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13 to 16 February 2018 – slowly eastwards along the Algarve coast

With an approximate route, and even more approximate timings, we aimed at getting half way up the Mediterranean coast of Spain in a week or so.  The plan was to tootle along the eastern Algarve coast before joining the main road that crosses the Guadiana river border and straight to Seville – time for some history! My WildCamping forum had been full of posts from fellow campers at various sites along the Algarve coast.  One in particular, Manta Rota, seemed a very popular aire – right on the beach, handy bar/restaurant and quite cheap.  It was pretty full though and the advice was to arrive about noon to coincide with any leavers leaving.  To get the timing right we needed an interim stop and Hanneke showed us a place a couple of hours from Mikki’s in the Ria Formosa Natural Park, right on the coast/mud flats/estuary where you could get a little train across the sandbar to the sea.  Pedras D’el Rei sounded interesting.

Clottie at PedrosaRolling wistfully out of Mikki’s we topped up the LPG and took to the N125.  Portia started first time despite having stood idle for four weeks! After a couple of hours we engaged in battle with the barrier across the entrance to the Pedras D’el Rei parking place – surprising how many different systems there are for something as simple as opening a barrier.  Once in we get a lovely sea view spot – well – the sea is there beyond the estuary and the dune at the far side.  Never seen such a profusion of cacti and prickly pears. They fought all attempts to pick and eat them: despite using cloths and tongs I got hair-fine prickles in my fingers. The beautiful beetroot-coloured juice they bled narrowly missed my white linen trousers – a small win against the vicissitudes of nature!

There is a bridge across the mud flats which leads to the terminus of an ancient narrow gauge railway complete with diminutive steam engines (no longer steam though). Pedras trainFor exercise we chose to walk across through the trees and dune vegetation – a lovely walk with bird-spotting panels along the way.

As you cross the final line of dunes before the sea there is the truly remarkable Anchor Graveyard.  As far as the eye can see are hundreds of anchors from the former tuna fishing fleet rusting quietly in peace embedded in alignment along the dune.

more anchorsAnd then, as the sun sinks in the west, a sandy beach several hundred miles long…Pedras beach shadows

and what appears to be a concerted effort to move the whole thing two feet to the left. Must be an EU project.beach worksWe have earned a cheese toasty a la Portugaise at the converted fishermens cottages fishermens cottages barril beachand are in time to catch the last return trip of the day back to reality. We get front row seats at the back of the train as it reverses all the way. What a great day out.Pedras train returnThis place is too good to leave after only one night. It has waste emptying facilities but no handy tap for water.  For that you have to drive the couple of miles along the sea to Santa Luzia, find somewhere to buy a token, tap st Luzialocate the modest shed-like building near the fishermens’ cottages and figure out how it works. Sorting this out is our first task when we set out for a bike ride next day. The Post Office (open) obliges with the token and eventually we find the tap. Triumph! Now just to come back tomorrow and fill the van. A mother and daughter on bikes had told us the little town of Tavira was only a short ride away and on very accessible cycle paths. Off we pedal – what a joy these bikes are. Tavira is a relatively quiet riverside town with Moorish roots followed by later Portuguese development – a charming mix beautifully placed beside the Gilão River. We look around a small church – its inside as ornate as its outside is plain.

and then find an amazing garden/cemetary – cool, ancient and green. We wander in its shade for a while taking way too many photographs

before pedalling on through old streets to the huge town square to write postcards and taking way too many more photographs.

By now it is late enough for lunch – about half past two. We had ridden past several small waterfront restaurants in Santa Luzia – being a fishing village they all promised fish lunches. Neil had sea bass and I had prawns with garlic. I’m going to miss those prawns:-(

The evening idled by in its usual leisurely fashion – still cool enough for us to be glad of the external silver screens. Next morning, next challenge – filling up with water from the shed. As it happened we had a demonstration of how it worked from several fishermen one of whom was engaged in using the water via a pressure washer to blast out the inside of his exhaust manifold, and the rest of whom were engaged in watching him.  We filled and headed for the promised land of Manta Rota all of twelve miles away.  Hoping for a beachside spot in a sociable setting our enthusiasm plummeted as we drove through the little village to the sea front. It was completely taken over by tourism of the kiss-me-quick kind. One stick of rock short of being Blackpool on a summer bank holiday, red faced campers sweated jovially in the midday sun outside bars promising big-screen football and late night opening. Aaaah!  The lady in the booth by the aire came out to motion us away from the overfull cheek-by-jowl rows of motorhomes lining the car park. She did not need to – we were in the process of turning around anyway – not easy as other vans were arriving all the time. Nightmare!

