We emerged from our guesthouse and onto a very narrow street with many streets running off in all directions. For the directionally challenged, this could be a house of mirrors. The sound of music and people chatter fill the air in quiet whispers carried on the breezes.
The streets are bits and pieces of cobbled stones, smoothed from the ages. Built on a hill, Lisbon is a challenge to get around but there are trolleys running up and down the streets. Side alleyways with hundreds of stairs are shortcuts around the maze. This medieval town boosts narrow streets that two people with outstretched arms, could touch wall to wall. Not built for cars but these juggernauts play dodge with the trolleys all day and night.
The side walks are also small white rock chips with stone curbs. The walker shares these with telephone poles, mailboxes and other people. I’ve seen a few brave souls on bikes ferrying their way through the back alley cafes and complicated streets.
Looking up and down each street intersection, one can see squaller and grand castles and churches. Graffiti liters the walls. Clothes hang outside on wires strung high above the streets to save on the cost of electricity. It doesn’t have the overwhelming stench of diesel fumes as in other European cities we’ve just come from.
Our room is in a guesthouse with different common rooms for sitting and cooking. Our room has an interesting arched room, which is left to the imagination of its use or significance. We have hot water for showers, air conditioning for a comfortable night sleep and a comfy queen bed. It’s simple but affords us all we need to sleep, shower and dress. I think this is gonna be a fun city to explore with its sidewalk cafes and little haunts with music and laughter pouring from the doorways and down long hallways.
We set out from Utah over a month ago. We said our farewells and hopped on a plane, one carry-on sized roller bag each, one shared large backpack, and a small carry-on pack each. All our worldly possessions in those bags. It was a bittersweet parting, but the world has become our oyster, and we plan to explore it for a few years. Our goal is to find somewhere we can settle down for a while, but never long enough for the grass to grow under our feet.
Our first stop was Ireland, an incredibly enchanting isle, full of wonderful food, drink, music and genuinely kind people. The scenery was jaw dropping gorgeous, the roads narrow and windy. We rented a camper van from Indie Campers out of Dublin…once a van lifer it’s so hard to break away from the freedom it affords. Our challenge…driving on the left side of the road, in a right hand drive stick shift.
I, being the navigator, was also reminding Chris to turn left stay left and turn right stay left as well. I’d say that after 5 days, she developed the muscle memory it takes to take on manning the controls on her own. For the next few weeks I still had my place not only getting us were we needed to be safely, I gradually returned the turn signals to her. She did splendidly, even coming to complete stops when a large truck or bus was barreling down on us. Next came the round-about or traffic circle. There were normally 3 to 5 exists out of each one it was just picking what one would take you where you needed to go. Mostly we had GPS to tell us where to go. I would sit with my arm out like a compass needle pointing our way through each and operating the turn signal as Chris shifted. What a team we made!
I think what I loved the most about this fine country, was the architecture and the accompanying tales of the families over hundreds of years. Some buildings were built as far back as 1200. Tales of Vikings, Norse, Kings, and many other European invaders and religious conquests.
Political and religious history all incredibly fascinating, and standing in front of you was the building that saw all this history and still stood tall. Generations upon generations of land ownership and the hard work it took to eek out a living. Stories of whole villages wiped out by famine, war or plague. The flight of millions across uncharted waters to the New World of America. Strong and proud people.
Scotland was our next stop. We had made no plans except to rent another van and see where it took us. After the first few days in Ireland, we were in a bit of a panic about driving for another two weeks. Our initial plan was to drive the 515 +/- miles around the North Coast 500. It is a windy, mostly single track, paved road that hugged the north west coast all the way to the most northern tip of Scotland and back down the north east coast. We had seen pictures of the roads, but it was the scenery that was the biggest pull.
