Week Six: Baltic Cities and Quaint Towns

Day Thirty-Seven (6th of September): Pärnu County (Estonia) – Riga (Latvia)

After a shaky nights sleep, due to the dripping of the rain on the forest floor sounding like footsteps, we awoke to beautiful sunshine once again. I woke up with some extra energy, so I decided to go for a run, and luckily for me, there was a trail all the way around the lake with the lovely soft ground underfoot. I only got some of the way around, but I felt so much better having actually done that.

I had a bit of article writing to do when I came back, so I got on with that on the chair outside, until I got too cold and decided it was time to get Reece up so we could move on to Riga, the capital of Latvia.

The drive there wasn’t the most pleasant, with the roads being unusually structured (sort of a huge hard shoulder on either side and then single lanes for each direction of traffic), which meant if you drive inside the actual lane – like most places – it is likely that you will be driven off the lane by overtaking oncoming traffic, or even bullied out the lane by those wanting to overtake behind us. So, the road etiquette seems to be to simply straddle the hard-shoulder and normal lane and hope that the lorries don’t scrape the side of the van! Though some came worryingly close… Once we arrived at the parking spot for the night, after getting slightly lost in the ridiculously trafficky city, we were pretty happy. There were a few other campers, and the restaurant we were parked next to had pleasant toilets and free hot showers!!!

Not wanting to wait around any longer, we wandered into the centre of Riga. After nearly getting run over a few times by the crazy drivers who seem to think it’s okay to drive through a red light when people are trying to cross over the pedestrian crossings, we found a lovely park, with a river running all the way through, quaint bridges and water features. We were pleasantly surprised and spent a while walking round in the gorgeous sunshine before heading into the old town.

The old town was lovely, with cobblestones and beautiful buildings stretching across a large plot of land. The best thing – there was no roads or crazy drivers! We found a bar to grab a pint and make plans for our next stretch towards Poland and also find somewhere to get some dinner.

By recommendation from the waitress, we went to a place called Ava for dinner. As we walked down into the basement with crates and beer barrels covering the stairs and hallway, we were a little apprehensive, but as we reached the actual restaurant, it exceeded our expectations. It turned out to be a super-cool underground place, lit by candles and some low lighting at the bar. Unusually for the Baltic countries, whose food generally consists of potatoes and meat, they had a good selection of vegetarian meals. I had a dish with pumpkin, pulses, veg, some gorgeous seasoning and lots and lots of garlic. I was very happy! Reece not so much with the amount of garlic my food consisted… But we both enjoyed the food and also the interesting beer they had on offer, ginger and hemp was the one I went for.

Feeling good after a great meal and nice walk, we watched some Netflix and were just about to fall asleep… that was when the club, well more a gazebo on a pier (no bricks and mortar to muffle the sound) began playing music. Very, very, very loud. And with an incredible amount of bass. So much bass the van shook. Oh, but this wasn’t the usual kind of club that closes at the acceptable hours of 3 am. Oh no, they went on blasting music out until 5.30 in the morning…

Day Twenty-Eight: Riga (Latvia) – Kurėnai (Lithuania)

Somehow, we managed to get some sleep through all the noise, but I can’t say either of us felt refreshed when we woke. However, I must say, having a hot shower in the morning made it worth the bad night’s sleep.

After our morning’s bowl of muesli with fruit, oat milk and soygurt, we went back into the old town for the 12 o’clock free walking tour, which took us away from the old town, which we were pretty disappointed about, but we still got to see some interesting parts of Riga, such as their huge marketplace, the science academy (originally built by the Soviet Union) and the suburb of Moscow, which is home to the memorials of all those who were victims of the ghettos and burnt synagogues of the second world war. It felt like a city still very much in mourning of their dark past.

After the tour, we got a snack, jumped in the van and left for Lithuania. Now, every time we pull up at traffic lights or services, the smell of fresh diesel is so strong and when we drive off, we always leave a puddle of diesel behind. So the diesel leak is definitely a problem that we need to get fixed sooner rather than later! It’s just a case of finding a garage who can understand the problem, understand the van (which is the Japanese import with a mid-engine) and not charge us a fortune for the work.

Since there were barely any places on park4night, we just slept in a restaurant car park opposite a service station.

Day Twenty-Nine: Kurėnai (Lithuania) – Vilnius (Lithuania)

Waking up after both having a good night’s sleep was a nice feeling, we had a pretty early start cleaning the van and eating muesli, then we left for Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which was just an hour’s drive away from where we had parked for the night.

The drive there was pretty frustrating as a lot of the roads around the city centre were closed, so we couldn’t get to the place we had wanted to park. This left us with little options – go back into the centre and face the crazy traffic and hope to find a space or park outside a funeral parlour which some people had recommended on park4night. As we were sick of the traffic, we chose the latter.

Walking into the centre was really nice, we had parked near a place called Užupio Res Publika, which, although we didn’t know it at the time, is classed as a different country. It is sort of like Christiana in Denmark, but more integrated and they do follow the law, but the area is very artistic and quirky, with prayer flags, sculptures, rustic grand pianos left outside and interesting rules for their republic.

As we continued into the centre, we could see the main square was bustling with people and tents, and we soon realised that we had just walked into the Vilnius marathon! Which also made sense of why all the roads were closed in the way in.

At half three, after having a fallafel wrap and watching the runners, we went on a walking tour around the city. It had quite a familiar history to the other Baltic cities we’d been to, and quite a sad one with the Soviet deportations and Nazi invasion. But the city had rebuilt itself, and it was beautiful!

After the tour, we went for a beer and dinner with a German lady called Christina who met on the tour. The dinner was unusual, consisting of a cold, creamy beetroot soup which you dip boiled potatoes in. Afterwards, Reece had a potato rottie with curd and I had potato pancakes with raspberry jam and curd. It was very tasty, but incredibly stodgy. Unfortunately for me, my stomach does not like stodge.

Day Thirty: Vilnius (Lithuania) – Varėna (Lithuania)

We had planned to stay another night in Vilnius, but I woke up feeling pretty terrible, incredibly weak, faint and dizzy with an awful burning feeling all the way across my ribs. It’s a feeling I often get after eating too much rich and stodgey foods, and it certainly isn’t a pleasant one.

Although it got slightly better throughout the day and another pleasant walk around the old town, it was the first time I really couldn’t bear the thought of putting in all the effort to cook in the van, or even sleep in the roasting heat with the pop-top down again, which makes it feel 100° warmer than it actually is. So instead, we looked for Airbnb’s around where we were and found a few that were actually the same prices as campsites in Lithuania, so I chose one that was around an hour closer to the Polish border (which is where we’re heading next) and had parking outside for Papaya to stay close to us as well!

The apartment was very homely, and nice and spacious with a hammock on the balcony. We spent the the rest of the evening relaxing, cooking and sleeping!

Day Thirty-One: Varėna (Lithuania)

In Varėna, we simply had a relaxing day. Enjoying the hammock, the huge squishy sofa and the Wi-Fi.

In the evening, we did go for a walk around the area which was noted for its beauty on the airbnb ad., and got lost in the pine forest for quite a while (thank goodness for phone GPS), but luckily we hadn’t wandered too far away.

I was so excited about having an oven for the evening, we made a huge lasagne with lots of roasted vegetables and garlic bread on the side.

Day Thirty-Two: Varėna (Lithuania) – Augustow (Poland)

Still not feeling great, we re-packed the van with all the fridge and cupboard stuff and the fresh laundry we had managed to do in the airbnb and set off to Poland. Interestingly, the van seems to have stopped leaking. It’s probably not a good thing, maybe some dirt got stuck in there, but it’s nice not to smell diesel all the time. We are still planning on getting it fixed when I’m better.

We had planned to drive a couple of hours, but the pain got too much and I just wanted to lie down, so I found a parking spot near a hotel and we went there so I could have a nap in the back of the van.

After the pain had eased a little, we went for a walk around the town, and it was gorgeous! It seemed like we had stumbled on a holiday town, just during the wrong season. There was a beautiful river with willow trees lining the sides, and cobbles all around the pretty little town.

After a walk, we went to find some dinner and, thanks to Google, found a cute little Italian restaurant just 10 minutes away from our van. I treated myself to some very plain garlic pasta and a half pint, whilst Reece had a creamy spinach pasta with two pints and the bill came to just £10 for everything!

Day Thirty-Three: Augustow- Mikolajki

We left Augustow, having had another walk around and a green tea and strange berry sorbet for breakfast, and we were aiming to get a little but closer to Gdańsk. After driving for about an hour and a half, I noticed that where we’d stopped for lunch (lovely boiled rice) was just 10 minutes away from a town that my lovely Polish friend, Natalia, had recommended to me. So we looked for a place to sleep and went there.

Again, it was a lovely little old town with just a few restaurants, but this place seemed a little more bustling, even at the start of Autumn.

We explored the town a little more and eventually went for some dinner overlooking the harbour and watched the sunset, which was really lovely.

Apologies for the late posting of this blog, the stomach thing has taken it out of me and I’m still struggling with it. Fingers crossed tomorrow will be the day it goes!

We’re currently in Gdańsk now and it’s lovely, such a grand city. We’ve been here two nights and tomorrow we’ll be leaving and driving to Hel! That is a place in Northern Poland, not the undrworld ruled by Satan… So on the next blog I will pick up from Gdańsk as it’s definitely a place worth writing about.

Our selfie near the wheel we’re parked near in Gdańsk.
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Week Five: From Lapland to the City

Day Thirty (30th of August): Vatungin – Marjoniemi Camping (Pyhajarvi)

Hannah and I (Hannah is too busy writing other articles to do the blog this week) have been very much enjoying the surprisingly warm and dry spell we’ve been graced with over the last 4/5 days, but this was no more. I awoke to the rain belting down onto the pop-top, and to an unamused looking Hannah who had just been rained off from her Seaview, article writing set up she had created. “So this is Finland”.

