Monthly Archives: December 2011

Christmas Festivities – Spanish Style (guest post)

The following is a guest post from Martin of the S&M Motel.  Thank-you Martin!  This is also the first guest post on DreamBigLiveBoldly.com.  If you’d like to be a guest contributor, please contact me.

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We are temporary inhabitants of the S&M Motel and I have so enjoyed the blogs from Patrick that I thought I would let you know what’s going on in Spain as the festive season approaches.

Like most places in the world with a Christian tradition, the towns and cities of Spain are becoming illuminated with decorations. Abstract swirly things suspended from lampposts, LED animals tethered to the roadside verges, along with traditional Christian and secular symbols (e.g. stockings, Santas and sleigh bells).  Nothing unusual there.

However. there is a tradition in Spain of building and displaying Beléns (Belén is Spanish for Bethlehem).  They look like an expanded version of a nativity scene. Their central focus is a tableau of the stable and its inhabitants, but from there the scene expands in time and space. Scenes depicting Gabriel telling Mary she was expecting, Herod’s edict to slaughter the innocents, the flight to Egypt, and Jesus at the temple are all somehow woven into a kitsch cardboard and plastic, seemingly fairly inflammable, toy town construction.

Municipalities compete for the grandest Belén.  In Malaga the city hall is open to the public.  Their 10 metre long Belén, guarded by the police, is admired by streams of people filing in to admire the display. This is not just for kids.  The crowds include courting couples, businessmen, and elderly people, photographing and discussing the arrangement of the little town (literally) of Bethlehem.

The 10 metre Belén in Malaga City Hall

The 10 metre Belén in Malaga City Hall

Beléns are big business.  Every home should have one. Stalls sell figurines, prefabricated stables, watermills, bushes, trees, and anything else you can imagine (and some you can’t) to build a mega model nativity. The most bizarre figure we saw for sale was a Boxcar Willy lookalike on a rocking chair peeling an orange. There are grown men out at night hunting through hundreds of shepherds, Marys, baby Jesuses, camels, wise men, and carpentry shops for the perfect addition to their own private Beléns.

Close up of Belén Figurines

Belén figurines, individually priced and ready to go!

The other odd thing about continental European festivals — I make the distinction because we are from a bit of Europe that happens not to be on the continent — is the liberal detonation by children of street fireworks. I don’t know what happens in Canada, but in the old country one has to hold a special licence, have a safe piece of ground separated from the public, and have a damn good reason to let off any pyrotechnic device, let alone the cheap Chinese ones thrown around by the children of the continent.

These things (the fireworks not the children) are for sale from street market stalls that also sell other festive novelties, for example, father Christmas costumes for dogs, fake dog poo (always a crowd pleaser), and the ever popular self-inflating whoopee cushion.

Although some of these novelties are taken home and presumably treasured by generations to come, many of the fireworks are for instant use. The kids are bought bags of sweetie-looking whizzers, rockets, bangers, and buzzers (along with a novelty cigarette lighter) by doting parents and immediately set to the task of lighting and throwing them as quickly as possible. The streets are littered with discarded wrappers and spent casing. Some older people object, particularly in the case of shock or injury, but it doesn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm for the sport among the young.

One can only wonder at the number of times that a wayward firework has resulted in the devastation of a lovingly created Belen…… still they all seem to be having a merry time, bless.

Have a safe Christmas,

S&M

Transition

It’s weird to be home, but not be in our home. It feels like walking over soft ground on a foggy morning. When I wake up at night, I’m not initially sure where I am, a temporary disorientation as my memory catches up with my senses. With my wits dulled from sleep, finding the bathroom in the dark can be difficult and potentially hazardous.

Jet lag has us a bit out of sorts. We’re exhausted by 8:30 PM in the evening, barely able to keep our eyes open. We wake every day between 4 and 6 AM. Even after 5 days at home, and despite concerted efforts at slumber, I still can’t sleep past 6:00 AM.  During the day I feel slightly hazy and vacant with a touch of light-headedness from time to time. It’s not unpleasant. Kind of like I’ve just had a big glass of wine.

Even though it’s Christmas, our alcohol consumption has declined and our healthy food intake is on the rise. I probably need about a month of salads to return my cholesterol and my colon to their normal states.

I’m back driving on the left hand side of the car again. Initially my sense of road position was slightly off, which Diane complained about as she was buzzing along perilously over the ditch.

Even though Vancouver is the warmest place in Canada, it’s still colder than where we traveled in Europe. I’m cold indoors and out. I’m going ice climbing next week, which should adjust my thermostat.

We’ve returned directly into the maw of Christmas consumer craziness. Out of season, the touristy thoroughfares of Europe weren’t as busy as our local mall.

We went grocery shopping yesterday and I was slightly traumatized by the food prices. Even accounting for the fact that the prices are in dollars rather than Euros, they still seem significantly higher than in Europe. Thankfully fuel is cheaper. When I’m hungry, perhaps I’ll go for a drive instead.