When we picked up the van we were thoroughly convinced that we didn’t have the driving skills, or perhaps courage, to take it on, so we began to make other plans. We made our way to Inverness, the start of the NC500 and booked a pitch at a wonderful campground. It was here that an older British man in a camper asked us if we were going to drive the NC500? I stood there as he explained the beauty and the chance to see huge cliffs and mountains. He was so convincing that we could do it, we had to give it a go.
The North Coast 500 started out as a big 4 lane road that meandered through bright yellow fields of grape seed farms, shaggy cows and fields of sheep grazing on the intensely green fields. The first real choice is whether to drive clockwise or anti-clockwise. We chose to do it clockwise so we could get a little more time driving under our belt before we tackled the 12-15% grades on the most northern end. This proved to be a wise move since most do it anti-clockwise. The roads quickly became narrow with a soft side, if at all. We were happy that the Scots weren’t as rock wall happy as the Irish and we didn’t feel that we’d take out the side of the van.
Passing became a common occurrence. It was quite simple really. One vehicle coming would pull off in a ‘passing place’ and flash their lights signaling to the oncoming driver to pass as they waited. This meant that you not only needed to pay attention to the road, but also look further ahead, sometimes a mile. The worst was the big truck, of which we didn’t pass many the first few days. They owned the roads and would rarely even slow down when passing and hardly ever stopped for you to pass. The tour buses as well would take their half out of the middle and some. We found both quite rude. There was one road right off that cautioned campers not to use it and an alternate route, 17 miles out of the way, was recommended. We sided on caution and the drive was spectacular. At the end of everyday of driving tho, Chris was spent. A cold beer was always waiting in the fridge.
Wild camping is allowed in Scotland. There are only a few rules. Don’t block and entrance or road, don’t park in a passing place and mind private property. We didn’t make any reservations hoping we could access some of these wild camping areas. We passed by several lovely pull offs that other campers had chosen but never did wild camp. Mainly because we didn’t want to use the toilet in the van to do anything but pee. The second reason was the fridge in the van ran off the batteries if not plugged in. Our van we built had solar so wild camping for weeks was not an issue. Here tho, if the fridge drew down the battery, there was no AAA or roadside assistance that could bail you out. Established campgrounds cost between €\£ 24-38 a night and all had running water and electric hook ups. This gave us peace-of-mind but also an added expense we didn’t plan on. So be it…from that first night on we made reservations.
We gave ourselves 9 days to do the whole route. By the time we reached Ullapool on the middle west coast however, the roads were getting steeper and the traffic heavier. We chose to head an hour and a half, which really meant 2-3 hours and set out across the middle to Golspie. From there we headed up to the north anti-clockwise, to John O’Groats and Dunnet Bay for a 2 night stay. The huge cliffs were a rookery for seabirds and wind swept green grasses grew right up to the tops, creating an incredibly stark contrast. We camped at Dunnet Bay right at the edge of the sea and nestled in the grass covered dunes. The next morning we set off for the Northern most part of Scotland for an obligatory photo shoot by the John ‘O Groats pole, then headed back down to Inverness and back across to Edinburgh.
The next morning we turned in the van for good. After driving in Ireland and Scotland for a month, it is time to move on to our next stop. Portugal!
The NC 500 is a ring road around the North east to North west coast of Scotland. We bagan in Inverness and decided to go clock-wise. The roads are quite varied from single track to double lane, some with curbs, some rock walls, some guard rails, all narrow.
The first few days, we ran into a few cars coming anti-clockwise around the road. Having been in Ireland, where the roads are much narrower, Chris was up to the challenge. The views from all directions are, simply put, breath-taking. The further north we go, the more small towns and single homes we pass. Mostly fishing villages. The history dates back hundreds of years.
Our first stop was in Applecross. A small town at the end of the road. There are two ways in; the first is a winding switchback road that shoots straight up into the highlands with accents and descents at 20% grades and hairpin, single track roads. This is not recommended for anything bigger that a Type T2 VW camper. The second takes off out of Shieldaig, also a single track with passing points, but is a more gradual meandering road along the coast. It is a 23 mile trek in and 23 back out. From your final destination, Applecross, you are awarded with the beautiful Isle of Skye vistas and a proper sunset, providing the clouds part. Sunset is currently at 10pm and sunrise at 4:40am and we are still a month away from the longest day.
