Saturday, 30 April 2011

Family reunion

We picked Dad up from Rimini train station on Easter Sunday and all piled into the MBB for what turned out to be a more testing drive than the Alpine pass. Dad sat in the back and coped with the bouncy tractor suspension with good grace as we followed the detailed directions to our villa (pass a small shrine on your left..) which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. It was well worth it. We spent the best part of a week there, eating well, reading, playing table tennis and just catching up, and never got tired of the view.


We managed to spend two days in Florence without setting foot in a museum or gallery, instead wandering the streets and marvelling at the architecture. Highlights were the candy cane coloured Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio. Sadly no parks for Frankie but he enjoyed climbing up and down the steps outside the Basilica di San Lorenzo. He was also quite a hit with the Florentines - literally stopping traffic at one point as a woman leaned out of her car window to shout 'bellissimo!'

Our sleep was slightly disturbed due to the fact that Florence's only camper stop is located right next to a major music venue, which on the Friday night hosted a long and loud reggae concert. In a previous life we would have got right in amongst it but oh how times have changed.

We left Florence in search of another rural idyll and struck gold again, stopping at another beautiful hill town for the night en route to meeting Dad in Rimini.

Friday, 29 April 2011


Onward again to one of our loveliest stops yet. Our Camperstop book, which lists all the free places to stay in a motorhome in Europe, is 4 years out of date, a fact which tends to quicken the pulse when driving winding mountain roads in search of a potential stop with a hungry and angry Frankie, thinking, 'this can't be right' and 'please god let it still exist'. The tatty book hasn't let us down yet, and this place was a proper find. High in the olive groves above the sea, in the shadow of a hilltown with medieval castle, we arrived to our own private terrace under fig and olive trees, welcomed by the Italian farmers who owned the place, and all for free. We decided to stop for a couple of nights and explore the nearby hill town and its castle the next day.

Well the climb up to said town certainly got the blood flowing and, medieval castles forgotten, we went in search of lunch. This being pretty much a one horse town, our expectations weren't high, but a peroni and pizza would do nicely. Stumbling across an unprepossessing establishment, really just a doorway with Trattoria above, and a mercifully and miraculously sleeping Frankie, we ducked in and enquired about a beer. No beer, this is a restaurant, and one which we made the most of. Feeling in need of a treat, we ordered the 'glis di antipasti' for two and a bottle of local white wine. There followed a succession of some of the best dishes we had ever tasted. The place being next to empty, we enjoyed telepathic service from the proprieter, who brought out dish after dish at precisely the right moment - veal tartare followed asparagus omelette, and was followed by a plate of local salami, proscuttio and cured lard, seafood fritters, asparagus and mozarella fritters and chicken salad to finish. Frankie awoke as the nougat semi freddo arrived, and I think it was pretty much the best thing he's ever tasted.

We left our lovely camp with regret, and had a slightly more stressful time trying to negotiate the frankly baffling road system around the town of Lucca (which in itself is quite a nice historic place but the parking restrictions placed on campervans did hinder our enjoyment of it) on the way to Florence.

Cinque Terre

The best bit about the Cinque Terre was the journey through. Hairpin bends aplenty and the faint aroma of burning brakes, but some of the best views Italy has to offer, or so we're told. Steep wooded hills plunging to the sea, little fishing villages clinging to the rocks, now firmly on the tourist trail, but, in between, totally undeveloped and glorious in the sunshine. We stopped in Vernazza for lunch, but the village's obvious past appeal is somewhat soured by the hordes of (mainly American) tourists and the cynical, though understandable, trade that has sprung up to cater to them.
So on we went to our stop for the night, where we parked up next to some real gypsies - which reinforced many stereotypes (they really do polish their caravans every day, and the women really do do everything) and threw up many questions (how do they all fit in there?!). An aside from Will - I think Emma learnt a few things, and our floor was duly Cif'd the next morning..

Bella Italia

Our last night in France, spent in the mountains in Montgenevre, was positively arctic but the MBB's little diesel heater did us proud. In the morning we discovered an icicle where our breath had condensed and dripped out of the window in the night.

