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Tuscany’s Hilltop Treasures

Tuscany’s Hilltop Treasures

by Alan Gow  |  June 2019  |  Italy

Tuscany evokes alluring images of vineyards, olive trees, good food, picturesque towns and loads of sunshine.  There is a good reason why Tuscany is one of the most visited regions in Italy – it is absolutely gorgeous.

Siena, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Cortana, Pisa, Lucca…. the list of spectacular historic towns is seemingly endless. Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano… the names of the unique regional wines just roll off the tongue as easily as the wine flows down the throat.

 

Tuscany’s Hilltop Treasures

We had three weeks, in May 2019, to nosey around this little patch of paradise and visit some of the well-known, and not so well-known beauty spots.  I confess that by the end of this time, seeing yet another ancient walled hilltop town ceased to be the thrill it was at the start.  There was always something however that was unique and made the effort worthwhile.

I’m not going to bore you with a detailed regurgitation of Dr Wikipedia’s facts about each place we visited.  Instead, there will just be a few pictures and maybe a sentence or two to explain the individual specialness (if that’s a word), that we found there.

For a change, we were not staying in our motorhome in Tuscany because Betsy was in for repairs. We stayed in AirBnBs in three towns and used them as bases for exploring others.

We will still give you some likely spots to park up your motorhome for free.  We found most of these, as usual, on Park4Night.  No guarantees but they looked good to us so should work unless the local authorities have an about face and start restricting the parking.

Colle Val D’Elsa

The views from this charming medieval walled hilltop town immediately captivated us.  The sturdy ancient stone walls, the delightful Tuscan countryside and the fresh vibrant spring flowers welcomed us to Tuscany. The low number of tourists visiting this less well-known jewel was delightful.

There is a large car park where you can park overnight near the old town (GPS 43.4226, 11.1140).  Most of the parks are better suited to smaller campers but there are some slots where you can reverse your overhang out over vacant ground (bring your ramps). Park4Night has some other places in the new part of town which may be better for bigger vehicles.

View of Colle from the old Convent

View down the beautiful Val D’Elsa Valley

Old Colle and the Church tower

Typical archways and narrow alleys

Plants anyone?

San Gimignano

The USESCO listed San Gimignano is one of the most well-known of the Tuscany hill towns and as such was brim full of visitors even this early in the tourist season (May).  The 14 tall towers that are a hallmark of the San Gimignano skyline were built by the rich families between the 11th and 14th centuries as a symbol of their power and wealth, and to provide protection from other families.

To watch a UNESCO video click here.

Not far from here we had a great day out at Ulignano truffle hunting, wine tasting and scoffing delicious food.  Great value and a special day out that we thoroughly recommended.

There is an authorised camper parking area at GPS  43.4521, 11.0556  however at €1/hour (€15/day) it is pricy for a longer stay.  You can use the services there without going into the parking and a free alternative parking can be found on the other side of town at GPS 43.4716,11.0285. This place looked like it would be fine for overnight however we stayed just a few hours.

San Gimignano spotted through fresh spring growth

Typical towers of San Gimignano

Busy, narrow streets and arches

Siena

Described as one of the most perfect examples of a medieval town, the UNESCO listed historic centre of Siena blends almost seamlessly into the contours of three hills.  For us riding our electric bikes, it also seamed to have the steepest hills of any of the Tuscan towns.

To watch a UNESCO video click here.

A parking area just outside the walls allows an opportunity for campers to park overnight but there is a bit of a gradient involved so ramps recommended (GPS 43.327561, 11.335099).  We didn’t stay here but spoke with other travellers who slept here without problems.

Siena and the Cathedral from the Medici Fortress

Piazza de Campo famous for the annual horse race

Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico

World Class Siena Cathedral

Montepulciano

We spent several nights in an AirBnB just outside the medieval town walls and had several opportunities to soak in the sights and feelings.  Of special interest were the underground towns carved out by the winemaking families of the region.  These chambers with interconnecting passageways were (and still are) used for making and storing the famous local red wines and cheeses. 

Panoramic view from the town walls

Wine cellar in the underground city

Montepulciano main piazza

Enter the underground city here

One of the gates into the town

Montepulciano walls and houses

Pienza

Pienza is a little off the beaten tourist track but also features a historic centre listed by UNESCO due to it being the first example of Renaissance-era town planning.  The pet project of the Pope at the time.  This resulted in a beautiful town square while still preserving the older medieval structure and walls of the town.  Pienza has been referred to as the jewel of Tuscany.

To watch a UNESCO video click here.

There are a couple of potential overnight spots for campers including these authorised camper parking spaces at GPS 43.079949, 11.673309.

Pienza main piazza with the Cathedral

Inside the Pienza Cathedral

Stunning views over the Tuscan countryside

Spring flowers among the ancient buildings

Back streets and cafes

Narrow cobbled streets with few tourists

Frescoed gate in the town wall

Cortana

Another delightful walled town is Cortana with now-expected imposing walls, narrow streets and medieval buildings.  The unexpected highlight was the gorgeous interior of the Basilica Santa Margherita which was reached after a very long and steep climb up ancient stone roads and paths.  Our bikes could only take us so far.  We love being surprised when we walk into somewhere new and have that ‘blown away’ feeling.  There are some possible overnight parking spots for motorhomes as you drive up the hill. We found a small slot at GPS 43.2733, 11.9860. There was an authorised campervan parking here but that was closed for renovation when we visited and may or may not reopen (GPS 43.272985, 11.987823)

The view from the walls of Cortona 

Steep road by the walls leads to the Cathedral

The Basilica di Santa Margherita is worth the walk

Tuscan cobbled streets and art galleries abound

Old buildings and new flowers

Looking up the hill to the town is like looking at a fairy-tale

Arezzo

Arezzo was one of those pleasant surprises because you don’t read about it being a top tourist attraction.  However, it had everything you would want.  A great spot to park a camper not far from the entrance (GPS 43.4725,11.8831 ), a stunning cathedral, Medici fort and plentiful narrow alleyways, piazzas, old buildings, parks and shops.

The gorgeous Arezzo Cathedral

The Cathedral frescos are mesmersing

Monument of Francesco Petrarca

View from the Medici Fortress over the cemetery and beyond

Bagni San Fillipo

The small town of Bagni San Fillipo is famous for the natural hot springs that flow close by.  These have been left largely undeveloped (thankfully).  A visit here allowed us the rare chance to sit in piping hot thermal water, surrounded by trees and towering structures of thermally deposited minerals including the renowned “Balena Bianca” or White Whale.  The best part is that it was all free of charge (apart from the parking).  It is a popular destination but we arrived later in the day and spotted some English people we had met a few days earlier in Siena.  They invited us to sit in ‘their’ pool, which was the best spot.  Nice having friends in high places.

The massive “Balena Bianco” (White Whale) natural sculpture

Soaking in a warm stream of thermal water

Volterra

This was another of the less visited Tuscan towns and one that we immediately liked. We stayed high up in sports ground parking area not far from the walls (GPS 43.3976, 10.8616) and close to great views of the surrounding countryside.  The Medici fort here is still used as a penitentiary so we couldn’t visit.  The large weekly market and the fantastic outlook over the partly excavated Roman Theatre were particularly memorable.

Early morning views over misty Tuscan landscape

A well preserved Roman Theatre is a highlight

Baptistery of San Giovanni

The old Etruscan Gate

Where are the tourists?

Volterra views

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Your Questions Answered About Two Years Of Full Time Motorhome Travelling

Your Questions Answered About Two Years Of Full Time Motorhome Travelling

by Ruth Murdoch  |  16 June 2019  | Summary Blogs

Today, 16th June 2019, we’ve been touring Europe in our motorhome full time for two years.

Initially, I was going to write a typical post about all the things we’ve done and all the places we’ve been to.

But then I thought, is that what people would be interested in? 

So… Using social media (aka a couple of the more proactive motorhome Facebook groups I belong to), I asked the questions…

If you were to interview someone who has been living full time in a motorhome touring Europe, what questions would you have for them? What would you want to know?

So that’s how I’ve written this blog post.

Be warned, it’s a bit long (obviously there’s lots of questions out there).  And in order to give you in-depth answers, I’ve linked to some more information.  So where you see orange coloured text you can click on this to delve deeper into a different blog.

If you don’t wish to read the lot, then just scroll through the table of contents for the questions you want to know the answer to.

Alternatively, save the post and read it over several sessions.

This is written from our perspective and may not be how others see the world or would respond.

Below are the questions that were asked.

Your Questions

Before we get going, I thought an introduction might help to set the scene.

About Us

We are a married Kiwi couple, Ruth & Alan, who decided we wanted to spend some time exploring Europe. Our initial idea was to travel for one year, then it extended to two years and now the actual end date is undefined.  We will continue with this lifestyle while our health, finances, and circumstances allow.

It helps that Alan, my husband, has an Irish passport, which makes travelling through Europe easy once you understand the Schengen rules.

We wanted to keep a diary of our travels, to share with friends and family so we set about learning the art of website construction, blogging, and posting about our travels.  We are yet to perfect it and www.travel-cook-eat.com still has a long way to go but we are getting there slowly. We love writing in a way that makes life easier for other travellers.

We hope that if you are reading this you can learn from (and avoid) our mistakes, enjoy our locations, follow in our footsteps and set your own treasure of positive travelling experiences.

We have a website, Facebook page, Instagram page, and a few videos on our YouTube page.

We have deliberately decided to not monetise our website, so you won’t be bombarded with adverts throughout our blogs.

Betsy, Our Home On Wheels

What Are The Driving Skills Like [in Europe]?

From the 26 countries we’ve visited over the last two years, the overall standard of driving has been very good.

Slovenian drivers will stop for pedestrians before you even decide you want to cross the road.  It’s almost the opposite in Italy.

At present we are in Italy and I’d have to say the Italian drivers can be a little aggressive.  The roads don’t help though, as they are in very poor condition and are narrow, particularly around Tuscany. We have spent more than five months in Italy during different times and my opinion of the Italian drivers hasn’t changed. I confirmed my thoughts with an Italian friend who is a courier driver and he concurs. Italian drivers, however, are not the worst.

Whilst Morocco is on a different continent, the Moroccan drivers win the prize for the worst drivers we have encountered on our travels, hands down.  (But don’t let that put you off visiting Morocco).

If you want to take a look at some of our driving in Italy, you can have a laugh here.

Typical Loads In Morocco

Is Overnight Parking Readily Available?

We mainly wild camp and have more often than not found free spots to stay the night.

