Wednesday, April 17, 2019

An Epic Hike Across Spain

Now that we've gotten ourselves settled into our cute little camping car and spent a few weeks getting to know her, it's time to put Bijou into storage. We're going to leave her behind for a few weeks to walk the Camino de Santiago. The Way of St. James. 

In the olden days the Camino de Santiago was one of three important medieval Christian pilgrimages (the other two being Jerusalem and Rome) where folks would one day take off from their front door and make their way to the cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Here, it is believed, the relics of the disciple, St. James the Greater, are housed. Pilgrims came from all over Europe and therefore forged multiple routes that converge near Santiago. The hope, after all that effort and probably a lot of pain and suffering, is that a weary pilgrim would receive some measure of forgiveness for his sins or perhaps even a plenary indulgence, which is like a do-over for your soul. Total forgiveness for all your sins. Worth it, right?

Think about it, though. Those medieval pilgrims didn't have proper shoes, "technical pants", lightweight backpacks and all the accoutrements of today's peregrinos. They wore robes, walked in sandals and carried a stick. Think, Jesus. Unless I lived just around the corner, I would have had to do some pretty bad stuff to be needing that much forgiveness. But I guess back then there was probably a different litmus test for sinning, and pain and suffering were just part of the deal. That's not to say we won't experience some pain and suffering, I mean c'mon, it's 500 miles. We're not looking forward to that, but what we are looking forward to is getting out of our comfort zone. I think we nailed it, frankly.  

In modern times, there are as many reasons for walking the Camino as there are pilgrims. There are those who still do it for religious or spiritual reasons, for self-discovery, some do it for the personal and physical challenge and even more because they saw the movie "The Way" with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez and thought it looked like fun. Valid reasons, all. 

The route we've chosen, known as Camino Frances, or the French Way, starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, France at the foothills of the western Pyrenees mountains. It is a 500-mile walk, or longer should we choose to carry on to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast (and burn all our clothes, if tradition is to be followed). A typical first day, according to the guidebooks, is to trek the Napoleon Route from St. Jean (elev. 560ft) across the Pyrenees (summit elev. 4750ft) to Roncevalles, Spain (elev. 3117ft). This hike is 15.6 miles from start to finish and I can practically hear my lungs bursting already! There is a saying, "the Camino provides" and thankfully the Camino has provided the lovely little hotel Orisson right on the path about five miles from St. Jean. Granted, it's still a pretty good vertical hike, but at least it's not too far for our first day out, just about five miles. We will hike over the summit and on to Roncevalles on Day Two. 

Orisson and Pamplona are the only reservations we've made, as we plan to wing it most of the way. We have no set timeline or agenda other than to walk most days, stay healthy, enjoy the scenery, the food and wine, the architecture, the history, the culture, the locals and our fellow pilgrims. We will walk rain or shine, unless there is some dangerous weather element such as lightning or gale force winds that keeps us still or unless one of us is temporarily crippled, which is not out of the realm of possibility :)

We feel prepared with regard to stuff. We spent some time breaking in our new Oboz hiking boots, putting about 150 miles on them over the past few months. So far our feet love the boots, but we've not yet done a 15 mile day. The longest walk we've done in preparation was about 10 miles, most were around the five or six mile mark. None of those were with our packs. 

Our backpacks are lightweight, we both got Osprey packs, mine is 36 liters and Steven's is 50 liters. He's had some challenges paring down his camera gear while I'm trying to decide what clothes to take. I would love to keep my pack around 10 lbs., but we'll see. Experienced pilgrims are fond of saying, "take what you need, not what you want" which is easy for them to say because they are already done. How do we know the difference before we even start? We do not have to carry any food or food preparation gear, tents or sleeping bags, only snacks and water as there are plenty of services along the way. We do, however, need to be prepared for hot, relentlessly sunny days as well as cold, rainy, muddy days and everything in between. We will stay mostly in pilgrim hostels (albergues) with perhaps the odd private room here and there. Facilities can be found in most every village, as well as bars (which are small cafes) and sometimes grocery stores. We will be walking though the larger cities of Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos and Leon, where we can find just about anything we might need in terms of gear or medical assistance.

