Days 44-56: following the Danube

Vienna – Bratislava – Budapest

GAVIN: On the forty fourth day of our trip I set off up the Via Sacra, which ran for some of its length on a strip of gravel alongside a thankfully quiet main road.  I passed religious icons and friezes, roadside chapels and drinking fountains, but met no other pilgrims along the way.  At one point, the collapse of a raised walkway above a small river led me to detour across via a slippery log (oddly, without mishap).

I climbed away from the road and progressed via Steinbachrotte and Turnitz.  Another Wanderweg became a cycle path along an old railway line via Moosbach and Lehenrotte, where the cherry blossom was in full bloom.  I had the dubious pleasure of seeing my first snake too, when what was mistaken for a twig, slithered away under my feet.

ARADHNA: I was back on the road again on day 44, in search of gas, diesel, groceries, water and recycling – the eternal search of vanlife! All missions accomplished, I found a good parking spot on the side of a river at Sankt Vëit an der Gölsen with accompanying cycle path. In the morning I was further delighted to find that we were on the edge of a field teeming with dandelions. Even the houses on the far side were bright and colourful, like wildflowers, with a backdrop of the mountains we had enjoyed so much over the previous week.

GAVIN: Lilienfeld’s prettiness contrasted with Traisen’s industrial plants lining the opposite river bank.  The town even boasted a Scottish pub, though I didn’t dare venture in.  On aching legs and rapidly running out of daylight, I plodded along the river path to Sankt Vëit an der Gölsen, where Aradhna had found a quiet place at the edge of a park to spend the night.

The following day I had the pleasure of Aradhna joining me on her bike as we followed a cycle path numbered 42 (which as you may know is the answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything).

Strange sights awaited us such as ducks slaloming amidst the river rapids and mysterious doors to nowhere.  I find running with a cyclist keeps my pace up and having Aradhna’s company took my mind off any muscular niggles.  In fact, I ran very well that day, despite losing Aradhna just before Hainfeld (a shame really as there was a brewery there complete with tasting rooms she would have loved).

ARADHNA: On our running/cycling route following the Gölsen, I spotted a water fountain which I would be able to drive to and fill up the tank. Making a note of the location, I carried on a little further with Gavin before reluctantly waving him off and turning back, conscious that I had to get Roxy and the water before meeting again for lunch. Sadly, it was a much less picturesque route by road. I really was getting the bug for cycling…

GAVIN: Shortly after Hainfeld, as my route climbed via footpaths and tiny roads, into the hills, I emerged from woodland into one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever seen.

A well-positioned bench at its head afforded me the chance to sit back for a moment and contemplate it.
As afternoon dimmed to evening, I passed through Altenmarkt and was surprised to see the first World War II memorial I’d encountered outside France.  It was a sobering reminder that every German and Austrian village too had its sacrificial young men and women.

A few more trails and forests led me as far as the outskirts of Holzschlag, where Aradhna collected me.  We drove around for about 30 minutes before finding a perfect forest hideaway.

ARADHNA: In the morning I was keen to plot an interesting route through Vienna Woods in preparation for our much anticipated visit to the famously beautiful city, which we would reach by afternoon. I gamely set off for the monastery at Heiligenkreuz when, struggling up a slight incline, there were noises coming from the engine and an unseemly aroma of burning rubber. I noticed wisps of steam or smoke coming from the bonnet and pulled over in a panic (at a handy lay-by which happened to have a rather lovely view of the monastery).

Popping the bonnet, I saw the steam (not smoke, phew) was coming from the coolant tank, which was open. Argh!!! Gavin had checked the coolant recently and had clearly not tightened the cap properly. By some miracle, the cap was sitting on the battery, not fallen and lost down some Austrian mountainside. How we got away with that I’ll never know but I was extremely relieved – if rather miffed!

Heiligenkreuz Monastery

GAVIN: After apologising profusely for my coolant cap error, I thought I’d better make amends by running a decent pace to Mödling, via some peaceful forest trails and B-roads. Mödling was a pretty satellite town on the outskirts of Vienna and after lunch I made steady progress along the 12 route, a major artery into the city. The only difficulties arose when the pavement vanished into a mess of car showrooms and I had to detour through what appeared to be an exclusive riding school. Fortunately the gate in its perimeter fence was open and I sped on through the city to its shiny modern station for the customary selfies with Aradhna.

ARADHNA: My excitement at reaching Vienna swiftly turned to despair at the traffic. I finally got to the Hauptbahnhof only to find that each time I tried to follow a sign to the station parking, I was thwarted by road closures and one-way streets. By the time I found parking on a street a short walk from the station, I was fraught to say the least. Checking for parking restrictions and finding none, I grabbed a drink for Gavin and went to meet him, trying to shake off the stress of Vienna driving.

I was unimpressed to find a parking ticket on our return from the Hauptbahnhof. It took nearly an hour of searching online to find that certain areas are unmarked yet restricted zones. Yup, officially hate Vienna driving. The city better provide something good for us on our day off as so far it was failing to please.

GAVIN: The following day we declared an admin day as I still had to deliver the project I’d been editing and Aradhna had work to be getting on with too.

Our double decker Roxy-office!

After a challenging time attempting to use local wifi hotspots and failing, we drove all the way across Vienna to a campsite north of the city where we availed ourselves of the electricity and laundry facilities. It had proven a stressful day and we were both looking forward to a proper break the following morning.

ARADHNA: Setting off from the campsite, we passed the formidable Klosterneuberg monastery and took a slight detour up to the panoramic viewing point at Kahlenberg. You could see far across and beyond the city, but we found the site profoundly lacking in any sort of atmosphere or charm as we stood on a small tarmacked strip between two restaurants amongst coachloads of tourists duly taking a selfie and moving on to the next site on the list.

Customary selfie from the top

We spent the afternoon following a suggested walking tour from a tourist pamphlet. We enjoyed the time together but, as we passed more buildings, each larger and grander than the last, we were disappointed not to discover any chic, backstreet charm to explore. We did see a fantastic rainbow in a windswept fountain and relaxed with coffee and cake at Kursalon Wien in Stadtpark.

The real star of the day was our evening treat of a concert in the Gallery at Schönbrunn Palace, with selected compositions from Mozart and Strauss.

Aradhna on a mission! Striding through the gates of the palace for our evening engagement.
Concerts usually take place in the Orangery but we got to visit the Palace itself by night, in the Gallery. Spectacular!

We took an extra cheeky morning off to explore the Museum Quarter and had a wander around MUMOK. I was fascinated by Daniel Spoerri, whose “snare picture” depicted the remnants of a dinner party. Gavin explained that Spoerri would invite friends round and afterwards he fixed everything left over to the table, exactly as it had been left, as a memorial to the evening.

MUMOK

GAVIN: I enjoyed a few more of the Fluxus and Postmodern works than Aradhna, but we both loved the installation and video piece called Amos’ World by Cécile B. Evans, which was inventive, funny and quite moving at times, its subject matter a little reminiscent of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, as well as the film of the same name.

After a half day’s sightseeing I headed back to the station and I ran quickly through wide Vienna streets, past a power station and on to the Danube’s complicated maze of tributaries and islands. Aradhna and I had a plan to meet-up and cycle along the river’s Eastern bank. Sadly, it was not to be, as a wrong turning (and wayward route suggestions from my old friend Google Maps) took me through a huge industrial plant and a weird leafy island where sunbathing Viennoise seemed to have forgotten their bathing suits. Apparently, I was running through Jamaica Beach, a noted nudist resort. I kept my eyes down and forged ahead.

Huge industrial plant by the Danube

I found my way to the flood protection dam and called Aradhna. I’d missed the prearranged meet-up spot somehow and unfortunately there was no drivable route from where I now was to where Roxy and Aradhna were waiting. We had to abandon our cycling plan as I ran through a huge nature reserve along the curving line of the dam.

ARADHNA: I was disappointed to miss out on cycling with Gavin along the Danube leaving Vienna. Instead I got to traipse around another supermarket for supplies and get lost around a nudist colony, where I had inadvertently parked in the hope I could get the bike down and meet Gavin. This was not to be and I took a very large detour around a nature reserve miles away from the Danube, before finally finding an excellent parking spot facing the river, at Orth an der Donau.

Cruise ships along the Danube

I was then thwarted again from cycling to meet Gavin when, having found the great acclaimed Euro Velo 6 route, the entrance was barred with huge gates and big red crosses. Humph.

In the morning, determined not to be left behind again, I set off with Gavin, meeting up at last with that elusive Euro Velo 6. Grateful for my thick hybrid bike tyres, I happily ambled along with Gavin on the long and straight if slightly dull cycle way.

GAVIN: Halfway through our cycle together, we met a local man photographing butterflies who told us about the turtles who emerge from the river to lay their eggs in the dam’s banks. We realised that, although a little monotonous, the route was alive with flora and fauna. Aradhna was keen to continue so, when barriers and an inactive construction site (it was a Sunday) barred our route, we decided there was no harm in edging round the barricades to get to a bridge over the Danube and proper roads once more.

We got as far as Hainburg before it felt imperative to stop briefly for wine and strudel. I even had a cheeky beer (not an approved form of sports nutrition) and we chatted to two Austrian cyclists who were also enjoying a breather.

Gavin carbo-loads with strudel while Aradhna enjoys a sports drink.

ARADHNA: I was very much enjoying cycling with Gavin and as Bratislava got closer I was increasingly reluctant to turn back. Gavin was nervous about the return journey to get Roxy. He asked if I thought I’d be able to manage the 30-odd kilometre cycle back. I replied that I couldn’t answer that, as I’d never even cycled this far in one go, ever in my life! We were each breaking new personal records, I informed him cheerily. This did not ease Gavin’s mind and suddenly he started looking quite stressed, as he considered the very real possibility that I would collapse at Bratislava and leave him to cycle the distance back, having just run the whole way.

We were only about 5km away from the city when I noticed it was getting dark and as our conversation dried up, it was clear that we were both getting a little fatigued. One of us would have to do this cycle ride back and I hadn’t brought my bike lights. I (rather heroically, I felt) turned back towards Roxy and the epic cycle path and waved Gavin off to Bratislava. It was much less fun heading back, alone and with the evening sun in my eyes, conscious that I had to reach the end of this path before dark. But I made it – 60km round trip in the bag!

