The Van life Community

When we decided to take on this van living travelling adventure at the start of this year, we joined all the Motorhome groups on Facebook and watched the YouTube vlogs of families travelling full time in their vans. We researched the hell out of it taking notes as we went, we had to figure out what kind of camper-van to get, we wondered about the legalities, how we would cope financially, living in such a small space for a long period but we had our minds made up, we were doing this no matter what. We bought the first camper-van we saw from Dave and Annette, a lovely family from our home county of Wexford in Ireland. It was just a lucky coincidence, the van was exactly what we were looking for and well within our budget. We decided to sleep on it as who in their right mind buys the first van they see but within a few days it was ours and we moved into our new 18 year old 6 berth campervan in June. We travelled a bit around Ireland while we were figuring things out, tidying up loose ends with our house and Liams job and then we took the ferry from Ireland to Roscoff, France at the end of August.

Those first few weeks in Brittany were magical and still our favourite part of this trip so far. We found amazing free beach spots to park up beside vanlifers from all over Europe. It was a great introduction to the community of camper-vanners. They were the first people we met, some living full time in their vans, others for half the year, people from all different backgrounds, all with their own unique stories and journeys to tell. We enjoyed so much meeting all these new people and always enjoy rolling into a new place and getting to know our new neighbours, often over a bottle of wine. That’s the thing, we have new neighbours every week, sometimes every day. On the odd occasion we’ve had some cranky neighbours but mostly we’ve had great experiences and have made some lasting friendships.

There are all sorts of full time and part time van dwellers. There’s people who travel in groups, solo travellers, seasonal travellers, full time travelers, off grid travelers, budget travelers, veteran travelers, family travelers, luxury travelers and travelers in search of a new permanent home. We’ve enjoyed hearing all these people’s stories and life goals and we’ve learned a lot from them. Every one of them exciting, interesting, open and unique and we are always grateful for new traveling tips and advice. There is many families doing this but I can count the amount of families we’ve met with small kids on two hands. When we do bump into a family, we make the very most of it and often extend our stay so the kids can have a great time playing, swapping books and toys while us parents get to chill and talk about life over a glass of wine. The kids learn so much from the other children they meet including languages, building new toys and weapons out of branches and up cycling recycling and they have remembered the names of every single child they’ve met since their first encounter with a little boy called Gabon in Brittany at the start of our journey. We’ve kept in touch with these families sharing stories and good locations and have bumped into each other more than once since.

You get people traveling in big brand new campervans some with a little trailer in tow with a smart car or three wheeled moped on it. Some often find a spot and stay there for weeks, months, even years at a time using their little cars and mopeds to get around. Some camper vanners are up bright and early every morning with their squeegees wiping the condensation off their vans and polishing it up as part of their morning chores. Some just live in small vans like WV Transporters or little Peugeot Partners, many of them old and rusty, patched up or covered in graffitti. These are the inspirational true vanlifers and proof that you can do this vanlife even on the smallest of budgets. We’ve seen some vans with interiors that are self built with homemade seats made out of wooden pallets and a mattress thrown in with a little free standing hob for cooking outside. Some of them don’t have toilets in their vans but you can get away with that on the continent as the beaches, towns and villages are so well facilitated but if there’s a beach with no toilets you’ll find plenty of bog roll in the ditches. Not to be stereotyping but these vanlifers do seem to keep to themselves mostly but we got chatting to a few small van dwellers (small vans, not dwellers) in Sagres in Portugal and realised they have their own stereotypes of us bigger van people, they joked that us campervan dwellers never leave the campervan as we have too many luxuries.

It’s true some campervans are ridiculously luxurious. You see some of the big new ones, as big as a proper bus or arctic lorry, some even have extra rooms that hydraulically open out the sides like some sort of bus to house Transformer. They pull up at a site and you see the massive satellite dish pop up, automatically circling to find their home TV channels. It is true some people rarely leave their campervan but if that’s what they want who are we to judge. There has been days when we haven’t left the campervan too. I guess there’s pros and cons to owning big or small camper-vans and the size totally depends on your travelling and living goals. For us, even though our camper-van isn’t huge, at 6metres long, it isn’t comfortable driving through cities, mountains or even some rural areas and we are considering down sizing next year.

We, the Irish campers, we’re used to being the only Irish camper-van around. We’re always on the lookout for Irish reg plates everywhere we park. We didn’t see another Irish camper until we reached Santander in early November after ten weeks on the road. It was there where we met Páidí who hits the road every year to get away from the Irish winter. Although we did see one Irish registered car on a motorway in Spain who gave us a little beep, Páidí and more recently Thomas and Brigid who we met in Portugal are the only Irish people we met so far. Thomas and Brigid who have a property in Portugal had loads of advice for us and we got some great ideas and inspiration from them.

When we find a place to park up, it really helps if there are other camper-vans there and the odd time we pull into a paid campsite as a last resort where we get to catch up on showers, wifi and laundry. While in the town of Sagres in Portugals Algarve region, we met a group of van friends Gary, Cathy and Rob from the UK who recommended a site to us a little further west and just north of Faro called Mikkies Place. It was a little off grid campsite and it took us a while to figure out how to get in, we typed in the GPS co-ordinates which took us a couple of kilometers down a narrow potholed lane way. It didn’t seem right and we almost turned back when the oasis of Mikkies appeared. There must have been sixty or seventy camper-vans all parked up on large tiered quirky pitches separated by fruit trees and the odd bit of arty pottery made by the owner Mikkie. This beautiful and colorful campground was a haven of all the different weird and wonderful campers we’ve come across throughout our travels.

We picked our spot and pulled up beside a couple who we recognized from camping at the elephant enclosure of Cabarceno Park in northern Spain, a lovely retired couple from the UK, Allan and Diane. I remembered chatting to Allan a few months previous and it was so nice bumping into them again. After we got the campervan sorted it was time for a walk to explore the grounds, outdoor swimming pool and we went into the reception in the main shed built out of recycled materials. It was such a cool, beautiful and inspiring place. The shed had a little gathering place, a bar, a quirky restaurant all with handcrafted up cycled furniture and a gallery full of Mikkies birds and art creations. Mikkie, the owner is a ceramic artist who has a love of birds and you would see her wandering around the shed with a parrot or a cockatoo on her shoulder. She had four or five cages of exotic birds inside and a large enclosure of little birds, doves and various types of hens just outside.

We had a drink at the bar and got chatting to some of the other campervan residents on site. We quickly realized Mikkies place was not a one night stop kind of place. A common story amongst many of the residents here. One guy told us he arrived at Mikkies two and a half years ago for a two night stay and he was still there with his wife. In fact there were lots of couples staying there full time on site like one big friendly family and it wasn’t long until we realized why being such a simple, cool, social, inspiring and lovely place to be.

We booked in for a typical two nights and got sucked into the time warp that is Mikkies Place and continued extending our stay by one or two days at a time and the next thing we knew, three weeks had passed. Van life time does go by slowly and so it feels like we stayed much longer. We had some great experiences, met some lovely people and we got loads of work and yoga done while spending some real chill time together while not having to research and figure out where to drive and stay next.

