Into Alentejo

When you last heard from us we were still at Praia da Rocha, on the south coast of the Algarve, where we had been spending time with Peter’s Dad who had come out for a week’s holiday. We stayed for another week as it provided a convenient place to work on Heidi; doing a bit of painting and cleaning. Then we headed back East in preparation for our next visitors, Elaine’s Dad and sister, who were coming to stay in an apartment in Albuferia.

‘Praia Dos Arrifes’, just west of Albufiera becomes home for a couple of days. It’s a very dramatic and picturesque coastline here and we attempt a walk along the coast path. The sandstone cliffs have been badly eroded and the path has been repeatedly washed away, diverted, or left just about hanging on, before disappearing over the edge. We catch tantalising glimpses of perfect but inaccessible beaches before circling back inland to ease Elaine’s nerves on the knife edge path.

Then we return to ‘Praia dos Tomates’, a bit further east, near Falesia. The beach here is backed by dramatic red and ochre yellow sandstone cliffs and thankfully only sparse development. We enjoy soaking up the sunshine and long walks along the beach and cliff top paths before heading back into Albufeira itself to meet the rellies.

We’d managed to scout out a suitable parking spot on a dead end road behind some apartments; a lot of which are holiday places and are still pretty quiet at this time of year. The four of us venture out in Heidi once, but she’s pretty cramped for four for very long, so we hire a car for a few days and let Heidi have a rest.

A busy week – for us. We visit more relatives who live near Aljezur on the west coast, and also the town of Alvor, just west of Portimao. We have lunch out most days, eating far too much whilst the sun shone down and the wine flowed. We spent a couple of days mooching around the old town of Albufeira which turned out to be a lot more appealing than people had told us. Admittedly it’s early in the season. I don’t think I’d fancy it much when the hoards arrive later in the year.

A highlight was Fado night (at the Atrium restaurant in old Albufiera). This time it was a male singer, as usual accompanied by one Portuguese and one classical guitar. They host different singers and we definitely struck lucky with our choice of night. It was unsurprisingly mainly a tourist audience, but “Cesar Matoso” was obviously considered good enough to attract in some local aficionados who also, with some encouragement, got up and sang a few pieces – and very good they were too. The food didn’t disappoint and the serving was well organised so as not to interfere with the performance too much. A complete contrast to our first Fado experience! You can listen to Cesar Mataso here: https://youtu.be/lAyIqzkR1kc and here: https://youtu.be/Ub2799f5YnM ,or the much more famous example of Amalia Rodrigues who popularised the genre around the world from the 1950s: https://youtu.be/ARS7Zi-Zpkw

On 11th March Colin and Clare flew back to the UK and we began to head West again. We stayed at ‘Praia de Albandeira’ for a few days; a small beach carpark above what our guide book says is “the most attractive bit of the Algarve coast”. It’s certainly spectacular, with numerous blow-holes, arches and offshore stacks. There’s a coast path both ways and although falling away in places, it’s a whole lot more usable than our last attempt on the coast path. It’s a calm, warm weekend and we spend time sunbathing and swimming. The water’s still cold, but quickly becomes bearable once you’re in. Wish we had a canoe. It would be an ideal way to explore this coast.

On to Alvor again, but the weather turns, making the coast less attractive and we head inland to ‘Barragem Da Brauvra’ for a walk through the Eucalyptus forests around the reservoir. It rains but remains warm. Peter’s new cork hat is indeed waterproof! The next day is clear and fresh and we sit out enjoying the sunshine and the view. Late in the evening a car and caravan from Czech turns up and the next day I’m surprised to be woken by a cockerel. There’s no houses nearby and we didn’t hear it yesterday… Turn’s out the Czech caravan contains 2 Adults, 2 kids (the human variety), 4 dogs!, a cat and 5 chicken’s! They wave as they collect the freshly laid eggs. Much as I kind of admire their balls to come and set up such a home in this carpark, it’s obviously not going to go down very well with some people and will undoubtedly lead to trouble for us. Sure enough a local restaurant owner soon turns up with much blaring of horn, saying they (and we) can’t stay there and the police will come and fine us. Would have liked to chat to them and find out their story, but we were thinking of moving anyway and decide to head off towards the west coast. We pass through Bensafrim, Sao Joao, Sao Miguel, Budens – a nice route along quiet roads through open rolling countryside. Seems a popular area for expat. properties and there’s plenty of land for sale – tempting. We head through Vila Do Bispo and out to a parking / picnic spot on the road to ‘Praia do Castelejo’ for the night.

We slowly head up the west coast for a bit, visiting Elaine’s rellies near Aljezur again and joining their local expat. walking group for their twice weekly walk. Now I know we’re none too fit, and Peter’s recently twisted ankle doesn’t help, but we we’re struggling to keep up with these ‘oldies’. And, we were up, breakfasted and at the meeting point for 9am; not a time that usually features in our walking schedule! Living down here with all that clean air coming off the Atlantic is obviously good for you. And there’s plenty of ‘air’. It’s a wild windy coast. Big waves crash against the shore with nothing to interrupt them between here and America making it a popular surfing destination. We carry around a couple of little body boards that don’t get used much – and I don’t think that’s likely to change any time soon! The waves look scary; as do the fit! young! surfers. Maybe we’re getting old?

We spend a few days at a clifftop carpark at Odeceixe and walk part of the long distance coastal path; the Rota Vicentina. Apparently you can follow a marked coastal route all the way from Cape St. Vincent in the far south west to Scandinavia! There’s certainly some spectacular views along this section. It’s Easter weekend and festivities include a ‘Folar’ festival in town so we go to check it out. Folar is a sort of Easter bread / brioche sort of thing. It seemed very popular, but it didn’t really do it for us. A big marquee had been set up with a variety of local food too; cheeses and cured ‘chorizo’-like sausages. Verdict (so far): expensive and not nearly as good as the Spanish equivalents. Oh well, one must try these things.

On the 26th March we head inland, finally leaving the Algarve region in favour of the Alentejo. The coastal sandy scrubland gives way to richer more fertile soils, planted with wheat or grazed by cattle. The rolling hills are dotted with cork oaks and look weirdly like landscaped parkland. We spot the region’s famous black pigs too. Some of the fields we pass by are fantastically yellow; covered in Lupins. They’re grown here for food. We’ve tried what we thought were pickled broad beans, found in the shops next to jars of olives and pickled gherkins. On closer inspection, having found a jar with English labelling, we find they are Lupin seeds. They weren’t nice; or perhaps that was just the salty brine they were in? Google reckons they’re used for cattle feed in the UK. A more appropriate use I would think! As we head east, more and more olives and grape vines begin to appear. There are hundreds of relatively small vineyards here and the shops have extensive selections all labelled according to the local region. And it goes without saying that the prices are good too; 3 or 4 euros will procure a pretty decent bottle.

Alentejo has numerous reservoirs to cope with the hot, dry summers here, often with ideal Heidi parking spots next to them. We spend several days exploring around the Alqueva Reservoir, the largest in Europe, that temporarily restrains the Guadiana River on the Spanish border, along with several others. Not for the first time, I yearn for a boat.

There’s plenty of, generally well-marked, walking routes too, often leaving from the tourist info. in the towns and then heading out into the countryside. We manage to get quite a bit of route info. online too.  www.herancasalentejo.net

Most of the smaller places here are pretty quiet, but not dead, and the bigger towns seem more ‘manageable’. We’re not ‘city people’ and suits us well.

There’s lots of history here too, with seemingly endless Medieval fortress towns perched on all the high points. Some are so small and spectacularly situated (read high, cold and a bit isolated if you’re not actually needing to defend yourself anymore) that they’ve become not much more than tourist attractions. However the majority remain real, lived in, communities and are all the more attractive for it. We never cease to be amazed where people manage to get cars in these places – definitely not Heidi friendly! We spend a couple of days exploring Evora, the busiest and most extensive Medieval town in these parts. Incredibly more than 2/3rds of the population still live within it’s largely intact 14th century walls. We enjoy wandering around the narrow cobbled lanes, visiting the cathedral and other impressive churches and trying out the local cuisine in the cafes and restaurants. There’s an ancient aqueduct which sadly no longer brings the water into the centre of town, there’s Moorish architecture, and the remains of a Roman temple all squished together to make what is a very interesting place. We could have easily spent longer here – and there’s a vast, free parking area just outside the walls, making ideal motorhome parking.

To add to our delicious experience of the local faire; pork cheeks, roasted lamb – both cooked long and slow; fall-off-the-bone, yum, served at the Dom Joaquim Restaurant in Evora, we were also accosted with some of the local hospitality from neighbouring Portuguese ‘vanners. We  went to visit the tiny hilltop castle town of Monsaraz and before we’d even got out of the van, they insisted that we join them at their bbq. “Come on, come on, bring your chairs, we have plenty”. Delicious pork chops and grilled octopus with plenty of oil and fresh herbs followed. And wine. And some sort of Easter cake. And chocolate covered almonds. And port. And no, we couldn’t contribute anything! They did let us pay for our own ice-cream when we walked up to the castle later. An enjoyable afternoon in glorious sunshine with far reaching views over the reservoir below. Normal Portuguese hospitality they assured us. There’s considerably less of us ‘vanners around here than further south in the Algarve, and we’ve not seen that many locals; maybe we should seek them out ;)  Oh, and thinking of food, we mustn’t forget the ‘soup fest’; the ‘Congresso Das Acordas’ in the small town of Portal. We’d seen it advertised on posters around the place. Not mentioned in any tourist info. It was definitely going to be a proper local experience. We discover a big marquee complete with rows and rows of tables all set out for the many willing tasters. For €11 we get a ticket to try up to 4 different ones. Elaine manages 2 and Peter 3, and no more eating was done that day. They were very filling. “Acorda” seems to have developed from what must have been a traditional staple around here in times gone by. First fill your bowl with plenty of small chunks of bread, then pour over some rather thin and watery stock (many different types to choose from) and then add whatever bits of protein you can muster; a poached egg, some salt cod or various bits of traditional chorizo sausage or some crispy pork scratchings. In our case, this was all served for us by waiters surrounding ‘the table of choices’ and had as much ‘bits of protein’ as we requested. Well, rude not to try it all. I suspect in the past, it was more a way of making the, often very heavy and perhaps stale, local bread palatable and filling you up. Can’t say we were overly impressed, but the place was packed and it was obviously a big deal for the locals. The festival lasted all weekend, with official judges for the best recipe, ‘show cooking’ and talks on ingredients. Over lunch we were serenaded from the stage by the local Alentejo Singers. A traditional male voice choir, reminding Elaine of her Welsh roots. Is there a celtic connection here? There was to be ‘Fado’ in the evening too but by mid-afternoon with very full tummys we thought we’d had enough local experience for one day.

Heading north now, into Alto Alentejo ..see you soon.

 

And lastly, very corny, but it does give a good overview of the delights of the Alentejo countryside:

 

Southern Algarve, Portugal

We entered Portugal using the main A22 motorway bridge on the 10th of January. As we do, a sign signals foreign cars to enter the first layby to register a credit card against the photographed number plate to pay for future motorway tolls – apparently they’re expensive and for the most part we plan to avoid them. We pull off almost immediately anyway, heading for Castro Marim. There’s official motorhome parking here and services and it’s free. Well, we were shocked, and 6 weeks later we continue to be so, by the huge number of us in this part of the world. Castro Marim had an official capacity of 25 vans and there were more than 60 of us! It wasn’t even a particularly attractive place. The castle shows the history of the place; once the haunt of ‘the order of Christ’; a follow up to ‘the Knights Templar’, it was handy to spy on what was then Moor territory across the river in Spain. Now, it’s just a fairly insignificant small town.

