Västervik Live!

“Can anyone remember what they were doing 100 days ago?” I started into my story at the Västervik Live Songs and Stories event, to a friendly crowd of Swedes in the historic and picturesque Båtmansgränd (the old boatmen’s houses).

April 9th was ‘day 1’, when we left Newcastle and started our new life in the van. After Copenhagen, we’d traveled up the Swedish coast and made it to our first planned destination – Västervik, and our Newcastle friends Andy and Ucci’s new house. I got to celebrate ‘day 100’ by playing at one of the city’s summer concerts. Easily the biggest show of our journey so far, I opened for Robin Bengtsson, who sang for Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017!

There was a catch though – I had to tell a story! I was more nervous about that than the music. What would I say? Would they understand my northern accent? Would they laugh at my jokes? The promoter Jim and compere Catrin were really nice and encouraging, and Bev helped with ideas for a story. I talked about our adventure, about making positive changes in your life, taking a risk maybe, but following a dream. 

Sometimes if you listen to the news, especially in the UK right now, you’d think the world is a terrible place. You’d be better off staying in your homes, keeping your head down. But everywhere we’ve been, we’ve met wonderful, warm, friendly people doing amazing things to celebrate life and make the world a brighter, better place.

A good example: Sebbe at Strandkompaniet in Sandhammaren. He moved there from Stockholm to set up a smokehouse – with the ambition that all the ingredients they use for hams and sausage is so local, it can be delivered by bicycle. In just 3 years, he has almost achieved that. This year, he opened a beach bar/cafe, putting on live music on Thursdays through the summer. We were camping nearby so I emailed to ask about a gig. He replied straight away and put on an extra night on the Friday. I played 3 sets and had a great night.

And, I can confirm the sausages are spectacular!

100 days on the road…

Our 100th day was fantastic from start to finish. Ucci’s sister Chrisa and Tony treated us to a huge breakfast of Swedish favourites including Västervik Korv (sausage), liver pate with pickled cucumbers, boiled eggs with dill caviar, and cheese with jam on toast! We walked with the dogs into Västervik – past Slottsholmen, the fancy hotel built by Björn from Abba – to see the Hasselörodden, an annual parade of rowing boats with locals dressed in traditional fisherman’s outfits. I was too stuffed from breakfast to try a herring burger, but by the size of the queue, they must be good. Back for lunch, then we helped move some furniture into the gorgeous new house.

Songs and Stories

Tony gave me a lift into town with my gear to soundcheck – it all sounded great with Alvin on the desk. Then, Bev shouting at the end of the row of historic houses, “Come and see this!” They’d got a lift into town in a convoy of army jeeps, including one used by the British army in WW2! Bonkers. We bumped into another set of relatives, Pea and Freddan, who happened to be stuck in Västervik by virtue of a broken steering cable on their boat. The gig went really well – I played 6 of my own songs and the crowd’s reaction was really positive. Lots of nice comments and great feedback from the organisers. Might be back next year!

We enjoyed the other acts, Stefan and Sarah and then Robin, playing acoustic guitar along with a fantastic percussionist. What a voice! Good mix of songs, mostly in English. Great version of John Fogerty’s “Blue moon nights” and his Eurovision song, “I can’t go on”, had everyone up at the end. We moved on to watch the sunset from the boat, drinking gin and singing songs!

We don’t know where we’ll be in a 100 days time, but I hope it is as good as this!

48 hour Travel Van: Copenhagen

We often find ourselves quoting Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man when we get parked and start exploring somewhere new:

“Well, we’re here – but should we have come?”

We remembered he’d been to Copenhagen and thought we’d compare our 48 hour stint with his. Bearing in mind that Denmark has the 7th highest cost of living and this is the capital city, we knew it might be a challenge to do it justice on a budget…

Getting there

The Storebælt bridge links west and east Denmark – it is impressive, but quite expensive – £44.58 for a one-way crossing in the motorhome. Nearly as much as Travel Man’s £56 flight from the UK!

Accommodation

Richard ‘spaffed’ (his words) £75 a night at the Alexandra hotel. On the park4night app, I found an alternative option close to the Little Mermaid and a short walk from the city centre attractions. Free parking for the weekend – from 5pm Saturdays to 8am Mondays – and big, wide spaces for motorhomes. We got there a little before 5pm (in case it was busy) so had to stump up for a couple of hours parking – the princely sum of £6.34 for 2 nights in the city centre!

