The 12 month report. Numbers. Countries. Miles. Money.
From way north in Norway, to the southern tip of Greece, this is a review of the highlights. It’s gathering of things we’ve learned, and thoughts to help anyone considering a similar life.
12 months on the road. Is that all? What most would consider to be our “real life” seems such a long time ago.
I wrote an update at 6 months. That feels a lifetime ago. A most exciting lifetime indeed.
Countries. Slow down.
In the first year we visited 20 countries. I’ve included a picture from each.
It was great fun. But it was far too many.
Circumstances meant that I only spent a couple of days in each of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, Minty didn’t see Romania or Bulgaria at all. Many other countries we passed through in a week.
This year we plan to stop for at least two nights when we park up.
We’ll also reduce the number of miles between overnight stops.
Here’s the map of stops at the end of our first major journey. You can see these updated stop by stop, with photos and a mini commentary, on Minty’s Our Travels section of the website.
Surprisingly we finished the year bang on my target of 18,000 miles, largely because we spent 4 months in Greece where we did few miles, and we borrowed an ancient Fiat Panada to tackle the local drives.
This year we’ll try to do less on a day to day basis, but the overall average could be higher as we plan to get back to Britain for a family visit in October. We’ll then move the MOT to October so that we don’t have to consider driving back in winter again.
What have we learned?
We have dramatically edited the items we carry. Loads of clothes have been left, or given away. We now have lots of space in the van. We will fill that space with tea!
If any government concocted a plan to solve its housing crisis by making couples live in spaces of less than 11 square metres there’d be an outcry of human rights abuse.
Yet we’ve opted to live that way, and it’s bloody brilliant.
Having most of what you own within 6 metres is quite an experience – yet you still lose things.
(Very) small space living.
You know how everyone likes the kitchen at parties?
The van is seven metres long on the outside, less than six inside. In that space is our sitting area, kitchen, bathroom and all of our storage.
When it’s wet that’s all the space we have.
It can be a challenge.
Not everyone copes. A couple whose blog I followed had a string of bad experiences, and weeks of rain – unfortunately they went their separate ways.
Here’s how we get by.
Decent people help each other. The best way to help in the van is generally to let one person do the whole task, whatever that is, other than passing any item that’s in the area you occupy.
Helping is staying out of the way.
One cooks, the other washes. Seems fair? Not in the van. Whichever of us cooks also washes for that meal – it avoids any tension over excessive use of implements (usually me), or using too much water.
I take Polly for a 30 minute morning walk. Minty converts sleeping van to living van, and does all she needs to.
Strip washes at the sink have long replaced the shower. Having said that – a couple of nights at a campsite with a good shower each morning is a real treat.
Smalls (pants, socks) are washed daily. Other clothes are worn until dirty then we’ll use a campsite to do a big wash.
I have a plan for a motion activated washing machine (just a storage box we fill with clothes, water and detergent before a drive) but I haven’t tried it yet.
The van is swept out daily, more often if necessary. It takes a few minutes and keeps the space pleasant to live in.
The huge learning from this is that small space living can work, it’s cheaper in almost every way, and the effort involved in keeping it looking good is minimal. I don’t suggest we all live in van sized spaces, but a 40 square metre apartment should be ample for a couple.
We eat well. We enjoy food. We shop a little most days. And we eat a lot of fresh food. We uses pulses and lentils as our main protein sources – they’re light, last for ages, and healthy too.
We enjoy both the process and the eating. We find we take our health more seriously than we may have done in the past. Being ill in the van is grim for both and so we do what we can to avoid it.
Ha! The subject worried us before we launched into VanLife, and it’s the thing most people want to ask about.
The van has a simple loo. Think of a modern day chamber pot (potty) or commode, with a normal looking seat and rudimentary flush.
It’s designed to be used with a chemical fluid to disinfect, reduce odour and break down solids (nice). We only pee in ours and so it’s just smells that need to be controlled.
Every couple of days you need to empty the cassette – the box that holds everything. If you’re using chemicals then it has to go into an appropriate drain. Most of Europe has a good spread of these drains, but Britain doesn’t and neither does Greece.
We knew we’d be in Greece for several months, but toilet emptying facilities simply don’t exist beyond campsites. We needed to rethink.
