08 Feb La Tortue Blanche: Update #1 From the Road
It is 4:23 am and I find myself sitting at the table of our converted Fiat Ducato camper van, shivering in the morning chill. I could do something about it, of course, turning the thermostat up until the windows drip in condensation and those bodies not comfortably wrapped in thick down duvets thaw out, but that would burn more propane—a mistake we made in the first week that resulted in me making a day trip from Belgium back in to Germany just to fill our two empty tanks. It is a manageable chill, perhaps 55 or 60 degrees, and I convince myself that it will help me stay awake and alert for the task at hand.
Myself fully aware, I have not written a blog post since Iceland one month ago, and that is beginning to frustrate me. Fair warning, this is a long post, as I have a lot to catch you guys up on! It is not that I have not had ideas on what to write about, but instead, too many scattered ideas and not ample time to sort through and capture them in writing. Here’s why:
Like the propane run to Germany, many other days (and I’d say 85% of my mental energy) have been spent trying to figure out this camper van thing. La Tortue Blanche, as we fondly call her, requires quite a bit of attention and strategic planning. Daily challenges we’ve encountered thus far include:
1) Keeping the fresh water tank filled even when every RV service point in a 100 kilometer radius is out of service due to the freezing temperatures;
2) Finding campgrounds each night that are not only open in the offseason, but also safe, cheap, and in good locations for the day’s activities;
3) Finding places to refill empty propane tanks, because for some moronic reason, each European country has their own specific type of tank and refuses to fill those from other countries, only selling their own type at extortionate rates;
4) Navigating impossibly narrow roadways across 7 different countries, each with their own driving styles, pedestrian laws, sides of the road, and traffic control nuances;
5) Consistently finding wifi that is fast enough to upload a photo, FaceTime home, post a blog entry, download new books on our iPads, or stream the next Sherlock episode (I just discovered it and am completely addicted).
The task is tall, but we’re learning quick and getting better at planning ahead. Thanks for bearing with me.
Naturally, this is all to be expected. We are finding out about the hardships that we could not find anywhere else online prior to leaving, just as we knew we would. I find that any time I feel like a pioneer or champion of a new endeavor, I find I must use the information readily at hand, improvise for the things I do not know, and hope for ample grace to cover up the mistakes I did not know I was making all along. All in all, it has been challenging, but thus far, SO worth it!
A more detailed summary on what we’ve done thus far (you’re welcome, mom…):
We started in Dusseldorf, Germany on January 15th, when we picked up our van. As I mentioned, we fondly call her La Tortue Blanche, French for “The White Turtle.” She is a very attractive 2013 Fiat Ducato, 6-speed diesel conversion van, 6.1 meters long and 3.3 meters high. We have a kitchen with a fridge, sink, and 2-burner stovetop, a bathroom with a cassette toilet, sink, and shower, a fixed double bed with a large garage underneath, and a kitchen table area. We absolutely love her! Just as if she were our child, I can’t resist showing you a few unsolicited photos:
After picking her up and stocking up on supplies, we headed quickly for the Netherlands, where we spent a week exploring Amsterdam, Harlaam, and Rotterdam. Highlights included visiting the Anne Frank house, the Corrie Ten Boom house, camping along the river in Rotterdam where we watched enormous ships coming in, and one particular afternoon stroll through the park near our campsite in Amsterdam where the wheat fields were backdropped by incredible graffitied bridges. Strolling along the streets and canals of Amsterdam was quite interesting, and allowed us to get our feet wet in the art of urban camping.
Next up, we headed for Belgium! When we were motorcycling across Vietnam, we met a Belgian couple from that were totally rad. We promised in October to meet up once we visited Antwerp, and we were lucky enough to have them as hosts and tour guides for several days! We enjoyed eating many local dishes together (horse steak, anyone?), visiting fabulous buildings around Antwerp, and properly exploring the quaint city centre by bicycle. Robbie and Roxanne were incredible hosts, lending their flat for showers for us and a fresh water top-up for the Turtle. I can’t wait for them to visit us in Colorado some day and return the hospitality!
After Antwerp, we visited the medieval town of Bruges. It was everything we hoped Belgium would be—narrow streets lined with adorable and historical buildings, gorgeous brick bridges over canals, and an insidiously scrumptious menu of chocolate, waffles, and beer. There is internal debate on what was the greater experience: seeing the alleged blood of Christ in the Basilica of the Holy Blood (it looked like meatloaf to me…) or eating a true Belgian waffle.
We then made our way down the coast through France and crossed the English Channel into the UK. It was difficult at first to drive on the WRONG side of the road with my steering wheel on the left side too, but we have adapted quickly. We stayed in London for several days, where we saw one of Jaimie’s favorite shows on the West End, Miss Saigon. It was a great production, and a dream come true for Jaimie! We also visited the Tower of London and Trafalgar Square. The next day, we again rode the train in a short distance from our campsite and met up with our good friend Jane Thompson from Greeley! It was wonderful seeing a dear friend abroad, not to mention the incredible depth of knowledge she brought to all the art galleries we visited together across London. We LOVED spending time with Jane, and were so impressed by her knowledge from her studies of Art History. Thanks Jane! Can’t wait to do it again soon.
We will return to London later in March, and thus, we darted off to the west with no true itinerary or route. We visited the Jane Austen house in Alton, where she lived her last 8 years and published most of her books. We somewhat accidentally drove right past Stonehenge and were thrilled when we placed first sights on such an ancient structure. It has become quite the expensive tourist trap in recent years, so we happily drove by a few more times and shot photos out the window instead. #Latortueblanche #winning
We ambled up the coast through Bath, and spent a day wandering the streets and taking in much of the history. It is a gorgeous little town, and we anticipate dropping back by again in March.
Finally, we found ourselves in Wales: the land of our ancestors. We have roamed several castles, marveled at the immense natural beauty. We stayed near the Tredegar House, which was remodeled by Sir William Morgan (in the 1600’s) and lived in by the Morgan family for nearly 400 years. They refused my request for ownership by family lineage inheritance…
Perhaps most excitingly, we (knock on some serious wood…) finally found a solution to our great propane dilemma, which costed us two full days and most of my brain’s neurons trying to solve over the past two weeks. Our German van’s manufacturer used out-of-date hardware to build the propane supply system, which made it absolutely impossible to convert to modern UK systems/bottles. We burn through one bottle each week running our heater and fridge, and were dangerously close to running out of propane without a solution. I tried an incredible amount of crafty adapters and converters, to no avail. Finally, I worked with a camper van mechanic to tear apart the system and rebuild it with the proper one, which seems to have done the trick, at least for now. It was a huge victory for me getting that piece figured out, and I hope that it frees up my mind and time for things I actually want to be doing, like reading, writing, and exploring. I think we are finally on the path to figuring this whole camper van thing out now, which is a huge relief.
Today we are camping at Strumble Head Lighthouse, on the west coast of Wales. We had the most incredible sunset, which was deeply moving for me. Stayed tuned for that post, perhaps as early as this week if I have decent internet. Edit: Here it is, if you haven’t read that one yet.
Finally, thank you for all the support, love, encouragement, and well wishes, everyone! Being in our little RV bubble, we lack a fair amount of external social interaction (at least until the weather warms and campsites are filled with other campers to socialize with), so it is always so good to hear from you all. All is safe and well with us for the time being. We are truly blessed and are enjoying the experience and challenge of this trip. We can’t wait to share more. Much love!