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Freewheeling in Europe

Map of UK, France and Spain with our approximate route outlined.
The basic route was around 4,000 miles in total.

Photo: the van in Rodalqillar, Cabo de Gata, Southern Spain

Part One.

Read the introduction here. Instagram

At the end of Summer, I set off in my van with my wife for what would be an 11-week journey round France and Spain. We were going to take in Portugal and Italy (and even Turkey) but that didn’t happen as we basically ran out of time and were back in Britain’s freezing rain on 1st December. During this journey, we both worked half the time online and took in some of the best scenes and climates in Europe, in October reaching 28 degrees in Spain’s stunning Cabo de Gata coastal desert.

The van

Last winter I converted a smaller ’02 Sprinter and sold it for a tidy profit. It wasn’t big enough for this trip, so I bought a ’07 Long Wheel Base Sprinter from a hippy lady in Wales, 7m long with the tow-bar, 2.5m high and 3.5t. It had 238,000 on the clock but it has the ‘bullet-proof’ engine, which are renowned to go on and on. We’ve just done nearly 4,000 miles and during some repairs on the way out I had it checked out by Mercedes in Valencia and the engine is in great shape, with a cruising speed of 75mph. As an unfinished project, she came with a 185w solar panel set-up, a 110AH leisure battery, and a Chinese diesel ‘parking heater’, under the passenger seat with the hot airflow directed into the living area, which proved essential on the way back through France in November but also up in the Spanish mountains earlier on in the trip. We added a split-charge relay system, a 450w inverter, another identical battery and had the wiring upgraded with some extra 12v USB sockets and lighting. It also came with a 240v system, 4 UK sockets and an external hook-up with 20m of cable. It’s got a 30cm roof vent and I learned that an 8-inch USB fan can be easily hung in the space either way up depending on whether you want to extract steam/moisture or draw in cool air. I rigged up a 4G antenna on top, plugged into a Netgear Nighthawk to enable a fully Wifi environment.

Sink, tiles, wooden cupboard and wood panelling inside the van, dimly lit producing a cosy atmosphere.
Sink, cupboard, panelling…

I fitted all-round triple-layer insulation, including the floor, and softwood tongue-and-groove panelling, varnished it, built a fixed king-size bed, several drawers and cupboards, benches, slide-out table, portaloo cabinet, sink (plumbed with a marine foot-pump and 2x25L containers), wooden bulkhead with shutters and sliding door, desk, flooring, 15kg gas bottle, cooker and fridge. I had some help with panelling and fitting the large window, cutting the hole was very noisy and as all work was done on the street, proved as my contribution to the often unbearable racket in this area with renovations and kids. She has a uselessly oversized awning so we bought a simple sunshade version. I did quite a bit of rust and paint work and had some welding modifications done and the rusty holes under the plastic trim filled, which are typical for this model. In France at my Dad’s I roller-painted it with white Hammerite as it looked shoddy especially when lined up on a site among the posh RV’s and big campers. We’re very happy being alternative and self-converted, but one has to show some self-respect! Anyway, that’s the van, let me tell you what I can remember about the trip.

A female and male adult children smiling, sitting relaxedly on a wheel arch, surrounded by tools inside a large empty van that is lined with silver insulation
Offspring admiring the new insulation.

Escape!

Some fun family trips around Wales and Dorset in-between work (on the van and in my job) served as good dry-runs and the opportunity to see some of the heaps of research put into real-terms. It took almost a week of full-time packing (aided by my running a full-day workshop in Derbyshire two days before we left, which provided Katie with time to stock the cupboards and getting our mobile-home in order. So when we set-off early that Monday morning, bound for the 2 o’clock Dover ferry, we felt we had everything to live off-grid for a few days at a time, and could bail to a hotel or Air BnB if necessary. We were in it for the ‘real experience’ and the excitement and nerves were evident, I was also very relieved to be leaving behind what had been a stressful couple of years locked-down, with noisy neighbours, tools and shouting from constant house renovations, car alarms, the usual city sensory pollution and the overall worsening British atmosphere, so there was more than a sense of escaping the mad-house. There was something about proof of injections to show the port noddies and after searching the van a bit they let us on the boat.

