Exploring Romania, Bulgaria and the Black Sea Coast

After my (shorter, thanks Covid) summer holiday in Hungary this year I ventured out to Plovdiv in Bulgaria where I had some paperwork to do. I decided to route via Romania and explore a bit off the beaten track.

My route followed the Serbian border and I went to a camp at a lake in the South West corner of Romania near the town of Hunedoara. The camping is right on the lake and was spectacular.

From there I routed south of Bucharest and initially tried a crossing into Bulgaria that Google suggested, but that was shut. I had to reroute and cross at Calafat. The roads were narrow and slow going, with some interesting traffic, but it was relaxed and easy.

sdr

Once in Bulgaria I headed straight for Plovdiv and I was so deligthed to hear about a new camper stop that opened there. It’s about time! Here’s a video I did about it:

Then it was time to explore the Black Sea Coast. My friend Vera who lives in Bulgaria now gave me a ton of wildcamping and campsite recommendations to explore and so off we went.

The first stop was on a cliff edge with amazing views of the ocean, where plenty of others were also wild camping. An absolutely super stop – Dyuni beach, south of Sozopol.

Just look at this sunset view!

From there I headed up further north and found a super little municipal campsite just below Topola, in a quiet resort and fishing village. Again, with spectacular views, and at €15/night it was well worth it.

It really is a super little town and offers superb scenes almost anywhere you walk.

Olli and I are staying here for now till this weekend and then we’ll explore the Romanian side of this coastal route a bit.

Overall, I’m so impressed by the Black Sea Coast – I really had no idea what to expect but I did not expect the scenery to be so great. We’re also very lucky with the weather – averaging 30 degrees in the day and cooler evenings.

I will certainly come back to this part of the world, and if you’ve not been, I highly recommend it.

Tesa Autolevelling for my motorhome

I’ve always been very keen to get an auto-levelling system installed in my motorhome but I’ve been put off by the high cost and weight of the default hydraulic systems.

I saw an electric solution developed in Italy called Tesa and contacted a few UK dealers about this, but they were all quite booked up with appointments. As I was driving through Italy on my way to Hungary I tried my luck and contacted Tesa in Italy, who immediately put me in touch with a dealer near Milan called Carrozzeria DI.VI.CAR.

They were excellent – in the video I mention them again but if you ever need this system installed and you can do it in Italy, go to DiVi Car, you will not regret it. You can stay there the night before (as indeed some other people where doing) and Leonardo, the owner, will give you excellent advice overall on your motorhome’s suspension and more! I actually ended up getting rear air suspension put in as well which I can now control from the driver’s seat, and it makes for an incredible difference in the quality of the ride, not to mention the safety aspect.

They have power, water and drainage facilities there including chem toilets and really could not be more helpful. Mirko will reply to your email inquiry and speaks good English.

Overall I’m really happy with the system – it’s lightweight, bother-free and works really well, and the end result of having your motorhome on a levelling system is just incredible. It’s so stable!

You can contact DiVi car on info@carrozzeriadivicar.it or visit tesalist.eu/en for possible other locations.

Via Switzerland to north Italy

After Holland I routed via Switzerland to get to just north of Milan in Italy, where I was going to get an electric auto-levelling system installed.

My good friends Bryan, Sheila and their dog Ziggy have a house in Grimentz, Switzerland and so I routed to pass near them and we met up in the village of Sierre for a quick breakfast. It was super to see them again.

We took a pic of the dogs but not of us!

I found an incredible municipal overnight stop in the village before which offered a spectacular 360 view that was priceless.

Whilst it was fantastic to be back on the road again, I did encounter an issue with my new compressor fridge. Essentially, I did not tie down the thinner gas line and with the vibration of the driving, it snapped.

I can recall smelling quite a distinct smell and it must have been the freon escaping from the system. This means I was going to loose the frozen seabass and other goodies in my freezer! I gave Bryan and Sheila two of the seabass and tried saving the other food. I called ahead to the Italian dealer that was going to do the auto levelling for me and he put me in touch with a Vitifrigo technician that was near them. (Luckily, the fridge is an Italian brand!)

I managed to find him after a few very tight turns in neighbourboods I’m sure I was not supposed to drive in. He promptly re-attached the gas line and refilled the compressor with gas right there on the side of the road! All sorted.

