van6.JPGYou know you’re re-sizing when you plan on moving into a space 8m², then share that with somebody else, which means thats 4m² each, right? Then, throwing a slight curveball, add a dog, who takes up all 8m² to himself unashamedly. In this gargantuan 8m², you’ll need to build a bed, a kitchen, a bathroom, dining area and storage for all of our worldy posessions. Oh and you’ll need power, gas and plumbing. And what do you end up with? A self built off grid adventure van called Liberty!

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The thought of living in such a minature space would both intimidate and frighten most people and to be fair, it did Han and I. I remember talking to a friend who had a 63″ TV and realising that that TV wouldnt even fit sideways into our van, never mind the L shaped couch in his living room. Its only when you realise how much stuff we have in our homes that the magnitude of the task becomes all too apparent.

When we first set out on this journey i’m not sure we realised how hard we’d find it designing and building a space in which we could fit our lives, but more importantly, make the van fit around our lifestyles. We heard repeatedly, just go buy a motorhome rather than build one. And, I see their point, but it just wouldnt have fitted our requirements specifically around Chief and all of the activities we want to do. If we were going to undertake this journey, we were going to do it on our terms. So, we chose the hard route.

Everything within the van has been designed within a millimetre to fit us perfectly and the entire van is adorned with spacesaving tips, multipurpose furniture and unique touches. Part of downsizing is making sure you maximise every millimetre of space. Some spaces need to be multipurpose, others have to maximise the space we have. Our sofa contains our electrical system, a shoe rack and a fridge. Being able to multipurpose one space makes a huge difference when you’re trying to fit your entire life into a van.

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One of our favourite features is the raised floor. We realised in our hightop van that we had lots of headspace and originally thought, why not fill it with cupboards. But some quick calcualtions and reasoning showed us that raising the floor and placing storage underneath it could provide us with more storage and wouldnt be intrusive or an eyesore. It  turns out that the floor is the coldest part of the van, which makes an excellent place to store food.

Another aspect of the design that we’re very proud of is its all year round capability. We wanted a van that we could use in the UK and Europe in the height of summer along with the cold harsh winters. The van is equipped with three layers of insulation, providing protection in the summer and warmth in the winter. We even managed to fit in a blown air heater for the cold nights (a definite luxury).

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Having lived in the van for five months now, there’s nothing we would fundamentally change. Sure, we’ve repaired and improved a few of the things we did in the UK that make life on the road a little easier. One such ‘mod’ was to rewire the tap so it was triggered by the electric switch in the tap rather than pressure sensor in the pump. This slight change eliminated a pressure buildup behind the tap when you close it.

We do have and there are some further improvements we’d like to make when we return, we’d already winterised the van but there are some further adjustments we’d like to make, such as upholster the entire sliding door so that the whole metal surface is covered. This should eliminate any condensation spots that can form. We’ve not had a problem in 30 degree heat, but on a few occasions it’s been cold we have observed a little bit of condensation.

That’s the joy with building your own van. You can mod, adjust, play and customise it until your hearts content. You become one with the van, which is great. Be warned, when people ask you about the van, or you ask them questions, you realise how much of a van nerd you’ve become and you start using words like amp hours and discuss layout options, swap preferred locations and joke about when the last proper shower you had was…

And so we find ourselves back in Germany, heading towards Donaueschimgen. We picked this place because it looked nice and we wanted somewhere to bed down for the night. As is often the case, we ended up staying a few days.

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The location was great, with access to cycle paths and walks all around the area. We decided to have an explore the next day.

We took Chief out for a ride in his trailer and set off on the cycle paths around the area. The Aire was located next to a stables and some sort of equine centre. They were clearly preparing for a huge show as the area was being transformed before our very eyes. Moving on we worked our way around the cycle paths eventually arriving in the small town of Donaueschimgen. Having had a good nose around, we headed back through the park and settled in for the night.