Europe Phase 1

After a brief stop in Southampton to visit family, we made it back safely to Canada in time for Christmas. We’re still dealing with the jet lag and trying to get used to the cold. We have our car insured and cell phone activated and we’re staying with generous friends until we return to Europe soon for Phase 2. We’re looking forward to spending time with family and friends over the holidays, and getting back in shape.

When contemplating Europe we anticipated rich history, grand sights, interesting culture, and great food. We experienced all of these things. We knew that travel would be much easier than in the developing world, and it was, despite some bad weather and vehicle problems. We had hoped, against the odds, for nicer weather. After the first week of September, temperatures where we traveled ranged from 2 to 23 degrees Celsius. Pleasant enough if it’s not raining, but cold at night. We were glad that we brought our down coats and gortex jackets! Phase 2 should be warmer and drier.

Because of the cold weather, we spent less time enjoying the nature of Europe and more time in the cities. We look forward to more hiking and for Patrick, climbing and mountaineering, when we return. Also the beautiful alpine views, great beaches, and swimming in the lakes and oceans.

We met fewer people (locals and tourists) than on previous trips because we were traveling by RV (i.e. not staying in hotels, not eating out as much, and only staying in campgrounds some of the time). In Phase 2, we will make more of a conscious effort to connect with people. If you have friends or family in Europe, we would love to meet them. We don’t expect anything, and would greatly appreciate the opportunity to get to know the people of Europe. If you’re thinking of traveling to Europe next summer, let us know and perhaps we can meet up?

Despite leaving a bunch of stuff in the S&M Motel, we found that our backpacks were crammed for the return trip. I’m not sure how this is possible when the only thing that I purchased in 4 months was Bombay Sapphire (gin) at the duty free store. Perhaps Diane’s new boots and clothes are the reason.

During our hiatus we’ll focus on planning for next year, getting our finances in order, getting back in shape, and spending time with family and friends. I will continue to blog. I’ve got a lot of postings partially written that I will finish and share, and lots more ideas. If you’re following the blog, please stay subscribed. As always, your comments on the blog are greatly appreciated.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Chez Diane

We eat most of our meals at Chez Diane, the restaurant in the S&M Motel.  It serves an excellent variety of delicious local specialities and old favourites made with fresh ingredients.  Always close at hand, it offers European flavours and homemade charm. And the service is excellent.

STARTERS

Cauliflower Soup
Creamy soup of leek, potato, and cauliflower.

Minestrone Soup
Italian vegetable soup with white beans served with bread.

Caesar Salad
The classic salad of Romaine lettuce and croutons dressed with parmesan cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, fresh garlic, and black pepper.

Greek salad
A fresh salad of tomatoes, green peppers, red onions, black olives, and feta cheese with a dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano, parsley, and pepper.

Niçoise salad
A traditional salad from Nice containing fresh lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, red peppers, tuna, onions, black olives, and anchovies with a dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper.

Bruschetta
Bruschetta topped with sautéed mushrooms and onions, fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, scallions, olive oil, and fresh basil.

Empanada
Baked pastry filled with meat.

Antipasto
A variety of prepared meats (salami, Iberian Jamón, French saucisson made of duck and wild boar), European cheeses (emmentaler, edam, gouda, camembert, chèvre, gorgonzola, roquefort), sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and nuts, served with fresh toasted baguette accompanied with extra virgin olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar.

ENTREES

Chicken Caesar Salad
Caesar Salad topped with grilled chicken breast slices.

Pan-bagnat
Fresh white bread generously coated in extra virgin olive oil and filled with Niçoise salad.

Pasta
Fresh pasta (penne, rotini, cappelletti, or tortellini) with tomato-basil or bolognaise sauce.

Gnocchi
Fresh soft dumplings with pesto sauce.

Three Meat Ragu
Ragu of chunky chicken, veal, and sausage accompanied by gorgonzola risotto.

Curried Chicken
Chicken breast in a curry sauce of sautéed onions, garlic, ginger, and cumin, accompanied with dhal (lentils) and basmati rice.

Aloo Gobi
Sautéed cauliflower and potatoes mixed with tomatoes and fragrant Indian spices, served with dhal and basmati rice.

Burritos
Fried beef or pork, rice, re-fried beans, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, salsa, and guacamole wrapped in a warmed flat bread.

Chicken Fajitas
Chicken sautéed with onions and red peppers in a spicy sauce with fresh tomatoes, guacamole, and salsa wrapped in a warmed tortilla shell.

Beef Chili
Chili with beef, kidney beans, tomato, onion, carrot, and garlic.

Pork Medallions
Pan seared pork medallions with mushroom pan gravy, boiled potatoes, and green salad.

Breaded Chicken
Breaded and fried chicken breast tenderloins accompanied with rice and steamed vegetables.

Paupiettes de Pork
Sachets of sausage wrapped in veal served with gorgonzola mashed potatoes and ratatouille of aubergine, red onion, tomatoes, olives, and basil.

BREAKFAST

Fruit Salad with Yogurt
A mix of fresh kiwi fruit, pineapple, apples, oranges, and grapes covered with flavoured yoghurt and topped with muesli.