The mood slightly improved after we decided to skip breakfast and hit the road to look for somewhere less soggy; when we discovered that diesel was actually around 30p a litre cheaper in Finland than it had been in Sweden. It improved even more so when we stopped at the services and found reasonably priced coffee, pizza (yes, for breakfast) and a lovely older Finnish lady that wanted to talk all about what northern Finland had to offer, from wild moose roaming around on the streets surrounding to bear and wolverine watching in the forest! We had sadly missed the viewing season as summer is very much on the way out now, so that opportunity wasn’t an option this time.

As I was driving, Hannah found a nice little spot to camp around about an hour away from the services, right on the beach of a lake and a seemingly perfect spot. As we arrived all appeared to be in order, though the crystal clear Norwegian lakes had nothing to worry about; this one had a slightly rusty look to it… But that wasn’t an issue, we set up camp and as the day was still young we decided to make use of the improved weather and get our boots on, and set off for a walk.

We got back to camp and relaxed outside, but it wasn’t long until we realised that the spot we’d chosen was a little more bug friendly that we were comfortable with. It felt like there was creepy crawlies falling from the sky, literally. After a few screams and headbangs, we decided we didn’t feel welcome anymore and wanted to find somewhere with a few more luxuries. That would mean a campsite.

Hannah continued the drive south towards Helsinki as I looked for camping spots. We were in need of doing some laundry and hot showers were essential, but finding that en route and out of season was a bit more of a challenge than I expected. I finally found a place about an hour and a quarter away and it was perfect, even having kitchen facilities. When we arrived we were told it was the last weekend of the holiday season and would be closing down until next summer. They were having a few bands playing over the next couple of nights, as well as a big bonfire and fireworks.

Although a little tired, we quickly found a spot and went out to watch the band. Although we didn’t understand any of what this Finnish rock band were saying, they were very good! The locals were loving it too, and were taking the dancefloor by storm in their couples, but oddly enough there was less air guitar, and a lot more ballroom dancing. It was brilliant to watch. We learnt more about the Finnish culture when we got talking to nice local who picked up on our English at the bar, he told us that in the winter it wouldn’t be uncommon to reach -30°C here. Also, saunas and day to day life go very much hand in hand, and after a few beers we got invited to drink whiskey and experience a proper Finnish sauna for our selves. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to a sauna after a few drinks before, but I felt like the idea of using the sauna regularly would be something I could really buy into.

Day Thirty-One: Marjoniemi Camping (Pyhajarvi)

Hannah and I had a lot to do today, mainly reorganise the van and get things washed. It was decided that we should stay another night in the campsite as we had been putting off rectifying a lot of niggling annoyances we’ve encountered in day to day life, and this should be the day to do them.

We had also found a leak, assumed to be an oil leak. We mentioned it in passing to the Finn we met the night before, and fortunately said he and his Father-in-law liked to ‘fix up’ cars in their spare time, and would happily take a look to try and work out what the problem was. They came round to our van about midday and gave it a real good look over, and it wasn’t long before they found the problem. Not an oil leak, but a leak from the fuel lines. We weren’t sure if this was good news or bad, but it meant we were going to need a mechanic sooner or later. It was nice to know the engine was not the problem, and decided to keep an eye on the leak until we find a well respected garage to take it to.

After a productive day, we decided to make use of the brilliant campsite facilities, and cooked in a real kitchen! Everything is more difficult in a van, especially cooking and washing up. This was luxury.

Day Thirty-Two: Kirri

It was time to hit the road. Yesterday was the first day we didn’t make any progress on the journey, so today we would drive a couple of hours south, getting closer to Helsinki. Spending so much time on the road, we see plenty of service stations. So far, Finland has definitely got the best! It’s a nice place to be, it’s clean, friendly, they do real food cooked by real chefs, and if you’re really hungry then you can dive into the buffet! Throw in some singing bathrooms and reasonably priced coffee, you have the Finnish service station.

We got down to Kirri while it was still sunny and decided that this would be a good place to spend the night. It was next to a big lake and had beautiful walking trails all around it. After a short walk, we decided to make dinner and have a movie night.

Day Thirty-Three: Kirri – Helsinki

After sleeping in a little later than we had planned we said to hell with breakfast and just had a coffee, it was closer to lunch anyway. We were heading to Helsinki, which was just a little over 3 hours away. Excited to see the capital and to get out of the Nordic countries, which were proving increasingly unviable for our finances, we booked the Ferry to Estonia for the following night. This gave us the rest of the evening and most of the next day to see Helsinki.

Hannah had found a carpark on the outskirts of Helsinki that had great reviews on our camping app, it was free day and night and when we got there it was nice to see some more self built and rustic looking campervans with the same idea. It was a just a short bus trip into the city centre and by late afternoon we arrived in the city.

It was drizzling as we stepped foot in the capital for the first time but we couldn’t complain too much given the amount of sun we had seen since arriving in Finland. We were quite hungry and cheap eats in the city were few and far between. After looking in a few menus and being taken aback by the prices, we got desperate and settled upon a cheap and convenient fast food restaurant. By the time we finished our meals, the drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour, prompting us to use our initiative and log into the WiFi, another luxury we don’t often have access to. I downloaded some podcasts to listen to for our long drives and Hannah downloaded some movies from Netflix. Data gets used up far quicker when you’re dependant on it daily for maps, music, entertainment and hot-spotting the laptop.

It finally stopped raining and we ventured out into Helsinki, it was getting dark so we decided to head to the student part of town to which was a good walk away to grab a beer. The walk gave us a chance to see the city a little better and appeared similar to some of the other big Nordic cities felt to me, clean, organised and pretty. It was a cosy bar that had a great selection of Finnish beers and wines, a nice atmosphere and a friendly pub dog top it off.

Day Thirty-Four: Helsinki – Tallinn

It was our last day in Finland and we were excited that it would be in Helsinki. We jumped off the bus and headed to the main square, stopping a few times to marvel at the architecture around us. The senate square was gorgeous, and the cathedral is one of the best I’ve seen.

We followed the street opposite the cathedral down to the Market Square were we browsed the stalls. When we were finished another cathedral caught our eye, the Uspenski cathedral.

Still wandering through the city, we came across a roof top terrace next to the harbour with a bar and seating, so we decided to have a sit down and regain ourselves while looking at the wonderful view.

Our ferry to Estonia was still a few hours away but we knew it would be docking in Tallinn close to midnight, we went back to the van happy that we had seen most of the big attractions.

The ferry was lovely, we went to the top deck to watch the sun go down and see some more of Helsinki’s shoreline.

Day Thirty-Five: Tallinn

We had no idea what Tallinn was famous for or what would be in store for us, but we were already impressed with the city from our short drive last night. The surprise only grew when we walked into the old town for the first time and couldn’t believe how amazing this place was. Ancient buildings seemed to be everywhere, and the place was bubbling with so much character.

I had seen that there was a famous free walking tour taking place three times a day in the high season (April till late September) so we decided it would be a good idea to get some context behind all the history we were looking at. It turned out to be a great idea, in our short walk around we had only scratched the surface of this tightly packed archaic city. We learnt all about its fascinating history and why so many nations wanted to invade here, as only for a brief period has it been an independent nation of its own.

After the tour, we decided to have a walk down what we now knew was called ‘Long Street’, for obvious reasons. It split into two at the oldest pub in Estonia, and the near two-hour tour had definitely worked up a thirst… We had a lovely Estonian cider and afterwards headed back to the van, we had loved Tallinn.

Thirty-Six: Tallinn to Parnu County

Eager to see spend another morning in Tallinn we got out early saw more of the city. We had somehow missed seeing a large part of the 13th-century city walls, and to see it up close was captivating. There’s even a small stretch where you can go to the top of the defence tower and walk on top of the magnificent wall.

We had a late breakfast at a famous pancake house, loving the fact that we could finally eat out and not worry about our budget too much. Satisfied from our pancakes, we had a final walk around the old town and headed back to the van. After two nights in Tallinn, it was time to move south towards Latvia!

I found a spot next to a lake just a few kilometres from the Latvian border, it was peaceful and scenic, not too much different to what we had been getting used to in Scandinavia.

Week Four: Norway to Finland

Day Twenty-Three: Glava (Sweden) – Oslo (Norway) – Gjøvik Lake (Norway)

Coming into Norway was amazing, you could feel the difference as soon as we crossed the border from Sweden. I don’t know how to explain it, Reece uttered ‘it’s like Sweden, but on steroids’, and as we’d only yet ventured around the south of Sweden where it was flat, I think that was quite a fitting description as we drove over the bulges of Norway’s land.

The views were amazing, rather than red as we had often seen in Sweden, the houses in Norway seemed to be paler colours – pastel yellow and chalky blue – and the hilly landscape meant better views across the amazing lakes and pine forests. The only problem with the hills is that Papaya the Bongo does not agree with them. With her twenty-four-year-old mechanics and automatic gearbox, the usual purr of her engine turned into an angry growl as she tried to work out which gear was best to tackle the incline. All we could think of was the expensive Swedish diesel being gobbled up by the thirsty engine, and what an earth that meant for the mechanical side of things.

Talking about diesel, we were surprised to find that Norway’s diesel was, in fact, cheaper than Swedish diesel. I had been led to believe that everything, especially fuel, was more expensive in Norway so this was a welcome surprise.

Our first stop was Oslo. I have previously been to Oslo before on a Norwegian cruise with my family, and the most memorable thing about the city was the Vigeland Sculpture, which my step-dad and I went to see and photograph in 2016. I remember the city being nice, but preferring other sea-side towns to Oslo, such as Ulvik and Kristiansund. This time around, Reece and I parked the camper in a free car park outside the city centre and walked in, which took around 40 minutes.

