So it was a month ago today that we crossed the English Channel and began our winter sojourn on the continent. It’s been a slightly odd time, not quite a holiday, but definitely not like everyday life. I thought it was about time I put down some thoughts on how its been so far.
The map shows a rough approximation of the route we have travelled so far. The Languedoc looks like an interesting region to explore, so if the weather holds we’ll probably explore here before heading down the south coast of France. Spain is still on the agenda, but I realised for the first time that the calendar keeps rolling forward, and we probably need to give some thought to where we want to be over Christmas. France has been disappointedly closed for the most part – I’m coming to the conclusion it’s always like that, except for August, when its closed because the French are on holiday! Who knows what Spain will be like, if we ever get there! Perhaps we should just head for the Alps and have a white Christmas?
Our Motorhome – Adria Izola 697 SL
Did we choose right? Well, it’s hard to put that into perspective, but yes, its worked very well so far. The garage space was always one of our overriding considerations, and the Izola’s is reasonably spacious, providing room for our two bicycles and Mel’s sculpting materials and tools, along with a few other bits and pieces – chairs, ski gear etc.
The interior of the van is working well for us as well. The main sleeping area works well – spacious twin setup, with the option to fill in the centre for a very generous double – even for a motorhome. The overhead cupboards provide good storage for clothing, although a little disorganised, at least in my case.
We are not using the over cab bed at all – not even for storage (save the mattresses and centre section of the rear bed). In time this will end up with some of Mel’s work, until enough is available to be shipped home. For now, its only real purpose has been for somewhere to put the towels during the day to dry off (they won’t if left in the bathroom) – chinese laundry style, hanging from the bed base.
The kitchen is cramped with practically zero prep area, which was something we were conscious of before purchasing, but as everything else ticked the boxes it was right to compromise here. Given that we shattered the hob glass after about 3 weeks, which reduced space further, we’ve been coping fine. In fact, now that we’ve fashion a temporary replacement for the hob glass (ply from a DIY store covered with self-adhesive vinyl wall covering) its actually more practical than it was with the glass in place! The only other downside on the kitchen is that the overhead placement of the grill is a very poor design decision. It’s extremely awkward to use – too high to look into to check on progress, extremely awkward to get hot things in and out – and could easily have been located elsewhere. There may be regulations I’m not aware of, but the area around the grill and wardrobe is not well thought out. But you cope with the limited functionality.
The bathroom is also a good space, just enough elbow room in the shower and toilet area to avoid the ‘sardine can’ feeling. The shower is also effective, although I could do with the water pressure between the sink and shower head reversing – the sink tap can launch water both into and out of the bowl in one action if not careful. The shower has reasonable power, and of course one needs to make a compromise between the ‘power shower’ feel and water use, or you are constantly back and forth to the fresh water tap if not careful.
The main living area works fairly well, although none of the seats are overly comfortable. I spend most of my time sitting in the front passenger seat, swivelled either to the table or facing the drivers seat, also swivelled to face me, so that I can put my feet up!
When the table is extended, this gives sufficient space for me to sit in the bench seat (facing forwards) with the laptop, and for Mel to sit in the side jump seat at the end of the table and do some sculpting work. The extended table does rather cut off the cab seats, as its awkward to get around the end of the table. One adaptation here might be to fashion a smaller table top insert, so that the table doesn’t extend quite so far across the cabin. It would give a useful extra bit of surface without cutting the vehicle in half.
The driving/passenger seats are comfortable for extended travelling, and generally the vehicle is easy to drive considering its size. The cab interior is basic but functional. We’ve not bothered at all with the radio – the reception is very poor. I imagine in the base Renault Master vehicle that the aerial is roof mounted, and that due to the over cab they chopped this off (I found the end of the antenna lead under the dash) and replaced it with a windscreen mounted alternative, but this of course is still in the shadow of the over cab. A better solution would have been to mount an aerial on the side or top of the over cab, or even to have tapped into the TV/Radio antenna mounted above the wardrobe. Of course when stored for travelling this might not give a great reception, but its got to be better than the windscreen mount. I suspect the TV/Radio antenna is an after market addition, so cable routing would have been a complication.
We added a reversing camera from Reversing Cameras UK which has been particularly useful. This is a twin camera setup, so you get one view straight down the rear of the vehicle so you can judge distance, and a second view that acts like a rear view mirror.
Installation was a fun little project! I didn’t bother enquiring about costs for a fitted system, just assuming that it would not be that difficult to do. It’s not difficult, but you do need to spend a good amount of time figuring out the best cable routing options. The downside to the system is that this one comes with moulded DIN plugs on the connecting cables, which means that you need to drill a larger than needed hole in order to route the cables. Depending on your routing options, drilling the holes is the biggest challenge. We ended up with having to place a small piece of conduit into the rear corner of the bedroom to take the cables from the interior of the cupboards down into the garage. From there they go through the garage floor, then are zip tied along with other cables down the near-side of the vehicle to the passenger foot well, then under the cab matting and into the dashboard. It’s a pretty neat and effective job.
One major consideration – consider where you are going to put the monitor. We purchased the dash mounted version (after reading that the rear view clip on versions are often too heavy for the mount and tend to fall off or change position), but there is actually nowhere that you could fit the dash mounted version without (illegally) compromising the drivers forward view, or the integrated interior windscreen blinds. One possibility is that you can buy a replacement stereo which includes a DVD player and pop out screen. These are not substantially more expensive than the monitor, a much neater solution, and there are even options for integrated satnav. One caveat would be to check how a dual-camera system would work in practice – some seem to support it, others not.
