It’s the end of our time in the UK and Europe and stress levels are rising. Once again we will be homeless and lugging suitcases, strollers and Child Car seats around with us. Once again we will be tourists rather that travellers.

We’ve been on the move for over 6 months and it’s a bit of a shock to think about the places we have visited and the things we have done & seen.

img 1715 resizeIn that 6 month period we have lived for a month in France, walked the streets of Pompeii, driven under the Alps and toured countless Mansions, palaces and cathedrals. We’ve managed deal with seven different languages  and we’ve also gone to some places only a handful of non European tourists visit.

One of those places that stands out is Oradour-Sur-Glane. It is a WWII ghost town in the very heart of France. When travelling through the north of France we took in many of the World War I & II memorials that dot the landscape. They are moving and sombre and have a gravity and quiet dignity. Oradour-Sur-Glane is different. It makes you angry and sad and confused and dismayed.

On the 10th of June, 1944 the town of Oradour was destroyed as part of the war. Many towns were ruined, but this was different because it was the scene of the systematic execution of the 642 residents of the village in an act of Nazi revenge. One hundred & ninety men, two hundred and forty seven women and two hundred and five children were killed in a rampage by a German Waffen SS company.

The Nazi’s separated the men from the women and children and took the men to 6 different barns in the village. They were then shot in the legs before being covered in fuel and set alight. The women and children were locked in the church which was also doused in fuel and then set alight. When they tried to escape through church windows and doors they were machined gunned.

During that attack the rest of the village was looted and razed and that is how it remains today. The village square is still there. The Doctors ruined car is still parked outside the Pharmacy. In the remains of buildings the signs of everyday life lie rusting in the rubble. The village is filled with the hulking shells of buildings that still show signs of the life that was once lived there.

After the War Charles de Gaulle decided that the village would be preserved as a reminder of the horrors of war, and the horrors of the Nazi regime. As a tourist attraction it’s not the happiest place we visited, but it was certainly one of the most moving. Like many other tourist attractions, Oradour Sur Glane has its own slogan, “Remember”.

While Oradour was deeply moving and also deeply disturbing there are many other places that standout and continue to resonate. The ancient city of Carcasone, the fishing villages of Cinqua Terra, our tour of Nurnberg with friends Denis and Tanja Katzer are all highlights.

But so far my heart belongs to Scotland. If you have looked at pictures of the Highlands, and you thought it looks incredible, chances are that the picture you are seeing is not close to living up to the reality. It is perhaps the most extraordinary landscape I have ever seen in my life.

Red-brown mountains topped by deep grey rocks under a fast moving sky which is throwing brilliant sunlight and deep shadow across the landscape all at once is just awe inspiring. We saw mountain passes devoid of trees with a small stone cottage or two defying the most hostile weather. Somehow landholders scratch a living out there. I can only imagine they continue to live there because it is just too beautiful to live without.

Then there’s Wales. The land of the Dragon and the skinniest roads we have travelled so far. A place where it is still common for people to speak Welsh as their first language, and where road signs contain place names that have 15 letters, only one of which is a vowel. Wales, like Scotland, is beautiful and remote and wild. The bad news for England is that these two countries make the English countryside look bland and sterile in comparison.

However, for us this part of the trip is over. It is done and it is dusted. And as much as we would like to stay and explore for a while longer, we have sold the car and the caravan and we are planning the next phase, The United States of America.

The forecast did not look good. The prediction was for early sun deteriorating to a wet afternoon with strong winds. The temperature on the summit was expected to be about 3 degrees, but the wind chill would take it below zero. But I had been planning to climb Ben Nevis in my mind for some months.

The Ben, as it is known locally, is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom and relatively accessible at just 1344 metres high. But despite that moderate height the mountain is considered dangerous to climb. Ben Nevis is on the west coast of Scotland and can be covered by snow for months at a time. It also has a history of foul weather with a mean monthly temperature of just minus 0.5 degree. It also has the dubious honour of having an average of 261 gales a year.

My training for the ascent had been unconventional. It consisted of 6 months of pushing the stroller with the two children on board. While that may not sound like hard work, pushing a stroller for days on end around European cities, along the cobbled paths of Pompeii and the coastal paths and tracks of Cinqua Terra is not for the unfit or the faint of heart . As a result I’m fitter, lighter and stronger than I have been in years.

