Category Archives: Festival

2018 Highlights, 2019 Plans

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver (The Summer Day)

2018; another year of memories gathered, activities enjoyed and goals achieved. In some ways it was more of a transitional year, a soft landing leading from constant travel in Benny to a return to a more rooted existence. House-sits and WorkAways helped reconnect us to the idea of motionless living. We regained the love of sitting still, of being a part of a small community. Of creating use from objects, of honest labour, productive acts, holding local knowledge. The coming year has much to live up to.

TMB Day 8 (Enjoying the downhill)

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Everything in our recent travels had been generalisation. We had spent little time anywhere, passing through and glimpsing only a sliver of the life of each place. One blurred facet of one afternoon, one small portion of a village or town, and yet we reacted and drew conclusions from the visit. We judged, we opined, we decided our mood and experience based on the scantest of evidence, the whims of the weather. Destinations were deemed perfect, poor, terrible or terrific on the strength of that short, solitary instant. We jumped to thin, creative judgements of boastful self-indulgence. Our experiences were unique to us, to that time, and, in all honesty, tell others nothing of true value of the place or the people we encountered. These travel-through screenshots represent a momentary mirage, an insubstantial connection as we rudely, uninvited, threaded our lives into those of locals. Nothing is complete, nothing lasts, no description by any tourist day-tripper can capture a place with dependable emotion and clarity.

Our House - (from the pool)

Now, we were settled. We have a base, a home. We are able to make longer judgement on an area, our area, no longer reliant on tentative and superficial first impressions. We no longer need to be presumptuous. We can creep below the surface and uncover a new layer of reality, a deeper understanding beyond the trivial veneer we normally witness. We are no longer only travellers, but residents, and have the right to both observe and absorb at leisure.

Our days are filled with a different type of experience. Different dreams.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Key highlights of 2018

Completed several house-sits and WorkAway projects, befriending great new people and learning new skills
Attended and completed our first SwimRun event at Lake Vassivière, France
Hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 180km multi-day trek through three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy)
Crossed the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world near Zermatt, Switzerland
Bought a home in south-west France, to be our new regular base for future travels.
Participated in three 10km races in the wine regions of northern Spain and two more locally in southern France
Spent the days before Christmas soaking up the festive atmosphere in Paris

Paris (eiffel tower lit at night)

Key goals for 2019

To run my first marathon, with a finishing time starting with a 3. A 16-week training schedule is underway and going well so far. The distance and the time are both feeling achievable, barring injury or other catastrophe. We will see.

To write better, focused pieces, deeper dives into the meaning of travel, beginning with a new Medium account. The focus will be on improving the storytelling rather than simple diary posts following our daily travel exploits. I’m also writing a draft of my first novel, to see where the process takes me, even if the final product is unusable and flawed.

Additional time is to be given over to painting, specifically line & wash watercolours. I’m tentatively considering that the novel above could evolve into an illustrated graphic novel, but time, technique and talent may have a say on that outcome. My aim is to produce paintings I would be contented to see hanging on our new French walls.

To complete all the on-going projects around our new French home. Alongside the typical DIY works, I hope to build a few detailed furniture pieces, design and construct several stained glass windows, and plant a fruit tree orchard. All new skills to learn.

To continue to travel around Europe, with shorter trips to north eastern Spain, Cote d’Azur and the Italian Dolomites already planned, and others under consideration. We are also looking at trips further afield, a few flights of fancy to faraway lands.

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Brantome - (panorama)

Randa (Bridge Panorama)

Haro - (panorama)

We have nothing but time, yet we never seem to have enough. To paraphrase The Great Gatsby, life may well be much more successful when looked at through a single window, but we don’t want to sign up to the limitations that implies. We don’t want to expend all our energy on the pursuit of only one goal. We want to dabble in everything that interests us, and that includes many subjects. We may not be capable of achieving brilliance at any one activity without focused dedication, but that’s okay. Enjoying a taste of many things won’t bring excellence, but it will bring interest, satisfaction and stave off boredom. We dabble at kayaking, cycling, running, skiing, open water swimming, chess, free-diving, painting, furniture-making, woodworking, quizzing, gardening, cooking, writing, mountain climbing, guitar playing, piano, beer brewing, sketching, poetry, photography, mathematics, astronomy, theatre, scuba-diving, movies, learning languages, and blogging. We read biographies, science journals, logic manuals, graphic novels, contemporary fiction, Arctic exploration histories, travel monologues, legal opinions, and everything in between. And long may our thirst for the new continue.

