This is a photo diary from our time in Montenegro when we were travelling in Rover, our beloved VW T4 Westfalia. After leaving Croatia we embarked on our southward journey along the coastline, headed for our final destination – Albania. The drive was one of the most scenic and memorable of the entire trip. It’s a special moment that will forever be etched in my mind and I’m sure my future day dreams will be filled with crystal blue sparkles of the Adriatic Sea.
The sun was shining and the weather was warm. At that point in time I hadn’t a worry in the world, I was free. The sea breeze blew in the passengers seat window, messing up my hair while the warmth of the sun hit the freckles on my nose. I stared out into the world appreciating the endless beauty of Mother Nature. The Adriatic Sea has a mesmerising effect. At the time I was certain each view was the best I’d ever seen, until of course we followed the winding road around a headland and another piece of beauty was revealed. Our eyes were treated to secluded rocky coves glistening in the sun, olive trees standing tall, fishing boats bobbing on the horizon and locals bathing and basking on their private rickety jetties – over and over again.
After no more than an hour and a half we found ourselves entering the Balkan country, slowly meandering along the skinny roads, with the sea glistening below and the mountains standing tall above. We had arrived in paradise! Montenegros wild and ruggedbeauty completely blew me away. It was afternoon by this stage and we hadn’t the faintest idea where we were staying the night. Upon entering the Bay of Kotor we’d passed two auto camps and so assumed they’d be dotted all around. We were wrong. We ended up nearly circumnavigating the Bay of Kotor, searching for a campsite to no avail. Our phones didn’t work so we were searching blindly. We’d heard that unlike many other European countries wild camping was illegal in Montenegro. Unwilling to backtrack, we decided to play naive to the law and ended up parking by a quiet little stretch of rocky beach. We set up our camp chairs on the edge of the jetty and made dinner while there was still light. Locals past us by as they went for their afternoon stroll or set up along the coastline to try their luck casting a fishing line but not another tourist was in sight. We were still completely in awe of how picturesque the setting was. As the sun set, the mountains shone brightly with colour – all sorts of spectacular reds, oranges, yellows and pinks. Not thinking it could get any better than this, dolphins swam by right in front of us, as if on cue. They put on an evening show but even they didn’t stay to join us.
The next morning we woke early with the sun, took a refreshing dip in the ocean and sipped coffee on the jetty before we continued on our journey to Albania, in an attempt to prolong Summer (you can read more about our adventure here). We were excited to venture into a new country but we knew we weren’t done with Montenegro. Two weeks later and we were back in the Bay of Kotor, very happy about it. We ventured around to Ponte Veslo in search of a hidden rock pool. We spent the afternoon jumping off the rocky peninsula into turquoise waters before retiring to the van for dinner and an early night. After this we retired to one of the first auto camps we had seen in the Bay of Kotor. It was nestled right on the water front and a truly breathtaking spot. We parked Rover and One night turned quickly turned into three and even then we didn’t want to leave. We spent our time doing very little – taking the days slower, sleeping in, swimming in the ocean and feeling refreshed from the crisp and cold water temperature, exploring towns by foot, climbing castles, drinking wine and cooking our own meals all whilst soaking in and appreciating the country’s beautiful landscape. We wouldn’t have had it any other way! For me the photos below evoke strong feelings of nostalgia. I’ll forever hold special memories of this magical place.
Budapest has been on my “to do list” for a long while now however, to be completely honest before travelling there I had little idea about the city apart from it being home to the infamous Schenzy Roman baths and beautiful architecture.
Turns out the city is home to plenty more than that! Whether you’re into history & museums, good food & lively bars, spas & pampering or architecture there’s no shortage of things to do. In my opinion this vibrant city has almost everything you could ever want, well except for a beach that is. Having grown up on the Gold Coast, the beach is such an integral part of my life. I could never imagine my life (long term) without the ocean near by otherwise I’d probably look into relocating to Budapest. This aside, after recently spending a week in the city I can confirm it should be on everyone’s travel list. I completely fell in love with the place & would return in a heartbeat given the opportunity.
Our decision to visit Budapest was a last minute change of plans. It was the end of October and we’d been travelling around Europe in the van for around 5 months at that stage. Towards the end of this time we’d done our best and strategically planned to be in countries with warmer climates to hang on to the European Summer dream. But we couldn’t kid ourselves any longer when at the end of October we found ourselves in Munich where it was freezing cold and wet for days on end. Temperatures ranged from 1 to 5 degrees & the sun set at 4:30 pm. It was the first time all trip we had felt that van life was challenging. In fact, being in the van without heating or power (as we were free camping) was quite frankly miserable!
We quickly realised we had to think of an alternative. The next day we were travelling from Munich to Salzburg and then later onto Vienna, in Austria. Despite moving locations the weather forecast remained grim which made the decision to book a “holiday” from our already permanent vacation lifestyle an easy one. We looked at the world map and started researching plausible options (which were endless given how easy and affordable travel is in Europe) and quickly settled on Budapest. Return bus tickets & a week’s hostel accommodation were as cheap as chips & the climate was much more friendly 6 hours east – we were sold!
We had such a lovely “holiday” & spent our time exploring neighbourhoods, learning history, pampering ourselves at the spas & of course eating & drinking our way all over town. Here are some of our highlights & recommendations:
THINGS TO KNOW:
The city is split into two sides, the Buda side & the Pest side. The sides are separated by the Danube river.
English is widely spoken making communication for non Hungarian speaking travellers easy.
We felt safe at all times (day & night) walking around.
All of the locals, shopkeepers & hostel staff we encountered were friendly & happy to help. Even the police officers let me off after blindly ignoring a red light & crossing a busy road (probably best not to do that!).
