The Month in Review: Freezing, Barfing, and Having Europe All to Ourselves

No, we’re not dead or lost. We’ve been doing a lot of freecamping (no internet) so I haven’t been able to post about our adventures. Here’s what you’ve missed:

THREE-FERRY MARATHON from Cesme (Turkey) to Ancona (Italy). The final leg, from Greece to Italy, took 22 hours, though mercifully we were upgraded from the floor to our own small cabin. Archie spent about 14 hours stowed away in our cabin (good) and the remaining 8 hours incarcerated and freaking out in the ship’s kennel (bad). Poor baby.

LEAKY RADIATOR. Immediately after arriving in Italy, our decrepit radiator hose started leaking and the engine overheated. For a couple days we had to refill the radiator every few hours, until we finally got ourselves to a Ford dealer in Genoa. I’m grateful to have gotten through it without braking down entirely.

TOURING BYZANTINE MOSAICS IN RAVENNA, ITALY.  At night we freecamped next to an old fortress; during the day we traipsed around town looking at some of the best-preserved Byzantine mosaics in Europe. (My favorites were in the tiny Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.) These photos don’t do them justice, but here you go anyway…


EUROPEAN DEEP FREEZE. Europe marked our return with a three-week cold snap, the worst in two decades. I’ll admit we never expected to encounter weather like that: Freezing temperatures, snow, ice, and blasting winds. It was…unfun. In our race to escape it, we had to abandon huge portions of our North Italy/S.E. France itinerary.

During the days we layered up with the few warm clothes we had and did our best to keep warm in our un-insulated rig. Being winter, most campgrounds were closed. When we were lucky enough to find an open one, we could run our little electric space heater, which helped cut the chill a bit. A tiny bit. The rest of the time we free camped in parking lots and had no heat at all. Those nights we huddled together for warmth under a pile of down sleeping bags and the thick blanket we bought in Turkey.

For three straight weeks, the night-time temperature inside the rig dipped to -5. Days weren’t much better. Inside the rig we could see our breath, olive oil solidified, and the floor was too cold to walk on without shoes. Our poor camper sustained some damage: Broken pipes, cracked washers, a dead battery, a frozen water tank, interior condensation damage and more.

VENICE. Beautiful, blustery, nearly deserted. We stayed at an empty campground across the lagoon with no internet but the best showers we’ve had on the entire trip. (Unlimited hot water; fire-hose pressure; no tokens, coins or button-pushing needed.) In Venice we wandered back alleys, admired canal-side palazzos, window-shopped at charming boutiques, and marveled that anyone actually lives there anymore.

Beforehand we all read Donna Jo Napoli’s excellent, “Daughter of Venice,” which enhanced our visit tremendously. Set in 17th-century Venice, it’s a gripping story with marvelous historical detail and a strong girl protagonist. Scout loved it.


PISA. We almost skipped it but I’m really glad we didn’t, because the Leaning Tower was more stirring than I expected. Scout and I climbed to the top while Mark and his vertigo paced below. Scout even managed to chuck a few snowballs down when no one was looking. Cheeky monkey!


GENOA. We had an exciting day in Genoa as our malignant GPS lured us down numerous impossibly tiny, 16th-century, not-made-for-cars-much-less-campers alleyways in search of a Ford mechanic. Eventually we found one we could actually reach and they repaired the radiator hose. Yes, repaired. Not replaced. It still leaks but much more slowly than before. Good enough.

FREECAMPING OUR WAY DOWN THE ITALIAN & FRENCH RIVERAS. The elegant little towns were beautiful to see, but unfortunately we couldn’t stop and stroll around. Finding a camper-sized parking spot on those narrow lanes was daunting, and besides, walking around in the extreme cold was horribly unappealing. It was a lovely drive through. I didn’t take any photos because it was too cold for either my camera or my fingers to work properly. I kid you not.

TRYING TO OUTRUN THE COLD IN FRANCE. We hoped France would be warmer but no luck. Nevertheless, Scout and I read Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” to get in the mood. A great book.