We want to be generalists, not specialists. And we want to continue to explore every avenue we can.

A&N x

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France – Saint-Junien & Saint Pardoux

After our relaxing, relatively speaking, week of birthdays and dinner parties, we continued with our renovations and works.  We were refreshed, attacking jobs with a renewed vigour and keener eye. We ticked off many items but our to-do list continued to grow longer as we discovered other items needing replaced or other projects we suddenly felt excited by.  Ensuring variation in our tasks kept our interest and energy high.  Our focus is on working hard, but we have the freedom to stop, rest, take a day off, have a dip in the pool or try something new when the mood takes us.  We are tied to nothing, our time is ours to use as we wish. We have been foraging, baking cakes, learning music and languages, stone wall building, roofing, planning orchard tree layouts, digging our fledgling vegetable patch.

LaJourdanie- (our first veg bed)

A previously ignored stone chicken shed, with a semi-collapsed roof, surrounded by weeds and with years of thick, compacted rubble inside was suddenly seen as a potential man-cave.  I would sneak away to work on clearing this at intervals between prepping or painting walls.  Looking for more outside jobs whilst the weather was good, Nicky got excited about uncovering the circular stone well set tight on our boundary.  It was almost entirely blanketed in ivy, with a thick carpet of moss on the broken canal tiles scattered loosely around its ineffective roof.  We added its revival to our long list of to-do works.  We dipped in and out of these unessential garden jobs at the whims of mood and weather, enjoying our time outside and the constant, obvious progress that such distinctive clearances offered.

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - before)

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - after)

We had a visit from friends Monica and Ken from our previous house-sit in Cazeneuve.  After a long, enjoyable road trip on their shiny new Triumph motorbikes, they arrived with us early afternoon.  We fell into their easy company, swimming in our pool in the afternoon heat and sipping beers as we caught up.  We later walked around our place, giving them the full tour and garnering their helpful opinions and experiences on the works we are undertaking or planning to do.  We took a leisurely walk along a local grassy chemin to loop around a small lake, before returning for an al-fresco dinner and drinks.  We sat outside until darkness then retired to our lounge and chatted long into the night.  After breakfast we said our goodbyes as they headed off to further explore our region, visiting our recommendations of Oradour-sur-Glane and Brantôme.

St-Junien- (nicky with planes)

St-Junien- (aerobatic planes)

One fine day, as a different sort of effort, we cycled the 30km to Saint-Junien to visit an advertised airshow.  We followed minor roads and off-road trails where we could, waggling our way north all the time. The route was mostly downhill, a very pleasant roll passing through the small hamlet of St-Martin-de-Jussac to the river Vienne where we crossed the bridge into St-Brice-sur-Vienne.  Only then did we face a long, steep climb away from the river to the top end of Saint-Junien to reach the hosting airfield.  We abandoned our bikes and walked into the event, exploring lines of classic cars and obscure farming equipment, cannons and warfare implements, all manner of motorbikes and of course, small acrobatic planes that were the star of the event.  Local flights were available for all who wished it.

St-Junien- (classic cars)

St-Junien- (before and after car)

We checked out the museum displays and small stalls, surprised that the show was not busier.  We read posters describing in detail many planes and their uses, and watched a long queue of people take their turn to experience a virtual reality flying experience.  After a thorough look around and a few cheap sugary crêpes to fuel us, we got back on our bikes.  We took a different route home, simply for variation and exploratory purposes.  We passed through similar scenery and beautiful but hilly woodland paths, before stopping at Saint-Auvent to look in their pretty church.  Soon after, we paused at the étang de la Pouge, a long, thin lake that we hoped might have swim potential.  There were no signs saying no, but with the presence of fishermen, we feared it was not the best location for swimming.