GAVIN: Meanwhile, I reached the all but invisible border with Slovakia, marked on the cycle path with little more than some disused checkpoints and a garish casino emblazoned unconvincingly with the word “MONACO”.

I stopped briefly to check out some preserved Cold War fortifications and (riskily) take a drink of water from a barrel wedged between two trees, then trotted over another bridge into Bratislava.

The small town was bustling and lively, with pedestrian precincts lined with cafes and restaurants, cobbled lanes and hidden-away bars. I took Aradhna to “Drink at Andy’s” a Warhol-inspired cellar bar shaped like an old tram carriage and adorned with local artworks. Warhol (or Andrej Warhola) was of Slovakian origins, it transpires.

We walked around the castle overlooking the town, saw the reflections on the river and spotted odd sculptures peeking out from unexpected places. Bratislava felt like a very young city, with lively nightlife not yet ruined by the stag party scene.

ARADHNA: In the morning, I inexplicably still had the urge to cycle and found that I wasn’t in too much pain, remarkably. (Traipsing up the steps to the castle the previous night was a whole different story!) I cycled with Gavin over the bridge heading out of the city. I didn’t travel too far this time as I had to return to Roxy before the parking ticket ran out and had the eternal duty of grocery shopping to attend to (which I achieved in a Tesco Metro, oddly enough).

GAVIN: After Aradhna left me I took the Route 6, a pan-European cycle path, along the long, curving flood protection dam beside the Danube. For the first few miles out of Slovakia, a few cyclists and inline skaters were in evidence. As the day grew hotter and I neared the Hungarian border, these fellow-travellers dwindled and vanished.

When the Border came it was subtle to the point of near-invisibility. Most notably, the tarmac gave way to gravel and an aerial ballet of swifts carried me into the land of the Magyars.

After a relatively easy day’s running, we made camp near the Danube (our attempts to park right by the water were thwarted by hideous swarms of mosquitos and midges) and woke to an incredible cacophony of birdsong. There was even one bird whose call closely resembled a squeaky door in a Hammer Horror film.

I took a wrong turning the following day, ending up at a tiny promontory where there had once been a bridge but now a Danube tributary gushed over a twenty foot gap. I briefly considered wading over but, remembering my near-disastrous experience attempting a river crossing in the Highlands, decided against it. An unusually fast burst of running took me back to the turn-off I’d missed.

I elected not to attempt this crossing.

ARADHNA: In the afternoon of Labour Day (1st May) I decided to drive to the nearest town, Györ, where it occurred to me for the first time that we had left the Euro zone and I needed some currency – I didn’t even know what that was in Hungary! Luckily I was in a town so ATMs were plentiful and I had mobile signal to look up the essentials. Yes, this is normally the sort of research that one does before leaving home, but that had been what seemed like a lifetime ago. Thank goodness for smart phones and no EU roaming charges!

Györ.

We found another quiet woodland pitch that night, by a popular local fishing spot near Nagybajcs. The following morning it was back to Györ for Diesel and groceries, and much more smart phone use to try and decipher Hungarian pastry fillings in a language that is utterly different to any I’m familiar with.

GAVIN: The river thwarted me again on 2nd May, with a road bridge seemingly under partial construction and closed to pedestrians. Once more I took to the flood dam and headed for Györ.

The city was loud and full of commerce – I saw trains loaded with brand new Audis and VWs ready for transportation. With some difficulty, I located a cycle route out of town and into the fields.

A fleet of Audis ready for transport.

The next few days were pleasant, if a little uneventful. We stopped at a campsite at Ács, where the kindly owner Laszlo invited me to join him and a party of Dutch holidaymakers in a round of beers and home-distilled palinka, the local fruit spirit, which I knocked back, much to the amusement of the table. It was sweeter than I expected and devilishly strong. As the conversation turned to my exploits and then to European politics, I was surprised to find the Dutch (mostly in their 60s) were in favour of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Sensing a conversational impasse, I tactfully withdrew.

Campsite owner Laszlo and Dutch friends, Matthias & Hermione.

The days were becoming hotter, the terrain largely flat with gentle undulations. On May 4th we reached Tata, a town with a pretty square and church, on the edge of a lake of the same name. At the end of another long, hot running day, I tripped on my way down an uncharacteristically steep hill and sprawled hands first across the gravel. Partially winded and with a bloody wound in my left palm, I nevertheless continued to where Aradhna was waiting with her trusty bicycle.

Ouch!

ARADHNA: I arrived at Tata in time to cycle round the lake. Passing a castle-turned-museum at the top of the lake, I continued through the main town square (with an impressive yet desolate church building), and on to something that looked (on Google Maps) like a park on the edge of town. I came across a watch tower and church at the top of a mound overlooking an unexplained large stone circle, next to a geological garden. An odd mix! The area was deserted and rather eerie. I cycled back round to the lake and up out of town to find Gavin so we could circle the lake back to Roxy together.

Gavin had had a trying afternoon dodging unforgiving Hungarian drivers and losing fights against the hard gravely roads. The day ended on a high, however, as we treated ourselves to a meal at a lakeside restaurant by the boathouse.

Lake Tata

Gavin had a “Castle Defender’s Roast”: pork medallions, potato wedges, fried onions and tomatoes. I was surprised and pleased to find appealing vegetarian options and had a cous cous and tofu salad. Dessert was a shared local speciality, Somlói Galuska, a soft sponge cake with chocolate, nuts and cream.

Dinner at Lake Tata.

After seeing Gavin off in the morning, with spirits a little renewed from the indulgent meal and peaceful lakeside sleep, I spent a leisurely morning sitting by the lake with a coffee before setting off once more, Budapest in arms reach.

GAVIN: With my hand disinfected and bandaged, I set off into hillier terrain, my mission to make it as close to Budapest as possible. I passed the entrance to an arboretum at Agostyáni but only had time to stop at a bus stop bench flanked by carved tribal totems. The pretty village of Vértestolna and lake at Tarján surrounded by holiday chalets were highlights of the day’s running before it all went a little wrong in a forest, as it so often does.

After following a pristine but unused cycle path for several miles, I lost the trail Google Maps had prescribed and tried to regain it by means of some tread marks through a field. Thirty minutes later I was battling my way through thorny, insect-ridden thickets without anything approaching a trail to follow, using my Garmin to point me at a dirt track a quarter of a mile up the hillside. Much swearing later, I burst out onto the red earth pathway, my legs a network of scratches and insect bites.

Lost my way… again.

Fortunately the rest of the run that day was blissfully uneventful, featuring lush hillsides and B-roads lined with white-blossomed “black locust trees”, whose heady scent was almost intoxicating in the early evening light. At Gyermely I encountered the strange apparition of a metal Transformers-styled scarecrow guarding the fields. We stopped for the night at the edge of a rapeseed field and I awoke determined to reach the capital.

ARADHNA: I could definitely see differences in the local towns as I drove closer to Budapest, much busier and built up. It looked like I was circling a range of hills to the West of the city and felt a little frustrated that there were no roads from this side to drive up and enjoy the reported views. After several hot and flat days in Hungary, I was starved for more interesting terrains!

Instead, I drove straight into Budapest after lunch and spent an hour exploring the Varisliget park, not far from the station where I would soon meet Gavin. The park was lively (a bit too lively perhaps, due to numerous drunken – English, I’m afraid – stag parties on Beer Bikes) with a fun and relaxed vibe.

GAVIN: The 6th May took me from Máriahalom over the hills in searing heat. The black tape I had wrapped around my hand to keep my bandages on was bleeding beads of sweat within minutes of me setting off. It would prove a challenging day.

The route became dustier and drier as I headed towards a nature reserve; a forested area located beyond dry, dusty fields. The presence of a father and son, cycling past, reassured me that this was not remote wilderness. It was, however, very quiet as I entered the forest and began to climb. A trail marker provided further reassurance as I reached the hill’s summit and looked out across a panorama of tree-clad slopes. A quick dash down the other side of the range of hills brought me to the town of Nagykovácsi and a lunch stop outside the American school.

From that point on, satellite towns began to give way to well-heeled commuter belt and then leafy suburbs as Budapest sneaked up on me. A period of difficult running along busy roads without pavements ended as a cycle path conveniently led me through the city’s District II towards the unusual chevron-shaped Margit bridge over the Danube. From there it was a short run to Budapest’s impressive central station. After the disappointment of Munich’s train stations and Vienna’s glassy modernity, the old-fashioned stately grandeur of the building provided a perfect climax and some great photo opportunities.

We found the city in party mode, our first choice of parking spot taken over by a street festival with live music and beer tents. We resorted to the quieter streets near the university (we role-played mature students so we could sneak into one of the buildings and use their loos). We were looking forward to exploring properly on our day off.

ARADHNA: We both loved Budapest! It wasn’t much of a rest day as we spent the whole day walking round the city. Grandeur, history, cityscape views, art, culture, character: Budapest has it all! The highlights included the Halászbástya (or Fisherman’s Bastion), weaving through the streets of the Jewish Quarter, coming across more incredible wall art at each turn and exploring Szimpla Kert, the “ruin bar”, where we enjoyed local beers and a jazz jam night.

Jam night at Szimpla

We took another cheeky morning off to check out the Great Market Hall and savoured the city atmosphere with an early lunch by the river, before getting back to our journey. We will definitely be returning to this buzzing and vibrant city.

Great Market Hall

Heading back to Roxy through a snowfall of dandelion blossom, we hit the road once more. This was the big one as our next Running the Orient stop wouldn’t be till Bucharest, Romania…

Top 12 Wild Camping Spots

Over the past 110 days of Running the Orient (only 3 more to go!) we have mostly wild camped across the continent and gained more experiences than we could possibly share. We have – with some difficulty – picked our top 12 spots. It’s fair to say that, in most cases, it’s been the people we’ve met who have shaped and enhanced these picks, as much as the incredible places we’ve stayed.

1. Hollenstein an der Ybbs, Austria

As well as being a stunningly beautiful part of the world, we were unexpectedly invited into the home of the lovely Sonnleitner family to share a campfire and a breakfast made with homegrown ingredients from their farm.

2. Prien am Chiemsee, Germany

This spot was especially memorable because we met the Millers, shared food and drink, and received many gifts and kindnesses from our new friends. Plus, the sunset over the lake was spectacular.

