Three kids in a van (not to mention the dog)
How can you holiday and see the world on the cheap? Answer: as a backpacker. But how can you do that same thing with three kids and a dog in tow? That’s what the boat is all about. With a boat you can travel, in your own home, to the far corners of the globe. However, there are times when a boat can be very restrictive. You can travel the seven seas, but when it comes to terra firma you can only get at the edges. When you want to travel and live cheaply on the inside of a country then you need the terrestrial equivalent of a cruising yacht: you need a camper van, or motorhome.
As a matter of fact, the first few times that we travelled inland with the kids we didn’t have a van. (Or a dog, thank heavens.) We travelled by car – the cheapest estate car that we could find – and our accommodation consisted of one very small tent. That tent cost twenty quid, and it served us well; we still have it, nine years down the line, and it is still serviceable. As an investment it could hardly be bettered – but as a holiday home for two adults, two young children, and a babe in arms it left a lot to be desired.
With the tent we toured first Spain and then, a year later, Namibia. That was fine. But when we tried to tour France it rained, and that was truly terrible. (If you’ve ever sat in a tent with a five year old in the rain you will know what I mean.) Come to that, even in hot, sunny climes a tent is far from ideal accommodation for a family on the move. Every night we had to re-erect it – we had to arrive at our chosen venue in sufficient time to select a pitch, erect the bedroom-come-playroom, and cook dinner for five on a wobbly one ring stove. And all this had to be done with the said babe in said arms. Then, in the morning, we had to dismantle and stow the whole show before moving on. I actually rather like camping – I was a Girl Guide and so grew up understanding about guy lines and loving the adventure of cooking al fresco – but touring with a tent en famille did not compare.
Added to this, camping is not especially cheap nowadays. A night for five at a campsite in Spain costs, on average, £25 to £35. Finally, the use of a tent tied us to an itinerary. We had to go from a, to b, to c, missing out x and y unless they had campsites. We could not make spontaneous detours. Worst of all, unless we booked in advance we never actually knew, until the moment of our arrival, whether we would find a place. There was always the risk that we might end up on the street! Eventually, having weighed up all the pros and cons, we decided to have done with the tent and invest in a van.
Our first camper van was an ancient VW. Not your genuine split-screen VW, but a vehicle old enough, at any rate, to be tax exempt. Bertie was thirty. Bertie? Well, that was what the old dear had been called by his previous four owners, and thus there was no question of renaming him; renaming a boat is considered very unlucky and so it must surely be with vehicles also, I suppose. Bertie’s appearance, however, was another matter. Originally orange below and cream above, the van had recently been repainted with brown household emulsion. That simply HAD to change; brown is not my colour.
I have always thought it odd that people drive around in copycat, corporation-coloured cars. We dress and furnish our homes to express our personality, so why not our cars too? Surveying the expanse of dun coloured metal I decided that what was needed here was a paint scheme which reflected my taste and, at the same time, suited Bertie’s character. And there was another thing, too: we had bought the van in Spain and would be driving it up to England; when I considered the drab, wintry conditions which lay ahead I felt that it would be nice to be able to import, to the motherland, a little bit of out of season sunshine and fun. Accordingly, I painted the van blue and covered it in a wallpaper pattern of life-sized mermaids.
Off we went then, in our hippy-mobile, to test the concept of “land-yachting”. For our first night away we set up home in the shadow of the Alhambra, the famous and fabulous Moorish castle which is Spain’s number one cultural attraction. Not a lot of tourists can claim to have eaten their suppers hardly fifty feet from the fortified gates!
