320. A Holiday From Our Holiday

After getting stuck in Paris for 2 weeks sorting out insurance dramas, our plans had  changed from camping and cruising around the country side to staying in a horrible hotel in the middle of a busy, expensive and touristy city. Between navigating public transport, lining up for everything and what felt like endless hours of hold music while we tried to sort ourselves out, we were exhausted! Not to mention all the city hopping that had been going on before Paris.

So we decided that we needed a holiday from our holiday, and went in search of somewhere to relax on the beach, tick the “learn to surf” bucket list item off and just chill out for a while. Because it was short notice, we needed cheap flights (which had to be from London, as we had to take the van back, another amazing race-esque nightmare), an easy way to get to Belgium afterward, where we had tickets for a music festival, cheap accomodation, sand and surf. The answer to our prayers came in the form of the small Island of Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands. Whilst technically part of Spain, it is actually a lot closer to the North of Africa.

Fuerteventura, it seems, used to be quite the booming holiday destination, especially popular among the Brits, being Teneriffe’s younger, more relaxed brother. Post GFC, however, the massive boom in tourism has suffered quite the shock and not only is there a tonne of accommodation that seems unfillable, there are heaps of new developments which have been completely abandoned mid-construction. The result for us was staying in a resort for the price of a hostel for some of the time we were there! Ultimately what sold us was a place by the name of “Azul Fit” which appeared from the website to by a surfing/yoga retreat, though when we arrived it was more of an uber relaxing yoga/spa type place with surfing as an add on. What a shame!

Fuerteventura is also often named the “Hawaii of Europe” and has a booming surf culture when the season kicks in (just as summer has ended), so there are a tonne of surf schools available.

Before we could get there, however, we had the problem of returning our campervan which we technically weren’t allowed to drive. Initially the rental company had offered to come pick it up from us, seeing as we had paid for 40 days and only been able to use it for two. However when we called to organise the pickup, it seemed they had decided to put an imaginary time limit on the offer and instead wanted to charge us £1300. Given we weren’t allowed to drive, it seemed our only option (we called around a number of transporters, all quoting similar prices, some even more). Unfortunately our insurance company refused to cover that, which was really frustrating as I’m not sure what else they expected us to do. Neither of us had that much spare cash lying around, nor were we keen on incurring such a cost if we weren’t able to get it back. Thankfully, just as we were tossing up the pros and cons of leaving it on the side of the road, or taking the risk and driving it anyway, we heard back from Spaceships rentals who had finally contacted their insurers after much insistence from us, and found that they would cover us to drive it. One the one hand we were very frustrated it had taken so much time and mucking us round for them to think to contact their own insurers for advice on our situation, but on the other hand we were so excited to get the go ahead to move on with our holiday that we were pretty much in the car straight away and on the road!

As with our earlier Amazing Race-esque experiences with getting between the UK and Europe, we once again had a bit of a nightmare on our hands. After getting from Paris to Calais, just as we were about to get on to the ferry we had a flat tire. As the two of us hopelessly tried to follow the instructions in our little book to change it (I tell you, that thing was no IKEA manual) we could see all the little ferry terminal men standing around laughing at us and being all French. Finally a police car came past and the friendly Gendarmes looked at us (both of us wearing dresses, which really added to the damsel in distress factor), stifled laughter and took over. Who am I to say no if someone wants to do some manual labour for me?

I managed to get the jack under the car, got a little stuck on the bit where you actually need force...

I managed to get the jack under the car, got a little stuck on the bit where you actually need force…

 

IMG_3467Having missed the earlier ferry, the ever so unhelpful rental company once again left us high and dry and said that it would be too late to meet us when we arrived, which was a serious spanner in the works as we had super early flights to Barcelona the very next day. With a sinking feeling we realised we may not be able to make our flights. Could we leave the van parked outside, hide the keys and get to the airport? Do we know anyone we could leave it with? I had an idea that perhaps there might be a car storage company that did pickups and deliveries, and we could pay for one night of storage in order for it to be dropped off the next day during business hours. At our first opportunity, we pulled in to a rest stop where I preceded to call around as many possible companies. Thankfully there was a McDonald’s there so I could do some swift internet searching. There were really only a few options, most of which were giving some outrageous quotes. Finally we got hold of one guy, who although he had just sat down for dinner seemed happy to help us out. He even offered to drop us at the airport after we had delivered the car to his yard! Ideal. By that stage we’d decided to just suck it up and pay the £100+ to get the car delivered.

As we drove to his yard, it turned out to be really in the middle of nowhere. Driving along unlit country roads, we were definitely getting quite nervous about where exactly we were going. I recounted all the horror movies I could (Taken and Wolf Creek especially) and reminded myself that the psycho killer always approaches the victims, not the other way round. I also reminded myself at any point if things seemed weird we could jump ship and take the financial hit!