We set our next destination as Gairloch and ventured about 4 miles outside of town to Big Sands, a camp area situated in the first and secondary dunes. The camp is spread amongst the dunes on grassy pitches, some with electric and others without. It is in this small sea that hundreds of bottle nose dolphins and basking sharks can be seen on a calm clear day…of which we had neither during our stay. We were graced with a few hours of clear skies and sun, but with a constant 10mph wind, the sea was awash with white caps, making it difficult to do any spotting.
Today we headed further north to Ullapool. This is a big port city, okay not very big city, but the port services 2 car ferries out to the Isle of Lewis. From there you can caravan around and take a ferry to Isle of Skye and back to the mainland.
In Ullapool, there isn’t much going on past 6pm. We snuck in just before closing time, to the Seafood Shack, a food truck serving only fresh and sustainable food at very reasonable prices, at least for fish and crab offerings. The ferry had just landed so the place was jammed. We placed our order, Chris got the Halibut wrap and I opted for the dungeness crab, both served with a healthy serving of green salad.
We are starting to settle I to a life of van travel again, this time without Gandaulf. I do get my share of puppy lovin’ for sure. Every dog I give scratches to, seems to know I am missing my boy. He would’ve enjoyed playing here, so much room to run, and water to swim in.
Around every turn is another gasp at the beauty, another picture postcard moment. We still have nine days left in our Scotland itinerary. Can hardly wait to see what the far north and north east has to offer. Cheers!
The fun part of traveling is culture and how it effects everything from the architecture to the music.
We landed in Edinburgh on Sunday and were picked up by some friends we met in Nepal and have stayed in touch with for the last 4 years. The internet makes the world so small and staying in touch so easy. Ivy and Leo made us feel right at home and put us up for the night. The next day we were escorted into Edinburgh by our new found tour guide and treated to a lovely history lesson.
We next picked up our camper van and headed out on new roads in a new country. Off to Perth for a quick walk-about and to admire the beautiful city which seemed abandoned vs Edinburgh. I felt a bit of sadness for the shops and owners, but I am a foreigner so what do I know.
We have traveled today to Inverness for another overnight on our way to the NC 500, a ring road around Scotlands most northern coastline. Ancient coastal cities of Highland Scots and Viking cities of old. We are hoping for fair weather travel and not so narrow and windy roads.
One of the best things to do when in these wonderful lands is to enjoy the local pubs and a bit of the local folk music. Dance and sing if you choose to do so. So much history and heart in each song. A fun way to end a long days travel.
Today, we close the circle. Our travels through Ireland will conclude in 24 hours from now. Still, to this day, I’m not over the beauty. The thousands of shades of green. The incredible rich, vibrant colors of all the many flowers blooming as far as the eye can see. The hundreds of castles, churches and abbeys, holding the past inside their rocky, vine covered walls, like ancient time capsules. The bright smiles and chipper hellos from locals and travelers alike. The numerous small towns with their brightly painted buildings and historic pubs. I doubt that the memories will fade anytime soon.
I think the most interesting was hearing stories of the struggles of the proud, hard working Irish. The stories of sorrow and triumph. The strong, proud individuals that tried to make a difference for their countrymen in the time of need. The big men and women with large hands and kind hearts. The thick accents that change slightly as we traveled from county to county.
There were many times that I would be listening to our driver and I could envision the people he was talking about laughing and a dozen small children running around underfoot. The homes and land passed down through generations upon generations. The miles and miles of rock walls, the sheep dotting the green hillsides in white and pastel colors, splashed upon their backs showing ownership. The border collies running after them. Life, so simple and so hard.
