Monday, 19 October 2015

Last stop - Mesnil Jumieges (Nathanial)

After Paris we went back to one of the Aires where we started our adventure. We were here last November and said then that it would be great to come back in the hotter season. It's a great adventure park for the lads which meant we could finish on a real high for them, plus I managed to work on my sun tan some more.

Tom was gutted he couldn't go on the super high ropes with Alfie, the junior ropes would just have to do
Alfie really was in the tree tops
He didn't stop playing for days

Tom, getting into the swing of things

and days
He went on this at least ten times
And let's not forget the Lego
Alfie wasn't too interested in the rides so we decided to have a day out, just me and him. We rode to a near by village and found a great Abbey to explore. We rode through the most beautiful rural France and Alfie was on top form, he's always better on his own. Of all the places we have explored over the last ten months living in a van, I think this was our best day.
A great day out, just me and Alf

Paris (Nathanial)

After getting the brakes fixed, we traveled through Germany for a week, stopping off at a few 'lidos' on the way. the heat was intense which for some reason I wasn't expecting here. 

We then reached our last major city, Paris. This is a stark reminder for me that we are very nearly home, which I'm dreading. I really don't want this adventure to end. 

But first lets enjoy Paris. After getting used to city driving again and the campsite not being where it should be, we finally found our way and settled in. For some reason I really wanted the lads to see the Eiffel tower. Before we even set off last year I wanted to show them this crazy structure.

This is the biggest pylon I've ever seen Dad!
After catching a bus from the campsite and jumping on the 'underground' we were in the centre of Paris. We decided to walk through the city rather than catch trains everywhere. I'm glad we did, we had a great walk by the Seine.

                               It's actually very similar to Blackpool tower
We were smiling, but it was very chilly this high up
A view from the top

After lots of queuing we had the next day in the Louvre; we actually needed about three, it's huge. We walked through Napoleon's apartments along with the Egyptian artefacts and of course the renaissance section with that painting in it.

The Tardis, better known as the Louvre

For any art lovers, this is the place to be. Apart from the famous one, there are hundreds of amazing paintings in here. The Egyptian section was fantastic with an actual Mummy, it took Tom some time to get his head round how they mummified people. Not pleasant. 
After all the sightseeing we found a little cafe with tables on the street, we thought we would treat ourselves and not bother with a pic-nic today. It was great sitting there in this lovely city, drinking French coffee and eating some posh food, just watching the world pass by. It was great sitting there without the normal everyday life stress, but I did have the nagging feeling it was coming to an end.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Glossglockner mountain (Nathanial)

Our next stop is the Grossglockner mountain which holds the Pasterze glacier. I never thought I would see an actual glacier, I thought I would only ever see these on the telly, so I'm pretty excited by this one.

We arrive at our next campsite which is in the 'Hohe Tauern' national park. The roads have been breathtaking, and to finish off the scene, the campsite owner was wearing lederhosen!

The next day we drive forty four kilometers over the mountain to a maximum of 2500 meters in altitude, the peak itself is 3800 meters, but can only be done on foot.

The Glossglockner High Alpine Road

As we are passing lots of areas covered in snow, it's all too much for Tom, and he makes us pull in so he can have a play. We stop by a small group of waterfalls and a lake surrounded by what's left of the winter snow. It's surprisingly soft, soft enough infact for Alfie to make snowballs and terrorise us. To Tom's disappointment though, it wasn't quite snowman material.

Five minutes later, one of these were in tears "it was only a snowball"
It might be sunny, but it was getting chilly here

He got over it, Alf didn't


                                          After our frolics in the snow, we reached the car park where the glacier is. The mountains are all still covered in snow on the peaks and are stunning.

Although the glacier is the largest in the east of the Alps, I couldn't help but think it was a bit small. There are comparison pictures in the information centre showing what it looked like over the years, I think I was expecting it to look like it did a hundred years ago. With global warming, it is shrinking at an alarming rate. Nevertheless, it was still extremely impressive and I was well chuffed to see it.

In its day, the valley was filled with the glacier
All we need is a sled now

The magnificent Pasterze glacier
Now for the descent. Instead of just driving down the other side of the mountain, the road went through the whole mountain range. One minute we were driving down steep descents, then up inclines.

Twisty roads were challenging the brakes
But beautiful to look at
As lovely as it was to drive through snowy mountains, the brakes were starting to make some nasty noises, and give off even nastier smells. We decided to pull in and have dinner on the mountain to give the brakes time to cool down. As I inspected them, tremendous heat was being pumped out through the holes in the wheels. I only put the brake pads on two months ago so I was thinking the pads were just over heating and would be alright once they cooled down.

And through the mountains we go
It was now getting early evening so we decided the brakes had long enough to cool down and set off. The grinding noise coming from the brakes sounded like metal on metal, but this was impossible as the brake pads were new. Regardless of what I thought, I definitely recognised the noise. We drove in second gear all the way down, having the equivalent of Snowdon to go in descent (1000 meters).

We got to the bottom of the mountain and thankfully only had about ten kilometers left to drive to the campsite, but at this point the brakes were grinding even without them being used, as if they were sticking on. This was not good! We limped all the way to the campsite with the hazard lights on in third gear. It was now getting dark and the relief of making it to the campsite was great.

Feeling vulnerable limping through these roads to a campsite 
There is a large element of vulnerability carrying not only all your belongings in your home on wheels, but also your family. When something goes wrong with said home on wheels, one is boggered.

The next day the brakes were still no better. I'm not sure why they would be, but I was hoping a rest overnight and they would have miraculously fixed themselves. It wasn't to be.