Fortunately for Will, there was no time to hang around in the mountains lamenting my lack of snowboarding gear - we had to push on to Italy. I won't wax lyrical about the spectacular scenery, but it was breathtaking, especially as we were blessed with yet another day of sunshine. Hopefully the pictures will give you some idea.

Out of the mountains, we decided to continue with our policy of avoiding toll roads, due to our tight budget and the assumption that they would be prohibitively expensive. This approach took us through some rather unattractive backwaters on godawful scarred and pitted roads but did afford us a glimpse of an Italy that doesn't feature in the guide books. On the country road we were travelling on I noticed a scantily clad girl standing in a layby and assumed she was waiting for a bus. My only thought was 'great, it must be really warm out for her to be wearing so little - maybe I'll put my shorts on later'. About a mile further on, another layby, and another girl, also wearing few clothes. The scene was repeated at every layby for the next 20 or so km, and every one of the girls was black. It was broad daylight on a busy minor road, which suggested a large scale operation with police pay off.

After a couple of hours on these meandering and pot-hole ridden roads, and still only halfway to our destination, we decided that enough was enough. Surely the toll road to Genoa would not cost us more than 30 euros, and with Frankie complaining loudly and our nerves jangling, at that precise moment I would have been willing to pay double that. Aah, the smooth tarmac was a joy, apart from the fact that the road had been made in sections and at regular intervals felt like driving over a ditch. Worries about the box resurfaced but we made it to our destination - Rapallo - intact and in less than an hour. And the toll? 8 euros.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Alpine passes

With the bracket fixed and our wallets as well as our minds considerably lighter, we needed to push on to the Alps. With a little help from some friends we decided to take the pass over Montgenevre, stopping for the night at an Aire (free camping for motorhomes - usually a car park with toilets, water supply and waste dumping) in Les Deux Alps. To our surprise there was still a fair amount of snow and I really regretted not bringing the snowboard. We took a gondola up the mountain anyway and had overpriced chocolat chaud and pommes frites and a little stomp around.

A Jacques of all trades

We left Paris refreshed but with one thing on our minds - finding a welder and getting our bracket fixed. As we headed for the outskirts and the industrial zone, Will brushed up on his French mechanic speak (weld=souder). Whilst following a satnav diversion in the industrial suburbs, we happened upon a garage and were directed to a likelier prospect, where the young garage owner was happy to make some repairs at 10 minutes notice. Some pigeon French and a collaborative effort later, a strong but not particularly elegant repair was made (he wasn't the world's best welder). We were duly stung for 120 euros (twice as much as it cost to have the entire bracket made in the first place) but after further bodging with rubber door stops and adhesive and the box is (we hope) safe and sound for the rest of the trip, though still sagging and looking a bit pikey.

A week in Paris

 Our week in Paris coincided with a proper heatwave - 25 degrees and upwards most days. My previous trips to Paris have mainly consisted of museums and galleries during the day, and restaurants and bars at night. This trip was to be different. We only made it to one gallery, the Musee D'Orsay, and only for an hour before Frankie woke up and started protesting loudly.

Our days were mainly spent walking and eating and sitting under trees in the park. Paris is not an ideal city to visit with a one-year old - managing the metro with a pushchair is challenging (most Parisians seem to use baby slings instead), and the lift to our apartment on the 6th floor was too small to fit the pushcahir in, so we had to leave and return to the flat in two stages.

But despite the difficulties, we had a great time, enjoying lunchtime plat du jour most days, where Frankie made friends with all the waiters, walking the streets of Bastille, the Latin Quarter and St Germain, finding plenty of little neighbourhood playgrounds for Frankie, watching the street artists at Montmatre, and stumbling across the Paris marathon on our last day.