3. Bliznatsi, Bulgaria

With our friend David visiting (he was also lucky enough to be with us at the Sonnleitners) we found a lively and beautiful beach on the Black Sea, where we went night-swimming with bioluminescent jellyfish and danced to Bulgarian pop music.

4. Transalpina, Romania

Gavin and his dad met Joke, Bjorn and their pack of dogs and shared tales of life on the road to a backdrop of Carpathian mountain splendour.

5. Forêt Domaniale de Malvoisine, France

Our first true wild camping experience, the forest was peaceful and lit by a vivid sunset, making us feel at home in the landscape and in Roxy.

6. Almsee, Austria

Towering Alps, a mirror-smooth lake and eerie morning mist made this spot, shared with our campervan friends the Eagles, particularly special.

7. Pchelnik, Bulgaria

With Sarah visiting, Gavin had some running company and was pushed beyond his comfort zone to this picturesque and quiet cornfield where we cooked al fresco and stargazed.

8. Birchis, Romania

Hidden away at the edge of a wildflower meadow, we felt safe and secluded in an unspoilt landscape. We even bathed al fresco!

9. Le Fresne, France

In the morning this spot at the edge of a wood was transformed by snowfall into a picture postcard of winter in rural France.

10. Englisch Garten, Munich, Germany

In the middle of this park, we spent two pleasant nights, walked around the ornamental lake and drank beer in huge steins.

11. Kisbodak, Hungary

Having struggled to avoid swarms of midges and mosquitos we found this tranquil forest pitch near the Danube. At dawn, the trees were alive with birdsong.

12. Karadere, Turkey

Our first night in Turkey found us pitched by a lake amongst hills reminiscent of Scotland, complete with thistles and rainbows at sunset.

Days 40-43: visitor in the roof

ARADHNA: I was anxious to get going on the morning of day 40, and ran frantically around after Gavin to send him on his way. My friend David James would be arriving imminently to spend a few days with us and I just couldn’t wait! David had booked flights well before we had even set off from London, keen to join us on the adventure and keep me company along the way. He had a mini adventure just finding us, involving a drive to Munich from Nuremberg, where he’d had a last minute work meeting, a late train to Linz where he stopped for the night, and finally a tiny rail service to Steyrling, on which the conductor triple checked with this lost tourist that he was sure he wanted to go to Steyrling! I was bouncing with excitement when I finally saw him crossing the tracks towards me.

After a very quick cuppa and catch up, I threw David straight into the Running the Orient routine by dragging him round a grocery store, cursing through route planning as I tried to find a place to meet Gavin for lunch and putting him to work, helping to prepare lunch. It was a swift lesson in vanlife and within hours of meeting Roxy, he was already becoming well versed in her specific and peculiar ways. He passed with flying colours and took to vanlife with aplomb that even Gavin and I had lacked in our early days.

GAVIN: While Aradhna went to collect David, I followed a cycle path through Alpine meadows studded with wildflowers.

A relatively easy day’s running led me to the small village of Breitenau, where Aradhna, David and Roxy were waiting.  David was keen to experience wild camping in Roxy and we were proud (and a little nervous) to welcome our first live-in guest.

The afternoon went a little awry for me when a trail petered out halfway up a mountain.  I used my Garmin to determine that another forest road lay parallel to my position and about 1/4 mile away.  One small problem – it was several hundred feet uphill.  I began climbing the contour lines, at times grabbing handfuls of vegetation or tree branches to pull myself up.  For some unknown reason a wooden box containing a large chunk of rose quartz was positioned halfway up the slope.  Perplexed, I continued my ascent.

Eventually I found my way and began to descend through the forest towards the winding river Steyr.  Two figures were wading in the icy water beneath the bridge, laughing loudly.  Who were these crazies?

ARADHNA: I was very pleased to find a good place to stop for David’s first night in Roxy, by a bridge over the river near Reicraming. It even had loos! Grabbing a couple of beers, we headed straight down to the river where I explained to David that we couldn’t be left behind after Gavin’s experiences of wading – and even swimming – in the icy mountain meltwater. Barefooted and hand-in-hand we waded into the freezing water!

“It’s not so bad,” said David as his legs turned red and then blue.

We were still there hobbling on the painful stony riverbed, daring each other to go an inch deeper, when we were spotted by Gavin as he crossed the bridge overhead. He joined us and we enjoyed our beers on the river bank.

Gavin and I slept on the pull-out rock’n’roll bed downstairs that night and gave David the penthouse. We had no need to worry about David adapting to our somewhat haphazard, alternative lifestyle, as he lay back and smiled under a vast blanket of stars.

GAVIN: The pretty town of Reicraming was a highlight of Day 41, it’s pristine buildings reflecting in the crystal clear Alpine river.  I followed a road and railway gently up the valley and on to Weyr Market, as its name suggests, an ancient market town. The afternoon’s running was a little more mundane, continuing through the valley along relatively quiet roads to Hollernstein.

We decided to drive further into the valley in search of a quiet wild camping spot and ended up in a beautiful valley where cows grazed while a young woman planted rows of vegetables in a small plot by her farmhouse.  Faced with a private road before us (the sat nav showed it as a public route) and no idea where to go, Aradhna jumped out to talk to the girl.

The road snaked from further up into the mountainsides and then stopped…

Our luck was about to take an unexpected leap for the better.

ARADHNA: After a stressful and pretty hair raising climb up a narrow single track road in search of a parking spot for the night, I was not keen to repeat the experience in reverse when the road suddenly ran out and we found ourselves trespassing across a farm. Spotting a friendly looking girl, barefoot in the field planting seeds, I jumped out with the wayward satnav and an apologetic smile to ask for directions.

Maria Sonnleitner was just lovely! A year previously she had left her nursing job in Linz to travel and had lived in Crete for the past few months. She was back here on her parents’ farm figuring out her next adventure and was delighted to find fellow travellers passing through this remote part of the countryside. Our conversation stretched out and we both wished we could spend more time learning about each other’s lives and enjoying this unexpected chance meeting.

Her mother joined us shortly afterwards and made this all possible! Maria Snr was warm, welcoming and just wonderful. She said that we must of course stay on the farm and indicated a perfect spot where we could park just up the hill with stunning views across their farm and the valley and mountains beyond. We didn’t think it could possibly get more idyllic than this. We were wrong.

As night fell, Maria (jnr) and her sister Elizabeth came by the van to invite us to join them at a campfire on the farm. Her mother had been baking bread and we were to make dough sticks to cook in the fire. We were pleased to be able to contribute beers for the occasion and settled down by the fire with the rest of the family (including brothers David and Josef). Maria was the second of seven children born to Maria Sonnleitner and her husband Josef.

Maria snr strummed on the guitar and sang traditional Austrian and popular American songs as we sang along (including Happy Birthday to David who had just turned 40), chatted and laughed around the fire, with dough turning to bread on the sticks in the fire (eaten dipped in a creamy, herby dip). What a beautiful family and an utterly blissful evening.

They invited us to join them for breakfast in the morning: fresh milk from their cows, milked that morning, yoghurt made from this milk (utterly delicious), fruit and jams from their orchard, the bread that Maria had baked the previous afternoon (and an experimental and very tasty herby loaf baked by Maria jnr), coffee, and Yorkshire tea – our contribution, with thanks to the Eagles for carting it over for us when they visited. Lizzy even treated us to a tune on the piano, called “Bongo Boogie”!

GAVIN: As a Douglas Adams fan, I was always going to see Day 42 as an auspicious one and so it proved, with us sharing a delicious breakfast with the Sonnleitners and Aradhna interviewing The Marias for her film.  The generosity and openness of this family, welcoming us into their lives, is something none of us will ever forget.

With Maria and her brother Josef

The run that day was a delight, following a cycle path parallel to the River Ybbs, taking in such villages as St George am Reith, which sported a piece of folk art celebrating the titular saint.

The heat, however, was intense, bearing down on me as I ran long loops of the path through valleys with no tree cover at all.  My schedule often means I do my best running around noon to 1pm, where, as the song suggests, only mad dogs and Englishmen should be out and about.

ARADHNA: It was with immense reluctance that we dragged ourselves away from the Sonnleitners. As Maria snr and I shared a long hug, I made her daughter promise to bring her mother to London to us for a significant birthday soon. I will do my best to make sure she keeps the promise!

With the Marias after our interview

We headed on to Maria’s hometown, Lunz, where David and I took a long stroll round the lake, reminiscing back on his visit. My highlight moment has to be when David got himself trapped between a tractor and a fence on the farm, as he somewhat ambitiously tried to follow young, slim Maria round the barn!

GAVIN: The day ended at a campsite at Lunz and David, having to head reluctantly home the next day, treated us to a delicious meal at a lakeside restaurant.  I tucked in to a beef dish with potato salad and crispy onions, washed down with a sparkling rosé and a fruity red. Aradhna enjoyed her favourite German dish, spätzle, and David sampled the pork followed by a sweet Riesling to round off the evening.  We gratefully told David he would be welcome to join us again anytime.  He intimated that it might not be beyond the realms of possibility.

DAVID: The landscape of mountains, hills and lakes was spectacular. We met some lovely people en route, none more so than the wonderful family who let us stay on their farm when we got a little lost up a mountain road one evening that took us onto their land. Not only did they provide somewhere to set up camp, but also invited us to spend the evening with them around a campfire baking bread, and then fed us an amazing breakfast the next morning with so many ingredients sourced from their farm. Spending the last night at a small camp site was wonderful and we were again blessed with lovely and interesting people who provided us with ample hot water for a cup of tea after we ran out of camping gas. Having a shower that didn’t involve a small tent, bucket and sponge was also a treat! It’s hard to summarise all I saw and experienced, from paddling in ice cold meltwater to sitting under the stars with no light pollution. I have so many amazing new experiences and memories.

Leaving the campsite. Farewell, David, for now…

GAVIN: Eschewing busy roads the next day as we left the Ybbs behind us, I first found my way up the mountains to out of season ski resorts at Lackenhof and Raneck and then on into breathtaking mountains once more.  I ran fast and well and made it up and over the mountain trail to Erlaufboden before Aradhna and Roxy.  She persuaded me to run “just a few more kilometres” to Reith, where she would meet me.

