Final weeks on the road. Verdon Gorges, mountain cities, Christmas markets, and an ending to this adventure I won’t forget.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I’m road tripping my way through France/Switzerland/Italy/Belgium at the moment, sharing back adventures through this blog and my Instagram account. This post covers my final weeks on the road.

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As I type this I’m sitting at Calais ferry terminal waiting to board. In keeping with the true adventure spirit, I ended up at the wrong entrance to the terminal – following the lane for the lorries – and ended up on a weighbridge!

I’m not sure if you’ve been to Calais ferry terminal before but it is beyond complicated to get out once you’re in. It took 4 different people and 30 minutes of driving to exit and re-enter.

But, in some ways, I’m not surprised. This past week has been full of ups and downs as I’ve driven from the South of France to Belgium, taking in some of Switzerland and France along the way before hopping on a ferry back to the UK.

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There have been hikes in the Verdon Gorge (incredible); exploring mountain-dipped-cities (cold); visiting Christmas markets (converted), being stopped by the police (selfie); roof-vents flying off my van (wet); and more frites, waffles, chocolate, and beer than any person should eat (Belgium).

As an addition to this post, I’m including something which happened on the way back to my home city of Derby in the UK. It was an ending to this adventure which I will not forget in a while…

Final weeks on the road…

From the kiting beach of L’Almanarre, on the south coast of France, I turned north and drove to Castellane, part of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. I’d read about an area called the Verdon Gorge – a river canyon considered to be one of Europe’s most beautiful.

I’ll let the photos do the talking of my time here. It was truly breathtaking.

It was good to be back in the mountains/hills again after time at the coast and beach. It’s hard to say what I love more – the ocean or the mountains. Both have appeal to me in different ways and variety keeps things fresh.

From the Verdon Gorges, I drove north to Grenoble at the foothills of the Alps. Once again I was higher up and the snow was back.

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It took a few moments to adjust back to city life but apricot croissants and cool cafés helped.  As did the views from the Bastille overlooking the city and mountains.

From here it was up and across into Switzerland, stopping at Lausanne to sleep.

I happened to park at the theatre and found a showing of the Diary of Anne Frank – in french – happening that night. I can’t speak french, but I do believe travel to be about new experiences so I said yes to a last-minute ticket.

Whilst I didn’t understand the language I did know the story and it was interesting to see the show through the expression of body language, props, and timings.

Lausanne warrants a return visit.

Whilst I did have time to explore the cathedral and visit the Collection de Art Brut (outsider art), there is a lot more to this small city. I was again amazed at how different this part of Swiss felt to the north/east/south.

From here it was further north back into France stopping at Colmar – one of the first places I visited two months ago at the start of this adventure.

On route, I was stopped by the police! It was always going to happen in Switzerland. I was just surprised it had taken this long…

Back in Colmar, it was slightly surreal to be where I’d started this adventure two months ago, now with all new experiences and memories under my belt. But, I was really here for the Christmas markets. Even I was able to get a little festive…

Leaving Franch it was time for my final few days of this adventure. I was aiming for either Dunkirk or Calais to catch a ferry to the UK, and seeing as Belgium was on the way, I knew it was daft not to stop and take a look.

First, was Brussels, both for the look at the city and I’d been told about a huge Christmas market happening.

Whilst I did find a good free camp spot, I didn’t count on it being the local hang out for all kids with cars in the city – whilst I tried to sleep, they partied hard until 4am (I was only jealous).

I also managed to lose my roof vent – discovered at 3am when it started raining…

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Vanlife is great but it isn’t without its moments… Last night it rained and I woke to the sound of drip, drip, drip. I didn’t think much of it at first as my van has the occasional leak depending on the angle it’s parked at 🤔. But this was different. This was heavy. It turns out I’d lost a roof vent somewhere yesterday! And then, bizarrely, I found it lying 10 meters away from my van. How strange. I’m not sure if I’m annoyed it’s broke and I’m being dripped on as type this, or if i’m happy that I’ve found it and can fix it… Maybe it’s karma. I bought a homeless man a blanket yesterday in Brussels. He seemed happy. #vanlife #campervan #holeinmyroof #mrfixit #roadtrip #adventuresinhappiness #gratitudueforwhativegot #belgium #brussels #xmasmarket #karma #bekindsometimes #itsxmas #fiat #ducato #timberland #freedom #canpervanlife #campervanlifestyle #lifestyle #freedomtoexplore #exploremore #cityvibe

A post shared by John Alex Clarke 🇬🇧 (@johnalexclarke) on

From Brussels (which was to my surprise a cool city) it was onto my last stop of this adventure – Bruges. I figured this would be perfect for an afternoon/evening of wandering, soaking in the sights and sounds of Christmas, chocolate, beer, waffles, and frites! I was right. It was.

