Tag Archives: Europe

A brief glimpse of Northern Spain, then through France to the ferry.

 

On Monday 2nd May, we entered Spain from the North East of Portugal, via the tiny border town of Rio de Onar. We travel up and over a high area of sparse scrubland with a few forestry plantations, before descending to spend the night by the river at Puebla de Santabra, beneath the imposing medieval fortress town on the rock above. Something is very different. Everybody is ‘doing the paseo’. It’s so much more prevalent here. And just to confirm we’re in Spain now, we’re parked next to an unfinished development, complete with overgrown roads, footpaths and streetlights 🙂

In the morning we follow the A52 motorway East, and then the A66 north to big, busy, Leon for some shopping. We do love the Spanish ‘Mercadonna’ supermarket. Sooo much good stuff, Sooo cheap, and a charcuterie section to die for! Stocked up, we head east again, across flat plains, before the mountains slowly begin to rise again. We pass through Guardo, an unattractive industrial place, before joining a high route through the mountains. We skirt round the Compuerto reservoir and head higher, towards the snow-capped peak of ‘Espiguete(2450m). Over a pass at 1408m, before descending again down to the smaller Ruesga Reservoir, just before the town of Cervera de Pisuerga, for the night. A lovely quiet spot (apart from the noisy singing frogs hehe). The sky has been a stunning clear blue all day. We’re still at around 1000m. It’s going to be a cold night!

This is a beautiful area. Wish we could stay and explore longer, but the dreaded ‘schedule’ is upon us. In the morning we leave, via the CL626, heading east, and then it’s north again on the A67 motorway, down, down, down to the coast. We join the coastal motorway near Santander. It’s busy! There aren’t many options along here. The mountains seem to fall straight into the sea. We stop just before Bilbao at a recommended cliff top carpark for an afternoon sitting out in the sunshine.

In the morning we make the big mistake of trying to avoid the boring motorway and end up in traffic in central Bilbao. Not a recommended experience! We then try and take the coast road for a bit of scenery and to visit a few places along the way. Another big mistake! It turns out to be a nightmare and one of the most stressful and downright physically hard drives I’ve ever done. Up and down endlessly twisty turny roads. It’s a truly mad landscape all along this coast. Reminding us of Switzerland in places, we rarely glimpse the coast. We go over 500m passes on the closest road to the coast!  It’s very tiring, very slow progress. The towns (Bermeo, Lekeitio,..), that from a brief glance at the map, might have been attractive, are busy, tightly packed with flats, all at least 6-7 stories high, and virtually nowhere for us to stop either. We take a break just outside Lekeitio,

but when the tide is in, the waves echo annoyingly, all around. Maybe it’s the frayed nerves from the driving, but we don’t fancy being woken by it in the early hours of the morning when the tide comes in again, and so move on again. There are very few options without a BIG detour and we continue along the nightmare coast road trying to take it steady and not use the brakes too much – they’re now grinding badly at every turn, which is constantly, whether we’re using them in earnest or not. Not good! To end this drive from hell, we stop at an official spot  in what turns out to be an industrial estate, next to a 24hr engineering workshop with continuous lathe and grinding noise – Nice! Almost anywhere would be better. We’re at Zumaia, a biggish port with more ugly flats. Don’t bother! Infact, i’d think twice about stopping anywhere along this bit of coast in the future. On a mission to extricate ourselves from this mess, we manage to find a much needed garage on the outskirts of San Sebastian. They were very busy, but managed to fit us in, order new brake pads (the old ones had crumpled to dust but luckily the discs had survived), replace them and have us on our way again within 3hrs. (Euromaster – there’s one in most major places in Europe and we’ve found them good and efficient). Instructed to use the brakes sparingly for a bit, we took the mechanic at his word and didn’t touch them much for the next couple of hundred miles. We made tracks, gladly paying the €11.35 charges on the motorway to be out of the mess that id Northern Spain (come off at ‘Labenne’, France. Jct. 7 or 8? to avoid further charges). We didn’t stop until we were north of Bordeaux, France, where we pulled off the N10, and spend the night at the quiet little village of Laruscade. It’s good to be in rural France. All we can hear now is the birds tweeting – what a contrast to yesterday!