We met some more van travelling bloggers including the Yellow Van family and (the hilariously confusing couples) Tim and Jan and Tim and Jane from bonvanage blog who did their own hilarious blog post about their experience at Mikkies. Tim (the Tim & Jane Tim not the Tim & Jan Tim) was an amazing musician and played saxaphone, flute and other whistley instruments which he played on stage in the bar over a couple of evenings, next thing we knew Liam was right up there playing banjo alongside him. We had great chats with them all and will fondly follow their adventures. We may even meet them again soon, who knows.

For our last week we hung out with a German family who had children the same age as ours. Liam and the Dad Alex had a little table tennis tournament on the go which got a little competitive to say the least. They fixed up an old table tennis table and made a net by folding sheets of toilet paper over the rope which amazingly held together for the whole week. The children had no english and it was a joy to watch them all learning each others languages and communicating through play. German has so far been the easiest language for our children Ellen and Alex to learn.

Alex and Liam after their table tennis tournament

Liam swam in the cold pool every day, he even inspired a few other campers to get in. I did morning yoga classes with some of our van neighbours and finally got a great start on my Hook Crochet YouTube channel where I have uploaded lots of free tutorials to teach people how to crochet.

Teaching Ellen how to crochet. I was her age when my Grandmother taught me
Learn how to crochet Mandalas with Hook Crochet

It’s amazing how comfortable you can get in a place and we got very comfortable at Mikkies. We’re also well used to stepping outside our comfort zones and it was time to say goodbye to our new friends and hit the road again. We’re back to one night stop overs for the time being until and if we find the next long stop over. One day we might fall in love with a place so much we might ourselves be the ones to stay for a few years. Anything is possible.

If you know anybody looking to learn a new craft send them to my YouTube channel ‘Hook Crochet’ where I am uploading new crochet tutorials and free patterns every week.

Family Vanlife – What it’s really like

We have been following the van life movement for a couple of years now and I don’t know whether we notice this because we’re part of it or not but it’s an extemely fast growing movement. It seems to be all over social media at the moment and we’ve met lots of lovely van living couples and families, some are in privilaged positions of financial safety but many of them aren’t and some have sold up everything they own to live this life of travel and freedom. If I could sum up this life in one word it’s just that, freedom.

We all have memories of our childhood holidays, whether it was a two week holiday in a foreign sun resort or a holiday or camping trip at home and for me my holiday memories are by far my most vivid ones. Well this camper van trip is like that but we get to do it every day. We still don’t know how long we will be on the road but we have so much more to see and do and we hope it doesn’t end so we are trying to figure out how we can live this lifestyle for as long as we want to.

It seems we live in a society now where we’ve become obsessed with owning land, bigger houses, the newest cars, ending up digging ourselves deeper and deeper into debt all while the cost of living rises and our rights seem to be slowly taken away from us right beneath our noses and we find ourselves asking “are we allowed to do this?”, “can we do that”. That to me is a dangerous mindset, we shouldn’t need permission to do anything so long as we’re not hurting anybody. All this fear of freedom in a time when people have never worked harder and for what?! The working class has never seemed so bad off so it’s inspiring to see that some people have had enough of the norm and are seeking alternative lifestyles. We want to work less, not more and we want to spend our valuable time on this planet being with people we love, doing what we love and nobody is going to tell us we can’t do that.

I would love to say it’s an easy thing to do. It is an easy thing to do once you make the move and when you’re out and on the road. It’s like when you’re getting into the sea for a swim and everybody swimming around you tells you “it’s lovely once you’re in” and you’re like yeah right! It’s easier said than done but once you’re in, it really is lovely. The decision to do it is the hardest part.

We are in a priveliged position compared to most in that we have a house in Ireland. We have both worked really hard and scrimped and saved every penny to buy ouselves as much time as possible on this adventure. We still however, like most people, have loans and bills to pay for which is by far where most of our money goes unfortunately. Living and travelling in our campervan isn’t as expensive as you might think. We spend around €800 a month while living in our campervan on the road, less if we stop at a place for a few weeks and that’s all in, food, trips, touristy things, fuel, phone bill and things for the kids like art stuff and treats.

You may think you’re not cut out for living in a van, a few years ago I thought that too. I’ve heard many people say “I could never do that” with primary concerns being mainly about showers, washing, pooping, personal space and storage. Where do you put all your “stuff”! Although some parts of living in a campervan isn’t very glamorous, you quickly adapt and soon begin to think how can we go back to our old working 9-5 lives. You care less about owning stuff and you buy things on an absolute need basis so you can save both space and money. It can get cabin fevery if it rains for a few days at a time but other than that we get alone time if we each need it by going for a walk or find somewhere else to chill out for a while. We really enjoy being with our kids, we wouldn’t have chosen to homeschool or move the whole family into a van if we didn’t so getting time away from them isn’t a big deal for us. They do test us at times as all children do but we deal with it and move on pretty quickly. A campervan is no place to sulk or hold a grudge, we’re all in this together and usually an emergency hug fixes most meltdowns.

I used the shower only once in the campervan and I’m the only one in the family to try it. It uses quite a lot of water and it’s way handier and more efficient to just have a birdbath. A shower in the camper fills the whole space with condensation, the shower curtain sticks to you like a magnet, it half empties our water tank and afterwards you have to clean and wipe down the whole washroom, walls, sink, toilet and wipe all the excess water down the tiny drain in the corner. It’s just not worth all the bother. A birdbath with our trusty wash basin, facecloth and cup for scooping water over your hair does the trick. The basin is by far the most used thing we have in the camper. We use it for washing dishes, washing children, washing our hair and our clothes….not with the same water obviously. Plus it saves a whole lot of water. The camper van service facilities on continent are fantastic and you can find drinking water and waste water drains in most towns and villages. If we find a cool camping spot though and we want to stay put, we try and stretch out our water and drain tank as long as we can so we have become well used to being super efficient with our water these days.

Liam got used to driving on the other side of the road after about five minutes.

I was one of those “shower every day” girls and embarassingly never left the house without at least mascara and eyebrows on. Those days are long gone and these days we could go weeks without even a hot shower. Now that’s not to say we’re going around the place all mankey, we are clean, I promise! When we are wild camping we are mostly living by the coast so we make plenty of use of the beaches, after a swim we shower in the free cold beach showers which are on practically every beach we’ve stayed at so far and if it’s shitty weather for a few days we stay in and have birdbaths.

Rainy day “me time” looks like this….

The water in the van turns on at the mains switch which runs off our leisure battery so if that isn’t switched on, no water will come out of the taps. It has happened the odd time during our first few months of living in the campervan that we have left a tap on when the switch was off so when we turned the switch on then we got a flood of water pumping out of the tap. It happened with our toilet a couple of times too, our flusher is a push down thingy also connected to the main water switch and that gets stuck sometimes so if it gets stuck when the water is turned off that’s fine as no water will come out of the flusher but if you then turn the water on with the washroom door closed and the radio on, then the whole washroom gets flooded so bad it spills out into the main campervan bit, you know the hall, the kitchen, living room, bedrooms. Yes that’s happened to us on two occasions and now, much to our delight, the kids have a fear of using the flusher.

