the skinflint philosopher

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


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Return

We’d been beset with poor wifi, and beautiful sunny weather that I wanted to be outdoors enjoying, and I simply didn’t keep up to date with blogging our journey through Italy and Spain. We are now back in the Westcountry, with plenty to update you all on on the changing circumstances and life and times of Thrifter, Digger and no-longer-quite-as-tiddly Tiddler. I promise to try and write up all that soon.
In the mean time, it is going to be a simple whistle-stop version of our journey home.

Landing in Bari, Italy, we heading straight over to Pompeii, and just about managed to find the ruins behind the made-in-China tourist tat, and the swarms of pesky foreigners like ourselves. We had been spoilt in Bulgaria and Greece, as being just one of a relatively few campervanners on the road. In Pompeii we hear English voices for the first time in months.
In Rome we potter round the sites with our friends who are living and working in central Italy for the year, and who we also we met up with last October on our eastwards journey through Italy. Tiddler is overwhelmed with excitement to see familiar faces, and holds hands contentedly with A for hours, chattering away not only about Romans, but also taking the time to fully inspect and be taught about the ants crawling over the ruins. She only lets go of him to eat the fruity and obligatory gelato.
After the long ferry crossing to Barcelona, we dawdle along the Spanish coast and attend April fiestas and drink sangria. The Spanish children run wild, and hang out in polite packs in the campsite toilet blocks, only returning to their parents for enormous grilled platefuls before dashing off on their bikes again. Spanish children appear to require no sleep and keep Digger and I awake past midnight chattering away (politely) in the darkness.
We are in awe of the beautiful landscapes in the Bardenas nature reserves in the Navarre region, a biosphere in northern Spain. These sandy cliffs and pyramids transport us to a desert, as the genuine home of the spaghetti western. Hermitages and cellars are chiselled into the cliffs, and we watch the townsfolk putting up wooden barricades in village after village, not to stop the Injuns, but for the toned down country versions of the Pamplona bull runs, as our host informs us, with cows.
From here we criss-cross the many pilgrimage routes of the Camino do Santiago, following the way of the shell more by accident than design. We greet the walkers and cyclists that pass us, and walk alongside them for a few Tiddler-size hikes. The guide books suggest it isn’t practical to go by horseback these days, as the hostelries can’t cope.
Leo obtains his first puncture of the roughly 8000 mile round journey. Digger is aided by the campsite groundsmen for a good ten minutes, speaking in English to each other, before they realise they are both Bulgarian. Clapping on the back and tyre changing wizardry ensues.
We depart from Bilbao on a twenty-three hour crossing, but our return to the UK is blighted with rough seas and Digger and I are both ill. Tiddler snores and dreams and is mercifully oblivious. The sea is so rough, that on our return to dry land it takes me eight days to stop feeling that the ground is rolling beneath me, and turning my legs to jelly. I question Digger as to whether I am walking strangely, as the queasy uneasiness remains. I google mal de debarquement, and wait for reality to return.

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The Bulgarian job: Greece # 1

What do you do if you can’t speak the language but know your final destination is Bulgaria? In Bari, our final stop in Italy, Digger plays a game of follow the BG car and lorry registration plates. He’s right, and we easily get to the ferry port despite the majestically convoluted one way systems in place.

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He jumps down from Leo and chats to the Bulgaria truckers in their cabs, and finds out the latest news and technical details of the embarkation. These long distance drivers have come from all over Europe, shuttling their loads through countries and weeks. Many travel in pairs, so one sleeps as the other drives thus ensuring no delay on the items they are shifting. There is an edge of competitiveness, each trying to outdo each other with tales of their speeds at covering certain routes, and dismissing those who achieve it in less time as simple rookies. They are away from their homes for six weeks at a time, and carry photos of their children stuck on their cab dashboards. Their salaries are around €1000 a month, three times a typical Bulgarian wage. You can see why they tolerate the working conditions.

At the check in we show our passports for the first time since being on UK soil, and then have a few hours to spare before we can board. We head for a long lunch into the town centre to while away the time until the night crossing. The newer part of the city of Bari , the Murat quarter, is built on a strict block system, and is filled with high end fashion shops and Italians drinking coffee, and the parks are filled with (we assume, perhaps wrongly) African immigrants using the free wifi and waiting. We prefer the old town Barivecchia which is the original settlement between the two harbours. It is a veritable maze of buildings and narrow cobbled streets, where people open their kitchen doors straight onto the streets and cook on gas burners in alleyways. We see three generations of women sitting round tables rolling, pinching and drying pasta together, while the men sit in the cafes and let their opinions disperse through the passageways. We visit the 11th century Basillica and view the relics of St. Nicholas, and chat to Sicilian monks on holiday.