The next day, Chief, Han and I decided to go for a run in the park. Chiefs good with his lefts and rights, he guided us round the maze of paths, twists and turns, until we were exhausted. Chief on the other hand was full of beans.

Arriving back at the van, we were met by a lady with a bike and a box on the back. She was delivering bread. The loaf was massive, but we bought it anyway. We like it when things like this happened. Having tasted a wide variety of breads in France, this loaf absolutely challenged anything we’d tasted before.

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That evening, we departed on for pastures new. On the way, having seen for days pumpkins adorning the side of the road we arrived at a honesty box and picked some up. That evening we enjoyed pumpkin soup with our fresh bread, a very satisfying end to a pleasant time in Donaueschimgen.

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Feeling revved up for some more excitement, we set our sights on another bike park. Unable to find too much about it other than the fact it had easy downhill routes, we headed off anyway in the hope that we’d be able to ride the tracks.

 

We arrived in the middle of the day at Fiss. Immediately, even though we were surrounded by vans, there were obvious no camping overnight signs, which was a shame. What was a further disappoint was the fact that we couldn’t cycle the routes without full face helmets, knee pads, the lot! Gutted does not even describe it. Having had an amazing time at Geisskopf, we couldn’t understand these silly rules. Never mind.

 

A quick google revealed that there was a plethora of trail riding (which we could do)! Pleased with ourselves, we picked a moderate route and departed. As with most things in Austria, it turned out to be excellent. The trails were set up so the climbing was done on either quiet roads or tarmac cycle paths. Not to say the route was easy, but it makes an enormous difference in bad weather.

 

I don’t know if you know, but I like hills, there’s always an achievement when you climb a hill on a bike. It hurts like hell but feels awesome. Han and I often disagree on the merits of hills, but we plough on regardless.

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The route started with a gentle climb through Fiss then a descent down towards Ladis on a very challenging muddy track. The village itself was beautiful, with a small lake at the centre and Castle Laudeck as a backdrop. From here, we climbed slightly through Entbruck then levelled our onto a forest track, where back in the woods we could admire the view of the valley far below.

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We broke out again into a road which lead to a lovely climb that had hairpins up into the distance. This climb took us to the half way point and above our starting position. Having pretty much climbed most of the climbing in the first half, we were left to enjoy a lazy ride back (with a few occasional ridiculous kick ups). All in all, the path was really well designed, one of many in fact. We enjoyed being able to use our bikes, challenge ourselves and have time to take in the view.

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We headed back at this point to the bike park where the van was waiting. Usually when we go shopping we normally buy an oven tea for wet days and arriving back at the bike park the heavens opened. Making our oven tea, we relaxed and waited about to see if anybody broke the no camping rule. Despite their being +30 vans at the start of the day, by the time we were fed and watered we were one of a handful left. Realising we couldn’t change it, we packed up and tootled off to our next destination, another ski lift.

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On the way there, we questioned where we were going as we passed a place called Nassereith, fortunately we were still in Austria and hadn’t taken a wrong turn. It did however provide us with biblical (poor pun) views!

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This time it was just for the night. We found in a remote village a ski lift where there were a couple of vans pulled up. We had a long sleep and woke up the next day ready to head on back into Germany!

We found ourselves driving back into Austria, via Innsbruck towards one of the only free places we could find in the mountains. Originally we’d set our sights on going to Sölden, but they only had a campsite there and we prefer Aires to campsites. Han found an Aire located in the next valley along which would provide us with ample opportunity for walking, mountain views and potentially the cable car ride we’d been holding out for.

Driving down towards Sankt Leonhard im Pilztal, we made good progress, right up until we turned into the valley. We were sure that we’d be arriving in no time, 20km to Mittelburg couldn’t take us the 45 mins it said. Not surprisingly, google was right, but we were not disappointed. Our slow, uneventful climb into the snow line provided us with a fresh view every turn.