Condat-sur-vienne - (race start)

Condat-sur-vienne - (us at race)

We entered a local 10km race, as something to shake us from our slumber on an otherwise lazy Sunday morning.  We drove twenty minutes to the village of Condat-sur-Vienne where the race would begin, parking in a nearby Lidl car-park.  It was a busy event, popular and bustling, and we felt good to be a small part of such a thriving running community.  The run took us on closed roads and along gravelled woodland tracks, with overhanging trees providing welcome shade from the morning sun.  52 minutes later we had completed our two laps of the marked 5km loop, having enjoyed the wonderful paths and the cheering crowds.  The mayor and other eminent locals presented a wealth of prizes in multiple categories, along with a tombola, using your race number, that gifted bottles of wine.

St-Pardoux - (Running walkways)

After a further few weeks of house-related works, we decided to treat ourselves with another break, this time a long weekend at Saint PardouxWe had visited it previously, enjoying the swimming lake and woodland trails, and it was close by, only 40 mins north of us.  We reached the comfortable aire, much less busy than on our last visit, and picked out a prime spot to relax into.  We knew our way around from before, so it was easy to plan our days here.  We ran each morning, following the coastal woodland trails on soft paths of tree roots and pine needles.  With only one bridge splitting the lake, we faced either a 27km loop of the entire lake, or more local laps around the lake edge and inland backroads.  The latter enabled us to create circular routes of 10 to 12km which suited our running level.

St-Pardoux - (lake sunset)

St-Pardoux - (causeway to island)

St-Pardoux - (returning to the lake)

Post-run, we rewarded ourselves with plenty of beach time, thinking of nothing other than the book in our hand as we soaked up the toasting sun.  We had frequent cooling dips into the cloudy water, but little real swimming.  Still feeling a little disappointed with her swimming performance in this summer’s SwimRun event, Nicky tried out various combinations of trainers, floats and neoprene shorts trying to find the optimal, speedy solution for her.  From the beach I timed her swims from buoy to buoy to ascertain how each outfit fared.  We ventured out for short evening walks, enjoying the burst of deep-red sunsets over the still water and the soothing sounds of calling birds.  Other motorhomes came and went, milling around busily, as we stayed still, unruffled, the calm centre of our restful universe.

LaJourdanie- (picking apples)

Fresh bread, croissants and pastries were available from a well-stocked vending machine behind the tourist building, refilled twice daily, so we had no need to move.  We could have stayed longer, enjoying our running and the fresh, lake-side air.  But we decided to return home after two nights and three days, as we found ourselves missing our house, and jobs not yet began were creeping back into our thoughts.  We were being taken over by a compulsion to work, to keep busy, to better our nest.  We wonder how long the novelty will last, this daily excitement of hard, physical work, so we want to utilise our willingness and drive whilst the determination still exists.  Yet these two nights in Benny, our time filled with runs and swims, re-sparked the interest and excitement of the road again.

Longer trips will soon be visible on our horizon.

A&N x

France – Orléans & the road south

We rolled away from the pleasant beach boulevard in Seaford to catch our uneventful four-hour ferry to Dieppe.  We doodled only a short way south before deciding we deserved a lazy afternoon and evening, so we pulled into a tidy, and surprisingly somewhat busy, free aire at Clères.  It was a nice aire, set between rows of hedges with each large division each accommodating two motorhomes.  We had a short walk around the adjacent local football fields whilst some young players trained reluctantly, and we had a play on their climbing frames and slides as we went.

Cleres - view of aire

We drove a few more hours south, initially on roads familiar from our recent trip north, with our next stop being Orléans for a short city break.  We arrived just before lunch and found an easy park just a few kilometres out of the city centre and followed the river in on foot.  It was a cracking day, hot and clear, and produced our first outing of the year in shorts; it was a wonderfully comfortable and budding spring-like day in all ways. The contrast to the past chilly weeks in the north of England was stark and clear, and we thought on how well we had successfully dodged the worst of the winter weather as we enjoyed our makeshift picnic overlooking the river Loire in the gloriously hot sunshine.  It was the first proper sun we’ve experienced in a long while, and felt like we were finally warming up, mentally and physically.