By the time dusk begins to fall, we load ourselves back into Leo and attempt to follow the directions to the actual ferry. The port is a mini-city in itself, and we are sent into a seeming dead end in a trucking graveyard. The truckers shift and reverse and wave us forwards to squeeze through tiny gaps, it is a free for all medley and the port authorities seem little bothered by the hodgepodge fashion in how we get on board. We are a little lost campervan amongst a sea of juggernauts. We finally get on board, and hook up to the electric. We have chosen the cheaper ‘camping on board option’ which means we  will sleep in Leo on the deck rather than pay for a cabin. The crossing from Bari to Igoumenitsa is eight hours through the night, and we squeeze up past the huge greasy vehicles to get up to the main lounges for an evening meal amongst the truckers. They are loading themselves up with huge plates of beetroot salad and moussaka and red wine. Alcohol turns out to be necessary to lull us of to sleep later given the droning thump of the engines beneath us.

We arrive in the port town of Igoumenitsa at 4.30am. We drive and park on the prom, and wait for morning to arrive. The day is a national holiday, and the Greeks have clearly been out celebrating the night before with the knowledge of not having to work today.  Out-all-night revellers stop to wave through the windows at Tiddler, and ladies with high heels and shiny clothes do the greek equivalent of the morning walk of shame home in their party clothes. The first rain in weeks suddenly arrives and within half an hour the streets are awash, water funnelling down the streets and out into the harbour. We understand why the pavements are so high in comparison to the roads. Later, the morning’s weather is soon forgotten as we set up camp on a little spit of land that is surrounded on all sites by a narrow beach. The sun shines, and we spend a few days doing nothing but dig sandcastles and swim in the perfectly clear sea. Tiddler collects shells by the bucketload, and our peace is only slightly disturbed by the arrival of a convoy of caravans and motorhomes from Ireland, who turn out to all be part of an extended family and spend a disproportionate amount of time shouting at each other and their dogs. We move to the other end of the campsite and peace returns.


From here we travel on to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We see nothing here, only the inside of a hotel room, as Tiddler goes into meltdown and flatly refuses to walk anywhere. There are famous roman architectural sites, and the white tower, and market places, but only if you are visiting without a truculent toddler in tow. We decide to move on, knowing we have plenty of opportunities to drop back down into Greece from Bulgaria when the weather is better and Tiddler is more willing.

So we head north, through the plains of Serres where the biting winds rattle Leo’s doors and the bleached out fields look as dry and pale as the cotton growing there. We stop for lunches in border towns where people finish eating direct from paper tablecloths and jump straight into their tractors that they have left parked on the kerb. We take the twisting turns into the Rodopi mountains, and arrive at the Bulgarian border.

Next post: Digger’s black humour predictions about life in Bulgaria are proved to be true.


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Amici, Romans and countrymen: Italy 3

From the (hopefully) healing waters and sparkling air of Cerravezza Terme, we continue on a slightly less tortuous route, fortunately given the dense fog that has descended overnight, down the other side of the Apennines and into Reggio de Emilia.

 

In a town that has rather been benevolently neglected due to the twin sisters on either side of it of Parma and Bologna, we are fortunate to spend time and have a guided tour from two friends and colleagues who themselves are taking a sabbatical here for a year. They have been residents of Reggio a few months, enough to find a wonderfully high ceiling-ed rental flat above a hidden courtyard behind a huge stone archway and facade, and purchase just enough crockery and furniture to be comfortable, and find work in a local language school. Even so they regale us with their thankfully unfounded fear that they would be permanently sofa surfing with airbnb for the year. Despite their fluency in Italian, the bureaucracy gears that were needed to move rental agreements, and parking permits, and Brexit spanners in the works for potential employment, all took time to get resolved. Tiddler is joyous that she has found old friends in the middle of this strange journey across Europe. We ourselves enjoy it even more so, conversation, good company and being ordered for in restaurants and the compulsory gelato shop, without struggling to translate the menus for a change. I eat deliciously sweet pumpkin ravioli, and given that the region is famous for its meat, Digger devours a platter of smoked hams and salami. In the icecream shop, we perch on white-painted log stumps while Tiddler tries almost fluorescent pink forest fruits, I take sharp lemon and figs in ricotta flavours, while Digger manages to consume a chocolate ice cream so rich it gleams as slick as a ganache under the shop lights.
In the park, as a promotion advertising a new museum exhibition ‘The way of the road’, we stumble across another reminder of the history of this country. Tiddler occupies herself admiring swords and beards, and collects conkers to add to her acorn collection, and waves our friends a wistful Ciao when it it time to move on.

