The Netherlands, Amsterdam

The Netherlands, such a vibrant country full of beautiful scenery and warm, friendly people.

Amsterdam

Dank je wel Amsterdam, a couple of days in the Dutch capital has left us exhausted and very full. Walking along the many canals and eating our own body weight in cheese has us feeling very content.

We started at the Van Gogh museum, followed by an enjoyable stroll around the city, we walked from the Rijksmuseum to the flower market and along the canal stopping for coffee along the way.

Jon and I reflected on our last trip here many years ago, pre Joe and Mikey. We had a very different experience back then when we were younger and more carefree. It’s also the place where Jon bought my wedding ring, now we are here with the boys.

Today we started at the Tony Chocolonely shop, where we learnt about this fair trade, anti slavery brand of chocolate. We had great fun sampling the many flavours and choosing our favourites to buy.

We took a drive past the Anne Frank house, it is currently under renovation so unfortunately we couldn’t get tickets to go inside.

Then we took a drive to Volendam, a gorgeous little harbour town to see how they make cheese. We enjoyed a beer at a bar looking out at the bay. The water was completely frozen, it was quite still and eerie.

Finally we went to Edam, yes where the cheese is from.

Vaarwel Amsterdam, we houden van je ❤️

My house is my home no matter how small

Nearly 3 weeks in now and we are all finding our places in the motorhome to relax and have some time on our own. When there are five of you in a confined space it’s good to have a place of your own.

The PS4 is in our bedroom, it’s where the boys spend most of their time

Jon enjoys a glass of wine on the sofa

When he’s not on the PlayStation Mikey will be on his bunk enjoying Netflix

or enjoying a game on his laptop…

Lester has a few places in the motorhome, usually he is looking out the window, watching the world go by

“Home, where the story begins”

The Netherlands, Rotterdam

Rotterdam

So Rotterdam wasn’t on our list either. Glad we made the stop though. We parked up the RV and headed straight to the city in Mini.

I had researched the Markthal, a huge indoor food market in the centre of Rotterdam, opened in 2014 and costing €178,000,000 this is a food lovers paradise. An afternoon very well spent. Every market stall offers samples which meant we had eaten a three course meal without spending a single cent !

Just across the road from the Markthal are the famous cube houses, these 100 square metre homes are really interesting use of space and look really quirky.

A short drive from our campsite in Alblasserdam is Kinderdijk a village full of windmills.

An early start tomorrow as we make our way to Amsterdam.

The Netherlands, Eindhoven

Food, friends, snow and did I mention……..chocolate milk ?

Eindhoven

Head straight for Amsterdam, that was the plan but what we have realised already is that it’s the diversions, detours and spontaneous stops which can be the most fun and this one was certainly no exception. Our Dutch friends invited us for lunch at their home which took us to Helmond, a town close to Eindhoven not on our original route but we are so glad we made the detour.

Caroline and Marco, former neighbours from Singapore had prepared a fabulous lunch for us and lunch led to dinner. With the snow settling and a perfect canal side campsite in Oirschot we decided to stay for a couple more days.

Oirschot is a picture perfect town, it’s small stores look like a Disney set. A super friendly place with a beautiful church in the centre and shops around the square.

Waking up to a blanket of snow was a first, the boys were so excited and so was Lester.

We decided to have a relaxing day and chill-out after the past couple of weeks, the snow was a good excuse to stay put.

Sunday afternoon we went to a local brewery recommended by the campsite owner as they were hosting a German Festival. The music was played by a band from the town.

The snow has melted and we are ready to move on, next stop Rotterdam.

Belgium, Bruges

Belgium, chocolates, waffles and beer, who could ask for more ?

Bruges, the capital city of West Flanders turned out to be a whole lot more than chocolate, beer, waffles and frites even though I am sure you could survive on those four staples for a long time. The cobbled town centre with its morning market selling fresh fruit and vegetables, freshly cooked meats and spit roasted chickens, cheeses and hot waffles did not disappoint. Trip Advisor will give you the run down on churches and historical buildings to visit but what we were most taken with was the people, friendly, engaging, warm and cheerful…we were all struggling with the arctic snap and yet all we felt was warmth.

I have fallen in love with the shops too, each one is quite understated and classy. The signage doesn’t really give any clues to what is behind the door – the bakery looked like a high end law firm but if you look carefully through the windows you’ll see tastefully presented breads and cakes…it’s Disney like.

We also struck gold with the ongoing LPG saga in a small local garage where the owner (who spoke English as well as us) had all the necessary attachments and knew how to fully fuel us up – and the gas was literally half the price of France – again, another mystery about a so called United Europe.

We’d overdosed a bit on World War 2 cemeteries in France so for a change decided to visit all the World War 1 memorials, cemeteries and trenches we could find in Belgium ! Joking apart, it’s hard to explain how moving and deeply tragic it is…we’ve all studied this stuff in school but nothing stops you in your tracks quite like 12,000 graves of young men at Tyne Cot cemetery and the amazing city gates of Ypres. It’s hard to describe the Menin Gate, it is truly a magnificent memorial, remembering those lost in WW1 without a known grave.