It wasn’t hot and so by not using the chemical additive we could empty out into any drain, so long as we did so every morning. Any reduction of chemical use has to be a good thing, and we’re now much less dependent on the evil stuff.
Use and waste.
The mention of chemicals prompted a thought on consumables, utilities and waste.
Beyond the use of diesel VanLife can be an environmentally friendly affair.
We don’t hook up to electricity – everything is solar.
We do use plastic water bottles, but the same ones have been in the van for 12 months, refilled every couple of days – that’s hardly single use.
Water use is very low compared to households. The average Brit uses 140 litres of water a day. We use about 20 litres, between us.
We have a small fridge. That forces regular shopping, and there’s no place to hide for forgotten items inside.
Buying small amounts of food every day or so means there’s no food waste.
Where we sometimes fail is on recycling, facilities are often poor for anything but glass.
Wear it out.
Reading how an item of clothing is expected to stay in a young person’s wardrobe for 5 weeks before being binned, perhaps after just a couple of wears, makes us laugh.
The small wardrobe we left with is now a whole lot smaller still. Clothes become cleaning cloths only when completely worn out. Impractical items have been given away.
I’m back in Cornwall writing this. Yesterday I put a suit on for my uncle’s funeral. It was the first time that I’ve worn a suit in 18 months or more. What used to be a daily action was instead a thrill. Although I’m not sure that the ZZ Top beard was ideal for my finer threads.
Take time to remember.
Wake here. Sleep there. Take time to consider what’s in between.
The previous thoughts have been practical. Here’s something that’s good for the soul.
To travel is a wonderful thing if you enjoy learning and absorbing as you go.
To do so day after day could become a habit. You may not notice the wonder of what you’re doing.
When I lie down at night I think about where we woke that morning, and what we did in between. That simple process increases the joy. We experience considerable change pretty much every time we move on and I don’t want that to simply slip by.
Here’s an example from last week.
On Friday morning we woke on a typical German gravel stellplatz (very basic camp site) in Freiburg. We wandered into town, weaving between the students and thousands of bikes. Trams thundered down the pavements. Electric cars whispered by. There was a demonstration on a huge public square. Street performers did their thing. At the café where we had coffee two elderly friends met for a chat and a glass of champagne (at about 10.30am, we liked their style). We were surrounded by magnificent buildings, culture, people and life.
We then drove about 25 miles, found our spot for the night, turned off the engine, and there was silence. At 1100m elevation the views stretched for many miles in every direction, mostly across dense forest. Everything was green. In the last little village we drove through there was just one hotel open, beyond it there were no people. It was paradise.
The contrast between morning and night was extreme. It was worth stopping to ponder.
Inside the van is wearing well. No single item in a house gets as much use as almost every part of the van. The fabrics are good, although the foam padding is breaking down a little.
We didn’t have enough air flow to keep us at a sensible temperature last year.
Cornwall Van Windows in Penzance have fitted a (bloody expensive) opening side window at the back of the van to help cross ventilation.
We originally had constantly vented rooflights, but these weren’t any good in the extreme conditions. When it was cold and blowing a gale they’d let in draughts and rattle the blinds fiendishly. The new (also expensive) rooflights open wider so they’re good in the heat, and close tight. Excellent.
We even built a fan into one of the rooflights, although James, the guy who fitted it, had to reduce the polarity so that it would suck air out and thereby also work as an extractor.
An electric step is a good thing, but an under slung one becomes the lowest point on the van. With a particularly long wheelbase as Archie has that means it’s vulnerable. Ours now works again, but if I was building a new van I’ll simply carry a plastic step inside.
The shoe rack/footrest.
This simple piece of furniture is brilliant.
The swivel mechanism on the front seat makes for a much better living space, but it raises the seat too high from the floor for comfort.
Andi Sweeney’s shoe rack solves that problem and provides a good shoe tidy too.
We had another solar panel fitted. Running low on power is a worry when you’re in the wilds.
The fridge cuts out at a certain low voltage.
It’s only likely to happen in winter so the fridge isn’t so important, but in winter the biggest power draw is probably the heater fan, and you don’t want that stopping.