I’ve got to say this about my quick visit to Belgium – it was great – and an unexpectedly cool way to spend my last few days of this two-month adventure!

I’m not going to get all reflective here – that will come later. Instead, I’m going to wrap this mini-series-of-life-on-the-road up with something which happened on the way home in the UK, only an hour from my home city of Derby.

It was my own fault. I was tired after a drive from Bruges to Calais and a rough sea crossing to Dover. In hindsight, I could have slept on the south coast of the UK before driving further north. I just wanted to make up distance whilst the roads were quiet.

At 5am (following my trusty Park4night app) about an hour from home, I turned onto what I thought was my free camp spot for the night. It wasn’t – it was a track to a field. Within seconds I was stuck.

I didn’t panic. I just put my headtorch on and tried to dig myself out using my hands, and my mats in my car. I even tried my snow chains (now mud chains). This didn’t work.

I won’t go into the details here – I captured it all on the Instagram post below. I’ll just say I tried a few options to get out of this situation, one of which was my breakdown cover with the RAC.

The thing is, my policy didn’t cover me for this situation because I had bought it through my insurers and not direct with the RAC? Go figure!

I opted to pay for RAC to come and help (£110). They took my money and didn’t show up.

Instead (after three hours) they contracted the call out to someone else. The contractors turned up five hours later and charged me for towing me out (£150).

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This wasn’t the ending I’d hoped for this #adventure. But, I guess I’ll remember it for a while… Yesterday I drove from #Brussels to #Bruges, had a quick look at the city, dashed to #Calais, and hopped on the night ferry to #Dover. With hindsight I should have stopped and rested but I continued driving north for a few hours. And this happened… It was my own fault ~ I took a wrong turn to my free-camping spot and drove a few metres into a field. That was it. Literally stuck in the mud at 5am this morning, head-torch on trying to dig my van out. I almost had a meltdown. 😐. That aside, I want to mention what happened next so others are aware of how the so-called breakdown-covers work. I’ve got breakdown cover (with #RAC) through my insurance (#Advance). Since I’d purchased this through my insurance I was told I wasn’t covered for this kind of situation! But had I bought direct with the RAC I would have been covered 🤔🤔. Go figure. They suggested the police to help. They weren’t interested and suggested the fire service. They were sympathetic but wouldn’t help. So, after trying my snow chains (now mud chains), some paving slabs and my car mats, it was back to the RAC. They then charged me £110 for a call-out-fee to ‘assess’ the situation and try and help. Three hours later they hadn’t turned up. In the meantime they’d contracted the call out to someone else who turned up (another) three hours later. These guys charged me £150 to pull me out the mud. It took about five minutes. Whilst I was SO happy to be free I couldn’t understand why the RAC charged me to not show up and pass the call to someone else. The RAC said that’s the policy. 6 (!) phones call later they’ve ‘provisionally’ agreed to refund the charge. But what a drama. Finally home at 3pm today. Covered in mud…. Moral of that story….I’ll leave that to you, I just know a shower has never felt so good! #roadtrip #vanlife #realvanlife #camper #campervan #rac #racrecovery #fuming #illsmiletomorrow #uk #uklife #belgium #screwedover #stuckinthemood #jointheaa

A post shared by John Alex Clarke 🇬🇧 (@johnalexclarke) on

I’m laughing now (and I was relieved to be out of the mud) but at the time I was disappointed (and shocked) with how the RAC handled it.

Anyway, what an ending to what has been an adventurous (and up and down) two months! A hot shower, clean sheets, and a comfy bed have NEVER felt so good.

Thanks for following this story so far. 

John. 

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