There are some countries, however, that don’t allow wild camping (Croatia and Slovenia) and one country where it’s not such a good idea (Morocco).

For us, wild camping just means that you are not in an official camper parking area or camping ground.  This could be beside a beach, along the roadside, in the bush or even in a supermarket carpark.

In some of the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Finland and Norway) there are laws allowing the right-of-access to wild camp providing you follow a few simple rules.  These rules state you must keep 150 metres away from inhabited buildings, if you wish to stay more than two nights you must seek permission and above all else you must be considerate and thoughtful.

The best place we’ve wild camped was in Greece.  We would often wake up to million dollar vistas; from crystal clear oceans of Vourvourou right outside our door, to the Greek ruins of Delphi, and the mountaintop monasteries of Meteora to name a few.  It probably helped that we were there in the low season as during the summer many of our spots could have been overrun with tourists and may have had parking restrictions imposed.

Are There Many Campgrounds Available With Full Facilities?

There are plenty of camping grounds throughout Europe that have varying levels of facilities ranging from very basic up to virtually five-star with top-notch swimming pools, restaurants and entertainment.

If the camping grounds cater for motorhomes only then they don’t typically have cooking facilities. The industry is very seasonal in many countries and you may find in the off-season that the great majority of campgrounds are shut. 

We found this particularly true in Greece and Turkey and you should research online to confirm opening dates.

On the other hand, during the busy summer season, many camping grounds are full, particularly in the popular areas, such as coastal Croatia.

As mentioned, it’s illegal to wild camp in Croatia, so we chose to use camping grounds rather than risk high fines.  They offered showers (some good, some not so), toilet blocks, black and grey water dumping points and electricity.  We were there near the end of the high season in August 2017, and had some trouble finding a vacancy if we hadn’t booked ahead.

What is the General Cost of Travel?

Most people want to know what it costs us to travel and for this reason we reveal all our travel costs in a separate post.

In addition, below is some more in-depth information regarding some of the main expenses.

Diesel varies from country to country.  The cheapest place in Europe for diesel that we have come across was Spain where it varied from between €0.98 to €1.15 (NZ$1.67 – NZ$1.96).  The dearest place for diesel was Norway where we paid 16.15NOK – the equivalent to €1.65, or NZ$2.82 per litre.  While writing this I spied diesel for €1.72 in Italy (NZ$2.93) – however we wouldn’t be buying any at this price as we filled up at an Auchan supermarket diesel pump recently for €1.42. We use a website (https://www.fuelflash.eu/eu/) to find Europe’s cheapest local diesel and LPG.

Tolls vary greatly and are expensive in Greece, France and Portugal. Interestingly, Portugal and Greece are both poor countries and the locals cannot afford to use the toll roads.  Due to French protests, we bit the bullet and drove on their motorways.  It cost us €39 to travel for three hours.  Never again!

Wherever there are toll roads however, there are also alternative secondary free roads.  These usually take longer (in some cases, eg Italy, it’s a lot, lot longer).  These roads are less direct, not well maintained, narrower, windier, and often travel through narrow built up areas.

Nevertheless, in most cases we choose the free roads because we see much better scenery.  Plus we usually have the time for a longer drive and prefer to save money (even when calculating the extra diesel costs).  Most navigation systems (Google Maps, Tom Tom, Garmin etc) have a setting for avoiding tolls roads so you can compare travel times and distance for both options.

We use the ViaMichelin app (ViaMichelin GPS, Route Planner) or website (www.ViaMichelin.com) to estimate the cost of travel and tolls.  A little planning beforehand can mean that you take the most appropriate route for you that day.

Food is our biggest cost at around €90 per week (NZD $156) for the two of us.  We rarely eat out and cook most meals from scratch.  And because we love cooking, we tend to eat well (better than many of the restaurants we’ve visited).

Fresh Prawn Straight From The Boat in Sweden

Is There a Breakdown, Tow Repair Insurance Available and at What Cost?

The subject of insurances comes up often on motorhoming Facebook pages and is a hot topic among UK travellers.

To be honest, virtually every thread you read seems to have people recommending some products and disparaging others.

In most cases, owners buy breakdown insurance as an add-on to their vehicle insurance, however, they can also buy separate policies.

There are two traps that are catching some people out.  Many policies limit how long you can travel for in Europe, either in a single trip or in a calendar year.  Some policies also limit the size of the motorhome they will cover for breakdowns and recoveries.  Make sure you are completely aware of the fine print and conditions.

It is a good idea to ask about other peoples experience on relevant Facebook pages to help make a short list of the better providers.

Betsy, our motorhome, is French registered, so we have French insurance with AXA.  This includes basic breakdown insurance and roadside recovery within the annual premium of €822 (NZ$1,412) per annum.  The coverage area is extensive and includes all of Europe, Morocco and Turkey. 

Thankfully we haven’t had the need to call upon this.

No Breakdown Insurance Needed Here

What’s The Best Time To Travel Throughout Europe?

The great thing about Europe is that there is something for everyone.

For us, we don’t like extremes of heat or cold, or crowds of tourist (even though this is us), so we plan our travels accordingly.

During the heat of summer, you will find us in the northern countries, such as Scandinavia, or Poland (where we are heading for now). 

During the winter the best destinations are the south of Greece (including Crete), the south of Turkey, south of Spain/Portugal or Morocco

Staying north during the winter is not so good unless your motorhome is properly winterised, with winter tyres, and double floor insulation with ‘wet’ type heating.  Ours isn’t so we head south before it gets too cold and the snow sets in. Planning travel around anticipated local conditions is one of the fun challenges of being full time on the road.

We absolutely loved travelling through Norway in the autumn, where our photos are stunning with the yellow and red leaves against the snow-capped mountains and fjords in the foreground.

It is a good idea to avoid the real summer hot spots during the high season as they can be totally overrun with tourists and locals.

The shoulder months of April/May or August/September can provide great weather but a more relaxed experience.  During our first winter, we went to Greece and Crete.  For our second winter, we travelled to the south of Spain before taking a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to enjoy the winter warmth of Morocco in North Africa.

Betsy in Norweigian Snow

Autumn In Finland

Stunning Autumn Colours Norway

Stunning Scenery From A Warm Winter in Morocco

Are People Hostile to Motorhomers or Friendly?

Throughout Europe the locals have been either friendly or neutral towards us.

When we engage others in conversations we nearly always receive a friendly and interested response.  Part of that is probably because as Kiwis travelling Europe, we have a point of difference and people want to find out who we are and what we are doing on their side of the world.

Some countries are well set up to accommodate motorhome travelling, e.g. France and Germany have a nationwide system of ‘Aires’ or ‘Stellplatz’.  These are areas set aside for motorhomes and typically provided by the local authorities.  They offer water, dumping stations and even electricity for free or a small charge.

Spain and Portugal have historically been havens for motorhomes with literally thousands of places you can park for a night or ten, provided you don’t engage in ‘camping behaviour’.  In recent years the local authorities and police have started cracking down on this due to the massive influx on motorhomes during the winter.

Some areas are banning motorhomes, or the police are moving motorhomes on, or in some cases, people are being heavily fined.  Generally though, as long as you are respectful, don’t stay too long, don’t set out your chairs, hang out washing or show other ‘camping behaviour’ Spain and Portugal are still great places for motorhomes.

Morocco in Winter on a paid site, just €1.50 (NZ$2.40) per night

What Class of License is Needed to Hire a Motorhome?

The typical motorhome available to buy or rent has a maximum allowable laden mass of 3.5 tonnes, which is the total weight of the vehicle including the driver, passengers, fuel, and water. 

A standard drivers license in Europe allows the license holder to drive a vehicle up to this maximum weight. In Australia and New Zealand the car drivers license allows up to 4.5 tonnes and 6 tonnes respectively, however, you are unlikely to be able to rent anything over 3.5 tonnes.

Many countries also require a foreign driver to have an IDP (International Drivers Permit) that is issued by an organisation in your home country, such as the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club, or your local Post Office. 

The IDP is used together with your national driver’s license and acts as a translation into an agreed international format.

So in summary, you should have your normal national car driver’s license and an International Drivers Permit when you hire a motorhome in Europe. 

Betsy In The Sahara Desert

What Size Is Best?

 

There is a reason why motorhomes and campervans are made in all sizes, from under five metres to over ten metres.

We all have different preferences, needs, and ideas about what is best. For us, we believe our motorhome is sized perfectly. 

Betsy, our motorhome is 7.4 metres long, 3 metres high and 2.2 metres wide and is considered a big (but not very big) motorhome.  She is not so large that we can’t tuck into [two] car parks for a quiet night’s sleep while giving us room to move around.  She has separated living and sleeping quarters and a decent sized separate shower and toilet (which we love).

A smaller motorhome is more manoeuvrable around tight roads and small villages and can park in [one] smaller car park.

A campervan type vehicle is narrower, which gives less space inside but is also easier to drive and park.  Some campervans are deliberately set up so they don’t look like campervans.  This is so they can be stealthy and sleep overnight in spots that don’t allow motorhomes to stay. 

We have electric bikes so we can avoid those parking problems and explore some amazing old town centres by bike.  We didn’t want to be overly cramped and haven’t regretted going bigger.

In fact, we recently drove a 6m motorhome and felt it was just too small for full time living. 

The very big motorhomes can be limited in where they can drive and free camp but of course, can be really nice inside.  They obviously cost more to buy, run and maintain.

In summary, you need to decide what suits your personality, the type of travelling you want to do and the places you want to visit.  Another important consideration is how will you use your motorhome?  Is it just for the weekend, or will you live in it full time?  Then rent a couple of motorhomes before buying to see if you can cope with the size you are considering.

What Happens If Your Van Breaks Down Or Need Repairs And Is Not Usable For Days?

Great question.

Most motorhomers have some type of breakdown insurance.

Depending on the insurance policy you may only have vehicle recovery or possibly a replacement vehicle or even accommodation supplied.

If the worst happens you will need to find somewhere else to stay, alternative transport if you need that and adjust your plans to suit the reality of your situation.  

We have just experienced this exact situation.

Our motorhome needed some repairs, which meant that we were without her for two weeks. Our dealer generously loaned us another (6 metre) motorhome but we found this to be too small and cramped for our comfort. 

We, therefore, spent this time staying in AirBnB’s throughout Tuscany, Italy and used the loan motorhome for transport only. 

Had we not been given a loan vehicle we would have hired a car and still stayed in AirBnB’s.

Making the most of our time in Tuscany, Italy we indulged in some truffle hunting.  

What Happens If You Any Health Issues?