ARADHNA: After dropping David at a train station an hour’s drive away, I took a little time to myself on the way back to reflect on what a wonderful adventure and life we were having. So wonderful that I forgot the time and my duties briefly, and found that I was still half an hour away from where Gavin had stopped to meet me for lunch. Oops! I innocently suggested he carried on just three kilometres further, by which time I would be there with food and apologies.

GAVIN: Of course, the road headed relentlessly uphill for every one of those kilometres and my rest break was an especially zombified one.

After recovering, my afternoon route became the Via Sacra, a pilgrimage route connecting Mariazell in the South West with Modling in the North East, and travelled by pilgrims for over 800 years.  That day I took it as far as Annaberg, outside which I trotted down an old flight of wooden steps on exhausted legs to see Roxy parked fortuitously below.

Less fortuitously, our gas supplies had run out and restaurants were thin on the ground.  Looking around, I noticed the area covered with dry sticks and cut branches.  There were also small rocks which could be used to form a ring around a fireplace.  Could we really make a campfire here, with alpine homes just a mile or so up the road?  Why not?

Gavin, utterly bemused that his cubs training payed off!

I built a fire using methods shown to me in the cub scouts when I was 11, and also by my parents on numerous Scottish beach trips.  Amazingly, it caught immediately on the first match and an hour or so later we sat in the van eating baked potatoes (only partially charcoaled), peas and tomatoes.   With wine, of course.  We both felt we had achieved another vanlife milestone.

We painstakingly put the fire out with buckets of water from the river and eradicated all traces the following morning.  We are nothing if not conscientious travellers.

ARADHNA: I was so proud of Gavin and our campfire – another vanlife badge won! I missed David – he would have loved this. I missed him even more the next day when there were blackened pans to clean and we finally got round to fixing that dratted tap!

With incredible experiences and memories to last a lifetime, and a clean and fixed-up van, we were ready for the next leg of our trip. Vienna and the Danube beckoned.

Days 36-39: visitors in the mountains

GAVIN: On the 36th day of our adventure we bid farewell to picturesque and historic Salzburg and I picked my way, via a convenient wanderweg into the surrounding hills.  Mountain trails and staggeringly beautiful alpine valleys followed, one of them even including a working waterwheel.  I could see the snow-crested tops of mountains bearing down on me.  The effect was both exhilarating and frightening.  Would I be climbing epic peaks, or just winding my way through valleys?

The answer came quicker than I’d imagined.  By mid-afternoon hills had given way to serious inclines and my walking breaks went from sensible to mandatory.  Following a marked and signposted trail to Marienkopf, I decided I might as well check out the view from the summit.  Although not a very high peak, the mountain did not disappoint.  I signed the little “visitor’s book” I found in a metal box on the top and returned to the trail.

There were more surprises in store as I headed for Wolfgangsee – actual snowdrifts which I had to wade gingerly across.  Then a steep descent towards St Gilgen by the lake opened up to reveal beautiful panoramas of shimmering water.  We would soon have visitors to share the spectacular scenery with too.

ARADHNA: The Southern bank of Mondsee was dotted with a few picnicking families enjoying the view. As I drove around the Eastern tip of the lake I was welcomed by the beaming faces and waving arms of Buff and Hugh Eagle and their own home on wheels, a converted Fiat which had taken them on numerous adventures around Europe.

Buff & Hugh Eagle and their van

The Eagles had been incredibly helpful with handy tips and pointers as we novices were preparing for our journey, and they continued to be avid supporters and fountains of knowledge and resource as we stumbled through the early days of our adventure. They had just started what would be a 6 week trip to Croatia and happily were up for becoming our travel buddies for the next few days.

Treats from the Eagles

We had been planning this moment for weeks now and it was so exciting to finally meet – albeit at a slightly illegal stop by the edge of this stunning Austrian lake. They had been delayed in joining us by a few days due to a clutch-related van breakdown in Germany, where they spent an unscheduled couple of days camping out at the Fiat garage. Glamorous it was not, but like true vanlifers they shrugged and carried on, making the most of an unexpected opportunity to explore a new town.

Mondsee

After a cuppa, cut short by some emergency route re-planning when Gavin called me from up a mountain that he’d inadvertently climbed, it was fun leading our mini convoy to find him at the end of the day – all the more so when we found him chasing after us along the road to our stopping place for the night.

A great shot from Buff, as Gavin runs after Roxy!

It was even more fun being spoilt by a delicious meal all together which Buff had already prepared at my slightly cheeky request (macaroni cheese – a personal favourite!). We also shared a white wine from Baden-Württemberg, which we’d picked up when passing through the region and had been saving to sample with friends (it had the sweetness you expect from a German wine but not too sweet and full of flavour).

The Eagles’ luxurious van home

GAVIN: The Eagles were incredibly welcoming and even let me indulge in that rare treat, a hot shower, in their onboard wet room.  We had breakfast with them before I set off the following day as I gamely struggled up another hairpin bending forest path only to receive a worried phone call from Aradhna after a mile.

“Do you have my Roxy keys?”

Of course, this seemed highly unlikely but I indulged her anyway and checked my pack.

Oops.  Cue a trot down the path and the Eagles flying to the rescue (sorry, the puns write themselves) to collect Roxy’s keys from me.  I resumed my climb and was rewarded with an encounter with a basking lizard (salamander?) who seemed disinclined to scuttle out of my way.

Once more the views down to the lake (Mondsee) were unforgettable and powered me on through wide valleys dotted with alpine walkers’ huts and back down to Attersee.  This lake featured a long line of public and private bathing places but no swimmers were braving the waters today for reasons which would later become evident.

At our lunch reunion, Hugh spotted a display showing a map of all the hiking routes and this helped convince us all to head for a tiny lake called Langbathsee.  It had a small road leading to it and could also be reached by trail.  I hobbled stiffly on my way.

ARADHNA: After Buff had cleaned Roxy’s filthy windscreen and Hugh had helped rescue Roxy’s key from Gavin, they then treated me to coffee and strudel by the lakeside in St Gilgen and a sumptuous lunch of cheeses they’d picked up in France. I hoped that they would never leave!!

We drove on round Attersee, pausing occasionally to take in the spectacular views across the serene water to the mountains, each view more breathtaking than the last; Austria was not letting us down for scenery on this route. At one point, as we rose up the mountain roads, we passed an enclosed swampy area which the Eagles felt reminded them more of Yellowstone in America than the Alps.

Attersee

After lunch with Gavin, we carried on to a smaller lake tucked up in the mountains. Langbathsee looked more like a painting than real life! The signs nearby suggested that the area was popular for cross-country skiing in winter and swimming in summer – being springtime, we were pleased to find it very quiet and we decided to stay for the night.

Langbathsee

I took a short cycle ride round the lake and returned to find Gavin swimming in the ice-cold water! It was a very quick wash and a hot drink was requested shortly afterwards. “Bracing” was the word he used to describe the experience!

GAVIN: In late afternoon light I made it off the mountain and encountered Aradhna cycling round the lake.  She seemed very happy to have found an idyllic spot to stop for the night and directed me to a parking place where the Eagles had parked near Roxy.  I waved hello, ditched my running clothes and waded out into the icy waters of the mountain-mirroring lake.

“Bracing!”

“Bloody hell!” I couldn’t help but shout as the freezing water gripped me.  I thrashed about for a few minutes then made for the shore.  It was brutally cold but refreshing and, oddly, left me with a cozy glow inside.  Buff and Hugh found my madness highly amusing.

On day 38 we took some group pictures in front of the magnificent mountains and I ran to Ebensee and then on into the mountains again.  This time I followed a river valley, taking a slight detour to clamber up past the impressive waterfall at Rindbach  My legs were leaden after two days of Alpine ascent and descent so I largely plodded alongside gushing, crystal clear rivers and jogged along under a baking hot sun.  I did stop briefly to cool my feet in a stream; it was reliably icy but perked me up considerably.  I realised the mountains would not be a forgiving place to tarry if it began to get dark and I was still amongst them.  I increased my speed.

I followed a subtle trail through woods still deep with autumn leaves, using a branch as a walking stick to prop up my aching legs.  A couple of hours later I made it down to the road at Habernau (with some uncertainty as to exactly where the trail would deposit me).

ARADHNA: I parked up and got the kettle on three times before having to pack up again each time in a hurry and move on to a new stop trying to find Gavin for lunch on Day 38.  I’m getting quite strong arms on this trip from moving the boxes around!  Buff and Hugh were remarkably patient through the strife. Eventually meeting him near Habernau, we drove on to the Southern tip of Almsee, where we were sternly warned away by numerous overbearing signs declaring that campervans were absolutely not welcome.  Well!  A little put out but all the more determined, we found a perfect (and welcoming) spot back up the road on a layby right on the edge of the lake, and were joined there by the Eagles shortly afterwards.  I was definitely getting used to these fabulous lakeside stops, cradled amongst the mountains.

Gavin decided to take a break from running that afternoon and we were pleased to cook for the Eagles for a change – Gavin’s signature dish of (veggie) chilli, enjoyed with an Austrian wheat beer.

We took a stroll round the lake with superb views all the way

In the morning we opened the door to an atmospheric misty sunrise over the lake.  We enjoyed our final meal with the Eagles, an alfresco brunch of pancakes with fresh fruit – another of Gavin’s specialities.

Buff and Hugh kindly agreed to let me interview them for my film and had a multitude of stories to share about “home” – from that first quiet cup of coffee in the garden before the dreaded commute, to strolling hand-in-hand across Death Valley during a roadtrip.

It was with a heavy heart but with Buff’s infectious laugh ringing in my ears that we waved farewell and bon voyage to our travel buddies, as they left us to continue on their way down to Croatia.  Gavin set off in the direction of the mountains once more and I carried on with my thoughts and sat nav to find our next stop for the night.

GAVIN: After the eerie morning mist dissipated on day 39, yet another stunning day unfolded and my route climbed, predictably, back into the mountains.  I reached a hunting lodge, complete with macabre displays of animal skulls and deer antlers.

I then lost my way a little, the route I’d planned to take seemingly vanishing into tangled vegetation.  My Garmin InReach satellite device was vital here, allowing me to plot a route to a parallel path, by climbing and descending the contour lines – an exhausting strategy but one that paid off.