But were we really allowed to spend the night barely without the portals of the hallowed mediaeval palace? Certainly. In Spain one can park up and pass the night almost anywhere; anywhere, in fact, where there is no specific prohibition. At first, as we began our travels, we looked for isolated spots at the side of little country lanes. Then we realised that, parked in such a location, a van and its occupants are rather conspicuous and vulnerable. The most discreet place to park is one where there are other vehicles. Pursuing this philosophy we spent nights parked beneath the walls of other magnificent castles, such as the one in Almeria (one of Spain’s best, and most underrated castles, in our view), and we also parked up in city centres. While the Spanish performed their evening “paseo” through Cartagena’s cobbled streets, browsing in the late opening boutiques and admiring each other’s attire, we cooked and ate supper amongst them. On another occasion we found ourselves parked just one hundred yards from the route to be taken by an Easter procession. That night was noisy – but unforgettable! In this respect, travelling by van really is a lot like yachting; in each case one is able to set up camp in the nicest and most interesting of places without getting involved in the expense and inconvenience of a hotel.
So much for the advantages. Living at the side of the road does, however, entail one problem – that of sanitation. Most of the traveller’s practical needs can be met without recourse to the facility of a campsite. Water, for example, can be carried in a jerrycan or in a purpose designed, fitted tank. When the need arises one can top up the tank at a petrol station. In extremis, one can buy bottles of mineral water. Nor is the disposal of refuse a problem; every city and village in Spain abounds with municipal litter skips, and even in England one can usually find a bin. As for electricity, if the vehicle does not have interior lighting one can easily do without it – children can easily be persuaded that dependence on candlelight adds to the adventure of life on the road – or else one can fit a “house battery”. Bertie did not have a house battery until Caesar found one dumped by a skip and installed it the engine locker. An hour’s driving supplied this rejected, but now recycled battery with enough juice to run the cabin lights each evening for five or six days.
Water, electricity and all the other necessary amenities of life we could acquire without relinquishing our new, much-valued independence – but our toilet troubles were another matter. Our old VW seemed to have belonged to an age when people stopped, when they needed to answer the call of nature, and did their business in the bush. Such practices are all very well – but not when you are speeding along the autovia, 50 kms from the next service station. And not when you are parked up in the centre of a town, or outside the Alhambra. Happily, one of Bertie’s previous owners had already dealt with this problem and the van was now fitted with a porta-potti. There it sat, as bold as if it were truly the throne of a monarch; it was right alongside the cooker and immediately opposite the sliding door. In a doomed effort to disguise the thing somebody had knitted it a pretty cushion cover.
There was no way that the loo could be curtained off, and so anyone desperate enough to need it was obliged to perform a very public spectacle. But the use of the loo was only the first part of the problem; afterwards it had to be emptied. Peeing on the verge is one thing. Emptying a day’s worth of effluent into the hedge is an activity which could well be considered anti-social. So, what could we do with our “soil”? Ours being a family in which the traditional roles of male and female are respected, the emptying of the potty fell to Nick, and he had a simple solution to the problem: he forbade anyone to use the loo.
“You’ll just have to wait,” he said, “and use the loo in the Alhambra.”
In support of the idea that this was quite fair and proper he told us that his mother had once had to go 24 hours without a pee. Be that as it may, this barbaric toilet regime was to cause me much grief, for I am a creature of Regular Habits.
We awoke, in our Chez Alhambran resort, to the sound of rain pelting on the roof. Since the ancient citadel is largely an open air venue today was not the ideal one for a visit. What were the alternatives, we wondered? What else could one do on a cold, rainy, Sunday in Granada with three brats in tow? The only obvious alternative was sitting in the van, playing twenty-questions and getting on each other’s nerves. When we thought of it that way a walk in the pouring rain began to seem quite attractive.
Out we piled, into the cold and wet, me with my bowels by now in miserable disarray. We returned, as dusk fell, greatly inspired by what we had seen. Or at least, the kids and their father were feeling happy and inspired. I had not managed to complete my business and was therefore feeling pretty miserable. By nightfall I was shivering. By morning time I had a high temperature and cared not one iota whither we went next.
