Top tips for campsites and stop overs when you are abroad

09.14 Vila Praia de Ancora campsite
Idyllic Portuguese campsite

Prompted by a fellow Devon ‘van owner I have given some thought to the baffling array of guides out there for motorhomers to use, buy or download to help you find a campsite in mainland Europe.  Very few motorhomers have unlimited amounts of space to store numerous guides and unlimited amounts of money to purchase them so how do you choose what to spend your hard-earned on?  When travelling we generally plan on a day-by-day basis and out-of-season and in more remote areas you can’t always rely on just coming across somewhere suitable to stay [either a campsite or wild camping pitch] without a bit of planning.  Below is a guide to the resources we have found most useful when we travel abroad.  Each guide or app has its plus points as well as its limitations.

Guides, apps and websites

ACSI card scheme – This is great value for out-of-season touring (from September to June) and this is our first port of call when we are looking for a campsite so that we can get maximum value from it.  You pay for the card and books and campsites in the scheme charge either €11, €13, €15, €17 or €19 per night for two adults with electric.  The card scheme has 1,541 campsites in France in 2018 and just 26 in Portugal, so its usefulness will depend where you are going.  In France municipal sites [see below] can be cheaper than the ACSI sites but in Italy [331 campsites], where campsites are expensive, the ACSI card can contribute a significant saving to your holiday.

Caravan and Motorhome Club Guides – We have these guides for all of Europe and they are sold with a good discount for members.  The entries and campsite reviews are from members and can be quirky and brief.  We like to read between the lines of these reviews and do find these books of assistance, even though the information is not always up-to-date.

The ACSI App – In addition to the ACSI card book we have this app on our phones.  This has a wider selection of campsites than those in the discount card scheme as it contains all campsites inspected by ACSI and is regularly updated.  If you have WiFi or data the ACSI website is also a great resource particularly for the camper’s reviews as well as the information about sites.

All the Aires – We carry this if we are travelling in a country it is available for; the books are fairly comprehensive and kept as up-to-date as a book can be and give an honest review of each aire, its facilities, its outlook and how comfortable it is.

Camperstop App – It is worth paying the €5.49 / year for this app which is invaluable for both campsites and aires / stop overs.  The app has photographs and reviews of sites which can really help in deciding where to go. The app knows your location and this is handy when we arrive at a campsite or stop over that we don’t like the look of as it can tell us where our nearest options are.

In France we will look for municipal campsites in small towns as these are generally good value and near to the town centre for [the essential] bakeries and bars.

Others have recommended Search for Sites and I’ve tried it out and it looks helpful but this isn’t something we have used much.

Home-based research & recommendations

In addition to the above we will research areas we are fairly certain we will be going to, particularly national parks and mountain areas where there are often few campsites and we are looking for the best situation for walking.  This might be Google searches, Rough Guide / Lonely Planet information, some Cicerone Guides include campsites and we sometimes ask a question about an area on a motorhome forum or Facebook page where there are generous well-travelled people with a wide range of knowledge.

You also can’t beat personal recommendations from other campers you meet on the way and these have sometimes taken us to interesting places that we never expected to visit when we set off.

To book or not & the one house rule

We generally travel with only a rough plan and are not interested in tying ourselves down by booking campsites when we are abroad.  We have never found this necessary, even when we have been away in July and August so long as we are flexible enough to move on if a site is full [see the house rule below].

Our house rule is to start looking for somewhere for the night by around 17.00.  This is just because we did get caught out in Mecklenburg in northern Germany on one trip.  There were plenty of campsites around the Mecklenburg lakes and none of them were full as it was only June.  The mistake we made was to be too busy enjoying a lovely sunny evening and leaving looking for a campsite until after 18.00 and German campsites don’t keep the evening hours that are common in southern Europe [and even Poland where we had just come from].  At each campsite we arrived at reception was closed and the barriers were down.  We eventually got a pitch on a site that we could drive in to but we didn’t have the key for the toilets and had to hang around for another camper to show up to use them, which was somewhat disconcerting for other campers!