Life and health issues still happen, especially when travelling long term and it is certainly more difficult to get medical treatment when you are in a foreign country.

If you are a European citizen, you will have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) which gives access to state-funded medical treatment while travelling in Europe.

Other countries have reciprocal agreements with some European states to treat each other’s citizens.  It is wise to make yourself aware of any that may assist you (see also the next question).

We have both been sick at different times.

We’ve had to find doctors, get blood tests taken, find specialists, and even had a recent experience in a public hospital.   Luckily there has been nothing serious so far and we hope it stays that way.

For us, to return home to New Zealand for medical reasons (relating to our health) would be a huge blow so we try to stay as healthy as possible and avoid risky activities.

We have the time and flexibility to just stay put if we need some recovery or downtime. 

Luckily, we can and do both drive which is fortunate should one of us sustain a physical injury like a broken leg.

Preparation and planning are important.

Take all the medication with you that you expect to need as well as any relevant medical records. Find out about how you can get repeat prescriptions filled if necessary or stock up. 

Also it’s not a bad idea to bring doctors scripts with you as you may get them filled, depending on which country you are in.  Have any dental checks and work completed before you leave home.

I’m asthmatic and needed some Ventolin.  I walked into a pharmacy in France with my empty inhaler and they [reluctantly] replaced it with a new one for about €5 (less than NZ$9).

We hope to look this good by the time we finish travelling!

What Insurance Can Be Put In Place To Cover Health Issues?

When we visited a hospital recently we were pleased to learn that Australia has a bilateral health agreement with Italy

That meant that I could be treated free of cost as I had the required documents due to having lived in Australia for many years.

Our health insurance with QBE from Australia covered us for the first two years. It wasn’t cheap but gave us comprehensive cover (which we haven’t had to claim on, fortunately). 

After two years, our options were to find alternative cover or self-insure. The insurance cover we are considering is called World Nomads. It’s not as good as our original insurance, which means that we have a certain amount of self-insurance but on the positive side it was significantly cheaper.

Best, Worst And Funniest Stories

Our best story would have to be the time when we saw the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in Norway.

We arrived into Norway on 17th September 2018 and were told it’s far too early in the winter season to see the lights.

Not only did we see the lights that night for several hours, but earlier in the evening we witnessed a rare and stunning sunset that is only possible two or three days of the year (weather permitting).  To see more photos or read the whole story click here.

The worst story would have to be the time when I got locked in a toilet in Greece.  It was the most frightening thing that has happened to me on our travels.  Here’s the story.

The Worst thing that happened to us both was getting stuck in a snowstorm driving in Norway.  We had full sunshine in the morning, and by 6pm we were in serious trouble.  Here’s the full story.

The funniest story was when the locals in Sicily, Italy coaxed us on.  We had to ask a  local man to move his car so we could get through to Ancient Noto. For the full impact make sure you watch this video through to the end.

How Do You Budget Your Money?

We use an app that’s loaded on my iPhone called MoneyWiz to record every expense (both cash and card purchases). 

We don’t leave the shop until the expense is recorded. With this app, we can quickly see our spending for the month, both overall and individual categories. It also handles different currencies easily (eg Morocco, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Croatia, Turkey, etc).

We have a set monthly budget but only loosely watch it to ensure we don’t overspend. All our costs are published on our website and in different blogs.

Knowing what countries are cost-effective helps too, as we can plan to stay in those places to compensate for other times when we travel to more expensive countries.

Turkey, Morocco, and Greece are low-cost places to spend the winter months.

We are heading up to Hungary, Poland, and Czechia this summer and we understand these countries are cost effective.

Having said that, we don’t shy away from the more expensive countries, such as Norway

We did plan our trip and made sure to stock up on supplies in the neighbouring cheaper country of Germany.

Do You Work While Travelling?

Alan has been working remotely part-time while we’ve been away, however that has now stopped. We spent eight years planning this trip and saved up hard to ensure we would have enough money.

While at home we would sacrifice going out and spending money on the weekends, while we watched our friends socialising, eating, drinking and going on holidays. Our business in Australia was teaching people how to value their money and spend on what’s important to them. 

We denied ourselves for years and even now we are careful about where our money is spent. We don’t eat out often but thankfully we like cooking and attend cooking lessons in different countries.

We do spend money on experiences; for example, we hired a yacht in Greece and went sailing for a week.

We are currently exploring options to earn money and supplement our savings while staying on the road longer.

This little fella was working hard planning for his winter

How Has It Changed You?

It’s true what they say about travelling.  It will change you.

When attending school as a teenager I was not at all interested in history.  That’s changed now and I love learning about what happened to the people in the countries we have visited.  I like learning about the different battles the countries had, the rise and fall of empires, who took them over, how the people used to live and what life, in general, was like.

It makes me sad to see beautiful countries spoilt by rubbish.  As Kiwis we were brought up with the slogan “Be A Tidy Kiwi”.  That meant that littering was a big no, no. 

We find ourselves wanting to leave the countries, towns, and parking spots in a better condition than we found them.  That often means removing rubbish the locals have left behind.  We hate seeing rubbish left lying around, particularly when there are rubbish bins available within easy walking distances.

Alan (and I) collecting rubbish left over from other campers in Greece

What’s The Scariest Thing About Travelling Full Time?

The fact that we may not want to stop and we could find ourselves nomadic for many years to come.

The thought that something might come along and stop us travelling forever, before we are ready to stop is scary.

The concept that we might have to return to the real world one day and have ‘normal’ lives and jobs is downright petrifying.

We are often asked about how safe we feel wild camping in Europe and is it scary?  We have a routine to ensure that we are as safe as possible, which you can read about it by clicking here.

What On Earth Will We Do After Brexit?

Since we are from New Zealand, Brexit doesn’t affect us.  And as Alan has an Irish passport, we both travel freely together throughout Europe as mentioned earlier.

On that note, Alan spent months researching the legalities of Schengen and has put together a comprehensive blog that includes correspondence to the different embassies and the actual documentation that we travel under.  For Kiwis and Australians travelling to Europe this is worth a read.

Even if you are from the UK, you might find this blog well worth reading.  You could even find that there are some loopholes that allow you to travel long-term in Europe post Brexit.

The Schengen Countries (click to enlarge)

Are You Satisfied With Your Motorhome?  What Attributes / Accessories Do You Wish You Had?  What Could You Do Without?  What Gear Is Necessary?  

I expect that what we think is necessary, others might think of as a luxury or totally unimportant.

However, we believe we have the perfect setup for our long-term travel and have thought long and hard about what we believe we should carry or have on board. For example, we wouldn’t be without our solar panels. 

We are self-confessed power hungry travellers.  We need power for our laptop computers, phones, electric toothbrushes, TV, blender and other appliances.  So making the decision to install two solar panels, a large inverter, and an extra leisure battery came quite easy.

Other things we wouldn’t be without are our electric bikes.  Given Betsy’s size, we cannot always park near the city or town centre, so we find a parking spot outside and use the bikes to explore.  That way we get some exercise and have easy freedom of movement to sightsee.

The only item that we thought we needed but don’t have is a gas oven.  This was supposed to be installed but for various reasons that never happened.  It’s a long story, however, we have ended up with an Omnia stovetop oven and thankfully it’s lightweight, easy to store, and can do about 90% of what a full sized, heavy and expensive gas oven does.

We purchased a microwave/convection oven at the beginning of our travels because the oven we ordered hadn’t been installed.  We only ditched it about six weeks ago after lumping its weight around for nearly two years.  The occasional use didn’t justify the weight and space it took up.

Oh and I nearly forgot.  One thing we had fitted was an external gas point so we could BBQ outside.  After having used the BBQ once only, we gave it away.  I don’t know why we thought this was necessary because we never BBQ’d at home (I hope I’m not going to lose my Kiwi citizenship by admitting to this fact).

If you would like to know how we have achieved the perfect set-up, have a read of our blog

Our Omnia Oven

Do I Miss A Bath?

One of the all-time luxuries for me is to have a bath and yes I do miss this.

Therefore if we are staying with friends who have a bath we will ask to use it.

Or if we are planning a stay in an AirBnB or a hotel, a bath is the first criteria we look for.

Our hotel in Russia only had two rooms available with a bath and we requested and were given one of these. 

Likewise, when staying in Tuscany recently, all of the AirBnB’s we stayed in had a bath.

Sometimes big sacrifices need to be made to enjoy the bigger picture.  This is one.

Why Did You Leave Me Behind?

I’m happy to share the secrets of how anyone can have the same lifestyle as we do. In fact, it’s not a secret at all, it’s dedication and hard work. It starts out by having a desire to want something different in life.  And wanting it badly enough that you will sacrifice the here and now for something in your future.  We call it delayed gratification.

Interestingly it is, in fact, cheaper for us to live on the road than to live in our home back in New Zealand.  True story.

Okay, we don’t have some of the ‘things’ around us that we would have at home but it’s all a matter of choice.  Imagine living rent-free, with no water or power bills.  Imagine being able to go into shops and not be tempted to buy anything – because you just don’t have room to store it.  Life on the road can be quite low cost.

So here’s how you can achieve this lifestyle too.

Start with a plan.  Work out when you want to travel, what you’re willing to give up to get it, and then work out how much it will cost.  It doesn’t matter if it takes you ten or twenty years to achieve it (providing time is on your side).  What matters is that you have a goal, break the goal down into manageable pieces, and then start a plan towards achieving your goals.

Most people will give up because it’s too hard, then look at others thinking how lucky they are.  Luck has nothing to do with it, plan, plan, and plan!

We have met lots of people on the road who have in fact put a plan in place and then executed it. 

If you want to read a blog of someone who has a very similar story to ours, then take a read here

What is that saying, if you can visualise it, you can achieve it!

Has It Changed Your Views About Climate Change And Recycling And Plastic Usage?

We have seen first hand how damaging plastic usage is to the environment.

We made a conscious decision to try and avoid drinking water from plastic bottles and use our water tank for all our water needs.  We have reusable bags for carrying groceries so very rarely need to use plastic shopping bags.

When in Morocco recently we were thrilled to hear and see that plastic bag usage has been (largely) abolished.  They need to go one step further with plastic drinking bottles as these are an eyesore.

In Scandinavia, the recycling of cans and bottles (plastic and glass) is encouraged financially.  When you buy products in these containers, a deposit is added to the purchase price.  People turn up with bag loads of bottles, feed them into a machine located at the entrance of each supermarket, and receive a credit for their deposits.

Sweden has one of the lowest footprints in the world in terms of its refuse.  In fact, Sweden is so good at recycling that, for several years, it has imported rubbish from other countries to keep its recycling plants going.  Less than one per cent of Swedish household waste has been sent to landfill since 2011.