But the show must go on – and it did. The children had been promised a trip to the top of the highest mountain in Spain, and all for the purpose of building a snowman. Having been born and bred in the tropics the poor things had been deprived – or so they told us: they had never seen snow. Thus Bertie was obliged to drag his burden of three excited infants plus one invalid up the steep and icy incline, along what is allegedly the highest road in Europe – the road up the Mulhacén. Aloft there – not quite at the top of the mountain, but certainly above 5,000 ft – the kids beavered away in the blizzard. And I, meanwhile, reposed on my deathbed. Not a lot of people can claim to have lain on their sick-bed at the top of the Mulhacén.
From the Sierra Nevada we turned north, heading for England and home – but still at a leisurely pace. It soon became clear that the children were too young to be enthusiastic about spectacular scenery, and so we began to search out the cultural highlights. In Barcelona we visited Gaudi’s amazing Sagrada Familia church, still only half built one hundred years after it was begun. The trouble with the avant garde is that it isn’t avant for long; it quickly dates. The kids merely scoffed at the awesome towers and compared the place to a gigantic grotto. (Later we discovered that Gaudi’s design was, indeed, inspired by the curious formations to be seen in some of Spain’s many spectacular grottos.) So far as our little art critics were concerned, the mosaics which decorate the building looked like “park benches”- which they do, because almost every park bench in Spain is now decorated in imitation, Gaudiesque mosaics.
On then, to Figueras which was Salvador Dali’s home. His wicked sense of humour and seeming insanity did impress the children; that an adult could get away with behaving like that impressed them greatly. The night was spent parked beside Dali’s seaside villa, in Cadaques, and while I admired the view the kids marvelled at the huge eggs which the artist constructed on his otherwise very ordinary roof top.
The next day’s challenge was the Pyrenees. Bertie wound his way over and around them with ease, sailed down into Southern France – and then slammed straight into a mistral. And here I made a navigational error. The mistral is a hideously cold and forceful wind. It blew the poor old VW all over the road, and plainly it was going to have an adverse effect on our fuel consumption. Having once travelled down the river Saone and the Rhone with a mistral at our backs we had assumed that the wind was formed in that valley and followed its course. I therefore decided to depart from our planned itinerary, along the said valley, and head directly north from Montpelier. What I did not realise, never having paid much attention to my Geography teacher, was that this new route would take us over the Massif Central. And even if I had realised it, I would never have guessed that this region was quite so incredibly massif. Up, up, and up some more climbed poor old Bertie. That road just went up, up, up all night! And still the beastly wind hammered us on the nose. What is more, as we went up the wind grew colder. The heater in the old VW camper is not what it might be. Well, let’s be honest: there isn’t a heater. There are some red and blue knobs, but their role is purely ornamental. So, we wrapped ourselves in blankets and drove on – and up.
Another thing that the reader may care to note, should he be intent on someday making a similar journey, is that all-night fuel stations are few and far between in France. Intent on crossing the country overnight we eventually had to call a halt, in some trim little town whose name escaped our notice, and wait for the arrival of dawn and a petrol pump attendant. Eventually we reached Paris, got lost, rediscovered our whereabouts, and then pressed on, finally crossing the channel at Dover. The journey was almost complete – but there was still one more hurdle. Ever since I decorated the van with mermaids people had said, warningly, “Oh boy! You’re in for it when you try to enter Britain! The customs people will take you for a bunch of hippies.”
The moment of truth had now arrived. Would the officers of the law really make us empty our lockers, stuffed full of Spanish olives, cuddly toys, underwear, and other personal effects? As we rattled up to their booth the customs men turned – and grinned, and waved. “Cool van!” somebody shouted. And we were out, released into the world.
The theory had been tried, and the findings were favourable: a camper van is an ideal means by which to tour the interior of a country on the cheap with kids in the company. But it was also plain that, for us and ours, a VW is not the answer. Our oldest two children were now teenagers, and the pipe cots in the VW’s raised roof were not built for people of their bulk. Nor was the double bed in the back of the van sufficiently commodious to be comfortable for two adults plus a wrigglesome seven year old. We edged up slightly. We sold Bertie and bought Sam, a retired ambulance. Until you have driven an ambulance you cannot appreciate the respect which other road users accord such vehicles – even after the name has been painted out – but although we liked the VIP treatment at the traffic lights and enjoyed, too, a couple of major excursions (one to Spain, and one in the New Forest in winter) we found that even the ambulance was too small. Caesar reckoned that it was way too small; he wanted one of those mega-vans, the size of a bus, with pull-out sides. Dream on!