The walk began quite pleasantly, with beautiful views across the city and cute houses, but soon became very busy and industrial as we reached the centre. We walked around for quite a while, finding some cute streets and hoping to find somewhere to sit down and have a pint. We both knew Norway was expensive, but when I asked and found out a pint was £10/€10, it was still a shock, so instead, we continued walking. After buying some overpriced falafels, we went to look at the royal palace and then got the bus to the Vigeland Sculpture Park. Around the park, there seemed to be a bit more of a younger scene going on, with a group of teens having a rave in the sculpture park, people skating outside, older teens following guys with huge speaker systems on their backs, shop-bought beer in hand. After seeing the prices of beer even in the shops, £5 per 33cl bottle, I still have no idea how the students managed to afford anything remotely alcoholic!

After the park, we went back to the camper and set off to find somewhere to sleep for the night. We wanted to make our way further up north to see some fjords, so we drove quite a while, in the dark too, so when we reached where we were staying for the night, again found on park4night, we couldn’t see a thing, only that there were other campers and tents there, so we parked up, set up camp, and went to bed.

Day Twenty-Four: Gjøvik Lake – Lovatnet Lake – Kjenndal Glacier

As we woke, the sunlight uncovered where we had parked, and it was even more beautiful than we could have imagined. We were parked on a grassy lawn with mountains surrounding us, at the foot of the mountains was a perfectly clear lake. Wanting to take advantage of the sun, we bathed in the beautiful, albeit very cold, lake after breakfast and soaked in the sunshine afterwards, drying off our swimwear and towels.

We wanted to see a fjord today, so after watching some youtube videos, we settled on a lake called Lovatnet, which although isn’t truly a fjord as it is not an inlet of the sea, it is fresh water, but it has all the other features of a fjord as it is situated in Lodalen valley. Before the trip, Reece had said he wanted to see a glacier as, with the way climate change is going, we don’t know how long the glaciers will last. At the time, we had no idea where we would find a glacier, but as I was searching for a place to stay, the most highly recommended campervan spot appeared to be at the foot of a glacier, which happened to be attached to the Lovatnet fjord. However, I wasn’t expecting much from the glacier as none of the youtube videos had even bothered to mention it.

We both took turns to drive from Lake to Lake and the views along the way were absolutely breathtaking, with lakes and river of all different shades, icy blue, turquoise, some as green as the grass next to them, other lakes so clear they were almost mirrorlike. As we climbed up the mountain on winding roads and through the craziest dungeon-like tunnels, the weather turned, which ruined the view in some ways, but it created for the most peculiar driving I have ever done – crawling around hairpin bends and flying above and through the clouds.

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The views only got better and better as we reached Lovatnet. The weather improved, and we carried on towards the glacier. The water of Lovatnet was such a crazy colour – bright turquoise from some perspectives. This colour derives from the rock flour, or tiny peices of rock that get ground up from the constantly shifting glacier, that rest at the bottom of the lake.

As we reached the glacier, we were the only ones there, and it was absolutely stunning, with waterfalls surrounding us and the glacier suspended upon the mountain. It was such a magical place.

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Day Twenty-Five: Kjenndal Glacier – Gerirangerfjord – Storfjorden

In the morning, we went for a walk to get even closer to the glacier, luckily for us we had missed both the bus full of tourists and the downpour of rain that took place around 9am, instead we watched out our window, waited for the sun to come out, and went for a walk. We managed to get pretty close, close enough to feel how cold and clear the water was in the stream coming down most directly from the glacier and see the huge chunck of ice in even more detail.

We learnt afterwards that the glacier we had stayed under, Kjenndal, was actually a branch of the largest glacier in Europe, Jostedal Glacier, which is pretty impressive.

After visiting the glacier, we headed back up and over the mountain towards the most famous fjord in Norway, Gerirangerfjord.

On the way down the valley heading towards the glacier, all we could smell was, I assume, the brake pads burning with all the pressure of going down the hill. So rather than pushing Papaya and our nerves any further, we stopped halfway to cook up some lunch, under the watchful eye of a mama sheep and her lambs.

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As we reached the bottom, the weather had slightly improved and it was a beautiful view, but not really much compared to the breathtaking turquoise of the glacier lake at the foot of the valley that we had driven through to get to Gerirangerfjord.

One particularly impressive element of the view from the fjords was the ribbon-like road that we were about to conquer. It was very windy and very uphill. We just had our fingers crossed that Papaya could make it, as there was no alternative.

Of course, with her 2.5 litre engine, Papaya had no problem climbing up the hill and, again driving on incredibly scenic roads, we reached our destination for the night. And it was beautiful, at the foot of get another fjord, and incredibly peaceful, and very conveniently located just behind a coop which had a loo with running water. Perfect.

Day Twenty-Six: Storfjorden – Atlantic Ocean Road – Oppdal

The twenty-sixth was the first day I woke up feeling pretty homesick, I missed my puppies and my pony, van life is hard work, and moving every day is even harder, and I just wanted to nip back home for a cuddle. Nonetheless, after getting up, brushing my teeth with actual running water from the coop and having some breakfast with the blueberries we had picked with an absolutely amazing view in front of me, I felt a lot better.
Our aim for the day was to see the Atlantic Ocean Road and then head towards the border of Sweden, which is exactly what we did. The road was a bit of a detour, so it simply meant we had to go over it both ways, which was actually a blessing in disguise as going over it the first way was a little disappointing, but coming back, it was gorgeous and exactly what we had been expecting.

Image from ‘Feel the Planet’ showing the Atlantic road from an aerial view.

The roads from the Atlantic Ocean Road to Oppdal, which is where we ended up staying for the night, were amazing and the sun was beating down on us, making the views look even more glorious.

Oppdal turned out to be a ski town in the north of Norway, since it was summer it was pretty quiet, but there were a few other campers next to us in the Car park, so it served us well for the evening.

Day Twenty-Seven: Oppdal (Norway) – Alsensjön (Sweden)

After leaving the little ski-town with a coffee and pastry each in hand to fuel us for the drive, we were set on getting back to Sweden before the end of the day.

After we got past Trondheim, failing at an attempt to get free parking in the city to do our laundry as we were reluctant to get another parking ticket, so we didn’t stop; but after we got past, we found a crystal clear lake and it was so hot, we just wanted to jump in! However, this was another ‘drinking water lake’ which had a no swimming sign and some other writing in Norwegian next to this. As we were sulking on our way back to the van, disappointed that we couldn’t jump in the lake, we bumped into an older gentleman who lived in one of the houses right next to the lake, we talked for quite a while, it turned out he was a retired English teacher, and when we got talking about the lake, he told not to worry about the sign, he used it as drinking water and it was fine if the odd person went in, just not the whole of Trondheim. So he pointed us to a place where we could get in the lake without people seeing us, with a parting warning that the lake was very cold. We got there and wading into the lake was beautiful, it was peaceful and cold, but not in an unpleasant way. It was a great pit stop.

The place we found for the night was called ‘Uddens Vänner’ and it was sort of like a free campsite, with lovely mown lawns and a great view across the lake.

Day Twenty-Eight and Day Twenty-Nine: Alsensjön (Sweden) – Norsjo (Sweden) – Vatungin (Finland)

Unfortunately, for these two days, there is not too much to write about as we have been pushing on trying to get to Finland and work our way down to reach Eastern Europe as, although Scandinavia is stunningly beautiful, it is pretty cold, but most of all it is expensive. As we would like to make this trip last six-months in total, we are heading towards Eastern Europe where diesel, groceries and everyday living is a lot cheaper than Scandinavia. We have taken the driving in turns, for the first time in the trip, I am usually very happy to be in the passenger seat, and we have reached Finland now, doing around 5 or 6 hours behind the wheel to get from the Atlantic Ocean Road all the way to the top of Finland. This is also why this blog is a day late – I have either been driving or being a passenger, where I struggle to write a lot without feeling a little queasy.

Our plan is now to take things a little more steady, get to Estonia in around four or five days, and then hopefully catch some sunshine and be able to afford to do a little more as we work our way down to Croatia through Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary.

Last night we stayed in a nice little spot next to a port, which in the sunshine looked gorgeous, but it didn’t look so nice waking up to it in the dreary weather of this morning (30th of August), which made us even more sure of our decision to get back down south!

Week Three: Lakes, Forests and Foraging

Day Fifteen: Stora Kullhög Beach – Kivik – Karlshamn

We reached Kivik quite late on Thursday afternoon as we were enjoying staying by the beach so much. Both Reece and I really like Swedish cider, so my friend recommended the Kivik Musteri to us so we could see where one of the most popular Swedish ciders comes from. It was really interesting to see how all the cider and apple juices are made on such a huge scale, and also how the technique has changed over hundreds of years. Due to the law in Sweden where you can only buy alcohol in one store, Systembolaget (The System), we couldn’t actually purchase any cider from the brewery, so we just bought some very tasty apple juice instead.

In between the heavy downpours of rain, we had a quick look around Stenshuvuds National Park, which had some gorgeous pine trees and sweet, docile cows. After a little walk, we headed to Jenny’s house who lives just on the outskirts of Karlshamn, which was around a 2 hour drive away from the national park.

It was so lovely to be welcomed with open arms, dinner cooked for us, great conversation and cats to cuddle! We even had a bed to sleep in, which was a welcome relief from the camper, which had got pretty soggy and muddy from all the rain.

Day Sixteen: Karlshamn

After a great nights sleep, we planned to explore the area by bike as there was a huge lake around ten-minutes away by foot which we’d had a brief look at the evening before. After making breakfast and having a (hot!!) shower, we went to get on the ones and go for a ride. Unfortunately, that didn’t go quite to plan, having not ridden a bike in around eight-years, I was a little out of practice and all the bikes I’d had previously had allowed me to keep a foot on the floor whilst still being on the seat. That wasn’t the case with this one and I simply couldn’t coordinate pushing off, cycling, balancing and getting on the seat all in one go, so after a good fifteen minutes of Reece desperately trying to teach me, I gave up and decided that a cat cuddle would actually be nicer anyway.

So as Reece went off on his bike ride the heavens once again opened, so I wasn’t too upset that I was inside pottering around tidying the kitchen and sorting out our laundry, until Reece sent me a message saying that he was having the best lunch ever in a vegetarian buffet with all fresh, homemade food in the middle of a forest. I almost jumped in the van and drove there myself, but as I was deliberating, Jenny came back from work early! She’d unfortunately come back because she could feel a migraine starting, but we still had a good chat whilst Reece made his way back from the restaurant in even more rain.