Next it’s back to the free, and motorway standard, N10, taking us quickly past Angouleme, towards Poitiers. Bored and as usual seeing nothing of the areas we’re rushing through, we turn off and head for Candes-St-Martin, between Angers and Tours, on the Loire river. Candes-St-Martin is supposed to be “one of the prettiest villages on the Loire”. It’s certainly an attractive little place, built out of the very white limestone of the area. It’s very busy, perhaps because there’s some sort of fete going on, but perhaps everybody else has read that it’s the prettiest village too? True to form, we come in the ‘back way’ following the Sat Nav, and end up in the narrow “camping-car interdit!” section in the centre 🙂 Well, there were no signs the way we came in! The following day we manage to loop back round the town. Avoiding the centre, to Monontsoreau and continue along the river to Saumur. It’s a nice stretch of river with several small villages famous for their wines. The wine is, or at least was, stored in limestone caves cut out of the rock that forms the edge of the river valley, often with 3 sides of a house built in front. We park by the river at Saumur and enjoy a good lunch at the ‘Cristal Hotel’ before a walk up to the castle/chateaux. For €6 each including a personal guide in English, we are bombarded with more information than my poor historical knowledge could cope with.

Having been educated a bit in Saumur, we continue north looking for a suitable ‘quiet little French village’. Mouliherne does the job perfectly, with an attractive parking spot, next to a picnic site and stream and motorhome services a short distance away. The French are so good at this! (probably said that many times before?) There’s also, as we’ve seen elsewhere, signposted walking routes making a loop from the centre of town and back.

Another couple of driving days follow. We try to find a good route, avoiding the motorways. We skirt past the edge of Le Mans, through Saint-Martin-Du-Vieux-Bellame, through the national park area of ‘Parc Naturel Regional Du Perche’ (looked like a nice area; lakes, walks, picnic sites, monasteries – another area on the list for future investigations when we have more time), stop at Les Aspres for lunch, before continuing to La Mailleraye-sur-Seine, on the River Seine. It’s an insignificant little place, but it provides a good Aire, right on the grassy banks of the river. It’s supposedly €5/night but the guy never came and asked for it, even though he was there apparently asking others.  Bargain 🙂

A shortish hop, and we’re back on the coast at Dieppe, waiting for the ferry. The end of another good trip! Until the next one….

Don’t forget a map of our complete route can be found here:  https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ymzS6pFRHp4LYX2NeuDVuhMzaVY&usp=sharing  GPS locations, photos and extra infos by clicking the pins

 

At the beginning of April we decide it’s time to head North again. There’s still a whole lot of Portugal to see and we’ve got a long way to go in the next 6 weeks or so. We’re planning to be back in the UK by mid May. The weather remains very changeable. Some days it’s warm and sunny (18 – 20c), but we have plenty of rain and wind too. We’re still using the heating a fair bit, especially in the mornings …as evidenced by the fact that we run out of gas – again! Our gas supply often lasts us 4 – 6 weeks, but it’s empty after 2. After a bit of investigation, we discover a leak. So that’s why! We fill our gas bottles from an outside connection and hardly ever look into the storage locker itself. It seems that over time some of the connections had worked loose. Now tightened up hard with a spanner and miraculously our gas lasts twice as long again ☺

We stop just outside the small town of Terena at the Lucefecit Reservoir for one night, and enjoy a long walk around the surrounding countryside here; rolling hills, olives, cork oaks, cattle, sheep and goats grazing and more and more wild flowers are beginning to emerge. All topped off by glorious sunshine and blue skies. Alentejo is still doing it for us.

We pass through Estramoz, stopping for a coffee and a wander. Yet another medieval walled town, much bigger than some; a hub for the area with a big weekly market. We travel fast, easily, on the IP2, north towards Portalegre, across flat plains of wheat fields and then begin to climb steeply into the much higher hills of ‘Alto Alentejo’. After ignoring the sat-nav that was determined to take us down a, ridiculous, even for us, dirt track, we find a quiet spot by the Apartadura reservoir for a couple of nights. It feels hot and sunny during the day (23c), but rapidly gets cold at night. We’re at about 800m. There’s lots of dirt tracks around this area providing a choice of walking. Up high, the fields are edged with dry stone walls – it could almost be Wales or the Lake District. After a long hot walk, the reservoir looks so inviting for a swim but it’s sooo cold!