Hoping for something quieter at Altura, the next town along, we were again disappointed. This time, not by too many vans but a complete absence of them.  A beautiful and completely empty sea front car park had a big sign banning motorhomes – I guess they had seen Manta Rota and and voted with their by-laws! Just outside town though there was a piece of land where motorhomes were allowed to overnight.  Not an aire as such, no facilities, just an area of rough parking by a (long!) boardwalk path to the sea. It was also pretty full but parked much more casually than the serried ranks in Manta Rota and seemingly well established and tolerated – a world food van had set up shop at one end and the bread van came hooting by in the morning. The short evening walk back into town was pleasant and we did see that one van had decided to try its luck in the car park!

That was our last night in Portugal.  I had considered a little inland detour before leaving but given how crowded it was in that corner of the Portugal, Spain seemed all the more appealing. Apparently the Algarve coast gets less crowded the further west you go. This year the Beast from the East tearing through northern Europe had the knock-on effect of directing more of the Atlantic winds than usual to the south. It had been breezy! And it increases as you go west. Spain now looked a good bet. snails poor

 

 

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16 January to 13 February 2018 – one week ran into the next at Mikki’s

We ended up spending four weeks at Mikki’s Place. It was not the plan to park up and stay put for so long but we began to see the appeal of just sitting out the winter in a swiss bunkerquirky, tranquil corner many degrees warmer than back home. We were at pitch number 3 and our Swiss neighbour at number 1 had been there on and off for years rather than months – he had developed quite a bunker. Luc at number 4 divided his year between home and Mikki’s. He explained all about the three restaurants in the village and how you could have the menu del dia for between six and nine euros including wine. He pedalled off everyday for lunch and had more or less given up cooking to save money. Prices for most things in Portugal are very good.

One of the first things Neil spotted in the reception/bar/restaurant was the chalk board with the menu for Tuesdays – piri piri chicken, ten euros including dessert. So that was dinner decided. Neil piri piri

It was chef’s choice on Thursdays, pizza on Fridays, and fish and chips (but not as we know them!) on Sunday. Mostly we cooked for ourselves though.  The dining was communal at long tables with service by the Swiss guy, subsidising his rent, and a young Dutch man who had come to recover from stress overload a couple of years back and stayed on as general site assistant. There seem to be a lot of people here who come for a short period and don’t quite manage to leave.

This did not apply to pitch number 2 to start with. The first party to appear was a group of three women who arrived with three smallish dogs and proceeded to find and adopt another local stray. A lot of people do this in Portugal apparently. Then it all turned rather sad. There was consternation and alarm next morning – one of their original dogs had taken ill overnight and then died. A dog belonging to another couple became ill at the same time and was rushed to the vet. There was a poisoner at work who was loading chorizo with some sort of poison and leaving it for dogs to find when out walking. Next day there were police all over the site and the surrounding lanes were searched. They took it very seriously and we heard that the culprit was found and charged a few days later – a local man who disliked dogs:-( Sadly the second dog had also died.  Understandably the women next door fled the site.

zsa zsa and meOur next neighbour was Hanneke who travels alone with her little rescue dog ZsaZsa and was in the market for another pooch as ZsaZsa was very old, rather deaf and rather blind:-( She was a sweet and undemanding little dog who did not like to be on her own, so I babysat once or twice. Hanneke cosseted her but was also pretty unsentimental – she had packed a shovel in the van in case the worst came to the worst while they were away:-(