Reece and I then nipped out to the centre of Karlshamn as he has never seen the little seaside city before, I had been three-years prior when I came to visit Jenny before.

After visiting Karlshamn and picking up some cava and wine from ‘The System’, we came back, watched some Stranger Things on Netflix and then me, Jenny and Reece got ready to go to the sauna, which we had planned the day before. I have only ever visited the sauna in the gym and never really understood the appeal, but I was willing to give this sauna a try as it was part of both Swedish and Finnish culture. I’m so pleased I did, it was so revitilising! We did it the proper Swedish way, nude, and it was a strange feeling getting so warm that you cannot bear it, running down some forest steps, then across a little pier, down a ladder and straight into the cool lake. And what a beautiful lake it was, clear water surrounded by an array of different trees and foliage.

We then came back, made dinner and talked ’till the early hours.

Day Seventeen: Karlshamn – Hossmo

We had a relaxed Saturday morning, sleeping and eating a delicious breakfast Jenny and her husband Roger had made for us. We then went for a walk around a little island off the port of Karlshamn, which had an unusual landscape of flat rocks, an abundance of heather and a forest. It was a really lovely walk with the chance to eat some wild blueberries and learn about the different berries and mushrooms we could safely pick and eat on any future walks in Sweden.

After the walk round the island, we packed up all our stuff, filled up our water tub and got back on the road, with a stop at the vegetarian buffet of course (which I was not at all disappointed by). We were heading towards Öland, a large island off the east coast of Sweden.

We stayed just outside the island on another beach by the sea, with quite a few other campers near us – and nice toilets!

Day Eighteen: Hossmo – Öland – Ringarum

After a morning of walking around the beach and little piers where you could go for a swim, we did some yoga on the beach before having breakfast, packing up and heading to Öland.

On the way there, we went over some really impressive bridges, which unusually were toll free. The island itself was motorhome heaven, every other car must have been a motorhome or camper, which was different to the other roads we’d been driving on in Sweden where seeing a fellow camper on the roads is far and few between. The island itself was nice, but the road that goes around the island wasn’t the most interesting, bar the really old, quirky windmills we kept passing by. We had planned to go in the castle, but it was quite expensive and it didn’t look all that impressive, so instead we followed the hiking trail that ran around it, which took us to a cute little beach and through a forest where we spotted a woodpecker.

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We wanted to get further towards Stockholm for the evening, so we we hopped in the van and drove north towards a lake we’d found on Park4Night. The drive was beautiful, past sheer rocks, forests and so many lakes. When we reached the place we were staying for the night, it looked nice, but a little dreary in the pouring rain, so we simply cooked dinner and stayed in for the evening.

Day Nineteen: Ringarum – Stockholm

We woke up to glorious sunshine, and the place reflected in the glory. The lake was stunning, with pine trees all around and, again, it was so clear, we could even see pretty big fish scuttling around near the shore. We even had our own small forest with some beautiful colours in the trees on the floor, with different mosses, leaves and heathers.

After breakfast, we went for a swim and both of us were surprised to find that the water was actually pretty warm. It felt so special to be able to swim in such an amazing place with the sun pouring down us. We spent the rest of the morning sunbathing and letting our towells dry, with the solar panel charging our electrics.

After we were dry, we went for a walk around the area. We had parked near a small lake, but there was an even bigger lake nearby, so we had a walk over to that one. The views were amazing, and it was all set up for campers with shelters, dry wood for a fire and even tables and chairs right next to the lake.

We took a walk through some fields and pretty dense forest, keeping an eye out for berries and mushrooms. To our surprise, we actually came across some chanterelles, the golden mushrooms of the forest, which are very distinct in their appearance, almost like a trumpet or a flower, which makes them pretty safe to eat as there’s not really any poisonous mushrooms that look the same. As we continued further round the lake, the views just got better and better, although the terrain did get more difficult to walk through.

As we were heading back from our walk from the lake, we picked the chanterelles and took them with us.

As we were prepping the chanterelles for lunch, a Swiss couple pulled up in their camper and we talked a little bit, and when they noticed the mushrooms, they were really eager to know where we foraged them and then set off in search of their own!

After lunch, we packed everything up and headed to Stockholm, which was around three hours away. I had found a car park we could stay overnight, so we headed towards the city.

Stockholm was huge and very built up, with high blocks of flats, but the most impressive structures were the huge bridges for the trains and trams, which towered high above us, and even the neighbouring buildings. We carefully googled the cheapest veggie food in Stockholm, which led us to a restaurant called ‘Faloumi’, which was still €9/£9 for a falafel and halloumi wrap! But as we walked round to see the average meal in a restaurant is around €18/£18 and a beer, which is their cheapest drink as usual, is €10/£10 a pint, it didn’t seem all that bad. The rest of the evening was spent simply walking into Gamla Stan, the old town, which took us around 40 minutes, so by then we fancied a sit-down and a medieval basement pub caught our eye. Since beer was off the menu in Stockholm, we simply got some non-alcoholic mead which was actually really tasty and just a fraction of the price.

Stockholm in the sunset, and a leg of one of the huge bridges!
The ‘Faloumi’ restaurant

After leaving the medieval bar, back to modern Stockholm, we realised we had walked almost an hour away from the van. The smart thing to do would have been getting the metro home, but the electric scooters were calling us, so we grabbed one each and zoomed pretty much all the way home.

Day Twenty: Stockholm – Aspen Lake (Julita)

We went back into the city in the morning, we had planned to eat breakfast in the van, but as we had been in stealth mode the night before, the van was a mess and we could barely sit down, never mind make breakfast, so we headed to Lidl to get some pastries and cold pizza to eat for breakfast and lunch, coming to a total of €5 for both of us!

The city was beautiful in the day, the sun had come out, and it was shining in all its pastel colours. Again, we headed north to the old town, we had parked our van in the south, but this time we ventured further in and it was so pretty. Cobbled stones, brightly coloured houses, spires, winding streets and large squares.

We then headed even further north, over another bridge and into the more commercial side of Stockholm. It was interesting to see the contrast of the North and South, with the old town bridging the two in the middle. Here were the huge tv screens, bustling streets filled with shoppers and business staff. We did spot a group of five police horses grazing under the shade of some trees in one of the main squares which was really lovely to see.

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After walking around for around the North for around an hour, we were pretty tired, so we got the metro home, as we were now an hour and a half walk away from the van, and set off in search of another lake.

After a bit of exploring in the van attempting to find our own spot for the night, we resorted back to using Park4Night and found ourselves by a lake called Aspen with a little beach and set up camp there. A couple of campers joined us, a couple from Flensburg in Germany where we had stopped before heading into Denmark, and an older lady from Sweden with two ex-sledge dogs, Alaskan Huskies, who was travelling around in her micro-camper with a dream to one day move to Scotland.

Day Twenty-One: Aspen Lake – Vänern Lake (Kristinehamn)

The other two campers left early, so again we had the woods and a lake to ourselves. Both of us had planned to go in the lake, but the weather had turned, and the lake didn’t look as appealing as the last, with pond skaters and a slightly musty appearance. Instead, we had a movie morning inside, pulling the bed back down after breakfast and watching movies in bed. A nice relaxing morning after being busy the last few days. We then had lunch, packed up, and headed to the next lake.

We had planned to visit Gothenburg, which is to the south-west of Sweden, but as our ultimate aim was northern Sweden and Norway and to spend as much time in nature as we could in Scandinavia, we changed our plans last minute and we are now instead heading towards Oslo in Norway. So rather than heading south again, we went north of the largest lake in Sweden, lake Vänern, around ten minutes away from the town of Kristinehamn. As we pulled up the place yesterday evening, we were taken aback by just how huge the lake is. It looks like a sea, and as it was windy yesterday, it even had waves like a sea too.

Last night, we cooked dinner using up the last of our groceries from Germany, and went for a walk in the setting sun. There are quite a few campers near us, dotted around the lakeshore and in the woods, but we’ve managed to find a little cove for Papaya. As we were walking, we spotted a couple of blueberries, which we picked and ate (they’re sooo sweet and tasty), and as we looked around, we realised the whole forest floor was covered in blueberry bushes and loads and loads of blueberries. So we quickly went back to the camper, grabbed our colander, and got picking! It was gorgeous to watch the sunset as we were picking wild blueberries.

We will have the fresh blueberries on our breakfast this morning, which usually consists of an apple, banana, peanut butter, muesli and apple juice all mixed together – which tastes a lot nicer then it sounds.

Today, we plan to head a little further around the lake in search of a sauna and somewhere to shower, buy groceries then drive in the direction of Norway.

Week Two: Reaching Scandinavia

Day Eight: Amsterdam

After moving to a different parking spot or campsite every night for the past week, Reece and I decided to stay two nights in Amsterdam so we could relax and not worry about the next day.

On the afternoon of the 8th, after having a very relaxed morning sleeping in and slowly making breakfast, we went back into Amsterdam from our lovely little campsite and explored the city in the day, taking in the canals, tulip markets, parks and cobbled streets. It was a great city in the day as well as the night, the only issue we found was the amount of traffic in the centre. Even around famous monuments such as Anne Frank’s house, the market place and the museum quarter in general, bicycles, cars, mopeds, motorbikes, trams and buses were all out in rage, and raging they were at anyone who dare step foot on the road. Nonetheless, we had a good day.

The view from the campsite, Camping het Rietveen in Landsmeer

Day Nine: Amsterdam – Leer

After doing all the camper jobs we had to do, such as washing up, cleaning, packing up, filling up the water tub and having a shower whilst we knew we could, we set off to get across the border and into Germany. I chose a town with a good camping spot on the map and off we went on a three-hour journey, stopping to get some fuel on the way.