Cereal and Toast
Muesli with fruit accompanied by buttered toast and jam.

Bacon and Eggs
Fried eggs, thick cut bacon, and buttered toast.

Impressions of Europe

Here are some common items that we’ve noticed about the 10 European countries we’ve been to.

  • There is an obvious sense of history here. Public buildings and churches can be hundreds or even a thousand years old. Families often trace their roots for hundreds of years and may live in a house that has been handed down for many generations.
  • Generally people dress better than those in Vancouver, and definitely better than we do in our travel clothes. Women are willing to sacrifice for fashion (e.g. wearing high heels on cobblestoned streets).
  • There is a greater focus on food. Europeans purchase higher quality fresh ingredients. Most cities have morning fruit and vegetable markets several times a week where the freshest ingredients can be purchased, the largest typically being on Saturday morning.

    Produce at morning market in Aix-en-Provence

    Produce at morning market in Aix-en-Provence

  • Bread is the main staple. Always fresh and delicious it is heavy and darker in Northern and Eastern Europe (e.g. Germany, Czech Republic) and lighter in the South and West (Italy and France).
  • Beer and wine are cheap. They are often cheaper than soda pop (bad for someone with a Diet Coke addiction) and bottled water, which makes it a tough decision to drink anything else.
  • Pork rules!  Unless you’re Muslim or Jewish, you’re going to eat a lot of pork here.  Far more popular than beef and as common as chicken.
  • Europeans don’t refrigerate their eggs. It is somewhat disconcerting to see huge stacks of eggs sitting in the supermarket aisle. When they get them home, people store their eggs on the counter or in the pantry, not in the fridge as we do in Canada.
  • Although America is one of the most religious countries in the world, Europe seems even more so, perhaps because there are impressive churches everywhere. The most religious countries in Europe are in the East (e.g. Turkey, Romania, Poland) and in the Mediterranean (e.g. Cyprus, Italy, Greece).
  • The Catholic Church is ubiquitous. There are grand Catholic churches in every village, town, and city, becoming larger and more impressive with the size of the city.

    St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

    St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

  • People here ride bicycles a lot more than we do. It is done much more as a means of transportation than recreation. Most people don’t ride fancy road or mountain bikes, just basic bicycles with simple or no gearing, front and rear lights, a comfortable seat, and perhaps a basket.
  • More people smoke than in Vancouver.
  • Homes are smaller. It is very common for people to live in apartments or shared accommodation of some sort. Owning a house (especially one with a yard) is less common than in Canada.
  • Buildings, including houses, are made of brick, block, or stone. As a result, walls and door frames are thick. We haven’t seen any wood framed houses which are the norm in British Columbia.
  • Most large cities have some pedestrian only streets where locals and tourists flock. They are typically full of retail shops and restaurants and don’t have the run-down feeling of Granville street, Vancouver’s singular pedestrian-only street.
  • Little dogs are very popular. For the conspicuous consumption types (like the ‘schickimickies’ in Munich), a small terrier, dachshund, or Chihuahua seems to be an essential fashion accessory. In case you’re wondering, the word ‘schickimicki’ is of German origin and is used to describe the ‘in crowd’, very stylish, superficial, chic, and pretentious.
  • Europe has a graffiti problem. In every country we’ve been to graffiti is common, but it was most prevalent in the former East Germany and Eastern Europe. In a few places it was particularly bad (e.g. on the inside of trains, on historical buildings, etc.)
  • There seem to be a lot of small circuses (mostly extinct in Canada) and traveling amusement parks here. We see them advertised everywhere, and have run across them a few times (in Pont du Gard, Arles, and even in Monaco).

    Tent and sign for a small Circus in Pont du Gard, France

    Small Circus in Pont du Gard, France

  • Europeans use the 24-hour clock. Times are often quoted to us as, “17 hours”, by which they mean 5 PM.
  • Virtually every European capital has a very fancy shopping district, much larger and higher-end than Vancouver. If you’ve got some serious money to spend, head for Europe (or the Middle East).
  • Most pharmacies tend to be boutique shops (no mega chains like Shoppers Drug Mart) with well-dressed staff to help you choose cosmetics and hair products. They often don’t even sell drugs, not even aspirin when I have a hangover.
  • Europe has a lot of co-ed bathrooms. They’re not the standard, but we encounter them frequently. They take some getting used to. I’m not accustomed to hearing the girl pee in the stall next to me, nor feeling the necessity to regulate my body functions so as not to shock her.
  • Mushrooms seem to be popular. Perhaps it’s just mushroom season here, but we see them more frequently and in a much greater variety than at home. There are mushroom sellers in the markets with whole tables of different kinds of fresh and dried mushrooms.
  • Most countries have a Value Added Tax (VAT) of some sort, usually much higher than the sales taxes we pay in Canada, but it’s always included in the price. The price you see is the price you pay. In principle I don’t approve of hidden taxes, but I must admit that I like the simplicity of it.
  • Europe has the most stylish and lavish McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. In Bratislava (Slovakia) and throughout Italy they have very modern styling and décor. The one in downtown Madrid has granite floors throughout. I think they are trying to compete with the coffee shops that have a long tradition in Europe.
  • It is rumoured that body odour is a more common problem in Europe because people don’t traditionally bathe daily. Although we have noticed this occasionally, it has only been slightly more frequently than we might at home. However, traveling by RV, we also haven’t been bathing daily either, so perhaps we can’t distinguish their smells over our own!