Orleans - (riverside walk)

Orleans - (main street)

As the birthplace of Jean of Arc, we expected to have this historical fact hailed from the rooftops and be drowning in constant references to her life and exploits.  Yes, her childhood home is now a museum, the main street is named for her and a large statue of Joan on horseback sits proudly in the main square.  But there was little other mention, not even visible in the ubiquitous postcards or souvenirs, where the gothic cathedral seemed to be the dominant local feature. The city, built with clean white limestone, had the feel of quiet elegance, restrained and classy, and it maintained an ambience of understated opulence, confidence and openness.  It would be a difficult place not to like, especially lit up in the gloriously bright sunshine we were experiencing, and we were happy to oblige the mood.

Orleans - (Jean of Arc's house)

Orleans - (Square and statue)

We passed by the childhood home of Jean D’Arc and easily found the main square where her statue dominated.  Golden-coloured trams glided almost silently along wide avenues, with a casual ease that typified our first impressions of the city.  A festival celebrating street activities, from street dance to music to BMX tricks to spray-painting, was in full swing in the main square.  Groups of young girls danced while skateboarders rolled by and BMXers jumped and flipped, with music blasting all round.  We continued through the narrower, much quieter, medieval streets to find another festival focus, this one on junior rugby skills, set up outside the cathedral.  Players from a local club ran drills with the participating kids, with a Top 14 match projected on a huge screen behind.

Orleans - (festival in square)

After a lazy loop round the centre and the obligatory look inside the cathedral to cool off, we returned back to the riverside to slowly walk back to Benny.  We stopped for a while to watch a couple of kayakers on the river, or pedantically-speaking one kayaker and one canoeist, twisting and playing in the bubbling rapids formed by the stone arches of the King George V bridge breaking up the fast flow of the Loire.  As we reached Benny the blue skies darkened overhead and the now grey weather threatened a deluge, but we made it safely back before the inevitable happened.  After a short while we headed off to a nearby aire, to park up early and enjoy a little bit of the afternoon.  The sun soon returned with a welcoming smile and was back on full brightness as we reached our overnight stop.

Orleans - (kayakers in Loire)

We overnighted about a half-hour on from Orléans, at the small town of La-Ferte-Saint-Aubin, on a patch of land outside a currently closed campsite that doubles as a free aire, available until 1st May.  The weather had cleared again so we went for a short run along a trickling river bank, studiously avoiding rogue brambles and nettles, on sodden ground that occasionally squirted liquid mud up our legs.  On our return we passed by the aire and beyond to have a closer look at a large château set behind a moat on the other side of the main road through the village.  We had a brief look around the impressive exterior but didn’t visit inside as it was closing.  We returned to the aire and explored a little of the external artwork, a joint venture between French and Australian artists, scattered around the woodland; it reminded us of art installations we visited in Skovsnogen in Denmark but this was, if it is even possible, worse.

Orelans - main street trams

The following morning we doodled off again early, heading south this time with intent, as we had a number of house viewings lined up.  After a few more hours of driving and we arrived back in the Limousin region, readied for a few days, or weeks, of serious house-hunting in our chosen area.  We were viewing five very different houses in varied settings over the next three days, to get a feel for what we’d like.  Unfortunately one house that we were very keen on (on paper) was, we were informed only a few days before our scheduled viewing, seen by another couple who made their excited offer the same day, was subsequently accepted and the house immediately taken off the market.  This was a reminder to us that if you see the house that feels right for you, snap it up.  We were geared up and ready to pounce.  Watch this space…

A&N x

 

Swimming the Arctic Circle, Juoksengi

Participating in the Swim the Arctic Circle event, in the village of Juoksengi in northern Sweden.