I’d spent months telling Han about the views in the Alps, mountains so big that it’s hard to describe how impressive they are. After all that anticipation, here we were, soaking it all in. Green valley bottoms, craggy forest covered steep sided valleys, mountains topped with a dusting of snow and waterfalls seemingly falling from the highest reaches of the mountains. We were in sensory overload.

Not one week ago we were in 30°C temperatures, but now we found ourselves in 10°C at best! And that was at the bottom of the mountain. Not to worry though, we have heating, something which we hadn’t needed over the summer but that would become increasingly used over the coming weeks.

Upon arrival, we found ourselves outside the village located at the furthest lift in the village, the Pitzaler Gletscher lift. Expecting to have to pay a tourist fee, we went in and spoke to one of the ticket attendants. He told us not to worry about it and it was free. Whilst there were no facilities (we’d topped up on the way), there was a functioning toilet, quite a fancy one at that. The availability of facilities such as this always helps in van life!

At the ski centre, we picked up some information hoping to find out about walks. It transpired that the mountain lift gave you prime views of Tyrol’s tallest mountain and it was the highest cable car (Pitz Panoramabahn) in Tyrol. We’d been waiting out for a ride having seen many cable cars at huge prices, this is why we waited for one we actually wanted to go on. Having analysed it a little further, there was a mountain train up through the centre of the mountain then a cable car to the top of the mountain peak. Best of all, dogs were allowed.

We don’t travel with Chief so we can do all our adventures separately, we do it so that we can enjoy all the activities together. Despite arriving in cold and slightly overcast conditions, the weatherman said the next day was bringing brilliant blue skies. We set an alarm (we had to remember how this worked first) and aimed to get up the mountain as early as possible.

The tickets were in two parts, one for the train and one for the cable car. We bought them together so saved a few pennies that way. The train ride was really smooth up to the top of the first peak. It opened up at the Wildspitzbahn to face Pitztal Glacier and provided a direct view of the 3,774 m high Wildspitze summit.

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We decided to explore and play at the bottom first for a bit in the snow. Chief was wild in the snow, bouncing and bounding about! We followed a path up to the little church and suspected that the snow wasn’t that deep, but on inspection, we discovered a few icy puddles and deep snow (which I was up to my waist in) whilst trying to take some pictures off the path.

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Having had a run and a play, we decided to head for the lift. A fancy 6 person heated gondola ride up to the top provided amazing views. Chief was ace at dealing with it, although we suspect the treats may help. The views on the journey were endless, but on approach to the Hinterer Brunnerkogel station at the top it revealed another platform that we could take the view in from.

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Disembarking, we headed for the viewing point. Up until this point, the weather had been kind to us, but quickly exposed at the top we could feel the biting wind (even on a good day). After taking our photos and admiring the view, we decided to head into the cafe.

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Being from Yorkshire, I hate parting with cash, but we’d agreed that day was going to be our one treat day to each other. Having ordered two drinks and an apple cake (for an eye watering sum), I returned to the table exclaiming to Han that we could have bought half a weeks shopping for the cost. It was however, delicious, but we did feel a little out of place surrounded by tourists who probably did this sort of thing every day. That said, Chief took the opportunity to have a snooze and relax in the warm environment. It was well worth the visit to the top, but we were not ready to depart the mountain just yet.

On our way out towards the gondola, we noted that we could see the Sölden lifts in the next valley. Somewhere that holds a special place in my heart. We will go back as a family one day I’m sure!

The bad afternoon weather hadn’t yet arrived, so, having gone down to the middle station we set off on a walk, explore and play. We’d packed a plethora of mountain gear, much to the bemusement of the tourists around us, but this allowed us to venture off and more importantly, make a hot drink.

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We again played and took pictures in the snow, having loads of fun and enjoying the change in climate. I would consider myself fit, but running around with Chief at these altitudes was exhausting. 