WHERE TO STAY:
The Jewish Quarter is where you want to be in terms of accomodation. Here you are right amongst the best cafes, restaurants & bars whilst only being a short walk away from the majority of the major tourist attractions (ie. 25 mins to the market hall, Gelet Baths & Danube river one way & the house of terror & baths the other direction).
We stayed at a hostel in the Jewish Quarter (forgive me as I can not remember the name for the life of me) which was great for budget accommodation. There’s a shared kitchen if you’re looking to reduce costs on food & whip up some home cooked meals & Pete & Cecil the owners were incredibly helpful with local recommendations & always happy to answer any questions we had.
WHAT TO DO/SEE:
Roman baths – an absolute must when visiting Budapest! We went to Gellért thermal bath & loved every second of it. There’s several heated baths of various temperatures, saunas, steam rooms, a swimming pool, showers & lush lounge areas. Our favourite was the outdoor thermal bath area. It was so nice being submerged in the warm water whilst the sun went down & the outside temperature dropped. Széchenyi is the most well known thermal bath & according to locals is busy all year round. The list doesn’t stop here so do your research and find out what’s best for you.
Liberty Statue – best view over the city. BYO beers & go for sunset, you won’t be dissapointed. Or you could grab some delicious food from The Great Market Hall close by & take a picnic lunch.
Hungarian Parliament Building – one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever laid eyes on. It took 19 years to build and unfortunately the architect went blind before he saw it completed. HOW SAD IS THAT!?
Fisherman’s Bastion – great view of Parliament from across the river. It’s nice to go just before sunset so you can enjoy the view during the day & night (the Parliament building lit up is pretty special).
Ruin bars – by far one of our favourite things about Budapest! These are makeshift bars located inside dilapidated and abandoned pre-war buildings. They’ve each got their own creative flare and style however are all generally furnished with second hand & quirky furniture while the walls are filled with art & graffiti. Make sure you spend the time to explore as you never know what is laying past the next door or walkway.
The House of Terror Museum – a monument to the memory of those held captive, tortured and killed in the building. It is also acts as a museum to provide information about Hungarian history, what life was like living through two terror regimes & communism & the nations victorious fight to freedom & independence. Make sure you pay the extra money to get an English audio guide & leave yourself plenty of time (we spent three hours there). Price: around 28 euros for 2 people with audio guides.
The Shoes on the Danube Bank – a memorial to honour the Jews who were killed by fascist groups during WW2. There are a several sculptured shoes on the river bank of the Danuabe, located near by to the Parliament building. It commemorates the thousands of people who were forced to march down to the waters edge & take off their shoes before being shot.
WHAT/WHERE TO EAT/DRINK:
Frici Papas – Hungarian cuisine, where the locals eat.
Mazel Tov – Mediterranean Restaurant. The space is large, airy, and filled with plenty of lush hanging plants. When we visited they even had live music. The food is cheap & delicious. We loved it so much that we went there twice! The hummus plate & home made chips were our favourite.
Karavan – Food trucks serving street food & beer. There’s something for everyone with vegan (or meat) burgers, Asian, Italian, Mexican, dessert stalls and more. We tried the national dish “Langos”, a deep fried dough. We thought it was tastier topped with red praprikas rather than the OG but the Mexican stall was far tastier than both!
Ruszwurm confectionary – the best cream cake I have ever tasted! BY FAR. Lake Bled’s had nothing on this one.
Ramenka – ramen with a minimalist yet cute fit out.
Oysh – good sushi. Best for a quick bite or takeaway.
Vega city – cheap but tasty vegan eats.
The great market hall – Hungarian produce market spanning over three floors. They’ve got it all from meats & cheeses to fresh fruit & veg, delicious desserts & crappy souvenirs. Even if you don’t buy anything it’s worth popping your head in to take a look around. We tried the sour cherry strudel.
Ruin bars: Szimpla Kert, Fogashaz, Anker’t.
Dorado cafe – cosy interior with plenty of indoor plants & good quality coffee table books to gawk at whilst you have your caffeine fix.
We caught the bus from Vienna to Budapest with Reggio Jet, one of the budget bus companies. The journey took just under 3 hours one way and worked out to be cheaper & probably faster than driving our van (“take over Rover” is one of our constant jokes as we battle along at 90km/hr on the highway whilst the other vehicle zoom past travelling the speed limit of 130 km/hr). The cost was around 33 euros return for 2 people.
We caught the metro from the bus station to our hostel in the Jewish quarter which was easy enough and only a short distance away. However after this we no longer used public transport for the week and instead were able to walk everywhere on foot with nothing being further than a 35 minutes away. However be warned that the “Buda” side of Budapest is rather hilly so there are plenty of stairs involved when exploring – wear comfy shoes! (Or don’t and look like a dickhead as you attempt to navigate cobble stone streets and inclines in kitten heels. I love nothing more than people watching & laughing at others when warranted).
After having stayed put for a month, settling in to our new life in the French alps (find out more about December in Chamonix here) we were ready for a little getaway. Paris was calling! I’d previously visited Paris (albeit very briefly) when I was freshly eighteen on a month long TopDeck tour but hadn’t returned since. Blake had never visited although was dying to check out the popular city and cross it off his bucket list. We were equally as excited for our mid week get away! Fortunately we don’t work too frequently and were able to find a couple of days off and cheap flights so we could pop over the other side of the country (unlike Australia where flying across the country takes 5.5 hours this was a mere 1 hour flight).