We’ve parked at some amazing places

Then there’s the logistics of emptying our toilet cartridge. The cartridge lasts up to three days before it needs emptying or switching as there’s a spare one. I think it’s a pretty disgusting but obviously necessary job. There’s a certain way to pour it which Liam has down to a tee so much to my delight, it has become his job. These can be emptied at the campervan service areas which are mostly free or else they cost €1 or €2 in some places. We find these places in most towns and villages through our campervan apps.

Beautiful coastal driving is our favourite, would be easier in a smaller van though

We pull into a campsite every so often to charge up and clean out the campervan and make use of the hot (sometimes cold) shower facilities and washing machines. The ones we stay at in Portugal cost around €10-€15 per night but they are much more expensive in France and Spain. This is busy season here in south Portugal and Spain when during the winter months people travel down from northern Europe to spend winter in these campsites. In summer, the sites are mostly full with Spanish and Portuguese campers so the campsites have pretty much full occupancy all year round.

We’re all well used to this life now having lived in our campervan for the past six months. We each have our own little daily chores and routines. We get up every morning about 8am and Liam makes me coffee in bed while the kids have breakfast and chats. I roll out of bed and weather permitting onto the yoga mat by 9 (ish) and when I’m finished Liam does his Wim Hoff breathing and then after a little clean out of the campervan, we’re both ready to take on the day full of play and chill with the kids. If we’re on the move, we usually spend the morning searching for our next parkup and prepare for an afternoon of driving and exploring a new place. The next place always has to have a few key features like firstly it has to have good reviews of safety and it’s got to have somewhere for our dog Buckie to run around and then the extra pluses after that is if the place has electricity points, drinking water, a place to yoga, beach, playground, skate park or touristy things to do. The worst thing ever is when you pull into the place that you have researched and it’s not what you expected so we have to pull out our app and pack up again to find another spot.

We plan and cook our meals together and the main evening meal is our favourite time of day when we sit, eat and chat for an hour or so before bedtime when we read books for our kids. We’ve read many amazing books so far, some we have picked up along the way and our favourites are our ‘Stories from around the World’, lots of Usborne books, Enid Blytons ‘Enchanted Wood’, David Walliams ‘Mr.Stink’ and ‘The Midnight Gang’. We’re currently reading ‘Artemis Fowl’ by Eoin Colfer which is just brilliant and this week we saw the trailor for the movie which will be in cinemas next August 2019. I had goosebumps watching the trailor as I’ve read all those books as a teenager and absolutely loved them. I love getting to read them to my kids now so we’re all up to date before the movie is released. After the kids go to bed with their head torches and easy read books, Liam & I either stay up and chat over a glass of wine or else go to bed and tuck into Netflix on the iPad and we usually sleep like babies unless it’s thundering rain which is rather noisy in a campervan or even worse…if there’s a mossie in the house. It has to be one of the worst noises in the world when a mosquito floats around you at 2am.

Storage in the campervan is easy because we don’t have a lot of “stuff” since we got rid of so much of it at the start of this year. Actually we have too much storage. The kids have their clothes, a box of puppets, a box for lego and small toys and their bikes. There’s also presses for books, art stuff and board games. Liam and I have our clothes, Liam has his banjo and bicycle and I have a box of crochet stuff and that’s it. In fact, what little we have we still feel like we have too much and we have de-cluttered on a few more occasions along the way. We might even sell this campervan and buy a smaller one as we feel like this one is just too big for us, you may laugh but a smaller van would suit us better, easier to drive and it would be handier and cheaper to get around the place.

The kids are great at this whole van life and they have never been happier so at the moment it’s really working out for us. They meet new children every week, there’s always other van families around from all parts of the world and the kids don’t ever hesitate to go over to say hi. They have naturally learned so much about geography, history, languages, nature and have made so many friends along the way and they have documented some of their wonderful memories in their travel journals. My sister got them for the kids before we left Ireland and they are the best little travel journals made especially for kids by Lonely Planet with games and lots of fun learning exercises in them. We would recommend them for any kids even perfect for short holidays.

We have heard many people back home say “I would love to do that” and immediately follow that with but what about your kids schooling, your job, your pension, driving on the other side of the road, money, home-sickness, safety. When you make the big decision to do something like this and then actually make it happen, you find you become more open to new opportunities and no longer fearful of the what if’s. You get to live more and want less. There are so many options out there for people who want a change, new adventure or just want to get away, there’s house swaps but then it might be pretty hard to find a family who would like to live in rural Ireland in the depths of winter (maybe that’s just me), there’s woofing where you work daily on an organic farm for a few hours for your food and accommodation, you could volunteer or simply rent a cheap place for a while, opportunities are endless once you drop those fear barriers.

Our first Happy Birthday cake in the campervan

Many other van living couples and families live for a lot less than us while making money picking up little jobs along the way. Many of the lovely van living couples we’ve met are retired and every one has a different life story but the one thing they all have in common is they all wished the did it sooner. This life is short, talk to any elderly person and they will tell you that so it’s important to fill this short life with adventures and let go of our fears. When we look back at what our own fears were at the start, they are totally irrelevant and seem ridiculous now. We don’t need anybody to tell us that we’re doing the right or wrong thing, we know we’re doing the right thing. It’s right for us. I worry that some day it may be made illegal or something so it’s important that we keep these options open, continue searching for alternatives, face your fears, push boundaries and at the end of the day, do whatever makes you happy, this isn’t a trial run.

Ellen joins me for yoga
Forever on the lookout for a nice place to do yoga
The song ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd, gets me every time. Here’s the beautiful lyrics:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day 
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. 
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town 
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way. 

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. 
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. 
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. 
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. 

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking 
Racing around to come up behind you again. 
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older, 
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death. 

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time. 
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines 
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way 
The time is gone, the song is over, 
Thought I’d something more to say.

The slow life – Settling in Portugal

We arrived in Portugal almost three weeks ago and to be honest it’s been a bit of a blur. We moved quick in our first week in Portugal when left Galicia in north western Spain swiftly as a storm chased us all the way into Portugal. We drove so far, the exhaust actually melted the side bumper of the campervan. We pulled in to stopover at a little town just across the border in Portugal and woke up the following morning with wind and rain howling at the campervan. It seemed the storm had caught up with us, we got up, opened our blinds to find that every other campervan parked around us had left and we made our move once again. We drove the length of two Netflix movies when we found clear skies and shelter in the gorgeous little town of Porto de Mós. It was there where we crossed paths once again with the fun and lovely Whiting family from the UK. We met our fellow van living family Emily and Steve and their two girls Ada and Sylvie back in San Sebastian last month and it was so great to catch up again. We also made new camper van dwelling friends, Chris, Abby and their 5 year old boy Ed. It’s so great to meet all these lovely people who we will keep in touch with and I’m sure we’ll bump into them again along our travels.