Life, work and continuity

Rear facing view from inside the van of the open rear doors facing onto a sunlit field and trees.  An acoustic guitar and red cushions are on the bed.
Somewhere…

We both work online part-time and I’ve also run a weekly meditation sessions for over a year, I also started a fortnightly dialogue workshop within two weeks of leaving. It was very important to me to continue these as well, to maintain a connection to online spiritual-well-being activity and community (related to coaching work) and cushion the effect of the double office vibe. Working together was at times stressful and the desk I’d built soon became rather redundant as it made more sense for one of us (usually Katie) to use the relatively roomy front-cab. Decent noise-cancelling headphones meant meetings weren’t invasive and importantly for me, kept confidential. Working flexibly with undetermined time-tables proved to be problematic as we both wanted to explore locations as well as avoid clashing with meetings, so we had to be clear with ourselves and each other, usually at the beginning of each week. Data and signal strength was rarely an issue even for Zoom calls with many people in attendance, in fact across most of Spain and France, the 4G was often stronger and more reliable than the terrestrial service from Sky back at the house. I even presented work at two conferences, one of them international and live. I also enjoyed some time working on a Getty Images iStock portfolio, which will be updated when time allows and they approve my snaps. I’ve got a lovely little Sony HX90 and an iPhone 7.

France

Colourful sunset over the sea and beach in foreground with a red and white lighthouse on the right middle ground.
Sunset over the Bay of Biscay from Côte Sauvage with La Coubre Lighthouse.
Large white van side view parked on a sunny field near Chartres France with sunshade canopy attached above the open side door.
Campsite at Chartres

After a couple of weeks acclimatising to our new life in the pretty small Northern France towns and nature reserves , getting used to small space, off-grid-living, money, food and staying on ‘aires’, discussing whether to visit a design show in Paris, we decided against it and went South. I’d wanted to visit Chartres Cathedral for many years because of the incredible, well-documented sacred design and the story behind the building and what it all represents. There’s definitely something about the harmonic proportions that have a pleasing effect on the eye and soul, from our first view of the front facade. Entering, I was disappointed but not surprised the ancient stone-floor labyrinth was covered by chairs. Sitting in one to clear my head and look around, I was overcome by an unmistakeable powerful and unusual feeling of an electrical life-force and serenity flowing through me. Katie soon appeared with red eyes as she’d been crying in a dark corner somewhere, overwhelmed by an ‘all-embracing presence’. We’d definitely entered the spirit of place.

Remembering to drive on the right by announcing it out loud as we set off every morning, we meandered down to the mind-blowing Côte Sauvage on the West coast. The roads were empty and we found a deserted restaurant car-park among trees, next to the pretty La Coubre Lighthouse. As it was going dark we decided to take a look at the sea. Wandering down a sandy track onto some huge dunes I took off my shoes (that amazing feeling of walking on soft, deep sand!) and rounding a particularly high dune came face to face with a breathtaking view of the sunset over the Atlantic where I took the picture above. The scene with the light over the fearsome waves on the seemingly endless, empty beach was at once disorientating and life-affirming. On the way back in the dark, a large wild boar stood between us and the van. Manoeuvring carefully round it, we jumped inside, quickly closed the door and spent a safe, quiet and cosy night at this wonderful outpost. We visited the lighthouse in the morning and after toast, eggs and coffee headed on to my dad’s place.

A field in France with our white van on it next to a shop. An aire is a place for campervans to park overnight. An electricity water-stand pictured in the foreground.
An ‘aire’ in France is a place for campervans to park overnight, sometimes get electricity and empty/replenish water (water-stand pictured), for which there’s usually a small charge. This one is behind a shop.

Castillonnès is a small and friendly town half an hour South of Bergerac and my father and stepmother’s lived nearby for about fifteen years, along with their three horses and some cats. I hadn’t seen him for two years or more so we stayed three days, catching up but with an eye on the road ahead, intending to return on the way back, which we did. I washed and painted the van, added some home-made graphics inspired by neolithic rock-art and we made a few adjustments to the fixtures and packing. Dad invited me to help him convert the barn into a living space, which sounds like a great idea. Over dinner we cooked in the house, dad told us the details of his recent serious heart-attack and how the ambulance had to keep stopping on the one-hour, blue-light journey to the hospital to revive him. After he and Vicki insisted we visit the Dali house and museum, we said our goodbyes and headed South-East towards the Pyrenees and Spanish border to also seek out warm sunshine and new adventures.

I am very much more suited to a van than a car (and I’ve owned comfy cars) and barely felt any fatigue the whole trip. Driving the main roads in France is really exciting (we mostly avoided the motorways to avoid the hefty tolls), as they are often stupidly very straight and very, very long, with the occasional bend in a village and not much traffic and fields or vineyards either side forever. British roads are an all-out nightmare in comparison to France’s countryside ‘too-good-to-be-true’ driving experience, which induces trance-like driving and regular, rather satisfying out-of-body experiences.


Next in Part Two: Collioure, the Med and over the mountains into Spain. “Where is the border anyway?

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All photos © Jonny Drury 2021. No unauthorised reproduction of text or images on this page and website.

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