Onward to Paris

After a second night spent in ..... parked up opposite an equestrian centre, which Frankie loved (and Will, with his allergy to horses, not so much) we set off for Paris. All was going swimmingly until we stopped off for provisions at a supermarket on the outskirts. We returned to the van, and whipped up a quick and tasty lunch. By the time we'd finished, the supermarket was closed and the car park deserted. Will shifted The MBB into reverse and, to the strains of 'On the Road Again' by Willie Nelson, overenthusiastically backed, at some speed, into a lone lamp post in the middle of the carpark. Bosh! He got out to check the damage and returned head in hands. His pride and joy, our beautiful aluminium storage box, had taken the impact and the bracket supporting it had bent. The lamp post was, if anything, slightly worse off. 10km from central Paris on a Sunday afternoon and we needed a welder..

We decided to chance the rest of the drive, anxiously checking the rearview mirror after every pothole, and forget about the box, welding etc.. for the duration of our stay in Paris. We had arranged to stay in an apartment in the Bastille area for the week, so we said ta ta for now to the MBB and headed for the luxury of power showers and separate rooms.

Dover to Calais

Our last day in Bristol was pretty frenetic and full of important last minute decisions (trike or walker?) and we ended up leaving about 3 hours later than planned. We arrived just outside Dover at about 9pm, parked up in a service station car park and put Frankie straight to bed. Dad had given us a couple of readymeal curries 'just in case' so these went straight in the oven and we ate them sitting in the dark and speaking in whispers. Hmm, perhaps this van isn't quite big enough for a family of 3 to live in for 4 months... The following day we crossed the Channel without a hitch and spent our first night in St Valery-sur-Somme.

Introducing 'The Mini Bad-Boy'

Apologies for the tardiness of this first blog post. Life on the road with a one year old has so far taught me that planning, travelling and taking care of life's basic necessities seem to eat up virtually the whole day, which leaves not much time for writing. Other lessons I have learned include 1) I can't read maps to save my life 2) Satnav is a wonderful thing 3) an item of clothing is only dirty if you can see actual dirt on it. Just as well my standards were pretty sloppy in the first place.

It is actually now over a week since I wrote the below, and this is our first access to wifi. Frankie has overdosed on Italian cakes and is going nuts so I'm going to ditch any plans of making the blog look pretty and just get as many words and pics published as possible. I fear that my plans to regularly update it were, in hindsight, rather ambitious.

Right now I am sitting in the cab of our lovely Toyota Dyna, christened 'The Mini Bad-Boy' (no prizes for guessing who got to choose the name), in Montgenevre in the French Alps, which is where our journey has taken us so far. It is 8 o'clock in the evening and below zero outside, with a few little flurries of snow. We have a sleeping child in the back, bellies full of curry, beers in hands and were it not for our slightly eccentric living and sleeping arrangments, all would be well with the world. But the only place for Frankie's cot is right in the middle of the living area, so his bedtime sees us evicted to the miniscule cab, where we sit, separated by Frankie's car seat, reading by LED lantern. More fool us for buying a van designed for miniature Japanese people.

It's really not that bad, and when the weather is warmer and the evenings lighter, we'll be able to sit outside, stretch our legs out and even talk above a whisper. And The Mini Bad-Boy (MBB) has everything we need. This next bit is for all you vanoraks out there...

She (for I have decided the MBB is a she - just to even things up a bit) is a 1991 Japanese import Toyota Dyna, which is like a mini lorry, with a plastic fantastic coach built body on the back. Pretty diddy by modern motorhome standards but sporting a 3.7 litre Toyota Landcruiser clockwork engine (no electrical stuff to go wrong), with 63000km on the clock, getting 20-25mpg and blowing a bit of black smoke on the uphill runs. Perhaps the engine size exceeds our needs but she's not gonna break down....we hope.

Inside we've got recently fitted new appliances - oven, fridge, diesel fuelled blown air heating (very economical and a godsend in the mountains). There's a double bed over the cab, flush toilet and shower room (albeit miniscule, and an act of yogic contortionism for anyone over 5'5"), hot and cold running water... Boring bit over but some people like to know these things. For those of you uninterested or baffled by the spec, there are some pretty pictures to look at instead.
night time set up

living area


bad boy