To round off the historical tour for the day, we drove the 200 km round trip to the site of the Battle of Waterloo where the Duke of Wellington kicked Napoleons backside. We were proud to be British.

So having fallen in love with Belgium and it’s lovely people it was quite entertaining watching Jon being pulled over and breathalysed by the Belgium Highway police this morning in the motorhome. After a document check the police told us that whilst a car can tow a caravan in Belgium it’s apparently not legal for a motorhome to tow a car (!) We were then asked to remove Mini and get on our way. Which we did and continued to the Dutch border.

Jon’s story

Time… the only thing I wanted. As I’d gotten older and dared to start giving advice to my kids and junior staff, I found myself often using the phrase “in life you are sometimes overworked and underpaid and at other times you’ll be underworked and over paid”. Of course in reality (apart from not giving people a pay rise) what this really means is that you gotta do 25 years of the first part before the second part starts!I’d worked hard my whole life having started at 18 and although I was never the smartest, nobody had ever questioned my work ethic. I grafted like a dog when I was selling and it taught me that only I was going to put food on the table and pay the bills, nobody was going to come to my rescue, a lesson that has served me well.As I operated at more senior levels and finally started to enjoy the second part of my infamous phrase it began to dawn on me that although I was being generously rewarded and enjoying some of the trimmings of a decent lifestyle, the one and only thing I craved was time. I had 4 fabulous kids, a gorgeous wife, several properties around the world, a few quid in the Bank, but never enough time to do things properly. We were lucky enough to enjoy several holidays a year but as soon as we arrived I’d be counting down the days or hours before we left, I was craving to go somewhere and not leave until I was done but work, school & life in general dictates that all good things must come to an end and you need to depart.We’d grab a long weekend at our place in Bali and Vanessa would scold me for undertaking DIY tasks asking “why don’t you spend some time with the boys and pay some guy $50 to do that?”….of course she was 100% right but the point is I didn’t want to make the choice, I wanted to do both, I wanted the nice lunches, trips to the beach and shopping excursions but I also wanted to clean out my own fish pond and paint my own walls.Having had maids and drivers for years you finally realise they are just part of the self fulfilling equation of keeping you at work for longer. You’re far more valuable to an employer being at work an extra few hours than going home and washing your own car so you get a driver to do it for you. We’d bought a villa in Spain 10 years ago and to this day I’ve never seen it once !Asia had been good to us in so many ways but financially it was perfect. I worked damn hard for 14 years out there and got well paid but we spent wisely and saved a lot. So many expats spend what they earn and have to keep working well beyond their ‘best before date’. We didn’t, we had a blast but we saved as much as possible as I’d always been very clear that I wouldn’t work beyond 50. From age 45 I was counting it down in how many more paydays there were to go ! By the time I was 49 I was done with Corporate life.I announced my retirement…almost nobody apart from those that were really close to me believed me. So many people asked me for the ‘real story’ ! The truth is often so dull eh? but the truth is the truth….I was ready to retire. Here’s the funny thing…virtually everyone I know of my generation/seniority/status etc tell me they are jealous and wish they could afford to retire…they must think I have far more money than I really do !For me, this is like having kids, if you wait until you can properly afford it, you’ll never do it. You have kids ‘cos you want to and then you figure out how to pay for it. For me, retirement is similar. I just don’t want to work anymore. I want the time to do what I want. Sure, I have a few quid but trust me, I ain’t mega rich but now I have that most precious commodity – time.

France, North Coast

We chose the Plymouth to Roscoff crossing because we wanted to travel east in France rather than the UK. It was important that we visited Normandy and the various D-Day landing sites and memorials. When we were writing our wish lists, the Bayeux tapestry was top of Mikey’s list having studied the Battle of Hastings at Dulwich College in Singapore. History, being Joe’s favourite subject, the Normandy beaches were top of his list.

We booked a night crossing simply to ensure we arrived in the daylight. This would be the first time we had driven the RV overseas and didn’t want to be learning in the dark.

Our call to the Camping & Caravan Club for their help recommending a campsite suitable for an 11 metre long motorhome for our first night in France was fruitless so our primary objective after rolling off the ferry was to find somewhere to park/camp/sleep. Two days before we left England we made an impulse purchase, a professional HGV TomTom, our anxiety for getting caught on height/weight/length restricted roads in Europe got the better of us, although a huge expense it gave us peace of mind we would never get caught out.

We used an app called Camper Contact which has campsites across Europe. It has both private and municipal sites and gives really detailed information. The first day we triumphed and managed to drive 5 miles ! We struck lucky and found an ocean side parking spot for just 6 Euros a night.

Early the next morning and feeling confident after our early success we hit the road on a high, heading east towards St-Brieuc. It’s fair to say Day 2 was a bad day.