We Met Louisa, who also travels alone, and was motorhoming for the first time ever in a new-to-her van. She was on a steep learning curve. We talked quite a bit about basic motorhome dos and don’ts and discovered Louisa was very keen to get to grips with mobile internet but did not know where to start. Neil explained it all and we drove up to the nearest mall in Louisa’s van (Shelley) to get the kit. It’s a complicated little set of slip roads to get into the car park and Louisa took a cavalier attitude to the low entrance. We ducked and braced for the crunch but none came. Apparently the missing top box had been a casualty against an earlier low bridge! Anyway – mifi up and running Louisa was delighted and wanted to buy us a seafood lunch as a thank you. An unlooked-for but very welcome treat. We went back to Armaçao de Pêra, the nearest seaside village, and found the seafront restaurant open. It was a memorable meal. We shared fresh sardines, prawns, sea bass with salad and soft garlicky potatoes. In fact everything was wonderfully garlicky!armacao lunch

We were introduced to Sangria made the proper way – rather more subtle that just red wine and lemonade. We needed a second pitcher to fully appreciate it and this became my drink of choice from that point on.  A lengthy walk on the beach was needed before going back.armacao beach walk

The weather had become warmer and sunny but with an intermittent cool breeze. I took a dip when the temperature hit 20° (briefly). And we spent many an afternoon lazing in the sun behind a windbreak on our patch of Astro turf. An odd idea but it works really well for both comfort and avoidance of dirt in the van. Might try it in the back garden at home! Some patches had white lines on and you could see that the turf must have been recycled from a football pitch – so ecologically useful as well.

 

 

 

We had a couple more days out with Louisa who had various appointments in the harbour town of Portimão and invited us along for a look round. We wandered the narrow lanes louisa and me portimao

and Neil inspected the al fresco art exhibition along the harbour side.

 

We came back via Ferrugado – the lovely little fishing village the other side of the river with an informal moho park beside the inlet.Ferrugado

Next time we went over to Alvor, the other side of Portimão to examine the reclamation of the precious salt marsh and dune environment.me alvor map

and for another harbour-side lunch.  Complete with Portuguese Water Dog.  These are fishermen’s working dogs who leap into the water to save people, herd fish and retrieve fishing gear on command.  And they are friendly, soft and furry. But Neil still does not want one:-(

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We kept deciding to move on but could not quite see why so kept extending our stay. The site was relaxed and eccentric with plenty to look at and just enjoy being in amongst.

 

Once or twice we got to the bar early enough to get the fireside seats and played Triominoes (think Dominoes but with three sides).  fireplace

The ebikes really came into their own: a five minute ride into Pêra for the small shop, post office and pharmacy; a terrific ten minute whizz down the slope on the main road and effortlessly up the other side to the big Aldi and the Chinese everything shop. ZsaZsa came along for the ride!zsazsa came too

Then Neil caught a cough from Luc so we needed to wait until he felt better. Then I caught it so, lackaday, we needed to wait again. Eventually Hanneke needed to make a move to a dog sanctuary to find another pooch to adopt (in addition to ZsaZsa!), then Louisa had to go for a van repair appointment. Our little social group was breaking up. We realised we had to get a move on if we wanted to look at a few more Algarve sites and spend some time at Los Pinos on the Spanish Mediterranean coast – a wonderful site we had come across last year – and take in some culture on the way. We were commitment-free until mid-March when we had an appointment in France with a car needing an MOT in the UK (it’s complicated).

sunset mikkis

 

 

 

14 to 16 January 2018 – mega waves to Mikki’s Place

After several nights with not much by way of facilities and quite some rain I seek out somewhere to stay with a few home comforts. Having said that, we seem to have adapted to living without them pretty comprehensively – we have spontaneously abandoned showers in the van in favour of a quick flannel-down. Probably because we have started storing a few chunky things in the shower and moving them out is not worth the hassle. One of the things that now lives in there is the wraparound imagethermal screen for the windscreen and cab door windows which I don’t believe I have mentioned before. We bought it last January in icy weather at huge cost en route to Spain. Everything to do with motorhomes seems to come at an inflated price and only some of them are worth it. Even though we have blinds on the inside of all the windows this thermal screen is definitely worth it – its silvery surface keeps heat out in the summer, and cold and condensation out in the winter. It even has a drop-down front flap to open during the day and let light in. We have probably already  saved a good part of the price in reduced gas heating costs.

Anyway, continuing our flight south, Camping Paraiso in Nazaré offers all we need for a couple of nights. Nazaré is famed amongst surfers for huge waves caused by an an undersea canyon driving water into an ever-narrowing channel towards the beach. Daredevil surfers ride these waves! That one is not my picture but you can see the same headland in the second, which is.