Rainy day play time

We stopped in only two more towns before we reached the south coast, first the stunningly beautiful medieval town of Óbidos and the then the not so pretty industrial village of Sines. Óbidos was fabulous, we joined the Whiting family and our little convoy parked up by the aquaduct just beyond the walled town which is known as “The Wedding Town” as it was the traditional bridal gift of the kings of Portugal to their queens, a custom that began in 1282. A lot of the walls, streets and buildings in the town now are medieval although much of it was damaged during the earthquake that hit Lisbon in 1755.

The walled town of Óbidos

We loved wandering around the cobbled streets, shops, chapels, galleries and of course the odd tavern. We even attempted to walk around the perimeter wall which was below waist height along most of the outside wall, quite damaged in places along the path and no inside wall at all, a risk we couldn’t chance with the kids so we settled for a traditional drink called Ginja which was a cherry liquor served up in a dark chocolate cup and it was absolutely delicious 🍒

Traditional sitar player outside chapel behind was the location of the wedding of King Afonso V to his cousin Isabel in 1444 when they were only 10 & 8 years of age

Serving us up our Ginja’s in Óbidos

We parted ways once again with the Whitings as we were eager for some beach time and we drove as far south as we could that day and ended up in the village of Sines further along the west coast which was a stark contrast to Óbidos. We parked late in the evening beside a beach and woke up to discover a massive power plant just north of us. A local told us the plant sucks in water from the Atlantic to cool the station and pumps the circulated water back out. He said it’s not toxic and told us that the sea in this area gets as hot as 20-24’C. Little wonder that we found no trace of life whatsoever on the beach, not even a single shell only bit of plastic washed up on the shorelines. We didn’t chance a swim and kept on truckin’.

Sines, Portugal

Another thing we noticed on our drive through Portugal was the amount of eucalyptus trees. I remember hearing about the devastating forest fires here in Portugal last summer caused by dry lightning but we have since learned that the highly flammable eucalyptus tree may be to blame. We never expected to see so much of it here. There was some in Spain too but its everywhere in Portugal, all along the roads and motorways and all down the west coast, everywhere. Eucalyptus was first brought from its native Australia to Portugal in 1830 and it now accounts for a quarter of the country’s forest, displacing native trees and it’s currently the most common tree here. It took off from the mid-20th century when farmers began to grow it for the paper and pulp industry which is much more lucrative than the native cork industry. Portugal is the biggest producer of paper and pulp in Europe and we spotted the huge steaming pulp factories on the outskirts of towns and cities. For decades, efforts to contain the growth of eucalyptus ran into opposition from the powerful and wealthy paper industry leaders. Maybe with less and less demand for paper in the future, the cork industry might make a comeback.

Eucalyptus trees lining every road and lane

Once we reached the most south westerly point of Europe, it was time to chill. This is where we wanted to be this winter. We pulled up in the surfing town of Sagres on a 60 metre high cliff with the most amazing views overlooking the Atlantic ocean where we parked up alongside 30 or more other wild campers. We had everything we needed all within a 5 minute drive including an aire de servicio for emptying and filling our water, a lidl, a playground / skate park, beaches as well as a couple of tourist attractions. It felt like home, we got well cozy there amongst the surf dudes and best of all it was free and the weather was perfect, just what we had been looking for. We stayed there for nine days until the police came and kicked everybody out. There were campers there for much longer than us, I think the plan was to force everybody into the paid campsites.

Sagres, Portugal

During our time there we took a ten minute drive north to the next headland of Cabo de São Vicente (the Cape of Saint Vicente). Liam and I visited the lighthouse there ten years ago and we were actually very excited to go back. It has changed, I don’t think places are ever the same second time round. It’s a lot busier these days with many more tourists around and they’ve added a really interesting museum with the most angry security guard we’ve ever met at the entrance and a little café on site but the lighthouse itself still isn’t accessible. What hasn’t changed is the stalls outside the entrance selling woolly hats, ponchos and big heavy blankets. We bought a blanket there ten years ago which we use as a throw and it’s still as good as new so we splashed out and bought two more smaller ones for our beds.

Ellen, trying on ponchos at the local stalls at Saint Vincents Point

The lighthouse is one of Europe’s brightest lighthouses that can be seen for 60 miles. It was built in 1846 on the old ruins of a Franciscan monastery which was damaged in that Great Lisbon earthquake in 1755. The old monastery was dedicated to Saint Vicente, whose bones were apparantly found in the cliffs here and who the headland is named after.

We were so glad to be able to bring our kids to see it. It’s a really lovely lighthouse and headland where we stayed and watched the horizon for ages wondering how many sailors have been saved by its bright light.

Cabo de São Vicente

On another day, we took a stroll to the Fort of Sagres located on Portugal’s most south-westerly point. We could see it from our camping spot and just a ten minute walk away. It looked like a giant sandcastle and for €3 for the whole family we entered the fortress and explored the tip of the headland inside which had loads of information displays about wildlife, watched men fishing for sea-bream from the top of the massive cliffs and we saw its small lighthouse with a “Chamber of Sound” built beside it. The sound chamber is a concrete maze built over a blow-hole where you walk round it until you hit the centre and then stand on a metal grill, looking down to the sea and, as the waves break, you are encompassed in the sound of the sea. Such a cleverly designed little build which was both terrifying and amazing.

The Chamber of Sound and little lighthouse at the Fort of Sagres

The fort itself was built in the 15th Century to protect the town in a time when the Portuguese coast was often the target of raids from pirates but it’s not really a typical fort but more like a large wall that divides the mainland from the headland, with the other three sides protected by 60 meter high cliffs.

Much of the original fort was destroyed in the 1755 Great Lisbon earthquake and we learned that the resulting tsunami rose higher than the giant 60m cliffs. That tsunami actually reached Ireland four hours after the earthquake and flooded much of the Munster coast wrecking boats around Cork and even destroying parts of the Spanish Arch as far up as Galway.

Watching lads fishing from the edge of the 60m high cliffs.

While we were parked up at Sagres, we met some really cool people, we loved watching the surfers and felt so inspired by our surroundings. I finally, after a little hiatus from all the shit weather and driving, got back into my daily yoga practise and Liam got more into his own Wim Hoff Method practise. The kids loved it there, they played on the headland every day where they built their own fort and practised making ‘cave people’ tools.

Yoga and Play on the headland at Sagres

We could have stayed there longer but the police moved us on and so on we went eastwards through the Algarve region. The lovely town of Silves was our next stop. Silves is an ancient fortified town which was once the busy capital of Portugals Algarve and these days it is a quiet, calm and peaceful town where many storks hang out and we loved just strolling around spotting them.