Traveling by RV in Europe

We’ve been roving across Europe for over 3 months now and have learned a fair bit about traveling in Europe by RV. Here are some of things we’ve been experiencing.

Terminology

Our vehicle (affectionately known as the S&M Motel) is a self-contained recreational vehicle (RV) known in England as a camper van and in Europe as a camping car.

Picture of the S&M Motel on a fogy morning

S&M Motel on a foggy morning

An RV is a self-powered motor vehicle and is different than a trailer (known in Europe as a caravan), which is towed behind a motor vehicle.

Campgrounds in Europe are generally known as campings, but this may be spelled differently in different languages. They are usually privately owned and operated, but some may be run by government institutions like municipalities.

Preparation

A trip by RV shares many common aspects with other European travel, so the usual things need to prepared in advance and brought along (e.g. passport, travel insurance, suitable clothing for the season and intended activities, electric plug converters, first aid kit, etc.)

After one has obtained a European RV with suitable insurance (thanks Sue and Martin!), it is necessary to make sure that it is appropriately equipped. In addition to the typical personal and household items (clothes, toiletries, bedding, cooking and eating utensils), you must have the things necessary to operate and maintain the vehicle (e.g. water hose and electrical connectors, wheel ramps for leveling, toolkit, common replacement parts like light bulbs, cleaning supplies, etc.). Also essential is the superset of safety items mandated by the various European countries for cars or RVs (e.g. reflective vests, warning triangles, snow chains, spare vehicle bulbs, large reflector for rear bike racks, etc.) Having an awning, portable table and chairs to extend the living area outside is strongly recommended to prevent cabin fever. It’s useful to carry bicycles enabling flexible transport between cities and campgrounds, which are often on the outskirts of town. In addition, it’s a good idea to have the following for communication and recreation — laptop, European cell phone, books to read, cards and other games, sporting equipment.

Driving

Driving in Europe is even more of a challenge with an RV. The freeways are the easiest routes to drive, but are not scenic and often have tolls (see Driving in Europe). Secondary and scenic routes are far more interesting, but some are not navigable by RVs due to height, width, or weight restrictions, limitations which are virtually indeterminable in advance. It is necessary to be constantly vigilant about height limits when going under bridges and overpasses, and always on the lookout for overhead obstacles (trees, branches, cables, signs and balconies that extend over the street).

The challenges of driving on narrow streets and finding parking are exacerbated when you’re in an RV. Some old cities have streets so narrow that the RV won’t even fit down them. Most street parking spots are fully delimited to restrict both the length and width of the vehicles that can use them, making them impractical for RVs. Many parking lots are off limits because they are underground or they have height-restricting barriers to prevent trucks or RV’s from using them.

Making a U-turns, legal if many places in Europe, and sometimes indicated by our GPS navigator, can be difficult due to the larger turning radius of an RV. Although the U-turn might be legal, making a three-point turn in an intersection probably isn’t. When backing up and parking an RV, it is highly recommended to have someone outside the vehicle to provide guidance.

Finding a Campsite

We have a couple of guidebooks that help us locate commercial campgrounds. Both books are incomplete (i.e. they only have a small subset of the campgrounds in Europe), so it’s better to have several. Many campgrounds close in the off season, so we often don’t know of any open campground in a place that we want to stay. In these cases we try to look online if we can get Internet access or ask at the tourist office in the town when we arrive. Getting to the tourist office can be challenging as they are often located in the town’s main square, airport, or train station, places that can be difficult to drive to or park an RV. If we’re desperate we might look in the GPS itself to try to find a campsite by searching for an address with the word “camping” in it. For a variety of reasons this usually doesn’t work (e.g. the time late at night in Berlin when it took us to a camping store rather than a campground).

When we have a specific campground in mind, it can still be a challenge to find it. Entering a street address into the GPS is sometimes problematic because of different spellings, the use of abbreviations, or out-of-date GPS information. We once spent almost 2 hours one night in a pouring rain storm looking for a campground that was less than 2 kilometers away (our GPS had out-of-date maps and it got us stuck in an infinite driving loop that it couldn’t get us out of). It pays to always have the latest GPS updates before beginning your trip. Sometimes Diane needs to work at it a while, trying different methods to find the campground in the GPS (e.g. looking it up by postal code rather than city, different spellings, etc.) Where we have the numerical GPS coordinates for a site, it is almost always preferable to use them. They are far easier to enter and rarely give us trouble. Campgrounds are usually marked and once we get close we can just follow the signs.