The campsite is attractive – landscaped dunes and conifers. The showers are modern, clean and hot, the washing up water is hot and the wifi works. Strangely it also has a chemical toilet emptying point per pitch – seems a bit excessive when we are only yards from the sanitary block in any case. Four or five vans are scattered amongst the trees but none of us use the communal lounge – preferring to huddle in our own vans out of the rain – which returned in the evening. imageWe are now only one more night away from the Algarve and the Moorish village of Messejana, three hours drive away, has a commercial aire. We want to take the motorway as, apart from speed to the sun, Neil is anxious to top-up the LPG, which has been taking some welly, and ensure we have the right kit for Portugal. We try three service stations and at none of them does our Portuguese adaptor fit the Portuguese pump. Oh bugger. Down-hearted that yet something else does not do what it is supposed to do we decide to leave it for another day and head for the aire.

Stella ignores the obvious-looking turn to the aire and tries to take us through the narrow lanes of the ancient village which our guide book has warned us against. We hesitate, a local dog walker urges us on and it is OK once past the one little road. Phew. The aire is a strange, large, ramshackle car park affair with various hangar-like buildings surrounded by a wire fence. (Shown in the first image on this page.) With waving palm trees and a lovely sunset it manages to be picturesque nonetheless.

imageIt looks deserted and the gate is locked:-( More despondency, so we decide just to park on the road outside until I spot a small notice on the shed by the gate. It gives a  phone number. As I am ringing a man wanders over from the bar opposite and unlocks the gate for us. Then the manager turns up and cheerfully explains things – where to hook up, the wifi password (surprising), where the toilets are (several hundred yards away), and that we will be locked in at 9.30pm until 9.30am. Ah well – time for a quick beer in the tiny local bar opposite (smoking still allowed) before curfew. imageIt’s dark by now anyway so we retreat to the van to investigate gas pump adaptors. Various on-line forums show that we should be using the same dish adaptor that we have used before in Greece and France and not the pointy Euro one that our documentation says we should use in Portugal. For goodness sake! We later discover that Spain appears to be the only country that uses the Euro adaptor – well, of those of which we have direct experience.

Messejana is a traditional mountain village with low white buildings painted blue around the lower levels. Very attractive. It is quiet when we walk in for a look see the next day, with a strange air of expectancy. A few people are standing around the village square in ones and twos and all seeming to be watching in the same direction – not at us thankfully! We conclude they are waiting for a funeral or something and after checking the only shop for bread, unsuccessfully, we leave.

From maps and books I have identified two things: a petrol station that sells LPG and an aire in the Algarve with spaces. We have been hearing horror stories about Algarve aires being full to bursting due to the French having abandoned Morocco this winter. It seems that the French foreign office has said Morocco is not safe, which means French travellers cannot get insurance to go there and have come to Portugal instead.  Mikki’s Place however has a few spaces and one has our name on it. Phew.

We find LPG and successfully refill. Hoorah! We navigate to Pêra and innocently turn left across a no left turn road into the track to Mikki’s Place.image A sign near the gate says Slow down and Relax. Finally, what feels like a safe and sunny haven after all the problems and anxieties of the past several days. All The Aires describes Mikki’s as an aire run more like a commune by a Dutch potter. It is wonderful. Constructed on different levels there is a natural swimming pond at the bottom surrounded by bizarre pots and models. imageA huge barn-like structure supported by glazed flower pots doubles as reception, bar, restaurant, exhibition space, indoor garden and aviary.

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We are given a choice of places and choose one on the higher level looking out over orange groves. We have booked in for four days with the option to extend our stay. And we do – more than once.

 

6 to 13 January 2018 – optimistically seeking some sun….

We ended up visiting my mother and sister in Bristol in early December to carry out some routine family business and, more especially, to coincide with an early afternoon big-screen broadcast of Nutcracker from The Royal Opera House. Given all the difficulties of the past few years my mother had missed out on cultural outings and this seemed ideal – big screen for poor vision, wide comfortable seats, great sound system for hard of hearing, daytime showing to avoid a late night. Perfect! We even got to see a carol concert from my sister’s choir  (Gurt Lush) the next night – what a treat!