We don’t travel far for the next few days, and visit more medieval fortress towns, in this attractive area, right on the Spanish border. Marvao, above Portagem, is closest to the border and probably has the best location, perched on top of a hill and visible for miles around. There’s even an official motorhome parking up there to entice us, but there’s a freezing wind and we don’t stay long. Castelo de Vide, a little further East, has a less impressive location, but is much larger and the old town is mostly still inhabited. A large section of the town, with its impossibly steep cobbled streets, is the Jewish quarter (where some of their huge number escaped to when they were expelled from Spain, having refused to convert to Catholicism under Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492). If you survive the streets, you get to the ‘fountain of youth’ spring / fountain in a square, where some of the famous totally clear water, that’s supposed to be a cure all, emerges. I drank some – but no dramatic results yet!

There’s plenty more walking routes here too and, as usual for the Portuguese it seems, they are well marked and there’s a map in the villages that they pass through. We spend a couple of days just outside the border town of Galegos and follow part of the “Coffee Smugglers Way”. We pass through cork and olive plantations, attractive sheltered valleys with clusters of small farmhouses and up some steep! cobbled tracks between old stone walls – the medieval roadways used by the locals to smuggle coffee from Portugal to Spain during the Civil War and subsequent dictatorships on both sides of the border (1936 – early ‘70s). Don’t think I fancy doing this route in the dark as they did! We walked across the border into Spain at the tiny village of La Frontera; now a very quiet, peaceful place, before returning to Portugal, leaving the large, gliding Griffon Vultures that inhabit the craggy ridge that forms the border circling high above.

On the 11th of April we finally leave the delights of Alentejo and head into our next region; Ribatejo. The land levels out and we travel West on bigger, faster roads with much commercial forestry. We stop at Abrantes for the night; a biggish, modern place with plenty of ugly flats and all the usual out of town shops. Our parking spot in a carpark on the south side of the River Tejo is quiet and peaceful enough though. The next day we continue to Constancia at the confluence of the Tejo and Zezere Rivers; a nice little place with steep cobbled streets, a river side park and picnic area. We visit the ‘Castelo De Almoral’, east a bit along the Tejo; a tiny castle on a tiny island – a strategic Knights Templar stronghold, before checking out the nearby ‘Albufeira do Castelo de Bode’ reservoir. It turns out to be  big let down. Steeply wooded slopes, with virtually no access to the lake itself unless you own one of the many private properties surrounding it and have a private pontoon with speedboat and jet skis to explore. It’s obviously a holiday area and is, at the moment, still shut up. There’s a weird, slightly run down feel to the whole place.. We continue on and finish up at Tomar. And it rains! And it rains!

The next day, we check out the main ‘sight’ here, the ‘Convento De Christo’, one of 3 famous monasteries in the area. More info. here: www.conventocristo.pt/en

One of the many cloistered courtyards was specially built as a place where the poor could come and receive a bread ration from the monks. I couldn’t help wondering if they could have spent the time, and money more wisely? On aid / help for the poor? For instance? There’s extensive gardens to explore here too, but the rain was now truly torrential and we retreated to Heidi for what turned out to be most of 24 hrs.

It rained and rained! Enough now!! We didn’t venture out much for the next couple of days. Eventually we head East towards Nazare on the coast. Open countryside seems minimal, and what little there is, isn’t doing it for us – maybe it’s just the endless rain? We pass near Porto de Mos, the biggest quarrying area in Portugal, where much of the black and white granite sets for the pavements everywhere! come from .. We stop at Alcobaca, home of another huge monastery www.mosteiroalcobaaca.pt  It’s still! Raining. Alcobaca is one of Iberia’s greatest monasteries and totally dominates the town. It’s Cisterian austerity makes everything seem scaled up a level, very much in contrast to Tomar. Housing as many as 999 monks at any one time; they held Mass, non-stop, in shifts ! The party ended in 1834 with the dissolution of the religious orders, believed, probably rightly? To be becoming too powerful.

We have coffee and ‘cake’ in the adjacent square.  Invented by the nuns in their corresponding convents, the traditional sweets are all very eggy yellow. The whites being used to whiten their ‘habits’. There is interestingly no wheat flour in most of them either. Instead they make much use of spaghetti squash or almond or bean flour – and very good they are too.