 

From Reggio we travel on southwards, stopping in Bologna to potter round the square, eat pizza slices and spicy courgette dumplings. The police are out in force, and we wonder if this is normal, or a symptom of ongoing fear of terrorist attacks in crowded public places.

 

Parking is difficult and costly and we have taken to leaving Leo in the car parks of the huge cemeteries to visit the towns where it is much easier to manoeuvre. My father has talked for many years of visiting Milan and also Palermo to try and research and track down records of his family tree, but visiting these cemeteries confirms it is a mammoth task he would be undertaking, and I do not think it is a viable project for his age now. There are tombs and plaques stretching out, row upon row. The numerous flower stalls and sellers at the entrance had seemed superfluous, until we realised the scale of just this one premises, where a step ladder on wheels is a necessary requirement when you come to pay your respects.

 

Digger’s recent diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome (years of using power tools has begun to take it’s toll) seemed worsening with the regular driving, and we decide to try and cover more mileage on the autostrada, the Italian motorway. This would not only reduce the driving time, but also reduce the amount of turns and rotations he needs to make with the steering wheel. These roads would have made the Romans proud.

imageThe autostrada system is quite clear, take a ticket from the machine on entry to the motorway,  and on exit the ticket works out the cost, and you pay. It is all automated, instructions can be in your language of choice, and it has all worked perfectly fine so far the few stretches we used them in France and just across the border into Italy. We had confidently negotiated the problem that Leo is too high to be at the car height buttons, and too low to be at the lorry height buttons, so I (being the passenger as we are a right hand drive), have to carry out a series of yoga stretches with my whole torso out the window with Tiddler holding my legs for balance in order to operate the system. We also worked out the confusion that France has blue signs for toll motorways and green for free route, whereas Italy has the complete opposite, clearly to lull unwary motorhomers into paying unexpected charges. So we were feeling fairly confident by this stage. Picture the scene. Digger drives up to the booth. I launch myself out the window as normal, and press the button for the ticket. No ticket. I press the button again. No ticket. No ticket. Car behind beeps. Still no ticket. Lorry trundles up behind. There is no option to reverse. Digger is visibly sweating, if only I could see it, but my head is halfway down the side of the van. The barrier goes up, without issuing a ticket. Digger puts his foot down and drives through with me scrabbling back into my seat with a bump. And this is how we end up on the autostrada without a valid ticket.
“Not to worry, we’ll sort it out at the other end” is our mantra of the day. Four hours later we pull up at the exit booths, gratefully seeing this is unusually manned.  Manned by a non-English speaker however. We wave our hands and point and try and explain. We give the name of the junction we entered, and point and wave and hand signal a bit more. The chap sees the light and turns to his computer. He prints us a receipt for 73 euros. We are flabbergasted. We repeat the name of the junction, in higher pitched voices. Bear in mind this is all happening with me in my favourite leaning-out-of-the-van yoga pose. He takes Digger’s driving licence details, and gets out to write down the registration number, which all now gets entered into the computer too. “ponto blu” he repeats at us again and again, along with a whole host of other things we can’t understand. “ponto blu, ponto blu!” He waves the receipt. Tiddler shouts “pontu blu, pontu blu!” It is clear on all sides we are getting nowhere.
He conceded defeat and writes €17.20 underneath the receipt. We hand this over. He wants Digger’s signature. He lifts the barrier, calling “ponto blu” forlornly after us as we drive off.
Some time later, our nerves steadied with the best falafel wrap I have ever tasted, from a Pakinstani shop where the owner give Tiddler slices of kebab straight off the rotating skewer while we wait, and whose whole face lights up when we say we are from England. He talks about Sadiq Khan with a misty eyed glow of delight. We learn from him we need to go to a Ponto Blu office, the administration for the autostrada system. Fearing we still need to pay a €73 fine for not having a ticket, we are pleasantly surprised if a little confused when the following day at the Punto Blu we hand over our receipt, the bespectacled man taps his computer, Digger signs another paper, and the matter is resolved. It seems that without a ticket you are liable for the whole stretch of motorway toll to prevent people losing their tickets on purpose. Once our registration plates were checked by the autostrada entrance photo recognition system, we were off the hook. Tiddler, in some act of defiance for the stress and inconvenience, did a wee in the Punto Blu car park and we hustled her into the van before we got fined for that too.