Stork spotters

Storks circled gracefully, like in slow motion over our heads every day and we got to the know the resident storks who set up their massive nests on top of trees, pylons and rooftops. They are monogamous birds who can’t sing, they have no voice boxes but you can hear them communicating with each other by clacking their beaks which is actually really loud; at first we thought it was noise from roadworks. We have seen just a fraction of them here in the Algarve as they head south to central Africa for winter. I would love to see it here in Spring when they all return to their same nests every year. In Portugal it is illegal to disturb a storks nest and considered good luck if one nests on your house.

Storks nesting everywhere

We feel like experts in all things stork and we have researched and learned a lot about them, even how it became known for bringing babies to new parents. The legend is very ancient, but was popularised by the 19th century Hans Christian Andersen story called ‘The Storks’ and thankfully a nice story for inquisitive children.

High up overlooking the town of Silves is a huge castle built by “the Moors” between the 8th and 13th Centuries of local red sandstone. The castle has been restored in recent years since it was also affected and badly damaged in the earthquake in 1755. We strolled around the potholed battlements of the perimeter walls admiring the panoramic views while clinging onto our children as there were low walls and sheer drops on both sides.

The castle was built on older fortifications left by the Romans followed by the Visigoths. While the Romans had rule in Portugal, they transformed this town into a commercial center during the first few centuries AD and built the first fortificaction there. Then came the Visigoths (nomadic Germanic tribes) who invaded and defeated the Romans and their empire. They occupied and developed the castle further until the Moors arrived and built the restored castle we see today.

The Moors were nomadic Muslim people from North Africa who invaded Spain and Portugal in 711 when they defeated the Visigoths and they brought their Islamic culture and religion with them. I am just now beginning to notice their influence left here in the art, some of the buildings and some of the place names too. To the Moors, the Algarve was called Algharb (a word meaning ‘west’) and it seems they used the sound al- as a prefix on lots of place names here in Portugal which we are discovering and spotting on signposts along our travels.

Outside the entrance to the castle is a huge bronze statue of the second King of Portugal, King Sancho the first, son of King Alfonso the first who captured the Moors castle in 1189 only to lose it to them again two years later. From then on rulership to’d and fro’d between Christian Portuguese and Spanish forces who fought together (sometimes) against the Moors but it wasn’t until 1266 after many years of fighting when it was eventually definitely taken by the army of King Afonso III of Portugal.

When we were in Portugal ten years ago, our highlight was the little town of Albufeira. We have some fantastic memories from there and we had to go back to find the old town and taverns that we frequented. We searched for free places to park on our maps and apps and all of them had terrible reviews relating to safety and many campers had been targets of robberies in the town. It was first time we’ve seen such terrible reviews on our app and we wondered if we had the same town at all. We decided to stay at a paid campsite, the only one, and we arrived at one on the outskirts of Albufeira which was a ten minute bus trip away from the town. We took the bus in and began to wander towards the old town. Like I said before, a place is never the same second time round and that was the case at Albufeira. I was so sad to see it had been ruined by tourism. Every old building had been turned into a nightclub or an English or Irish pub with the tellies or tacky music on full whack, there was happy hours and cocktails plastered all over advertising boards and locals offering discounts and menu’s outside every bar. We passed at least two GNR’s too, they are a police station for tourist security and support. We haven’t spotted these stations anywhere else and found it odd that a little town would need more than one. We found our old haunt where we sat and watched people over a glass of wine. I didn’t even take any pictures in Albufeira, I guess maybe our expectations of the place were too high. We walked back to the camper and left early the next morning.

Our next stop was recommended to us by some friends we met back in Sagres, it is a cool campsite and just what we need right now to catch up and wind down. It’s a stunningly beautiful clean place full of art, pottery, birds, fruit trees, swimming pools and it has a sort of Hotel California vibe. We met one guy who came here two years ago for a one night stay and he is still here today, a common story from the campervan residents here. I don’t know how long we’ve been here or even how long more we are going to stay but while we are here we are enjoying good vibes and getting loads done. The kids love this place and they have asked us if we are all in a big dream. We’ve been on the move for a few weeks so it’s really nice to just chill and dream together and we couldn’t have found a nicer place to do it.

Being surrounded by so much inspiration, we are riding this creativity wave.

I’ve been accepted onto a month long Yoga Teacher Training course which starts in Spain in a few weeks and I’ve been busy uploading new handmade crochet items in my Etsy shop and have started work on my Hook Crochet YouTube channel where I am uploading free beginner crochet and Irish crochet lace tutorials. I am also putting together online class which will be available to order soon. This is something I’ve dreamed of doing for years but never had the “time” to do it. If you’re looking to try a new craft or learn more crochet, have a look and subscribe to my channel where I’ll be uploading lots of free tutorials for all crochet levels. Go on, give it a go 😉

Hook to Hercules

Last week, after dropping my parents back to Santander airport at the end of their visit over to stay with us in the campervan, we drove four hours west where we visited the Tower of Hercules in A Coruña which is the oldest lighthouse in the world located on the north west coast of Spain. This lighthouse has been on the top of our bucket list since we met ten years ago as it’s one of the greatest lighthouses in the world and it must be known by now that we are quite into lighthouses.

First glimpse of the Tower of Hercules driving through A Coruña
Hook Lighthouse stands 36 metres tall

We come from the Hook Peninsula in Irelands south east where Hook Lighthouse stands on the tip of the headland for the last 800 years. Hook lighthouse is the oldest intact lighthouse in the world that is still functioning today. It became fully automated in 1996 and in 1999/2000, the lighthouse keepers houses next to it were turned into a visitor center and the lighthouse tower was opened to the public. I began working there part time from 2001 between college and travelling and then full time in 2008 which is the year Liam started. He had been travelling at the same time as me, on a different adventure and when we both met at the Hook we hit it off straight away. We had so much to talk about and we hooked up. The following year we bought our first campervan and travelled all over Ireland, Wales and England and so began our adventures together.

The Celtic legendary figure Breogán

No adventure is complete for us without visiting the local lighthouses, we love them, who doesn’t and everywhere we go, we seek one out. We arrived at the Tower of Hercules in disbelief that we were really there, it was a bit smaller in real life and right slap bang at the edge of the city of A Coruña in Galicia. We’ve read and researched so much about this place and as sad as it may sound, we were a little starstruck by it. We parked up the campervan and eagerly skipped into the reception wearing our Hook lighthouse hoodies to buy our tickets. Four receptionists met us and we enthusiastically introduced ourselves, we proudly told them where we were from and felt a little annoyed that they really didn’t give a shit. They didn’t care where we were from, handed us our tickets and told us the balcony was closed due to wind that day. In our experience from working at the Hook, staff there always make time for people who arrive with lighthouse connections and if I was to greet staff from A Coruña lighthouse I would be so excited to welcome them and show them around the Hook. We arrived to the entrance to the lighthouse which was through a little shelter built around the foundations of the roman lighthouse and we walked through to the tower.