The persistent cold forced us to nuke many of our planned stops, but we did make it to the Matisse museum in Nice and Cezanne’s atelier in Aix-en-Provence. At both places Scout spent a long time sketching and taking notes, and we enjoyed great conversations about the two artists and their work. Standing in Cezanne’s actual studio was particularly thrilling since many of his props are still there. It was loads of fun to spot particular jugs, bowls and bottles from his various paintings.

Throughout France we battled violent winds that battered the camper as we drove. In Arles we had to pull over and find a spot to spend the night when massive gusts nearly blew over the camper. I’ll admit that was pretty scary.

AGDE AND THE PONT DU GARD WITH THE SMEENK FAMILY. Online friends became real when we spent five days with our new favorite family, the Smeenks from At Home in the World. Jenn, Brian and their four amazing kids are Canadians spending a year in Agde for language immersion and just plain fun. We spent five days camped in their driveway and plugged into their garage. Mark and I slept in the rig (to keep Archie company) while Scout enjoyed her first 5-night sleepover in the house. We love this family and enjoyed getting to know them through conversations about life, travel, and the importance of language immersion for kids.

Most of the time we just hung out at their house, visiting and doing laundry, but one day we all piled into the rig and headed for the Pont du Gard, about an hour away. This was one of those sights that brought tears to my eyes when I finally saw it. Like most sites in Europe in February, the place was practically deserted.


BARCELONA Still trying to outrun the cold, we wrenched ourselves away from the Smeenks (and their shower, and their washing machine, and their heat…) and continued on to Spain. Barcelona was a fantastic stop for us, because we could finally put our coats away and because they have a great camper parking lot. Many cities don’t, and you have to park way out of town. The Barcelona RV lot is in town (right in front of a tram stop) and has water, electrical hookups and bathrooms, key ingredients for a comfortable stay. (How on earth did we last 10 days in Istanbul with none of those things???). We meant to stay for four or five days, but a virulent stomach flu kept us there for more than a week.

Barcelona was fascinating, both old and new at the same time. I tried to use my Spanish but sadly kept reverting to “Turkopean,” my particular stray-dog blend of German, French and Turkish. Before stomach flu swept through the camper, we scarfed down tapas, visited the Picasso museum, explored the museum of natural history, stalked Gaudi architecture, wandered about happily in the sunshine and nearly got pick-pocketed. Fortunately Mark busted the girl doing it and slapped our cash out of her hand. Yay Markie!

When we got done barfing in Barcelona, we packed up and headed for Tarragona, where we are now. We’d intended to spend the day at Port Aventura, a massive amusement park here, but after arriving yesterday we discovered the park is closed for the entire month. Then our clutch broke so we had to get a tow to the Ford dealer, where we are now. The good news is I finally have fast internet for the first time in a month.

Bye for now! (And special hugs to my dad, who’s hopefully reading this in Bothell, Washington. Love you, Dad!)

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Connie February 29, 2012 at 8:02 am

Great to hear you’ve survived! Well it’s a true example of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ I can’t imagine anyone coping in a van (although cosily snuggled together) through all that freezing weather, how dare we moan indoors! I have nothing but admiration for your incredible adventure. Love the posts!


2 Kirk February 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Wow! Didn’t realize how seriously the weather impacted you guys – bot the severe cold and wind gusts. Glad to see your back on track again!


3 Mark March 4, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Yes, Kirk, it was real hairy there for a few days. You know I was not raised to deal with such cold and know even less about RV-ing in such temps. I remember covering plants in plastic and letting the pipes drip when expecting a freeze. Though I now know that is not a sound strategy for a campervan. But we are still intact and enjoying the warmer weather. Spain is lovely and I am enjoying using the one language I have really studied. Maybe it will be good practice for a future endeavor? In the meantime, I am looking forward to seeing Paris. And I look forward to seeing you and the family again soon.


4 Tricia(Geeky Explorers) March 1, 2012 at 2:55 am

I was wondering what was up with you guys! Glad to hear you are safe, even if it sounds like you froze close to death. Here’s to warmer weather & safe travels!
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5 Mark March 4, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Thanks, Tricia. It was as cold as I have ever been. And for so many days straight. But we are safe now. Have you encountered any cold weather out west?