When we first arrive in St. Jean Pied de Port we will make our way to the Pilgrim Office where we will be issued a Pilgrim Passport, or credencial. This is an important document. At each stop along the Camino, we are to get a stamp as proof of our journey, which is needed to stay in the pilgrim-only albergues. You can't just rock up in a taxi and stay in these places, you have to have walked there. It's also our proof that we walked the entire Camino (and didn't take a bus or taxi at any point in the last 100 kms) and are therefore entitled to receive a Compostela commemorating our pilgrimage once we reach Santiago. As an aside, pilgrims with limited time, energy, patience, money, etc. can earn a Compostela by walking the final 100 kms from Sarria to Santiago. It is at this point along the route where fresh and happy faces join the weary peregrinos who are four weeks and nearly 700 kms into their journey.

Along the Way, at the Cruz de Ferro, tradition dictates that we leave behind a rock from our place of origin. Last December, when we spent the holidays with our kids, Steven painted the front of our rock with the ubiquitous Camino symbols - the sea shell and the yellow arrow. On Christmas Eve, we passed the rock around and each of our children signed the back of it, at the same time "letting go" of their burdens. (I cried, of course.) A few weeks later, at the ranch, my parents did the same. So, that little rock you see in the title photo carries a great deal of significance for us. It will accompany us on our journey until we leave it behind on the Camino. 

We arrive in St. Jean Pied de Port by train on Friday where we will stay two nights at an Airbnb. We have a few items still to purchase and we want to spend a little time in town, watch the pilgrims come and go and just take it all in. On Easter Sunday, April 21st, we begin our Camino. We should arrive in Santiago in late May or early June unless one of us rolls an ankle, in which case we'll be back in Bijou much sooner. Let's hope that is not the case.  

So that's the plan. I know it seems like we've barely gotten started on the whole European travel thing and now we've planned this big interruption. In any other scenario I would probably be devastated to leave Bijou behind, but I am so looking forward to this journey. I am looking forward to a slower pace, for time to think and be filled with gratitude for the life we have and the friends and family who love and support us. I am not sure what our blog posting situation will be, but I hope you'll stick around for whatever it is. :)

UP NEXT: I just hope I am alive to write something. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Sunset on the Atlantic

We had been happily ensconced in our lovely campground overlooking the snow-capped Pyrenees mountains for two weeks when Steven decided he was ready to go somewhere else. We're completely unpacked, as settled as we need to be, so what are we waiting for?  

A quick look at the map showed lots of options, I mean, we're in the south of France! How about Lourdes? Too touristy. How about somewhere on the coast? That sounded perfect to both of us, but the real deciding factor was campgrounds, as in, which ones were open this early in the season? We're not ready to take on boondocking just yet. 

We found one literally right on the ocean. Steven sent an email to make sure they had a spot for us (and if they had one in front right on the water, that would be great!). No problem, came the reply, plenty of oceanfront to choose from. So we packed up and headed for Saint-Jean-de-Luz, less than ten miles from the Spanish border. 

We had planned to depart Montrejeau on Monday, 4/7, but our friend Shani reminded us that big trucks are sidelined on the Sabbath and everyone else is at their granny's house. She said it's great to travel on a Sunday, so we changed our departure date accordingly. 

In general, RVers try to avoid the toll roads in France because they are horribly expensive, but sometimes the alternative can turn a two-hour trip into a four-hour trip. Plus, that four-hour option includes tiny villages and multiple roundabouts, er, no thanks. For the time being, at least, we are toll road travelers. 

We had studied our arrival route on Google Maps and verified that it matched our GPS. Our motorhome-specific GPS. We thought we had a handle on it, but we were wrong. "Take Exit 2, then turn right," she said. Exit 2, no problem. Wait, you mean that right into someone's skinny-ass driveway or that right into that itty bitty tree-lined alleyway where everyone is parked up visiting their granny? We chose option three, move on and hope for the best. 

This was a gamble, but the good news is that there is almost always a roundabout and we could circle until we decide what to do. I have a love/hate relationship with roundabouts, but sometimes they can be a real help. We eventually made the proper right turn onto a street that we could drive down. That's the good news. The bad news is that it led us to the "back" entrance of the campground we had chosen. I made the turn in and almost instantly regretted it. 

