The final entry – We Are The People

This is it. We’re on our last 3 stops before crossing back to the UK next week. We have visited 29 European countries, it will be 30 by tomorrow. It’s time to close the chapter and look at what it was all about. We know what it was about. It dawned on us during the journey to Istanbul and grew in strength from then on.

Right now it feels like time has not passed since we left at New Year. It’s almost 9 months – it will be 37 weeks precisely. That is a huge amount of time, but really hard to visualise. What was it, what did it mean, what happened??! I clearly remember our departure and genuinely thinking that we had no idea what was going to happen to us, how we would change, what the ‘it will be the best thing for your kids’ effect actually was. We knew something would change in us but we didn’t know what.

And so we just went with the flow. We didn’t really plan the route much further than the next destination, the next night’s sleep, the next sight to see. It was methodical to start with – Ok, we’re in Amsterdam, what should we see? Ok, we’re in Copenhagen, what should we see? It took a long time for it to become organic. And then it was only in the latter part of the trip that we really recognised what this experience was giving us. It was making us remember and recognise who we are. It was about the people.

And that’s the thing, travel has to start somewhere, and it starts with sights to see. This guides you, it entices you to cities, regions, countries that you’ve not been to before. You learn some of the history, you feel a connection. That history comes from people, the people that passed before us. We stand in the present, shoulder to shoulder with our generation, and we learn from our ancestors. We then head back to our room for the night and we quickly realise that we don’t want that room to be in a hotel, we want that room to be with local people, and so we change the way that we do things and we start seeking out these places. We want to be around the present, because we like these people, we are part of them, we are all one society, and it is from these people that we learn something, we listen to their stories, to their knowledge, to their beliefs. We laugh with these people. We hug these people. We learn some of their language. We meet their extended family. We drink with them. Eat their local delicacies. Talk about our experiences. Talk about our families. Talk about fish and chips. A lot.

And that’s when you realise that THIS is what travel is about. It’s about society.

You think that when you head off that you are going to be lonely, you’re leaving your friends and family behind. But you’re not. You are enriched, you are enthused by these new faces and their stories. Their huge generosity, love, peace and understanding towards you is uplifting. Its incredibly powerful. You receive it and you instantly want to spread it back. It fires your basic human nature. It frees the environmentalist, the humanitarian, the warrior inside of you. It makes you want to do something, to make a difference. to join your comrades. It is the best thing I have experienced for making me aware of my place on this planet, and the power that we have collectively as the present and our children as the future. It feels like a rebirth.

And so that is it. It’s incredibly simple. You set off thinking that you’re going to be enriched by all of these places. And you are. But the real beauty is in the people. We are the people and we have the power over our own lives. The power to change. And so this trip and it’s memories and lessons are a gift to every single person that we have met, spoken with and spent time with. It is you that has given us an experience that we had no idea we would have. Thank you!

The ‘Let’s learn something’ part of the trip.

We thought it was going to be the Eco project – it wasn’t. One of the best things that we’ve learned in the last 8 or so months is that if it’s not right then change it. So we did.

A year ago, we spent a holiday in France at a gite with a pool. I don’t really like water, it’s too cold when you get in and then really cold when you get out. On the hottest day of the holiday I ventured in, swam a length, and got out. The kids were so shocked that they recorded it. I proudly showed said film clip to the kids’ swimming teacher back in England who promptly told me it was atrocious swimming and that I was doing it all wrong. The following week I was signed up on an 8wk adult improver course.

That was last year. I’ve just spent 5wks in the Atlantic Ocean learning to surf. Yes. I know. Breaking down boundaries. Things I can now do: dive through waves. Big waves. Read the ocean. Learn the rip tide. Walk out, then paddle out. Get through the breaking zone and out to the line up. Sit up on my board. Read the wave set that is approaching. Choose my wave. Paddle, a lot. Get up. Ride the wave. Do it all again. Possibly one of the things I’m most proud of in my life, and ultimately what this part of the trip was about – learning something.

On our journey down towards the Eco in Portugal we stopped off for a couple of nights stay on the coast at Hossegor, SW France. It was one of the best stops we’d had – beautiful home, chilled back atmosphere, great people who welcomed us in to their family and celebrations. They also happened to be well-travelled, with a big interest and skill in yoga, meditation, Qi Gong and surfing. We were kind of hooked on them and it is to these people that we returned after the failure of the Eco project and a couple of weeks exploring Portugal and the far west and north coast of Spain.