When we started planning this journey we really had no idea of what we were setting ourselves up for. We’ve never driven a right hand drive stick shift on the left side of the road, first of all. Secondly, we’ve never driven an “over-sized rig” on narrow roads. So perhaps we can save you some scary unknowns.
I’ll first start off with the advice we were given by a local bus driver…hug the white line. That means claim your space. The white line is the middle line, hugging it means your left hand side mirror stays out of the brush covering the rock walls lining the luge run.
Second tip, stop if you are nervous to pass and let the vehicle coming at you pass you. The alternatives…Loosing your right hand mirror and a possible head on collision.
Third, don’t let the vehicles following you intimidate you. There is plenty of opportunities for you to pull over, safely, and allow them to pass. If they are in a big hurry, which most drivers here are not, then they can pass when the law allows. You just need to slow down and allow them to overtake you.
Forth, there are red roads, orange roads and blue roads on the maps. These seem to be the widest, most of the time, and perhaps a bit quicker. Once a bartender laughed at us by not wanting to take the fastest route. He said, “it’s okay girls…there’s less traffic.” Well we risked it and the road was pretty much a one lane country road with pull overs to allow for on-coming cars to pass. This means you must pay attention and look beyond the road straight ahead.
Lastly, have a co-pilot that can remind you to turn right and stay left and turn left and stay left. You may think, that’s not necessary… maybe so, but when you’re trying to drive thru a traffic circle, shift, operate your blinker and exit at the proper time, it helps.
So, these are what we have been challenged with. Hopefully these few tips might help if you plan to travel to a European country that does use the left side to drive in a right hand drive vehicle.
What a glorious day indeed! The Irish coastline of Kerry, a fiord on the southeast side of the island surrounded by the Atlantic, is a magnificent combination of history and lore, blight and famine, conquest and survival. The peninsula is very isolated 179km of narrow, windy roads that takes off out of the small town of Killarney, Ireland. The drive takes approximately 3.5 hours without making any stops.
After our driving experience, we opted into taking a tour so Chris could admire the scenery, and not be so stressed. Turns out this was a fabulous idea and our driver gave us driving tips. He was a 68 year old from the O’Sullivan clan who had personal history living out on the peninsula as a boy. He drove milk trucks from village to village and had quite a reputation. As with all your drivers, he was a wealth of knowledge, singing, reciting poems and passing on the history.
I guess what struck us the most was the incredible shades of green. The incredible contrasts of the yellow Gorse bush or Furze. It is said that Furze bushes, like all other thorny bushes in Ireland such as hawthorn and white thorn, belong to the Sidhe, and often guard their portals to magical realms. It is a magical bush looked over by the fairies of the land. Folklore has it, that if a bride cuts a sprig and puts it in her bride bouquet, she will have all the luck of the Irish.
The Irish Black-faced sheep are also scattered around the towering hill sides. The only way to bring in the sheep from these craggy hillsides is with a sheepdog. I spent about 45 minutes watching one of these small, sure footed dogs in action with his shepherd. Amazing agility and speed, controlled mostly by different whistle tweets from as far as a quarter of a mile. I thought about Gandaulf for a moment and how he loved the chase.
We had a local lunch at “the most beautiful lookout in all of Ireland in fair weather”, or so the sign said. I had my first lamb stew and Chris had the shepherd pie. The view was indeed spectacular of the bay and the mountainous islands as the fog held light to the peeks. A statue of Mary standing on a serpent stood in the middle of a stone ring looking down on us with outstretched hands and a soft welcoming gaze. I felt blessed once more to be having this adventure.
Today began our Ireland trip. Our jet lag is finally waining and we are getting down to a new circadian rhythm. Overall we are getting into the groove of travel again after quite a long 6 month hiatus.