We landed at the airport in the early afternoon and immediately caught an Uber to the Eiffel Tower. We picked up some supplies from the boulangerie and supermarket near by and spent the afternoon perched on a bench seat eating cheese and a freshly baked baguette and sipping on rose – cliche but bloody fabulous! Fortunately the sky was blue and the sun was out although it didn’t provide much warmth given it was the middle of European winter. We weren’t too concerned and ended up staying for a couple of hours. There was plenty of great quality people watching with the hoards of instagram shoots going on. We set the self timer up to take our own happy snap and failed to impress the onlookers when Blake didn’t drop the knee to propose!
We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking along the River Seine (enjoying the sunset glow) and then headed out at night time to explore the 10th arrondissement, where our air bnb was located. The next morning we woke up to snow which was magical and also ironic as Chamonix hadn’t experienced any new snowfall in weeks. We headed out to a local boulangerie and perched ourselves inside for breakfast – filling our bellies with espressos and carbohydrates as we stared out the window, mesmerised by the falling snowflakes. No matter how many times I see snow, my enthusiasm never dwindles. The snow didn’t stop for the remainder of our trip which admittedly did make sightseeing and outdoor activities a little difficult however we still had a wonderful time over the three days. Instead of rooftop views (which were either closed to inclement weather or a hazy white out) and strolls through the gardens (too cold and dreary) we found ourselves mostly hopping between boulangeries, cafes and bars. It’s a tough life we lead, I know!
Here’s some photographs and favourites from our time in Paris.
BOULANGERIES: Du Pain et Des Idees (BEST CROISSANT EVER. Don’t forget to try the pistachio and chocolate “snail” also), Pain Pain & Chambelland Boulangerie (a different take on bread and gluten free). To be honest I’m sure it’s difficult to go wrong with any boulangerie in France. Just like it’s difficult to get a fresh baguette home in one piece without biting off a chunk for taste testing (or is that just me!?).
EAT/DRINK: L’escargot (famous for snails! We ordered the traditional and truffle butter variety and also the French onion soup which was mouth wateringly good). Las du Falafel (You could be mistaken for thinking this place was a club with the doorman outside blasting techno beats with his portable speaker but let me assure you once inside things improve drastically with delicious pita pockets and mediterranean food being whizzed out of the kitchen and onto tables left right and centre). Yard (drinks and nibbles).
VIEWS: Sacre-Coeur and Galerie Lafayette Rooftop Terrace.
TOURIST SIGHTS: The Eiffel Tower, River Siene, Louvre Museum, Arc di Triomphe, Sacre-Coeur, Champs – Elysees, Notre Dame, Palace of Versailles and Pont Neuf. There’s obviously loads more but as with any city there’s only so much you can see in a limited time so it’s best to do your research and plan to prioritise accordingly. Personally we’re not huge on the standard tourist sights and prefer to spend our time exploring neighbourhoods and wandering the streets amongst locals instead of bumping shoulders and cueing in long lines with hoards of other tourists who have their iPads ready to snap hundreds of photographs of anything and everything.
GARDENS: Tuileries Garden, Luxembourg Gardens,
NEIGHBOURHOODS TO EXPLORE: Montmarte (beautiful streets), Les Marais (shopping), Canal Saint – Martin (ideal in the Summer time to picnic/drink by the canal).
STAY: We stayed in an Airbnb in the 10th arrondissement and loved the location/neighbourhood.
TRANSPORT: Best to explore on foot (weather permitted) and use the underground (simple, cheap and efficient).
Holy heck this is delicious! I’ve just created & devoured this tofu banh mi for dinner & have immediately sat down (after undoing my jeans button) to share the recipe with you all. You absolutely must try it. There’s a couple of time saving methods which make the recipe easy peasy so there’s no reason not to give it a whirl. Vegetarian, relatively healthy & definitely not short on flavour. Here’s how to recreate it:
INGREDIENTS (serves two):
freshly baked baguette (the perks of living in France)
1 x green chilli
1/2 x cucumber
1 x carrot
EASY PEASY VEGETABLE PICKLING: leftover liquid from a 1 x large jar of pickles (the one I use has mustard seeds & pickled onions in it for extra flavour)
EASY PEASY TOFU BANH MI SAUCE: dijon mustard, hot sauce & vietnamese/spring roll dipping sauce (to taste)
Prepare the vegetables, slicing the cucumber and carrot into thin strips. Next place them in a container with the leftover liquid from the jar of pickles. Ultimately the liquid should completely submerge the vegetables. If not, add additional water as required. Let marinate whilst you’re preparing the rest.
Slice green chilli, cilantro & lemon into wedges. Set aside for garnishing.
In a small bowl combine dijon mustard, hot sauce & vietnamese/spring roll dipping sauce to create the EASY PEASY TOFU BANH MI SAUCE. Taste & alter ratios depending on what tickles your fancy!
In a small bowl combine olive oil, salt & pepper & chilli paste to create the EASY PEASY TOFU SEASONING.
Drain tofu, slice into strips as desired. Place tofu in a frying pan (on medium heat) and cook in EASY PEASY TOFU SEASONING, ensuring both sides are covered. Cook for a few minutes each side, until golden brown (flipping one only).
Cut baguette in half to create two sandwiches. Spread each with butter.
Assemble sandwiches with pickled veggies, iceberg lettuce, tofu, cilantro & green chilli. Drizzle with EASY PEASY TOFU BANH MI SAUCE & fresh lemon.
When it comes to van meals we generally tried to stick to meals that were vegetarian, easy to cook, nutritious and of course cheap! We both ate meat when living back in Australia however we decided to transition to a vegetarian based diet not long after travelling in the van. Primarily this choice was because it was cheaper and avoided having to worry about appropriate storage and refrigeration of meat. Later we noticed it also makes us feel and function better. Not to mention the environmental benefits of having a plant based diet and reducing consumption of animal (and dairy) products. This blog post ain’t about preaching a diet, however it does feel good knowing that something so simple as a shift in dietary habits can help reduce our carbon footprint.