We committed ourselves to 4 weeks with them. It rose to 5. It could have risen further still but the mountains were a-calling and ultimately we are on a trip. A 4 week programme of learning stuff. The first yoga lesson was painful. The first expressive dance that came about from an hour of meditation was kind of cool. The first surf lesson was surprisingly successful (we later learned that the waves were particularly small that week, something that changed dramatically by the 2nd week…). The first Qi Gong was really very very hard. The first run and workout (not me) was uplifiting. We felt in control and pretty proud of ourselves by the end of the first week. The second week was bloody hard. Exhausting. Scary. Total out of comfort zone territory. The waves were massive, the run was longer, the yoga was advanced and the Qi Gong still really tricky. I’d got a good grip of the meditation by now though so personally was suggesting we do more of it. But you can’t just pick the stuff you can do. That’s not learning. You’ve got to keep on with the hard stuff. Face your fears. And the ocean is a fear. It’s immense strength is beautifully terrifying. But we were learning, we were safe, we were in good hands, and because of that we learned to love and respect it’s power.

I didn’t initially see the connection between these skills that we were picking up. What has surf got to do with meditation? By the 3rd week we were getting it. It was one of the most powerful experiences that we have learned – the strength of nature and the fact that we are intrinsically part of it. Maybe we were lucky with our teacher. A guy who oozed peace, understanding, strength, power, enjoyment, happiness. A guy who will always be a part of our lives and from whom we know we can turn to. Like a brother. Even if we had learned no physical skill, we had grown internally as a result of the time we spent with him.

So 5 weeks later and we’re fit. We’re in touch with nature. We can breathe properly. We can balance on our heads in a meditative state. We walk with our shoes off. We connect our energy with the sky and the earth. Oh, and we can surf. Properly. We love these things, we will take these things onward with us. And we feel truly honoured to have spent time with not just one, but many people over that period who have inspired us, laughed with us, at us, cooked for us, shared with us and opened their hearts to us.

Yeah, we definitely smashed the ‘Let’s learn something’ part of the trip.

We forgot Austria…

I don’t know how we could, but we did. Austria came before our time of confusion over which path to take next and so it’s immense beauty, alpine air, regional dialect and traditional dress somehow failed to be illustrated through the blog.

We’re more clear now on what we’re doing and so I shall pull it in to this updated post.

So yes, we reached a point of feeling like we were on a holiday and all of us felt as if we should be getting more from our time, which prompted the decision to alter our plans for August and September (Croatia and Italy) and seek out an experience from which we could step out of our comfort zone and learn something. We came across a British couple in Portugal who are building an Eco house, living off-grid in the mountains and who need willing workers. We arrive in 2 days. We can’t promise that we’ll leave.

It’s refreshing to change the plan, make a new one, get excited again. And with that we can look back on what we’ve experienced over the last 6 months from a new place. Hence Austria. If I leave any more pieces of my heart around Europe then I’m going to struggle somewhat, but our farm stay in Austria well and truly deserves its chunk. The family farmhouse adorned with show-winning cow bells, traditional furniture, clothing, family photos. The huge farmhouse kitchen constantly bustling with farmers, locals, the extended family. Our many hours we spent listening to the eldest son, Josef, playing the accordion, our daughter joining in with her guitar. A great community experience in the heart of a working family farm and as equally traditional here as any of the other rural communities we have travelled through. Yet unique. Really unique. Maybe it’s the mountain terrain, or the local dialect which the family still communicate in, or the waistcoat and lederhosen attire. I’m going back anyway – 2 reasons: 1) For Winter. Definitely. 2) For Summer, to stay up with the grandparents who live on the summer mountain pastures completely off-grid. Oh, and there’s a 3) For Spring, to walk the alpine meadows.