 

It was a good visit and, for us, this meant an earlier getaway to Portugal than expected – we thought. To avoid the long drive through France and Spain in mid-winter we weighed the savings in fuel and other costs and opted to book the, fairly expensive, overnight Portsmouth-Santander ferry. It turns out that there are fewer ferries at this time of year and quite a lot of motorhomers with the same idea! We got the last cabin on the Bilbao ferry on 7th January. Although the distance is no greater than to Santander, the Cap Finisterre starts very late and makes a call in Roskoff to change crew which tips it into a second night.

We had a week to prepare Portia after the Christmas close down and while making a cup of tea we discovered a gas supply problem:-( We needed a new regulator:-(( With four days to go:-((( This seemed to mean two trips to Danum’s in Doncaster for a) model checking and b) fitting after ordering! Our fiercely crossed fingers and toes must have worked as they were able to fit us with the only one in stock in the space of two hours on the first visit:-)) Grateful thanks to Danum’s.

Fiercely cold weather was forecast as we set off on 6th. Portsmouth was a bit too far to confidently make the trip in one go and there is a friendly real ale pub near imageOxford which lets you stay overnight in exchange for eating there or £20.00. We had baked ham with bubble and squeak and pints of something with a rustic name.
The heavy ground frost in the morning made it easy to get out of the previously very muddy car park and made us glad we had a day to spare. It was a 22:30 sailing and a handy roadside M&S provided a lasagne for a van-based meal while we waited dockside. We were grateful for this because just as loading was due to start, a three hour delay was announced! It was attributed to bad weather in the Bay of Biscay on the incoming sailing. They must have known about it for hours before they told us. We had heard about crossing the Bay of Biscay in winter – notorious for rough seas – and now it looked as if we were fated to experience it:-( We made it to bed on board at about 01:00.

The crossing was smooth as a millpond! imageThis picture shows not only the lovely calm weather but the extreme shortness of the haircut I had had in anticipation of three months in the van. Do I like it? No. Is it practical? Yes. Short hair is actually a real bonus on the road if your vanity can cope.

A lazy day trying the various restaurants, cafés and bars and another night on board was followed by an early disembarkation in Bilbao and the main road south to León.  Now, in my ignorance, I did not know there was a magnificent range of mountains just south of Bilbao. And that they were snow covered in winter:-( Only a skinny bit of snow down at road level, but enough to make you worry about van life generally. León is a pleasant city out the other side of the mountains, on the plain – and we all know what that means in Spain! And it did – that night and all the boring way across the plain the next day to our second stop. This was a paid and soggy aire in a small resort town beside a splendid lake where neither Neil nor I remembered to take a picture – probably worried about getting our phones wet! It would be a great place for a summertime stop but a bit damp and chilly for optimistic sun seekers in January. Here is a blurred snap from the van window as we crossed the bridge to the aire.

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Portia had played a mean and heart-stopping trick down a steep and narrow road to get us here when another, less steep and less narrow, was available. Van life would not be the same without the regularly shredded nerves. At least you get a compensating vaguely euphoric feeling afterwards, when you are safely parked up and the heater starts working.  And the kettle is on. And the fridge lights first time (which it does now we have a new regulator).

We had heard about the remarkable NOS data card for Portugal. €15 for fifteen days unlimited usage – yes, properly unlimited. Meaning non-stop Radio 4 and even streaming TV. First stop was therefore a NOS shop in Braga – identified on google maps. No more optimistic wandering around hoping to run across one at opening time! Success first time – no passport required, no one hour queue and it worked as advertised. Hurrah! On to Furadoura which offers a car park behind the sea dunes – definitely a place for two nights to take stock of being in Portugal. And the rain had stopped. It was still cold but sunny enough for a walk along the boardwalks and admire the raging Atlantic.

 

We also walked into the village post office and spent a cheery half hour discussing, using the medium of mime, how to register the van to use the electronic toll roads. Portugal has the most insanely complicated system of toll roads (three different types, one of which is only available to Portuguese registered cars as it transpired). Two passing young men, there only to buy a lottery ticket, joined in with their better English and smart phones, but we still left little the wiser. Back at the van Neil eventually managed to pay ten euros on line and we crossed our fingers that it would work when we whisked past the number plate-recognising cameras on high.