This looks better in the photo than it was in real life.

We headed up a muddy path, I hate to call it a road, and when we came to the top of the hill we needed to make a right turn, a sharp right turn. No way I could make that, so I made a left instead. But hey, there are campsites here, so obviously we're in the right place! 

The pitches were grassy (and therefore muddy from recent rains) and on a slope we could never deal with. And to top it off, right where there should have been a fabulous view of the Atlantic ocean, we saw row after row of bushes and even inside Bijou we could not see over them. This is not exactly what we had in mind, but maybe there are less sloped pitches at the other end of the campground, but first, I had to get turned around. 

Oceanfront site!

Steven said, "Just go forward, there has to be a turn-around!" Actually, no, no there does not, it was a dead end. It started sprinkling and I'm hollering out my window, "Do not get me stuck in here!"  Eventually we got turned around and headed toward the "main" entrance. Steven was walking in front of me, guiding, as you do when you are driving down a narrow path with stone walls on both sides and tree limbs above. Finally, we emerged from the campground and across the road we could see what looked to us to be a wonderful campground. But how do we get there? Another very sharp right, then a very sharp left, and FINALLY, we pulled up to the gate. We were giddy with relief! Steven went off to sign us up, but before long he returned and said the office is closed for lunch until 2:00. It was just after noon. Damn the French and their stupid two-hour lunches!!!

Finally free of the campground confines, we see the Atlantic Ocean.

No sooner had we cursed the lunch habits of the French when another motorhome lumbered up behind us and of course we were still blocking the gate. Steven was about to cry at the notion that he would now have to go over and explain, in a foreign language, why they would need to back up and let us reverse away from the gate. Then, coming from the motorhome, we heard, "Hey, Steve!" 

Oh, sweet baby Jesus! It's the Brits, Dave and Elaine, from our little campground in Montréjeau!! I think this was one of the happiest moment of our lives! After conferring, Dave announced there was a small car park just beyond the gate and a bar down the road. We both reversed, took up all seven spots in the car park, abandoned our rigs and hoofed it to the bar where we spent the afternoon yakking and laughing. Turns out they also had a rough day with an uncooperative toll booth assistant, but by the time we had settled into our new campground, we were all happy as can be.  

The inviting entrance to the lovely new campground, Fermé Erromardie.

We shared a lovely dinner in the campground restaurant that evening and had a really fun time together. We were sad to see them leave the next day, but they had been on tour since last October and were due to catch a ferry back to the U.K. 

The dishwashing station.

On Monday after Dave and Elaine departed, we walked in to explore Saint-Jean-de-Luz. In the afternoon, we mostly hung around the campground, doing a bit of cleaning and occasionally walking over to watch the surfers. While we didn't have a view from our site, the beach was spitting distance, we could hear the waves and walk right over to see the sunset. It was a hopping place and we really enjoyed it.  

Along the trail and the town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

You might recall the American couple, Shani and Todd who we've been in touch with since last year and who have given us invaluable advice as we prepared to move to Europe, and since. We received a message that they were on their way from Portugal and would arrive on Tuesday. Our cup runneth over with new friends and we were thrilled!

We spent the next few days hiking the cliffs along the ocean, strolling through the beautiful town eating frites, drinking wine and sampling questionable stinky cheese from Portugal. We enjoyed their company so much and, if all goes as planned, look forward to meeting up again in a couple of months. 

It was now time for us to pack up and return to Montréjeau, but on our return trip, there just happened to be an IKEA right on the highway! How convenient is that? I am getting mildly obsessed with IKEA, so I did not want to pass up the opportunity to go there. Three hours, 6k steps on the Fitbit and four chipped fingernails later, we had purchased the items on our list. We also got a mattress topper that we wrestled into the rig, hoisted it up on the bed and unleashed it from its plastic casing. It did not fit. ARGH! Steven returned it. It is not easy shopping at IKEA. 

Bijou’s first trip to IKEA.

Delicious gigantic IKEA donut.

So there you have it, our first trip to the coast. And remember what I said about finding community on the road? I think we're off to a great start!