 

The Republic of San Marino was a clear tourist destination, with American cruise goers popping up from Rimini port to waste their time there queuing up to pay five euros to get their passport stamped with the official (though unnecessary) border pass. Like Le Mont St. Michel in France, the town of San Marino itself was historically and architecturally fascinating, but full of random shops as a glorified duty free location. Whether leather bags, souvenirs or guns, it was all there on display.

 

It also hosts various museums, including the museum of vampires, and the museum of curiosities, both of which seemed out of place in this hill top fort. We spotted the guards, and took the cable car, and Digger heard some snatches of Bulgarian conversations around him. “We are getting closer” he said, “I’m not sure how I feel about that”.

 

Tiddler befriends a German couple who give her an Italian deck of cards with its forty cards and random pictures of coins and cups. They try and teach us a game but the rules get lost in translation. We move on through Pescara, to Bari. The ferry is waiting for us.

 

Next post: crossing the Adriatic sea and follow the BG plates!


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Hairpins and smurfs: Italy # 2

Just exactly how steep is a 7-12% road gradient, and will Leo cope? Digger and I ponder this in relation to hills and ascents we know from back home as we drive onwards into the Apennines. Our fears are temporarily allayed when we meet a caravan (with French plates) coming in the opposite direction.
“Well, it must be okay if a caravan can be towed surely?”
“Unless they also didn’t know what they were getting into on the way in but then couldn’t turn round to get out again”, Digger suggests.


We are leaving the coastal stretch heading into a little town called Cervarezza Terme, just south of the larger and more well known town on Castelnovo de Monti, famous for the historic bell factory that still survives there. Cervarezza Terme itself is over 1000m altitude, and as we climb upward, ever upwards, we see the countryside morphing with every turn of the road. The colours change to oranges and russets, and distant hills take on a reddish-purplish tinge. Summer weather on the coast is a picture postcard receding through our back windscreen, and by the time we reach the brow of the mountain range we have clearly dropped into an alpine-induced autumn. We are grossly undressed and I pull on my bedsocks as we drive along. Digger snorts in amusement. “No wonder the Italians despair at the British fashion sense”.
After triple, nay quadruple, uphill hairpins in a row, with me clinging onto the side of the door as we negotiate the curve, we realise how the caravan, and all other drivers cope with these roads. They simply drive in the middle and those with any semblance of passing courtesy for other drivers sound their horn as they go round blind corners. Note to self, massive delivery lorries don’t feel the need to warn you of their presence on your side of the road. Luckily all that extra adrenaline released served well to warm up us slightly, and we arrive just before dusk, Leo and nerves fairly intact, into serious chestnut country.image

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The large campsite is set onto a slope, and has around two hundred pitches as well and numerous wooden cabins, some of which are obviously privately owned as the bespoke additions of pot plants and pizza ovens. The dense woodland, part of the Fonti national park means that the scale of it is hidden like some forest wonderland beneath leaves and thousands and thousands of fallen chestnuts. The chap on reception seems a bit concerned about us turning up unannounced. “There is room tonight, but if you are still here at the weekend there might be a problem. You need to let me know first thing in the morning how long you are staying”. We are slightly bemused as the site seems deserted, apart from two little Italian grannies, dressed in stereotypical black, poking at the chestnuts with their walking sticks.


We enjoy two quiet days, walking in the woods, collecting chestnuts and playing on the mini zip wire we find there. We walk into the town and drink coffee on a terrace, shoe-horned in on a table full of old men playing cards and clutching their leather over-the-shoulder bags to their rotund stomachs, who buy Tiddler icecream and then chuckle at her chocolate moustache. We visit the ‘has-seen-better-days’ mineral spa, famed for its hydrotherapeutic qualities (I’m hoping for some improvement with my broken toe) with the slipperiest floor I have every had the misfortune to try and walk across. Tiddler slam dunks herself like Bambi on ice.


Seven thirty on Saturday morning it all suddenly makes sense. We are awakened by motors running, brakes, shunting and tyres cracking gravel, and Italian voices calling. The Italian Motorhome Club weekend has arrived on our doorstep. Many must know each other as they hop in an out of each others vehicles, hand signally and backing in on top of each other, trapping Leo in some sort of white van corral. Children spill out, and dogs, and glamorous looking Italian campers who clearly have just left home this morning. Tiddler, Digger and I look on in our own slightly dishevelled manner. Tiddler can hear the children and jumps into her coat and hat and is out the door to play, befriending a family of three who later spend a whole afternoon playing lego and beetle drive on a picnic rug outside Leo, and in return the no doubt grateful mother showers us with little sweetened biscotti and leaves Tiddler with a toy smurf. Italian motorhoming is an organised phenomenon. The women cook up veritable feasts on their van hobs, no scrimping on the fiddly bits. Food is clearly worth doing properly. At certain times everyone disappears en masse to some organised programme, and we are in a motorhome ghost town. And then like clockwork, they all reappear again. It is a frantic, exuberant, oh so Italian few days.

