John and Tara Newby bought a van, converted it into a place they could eat and sleep, and set off in search of adventure.
“You must stay at home” Boris utters five crushing words, and that’s it; eight flights cancelled, hotel bookings doomed and the supermarkets run out of toilet rolls. A new normal we are told, well, it doesn’t feel very normal to me.
There are 193 countries in this wonderful world of ours, on seven continents. I have been fortunate enough to visit 163 of them, and the plan is to visit all 193, so when Boris told me that I must stay at home, its came as, well…a bit of a blow.
Let’s be clear from the start, COVID-19 has been horrible, and I fully agree that being socially responsible comes first, however, I couldn’t help but feel that there must be opportunity hidden in the doom and gloom.
And so, this is our story.
Today is the 4th of September, and we’re sat on a ferry departing Helsinki, Finland, heading to Tallinn, Estonia. At the beginning of June, the UK lockdown restrictions started to ease, and since then my wife and I have travelled to 10 European countries including alpine Austria, and counting, in our self converted camper van.
Travelling in a converted van and stopping to enjoy alpine views in Austria
With most transport, and government watch lists unreliable at best, when our plans began to take shape, we knew we needed to be able to be as reactive as possible; to slide into and out of each country, following the path of least resistance. So, we bought a van, converted it into a place we could eat and sleep, and set off in search of adventure.
Here’s what the campervan looks like:
It’s been an interesting experience, travelling during a global pandemic. The approach across Europe is at odds with the tense 45-minute Sainsbury’s queues we became accustomed to in the UK.
In Finland for example, there hasn’t been a mask in sight….. The Finns are confused by the concept
In Finland for example, there hasn’t been a mask in sight and whilst social distancing posters are dotted around, the Finns are confused by the concept.
I met one Finnish guy in a bar a week or so ago who, when told he must socially distance by 2 meters, asked whether that meant he should stand closer than normal to the people he was talking to. Finland, with so much space and a general preference by the Finns for solitude, has had the luxury of a more balanced approach to COVID.
Not every country in Europe has been like Finland. Since leaving the UK two months ago, we have been on the road, watching the news, reading daily COVID reports and guiding ourselves toward safer destinations, and of course, wherever possible, some sunshine.
Belgium required us to wear masks even before the UK had concluded procrastinations regarding the value of them. It felt sensible to us, Belgium isn’t Finland and it’s a tricky business to stay 2 meters apart. Belgium may have felt busy, but places like Brugge, a normally packed tourist town, were empty, allowing for relaxing strolls, finding a table for supper was easy and queuing for a waffle took 2 minutes instead of half a day.
COVID stopped most flights, and almost all long-haul flights. Travelling to far-flung regions of the world to pick up my last 30 countries feels like a pipe dream for the foreseeable. Sorry Saudi Arabia, thanks for the new visa, but not today.
This meant if I wanted to travel I needed to look closer to home. Having already travelled to every European country several times, the thought of more Euro-trashing didn’t inspire me much, so I started looking at places that had made it onto the “I will get there one day” list. Turns out, there’s quite a lot of them.
I’m now on a mission to revisit every European country, but this time, nudge into the corners, take advantage of the quiet tourist hotspots and most importantly, with no long haul flights in sight, take my time to enjoy it. And, with a new African wife who hasn’t seen much of Europe, I’m now a tour guide and tourist.
And let me tell you the real sweet spot of travel during a pandemic. Standing alone on the insta-famous cliff edge called Pulpit Rock, usually heaving with tourists, we looked out towards a mind-bendingly beautiful Norwegian wilderness and had only our thoughts for company. How’s that for social distancing.