So what did we eat in the van? (A question so commonly asked by others).
Surprisingly, we managed to maintain a healthy and somewhat varied diet whilst travelling on the road for the last six months. Anyone that has travelled extensively before knows that this can be challenging at times, particularly when visiting countries that are underdeveloped. Produce availability and food prices vary largely from country to country however with consideration, a little extra planning and creativity it is possible to eat well whilst on a budget.
In fact, we both believe our diets have actually improved whilst living in the van when compared to back home in Australia. I’ve always been somewhat conscious of consuming a healthy diet however up until now i’ve always been more interested in exercise and sports. Whilst travelling my interest in food and nutrition has definitely increased however I attribute the main reason to our improved diet to the need for planning. Back home on the Gold Coast I had five supermarkets, two health food stores, and countless cafes/coffeeshops all within walking distance of my home. Talk about convenient and spoilt for choice. Not to mention the major fast food chains and endless takeaway options! Consequently, little to no planning went in to what meals I was going to make for the week as I knew I could always grab lunch on the go if i had to, pop to the grocery store on the way home from work or eat out if all else (including motivation) failed.
This changed quickly once we started living in the van for the following reasons:
The fridge was very small and therefore the amount of items you can fit in is limited (plus Blake’s beers always seemed to get priority)!
The van kitchen consisted of a one burner gas cooker.
We were on a budget.
Produce availability and quality varied from country to country.
We generally had no set plan which meant that we didn’t know if we would be wild camping in the mountains for four nights without services or parked up in a small coastal town with only one small and over priced convenience store.
We no longer had the convenience to access food like we did at home. PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: SUPERMARKETS AND TOWNS ARE SHUT ON SUNDAYS IN EUROPE! I’ve lost count of how many times we got caught out with this.
Time. Although we had plenty more free time given that we went from full time jobs to unemployment we wanted to spend all of our time exploring. (Turns out if we took the extra time to organise and prepare set meals for the week we could then go to the supermarket once and shop in bulk which then freed up time for the rest of the week so we could get on doing more of the fun stuff!).
Van life tips & tricks:
I always tried to stock up the van cupboards with plenty of canned vegetables, legumes and non perishables. I would create “cupboard meals” which were completely made up of non perishable food items. This allowed us to continue to travel with no set plan. If we wanted to wild camp in an isolated destination for an extended period of time we could do so without going hungry or worrying about what services would be available or if power wasn’t an option.
One pot meals became a priority. Van meals aren’t being plated up for an episode of Master Chef. They’re ticking boxes remember: vegetarian, easy to cook, nutritious and cheap!
We became savvy at grocery shopping. You really can save a lot of money if you pay attention to prices and brands and shop at discount supermarkets or directly from the farmer/road side stalls. Where possible we shopped at LIDL (best thing since sliced bread. There’s free wifi and a customer toilet at each store.) and always ensured we went for the cheaper LIDL branded items. We also tried hard not to buy bottled water and instead found water refill points to fill up our 20 litre water container.
We became more creative in the kitchen and less picky with what we ate. Simple meals with fewer ingredients doesn’t mean less flavour.
We became more organised with grocery shopping. I always took the time to plan meals & write a grocery list. Otherwise it’s easy to fall in the trap of buying unnecessary items or buying items that don’t make a “meal”.
Shopping frequency depended greatly on the season. Fruit and vegetables not kept in the fridge spoilt very quickly in the European heat wave and therefore we shopped more regularly when compared to the Winter months. In the cooler months it became so cold that the entire inside of our van resembled a fridge & therefore food could be left without refrigeration.
Ensure you have healthy snacks on hand (fruit, nuts & seeds, muesli bars, crackers, tea & coffee), particularly on long driving days. Otherwise you’re generally left to overpriced service stations, fast food chains or unwanted intermittent fasting.
Generally speaking when we visited cities we usually ate out and splurged a little more than usual (after all, eating out and trying new cuisines is one of the best parts of travelling) however most regular days we cooked in the van to save money. We also regularly frequented bakeries as I could never go without good quality fresh bread. In the Summer time when travelling along the coastline seafood was never passed up easily. If I got a whiff of fresh seafood on the grill, we were in line for the next available table. The great quality and cheap prices (when compared to home) were too good to resist.
Here are our most common van meals we had on rotation. Blake has tried and tested and approved of all! Note well: vegetable cous cous has purposely been omitted from the list and will never be attempted again as it was voted “worst van meal by far” by Blake and thrown in the bin by the chef. Turns out it’s not the rice so nice they named it twice (at least not when I attempted it).
Not pictured: Tuna & salad wraps, pre packaged salads from the supermarket, vegetable sticks with hummus and rice cakes/seeded crackers and bean tomato soup (canned tomatoes, canned corn, canned beans of some description, seasoned with Mexican spices).
Miso ramen with boiled eggs.
Rice paper rolls with wasabi paste.
Loaded Mexican potatoes.
Veg & chickpea korma curry with nan bread.
Veg pasta with French baggies & organic olive oil.
Pesto pasta salad.
Veg & chickpea tikka masala curry with papadums.
Veg & bean fajitas.
Not pictured: Teriyaki egg noodle stir fry with veg, Vietnamese noodle bowls (rice paper noodles, fresh salad & Vietnamese dipping sauce), veg soup with added canned veg, cheese platter with hummus & veg sticks.