Campsites

The campsites continue to impress us with their services. Huge buildings full of clean, white toilets, showers, and sinks. All have nice shared cooking and dish washing facilities. Fresh water fill-ups and chemical toilets (to empty your RV toilet) are included. Electric hookups are also available but you may need to pay extra for this. Many have stores, restaurants, Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, bike and boat rentals, etc. The reception area staff usually speak English, and many provide great services like tourist information, buying transit tickets, free shuttle to the nearest bus station, and even ordering fresh bread for the following morning. Unlike Canada, none of the campsites have fire pits. Presumably trees are in far shorter supply here. All in all, they have more and nicer services that we would expect in a commercial campground in Canada. The disadvantage is they tend to be small and quite open, with very little space or privacy between us and the next unit.

Check out time is usually noon. It’s important to leave in time or you may find yourself locked in. Most campgrounds have gates that close at night. But they often also close them in the afternoon for a couple of hours, usually beginning at noon or coinciding with the normal lunch break or siesta time. If you don’t leave in time, you’re stuck for at least a few hours and may end up paying for another night.

As we’ve been traveling in the shoulder and low season for camping, the campgrounds that are open are not busy. Because school is in session there generally haven’t been a lot of children about. Some of the campgrounds are clearly set up for kids though, with playgrounds and activities in season. We’ve stayed in two places that had sad petting zoos right in the campground. There has been no need to reserve in advance, although we have had to squeeze in a few times during holiday periods. Reserving is more important in the summer if you want to stay in a particular place.

Many campgrounds cater to long-stay clients who leave their trailers in place all season or perhaps all year. They may even live there. A lot of campgrounds also offer permanently situated tents, bungalows, or mobile homes for rent. Some campgrounds are mostly filled by these types and have very few short-term rental spaces. In our experience these tend to be less friendly places as most people are “regulars” not inclined to get to know the people passing through.

Electricity in Europe is 220 Volt. There is a standard electrical connector for RVs in Europe, round with 3 large pins and a cover to protect the end that locks it into place when connected. In some campgrounds, they use the normal European plug (round with 2 smaller pins), so it is necessary to carry an adapter. Often the electrical service is limited to 10 amps or less, sometimes as low as 2 amps. In these cases, we need to turn off our electric water heater, and may only be able to run the refrigerator and limited lights.

Potable water has been available at every campground we’ve been to except one. We’ve encountered 3 different size tap nozzles, so adapters are required. It’s a good idea to let the water run a bit before filling and make sure the hose is clean before you fill, especially if it’s anywhere near the toilet emptying area.

Most RVs in Europe have toilets with cassettes that are designed to be removed and emptied into chemical toilets (larger versions of regular toilets) by hand, rather than emptying them into a sani-dump via a drain hose as is common in North America. The capacity of each cassette is limited to what a person can lift and carry, but this method does provide the option of having more than one cassette and swapping them when full for additional capacity. They are self-sealing to contain the smell, but you’d have to find a place to store the full ones (uuck!).

Food

Food is easily available at supermarkets, city shops, and outdoor morning markets. In the suburbs of some large cities you can find mega grocery stores (as big or even larger than a Walmart Supercenter). We’ve developed a fondness for a discount grocery store chain from Germany called Lidl which has approximately 10,000 deep-discount department stores and no-frills supermarkets across Europe. Each has a limited selection (only about 800 items vs. 120,000 in a Walmart or Carrefore Planet), but it’s as cheap (or cheaper for many items) than grocery stores in Canada. The contents of Lidl and the other grocery store chains in Europe does vary by country to reflect regional cuisines and tastes.

We always eat breakfast at the S&M Motel. We normally pack a picnic lunch (or occasionally a picnic dinner) and we usually eat one meal out every few days. We try to taste as much of the speciality regional food as possible, and Diane makes meals using fresh local ingredients whenever she can, often in the style of the region we are in (very impressive considering that she has no cookbooks and usually no Internet access).

Costs

Diesel is a more popular fuel in Europe than in North America. Most RVs here use diesel rather than gasoline. Diesel is usually listed first on the gas station signs (though it goes by different names in different countries), along with the prices for many other types of fuel. There are typically 5 or more prices displayed on the large street signs so it can be a bit confusing. They also offer premium diesel which costs more and probably isn’t required. Diesel has cost us between 1.30 and 1.56 Euro per litre ($1.87 to $2.24 per litre in Canadian dollars). The S&M Motel is a relatively small RV but still costs about 100 E to fill from empty (about $145 Canadian). It has a range of 700-800 kilometers on a full tank depending on the type of driving.

Campgrounds usually charge a certain amount for the vehicle and an additional amount per person. We have paid between 22 and 42 Euros per night ($32 to $60). In most campgrounds an electrical connection is optional and costs 1 to 5 Euro extra per night ($1.50 to $7). A few campgrounds have charged for showers, presumably to avoid people wasting water, and typically cost 0.50 to 2 Euro (75 cents to $3). Wi-Fi (wireless Internet access pronounced ‘wee fee’ here) is included for free about half of the time, but when it is charged it can cost up to 8 Euro for 24 hours ($12). Wi-Fi may be accessible throughout the campground or you may have to go to the reception area or restaurant to get access.