The Roman foundation located outside and around the lighthouse

There has been a tower here since the Romans built the original tower between the 1st and 2nd Century. Julius Caesar landed at what is now A Coruña in 61BC and the lighthouse was later built by the architect Caio Sevio Lupo, born in Aeminium and his well preserved Roman inscription can be seen in the shelter next to the tower. The original tower, was a lot shorter and wider than the current structure. The structure you see today was built in 1788 when the remains of the Roman parts were preserved and coated with its present facade. Later on they added the top finish and the lantern room.

242 steps to the top of the Tower of Hercules

The light at Hercules went out sometime in the 6th Century and for hundreds of years it was used as a fortress or a lookout point until it became abandoned from the 13th to the 16th Centuries when it was used as a quarry and was a source of stone for new buildings in the city. The city council tried to protect the tower but many parts of the lighthouse disappeared during that period. In the late 18th century, A Coruña became one of the most important ports in northern Spain and the city finally invested in restoring the tower.

A view of the city of A Coruña from a window at the Tower of Hercules

On January 4, 1788, King Carlos III officially authorized the restoration of the Tower of Hercules and the engineers Eustaquio Giannini and José Cornide designed the project so the works could begin. The project was as respectful as possible to not alter the existing remains and it must have been a massively innovative project at that time. The Tower of Hercules is still a working lighthouse, which sends light out every night. Every lighthouse has its own unique characteristic flash and the light at A Coruña flashes white, 4 times every 20seconds. It’s a national monument in Spain and in 2009 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and opened its doors to the public.

Looking up in one of the roman chambers
The city crest of A Coruña

A depiction of what A Coruña lighthouse would have looked in the 16th Century

As you can see from the outside of the tower, there is a sloping line going all the way around and up the tower. This line follows the pattern from the original tower which is where there would have been a ramp instead of steps enclosed between its interior and exterior walls which was used to bring fuel up to the light at the top. These lines now don’t serve any purpose but it is an interesting visual representation of what the tower would have looked and how it was accessed. To access the top of the tower now that there’s no longer the roman ramp, there was stone steps built inside the tower through the original roman stone chambers. These are typically roman barrell vaulted square chambers of which there are four on each floor and there are three floors. We really enjoyed exploring the tower but we were so disapointed that we couldn’t access the balcony at the top. We chatted to staff inside the tower and explained that Liam was a lighthouse caretaker in Ireland to see if they would allow him have a quick look but no such luck, worth a cheeky try though.

Overlooking Galicia from the Tower of Hercules

View from the top of the Hercules lighthouse

There are quite a few myths and legends associated with the tower. Right in front of the tower is a huge statue of a Celtic looking warrior and we discovered that his name is Breogán, a Celtic leader who built a tower at A Coruña, not this one though, that was Hercules obviously, lol. His tale came from the “invasions book” written by Irish monks in the 12th Century and let’s face it, these lads have been known to twist the odd tale or two. It’s the legend of Breogán who founded the city of Brigantia (now A Coruña) and when Breogan died he was succeeded by his son Íth. One day Íth climbed to the top of the tower, saw a mysterious green looking island on the horizon, Ireland of course, and he set off to conquer it. He must have had amazing eyesight! So, Íth set off for Ireland, where he met the country’s three kings of the Tuatha De Danann who had him killed. His followers brought his body back to Spain and his brother Mil returned with a large army to defeat the Tuatha de Dannan and establish themselves as the rulers of Ireland. I certainly don’t remember reading about that in the history books.

Chilling at the top of the Tower of Hercules, taking it all in

The Hercules legend is even better, afterall, it is the Tower of Hercules. The author of this legend was King Alfonso X (1252-1284) who linked the figure of Hercules to Spain and more specifically to the city of A Coruña. Once upon a time, there was a fearsome giant named Gerión (he was grandson of Medusa and nephew of Pegasus), who was King of all the lands and he was mean and kept the whole population under threat. Hercules went in to sort him out and after three days of fierce fighting Hercules defeated Gerión. He buried his head and ordered that a tower be built on top of it. In the city’s coat of arms, you can see the skull and crossbones representing the head of the fearsome giant that Hercules buried under the tower.

We’ve seen windier days

It was pretty windy

So that was A Coruña, I haven’t mentioned the Hook yet but it’s a place we are very proud of. It’s where we’re from, it’s where Liam & I met, where we got married and started our family. There’s no other place like it, it’s just an amazing and beautiful place. Hook lighthouse flashes white every three seconds and shines through the windows of our house every night. Its history is fascinating. There has been a light on the tip of the peninsula since the 5th Century when a Welsh monk named Dubhán settled on the Hook peninsula and built a chapel there. He saw many ships being wrecked on the peninsula and he started lighting fires along the headland to guide boats and warn sailors of the low lying peninsula and so began the first light on the Hook 1,500 years ago. “Dubhán” is an Irish word meaning fishing hook and that’s how the peninsula became known as the Hook.

Fast forward 700 years to the greatest knight. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (1147-1219) who was a crusador, a knight, a jousting champion and the most powerful of all the Anglo-Norman lords who came to Ireland in the late 12th century. He survived life in the turbulent courts of Kings Henry II, Richard III and John to become Regent of the Realm, Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster and the richest man in the British Isles by his death in 1219. The Archbishop of Canterbury, declared him ‘the greatest knight that ever lived’.

Standing in one of the windows at Hook lighthouse
That time it snowed
Birds eye view of Hook peninsula, Waterford Estuary to the west and the Celtic sea to the east. You can see the meeting of the tides, known as ‘the tower race’

King Richard the Lionheart granted that 43 year old Marshall marry 17 year old Isobel de Clare, daughter of Richard de Clare of Striguil, 2nd Earl of Pembroke aka Strongbow and his wife Aoife MacMurragh. Strongbow was a direct descendant of Rollo, the Viking warrior who established Normandy in the early 10th century. Isabels mother Aoife was the daughter of Diarmait Mac Murchada, the deposed King of Leinster. Strongbow died in 1176 aged about 45 when Isobel was only four years old and she became a ward of the Kings court and heiress of a massive estate that covered much of Leinster and Wales. Isobel was then brought up in England and Wales in the aristocratic Norman tradition and she apparently spoke Irish as well as French and Latin. There is a record of her being locked up in Chepstow Castle where she was protected by three watchmen, 25 men-at-arms and 10 archers. She must have been a very powerful woman.

Looking up into the fresnel lens at Hook Lighthouse

Isabel & William were like a medieval power couple and Isabel was very active in governing their lands. The Marshals founded Cistercian abbeys all around the same time as the lighthouse was being built including one at Tintern on the Hook peninsula as a thank you gift to God for granting safe passage across the Irish Sea during a very bad storm. They also built castles at Ferns, Carlow and Enniscorthy all in Irelands south east, while extending their castles at Pembroke and Chepstow which we visited a few years ago in our first campervan.

