By way of an initial reflection on our year and a half on the road, here are some answers to the questions we were most often asked on the road.
What is your favourite place?
This is the question that is asked more often than any other and is the most difficult to answer. There are just so many places that we’ve loved, for different reasons.
Familiar and undiscovered areas of France, ancient Spanish cities with tapas bars galore, Portugal’s culture and landscape, but we didn’t have long enough there. Italy for its Renaissance treasures and for its food, we fell for Sicily and spent the longest time there. Tunisia, especially the southern desert mountain areas, with the mystical ksour (see image above). We were captivated by the quirkiness of Albania with its dilapidated roads, the people of Macedonia, the gorges and views of Montenegro, the coast and islands of Croatia, untouristy and friendly Serbia, delectable Slovenia, battle-scarred yet resilient Bosnia, the rural folk painted joy of Romania, just a taste of Slovakia and Poland that leaves us wanting much much more, and a longer time in the Czech Republic too would be welcomed. A dash through Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands just gave us a taste for more too. The thirst for travel will never be quenched. The more you see the more you want to see – it feeds itself.
If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently?
There is very little we would change, the trip unfolded as we travelled and we adapted ourselves to the circumstances we faced and made a lot of the plans and choices on a day-to-day basis. We originally planned to do most of Western and Eastern Europe in one summer, and realised quite quickly that this was a ridiculous plan. Even after a year and a half, we’ve still only scratched the surface. There is still a lot to see and it would be good to spend more time walking and cycling in a particular region next time, a different pace of travel that brings you closer to the landscape and the people.
We were living life more intensely and being together in such a small space it becomes a microcosm. The good times are magnified but so are the bad ones. There are so many highs you have to learn how to cope with the lull days, when nothing much happens. And the times when events are out of your control. You learn to face challenges and sometimes it’s the bigger challenges that we can deal with easily, while something insignificant gets blown up out of all proportion.
Although we’ve been together for 16 years, there were times when the stresses and strains of living so cooped up have become too much and we would have gladly gone our separate ways. Times like when a full bottle of red has been spilt into the food cupboards late at night necessitating a full springclean… Luckily those moments blow over quickly. Still, it’s difficult to build in extra physical and mental space and we were rarely able to spend more than two hours apart. Sharing so much so closely means that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate one’s own thoughts and feelings aside from the relationship. The trip has taught us to value our own time as well as cherishing the time spent sharing experiences. We have become even closer if that’s possible and are ready to face the future together.
Have you had any problems with the van?
Yes, an old van means of course we’ve had our fair share of issues. Our major breakdown came in the summer of 2011 with our driveshafts, something that threatened to end our trip before it had begun in earnest. Thanks to John and Steve Gallimore, our rescuing knights in shining armour we were back on the road again before too long, fortified and ready to face the fray. Other more minor matters have been dealt with relatively easily thanks to Adrian’s mechanical prowess, some Googling, the 80-90 online forum for VW T25s (T3s), and Louis Barbour’s generous assistance and garage space in Croatia.
Weren’t you scared?
Before leaving I had slight pangs of fear – mostly around the feeling of being vulnerable in a van with all our stuff in. Once on the road we have virtually never felt unsafe, anywhere. We avoid known dodgy areas and take all the normal precautions you would take as a city dweller – care over locking the van, removing valuables where possible.
I would feel less safe in many parts of the UK than we ever did in perceived unsafe areas such as southern Italy, Albania, Romania or Tunisia.
You trust that you will always find somewhere to camp, somewhere to stay and if you breakdown somehow things will work out. So far they always have, even at the blackest moments.
What have you got out of the trip personally?
We have become more adaptable, flexible, tolerant, more outgoing. Living in a small space has meant strict discipline and we’ve become tidier and more minimalist. We’ve learned to appreciate the simple things and the small details, from a hot shower and clean clothes to good fresh food gathered in the market and cooked on our two-ring stove.
We have pushed boundaries within us as well as crossing many physical borders. We first really felt we were doing this when we travelled in Tunisia – we’d changed from being tourists and felt like real travellers for the first time.
We have learnt more than we ever did at school. We have improved our languages (French (improved), Italian (from scratch), German (dusted off) and a smattering of words and phrases in at least 10 other tongues from Arabic to Polish), history (ancient and modern), art (from caves to installations), architecture, geography, geology, conservation and restoration, natural history, crafts and traditions, religions, and the ability to instantly convert from and to a number of currencies.
We’ve been inspired by how different civilisations and empires have shaped the regions we’ve visited – and how they’ve influenced everything from religion to home furnishings. Travelling slowly means you notice the continuum of language, foods, architecture and people as you move from place to place.
Other things we’ve learned:
– The more challenging the country, the more rewarding it is.
– The poorer the country, the friendlier and more generous the people.
– Meeting or knowing people in a country enriches your experience one hundred per cent.
– The best time to travel nearly anywhere in Europe is the ‘shoulder’ season: May, June and September (plus a week or so either side of these) – when things are open, but before it gets too hot, too crowded and too expensive.
– There is more likely to be bickering in and around the van if one or more of us is hungry.
We’ve both lost a significant amount of weight and reached fitness levels previously unknown to us. This has happened through a change in eating habits, much more exercise – cycling, swimming, walking, simply being on the move a lot more. We hope to keep this up in spite of all the tempting food in UK shops, and those welcoming pints.
Most important of all: we’ve learned to value every day like it’s our last one on earth, never to take things for granted, and to live in the precious present moment.
What do you miss from home?
We missed very little from home (apart from family and friends), especially after the first few months. We did miss having an oven (pies, roasts …), a grill, a bigger fridge, and regular predictable access to a washing machine. These were very slight ‘misses’ compared to all that we gained though.
What will you miss about travelling?
Our thirst for more travel is tangible and we know we will find it hard to settle down. We’ll miss the sounds of the evening dog chorus – part of the aural scenery in southern Europe and North Africa.
As are: unoiled donkeys, dawn cockerels, the miaou of the latest camping cat, cows mooing (sometimes even sounding like bears), church bells, mosque calls to prayer, unfamiliar languages spoken at speed, rattling trams, buzzing mopeds, waves crashing, and there’s always a boy with a ball.
The sights and smells of markets, forests, olive groves, fresh mountain air, the tastes of new foods and drinks, trying new things from slacklining and grape stirring to cycling up hills. Seeing eagles and vultures soaring and lizards fleeing.
The constant new impressions and experiences, the joys of discovery and of never knowing where we’re going to be. The awe-inspiring views of a snow-peaked Etna to the rare sight of the floor of Siena’s cathedral.
The reward of our first steps inside an orthodox church having first having overcome language barriers to find the key. Wild swimming in rivers, the sea and lakes, and into caves.
Joy and laughter with new and old travelling friends and above all… the freedom of going wherever the road goes.
“…only being shackled to the road could ever I be free” from the song ‘The Road’ by Frank Turner