Eventually the sun puts in a showing, and we head for the coast. Wow! Blue sea and sunshine – seems a long time since we saw it last. We spend the weekend in Nazare before moving on. It’s popular and busy, and you can see why.. We wander the streets of the old town, where ordinary life still goes on, despite it being such a tourist trap these days. There are lots of restaurants, offering charcoal grilled ‘catch of the day’ fish – all done outside as you’re walking past – well, rude not too. Simply delicious!

Many of the women still wear their traditional dress here – an odd ensemble! Shortish skirts, Long, woollen ,patterned socks, Aprons, Woolen shawls, Headscarves (often highly patterned) ..and a lot of them are selling the traditional snacks of ‘frutos secos’ = various dried fruits and nuts, and of course the ubiquitous Lupin beans (which are growing on us). The old men are making brightly coloured, replica fishing boats to sell, and other women are hawking rooms – apparently they’re usually pretty good value and would probably give us a bit more of an authentic feel.

We spend the next week heading slowly north, up the coast, in the dull and greyness. The whole area is covered by sand dunes and forests with only a few pockets of development. Most of the coastal places are still closed up – and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a wild and wooly coast, with an angry, crashing sea a lot of the year. Sand encroaches several streets, if not miles, inland, and people obviously spend their lives sweeping it out of doorways. JCBs are needed along the fronts where walkways and even some of the seasonal beach cafes can be all but buried!  We learn that this whole area was planted by hand at the end of the 19, beginning of the 20th C, to hold back the forever encroaching sand dunes  and create some viable agricultural land out of a once huge infertile river delta. The timber is now also selectively harvested. Interestingly the locals have the right to collect wood from the forests for free – unlike most places these days! Well I should think so too!

We continue up the coast, stopping at Figueira Da Foz for a night, before heading inland to Coimbra, Portugal’s ‘second city’, where we stay at an official stop in the riverside park next to various boat clubs. It’s a very popular spot and we’re tightly packed with the neighbours, but there’s a grassy picnic site under trees just opposite with views of the old town and a pedestrian bridge to get there in about 10 mins walk. We spend several days at Coimbra. We wander the ridiculously steep, ancient cobbled streets of the old town. The famous university here totally dominates the place; both with it’s huge buildings and with its influence on life here. 1 in 3 people here is a student! Many of them still wearing the traditional black, including woolen cape (in this heat? It’s 30+C!) along with coloured sashes or ribbons showing their branch of study. We resist the temptation to ‘do the sights’ of the Old University, which seems particularly expensive at €7-10 each (and we’ve seen pictures of the ornate library which everyone talks about), and decide instead to just ‘absorb a bit of life’, and end up giving the equivalent of our entrance fee to a couple of deaf/dumb students campaigning for better housing. Let’s just say they were very persuasive (especially the one who kissed Peter’s arm lots 🙂 ). We also sampled another traditional Fado evening; a different type, particular to Coimbra this time. Not so impressed – but perhaps that was more down to the location (‘A Capella’, an old chapel with harsh acoustics), and the performers/musicians (Amateurs from the university)? It was there we met Micheal Angelo and Ana, a couple from Lisbon, who were perhaps surprised by our interest, given that we couldn’t understand a word. They, however spoke excellent English and we clearly passionate about the music and it’s part in Portuguese history and keen to share their knowledge. We left with a list of some of their favourite Fado singers and groups to look up and an invite to stay with them at their home if we’re ever passing through Lisbon. More Portuguese hospitality!

April 25th. “Dia da Liberdade’. The anniversary of the ‘Carnation Revolution’. The almost peaceful revolution and overthrow of Salazar’s right wing authoritarian regime in 1974. There were almost no shots fired, and only 4 casualties, when the people took to the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship and war in the colonies. Carnations were put in the barrels of guns and pinned to the soldiers’ uniforms. We went looking for the action. Not a great turnout considering it was a mere 42 years ago. There was FAR more interest in the ridiculous ‘Colour Run’ held the previous day, with more than 40 thousand runners! Still, there were marches and people handing out carnations, and slogans shouted by various union groups. And traditional singing and dancing in celebration. Bagpipes were played, and what looked remarkably like Scottish dancing was danced. More Celtic connections (to go with the male voice choirs of Alentejo), origins of which we don’t really know.