The town I had chosen, Leer, was nicely buzzing with motorhomes and campers so we were put at ease already. After parking up, we had a quick wander into town to see where we had parked and were pleasantly surprised to find cobbled stones, pretty houses and a beautiful canal with so many unusual boats on it.After this stroll, we went back to make some dinner, which we could do outside since the wind wasn’t too strong, then get ready to go out and the plan was to have a German beer or two. As we were heading towards the town centre, I could see some lights across a gazebo at the top of one the alleys. So after grabbing Reece’s attention, we curiously walked through the alley to see what was going on. It turns out we had just walked into a Weinfest (wine festival), which is one of my drinks of choice. It was quiet at that point, so we got chatting to one of the gentlemen working at one of the stalls and he explained more about the festival, that it was only on two days every year, and we had just had just happened to stumble upon one of them!

After a couple of glasses of wine, Reece and I went for a walk around the harbour and after strolling around for a while, we settled down to watch some live music and eat a pretzel and a bratwurst for Reece.

As the night drew in, the wine festival got busier, and just as we were about to call it a night after one last glass with both of us feeling rather tipsy, Reece bumped into some locals on the way back from the bar. So after around ten minutes of chatting, he came to retrieve me from watching some more live music and introduced me to all the locals from Leer who were so nice and great fun to talk to, with all of them saying that this was the biggest festival of Leer and they couldn’t believe we had stumbled upon it by accident!

Day Ten: Leer – Oldenburg – Hamburg

The next day we were pretty hungover, so we spent the day walking around Leer, which was actually a bigger town than we had anticipated with a strip of shops, restaurants and cafe’s in the town centre. We had pastries and coffee for breakfast and bought some fresh produce from the market for lunch and dinner.

Then, around 3pm, we set off to Oldenburg to stay the night. As usual, we used the now multitude of apps we had been collecting on our phone, which had maps with pins showing us where all the free camping spots were that people had previously used. We found a place by a lake just outside Oldenburg which had good reviews, so we headed that way.

Reece and I parked up at the beautiful lake, which even had a little beach leading up to it, and made some dinner outside. As it got later, the one camper that was next to us left, but we could see two other campers across the lake, so we decided to drive around so we weren’t alone. As we parked up next to the other motorhome and camper, it felt a little eerie, having come down a single lane track and being plunged into darkness by the trees’ overarching branches above us. We both felt a little uneasy, so we decided to leave the pop top down and get straight to bed.

It took me a while to get to sleep, but when I finally did, I was awoken by a frantic beep and flash of lights. Both of us, already on guard from an uneasy feeling, shot up out of bed and Reece peered out of the tinted window. There were two cars crawling past our own, but we still couldn’t work out where the sound of the horn had come from – was a warning from one of the other motorhomes? It had sounded like it was from someone speeding away. Or was it one of these cars wanting to disturb our sleep? Nonetheless, we didn’t want to be in a place where there were cars crawling around where people were sleeping at 2am, so Reece climbed into the front, quickly ripped all the reflectors down. Keeping an eye where the other cars were, which was quite a while away but now a man had got out one of the cars and was walking around with a torch, I jumped out the side, chucked all the chairs and tables on the bed which we store under the van at night, jumped onto the bed myself as the passenger seat was swivelled the wrong way and we drove off as discreetly as possible.

We drove out of the woods and back to the open car park where we had parked previously, turned the swivel seat back round, put on some shoes for the drive and made the decision to make the two hour drive in the dark to get to Hamburg in the early hours of the morning.

Day Eleven: Hamburg – Flensburg

After a pretty bad night’s sleep, stirring each time a car went by, we gathered ourselves together and went off into Hamburg.

The city was quite contemporary and was clearly growing as half the city was a construction site, but it was redeemed by the beautiful churches and cathedrals that were spread out amongst the city.

As we happened to go into Hamburg on a Sunday, all the shops were closed, which left for an incredibly busy train station, but very peaceful city, with only the churches and cafe’s left open – which was a welcome relief after the previous night.

After exploring Hamburg, we packed up and drove to the border of Denmark to a shopping centre’s car park, which was specified for campervans and motorhomes who wanted to buy cheaper goods before heading to Scandanavia, which was exactly what we needed to do. We got there, cooked up some dinner and Reece had a chat to our next door neighbour, who was taking a holiday to Denmark in his motorhome from France, whilst I relaxed, read and had our last Belgian beer.

Day Twelve: Flensburg – Egeskov Castle

In the morning, we got up, made and ate breakfast, then went into the shopping centre to buy a coffee, raincoat and lots of food to fill up our fridge and cupboards ready for reaching Denmark. We then cleaned the van, packed up (which takes a lot longer than one may think), and then set off to see Egeskov castle in Fyn, recommended to me by my lovely friend from Denmark.

As we were on our way, I checked our (rather) trusty app, park4night, to see if there were any overnight spots near the castle – and as it happened the castle actually let campers and motorhomes sleep outside! It even had free toilets and a cold shower, which is now a luxury in our eyes.

Day Thirteen: Egeskov Castle – Copenhagen

After my first experience (probably not my last) of a cold shower, one I can’t say I’d recommend, we had a walk around the site of the castle. We had planned to go inside, but after checking the prices online, we decided it was out of our budget, so we simply had a movie day in as it was pouring down with rain, and then moved on to Copenhagen around late afternoon.

There was no well recommended spots to camp for free around Copenhagen, so we paid for quite a cheap campsite on the outskirts and got the bus in. As it was reaching evening by this point, we decided to head to Christiania first whilst it was still light and then walk into the city later. Luckily the rain had cleared and it had turned into a beautiful evening. I’d heard about the place from my best friend, Emily, who had been before and my other friend who lives in Copenhagen (who currently is on a trip to Australia so I unfortunately couldn’t meet up with her) and I’d seen mixed opinions online about the ‘free town’, but both me and Reece were pleasantly surprised, the place was so cool. I think because of the in-your-face presence of marijuana plants around the town, and because it is people’s homes and gardens after all, photos can’t be taken after you enter the gates, which is unfortunate as it’s such a quirky little place, with unique houses that people have built, furniture and sculptures made out of recycled wood, tyres and scrap metal, lots of veggie and vegan stands, (which I was happy about!) and a really cool indoor skate park. It had such a good vibe and every corner had something new and interesting to see. I think it is somewhere people should visit at least once in a lifetime.

Walking into the centre during sunset was beautiful, and we had a lovely time meandering around the dusky streets before deciding that it was late and we probably should get back.

Day Fourteen: Copenhagen – Malmö – Stora Kullhög Beach

Today, we drove to Sweden! With Sweden’s ‘freedom to roam’ law where wild camping is legal, getting here has been our main goal. We now plan to take things a little steadier and enjoy Sweden and Norway for the next month or so.

We drove from Copenhagen to Malmö across the huge bridge and spent a few hours exploring Malmö. I have been in Malmö before with my friend Jenny, but it was Reece’s first time in Sweden, so first of all we walked along the beach, then headed into the centre. It was as great as I remembered it, a lovely vibrant city. We happened to arrive as a food and music festival was going on, so we treated ourselves to a bit of street food and sat and watched the music for a while. It was reaching the limit on the car park, and it had just started to rain, so we decided to grab one of the electric scooters that are dotted around the city, ready for people to use (luckily we had a little go on them earlier so the app was already downloaded) and speed our way back to the car through the park. It was so much fun, as we were speeding through the park, the heavens opened and we got absolutely soaked to the skin. I couldn’t see through all the rain and steam on my glasses and could barely talk through laughing. We reached the car in around 15 minutes, it took us around 40 minutes to walk in, so much quicker, but unfortunately walked to the van to find a parking ticket! Although it was 4 hours free parking, you still had to display some sort of disk, which we didn’t know about. The ticket had been issued almost as soon as we had left the van. It wasn’t a crazy fine, but we both felt disappointed as we’d rushed back early to avoid a ticket, and got one anyway!

After the slight disappointment, we picked ourselves up, still drenched, and drove towards Kivik, a nature park not too far from my friend’s house where we will be staying tomorrow night, and found ourselves a little spot by the beach. As we reached here all out worries about the trip disappeared, this is what we had been waiting for! Everyone that has walked by have been so friendly, the campers that have now joined us have also been really considerate and kind too, and we can camp without the fear that a police officer will come knocking in the middle of the night.

We are loving Sweden so far!

Week One in the Van

Reece and I (Hannah) left for our epic six-month adventure on Thursday the 1st August and we have currently been on the road for a week. I will be aiming to write a blog post every week so anyone who is, or might be, interested can keep up to date with what we’re doing!

Just a little bit of background… Reece and I bought the van, which is a 1995 Mazda Bongo, in November last year as an eight-seater minibus with an electric pop top and blinds already built-in, all we had to do was take all the insides out and convert it into a home that we could live in and drive easily for six-months! We have spent the past few months converting the van with the help of family and friends.

After finishing university in mid-May I have been working in a hotel as a waitress/bartender and Reece has been working hard in his trade as a carpenter to save up some money for the trip, but we are still very much travelling on a budget – aiming to stick to KombiLife’s motto of approximately £10 per day per person.

Anyway, this is what we have been up to so far:

Day One: Newark – Brugge

The first day was a pretty full-on day of driving, packing up the last few things in the camper and setting off at around 5am. Our aim was to get straight to Brugge, so we only allowed ourselves one stop on the way down to Dover to refuel. The driving conditions were good and it was lovely and sunny for the ferry ride over from Dover to Calais, with lots of other fellow campers parked next to ours on the parking deck.

It was then only an hour and a half to get from Calais to our designated parking spot for the night near Brugge, a spot which we found on the app Park4Night, where people with motorhomes and campervans can find spaces to park overnight for free. When we got to the spot, it was mostly cars, so we were a little apprehensive, but it was a lovely little layby on a very quiet road parallel to a small canal. After having a bit of an issue with our pop-top (trying to open an electric pop top with a heavy awning and 15ltr jerry can full of diesel isn’t the best idea), both getting it to go up and come down, we decided to head off into the centre of Brugge. To get to Brugge we went on a tram which took around 20 minutes to get into the centre of the city.

