the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!


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Europe on a shoestring?

It has become glaringly clear that the cheapest way to get to Bulgaria is not overland. We know the delightfully named Wizz Air and the like hop across with flights from London to Sofia at less than £100, but not only would that have severely restricted Tiddler’s books, toys and random paraphernalia that we could have brought, but would have meant we  would have gone straight from living with one set of grandparents (lovely as they are) slap bang into the welcoming arms of the others. We needed a little bit of a time out, as well as the opportunity to explore and experience a road trip.

Financially speaking then, let’s cut to the chase. Campsites with the discount ACSI card average around €17 per night. However it is a definite lottery as to what you finally end up paying as the French in particular have made the system so unfathomable (even with handy billboard size tables of rates on the walls for the brave or foolhardy to try and tot up for themselves). Here is the easy bit; rates vary according to high or low season. Then factor in number of people, extra people, children above a certain age, children below a certain age, dogs, tents for dogs, electric hook up or not, caravan, campervan, campervan above a certain length, motorhome, motorcycle trailer, other trailer, extra car, standard pitch size, large pitch size, grass pitch, hard standing and the list goes on ad infinitum. Then don’t forget to add on the tax on top for the final figure owed. We gave up trying to understand the system, and clearly some exasperated campsite owners had done the same and declared to us a flat fee on arrival, ignoring both Tiddler’s presence and tax in one fell swoop. Tres bon for the thrifty minded camper.

Digger’s French is not up to much, so he has taken to wearing a t-shirt that – provided he puts on a quizzical look and points to himself – mean we should end up with somewhere to kip at the end of the day.

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Sites vary immensely in terms of facilities, with heated or indoor pools in some and free wifi, right down to no toilet paper (not that it hadn’t been restocked, there simply wasn’t dispensers for the paper in the stalls in the first place) in others. Bizarrely, quite a number of the french toilet blocks had piped musak or local radio constantly on the go. I wondered if this was some sort of french intellectual cultural tradition, to ponder world politics while carrying out your morning ablutions, or perhaps a matter of french delicacy to mask those slightly embarrassing bodily sounds. Either way, a little bit of toilet paper would surely have not gone amiss.

We chose to hand wash our clothes as the weather was perfect for drying them even overnight, but some sites also had washing machines and tumble driers for a few euros a pop. Others organised pre-ordered deliveries of croissants and baguettes just in time for breakfast every day- again slightly more expensive a purchase but a welcome treat. The best savings to be made on food and drink were local markets in village squares for fresh produce, and Super U, Lidl and Carrefour for one euro cartons of wine. Digger and I make no claims at appreciating fine wines, and are more than happy with a cut price glassful, which we were consistently pleasantly surprised by.

Our main expenditure therefore was (aside from the sites themselves, which many motorhomers avoid by using lay-bys and service stations) the diesel for Leo (pricey given the mileage) and a few toll payments on the motorways (when Digger got fed up of traffic through the more built up areas). Tourists genuinely getting out and about and seeing attractions would also end up paying out for entrance fees and honeypot-priced food and drink, whereas with Tiddler’s attention span we spent more time pottering about making our own entertainment, and unofficially eating packed lunches where we probably shouldn’t. However Tiddler once spent a solid hour and a half making her own version of a jigsaw puzzle by matching acorns to their original acorn cups. This epic task was not for the faint hearted, and no doubt far better for her at this age than anything a museum or free wifi could provide.

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Low -cost things therefore we are so glad we brought with us: the paddling pool, the ACSI card, Tiddler’s bug shoes (in and out and in and out of the van, and then in and out again), the old scooter, sarongs instead of towels for speedy drying, a stove top kettle, sleep masks to block out the early morning light… though of course we also brought lots of things we probably won’t use at all until we get to Bulgaria, and in the meantime clutter up Leo.

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“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”

“Better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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People in glass houses shouldn’t: Italy #1

Crossing borders in this part of Europe was very easy. Speeding along a motorway we entered a tunnel in France, and popped out the other end of it into Italy. It is a definite case of everything changes; everything stays the same. From scrubby olive trees and terracotta coloured apartment blocks, we rapidly switch to scrubby olives, teracotta coloured houses, swooping nerve defying flyovers with plunging chasms far below and impatient truckers undertaking a relatively slow moving, English-plated campervan who clearly is at fault, whatever it does. Beep beep! Beeeeeep!  The swathes of sloping glasshouses precariously terraced into the hillsides look eerily like some sort of Bladerunner-esque large scale industrial labratory. It is only later when we stop near the town of Ceriale, that we realise that many of these warehouses of glass are defunct and derelict, their old irrigation systems strung up across the beams like black and rotten tentacles, now full of dust as the agricultural trade has moved away to other regions and countries. There is more graffitti and litter. There are more signs on the gates warning of dogs and security cameras, but it is charmingly Italian, from every adult being unable to pass Tiddler without utterances of ‘Ciao Bella’ and huge platefuls of fragrant salads and tall latte machiatos on every corner.

The red dust gets everywhere. The campsite pitches are earthern, bordered by ornate succulents that the Dutch couple who own it clearly maintain, along with their aviary of perhaps twenty blue and yellow budgies. The soil has broken down through oveuse and penetrates everything. Tiddler and Leo are immediate dust magnets. I start to wonder if the terracotta coloured houses were actually painted white and I’m just seeing the stain left behind. Out of season the pool is closed, but it is hot and arid. We burrow into Leo’s inner stowaway seats and pull out the paddling pool. Tiddler splashes and makes mud pies. The few other visitors on site look on benignly and return to their newsapers. Even the gentle crooning of Mull of Kintyre, and the newly learnt strains of Jolene don’t warrant any attention.

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The motorhome season is drawing to a clear close. Digger searches for future sites but Italy has all but shut up for the season. We decide not to try the ‘sortees’- break stops suitable for motorhomes to park up alongside the long distance truckers which many motorhomers in Italy swear by, but we prefer a little more security travelling as we are with Tiddler. It is clear we must travel bigger distances at a time, tracing across a map of the Boot and joining up the dots that are the open campsites Digger has studiously marked. We are beginning the transition not only through the seasons, but through the West-East wealth spectrum across Europe. With many miles still to go before we reach Bulgaria, we are bound to see this continue.

Next posts: budget busting, festivals and amici in unexected places

p.s. a ccouple of new photos have been added to some of the France posts- we have had poor access to wifi and time for posts and photos….