We called the breakdown people out to inspect. The very nice man took one look at them and not only said he couldn't fix them, but he had never seen brakes in this state before, so off to the garage it was then.

The van needed new discs and pads all round, even needing new calipers on the front as the "boiling" brake fluid had fried them. The actual discs had split with the heat inflicted on them, and the pads were down to metal again after only eight weeks of wear!@>?

Luckily the garage could do the work the following day and let us camp on their premises, so at least we didn't have the hassle of finding somewhere to stay as we did in France when we lost fourth gear.
Twenty four hours and two thousand euros later and we were back on the road. A very expensive day but the brakes sure do feel good.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Malta Dam, Austria (Nathanial)

We're off to see Austria's highest damn at 200 meters high, and 1000 meters above sea level the Malta Dam. To get to the dam, we have to drive up the windiest of mountain roads which in parts of it, is only single lane.

Loving the roads, I sometimes wish I was on two wheels though
We drive by numerous waterfalls in the most beautiful  of landscapes to be greeted by a snow capped peak where the dam is.


Just to add to the beauty, in the car park at the top, there just happens to be a 'super car' meeting, bonus. Alf and Tom both spend half an hour deciding what they will have when they grow up, will it be the Porsche, the Ferrari, or the Lambo. Keep dreaming lads.

Alfie's future car
Tom's decided on this one

We walk across the dam and onto the glass view point, which is very scary for someone who is scared of heights, like me. The visitor centre was up a few steps, not many, but at 2000 meters above sea level, it's easy to get out of breath.  And after a bite to eat in the van, soaking up the scenery, we make our descent back down the mountain.

Amazing scenery all the way
The glass view point is the bit sticking out in the middle

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The Perilous Road (Slovenia) (Nathanial)

Croatia led beautifully into Slovenia, all rolling hills, more hot sunny days and mountain roads any biker would kill for. We are heading off to Lake Bled, another recommendation from fellow travellers, as well as a mate of mine.

We were driving deep in the 'Land of Forests' all saying how gorgeous the scenery was when the tarmac just ran out and turned into a dirt road! After double checking with the sat nav that we hadn't taken a wrong turn, we had a decision to make; can the van make it? Being the eternal optimist I put all faith into the van and we pushed on, although it was a very 'squeaky bum' journey.

This is the main road!
Not looking down

Thankfully we didn't see any of these 
We managed to avoid bumping into any of the bears that the road signs were warning us about and managed not to slide off the road, even when a tractor came screaming round a corner the opposite way (as far as tractors scream that is). The dust thrown up from the road came rushing in through the windows which we had to shut quickly, although not before a fine covering of dust had spread itself throughout the van. After driving what felt like most of the day, the dirt track finaly merged back into tarmac. Amazingly, through all the juddering and jolting and wobbling of the roads, the wall units are still up. There were a few moments I was expecting them to come crashing down with all the food we have crammed in them.

Before we go to Lake Bled, we are stopping off at the 'Postonjska Jama' caves for an explore.

The campsite we arrive at reminds me of a 1970s cold war survival camp site. It has a hexagon shaped central block with the toilets and washing facilities etc, which goes underground for parts of it. There is a small pool next to it (too cold to swim in though whilst we were there, although Alfie tried) and the camping area is spread out over different levels through a forest. I kept expecting James Bond to fly through at any minute and assassinate the camp site owner for being a cold war spy.

The caves were much the same as any other caves - we have been to a few now, the only difference with this one being that we had to catch an underground train to see the best parts as it is twenty kilometers in length and we were only seeing five.

It's funny how memories work; being on the underground train immediately transported me back in time to when I used to work down the coal mines, the cool damp smell helped too.

We had our 'grand tour' with interesting facts about Russian prisoners of war building bridges down there, and caught our train back to the surface.

Since the Nineties, the caves still receive around two hundred thousand less visitors a year due to the Yugoslav wars.

This sign was near the exit of the caves, please use your imagination re what the orange man is doing???

After our visit to the caves, the weird camp site, and surviving the 'Land of Forests' we still had a lot of miles to do and more mountainous roads to travel. Interestingly enough, as we drove through Croatia, we still saw evidence of battles in certain towns in the shape of buildings with bullet holes in them.

As we were on our way to Lake Bled, the heavens decided to open up. This turned out to be quite a challenge as the van is far too overloaded and these roads are incredibly steep. We have regularly been driving up and down 12% inclines, even going as steep as 16%! But when they go on for miles the van does suffer, in particular the brakes, even with the new brake pads I put on it in Italy.

The van didn't like these signs

As we drove through the mountains the front wheels were struggling to get a grip and they ended up spinning all over the place. This is no fun when you can see a hundred feet down the mountain side which has no barrier, and a passenger who needs to take medication to stay calm on normal mountain roads.

The van wheels were constantly spinning out going up hills and the rain combined with the weight of the van meant the brakes were locking up going down hills. Nothing much gets me particularly worried, but I have to say, I was now. I wasn't going to show my fear to Beth and the kids, I felt I had to be the face of confidence and calmness, but  definitely had the 'paddling duck syndrome' thing going off.

It rained all the way to Lake Bled, but we made it in one piece. After the last couple of days driving over dirt tracks and skid courses, I was looking forward to exploring on foot again.

Lake Bled
And from another angle

Lake Bled is lovely, we had a couple of days riding round the actual lake, but our exploring was broken up with showers. The campsite is surrounded by mountains which are covered in trees, it reminded me of the film 'The L
ast of the Mohicans'.