Brugge is absolutely beautiful, incredibly clean with so many gorgeous buildings everywhere you look. It also has a crazy amount of bridges going over the winding system of canals, making it live up to its name of ‘the Venice of the north.’ We managed to grab ourselves a €6 pizza big enough to keep the two of us full for the night and just walked around the centre, everywhere was nice to walk with something to look at, and there was a very safe feel about the place. We also got some lovely Belgian beers, recommended by one of my lovely Erasmus friends, Regisha. On the way back, we caught a bus, which took us pretty much directly outside where we had parked for the night. It was a welcome sight to come back to a couple of other little campers in the layby near us, making us feel a bit safer and allowed us a good night sleep.

Day Two: Brugge – Ghent

After a full night’s kip, we went off to have a little walk around the park we had parked next to, which seemed pretty unloved and very overgrown, but it was a good enough place to stretch our legs, brush our teeth and then carry on with the day.

The overgrown park…

We loved Brugge so much that we went back the next morning! Starting off with a Belgian waffle each, which were absolutely delicious, we then went for another walk around the city and a stroll around a little park taking in all the beautiful architecture and the well-thought-out structure of the city.

It was then time to get back to the camper and try and fix our broken pop top. We transferred all the heavy items that were in the roof bag elsewhere, put the pop-top up with the help of a broom and then back down again, after we did this a couple of times, we packed everything up and set off to the parking spot in Ghent.

We reached Ghent late afternoon, with me in the driver’s seat driving on the other side of the road for the first time, and decided to cook up some food and make a cup of tea before going into the centre, all of which takes at least twice as long in a camper to how it would be at home. As we were brewing some tea, another British guy on the way back from a festival in Slovenia pulled up next to us and introduced himself as Marc. After a cuppa and a van clean up, the three of us went into the centre of Ghent.

With our standards set high from pristine Brugge, we did notice the run-down houses and litter on the streets more than we probably would have done otherwise, but despite this, the city still took us by surprise. It boasted traditional cobbled floors, a stunning building anywhere you let your eyes rest, and I think the most unanticipated for me, a huge well-preserved castle resting just above the canal.

Day Three: Ghent – Ternuezen

After an evening drinking a few Belgian beers with Marc, we had a steady morning relaxing in the camper as our solar panels got some sun to charge up the leisure battery. Then, we went for another walk around Ghent as it was just a thirty-minute walk to the centre. Of course, as it was breakfast time, we had to treat ourselves to another Belgian waffle.

Around mid-afternoon, we decided to have a drive just across the border into The Netherlands and find somewhere to camp overnight there. We found a specific motorhome spot right by a lake which was free to use, so we parked up, walked around the lake at dusk and cooked dinner. This was the beginning of being eaten alive by insects! Beautiful places by the water paired with a lovely warm evening unfortunately mean that the mozzies and the midges are out and about…

Day Four: Ternuezen – Rotterdam

After another good night’s sleep, we woke up to quite a few fly bites, I even had a few on my face which I wasn’t best pleased about! We had planned to meet my Erasmus friend in Antwerp, but unfortunately, she wasn’t very well, so we decided to stay in The Netherlands and head slightly up north to Rotterdam.

At this point, I was desperate for somewhere to wash my hair, so we found a website which listed all the good swimming spots in Holland, picked one somewhere in-between where we were and Rotterdam and drove there. After winding down some very small country lanes with many highland cows, miniature ponies and many many bicycles, we found ourselves at a beautiful port which was clearly popular with the locals as a place to visit. Grabbing our towels, suncream and shampoo – we headed to the beach on the estuary. The water was warm, shallow and there were quite a few crabs scuttling along on the estuary floor, but it was a lovely place. So, with Reece on guard so I didn’t get run into by a crab, I could finally wash my hair and lie in the sun.

Clean hair after bathing in the estuary!

Again, we found another free camping spot quite a distance away from the centre, but it had a good tram connection and great reviews and we certainly weren’t disappointed. The car park was for a nature reserve and the lake was beautiful. Since it was a nice day, the place was packed with people having barbeques, kids swimming in the lake, even a group of people having a birthday party with a long table and balloons right by the lake – it was gorgeous!

The city of Rotterdam was a bit of let-down after Brugge and Ghent, it was incredibly industrial with lots of traffic in the centre, and although a lot of the bars and restaurants seemed to be aimed at a younger scene, the prices were higher than we had seen anywhere else. After getting chatty with the tram ticket officer who was from St Micheal, we did get free transport there and back, which is always a nice feeling.

Day Five: Rotterdam – Soest

After a busy time of visiting lots of cities, we decided just to have a relaxing day in the beautiful camping place we had found. We had planned to go to Utrecht, but after spending quite a lot of time in different cities and the slight let-down of the very industrial Rotterdam, we decided to spend a night in nature again.

After driving just an hour north, we found ourselves in a nice little camping spot, again by a canal, but this time it was very secluded and nice and peaceful – that was until a Spanish family pulled up next to us on the layby and let their kids run wild throwing stones into the water – with some narrowly missing our van and then a fisherman who decided that the best place to catch fish was right outside our door. Already on edge, we settled down for the night.

I was fast asleep when I was awoken by the sound of a man shouting ‘Hallo’, ‘Hello’ ‘This is law enforcement’ then a knock on our window. It was 11.30pm and pitch-black outside, Reece replied with a ‘Hello’ then proceeded to check they were actually police. Relieved to see a police car and a couple of officers when looking out the window, we got dressed expecting to be moved on.

Luckily, the officer spoke perfect English and was really friendly. He told us that wild camping was, in fact, illegal and could incur a fine, but he didn’t seem too troubled and said we could stay there for the night, but he just wanted to see our passports.

Not the night we had anticipated.

Day Six: Soest – Deventer

Waking up after the first-bad night’s sleep of the trip, covered in even more fly bites and filled with a bit more concern about the trip, as we certainly cannot afford to pay for campsites every night for six months, we got up and away pretty sharpish.

Today was the day that I arranged to see Kim where she was living in Deventer, one of my really good friends I made during my first semester studying in Spain. I was soooooo excited to see her. We went to the campsite recommended by Kim and even managed to put our awning out and had the luxury of toilets and wi-fi!

It was lovely to be welcomed with open arms after the night before and Me, Kim and Reece spent a few hours just walking, talking and catching up on the past two years of our lives – it felt like barely a day had passed since we last saw each other.

Me and Reece were taken very good care of, we had our first warm shower of the trip and even got to do our laundry and then ate so much bread, alioli and cheese and drank some tinto de verano. Then when Kim’s boyfriend, Lex, came back from work we all went out for a couple of cocktails and nachos at a Mexican restaurant in Deventer. It was a perfect evening.

That day was definitely my highlight of this trip so far.

Day Seven: Deventer – Amsterdam

In the night, having woken up needing the loo, I managed to whack my knee on the side of the exposed copper pipe we have in our van where the little table attaches to. I must have done so with some force as I was left with a pouring wound on my knee which was pretty deep. In the morning I was feeling quite sorry for myself after another bad night’s sleep, fly bites covering me literally from head to toe and now a weeping gash on my knee. So again, we had a slow morning, and after another warm shower and good breakfast, I was ready for Amsterdam!

After emailing around, most campsites were full and wild camping near Amsterdam was not recommended, so we went for a campsite quite far out, but again with good connections. It turns out to be a lovely little campsite situated in a small town made out tiny canals – and the campsite is no exception with tents and campers winding around the many streams that run through the campsite.

I have only ever visited Amsterdam in the day, so seeing it in the evening was a whole new experience for me, and it didn’t let me down. The tiny cobbled streets paired with the modern bright lights of each shop and bar’s signs competing to be the brightest and best was certainly something to be admired and we ended up spending a couple of hours winding through the strange streets and canals of the city until we settled down for some dinner at Vapianos, an Italian restaurant with really good and reasonably priced pizza, pasta and wine. After chatting to a guy who worked there on the tills and with their systems playing up, he somehow even managed to get us one of our meals free!

After dinner, we had another wander around the canals which looked beautiful with the lights of the streets reflected upon them and then into the infamous red-light district before grabbing a drink and getting the metro home.

8 reasons DMU students should do ERASMUS

So it’s this time of year again, the temperature in dropping, the leaves are turning and the deadline for your ERASMUS (European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) application is just around the corner, so it’s time for the big decision!

I deliberately chose De Montfort University because of the international experiences they offered and presented at the open days. I always knew I wanted to study or work abroad, so when I saw ERASMUS advertised on the DMU Global website I did not hesitate to apply. At first, I wanted to study abroad for just one semester, but since this was not possible for my course, I quickly made up my mind that I would be more than happy (if absolutely terrified) that I would extend my stay to the whole academic year.

And I must say, I am very pleased I did! I am now home and studying back at De Montfort University again after the best 10 months of my life in Madrid where I met the most incredible people, experienced the wonderful Spanish culture, started my journey in learning another language and ended up being able to travel all around Europe with new friends from around the world!

I must say, I was very disheartened to see just a handful of people in the final meeting leading up to the departure of ERASMUS students, as I cannot stress enough how important this experience has been to me. So, I have compiled a list of 9 reasons why DMU students should go on an ERASMUS year, or even semester!

  1. You will meet people like yourself

If are interested in ERASMUS, it’s likely you also love travel. It’s also quite likely that your peers aren’t too interested in travel. That is what I certainly found in my first year of university, nobody in my halls, my course or people that I met when I was living in Leicester were interested in stepping outside of the city, never mind England! But on your ERASMUS year, you will meet and make so many friends from your host country and from other ERASMUS students from all around Europe, and they will want to explore this new country and go out just as much as you!