We grabbed a taxi into the little town of Blarney, on the southern coast just a few miles north of Cork. The history of Ireland is steeped in powerful lords and many wars. The landscape is dotted with castles and villages surrounding these monolithic towers of rock, most all older than the first settlements in the US. Even the woolen mill was older than my first “historic registry” home in Utah.
I will be the first to admit that I am an ignorant American. Hells sake, I don’t even know how to physically dial a non-US phone number. At least I am not ashamed to ask and our campground host, Rebecca, was a pleasant young woman who was more than eager to educate me. Better to ask than pretend you know something you don’t.
Our visit to the lovely little town of Blarney, was like stepping back in time. The town is based around a castle built in the 1400’s. It remained in the family for centuries. In the 1800’s the Blarney Home was built. The castle is the home of the “blarney stone” given by the witch of the lake to one of the sons who rescued her from the lake. He was afflicted with a stutter and following the witches directions implicitly, he found the stone and kissed it as instructed. His life then changed as he became a fluent speaker and was given “the gift of gab” as it is said to do. Even until this day, the lines to ascend the castle stairs to the top floor where the Blarney Stone is at rest, just to give it a kiss, is at least an hour long.
The gardens surrounding the Blarney Mansion and castle, were in full display. The variety of flora and fauna planted was in full bloom. The magnificent colors were amazing. I didn’t know so many colors existed in nature. Anything from brilliant reds to flesh peach and salmon orange. Purple flowers, buttercup, and wild garlic filled the air with fragrance.
The most harrowing part of the day was the 2.5km walk back to the Caravan Park (campground). The road started out with a sidewalk, but quickly became a narrow road full of blind turns and no way to get off the road if two cars should pass by at once. The sides of the road was 3-4’ high thick growth which included its fair share of stinging nettle, which is normally found in riverbanks at home. By the time I realized what it was, Chris and I had both inadvertently come in contact with its viscous little hairs.
We finally made it back in one piece and toasted our 7 miles of walking in one day. The day ended with showers, laundry and a recap of our day.
It’s been a good day except for the 2 hours of driving. The countryside is gorgeous. The famous rock walls are now covered in a thick coat of green.
The roads are narrow and the means to an end if you want to see the small towns and castle/church ruins dotting the landscape.
Our choice of a van, the same size as our old van, was a good one at the time. Our driving skills are good but to combine the small rural roads, driving on the side of the road unfamiliar to us, a right hand drive and a stick shift, and we are like fish out of water.
We made it! It seemed like a long haul. It’s not been a very good one for me so far. I managed to get the stomach bug going around and allowed myself to get dehydrated bad! I guess with the jet lag and brain fog, I didn’t put two and two together. Fever, the runs and three red eye flights don’t work well together.
The van we picked up has been used hard! Coming out of The Turtle, this will take a bit of getting used to. First off, she’s a right hand drive and a stick shift. We drive on the other side of the road than we are used to so everything just seems a bit backwards.
Last night was our first full night sleep in the van. We went to bed, exhausted and exasperated, at 9:30 and didn’t stir until noon. Check out was at noon but no one came around to kick us out. It took a bit to get our bearings and I was trying desperately to convince myself I was well.
The first thing that became apparent was the WiFi we rented doesn’t work. Now we don’t know about the stove or hot water. The WiFi was to be our guidance for point A to point B. There are round-a-bouts everywhere and it’s hard to know ahead of time where to exit out, plus you have to remember to go in to the left, not right as we are used to. We almost pulled out in front of a delivery truck because we naturally look left. Here we turn right, stay left and look both ways.
We ended the day in a pub called Matt the Miller, a quaint little pub on the corner of the block on the waterfront. They have 3 pages dedicated to whiskeys alone. The burger I ordered was delicious and Chris ordered a pizza. A pint of Kilkenny for me and a Guinness for Chris. Live Irish music and the pubs decor just made for a pleasant end to an otherwise stressful day. Leaving the pub, the Kilkenny Castle was lit up and reflecting on the river. Beautiful. Cheers!