VILLAGES with ancient stone houses barricaded by colourful shutters to close out the cold; gardens not abandoned, just wintering in their own way, spring greens poking their mint green shoots from the murky soil.
Empty roads, sunlit lanes, interesting medieval sites devoid of summer tourist hordes and buses, and locals keen for a chat, not caring about the language barrier.
Winter in Europe. It's the best time to travel.
My husband Phill and I own a small motorhome and always take the small roads, using GPS. Yes, it's slower, but you see a slice of farm and village life you won't see anywhere else.
Local bakeries feed us with steaming, crusty baguettes, croissants and occasionally sticky, custardy, fruity, flaky delights, which, of course, we walk off each day in the almost deserted countryside.
These little roads often disgorge secret places, like the subterranean church we came across in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, south-western France, quite by accident.
The church was excavated in the 11th century and its cavernous interior is supported by three massive pillars of solid stone. Generations of pilgrims and monks are interred here.
We bought our present motorhome (second hand via Gumtree) in the UK three years ago and store it in a barn in France when we come home to Australia (thelonghouse.co.fr in the village of Beaurainville, near Calais - $400 a year undercover).
This enables us to travel when we choose for as long as we like. While there are many storage places on the internet, we chose this one for its location, as we like to take the train from London, though it's just as easy from Paris.
Australians can buy and register a motorhome in the UK using a British address (family member or friend). But insuring the van as an Australian is more difficult. Many companies won't allow it unless you're a permanent resident or, as in our case, Phill is a dual citizen, holds a British licence, and we use a friend's address.
If you have a family member or friend in UK or Europe who is willing to buy the van in their name, they can insure it and add you as an extra driver without a problem. Hertz will insure non-residents but it may be expensive.
We use German company ADAC for road service through the UK and Europe. The policy includes some personal and travel insurance and their staff speak English.
Some insurers stipulate only 8000km a year so look for one that allows at least double that. Also, some companies only allow for three or six months in Europe, so look for 12 months if you are planning to store your vehicle there.
Australians are allowed six months in the UK without a visa and 90 days every six months in Europe, visiting Schengen countries. For more information: go to smartraveller.gov.au and search for "Schengen area".
Rent or buy-back
Another option is a buy-back scheme. Many companies will sell you a motorhome with a guaranteed buy-back plan, and they can help you procure insurance both in the UK and the Netherlands. Two companies you could look at are motorhomes-buy-sell-rent.com and dutchcampers.nl
Renting a van is always an option and here you will be looking at upward of $880 a week (keep in mind you won't be paying accommodation and food cost can be minimal).
Most UK and European vans are well equipped, with heaters, stove, oven, fridge, hot water, shower and cassette toilet. In the UK, charity shops are great for buying all necessary utensils and crockery. Some things are so nice that they find their way into our bags for home.
A friend gave us two old bikes and we find them invaluable for visiting cities via cycle paths and cycleways alongside canals. Last year we rode six sections of the Danube by driving to a spot, cycling to and fro on both sides, then moving on. Tourist information centres provide maps of cycle paths in their areas.
Where to stop
As for sleeping, Europe has a comprehensive system of camping areas (called aires de service in France) and free motorhome day and overnight parking. Aires generally include toilet cassette dump points, water and sometimes electricity. They are mostly free or a couple of euro. Large supermarkets in Europe often have laundry facilities, machines and dryers, so wash while you shop.
There are lots of motorhomers wandering about Europe, so sometimes we look for somewhere quiet for a night by ourselves. France and Italy have a rule that if there are no signs to the contrary, you are able to stay anywhere for 24 hours.
Campgrounds are plentiful and vary considerably in price but we only use them occasionally as they don't provide anything we don't have.
Phone apps are brilliant for finding camp spots, and internet is reliable and accessible nearly everywhere. We've found Park4night.com to be consistently the best. Comments are mostly in French but are easy to follow with a Google translate app on your phone (handy also with its camera function for signs, dialogue and supermarket goods).
Scottish Motorhomers is a Facebook site that is great for Scotland and Wales and parts of England, while searchforsites.co.uk has sites throughout Europe.
Phone access is expensive if you use an Australian travel card or similar for any length of time. You can buy a SIM card for your phone in UK with the company Three.
Its 20-month plan gives 12GB internet all through Europe (via the "feel at home" feature) and calls and texts to the UK. The cost of calling in Europe with this plan is six cents a minute. You will get a British number and it's free for incoming calls, unlike some global roaming features where there is a cost to accepting calls.
We use a 28 Degrees Mastercard for travel, as they don't charge a foreign conversion fee.
Once you've paid your airfare from Australia, it is relatively cheap to live and travel in the UK and Europe as we do. Even though fuel costs more, the distances you travel are generally less. Food on the whole is cheaper than Australia, at least in supermarkets, markets or small local restaurants.
Traffic in European cities can be stressful when trying to concentrate on staying on the right-hand side of the road. You can reduce the stress by taking back roads or parking outside a major centre and cycling to the sites you want to see.
We usually come for four to six months and crawl between countries, hiking, sightseeing, chatting with hand gestures, laughing and getting deliciously lost.
It wouldn't be economically possible for us to travel this long without a motorhome. We travel by the seat of our pants, pay nothing for accommodation, eat whatever we can find that's local (we don't always know what we're eating, but so far, so good) and sometimes bathe in a bucket.
The best thing is that we meet fabulous people and have a really great time.
What are you waiting for?