Now we’re down here, we plan to slow down and not move much. Hopefully we can save some money for future adventures? Food is certainly cheap, though perhaps not so cheap as Spain, and if we can park for free, we haven’t many expenses.

We find a much more attractive spot at Praia Cabeco, a beach carpark just west of Monte Gordo, where we stay for a couple of weeks. It’s quiet and dark at night. There’s still loads of us here though; 20 – 30 on average. It’s a LOT different to last year in Greece when we hardly saw that many all winter. Locals come by regularly selling oranges – which are delicious and huge strawberries – watery and less appealing.  We buy large bags of oranges for a couple of euros each and make juice. Praia Cabeco is in the middle of miles and miles of sandy beach. When the tide’s out it makes a good walking surface and we try to get into a routine of long walks. Neither of us are feeling very fit these days. The coast is pretty flat around here too, so we can easily cycle into town for shopping or just for a bit of exercise. Places seem less built up here than further west, which we like, and the area seems to be particularly favoured by the Dutch. We enjoy the novelty of Dutch cafes serving ‘apel gebak’ / Dutch apple cake (Peter grew up, and we met, in Holland). It’s ‘tourist land’ really and it often seems that we must outnumber the locals. I suppose before the mass tourism down here there really wasn’t much of a local population, just small fishing and farming communities. Monte Gordo bay is famous for shellfish, particularly clams. We try them on our regular Saturday lunch out. Not impressed really – and they’re expensive. It is interesting watching them being fished / collected though. The traditional method involves using a sort of rake with a long handle and a wire basket, followed by a net attached. The long handle is vigorously shaken from side to side as the fisherman walks backwards in knee deep water, dragging the apparatus just under the surface of the sand. They stop every so often to sort out the catch. An hour or two of what looks like bloody hard work will produce a bucket full. Still judging by the measly portion we were served, it’s probably lucrative enough if sold to a local restaurant.

Having got used to the Spanish and the Greek custom of shared plates of food (ordering one main course and one salad is usually plenty for 2 and whatever you order is usually put in the centre of the table and each person is then given a separate, small, empty plate), we quickly find this doesn’t seem to happen here. Like in most of northern Europe, each person chooses a separate meal. Whilst food out is certainly not expensive, this certainly doesn’t make it quite such a bargain as Spain. Eating times are what us northern Europeans call more normal here too. Lunch, and lunchtime closing at most shops is from 1 till 3. A bit longer perhaps than further North, but a far cry from the Spanish who often don’t start lunch till 2 or 3 and then sometimes go on till 5 or 6 (with correspondingly late evening meal times). Then again, perhaps we’ll find it different outside of ‘tourist land’ if we ever make it?

We venture along the coast a bit, stopping at Fabrica and then Tavira. Tavira was once a hub for the area, having the dubious honour of establishing itself as a major slave trading centre. Tavira appeals because of ‘actual locals’ to compliment the tourists, but lacks anywhere attractive for us to park. We move on to Santa Luzia and walk across the floating bridge out to the Isla Tavira (One of the many sandy islands just off the coast here). The beach on the outer side is white sand backed by dunes for as far as you can see in both directions; a lovely spot if the weather was a tad warmer. This spot was once the home of a large tuna fishing fleet. The lines of houses and store rooms have been restored, but the most striking feature is the ‘Anchor Graveyard’ left by the fisherman as a memorial to their life here. There’s a museum too but it’s unfortunately closed out of season.

We explore inland, heading towards Cachapo. It’s amazingly quiet on the roads as soon as we leave the coast. Turning off to Casas Baixas, we’re in another world; traditional buildings, subsistence living, a few crops, the odd chicken or goat. We stop for lunch, the door open letting in the sunshine, and are wished a cheery ‘Bom Dia’ with a wave from a toothless old woman in wellies carrying a bucket with today’s harvest. They’re trying to promote the area; the ‘Serra do Caldeirao’, as a walking area following the many winding tracks that , until recently, were the only way to get about in these parts. We try out one of the surprisingly well signed routes, before spending the night in a nearby layby. It’s silent and starry at night. The only sound is a trickling stream. We like.

Unfortunately we wake up in a damp cloud with next to no visibility. We’re quite high in the hills. The forecast isn’t great either, so it’s back down to the coast and back to our favoured spot at Playa Cabeco for a bit. We have a few sunny and quite warm (22-23c) days towards the end of January and we even manage our first swim in the sea on the 1st of Feb. It was cold! but we quickly warmed up in the sun afterwards. Soon we head west again towards Praia da Rocha ready to meet up with Peter’s Dad when he comes out for a holiday in one of the hotels there.

We stop at Tavira again and whilst having a brief wander round the town, we’re hijacked by an enthusiastic promotor who wants us to come and listen to some Fado; the traditional Portugese female singer backed by a pair of male guitarists. Well why not? We’re ushered into a tiny, dark theatre. There is only one other couple there and no more come, not exactly giving the right ambiance. It’s only a short performance of a few songs which we decide is a bit of an acquired taste. The guitarists are excellent, one on a traditional Portuguese instrument a bit like a very large lute with 12 strings and the first piece is just the guitarists. We decide later we could have done without the singer. The songs are all deep and passionate. Fado, we are told, “is sung with the heart first and the voice second”. One of the guitarists does his best to explain, in English, the meaning and the stories behind each piece, but the effect is somewhat lost when you can’t understand the words. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to hear some more in a better atmosphere. It’s more normal to hear it in a busy bar or restaurant.

To continue our cultural experience, we go looking for some Carnival activities. There’s plenty of posters around advertising various events, but they never seem to be where we are. We pass through Loule, the biggest town in the Algarve, where they’re obviously setting up for something major in a few days time and assume, wrongly, that there’ll be plenty of goings on in other places too. We visit Silves for a couple of days with its impressive Moorish castle walls above the town. We hear music and horns and rush off to see a mini procession. A good effort by the local school, but we were hoping for something a little more. On the Feb 8th we’re at Sao Bartolomeu de Messines. There’s definitely something happening here tonight, so we stay at yet another huge ‘aire’ packed with hundreds of vans. It seems this is normal around here. It’s hard to get used to. By 9pm the music is blaring out and we heard into town to see what all the fuss is about. Actually they’re cheating a bit; they’re obviously playing ‘excited large crowd’ sounds over the speakers along with the music, helping to big up what is only a relatively small place. Eventually there’s a chain of floats processing by. There’s various food stalls and people are trying hard to party. For a small place they’ve done well but by the 6th pass of the same float we reckon we’ve seen it! It did seem that more of the town were taking part in the procession than lining the street watching. There seemed a particularly poor showing from us ‘vanners.

We spend a couple of weeks at the huge Praia da Rocha aire. Unusually for us we decide it’s worth the €3 per night for the convenience of being walking distance to Dad’s hotel. There are literally hundreds of vans here, many staying for the whole winter. We choose the back field for a bit more space around us, with grass and some wild flowers. Surprisingly the most popular choice is packed in tightly in the tarmac carpark. It’s nice to have some fixed neighbours and a bit more of a community feel. There’s certainly some interesting rigs here including coach sized American RVs with slide-outs, ridiculously long (8m+) European style vans with twin rear axles often pulling trailers with cars on, and the odd off-road truck. Heidi is definitely one of the smallest.

We have a good week with my Dad, venturing out on trips most days trying not to let the, still very variable, weather bother us too much. We do several walks. We follow a route round some of the old irrigation channels (levadas?) at the confluence of the two rivers leading down to Portamao. The channels are dry and not in the best of shape. We suspect the watering is done by pump from plastic pipe these days – or perhaps they’re simply not needed today in the rain! We also explore some of the dramatic coastline that this region is famous for – both from the beaches, and the cliff tops. And we drive up to Monchique, and Foia; the highest peak in the region. We had hoped to have a second helping of Fado at the hotel one night too, but a suspect ‘thud thud thud’ from Heidi’s nether regions had Dad going home in a taxi (all part of the exciting experience you know) and us having an unplanned altercation with the Portuguese equivalent of the AA. As it turned out, it was only a damaged tyre (can’t believe I didn’t spot it myself!) and easily sorted for a whole lot cheaper than in the UK. They even had them in stock: the advantage of being in an area packed out with similar motorhomes! Hope you enjoyed your holiday Dad?

It was useful to be able to leave our chairs out and the bikes behind, marking our spot, when we went out, but after 2 weeks we’re still struggling to see what the long-term attraction is. There’s a beautiful beach and coastline, but then it extends all along here. The main town of Portamao has everything but is nothing special and the beach resort of Praia da Rocha is still predominantly empty and closed at this time of year.

We keep asking ourselves just what it is that makes the Algarve so popular and so busy. We decide that people must be attracted here because it’s easy. There are motorhome service places everywhere, even if the adjacent parking areas are often full. We decide, we still prefer ‘wild camping’ to the official places. Parking bumper to bumper or with no more than a van’s width between you and the next one, especially on what is just an unattractive carpark, really doesn’t do it for us even if the services are convenient and the shops close. We find we can live off-grid’ perfectly well for a week or more and we’d so much rather have a bit of space and more of the natural world around us. That said, even the out of the way places provide us with plenty of ‘neighbours’ in this part of the world.

Portamao used to be the centre of the sardine fishing industry here and there’s a good museum based in the original factory documenting it all; from the boats coming in, the catch being unloaded into baskets on an overhead rail system and going straight into the factory, the cleaning, steam cooking and packing in tins of olive oil. They also made the tins with labelling stamped directly onto the sheet metal before being cut out, assembled, and eventually sealed and packed by a series of ingenious machines. They were then exported the world over. People’s whole, long days were organised around the factory which provided crèche facilities for babies ensuring the mothers never strayed far from the production line. It was not to last. The sardines were vastly over-fished and have never really recovered. Unfortunately the labelling in the museum is in Portuguese only, but there’s a good film explaining everything with English subtitles. Well worth the visit.

As ever, we enjoy seeking out the local markets. Even small places seem to have their ‘Mercado Municipal’ often in quite a grand covered building. There’s usually lots of fish and vegetables at good prices. Local honeys and various fig and almond creations. In Tavira we find an excellent spice stall with its mounds of bright colours. We buy smoked sweet paprika and turmeric; both good in a Paella (one of Peters favourite dishes). It is so much more intense than the stuff we’re used to in a tiny jars. We can only buy a minimum of 100g in a very thin plastic bag with the wonderful smells coming through. Now we need to find some suitable containers to store it in. We meet ‘the spice lady’ at the Loule market too. She turns out to be English, living locally. She grows chillies in her garden and sells them and other local products as well as imported spices that she’s sourced from her own travels. She’d spent time in India and tells us that it was the Portuguese that originally imported the chili to India, having brought it back with them from their exploits in South America. The Goa area was a Portuguese colony. We’d wondered at the large amount of Indian restaurants here, assuming initially that it was just a response to the wants of tourists. We discover that when the Portuguese handed Goa back to India, the locals were given the option of Portuguese citizenship, and many then emigrated here.

…and in case you think we spend all our time lazing about and living the good life? I’ve been trying hard this winter to give Heidi a little TLC. She’s beginning to show her age and the fact that we are living in her full time. The plastic round the windows, doors and skylights had recently gone very yellow and much of that has now been painted. I’ve even had a go at some of the exterior plastic bits that are deteriorating in the sun. I’ve also made a start at varnishing the cupboards to give them more ‘life’ protection – it’s a long job but it’s getting there. Then, of course, there’s the boiler drip to look into …but for now, sitting out in the sun with a book is calling. One must get one’s priorities right!…

South FAST!