NEXT UP: We're off to hike the Camino de Santiago!

Friday, April 5, 2019

Bijou Interior Tour - Part 2

In two days we are actually leaving the cozy little campsite we've been in since the day we picked up Bijou from the dealership. We're feeling very brave! So before we go, I thought I'd post Part 2 of Bijou's interior tour. 

Let's start up front, with the bed. In my opinion, the position and function of the bed is what makes the floorplan of the Hymer B544 work so well for us. It is over the driver and passenger chairs in the front of the cab, but rather than being stationary, like in a Class C, the bed is on gas struts which allow it to be lowered for sleeping and raised when not in use. 

To lower the bed, it is necessary to position the front chairs facing downward, and this can be done whether they are turned toward the front windshield for driving, or turned toward the interior as extra seating. Once the chairs are positioned properly and everything is moved from underneath, it is safe to lower the bed. We learned that lesson really quickly, as the first night in Bijou we crushed a little storage box. The bed is secured by, of all things, a seatbelt. When it is unbuckled, Steven pulls the bed down and, simultaneously, pushes it forward, though gravity and the struts do most of the work. It comes to rest just above the dashboard, which is quite deep, and over the front seats. As the bed is lowered, window coverings that are attached also lower to give us privacy. All of this is done in reverse in the morning. 

Hymer includes a ladder to assist getting into the bed, but we thought it had long been discarded. It's a whole lot easier to just pop up onto the sofa and climb right into bed anyway. Then one day Steven was like, "Hang on! What's this?" There it was, the ladder, right in front of our eyes the whole time!  Because we want to prevent wear and tear on the sofa by not stepping on it constantly, we decided we will use the ladder going up and the sofa coming down. That seems to be working well. I can tell you that I am a lot more graceful coming down than I am going up, but I'm not going to win a prize for either method.

The bed itself is pretty comfy and we're going to add a mattress topper to make it even more yummy. It is smaller than we are used to, but surprisingly, we have adapted well. I started off sleeping on the outside, but honestly, I didn't like being on the edge, so we swapped. Which means if I have to get up in the middle of the night, I have to crawl over Steven. He's okay with that. We are both sleeping very well. 

As you know, one of my favorite places in Bijou is the sofa. It is nearly 6.5 feet long, so plenty big for either one of us to stretch out. It also makes into a bed, which we haven't done yet, but seems that it would be quite comfy. We're saving that trial for when one of the kids comes to visit. There is plenty of storage under the sofa and it can be accessed from outside through one of the bays. I haven't yet decided if that's convenient, because we don't have much under there. 

There is another sofa across from the big one and it's about the same size. I guess we call one the "big" sofa and the other one "the other one" because at this point we're trying to remain flexible on where we sit during certain times, like when we're having coffee, meals, or when we're computing. As soon as we label a space, for example "Steven's chair" or "Linda's sofa", the other rarely gets to use it. :) Steven is pretty much sitting exactly where we thought he would, at the end of "the other one" sofa with the big surf board table. That's where he can spread out all his stuff and work on his photos. I, on the other hand, move all over the place. In the morning, I like to have my coffee on the big sofa, but then I switch back and forth between the two front chairs. It's still a work in progress. 

The jury is still out on the big surf board table, as least for me. Steven loves it. He loves it because he can spread out and put all his stuff on it and there is still room for me to spread out at the other end and put all my stuff on it. In the middle, we put even more stuff on it. And that's exactly why I don't love it. It gets junky. Unless an effort is made daily to keep it picked up, it's just an eyesore. Steven doesn't feel that way, of course. I do love that it slides all around so that no matter where I sit, I can have a table right in front of me. When I want space to stretch out, I shove it down to Steven's end. (Ooops, I said it!) 

There is also storage under the second sofa, but we don't have anything under there yet. We cannot access that storage from the outside, but do have to wrangle the table to get in to it. You might notice in the "under the table" photo that there is an open section, where Fifi the Instant Pot resides when we are not traveling. See that cushion where Steven's glasses are sitting? When we have passengers, that cushion comes out and the bench underneath slides in creating leg room for two passengers. It's the only place in the van where there are seatbelts other than the two front seats. Cool, huh?