And then, out of nowhere, an odd percussive sound amongst the trees drew my eye to a hundred strong herd of deer making their way east along a hillside.  It was an incredible sight – some of the nimbler deer seemed to act as sentinels, looking out for predators.  Even the oldest and feeblest deer stuck close to the herd and were accompanied by abler animals.  I’ve never seen anything quite as majestic outside of BBC nature documentaries.

ARADHNA: Though we missed Buff and Hugh’s company and good spirits, we passed a pleasant evening on the side of a quiet road up towards the mountains from Steyrling, in a clearing used for storing tree logs with a short path down to a stream (which I dipped my feet in, at Gavin’s challenge, which in turn surprised and, I think, impressed him a little?!)

The following day would bring us another much awaited visitor.

A day in the life of Running the Orient

Even when every morning we wake somewhere new and every day is most definitely different to the last, we still find we settle into a daily routine of sorts…

New day, new view

07:30 Alarm goes off. This is Gavin’s responsibility! Trying very hard not to disturb a snoozing Aradhna (she does not enjoy mornings), he puts the kettle on, catches up on writing notes from the day before and checks in online to see what the world is up to. This is his quiet leisure time.

08:00 Tea! Gavin rouses Aradhna with tea. She can usually manage to become semi-vertical enough to admire the morning view with a peek through the blinds. This is especially lovely from the roof where it’s like sleeping in a secret tree-house.

A view from the roof hatch during a forest stay in Hungary

08:15 Transition from bedroom to kitchen/diner! We fold the bedding up and put the bed away – this is if we are sleeping downstairs on the rock’n’roll bed. If we have been able to sleep upstairs, Aradhna has space to snooze and Gavin can relax with his breakfast.

08:30 Breakfast. Gavin has two breakfasts! His first is as soon as he can get to the fridge (which requires putting the bed away first, if sleeping downstairs): fresh fruit, granola, nuts, mixed seeds, goji berries and milk.

09:00 Route planning. Gavin plans his route using a combination of paper road maps, his laminated map book (route devised in advance where possible using the MapMyRun app) and Google maps on his phone. He marks the previous day’s route on his mapbook to keep track of where he’s been, often referring to his Garmin tracking device especially on off-road trails. We plan a destination to meet for lunch, around 16-18 miles away.

One of Gavin’s less successful map pages!

09:30 Getting ready. Everything takes a bit longer in the van. We have become accustomed to shuffling around each other and the various objects. Things also need to be done in a specific order – we can’t make breakfast before the bed is put away; we must clear the dishes before we can wash; and we must take all the things out of the fridge and/or cupboard before we can find the one thing we need. We have accepted that we are never going to start the day very early and so enjoy our leisurely mornings.

When the roof is up it’s (relatively) spacious and comfortable changing up there. Downstairs we just have to take turns using the space available. We have a plastic storage box each for our clothes – one on each seat in the front (plus an extra “isolation box” for smelly running gear). You have to bend over the seat from the back to reach your box and get what you need. Within a week or two of living in the van, we understood why so many vanlife instagram pictures feature yoga – it’s necessary to your well-being given how much time you spend bent over (though we still haven’t figured out why it seems important to do it on the roof…)

Our boxes also double up as handy picnic tables!

10:00 Second breakfast. We realised the importance of a second breakfast for Gavin when we noted that he was never going to start running early and therefore lunch would rarely be before about 3pm. One bowl of granola several hours earlier would not sustain him through the next 18miles of running! He usually has bread and jam or pastries with coffee. Aradhna also joins him for her first breakfast!

10:20 Gavin is not very fast in the mornings! By this time Aradhna is trying to shoo him out of the van so she can pack up, while he is still sitting surrounded by bits of his backpack with half a sock on.

We run through his morning checklist:
– Water (fill up his backpack reservoir)
– Snacks (fruit & nuts, sweets, energy gels, snack bars, electrolyte tablets – supplies to get him through to lunch if he needs them)
– Safety gear (foil blanket, head torch, high vis)
– Technology, which all should be fully charged over night (phone, spare charger, action camera and gimbal, Garmin satellite communicator)
– Maps

10:40 Ready to leave at last! Aradhna will have been tidying up the van and rearranging boxes from the front seats to the back, making Roxy mobile again, while Gavin gathers his bits and his thoughts. If we have parked where Gavin stopped running then he can head straight off, otherwise Aradhna has to drive him back to his end point from the previous day. He starts tracking on his Garmin, checks that Aradhna was paying attention to where lunch would be, gives a rough estimate of time for lunch (around 5mph is usually a safe bet, given uncertain routes and terrain), and sets off.

Aradhna does the final mobility checks in the van – there is usually a rogue mug or spoon sitting on the counter ready to fly off when you round a corner. There is a specific place for everything in mobile configuration (everything stowed in the back and surfaces clear) vs rest configuration (overnight most objects are moved to the front seats to give maximum space for living and sleeping in the back). Aradhna has the configuration transitions down to a fine art by now!

Roxy packed and ready to go

11:30 Chores. While Gavin navigates the local running trails, Aradhna navigates round the produce aisles of the local grocery store. Ideally this is only needed every few days but as the days get warmer, the coolbox isn’t quite up to the task of keeping food fresh for too long and we get through a lot of it (Gavin burns around 5000-6000 calories per day). Aradhna also needs to top up the diesel every 200-300 miles, depending on terrain. And, as well as water points to fill up the tank, she is always on the lookout for recycling points. We’ve always been very conscientious about recycling and now all the more so when we’re living very much amongst nature, parking by forests and lakes. We’ve become more painfully aware than ever just how much superfluous packaging is used in supermarkets, and we drive around carrying it all with us until we can find suitable recycling bins, including our food waste. It takes up a huge amount of space – especially those pesky plastics – and we’ve been grateful that the countries we’ve passed through so far have had decent provisions, on the whole.

When not shopping or cleaning or tidying or fighting with the cupboard of doom (the Mary Poppins hole where dry food lives, which is surprisingly cavernous), Aradhna tries to spend time keeping up with some work, writing her journal and updating the blog. With keeping the van in order and driving on to the lunchtime meeting point, there generally isn’t as much time as we’d thought for her to sit back and relax. She does sometimes get the bike down from the bike rack (using the step stool) to cycle out to meet Gavin.

Cycle route to Türkheim, Germany

Meantime, Gavin mostly runs with phone in hand to keep checking the route and take pictures. After a couple of hours of running he takes a 15-20 minute break and checks in with Aradhna to keep her posted of progress. He tends to give around half an hour notice to let her know whether he’s on track for lunch. She also stays up to date by checking where he has reached on the Garmin live tracking, via our website.

14:30 Lunch. Lunchtime varies massively but tends to be mid to late afternoon, anywhere from 2-5pm depending on what time Gavin set off in the morning, the distance and how his legs are faring. He is not very sociable by the time he reaches the van and usually collapses wherever there is space, muttering “drink”.

Aradhna tries to arrive at the lunch spot a little before Gavin to rearrange the boxes and start preparing for the tired and hungry boy. He will get through a bottle of sports drink, a can of sugary soft drink (the favourite being Irn Bru – you can take the boy out of Scotland…) and a bottle of water before being able to say anything other than “drink” and start eating. Earlier in the trip Aradhna would sometimes cook a hot meal such as stir-fried rice or heated up leftovers. More recently it’s been far too hot and she cuts up a plateful of salad such as cucumber, red pepper, tomatoes and fruit (necessary hydration in solid form) to accompany boiled eggs, bread with cheese and jam (not at the same time) and a mug of chocolate milkshake (Gavin’s newly rediscovered running treat of choice). Dessert will be whatever cakes, biscuits and pastries Aradhna found in the shop with a fruit yoghurt and a cup of tea.

By the time Gavin’s stomach has settled enough to get this down, it’s pretty much time to set off again. He spends 15mins or so digesting lunch whilst looking up the next stretch of route and agreeing an end of day meeting point with Aradhna, usually around 8-10 miles away.

16:00 As fatigue sets in, he can be a little reluctant to set off again and has even been known to volunteer himself for washing up duty to delay what he knows will be a painful and slow start on stiff legs. After 20 minutes or so of hobbling he has usually settled back into a decent stride.

Aradhna packs away the van again and heads straight off to the agreed end point to scope out potential spots to park for the night. With little to no idea of the places, it’s all guess work and lots of driving around small streets, with an awful lot of three or seven point turns. It’s best to head for streets off the main stretch which look like they may turn into forest paths. Picnic spots on the sides of lakes or reservoirs are good overnight.

By the Marne in France

There are a couple of good apps which are sometimes helpful such as Park4Night. But mostly Aradhna drives round, sometimes for over an hour. If she finds somewhere not too far off the route then she’ll send a picture of her location to Gavin to run to the van. Otherwise she waits for him in the town to then head off to a parking spot together when he stops running. If she finds somewhere quickly and found the route cyclable then she sometimes gets her bike down to go and meet Gavin for company and moral support over the last few miles.

Every four nights or so we need to find a campsite to wash the contents of the isolation box and make use of the facilities. This will usually involve driving anywhere up to 45mins in more remote locations. And the night at the campsite is more work than relaxation as there is laundry to be done, the water must be refilled and the waste water emptied, and we make the most of electricity and wifi where available, and of course a hot shower.

Laundry day
“Digital Nomads”: our double decker office

19:00 End of running day. Gavin often finds he runs better in the afternoon and makes the most of this while there is still sunlight. After stopping, parking and drinking more juice, he puts up the shower tent – this is his single most treasured item on this trip! Washing is not glamorous but highly appreciated. Aradhna boils a kettleful of water. This is usually enough hot water for both of us to wash (mixed with cold water in a bucket with a sponge – see, not glamorous, definitely functional!) with enough left over for tea (this is where the flask comes in handy – hot water must not be wasted under any circumstance!). We take turns in the tent with the bucket and sponge, and the step stool for keeping clothes on.

20:30 Cooking. It can get a little late by the time we’ve settled down and had a cuppa. Aradhna enjoys cooking in the van, it makes her feel at home to prepare decent meals like we’d have at home. And Gavin enjoys eating them! He’ll help with chopping and mostly spend this time checking how far he ran and sorting through his numerous pictures from the day. We tend to enjoy a couple of beers whilst cooking and share stories of our day.

Some of our favourite meals:
Pasta with veggies
Stir-fry and rice
Chilli (Gavin’s speciality)
Chunky vegetable soup, with buckwheat and lentils
Anything with mashed potato!
Omelette and salad, for lazy days

22:00 After eating, its Gavin’s job to do the washing up. Aradhna dries, reluctantly.