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I’m not sure what the Austrians make of us Brits, and more specifically, Han, Chief and I. I wonder if they think we’re loopy. Pulling out our bag a survival bag, we attempted to sledge on the mountain side. Maybe the altitude had really got to us! We made a quick brew in our microstove and took in the view a little bit more.

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It was early afternoon and we didn’t want to be stuck up here overnight. Exhausted from the day we descended via the train and retreated to the van for some well deserved tea and a snooze.

As we liked it so much here, we spent another night walking the excellent paths in the valley and practising our camera skills. We used the opportunity to give Chief a rest too, he needs down days to recover from all the fun he has.

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We had to depart the next day, but Mittelburg in Sankt Leonhard im Pilztal had been one of the best places we’d ever visited!

Having spent an amazing few days at Geisskopf Bike Park, we decided to begin our journey south through Germany. We’d always intended to return to Austria as a month earlier it was too warm to hike.

As it was now September, it appeared we would leave the +30°C temperatures behind. We knew we’d like Germany, however traveling through it was even more picturesque than we imagined. Although at this point we were transiting through towards Austria, we decided on our return from Austria towards France we’d travel via Germany again.

We set your sights on our next destination, Bernau im Chiemsee. Chiemsee is an enormous lake that we hoped to spend a few days paddling, walking and exploring. We arrived late in the evening to find only one space left and not all of the facilities that were originally promised, especially the water which we needed.

We needn’t have worried, the Camper Contact app had advised us that the two people who looked after the Aire were really friendly and helpful. Upon their arrival and with my limited German, not only did they allow us to use the tap inside the locked building for water, they even found time to joke about the weather being rather English (it was raining heavily). So heavily in fact that I could have filled my container just leaving it out for a while.

Returning to the van, we anticipated that the rain would be short lived and the next day we could move on. We couldn’t have been more wrong. It was forecast to rain for days on end. That said, having done a whistle stops tour before Beth’s arrival we were tired from travelling and decided to stay put for a few days. Chief was equally as tired and we spent our days catching up on emails and blogs, playing scrabble and finding some new books to read. The Aire has all the facilities we needed and it provided us with an opportunity to rest. Travelling is tiring for all of us, especially Chief who needs his down days as much as the fun ones!

During our encampment, we too the opportunity to head into the German mountains across into Austria to Kitzbuhel to have a look round. It wasn’t far away and it was in the opposite direction we were planning on going in Austria. We enjoyed the drive more than Kitzbule itself as it was a struggle to see the mountains through the clouds.

At the end of the three days, the weather lifted and we saw it as an opportunity to move onto our mountain destination in Austria. We even managed to take in a walk at Chiemsee without being rained on and it allowed us to take in the size and scale of the lake, which was impressive. I could only imagine in the summer how pretty the place would be with the sun shining and the restaurants bustling.

Having dropped Beth off at the airport, we’d already decided that today we wanted to make our way back to Germany and eventually Austria.

Han had found through the park4night app a place to stay in Germany at a bike park. We didn’t expect much but set off on the Czech back roads regardless.

Such is the pace of our travels that Beth was safely home before we’d even arrived in Germany. Driving through lush forests and picturesque German villages, we were happy to be here in our next new country.

We didn’t have far to travel before we arrived in our new location, at the bike park of Geisskopf. Not expecting much we were astounded at the array of vehicles, busses and truck conversions people had. At most motorhome Aires we stand out like the poor relative, but in bike parks were surrounded by other van converters. They get us and we feel very much like we’re amongst friends. The weather was glorious for traveling but upon arrival the heavens opened and we were subjected to an awesome lightening storm.

The next day was Monday and the madness of Sunday campers had all but disappeared. It was still busy, but a lot less hectic. Which was good for us.

The park turned out to be one of the best places we’d stayed. The tracks were for our level of ability and didn’t require ridiculous levels of health and safety gear.

