So. Here we are. Lands's End to John O'Groats
Nine months, 26 countries and 20,000 miles later.
Honestly, there have been times when this moment seemed inconceiveably far away - and times at the very beginning when it felt we would never actually leave let alone come back! - but the last few months and countries have simply flown by.
But wow, what a trip!
Its kind of hard to sum up really. We've been to places I've always wanted to go to but never got round to, including:
- Rome and the Sistine Chapel (and seeing the pope!),
- The Alhambra,
- the Millau Viaduct,
- the Scottish Highlands,
- the hilltop towns of Tuscany,
- and all of Croatia
Places that I had heard of but never thought I would get to, including;
- Romania, Transylvania and Dracula's castle,
- the Baltic States,
- Athens and the Parthenon,
- Delphi and the belly button of the world,
- the Arctic Circle
- and Santa's Village
And countless truly amazing places I had never even heard of, let alone considered going to, including;
- Dune de Pilat,
- the Cartagena gun emplacements,
- the Merry Cemetery in Romania,
- the Meteora monasteries,
- Slovensky Raj National Park,
- the Trollstigan and Sognefjellsvegen roads,
- Cinqueterre National Park,
- the Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters at Mount Buzludzha,
- the greek temples at Pasteum
- and Slovenia in its entirety.
In our valiant little van we have journeyed to three of the four corners of mainland europe,
as well as its very centre;
trekked up and over over frozen, snowbound mountain ranges and plains
and across scorching, sunbaked scrubland;
and survived places as hot as 40° and as cold as -9 and below.
We have stopped in huge cities and tiny villages, on the truck buffeted sliproads of motorway service stations
and halfway up deserted mountains or in moorland laybys in the middle of nowhere
and we have dined as richly as kings on fresh caught mussels in white wine and cream or frugally and simply on risotto made from nothing more than rice and a chicken stockcube.
And we have done and experienced and eaten things I would never have believed if you had asked me this time last year:
- tramping over a norwegian mountain skirting the edge of a glacier and round a meltwater reservoir,
- firing an AK47 in an underground soviet bunker in Riga,
- spending four days at the new moon sacred circle opening ceremony in a hippy camp swimming in lakes and doing yoga in a Finnish forest,
- sunbathing on an FKK beach in Croatia,
- basking in the midnight sun,
- solar showering on top of a Portuguese cliff top and the water actually being warm,
- listening to Fado in a backstreet Lisbon restaurant
- riding on a 12m high mechanical elephant in Nantes,
- wine tasting lessons in Bordeaux and buying wine 'en vrac' in the south of France,
- learning the correct way of drinking cider with tapas in spain
- getting stuck in the sand on a beach in the Algarve with the tide lapping only centimetres from our front tyres,
- driving along a Top Gear Top Driving Road, mountain pass road with 3m high walls of snow on eitherside,
- climbing a polystyrene ice wall on the beach in San Sebastian
- swimming in the Atlantic in January, the Adriatic in May and the Aegean in June (for our next trip we are going to move on to bodies of water beginning with B... ;) )
- enjoying octopus in Portugal,
- potato sausage in Poland,
- cepelinas in lithuania
- reindeer stew in Lapland,
- squid in its own black ink in french Basque country,
- pintxos in San Sebastian,
- horse burgers in Ljubljiana and
- fish we caught ourselves, bbq'd over a driftwood fire in Norway.
And we have, as you know, found electronics and car parts shops across europe and fixed our little van in a variety of unlikely places, proving that you just don't need a garage (although Will would disagree with that...) if you're careful and/or desperate. At the last count, the list included:
- Changing the distributor, throttle and airfilter and fitted an additional airflow sensor in a carpark at La Rochelle,
- Buying a lamda sensor from a scrapyard in La Rochelle (and subsequently a second one)
- Changing the main battery in a Nordauto carpark in Bordeaux,
- Strip down, test and refitting of the starter motor in car park at Dune de Pilat,
- Getting the brakes fixed in a garage in Vigo where they spoke no english
- Buying a new, custom made, stainless steel, performance exhaust from a garage in Seville where they spoke no english,
- Changing the leisure battery in the carpark of of an autospares shop in Parma,
- Fashioning temporary rocker cover gaskets in a carpark in Isola, buying new gaskets in Pula from a shop where they spoke no english, and fitting new rocker cover gaskets in the airport carpark,
- Buying a third lamda sensor from a friend of a VW beetle owner we met in a coffee shop near Sibenik,
- Learning to bumpstart the van in reverse down a hill in a residential street in Split when Will had incorrectly wired up the above lamda sensor and completely flattened the battery,
- Changing the oil and oil filter change on a roadside in Ioannina,
- Changing the spark plugs in a layby in the Slovakian Tatras,
- Gap checking the tappets in a campsite in Poland,
- Further stripdown and clean of the starter motor by the side of the road in Bruges.