22:30 Boxset! If it’s not too late, our treat is to sit back with a glass of wine or cup of tea and chocolate and watch an episode of something on the laptop. Currently we’re enjoying Elementary – an American modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes, easy watching and entertaining.

23:30 Bedtime. Aradhna is generally pretty much asleep by now! It takes a little time to get the bed together. If we are sleeping downstairs then the first and vitally important step is to take the teabags out of the cupboard and decant some milk into a flask so we can make tea in the morning as the cupboards are inaccessible when the bed is out. We’ve forgotten to do this before and it is not advisable trying to rouse Aradhna without tea!

Aradhna’s favourite mug – a gift from Fiona, Gavin’s sister, when we bought Roxy from them

Again there is a bit of a routine you need to follow:
– Prepare stuff for tea
– Remove pop out doors from cupboard of doom (the handles obstruct the bed when it’s folding out – minor design flaw on our part!)
– Clear floor space
– Pull out bed
– Replace pop out doors
– Store folding picnic chairs under bed (they normally live on the back seat, under the duvet)
– Make bed
– Collapse
As we said, nothing happens quickly in the van!

We also need to pull all the blinds down, if we haven’t already, and put Roxy’s jacket on – this is the cover that goes over the outside of the windscreen and round the driver and passenger windows. We often don’t bother with this if we’re sleeping upstairs.

Roxy with jacket on and roof up, in the morning mist by the lake in Austria

During the last visit to the loo, we take time to look up at the sky and the incredible blanket of stars. You don’t get that in London!

Whether up in the roof or down on the rock’n’roll bed, we have to go to bed at the same time. Downstairs the bed takes up all the space. Upstairs we need to close the hatch in order to lay the sheets so we both need to be in the roof first. We’re still pondering over a way around this! Aradhna tends to drop right off to sleep and Gavin finishes off his daily photo diary on Facebook before also dropping off.

In the warmer weather we’ve been enjoying/enduring these past few days in Hungary, we’ve slept in the roof with the cover unzipped with just the mosquito net and the stars above us. This is real vanlife! Just don’t forget the eye mask and ear plugs – unless of course you fancy waking to dawn and birdsong (at 5am).

We’re so exhausted we sleep pretty well most nights. Then it’s up with the alarm for another day of adventure and on to a new home for another night.

Days 20-29: Au Revoir France, Wilkommen in Deutschland.

GAVIN: It was nice to have Aradhna accompany me on her bike as we left Strasbourg and headed for the Rhine river and the border between France and Germany. After a little confusion about which route to follow (one road was apparently in the process of being turned into a railway) we crossed the bridge over the slate grey waters and entered Bundesrepublik Deutschland. No checkpoints, no passports required; that’s what Europe’s all about: freedom of movement and exchange between nations who know too well the consequences of conflict.

My first experience of running in Germany wasn’t great. The road I’d planned to run turned out to be a busy route, jammed with traffic and cordoned by crash barriers. I took to a narrow dam instead, designed to protect the region from river floodwaters. Unfortunately it looped under all the small roads I thought I’d take and an A-road to my left prevented me trying to climb up to where I wanted to be. I was currently running South and even a little West!

Fortunately, the dam did intersect with a side-road eventually and I ran through the little town of Kork and out into a grey and soon very rainy afternoon of vineyards, rows of fruit trees and ploughed fields. I was impressed by how neatly everything was laid out on these fruit plantations, many of which boasted numerous crops on one comparatively small plot of land. I managed to avoid traffic for most of the day and enjoyed cresting hills that would soon be vibrant with bunches of green grapes. I also had my first meeting with tangled German forest paths – more of that to come.

ARADHNA: Driving into the German countryside I passed through very familiar looking villages – hardly surprising given that Alsace and Lorraine have heavy German influences from several hundred years of being passed back and forth between the two nations. I didn’t, however, notice much French influence in these western reaches of Baden-Württenburg, other than the lady at the petrol station just past the border in Kehl happily conversing in both French and German depending on the customer (French for me).

Our first night’s stop in Germany was at a pretty town called Kappelrodeck, which sat in a valley surrounded by vineyards. We eschewed the mobile home park for a sneaky car park by the lido – plain and industrial but lit up by a bright and colourful sunset after an afternoon of rain and golden vines on the opposite hillside, reflecting the evening sun.

GAVIN: The next day’s running took me straight into the heart of the Schwarzwald – the Black Forest – which at times really lived up to its name, being very dense and impenetrable in places. Hilly and challenging terrain became frustrating when a signposted footpath petered out leaving me to climb up a mossy riverbed and push through the trees to a higher forestry road. My progress slowed significantly as the paths rose and rose with sections still covered in melting snow. I passed out-of-season ski-slopes and even a bobsleigh course at Baiersbronn.

The sun came out to warm me as I took to easy trails heading down from the high slopes. That said, my final meeting spot with Aradhna on Germany Day Two (day 21 in total) was the rather prosaic car park of a Volkswagen dealership.

The first of April began damply with heavy rain and Google Maps played an April fool’s joke on me by trying to get me to run along a wet, fast highway. I took to a muddy forest trail instead, the mud shaped into deep and awkward ridges by forestry vehicles. Then it stopped abruptly (as these paths often do) about forty feet above the road I’d avoided on a steep incline. I edged my way down to the road and braved the oncoming cars once more. Avoiding sections of this road led me to trespassing on private land where puddles along the pathway were thick with frogspawn (a frog warning sign by the roadside had surprised me earlier).

Misadventure dogged me and I ended up on the wrong side of a stream in impossible trackless forest. I waded across with the aid of a limb laid from bank to bank. I refused to let anything stand in my way. At Horb the sun finally appeared, illuminating the valley and turning the farm road I was running along into a strip of silver.

Easier and dryer ways (bar a bit of A-road sprinting at Haigerloch) took me to the late afternoon meal stop at Owingen, where near-disaster was averted by a kindly local.

ARADHNA: As I drove on to our pre-agreed lunchtime meeting spot on day 22, I noticed a castle in the distance on the peak of a hill, poking out through the rain clouds. As Gavin’s ETA got later and later and later again, I became fed up of waiting in a dull side road and drove up to Burg Hohenzollern, opting to walk the last couple of kilometres to the entrance. (Steep does not begin to describe it!)

Burg Hohenzollern

The burg (castle) was the latest of three on that site. The first dates back to the 11th century and this most recent burg was completed in 1867 though bafflingly it has never been used as a home. I think it’s wonderful to open such places of interest and beauty to the public to visit (and a necessary source of income no doubt) but with panoramic views like this, wouldn’t you at least keep a summer flat tucked away in one of the wings even if just for weekends? It had circular towers and wizard hat turrets like a castle out of Disney, and even on a grey and drizzly day the views were spectacular.

Reluctantly I left Mount Hohenzollern to pick up a cold and grumpy Gavin who had finally reached Owingen (three hours late) and was not pleased that Roxy wasn’t sitting around waiting for him. He was soon mollified by chocolate and promised to try to give more realistic estimates of his running speed in future. Friends again, our mood was then tested once more as we found the cooking gas had finally run out as it had been threatening to do so for a night or two. No tea for us. Furthermore, in all the confusion, I hadn’t noticed that the headlights were still on (a rule in Germany when it is raining). The battery was flat and it looked like we were stuck in this deserted industrial site for the next two days over Easter.

By some miracle, despite having not seen a single soul at all till then in all of Owingen, a car pulled into the car park within minutes of us failing to start the engine. Without thinking I ran across the car park, arms waving and shouting “entschuldigen sie bitte” – one of the 3 or 4 phrases I still remember from GCSE German! (I can also ask where the train station is though no idea how to translate the answers I receive, and I can tell you that I’m 15 years old, live in Manchester and have one brother.)

Our saviour was Moritz who was out giving a driving lesson to his South African au pair. He, too, had embarked on journeys across Europe before and knew all too well the trials and tribulations of following your feet – or in his case wheels; Moritz had cycled, unsupported, from Stuttgart to Barcelona carrying all his supplies along with him. After giving us a jump start, he pointed Gavin in the best direction for leaving town and waved us merrily on our way again.

Our lovely saviour, Moritz

We decided to only carry on to the next town, Bisingen, where I had already scoped a good spot to spend the night. Shortly after I arrived, a familiar looking car pulled up and I saw a smiling Moritz waving at me through the window! After leaving us earlier he had driven home and rather than enjoying Easter Sunday with his family, he had taken the time to raid his supply cupboard and drive to Bisingen in the hope of finding us. He explained that on his own travels he had often thought about the unexpected kindness of strangers and was pleased to offer us what support he could. He came bringing gifts of German beer, Scottish shortbread (from a trip his mother-in-law had recently made) and a small can of Campingaz. What a star! I can’t describe how touching his thoughtfulness and kindness was. I took the opportunity to interview Moritz for my film, exploring the concept of home. As someone who had lived in a number of different places and travelled a lot, it was fascinating to hear his insights and feelings on the topic.

Gifts!

Gavin arrived as we were wrapping up the interview and on Moritz’s recommendation we treated ourselves to pizza and a much needed pint at a local restaurant.

GAVIN: With the dramatic silhouette of the Hohenzollern castle brooding on the horizon to the north, I found the trailhead on 3rd April and climbed up into the hills once more. After an unfortunate misstep where my forest path deposited me by the edge of a lethal B-road (no verges, many speeding Germans) I took muddy forest trails and farm tracks through quiet villages heading East.

As it was Easter Monday, I was encouraged by the presence of a few families or couples out and about on bikes in the cool sunshine. I passed a glider airfield and then, at Bitz, a home oddly decorated with an American flag and a full-sized carved wooden Native American. Easy forest routes took me to our final destination at Neufra, where stout stone guardians by the church watched over Roxy and Aradhna.

We treated ourselves to a campsite that night and had an al fresco brunch and a rather late start (to the running). Further forest ways and farms, punctuated with often rather graphic roadside crucifixions, lead me to a dramatic rocky gorge, Tannehalch, where I passed an old well, sensibly covered with a glass porthole, allowing the curious runner to peer down into the gloom. No eyes peered back.