We left our Workway project in Norrsken Lodge in torrential rain, saying our fond goodbyes to our host Max as we sheltered under the overhang of the workshop garage.  We drove only 17 miles north along the river Torne to reach the settlement of Juoksengi, the persistent rain not letting up at all along the way.  We stopped in at the café on the Arctic Circle line, the meeting point for our upcoming swim event and the site of our aire for the duration.  The focal point of the stop was a large metal globe at the centre of a circle of flags, each representing a nation or region that the Arctic Circle line runs through.  Large signboards explained the arbitrary and shifting nature of the line, not set on a fixed line of latitude but drifting 15m or so north each year in a long, cyclical wave with a period of 40000 years and variance of over 180km.  Juoksengi is really only a temporary custodian of the slowly passing Arctic Circle line.

Juoksengi - (Arctic Circle)

Juoksengi - (our base for a few nights)

After finding out where we could park up and getting very wet setting up, we relaxed inside and waited for the rain to subside.  We were finally in the Arctic Circle, if only by a few metres.  The swim itself was the following day, so we had time to relax and explore the town.  We had only found out about this swim via a Google search when in Denmark, and after becoming intrigued with the concept, we subsequently reshaped our trip route through Norway and Sweden on the premise of reaching this geographic location on this very date.  We would cross a national border, the Arctic Circle line and a time zone all in one 3km long river swim.  Due to Finland’s time difference we would time travel, beginning the swim at five minutes past midnight in Finland and, provided we swam fast enough, arrive back in Sweden late on the night before we began.

Juoksengi - (at the start)

Juoksengi - (River Torne)

Mid-afternoon brought a break in the clouds and we quickly readied ourselves for a local walk, to see both the start and finish for the first of our two swims the following day.  We walked first to the start of the 2km swim, a few kilometres north from where we were based.  The road followed the river and we could see marker buoys set up ready for the swim stretching out of sight along the wide river.  We looked out from the beach and imagined how we’d feel on the start; the excitement, the nervous anticipation. We later registered and paid our entry fee, chatting to the organisers.  We were told that the 2016 swim took place in torrential rain, and they joked that the spectators got wetter than the competitors.  The forecast was looking like being a lot more kind to the swimmers this year.

Juoksengi - (registration and 2k start)

Juoksengi - (getting ready)

The next morning we met swimmers from many nations; English, American, French, Swiss, Russian, South African, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and likely some others, all drawn here for the camaraderie and the same quirky experience.  There was a bit of controversy before the start as the official water temperature was listed as 15 degrees and, under Swedish rules, this meant compulsory wetsuit (or wet dress, as the Swedish announcer called them) wear.  Several very experienced swimmers wanted to swim without, stating participation in many events with much longer swims in colder water, but the officials were having none of it.  A compromise of sorts was reached; they could swim, but not officially, so they got their own personal time keepers and boat support, rather than being chipped and competing in the race.  Strange decision – same risk, more work, less reward for them, but everyone seemed happy, so all could proceed as planned.

Juoksengi - (route map)

Juoksengi - (us after 2k finish)

Juoksengi - (hot soup after)

The first swim went well for us; we weren’t here to compete, just to complete, so we stayed behind the frantic scrum, a triathlon-like start for all the competitive swimmers. We swam together the whole 2km, stroke by stroke, keeping the alternate blue-white and blue-yellow buoys, representing the flags of both nations, neatly on our left. The final 500m was quite choppy, the wind whipping up some breath-defying waves that slowed down progress. We eventually reached the mål, the finish, stopping my watch at just under 29 minutes.  We chatted to the other British swimmers a while, then jumped into the waiting timber hot-tub to warm up, before entering the fiery sauna to really warm up.  Unfortunately the issued timing chips malfunctioned so a manual calculation had to be completed with the help of video taken at the finish line, so we all had to wait longer than planned for our times and presentations.