We’re in another mountain range now – the Pyrenees. Northern Spain – having just spent 2 of the best days I think we have in the entire trip on the Atlantic ocean in south west France. We’re pretty sure we will return here to stay with these yoga-loving, meditation experts and surf bods on our way back North so we’ll cover how much we have enjoyed their hospitality in a future post.  In-between times we’ve travelled through the North of Italy, down to the Med in France and back up to the UK for Glastonbury Festival. 2 weeks back home to catch up with friends and family and then back out and south across France. It’s good to go back home. It reminds you how important your loved ones are, but it also reminds you how fortunate you are to have taken the risk and hit the road. We definitely feel enthused for this new challenge on the horizon. A challenge that we hope will help us to make some firm decisions about our future once this time comes to its end.

By the way – Spain is our 27th country, and we’ve covered just over 17,000km. Or thereabouts. We still like each other.

Musings on travel after 26 countries

We’re coming up to 6 months travel now. It doesn’t seem like a lot – we left in the winter, it’s now summer, not a lot has passed in the world. But when we look back at photos and old blog posts and remember the places we’ve been it seems incredible to have fitted that much in. The current stats are: 163 days, 26 countries, 15,000km, 60 destinations.

So, what’s it really like to just get up and go and do it.

For us, the first 3-4 months were the best. You’re riding high on a wave of excitement and wonder. The future is an unknown. You can’t quite believe that you’ve done it and you’re here. Now. Anything could happen. Literally. We took maybe a week or so to settle down and relax, another few weeks to break the routine of normal life, and then you really feel like you’re free. Looking back on the time we spent in the very North of Europe in the winter feels very magical – admittedly it is an awe-inspiring place to visit – but it was more than that, it was actual freedom and I think that was the first time that we felt it. If I could bottle that feeling I would because it is probably the most magical thing that a human can feel. Maybe you only can feel it once with travel, like a first-timer thing, maybe you never feel that one first burst of freedom ever again. I feel a part of my soul was painted in during that time, a colour that will never fade, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced that in my lifetime.

But how do you keep that feeling going? The answer is, I don’t know. Maybe in time you come to that place again. Or maybe you need a break before heading out again and feeling it all over. I feel and I hope that for me it is the latter. I (we) were never ever disillusioned with our lives at home, we didn’t come to this trip in desperation to break away, and so we fondly look back on our previous life in the knowledge that we will happily return to it one day. And then head out on an adventure again. And then return. Head out….

Because the reality of continual travel is that it is very hard. Very hard. Yes, it is incredible to experience all these different cultures, to see the changing landscape, to make new friends, to speak new languages, to eat new foods, to be free. But to keep that drive and that desire and that interest flowing every single day is tiring(!). 60 destination, one after the other, is kind of madness.

I would say that we have all found the last few weeks particularly hard. Maybe it’s because we are coming to the end of the next leg and so are sort of time-filling before our crossing to England next week. Or maybe we’ve seen enough. I mean, we’ve seen a lot. A real lot. And we’ve loved it. But do we want to keep seeing more now? Or do we want to come back and fill in the few gaps at another time? Being back in Western Europe is like being on a long holiday. Yes, the cultures are different but ultimately we know we are in holiday destinations. We could come here next summer for 2 weeks. We could get to Italy, or France, or Spain, Portugal and travel around for a few weeks during the school holidays. Maybe that’s why we feel like the ooh’s and the aah’s have gone. Western Europe could not be more different to the East, the Central swathe, the Black Sea, Romania. We were well and truly wowed there, we felt like we were seeing something, experiencing things we probably wouldn’t experience on a holiday. We were travelling then. But are we just holidaying now?

So, we have another leg coming up. We have 2 weeks in the UK and then we head back out. What do we do? And that is what we are brainstorming over at the moment. We feel we could actually DO something. We feel that we’ve seen so much that Europe has to offer and that we could offer something back. Volunteering or charity work is an option that we are considering. Or maybe we could achieve something – like a pilgrimage. Or learn a skill – like sailing, surfing. We are open to suggestions if you have them. But I think we are all decided that we need to get something else from this time.

And so in spending a lot of time talking about our trip, and reminiscing over our favourite places,  we can say that hands-down, the single, most magical, illuminating, adventure-filled place in Europe (in our opinion) to visit is the North of Scandinavia. Especially in Winter. We have loads of favourite places, but if you’re looking for adventure and you can take maybe a month to explore, then that place will definitely give you something!

Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia – not for the faint hearted

I’m not talking about the countries with my blog title, but the roads. Quite frankly, terrifying. But with scary roads you know that what you’re actually getting is incredible views, untouched destinations and a unique experience; and these countries well and truly captured all of these aspects. It’s been probably the most eye-pleasing 10 days we’ve had.

It’s a lot to cover in 10 days. We’re on the Greece to Glastonbury leg of the trip and so we have a deadline to meet – I don’t think Glastonbury delays it’s start for wayward travellers – so this basically means heavy days of driving interspersed with as many sights and experiences we can fit in. As the driver, I’m exhausted, yet smiling, especially as we’re currently on an alpine farm in the Austrian Alps, but that’s for the next post.

So, these roads. I have considered that there could be a market for a map for people who are driving and towing and who would therefore find sharp, tight corners tricky. Sharp, tight corners which cling to single track (but two-way…) mountain edge roads specifically. We took a back road once we’d crossed the border from Albania to Montenegro heading towards Lake Skadar. The thing with these back roads is that you can’t turn round with afore-mentioned trailer. 2 hours it took us. 25 miles. But WOW! That has got to be one of the most scenic routes in Europe. It was late afternoon as we twisted up and over, down and round, taking in breathtaking views of the lake, of the hidden villages where rural life sleepily exists and the heart-warming fields and valleys filled with ancient forests and wildflowers. The best thing? We hardly passed another car. We had it all to ourselves. It felt like a secret island. Montenegro as a whole feels like this. It’s landscape is massive extremes – this beautiful forested lake area; the azure waters of the coast; the flatlands around the capital; and then the enormous, craggy mountains and gorges that head across the rest of the country, dotted with monastries. It was breathtaking. We took the old and well-worn pilgrimage route up to the highest and holiest monastery – Ostrag and literally soaked up the views. If I can recommend a less obvious destination to travel to then it would be this country, hands down. (And Romania….)

A short trip across the border and in to Bosnia. Well it wasn’t that simple – we needed a green card extension, we had no cash left having purchased a couple of bottles of mint liquor from a roadside stall, it was late, we were 2hrs from the nearest cash machine, we had to scrabble around the car for every euro cent which we delivered in a paper cup (full) before we got across the border. But anyway, a short trip across the border and in to Bosnia (on officially the worst road we have driven to date) saw us in a heavily wooded, mountainous area and rafting on the agenda. 2 days on the Drina/Tara rivers. Camping. Brilliant! And undeniably the best food we have had for practically pennies. We turned up here with no money – literally none as a result of the border fiasco – and we paid nothing! The warm welcome, the 2 days accommodation, the food, the rafting – nothing. We didn’t even have to go out and find some from the next town. Talk about a welcome. We did pay though…we met a friend of a friend at the bank on our route out of the country. There’s nothing nicer than experiencing true trust from strangers. Thank you Bosnia!

And before all of this was Albania. I’m not really sure what we were expecting but based on the various suggestions we’d had not to go, it was a great surprise. Undoubtedly the first country we’ve come across where the farmer moving his cattle mid-road, smiles, waves, and shouts thank you when you slow down. This happened every time – and I can’t tell you the number of herds of goats, cows and sheep we came across, we lost count. The roads in the centre of the country are pristine. Nothing on them. Except cattle. My over-riding memory of Albania will be it’s rivers. They are ribbons of crystal clear, turquoise-blue waters, cutting through much of the centre of the country and they are incredible. Wooded mountains, small-scale farming and azure rivers. Just stunning. We visited the Blue Eye – a deep deep crevice from which spring waters bubble up on an immense scale. I’ve never seen anything like this and we mainly stood in awe taking in the never-ending flow of upward moving water hidden in the mountains.

The last 2 days have been a monumental drive and we’ve made it across to Austria with a few days in the south of Serbia and in to Belgrade beforehand. Serbia saw the start of the alpine landscape – cows, meadows, wooden houses. It was painfully hot. It is full of smoke. I’m pretty sure that Serbia is the capital of smoking, which based on the countries we’ve been to so far is really saying something. Which makes the arrival in Austria like landing on a different planet. We feel like we’ve crossed a border of a different nature.

30 Days of Greece

Yes, it was 30 days, but now it’s over and the blog entry is here.

30 days is an awfully long time. 30 days holiday in one go would have felt like a windfall in our old life. In this one it was treated as a rest, feet-up, break from the job of travelling. Because it is a job, albeit one that offers new experiences every single day.