There is a ton of cabinet space over both sofas, four large ones, two medium ones and a baby cabinet. For clothes and personal storage, Steven gets two large ones and I get one large and one medium. This is a huge discrepancy, I know, but I get that big hanging thingy in the closet, so it equals out. Plus, I don't have to reach across the table to get into my cabinets. Another large one is dedicated to foodstuff, a medium is dedicated to miscellaneous crap and the baby one is where the television is stored. 

That television cabinet is kind of neat, because the TV is on a slideout and can be stored away when not in use. When we watch a movie we sit in the front seats, looking toward the back of the van. When we bought Bijou the TV was mounted to the wall, but we had it put back in the cabinet. Now we know why the previous owners had moved it, because when the cabinet is open and the TV is out, it's easy to clock yourself in the head when you're not paying attention. The same is true for the bed when its in the up position. I learned my lesson early on, but Steven has bashed himself so many times - in one day!! - that I don't even bother with, "OMG, are you okay?" It's more like, "OMG, are you ever gonna learn??"

I realized in my last post I referred to the entry door at the rear of the van as the "front door". It is our main entry into Bijou and not once have we used the driver's side door to get inside. Once our chairs are turned for seating all that space behind them is great for storing stuff and keeping it out of the way. Just like in Scoopy.

So there you have it, our little Bijou in all her glory! Isn't she great?

NEXT UP:  A short trip to the Atlantic Coast

Monday, April 1, 2019

Bijou Interior Tour - Part 1

It looks like our beautiful, warm sunny days are coming to an end. The weather forecast shows nothing but drizzle, rain and even the possibility of snow in the foreseeable future. So we decided to take advantage of our last sun-filled afternoon and take some photos of Bijou's interior to share with you. I'm going to split this tour into two parts, because she's so huge. :)

I thought I'd start by pointing out one of Bijou's most unique features. It is so unique, we didn't even know what it was and, even though two people, on separate occasions, have confirmed it's function, I am still not sure I believe them. Y'all, it's a giant, foot-long shoe horn! Seriously, I would not in a million years have figured this one out. Any of you have one?

As you can see, it has its own place in our closet, which is not very big. It holds about a dozen hanging items and the shelf thingy we bought at IKEA, which I love because it holds a lot of stuff. I just have to try not to load it down too much. Right now, it holds our extra bedding, my pajamas, and bits and bobs that don't fit anywhere else, like my Water Pik. So far, that has been the most difficult item to store and use. There is no place for it to sit on the bathroom sink to use it, no cabinet deep enough to store it, so for now it has found a home in the closet. I have to use it at the kitchen sink. 

There is a rectangle cut out of the floor in the back of the closet, underneath is the boiler and heater. So, when we're heating water, the closet gets nice and toasty. If we unload the hanging stuff, we can use it as a drying closet in the winter. Pretty sweet! I'm sure at one time there was a little cover that went over that hole, but we haven't found it yet. We have to be careful not to let stuff fall down into the boiler closet. 

One thing that Bijou will do if it's really cold is dump all her boiler water. That's a safety feature to keep it from freezing up and causing damage. The first time we fired her up at the dealership she dumped all her water and we have no idea why. It's like she was excited to see us. We had a cat who used to do this too, when she was stressed. I hope Bijou isn’t stressed..

Anyway, moving on to the kitchen. And by moving on, I mean turning around, it's literally right across from the closet. 

Yes, it is tiny! But so far there is nothing we've not been able to cook. And yes, I've used the Instant Pot (I have named her Fifi!) on several occasions and she fits wonderfully in the kitchen while in use. The gas stove comes with three burners, or hobs as they are called over here. It has a tempered glass cover which we try to keep something on, like a cutting board or a dish drying mat. Also, we don't keep anything heavy, like canned goods, in the cabinet above, just in case things shift during flight. We don't want something to come flying out and shatter our stove cover!

We have five drawers in the kitchen. One has two small trash cans built in, which is such a huge deal. If not for this space, where else would a trash can go? There is no "under the sink" space, that area is taken up by two drawers. Also in the trash drawer is a small space to keep cleaning supplies and dish washing liquid. It's a nice space. 