With just a little fear and a good dose of trepidation, I set off from the car park at the base of the mountain with a view of the summit bathed in brilliant sunshine. The wind was up, but the skies were clear as the forecast had suggested. I had my backpack filled with all the things I thought I might need. I had enough food for a full day of walking, an extra jacket, long-joh

the ben

ns for the cold, a compass in case of thick fog, gloves, a beanie and scarf and over a litre of water. I did not have wet weather pants, which I knew might be a problem.

The first part of the path is easy enough. The track is well made and maintained and it climbs smoothly but relentlessly up the side of the mountain. It took about 10 minutes for me the start to feel the climb in my chest. “Slow and Steady” I kept telling myself.  I planned to use small steps rather than large strides to conquer this hill. My theory was that each large stride requires more effort. Small steps are easier and I hoped that meant I could maintain a steady pace for longer. My theory worked for the first 40 minutes of the climb.... and then the path up the mountain started to get serious.

Rounding a bend and expecting more of the same, I was suddenly faced with a mountain path that suddenly doubled in steepness. It was also exposed to the wind, which had been steadily strengthening to something a bit short of a gale. The view of the summit from here was daunting, but not so much as to make me want to stop and turn around, so I pressed on still feeling relatively confident.

About halfway up the track changed again. I had come to a small valley and suddenly I was walking along a well made sandy path. The climb was moderate and the walking was easy. It was then I looked up again. What I saw was a warning. High up on the edge of the mountain, standing out in bright red against a sea of grey rocks was a tiny little figure somewhere near the top. His wet weather gear was as stark a contrast as his size was next to the mountain. The closer I was getting to the top, the bigger this thing was starting to look.

That sandy path made the walk deceptive because the climb remained relatively easy until I reached a point where the top of the mountain looked significantly closer than the bottom. I could see how far I’d climbed and how far I had to go. That alone encouraged me despite being faced once again with a steep climb. This time I was facing a very steep, very loose and very rocky path for the last third of the climb.

It was at about this time the weather turned. I’d been watching the mountains all day with the forecast in mind. Nearby mountains were shrouded in cloud but Ben Nevis had remained in the sun. But then from over the back of The Ben the weather blew in. One minute it was a bright sunny day, the next and I was immersed in a deep overcast and the top of the mountain was now hidden.

I know now that’s really where I should have turned around, but I was so close. I had a clear picture of the distance that still had to be covered so I pressed on. Over the next 20 minutes or so there was yet another change in the weather. I was at about 1000 metres when temperature dropped to near zero and the winds picked up to gale strength, making each step a minor ordeal.

It was on this section of the climb that I came across an English couple also on their way up. The man was about my age and still going along quite well. His partner was ready to turn around and go home, but he kept urging her on. Because I was on my own I had no-one to encourage, or be encouraged by. It would have been easy to turn around and just claimed the weather was too bad to continue. The thought of turning back had crossed my mind more than once. Instead I decided that if they could do it so could I. I decided that I would use them as my pace setters. In simple terms, I would stalk them.

It took another 30 minutes and some minor leg cramps from the cold, but I got there.  I arrived at the same time as the English couple even though I had tried to keep a respectable distance so they didn’t have to share their victory with some crazed, cold and tired Australian stalker. But in the end they slowed down and I caught up in the gloom of the Ben Nevis summit. It had taken me just on three hours, but I was standing on the very highest point in the UK.

The summit was misty and cold and very, very windy, but it hadn’t rained. My top half was warm and dry, but my pants were getting damp from the mist. I quickly scoffed down because I wanted to start heading down while the weather was still bearable. But within 2 minutes of leaving the summit it I seriously started to question why I hadn’t turned around earlier.

When the rain came, it came in sideways. The wind picked up to about 60 knots and my pants were wet through in less than a minute and the freezing wind was making my face sting. Adding to this I was alone on a mountain, slick and slippery with rain, with visibility down to about 50 metres, and I could feel the cold starting to bite deep into my legs. MY thighs wanted to cramp from the cold.