In order to answer the question about climate change, I don’t think that travelling for just two years to only 26 countries is long enough to form an opinion about such an important issue.  I will leave this one for the experts.

Rubbish is a sad fact of life, especially in Palermo, Sicily, Italy

Do You Miss A Permanent Home?

Yes and no.

We do have a permanent home in Auckland, New Zealand, which is rented out.

What I miss (apart from the bath) is having a garden where I can grow and then harvest fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables.  I do know of some motorhomers who have set up small herb gardens in their vans though.

I don’t miss the maintenance, however, like mowing lawns, trimming hedges, painting houses.

There is some comfort in knowing that our house will always be there when or if we return.

The advantages of living in a mobile home seriously outweighs any desire to be in a permanent home at this stage.

Are You Happy?

In a word, YES!

We sometimes have to pinch ourselves to make sure that where we are is real.  We look back on some of our photos and can’t believe we’ve been to so many wonderful places, seen so much, had lots of different experiences and met so many amazing people.

I do miss my family and friends back home and do my best to keep in touch through social media, phone calls, and I even write postcards occasionally (particularly to my elderly father who isn’t online).

Where Do You Go When You Have A Fight?

I am lucky to be travelling with my soul mate and we just don’t fight.  The key to this, I believe, is due to clear communication.

That doesn’t mean we always agree with each other.  Sometimes we have opposing opinions, but it doesn’t get to the point of fighting, as we know to allow space and let the other person have their own opinions that differ from ours.  We accept this.

As a life coach, in my previous life, I specialised in relationships and I used personality profiling and NLP techniques as tools to help couples understand themselves, as well as each other.  Learning to communicate in your partner’s value system will provide a more harmonious life.

I often taught people how to identify the VAK communication style.  People have a preference for how they see the world, either visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic (feeling).  Understanding your partner’s style this can go a long way to improving communication.

To find out more information about this you are welcome to contact me, free of charge and I can explain more.

If you are contemplating travelling full-time with your partner and you argue a lot, disagree a lot and frequently need your own space and time, then maybe you should think again.

What Was The Inspiration / Catalyst For Travel?

Initially, the inspiration was to celebrate my 50th birthday in Venice enjoying a gondola ride with my husband.  This had been an eight-year dream, one we talked about regularly.  I visualised every part of that day and it turned out perfectly.

Another catalyst for me was to tick off a bucket list item.  I’ve always wanted to learn a foreign language and knowing myself I felt I should live in a country and surround myself with that language. 

While travelling we’ve been learning Italian and Spanish (and French for Alan) and have just recently decided that Spanish will be the language of choice.

We plan to spend more time in Spain so I can attend language classes and delve deeper into achieving my goal.

Do You Feel Divorced From Society And If So, How Do You Counter It, Without The Use Of Social Media?

I think our ‘society’ has shifted.

I don’t feel divorced from what others would consider as society, but have made a new society, being the motorhome community, which is very large in Europe. There is often someone you can talk with who understands your lifestyle choice.  Social media is certainly a big part of this.

We also make an effort to engage in conversations with other motorhomers wherever we park.  We particularly like to see those motorhomes with GB (English), NL (Netherlands) and/or D (Germany) registration plates, as we are usually guaranteed an English conversation.

Food is something that brings us together.

As mentioned we like to cook and share food with others.  Occasionally I will cut up some fruit and hand around the platter for others to enjoy, or share cake or cookies.  If it’s cold outside, we invite people in for a drink (usually BYO).  Food is friendship.

In Finland last year we turned up at a free parking spot with about 10-12 other vehicles.  It was cold and getting dark and I knocked on the door of everyone inviting them over for a drink and conversation after dinner.  Not everyone came (thankfully as Betsy would have struggled) but those who came enjoyed themselves (at least we think they did).

As we don’t have English TV channels on our TV (our choice) and we can’t read local newspapers, we are often behind in hearing about world events.  But guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  Most of the news is bad news anyway and us not knowing it isn’t going to affect anything one way or the other.  If it’s important someone will let us know.

How Do Friends And Family React To Your Choice Of Van Life?

For the most part, our family tells us to enjoy it while we can.

They know how hard we worked to get this far and are encouraging of our lifestyle choice.

My parents-in-law travelled a similar route in the 1950’s and it’s fun sharing our locations with them via Skype.  Sometimes my mother-in-law will pull out her diary and read paragraphs from the same location as we are in.  It’s amusing when they ask if the same bar or store is still on the corner.

We know van life isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but we are sure our friends are happy for us.  

What’s The Most Common Question You Get Asked?

Three things;

1. How can you be retired so young? A: Planning.

2.  Did you win lotto? A: No.

3.  How much does it cost?  A: Not as much as you expect (see our earlier answer about costs). 

We Donated A Kiwi Tea Towel To The Boomerang Cafe In Turkey

If You Wash Your Underwear…How Can You Dry It On The Go, Or Outside Without Arousing Unwanted Attention?

We have our own washing machine, just a little thing we bought from Amazon, which is fantastic.  And actually, my husband does all the washing and given we mainly wild camp we find spots where hanging out washing won’t be a problem. We pick our spots carefully to not offend others or attract attention from the police (hanging out the washing is seen as ‘camping behaviour’ and banned in many areas). As long as we have a water supply close by, and sun to supply power to our batteries (and dry the clothes), we can wash everything without needing a laundromat. They can be expensive in Europe.

Do You Ever Miss Sitting On A Proper Toilet?

It’s not something I’ve really thought about.

While travelling we’ve noticed the toilets throughout Europe are all different.  I think I could write a book on toilets alone!

That said, it’s funny how many times when I sit on a normal toilet that I find myself reaching down as though I have to open the hatch.

The toilet in Betsy is very comfortable and the toilet space is relatively generous, so no I don’t miss a proper toilet.  Thanks for asking, Andy Spencer.

How Do You Decide Where To Go?

We have a loose plan of where we want to travel.

Typically we follow the birds and travel north for the summer, thereby avoiding the sweltering summer heat, and then south for the winter trying to avoid the cold and snow.  We don’t carry winter tyres or chains so this restricts our time in certain countries where there are legal obligations about chains and tyres.

We use a very good app called Park4Night to find suitable stopping points for the night.  We are often attracted to the coast or lakes (we are water people) and oftentimes other travellers tell us places we should not miss.

Our travels are fairly fluid, meaning we can chop and change on a whim.  We can stay longer or move on should we wish.

Where Did You Buy Your Motorhome?

We bought Betsy from a motorhome dealer in France, located not far from Paris.

She was built in Italy and we collected her, brand new, from Genola, a small town in northern Italy.  Betsy has French registration, an Italian flag in the logo, and New Zealand decals on her.  That confuses people but typically we will have people say bonjour to us. 

Alan speaks a little French so he converses until they realise we are English speaking.

The process we used to select and purchase a French registered vehicle without actually having a French address can be found by clicking here.

Betsy’s photo of us Wild Camping on Lemon Beach in Greece is on a 2019 calendar

Do You Miss Having A Connection With The Same People Regularly? For Example The Mail Person, The Grocery Store Clerk, Familiar Faces?

Having been away from our home country, New Zealand for ten years, we are used to not having that connection so this feels quite normal for us.

Having said that, when staying in one spot in Istanbul for four weeks we began to feel like locals and were soon recognised by the local shopkeepers. 

That was a nice feeling.

We hope in future years to spend much longer spells in one spot and feel part of a local community.

The service type person I miss the most is my hairdresser.  I hate having to find a new hairdresser in different countries.  They do their best but it’s often hit and miss whether I get a good haircut or not.  Although you know the difference between a good and bad haircut, don’t you?  Two weeks!

While living in Perth, Western Australia, we didn’t really connect with our locals like folk do in English villages.  I envy the English for having that special connection with their local greengrocer, etc.

Do You Miss Not Being Able To Do The Conga During New Years Celebrations With The Neighbours?

I might have to come to the UK for New Years Celebrations to experience the Conga – that’s a new one on me.

When living in New Zealand we had a street party each year on Guy Fawkes night and I was named ‘Little Lucifer’ for my interest in pyrotechnics.  I miss those times for sure.

What Contingency Plans Do You Have Should…

1 – your vehicle get damaged

We would get it fixed and take temporary accommodation if necessary – we have a four-year mechanical warranty on the vehicle from Renault and insurance that will pay for accommodation while accident repairs are carried out.  We had this happen recently and stayed in AirBnB for a couple of weeks while Betsy was getting some love and attention from the manufacturer.

2 – your partner is taken ill or dies?

We have both been sick and just stay put until we feel better.  We have travel insurance that will repatriate us to New Zealand if there is a major medical problem.  We’ve talked about what would happen if one of us dies.  You never really know until the time comes, but if I were the surviving partner, I would relocate back to New Zealand.

3 – the money runs out?

We have insurance to cover us for big costs that would affect our savings.  We watch our money carefully and live within our means so that it doesn’t or shouldn’t run out.  However, if that did happen, we would go back home and get jobs.  We are both in our early fifties and are university educated with good corporate skills.  Let’s hope the New Zealand economy stays strong, just in case.

 

How Do People “Survive” With No Fresh Water Supply?

When travelling full time and free camping in a motorhome you have to be very mindful about fresh water supplies.

You have become very good at foraging for water and it is everywhere if you know where to look.  Motorhome service points, public water taps/fountains, beach taps, service stations, friendly people or businesses, cemeteries, streams…. there are many options.

Sicily was the most difficult place to find water as most of the public fountains had been disconnected to save money (we think).  One of the few times we had an issue trying to find fresh water was in a place called Aqua Dulce.  This literally translates to sweet water, only there wasn’t any.  We found a cemetery on the outskirts of town and topped up there.

We carry 100 litres of water in our tank, which with mindful usage, lasts for about 3-4 days.  This includes a daily shower, cooking, and washing dishes.  It doesn’t include laundry usage.

We carry an additional 20 litres in containers in our garage and we use a funnel to empty these into the tank. Our spare water containers can be carried on our electric bikes, and on many occasions, these have been used to ferry water back to Betsy from public water supplies which have been up to 2 km away.

The Park4Night app we use identifies many locations with available water so we look ahead and top up.  French Aires always have water

Once in Greece we asked for water from a tap located outside a Taverna and paid €5. Camping grounds have water but we haven’t yet needed them as they usually want you to stay the night (quite reasonable really) if you want to use their services.

Fortunately, the great majority of water in Europe is safe and good to drink. 