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 2. You have the opportunity to learn another language

Living in another country is the best and ‘easiest’ way to learn another language. This is one of the main reasons I chose Spain as my country to study in, because I desperately wanted to learn Spanish, and there are so many people willing to help you learn their language, even if you’re awful at picking up new languages like me! Although, you will also be surprised how many people speak English, everyone from Europe speaks English, which certainly puts things into perspective for me…

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3. It will look good on your CV

Of course, there is no doubt with more and more people going to university every year, each one of us has to stand out. So what better way is there to get that edge over others than to study abroad for a year? It not only is a blast but it shows that you’re adaptable, brave and certainly helps your intercultural communication skills (we don’t have to tell them about all the partying!)

4. It’s only £650 for the whole year, not £9000

If you go for the year, there is the negative side that it will make your stay at university one year longer so you may worry it will be financial suicide, BUT you do not have to pay the same amount as you do in England! In fact, it’s a whole £8350 less! It does not matter if your host university is private, or what the countries own students have to pay (for example, at CEU San Pablo the students pay around £1000 a month, but I get it for £650 for the year) and you will often get more class hours at your host university so in a way the money goes further.

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5. There is a whole new world to explore

In my 10 months of being in Madrid I visited Malaga, Coin, Valencia, Toledo, Lisbon, Granada, Sierra Nevada, Porto, Marrakech, The Sahara Desert and Fez as well as visiting many, many places within Madrid! You will be amazed how cheap a weekend trip can be thanks to low-cost European flights and hostels, and how inexpensive travelling to nearby cities it is too. But more than going to new places, you will learn about the country’s culture and quirks! You will experience the different cuisine, agenda, weather and conversation topics, even going for the weekly shop can be an interesting venture.

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6. You will amazed how different education can be

Okay, so I must admit this point has its good and bad sides. My earliest class at DMU last year was 10:00, and my earliest class here is 8:00. However, a year abroad that does not count towards your final grade means you can try subjects you never would be able to if you stay at home. I read English Literature and Media and Communication studies at DMU which is all essay and exam based, but here I have decided to try out more practical subjects to improve my skills in different areas, such as Journalistic Design (making magazines), Opinion Journalism (writing articles) and Web Design (programming and coding). You can even chose subjects that don’t relate to your degree simply because you find them interesting or want to improve in that area, exciting! You will also learn so much about the different education systems from all around Europe from friend’s stories.

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7. It may not be around much longer, thanks to Brexit

Unfortunately we must grab this opportunity while we still can, as there is no guarantee how much longer the UK will be able to participate in ERASMUS. Maybe it will still be around for decades to come or maybe it will be over next year so there’s no better time to go than now! I can guarantee that you will not regret it.

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8. You will come back a different person

There is no denying that living and thriving in another country will change you in some way. It is likely to make you more confident, happier and more independent. You may have even learnt a new language, and certainly will have made new friends! I know I haven’t come back to England the same way I left it, even though coming home was the hard part, I would even go to say my perspective on life has changed in the best way possible. I finally am getting to know who I am and where I want to go!

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So please, if you are even thinking of ERASMUS just apply and see where it can take you.

 

Building Castles in the Air

I am writing this sat in my lovely house in England that overlooks fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, but I began writing this just over a week ago when I was still in the hustle and bustle of sunny Madrid. A place that over time has taught me that there are so many good and open people in this world and such beautiful places beyond the imagination. It has also taught me that life isn’t just about living to work, but working enough to live and thrive. And I have certainly learnt how to thrive!

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Taking my Erasmus year in Spain has undoubtedly been the best decision I have ever made. Travel has always been in my blood and I have ever wished to have the confidence to get myself out of England by myself and set my life up abroad. I choose De Montfort University largely because of DMUGlobal and the opportunities they offer around the world, including Erasmus and as soon as I stepped into their first presentation about Erasmus, I knew it was for me. The only issue was is that I wanted to go for a year and I wasn’t able to transfer my credits from the year abroad to DMU, thus I would have to do an extra year. But as I felt I had been let down a lot by my English university experience, I decided to take the leap and go for it anyway!

The next dilemma that came was choosing the place out of a huge list of universities around Europe. I was torn between Dusseldorf, Bordeaux, Oulu and Madrid, but since I always had a soft spot for Spain and desperately wanted to learn Spanish, I chose CEU San Pablo in Madrid and there my journey began.

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I visited Madrid beforehand to choose a flat to live in and visit the city and university, both which impressed me but I still didn’t have huge expectations. When I arrived it was hot. Really hot. Madrid seemed hugely intimidating and rather lonely, it was hard opening a bank, finding everything for the flat, getting the transport card, finding the uni and not being able to speak any Spanish.

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But just a couple of weeks in, I was falling in love with Madrid and the people there were wonderful. My time in Madrid went from strength to strength and without me even realising it for a long time, I was living my dream. I had my own little flat, a foster cat, I was learning Spanish slowly but surely, Madrid at my doorstep and at the weekends I took day-trips to neighbouring cities, or if the girls were up for it I went on bigger trips to other countries or the coast. At the start of this year, I did have a wobble after a break-up, moving flats and all my friends leaving from the first semester. But after an amazing trip to Porto with great friends and an eye-opening adventure in Morocco where I had the most amazing time ever with more wonderful company, things just carried on the uprise until the day I left.

Now, it is time to awaken from this wonderful dream and whirl of emotions, experiences and evolution that has been my life for the past 10 months. It’s time now to work hard and study hard so I can accomplish this as a real lifestyle when I finish university. I know that Madrid is a once in a lifetime experience, but this is not the end for me, it’s just the beginning of an international lifestyle.

I have never been so inspired to travel and meet more people as now, and I have no doubt that there are more adventures to come. The only thing I am questioning is not when, but where?

Although not everyone will have the same positive experience of living abroad as this, some of you may not even be interested in travelling and will find your happiness elsewhere in careers or studies or families. But I hope everyone has the chance to find their own Madrid.

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My 8 Favourite Places in Madrid

So my time here in this beautiful city, Madrid, is reaching it’s final days so I wish to share with you my favourite places here that I have discovered over the past nine months, all of which make living here particularly special for me.

If you are still living here and haven’t been to these places yet, they are definitely worth taking a look at before you leave. If you are visiting Madrid, choosing a few of these to go to will make your stay here even more charming.

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Opera

The first tourist stop that most people make in Madrid is Puerta de Sol, which is a beautiful plaza that is the literal centre of Spain. However, one of my favourite plazas in Madrid is that Plaza de Oriente that is very close to the metro Opera. Not only does it recognisably contain the famous Opera house, Teatro Real, but it is framed by some of the grandest buildings in Madrid in an arch, with the largest palace in Europe as it’s backdrop. To the north of Plaza de Oriente, there are beautiful gardens (Jardines de Sabatini) linking the palace to Plaza de España. Just a short walk to the south, near the end of Calle de Bailén, there is a small park with a magnificent view of the Palacio Real hanging over the city that I find particularly stunning, as well as inside the palace itself. I must when visiting Opera at night there is something magical about the majestic buildings lit up against the dark sky.

Parque Cerro del Tío Pío

If you want to see the best sunset in Madrid, Tío Pío is undoubtedly the place to go. Although it is quite a trek if you live anywhere north of the centre in Madrid, it is a trip worth making. This park is just a ten-minute uphill walk from metro stop Buenos Aires on the blue metro line (linea 1). At first this park may not catch the eye, but after climbing to the top of one of the small hills, a breathtaking view of Madrid can be seen like no other in the city. It is the perfect place to visit with a loved one or a group of friends with some vino to watch the sun go down over the sleepy city.

Lago

Just one part of Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid that stretches for miles and miles, Lago is the perfect escape from the city’s heat in the summer! With many different activities, it is perfect for anyone and everyone. There is the option to either go for a short stroll around the lake, sit and relax with a glass of tinto de verano overlooking the palace and cathedral, mountain bike or hike through the many trails in the park, take the cable cars over the large park or even go swimming at Piscina de Lago (my favourite part of lago!)

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Malasaña

Oh Malasaña… what a quirky, fun barrio it is! I must say this will be one of the neighbourhoods I am sure to miss the most when I return back to England. If it is a bar crawl, food crawl or vintage shop crawl you are looking for – Malasaña has it all! I keep finding new quirky things there each time I visit, for example last time I stumbled into this shop (Pinta en Copas) where you get free tea and coffee as you unleash your creativity by painting your own piece of pottery. There is nothing much more satisfying than getting some work done at one of the laid back cafés such as Café de la Luz or Toma Café, then browsing through the vintage stores such as Magpie Vintage or Templo de Susu, having a healthy lunch at Bluenasaña or the Greek & Shop, moving onto to a natural ice lolly for desert at Lolo Polos then meeting friends at one of the many unique bars in this wonderful place to sip sangria or cocktails until it is time to move onto to the party in one of the neighbouring barriosChueca or El Centro. Day well spent!

El Retiro

This may just win the prize for my favourite park in Madrid, which is a hard place to earn as Madrid boasts such wonderful parks. But there is something about El Retiro. This park is located just off the centre, bordering Atocha, Banco de España and Ibiza, but by stepping into this park it takes you miles away from the feeling of the hustle and bustle of the capital city in just minutes. Although El Retiro is slightly busier than the other parks, it is easy to see why. With its beautiful vast lake, the Crystal Palace, exquisite statues, sculpted gardens, la Rosaleda (a charming collection of roses), and last but not least the Monumento a Alfonso XIII which often attracts talented buskers that never fail to transport me to another world in the beautiful surroundings.

La Latina

Not only do I love the way this neighbourhood’s name sounds “La Latina”, but I also love the relaxed, cool vibe that comes with being here. Every week this barrio hosts a large flea market, which is definitely my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning in Madrid, wandering through all the wild and wonderful stalls before stopping off at Mercado San Fernando in Lavapíes for lunch or relaxing in La Latina’s square (Plaza Cebada) listening to the free live music with a bite to eat from the Mercado de la Cebada that backs onto it. But La Latina is not merely good for a lazy Sunday morning, but it’s also great for the bustling nightlife too! Walking though the streets at night in this neighbourhood is like no other, with the excitement for the night to come radiating from the buildings and the streets hard for anyone to squeeze through due to clusters of locals and visitors alike pouring out onto the streets from the bars (such as Leka Leka, La Buha or Los Pajaritos) in animated chatter – even in the dead of winter! 