The ravine gave way to level ground again and I came to a sign draped across one forest route saying “Halt! Baumfillingen!”. I could hear no signs of tree-felling so I ducked under it and sprinted through the tiny wood and back out into pastureland.

As the afternoon light dimmed I made it to the town of Reidlingen and was heartened to reach the Danube for the first (but not the last) time.

The Danube (or Donau)

ARADHNA: Although Gavin wouldn’t meet the Donau (Danube) again till Vienna, I decided to stick with it a little longer on day 25 and found a cycle route that mostly followed the river North from Riedlingen to Zwiefelten, where my friends Buff and Hugh had highly recommended visiting the münster. It was a fun ride on a sunny day and I felt like I was experiencing a small taste of what Gavin did every day – searching for safe and interesting routes, absorbing the scenery and culture on the way and trying to keep heading in broadly the correct direction. An unexpected and interesting highlight was cycling through the middle of a solar panel farm and then up alongside a railway line on a sort of metal grid bridge thing.

As I entered Zwiefelten the first things I spotted were some industrial buildings that looked suspiciously like a brewery! I headed to the abbey first but not before noting that the brewery was the producer of the (very tasty) beer we’d been drinking for the past few days.

Zwiefelten Münster was beautiful. On the outside it was statuesque in a pretty garden setting. Inside was breathtaking, similar to the painted hall at Greenwich in London. The walls and ceiling all around the church were covered in sweeping yet intricate celestial paintings and golden baroque detailing decorated every corner. I lit a candle and sat in a pew, taking time to decipher the depictions and notice the numerous little details.

After a walk around the outside of the abbey I wandered back over to the brewery and into the tasting room/gift shop. Explaining that I had to cycle, I asked for small tastes of each of the four beers they had available on tap. I bought a gift set to take back to Gavin and an extra Pils as it’s his favourite. It wasn’t till I finished my (not that small) tasters and picked up the the gift set that I suddenly remembered again about the cycling thing and the fact that I now had seven 500ml bottles of beer to squeeze into my handbag for the 9km ride back to Roxy.

The cycle back was not much fun. The sunny day had given way to strong winds, going against my direction of travel, with lashings of horizontal rain. Furthermore, having foolishly trusted Google Maps’ indication of the shortest route, I found myself alongside a very busy and fast main road rather than the pretty countryside path from earlier. The trip back took twice as long as the way there and by the time I finally reached Riedlingen, exhausted and with sore shoulders, I was already due to be a good 45mins late to meet Gavin.

GAVIN: My running had gone unusually well and, for once, my estimated ETA was overly pessimistic. I sat in a tiny park by the church and ate everything in my backpack, then walked around for ages, trying to keep warm before Aradhna turned up to rescue me. We found a nice spot by the reservoirs at Laupheim and enjoyed another glorious sunset.

During the night we were visited by a dark car in which a bass-heavy sound system rumbled. After several drive-bys the mystery visitor moved on and we managed to get to sleep.

Day 26 saw us cross over into Bavaria, to the accompaniment of many helicopters (there were several heliports nearby).

We were in the heartland of German farming now and chickens in particular were in evidence. One farmer had hand-painted his own “chickens crossing” signs, whilst a particularly enterprising landowner had built a chicken shed that actually straddled the road, allowing the birds to free range in the neighbouring field without vehicular mishap.

The weather was changeable to say the least and after lunch I was caught in a brief but violent hailstorm, so vicious that I had to run with one hand over my face to prevent hail from painfully pinging off my ear.

The hail and subsequent rain cleared though and the sun came out to create an amazingly vivid light under ash-grey skies. We found another reservoir spot to roost for the night at Babenhausen; this one felt cosier and more conducive to a restful night’s sleep.

ARADHNA: After a short walk around Babenhausen in the morning, I drove on to Pfaffenhausen, the next town of a size where there were open cafés. Parking near the church, I popped into a nearby pizzeria for a cappuccino (ordered in a happy medley of German, French, Italian and English, to the slight confusion and amusement of the waiter). There I received a message from Gavin who was so bored of running the flat farmlands that he was desperate to stop for lunch just for something else to do! The afternoon continued in much the same vein so when I got to Türkheim, our stop for the evening, I got the bike down and cycled back to Rammingen to give Gavin some company for the last 5km or so of his day.

An attempt at selfie-taking whilst cycling!

The end of the next day provided a hugely welcome contrast. I enjoyed a leisurely morning coffee in a sunny garden in Türkheim, picked up supplies and drove on, knowing that Munich was only a day or so away. Straight after lunch I headed to Stegen, at the top of Lake Ammersee. It was just beautiful. The sun was shimmering over the lake and lighting up the alps in the distant background.

I had planned to cycle round the lake in search of a campsite but instead headed backwards to find Gavin as I wanted to enjoy the sight together. He was running well and I found him only a kilometre or two away. Grabbing a beer and the camera from the van on the way past, I urged Gavin not to stop and brought him to a lovely spot I’d found earlier where we could sit on the edge of the lake and gaze out. It felt like a gulp of oxygen to the lungs after the sticky monotony of the past few days.

Many photos were taken!

Apparently we weren’t the only ones to notice Ammersee’s appeal and Stegen was teeming with people enjoying the warm day and views and there were many very expensive cars lining the street – this was clearly the place to be seen. It amused us immensely that our Roxy was parked between a Ferrari and a Lamborghini!

Finding the campsite wanting, we found a layby off the main route round the lake with a view down to the lake, where the sun was just setting.

GAVIN: After a few days in which the level fields and scraps of forest began to seem a little bit monotonous, the houses not quite as characterful as those further west, we hit the lakes and felt revitalised by the sparkling “sees”.

Paddling in Ammersee: “Bracing”

Day 28’s challenge was to reach Munich. Legions of Lycra-clad cyclists heading my way suggested this was a regular route for daytripping Münchners and at first I followed a wide tarmacked route along the side of the autobahn. I ran quickly although the path offered little variety until two weird “pod bikes” raced past at alarming speed, one female pilot (driver?) offering a cheery thumbs up in greeting.

Unfortunately the cycle path turned into a shared use road parallel to the autobahn and I grew sick of running along the white line inside crash barriers while BMWs tore by at autobahn speeds. I diverted via small towns and picked up a proper cycle path near Krailing.

It was hard to tell exactly when satellite towns became suburbs but eventually we lunch-stopped (after some miscommunication) by the university buildings and then I hobbled on into the city proper.

We’d always planned to visit each of the train stations on the Orient Express route but our research so far had not clarified whether the Haupbahnhof or the Ostbahnhof was the preferred stop. Aradhna persuaded me to visit both.

Departures board at Munich central station

Although I enjoyed navigating the lively city streets, when my phone’s battery died I had to revert to using my Garmin as navigator and it’s maps did not name the stations. I took a guess and headed for a eastern junction of many train lines. Although the exterior of the Eastern station was rather drab, compared to the stations at Paris or Strasbourg, it was with great relief that I met a rather frustrated Aradhna and took the compulsory station selfie.

It felt a little anticlimactic but at least we had a full day off in Munich planned for tomorrow and an Air BnB booked from which to enjoy it…

Day 19: Strasbourg

As the passengers of the Orient Express would have done on their slightly more luxurious journeys, we left Roxy for a couple of nights to enjoy a full day of sightseeing in Strasbourg. It’s a beautiful city, buzzing with life and photo opportunities round every corner. It’s also home to one of the most spectacular cathedrals we’ve ever seen. For detailed and evocative insight into the city, we highly recommend Sara Lodge’s excellent article. And we’d like to share a few of our favourite highlights…

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg

You catch sight of the cathedral unexpectedly from different angles as you walk around town, and every time it’s just as majestic as the first glimpse.
And it’s just as awe-inspiring on the inside.
We spent a long time appreciating the plentiful details.
The organ and a sample of the stained glass windows adorning the walls.
Astronomical clock which stretched from floor to ceiling.
Easily one of the most beautiful cathedrals we’ve visited.

Petite-France

There were many more pretty examples of the colourful houses we’d admired across Alsace.
And no shortage of quaint streets to encapsulate the feeling of the old town in Strasbourg.
Decorative sign over a restaurant by the river.

Food & Drink

We passed by this market stall, selling cheese, sausages and nougat.
Indulgence at the plush tea rooms of Christian Meyer.
Sampling the pils al fresco in Place du Marché-Gayot.
Sign outside the Winstub where we had dinner.
Aradhna’s meal (bottom of pic) was cheesy dumplings in a creamy sauce with mushrooms (instead of ham), with a side salad. Gavin’s was chicken and veal vol-au-vent aka pie, served with extra filling on the side and crispy spätzle (bit like gnocchi but in stubby noodle form). Accompanied by a locally produced Pinot Noir – light, fruity and refreshing with the signature delicate sweetness of Alsatian wines.

By night

The River Ill, which circles the city centre.
We loved our evening stroll around town.
The Cathédrale by moonlight.

Huge thanks to Sara and Christine for their tips and recommendations.

Days 13-18: Alsace

GAVIN: I left Nancy via the quiet suburbs of Tomblaine, eventually finding a farm road up into some trees (the Forêt Communale de Puinoy) and weaving my way through muddy trails and out into open farmland once again.

At Cerville, I saw a large natural gas extraction site and some sort of facility for extracting mineral salts from groundwater (my French and chemistry knowledge let me down here) which distracted me to the extent that I suddenly found myself tramping through a flooded field and jumping a drainage ditch to rejoin a legitimate trail once more.

Ways visible as roads on Google Maps sometimes turned out to be little more than fading tyre tread marks across a field but they got me where I needed to be (mostly).

At Bathelémont I saw a memorial and plaques commemorating the first three American soldiers killed nearby in 1917 during WWI. The remains of what looks like an ancient fort are still visible in the village too.

Having so much to see and notice distracted me as I climbed a hill near Bures and then raced down to meet Aradhna, who was excited to show me the wild camping spot she’d found for the night.

ARADHNA: I could see from the map that my parking stop near Parroy on day 13 was in between two reservoirs but it wasn’t until I climbed the grassy verge to the side that the larger Etang de Parroy revealed itself to me in its full, dusky glory. Calm and still, it stretched out reflecting the blue sky and the trees of the opposite bank. Blissful. I found a path leading round the edge of the Etang and followed it all the way to the adjacent road, which I knew Gavin would be running down shortly.