However before filling our main tank we will taste the water and even make a cup of tea with it.  If it passes the taste test, we fill up.  The water goes through one filter before reaching the tank and there is a second filter after the water pump. 

We have been caught out a few times with poor quality drinking water.

That’s all folks.

So these are the questions you’ve asked and I hope the answers have satisfied your curiosity.   If you have any other questions, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer them.

Safe travels if you are on the road and you see us please toot or come over for a cuppa (or vino).

Please feel free to PIN and read later.

Related Posts You Might Find Interesting
Cittadella a Hidden Gem in Northern Italy

Cittadella a Hidden Gem in Northern Italy

by Ruth Murdoch  |  June 2019  |  Italy

What a gem we found by pure chance.  I pointed to a place on the map that would conclude today’s driving and found a free parking spot that just happened to be nearby a town wall.  Getting that close to an Italian old town is something of a miracle in Betsy, our Motorhome, with her 7.5 metre (plus bikes) length.

Cittadella has Europe’s best-preserved medieval parapet walkway that allows you to traverse its nearly two-kilometre loop.

We unassumingly walked into the local Tourism office to check out the local surroundings, only to discover this was the start of the parapet walkway.

The walls are 1461 metres in circumference, 14 metres high, with 30 metre high keeps.  On average the walls are 2.1 metres thick.

An elderly Italian lady in front of me was not confident to walk out onto the walkway and look down.  I suspect she suffered from vertigo.  However, with her family who had already scarpered and another group coming up from the rear, she had no option other than to keep moving forward.

There are four gates that enter the town and twelve towers looking both inwards to the residents and outwards to anyone wishing to lay siege to this town.  One family succeeded and an invading family occupied Cittadella for 30 years.

Today the city of 36km2 and which was founded in 1220, has a population of just 20,000.  The houses and grounds are immaculately kept which surely must be more than a coincidence. 

Beautifully manicured private back yards from the residents of Cittadella

At the halfway mark there is a Siege Museum and a Civic Archaeological Museum.  The €5 cost of walking around the parapet includes access to both museums, but don’t throw your tickets away as you will need to show them to gain access here.

There is also a panoramic viewing platform at the halfway point, which offers unobstructed views of the beautiful mountains, vineyards, and countryside, as well as the town buildings.  We tried to capture as much of this scenery as possible.

The Walls Surrounding Cittadella

See how far the wall extends

Looking back to the start of the walk

I often marvel at the engineering from so many years ago.  The walls have virtually no foundations and are shored up only by embankments made from the excavation of the surrounding moat.  Initially, the gates and the moat were made out of wood and earth.  Only later was the entire complex rebuilt in stone.

The moat runs all around the walls and is fed by spring water.  From the walkway we could see large fish, probably carp, enjoying the flowing water entering the moat laying in wait for morsels to feed upon.

It’s June and already the high season so where are the crowds to spoil our photos?  I don’t know how many tourists maps Cittadella is featured on, but if you are in the area then do pop in.

We were amused to come across a small café called Motueka, which is a quaint town in New Zealand’s south island.  Unfortunately, Moteuka was closed so we couldn’t find out how a little north Italian walled town ended up with a café from New Zealand origins.

Why Were You Closed Motueka?

A bird’s eye view gives us an unusual aspect from which to take photos.  These two sculptures adorn the grounds of Cittadella.
The Andrea Mantegna Town Hall hosts a number of events and we watched as another was being set up.  This new hall is a symbol of the town’s modern architecture but is also a historic building since it once contained the elementary school and was dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II.
The Andrea Mantegna Town Hall
The Ronda Walkway is open in summer (1st April to 31st October) from Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm, then 2-6pm.  On Saturday and Sunday the times are 9am to 7pm.  For more information visit http://turismo.comune.dittadella.pd.it.

Ruth donning traditional clothing from Cittadella

Alan would have made a brave knight

For information regarding the history here’s some further reading.

Photo taken from a brochure

Feel free to PIN and read later.
Schengen Rules Explained

Schengen Rules Explained

Alan Gow Checked Out the hidden secrets of managing Schengen time restraints

***  UPDATED APRIL 2019 ***

Don’t Let Schengen Ruin Your European Holiday of a Lifetime

If you are contemplating an extended holiday (more than three months) around Europe then you may want to keep reading.

If either you or your spouse/partner hold a European passport then you definitely need to read this because if you rely on the usual information sources, then you might just miss out on the holiday of a lifetime.

Who am I and how do I know this stuff?

I am from New Zealand and I hold a dual citizenship, (NZ and Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU).  I am married to a New Zealander who holds only her NZ passport.  We are travelling around Europe in a motorhome for a few years and to ensure we could do this hassle free, I engaged in some extensive research before leaving home.  The potentially most limiting factor was the time allowed to be within the Schengen Zone, which I will talk more about later in this post.  There was so much misinformation and lack of clarity around my situation, that I felt compelled to put together this document to help others to find the answers easily.

I went on a real emotional rollercoaster ride as I would read somewhere that there would be no restrictions on us – yay!  Then an embassy official would say that my wife would be subject to the Schengen restrictions but I wouldn’t – oh crap!  Then I would get other information to contradict this, and so on.  This continued for some months but over this time, as I researched more, my absolute certainty in my conclusions grew stronger.

At the end of it all, I found no official website or publication that categorically 100% stated that my wife was, or wasn’t going to be affected.  However, I found many documents, directives and other publications that said my wife enjoyed exactly the same ‘free right of movement’ as me.  This will be explained later in my post however I can confirm that we have been traveling for two years non stop, in and out of Schengen, usually exceeding the 90 day in 180 day limit (also explained later) and without any problems or questions from the border officials.  So it works.

What is this Schengen thing?

The Schengen agreement had a great goal, which was to abolish internal border controls within the European Union (EU), allowing passport free movement between countries.  When originally signed in 1985, five countries joined. However, this has now been extended and 26 countries, including four non-EU countries now make up the Schengen Zone.

Tens of millions of Europeans enjoy freedom of movement within the Schengen Zone.

Which Countries are in Schengen?

EU Countries

Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Non-EU Countries

Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.
Schengen Map showing which countries are in the Schengen Zone

Who has been left out?

Britain and the Republic of Ireland chose not to join Schengen.

Croatia, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania are in the EU but have not yet joined Schengen.

What Does This Mean for Short-Term Travellers

For most short-term travellers to countries in the Schengen zone, this is all good news.  Citizens from a long list of visa exempt countries, which includes New Zealand and Australia, do not require a visa to enter Schengen.  Once you clear immigration at the first port of entry, you are free to travel to any of the above countries without needing to show your passport at any borders.

Citizens who are not from visa exempt countries, will need to apply for, and obtain a Schengen visa.  I am not going into the process for this but there is a wealth of information available on the internet, including on this site.

So, what is the issue?

The problem comes if you are travelling on say a NZ or Australian passport, and want to spend more than 90 days within a 180 day period touring within the Schengen Zone borders.  Because that is forbidden.

That’s right, you can spend about three months within that whole block of 26 countries, then you will need to leave the zone for a minimum of three months before being allowed back in for another three months.  As a non-EU passport holder, your passport is (or should be) physically stamped with the entry and exit dates and all data is stored in the Schengen Information System.  When exiting or entering Schengen again, the dates are checked to make sure you have not overstayed your welcome.  Significant fines and re-entry bans can be imposed on those travelers who do not comply.

I guess it made sense back in the day when there were only five countries in Schengen club.  It was common for those counties to grant tourists a three-month entry permit or visa, so when Schengen came into being, it was probably easiest to allow three months within the whole zone to make sure no visitors exceeded three months in any one country.  As more and more countries joined however, this has become increasingly restrictive and senseless (in my humble opinion) for long-term travelers.

I believe that there are moves afoot to create a 12-month ‘ tourist visa’ for Schengen which will certainly ease the problem but who knows when they will get around to that.

For the average traveler shoehorning in a European experience around their annual leave, this isn’t going to affect them.  However, for the lucky nomads like us, who have the opportunity to take an extended time out, this can really restrict where you can go, and when.

What about travelling to Non-Schengen Countries?

Each individual country has its own rules and visa requirements and you are best to research these for the countries you are travelling to.  Britain, for example allows a six months visa free stay for many visitors while most Balkan states (e.g. Croatia, Bosnia, Albania) allow a three months visa free visit.  Turkey also allows a three months stay however most travellers will need to obtain a Turkish visa on-line (New Zealand passport holders are one of the few Turkish visa exempt countries).

Planning around Schengen

Unless you or your ‘registered partner’ are European citizens, there are just a few options available to you.

Plan your travels

The most common approach, for those who don’t have an EU passport, is to plan your travels around the ‘90 days out of 180 days’ restriction.  This means that you must exit Schengen on or before the 90 days expires, and stay out for 90 days.  You can then re-enter Schengen for another 90 days.  In reality this may mean flying over to Britain for 3 months, or driving/ferrying across the Schengen border to countries such as Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Romania, Morocco or even Turkey, and enjoying their charms for a spell.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and pushes many travelers to experience countries they wouldn’t otherwise have given a second thought to.

You can go out of, and back into Schengen during that 180 days period but you need to keep careful track of where you have been and when so that you don’t exceed 90 days in any 180 days.

Keeping an eye on the seasons while doing your planning is important. We met a lovely Australian couple in Thessaloniki, Greece in December 2017, who were planning on driving up into Bulgaria and Romania for the first three months of winter because they needed to get out of Greece within the next few days.  Now, those countries may be nice during the summer but they aren’t the ideal spot for a small motorhome in a Northern Hemisphere winter.  We suggested they consider Turkey instead and they experienced a fantastic and much warmer time exploring the south of that wonderful country.

Residence Permits

Another alternative is to apply for a residence permit in one of the Schengen countries.  However, these are not handed out easily, normally require you to have a fixed address with a property lease agreement, and a valid reason for being there.  These only give the right to stay longer than 90 days in that one country and aren’t intended for the purpose of then hopping from country to country.  You could theoretically then travel within Schengen and eventually exit from the country from which you obtained a residence permit however this isn’t strictly legal and if caught you could be in serious trouble.

So, short of quickly marrying a local, or having an EU spouse, are there not many ways of being able to extend the Schengen period.

One option that can help Kiwi’s and Ozzies, is to take advantage of the historical Bilateral Agreements our countries entered into with many European countries.

Bilateral Agreements

These Agreements are historical agreements between two countries to abolish the need for visas for non-working stays of up to three months.

New Zealand and Australia for example, established Bilateral Agreements with most European countries up to 50 years or more ago and these have never been cancelled.