Gran Vía

Coming up the stairs from the metro to Gran Vía never fails to take my breath away, whether it be on a peaceful winter morning or at dusk on a teeming Friday night, it’s magnificence always touches me. Callao tends to end up being the meeting place for a good day or night ahead, with the Schweppes sign towering above the plaza and the stained glass windows above Desigual, Plaza del Callao always makes it’s statement. Gran Vía is the place for shopping, with all the brands scattered down its elaborate street and Fuencarral leading off it with alternative and hip stores. It is the place to be. But Gran Vía is also the place for parties, with international clubs such as Independence, Moondance and ‘locals’ club Star Coyote that are hosted on the infamous street or nearby.

Parque del Oeste

Quite different feeling to that of Casa de Campo, although it is no where near as large as it’s neighbouring park, Parque del Oeste has many different elements all interlinked through beautiful walkways and maintained gardens. At the top of the park towards the north there is part of the park that rests just beneath the Faro de Moncloa, an observatory tower that allows visitors to see all the way across Madrid in an 180˚ glass observatory zone. At the bottom of Parque del Oeste is the Templo de Debod, a 200bc gift from Egypt rebuilt in Madrid in 1972, it is a place that feels like no other, arguably in the whole of Spain. Because of its high position, the temple is also a wonderful place to watch the sunset as guitarists or saxophone players that leave their impression upon the young night often serenade it.

 

Although I have been here almost 10 months, there are still things that even I have not done but plan to do in the next couple weeks that may be worthy of this list, this includes to:

  • Drink the famous milky cocktail in the cave bar El Champadaz near Moncloa.
  • Visit Mercado Antón Martin and Barceló
  • Watch the sunset from Circulo del Bella Artes
  • Eat the homemade tortilla from La Buha
  • Watch a flamenco show at La Taberna de Mister Pinkleton
  • Listen to the live jazz music in Café Barbieri
  • See the turtles and oasis in the Atocha Railway Station
  • Watch the guards change at the Royal Palace

Journeying across Morocco

“They make a desert and call it peace” – Tacitus

On the morning of our excursion to the Atlas Mountains, I woke up as the sun was rising. Instead of lying in bed listening to the soft stores of the strangers around me, I grabbed my jacket and headphones and went to the terrace on the roof of the hostel. It was so peaceful up there. There were two fellow travellers wrapped in thick furs fast asleep on the cold terrace, silent and unmoving. Marrakech looked beautiful at dawn, the silence was only broken by the sound of a worker sweeping the streets with a straw brush down below. Whoosh, whoosh. I sat there for a while watching the world slowly wake up from my perch above the ancient city.

It was my grandfather’s funeral that day. But rather than allowing myself to be enveloped in sadness in this beautiful place, which I know Howard wouldn’t have wanted, I got up, popped my headphones in and played Gloria by Laura Branigan (Howard’s favourite song) and then I danced. I danced like no one was watching.

After a few more songs, I wandered downstairs to find my friends slowly waking up. So we all got ready, had breakfast and climbed in the car of our curly-haired guide – Iddir. None of us really knew what to expect. We hadn’t been to Africa. We didn’t do much research. We had never taken a tour guide. We didn’t even really know where we were going. But there are a few times when ignorance truly is bliss without harm, and this was one of them. Morocco blew our minds.

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Our journey on day one of the tour

At first there was Iddir getting to know us and giving us all nicknames. Denmark. Spain. Poland. Hannah (I was the one who’d booked the tour, probably the reason he could remember my name). Then we left Marrakech far behind us as we climbed up to the High Atlas Mountains in the 4×4. The scenery changed from red to brown to grey and then to a shocking green as far as the eye could see. The windy roads certainly weren’t appeasing for any of our stomachs, but the snaking climb was worth it for the view at the top of the mountain. There was a vast stretch of grassland that was dramatically framed by the tall, dark mountains, only disturbed by the river jolting through the centre of it, carving a small valley of itself in the otherwise flat foreground. The clouds tickled the top of the mountains and blanketed the ones behind in a soft mist, creating the illusion of an infinite mountain range.

We then crawled back down through tiny Berber villages clinging onto the edge of the mountain and vast expanses of roads to Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou, a place in which numerous movies and series have been filmed, including Indiana Jones, Gladiator and Game of Thrones, because of it’s unique beauty. I know I certainly felt like a lost princess in a fairytale climbing up the ancient steps of the Kasbah, despite wearing baggy trousers and an old t-shirt that certainly was very un-princessy!

After, we continued through the Hollywood of Morocco where there was film studios scattered about. Our stomachs were all rumbling by the time we reached the restaurant. A small place with a terrace on the side of a rather busy road with tables clustered together to meet the high demand of people eating there. We were squished together on a small table next to a family who we learnt, through our Spanish friend’s broken French, were Moroccans who lived part-time in France. The vegetarian food was absolutely delicious. The meat apparently wasn’t so good. But it was cheap and filling, so certainly no complaints from us.

Then it was the Dadés Gorges, otherwise known as ‘Monkey Toes’ because of the cliff faces sheer and fascinating rounded appearance, one of those weird and wonderful results of weathering. We then reached our final stop at around 5pm, our hotel submerged in the Dadés Valley, an entire hotel (La Gazelle Du Dadés) that only ourselves and a German couple shared. We were greeted by delicious mint tea and a wonderful meal of soup, tagine and sweet fruit later on.

The next day, after a good nights sleep in our own hotel room, we woke early to a hearty breakfast of pancakes, fruit and bread. We were all excited about going to the desert that evening and chose the appropriate camel-wearing clothes – leggings under baggy trousers and long sleeved tops that certainly did the trick – and off we went!

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Day Two 

At first we went through the Todgha Gorge on foot which was immensely impressive, I also had some interesting and extremely funny comments on my “botty” from some Berben men and finally got the hang of the hole-in-the-floor toilets. We then stopped for a cup of mint tea right by the largest oasis in Morocco, Tafilalt. We were then treated to a wonderful surprise in Rissani – lunch with our lovely guide’s sister, Fatima, a very kind lady who never stopped smiling. And a great cook. The food that I had at Fatima’s house was the best I had in my whole time in Morocco. We started with sweet biscuits, and then onto ‘Berber pizza’, next we had a wonderful cous cous with so much flavour and to finish we ate fresh fruit as we passed around the gorgeous Berber baby, one of their neighbours children. It was nice to get to talk to Moroccan women for the first time in our journey and it was interesting to find out that one of Fatima’s daughters studied psychology at university. We’re not so different after all!

It wasn’t long after lunch that we pulled Merzouga, The Sahara Desert. Oh my. It took my breath away. Seeing the desert on pictures and movies don’t do justice to the feeling you get of being so small within the all-encompassing dunes. Merzouga itself was eerily beautiful; being low season it was silent and it felt like we’d stepped back in time with ancient ruins and derelict dust roads, only disturbed by our own 4x4s engine and the Berber music that Iddir was blasting out of the stereo. We stopped by four camels waiting for us and we were each allocated a camel; I was at the front. I was completely taken with the sweet camels’ big doe eyes, gawky features and laid back demeanor. Even though riding a camel was completely different to riding a horse, there were no stirrups and no connection the camel’s mouth, I settled into the camel’s long strides with ease.

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We arrived close to camp and jumped off our camels, thanked our kindly guides and were pointed towards a dune where a few other people had gathered. It was sand-boarding time. My Danish and Spanish did pretty well gliding down the dunes, but I chose to bum-shuffle down on the board into camel poo, which wasn’t the daintiest, but fun anyhow! We then walked through the hard sand to our camp, feeling very sorry for our camel guides having to tackle this terrain for over an hour. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to the camp, it had showers, flushing toilets, thick, soft bedding on comfy good-sized beds, lights and beautifully decorated in bright colours. That night, we drank tea, cuddled camels, watched the stars, smoked shisha, played charades with the people we met there, shared riddles with one another, laughed a lot, ate delicious food and we all were completely enchanted with the soulful sounds of the desert men and their drums by the fire.

The next morning we woke at 6am to watch the sun rise above Erg Chebbi, at first it was somewhat unimpressive and we were all cold from the biting wind, but then the wind settled and the clouds moved past slowly to reveal a glorious sunrise. Then, we were called for breakfast by Iddir’s cousin and soon enough after our ride back to Merzouga in the bright sunshine, we were back on the road and on the way to Fes.

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In my last post I mentioned an uncomfortable situation with a Moroccan man, but let me tell you now that nearly every other Moroccan that I came across was not only wonderfully sarcastic and refreshingly hilarious, but kind and respectful. With the recent terrorist attack in London being just one of many that have taken place recently and Trump ‘banning Muslims’, it is easy to group a religion together and label them as ‘bad’, but this is awfully sad and hurtfully narrow minded. The people I met couldn’t have been kinder, particularly those in the desert, where we all had a good laugh together and wished each other well in everything, despite being from different cultures.

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Day Three

On our way to Fes, we passed through Midelt, which is known for it’s apples and has it’s own apple festival; here the women were selling beautiful scarves and tapestry. Then we drove onto Ifran, which was a strange city to be found in Morocco. It looked as though it had just been cut out of Europe and placed in Africa, not only were the buildings European styled, but so was the university, all the way down to the Swiss forest just beyond the town, strangely combined with Arabian horses and greedy monkeys.

Morocco wasn’t a traditional holiday. It wasn’t hot when we went, nor was it a place where you would swim or sunbathe, or even sip wine on a roof terrace. If that’s what you’re looking for, than Morocco isn’t necessarily the place for you. But if you want to be excited every morning, the kind of excitement that wakes you up at 6am with butterflies in your stomach and a feeling rearing to go to see what will be uncovered throughout the day, if you want your mind to be challenged by all the new sights and smells and you don’t mind going with certain amenities for a while, then Morocco is for you.

It certainly blew my expectations.