We’re not overly huge on snacks but we always make sure we have fresh fruit & fruit & nut mix on hand. Other favourites include veg sticks & hummus or rice cakes & hummus. And let’s be honest we also consumed our fair share of unhealthy snacks such as cookies (blame Blake), chips (blame me) & bakery treats! We’re only human.
Market stall, Prague.
Chip monster with a view.
If you’re doing a similar trip (or even if you’re just stuck for ideas at home) I hope you can find this post helpful in some way. Also, if you’ve got your own easy & budget friendly meals to share I’d love to know.
December 1st 2018 marked the last day of our van life journey. It was a sad day as we caught a flight out of Amsterdam, saying goodbye and leaving our beloved Rover (our VW T4 Westfalia) in storage as he awaits his next owners. On the contrary it was also an exciting day full of anticipation and the unknown as we embarked on our next adventure, living life in the snow. We touched down at Geneva Airport, Switzerland mid morning and had some time to kill before getting our connecting shuttle bus to Chamonix, in the French Alps. Naturally we passed the hours people watching and ordered croissants and espressos as an ode to our new French lifestyle.
We arrived in Chamonix mid afternoon, picked up the keys to our cosy apartment and quickly began unpacking and settling in. Thankfully the online photographs of the apartment held true to it’s real life self and we couldn’t have been more happy with it. It’s situated on the ground floor, smack bang in the centre of town and boasts a backyard which is much more than your standard seasonal accommodation. To others our one bedroom studio apartment may seem small but not to us. Compared to the van, our new living set up was like walking in to a superior penthouse suite. After six months of travelling in the van we now had a new appreciation on the smaller everyday modern conveniences like heating, standing height and a bathroom – our new life seemed luxurious. The apartment came fully furnished and including a small television. We rarely ever watched television and decided we weren’t about to start now. After living in the van we have realised that our needs are basic and we wish to continue to live in a simplistic and minimalist way, finding enjoyment living without all the clutter of modern life. We immediately stowed the television away in the cupboard and let the art piece it was covering take prime position on our lounge room mantle piece. It is a beautiful piece of art, a fine line drawing of a voluptuous woman. Tres chic!
We spent the first month settling in, meeting new friends, exploring the town and securing a job for the season. We are working casually in house keeping, cleaning rented holiday apartments and expensive chalets. Thankfully I have overcome my phobia of kitchen dishcloths from younger years. Although I will never forget my older brother chasing me around the house and tormenting me by throwing a dirty dishcloth in my face! (But seriously, how many germs are on those things!? Hello, E. coli and Salmonella.) It’s the first sort of revenue we’ve had in over six months and although the pay isn’t wonderful (particularly given how ridiculously expensive everything is here), the job has plenty of perks.
We manage our own properties and have plenty of flexibility with working hours which allows us to get up on the mountain nearly every day, or second day. Our property listings are scattered throughout town so it’s been good to get a lay out of the land and gain insight into French lodgings and the local property market. We also get to keep any of the food, alcohol or household items left behind by the guests that check out. There’s limited social interaction with people which is a stark contrast to my prior job, so for now I’m enjoying the change and long periods of silence. The team consists of people from all over (England, Spain, Czech Republic) but everyone is young, welcoming and nice. Although I’ve only been working for a short period I’ve learnt the following:
Not everybody shares the same OCD tendencies as Blake and I. In fact, most humans are really gross, particularly what they do behind closed doors.
Women shed A LOT of hair. Or long haired brunettes do.
Lots of people cut their fingernails/toenails whilst on vacation. Fine, if you dispose of them in the bin like a normal person but not when you leave them on the kitchen bench or clog up the drain which then becomes my problem (YUCK).
The majority of men appear to have significant difficulty with successfully urinating in the toilet bowl. If men are “so good at sports” then why don’t they display the coordination and precision to execute this everyday task.
Humans struggle to use a microwave. Or lots of people on vacation decide to use microwaves for their science experiments. They must be conducting first hand research on who can make the largest voluminous food eruption. Kind of sounds fun. But not for the cleaner (me). Do it at home, not on holiday.
The most common food/household items left behind are: butter, olive oil, eggs, toilet paper, cheese and beer. However we’ve also scored more costly items such as pistachios, avocados, French wine & gourmet chocolates (ok, these were actually leftover from the guests welcome pack but we’ll keep that between us!).
Unfortunately, as I sit here and reflect it appears I’ve learnt more about cleaning in the last month than I have about the French language. Prior to moving here I had great plans for weekly French lessons and independent learning. I imagined my days sitting in cafes, sipping espressos and mixing with the locals, which would vastly improve my language skills. At night I would read, write and pour myself a glass of French wine whilst learning to cook new meals. Only the latter holds true and this is far from the reality of my life. However I have mastered the basics and am confidently able to engage with shop keepers all in the native tongue. I do this on a daily basis when I buy my fresh baguette from the boulangerie across the road. In fact, there are two boulangeries across the road from our apartment and I’ve become a known regular at both so that’s good enough for me!
Chamonix, the town itself is beautiful and the alps act as a stunning backdrop. There’s beauty everywhere from the snow capped trees and infamous glaciers to the wooden chalets and Christmas lights that decorate the main streets of town. Chamonix is one of the oldest ski resorts in France and when compared to other snow towns it’s relatively large. Unlike a ski in ski out town you generally have to catch a bus from the centre of town to one of the various surrounding mountains (Brevent, Flegere, Grand Montets, Les Houches, Balme Vallorcine). Once at the foot of the mountains you hop straight on a cable car which whisks you up to the top – from here it’s truly another world to explore! Chamonix is renowned for its steep pistes and challenging slopes making it popular with skiers (skiing is much more common than snowboarding here) and mountain enthusiasts from all over the world. Many people flock to the “extreme capital of the world” to partake in climbing, off piste skiing, paragliding and wing suiting. Personally I’m happy with my snowboard and the groomers for now!
