Doorways & windows around Europe: some ramblings



Looking through my photographs from recent trips in our campervan one theme stands out.  I have to acknowledge that I can’t help myself; I am always taking photographs of doors and windows.  You might ask how many photographs of doorways and windows one travel writer needs and the answer is clearly an infinite number.  Wherever I am, either at home in Salford and Manchester or in a new village or city, I look for the detail in doorways and check out buildings above the shops to see the windows and the details on the buildings.  This got me thinking, what is it about doors and windows that appeals to me.  I am certainly drawn to an unusual and beautiful doorway and window and I am a real sucker for shutters and stained glass.  But is it just the aesthetics of the doors and windows themselves or is it something more?  Windows and doors are portals to an inner world that is often private.  Am I secretly longing to know what is behind the openings or am I more interested in what might emerge from those doors and windows?

The Romans had a god for many things, including doorways.  Janus, usually shown as a two-faced god, looks to the future and the past and was also the god of beginnings endings and transitions; the Romans understood the lure and significance of the doorway.    Doors, although often beautiful, are closed; they act as the border between the open street and private space.  A closed door has potential but what is hidden beyond may be good and exciting or it may be evil.  The locked door is a familiar metaphor in many tales; we have to get beyond these closed doors to reach something we are seeking.  A locked door is both a temptation into the unknown and a barrier to access; knocking on an unfamiliar door is always daunting.   Doors have the duality of Janus, being closed and open, locked and unlocked, positive and negative and these contradictions are intriguing.

In contrast, windows are transparent, we can see inside and out through the glass.  Windows are also a public stage for beautiful objects; in our 80-year old flat we have wide windowsills and we use these to display favourite objects, a single ornament and an ancient inherited plant in a pot.  By placing these at the public face of the house we are sharing them with the wider world.  Windows are the eyes of the house and the items in the window give a glimpse behind those eyes.

Standing and staring out of a window is a way to travel to other places without moving from home.  Our flat has lots of windows that let the morning and evening sun flood in to the rooms and from these windows I watch the outside world, creating stories in my head.  Whenever we arrive somewhere new the first thing I do [before I check out the interior] is go to the windows and look at the view; I think this is me getting my bearings in a new place, finding out where the sun rises and who I can see and be seen by.  Looking up in a new city I like to imagine myself standing at some of the beautiful windows I see; I wonder how life in this street looks from above and what it would be like to live there.  For me windows only represent the positive; openings to different perspectives and portals for fresh air and sunlight.

The photographs in this post are really just a small selection from my collection of doorways and windows.  The evidence of my addiction is right before your eyes!



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!


Data roaming on ferries – don’t get caught out

10.05 Porta Cova (18).JPG
The Portuguese coast near Porto Covo

I thought using my phone for data and calls in Europe was a simple transaction nowadays.  I have a contract with a fair amount of data, calls and texts and I can use this just as I would at home in the UK.  This makes so many things easier as we travel around Europe, we can google for local veggie restaurants, check the opening times of attractions and the weather and call home and we thank the EU for this convenience on a daily basis.  But, on our recent trip to Spain and Portugal I found that on a ferry using your mobile phone gets more complicated and expensive mistakes can easily be made.

I was surprised to find I had a data signal on my mobile phone as we sailed out of Bilbao but naively assumed that connections had improved so much they could now reach out to the Bay of Biscay.  I had switched my phone on to pick up the ship’s wi-fi but as I had a data signal I decided I didn’t need to go through the rigmarole of signing in to that.  Then a text message pinged up telling me I had spent £4+ on data outside my allowance, then another text with a higher amount, then another and so on.  There was no explanation as to how I had gone over my data allowance and I spent a few frantic minutes checking my phone account to see if I could clarify what I had done but as the text messages mounted up I [sensibly] switched the phone off for the rest of the ferry journey.

I switched my phone on again as we docked in to Portsmouth.  The last text message I had received informed me I had spent £34+ on data outside my allowance.  I checked my data usage again and couldn’t see how I had spent that, my data usage was well within the gigabytes I pay for on my contract.

I rang Three, my phone operator, as Mr BOTRA drove us away from the south coast to see what this £34 additional charge was about.  The operator very efficiently informed me that with data roaming switched on [as it is quite safely all over Europe] when on a ferry or cruise ship my phone will automatically seek any connections.  When the phone can’t find a two, three or four G network it will seek out a satellite marine mobile provider via the ship; this was the first I had heard about marine mobile.  It seems these marine mobile providers are outside a normal data allowance contract and so are charged separately and those on Britanny Ferries that we were travelling on are very expensive charges [although they do warn you about these charges on their website].

It is some consolation that these data roaming charges, as this article suggests, have caught other people out as well as me, with some ending up with bills much more than the £34 I now had to pay.

Fortunately my story of ignorance has a happy ending for a frugal traveller as Three, noting that I have been a loyal customer for many years, refunded the £34 I owed for the few minutes my telephone was connected to the marine mobile satellite.  They did this without me having to ask [I was still in shock] and quickly, so Three deserve a big thank you.

Next time I will just keep my phone switched off on a ferry and relax and enjoy the view.