It’s been a LONG time since we wrote anything on the blog. What have we been up to?

We returned to the UK via the Calais – Dover ferry back in June 2015, shocked to see how large the immigrant / refugee camps there have now become. We’d obviously been away a long time; we started taking pictures of Englishness lol.

We spent 6 months in the UK catching up with family and friends around the country. As we always find, everywhere seems very busy. It wasn’t that long ago that ‘rush hour’ was just that; an hour or at the most two, but recently it seems constant, 7 days a week. There just seems to be too many people living in too small an area and everybody is rushing everywhere! especially in the south. Still we still seem to be able to find our ‘Heidi spots’ when we’re not staying on someone’s driveway. You can see where we’ve been on our UK Google map here: (there’s no photos on this one yet – ‘coming soon’ as they say)

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zXuk6hsK3x58.k9h-Yivx40a4&usp=sharing

A couple of perfect Heidi spots:

Heidi’s ‘to do’ list has been shortened. We have, yet again, repaired and painted the floor of our ‘garage’ – why the floors of these vans are made out of plywood and not covered with plastic or aluminium is beyond me. She now sports some rear mud flaps too, which will hopefully help to stop all the wet and mud flying up, and increasing the period before we will no doubt have to repair the floor again. We finally got round to removing her front bumper and wheel arches for some much needed attention. Admittedly some of the cracks and scuffs have been there since we had her, but hitting a rock during a river crossing! in Greece last year didn’t help the situation either. After some judicious use of fibreglass and filler, she’s looking better, but with all the rain we had, we never did manage to get any top coat paint on to finish things off. Whilst we had the bumper off, we replaced one of the headlight units that has had a cracked lens for ages – should have done both. The new one looks much brighter than the old one now!  We fitted a second 150w solar panel to help in those grey days at high latitudes along with replacing all the batteries (we have 3 x 110amp for leisure / house) which seemed to have given up holding a charge after 3 years of constant use. We cleaned out the boiler using large amounts of vinegar (as recommended by the manufacturers). It left plenty of limescale on Peter’s Dad’s driveway after it was flushed through, so it certainly worked a bit and is less inclined to overheat now. Whilst in Norfolk, our alternator packed up and we were thankful to be able to stay with family for a couple of days whilst a local garage sorted that out. Add a new starter battery too and my wallet is feeling substantially lighter. Last but not least, just before we were about to leave, the gas burner on the fridge stopped working efficiently, not for the first time. Luckily we had a spare and that has also been replaced.

Peter also managed to fit in some work (building and fitting kitchens and bathrooms). Quickly reminded of why he’s ‘supposed to be’ retired, he now sports painful torn shoulder ligaments. Don’t think I’ll be plastering a ceiling again any time soon Cousin Alex! Still the travelling funds are nicely topped up again.

If that wasn’t enough, we’ve finally managed to buy ourselves a house in South Wales and got a tenant in it to contribute further to our travelling funds.

By the time we’d done all that, it was almost Christmas time, so we decided to delay our ‘escape’ and spend Christmas with family in a rented cottage in the Brecon Beacons. Stunning as the location was, the torrential rain and howling gales reminded us it was time to head south – fast!

So on the 31st December we took the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe in France. A fairly rough crossing (glad we opted against taking the ferry all the way to Santander!), but at only 4½ hrs it was over quickly (and at just under £100 it was more attractive than the cheapest Santander option too). 5 days later, after 25 hours of driving, we’d covered almost 2000km and had reached the south coast of Spain, near Huelva, close to the Portuguese border. It had cost us €338, €79.95 of which was motorway tolls – which could have been avoided, but we were ‘on a mission’. We averaged 7.33km/l – not very good for Heidi; we would normally expect about 9km/l (21 mpg) but then we don’t spend much time on motorways. The weather in central Spain had to be seen to be believed. Mad wind and rain for much of the way reminded us that much of it is between 750 and 1000 meters high and although it often appears flat, is effectively ‘up a mountain’. I suppose we should be glad that we’re having such a warm winter. Normally, no doubt, it’d be freezing with the rain falling as snow. You can see where we stopped on our current map here: (click on the markers for more info / photos)

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zXuk6hsK3x58.k_dQjAfrwE2o&usp=sharing

We did have one ‘rest day’, which we spent in Hondarribia in northern Spain, just over the French border, although since both sides of the border are part of the Basque area, you don’t even get a sign to tell you. It’s an agreeable little place. We’d been before late in 2012 on our first Heidi journey. The centre of town has some interesting timber built, mountain style buildings. We’re on the coast, but then we’re also at the foot of the Pyrenees. At midday the café’s and bars are packed with people enjoying a drink and a ‘pintxos’. Pintxos are the local ‘tapas’ and reportedly the best anywhere – must return again for some ‘proper analysis’ J

As we’d expected, the weather only began to improve as we came down off the high plains and approached Seville. The rain finally gave up and it began to feel distinctly warmer. The increasing amount of vines, olives and eventually oranges showing us that yes, it is normally like this, and better!, around here.

By the 4th Jan we were at Moguer, NE of Huelva. The following evening we joined the crowds in town to watch the 3 Kings celebrations. Various floats process through town; some with ‘kings’ on them, and others representing whatever the makers’ want it seems? ‘Winter wonderland’ and ‘Gingerbread house’ were perhaps not that surprising, but the ‘Minions’ one didn’t seem quite right! Still, everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves and after all, the main object of the exercise seems to be hurling large amounts of sweets and other presents at everybody. It’s supposed to represent the gifts given to Jesus Christ, but I’m not sure all the kids lugging carrier bags full of collected sweets realise that! Afterwards the Spanish all go off home for their family Christmas meal.

We spent a couple of days at nearby La Rabida. There’s a Columbus museum here along with replica boats and parkland with a memorial tower and statue outside the monastery that he apparently spent time at ‘gaining inspiration’ before his voyage. Most of the crew came from Moguer and the church at Palos de la Frontera, just up the road, is where they all took communion on the morning they sailed.

We continue along the coast into the Donana National Park; a low lying area of sand dunes covered in pine trees and shallow, seasonal lakes attracting a wide range of migrating birdlife. There’s also deer, wild boar and supposedly the Iberian lynx; Europe’s only species of big cat. The place is vast and largely inaccessible unless you go on a guided trip in a 4×4 bus. We stopped at the main visitor centre; El Acebuche and wandered the system of boardwalks over what is normally pretty soggy ground, to the bird hides overlooking the lakes …which were dry as a bone! with not a bird to be seen. It’s been a very dry, warm winter this year but we were under the impression that there is usually permanent water here. Not this year. To add to the disappointment, it’d been raining for much of the morning and we walked in a fine drizzle! We did however see deer, which we didn’t photograph, and caterpillars, which we did J.

On to the weird and wonderful place that is El Rocio for the night. Sandy streets and more places to tie your horse than park your car make you believe you’re in the Wild West! This place was founded when a hunter apparently found a small wooden statue of The Virgin here in a tree back in the 13th century. He tried to take her home with him but when he stopped for a rest, she miraculously made her way back to the same spot (where he found her when he went back). One thing lead to another and now she resides, complete with bejewelled cloak many times her size, and surrounded by much gold and fanciness, above the altar of the church built on the spot; the Ermitta del Rocio. Most of the houses here are empty most of the time, but every Pentecost, the seventh weekend after Easter, up to a million pilgrim revellers, from various different ‘brotherhoods’, from all over Spain make their way here, on horseback or in horse drawn wagons, for what amounts to a big party. It sounds as if things, almost, get out of hand as the various brotherhoods (Spanish gypsies?) all seem to lay claim to this ‘miraculous bit of wood’ and fight to parade it through the streets. Most of the houses here are effectively their holiday houses and each group have their own ‘hermitage’ / meeting hall around one of the main squares. It truly is amazing what can develop out of virtually nothing in the name of ‘religion’!

 

There’s also a lake here. This one even has water in it! along with wild? horses, grazing in the shallows and lots of birds including Flamingos.

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We decide it’s time to head for Portugal. We take the motorway, and stop only just short, at Ayemonte. We find a perfect ‘Heidi spot’ just outside town overlooking the river Guardiana. The weather is constantly changing. One day it’s grey and raining and the next is blue skies and sunshine. And when the sun shines here, it really shines! The 9th of January is a beautifully clear and warm. We walk into town, do a bit of shopping and sit outside one of the many tapas bars and restaurants for lunch – an excellent mixed salad, with just about everything in it, including eggs and bits of chorizo sausage and some ‘chocos fritos’ (fried squid) in a light batter. Excellent value too.

We walk back via the small ferry that crosses the river to Portugal. Theoretically it takes cars and vans but the angle of the ramps on look like we’d be asking for trouble. Think we’ll take the motorway bridge….

Voyage to Venice (and beyond!)

(hover over the pictures to see captions, or click on the first one of each set to scan through them in full size)

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On the morning of the 9th of May, at 0530! We’re waiting in the dark on an empty Igoumenutsa dockyard for the ferry to Venice..

Soon a couple more hopefuls turn up and by 0630 the ferry is here. It starts it’s journey at Patra (North West Peloponnese), where it seems, the majority of people get on. With a bit of manoeuvering, we’re in our spot on the ‘open deck’, and plugged in to free onboard electrics. Glad I’m not driving the artic’s that will have to reverse back down the ramp, with mm to spare, when we disembark! The weather’s fine and it’s a smooth crossing. We find we can sit in a patch of sun on the car deck and stay out of the wind and away from the smell of diesel and fried food on the upper decks. It’s certainly a very effortless way to cover around 500 miles (and the overland distance is a whole lot more). Every now and then we check our position via a mapping app. on my phone – the captain seems to know where he’s going J

It’s a beautiful calm and sunny morning as we arrive in Venice. They’ve recently changed the route in and unfortunately we no longer go anywhere near the old city. It’s just visible in the distance beyond the miles of fish traps and lagoons.

As we leave the ferry terminal, we immediately notice how busy everything seems …and organised – there’s road markings: bus lanes, bike lanes, and signs and parking meters. We’re definitely not in Greece anymore! We head out onto one of the thin strips of land that form the final barrier to the sea here and manage to find some free parking (there’s very little of it!) at Punto Sabioni. It’s all madly busy compared to what we’ve got used to. There are loads of huge campsites and bungalow parks here, and importantly a ‘vaporetto’ stop (the water busses that take you to the various islands of Venice). Having shelled out a fortune on tickets for the next 3 days (2 x 40eu + 3eu for a map), we find a spot by the river/canal and read and watch the many! boats go by for the afternoon.

We spend the next few days exploring Venice and the surrounding islands. It’s an amazing place and unfortunately, SO busy. luckily you can see a lot from the vaporetto, and we make good use of our ‘go anywhere’ tickets. It’s also VERY expensive – we payed 24eu each for a multi museum pass. They last for 6 months, so would be reasonable value if you could make use of them for that time – but then you’d need to keep shelling out for the water busses. We visited the famous Doge’s Palace, the Correr Museum and Mocenigo’s Palace – All housing hugely impressive paintings, sculptures and other works of art; the importance and significance of which, being mostly lost on us. The majority of the paintings are allegorical and unless you understand ‘what’s going on’, they all become a bit ‘samey’. You really need to be a bit of an expert. We’d been warned not to buy anything to eat or drink in, or near, St, Mark’s square, but were still charged 9 euro! for 2 coffees in an apparently insignificant spot – argh!

We enjoyed wandering the tiny back streets. We discovered the market (the fish section was particularly impressive) and we even managed pizza and wine in a quiet square without completely breaking the bank.