That’s us 6 years ago

By 1200, having built up Kilkenny and its castle it became the capital of Norman Leinster and they built the town of New Ross as its principal port. To reach these towns by boat, you must sail by the Hook peninsula and up into Waterford estuary which is known as ‘the graveyard of a thousand ships’ and so the decision was made to build a lighthouse on the point. It is assumed that William Marshall had Hook lighthouse designed by the Knights Templars and built by Cistercian monks, the same order as Dubhán. It’s a huge cylindrical stone structure with walls up to 4 metres thick in places. It has three floors, each with stone vaulted ceilings and a mural staircase of 115 steps built inside the walls. The monks maintained and tended the light at the Hook for hundreds of years. Coal was imported from Wales and stored in the ground floor which is called the ‘coal store’ and it is still covered in black soot. The monks used the coal to keep fires lighting in a brazier on top of the tower 100 feet up so it could be seen at sea.

In the lantern room with Daddy

Over the towers history, the light changed from coal fires to whale oil lanterns to coal gas to paraffin lamps and its keepers changed from monks to lighthouse keepers but what hasn’t changed is its structure. Apart from the dome lantern room at the top, the tower is entirely intact in all its medieval glory and so it is the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world and one of the top tourist attractions in Europe. My amazing mother, Ann, has been at the helm for over thirteen years as manager of the Hook and the attraction has gone from strength to strength under her management. On their trip over to visit us two weeks ago, Mam had to fly off a day early to pick up an award at the Savoy hotel in London where Hook Lighthouse was nominated for the award by the British Guild of Travel Writers and won, which puts Hook Lighthouse on the world stage and I am so proud of my mother, Liam and all my friends, the staff who work there for getting the recognition that they deserve. There’s no place like it and it really is the best lighthouse in the world.

There’s me Ma now

For further reading:

Our place in time – Exploring northern Spain

Having spent the last ten weeks driving through France and northern Spain, we’ve learned a lot about every province we have visited along the way. We’ve realised that every region sort of has a theme whether its historical, cultural, sport or alcohol related. Many of them are a combination of lots of interesting things and the provinces of Cantabria and Asturias in northern Spain certainly has the best scenery but the stand out theme of Cantabria has to be its many caves and caverns where you can observe the cave art and settlements of early humans and Neanderthals from thousands of years ago.

We arrived in Cantabria the morning after an attempted break-in to our campervan near Bilbao and we drove to the most beautiful spot where we parked just beside the Cabarceno Natural Park. There was a free aire de servicio right next to a huge lake full of birds and an elephant enclosure where elephants, water buffalo and gazelles roamed. It felt like an oasis and we chatted to lots of UK campers who were staying there too while waiting for the Santander ferry. We even met an Irish camper, Páidí from our neighbouring county of Waterford who just got off the ferry and was on his way to Lanzarote, a trip he does every winter. We spotted the Irish reg and went over to say hi and he looked at Liam curiously as if he knew him when it clicked, “you’re not Liam Colfer from the Great Lighthouses are you?!”. He had been watching the Great Lighthouses of Ireland series on Irish telly and remembered recognised Liam from it. We still haven’t seen it.

The Cabarceno park is 750ha of former iron mine turned into a natural space for animals here in Cantabria. I’ve never seen anything like it, it’s not a zoo and the 150 different types of animals from every continent that live here live in the hills in such freedom where they they fight & mate as if they do in the wild. You drive through the park in your own vehicle where you can jump out at designated parking areas to watch the animals. You can also take the cable cars which are running constantly over the entire park which was a great way to see the hippos under the lake and the brown bears camouflaged in the hills. We loved it, it was just what we needed after a shitty end to our trip through Basque country.

The view from our camping spot in Cantabria
Brown bears in the Cabarcena Natural Park
Deer roam freely around the park
On a cable car over the Rhino’s lake in Cabarceno
Zebra grazing by the Rhino’s with the cable cars running above
Driving around the park in the campervan was fun

We had a week to spend there beside the Natural Park while we counted down the days until my parents flew in to Santander for a four day visit and towards the end of the week, it rained, hard. Three full days of constant cold thundery rain, which is not the weather we expected at all, and after watching all of our netflix downloads and getting bored with playing too many board games we decided to get out for a day and visit one of the caves.

At the entrance to the El Castillo Cave in Cantabria

There are around 6,500 discovered caves in Cantabria and this region has one of Europe’s highest concentrations of prehistoric art dating back between 12,000 and 40,000 years. Lots of these caves collapsed during the ice age and have remained hidden for centuries and millenias. It is only now that some of these caverns and caves can be visited. The finest examples of cave art are in the Altamira Caves, known as the Sistine Chapel of cave art and a designated world heritage site so we decided to leave that cave until Mam and Dad came and waited to see it with them. Seventeen more caves in Cantabria were added as an extension to the Altamira cave UNESCO status, nine of which also have paleolithic cave art and on one of the rainy days we decided to visit the El Castillo Cave, “the cave of castles”, just south of Santander which is known for containing the oldest discovered cave art in Europe.

Gallery of Hands at El Castillo
Cave art at El Castillo, bison in red ocre

We arrived and paid €9 for the whole family to visit the cave where we were so lucky to get a private guided tour from Maria who was an English speaking guide. We joked about the weather being typically Irish, Maria said but this is typical Cantabria weather. Sure we thought all of Spain would be sunny all of the time. Maria was great, she really brought the whole history of the caves over the last 200,000 years to life and we were totally intrigued. At the mouth of the cave there were excavations where Neanderthal and animal skeleton remains were found as well as evidence of fires, tools and the food that they ate. Deep within the caves are paintings and outlines of animals; bulls, bison, deer & horses but most are simple hand stencils and red disks created by placing hands on the wall surface and blowing paint made of iron oxide on top of it. This very old ‘Panel of Hands’ is 37,300 years old and it is amongst these hands that there is a red disc that dates to more than 40,800 years.

A surreal feeling looking at these outlines of hands

These dates caused a bit of a stir as it was thought that Neanderthals didn’t have the capacity to make art and modern humans only arrived in Europe from Africa some 40,000 years ago so before that the only people here were Neanderthals who had been in Europe for over 200,000 years. Debate continues about whether the first art made here was the work of Neanderthals or of modern humans. Either way, there is something special about standing next to art that was created from 20 to 40 thousand years ago. Knowing you stand in the same spot where a paleolithic man or woman did all those years ago to paint and leave their print is a pretty amazing feeling.

A handprint from over 20,000 years ago in El Castillo cave

A couple of days later, it was time to pick up my parents at the airport. The kids woke up that morning as hyper as hyeenas while Liam & I cleaned the hell out of the campervan and filled the fridge with champagne and cerveza’s. We drove to Santander’s small, very handy airport just at landing time and five minutes later, Mam and Dad appeared through the sliding doors. The kids were ecstatic, the first glimpse of their grandparents in months, Ellen said it was her highlight of their time with us, an unforgettable feeling. Hugs all around and it was time to get back in the campervan and hit the road.