We now have 480W of panels – that should see us through.
Sexy wheels and tyres.
Ah, I was sad about this. ArchieVan looked amazing on his 20” Calibre black alloys. But I’ve swopped them for his original steel wheels. It’s a boring practical choice. The fact that he’s less sexy will make it less worrying to leave in unsalubrious places. It gives us a bit more cushion to the ride. And new tyres will be a lot cheaper when we come to fit winter ones in the autumn.
Our biggest expense is eating and drinking in cafes and restaurants. We enjoy doing it and will continue while we can afford it. It’s good to know that there’s an easy way of reducing the budget should it be necessary.
Next up it’s fuel. In the first twelve months we spent just shy of £4,000 on diesel.
We’re not looking to do this trip on the cheap, but it’s certainly possible if you wanted to and you wouldn’t miss much of the adventure (you’d probably experience less challenge to your waistline too).
Overall we averaged £2,000 a month, that includes all the big expenses like ferries, tunnels, insurance and the van modifications.
Our commission free Revolut and Starling cards have been accepted almost everywhere.
Surprisingly Germany is probably the least up to date country for card use and contactless – you need a fist full of cash there.
In Finland and the Baltics cash was frowned upon as an archaic inconvenience.
I’ve mentioned the changes to the van that we made in April.
Beyond that, and other than food, drink and fuel we have hardly bought a thing. We have tamed the beast of consumerism.
Walking a couple of thousand miles a year gets through shoe leather. We’ve both bought trainers and socks. We bought a bike lock. Nothing from Amazon! And that’s about it. I’m proud of that.
Three big learnings?
Slow down. Observe and try to understand the differences you’ll experience. Knowing more about fewer things might well be more valuable. That takes some saying for me. I’ve spent most of my life skimming the surface, I’ve loved it, but perhaps it’s time for deeper immersion.
This is not a holiday, it’s a different way of life. We’re both aware of how fortunate we are and we intend to get the most out of it.
How much is enough? When I first wrote the phrase I didn’t realise that there’s a whole movement behind knowing what you need and being satisfied with it. It’s a valuable lesson, but it shouldn’t stand in the way of ambition.
The jaw dropping highlights.
We set out promising not to compare, but instead to absorb all that was good about wherever we were.
We’ve become better at that.
Nonetheless some places simply blow your mind. These highlights are in order of visiting rather than preference.
Beauty. And the award goes to…
For consistently presenting us with dramatic beauty there are three standout countries:
Scotland. If you get a chance, do dive the North Coast 500 route. Get your timing right though, I understand it can become a procession, and of course you want to avoid the midges.
I love our tiny British island and I’m delighted to name part of it as standing among the best scenery we’ve been presented with.
The wild open moorland, the high cliffs teeming with life, glimpses of the Orknies (where there’s a place called Twatt!), then the west coast. You only have to look at the map to know that the west coast is going to be a fabulous adventure.
It’s thought provoking to see so many empty houses in the far north. Life must be hard here, and there’s little or no work beyond tourism.
Norway. It’s no surprise to see Norway in the list. Get blue skies for a couple of days in Norway and you’re in for such a treat.
Nowhere that we’ve visited compares for the clean air, the incredible visibility and the staggering beauty of mountain meets sea.
The eye watering cost of pretty much everything is offset by the fact that there’s actually very little to buy outside of the cities. Their facilities for van travellers are the best you could imagine, even better than the French, and thankfully they were free.
It’s cliché to say “Go to the Lofoten Islands”, but clichés become such for a reason. The Lofoten archipelago is a long way inside the Artic Circle. It retains a feel of how it must have been living here decades ago, and it certainly retains the stench of drying fish.
The long lines of motor homes do make that image of yesteryear a little hard to conjure at times.
Greece. If you’ve had a week lying on a white pebble beach on a Greek island you might be surprised to see it as a highlight of a drive around most of Europe.
As Greece unveiled before us we even became bored of our own expressions of “Oh wow!” yet you can’t stop yourself.
The most mountainous country in Europe is a lot more green than you’d expect. And in winter it’s empty. There don’t seem to be many Greeks, and there are very few tourists. Wonderful!
You can park where you like if you respect the land, but you need to keep your supplies topped up.