We popped into several of the old churches and joined the other queuing hordes for St. Mark’s Cathedral. The ceilings in St. Marks are all done in tiny mosaics with a propensity of gold, but although they are probably more unique, after the highly painted Orthodox churches of Greece and Eastern Europe, we found it rather disappointing after all the hype.

A day on the island of Burano, with it’s brightly painted houses was a nice change from the hubbub of the main city. We had lunch out here too – being surrounded by lagoons full of fish; fish and shell-fish are specialities. Here we also discovered a restored walled garden, planted with flowers and vegetables and vines, as it would have been when these islanders were self-sufficent. I’m surprised they didn’t struggle for fresh water in the middle of a salt-water lagoon.

We spent a few, rather more relaxing, days based near Punto Sabioni, finding some free, allocated motorhome parking (surprisingly along the road outside a campsite) and later a beach carpark with no parking restrictions. The area is completely flat with many marked cycling routes and we explored more on the bikes in the warm wind. It reminds us a lot of Holland, with fields divided by canals and quite a bit of ‘reclaimed’ land; below sea level. It was quiet and peaceful as we headed out along dykes into ‘lagoon land’; home to lots of wading birds.

On Saturday 16th of May, we head off towards Lago di Garda (Lake Garda). It’s very busy on the roads and we pass seemingly endless industry and huge shops, interspersed with some agriculture. Roundabout follows roundabout on badly surfaced roads (we’re avoiding the motorway tolls). Traffic flow seems fast; it’s a rough ride for Heidi. We comment on the neatly clipped verges, trees cut back from the road and relatively fresh road markings. Again; it’s not Greece! We stop for water and a loo empty at Soave, home of the wine, at an official ‘sosta’ (like the French ‘aires’), before continuing to another one right on Lake Garda. There are free motorhome services here too, but they’re charging 15euro! to park for 24hrs and it’s packed. So is everywhere here. The many campsites seem full too. We stay at Garda for a couple of days, discovering a small free carpark 10 mins walk from the lake front on our second night. It’s a lovely spot, and we enjoy swimming in the lake and wandering along the lakeside path between Garda and Bardolino, bringing back memories of 15 years ago when we spent holidays here in a tent, two summers in a row. We decide it’s got overly popular and too busy for our liking now though, and escape to the other (West) side, which is less busy at the moment, before continuing to Lake Iseo to the West.

We continue to be shocked at how built up and busy everywhere is in these parts, and there seem few attractive places for us to stop. There are a lot of tunnels through the mountains, and the sat-nav struggles to determine whether we are above or below ground, more than once asking us to turn off at a roundabout somewhere far above us. The smaller roads really are tiny too, and although they have ‘no lorries’ signs, there are, unhelpfully, no size or weight restrictions. This normally means it’s fine for us, but not around here! With little information, we choose a small car park by a bridge over a river, at Sarezzo, which turns out to be in an industrial estate, for lunch, followed by a lakeside carpark on a point sticking out into the lake at a place called ‘Castro’ at the North end of Lake Iseo; you’d guess an attractive spot with surely a castle, wouldn’t you? No, it’s dominated by heavy industry with no sign of a castle. At 9pm they were still crashing and banging (steel on rock or vice versa, it sounded like). Surely they don’t do it all night, there are a lot of (ugly) flats very close too. We moved to the other side of town and had a relatively quiet night in the harbour / marina carpark, before heading North, up the valley, towards the high Alps.

The weather deteriorates now – that’s the trouble with mountains – and we have heavy rain and there’s a fresh sprinkling of snow at any height. It all comes as a bit of a shock, having got used to the heat. We dig out trousers and socks! and fleeces, and even resort to heating! This was not the plan! We consider the pass above Tirano as our route into Switzerland, but change our mind as the grey clouds descend. Instead, we head West again, towards the top of Lake Como, half way down it’s west side to Menaggio, and West again, on the SS340 to Porlezza at the top of Largo di Lugano. Como looked attractive, but was madly busy on the only road around it’s edge and we saw nowhere for us to pull off and stop, other than directly into a campsite. Porlezza was thankfully quieter, with several car parks and even one without time restrictions – a rarity in these parts! It’s an attractive place with some parkland alongside the lake. We could have easily lingered.

In the morning, we drive a short distance along the lake shore and out of Europe. Switzerland is independent and there is even a manned border post, but they show little interest in us and wave us through. We come to Lugano and stop at a cash point for Swiss Francs. No Euros here. We get 100 of them for about £70. Lugano is packed and busy with lots of blocks of flats, mostly 6 or 7 stories high, but some much higher. It seems here, as with Northern Italy, any remotely flat bit of land is built on. We quickly join the A2 motorway, heading North and over the high mountains. We’re supposed to have a motorway ‘vignette’ (we think?), but have seen no signs to confirm this or any obvious means of obtaining one. We were thinking of driving the San Gottardo Pass, but signs say it’s closed, so the motorway tunnel is the only way to go anyway. The pass is presumably closed due to recent snow – I thought we’d be all right at this time of year. When we emerge on the North side, it’s in to grey, misty cloud and it’s raining – glad we didn’t go over the top, even if it had been open!

We stay on the motorway until Lucerne, where we turn off, hoping to find somewhere to stop. We don’t. Everywhere is far too busy for our liking. It’s grey and damp and the forecast is much the same for the week ahead. We make the decision to keep going, and head for France, where we know there are hundreds of places that welcome campers to stop for free. (Not much use for the Swiss Francs!) Hopefully the weather will be better too, away from the high mountains? Having decided we’ve probably tempted fait too long with our motorway stint, we take a non-motorway route West, towards Basel. It continues to be a nightmarishly busy. We’re shocked, at how built up, highly populated and full of industry and big business Switzerland seems to be. The beautiful old buildings and bright green grass are still there, but it seems, these days, more often than not, they’re surrounded by square grey and white modern boxes. Obviously much of Switzerland is taken up with the high, fairly impenetrable, mountains, and from what we could see, the side roads were very small and steep – not for us (and we’ll give most things a go!). We’ll need to do some more research before we venture back. There must surely be some motorhome friendly places?
Just south of Basel, we turn off, and are quickly into France – instant quietness and ruralness. The Alsace region, covered in rolling fields, attractive farms and villages with colourfully painted, ancient timber frame buildings is very welcome after a couple of weeks of busyness in Northern Italy and Switzerland. We stop at a dedicated ‘aire’, behind the church in the quiet village of Oltingue. There’s a big car park here, complete with 3 large dedicated camper places, surrounded by neatly clipped flower beds. Full services are provided for us. You need to put 2eu in the meter for water, but parking is free. Happy chickens pecking about in the garden next door complete this rural idle. What a difference a border makes! Shame about the 24hr clock chimes, but compared to the, electrically amplified, Greek variety they’re much more bearable.

We stay in Oltingue for 3 nights. Everybody seems friendly, wishing us “Bonjour” and “Bon weekend”. We have a couple of bike rides, enjoying the green fields and woodlands and relative quietness. It all looks very neat and organised. It’s become a popular area for Storks, and we find a refuge for them close by, with ready made platforms for them to build their nests on. We watch the young being fed and ‘Daddy Stork’ flying off for more food.

For Sunday lunch in Oltingue, we venture to a local restaurant and choose ‘Tarte Flambe’. They’re like a pizza, but with crème fraiche, or similar, in place of the tomato sauce. In German they’re called ‘Flamkoeken’. We had one back in August, last year, when we were in Ulm, Germany (https://heidihymer.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/sourcing-the-s…-of-the-danube/) – another reminder that cultures and traditions are not necessarily divided by national borders. There are a lot of impressive old half-timbered properties around these parts – again very similar to their German counterparts that we saw in the Swartzwald (Black Forrest) area. It seems a wealthy area and we assume these places must be worth a fortune, but are surprised to find you can buy a huge place with acres of land and huge barns (ideal for parking a Heidi in?) for 150-200k. Interesting!

We move on; stopping at Hirtzbach with it’s wealth of restored and brightly painted houses, before continuing to Mulhouse, where we park up out of town and head into the centre on the bikes. Mulhouse has an attractive centre square, lined with ancient buildings including the St. Etienne Cathedral and the beautifully restored and painted town hall. The town hall houses the extensive ‘Musee Historique’. Much of the info. is only in French or German, the majority of which is beyond us, so we’re pleased to find an English speaking ‘guardien’ who was keen to talk about the main hall (Salles du Fetes). This room has seen a lot of history! All the previous ‘Burgermeister’s’ shields (coats of arms) are here, going back to the 1300s! Mulhouse (for a time Mulhauzen) has variously been Swiss, German, French or an independent state. We realise we have no knowledge of where Switzerland fits in to the whole historical border thing? Something else to add to the research list! We enjoy a drink in the sunny square, before heading back to the van and continuing to the ‘Ecomusee’ (open air museum) at nearby Ungersheim.

The Ecomusee (www.ecomusee-alsace.fr), costing us 14eu each, is one of the largest open air museums in Europe. It houses all kinds of Alsatian heritage stuff; loads of reconstructed and restored half-timbered houses, farms and businesses from the surrounding area. These buildings would have been originally designed and pieced together off site anyway, so lend themselves to being moved. There’s demonstrations of traditional skills; A forge, a pottery, a cartwright, various cooking using the traditional ovens, tours of the kitchen gardens and the surrounding sustainably managed farmland, a nature reserve etc. etc. …and storks nesting and wandering around everywhere! Unfortunately lot’s of the demonstrations were not actually happening and about half of the fancy recorded information points weren’t working (and these had the best English info.). It kept us busy and entertained for most of the day, but was overall a bit disappointing.

On the 29th of May, we drive on towards ‘Le Ballon D’Alsace’. ‘Le Grand Ballon’ is the highpoint around here at 1424m. Most of the area is densely forested with occasional open spaces and views for miles – as far as the Alps on clear days. It’s not that clear for us, but we can see the Rhine valley laid out before us, and to the beginnings of the hills of the Black Forrest in the distance. It seems a popular, busy area, criss-crossed with hundreds of marked walking routes. There’s numerous lakes and waterfalls too, and with careful choosing, we found quiet, dark overnight spots; enjoying the stars and the owls by night and loads of twittering birds by day. The weather is still very changeable. We have a good sunny day, out walking, but also lots of rain, encouraging us to keep moving.

On the 1st of June, we wake up in a cloud! It’s damp and drizzly and we head out of the mountains and towards more rolling green hills in the Loraine region. The weather improves towards the end of the day as we drive along long straight roads lined with trees – very French! We end up at Lac Madine, the largest lake in the region, where we stay at an official ‘aire’ near Heudicourt-sous-les-Cotes. They’re charging 5eu a night, but that includes services. There’s even loos and showers available. There’s a campsite here too, and holiday chalets, and a conference centre etc. etc. You can walk/cycle round the lake (20km) or on a bigger circuit, which we did, around the surrounding villages (35km). On our ride, we visited the American war memorial, on the hill at Montsec – an exhausting climb, but with spectacular views of the surrounding country. This, of course, is what made it such a strategic and, fiercely fought over, location. It was controlled by the Germans for much of WW1, before being taken by an American organised offensive with huge loss of life. There are a lot of war memorials and various battlefield sites in this whole area (which has changed hands many times during both the world wars). We came across leaflets on ‘Battlefield Tourism’ – a somewhat strange concept.