Then I went on to the auto levelling installer – but about this I’ll write in the next post.

Wonderful Gouda, Holland

We’re back on the road again! With the travel restrictions finally being lifted, Olli and I left from Harwich in the UK late last night on the overnight ferry to Hook of Holland in the Netherlands.

I like coming on that route as it’s close to Suffolk where I’m usually based when I’m in the UK, and Hook of Holland is just generally nicer than the Calais scene. With my South African background I also get to enjoy The Netherlands a little bit more, as I can understand and converse with the locals (albeit a bit slower than they might like) and read the road signs and shop names.

A year ago I’ve discovered a superb parking place in the heart of Gouda, the Dutch city famous for the cheese by the same name. I enjoyed it a lot so I’m back, and this time will stay a day or two, just enjoying the freedom of being out and about and taking in the sights of the town…not to mention the local food, drinks and extras (and obviously cheese, already bought some!).

Face masks now becoming a fashion item it seems
We took the same photo a year ago

The city really is very beautiful with amazing architecture everywhere and a beet relaxed atmosphere, and it’s superb for cycling, obviously being Dutch and all.

If you’re ever in the area with your motorhome, park at Klein Amerika parking, it’s €8/day and there are also electric hookups if you need them. The location is super, right in the heart of town, easy to walk around.

Switching to a more efficient fridge for the motorhome.

The default fridge/freezer in most motorhomes is a 3 way one that can use either gas/lpg, 12v (whilst driving) or mains 240v electricity. It is however in most cases an absorption fridge, meaning it does not have a compressor and pretty much makes no noise.

However, it’s not very efficient, and can consume a lot of power – which was exactly the case with the fridge that came with my 2019 Burstner motorhome, it was a Dometic model and whilst pretty good and quite suitable for occasional use, it was not suitable for full-time, off-grid living. It demanded 180w pretty much all the time and would really eat into my lithium batteries overnight.

So, it had to go! I’ve had this project on the cards now for some time but finally got round to it with the help of a local carpenter and now I have this slim Vitifrigo fridge/freezer that has a 12v compressor, and consumes less than 50w when it’s actually running, which is only when it needs to top up the cold air again.

It’s slighly narrower than the previous fridge but a lot taller, and the compressor itself is seperate. I therefore lost the drawer space underneath the previous fridge and had to make the cupboard above a bit smaller but all in it looks great.

We cut a hole underneath the fridge to allow the hot air from the compressor to cirulate out.
The old absorption fridge, now sold!

Initially I wired it up to what I thought would be sufficient power but the distance in the wiring from the batteries, combined with the wiring not being thick enough, meant the compressor could not get enough power. This took some figuring out but I re-wired it to a temporary piggy-back off the TV/sat system’s power whilst I have arriving soon proper, thick and long wiring that I will put in direct from the batteries to the compressor.

When I did the research on this some motorhome owners we warning me about compressor noise and being a nuisance in a motorhome … so I was a bit worried about this. However these fridges are specifically made for boats and motorhomes and the gentle little “purrr” that it makes only when the compressor runs, hardly bothers me. It even has a “night mode” button that will make it run even less infrequently (and hence quieter) but thus far I’ve had no need to use that.

I can immediately see the improvement in power consumption – whilst initially it drew a of power, now that the fridge has cooled down it maintains it with very little power. So much so I reckon my batteries will hardly drop below 80% overnight, I will be testing this all soon and see if that’s the case!

The motorhome is currently just on solar/lithium power and I can see when the compressor kicks in, it demands around 50w max, which my Victron system happily matches with solar:

So far, I can absolutely recommend making this change if you’re struggling with keeping your power hungry absorption fridge happy whilst wild camping.

Staying at home in the motorhome

I hope this post finds you well and safe during the global Coronavirus pandemic.

I am in social distancing mode in the UK, after just making it back in time in mid March before all the borders closed.

It’s been strange in a way that as routines go, not much has changed for me as I’m on my usual spot when I’m in the UK and as we are still allowed out for walks and runs, Olli and I can still enjoy the super surroundings of Woodbridge, and I go to the garden office we’ve had for many years now, to work.