I’m absolutely loving snowboarding and have fortunately picked it up quickly considering the last time I hopped on a board was over five years ago. I completely understand the addiction of mountain life. I also now understand that the “Jackson Hole” sticker on my board (bought off a friend) refers to a place rather than a person! One afternoon when we were in the gondola coming down the mountain after a day of snowboarding we got talking to an American girl. She saw the sticker on my board and enthusiastically shouted “Oh, I love Jackson Hole!” to which I replied “Oh, this is my friends old board so it’s not actually my sticker”. We changed direction of the conversation but continued to happily chat away for the rest of the journey.
When we stepped out of the gondola and bid farewell I turned to Blake and immediately asked “Who’s Jackson Hole?”. He burst out laughing and kindly informed me that it was a place not a professional snowboarder as I had assumed! Good to know. My snowboard knowledge is improving rapidly! Haha. We returned home feeling tired but stoked from another great day on the mountain and cracked open a backyard beer to kick start apres. The novelty of leaving beers outside in the snow still hasn’t worn off. They are always perfectly chilled and ready for consumption. Maybe this is the reason our intake has increased?
The month of December seemed to whiz past in a flash so I’m wishfully hoping that the next few months are slower paced and savoured. We’ve planned a trip to Paris, have Copenhagen and Malmo on our radar and family and friends booked in to stay with us from Australia so there’s plenty to look forward to but for now as I sit perched near the heater in my underwear, staring at the snow fall outside whilst enjoying a cup of tea I feel completely content. Until the next post,
Whenever I speak to family and friends back home or fellow travellers on the road one of the first questions asked is always “what has your favourite place been?”. To me this question is very difficult to answer. I’m indecisive on the best of days (particularly with food. And yes I understand my inability to decide between whether to have a plain or chocolate croissant is a serious first world problem) but that’s not the reason why I struggle to answer what my favourite place has been. To simply answer just one favourite place is far too broad!
We’ve now been on the road for nearly six months and i’ve lost count of how many times I have said “this is my favourite beach” or “this is my favourite free camp location” only to repeat myself several days later. At the time i’m sure it genuinely was my favourite but it turns out the world we live in is a truly beautiful place and there’s always plenty more to discover just around the corner, waiting to out shine the last.
We’ve spent time thinking long and hard (usually whilst laying half nude on the shores of a European beach or as we fill in time on a long, slow driving day) and together have finally come up with “a list of favourites”. Maybe our list will help you decide on your next travel destination or act as a source of inspiration to do a similar trip, but at the very least, I hope you enjoy reading about our favourites (thus far).
Favourite thing about van life:
K –Waking up every morning happy, looking forward to what the day ahead entails. Usually there’s no daily agenda but there are always countless possibilities. After that it’s definitely that van life enables endless adventuring! We really are going all over in Rover. I also love that it is a lifestyle which focuses on slowing down, being more present and valuing experiences and genuine connections rather than materialistic possessions and occupational status/success. We don’t have a lot “stuff” but we do have health, happiness and love. In my opinion they’re the most important life essentials.
B – Having freedom to go wherever and do whatever we want, everyday. Having no time restraints, no schedule to abide by, no one to wait for and no one to rely on but ourselves (and Rover of course)!
Top three favourite beaches:
Calanque d’En-Vau, France. It’s a little secluded pebble beach in the Calanques National Park with the most beautiful turquoise water. To get there it’s about an hours hike on foot but completely worth every step!
Ksamil, Albania. White sand, crystal clear blue water & no crowds.
Praia do Camilo, Portugal. The Algarve coast, need I say more? Plus with the right tide you’re able to swim through many of the grottos which open up and become your own secret little secluded beaches.
Calanque d’En-Vau, France.
Praia da Ponta Grande, Portugal. A tiny secluded beach with a sea cave. Once you swim through the sea cave the water opens up to join the North Atlantic Ocean.
Ksamil, Albania. As above.
Top three favourite cities:
Budapest, Hungary. This place has it all (well, apart from a beach. If it had a beach I’d probably be looking to relocate!).
Biarritz, France. Croissants, baguettes & the coast – what more could you want?
San Sebastian, Spain. Where having an alcoholic beverage at 10 am is just as acceptable as an espresso, on any given morning. (And just as cheap!)
Munich, Germany (however this is currently being contested by Berlin, where we are exploring now. Stay tuned!).
Favourite camp site:
K – That’s an easy one, Picos de Europa, Spain.
B – As above.
Favourite free camp location:
K – Arrifes Beach, Portugal or Coxos Beach, Portugal. Both locations we parked Rover on the edge of a cliff which directly over looked the ocean. It’s so nice going to bed and waking up to the sound of the ocean. We spent a least three nights at each location and even then it was difficult to leave! Or…
Foix, The Pyrenees. We drove up to the top of a mountain that overlooked the town of Foix. We had the most magnificent view from the van and there was no one else around except for us, the cows and the horses. We awoke at sunrise to the sound of cow bells jingling loudly as a herd of cows came right past the van to get their morning drink of water. It was such a magical place!
B – Arrifes Beach, Portugal. Located less than ten minutes away from one of my favourite beaches (Praia da Ponta Grande).
Arrifes Beach, Portugal.
Favourite natural phenomenon:
K – The Algarve coastline. It may be the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever laid eyes on.
B – Maro Beach waterfall, Spain. And also the Algarve coastline.