Back on the road through France

09.04.2016 Verdon region of Provence (1)

The beautiful landscape of Provence in France

Newly retired and all the time in the world we were back on the road in our blue campervan.  We set off south in April sunshine hopeful we would find beautiful and interesting places and have some fun.  Just being in the ‘van is relaxing and we were soon in a meandering frame of mind, stopping when we found somewhere lovely, making coffee among gorgeous scenery and taking strolls to interesting places.  Our first night was at the popular aire at Pont au Mousson, our second in the lovely Bourgogne wine producing town of Beaune, stopping on the way to stroll around Langres, on its stunning hilltop position.   We passed through pretty honey-coloured villages where men chatted outside the Marie, drove by large fields hunted by buzzards and under trees dripping with mistletoe.

Leaving the vineyards of Beaune we got mixed up with the circus vehicles in the next town, around us were vans and cars blowing their horns to announce their arrival.  We used the aire at Bourget-du-Lac and had a sunny afternoon walk to the lakeside, the ruined Chateau St Thomas II and the bird hide overlooking lovely pools busy with cormorants, red-crested pochard and one great egret and we watched marsh harriers flying low as they hunted.  We also walked in to Les Bourget-du-Lac and found the priory with its stately garden.

The weather was being so kind to us and after resisting the urge to stop in the Ecrins we treated ourselves to a couple of nights in Digne les Bains to give us time to stretch our legs after days of mostly driving.  We were now among the rocky Mediterranean landscape rich with herbs.  Our early evening stroll from the campsite took us to the large orderly cemetery of the Cathedral de Notre Dame du Bourg; we strolled around the fascinating graves enjoying the glimpses in to people’s lives.  Later as we ate sitting outside the snow covered mountains at the end of the valley were pink from the setting sun.

The campsite in Digne les Bains was perfectly placed for the lovely circular three chapels walk.  The path with signposts followed a lightly-shaded path through small oak trees and broom, the path edges blooming with cowslips, thyme and marjoram.  The route is only around five kilometers but follows a steep rocky path to give great views over the town.  Chapel number one, St Vincent, is a large church-like structure above the town.  Continuing uphill we found chapel number two, the Chapelle de la Croix, a tiny chapel perched on the highest point at 870 metres.  We ate our lunch enjoying the panoramic views and the peace, just the butterflies busily flitting around the flowers and small lizards taking in the sun.  We followed the ridge and then took the path downhill, meeting a group of mountain bikers struggling up the craggy path.  Chapel number three, Notre Dame, is in the trees just above Digne.  This small ruined church has a shrine underneath it in a cave.  We found cooling ice-creams in Digne before walking back to the ‘van.

From Digne les Bains we drove through the stunning scenery of Castellane and Grasse.  The road climbed over cols and took us through woodland, the landscape becoming more arid and more dramatic.  We stopped to take in the staggering vistas on a mountain road; I was awestruck by the landscape of white layered limestone rocks dotted with attractive Provencal farmhouses.  Our final night in France was in Cagnes sur Mer before we headed in to Italy to catch our ferry to Greece.

05.04.2017 Beaune (4)
The pretty French town of Beaune

The villages of the Ecrins

06.06.2016 La Grave walk to L'Aiguillon (7)
Hameau de Valfroide near La Grave

In the mountainous Ecrins the houses in the villages huddle together for warmth and companionship around a winding road, joined by steep narrow cobbled lanes and steps.  The houses are built from rough stone with steep roofs and small windows.  Typically, the windows have shutters and the traditional stone houses have a sort of wooden balcony for storing logs.

Above the village of La Grave the villages cling to the hillside, looking as if they could slide down at any time.  Around the villages the pattern of the old farmed terraces can still be seen in the meadows.  Each village has a church in a similar style and there are also stone wayside shrines on the roads between the villages, you might also find the communal oven and you will always find a water tap of fresh mountain water.  As you climb higher the houses in these villages are less likely to be occupied all year round.

In Vallouise and Venosc we admired the sundials, including the beautiful 19th century Zarbula sundial on a magnificent villa in Vallouise.  You can follow the Sundial trail through the region to find more.

We toured around the Ecrins National Park in an anti-clockwise direction over a couple of weeks and camped in five different valleys, each one having its own personality and each offering spectacular mountain walking.

06.06.2016 La Grave walk to L'Aiguillon (11).JPG
Looking towards La Meije above La Grave

The Ecrins National Park in France

02.06.2016 Mont Dauphin marmots and fort (3)

We are back from our annual fix of European culture, weather and food.  As well as enjoying excellent and unbeatable mountain walking in the Ecrins National Park in south-east France [don’t worry no one seems to know where this is – find Grenoble and go slightly to the south and east], we found some adorable wildlife.

The Alpine marmots were abundant in the Ecrins and we saw at least one or two every time we were out walking.  Sometimes we firstly heard a marmot, calling out a warning high-pitched whistle and searching the rocky landscape we would spot the look-out marmot on a rock, sitting up on its hind legs apparently warning the other marmots of our presence but really drawing attention to the presence of marmots.  At other times we would spot them scampering low across a meadow or moving easily down steep craggy hillsides, twitching their stubby tails as they move and then disappearing down a handy burrow.  At Pré de Madame Carle the marmots were pottering around the car park and finding shade under the cars.

If you don’t want to climb the steep paths of the Ecrins to see marmots, there are a group that are easy to find at Mont-Dauphin, south of Briançon.  Since we last visited here in 2009 [Mr BOTRA had lots of fun making the video embedded in the blog post at the time] the humans have been managed so that the marmots can now run in and out of their burrows freely and avoid the humans if they wish to.  Marmots hibernate for more months than they are out and about so you need to be around in summer to see them.