Low tide along the river Deben in Woodbridge

However normally by now I would have been heading to Italy and then over to Hungary… But it seems very unlikely I’ll be in my usual camping spot in Hungary this summer, though it could be an option late in August, who knows where this pandemic will take us.

I guess should we be OK to allow more movement in the UK by the summer, Olli and I might tour Scotland a bit this summer. I suspect a few whiskey tours might come up!

Keep safe and stay at home to fight this pandemic!

Driving through Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic

I’ve been on the A4 road north of Paris many times, but I’ve never seen it so void of people and cars. I had to drive from Frankfurt to the UK just as France not only closed it’s borders, but also wants people to stay at home to help curb the spread of the Corona virus.

As such I had to explain several times to police I’m heading “home” and need to get to Calais. Luckily the motorhome has a GB registration. Scenes along the way looked like a typical “the world has ended” movie… Deserted shops, empty streets and only trucks, motorhomes, ambulances and on a very morbid note, noticeably more undertaker vehicles on the highway. The ferry I’m on now is virtually empty, only truckers and two other cars.

An empty ferry

This thing is serious and apart from the tragic loss of life, can we even begin to understand the economic impact? We are in unprecedented times.

There is though silver linings. People around me are genuinely more friendly, smiling, asking how you are. People are holding doors open (with their feet!) and in general, being nice.

For me, later today I’ll be reunited with my dog Olli who had to stay behind in the UK whilst I went on a long work trip to Qatar and South Africa. I’m picking him up and the heading to the big farmhouse near Cambridge we rented for our company team meetup, that has now been cancelled. I’m looking forward to the solitude of that and being able to catch up with Olli!

Stay safe but more importantly be kind to others. Together we’ll get through this thing.

Road test – Winter in Southern Spain and Portugal

I finally managed to escape the cold England grip in early December and set off as far South in Spain as I could go. I met up with my Dutch friends Erik and Joke – who travel in a humongous motorhome – and we toured down to Malaga in Spain together, seeing more and more sun the further south we went.

A motorhome parking spot in San Sebastian, North Spain

It gave me a chance to take the new Rayquaza for a proper test drive and test out not only how she drives, but also what my substantial investment in solar and lithium is giving me, and how that is going to help with wild camping (where you don’t have access to an elecrical hookup).

For most of the trip we simply “wild camped”, eg no access to an electrical hookup.

In short, she performs brilliantly. Only this week – 6 weeks after I left – did I hook up to an eletrical plug at a campsite, and only because it was there. I’ve been free/wild camping till now and my only slight gripe is I wish I had more water onboard. The tank is a stated 120 litres, but that can go quite quickly, especially if one uses the shower. Luckily, water is not too difficult to find, I tend to ask at petrol stations after I filled up on diesel, if they’d mind I hook up to a tap outside and fill up.

There were a few other snags, like a small leak in my water tank access hatch or an led light not working, but nothing major and easily fixable stuff to deal with.

I also figured out whilst I can have the 230v on all the time, I can’t really run the fride on the mains if I had a couple of cloudy days – at some stage the drain just becomes too much. That is easily solved though by simply running the fridge on gas overnight, and on power in the daytime, especially if it’s sunny.

The Viktron inverter/charger combi I got installed (the thing that manages all the power flow and turns 12v battery power into mains power) is an incredible piece of kit, and having mains power at all times / when I need it without having to faff about with a separate inverter etc is just superb.

The back bedroom area

Everything about the new motorhome feels so new, fresh and nice to use it’s only a pleasure.

.. And notice my South African flower themed cushions, thanks Ma Adri!

I’m still a bit skeptical about the longevity of some of the interior fittings (e.g. drawer closing brackets etc) but so far, so good. The new 4g / 5g antenna I had put in also performs extremely well and so does my cross-EU Vodafone package with unlimited Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming – perfect!

On a personal front, I had my mother, Adri, join me for a tour from Malaga to the border on Spain in Ayamonte, where my older brother lives, and we got to spend Christmas together.

Again with the new motorhome having a large guest bed in the front is a winner and the ability to seperate the two sleeping areas, and provide privacy in the bathroom space worked really well. This is a super motorhome!