Above that is the middle drawer where we keep cooking utensils. We have everything we need (except a lemon squeezer, but really . . . .) In the top drawer is the flatware. Pretty simple organization, actually. All of these three drawers are below the stove.

Under the sink or, more accurately, to the side of the sink there are two deep drawers where we keep our dishes, pots, pans, glassware, serving dishes, and so on. All of these drawers hold a lot of stuff, so we are not lacking on storage space. There is a door that, at first glance, would lead you to believe there is under the sink storage, but it opens to reveal the side of the deep drawers and really you can't even access stuff. I'm not really sure why it's there. 

So, let's go into the bathroom. Oh, wait, it's right there! Literally across the kitchen in between the closet and the refrigerator! How convenient! When Hymer came out with this bathroom design, it was award-winning. It has everything, toilet, sink, shower, storage, mirrors, towel pegs. Yet, in spite of its ingenious design, it is quite small. Still, I can close the door and change clothes in there but I have to be halfway in the shower to do it. It's perfectly functional although as of this writing we have not used the shower yet. The campground has a couple of nice ones we've been taking advantage of while we're here. 

So, sorry if this is TMI, but here I go anyway. As you know from our last post, there is no black tank in Bijou, just a toilet cassette which requires emptying every day or two. It can last longer if you are judicious (whatever that may look like for you...) but if you wait too long it gets heavy. So, Steven does it every day, because it's convenient and he can. One thing toilet cassettes require are chemicals. This helps to keep the smell down on the inside, but I'm not sure which is worse, the smell itself, or the smell of chemicals. They are kind of nasty, bad for the environment and expensive, especially if you empty the cassette every day.

Enter the SOG, or toilet ventilation system. (I know, those letters don't even match, lol.) Anyway, we knew long before we found Bijou that no matter what rig we bought, it was going to have a SOG unit on it. Lo and behold, guess what came already installed on Bijou?? So from day one, no interior smells AT ALL, and no chemicals used AT ALL. The ventilation system basically has a little fan that, once you open the cassette blade, blows all the smells outside. As an extra bonus, if your neighbors happen to be sitting too close to your van, this is one way to encourage them to move on. 

So, just a couple of more things in this area. It's amazing just what a busy little space it is! As you can see, our front door is open and there is a nifty little screen door that sort of appears out of nowhere to keep the bugs out. It's so well hidden that Steven still has trouble finding it. From the outside stepping in, to the left is a counter, which as in Scoopy, will be known as the "Dry Bar". There are two cabinets under it, the top one is for tall bottles, such as wine, olive oil, vinegar, that sort of thing. Also, whatever else we shove in there. Above the counter are pegs where we can hang hats, scarves, coats, etc., as well as little shelves and pockets for sunglasses, keys and the like. 

The bottom cabinet is one that we desperately needed in Scoopy but didn't have, it's a place for SHOES! How glorious! Every single pair of shoes we own fits into that little cabinet, including our hiking boots! The fact that it's right by the door is perfect, as we're much more inclined to put shoes in there rather than just kick them off and leave them at the door.  

I mentioned previously that Bijou has a double floor, she sits on an Alko chassis which by some miracle of design makes this happen. Our fresh and grey water tanks sit between the double floor which provides insulation and our floors stay toasty in winter. Inside, we have three small trap doors that allows us to access our fresh and grey water tanks, which, IDK why we would want to because dumping and filling occurs from the outside. Maybe it's for cleaning the tanks, but, ew. The third little door has nothing between floors and leads directly to the bay below. That has now become our laundry chute. All dirty clothes now fall into a collapsible bin we added below. That, like the trash cans and the shoe drawer, is a major asset in the constant quest to have a place for everything. 

And finally, here's the fridge. We are really lucky to have such a large fridge and freezer. We try to hit up the local markets and grocery stores every couple of days and not stock up too much. I'm sure when winter comes we will try to be a bit more prepared. There is an oven above the freezer which, frankly, seems like a design flaw, doesn't it?  We haven't used it yet except to put a dishrack in there, so I don't if the heat will affect the freezer or not. Oven notwithstanding, the freezer stays very cold. 

NEXT UP:  Bijou's interior tour, Part Two!