Because these agreement pre-date the Schengen agreements, most Schengen countries will still honour them and allow a visitor to have up to three months in their country even if they have just spent three months in other Schengen countries. 

The catch here is that the individual countries seem to have different ways in which they allow these agreements to be utilised, for example, France will allow another three months under the Bilateral agreement only after you have spent your 90 Schengen days outside of France. Germany appears to be very flexible but some, for example, Hungary, require you to enter their country from a non-Schengen country and leave to a non-Schengen country.  Others, such as Italy are no longer honouring these agreements at all.

I strongly recommend that if you want to make use of these agreements, researching them thoroughly should be an important part of your travel preparation.

Contact the embassies concerned to advise them of your travel plans.  Here’s what to ask for in writing:

  • ask for confirmation that the Bilateral Agreement can be used for additional time in their country without reference to time spent previously in Schengen
  • ask about the process and any conditions around how to use the Agreement

    Keep records to prove that you did not exceed the 90 days in any of those countries, i.e. keep receipts.

What if My Spouse or Partner is an EU Citizen?

In this case, travel within Schengen just got a whole lot easier, especially once you know what I am about to tell you.

Firstly though, a simple defacto relationship will not be good enough here.  You must be either married or have a partnership that is ‘registered’ in an EU country, and the EU country you are entering has to treat ‘registered partnerships’ as equivalent to marriages.  Check the individual country requirements as to registered partnerships.

If you qualify, then the overriding European legislation that gives you the right to exceed the 90 days in Schengen is ‘European Directive 2004/38/EC’ which states citizens of the Union, and their family members can move and reside freely within the Member States’.

You should print out, and carry a copy of this Directive with you on your travels.  Highlight and be familiar with the sections that apply to you.

I apologise if this now gets a little detailed but it is vital that you understand your rights and why you have them, if you want to travel freely around Europe.

European Directive 2004/38/EC is a EU wide directive or instruction that the Schengen rules have to comply with, therefore all of the Schengen rules, codes, and regulations are written with this in mind.

Directive 2004-38-EC

In my experience, there is a lack of information, and in fact there is a lot of misinformation about how this applies to the spouse travelling with an EU citizen.

One of the fundamental freedoms of the EU Treaty is that citizens of member states can freely live and work in other member states, within the restrictions laid out in the Treaty.  However, there is no point in a citizen being able to move to another state if their spouse and children are not allowed to join them.  Therefore, Directive 2004/38/EC clarifies that all family members of a Union citizen have the same right of free movement as the citizen themselves.

 

What this means for you is:

  • You and your non-EU spouse can travel to any EU member state (Schengen or non-Schengen) and stay for up to three months with no restrictions. This is known as the ‘Community Right of Free Movement’ – remember this phrase as it’s important.
  • The only travel documents you need are your passports and marriage certificate
  • After three months, you can travel to any other EU member state and live in, or travel there for up to three months
  • This process can be repeated ad infinitum, i.e. forever
  • If you want, you can return to a member state you have previously visited, provided each visit does not exceed three months – again an important point.

What happens at Schengen Borders?

The guards at Schengen border crossings have to abide by Directive 2004/38/EC.  To assist them in correctly processing people passing through the border, a handbook, Schengen Handbook for Border Guards has been produced in all major European languages.

Although the border guards are supposed to know their job, there are still stories around about some of them not being aware of the rights of spouses and trying to deny entry or impose penalties for overstaying the 90 days Schengen restriction.  We ourselves have had three such border crossings so far where we may have been questioned by border guards and we had no problems whatsoever.  The first was from Greece to Turkey and back.  The second was leaving Finland for St Petersburg after eight months continuously in Schengen then returning to Finland a few days later.  The third was leaving Spain for Morocco then returning nine weeks later.  On all occasions, my wife and I exited and re-entered Schengen with no questions and without even being asked for our marriage certificate.

You should also print, and carry a copy of this Handbook with you on your travels.  Highlight and be familiar with the sections that apply to you.

 

Schengen Border Checks for Spouses of EU Citizens

As a spouse accompanying an EU citizen you should expect the following at a Schengen border:

  • You should only have to show the guard your spouse’s EU passport, your passport and be able to show your marriage certificate if requested
  • The guard should give your documents only the ‘minimum check’, which is defined as just checking that they are valid documents and show no signs of tampering, forgery or falsification
  • They should not ask anything about your travel plans, where you are staying, how much money you have to support yourself or question your Schengen entry or exit dates.
  • You can only be refused entry on genuine grounds of national security or public health.
  • Your passport is likely to be stamped unless you yourself have an EU or EEC identity card.

Note

If you are from a non-visa exempt country, you must obtain a visa to enter Schengen in the first place.  The documents I obtained were not clear on what would happen if your visa has expired and you are exercising your rights under Directive 2004/38/EC.  However it is clear that you still have the right to freedom of movement and if additional visas are required, they should be provided promptly and without charge.  You will need to do your own research in these circumstances.

Schengen Borders Code, Regulation 2016-399

EU Regulation 2016-399 defines defines how Schengen operates, however it clearly state that the rules “neither call into question, nor affect the rights of free movement enjoyed by Union citizens and their families….”.

What this means is that the Schengen Border Code cannot be interpreted in any way that affects or over-rules your rights outlined in Directive 2004/38/EC.

That sounds clear so what’s the problem?

The problem for me was that before undertaking dozens of hours of research, I didn’t know any of this and most embassy officials don’t know either.  If I had taken the first responses I received as the gospel truth, we would not be experiencing the amazing journey we are on now.  Luckily, I am a bit like a dog with bone about this sort of thing and kept digging deeper.

I’m not sure whether it is deliberate or just ignorance, but the embassy officials were the worst offenders at giving out wrong or incomplete information.  For example, the Italian consulate in Melbourne insisted my wife could only have 90 days and directed me to websites to back this up.  When I pointed out that the websites actually backed up “my” position he quoted lines from the website but added in extra words to support his claim.  When I pointed this out, I heard no more.

During this time, I was also in contact with other potential travellers in a similar predicament and they were getting different advice than me.  For example, the website ‘Your Europe Advice‘ is an official public service from independent lawyers giving advice on EU law.  After asking very specific questions, I finally got the advice that:

“Every Union citizen has the right to reside in the territory of a host Member State for a period of up to three months without any conditions or formalities other than the requirement to hold a valid identity card or passport” and

“The EU national and family members can move to another EU Member State after three months if they wish and repeat the above process and continue to do so”.

A link to the full response is provided at the end of this document.

However, Paul who is an EU citizen married to an Australia was told by the same organisation that:

“This means that your spouse would be entitled to travel to an EU country and stay up to 90 days. The 90-day limit on short stays applies to stays in the Schengen area as a whole, not to individual countries. The limit is not applied so that a visitor can spend 90 days in each country. Instead, the limit is applied so that a visitor can only spend 90 days in the Schengen area as a whole (Articles 3 and 6 of Regulation 2016/399 apply).”

Same question, totally different answer?  How can this be?

People are making massive decisions about their holidays of a lifetime and you can’t get a straight answer!  Fortunately, I was able to provide Paul with my research and documents and as a result, he and his wife travelled freely into, around, out of, and back into Schengen for many months in 2017 and 2018 with no problems.

Once I was very sure of my findings, I started asking direct and focused questions of the various embassy officials.  I was able to reference the Directives and Legislation and ask for their confirmation that I would have no problems crossing their Schengen borders.  It seemed that most just found my questions too hard, and either fobbed me off or ignored me.  I eventually had a satisfactory response from the German consulate in Berlin:

“You as an EU citizen can stay in Germany for up to 3 months without any further requirements. No matter in how many EU countries you have stayed prior to your arrival, you and your wife can stay in Germany for three months.”

The Hungarian official, after sending the question to the FREMO expert committee on Free Movement, in Brussels advised me unofficially that:

“I have received the official confirmation from Brussels that you and your wife can stay up to 3 months in each country without any administrative restrictions.”

It is always a little scary approaching a border crossing and not being sure what will happen.  Be prepared for the worse and 99% of the time you will just sail through without being questioned.

The bottom line is that as long as you clearly understand your rights, you are in a strong position.

I Have a British Passport – What about Brexit?

Great question and I wish I had an answer for that one, however at the time of writing that is up in the air.

It would appear that if and when Brexit actually happens, the British will lose their rights to freedom of movement.  I have not seen any proposed agreement or framework that will preserve this right.  After all, when you leave the club you can’t expect to keep enjoying the club privileges. 

There may, or may not be a delay to implementing the changes depending on the deal or no-deal that eventuates..

Who knows what the final result will be and it is a time of great uncertainty for British passport holders wanting to spend large chunks of time abroad.

My advice, get the hell over here before it all turns to custard.

Many British are trying to obtain Irish passports which would bring the right to free movement for them and their families. 

Document Links

Here are the links to the most important documents referenced plus some others I haven’t mentioned but gives you some more background.  I have highlighted parts of the relevant sections in some documents.

Directive 2004/38/EC

Schengen Handbook

Schengen Border Code – Regulation 399-2016

New Zealand has Bilateral Agreements with:

  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Austria
  • Netherlands
  • Hungary
  • Norway
  • Spain
  • Belgium
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

Freedom to move and live in Europe – A guide to your rights as an EU citizen

The RIght of Union Citizens and their family members to move and reside freely within the Union

Response from Your Europe Advice questions re Schengen

Truffle Hunting and Wine Tasting in Tuscany

Truffle Hunting and Wine Tasting in Tuscany

by Ruth Murdoch  |  May 2019  |  Italy

Table of Contents

There are several places in Tuscany to go truffle hunting, for us it was in Ulignano, a small grape growing area within the Province of Siena.
Happy is not a strong enough word to describe how we are feeling after such an amazing experience of truffle hunting, wine tasting and local produce eating in Tuscany today.

Another bucket list item ticked off, although I’m not sure once is enough.

We have some time to while away in Tuscany of all places, as our motorhome, affectionately known as Betsy, is placed into the hands of a Rimor repair workshop in Poggibonsi.

What a place to be delayed before making our way further north towards Hungary and Poland.

“So what is there to do in this region?” we wondered.

Visit castles and towns around the area are on the list and there’s the world famous culinary treat of going truffle hunting in Tuscany.

So as self-confessed foodies we partook in this regional pastime.

Here’s How Our Day Unfolded

We turned up early to Tenuta Toscanini (a proudly family-run winery established in 1720), for an 11am truffle hunt.