With the holiday season long gone and my mother back to South Africa, I returned to the nomadic working lifestyle again, and settled down in spots I liked in the week, so I can work, whilst traveling mostly on the weekends.

Motorhome parking spot in the marina of Ayamonte, Spain

This week I joined up again with Joke and Erik, who are also still in the area. We spent the week at a remote campsite just south of Lisbon but now we’re back in the south again and I’m likely to return to what is becoming a favourite spot, the motorhome parking in the marina of Ayamonte. It is superbly located, with views onto the boats and then the town, and its quiet at night whilst easy to walk into town and enjoy a range of choice for food and drinks.

At some stage I need to start heading North again, as I need to be in the UK late Feb, but for now Olli and I are clinging on to as many days in the warmer sunnier climate of South Spain as we can get.

Importing a motorhome to the UK from Germany

After sound advice to shop for my new motorhome (which I wanted to be left hand drive) amongst German dealers late August, when good deals are to be had, I found the motorhome I wanted with a dealer in Mannheim, and took on the task of importing it to the UK myself.

Whilst I’m hoping this will serve as a guide for anyone else wanting to do the same, the impeding Brexit and how the UK might exit from the EU will certainly impact some of the processes I undertook, but maybe not that much, since it seems the UK government will continue to recognise the EU standards and vice versa, for some time to come.

I also followed this post where the author detailed their steps, though that was for a new motorhome where it was marginally different for some steps.

Your steps should be:

  • Order a vehicle import pack from the DVLA
  • Buy the vehicle you want from a dealer, tell them you need to export it
  • They will arrange for export plates to be fitted close to your pick-up date. You have to tell them to which country you’re exporting
  • Whilst they will arrange insurance for a short time (2 weeks to a month), it will only be 3rd party. I managed to convince my insurer (arranged via Staveley Head) to give me full insurance on the VIN number from collection day
  • Collect the vehicle, do a PROPER inspection
  • Make sure you have the ORIGINAL registration and certificate of conformity documents
  • An invoice with your UK address clearly showing how much you paid, and that you’ve paid VAT. It MUST show the dealer’s VAT number
  • Drive to the UK, and head straight to an MOT test centre where they need to confirm the headlights have been adjusted, the speedo is in both MPH and KPH and the foglights at the back are either dual or there’s one, on the off side. Most never motorhomes and cars now have dual rear fog lights.
  • Submit your NOVA (HMRC), online. You need a UK GOV login for this (same one you use for your tax and other GOV stuff)
  • Submit your application to DVSA for the technical comformity confirmation. Mine came back within a week.
  • Submit your V55/5 application to DVLA to get the V5C. This took about two anxious weeks of waiting. You can’t really phone them about this either …

Tips / things to look out for:

VAT Payment: The UK government views a vehicle as used provided it is more than 6 months old (since first registration) AND it has done more than 6 000km. This is important for the VAT payment. Ideally, you’ve paid the VAT with the German dealer, and then the UK goverment will view VAT as paid. The exact conditions are:

  • VAT has already been paid in any EU country including the UK
  • the vehicle has been in use for more than 6 months
  • the vehicle has done more that 6,000km (about 3,728 miles)

In my case this was a bit tricky since the vehicle was first registered in May 2019, and I was doing the import in late October, one month away from 6 months. So the initial NOVA submission suggested I had to pay VAT again, and claim the German VAT back from the German government. I did not rate my chances of success on this very high, and I phoned HMRC, gave them my NOVA reference and had them confirm to me that yes indeed, VAT is due. My heart sank a bit but when I said the vehicle had 12 500 miles on it, and was rented out in the summer, she told me to wait a minute or so, and I could hear her typing away on her keyboard. A minute or two later she said “all done, no VAT is due now”! I did not expect that! She basically said common sense prevails and it’s clear the vehicle is not new. Wow. A lot of pain, paperwork and so forth avoided there, in a simple call.

Again with Brexit I would think the VAT payment will change, but all it will mean is you WON’T pay the VAT in Germany, but will upon import into the UK.