Other things

Traveling by motorhome requires many activities similar to an extended camping trip. There is the regular effort of shopping, cooking, and doing dishes. The setup and takedown of the bed and bedding each day. The constant filling (diesel, drinking water, and toilet flush water) and emptying (grey water and toilet cassettes) of various fluids. Daily cleaning of the interior and occasional cleaning of the exterior of the RV. The awareness and periodic maintenance of the vehicle systems (e.g. the toilet, electrical system and batteries, heating and hot water, gas re-filling, security system, etc.). And finally, resolving the inevitable problems that occur with so many moving parts.

Traveling by motorhome is different than staying in hotels or hostels. One difference is that we don’t get to relax when traveling from place to place, as we would if going by train or bus. There is no napping in transit. Similarly we can’t use our travel time to read or write. But we have enjoyed listening to local and ex-pat radio broadcasts and the occasional podcast from our iPod. Overall there doesn’t seem to be as much downtime, as there is always something to research, plan, buy, make, clean up, fix, or communicate. Of course, the pace is what we make it, and we always have the option to take a day off and hang out.

We haven’t met as many people as we did when traveling in the developing world. We don’t spend as much time in hotels, restaurants, or on transit where other travelers hang out. Also, there isn’t the same sense of camaraderie you find in the 3rd world, where travelers share information and fellowship partly out of necessity and partly out of desire.

Overall, travelling by RV has been an excellent way to see Europe. We would recommend it. We’ve learned a lot that we think will make our next trip even better.

The Best and Worst Kinds of Tourism

The Best

  • Getting off the tourist track. Often this only requires a few steps, but finding the right ones can be difficult.
  • Eating what the local people eat, street food, what is fresh, or what is recommended by your server.
  • Free coat checks in museums.
  • Free wi-fi at McDonald’s.
  • Morning markets with fresh local ingredients sold directly by farmers.
  • Meeting local people who don’t want to sell us something.
  • Meeting travelers and sharing experiences.
  • The kindness of strangers.
  • Talking with children who think we’re something exotic.
  • Picnics with wine.
  • Watching the sun set while talking with a loved one.
  • Learning about the history, art, and culture of the places we’re visiting.
  • Walking randomly through a city to absorb its ambiance.
  • Enjoying coffee at a sidewalk café and watching the world go by.

The Worst

  • Carrying around an iPad (which is fine), but then holding it up to use it as a camera.
  • Audio guides turned up so loud that those nearby can’t hear themselves think.
  • Churches that charge for admission. The reason they built these grand monuments in the first place was to attract people to the faith. In general I give these a miss, unless there is a compelling reason to visit (e.g. Rome).
  • Churches that provide free admission for the faithful, only to sequester them in a tiny area, while the majority of the church is overrun by tourists.
  • People who talk in churches, requiring periodic announcements on loudspeakers, “Ssssssssssssss….. Silencioooo. No talking please”. Although talking can distract people at prayer, I’m sure that these amplified admonitions, like an ethereal voice from above, have the same effect.
  • People who take photos in churches when it is forbidden.
  • People who dress inappropriately in churches.
  • 17 countries in 12 days
  • Being forced to exit through the gift shop
  • Charging money to use a bathroom. Especially the gas stations that charge a hefty fee rather than a token amount, then in false compensation provide a gift certificate not quite large enough to buy anything in their shop, almost requiring one to spend even more money. Who knew that elimination could be a marketing opportunity?
  • Having to register or show identification to use the Internet anywhere in Italy due to terrorism paranoia.
  • An Italian pizza in Venice topped with French fries and segments of hot dog.
  • “I don’t know what it is Martha, but git a picture of me with it anyhow”

Impressions of Spain

    • The central part of the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain is situated, is a large, open, wind-swept plain dotted with small hills. It looks like Nevada in the old Westerns. Between the major cities like Madrid, located in the center of the country, there is a lot of open space between the farms and truck stops. This region is called Castillo because there are many ‘castles’ located on the small hills, a legacy of the 800 years of fighting between Catholics and Moors in Spain. The southern part of Castillo has small windmills on the plain, and was home to the fictional man from La Mancha, Don Quixote.
Patrick driving RV in Castillo

Man from Surrey tilting at Winnebagos

    • Much of Spain has poor soil, rusty coloured or dry and rocky. This is good for growing olives and grapes, but not great for other crops. There are some regions, like Galicia in the north-west, that are green and wet, more like our Pacific Northwest.
    • Spain has greatly varying regional cultures. Like Quebec, some parts of the country (e.g. Basque Country in the north and Catalonia in the north-east) barely consider themselves to be part of Spain. In these regions many people would like to separate, resulting in periodic protests and acts of violence. The European Union, which Spain is a part of, encourages regional diversity, and so separation from Spain is less of a priority recently since the countries formed by separation would presumably all belong to the EU anyhow.
    • It was a surprise for me to learn that although Spain has only 1 official national language (Español or Castillian), it has 3 co-official languages in certain regions (Basque in Basque Country, Catalan in Catalonia, and Galician in Galicia).
    • The Moors were Muslims from Northern Africa who invaded Spain in the year 711 by crossing the Mediterranean from Morocco. For 800 years they occupied portions, sometimes the majority, of Spain and Portugal, and even parts of France. Other Moors from Turkey had pushed as far as Eastern Europe (e.g. the former Yugoslavia, some parts of which remain Muslim today). It took many years of crusades by Catholics from across Europe to finally expel the Moors from Spain in 1492, the same year that Columbus (born in Italy) sailed from Spain to re-discover North America (the Vikings were there first). Under Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain entered a period of intolerance when many Jews and other non-Catholics were expelled or persecuted as part of the Spanish Inquisition.
    • Apparently only 20 percent of people here go to church on a regular basis, but it definitely feels like a Catholic country. There are large Catholic churches everywhere. The largest Cathedral in the world is in Seville (Sevilla) and Christopher Columbus is buried there. He died in poverty thinking that he’d discovered a Western route to Asia.
    • Seville Cathedral

