorably back to the UK, but no rush!
Wild camping vs. campsites
Feels like we’re really starting to get the hang of this. The only nights we’ve been on a proper campsite since we left the UK in December were our ‘holidays’ – 3 days at Christmas in Spain and for my birthday, a week in Austria, Cross Country Skiing. Mostly, we’re finding places using park4night, usually free, occasionally 1 euro for water or electric. That’s helping keep our costs down, which we’re having to think about a little more carefully now. I’m starting to pick up some freelance work – using my day job skills in data, programming, analysis and analytics – remote projects that I can deliver on the move.
Guided by our amazing friends in Sweden, we discovered so many wonderful and strange things during our 4 week exploration of the south of this fantastic country – a real highlight of our tour so far.
First at Västervik and then in Vimmerby, we were welcomed, entertained and generally spoilt rotten – by 4 generations of the Ask family and Tony and so many other lovely people! We’ve been immersed in Swedish culture, traditions and family histories and shared in the current excitement around Andy and Ucci’s new house and Robin’s plans to build an off-grid summerhouse in Durjsala.
I mentioned the breakfasts last time. Other culinary delights include Ostkake (cheesecake), korv (hot dog style sausages), raggmonk (potato pancakes, served with bacon and lingonberry jam) and last but not least – kebab meat pizza with chips (served on the pizza) and ‘pizza salad’ (a pickled cabbagey thing). And of course we had Swedish meatballs!
We did so many fantastic things but highlights would have to include:
Chilling/ messing about on ‘the rock’, swimming, paddleboarding, playing guitar and banjo with beers at sunset and so on.
Watching the Queen/Freddie Mercury movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, at the film festival in an outdoor cinema in the ruins at Slottsholmen.
The Stadsvandring – an evening stroll around Vimmerby with actors in period dress telling stories, often based on real people and events in local history. It was all in Swedish but we really enjoyed it!
Seeing the Elk. We would have loved to see them in the wild (but not at night on the road!) but this was the next best thing. Huge beasts, very soft mouths – ‘like a peach’ says Tony. Bev was the only one in our party to go for a kiss…
I only hope we can repay such wonderful hospitality someday!
One of the traditions in Sweden is to celebrate ‘name days’ and there were two while we there with our friends – Margareta on 20th July as it’s one of Ucci’s many middle names; and Christina on 24th July, which we celebrated with Chrisa and Mickaela (it’s her middle name) with a big family breakfast and cake…
I felt a bit sorry for young Winston, because as it’s not a traditional Swedish name, he doesn’t have a name day!
Buying booze in Sweden
Systembolaget is the government-owned chain of off-licences in Sweden. Since 1955, this is the only place (apart from bars, restaurants and night-clubs) where you can buy strong alcoholic beverages. The one we went to was nice – plenty of range and reasonably priced (compared to bars). Felt a bit like a duty free shop in an airport. Apparently, the staff are usually quite knowledgeable and you can order anything in if its not in stock.
Turns out they have names for the different categories of öl (ale), based on the strength:
Lättöl 0.0% – 2.25% – Light
Lätt Folköl 2.8% – introduced more recently to align with EU
Folköl 2.9% – 3.5% – ‘the people’s beer’
Mellanöl 3.6% – 4.5% – in-between beer
Starköl 4.6% and above – Strong beer
You can buy cans of beer in the supermarkets, but only up to 3.5%.These are 3.5% versions of beers we normally see at 5.0% here in the UK, so were heartily dismissed as ‘piss ale’ by some of our party.
And one more thing on beer – each can has a deposit or ‘pant’ of 1 Krona which is an incentive to drive positive recycling behaviour. You feed the empties into a machine in the supermarket and it gives you a receipt for money off inside. We saw the same in Denmark and Germany.
This is the habit of regular breaks for coffee, chat and little cakes or nibbles. Someone pops by – fika time! Job done – time for a fika! We got into it. Lots of cinnamon whirls, little biscuits, etc. One of our faves was an orange and coconut biscuit/flarn – which was so good Bev asked Ucci’s dad for the recipe.
You see this on handwritten signs everywhere – it means ‘flea’ and points towards a flea market. Some are temporary car boot style, some more established. Some have fika! I half wanted to visit one – I’m on the lookout for some specific bits and bobs for a secret musical project – but had to remind myself that we don’t have room in the van for any ‘tat’.