MOT test station paperwork for DVSA: It’s very important you get this bit right. My local MOT test station was very co-operative, and they performed the headlight adjustment and checks, and then on the invoice wrote the following (copied from that original post I referenced):

Reference: Inspection of motorhome, chassis number (enter your chassis number here)

We have today inspected the motorhome as described above and confirm that:

1) The vehicle has rear fog lights fitted as standard to both the left and right hand side of the rear of the vehicle

2) The headlights fitted to the vehicle are left dipping headlights. As such, there comply with the requirements of the UK. (We are advised that this was done by the German motorhome dealer)

3) The speedometer within the vehicle is dual marked. Primarily in miles per hour and also in kilometres per hour”.

Note – the invoice MUST itself comply with certain criteria, the exact detail is contained within this link), then I was able to apply for “type approval” for the motorhome. This involves completing the VCA paperwork and paying a £100 fee. If you are in a hurry, you will probably wish to avoid the “pay by cheque” option and use postal orders or a credit card instead.

Speedometer: For the DVSA, your speedometer must show at least MPH but ideally also KPH (kilometers per hour) if you’re planning on using the motorhome in Europe. By default a German motorhome, likely on a Fiat chassis, will only show KPH. Don’t stress about this – contact Lockwood International and discuss your motorhome with them, they are excellent in knowing what to send you. Also, their guides are brilliant and it really took less then 10 minutes for me to replace the speedometer face, despite me being very worried about this.

It’s not as bad as it looks

A tip: I used cooking / surgical gloves in this process to avoid getting fingerprint smudge marks on the dials and faceplate etc.

The DVSA step to get a UK vehicle approval certificate issued was easy enough, took less than a week to get back, but the most complicated one was the V55/5. This form is a nightmare and you might ask your friendly mechanic/MOT engineer to assist you here. However, you can leave certain boxes blank if you’re not sure of the answer (rather than filling in the wrong answer) as the DVLA can pick up the blanks from the original conformity documents, it seems.

Posting of original documents: Be aware that the DVSA and the DVLA will require the original documents (e.g. original certificate of conformity etc). They do send these back, of course. I read some online postings of things going missing whilst en-route to DVLA etc, so I made colour scans of all my documents and kept them all together in a backed up folder on my computer, just in case. Also, send these things signed for and keep the post office proof of postage slip.

Why import? I probably should have started with this but I was keen to get a left hand drive motorhome, as I will be doing most of my touring on the continent. I might even take this motorhome to the US at some stage. The biggest consideration for me was potential cost savings, which I did achieve firstly with a reduction in the sale price as I was buying ex-rental / ex-showroom stock late August using the mobile.de site (excellent), and since I avoided a UK dealer mark-up on left hand drive models. Obviously if you’re after a right hand drive model, you’ll be buying from a UK dealer.

It can be a bit stressful and you obviously need to have the time available to do this, including the going there, driving it back etc and doing all the bits mentioned above – but if you do, the savings can be immense – I estimate in total I saved about 20 to 25% of what I would have paid a UK dealer, and I have a 2019 registered UK plated motorhome now. The process took less than a month, though I was at the MOT garage on the same day as I arrived into the UK, to make sure I get this done as soon as I could. In the meantime my insurer reminder me from time to time to let them know of the new registration – they gave me 1 month to do this in, which I just about made. I’m not sure what would have happened with my insurance if it took longer! However, I’m happy I did this and I’m thoroughly enjoying my new motorhome. So, I’m off to Spain for the rest of the winter soon!

Setting up the new home

The new motorhome is really just amazing – here she is:

Whilst I’m dealing with all the paperwork to get the import process finished (and I’ll write about this process in a dedicated post soon) I’ve had to make decisions such as two single beds at the bed, or one big bed etc. Olli loves the new motorhome as well! It certainly is warmer and quieter inside, and feels very luxurious.

I even had a visitor test out the front double guest bed – and it got a big thumbs up.

Most of the paperwork has been done and I’m now waiting, fingers crossed, for the UK registration to come through. I am also due to have the solar, lithium, 4g router and antenna as well as an underslung LPG tank installed which will see me in Devon for most of next week. Then she’ll be able to be mostly off-grid whilst still supplying power…I’ll document this as well and write a post about this, soon.

I hope to finish the “moving” in process soon so I can see what I need to get rid of or leave behind .. I’m quite keen to only put back in this motorhome what I’ll actually use – but with her massive garage it’s not that easy!