      Seville Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See

    • Spain is very different than Mexico, the Spanish-speaking country that most influences North Americans’ perceptions. The food and water are safe to drink and Spanish food is very different than Mexican food. It is not particularly spicy. There are no burritos, no tacos, and no enchiladas. They do have a tortilla, but is an omelette, usually made with potatoes, and not a round, flat bread.

    • Madrid and Barcelona, the two largest cities in Spain with over 4 and 1 million people respectively, are very clean and cosmopolitan. Although there are many museums, historic sights, and narrow streets in the older parts of town, these cities are very modern with clean efficient subway and tram systems (nicer than Vancouver’s), elegant shopping, and fine restaurants. We did however notice some slums by the river on the outside of Barcelona.
    • The major cities of Spain all seem to have great places for strolling, whether they be large squares, pedestrian-only streets, or tree-lined boulevards. At night there are thousands of people of all ages walking the streets enjoying the night air, and just recently, white Christmas lights have been erected in all major public places, suspended over the streets like stars.
    • McDonald’s restaurants in Spain have automated kiosks where you can order directly, without waiting in line. You then proceed directly to a separate area at the end of the counter to get your food. It’s basically the same as the automated kiosks at movie theatres, self-check-in at airports or self-check-out in large stores. In general I’m against these self-serve options, but it’s handy for us because the kiosks allow you to switch the language to English. Expect to see this coming to a McDonald’s near you in the future. Will there be any service jobs left?
    • Also at McDonald’s in Spain, they have flush-less, water-saving urinals (which I’ve seen before), but these ones have advertising on the top that lights up when you get into position. Something to do while you wait.
    • In Spain, for the first time in 6 weeks, we’ve noticed more heavy people (more than in France or Italy).
    • Spaniards love to eat jamón, pronounced ‘ham-own’. It is similar to Italian prosciutto but is better than any ham I’ve ever eaten. It is carved directly off a cured pig’s leg (cloven hoof still attached) in very thin slices and sells for outlandish amounts (as much $5 or $10 a slice). The best Jamón Iberico de Bellota (also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera) comes from free-range, acorn-fed back Iberian pigs and has been cured for over a year. We had jamón flavoured ripple chips the other day (much cheaper!)
Patrick slicing Jamon from a whole leg of pork

Patrick fondling about $300 worth of ham

  • Spaniards seem to be crazy over lotteries. Tickets are for sale everywhere, even from private sellers on tables on the street. Some nights there have been large lines at lottery outlets. Perhaps there is a big draw coming up?
  • In Castilla, the central region of Spain, they pronounce what would in other dialects of Spanish be an ‘s’ sound as ‘th’. Even with my limited ear for Spanish, it clearly sounds like they’re speaking with a lisp.

Sobrino De Botin

Sobrino De Botin was established in 1725 making it the oldest restaurant in Madrid. Indeed, it is listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest, continuously operating eatery in the world. It is said that the famous Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) worked there while trying to get accepted into the Royal Academy of Fine Art. Sobrino De Botin was a favourite of Earnest Hemingway’s, and is mentioned in two of his legendary novels.

…but, in the meantime, I would prefer to dine on suckling pig at Botin than sit and think about the accidents which my friends could suffer. – Ernest Hemingway, Death In The Afternoon

De Botin had been recommended to us by the same Aussie foodie mentioned earlier that we had met in a campground near Venice. At the time we knew nothing of its significance, other than her recommendation that we go there for the speciality of the house, concinillo asado (roast suckling pig). De Botin is also famous for its roast lamb and its other signature dish sopa de ajo — an egg, poached in chicken broth and laced with sherry and garlic.

Although we had some reservations about the prospect of eating the specialty of the house, a 3 week old piglet that has never tasted anything but its mother’s milk. we were keen to visit the place, me more than my wife. The restaurant was founded by Spaniard James Botin and his spouse, and was originally called Casa Botín. They have been serving the same traditional food since it opened 286 years ago!

We saved this meal for our last night in Madrid, and arrived at the restaurant early on Friday afternoon (at the start of the Spanish lunch) to make a reservation for that evening. From the exterior, the restaurant is not much to look at, moderate sized place in an old building off of Plaza Mayor.