We spend another couple of days in this very green place – it’s dominated by fields of wheat and other crops, and acres of mixed deciduous forests – and it’s all covered in bright green new growth. It seems, thankfully now, a very quiet and peaceful region. We find an isolated small carpark on a quiet back road and spend a day walking the woodland paths, discovering the art of the ‘Vent des Forets’ project, which each year invites international artists to place works over the area – they’re connected via a 45km network of paths. We recover from what was rather a long walk by spending another day, mainly sitting, reading, and just enjoying the quiet ‘greenness’ and the birdsong. It’s hot (35C) and the sky is a clear, cloudless blue. No more than 4 or five cars pass in 24hrs. Another! good spot. At 8pm, we’re still sitting outside wearing very little. At 9 the sun descends below the horizon, and at 11 it’s still feeling warm with a pinky glow along the horizon. We watch the bats and listen to the foxes calling..

 

Friday 5th of June. It’s going to be another hot hot day. Time to head north; if for no other reason than to create a bit of breeze! We wend our way through quiet green countryside; fields and fields of wheat and other crops; sleepy villages – huge barns with small houses attached. We visit an unusual modern church in the woods, and then the, disturbingly huge, American war cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montifaucon. In the afternoon, we try and find some respite from the heat at a shaded picnic area; but after a couple of hours of 36 degree heat with a wind that feels like a hair dryer, we decide to continue and drive on to Montherme, on a tight bend of the River Meuse. It’s an officially allocated motorhome spot and very popular; there must be 20 vans here. We join everybody else sitting on the grassy river bank and enjoy a drink as the heat finally relents and gives way to thunder and rain by the evening. We’re now in the Ardenne region. Steeply wooded slopes, lead down to the winding river. There’s signposted walking and bike routes in both directions – another place we’ll put on the ‘must come back to’ list.

In the morning, we’re quickly through the Ardennes cross-country skiing areas and into the much flatter lands further north. We blink, and the signs have changed from French to Dutch (or Flemish?). We skirt the southern edge of Bruxelles before heading West across completely flat land, dotted with Friesian cows and farmhouses with red tiled roofs. We’re travelling fast on the now free, and very busy, motorways. In no time, we reach the coast and head South again to find the place we’d visited before at Zuydcote, near Dunkirk. It’s just over 11 months since we were here last (https://heidihymer.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/destintation-dunkerque/)   and there’s been a few miles (aprox.  8510m / 13700km) under our wheels since then. How many of you, reading this, have done more than that driving backwards and forwards to work, I wonder?

Time to relax for a few days. We do some washing, buy a ticket back to the UK, and consider our next move….

Beach Bums

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On the 20th of April we headed back West, along the North coast of the Peloponnese towards Patra and took the ferry from Rio to the mainland (it cost us 11eu, about half the price of the bridge?). Our journey takes on a new feeling, as we realise we have less than a month left of our time in Greece: schedules – we hate schedules!

We spend a pleasant few weeks, slowly heading up the West coast towards Igoumenitsa (where we’ll catch a ferry to Venice, Italy). The weather has suddenly improved, and we ‘lap up the rays’. We feel we’ve been rather deprived for too long now!

We head for Mesologi and out across the causeway to what isn’t much more than a sandbank beyond the lagoon. It’s a strange sort of place. We’re effectively a couple of miles out to sea here – it can get a bit windy! It’s difficult to know how much of it is natural and how much manmade. The whole area is part of the Evinos River delta and has been variously partitioned off for fish farming, salt production and more recently wild life reserves. It’s flat of course, enticing us to get out on the bikes. Cycling out into ‘the middle of nowhere’ on the thin strips of land dividing one bit of water from another reminds us of the Dutch dykes. It’s very quiet and peaceful. We spot Flamingos, Pelicans, Stilts, White herons and other wading birds. Unfortunately much of the track we follow around the main (‘Kilsova’) lagoon is bone-shakingly rough loose stone. We veer of onto the dry mud-flats for a bit – a weird desert-like landscape, but much easier cycling. We discover the remains of fishing shacks out nearest the ‘actual’ sea. Most are now holiday places and still deserted at this time of year. Some, unfortunately, have ‘guard’ dogs and, not for the first time in Greece!, we’re chased by ferocious specimens, scaring Elaine to death. Just what is it in the Greek mentality that makes people think it’s reasonable to have ferocious dogs running free?!!

Nb. You can see these photos full size by clicking on the first one, then scanning through. (close using the small white x at top left)

We liked the town too. It’s a bustling place with several pedestrianised shopping streets and a main square surrounded by cafes. There’s plenty of parking all around the perimeter if you wanted to be a bit closer, or the wind out on the point got a bit much. There’s a big marina there too. There’s a market, which we unfortunately just missed, on a Tuesday morning, and you can buy fresh fish daily on the quay. We could have easily spent more time there.

As we head North, we stop briefly at Astokos, then spend a couple of nights on the beach just beyond Paleros, before continuing to the island of Lefkada or Lefkas, as it is usually known in English. You can drive to Lefkas via a bridge (which is actually a boat) which moves to let the numerous yachts through the canal into the marina. The Marina is huge and is the main base for several yacht charter companies in this area.

We spend a week exploring Lefkas and it’s stunning West coast beaches. The water is an almost unreal turquoise and sooo clear. Swim, swim swim! Unfortunately a lot of the roads down to the coast are far from Heidi friendly. We twice randomly follow signs to ‘beach/taverna’ only to find ourselves on very steep, very narrow roads with very tight hairpins. There were the potholes, overhanging trees and a complete lack of passing places – they’re single track of course! One turned into a rough dirt track, and we chickened out on another as it proceeded to get steeper and steeper down what was almost a cliff face. We could see miles of sandy beach and turquoise water a long way below – shame. We drove a circuit of the island. We visited Nikiana, Poros Beach and then Syvota, on the South East, where we had joined a Sailing Holiday’s yacht flotilla in 2008 for our first foray into yachting – seems a long time ago now. It’s an attractive and sheltered sailing area and we’re surprised to find the place only just beginning to open for the season, with no sign of Sailing Holidays yet.

Whilst on Lefkas, we witness the start of the season and the change is dramatic. Initially the beaches are all but deserted, but on the 1st of May, that all began to change; the sun-loungers and umbrellas suddenly appeared, wooden walkways down on to the beach were installed, signs were put up and beach clubs began to open, not to mention the increased hire car traffic on the roads. The heat suddenly moved up a notch too, with daytime temperatures of 25 – 30 degrees C. On the 3rd of May we woke up in the carpark above the famed Porto Katsiki beach to discover they were weeding and clearing loose stone away and had put up a sign saying ‘Municipal Parking 3euro’ – and the guy wasted no time in coming to ask for his fee! We then returned to Kalamitsi Beach, where we had previously spent several quiet days and nights, only to find it positively busy. It was quite a shock, and we can only assume that this is the weekend that the local airport at Prevesa opens and starts bringing in the first of the package holiday people. Luckily it was still quiet at night, but I can’t see that being the case as the season progresses.

After Lekfas, we head inland to Vonitsa. It’s hardly inland, and still has a beach overlooking what is actually still the sea, though it’s more like a lake, reached by the narrow entrance at Prevesa. We wander into town, realising we’re just too late for the market (Monday morning). We seem to be good at missing markets – must spend more time in one place in the future. We liked Vonitsa; another ‘real’ place where locals live year round, with all the shops and services you’d expect. It’s also got an attractive front, lined with cafes and tavernas and the sizable remains of a Venetian castle, which we didn’t get round to visiting. We parked just outside town, right on the beach, overlooking Koukoumitsa island. You can walk to, and around, Koukoumitsa via a causeway; a nice stroll under the shade of the pine trees. It’s very popular with the locals for a ‘volta’ (the equivalent of the Spanish ‘paseo’), early morning or late afternoon / evening. The water’s warmer here than on the real coast too as it’s very shallow, but the hundreds of tiny sea urchins lining the shore are less than welcome – ouch! There are welcome, warm thermal breezes in the afternoon and at night the town, the castle and the causeway / bridge is all lit up. We sit out till late enjoying the ‘twinkly’ lights and see fire-flies in the darkness behind us. Vonitsa is also the home of a naughty dog with a taste for collecting shoes. Don’t leave your shoes outside unguarded! – one of Elaine’s had to be retrieved from the other end of the beach, and I caught him trying to make off with mine! I later discovered a line of 3 mismatched shoes by a nearby tree, with the grass all flattened down around it – the ‘shoe thief’s lair’ hehe.

 

We move on; stopping at the many miles of sandy beach to the North West of Prevesa, and then at Ammoudia for our last couple of days in Greece. Ammoudia is a popular spot, and there are several other campers here. Apparently it gets very busy later in the season. It was once a real place, but now only a few families live here over the winter. There are lots of hotels and apartments, but they’re still mainly closed up. We enjoy our last Greek taverna lunch overlooking the river and the fishing-boats in one of the few places that is open, and later a last Greek swim, before heading for Igoumenitsa and the ferry.

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As we prepare to leave Greece, we try to collect our thoughts and impressions of the country. The good and the bad. We realise that in the just over 7 months that we’ve been here, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Winter is probably not the best time to spend time in Greece. Many of the coastal places are closed up and feel dead and much inland is high, mountainous and covered in snow and ice. We’ve had snow and sub-zero temperatures at sea level! We’ve seen surprisingly (or perhaps it’s not?) few campers, and when we have, it was often those we’d seen previously. We stayed on campsites a couple of times and walked through, or past, others. They were all very quiet, with only a handful of winter residents. We decided they didn’t suit us, making us feel more isolated from the world outside the gates. Other than a washing machine and perhaps free wifi, we have little need of campsite facilities anyway. We should have spent more time in some of the bigger towns, where everybody is in winter, but finding somewhere suitable to park for a long time can be difficult. We’re not really ‘town people’ either, generally finding them noisy and busy – maybe we’ll have to learn?…

Some final thoughts and memories –

We’ve enjoyed:

  • Dramatic scenery – especially the clear, turquoise waters (and the swimming – even if it was COLD!)
  • Numerous ancient sites (and the histories that go with them)
  • Food (Spinakopita, Gyros pita, Backlava, Squid, the Honey)
  • Spring flowers and the blossom.
  • Festivals (Epithany, Carnival, Easter..)
  • Trying to get to know ‘normal’ life here. We liked the markets, when we found them; something that seems all too lacking in the UK.

We’ve been surprised by:

  • Goats on beaches🙂 – and in the road.
  • Crazy parking – the Greeks just stop anywhere to shop or chat; corners, zebra crossings, on roundabouts, across junctions – and of course double parking is common. They even have a special sign to tell you not to – it has no effect of course. And stopping on the single track road to go into a shop is normal too – you weren’t in a hurry to get by were you?
  • Fishing with hand throwing lines (a sort of tapered ring) that we’ve not seen before. Surprisingly effective. I bought one and just about mastered the throwing technique – but still didn’t catch anything. Fishing is done by all ages and sexes too – the elder women were just as likely to be doing it – Octopus a common target.
  • Monasteries in CRAZY places – it is simply unbelievable where they’ve managed to build them. And there are a lot!
  • ‘Development’. We found a lot of abandoned hotels and apartment complexes. Some we discovered were built illegally, some have suffered from shoddy construction and have been condemned, but some, we suspect, are just the ‘wrong sort of thing’ these days. In a world that is increasingly made up of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, individual villas seem to be the holiday accommodation of choice and the studios and apartments are loosing out. The rich want, and can afford, a large private villa and the poor can’t afford anything anymore. It’s shocking to realise that most of the development has happenned over only 40ish years. Greece was a very different place until comparitively recently!
  • Building rubble, and other rubbish, tips EVERYWHERE. Every single reasonably accessible place where you can pull off the road, or down a side lane, has become the local dump. I know it’s traditional with disposal services lacking – to tip it down the side of the mountain – but surely people can agree on fewer, bigger sites?
  • How quiet and empty many of the coastal and rural places are – and it’s not just the purpose made holiday places; a lot of these places once had thriving communities that are now city based, only returning to run a family taverna or hotel for the summer tourists. This is probably increasingly common everywhere, but it seems more true in Greece. It looks as if it won’t be long until the last elderly generation is gone and there will be no one outside of the main towns.
  • Mad roads. I don’t think we ever saw a width or weight restriction sign anywhere – but they are certainly needed! Perhaps one saying “this apparently wide, well surfaced, road may at any moment turn into a narrow dirt track with low, overhanging trees – oh and there will be nowhere to turn around or pass anyone coming the other way”. But where would the adventure be if they told you?!