So what happens when one arrives at a winery early in Tuscany? They’re rewarded with a friendly welcome by an Italian chap who speaks good English. “Buongiorno, como sta” I said (good day, how are you?). ‘Oh, you speak Italian? was his enthusiastic reply.  “No” was my sad return.  “Solo un piccolo”, (only a little).  I guess it was enough to impress.

“Please sit, (said our new friend), while I find you a wine, do you drink white or red?” “Bianco, grazie” (white, thanks) was my eager reply while looking down at my watch which said 10.45am.  Gosh I love this civilised country.

Two giant glasses and a full bottle of Torciano Vernaccia Di, their signature in-house white wine arrived in front of us.  Our truffle hunters turned up at 11.20am, twenty minutes late.  I’m not sure if that was to give us time to make a serious dent on the wine bottle, or if they were just running late.   Oh well, no harm no foul.

Early Morning Truffle Hunting Wine!

Learning About Truffles

Truffles, which are affectionately known as ‘diamonds of the kitchen’ or ‘golden mushrooms’, come in two main types, white and black.  Within these two types there are about 30 different varieties, however, only a handful are edible.  They lurk under the ground at varying depths and even the trained dogs sometimes get it wrong.

White Truffles

White truffles are found anywhere up to half a metre below the ground and are hunted from September through to December.   The season is regulated by the Italian Government to ensure the long-term sustainability and quality of these diamonds (and no doubt keep the price up).

In 2016 only one kilogram of white truffle was found in the area of San Gimignano near where we are today, while in 2018 eight kilos were discovered.  Thinking back to my university economics class of supply and demand it’s pretty obvious to guess what’s about to come next.

White truffles typically sell for €7,000 per kilo.  A lack of viable truffles increases the demand and a low supply equals, you guessed it, a high price tag.

In 2018 a single truffle was unearthed weighing in at 2.1 kilos and fetched a price of €40,000.  The exceptional price was apparently due to the quality and the unusually large size.

The white truffles do not need to be cooked first before eating them but can simply be shaved thinly on top of the food.  Our lovely guide and English translator Andriano is the nephew of the current winery owner.  He excitedly told us that the addition of truffle to the food turns the worst chef in the world into the best chef.

The Seasons

The government manages the short white truffle season, from September to December.   The season, for black truffles in this region, is from April to May and lasting through to August.  There are some other varieties which can be found all year round.

The most discerning of foodies appear to prefer the scent and flavour of the white truffle.  That’s why Tuscany is flooded with buyers from all around the world during the winter truffle festival, happy to part with their euros for these elusive morsels.

We had to laugh when our truffle hunters told us that while hunting for white truffles in the forest you have NO! friends.  Although this is no laughing matter.  These hunters are serious.  They each have their own secret hunting spots and with limited time available and a license in their back pocket they can often be found before daybreak deep in the forest far away from prying eyes.

 

Today’s Black Truffles

Thankfully today our hunting is a lot friendlier than the serious business of white truffle hunting.  We’re in pursuit of black truffles and the conditions are near perfect.  A cool period with a lot of rain makes for good growing conditions because after all, truffles are a species of fungus and they like the same conditions as mushrooms.  The last few days of warm weather encourages the aroma of the truffles to permeate up through the ground, which makes them easier for the dogs to sniff out.

The variety we expect to find is called a summer truffle or scorzone which has a black rind and yellowish (bordering on white) pulp.  We could see the white colour when one of the dogs bit into a truffle exposing the white inside.

The White Insides Of The Black Truffles

The Use Of Pigs

We had heard of pigs being used for truffle hunting and just assumed that dogs were now used as an alternative or personal preference.

Although pigs can smell out a truffle at far greater depths than a dog, they root up a much large area of ground when digging down to it and cause serious damage to the fragile ecosystem that supports truffle growth and reproduction.  The increased demand for truffles in the late 1970’s led to a greater use of hunting pigs.  This almost collapsed the industry.  In 1985, a law was passed banning the use of pigs outside of specific competitions and demonstrations.

We are also told that using pigs is dangerous for the hunters because pigs really, really like to eat truffles.  When the hunters try to remove their find from the pig’s mouth they may extract their hand minus a finger or two.  Dogs also love eating truffles but can be persuaded or trained to give them up for a small reward.

About the Dogs

The bred primarily used in Italy is called Lagotto Romagnolo, which means “little lakes of northern Italy”.  Originally this breed was used to retrieve hunters’ kill from the water.  They are known as being fun, friendly dogs and good pets.  Their coat is normally as woolly as a sheep but ours had recently been shorn smooth.

The Italians will tell you this is the only breed to use, but according to the English and French truffle hunters, any dog can be trained. 

How Are The Dogs Trained? 

From the moment the dogs are born truffle oil is placed on their mum’s teats and they are also fed truffles.  I wonder if that’s where the expression lucky dog comes from.  This ensures that the smell and taste are ingrained from day one.  It takes four to five intensive months to train a puppy and they hunt with their mums during this time.

A game is played with the puppies as they grow. A small truffle is placed in a scent container, which is perforated with tiny holes to allow the scent to escape.  This is hidden around the grounds and the dogs are encouraged to hunt it out.  The reward for their find comes in the form of a doggie treat.  Our dogs also received small truffles as rewards, leaving us salivating and thinking lucky dogs.

The container used to train the dogs

Where to Find Truffles in Tuscany 

There are many options for where to go truffle hunting, however, be warned as the price can be steep and you don’t get to keep the bounty.  Typically, you join the hunters and their dogs for an hour or more of foraging then enjoy a lunch or dinner that (as you would expect) shows off the flavour of the truffle.

Truffles are known to grow in and around certain trees, the main ones being poplar and oak trees.  However, lime, chestnut, willow and pine trees can also support truffles.  The truffle, is actually the fruit of the fungi which grows on the roots of the trees in a mutualistic relationship, meaning that both the truffles and the trees benefit from them growing there.

Hunting for black truffles today was not in an open forest as we expected but instead in a cultivated and neatly planted oak grove in Ulignano, in the Province of Siena.  This plantation was at the back of the Torciano Winery’s vineyard.   growing on a large flat paddock where one would typically expect to see grapevines.  The oak trees were planted in neat rows evenly spaced apart and watered with truffle-spore-infused water to give the precious earthly diamonds a helping hand.

Equipment Used

Aiding the truffle hunters, apart from the trained dogs, is a small hoe with a short thin handle called a vanghetto.  This helps to dig the truffles out from the ground once the dogs have located them.  However I noticed when a large truffle was found the hands were the instrument of choice.

The Biggest Truffle Of The Season (so far)

Within just one hour of hunting, we (or should I say the dogs) had discovered quite the haul.  Not only had we collectively found the most truffles in an hour, our allotted time, but we also were credited with finding the biggest truffle of the season.  At an estimated 200 grams, we were delighted to be considered good luck on such a successful hunt.

An Estimated 200-gram Truffle Bought Smiles All Round

Wine Tasting & Delicious Lunch

After an enjoyable hour of hunting and gathering, which I could have continued for much longer, it was time to indulge in some wine tasting and food pairing.

Walking into the restaurant we were greeted by a table filled with umpteen glasses and bottles of wines all lined up waiting to be enjoyed.

An Impressive Amount of Glassware & Bottles

How Ever Will We Cope?

Andriano, our interpreter for the truffle hunt was also our wine instructor and waiter.  Every plate of food brought out was paired beautifully with different wines.  My favourite dish was the lasagna, the likes of which I’d never had before, despite making lasagna regularly.  This was heavy on pasta and béchamel sauce with just a sprinkling of meat throughout.  Of course, it was topped off with shaved cooked truffle.  It was utterly delicious, particularly when paired with a beautiful red wine.  As a dedicated white wine drinker, it was very unusual for me to be enjoying red wine so much.  I’m not a convert, however.

Delicious Italian Lasagna With Truffles

We learnt how to taste a wine by first swirling it in the glass to aerate before taking a generous sip.  You then suck in some air through your teeth and slosh the wine around all parts of your mouth.  The sucking in of air and swirling around in the mouth are repeated three times, before finally swallowing.  It’s true that you get a different flavour after doing this.  It’s not something I would do around my friends as they’d just laugh at me.

This vineyard specialises in red wines, and we were presented with seven different wines and told about how each was made.  There was so much passion from Andriano about the wines.  He tenderly held each bottle while sharing their story as if they were his own creation.

All of the red wines made here use the Sangiovese grape as their main component.  This is then blended with other varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to produce their liquid masterpieces.  The Sangiovese is an ancient grape with its origins dating back to Roman times.  Andriano called it the ‘mother grape’ from which all other grape varieties were bred.

Other Culinary Delights

Apart from wine, Toricano Winery also sells their own balsamic vinegar.  Their grapes are sent away to the Modena region of Italy to be made into this delectable black liquid, and then returned to the cellar door for selling.  The truffle oil we enjoyed with our meal was also available for purchasing.

By acquiring a bottle of truffle oil and balsamic vinegar we thought this would give us a great deal of culinary pleasure and last much longer than a bottle of wine.

Other Interesting Facts

1.     A truffle needs to be at least five months old before it is ready for harvest

2.     If the truffle is too young, they are returned to the ground however the dogs will usually only smell out ones that are ripe

3.     The white truffles are typically sold to Italian buyers, whereas the black truffles are sold worldwide

4.     For more information including how to become a truffle hunter, which is no small feat, click here.

5.     DOCG means Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita and this highest classification on a wine bottle label guarantees the source of the grapes, the controlled production methods and wine quality of each bottle.

6.     Tenuta Toscanini makes three of their wines under the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) classification which allows the winemaker more freedom in how they blend and produce the wines.  These wines are delicious and can only be purchased directly from the winery.

7.     If you are keen to try your hand at truffle hunting then enjoy a delicious lunch, including truffles and truffle oil, the place to go is Toricano Winery.  All details including pricing can be found here. 

Our First Truffle

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Week 9 in Morocco

Week 9 in Morocco

by Alan Gow |  March 2019  |  Morocco, Africable of Contents

MAP

Just a short drive to Asilah and then up to Tangier Med for our departure, eventually.  The roads in this part are great but don’t offer the typically stunning scenery seen further south.

We are stranded and waiting for the gales to die out so we can cross back to Spain. We then endure the painful Moroccan exit procedures

 

After a short drive to Asilah, bad weather keeps us stuck in Morocco for a few extra days before returning to Spain via Tangier Med Port.  We use some of the time to explore the delightful Asilah medina.

 

Day 57; Asilah, Monday 25 March 2019

With our LPG gas tanks nearly empty, we drive north to be close to the Tangier Med Ferry Terminal.  From now on we will have to be hooked up to mains power or we will soon run out of gas.  If that happens we can’t cook, or have a shower and our fridge won’t work.