The maître d’ told us that there was no availability that evening. If we wished, we could dine the following night (Saturday) at 11:30 PM (which sounds later than it is because most Spaniards eat dinner at about 10 PM, but it’s still late even by Madrilenian standards). We left the restaurant a bit disappointed, but rallied on the curb, and so I went back in to inquire about lunch. It seems that the restaurant has the same menu at lunch and we could eat there that day if we wished, coming back as late as 3:15 PM. In many retirement communities in North America, that’s almost the normal dinner time, and although it seemed strange to splurge on such an extravagance at lunch, Diane reminded me that it tastes and costs the same whether we eat at 3 PM or 10 PM. Upon reflection, it was probably better to eat such a big meal at 3 PM anyhow, in true Spanish style.

We arrived back at the restaurant for our 3:15 lunch reservation (a little late by Spanish lunch standards, but not out of the ordinary), and were seated upstairs in the small but busy dining room. We were shown to a nice table for two in the corner, the last one available in a crowded room of about 15 tables. Was this the table that Earnest Hemingway used to sit at? He preferred a particular corner table for two, and there were only a couple such tables in the room. We like to believe that we ate at his table.

We lunched upstairs at Botin’s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta. Earnest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

The service was formal, with waiters and bus men in white jackets, and food dished from hot serving platters to plates tableside.

We ordered a bottle of house red wine, which turned out to be a 2007. Most house wines in North America were bottled some time last week, or perhaps that’s just at the restaurants I frequent. Anyhow, this wine was terrific. Rich and full-bodied for under $30 a bottle.

To start, we had a cold appetizer of Pimientos asados con bacalao, julienned, raw, salt cod served on a bed of roasted red pepper, which was peeled and also cut in strips. We spooned it on to fresh white bread, and it was too much for 2 people. We also had Croquetas de pollo y jamón, croquettes of chicken and ham which were warm and creamy.

Diane with partially eaten appetizers at Sobrino de Botin

Diane enjoying wine and appetizers

For our main course, we had the two specialities of the house – roast suckling pig and roast lamb (sorry Tania). We were served large portions, still on the bone. Not whole animals, but big enough pieces to be recognizable. The pork was moist with the crackling cooked perfectly. They still use the original oven, now almost 300 years old. The roast lamb was even better, though neither of them were jaw dropping.

Patrick with roast suckling pig (carved)

Overall, we had a good meal in a very unique and historic restaurant. Apparently we were happy enough to have our picture taken outside afterwards…

Diane and Patrick outside restaurant after late lunch

Later that night, while reading a book on a completely unrelated topic, I learned that the word used by the cannibals of New Guinea for roasted human was ‘long pig’. It seems that human beings, when eaten, taste very much like pork. That was a bit uncomfortable.

Le Marseillaise

Le Marseillaise is the national anthem of France. It was named after the city of Marseille, which sits on the southern coast of France on the Mediterranean, and which has never been the capital city. I wondered how this came about.

Le Marseillaise was written and composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792 and was originally titled “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (War Song for the Army of the Rhine). It was penned at a time when France was under attack by Prussia and Austria. Although the song was originally dedicated to Marshal Nicolas Luckner, a Bavarian in French service, the melody soon became a rallying call for the French Revolution. It became known as La Marseillaise after it was sung on the streets of Paris by volunteers from Marseille.

Following the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the French Revolution in 1792, and the decapitation of King Louis XVI and his bride Marie Antoinette in 1793, monarchies across Europe were understandably worried. If the French principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, and brotherhood) spread, this would be bad news for nobles all across Europe. Partly out of fear, but also sensing an opportunity take advantage of apparent French disorganization, Britain, Spain, The Netherlands, Austria, Piedmont, and Prussia all battled France at the same time.

The battled-hardened French Revolutionaries welcomed the fight, and saw it as an opportunity to spread their revolutionary principles and to liberate the rest of Europe. The French soldiers were citizens motivated by principle and fared well against the apathetic armies of the other European nations, but they lacked the leadership necessary to wage large scale war (a gap which would soon be filled by Napoleon).

The French National Convention adopted Le Marseillaise as the Republic’s anthem in 1795, making it France’s first anthem. Although it lost this status temporarily under Napoleon and subsequent leaders, in 1879 it was restored as France’s national anthem and has remained so ever since.

There is a movement afoot to soften the words of Le Marseillaise, saying that perhaps it is not becoming for a modern nation such as France. It is shocking to think these words are taught to and sung by French children today, but one must remember when and under what conditions it was written and how it became significant.

Here are the words, translated into English, of the first verse and chorus most often sung.

Let’s go, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us of tyranny
The bloody banner is raised (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They are coming nearly into our arms,
To cut the throats of our sons and women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, Let’s march!
That an impure blood
Waters our furrows!


I find it very interesting that this battle cry, intended to anger and rally French revolutionaries over 200 year ago, has survived as their national anthem today. If I was 6-year-old Jacques, learning the words for the first time, I might be worried that they were coming to slit my throat, or perhaps whether French produce was contaminated. For a nation that many Americans regularly criticize as being ‘yella’, they sure have a kick-ass national anthem.