Unfortunately, our budget didn’t stretch to the lift, instead we opted to ride to the top on all occasions either via the uphill flow trail (usually for electric bikes which we don’t have) or the fire road, a slightly less arduous route. That said, despite the half hour climb the routes, length, difficulty and preparation were all spot on. Simply the best place we’ve ever ridden downhill.

Whilst we may not look the part with our hard tail bikes, we certainly threw ourselves at the routes, although unlike all my previous rides, not literally this time…

We even had the opportunity to take Chief on a bike ride, he loves pulling the mountain bikes through the forests! It was also a great place to take him running and walking, I think the forests are one of his favourite places to be!

Leaving Prague and heading south to Bohemia we based ourselves at a campsite along the shore of Lake Lipno, a great spot for kayaking and relaxing in the Czech sunshine. We were still one up on our usual trio and my sister was really getting into the swing of van life.

We were keen to visit the nearby town of Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and known by the travel guides as ‘little Prague’, or by us as Crusty Krumlov. We planned to get the bus into the town but as it turned out we had missed the early morning bus and there was only one more which was at 5pm, we decided to drive!

Situated on the River Vltava, a bridge led us into the town, the river itself proved popular with kayakers and rafters enjoying the water in the August sunshine.

Cesky Krumlov’s castle overlooks the towns narrow cobbled streets and historic buildings decorated with Renaissance and Baroque facades. It was very picturesque, there was really nothing crusty about it at all.

Returning to the campsite we spent the afternoon kayaking and enjoying the late summer sun. We had seen some wonderful sunsets in while we were in Czech, it seemed every night the sky was ablaze with red and our last night in the country was no exception as we were treated to a beautiful sunset over the lake.

The following day we returned to Prague airport to drop my sister off, it had been great to have company and we were really impressed with how the van had accommodated us all so effortlessly. It was a funny feeling knowing in a few hours she’d be back in the UK and we were back on the road continuing our trip, the three amigos once again and heading to another new country.

Czech this out!

In the Olomouc region of Czech Republic we stumbled upon the fantastic Rychlebské stezky bike park. It offered great trails, a pump track and skills course, and a camping field next to the visitor centre where for £5 a night we had full access to the bar and cafe, hot showers, toilets and all the riding we could manage. We couldn’t believe our luck! There was a great atmosphere with plenty of people enjoying biking and camping, there were a couple of self converted vans, tents and some people just slept under tarps strung between two cars, we were in good company.

We spent a couple of days there enjoying the trails, most of the bike parks we’ve encountered in Europe are at ski resorts and use the ski lifts to get you and your bike to the start of the downhill trails which is great but the cost of the lift passes can really stack up. This place wasn’t located at a ski station and so the trails were 100% rideable, we tried out a few different routes which took us up steep climbs through rocky woodland and technical downhills that really pushed tested our bike skills. There’s no photos or video from our few days of fun, we were too busy enjoying ourselves!

From there we moved on towards Prague, we had a visitor to collect from the airport in a couple of days! We stayed on a quiet Aire next to a lake and spent some time tidying and organising the van. It was a nice quiet place for Chief and I to do a a bit of yoga to ease the aches from cycling.

Getting into Prague proved busy, we got stuck in traffic and the couple of Aires we tried in the city were full, things were getting tense! We had a guest arriving in a few hours and nowhere to spend the night! After spending 4 months travelling like this it didn’t bother us, we’re totally comfortable with van life now, we knew we’d find somewhere to stay and can be fully self sufficient for days at a time but knowing we were going to be accommodating a guest made us conscious that what is now our normal is very different for most people and we were keen to make it a good experience. We thought a flushing toilet and a daily shower might be considered essentials! Finally we found a nice campsite just outside the city that could accommodate us and had good facilities, relieved we headed off to pick up my sister from the airport where there were smiles all round and much to catch up on.