The next morning I followed a short (6km) walking trail round the neighbouring countryside, up and across some fields, through the village of Parroy and back round via the river, Le Sânon, and Le Canal de la Marne au Rhin.

I was enjoying a leisurely phone call with my friend David in a sunny spot by the canal when I received a barrage of anxious messages from Gavin. Uh oh – another rescue mission?

GAVIN: Running alongside the canal from Parroy I had been followed for half a mile by a large, hyperactive but friendly dog.

Evidently a cross between a black Labrador and… something… the dog wore a collar with no evident identification. She (I think) seemed to be stopping every so often to look frantically around, even racing towards cars that tore past on parallel roads. I wondered if she was lost or simply abandoned by heartless owners who just let her out of their car and drove off. Either way, I didn’t want to lead her further away from a perhaps panic-stricken owner or have to adopt her (Roxy is only just big enough for two!). Hence the call to Aradhna, who agreed to come and meet me so that we could figure out what to do with the stray animal. A call to the SPA (Société Protectrice des Animaux) proved unhelpful – they suggested contacting the local police.

Rather comically, while I was making this call in fragmentary French and basic English, another stray dog came bounding along the canal, befriended my canine companion and they disappeared together. I explained everything to an unimpressed Aradhna when she turned up a little later. At least we managed to enjoy a pleasant canalside lunch together.

The rest of the afternoon’s running took me through a beautiful nature reserve of giant reservoirs where swans, storks, flotillas of moorhen and pairs of ducks drifted peacefully. First the canal towpath became a causeway running through one lake then the canal itself (with towpath and opposite bank) bisected a second reservoir just outside the town of Gondrexange. I made it a little further up and over a hill, where I saw my first German-style wooden home before the sun set gloriously over Neufmoulins.

ARADHNA: Day 15 saw us head from Moselle into the Bas-Rhin region and into the thick of Alsace. Gavin’s trail would take him off-road over what turned out to be a pretty vast mountainous region, so we wouldn’t meet again until the end of the day. As Roxy and I climbed higher and higher up steep paths with sharp hairpin bends, I was more mindful than ever that the engine oil had only been half full (half empty?) when last checked a couple of days ago. Being Sunday, nothing was open and I hoped I wouldn’t have to make my own rescue call. I was still able to acknowledge the beautiful views across the valleys (as Roxy growled up another steep ridge) and enjoyed the sweet hillside towns I passed through, where some young families had already started their Easter egg hunts.

I reached Wangenbourg-Engenthal several hours before Gavin was expected so took a walk around the ruins of the Chateau de Wangenbourg, amongst many families also enjoying the sunny views from the grounds. I love walking around such sites, trying to imagine what life would have been like in the exact spot I stood in, in its heyday – around four or five hundred years ago, in this case.

After a further few hours of following various hiking paths through the forest, the afternoon light turned golden and I wondered how Gavin was getting on, since he’d been quiet for several hours now. I headed further up the mountain to Wingsbourg, where the air turned noticeably chillier and there was much more snow still on the ground.

GAVIN: Day 15 was a day of mountains. We started at a lay-by outside the pretty town of Lorquin and I could see ranges of bluish hills looming ahead. My laminated maps carried only the sketchiest information about what was to come.

After some fine running past wooden barn-like houses with a strongly Alsace styling, many decorated with brightly-painted Easter cut-outs of rabbits, eggs etc, I followed a cycle path to the town of Abreschviller (suddenly many of the place names were German-sounding). There I located the start of a mountain trail and set off, Garmin at the ready, to negotiate a maze of forest paths with myriad confusing waymarkings and signposts. The scenery was beautiful but extremely hilly, red clay paths alternating with tiny, narrow tracks along precipitous edges. The mostly evergreen trees were densely-packed, offering only occasional views but these were frequently breathtaking.

Since I was using my phone to navigate a lot (and take many photos) it’s battery dwindled rapidly and phone reception was virtually nil so I sent a text via the Garmin later in the afternoon to tell Aradhna I was okay (it uses a satellite network and can get a message out anywhere on earth with a clear view of the sky).

I was enjoying my day’s adventure but it was exhausting and progress was slow as I climbed higher and higher, eventually tramping along snowy roads and then down towards the town of Wangenbourg.

ARADHNA: With the fading light, scant phone reception and tricky terrain (for feet and wheels), faint boredom very quickly turned to concern for Gavin, who I assumed was somewhere in the thick of the forest. He managed to call me very briefly to alert me to check messages from his Garmin. The slight flaw in this otherwise excellent plan was that I needed elusive mobile data to retrieve and send messages and to track his location. I found an area where I thought his trail may connect with the road and waited there with immense optimism (and ultimate futility). Heading back down the steep and snowy roads to Wangenbourg, I was at least now able to track his progress once again and could see that he was still moving and in the correct direction.

<Don’t forget that you, too, can track Gavin’s progress via the live map!>

Happily Gavin – live and well if fatigued – soon found me there, and we treated ourselves to a meal in a local restaurant which was thankfully open.

GAVIN: I elected to have a Tarte Flambée on Aradhna’s recommendation and, having had a brief conversation with the waitress, she warned me that it might come in two instalments. Wolfing down what seemed like a square metre of thin but tasty tarte, I expressed doubt. Of course, Aradhna was correct and after we’d finished our respective meals, an identical second helping appeared. It vanished down the same infinite hole of hunger as the first serving. She’s usually right, Aradhna; I should probably trust her.

Wangenbourg-Engenthal

ARADHNA: We discussed the possibility of a day off the next day, for Gavin to rest his legs and also, crucially, to give Roxy some much needed attention. All the most useful seeming shops were in a town over to the East, called Wasselonne, which as it happened was actually on Gavin’s running route. In the morning, I gently suggested that perhaps Gavin could just run on to Wasselonne and save poor Roxy from having to drive back and forth between the towns. She was very ready to move on from Wangenbourg, lovely as it was! And, well, it was on the way, and wouldn’t Gavin feel better for having achieved that little bit extra mileage, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a new home for the night, and how about I make a nice brunch to get him on his way… Would he like some sweeties, perhaps?

GAVIN: Grudgingly, I set off again on 26th March but quickly my enthusiasm returned with comparatively easy running through pretty mountain landscapes including a brief break at the Valley of the Three Fountains (I only encountered one of them).

It occurred to me that it would be wonderful to have Aradhna cycling alongside me and it seemed a shame for her to miss sights like this. Of course the terrain precluded this so I just hoped that, wherever she was, my other half was enjoying a view just as captivating.

For once I eschewed a trail blocked off with warning tape and stuck to the tarmac forest road. An abandoned stone house in the woods straight from a horror film marked my return to civilisation, via a winding trail down to the town of Wasselonne.

Thoroughly exhausted the next morning we nevertheless took the day to catch up on tedious chores like repairing the puncture on Aradhna’s bike and trying to fix our water pump. We achieved most of our aims and, although we failed to find the time to visit a vineyard as we’d hoped, we did reassert some order amidst the chaos that builds periodically when you live in a van.

Workers’ break and picking up supplies

ARADHNA: The next day I enjoyed walking around Wasselonne very much. It’s a very pretty town, the streets lined with colourful old houses with plentiful little details on every corner. I met some friendly locals: a girl who owns an upholstery shop in a picturesque square (I hoped to interview her for my film but as it happened she was just heading to the airport for her first visit to London!); and a man who chatted with me over his lunch break, leaning out of his window when he caught me taking photos of the weathervane by his house – faint suspicion quickly turned to friendly chatter when I explained (in painfully broken french) that I was passing through and utterly charmed by the beauty of the town.

The weather vane over the window of the friendly, chatty man.

GAVIN: Wasselonne’s colourful houses were challenged by the lovely high street at Marlenheim where once again I was struck by how the German-style of housing (large triangular roofs with low eaves, cross-hatched beams and colourful paintwork) asserted itself.

I found agricultural roads adjacent to the highway and ran fast between towns before being forced to veer off towards Achenheim, where I found a tiny canal path that led me (dampened by drizzle) towards Strasbourg.

I made it to the outskirts of the city by late afternoon as the rain got heavier and heavier. The sudden inrush of sounds, sights and smells (waft of aniseed, gust of engine oil) of the city was almost shocking after days of tiny villages. For once, I made such good time that I hit the Central Station at Strasbourg 5 minutes before my ETA (this is a rare occurrence), where we took a few rain-drenched snaps to commemorate the occasion. We had reached our first station stop on the Orient Express route.

At Gare de Strasbourg – end of leg 1.

#vanlife: 3 weeks in

It’s been over 3 weeks since we left London to live in a van. We’ve enjoyed sunny countryside hamlets and rolling fields of vines, survived ice onslaughts of snow and Siberian winds, and rolled up our sleeves to find the French (and now German) equivalents of Halfords and B&Q and get to work on fixing up Roxy in various lay-bys. We thought we’d take a look back over our first few weeks of vanlife…

Thing I find the most useful:
Aradhna: step stool
Gavin: shower tent

Thing I rely on the most:
Aradhna: sat nav
Gavin: cooker (for tea)

Thing I value the most:
Aradhna: slippers
Gavin: fleece

Favourite little van quirk:
Aradhna: the spice box
Gavin: hanging baskets

Best indulgence:
Aradhna: having Yorkshire teabags brought out to us by lovely visitors from home (thanks in advance, Buff & Hugh!)
Gavin: huge supply of box sets and films on a hard drive (thanks Chris!)

Thing we made that I’m most proud of:
Aradhna: LED lights on a dimmer switch
Gavin: cabinets, especially the doors (still need a little tweaking)

Thing I find most annoying:
Aradhna: that the pump/tap broke
Gavin: the doors of the coolbox fall off when you open them (I will fix these with superglue!)

My favourite stopping place so far:
Aradhna: the blazing sunset backdrop on the edge of Heutfeuille (day 2)


Gavin: the enchanted forest – snow laden path in the forest by Lisle-en-Balois (day 8)

Favourite van pastime:
Aradhna: cooking
Gavin: boxset on the laptop, a blanket and a glass of wine

My favourite meal cooked in the van:
Aradhna: pancakes
Gavin: pancakes

What I miss the most:
Aradhna: friends
Gavin: toilets

What I love the most about vanlife:
Aradhna: making a home wherever we park
Gavin: waking up somewhere new