We’ve not enjoyed:

  • The dogs! This has got to be our biggest grievance. The truly wild ones are usually fine, if unnerving; often following us on walks and sitting by the van hoping to be fed. The ‘guard’ dogs are something else. Left on there own for much of the time and only fed occasionally from what we could see; they go mad when they see someone, especially strangers. We’ve lost count of the times we’ve been chased by ferocious dogs, barking furiously, when we’re out walking, but especially on the bikes. The owners, if they’re around, are usually completely unable to call them off. We will be investing in ‘dog dazers’ and mace spray for a future trip! The Greeks seem to like to ‘walk’ their dogs by taking them somewhere in the car, chucking them out and then driving off, encouraging them to run after them – ah, so that’s where they learn to chase cars! Then there’s the all night barking!
  • The weather. It’s been cold, wet and grey for a lot longer than we’d hoped! This winter has been significantly worse than some we’ve been told.

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are you sure this is where the boat leaves from?!!

are you sure this is where the boat leaves from?!!

Dhimitsana to Dhiakopto…

 


as usual, click on the sets of photos to see them full size with the captions ( close each time with the small ‘ x ‘ top left )

you can see where we’ve been on a Google map here:

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zXuk6hsK3x58.kgLHbd5kDnQc

Zoom and pan around. Click on the pushpins for more info, photos, and a link to the relevant blog. (note there’s no link on the most recent points – the blog isn’t written yet!)


 

We stay at Analipsi Beach, West of Kalamata, for couple of days. Its quiet and warm. We like! Then we head up into the mountains. We pass through Megalopoli (“Very Big” – the Greeks are full of imaginative town names!) It’s busy and the cafes are full. We stop briefly at Karitena, a hilltop village with a ruined castle and a Byzantine church, before continuing on to Stemnitsa where we stop for drinks and a ‘medium meze’ at the only place that’s open – good home cooked ham, feta, olives, tomatoes, a beer and a rose wine from the barrel in the cellar. This place is obviously on the tourist trail, but it’s hardly ‘woken up’ yet. We’re at around 1000m here. We contemplate the signposted walking routes, as we sit out in the sun wearing shorts, knowing how easily the weather here can still change at this time of year.

We stop for the night, just short of Dhimitsana, where we turn off down towards the ‘Water Power Museum’, and continue to the tiny village of Paliochori. This is the end of the road for a ‘Heidi’. It’s very small through the village and doesn’t go any further anyway. It’s a nice little place, surrounded by terraced fields and gardens – various plots for sale: tempting… . As we wander around, I’m accosted by an old lady, one of only 6 or 7? permanent residents here, but we can’t make each other understood. She smile’s anyway, and later stumbles across to some neighbours with the aid of a stick – It must be a very isolated existence here.

We take an evening stroll and investigate a path down into the gorge. There’s a raging torrent flowing where the path should be …which whisks me off my feet, leaving me with a wet bum and an unhappy camera. It doesn’t appear to have liked being thrown into a river …a rock may have been involved too! If the quality of the pictures deteriorate from now; you know why!.

The offending 'path'!

The offending ‘path’!

In the morning we opt for the road (much easier and very quiet) down into the gorge and head towards the Filosophou (Philosophy) Monastery. The path on the other side of the gorge is unstable and clinging to the side of a near vertical cliff – definitely scary! We take the road on the way back; better views and very, very little traffic. A good day.

The 4th of April brings low grey cloud. We definitely chose the right day for our walk. We drive up into Dhimitsana around lunchtime and wander around the tiny stepped paths between tightly packed houses.

Dhimitsana, clinging to the side of the hill

Dhimitsana, clinging to the side of the hill

There’s only one drivable road through here. The tavernas are offering; wild boar, rooster with tomatoes, mousaka – appealing on this cold day, but unfortunately Elaine is feeling unwell, so we give it a miss and decide to drive on, through the mountains. It’s a dramatic winding road, high above another deep gorge, passing through Lagadia and Lefkochori. A very tiring drive. Slowly we descend towards the coast again and stop at Ancient Olympia for the night. It was here that the Olympic Games began over 2,700 years ago. Loads more info. here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympia,_Greece

The next day brings more grey and it rains most of the day, but we’re here now and feel we should fit this last important bit of ‘old stuff’ into our schedule. We start with the museum, thinking it’ll surely dry up later – it didn’t. It’s busy. There are several coach loads of people here. I hate to think what it’d be like later in the season! There’s loads of artefacts that have been found during all the excavations here – pots, figurines, ‘votive offerings’, – many identical to the ones we saw at Mycanae, near Nafplio. There’s an impressive collection of the traditional tripod cauldrons / cooking pots, ranging from huge down to tiny models. The model ones were believed to be used for votive offerings, symbolising the heart of the home; showing the importance of food and thanking the gods for it.

There’s also lot’s of impressive statues. How do they know who they all are we wonder; they’re mostly headless!

After lunch, we head out again, umbrellas in hand, in the heavier! rain to look at the outside ‘old stuff’. It’s a huge site, and they’re still excavating. By now, we feel we’ve seen it all before though. It’s within, what is now, a beautiful bit of parkland and the trees are just getting their new, bright green leaves. There’s pink blossom and wild flowers everywhere, almost making up for the terrible weather. Eventually the rain stops and we watch an English school group having an impromptu race on the original Olympic track.

From Olympia, it’s down to Pyrgos, just inland from the coast. We skirt around the edge of this busy, unattractive town, noting a serious rubbish problem. There’s what must be weeks and weeks of it piled up everywhere; the original bin often barely visible beneath it (we never did discover what the issue was; thankfully it was isolated to a fairly limited area.)

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Along the coast road through miles and miles of what must be the traditional fishing shacks / holiday places of the locals. They’re all tightly packed together, preventing any access to the beach for us; and there’s nowhere to park. Many places have been destroyed by the wind and the waves, and then a replacement built just inland. The whole place has a weird empty feeling – there’s virtually no one around. We move on to Katakalo on the point. There’s a yacht marina and a ferry and cruise ship terminal, and loads of parking, but it’s all pretty unappealing. We finish up nearby, in ‘our own private campsite’ – open grassy areas, surrounded by trees. It appears to be open, public land? Not sure we’ll tell everyone about this spot. hehe.

Next it’s north up the coast, stopping at Patronikoleika, next to a huge holiday resort showing no sign of opening for Easter – surprising. We visit Amaliadha for some shopping. It’s madly busy with narrow streets, and we gingerly squeeze between the usual double parked, or should I say ‘abandoned’, cars that Greece exemplifies. The whole coastal plain here is flat, agricultural land, with not much signs of life in the villages. It always comes as a shock to enter the odd big town and realise: oh, this is where everyone is. Cafes and bars are full, with people spilling out into the streets. There’s shops selling everything and people wear trendy, designer clothes. A big contrast to the rural areas. We find an AB supermarket and, surprisingly, a parking spot, before escaping the bedlam and heading off looking for somewhere more suitable for us over Easter weekend. It’s a shame that there’s rarely somewhere suitable for us to stay in these bigger places. It would be nice to be part of real life for a bit and get a feel of things – especially over Easter.

Heading back towards the coast, we discover miles and miles of sandy beaches, backed by dunes and pine forests. There’s little development and what there is, is still all closed up. The beaches and the rapidly improving weather temps us to stay for several days. We swim and lounge in the sun while we can; we haven’t exactly had lots of opportunity this trip.

The nearby town of Vartholomio is a manageable size for us and we find parking easily enough. With some determination and a bit of luck, we get our timing right to join in the Good Friday celebrations here. We visit the churches in the afternoon, checking out the elaborately decorated ‘Epitaphio’ (the symbolic bier of Christ – these days it’s designed to carry an Icon), ready for later. We return at 8.30pm, just as it is getting dark, to find the churches and the squares outside packed with people. There’s much singing and chanting going on inside and we push through the throng to see what’s going on. As seems to be the norm with Greek Orthodoxy, the ‘congregation’ doesn’t join in. There are 3 priests in different locations in the church, and as one stops his bit, it’s taken up immediately by another, all in the same singing / chanting voice. Occasionally a member of the public takes the mike for a short part too – presumably they are telling the Easter story. Like the many bell ringings, it’s all amplified as loud as possible and broadcast via speakers from the bell tower. There’s a huge queue to kiss the Icon amongst much genuflecting. We’re in it for a bit before realising and sidling off to the side. It’s not really our thing. We wonder at this massive exchange of saliva; you’d develop a strong immune system here! Everybody is here; all ages and all ‘walks of life’; the local farmers, the city visitors in the latest fashion (you can see the little old ladies in black looking disapprovingly at the young things in the shortest of short mini-skirts and ridiculously high heals). There’s some very young children and even, surprisingly, the odd immigrant worker. All are keen to kiss the Icon. Once the chanting is over and we’ve all been sprinkled with liberal amounts of holy oil, dished out into waiting hands, or over the children’s heads, from a fancy pourer thing, by the chief priest / bishop, we head outside into the square where the procession begins.

It’s all led by a brass band. There’s various crosses and symbols of various types carried on poles up front, followed by the Epitaphios from both the churches. The Priest is still being enthusiastic with the oil, as, what appears to be most of the town, follows the procession carrying candles and sprinkling flower petals. We join in with everyone for what turns out to be quite a long walk around the town. Most of the houses and businesses along the route have got candles burning and incense wafting. We stop at the cemetery for a bit whilst everybody lights candles at the family graves and the bell is constantly rung, before continuing. There are various stops for chanting and petal throwing and of course oil sprinkling ..and then there’s the bangers! A team of enthusiastic youth, walking rather to close to where we are, are intent on chucking them down every side street and onto every bit of wasteland or half-built building. They’re deafening.

Eventually, back at the appropriate churches, the Icons are restored to their places. Of course they need kissing again, but this time, people begin to pull the hundreds of flower heads from the decorated Epitaphio and take them away as they leave, heading for the surrounding bars and cafes.

It was quite an event, lasting at least a couple of hours. Apparently the follow-up is a midnight service on Saturday, culminating with the Priest appearing in complete darkness, with a single candle. The flame, having been lit from a ‘eternal flame’ in Jerusalem, and then flown to Athens and distributed to all the churches in the country! The flame is then passed around with repeated shouts of “Christos Anesti” (Christ is Risen), and then carefully carried home where the ‘head of the household’ makes a smoky cross above the front door with it.

For more info. on Greek Orthodox Easter Celebrations see this (as usual) very thorough account by Barry and Margaret of magbaztravels: http://www.magbaztravels.com/content/view/1700/380/   We seem to have missed out on much of this, either due to appalling weather or not being in the right place at the right time – another year perhaps?
After Easter we head towards Patra. As we pass the main ferry terminal to Italy, we spot plenty of hopeful, desperate looking, potential immigrants loitering near the gates and checking the place out. We’d heard stories of them trying to hide under or in your van as you board the ferry. We find a good spot on the beach at the other end of town, overlooking the impressive suspension bridge to the mainland. It’s busy with locals, fishing and swimming. We stay for a couple of days and manage to book a ferry (in a little over a months time) from Igoumenitsa, further up the coast, to Venice, from a local travel agent. It costs us 349eu, much cheaper than expected. We’d seen 460eu quoted online.

