In the summer of 2005 we both retired at the age of sixty. In August we closed the door on our house and set off on a journey that was to last thirteen months and take us to eighteen different countries throughout Europe.
It all began several years ago. With retirement still no more than a rosy glow on the distant horizon, we set off in our elderly, battle-scarred Volvo for an autumn holiday in Italy. Our goal was to drive to Padua, find somewhere to stay for a few days and continue to Venice by train. We had only a fortnight before we needed to be back at work but because we also wanted to visit French friends in Normandy on the way out and others in Franche Comté on the way back we opted to drive rather than fly. In any case, we have always preferred to "travel hopefully" and independently. Nor do we always arrive at our intended destination, being easily side-tracked on the way. This trip was no exception. It started to rain as we arrived in Padua. By the time we found somewhere to stay it was teeming and by the following morning the streets were awash with water, gutters overflowing and the dark clouds over the city were promising days of similar weather. We stuck it out in Padua for several days but the streets of Venice remained flooded and the rain showed no sign of stopping. As our fortnight's holiday trickled away we were forced to abandon our plans and set off on the long drive back towards England.
It was then that we had our vision. If only we were retired and had a little camping car this weather wouldn't really matter. We could simply travel further south, to the sunshine of Florence perhaps, and return to Venice when the weather improved. From that moment the idea began to develop. We have friends in several countries of Europe with whom we have always retained a warm contact but we have seen all too rarely. Released from work and with a small camping car we could take to the byways of Europe, explore its natural and man-made splendours, meet new people, visit friends again, become Old Age travellers – as opposed to New Age ones – and enjoy a gap year between work and retirement while deciding what we want to do with the next stage in our lives.
Plans for our Great Escape began with a search for a suitable vehicle and making financial arrangements to retire at the earliest opportunity. We purchased a second-hand tiny Romahome slightly earlier than expected when our faithful Volvo made that final journey from which no vehicle returns. We named our new travelling companion Modestine, after the faithful but sadly unloved donkey that accompanied the writer Robert Louis Stevenson on his journey through the Cevennes in 1878. Our metal Modestine, paradoxically received great affection from us and curious interest from so many of the people we were to meet during our journey. We were warned by our children that we should not anthropomorphises an inanimate object as she wouldn't like it! We beg to differ. She appears to have developed a definite personality during our travels, patient and willing certainly, but with a skittish, flirtatious personality. She has also displayed occasional moments of sheer wickedness, such as the chilly February morning on a deserted beachside campsite in northern Spain when she contrived to lock us out in the rain for several hours in our nightclothes, the wind howling in across the Bay of Biscay!
Faster than we could have imagined, the day for retirement dawned for each of us. We arranged for some young work colleagues to take care of our house during our absence, purchased a laptop computer and a digital camera and set up a website on the internet so that we could report back to our family and friends as we progressed on our journey, deliberately largely unplanned, just seeing where chance and luck would take us.
And so we set off across the English Channel to follow our star on perhaps the most exciting, stimulating and enjoyable experience of our lives.
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