 

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Sculptures at Salford University: #surprisingsalford #25

 


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The three totem sculptures by William Mitchell

If you have time to wander around the Frederick Road Campus of Salford University or as you drive along the A6 you might come across these sculptures.  The three unusual sculptures are Grade II listed by Historic England.   Totem-like, these sculptures were built in 1966 by William Mitchell and stand in a courtyard in front of Allerton Building at what was then Salford Technical College and is now University of Salford.

These are bold concrete public art pieces, typical of the 1960s that make reference to engineering and to Central American art.  I dare anyone not to want to touch these tactile pieces as you walk around the three giant figures.  The sculptures change with the light and every time I visit I see new details I had missed before.  Almost six metres high these are imposing works, each made from four concrete blocks.

English Heritage note:

‘William Mitchell was a leading public artist in the post-war period who designed many pieces of art in the public realm, working to a high artistic quality in various materials but most notably concrete, a material in which he was highly skilled, using innovative and unusual casting techniques, as seen in this sculptural group. He has a number of listed pieces to his name, both individual designs and components of larger architectural commissions by leading architects of the day.’

Salford University has other public art, including ‘Engels’ Beard’ [below] positioned by the Adelphi Building.  This five metre high fibreglass sculpture doubles as a climbing wall.  Greater Manchester now has two statues to Engels who spent more than twenty years here.  The poverty he observed influenced his writing of The Condition of the Working Class in England.

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Engels’ Beard sculpture at Salford University

My first year of retirement in numbers

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Above Castleton in the Peak District

Twelve months retired – so how has that gone?  We’ve certainly packed a lot in to the last year and at home we have settled in to a pattern for a shared retirement that is comfortable and relaxed.  At home we both have our own projects and interests and often beaver quietly away at these before taking an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood or cycle to the supermarket.  But we were only home for eight months of the year and those holiday days have a different pattern of walking and cycling and discovering new places.  In some ways this year has been unusual as after the incident in Greece we were without a campervan for two months while it was off the road.

I have managed to keep my resolution to not say ‘I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work’ which I guess must annoy all those people who are squeezing work and life into their seven days.  We have also made a conscious effort to do just / at least one thing each day.

Holidays and trips – 16 different holidays from one-night to two months.  We had planned two longish trips to mainland Europe in the spring and the autumn and we had a wonderful trip to Spain and Portugal in September and October but our trip to Greece in the spring didn’t go quite according to plan.  Now this is all over we can look back on the whole Greek tragedy as a learning experience [although one we would have preferred to do without] and we haven’t let the trip knock our confidence; we might even head off to Greece again in the future.  In the UK we spent a few weeks in Scotland, went to the wonderful Upton Blues Festival and various other short breaks.  We have been away in the campervan for about 120 nights during the year.  This is less than we would have expected as the ‘van was off the road for a couple of months.  We tried other types of holidays and these just confirmed that the campervan life is the one for us.

Number of accidents in the campervan  – 1 (see above)

Number of times we have set the alarm clock – NONE!

Writing travel articles – 8- this is a similar number of travel articles for MMM as last year.  This doesn’t sound many and it truly isn’t and is in no way a full-time job.  But I work slowly and each 2,000 words represents about a months work – research, travelling, taking photographs, further research, editing photographs, writing and editing.  In addition I write some campsite reviews and short articles.  This makes my retirement a working one, although if it felt like work I would stop tomorrow.

Number of matinees we have been to – Three – hurrah!

Number of times I have wanted to go back to nine-to-five work – NONE!

Foreign languages learnt – 3 [although I am not fluent in any] – before our spring trip we both worked hard at learning some Greek with flash cards and 1970s TV programmes and our efforts were generally appreciated.  I also used Duolingo to brush up my Italian.  In the summer I learnt Spanish on Duolingo and TV learning and Mr BOTRA picked up some Portuguese.  This learning meant that we could confidently book in to campsites and order in cafes.  Mr BOTRA also keeps his German up to scratch.  Next year we will want to learn some Croatian and Slovenian phrases as well as brushing up other European languages.

Good deeds done – Never enough!  I wanted to do some good in retirement and continue to do the things I listed in this previous post.  My elderly neighbours situation has recently worsened and I feel guilty for not helping her more.