 

Next post: what happens when you end up on the autostrada without a ticket.


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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….


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Hop on the bus, Gus

No need to discuss much? What was Paul Simon thinking when he penned those lines? If Digger and I, with the added matured-with-age input of Granny and Papa Westcountry are anything to go by, any attempt to hop on a bus needs plenty of discussion, pontificating, and generally going round in verbal circles. Hopefully Digger and I will still be speaking to each other when we finally do hit the road otherwise it’s going to be an awfully quiet journey all the way to Bulgaria.

Update needed I think on where we are at. We have welcomed into our family a new addition. Hello to Leo!

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Leo (named by the previous owners and we didn’t bother to question why- reasons no doubt lost in obscurity) is a converted minbus. The chap we bought it from scavenged and stripped an old caravan, using all the fittings to kit out Leo with a fridge, oven and hob, sink, double bed, toilet and all the expected storage units. It is clearly a DIY conversion, but that makes it a little bit quirky. We hestitated handing over our hard earned and saved cash, considering whether Leo would have any re-sale value, but in the end we decided better to buy now and get going, rather than sit and wait for the perfect motorhome to turn up for sale while we may still be drumming our heels here at Christmas. So we now have Leo, possible warts and all.

In order to seat Tiddler safely, in a three-way seat belt for her car seat, we have had to lock in an additional minibus seat into the floor, which unfortunately blocks access to the fridge. Digger and the previous owner conferred and have worked out a system where the whole seat can be slid backwards and forwards, at least allowing us to use the fridge when we need to, but looks like we’ll probably end up storing random stuff in there instead of food!

Next on the hit list of upgrades is a bed for Tiddler. The original conversion has just a (smallish) double bed, and while we could squeeze Tiddler in with us no-one will get much sleep with that option. So Digger (he is so excited as now has a genuine reason to get his tools out and tinker around in the garden with a pencil behind his ear!) is trying various plans to make and secure a raised bunk. This should go above our bed, but still needs to be dismantled and ideally store flat so it doesn’t clog up our limited space. The two benches/sofas that become the double bed are here in this picture, with a plan for a raised bunk on the right hand side.

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Inkeeping with our thrifty ways, we managed to find a suitable board to take Tiddler’s weight jammed in the roof space in Papa’s garage, and then found a couple of old dumped chairs in the corner of a carpark. I’d spotted them abandoned a few days previously and walked past without a thought, till Digger mentioned he needed some sort of stand to support the bed. Guerilla chair stealing moments later, Digger is chopping them up on the lawn, taking the metal legs as bed supports while Tiddler steals the brown seat and sets up an impromtu musical concert with herself as the star performer.

Sounds good so far, though Digger has come in shaking his head tonight and so the bunk may need a little rethink before I can post up the finished article. Plenty of opportunties of course for us all to have our pennyworth on the best way to do it. Don’t even get me started on the negotiations regarding the best way to fit the curtain to save anyone’s blushes (our own, or random Gallic passers by) around the ‘bathroom’ area.

In the mean time, I’m beginning to sort through our boxes, packing into Leo things we think we need. We are of course complete novices at the motorhoming lark, though I have survived plenty of kayak wild camps and expeditions, and Scouting in the past, so I am pretty handy with setting up a tent and brewing a cuppa on a trangia. But now I have a whole vehicle to pack, I’m a bit stumped. We are not sure when to cut back (I really don’t need all those t-shirts) and when to splurge (I am taking a pair of wine glasses) so that we actually enjoy the experience. It shouldn’t all be masochistic minimalism. China plates or plastic? Duvets or sleeping bags?
We still don’t have a plan for when we get to Bulgaria, so we don’t know what we need for that, let alone what we will need for the journey. My very good friend, found on her blog here, has started writing lists for me of things to consider. Carbon monoxide alarms. Washing lines and pegs. Hot water bottle. Maps.

We are now motivated for the off, to get on that (mini)bus, Gus, but we are still waiting. Waiting for confirmation that Digger’s island driving licence is valid with the insurance. Waiting for the V5C vehicle logbook to be sent back. Still waiting for Digger to be able to get a bank account.

So my philosophy for today is, that it is very true that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What you need to watch out for is that someone hasn’t tied your shoelaces together before you even start.