This is the word for the Swedish craze for all things American and vintage – Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, 1950s music and dress, and so on. Some estimates say there are now more restored vintage classic cars in Sweden than in the USA. One day we passed car after car after car – heading to a massive meet-up at Falköping . Our last night in Sweden was a Wild West spectacular at a bison farm – we thought we might see a few there and weren’t disappointed. Chevrolets, Dodges and this immaculate Oldsmobile…
In Sweden, this is an ancient law that provides the legal right of access to private, uncultivated land. You can:
Wander freely in forest and fields.
Pick berries, mushrooms, and wild flowers if they are not endangered.
Camp one night, without permission of the landowners, if it is not too close to a populated area.
Bathe, row, sail, paddle and drive motor boats on lakes, rivers and archipelagos.
Make fires (proceeding with extreme caution).
But you must not:
Damage growing trees or bushes.
Walk over fields in crop or through newly planted forest areas.
Take bird’s eggs or bird’s nests.
Leave garbage (paper, plastic, glass, etc…) in countryside.
This is amazing for wild campers! We found that nature reserve car parks were an ideal place to spend the nights – most of them had:
a toilet, often a compost toilet but most were really nice!
a fire pit
spectacular views, walks or paddleboarding
Bev got into exercising her Allemansrätt, picking bilberries/blueberries for some amazing pies…
As a result of staying at friend’s houses and free nights at nature reserves, our camping costs for Sweden were far lower than we expected and we loved it so much, we stayed a whole month.
We moved south through France, and started to climb into the foothills of the Alps. We kept seeing Route Napoléon signs everywhere. After about 3 days, we looked it up: It’s the path Napoléon took in 1815 on his way back from exile in Elba, to retake control of France before his final defeat at Waterloo. Nowadays it’s perhaps as famous as a favourite route for thrill-seeking bikers. We saw a few, or more often heard them roaring up from behind to overtake. I had sore eyes so Bev drove 3 days in a row through the worst/best of it! Hairpins bends, stunning views, bikers and more. No small challenge when we’re still getting used to a 3.5 tonne, 6m long van, so hats off to Bev.
We set ourselves another challenge on the way – could we do 3 nights in a row wild camping? We had fresh water, emptied the waste and the loo. We had solar power to charge the leisure battery. We had plenty of propane. We even bought an inverter from Costarama (like the French B&Q) so we could run a few small 240V things like the laptop charger.
First night, we stopped at Lac de Petichet. Very quiet, still early in the season. I did a quick music video, to give prospective venues an idea of what they were letting themselves in for 😉
A nice wander at Sisteron, then a more basic/less glamourous stop-over at Dignes, with lots of campers in a row by the river, but at least the pizza was good!
Castellane was a highlight, we stopped for a coffee/beer and florentines in the sun by the square. Our camp for the 3rd night was a few miles past the town on Route Napoléon, off the road down a track. Very quiet, very scenic.
It was all going really well so we carried on and spent a fourth night camping for free by a park above the town of La Rouret.
We turned off Route Napoléon just before Cannes, heading east to Italy. We considered another wild camping stop overlooking Monaco but it was a grey and windy day, wouldn’t have been much of a view. So, we rolled on to Italia via the toll road, to a town called Ventimiglia and a paid-for campsite.
As our house was all packed up into storage, we’d slept in the new van every night since we got it but sleeping in the street outside your own home hardly counts as wild camping! Our definition would be: camping somewhere for free, with little or no facilities, just what you have with you. We set off 9th April and spent our first night at Bev’s auntie’s near Bedford – still doesn’t count! But it did mean we only had a short drive to the channel tunnel, via the Dartford Bridge. Short delay with the tunnel this time – fire safety alarms weren’t working properly on one train, so we had to drive in a big loop and get on another one. Still a pretty smooth operation, friendly staff and no real concerns tackling it with the bigger vehicle.
We didn’t drive too far into France that day. Bev found a Park4Night site outside Bergues, about 10km south of the beaches of Dunkirk. It’s basically just a car-park in the forest, by some running trails, dog-walks and fishing ponds. Slightly nervy as we got ready for the night, with those stories of wrong-uns gassing people in their campervans and robbing them in my mind. But another van turned up, and assuming they weren’t the wrong-uns, I thought we’d probably be ok.
It was great. Lovely, peaceful, wildlife all around and we had absolutely everything we needed in the van.
In the morning, we had an opportunity to try out Bev’s folding bike – She rode ahead to find a patisserie. I followed with the dog stroller, so Marra could climb in when he’d had enough of walking. He can only go so far these days, poor old lad!