Day 1

As we were so close, we started with the Kastellet. This is a perfectly preserved 17th century pentagon-shaped fortress, which still houses various military activities today. Lovely walks, a beautiful windmill and some impressive cannons.

From there, the famous Edvard Eriksen statue of the Little Mermaid was a short walk away. She was completely surrounded by tourists, but still a lovely sight to behold.

On past the Gefion (Norse goddess) Fountain and back home to spruce up for an evening out on the town. We’d heard that as beer is so expensive, Scandinavians have a drink at home before they go out – so we tried that, with some pretzels and beer sausages.

I had a craving for fish – something we’d just not fancied in landlocked countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic. An ‘all you can eat’ sushi restaurant called Nozomi caught my eye, nearby, good reviews. I didn’t know what to expect and How wasn’t entirely convinced but we wandered along to check it out. Very nice inside, very modern, very Scandinavian. All the sushi made fresh to order. You pay extra for what you order and don’t eat, so you’re encouraged to order a few bits at a time. We were lucky to get a table, as most were reserved. The price was pretty reasonable for Copenhagen and of course we stuffed ourselves, washing it down with a couple of not so cheap Sapporo. We noticed almost every other table just had water to drink!

Copenhagen Jazz festival was on so, our bellies full, we wandered to the Nyhavn area and caught the end of a lively set by piano player and singer Christian Brundgaard. After that, we wandered down Nyhavn and found some music – singer songwriter Thannos entertaining a crowd in the Fisken pub. We set a new record for the cost of 2 beers – £15.67!! How sang a few songs in the intervals, earning himself an IPA off Thannos.

Day 2

Up late (too much Sapporo??), we decided to visit the Christiania area and see some sights. We set Marra up in his rover and wandered via the Frederiks Kirke and the Amalienborg Palace. We just missed the changing of the guard ceremony, but took in the surroundings anyway. 

Christiania was originally a hippy commune, created in a former barracks in the 1970s, with the intention to create a self-governing society. Now it’s an alternative community with eco-restaurants, art galleries and music venues. Sounds great, but the bits we saw just didn’t have a nice vibe. The dope sellers on Pusher Street seemed more like tough street gangs than laid back dudes in tie-dyed clothes and Jesus sandals! We didn’t see all of it, so maybe there is another side. We enjoyed chips and a (relatively cheap) beer at Nemoland. They were starting to set up for one of their free Sunday concerts, but we had more sights to see so wandered on. 

We wandered back past the parliament buildings – which we’d seen on TV in ‘Borgen’ – and the Bibliotekshaven, the garden of the Royal Library. 

As we’d covered a fair distance on our walking tour, we called it a day for sightseeing. I baked a loaf, made some cookies and cooked a 2 course meal at home in the van!

Conclusions:

It’s a nice city, very stylish, very green – cyclists and scooterists everywhere. Friendly people, speaking excellent English. But, as we were warned, booze is expensive!

Cost breakdown:

  • Bridge toll: £44.58
  • Accomodation: £6.34
  • Food & drink: £100.97
  • Entertainment: £0
  • Attractions: £0

Travel Van costs: £75.95 per person

Travel Man costs (2016): £456 per person

Of course, they did various organised tours (Carlsberg brewery and cycling) that we can’t easily do with the dogs. We didn’t try to do everything, for example, tasting Smørrebrød (Danish open sandwiches), or seeing the botanic gardens and palm house. Something for the ‘maybe next time’ list.

Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Germany

To escape the heat in Budapest, we headed north, towards our ultimate goal of Sweden, and meandered through Slovakia, a corner of the Czech Republic, up through western Poland and then into Germany. Here’s our highlights… 

Wrocław, Poland

Can anyone outside Poland pronounce the name of this fantastic city properly? It’s not ‘rock-claw’. Something like ‘Vrosh-wav’. Anyway, we stayed in a car park right in the centre and had a fantastic time. Trundled around the islands, couldn’t do the Botanic Garden with the dogs, but we saw the cathedral, stopped for beer and pancakes, saw the main square, checked out some bars, and some gnomes. I went to see the Taylor Moore band at the Vertigo jazz club – great band, great venue! Next morning, Bev went round the Botanic Garden, then – our 24hrs up – we moved on. Loads more to see I’m sure, I’d happily return.  