6 stops across mainland Greece and 1 island hop later and we are refreshed, recovered from the first day of sunburn, plus we’ve had chance to do some proper schoolwork. Small cheer. Mainland Greece is not a location I would have thought of previously, except probably for Athens. And funnily enough, it was Athens that was probably the least inspiring – although undoubtedly the Acropolis is awe-inspiring. There were unexpected delights – the first stop in the town Xanthi, just across the border from Turkey. A really quaint old town, vibrant coloured buildings, street cafes, market, music, jovility. Also Mount Olympus and the foothills town of Lithocoro – Greece showcasing it’s natural beauty in an array of health foods and drinks. Never have I tasted such incredible mountain tea, smelled such divine flowering herbs, eaten heavenly local produce.

Now I come to think of it, I think Lithocoro was my top place over the 30 days. The town sits just under the Mount Olympus range, there is a wonderful gorge running up from the village which we spent a really enjoyable day exploring and marvelling at the fabulous forests, crystal clear waterfalls and dive straight in pools, and ear-splitting birdsong. Away from the walks this town is all about balcony living. I spoke, from my balcony, to the neighbours, on their balcony, every day. There was zero language crossover. She, I gathered from the hand actions. a little bit Charades-like, was interested to know if we had swum in the sea; I was intent on telling her that the heat was unbearable – 34 degrees. While chatting I had chance to peruse and make notes on her balcony – large table, rugs, comfy chairs, radio, plant, bird in cage – basically an indoor room, outdoors. I’ve added Outdoor Balcony to my growing list of future would-like’s in an ideal home.

I’d also like a beach.

We have well and truly wallowed in the seas which lap the whole of the Greek mainland. Rafina, to the East of Athens, had a good breeze running over it so the surfers were out in force; Toroni on Sithonia had the most incredible clarity and azure hue that I’ve ever seen, teeming with fish and flat like a mill-pond; on the west coast of the Peloponnese you could walk out for miles and still be knee-deep in seas that are backed by sand dunes and a unique shoreline forest and lagoon habitat; and finishing off with Corfu which we mainly looked at from the luxury of our pool (which was a real luxury hence we pretty much sat by it for a week and felt smug).

Talking of Corfu – it’s full of British, literally full. On the entire trip so far we have been in a significant minority, Corfu definitely corrected the balance, possibly over-corrected. My aim for the remaining journey will be to seek out as many non-English speaking locals as I possibly can, because it’s not a holiday, it’s an experience. Just in case anybody thought we were just on a big long vacation…

So Greece is an absolute wonder at one major thing and that thing is history, architecture, myths, legends. Clearly more than one, but the Greek Gods at the core of so much of the history that you see is unique and wonderful. We have listened to almost 4hrs of classical Greek stories. It’s worth noting here that for those of you who are thinking of how to homeschool on the road, DO NOT underestimate the value of the audiobook. We have been through over 25 and me and my husband are really enjoying it! For archaeological enjoyment we’ve visited Dion and Delphi. Dion is in a fantastic setting near to Olympus and most importantly it is really quiet to wander around the ruins and take in the significant amount of information dotted around the entire site which was probably the best information of any of the big attractions. The detail provided in relation to the mythical history of the naming of plants and animals was superb and we definitely all learnt something. Again, homeschoolers take note. Delphi is huge, enormous, and has a brilliant modern museum attached showcasing an truly impressive array of treasures uncovered at the site. The highlight for me was the long and arduous walk in the searing heat up to the arena which was where the Pythian Games were held. To look at the perfectly preserved racetrack, judges seats, start line and line upon line of crowd seating was thought provoking, you could almost feel the thrill of the competition.  A great experience with a breathtaking view out across the mountains and plains and down to the sea. We also pulled in the monumental Acropolis in Athens, and the Temple of Zeus which I preferred due to the massive reduction in crowd numbers plus it was impressively huge – far bigger than the Parthenon. Sunset at the Temple of Posiedon right on the tip of Attica which, again, without the crowds was the perfect place to soak up the view and the atmosphere for a few hours was another highlight. All this face to face exposure to history has been undoubtedly the most inspiring for the kids – we have spent many an evening creating our own fictional gods and goddesses, they’ve been drawn, painted, given a back story and really I think this is how teaching on the road works best – when it doesn’t feel like teaching.