Tai chi – Between once a week and daily!  While we were away in September and October we practiced tai chi every day, a combination of fine weather and peaceful campsites made this easy and fun to do.  At home we just about have enough space for tai chi without bumping in to each other and so manage to do occasional practice, as well as get to our weekly class.

Number of books read  – 64 – this year I have made a conscious effort to read more travel books and fiction as well as novels.

Number of blog posts in 2017 – 101 – I managed 78 posts on Back On The Road Again and just 23 posts on my Memorial Bench Stories blog [I must try harder].

Number of days we haven’t been outdoors for at least half-an-hour – 4 [this is a guess] – mostly we like to get out and enjoy some fresh air even if it is raining and we get out for just half-an-hour.

It has mostly added up to a good year and bring on year two of retirement, I’m loving it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

£24,000/year budget for two people who are on holiday for 1/3rd of the year: 2017 finances reviewed

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Another thrifty year

This is our first year of retirement so we are interested to see how the spending has panned out for us with no income compared to our budget when we were both working.  I did consider not sharing our review of our 2017 finances as I am not sure how interesting or useful this information is to others.  Everyone’s situation is so different, people have different priorities, hobbies and needs.  So is it really helpful to know that two people with a campervan-habit living in a small flat in Salford need around £24,000 a year to have a good quality of life?

We are really head-over-heels to have come well within our budget of £27,000 a year.  We always knew this was a generous amount but it is good to have it confirmed in hard figures.  I don’t think we will slack off the budgeting in 2018 as we like the idea of having a good financial cushion for any future problems.

All that said, here are the numbers:

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £5,285 – for this we have been away for over a third of the year [118 nights in the campervan, plus a couple of other holidays in self-catering cottages] [this amount includes £1,000 for two 2018 holidays] – a bargain!

Food – £3,612 

Restaurants & cafes – £2,864 – [this spending increased in 2017 in part due to better tracking of where the money has gone]

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £1,636

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,641

Gifts & donations – £1,173

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £633

Other household spending [including parts for the bikes] public transport & miscellaneous – £2,271

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £376

Clothes & accessories – £525

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 58 sq mtrs [624 sq feet] flat – £4,166

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2017 – £24,196 – comfortably within our £27,000 budget.

 

 

 

 

Lightwaves 2017 at Salford Quays

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The web of light by the water

Lightwaves has become a regular at Salford Quays in the run up to Christmas and is as much part of our Christmas preparations as writing cards and remembering where we have stored the lights.  Over the years we have had huge white rabbits, Dr Who and tiny boats bobbing on the quay.  As has become traditional, we walked down to Salford Quays on the opening night and joined the throng on a bitterly cold but fine night to see the art works for the first time.

The 100 photograph light boxes with images from across Greater Manchester came first.  I had expected these to be landscapes and was surprised how many were portraits, some showing real Mancunian character but I had looked forward to having to guess the views and would have enjoyed more scenes from the ten boroughs.  After reminiscing about the Sooty Show, always a favourite in our house, we found the breathing tent and sat practicing our deep tai chi breathing, watching the lights climb up and down the side of the tent as we inhaled, filling our lower dan tien and fully exhaling.  We walked beneath the grid of rope by the quayside watching the lights change colour from bright green to yellow.  This light responds to a microphone that is in the river, translating the sound in to light

In front of the Lowry are Jackie Kay’s neon words, ‘I forgot to say.’  This is supposed to get you thinking and anyone can call the number and leave a message about what they have forgotten to say … but ringing slipped my mind.

For the last couple of years Lightwaves have co-operated with Blackpool illuminations and we have had some of their spare installations.  I like the combination of the technical and artistic light structures and the brash lights of Blackpool.  This year as well as Sooty Show images we had the pirates below and some nostalgic Star Trek images.