Kamenná brána rock window, Bosanov, Czech Republic

The Broumovsko Protected Landscape Area is a reserve full of natural sandstone rock sculptures. A typically askew adventure – we went hiking with the dogs, and of course took Marra’s wheels for when he got tired. Passed a Dutch couple on the way who said, “Turn back, you won’t make it.” One thing about this trip – we really don’t like going back on ourselves. Only done it about 3 times in 4000 miles! And, of course, we have that stubborn, plucky, can-do attitude and a large dose of “I think I know what’s best for me”. So, 16.7km and various scrapes and increasingly bizarre challenges later, we made it back to the site with just 6 minutes before the site bar stopped serving. Ice cold beers and a dip in the natural swimming pond to celebrate. This route was not wheelchair friendly, but it is an amazing place!

Mecklenburg lake district, Germany

The land of a thousand lakes lived up to its name, unlike the land of a thousand storks in Slovenia! We wild camped, swam, paddleboarded and ate by the lakeside. The dogs loved roaming free, tramping down the grass to make a nest to doze in the sun. Idyllic. We will definitely be back. 

High Tatras, Slovakia

The mountains looked amazing, but we could only get so far with old Marra. There were a few wheelchair friendly walks – we did one to the mid station ski lift up the mountain of Lomnický štít, one of the highest peaks in Slovakia. We managed to avoid the wheeled toboggans careering downhill on the same path! We also did a gentler trundle around Štrbské Pleso, very picturesque with stunning views of the mountains beyond.

Travel notes…

We’d heard stories about rural Slovakia – along the lines of ‘they send kids out into the road and pretend you’ve run them over, then rob you when you stop’. There was nothing like that. Some scrappier towns in the borderlands maybe – Bev says Stephen King calls it ‘slippage’ – but that’s true of most places. 

Crap signal for data in Czech Republic and the German lakes, while Poland we had good 4G coverage. 

Big generalisation but we think Dutch-run campsites are cool – Stayed at a few (Brezno, Czech Republic and Uciechów, Poland), nice atmosphere, good facilities, etc.

We passed two convoys on mad driving challenges: The Barrel Challenge, a Dutch competition where teams pimp their cars and undertake challenges along the spectacular route to an unknown destination, somewhere between 2000 and 4000 km!

And, the Baltic Sea Circle – another Dutch race – 8500km in 18 days in a car over 20 years old, no GPS and no motorways…

Looks like fun!

Venezia

Such an amazing city, I was really keen to find a way to visit again. Obviously, you can’t really drive there. There is a ‘area sosta camper’ on the island of Tronchetto, across the lagoon on the edge of the city – but we’d seen mixed reviews and opted for a site just on the mainland Camping Rialto, near a bus route that could get us there in 20 mins. The site was quite waterlogged so we tried to find a pitch where we were least likely to get stuck. Ever the optimists, we were confident the weather would brighten up – and it did! Up early-ish, and on to the bus which was really busy. The dogs did well to stay calm, and fellow passengers were mostly cheerful, accepting Marra leaning himself up against their legs and ignoring Boo’s uninvited sniffing. We’d decided not to take Marra’s wheels – the right choice. We took it easy over countless little bridges, and eventually I carried him when he got tired, but we wouldn’t have seen half the sights with the rover. It’s a city made for getting lost in – every corner is a picture postcard shot and there is no sense trying to follow paper or Google maps too closely. There was nothing particularly we wanted to do – other than bimble around and enjoy the sights, ignore other tourists and soak up the magical atmosphere.

We called at another bar I’d contacted about getting gigs – Osteria all’Alba. Close to the Rialto but tucked away down an alley, we had a few beers and nibbles. The lady loved the dogs and we had a chat about music. She books the gigs maybe 3 months in advance. I’ll plan ahead next time – it’s a tiny bar/venue, would be really cool to play there.

Another movie-geek moment: Bev spotted another James Bond location, Ponte de le Collone, which Vesper crosses on her way to meet the bad guys in Casino Royale.

One of the joys we remembered about Venice was Osteria hopping – their version of aperitivo hour, where workers wander home stopping at the small bars for an ombra of wine and nibbles like polpette (meatballs) and arancini (stuffed rice balls). We were there a bit early in the day for the full experience, but got a taste at a few bars around the city.

I don’t think I’d get tired of taking photos there – in different seasons, different light, etc. Here’s just a sample…

Next morning, about 100 Polish scouts started setting up on site, all around our pitch. We thought we’d move on, around the Venetian gulf towards Slovenia.