6 The Ippels March 1, 2012 at 7:01 am

Good to get caught up on your adventures again! What crazy weather huh. Serena’s excited that you’re heading to Andalucia – she loves Adalusian horseys. Her birthday’s coming up, and she wanted to tell Scout that she’d like to invite her to her pool party! (I told her it’s highly unlikely that she’d be back in time…)


7 Jason March 1, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Sounds like a busy and cold month. We kept wondering how you guys were handling the deep freeze we kept hearing about on the news. You do know that FORD stands for Fix Or Repair Daily. 🙂
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8 Jenn March 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm

What an adventure! We had such a great time with you and are glad we got a chance to share the Pont du Gard together (I still have to catch up on my blogging).

We’re so glad we met you and got a chance to get to know you all. We were missing Scout the other day when the girls put on a fashion show, dressing up in some of my clothes and walking on a “red” carpet catwalk (blanket). It reminded me of their dance videos and all the laughter and joy our kids had together. 🙂

Wishing you all happy and safe travels on the remainder of your trip, and hope we can meet up again in Canada or in another part of the world!

Jenn & Brian and kids
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9 Mark March 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

The Pont du Gard was a lot of fun. Glad we could do it together. Scout loves viewing those ‘dance videos’ and laughing at the good time she had with your kids. You were very generous to let her sleep over so many days in a row. It was special for her. Thank you.


10 Jeanne @soultravelers3 March 16, 2012 at 11:01 am

Ah, the joys of RVing in Europe, I know it well as we’ve done it for the last 6 years as a family..and have had our share of scary adventures, but we do try to avoid the cold. 😉 Even Barcelona can be very cold and snowy and we’ve run into snow in Florence in Oct, so glad you are heading south to my beloved Andalusia. It should be mostly good there from this point on near the sea and some fantastic festivals coming up like the horse show and Semana Santa. Of course it will be roasting by the end of May, so I am sure you will be on the move again. 😉

It takes a while to get the following-the-weather rhythm of Europe and the fun surprises along the way, but you are creating such great memories even the disasters will be fun to laugh about for years to come. You may find like we did that one year is just not enough with so many jewels in Europe…plus time just to relax and hang out with the locals. We’re in Asia now for our tweens Mandarin, but will return to Europe for many more years, as it is easy and cheap to store an RV there which makes a nice home/car/storage unit for Europe. 😉

Love those wild long ferry rides..we did Minoan lines a few times, but our fave is the one from Barcelona to Rome or Genoa. Pont du gard is one of our faves and is a totally different place in the summer…so go again if you can on your way to Paris ( which can be colder than winter in Andalusia even in August) and Provence is so lovely in summer and surprisingly not crowded or expensive in many campgrounds. 😉

Thanks for stirring my many memories and enjoy your adventure!!
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11 Turkey's For Life March 17, 2012 at 8:14 am

Wow, that was a marathon post and a great summary for us all to catch up on. I’ve never seen photos of Venice like that where all is deserted. Hope the camper van gets fixed – it did well to get through all the cold. We did think about you. It’s been a cold one here, too. Mid March and we’re still walking around in scarves and thick coats. Summer usually comes all at once but it’s taking it’s time this year. 🙂 Glad you’re all well.
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12 Jeff Polman April 10, 2012 at 4:43 am

Just plain wow of a post, guys. I will warm you up and hopefully de-barf you by linking to this on Twitter. xxxox
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13 Via April 24, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Thanks for sharing me this awesome picture. I really love it, especially your capture with freezing ice. Love it.
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14 Michaela June 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Your marathon sounds amazing, and it seems like going to locations during off season allowed you to have a better experience with the sites – even though it was cold!

It’s great that you got to meet your online friends in person. Doens’t it feel like you’ve known them all along?
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15 Mark June 23, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Michaela, you’ve got that right. Despite the cold, we had a great time in Venice and other places because the normal crowds were missing. Even the cold days which were challenging for us are now looked back upon as a real adventure.


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