As it turns out, we were rescued by the official most lovely person on the face of the earth! The company, Jordan’s Car Storage, is a Storage company for mostly very expensive cars, that offers pick up/delivery services and is on hand in emergencies. It was in the middle of nowhere so as to be a safe and secure location for all the classic cars and Porsche’s in the garage. Our Knight in Shining Armour, also known as Marc, the owner, had assumed we were representatives of one of his clients wanting one of their cars moved in the middle of the night, so when two very tired looking girls in a bright orange campervan with a space saver tire and a broken window turned up, he seemed quite surprised! After we recounted our tale of woe and all the troubles we’d had after the break in, he told us about how a few years earlier he was in Cairns, Australia, almost out of money when a woman had put herself out of pocket to get him a job in the mines, lent him money for his medical certification and uniform/steel capped boots and basically rescued him from having to crawl home broke to the UK. Instead he had a great time and worked his way up the ranks fairly quickly. It seemed he felt that this was his moment to pay it forward, and when he dropped us at the airport he refused to take any money from us, not even petrol money.

It was absolutely one of those moments that restores your faith in humanity, particularly as we had until then still been fuming about the rotters who stole from us in the first place, the rental company who was completely useless and seemed to endlessly be attempting to take advantage of us, our own travel insurers who at the time appeared to be worming their way through every loophole to not help us, not to mention the terribly difficult and unhelpful hotel staff at our Parisian accomodation for the time we had been trying to sort ourselves out. There were a number of other people we encountered who, let’s just say we hope we never do again (particularly police in Lille), but those who I really remember in great detail were Marc, the hotel receptionist in Lille who sat down and translated what had happened into French so we could go to the Police station and get a report, and finally the last Policeman who helped us in Lille, after all the others had made stupid excuses to turf us off to someone else because they didn’t want to speak English, and of course the Police in Calais who changed our tire. It is definitely the nice acts that I remember, and thanks to Marc, or perhaps the woman who helped him in Cairns (and maybe someone even helped her out some time when she was stuck in a foreign country), I will definitely make sure I pay it forward as soon as I get an opportunity!

And with that we were on our way to Barcelona for a few days stopover before arriving at what did indeed prove to be the most relaxing, lovely and enjoyable place imaginable, and I still dream of going back there whenever life gets stressful…

283. Camping in Calais

IMG_5446 (640x480)Once we arrived on the continent with our campervan we very quickly learnt there were a few things we hadn’t quite thought through. The most pressing of which was where to park up and sleep, as it was about 11pm, and we had just completed a journey that felt exactly like The Amazing Race, with very little sleep.

The point of our campervan journey was to save both transport and accomodation costs, as well as see a whole bunch of places. But the difficulty is planning where exactly to stop when you settle in for the night. There are plenty of campsites available, but when searching around online for locations and prices, some of them seemed to be even more expensive than staying in a hostel. Not ideal.

Our first concern was safety, so we thought we would find somewhere close to public facilities and well lit, but also subtle enough so people won’t be able to spot that there were two girls sleeping in the van. We found a carpark near the shops, and there was an open subway there (also ideal for a nearby bathroom). However, the subway closed shortly after and all that were pubs. Drunk old men stumbling around? No thanks. So we were back to square one on the safety front and instead decided to follow the signs to the camping ground. (Called a ‘Camping’ in French). Once there, there was no office or anything, so we found ourselves a spot, confused as to how we were meant to pay. Eventually we spotted a sign that said someone comes around in the morning. However, we were on the road before we managed to find the person we were supposed to pay, so that was a win I guess…

The second problem we encountered was storage. As our campervan was actually a converted Toyota Previa, it was very compact. Accurately described by Spaceships UK as “The swiss army knife of campervans” there were compartments galore, but barely enough space to store everything. Our plan of including a third friend quickly had to be scrapped, and first on the agenda after a night’s sleep was stopping off at the nearest equivalent we could find to The Warehouse or IKEA to get some cheap plastic boxes. Living out of this bad boy for 5 weeks would definitely require some serious organisation! Luckily it was actually really comfortable to sleep in.

On the plus side, it came with some excellent gadgets – a little fridge, picnic table/chairs and awnings, a DVD player, and probably the thing that made our lives most do-able was a power adapter so we could charge our laptops and phones whilst driving. We even considered purchasing a low voltage hair straightener to go with.

Next issue: bathrooms. It quickly dawned on us that we were going to have to think ahead about every time we would need to go to the toilet. East enough when you are on the highway or in the centre of a city, but an important consideration when you stop for the night! As well as making toilet plans, not knowing for sure when/where your next shower would be was just the strangest sensation. Turns out our plan of not making plans might need a bit of revision. After we departed Calais in the morning, our next destination was Dunkirk. First stop was stocking up on groceries and storage, the next was Dunkirk’s Olympic Swimming Pool for showers!

The final problem, which proved to be the most crucial, was the exterior of the van itself. The bloody thing was bright orange! Could you be more conspicuous? To add insult to injury, there were stickers on it that said “Traveller’s Adventures.” Sadly we had been falsely assured by the rental company that ‘no-one can really tell its a campervan, so you can just park anywhere to sleep.’ Worst advice ever. But more on that dilemma later…

278. When Life Became “The Amazing Race”

The task was simple. Fly from Amsterdam to London, pick up campervan, drive through Euro-tunnel to France, begin awesome camping adventure around Europe.