When we built the van we never considered we might have space to accommodate a guest, it certainly wasn’t part of the design but even in 8 square meters, 3 wasn’t a crowd! My sister slept comfortably on the sofa and the layout of our bed at the back behind the bathroom meant that we all felt we had our own space. We were impressed and my sister took to van life no problem. (Although the campsite plug sockets that enabling the use of hair straighteners probably helped to ease the transition!)

The following day we headed into Prague, using the public transport links to take us directly into the city. Prague is really beautiful and we had a wonderful day and evening exploring, everywhere we turned we were treated to wonderful architecture and history, the cathedral, the castle, the old town square, the famous Charles bridge, it was spectacular.

We arrived in Poland on a national holiday, it was a glorious sunny day and families were out in force enjoying the summer holiday. We had planned to visit the southern mountains of Zakopane, but having repeatedly read that it is exceptionally busy in the summer and based on what we had already seen of the crowds on the Slovakian side of the mountain range we just couldn’t face it.

Instead we spent a quiet night slightly to the east of Zakopane alongside a river where we watched rafts full of families and tourists passing by and listened to the church bells welcoming locals to the service of the Assumption Day national holiday. In the evening we walked through the village and across a footbridge back into Slovakia. It seemed like a good trade off.

We only planned to spend a few days in Poland, we were making our way across to Czech Republic where we would meet my sister in Prague, but we wanted to see a little of Poland on the way and so we headed maybe rather predictably, for Krakow. We stayed at a Stellplatz at a motorhome showroom just outside Krakow, it seemed like a bit of a weird location as we went into the sales office to ask about staying for the night but it turned out to be a great place to stay, cheap as chips, all the facilities we needed, and within easy distance of the city centre.

We took the bus into Krakow and had a fantastic day seeing the sites of the beautiful city centre.

We even found a dog friendly cafe and stopped for refreshments, Chief loved the comfy beds they provided for their canine customers and promptly fell asleep.

We only had a couple of days to spend in Poland but we really enjoyed what we saw, it will definitely be somewhere we will return to see more of.

From Krakow we moved on to visit Auschwitz. I’m slightly embarrassed to say we hadn’t been certain we’d go, we’d umm’d and ahh’d about it, we wanted to go but we also didn’t. In the end we went and we’re glad we did.

We didn’t take photographs and I won’t try to explain what we saw or felt, it is a hugely emotive place and one to be experienced by everyone individually. But while learning of the atrocities that occurred there and trying to comprehend the unfathomable numbers of people who lost their lives I was struck by the fact that since the museum opened in 1947, 45 million people have visited, to learn of what happened and pay their respects to the people who suffered, and that this must continue, so that future generations never forget and the suffering was never in vain. If you have the opportunity to go, go.

As one of the largest castles in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Spis Castle in the Kosice region of Slovakia definitely seemed worth a visit while we were so close. As ever, the August temperatures dictated we would have to get there early and so we headed off to spend an enjoyable morning exploring the impressive medieval fortress and admiring the views from its vantage point.

The castle is used as a film location and Chief couldn’t resist the opportunity to do a shoot of his own.

Next stop was the High Tatras mountains, we were keen to do some walking here and see what the Carpathian Mountains had to offer. We stayed at a campsite north of Poprad and spent a few nights here. Unfortunately the weather didn’t want to cooperate with our plans to climb mountains and the cloud and fog descended hiding the mountain tops completely.

We did a couple of low level walks instead, taking the train from near the campsite to the next town and walking back along the forest trails.

It seemed like the whole of Slovakia and half of Czech Republic was on holiday in the High Tatras, waiting with a small crowd for a train to take us to a tourist spot with lakes and mountain views we were surprised to see 2 small carriages arrive crammed full with what looked like 200 holiday makers. Needless to say we didn’t get on and instead got a different train going in the opposite direction.

The weather conditions, our desire for quiet places and the fact that for once we actually had a plan we were sticking to meant that we moved on after probably not seeing the best of the High Tatras. A little disappointing maybe but somewhere to return to another day.