Our friends recommended the seaside town of Moulay Bousselham as a good spot to spend a few days before finally leaving Morocco.  After checking the reviews of various camping grounds we choose the one with the least bad reviews and head straight there.  On driving into Flamingo’s Camping, it just doesn’t feel nice.  Everything is overgrown and looks unloved.  There is nothing here that looks inviting.  We park, have a cup of tea then decide that if they want our valuable business, they need to up their game and at least make the place look half presentable. 

 

Asilah Medina

The quaint Atlantic seaside town of Asilah is only another 30 minutes up the road and 30 minutes closer to the ferry so we point Betsy in that direction and keep going.

Often being the first stop for motorhomers arriving in Morocco, Asilah is a great introduction to the culture and the people.  We missed this when we chose to drive first down the Mediterranean side because the weather forecast there was better.  Asilah however, would be a much nicer option (in my humble opinion).

Camping Echrigui  (GPS 35.47243, -6.02825) is close to the beach on the north side of Asilah and costs 80 dirhams a night including electricity.  Soon after we arrive, so do our friends Tommy and Zoe, who crossed from Spain to Morocco with us eight weeks ago.

The Asilah medina (old walled part of the town), is right on the port and some stone sculptures have recently been installed outside the walls.  The shiny, new modern sculptures look a little incongruous against the ancient stone walls but are nice pieces.

Asilah Medina Walls and Modern Stone Sculptures

Looking through the sculpture

Day 58; Asilah Medina, Tuesday 26 March 2019

We cycle into town to explore the Asilah medina and stop beside a set of vividly painted tiles fixed to the wall.  Each tile is a different representation of the Hand of Fatima, which is an ancient symbol believed to provide protection against the ‘evil eye’.  The concept of the evil eye is that it is a curse cast on you by someone giving you a malevolent look, usually when you are not aware of it.  I wonder how many malevolent looks we have picked up in the last nine weeks in Morocco.  It’s a little scary to think about it.

The ‘Hand of Fatima” is a common theme in Morocco – here on painted ceramic tiles

Caught Out by a False Guide

While we are examining the tiles, a man walks past and explains that these were made by a local artist in a nearby shop.  He motions for us to follow him.  As we have nothing better to do, we follow him around the Asilah medina while he explains about the different architecture and how to differentiate between the different types of buildings and doors.

After a little while we realise that we have managed to pick up a ‘false guide’.  These people are unregistered illegal guides.  They try to charge for providing tours after giving unsuspecting foreigners some historical information about their surroundings.  We had experienced this approach before however then we plainly told the person that we were not interested in a guide. 

This time, we had been caught out and it took a while before we twigged to what he had done.  As we neared the medina exit, the man asked for money saying that he had given us a ‘Asilah medina tour’.  We told him that we hadn’t asked for a medina tour and that he had just been walking with us and talking.  On this occasion, he went away empty-handed however we have heard of instances where tourists have been pressured into paying significant sums for something they didn’t know they were having.

TIP: If someone comes up to you and starts telling you about what you are looking at, they are likely to have an ulterior motive, usually involving getting money from you.  If you don’t want a guide, (or to be taken to their uncle’s carpet shop), then tell them this very clearly. Stop and wait for them to move on. 

However, if you do want this person to be a guide for you, then agree the price up front.  Do not wait until the end otherwise you leave yourself open to excessive charges and extortion.  If you are concerned then just say you will call the tourist police of whom illegal operators are very scared.

Having said that though, the Asilah medina is very interesting, containing some unique buildings and great street art.

Wall Mural in the Medina

‘Hands of Fatima’ Street Art

Traditionally painted Asilah Medina house

One of the many interesting alleys

Stranded in Asilah

Days 59 – 60, 27th – 28th March

The wind has been blowing a gale and we find out that nearly all the ferry sailing are cancelled and the ferry terminal is in chaos. It is overrun with hundreds of motorhomes (as well as cars, motorbikes and others) trying to leave Morocco.

We decide to wait out the storm and spend another two nights here until the ferries are sailing regularly again.  Asilah is a nice place to be and we really enjoy the last opportunities to experience the totally unique feelings, sights and tastes that are so different to what we know awaits us back in Spain.

Most businesses are closed on Fridays, so this makes Thursday an important shopping day for the locals.  We venture out on our bikes into narrow streets.  They are crammed with people selling everything imaginable plus a few things I could never have conceived of.  Making progress on the bikes is impossible.  We buy some pumpkin from an old lady and lock our bikes to the post beside her, reckoning that she will keep an eye on them.  Next it’s time to stock up on fresh chicken, spiced turkey mince, fruit and vegetables before reluctantly leaving.

Buying pumpkin, Asilah Street Vendor

The Coast is Clear to Leave

Day 61, 29th March

The ferries are running regularly and it’s time to leave.

I decide to save some money and see a little more scenery by taking the non-toll road for part of the way up the coast.  Bad move!  We don’t know whether it was a setup but as we are leaving Asilah on a straight road with an 80km/hr speed limit, an old car pulls out of a service station right in front of me and sits at 40 km/hr. 

Without thinking properly and with a clear road ahead, I pull out and pass him while failing to notice the two men at the side of the road a few hundred metres up the road.  Whoops, they are police and I have just crossed a solid white line. Twenty minutes and 400 dirhams later, we resume our journey.  Lesson learned.  My bad.  Nine weeks ticket free then on the last day I am pinged. 

TIP: There are a lot of speed traps in Morocco, particularly in the more touristy areas. Many motorhomers receive speeding tickets so beware.  They are also very hot on policing solid white no-passing lines.  Coincidentally, another person we met copped a ticket when he pulled out to pass a rickshaw in similar circumstances.  Maybe there is some sort of setup scenario where someone deliberately pulls out and travels slowly to entice vehicles to pass illegally? Or maybe I am just annoyed at getting a ticket myself?

We arrive at the Tangier Med ferry terminal about 11.00am hoping to catch the 1.00pm ferry however we were not prepared for the chaos that is the exit process.  Those readers who intend to visit Morocco in a motorhome may want to take note of this so they can prepare themselves emotionally for the trauma. There were still some ferries being cancelled or delayed and this may have contributed to what we experienced.

 

Exiting the Country – Morocco Style

Queue 1 – Boarding Passes

With a return ticket already in your possession the first thing needed is simply a boarding pass.  Upon arriving into the terminal, it is likely that someone will wave you over and ask for your ticket and passport.  They just want to get your boarding pass for you then try to charge you money.  Therefore, Don’t give your passport to anyone.  Just park, walk over to the booth displaying the name of your ferry company, and give them your documentation.  They will give you boarding passes for the passengers and your motorhome.  This is the first of many queues ahead.

Be aware when you are driving in the extensive terminal area that there are speed limits and usually police officers with radar guns.  So stick to the speed limits.

Queue 2 – Passport Control

Queue 2 is for passport control and once you make it to the booth, hand over your passports, which must still contain the slip of paper that was stapled inside when you entered.

Queue 3 – Vehicle Documents

On entering Morocco, you were given a temporary vehicle import document, which needs to be presented and verified when you exit the country. Processing this is the next step and we inch forward in Queue  3 until it is finally our turn.  The document is taken away, stamped and returned to us, and we are free to move onto the next step.  A lot of the local vans seemed to be searched here before passing this bottleneck.

Queue 4 – X – Ray

All vehicles leaving Morocco are X-Rayed (looking for stowaways, drugs and weapons we think) and Queue 4 for this step is long and slow moving.  Motorhomes are shuffled into the far-right lane and drip fed into place along with the cars.  About 20 vehicles at a time are lined up on a ramp beside the mobile unit.  We leave our motorhome and after about 10 minutes the X Ray truck trundles along scanning each vehicle.  Another 15 minutes later and we are allowed to hop back into Betsy and leave.  It’s no wonder that Queue four is so long when there appears to be absolutely no urgency in processing vehicles through.  I am sure they could have easily put through four batches in the same time if they had just tried a little harder.

Betsy waiting to be X-Rayed at Tangier Med Port 

Finally, the formalities seem to be concluded nearly two hours after we arrived at the port.  We find our way to the dockside parking area associated with our ferry company.  It’s a good idea at this time to make a cup of tea and some food.  Maybe even watch a movie because the printed time on our boarding pass is merely there because they wanted to use up some ink and there was a blank space on the paper.  It bears no resemblance to any actual departure time.  The Tangier Med website suggests that all our ferry line sailings are cancelled until 3.00am.  We settle in for a long wait, glad to be in a motorhome where we can eat, watch movies or even have sleep.

Lo and behold, a Balerius line ferry turns up about 5pm (remember we’ve been here since 11am) and starts offloading cars and trucks.  Maybe we will get lucky?  We should have bought a lottery ticket because it appears that we will be actually leaving on this ferry this afternoon.  The stars must be in alignment for us today!

Queue 5 – Final Check

Immediately prior to boarding the ferry, they take a final opportunity to get us to wait in Queue 5 by doing one more inspection of our passports.  In our case, the officer also looked briefly inside the motorhome before letting us board.

“Finally”, we say to ourselves.  We are on board and on our way.  Sorry, but no.  Once you are boarded you should expect to wait anywhere from one to three hours before you actually get underway.  In our case, the 1.00pm ferry actually left about 6.30pm!!!!

 

Spain at Last

On arriving in Spain, the customs and immigration process is so easy and fast that it almost feels wrong.  Although we loved Morocco, the delays leaving, then the painful and prolonged exit processes mean we feel a deep sense of relief when we finally reach Spain.

We head straight to the nearest LPG filling station and fill up our gas tanks because we are now so empty that the fridge won’t start.  Luckily there is one just a few km from the ferry terminal.

A great place to spend the night after the ferry from Morocco is the camper parking at GPS 6.17897, -5.43916 (where we also stayed before crossing to Morocco).  There is lots of room, all the main supermarkets are around and the low stress night is welcomed after a long day escaping from Morocco.

So here ends our time in Morocco for this trip.

How did we feel about Morocco?  Would we go there again? What are the best points and what wasn’t so good?  Is there anything we would do differently and what were the key lessons we learned?

We will put together a summary of our trip, including interesting fact, top tips, and places you must see.

 

Costs for Weeks 1 – 9

A low-cost week costing us €193.51  slightly below the running average of €202.55 over the entire nine-week trip.

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Week 4

Week 7

Week 1

Week 5

Week 8

Week 2

Week 6

Week 9

Week 3

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