Maro Beach, Spain.
Favourite man made phenomenon:
K – Ronda, The Puente Nuevo bridge. It’s 2018 and I can’t even put an Ikea flat pack together so i’m completely amazed at how man kind built something so grand all these years ago.
B – As above. (NB: Blake can put together an Ikea flat pack!)
Favourite van meal:
K –I go through phases but my current favourite is Blake’s banana crepes for breakfast! It’s a Sunday speciality.
B – Lentil spaghetti bolognese, hands down.
Favourite scenic drive:
K – The Pyrenees. For the majority of our trip we have followed the coastline so when we headed inland for a couple of days in the Pyrenees it was such a nice change of scenery. The landscape is magnificent – luscious greenery, rocky mountains, glacial rivers and plenty of friendly cows! The roads wind along with long tunnels through the mountains or dizzying zig zag turns to clamber up to the summits. There’s always plenty to see out the window making it the perfect location for long scenic drives.
B – Llogara Pass – A high mountain pass from the Alps down into the Albanian Riviera. The views down the coastline overlooking miles of crystal clear water and such an epic landscape was insane to see.
K – Lake Bohinj, Slovenia. We visited in Autumn and although it was far too cold to swim it was still a beautiful time to visit. The vibrant orange colours of Fall were all around and provided such a contrast to the turquoise colour of the glacial lake.
B – Ruidera, Spain. We spent hot Summer days with the van parked right next to the lake. It was so good being able to hop out of the van and jump straight off the cliff into fresh cold water!
Top three favourite hikes:
Lac d’Oô, The Pyrenees.
Sija Mountain, Lake Bohinj, Slovenia.
The Cares Route, Picos De Europa.
The Cares Route, Picos De Europa.
Sija Mountain, Lake Bohinj, Slovenia.
Calanque d’En-Vau, France.
Favourite van life moment:
K –For me there’s not one particular stand out moment. Instead it’s celebrating & finding joy in the little everyday moments. Our lives have become slower and simplified yet more meaningful and deliberate. I get so excited by the simple things like finding the clearest water, a cosy beach corner, the yummiest croissant, an idyllic free camp spot, successfully conversing in another language or being able to step outside the van and gaze up at the stars on a clear night.
B – My favourite van life moment was being posted up, free camping on the point at Coxos in Portugal. We spent 4 days there waiting for this swell to arrive and waking up in the morning, opening the blinds and being able to see how good the waves were from bed was incredible. To surf amazing waves all day and have our home parked right up on the point was one of the best days ever.
K – Can I cheat and have two favourites? The patisseries in France & the tarts & fresh seafood in Portugal.
B – Italian pizza & pasta.
Favourite playlist whilst on the road:
K – 70’s funk.
B –True blue Aussie classics.
Favourite alcoholic beverage:
K – Aperol spritz, Italy.
B – Super bock, Portugese beer.
Favourite time waster:
K – Editing photographs and documenting our travels through visual story boards. Oh and I absolutely love the question game! (Who could ever get sick of making up hypothetical scenarios?)
B – Playing cards and drinking cheap local beers. More often than not, this occurs simultaneously!
Favourite free activity:
K –Swimming in the ocean, exercising and exploring new places/adventuring. The ocean is where I feel most grounded and calm, exercise keeps me sane & feeling myself while exploring new places/adventuring keeps me constantly learning, curious & happy.
B –Submerging in water whether that be the ocean or a fresh water lake. Anything to do with water and I’m happy! Oh and I also love constantly being on the move (although this requires petrol which is far from free!) because I want to do as many things & see as many places as possible.
K – French. Personally I think it sounds the most beautiful when spoken aloud compared to some of the other European languages which can sound quite aggressive. Contrary to the common stereotype of the French being rude and abrupt we have thankfully found the majority of people to be warm and welcoming towards us. As always a few learned phrases go a long way!
B – English. It’s not only my first language but also the most common second language in most countries we visited so that made it pretty easy!
Favourite piece of advice for people thinking of doing a similar trip:
K – No plan is the best plan.
B – Make sure you are adaptable.
** K – Kirsten & B – Blake (stating the bloody obvious).
We woke early, in Montenegro (we’d spent our first night free camping near Kotor with Rover parked right opposite the beautiful Adriatic Sea with jagged mountain ranges as the backdrop) and jumped straight into the ocean to make us feel alive before we guzzled our morning cuppa joe. Both the water temperature and outside temperature were cold but the crystal clear water and surrounds were too beautiful to let the opportunity pass by. We ate breakfast out on the concrete jetty watching as the world woke up and started on a new day – cruise ships and fisherman passed each other by with purpose. We too decided to get cracking on our day and hit the road early as we were unsure of how long it would take us to cross the border into Albania as we had heard the roads were some of the worst there are.
What we hadn’t heard was how intensely crazy it is driving on the roads in Albania! We crossed the border, and got through customs, collecting another stamp in our passports rather easily and efficiently. Having mentally prepared ourselves for horrendous roads we were actually rather impressed with their visibly new upgraded roads. What we didn’t prepare for was the chaos we were about to be hurled into, driving amongst the locals. Albania seemed to me like Europe’s India! Road rules didn’t seem to exist and instead it was a free for all – there were middle aged ladies on bicycles riding against traffic on an unmarked four lane roundabout, people putting their hazard lights on and parking their car in the middle of a busy functioning road, herds of sheep crossed freely with apparent right of way, people honking horns frequently and unnecessarily, pedestrians stepping out to cross the roads infant of hurtling cars and then there was us and Rover amongst it all, trying to make our way to the campgrounds without any functioning internet on our phone.