If I’m honest I would have to say at that point I was really quite worried, perhaps even a little scared that I may not make it back down on my own. Mentally I was fine, but my thighs were so cold that they just didn’t want to work properly.  I have heard and reported on too many stories about people being caught out in bad weather not to know the potential danger of the situation I had put myself in. I also knew when I left the car park that I really needed to have wet weather pants with me and now that was coming home to me in the worst possible way. The one thing that kept me focussed was that in my life, [some years ago I admit] I have bushwalked and hiked some very rugged terrain in some very difficult circumstances.

With no shelter I had only one option. I had to keep moving as fast and as I safely could to try to get some warmth in my legs. It worked, although only just. The temperature had dropped again and along with the rain and the howling wind, I started getting the occasional burst of sleet slashing at my face.

Once I had descended about 400 metres I came out of the cloud and could see the Glen below. I knew the worst was behind, me but the rain was falling all the way down to the valley. That meant another hour in the cold as I made my descent.

The thing that hampered my progress most aside from my legs was the wind. It stayed at gale force and it stayed cold. At times I felt like I was leaning so far into the wind that I might fall off the mountain. It also meant I stayed wet from the waist down, but as long as I kept moving I kept warm, and as long as I was warm I was OK. It took me two hours to descend to the safety of the car park.

I have been thinking about my ascent of Ben Nevis for the last few days. Sometimes an ascent of a mountain is called a victory. Sometimes it’s claimed the mountain was conquered. I did neither. I feel that I simply “got away with it”.

With some fear and just a little trepidation I lifted the child seats out of the car. From under the corner of James and Emily’s seats I could see what I thought was once a bit of sandwich. On this day it resembled something that might have come from some sort of chemical factory. Perhaps the sort of thing the chemical factory throws away because it’s just too dangerous.

Once the seats were clear of the car the extent of the biological hazard became clear. Sandwiches, Fruit bars, Drink bottle lids, sour lollies and bits of chewed paper were all in various states of decay. The chewed paper under Emily’s seat had once been a train ticket from Del Ponti station to Rome.

The sandwiches appeared to contain remnants of nuts. We gave them peanut butter somewhere in Germany. The sour lollies went back as far as Belgium. The drink bottle lids were just too hard to pinpoint. We had so many drinks in so many countries that the colours and styles of the lids is just a blur. The only thing that would help us identify the country of origin of those lids is the DNA of the mould growing within them.

I think I found a bit of meat, but from what sort of animal I can only guess. When found it resembled a rather dodgy bit of beef jerky. The sort best avoided or given to a dog you really don’t like.

We are back in La Lande D’Airou for a holiday from our holiday and it’s cleaning time.

We had noticed the car had a staleness about it, but when you are travelling with two young children it’s easy just to blame the smell on the kids, or the fact that you are wearing some clothes for the second time. I can say after spending the day cleaning out the car it’s lucky we are not planning to bring the caravan or car back to Australia. Customs would never let us in. [Perhaps we’d be sent to Nauru to sit and rot and have our case considered by a faceless bureaucrat.]

In the 7 weeks since leaving our Normandy cottage we have travelled north through France to Paris and Amiens. To Brugge in Belgium and then onto Leiden in the Netherlands. Our stops in Germany included Potsdam, Berlin and Nurnberg. In Italy we spent time spent in Venice, Rome and Cinqua Terra.

Our trip back to Normandy included a few days in the Alps on the border of France and Switzerland, with a day trip to Geneva. Once we started to head north we made sure we took in the ancient cite of Carcassonne and the WW2 village of Oradour Sur Glane .

Because we only ever eat out for lunch, we’ve become quite expert in the qualities and vagaries of European supermarkets and food. Before we started our trip we were told glorious tales about the offerings of a French Super Marche. We were told about Cheeses, cured meats, Pastries and sweet things to tempt every taste.

What we can report is that the French supermarket is good. It’s probably better than most Australian supermarkets. The French do Cheeses better than anyone, their bread is good and their pastries delicious. We can also say that an average French supermarket is better than the German, Dutch and Belgian supermarkets we visited. But they are not a patch on the Italian supermarket.

The Italians are so far in front in variety and quality and simplicity that when we first walked in a saw what was available we had a quick debate about whether it was possible to suspend the rest of the trip so we could just stay there and try EVERYTHING there was on offer.