We thought about our return route for ages. The cheapest option is probably to drive up through the Balkans, but it’s a long way and we decided we’d just be rushing through places; which didn’t appeal – something for a future trip? There are also several, much shorter, ferry crossings to Italy, but they wouldn’t have been any cheaper by the time you’d factored in fuel and probable motorway tolls on the Italian side. And again, we felt we’d be rushing through places we’d like to stop at as we headed north. We’ve got what is termed a ‘camping on board’ ticket, meaning we don’t have a cabin or allocated seat, but can stay in the van. We can even plug-in to their electrics.

On the beach - north of Patra

On the beach – north of Patra

The impressive suspension bridge to the mainland

The impressive suspension bridge to the mainland

We make one last stop in the Peloponnese; Dhiakopto, on the northern coast, before we leave what has been home for getting on for five months (we crossed the Corinth Canal on 28th Nov 2014 – see our previous blog: https://heidihymer.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/criss-crossing-the-canal/ ). We stayed in Dhiakopto for 5 nights. It’s obviously a popular spot just before or after the ferry from Patras which, it seems, is how most people get to and from here. We have a steady stream of neighbours from France, Switzerland, Germany and England. Having hardly seen any other vans for months it’s a bit of a shock.

The main reason for coming here was the cog railway trip up the spectacular Vouraikos Gorge. Unfortunately it’s now been modernised from the original steam train and is now all ultra modern. The scenery though, remains just as spectacular. So much so, that we took the train, a second time, up to the half way station and walk back down, so as to have more time to appreciate it. It’s a long walk for us; probably about 8 miles. It’s gently downhill all the way, which we thought would make it easy, but much of it is on the course chippings that make up the bed of the railway itself (there is nowhere else to go!), which didn’t make for easy or comfortable progress. You had to look out for the trains to, which couldn’t be heard above the sound of the raging river below. Luckily it’s a popular thing to do and the train drivers expect crazy walkers and are ready on the horn. In many places it’s only just possible to stand clear of the tracks. A great walk, albeit a very tiring one.

The train goes up to the town of Kalavrita, famous for a horrific massacre, during WW2, at the hands of the Nazis. Almost every male members of the population, over the age of 14, was executed by machine gun, on the 13th of December 1943, “as an act of revenge against the Greek national resistance”. All the houses were burnt to the ground and the womenfolk left to bury the dead, often with their bare hands, in the frozen ground. There is an excellent museum with videos of survivors’ accounts of events and a memorial on the hill above the town. Tears were shed! I am currently reading Hitler’s book; “Mein Kampf”. Learning about and trying to understand the histories of the war. It doesn’t get any easier!

We headed back towards Patra on the 20th April and took the ferry to the mainland from Rio. The ferry cost us 11eu. Obviously it takes longer than driving over the bridge, but we were told the bridge costs at least double that – and we’re not in a hurry. The plan is to meander up the West coast of Greece and then take the ferry to Venice from Igoumenitsa…

last night on the Peloponnese at Dhiakopto. A German neighbour tonight.

last night on the Peloponnese at Dhiakopto. A German neighbour tonight.

looking north to the mainland - there's still snow on the mountains..

looking north to the mainland – there’s still snow on the mountains..

March, Monemvasia, Mani

 

‘Flowers of The Mani’ – slideshow:

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All the following photos: Click on the pictures to see a larger version and the captions. You can then scroll through them in large size (and leave a comment if you wish). When you’re done, return to the text by clicking the small white cross in the top left corner.


 

We’d spent half of January, all of February, and the first few days of March around Nafplio and the ‘prefecture’ (area) of Argolida. (see our previous post: ‘Adventures in Argolida’)

March began with several warm, sunny days in a row. As I look back at our diary / logbook, I’m reading comments like: “sat out in the sun for morning coffee watching dolphins playing in the bay”, “got sunburnt” and “warm overnight – no heating needed”. We even went swimming. Was Spring finally here we asked ourselves?

We decided it was about time to move on and explore somewhere different, so on Wednesday 4th March, we’re on the road by 9am (early for us) and soon round the top of Nafplio Bay, past Argos, and taking the road down the other side towards Astros. From Astros we take the ridiculously steep, ‘hairpinny’, mountain road up, up, UP into the mountains with great views back down to the sea. As the road twists and turns, we pass isolated villages with no one about, reaching Aghios Petros at around 1000m. It looks rather out-of-place in this harsh landscape, clinging to the side of the mountain. It reminds us of the Welsh mountain villages; not the buildings, but the incongruousness, of its location. It’s cold and damp as we pass the empty square with it’s obliguitory masses of chairs and tables complete with tablecloths; just why the Greeks leave them out all winter in the rain and wind when no one is using them, we have yet to discover. We continue on up to a pass at just over 1200m. Interestingly, the trees increase as you go higher here, especially on north facing slopes. We pass through evergreen pine trees and then into, currently bare, deciduous woodlands. It seems very odd at this height! As we descend, it’s back to sparse scrub and bare rock – too hot for many trees in summer, we assume.

 

Eventually we join the main north-south road, heading south towards Sparti. We continue on down to Lakonikos Bay and then further south, down the Lakonian Peninsula. We stop for the night at Piltra (Xilis Bay). At this time of year, it’s virtually deserted, but they’ve obviously got big plans here. There’s new roads laid out and they’re even putting in ‘propper’ drainage everywhere! Several of the old stone buildings have been done up, and unusually, it looks as if there’s some kind of plan – we speculate that the whole place has probably been bought up by some private company – we’ve not seen this sort of thing in Greece to date. We park along from a beautiful stretch of sandy beach, on a new bit of road and ‘prom’ with marked parking places, but the grey clouds are looming again and the wind is getting fierce, so we soon move under some huge plane trees looking for some shelter.

The jack-hammers and diggers start on the roads again in the morning – time to move on! It’s a grey, blustery day as we head south. It’s a very different landscape than we’ve seen recently; much sparser development, and looking all the more attractive for it. We hug the windswept coast, where we can, along tiny roads. It would be worth a longer linger if the weather ever improves again; we had four days of sunshine in a row – was that it? We head inland for a bit, successfully avoiding the many dirt roads and pass through the usual oranges and olives (and immigrant labour) and then back towards the coast at Aghios Georgios and Pounta; the ferry landing across from the island of Elafonisos. There’s a nice sandy beach here and an area of dunes behind. There’s regular ferries throughout the day. The wind is getting wild. The choice is the small passenger / fishing boat being thrown about in the waves like a bit of driftwood, or the larger and more stable car ferry that you have to board at speed as the ramp scrapes across the jetty, never coming to a stop, before the ferry departs again. We choose neither and hope that Heidi is digging her fingers into the sand and hanging on!

It’s still blowing hard in the morning, but we’re still here! It’s into Neopolis for some shopping along the sand-strewn front, before heading back the way we’ve come looking for shelter. We find it, to some extent, and park on a grassy point overlooking the sea and the village of Archangelos. Archangelos is an attractive little place but virtually dead at this time of year. One taverna shows signs of life, but we suspect it’s just the family eating. The rest, and all the holiday apartments, are shut up and empty. We stayed in Archangelos for 3 days. We walked and cycled along this attractive and deserted section of coast and appreciated the abundance of wild flowers just beginning to bloom. One morning whilst out walking, I was stopped by a little old man in a big black ‘mafia-like’ Mercedes. He gruffly asked “where you from?”, “tourist?”, “you like Greece?”. Luckily it was a beautiful morning, and he seemed happy with my response of “ne, auria” (yes, beautiful/wonderful). “Today it is very cold in England” he said. I had to laugh, it was so obviously a ‘stock’ leant phrase – it may well have been true, and it was nice of him to make the effort. He continued with “Politik in Greece; Crap, Many crooks” before shaking his head and driving off. I wondered how he’d come by the Merc? It looked totally out-of-place in an area where most people drive beaten up, ancient pick-up trucks piled high with various farming paraphernalia.

By the 9th of March, the wind had moved round to the north and we were no longer sheltered. Heidi had been rockin’ and rollin’ all night and the wind was screaming through the vents driving Elaine nuts. We head over to the east coast via sparse rocky countryside with occasional patches of olives and pomegranate trees. The villages; Talandra, Aghios Dhimitrios, Velies, are small and shabby looking with few people about. Living off the land, as most do around here, isn’t easy. We reach the sea again and head north for a bit, stopping at the very sheltered bay / lagoon at Limani Gheraka, where we park next to Barry and Margaret (www.magbaztravels.com) who we’d met at Camping Finikes over Christmas. We catch up on each others travels and they give us a big bag of oranges, collected whilst at a campsite near Sparti, before they hit the road again; heading north. Nice oranges! Thanks. On their recommendation, we follow a signed walk from here up to an acropolis and back through the tiny, deserted village. It’s grey and drizzly, but the wild flowers are stunning and no doubt the view would be too – if we could see it!

We wake to a sunny and much calmer day, and head back south a bit, stopping at a long stretch of sandy beach (Paleas Monemvasia Bay) for the day whilst I investigate our ailing water system. There’s a valve that’s supposed to release the water from the boiler if it’s in danger of freezing, that keeps dripping – It’s cold, but not that cold! More importantly, the main water pump keeps coming off and dropping into the tank, meaning no water at all from the taps – luckily we carry a couple of 10 litre jerry cans too. There’s a water tap here, meaning I can release all the water, dry off the pump attachments and reconnect them. I then refill everything and re-pressurise and all seems well. At the same time I remove the temperature sensing valve and by-pass it. That’ll have to do until we can get a replacement. It seems a bit over the top anyway – if the water is likely to freeze, then so are we and we will have put the heating on long ago!

Monemvasia Bay Beach - always best to choose a scenic location whilst repairing your waterpump. lol

Monemvasia Bay Beach – always best to choose a scenic location whilst repairing your waterpump. That’s Heidi – the white spec in the centre.

It rains hard through the evening and then again for much of the next day. We drive into Monemvasia and park on the island (there’s a causeway). In no time, we hear running water and I discover Heidi is depositing our precious water all over the carpark – Oh Heidi! Back to the drawing board with the water system then. The water pump has come of the end of the pipe again and dropped into the tank. But why is the water pouring out on the ground?? We discover that the anti-freezing valve that I removed yesterday, is also a one way valve stopping the hot water from flowing back into the cold pipes and main tank. If the pump comes off, it let’s air into the system, de-pressurises everything, and the contents of the hot tank (20l) then drains back into the cold tank. And if the cold tank is already full, then that 20litres goes out the overflow pipe onto the ground! Ho hum. I try again to fix the pump in place. The problem is some little plastic part has cracked and snapped off. I modify it and add an extra jubilee clamp. So far (I’m writing this 3 weeks later) it has stayed in place.

The rain has eased by evening and we walk into the old Medieval town – wow! We follow the tiny twisting passages and stairways. Much restoration has been done and much is still going on. Apparently there are only 6 or 7 permanent residents here now and a lot of the old houses seem to have been turned into fancy hotel rooms and apartments, mostly owned by a single company. Shame. It has however all been done ‘properly’ in traditional styles using natural coloured pigments rather than paint. The castle / fortress up on top of the rock is closed for restoration and apparently has been for years. We visit again when the sun finally decides to show itself again in the morning. Some of the touristy shops are now open. The many cats are lazing in the sun outside the tavernas and donkeys! pass by laden with building rubble – there is no vehicle access.