Juoksengi - (post 2k hot tub)

Juoksengi - (n receives certificate)

Juoksengi - (a receives certificate)

We spent a lazy afternoon around Polar Circle House, resting up in anticipation of the longer midnight swim.  At the allocated time we caught the bus with all the other competitors to the start line in Finland, around 40 minutes away.  The bus drove south though Overtorneå, our previous base and closest bridge, before turning north to the Finish town of Juoksenki. On arrival we were surprisingly greeted by familiar faces, David and Alex, from our recent WorkAway in Norrsken Lodge – they had made it!  Luckily we had spare goggles to lend them as they had none, but they had managed to hire wetsuits, allowing them to participate in the swim.  We caught up a little with them as we watched a few rounds of random organised games, from a tug-of-war between Finland and Sweden, to golf ball throwing to short relay races, organised more to keep the spectators interested and distracted until the swim began.

Juoksengi - (3k start)

Juoksengi - (3k starting place)

Juoksengi - (boat support)

The time was upon us.  The sun had set just below the horizon, creating a deep red, almost permanent sunset glow that would last for the duration of the swim.  The trees lining the banks became flat silhouettes set against the red sky, neatly reflected in the shimmering pink river. The day chilled rapidly, the temperature dropping along with the lowering sun. We suited up and waited impatiently to enter the river, whose water was now warmer than the cool evening air.  It was just the perfect, still night for the swim; the previous night had been torrential rain and the following night was to be a dull, dark cloud-dominated grey.  We felt so lucky to be here, in these perfect conditions.

Juoksengi - (the still river)

Juoksengi - (on the start line)

Juoksengi - (nearing midnight)

A faint smell of diesel from the powerboats rose from the water, mixed with the scent of fertiliser recently spread on local fields.  A light mist lingered just above the surface, lit by the pink sunset behind.  00.05 arrived and the race began in earnest, with a huge scramble in the initial buoy-marked bottleneck that soon dissipated when the faster swimmers reached the main, wide body of the river. We were moving quickly, the power and pace of the current when we passed a buoy was palpable, and the weeds visible on the riverbed under us zoomed past under our noses.  Each breath taken brought us an incredible view of the deep red not-quite-sunset, the river on fire as we progressed together, feeling good and enjoying the intense scenery mixed with the comforting monotony of effort.

Juoksengi - (the finish line)

Juoksengi - (relaxing at 3k finish)

The Torne river, with its late evening water temperature now around 16 degrees, drove us along downstream, making the 3km swim take a much shorter time than a still-water swim of the same distance would.  We also swam quicker, or the current was flowing stronger, than on our earlier 2km swim. We didn’t want it to end, the embracing feel of the warm river, the lit-up look of the surrounding banks, the fresh taste of the clear water, the welcome burn of effort.  We were quite surprised when we realised we’d reached the finish already, in under 39 minutes, although we both said afterwards we’d felt strong all the way along the swim and could really have pushed on a little harder.  We arrived with plenty of Saturday still remaining; our swim crossing of a National boundary, of the Arctic Circle line and of a time zone all gratifyingly successful.

Juoksengi - (beers in hot tub)

Juoksengi - (presentations)

After taking a few photos around the finish, we jumped into the hot-tub with the French boys and two French ladies we’d met, and had a celebratory beer as we warmed through. We stayed around the finish late afterwards, meeting and greeting lots of other competitors.  People peeled off one by one, with flights to catch home tomorrow, and we said sad goodbyes, until only a fellow Brit and a Finnish guy remained.  The four of us chatted animatedly as we continually swapped our bodies between the hot tub and the burning sauna well into the wee small hours of Sunday morning.  Nicky and I finally dragged ourselves back to Benny around 3am then we sat up to after 4am, still buzzing from the experience and enjoying the views of the bright morning sun lighting up the steaming fields outside.  We sipped a few celebratory whiskies as we relived the day before finally making ourselves go to sleep, our day of time travelling swimming finally at an end.

Juoksengi - (Arctic Circle flags)

We spent the following day on the same site, resting up and doing as little as possible.  We had a long, lazy lie-in after our late night revelry, and by the time we emerged, most others had cleared out and headed home.  We were in the comforting position of having nowhere we had to be, back on our own time and our own schedule.  We were deeply glad we had discovered this swim and decided to make it a part of our journey, even if it was originally a few thousand kilometres drive out of our way.  It had led us through some very beautiful parts of central Sweden that we would most likely have missed otherwise, and gave us this memory that would now be a cherished part of our story.