So this is how our 30 days panned out. We learned to fish, we snorkelled, we ate a lot of fantastic fresh food, we made new friends, we learned to skimboard, we stayed in the mountains, we stayed on the beach, we stayed in the city, we crossed the Corinth canal. We basically covered what Greece has to offer (apart from proper island hopping plus notably a trip to Crete which I’m keen to do) and loved every minute,

Apart from the horrendous road building taking part across swathes of the south which is an absolute undeniable headache and almost brought me to my knees. Don’t let that put you off though.

Black Sea coast to Istanbul – the craziest city.

I’m writing this from the foothills of Mount Olympus in Greece. 18 days since the last blog post during which we’ve scooted down the Black Sea coast and in to Istanbul – the ultimate destination of our 2nd leg of the trip. We’re now recuperating in Greece for a month – and yes, it is as scrumptious as it sounds.

The 2nd leg of the trip – 58 days, 10 countries, and just over 6,000km.

Reaching the Black Sea was a mini-milestone. It represented the end of our route East as we looked out across the vast expanse of water towards Asia and forced us to take a southerly, traversing the coastline as far as we could until we had to divert inland in order to cross the Bulgarian/Turkish border. We paddled in the Black Sea. Freezing. Absolutely freezing. And a tiny bit grubby on the Romanian side. But Bulgaria – wow! What a surprise! From almost the moment we crossed over from Romania it became a heavily wooded; rolling hilled; azure watered beauty of a route. We stopped at Varna for a week and really really enjoyed it. The architecture – crumbling old buildings, ornate balconies, pastel colours – and the tree-lined streets and squares were a real contrast to Romania. The sea park between the town and the beach runs for over 3km and was the perfect place to test our new scooters. Yes, that’s right. The best thing about being away is you can do what makes you happy. We all have scooters now. I don’t think there’s an adult in the world who doesn’t smile when having a borrowed go on a kids’ scooter.  So, 5 days and 1 birthday later we packed up, reversed out, drove back in, reversed a bit more, scratched the trailer a bit and inched down a pedestrian walkway in order to get back on the road.

The Turkish border was interesting. Baggage control. Baggage being the entire trailer and all its contents. It did give us the opportunity to ditch a few things and sweep out the muesli that had spilled out in Finland though. We were half expecting to find a mouse and then slightly disappointed that we didn’t. On many occasions we have thought that a travelling animal companion would have been nice, although practically inconvenient. I have since considered a car cacti as a suitable substitute. Border issues aside, the mountain range that runs along the top of Greece, bottom of Bulgaria and in to Turkey is completely gorgeous and definitely something to return to someday.

So, Istanbul. I’m not going to lie – it’s probably the one place that we were equally excited about and dreading. Dreading mainly for the driving. And we were right. I will never forget my tall husband crouching in the boot of the car while 2 Turkish locals sat up front, directing us out of the side-squeezingly narrow and steep cobbled streets towards a secure parking lot. They didn’t speak any English. Directions were given with a series of beeps, hand gestures and loud order-barking. In Turkish. The guy in the front who kept leaning across and sounding the horn on my behalf when he saw one of his friends seemed delighted to be in the British car. The jovility extended to various stops for people to take photos of us and the trailer. And it was then that we knew we were going to love our stay. The friendliness, the willingness to share, help, advise, take care. Perfection. There’s few places where you feel instantly at home, we get there eventually with most of them, but Istanbul is one of those that is beautiful for its first impression.

3 days here. We’re wishing that we’d had a mileage reader because we walked and walked. And walked. But that’s what you’ve got to do. When you walk you talk, you meet people, you see the day to day. Istanbul has its awe-inspiring sights – the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, Boshphorus. But it’s life is on the streets. In 39yrs of living never before have I been in such an immense city in terms of size and character. It’s incredibly noisy. The call to prayer is beautiful. The kids on the street playing football. The street vendors calling out their wares. I filmed so many snippets – not of sights but just of sounds. You could illustrate that city by its sounds. If there is one city that I can inspire you to visit on this entire trip then hands down it is Istanbul. Go!

So we left: shorter in money, heavier in belongings, but truly greater in spirit.