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Pirates of Salford Quays

Fed up with your December birthday? Then change it

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My birthday cards don’t have to compete with Christmas cards anymore

For years my Christmas-time birthday was a huge disappointment.  As a child it was over-shadowed by the seasonal festivities and couldn’t help but be just another strain on the family finances at the most expensive time of the year.  Aunts and uncles would buy me ‘joint’ gifts for birthday and Christmas, assuring me they had spent extra.  As every December-birthday person knows, even if they had spent more, nothing beats having two specific gifts for birthday and Christmas and that this isn’t something that June-birthday children have to contend with.  As a child I never had a party on my actual birthday, it was too near the festivities, no one had time and who wants to eat birthday cake at Christmas.  As an adult the lovely Mr BOTRA and my son and daughter-in-law have made a fuss of me and ensured the day was special and spending time with these three people is wonderful and should be enough … but I always wanted what everyone else had, a celebration with my friends.  On my birthday these friends were either with their family, busy at some other Christmas event or away for the festive period.  The only way to get everyone together was to celebrate outside the Christmas period, so when I was 40 I arranged the party for January.  It still took me a few years after that birthday to realise that this was the way to go and it was 2011 when I decided I wasn’t putting up with this unsatisfactory situation any longer and I moved my birthday to November.

There were friends who protested that it couldn’t be done, a few who still forget the new date, but honestly, I haven’t regretted moving my birthday to the preceding month for one minute.  Now, my birthday isn’t shoe-horned in to the Christmas festivities, my birthday cards don’t have to compete for space with the Christmas cards and my friends are available for a celebration.  It is this latter result that is the most important to me, I get to bring everyone I care about together for one celebration and that makes me happy.  It isn’t about presents and cards, for me it has always been about wanting to be with the people I love.

Over the past few years I have celebrated my birthday with friends in various ways.  We have played crazy golf, been for walks, had ‘posh’ afternoon tea, visited an art gallery and been out for meals.  At last I get to experience what other people with birthdays in any other month except December take for granted, a birthday spent with my family and friends.

And what of my birth-date?  This day still exists, of course I have to use it for paperwork and forms but really it is now just any other day.  The recollection that it is the anniversary of my birth might pass through my mind at some point during the day but it is no longer my birthday, that is the November date that I chose.  Moving my birthday was one of the best things I ever did and I am not moving it back.

Discovering the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Lake District

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Beautiful Blackwell Arts and Crafts House above Windermere

In retirement our winter trips are being dictated by the weather forecast rather than the weekend and this freedom is liberating.  With some cold sunny weather forecast last week we baked a cake, packed some warm clothing and set off for the Lake District.  Windermere is easy to get to from Salford and we were soon soaking up the views along the lake from Orrest Head, pottered by the Windermere and seeking a cosy pub to warm up in.

In the afternoon we visited the lovely Blackwell Arts and Crafts House.  We had been here before many years ago and since then the staff and volunteers have been busy and many improvements have been made.  Built by M H Bailie Scott as a holiday home for Edward Holt, this is a beautiful example of an Arts and Crafts house that retains many of its original features that, in keeping with the movement, are both decorative and practical.  The door handles are leaf-shaped, the window catches are interesting.  There is attractive stained glass and plaster work too but just as important, the atmosphere is relaxed, rather than stuffy and visitors are encouraged to linger.

After being a holiday home the house became a school and then offices before being bought by a Trust in 1999 and it opened to the public in 2001.  The White Drawing Room has slender columns with decorative capitals, a sunny aspect over the lake and is a room where the sunlight dances around the room.

The Arts and Crafts Movement began in Britain in the 1880s and spread across Europe and America.  As the V&A writes:

‘It was a movement born of ideals. It grew out of a concern for the effects of industrialisation: on design, on traditional skills and on the lives of ordinary people. In response, it established a new set of principles for living and working. It advocated the reform of art at every level and across a broad social spectrum, and it turned the home into a work of art.’

The Arts and Crafts Movement has strong links with the Lake District.  The three founder members, William Morris, Edward Burne Jones and Phillip Webb were supported by  George Howard from Naworth Castle near Carlisle and he used William Morris’ wallpapers in many of his properties.  John Ruskin, a Lake District resident, strongly influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement.  He considered machine-made items to be dishonest and that craftmanship was linked to dignity.

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Tile detail from a fireplace at Blackwell