The whole family sitting around the campervan kitchen table

Our camper is a 6 berth one with two fixed double beds, one at the back and one over the cab and the dining table in the middle folds down so the cushions can be jig-saw’d together to make another double bed so there was plenty of space for us. Liam & I had a route planned with stopovers and we wasted no time at all and drove to the medieval town of Santillana del Mar thirty minutes from the airport. Santillana del Mar is a stunningly beautiful perfectly preserved medieval town and we parked down a hill in a little cobbled car park where there was five campervan spaces and we were the only campervan there. I’m usually a bit dubious when we are the only campervan, it’s reasuring when there are a few other vans around, safety in numbers I guess. Nevertheless, we strolled into town admiring its medievalness, visited its torture museum and headed to a cidreria, a cider house where your waiter pours you a cider from a height. It’s a traditional drink and there’s a particular pouring method where your waiter holds the bottle staight up over his head and pours it into the glass in the other hand as low as he can hold it. They pour just a bit into a large glass and you’re supposed to skull it. It tastes like cider vinegar to me and I didn’t want to embarras myself by making squinty faces so we left it to Liam & Dad to do the skulling while Mam & I had some vino blanco and then we left in search for somewhere to eat. As Liam & I are on a really tight budget and as vegans we haven’t eaten out once since we left Ireland. It’s expensive and very meaty but with Mam and Dad over we thought we should try to find somewhere suitable when just as it got dark and started raining again we came across an Indian restaurant with the only veggie dishes in the whole town and as luck would have it, it was closed. Plan B was to pull into a nearby campsite where we could plug in and cook up our own vegan feast but as we tried to drive up the little cobbled hill of the carpark now slippery from the rain, the camper couldn’t get a grip on the cobbles and spun on the spot. We thought we might have to throw the hat at it but on the fifth attempt with a cheer from Mam, the kids and I in the back and Dad shouting “give her the welly”, we got a good run at it and made it out, phew!

The cobbled streets of Santillana del Mar

The following morning, we drove to Altamira, the most famous cave in this region, in the world. Altamira Cave was discovered in 1879 & it was the first cave ever found with prehistoric cave art which attracted thousands of visitors over the years & to ensure its preservation, only 5 people a week can go to see the original cave. We bought our tickets where the receptionist advised us we would be seeing the replica cave. I had known this already but I thought the replica paintings were in an actual cave but when we arrived to the busy center and queued up for our visit we were rounded up into a large room where they had built a fiberglass cave. It was brilliant to see the beautiful replicated cave art but overall the experience was a little underwhelming to be honest, especially after seeing the real caves at El Castillo. There was no cave feeling in it at all, it was warm and dry and packed full of people. My Dad gave a little knock on one of the walls, joking, and a security man walked briskly over wagging his index finger at him and said “don’t touch the wall, don’t touch the ceiling, don’t touch anything”. Well we giggled like school children, Dad always somehow attracts this sort of attention everywhere we go and he didn’t see any harm in touching a fiberglass wall with replica paintings made with modern technology. We made a quick exit through the giftshop and explored the museum center instead. The center there was incredible, it contained many artefacts including bones, jewellery, tools and clothing found at lots of caves in the region and it had really great interractive cartoons, displays and games for kids. We spent hours in it learning so much about Paleolithic life and human evolution, it was really fascinating and the kids loved it.

Practising his rock carving at the Altamira museum
Paleolithic jewellery with engravings reminding me of Celtic ogham
Dad checking out the fake cave art

I’ll tell you a little of what we learned. The first footprints of walking primates were found in Africa and that’s where it all began for us two and a half million years ago. Humans physical and cultural evolution happened while adapting to different climates and surroundings and so different human species (hominids) evolved and co-existed. Neanderthals, one of them, existed in Europe from over 200,000 years ago until 28,000 years ago where they lived in caves and left evidence of how they lived. The roots of modern humans began in Africa 100,000 years ago and it was 40,000 years ago when modern humans arrived in Europe where we co-existed with Neanderthals until 12,000 years later when the Neanderthals disappeared without leaving any descendants and from then on Homo-Sapiens (us) became the only human species left on the planet. Mind = Blown

This is world-schooling
Alex loved the tusk from a wooly mammoth which was about a metre long
Skulls from various hominids

As Altamira cave is the jewel in the crown of Cantabrian caves, it’s heavily promoted here and the smaller caves, not so much. Maybe because they’re happy keeping the rest of the caves a little secret so they wont have to built replica fiberglass caves like at Altamira. It’s probably only a matter of time before they have to close more caves to the public anyway so we feel very lucky to have seen some “real” cave art back at El Castillo.

From Altamira, we decided to head west into the province of Asturias in search of actual dinosaur footprints. Yep, dinosaurs in Spain. We have a few dino lovers in the family, especially our son Alex who wore his favourite dino jumper for the day and we were paleontologists in search of these fossilised footprints along the coast from Ribadesella to the amazing MUJA Jurassic museum of Asturias 60km further on. The section of coastline there has fossilised footprints of dinosaurs from the Jurassic period ranging from small footprints of the flying pterosaurs to big ones like the Brachiosaurus all preserved in the rocks of northern Spain. We found the footprint sites in Ribadesella but they could only be seen on low tide and as Murphys law would have it, the tides weren’t right for us. It didn’t matter though, we were delighted to visit the Jurassic museum which had brilliant dinosaurs scattered all around the grounds outside beside its playground and had many footprints, bones, fossils and displays of dinosaurs, plants and other species who lived on this planet during the Cretacic, Jurassic and Triassic periods between 65 million and 250 million years ago. Dinosaurs ruled this Earth for more than 160 million years, a hell of a lot longer than us and it was an asteroid and aftermath of which that wiped them and other creatures out 65 million years ago during the Cretacious mass extinction. Most mammals, turtles, crocodiles, salamanders, and frogs survived. Birds escaped and so did snails, starfish and sea urchins. Even hardy plants fared okay.

MUJA museum, Asturias

Reproduction of a T-Rex skull
Real skeleton of dinosaurs, a bit surreal seeing them

It got us thinking and googling the history of the planet. Earth has already seen five mass extinctions, which we learned from watching Neil de Grasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” series on Netflix. A mass extinction is when at least half of all species on the planet vanish quickly. Today, many scientists think a sixth mass extinction is under way. While most extinctions in the past have been triggered from volcanic eruptions or asteroids, the blame for this one, which will be the fastest extinction in Earth’s history, falls entirely on the shoulders of humans. By the year 2100, human activities such as pollution, land clearing, and overfishing may drive more than half of the world’s marine and land species to extinction. It seems we have to do a lot more than ditch plastic straws to make a difference.

Some people we spoke to in the days prior to Mam and Dads arrival were a little suprised, shocked even that they would be staying in the van with us. We loved every minute though, Mam & Dad adjusted really well to van life, they didn’t mind wild-camping with us and we spent our last few days in our happy place wandering the beautiful beach and sipping wine and skulling local cider on the promenade and quay in the town of Comillas which was another really interesting seaside town. We loved our time in northern Spain and we can’t wait until they book their next trip over to us where ever we will be in the next few months. For now, south we go, to the sun!

Here’s a list of links to some interesting articles I’ve been reading over the last few days on the subjects above.