A catalogue of disasters really, starting with a near death experience and a major explosion. A badly fitted LPG adapter (provided by the garage) caused a mass leakage from the pump. A mysterious warning light illuminated on the dashboard of the RV, a horrendous metallic rattling from the RV engine, the Mini headlight bulb blew, the electric connectors from the RV to the Mini failed and one of the brand new Mini tyres started losing pressure. It hit us hard, we couldn’t quite believe that so many things were not going our way, it really burst our bubble and suddenly made us realise our vulnerability.

There was a danger that we lost all focus and all the problems started to consume our energy and enthusiasm…it was time to park up, regroup and take a moment to sort out each individual problem. The LPG was our primary concern, not so much the engine LPG tank as we could still run on the expensive petrol option, it’s the LPG leisure tank we use for refrigeration when we are not hooked up to electricity. We have a years supply of Insulin onboard to manage Vanessa’s diabetes and under no circumstances can we ever let this get too warm as it will spoil. We had purchased a box of adapters in the UK but at this stage were baffled by the array of different nozzles valves and connectors…so much for a United Europe !

Once again the Camper Contact App came good and we found a place to stay for the night and opened a bottle of wine.

The next morning after quite a restless sleep, using the ‘driving in Europe compliant spare bulb kit’ which frankly we had bought simply to be be legal (who carries one of those in the UK?!) came into its own and the Mini headlight lamp was replaced and working again. Tick

With some help from Google, Jon disassembled the various connector sockets and located a tiny yellow wire which once reattached sorted out the dodgy connection to the Mini. Tick

Opening the engine cover on the RV revealed that the entire engine grill had all 4 fixings missing and it was hanging on with 1 cable tie (we must have bought it like that…wonder how it passed an MOT?). Three more cable ties later and the rattle stopped. Tick

A chat with a local garage and some help from Google translate reassured us that the warning light was a minor emissions issue that could be resolved at our next service and it was safe to keep driving. Tick

So that just left the LPG. We stayed put and used the Mini to explore St.Malo and various towns and villages within the area.

St.Malo had been recommended to us by some good friends who had enjoyed It during the summer months and although it was crazy cold we had a lot of fun in the town, it is so quaint, a walled town with cobbled streets full of cafés, chocolate shops, patisseries and crêperies.

Our campsite in a village called St Jacut-de-la-Mer was another Aires site, 6 Euros a night, water and grey water dumping, without electric hook up. It was within a 10 minute walk to the beach and a quiet location off the main road.

The next day we headed straight to the nearest petrol station with LPG (GPL in France) and bingo they had every conceivable connector and adapter available. We loaded up with LPG and were on our way. Next stop Bayeux.

Again the Camper Contact App came good and we opted for a site just 5 minutes away from the Overlord Museum called Saints-Honorine-des-Pertes. A glorious location, with electric hook up and great access to all the historic sites we wanted to visit. After arriving late in the afternoon we chilled with some wine and planned the next day. Up early we headed into Bayeux for breakfast followed by The Bayeux Tapestry, a definite must depicting the story of the Norman conquest of England. At this point whether you admire it or find it an irritation what is becoming apparent is that the French don’t work long hours. Shops, tourist attractions and businesses all close for 2 hours at lunchtime and have half days here and there which we haven’t yet mastered.

So after the tapestry we were ready for the American cemetery which was frankly beautiful, the Americans have done such a good job of honouring their fallen servicemen.

From the cemetery we drove to the Musee Memorial 1944 Bataille De Normandie, which told the story of the battle of Normandy. There was a huge number of vehicles and memorabilia on show. It had been a long day.

The following morning took us to the Overlord Museum in the neighbouring village near Omaha beach. The boys were fascinated by what they were learning. A drive along the coast to see the British landing sites at Gold and Sword beaches and the Canadian landing point at Juno in the town of Courseulles Sur Mer (twinned with Dartmouth). We ended our day with a visit to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, what struck us was the story told by the headstones and how so few were aged over 25 years of age. What a waste.

We packed up the RV and hooked up Mini and set off east to Grigneuseville. A fantastic French farmhouse with motorhome bays in the garden. Owner Eric, is a hugely accommodating and friendly host. Eric doesn’t speak any English and speaks French at 100 miles per hour but we managed somehow. From here we took a day trip to Rouen to marvel in the many churches in the impressive town. The temperature had dropped considerably and Eric’s water supply had frozen.

It was time to move on. The final leg of our French journey took is to Lille, our favourite French town so far. The square is beautiful and after a stroll around the shops we had lunch in a bistro just off the square called La Chicory, opting for the plat du jour. The food and ambience was perfect however the service was stereotypically stroppy!

Whilst in Lille we parked the RV at a brilliant site around 30km South West of the city in a park called Parc Olhain in Pas-de-Calais. A hugely popular leisure park, great for dog walking and parkour areas for the kids to play.

Our journey now continues to Belgium the second country on our tour of Europe. We leave France and head to Bruges. After chatting to a family camping at the campsite in Calais they recommended another camping app called Park4night. We downloaded it and planned our first nights site in Belgium. Jon found a great site in Wingene around 14 miles from Brugge on a working dairy farm owned by Kevin and Patrick.