Well, that turned out to be the biggest false assumption of summer. Within about 5 minutes of setting off on this adventure, it had began to be a very difficult mission, and began to resemble an episode of “The Amazing Race.”

The first hurdle was getting to the airport at 5am. As we left with all our packs, waddling down to the tram stop, we waited a wee while for the tram that was supposed to come by to take us to an airport train, but anxiety levels were on the increase. With no trams in sight, it was time for a quick check of travel times, in which we decided our plans were probably far too ambitious and we weren’t likely to make it to the airport. Time for a Detour, or maybe a fast forward, depending on how you look at it! We opted to grab a taxi, though the next hurdle was finding one at 5am on a weekday in the suburbs! We spotted a hotel down the road and asked the concierge to call us one. I don’t think he saw us walking in the door so probably assumed we were staying there, which proved handy, as he started carrying our bags around! When the taxi driver arrived, he was definitely on the conservative side with his estimate of the distance to the airport, which made for an anxious ride, but in the end we made it just in time, and the price was less than that of a new flight.

Once at the airport, a bit of a “road block” as he dropped us in completely the wrong place! A bit of sprinting around like headless chickens later we managed to get to our check-in desk in the nick of time.

Once arriving in London (with a major grilling at customs, despite heading back out of the country less than 24 hours later!), the next task was navigating through the underground system and finding the rental company. The underground was a total mess, as they completed the last of the pre-olympics works. The timetables were pretty much no help at all, and we took forever, getting beached at a few stations to finally get where we wanted to go. Once we eventually got to the right station, we were really in the middle of nowhere. Once again waddling around with all our bags,  trying to find a street sign so we could correctly orientate our terrible map!

Finally, around midday, we found the tiny, barely marked office of ‘Spaceships UK’ and went through a very long process of paperwork, and probably really annoyed the poor man as we asked a million questions and got them to show us everything from how to set up all the awnings etc to how to check the oil. Better safe than sorry! To be fair, they also left as waiting as they were trying to add a whole bunch of stickers with their logo etc to the van and slogans like “traveller’s adventures.” We had a bit of a debate with them over that, saying “Don’t you think that kind of screams out ‘rob me I’m a tourist’?” As they assured us it would be fine, we eventually got them to cut back on some of the tacky branding. We later learned we probably should have been a bit more adamant on that front…

Next stop, driving. As I pulled out of the carpark and set off, it was incredibly stressful – who would have thought that only 6 months of driving on the right side of the road would cause me to have to think twice about everything when driving on the left! So we switched drivers – Claire would drive on the left, and I’d take over when we were on the right in France!

What should have been a simple drive down to Dover also turned out to be quite complex! When I’d looked up prices to get over to France, the Eurotunnel and ferry were about the same, so we opted for the tunnel as it was faster. After plugging it into the GPS, we then discovered she was pretty free and easy with her direction giving, often telling us to turn left after we’d gone past etc. We got there in the end, only to find out that even though it is a tunnel, you actually have to book in a time to drive across and purchase tickets in advance, or they go up in price. Who would have thought? Though of course it took a long time to work this out, as we pulled up to a whole bunch of unmanned gates that did everything electronically. After literally driving around in circles we managed to find one where we could press a button and ask for help, and a woman appeared from God knows where. After informing us of the rules, she then told us it would cost almost £250 to drive through the tunnel and the next opening wasn’t for another few hours! Ummm no thanks.

So we opted to take the detour down to the ferry, and hope we could get on one that night. As we neared the town of Dover and the harbour, there were actual roadblock and detour signs everywhere, and the odd one that simply said “Event !” We had no idea what was going on, but we couldn’t get to the ferry. We decided to head toward the town, find a petrol station and ask what was going on. As we got closer there was a lot more sign-age and advertising and we realised that the olympic torch was arriving off the ferry, touching down in the UK for the first time. Well we could hardly be annoyed at being held up if it meant we had the opportunity to see the Olympic torch! So we parked up and headed in to town to join the crowds and check it out. It was about 6pm by this stage.

Once all the crowds dispersed, we head to the harbour and tried to investigate the ferry. We definitely had some deja vu as we drove around a massive complex, following arrows and lanes and signs, having to go through what I like to call “car customs” where they looked around with torches to make sure we weren’t smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants, walked through a huge empty office complex and finally found a little wee building before we could even enquire about tickets, let alone get on a ferry. Luckily the different companies had desks in the same building, and we managed to get a ticket to the 9pm ferry. The whole day had been cold, miserable and rainy, we’d been up since 5am, and finally at 11pm we touched down on French soil!

The next problem, which we’d been a bit preoccupied to work out, was where to park up and sleep. We decided to head into the town centre of Calais, and we found a big, well lit car-park  Problem was there were some bars around, and we didn’t fancy the safety factor of trying to sleep where there were drunks about! There was some sign-age to a campsite/campervan park so we headed there and at last we could relax. Definitely made us think a bit of advanced planning of where to actually sleep each night was a very good idea!

All in all a marathon of a day, including 3 countries, 4 cities, a taxi ride, a flight, 5 trains, and a ferry ride. I just wish there was a prize! Getting a photo with the Olympic torch was a good bonus though I suppose…