And that's without mentioning the complete engine stripdown and rebuild before we left
or the ecu project which I know some of you don't want to hear any further about.
So really, where do you start to explain?
I am anticipating earnest questions in imminent (hopefully!) job interviews along the lines of:
"So what have you learnt, during your year off work?"
My immediate answer will of course be:
- The best showers in Europe are halfway down the beach at Figuera da Foz,
- Pizza Hut in Poland has far faster wifi than McDonalds in Poland, afterall, who takes a laptop out when they go for pizza??
- It is always worth checking for wifi, even in the most unlikely places such as petrol stations or in the middle of Bulgarian fields where you can't see a building for miles in any direction,
- It is far, far better to drive into strange cities really late at night when there is no traffic,
- There is always free parking provided you are prepared to drive far enough out of the centre and walk or cycle back,
- As a corollary to the above, never, ever, if you can possibly avoid it, drive through mediaeval city gates, arches or walls or down cobbled typical streets. It will end badly.
- Soaking dried basil in olive oil does not make pesto, although the resultant sludge is better than no pesto in extremis.
- Bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar do not make a good drving snack - not, as you might think, because it's messy, rather that when you put the bottle by the side of your seat to stop it rolling around then forget about it and open your door, it falls out and smashes on the ground... Oh yes, in a petrol station forecourt no less..."
Is that not what they mean do you think??
Honestly though, it may be an overused and cliche'd saying but it is true, travel really does broaden the mind. We have learnt so much about art and architecture, flora and fauna, geography and geology, places and people that we would just never have considered otherwise and a whole gamut of european history from west to east, from the Etruscans to the Soviets. Although it is the most recent stuff - the stuff which has happened whilst we have been alive -which has been the most fascinating and shocking and really brought home just how lucky we are in england.
And I can prove it! Since we've been back, we've listened to a lot of Radio 4 - people speaking english at me! - and we have heard all sorts of programmes referring, in varying degrees of detail, to things or places we have been to or read about in the last nine months, including:
- The USSR and Stalin's treatment of the Baltic States,
- The peaceful cohabitation in Spain of the Moors, the Christians and the Jews in the 11th-15th centuries and the significance of the Alhambra as a Moorish powerbase in the retaking of Spain by the Christian Monarchs,
- The problems in the Romanian healthcare system since Ceaucescu in an interview with a doctor in a hospital we walked past in Bucharest talking about a boy from the Saxon villages,
- The Greek tragedies, including extracts and characters from the Illiad and the Odessey,
- A crazy gunman in a small town in eastern Slovakia which we stayed in,
- Google and the invention of their back-rub page ranking technology (not strictly from anywhere we went but a fascinating audio book called The Search which we got from Bill)
- A character in a book at bedtime remebering Fort William and Glen Coe where we have just been.
- And, and, we now know the location of or have been to many of the places on the full and unabridged coastal shipping forecast, broadcast after Sailing By at 12:50am, from Ardnamurchan Point, to Cape Wrath to the Pentland Firth...
So there you go :)
And another cliché which has been proven; it really is true that if you don't speak the language, the best thing to do is keep repeating yourself more slowly and more loudly! Honestly! I know this is the derided, stereotypical view of what us brits do when confronted by foreigners rather than attempting to learn any languages but we have had many people do the same to us in their language and it really does work!
And people really are, by and large, everso willing to help. If you need something enough, however obscure, you will always find it or at the very least, someone who can tell you where to find it, if you just keep trying and keep asking in the right sort of places. And once you're in the right place, language is suddenly not an issue - you need a new exhaust in spain but don't speak spanish? It will be near impossible in a normal garage but get yourself to a workshop that only sells exhausts and the possibilities are endless.
Although that being said, I have been amazed and humbled by the levels of competency in english we have found in the most unlikely places, like small petrol stations, supermarket checkouts and corner shops in deepest darkest Bulgaria and Romania.
Although I have been trying! I can now say "hello" and "thank you" and smile in no fewer than 14 languages! And decipher the greek and cyrillic alphabets. Get me :)
But it is time to come home. As I have said before, Will is itching to get back to the challenge of a real job and back to his (or at least a) garage so he can fix things properly and even I have had enough of UNESCO churches, cathedrals, castles, and mazes of typical cobbled streets for a while.
And we've got so much to catch up on! It's not often that you really sit back and look back at what has happened in a year, especially to other people, not just yourselves but there has been so much going on back home! Seven new jobs, two new houses and one to come, two engagements and a wedding this week, and five new babies we haven't met yet. Other people have been busy whilst we've been fecklessly wandering around :) and that's just what we know about so far!
So, back on the road for one last time then. Time to head south then, back to life, back to reality and see what we've been missing...
...England here we come!