All this food shopping has also led me to a totally subjective, unscientific view about cultures and food, specifically about the French and the Italians. The French seem to love the process of cooking and the  act of preparation the flavour seems to come second to the lprestige and presentation. On the other hand it appears that Italians are interested in flavour and variety. The French love Cuisine and showing off, the Italians just love eating good food.

How else do you explain the difference in the quality of the fresh produce? Steak in France is generally terrible. The meat is so bad that I have thrown away a steak because it was simply too tough. It’s so bad I thought I had forgotten how to cook. In Italy the steak is as good as it gets. They have simple cuts of good quality meat and while Italian sausages are just superb.

Vegetables were another matter. France has a decent selection of their staple vegetables. It was mostly fresh, but really doesn’t last that long. In Italy the selection is twice as large and the food is fresher. It’s also much cheaper in Italy than in France. In Italy I didn’t once see horse meat packaged up ready for sale.... that has to count for something!

European driving is another area we can claim some considerable experience. European roads are generally better than Australian roads. European drivers are generally better than Australian drivers. They are courteous despite the higher speeds, more predictable and more accomplished. This applies in every country we have travelled through with the exception of Italy.

As my three year old son says frequently when he hears me grunt when we get cut off again “They’re shockin’ drivers in this country!” Italians are impatient. They don’t believe in lanes. They overtake when it suits them. They don’t believe in speed limits. I got my own back at times by travelling just that little bit slower than I needed to, or by waiting for a slightly larger gap in the traffic than I needed. Turning at the lights to the sound of impatient Italian horns became music to my ears.

The best drivers are in Germany. They are fast, efficient and courteous and it makes it an easy country  to get around, although towing a caravan down the Autobahn is never going to be relaxing when keeping an eye out for cars coming up from behind at 250Km/h.

And that’s where the biological waste dump that our car became comes back into this story. We have spent hours travelling the roads of Europe, eating on the run and driving from city to city. We could hardly avoid a few spills and a few lost sandwiches. Thankfully there are no stains. Thankfully I remembered my father’s rule that there be “No Ice creams in the car!”

Thankfully every last bit of detritus that made its way under the child seats and into the crevices of the car was dried out by the heat of a European summer. The chickens of La Lande D’Airou have had a feast.

Now I just have to work out what that bit of meat once was and I’ll sleep soundly

“I think I have to go to the bathroom” she said. The ferry pitched and lurched its way across the English channel, and while Jo didn’t look too well, she wasn’t nearly as green as some of the other passengers.

One woman in particular was a sort of avocado green, the sort that's about a week away from being ready to eat. She had her head between her knees and her husband was sitting there helplessly staring out to sea.

Jo made it back from the bathroom with her lunch still under control, but the crossing back from Europe to the UK was anything but pleasant. A strong south westerly wind had churned up the channel and our ferry was battering its way through some rather large waves

At the completion of our European adventure James, Emily and I had overstayed by 3 days. Luckily the French authorities don’t care much if you are leaving the country. We had completed a huge circuit, and finished our stay with another 10 days at La Lande D’Airou followed by a final few days based at Versailles.

Once back on British soil the reality of English Autumn weather hit home. For three months we had mostly sunny days with warm breezes pushing in from the Mediterranean. Italy had been the exception where it had been stinking hot on most days. But old Blighty turned on a typical English welcome. Cold, wet and just a little bit miserable.

There are always traps when you change countries so quickly. One trap is the currency change. Knowing how much things cost can take a little while, while working out what each coin is worth at a glance takes work and concentration. At my first visit to an English supermarket I was left studying my hand in wonder as I tried to work out the change. I had this growing awareness that other shoppers were staring at me. Perhaps they thought I was a bit simple.... I certainly looked that way at the time.

The other trap is language. At that same supermarket on that same night, as the check out girl processed my shopping in a less than efficient manner, I spent minutes in mental anguish figuring out how to ask her for directions to the closest ATM. Some French understand ATM, others will understand “Bank” if you hold your card up as you say it. Even the Italian name “Bancomat” can work.

Mentally I had my “Si vou plais” and my “pre d’ici?” sorted out in the right order. I was ready for the Gauche and Droit instructions for left and right, and I was listening for the “Rue” this or that.

When she had finished the shopping I wasn't really listening when she told me the price. I was studying the cash register hard to make sure I could see the numbers as she said them. I’m not bad with French numbers but when they are said quickly I do still get lost. Twenty eight pounds Seventy Pence was the price so I duly produced thirty crisp new English pounds.