There’s probably plenty more to say about Coimbra, but time to move on: Into the mountains. We head through Oliviera Da Hospital, stopping for lunch at an excellent new Motorhome service point, complete with shaded picnic site – shame about the noisy church bells every quarter hour though – don’t think we’ll stay the night! We climb up, up, up into harsh, rocky barrenness. Through the highest village in Portugal; Sabugueiro, where apparently there’s a good bread museum, which we missed. Woolen blankets, hats and sledges! are on sale in the roadside shops. No sign of snow – yet. We stop at the Comprida Reservoir in the icy cold wind for a look see at the spectacular ‘infinity pool’ of a reservoir. Not seen one like that before – it’s built out on 3 sides, to extend the capacity. There’s virtually nothing above us in Portugal other than swirling clouds. We were hoping to do a walk, but it’s late so we delay ‘till the next day, spending the night here at 1594m high. Down to 5C. Heating was needed! At night it’s beautifully silent and dark and we’re blanketed with hundreds of stars. A rare occurrence these days – shame. Who needs all those street lights?!

We wake up above the clouds. The valley below is full of white ‘cotton wool’ as we set off on a cold, crisp morning, in search of ‘Baragem Dos Conchos’ ..to see a hole! Part of the impressive interlinked drainage channel system between various reservoirs up here. It was only a small hole, but quite impressive non-the-less. ..and the isolation, ..and the clear clear air, ..and the silence. We like. Soon the grey swirling clouds return, and we get back just before the rain sets in. We head on, up, over the top of the highest point in Portugal; Torre, at just under 2000m. There’s still a bit of snow up here (and a hopeful sledge renting shed), but we don’t linger, and instead head down, following the mad, hairpin descent towards Manteigas, and pull off down a dirt track with various walking routes signposted. Another stunning ‘Heidi spot’ with views of the mountains and the valley below. Another starry night, followed by a beautiful, crisp, clear day. And another walk. There’s virtually no one about, and we enjoy the silence and the sight of birds of prey, circling high above us.

We explore a bit more around the Manteigas area, but most roads around here are tiny and steep with very few passing places. Not ideal for a motorhome. It’s time to cover some distance anyway, and we reluctantly leave this beautiful area and hit the road. Leaving the mountains behind , we stop at Gouveia for the night, and then head north, crossing the swollen River Douro at the hydro electric dam, just beyond Villa Nova de Foz Coa. There was supposed to be a much bigger reservoir here, but they found some ancient cave paintings which stopped the work. You have to go on an expensive guided tour into the national park here to see them – maybe another time. We join the boring, empty motorway now, and travel fast up to the Azibo Reservoir for a couple of days before moving on again to Braganca via the ‘scenic route’, through more mountains, covered in bare, but obviously cultivated trees – we think chestnuts?

Braganca has a huge market going on, taking up much of the town, along with various fetes, live music, crafts, food and drink. We manage to negotiate our way through the busy, narrow streets and up to behind the castle / citadel to a free aire. Apparently this is the largest market in Portugal, taking place every year in the first week of May. If you like endless choice of ‘the same old tat’ then you’re in the right place! We stop and listen to some rather raucous and out of tune folk music, which all the oldies seem to be enjoying and move on to some Labour Day speeches, unfortunately all Greek (sorry, Portuguese) to us, before returning to the relative peace and quiet of our spot by the citadel.

Monday 2nd May is our last day in Portugal. We treat ourselves to lunch out at a recommended traditional mountain restaurant; wooden beams. ‘Presunto’ hams hanging along the walls.. Yummy, very tender mix of traditional pork and wild boar with various cured sausages and cheeses as starters. Not much veg. in sight – a real carnivore’s haunt. Then, with full tummies, we leave via the ‘back door’ on the EN218-3, through the tiny border town of Rio de Onar and its adjacent Spanish counterpart. Most of our maps showed no road here. Just a single small sign marks the border. There’s no one about apart from a single old lady in black, staring as Heidi squeezes between, what is only a handful, of ancient wooden houses and onwards to Spain. Four and a half months in Portugal. Not nearly long enough! We’ll be back.

 

 

Don’t forget a map of our complete route can be found here:  https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ymzS6pFRHp4LYX2NeuDVuhMzaVY&usp=sharing  GPS locations, photos and extra infos by clicking the pins

 

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!…

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.