Expect wild winter storms like nothing you’ve seen in Britain, interspersed with beach and swimming days right through the winter. It does get very cold too, far colder than Cornwall.
Cities and VanLife don’t go together too well.
Some cities cater for vans, especially in France. Generally though it’s best to park outside and cycle in, or as we did a few times, take a room in town and catch up on washing, and wifi.
Hamburg. Parking at the port gives a centre stage view of what made Hamburg great. The huge ships that come and go on the Elbe keep it real no matter how much gentrification goes on in town.
Minty couldn’t walk far when we were there and so Polly and I explored the challenging but beautiful Elbphilarmonie and the exciting centre where new sits alongside the older merchants’ grandeur.
Thankfully it was early morning when we strolled the Ripperbahn and St Pauli. Some clubs were still kicking out. I didn’t regret my sober state. Broken glass, vomit and needles were being cleaned in a daily exercise to start each morning looking vaguely decent.
Gdansk. One of the few liberal cities in Poland with a relaxed atmosphere and a week’s worth of sights to visit, Gdansk is booming.
Our parking near the ports was a short walk through some very smart modern developments and past the excellent thought provoking WWII Museum into town.
The old centre of Gdansk came as a complete surprise.
Having watched the Solidarity struggles on TV as a teenager I expected a grim industrial place – how different it is. The largely c.17thold town has been meticulously rebuilt since the Germans visited in the 1940s. This was certainly a place to wander in wonder.
Wroclaw. If I had to live in Poland I’d want to live here, if only I could pronounce it!
Wroclaw has it all.
History. Modernity. A thriving arts scene. Beautiful buildings. The river. More statues of the pope than you can throw a cross at. And the biggest beer hall we’ve ever seen, under the main square.
Poland is notable for two other things, neither of which are joyous.
The worst roads.
I always thought that Europe’s maddest drivers were the Italians.
Until I got to Poland.
The rate of road deaths in Poland is appalling. That comes as no surprise to anyone who has driven there.
Other than a few very good new motorways, the country is connected by awful roads that are too narrow for modern traffic. These are made worse by deep truck ruts that could throw something as light as a Smart car off the road.
And lorries? You think you see a lot of Polish lorries in the UK? The number of 40 tonne trucks thundering along the Polish roads, generally right through the middle of towns, is horrible.
Everyone should visit Auschwitz. Certainly everyone with aspirations of power. Be prepared to spend a long time there. Ideally go alone to allow you to create your own understanding. Take time to absorb. To think. The experience will stay with you. As it should.
We debated whether to join a guided tour, but opted to do it at our own pace, listening in now and then. I’m sure we’d have learned more in a group, but the time for reflection is as much a part of it as what you see.
Which country would we want to live in?
Two countries stand out.
Greece. For the beauty, the simplicity, and the opportunity to do things better.
France. It’s rude, idiosyncratic, elegant, beautiful, varied, expensive, and my God they eat well!
The best dressed.
The best dressed people are probably the Italians, but the French have the edge with a more relaxed elegance. The Italians smell best!
It’s not for everyone. But if you think a different way of life could be good for you then get planning.
Yes you’ll be scared. You should be. But it’ll change your appreciation of all that you have.
There’ll be times when it all seems too hard – any life would be boring without those times, whether you live in a huge house, or a tiny van. You’ll find a way.
We still ask ourselves on most days “Is this real?” or “How lucky are we?”
As one of our readers, Hazel, said “It’s better to have said that we tried than to say that we wished we had.”
Ask us anything. We get lots of lovely emails and comments and we respond to everything.
When I get back to my Minty we’ll start to head east, for Polly’s operation, then to explore the very different landscapes of Romania and Bulgaria, hopefully getting to the Black Sea.
After the calm and relative familiarity of France and Germany it’ll kick start our senses.
One final thought.
I have been back to Cornwall twice in a month, once planned, once less so.
On our travels we have seen so much, the beauty, the drama, the cultural differences, the wonderful food, the warm sea, the places we’ve wanted to live. With all that, the far west of Cornwall stands head and shoulders above it all. We won’t rush back, we won’t stay put when we get there, but the pull of Cornwall is stronger than it’s ever been.