Aside from the initial difficulty of affording it, and the subsequent one of finding the money to pay for the fuel, ownership of a big vehicle entails one other major problem: the bigger the van the harder it is to park. In fact, what one really needs when travelling is a Tardis – a vehicle the size of a phone box with an interior the size of cottage. Any van over six feet in width is really to big for having fun in the little lanes of Sussex or North Wales, and anything taller than 2.5 metres is likely to encounter difficulties in the tortuous streets of a hillside village in Spain. (A word of warning here: narrow Spanish streets are often designed like a fish trap; they get even narrower as you go along them.)
Eventually we plumped for a veteran Kontiki Swift. With a beam of seven feet it does get stuck in the Welsh lanes, and we have rubbed the roof – 2.8 metres tall – on the underside of a Spanish balcony, but without those vital statistics you cannot have a van with a double berth above the cab. And we need that bed. It accommodates two daughters, two dozen cuddly toys, and all of our coats and sleeping bags. We also need the copious locker space afforded by this larger vehicle. This is not a family which knows how to travel light. When we hit the road, Caesar has to have with him his computer and his printer; Xoë needs a whole wardrobe full of dresses and fancy clothes; Roxanne cannot travel without the aforementioned cuddly menagerie, plus her microscope and collecting boxes; Nick must have his tools, in case we break down, and, naturally, I can’t go anywhere without my easel, my paints, several canvases and sketch pads, my accordeon, a large selection of books… etcetera. And this is not to mention the space taken up by Xoë’s dog. Poppy takes up an inordinate amount of room and is more of a liability, as a travelling companion, than all of the kids put together – but that’s another story.
With a length of 20ft (6m) the Kontiki Swift is on the large side for parking at Tescos or at the side of the street – but we manage it. Just. Go any bigger than this and you won’t; you’ll be back to depending on campsites.
A camper van offers endless opportunities for touring and holidaying all over Britain and all over the continent. One of the best things about it is that, like a boat, the van is always sitting there, ready for the moment when the whim to wander strikes. Weekends away take on a new meaning! You can pop over to visit friends, or see an exhibition, or what have you, and always have your home on hand! Aboard our Kontiki we have explored a great deal of Spain, parts of France, and a little bit of Wales. As the reader will have gathered, we don’t travel in luxury and style, and we don’t travel fast – if you want fast, stick to Easyjet et alia – but if you have the time to dawdle an old camper van is, in our view, an excellent way to go holidaying at home and abroad, on the cheap, with the kids.
Our only problem now is that we can’t fit the van on our aft deck. If only it would float along behind us in the manner of its namesake, we would be able take it with us and use it to tour Africa and South America. As it is, with our D-day drawing nigh, the van has to go. If you happen to want one… we happen to have the very thing! For more details have a look at our motorhome advert or drop us a line.
We have now journeyed between Southern Spain and England on nine occasions, travelling at various different times of the year and always taking at least three days over the adventure. We have also made various tours of the Spanish interior. Whilst we do not consider ourselves to be the leading experts in this field, we do have a few suggestions which might be of use to people making the trip for the first time:
1.)When choosing a vehicle you may want to bear in mind the fact that although in the UK diesel now costs more than petrol, on the continent diesel is still a little bit cheaper.
2.)Channel ferry prices vary enormously. The fares are cheaper if you book 24 hours in advance, and cheaper still if you do your booking over the internet. Night sailings are much cheaper than peak-time crossings – and so far as the kids are concerned, sailing at night adds to the adventure. A night sailing will also enable the driver to have a couple of hours kip; he will then arrive on the far shore refreshed, and able to drive for a longer spell.