“Here goes” I said to myself as I prepared one last time for the French ATM question. But just as I was about to launch into my very best French I paused and had just a little smile to myself. In a perfectly phrased sentence I asked “is there an ATM near here?” in clear English. “Yes. Just on the corner of the building” she replied, again in perfect English.

It had been so long since I have been able to converse easily with strangers that I forgot for a moment that in the UK they speak English... or a variety of it at the very least. Even here with all the dialects it can be hard to understand when people speak quickly, but she was clear and precise and friendly as she said it and I understood perfectly.

From Kent we have travelled north to York and been fascinated by the 1000 year history of the city and on again to spend time in Edinburgh. After a few more days here we head north once again to Inverness with the aim of John O’Groats followed by an ascent of Ben Nevis.

It’s nice being back in the UK, it’s easier to get around, we drive on our side of the road [although I did forget a couple times when we first got back!] and they speak our language. Despite all that I do miss struggling to make myself understood throughout Europe. I miss looking at a menu and having only a slight idea of what I’m ordering. I miss the quiet satisfaction of actually managing a transaction in another language.

But when I think about struggling to be understood and struggling to understand, I just have to remind myself that very soon we will be in Wales!

The old joke says “Join the army. Travel the world. Meet interesting people. And Kill them” It’s not the only way to travel the world and meet interesting people, try touring Europe in a caravan!

Barbara and Maurizio in Vietnam. Carol and Steve in the midlands of the UK.  Barbara and Allan in Normandy.  Jordie and Lisette in the Netherlands. Tony and Katty in Belgium.  Irene and Nick in Venice. And Davide and Sara in Rome.

We’ve met them because we are not staying in Hotels but in caravan parks and campgrounds, or because they are travelling with their children. They are all wonderful in their own way and they’ve all become friends.

It began with Barbara and Maurizio in Vietnam. Here was an Italian couple who had come to South East Asia to adopt their little boy, Marco Long. Marco spent his first two years in a Vietnamese orphanage.  Barbara and Maurizio have spent thousands of dollars and months of work to get him out and to take him home. We were hoping to meet up with them in Rome and see how they were all doing. Unfortunately we arrived in the peak holiday season and they had already left for the Dolomites for their annual holiday.

Welsh couple, Steve and Carol forced black pudding on us on our first few days of camping in the caravan. They were alongside us and despite being only our age, they had their three grandchildren that they look after with them. Their sense of fun was just too infectious to ignore.

Barbara and Allan asked us to house sit for them for a month in Normandy. Our task was to water their vege garden and feed the chooks. They have also become friends, along with Barbara’s mother, Vera.

Next was Jordie and Lisette in the Netherlands. We were alongside them and their three kids for a week. The children played together and shared toys and bikes and scooters, and the four of us forged a friendship where perhaps under normal circumstances it may not have flourished.

In between the campsites we caught up with Denis and Tanja Katzer. We first met Denis and Tanja when they were walking a team of camels from Broome to Rockhampton between 2000 and 2003. It turned out that they were at home in Nurnberg as we passed through. The caravan was parked in the street for two days and we ate and laughed and drank wine like the old friends we are.

In Venice it was Irene and Nick. Nick is an upfront friendly Englishman. He just came over and started chatting. Later that evening they both came over with their son, and ther 5 of us chatted away like old friends catching up.

Our most recent friends are Davide and Sara. We met them in the caravan park in Rome. Davide’s eyes popped just a bit when I told him we were from Australia. They went even wider when he found out how long we were travelling for. Their little boy Lorenzo had already made friends with James and Emily despite him being 2 years old and only speaking Italian, and our two speaking only English.

All these people have offered to help us if we ever need it while travelling in their country. All these people have offered us advice and hospitality and friendship. Both Jo and I think that perhaps if we had a more conventional holiday, staying in hotels and cottages, not living side by side with others in their wheeled houses, we would not have made the friends we have.

Perhaps it would be more like other holidays, were you have a polite chat with people and move on. That’s just not the way it is when camping and caravanning. Emails have been exchanged. Handshakes and kisses and the occasional hug have marked our goodbyes.

We are travelling the World. We are meeting fascinating people. Not once have I wanted to kill any of them!