In the end our solution was to utilise the empty radio DIN slot next to the existing radio. This has a plastic tray/pocket fitted as standard, which can just be pulled out. A blanking plate, available from Halfords etc, then clips into its place. To the face of the blanking plate, I bolted the dash mount of the monitor – after a little trimming of the plate foot so that it would fit (a combination of hacksaw and grinding wheel). The screen is therefore sited to the left of the radio. It’s slightly tilted towards the passenger but still easily viewed by the driver, and is in line with the two side mirrors so makes it easy to scan between all three when reversing.
The only thing that this setup doesn’t cope with is low branches or overhangs. It’s hard to look up high on the vehicle from the side mirrors, and so its often necessary to get the passenger to hop out and keep an eye on these. There are quad-camera systems, and for complete coverage finding a way of mounting front and rear facing cameras at roof level would be a real boon (assuming you can avoid roof lights, top boxes, and sat dishes!).
Keeping an eye on water levels (fresh, grey and black), and battery charge levels is one of those things that you quickly get used to. We can manage about 2 days on stored fresh water, 3-4 if we only took a wash rather than a shower. The toilet cassette (the ‘black’ referred to above) seems to go about 3 days. We use it for all duties, and have found it not to get too smelly or dirty in the process. The chemicals you add are very effective at breaking things down, and the vast majority of the contents is fluid anyway. Just be economical on the use of paper! There is a toilet fresh fluid that you can buy, dilute into a spray bottle, and this means you gave squirt that around the bowl after each flush to keep things fresh.
The grey water tank (showers and sinks) had a slight leak on one of the inlets, so only revealed itself when the tank was near full. I seem to have fixed this by adjusting the fit and tightening the clamp. The capacity is not quite as much as the fresh tank, so you need to remember to empty this more often – its only about 10 litres smaller, but I think the overflow is fitted a little low down so actual capacity might be 80 litres. But emptying is easy, particularly in France with the frequency of Aires de Service. At a push, you could find a roadside drain or even a patch of grass, as there are no chemicals in the grey tank (unless you add them). The only issue I have with ours is that the outlet pipe does not drain freely – its too close to level, so you need to try and park nose down if possible to get all of the water out in anything like a reasonable time.
You soon also get used to the emptying of the toilet cassette, although I think the design is not exactly user friendly or even helpful for the removal of all waste! This combined with sometimes bizarre placement of the emptying points can make for a fun (and slightly messy) affair! Just don’t wear your best shoes – or sandals! For some reason our cassette leaks out of the air inlet when it is full and stood upright – others don’t appear to have this problem. It just means I have to carry it level and two handed from the van to the dump point, which is an interesting workout! Saves on the gym membership though!
Once emptied, and rinsed out, you add some chemical and pop it back in its little house. On the subject of rinsing though – many service points don’t have a dedicated water tap for rinsing, and I’ve seen what can only be described as complete $%^$ing idiots jamming the spout of their cassette up under the fresh water outlet. In the summer, I suspect Cholera would be an added hazard to motorhoming! By all means use the fresh outlet, but please keep a respectable distance between the tap and the spout – only the witless, stupid or criminally insane should consider anything else!
The Daily Routine
So far we’ve moved on more days than we’ve stayed put. I think part of that is to do with no really finding a place we’d consider idyllic to want to linger for longer. The French Aires are great in terms of the ability to roam and stop, but for the most part they are not particularly nice places to stay for anything more than the night. Whilst I applaud the fact they are here at all, the positioning of them often leaves a lot to be desired – stuck around the back of some industrial area, the corner of a forgotten car park, or on the outskirts of town. One place we stopped, there was a brilliant car park that overlooked the beach, reserved solely for cars. I’d have happily paid extra to have made use of that, even if it was restricted to certain days of the week, or to a few vans. It’s like the French acknowledge that motorhomers are there, but should be kept at arms length, like a stinky turd.
As for campsites, I’d love to experience one! We have the ACSI Camping Card which is proving to be completely useless. We’ve only found one so far that is actually open – this is not the ‘low season’, its the ‘no season’. The book is largely full of French campsites but the discount only applies to June and September, and the place is closed the rest of the time. We were hoping this would be useful for Spain, but I’ve yet to see any evidence of it! For now its not really been an issue – the French Aires have provided reasonable places for an overnight – but the idea of staying anywhere for several days and either doing some work or exploring isn’t really looking that enticing at the moment!
We are taking a bit of a break from the road for the next few days. We are on a private campsite which has far reaching views of the Languedoc to the north, and the Pyrenees to the south, and is only €10 per night, which I think reasonable. It’s unfortunately sandwiched between two roads, one of which appears to go to the local dump or quarry, as there are some pretty large and noisy lorries at times, and tractors the rest. But it will be fine for a few days, the sun is shining, the temperature reasonable, and there is of course the onsite wine!
You really do need to try and make exercise part of your day! You don’t realise just how little movement you need to make when you’ve only got 6 feet of floor space to play with. And that means getting outside – its not easy doing press ups when you can’t get your elbows away from the side of your body! Or squats, which require the bending of the knees wider than shoulder width! So my morning routine has become somewhat disrupted, unless Mel has gone off to the Boulangerie and I’ve got out of the shower quick enough to find the place empty.
But getting out for a walk, or a bike ride, is much better. If you are the sort who wants to tour and schlep around the tourist attractions, then that might be enough, but I’m happy to just be in the countryside and enjoy the weather and the views. We’ve not done a great deal of walking, preferring to get out on the bikes. We only managed 10 miles yesterday afternoon, but they were a fairly aggressive 10 miles. Getting up in the hills is a great workout too, but there won’t always be the hills so close at hand as they have been for the last couple of weeks.