3.)The weather in Spain is far better and far more reliable than the weather in France. On the basis of our experiences the children now insist that it is always cold, wet, and rainy in France, and always gloriously sunny and warm in Spain. The weather can make or break a holiday. It’s no fun sightseeing in the rain.
4.)If you intend touring Spain you might want to consider taking the ferry to Bilbao. This cuts out around 12 hours of driving, but it does not actually save you time; the ship takes 24 to 36 hours to cross Biscay. Moreover, the extra cost is far more than the cost of the fuel used in driving across France. (Pet owners may like to note that you cannot take animals on the Bilbao route.)
5.)If you want to cross France quickly, use the autoroute (motorway). If you want to cross France cheaply, don’t use the autoroute. At the time of writing, tolls for the whole journey across France and Spain, travelling from Calais to Cartagena (via Paris, Lyons, Perpignan, and Barcelona) cost 160 Euros (£110). We have found that although we use a bit more fuel on the smaller roads we still save £50 to £80 on the total cost of the journey. And we have much more fun!
The shortest, fastest toll-free route takes you straight across the centre of France down towards Toulouse. Then it dumps you. There are a couple of very attractive passes immediately above this area (to the west of Andorra) but they are not fast, and nor are the roads on the far side of this part of the Pyrenees. If you were heading for the south of Spain, this is perhaps not your best route – but if you came to tour, just relax and begin your holiday!
Our other preferred route is via Bordeaux, crossing the Pyrenees from the region of Pau; there are several very attractive passes above Pau. Mind you, the prettier ones are not always open…
Our least favourite route is across north-eastern France, where over-intensive farming has converted a rolling landscape into an eyesore, down through Lyons, where we generally get lost, and across the Pyrenees on the main drag down to Barcelona.
6.)Unless you plan to stop there, avoid Paris like the plague. This is particularly important if you are heading north. You WILL get lost coming off the peripherique, heading north. Even the Parisiennes get lost trying to follow this route.
7.)Whether in France or in Spain, we park for the night wherever we feel safe. This excludes remote countryside, and also excludes motorway lorry-parks. In both countries there have been gas attacks on camper vans parked in such places. Would-be thieves insert a tiny pipe through a ventilator, or other small opening, and fill the van with sleeping gas. They then break in and steal everything of value. Decrepit vehicles are less vulnerable than posh ones! Many travellers take a guard dog along, and some even make the animal sleep outside, under the wagon.
8.)Plan your route from a guide book – and then follow your nose. The guide books miss a lot of little villages. They also miss many of the fiestas. Spain is the land of the party – there is almost always a fiesta going on somewhere in the country – and you should find it easy to include one or two in your itinerary. Easter is probably the peak time for fiestas; Easter is more important in Spain than Christmas and every town has its own “semana santa” processions. The best ones are in the south.
9.)If you want to avoid the crowds come at any time other than in August. In August the whole of Spain takes a holiday. Moreover, if you are planning to tour the interior this is a bad month climatically; temperatures at this time are usually well over 100 F (38 C) in the interior, and it is asking a lot of your kids to expect them to enjoy being cooped up in a camper in such temperatures. When we visited Cordoba, in late July, the temperature was a stupefying 112 F (44 C) and we all found it difficult to get our brains in gear.
June and October are probably the best months for touring Spain. Winter can also be warm; we had hoped, when we crossed the Pyrenees in January, to be able to go skiing, but as it turned out there was not enough snow to build a snowman! We sunbathed instead. Global warming notwithstanding, one would be unwise to count on such weather; two years previously the country had its coldest winter for fifty years, and many of the major roads and most of the minor ones of the high interior were closed.
10.)The best way to enjoy Spain – and to enjoy touring in a campervan – is to be pragmatic. Go with the flow of events – follow the diversion signs without regret, and be willing to change your itinerary at the drop of a hat. After all, the whole of the country – and the whole of the world – is chock-full of interesting things to discover and explore. The camper van gives you cheap and easy access, en famille, to places that others only dream of.