More on Monemvasia here: http://www.monemvasia.com/

We explore the other way – the modern town on the mainland. It’s a busy ‘real’ place with lots of locals about as well as several coach-loads of visitors. What must it be like in season? We find a couple of good veg shops with much more of a selection available than we’ve seen of late. Then it’s lunch time; ‘gyros pita’ it is then. They’re only 2euro (so they must be small – right?), so we order two each. Mistake; they’re just excellent value. One would have done, and we feel overly stuffed for the rest of the day.

What, 2 'gyros pita' each! From what we've seen, it's a fairly common request - but too much for us!

What, 2 ‘gyros pita’ each! From what we’ve seen, it’s a fairly common request – but too much for us!

Later, we drive south and follow the road to it’s end at the tiny settlement of Aghios Fokas. It’s a wild and rugged coast along here with little development and several small beaches. There’s a footpath only from here heading south. The weather deteriorates again and soon it’s blowing a gale and raining hard. Heidi is rocking about and we fear our parking spot will turn into a muddy puddle. We move and find shelter in the nearby ‘congress centre’ carpark. It’s closed and appears to be used for only a few months in the summer – ideal, if not quite so picturesque as down by the coast. The weather continues to be appalling. We stay for three days and the rain rarely stops. Roast dinners, reading and video watching – and running the engine to charge the batteries! for an hour a day.

 

Finally the sun comes out again and we drive up and over the hills via Kalives, Lira, Eliniko and Pandanasa… The roads, as usual, are small and windy, and very narrow through the villages. There’s quite a few signposted walking routes in this area (more info. Monemvasia Hiking Trails / routes?) They tend to be long and often steep, following the pre-road routes from village to village. With our degree of fitness they are not that appealing and there’s little possibility of a circular route. We join the coast road to Neopolis and continue on, winding through the hills, through Aghios Nikolaos (a mistake to go through the centre – it’s very narrow with tight corners but we make it) and on to the tiny Aghia Marina Church. The last two kilometres are on a dirt road; reasonable most of the way, but deteriorating and narrow towards the end. So wish we had 4×4 and greater ground clearance to get to these out-of-the-way spots. The excuse for this intrepid adventure was that we were following signs to a ‘petrified forrest’. With little information, we set off in the wrong direction and spend a couple of hours wandering along this beautiful, wild stretch of coastline. After a bit of searching we find our own bits of petrified trees, and later the bit that we were supposed to be looking for. There’s not that much to see really. Not sure what we expected; interesting, but it certainly wasn’t a ‘forest’. It’s been a beautiful sunny day, feeling quite Spring-like for a change. We check out the tiny fishing village of Profitas Ilias and then return the way we’ve come and end up at Boza Beach just in time to watch the sun setting. It feels like we’ve done a lot of driving today, but we’ve only done 135km – you don’t get anywhere fast on these roads.

Boza Beach was a good spot. We stayed for four nights and could easily have stayed longer. At this time of year, during the week the place is deserted and being at the end of the road, a good way from town, it was very quiet and peaceful. We walk the tracks leading through the fields of olives and oranges, enjoy the view across to the snowy mountains above Gythio on the far side of the bay and get several buckets of washing done. However the taverna, that we had assumed closed, opens at the weekend and our empty carpark suddenly gets surprisingly busy. We join the locals for Sunday lunch. The place is packed out inside (it’s still really too cold for sitting out). We have lamb chops, a rarity on menus we’ve seen so far, salad and chips. All very good and good value. We eat too much as usual. Shame there’s no Stifado (a traditional Greek stew) or Mousaka. It seems these traditional dishes are invariably ‘off’ even though they’re on the menu. Maybe they’re not that popular or perhaps too much effort?

We’re somewhat reluctant to move, but there’s beginning to be a bit of a schedule – so much to see and do before we need to be back in the UK (mid June). We drive round the top of the bay towards Gythio, passing through a flat, orange growing area. As with anywhere flat and relatively easily accessible around here, it’s become commercialised by increasingly larger and larger companys. We pass the, perhaps not so temporary, homes of the immigrant labour force and their families, ranging from plastic covered shelters, to tatty caravans, to reasonable looking concrete houses. As usual, it is they that we see loading the oranges from the tractor trailers to the bigger trucks and the Greeks who stand around their pick-up trucks doing the deals and the paperwork. Rumour has it that these large-scale corporations, using cheap labour, are increasingly undercutting the small traditional farmers so much that it’s hardly worth their while picking their oranges anymore. We wonder who the ‘winners’ are in this situation.

We pass Selinitsa Beach (the one with the famous Dimitreos shipwreck) and stop for the obligatory photo. It’s been here since 1981 and, whether intentionally or not?, was allowed to wash up here after its temporary anchor failed in a storm. It had spent some time in Gythio harbour, rumoured to be unsafe and in financial difficulties with a history of smuggling. It’s also this beach that the ,almost extinct, Caretta-caretta sea-turtles come to lay their eggs in summer – shame we’re too early. We continue on to Gythio where we find an ideal parking spot, next to the Mani Museum, on the Kranai Islet (reached by a narrow! causeway). The Museum is unfortunately closed, reminding us yet again, of the short tourist season in Greece.

We stay ‘on our island’ for a total of 5 nights. Ok, so it’s not all ours, we share it with a couple of French ‘hippy type’ vans, complete with the usual dogs, baby, dreadlocks and juggling as a past-time. They’re friendly and wave and keep their dogs under better control than a lot of the locals. I really fancy the big Merc. Vario van with the horsebox type back on it – but would we need their ‘image’? Not sure it suits us!? Also staying there is Mike ( http://www.vandogtraveller.com ) and his girlfriend Marti, who I’d come across online. I recognised the van and we went to say hello. He’s an interesting character, an electrical engineer, who like us realised there must be an alternative to the rat race. His van is self converted and he’s on a very limited budget – a reminder that anybody can live this life. He’s in the process of writing an e-book about van conversion, hoping that it will help fund his onward travels – Good luck Mike – and put me down for a copy when you’re done.

The weather is very mixed. We have rain most days. We wander around town. It seems pretty shabby and down at heel for the most part, but it’s a busy ‘real’ place with a good market that we use for a major stock up on Friday. We eat out again on Sunday, enjoying the local squid, and then sit outside for a coffee and discover we very much like the sound of the Bouzouki (live music from our closest taverna).

On Monday 23rd March, we drive south to ‘the Deep Mani’. It’s a wild and desolate place with numerous tower / fortress villages. The inhabitants of old were reputedly a wild bunch too, renowned for their fierce independence, resentment of any attempts to govern them and for bitter, spectacularly murderous internal feuds – hence all the towers. Their formidable reputation meant that would-be occupiers generally left them alone. Like the Pelion, the invading Turks never got this far. The isolated mountain strongholds are mostly uninhabited these days but some, especially those at lower levels, are being increasingly restored as holiday accommodation. There are few places for us to stop in this region and little access to the coast. Most of the few mountain roads are definitely not Heidi friendly. The rain doesn’t quite reach us but it’s dark and foreboding adding to the mystery and isolated feeling of the place.

Having found no particularly attractive alternative, we stop at ‘the end of the world’, as far south as you can drive in mainland (if the Peloponnese counts as mainland) Greece. We walk the final 2km, to the lighthouse at Cape Tainaron, across barren rocky hillsides, above crashing seas. It’s overcast but warm and there’s wild flowers everywhere. We are surprised to discover that here at 36.4 degrees of latitude we are further south than Tunis and Algiers. Back near where we are parked, there’s the remnants left by the various past inhabitants. The carpark is above a temple to Posiedon, or rather it’s location – all that remains now is the ruins of an old church that obviously used odd bits of the old temple in it’s construction. There’s also part of a mosaic floor, numerous water cisterns and channels carved out of the rock to catch the rain (there’s no natural springs around here), and lots of stone walling. In the morning we go looking for ‘The Gates of Hades’. Supposedly the cave down on the beach is ‘the entrance to the underworld’ – unlikely we think; it’s a very shallow cave even if you take into account that part of the roof has collapsed.

What started as a bright sunny morning, turns into a grey and blustery day as we head north up the west coast, passing the typical tower village of Vathia. The wind steadily increases, but we’ve decided on a walk, even if it feels difficult just to stand up at times! We head slightly inland from Gherolimenas, to Ano Boulari, where we leave Heidi, before setting out on foot for the steep climb up through the village and then on into the mountains towards the mountain villages of Pepon and Leontakis. It’s an ancient, paved mule track, typical of around here and until relatively recently the only way to get about. It’s overgrown and very uneven. Progress is slow, and as the dark clouds begin to descend, we decide that heading higher when we’re already being blown off our feet in the wild gusts is probably not a good idea. We’re down in the bottom of a gully as it is and the majority of the wind is coming from the other side of the peninsula – it gets everywhere here; something the Mani is famous for. Arriving back at Heidi, just before ‘Big Rain!’, we retreat back down to Gherolimenas and find some shelter in the small car / boat park there. It’s a wild, wet and windy night and I put jacks under the back corners to stop us rocking about so much.

We continue up the coast during the next several wet, windy days. I continue to try and stabilise the van when we’re parked up, using the bottle jacks, but at times the gusts are strong enough to collapse them! As we attempt to shelter under a cliff at Dhiros beach, we watch a Kesterel struggling to keep control and eventually land on a rock right in front of our window. There are various migratory birds too – ‘blown in’ with the storm. A Black Winged Stilt and an Egret just stand there and stumble about a bit; dazed after their trip from North Africa. I don’t suppose they had much choice in their first landing on this side!

 

We get to Stoupa on the 26th of March and find some shelter in carpark next to the church and the schools. We also did a quick tour of the town, narrowly avoiding getting stuck between parked cars, whilst trying to negotiate the one way system in reverse – not a recommended experience. We did wonder why all the parked cars were facing the other way. It continues to rain; lots! Our attempt at going out to find some advertised live music, results in us getting very wet and discovering the venue shut. Shame, Stoupa looks like a nice little place and is apparently very popular with the expats.

Finally we have a fine day, and we get the bikes out and try out the smooth concrete bike path (Wow! a real rarity) to Ag. Nikolaos and then follow the small coast road to it’s end at Trachila, an attractive little harbour village with many more of the largish, shuttered, stone built, Venetian style houses than you’d expect for the size of the place. They’re mostly in good shape and we assume they’re mainly holiday homes. It’s certainly very quiet at the moment. There’s also no fishing boats in the tiny harbour, though it was obviously once a thriving community. We return to Ag. Nikolaos, which is much busier. Everybody is cleaning, painting and repairing, ready for the season. We stop for lunch at a waterside table with our name on it; the swirling sea in the harbour only just not reaching our feet. We enjoy squid, salad and ‘black beans with spinach’ (finally some of the more traditional dishes are available). All very good, washed down with a couple of glasses of wine. Back at the van, in the afternoon, there’s a knock on the door: “Yasas (hello, hi, general universal greeting – also when you leave), You like?”. A local lady proceeds to present us with 6 huge eggs that she carefully takes from a carrier bag and places on our step. “Effaristo poli” (thankyou very much). Not many ‘food miles’ on them!

We’re in Stoupa four days before continuing towards Kalamata. We shop and get auto-gas and spend a couple of days on the beach near Analipsi. It’s warm, even hot at times and we swim and lie back lapping up the rays – is the weather finally settling down? It seems we’ve had more than our fair share of wind and rain again this month!

What better way to end?

What better way to end?