Additional info:

Swim the Arctic Circle – Website >

Race times available here >

 

Netherlands – Vianen & Utrecht

Catching the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry and to Vianen for King’s Day

After a few more relaxing days catching up with friends in Northampton, we headed east through leafy, spring Suffolk in the direction of Harwich, the inaugural stretch of our long journey to the land of the midnight sun.  We stopped to enjoy our lunch on a pleasant bench surrounded with fluffy ducklings overlooking a pretty river in the small town of Nayland, snuggled in Dedham Vale.  From here we continued on to overnight near the port of Harwich at a small commercial aire in the village of Ramsey, where we overlooked neatly cultivated fields and a white windmill.

Nayland (Lunch spot)

Vianen (canal bridge)

There was only a short drive to the ferry terminal and we were boarded by 8am, snoozed and read our way across the sea on the practically empty boat, before we rolled off the ferry in Hook of Holland just after 5pm local time. We drove an hour east, through the busy, stop-start rush hour traffic around Rotterdam, to reach the quiet village of Vianen, around 15km south of Utrecht.  We parked up alongside eleven other motorhomes in a mixed use car-park designated as a free motorhome aire, then we went for a quick local explore on foot.

Vianen (free aire)

Vianen (city gate)

We were on the eastern outskirts of Vianen near a large, wide canal, but only a short walk west to the pretty central street of this quintessentially Dutch town.  The beautifully neat, well-kept brick and stone-faced buildings impressed us, as did the pretty setting on the river, with its huge willows drooping just enough to tickle the softly flowing water.  We walked through the 15th century city gate, a square four-storey brick tower, to reach the centre. The main street was set up in preparation for a loud evening and a full day of festivities, with stalls, music systems and street urinals ready to serve the expected crowds. There were few people around during our exploratory walk, but later in the evening, when the sun had gone down, the volume increased and the King’s Day Eve revelry could be clearly heard for miles around.

Vianen (main street)

Vianen (streetscape)

The following morning it was officially Koningstag, King’s Day, a national holiday in the Netherlands and an opportunity to party.  The weather was dry, with blue skies but rather chilly, so we decided to cycle into Utrecht to experience the mood.  Our cycle route included a short, maybe 150m, ferry ride across the river Lek, that took only a few minutes. Most areas or villages we passed were partaking in the nationwide craze for vrijmarkt, the free market, at which they hoped to sell their tatty, used items, like the world’s largest car-boot sale. Koningstag was also the ideal opportunity for oranjegekte, orange madness, a kind of dance-music and alcohol fuelled frenzy, where everyone wears the national colour to brighten up the obligatory street party. We had both followed suit and dressed in orange for our cycle, to fit in with the crowds and feel part of the day.

Utrecht (cycle route ferry)

Utrecht (cathedral)

We cycled a rather indirect route to the centre, taking a few wrong turns on the multitude of available cycle paths, taking around 17km to reach Utrecht central train station.  We locked up our bikes on a small rack on a quiet nearby street rather than in the midst of the many thousands of bikes stacked up in sprawling manner down a multi-tiered central aisle.  We walked around the bustling centre, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the sights.

Utrecht (riverside cycling)

Utrecht (de stijl chair)

We saw many varied scenes, from a line of fluffy, fearless ducklings crossing our path, party boats filled with dancing girls gliding down the canals, the medieval Cathedral of St. Martin and the Dom Tower, and even a giant version of Gerrit Rietveld’s famous red and blue chair, celebrating 100 years of the De Stijl art movement.  It suddenly rained heavily for a few long minutes, clearing the once busy streets of people, before quickly drying up and allowing the street selling, music and festivities to begin once more.

Utrecht (party boats)

Vianen (street party)

We returned to collect our bikes and headed back south by a different route, covering an even longer distance on our return due to closed cycle lanes caused by construction works, taking 23km to arrive back in Vianen.  We called in briefly to browse another large vrijmarkt in Nieuwegein before arriving back to Benny.  We later had a brief walk around the town at dusk, enjoying the light on the river, before settling in to relax for the night and to plan our next steps.