We exited a busy roundabout and appeared to be leaving some of the mayhem behind when we got overtaken on our left as a car sped up and ushered to the right by local policeman who were stopped on the side of the road and pulling over cars as they desired. We came to a halt and wound down the window without the faintest idea of what this was all about as the local policeman approached. In our four months on the road in Europe we had never once been pulled over by the police. In fact, it was quite the opposite. There had been many occasions (in several countries) where police had been pulling over cars and they’d simply ushered us through. We figured that they’d seen our Dutch number plates (hard to miss due to their bright yellow colour) and simply thought it would be too difficult to attempt to communicate in another language or too costly to post the fine (if necessitated) back to The Netherlands where the van is registered. Turns out that’s not the case in Albania. This policeman had picked us out as easy targets to make some fast cash!
The policeman came to the drivers window to speak to Blake, the offender. There was plenty of dialogue between us all but very little comprehension as we didn’t know a word of Albanian and he knew next to no English. The next ten minutes was another game of real life charades with finger pointing and animations. We handed over passports, licenses and the van registration and insurance. The policeman sternly pointed his finger at Blake, exclaimed “naughty” and then laughed! Finally we were issued with a speeding fine.
From what we could decipher the policeman stated that the speed limit was 50 km/hr and we were excessively speeding doing 80km/hr. How he arrived at 80km/hr no one knows as there was no speed camera in sight! But we certainly weren’t going to attempt to argue. We handed over 30 euros (presumably which went straight into his back pocket to be later spent for his personal use), knowing we’d been completely scammed but figuring it was a small price to pay and far better than ending up in Albanian jail! I smiled politely, repeatedly saying “thank you” and “sorry” as we started Rover ready to get back on the road. The policeman smugly grinned and then to everyone’s amazement lent into the car to slap hands with me sitting in the passengers seat (alikened to a homie handshake) before he hugged Blake and sent us on our way!
It was a wild introduction to Albania and one I’m sure I’ll never forget! We reached the campgrounds situated about 3 km down the road and were happy to have checked in & parked up safely for the next couple of nights. We told the young Albanian receptionist at the campsite what had just happened and she merely smiled, speaking perfectly good English and told us “Ahh, this happens in a foreign country. It’s best to put it behind you.” And that we did. It was time for a long hot shower and then a tall cold beer! Now that we deserved.
Before we departed for our European van life adventure we were asking our friends & family back home for any hot tips or recommendations on places we must see. One of our best friends said Lake Bled was an absolute must. He hadn’t got the chance to go there himself but had heard only great things and urged us to go.
We were making our way to Croatia from Venice but decided to take a slight detour to Lake Bled to break up the drive & check it out for ourselves so we could report back first hand.
Turns out we’re in agreeance with everyone else! The place is like no other I’ve seen before. As we first drove around the lake I couldn’t help but wind down the window & yell “WOW!” like an excited kid.
The clear water & turqouise colour of the glacial lake is contrasted by the luscious greenery of the surrounding forests. There’s plenty to look at whether it be the infamous island church, cliffside castle or the jagged mountain ranges which act as a stunning backdrop. There’s also plenty of activity on and around the lake with row boats, the authentic pletna boats, swimming, fishing, hiking & more.
Although it’s the main tourist destination in Slovenia it’s natural charm hasn’t been lost and somehow (thankfully) the atmosphere around the lake remains peaceful and serene. At sunset it also feels incredibly romantic!
Back in the olden days there was a guy from Switzerland called Arnold Rikli who became ill after exposure to chemicals as a result of his occupation in leather dye works. He started researching places where he could go to recover, stumbled upon Lake Bled and then later moved there.
He considered himself as a pioneer and natural healer, curing himself of disease with the help of nature, sunbathing and swimming in the lake.
I highly doubt there’s any evidence to support his method curing serious illnesses however I’m sure it works wonders for improving physical, mental & emotional wellbeing!
We certainly felt great spending two days amongst nature, doing little but his “prescription”. The Rikli hiking path (named after him) which is still around today was apparently part of his and his cult’s daily routine – they walked up each morning on an empty stomach, bare foot and often nude!
Today there are a number of upmarket hotels that offer tourists health and wealth ness retreats and spa packages. Unlike Riklis I’m pretty sure they come at an exorbitant price and your clothing remains on, although I can’t be certain.
THINGS TO DO:
Walk the 6 km track around the perimeter of the lake. The entire circuit is beautiful with plenty of places to stop & take in the picturesque scenery.
Seek out one of the many hiking trails which will lead to spectacular view points overlooking Lake Bled & the surrounding mountains.
Go for a swim. I felt courageous enough to go for a dip despite the freezing outside temperatures. After getting out of the water Blake took a look at me and said I could take someone out with my nipples. Apparently I wasn’t tricking anyone into thinking it was warm! Freezing but very refreshing and recommended.
Try the famous cream cake, a speciality that originated in Bled. We shared one between two & after about one minute there was little left on the plate! It certainly lived up to expectations.
For the best vantage point over Lake Bled take the Ojstrica trail. It’s only a short 20 minutes up hill through the forest to get to the top & the views are well worth it.
Head to the campsite mini market for the cheapest beer. A cold can of Slovenian Laško is only 0.99 euros!
Van life: we paid for parking next to the campsite and were able to stay the night for just 5 euros. There’s no services but the position is perfect being directly opposite Lake Bled!
Make sure you pack your joggers & plenty of warm clothes. We visited at the end of September and although sunny throughout the day, the wind was freezing & the temperatures ranged from a chilly 1 – 16 degrees.
We arrived on Sunday afternoon & left on Tuesday & as always the weekdays are noticeably less crowded than weekends.