Next morning we had a panic about the water pump having packed up. The clean water, which we knew was not empty, stopped running mid-wash. The fuses were intact. Online help said there were many things that could go wrong and for that reason many people carry a spare pump. Oh bugger.  Looking in the tank there were a couple of inches still left. The  control panel said empty.   Hmm. The water-filling station was, confusingly, a short drive away from the parking at a purpose-built service station. We filled, it worked. It fills until the control panel says 100%. Then a moment later it reads only 65%. Looking in the tank it is still full to the brim. There is a way to calibrate the control panel but it involves filling, emptying and refilling in quick succession which we are not about to do. In the meantime we will just have to monitor our usage more carefully.

At this point we just wanted warmth and sun. Although it goes against the grain to whisk through miles of historic countryside without stopping to look, getting south to the Algarve became a priority. Many mohoers disparage the Algarve as being a bit kiss-me-quick, others say you can discriminate between sites and avoid the horrors  of the ex-pat Brit scene. Now we had our toll road permit sorted there was nothing to stop us taking the direct road and hoping it got warmer and dryer with each passing mile. cropped-snails-poor.jpg

 

11 to 17 October 2017 – a highland mini-meet

Getting back home mid-August the plan was to spend a few months at home in York, maybe spend Christmas with my mother and sister, then off to Portugal in January to sit out the rest of the winter.  The prospect of four months house-based living meant occasional Moho-based outings were needed just to keep our hands in. I subscribe to a motorhome forum called Wild Camping which offers Meets, which can big and lively (and not our kind of thing), and Mini-meets which are organised by individual members and are small and local. The one that caught my eye was up in the Scottish highlands over the weekend of 13 to 16 October. Perfect: we have not been to Scotland in the van and it was well outside midge season! It was shaping up to be seven or eight vans in a field beside a member’s house/herb nursery in the middle of nowhere south west of Inverness. We were promised barbecues, bonfires and walks; a day trip to Inverness and an optional Sunday lunch at a pub overlooking Loch Ness. It all sounded rather weather-dependent and, despite storms being forecast for the days before, the weekend itself was looking bright, if breezy.

Having mostly only been to to the Dumfries and Galloway area or around Loch  Lomond, I was surprised to find it is quite  long way from York to our spot near  Inverness – 354 miles to be precise.  So we decided to take an extra couple of nights en route.

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Portia was going well apart from some concerns about her leisure battery. We would be several nights without electric hook up, probably not much sun and, once there, no driving to top the level up. The battery did not seem to hold a charge well and the read-out from the solar control panel is not wholly reliable. A discussion about how many hours you can run anything before it drops from 12.7 (full) to 12.25 (empty) tends to get heated. Then you turn something off and it jumps back up to 12.6 anyway. And it has been down to 11.8 and still going strong in the past. Enquiring of the hosts it turned out that they also ran a small CL (proper parking for five vans) with hook up – £10.00 a night. The meet in the field was free but if push came to shove we could wimp over  to the CL and plug in.

Unsure of the etiquette about arrival times, time to cover the distance, or facilities once there, we chose to go two nights early and make two stops on the way, so as to arrive emptied and filled just in case. Scotland, unlike England, is very nice to motorhomers and you can generally park overnight anywhere you are not making a nuisance of yourself.  The car park in Jedburgh town centre looked interesting but we got there much sooner than expected so, after a brief refreshment stop, we kept going up the A68.  Wild Camping has a very useful map of stopping places which showed a pub car park in Pathhead, not that far south of Edinburgh. It is a bit close to the road for  a very peaceful night: the  A68 is scenic, narrow (for a main road) and surprisingly popular with swift-moving, early rising artics.  We felt honour-bound to eat in the pub restaurant though.

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Scotland had welcomed us in time-honoured fashion but it cleared up later

and we enjoyed the wide open skies and hills en route to our next stop in Carrbridge.   This was another rural CL beside a picturesque river and its even more picturesque old packhorse bridge – severely damaged in a muckle spate several years ago it is now decorative only.

We had missed the Carrbridge 24th Annual Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship by only six days! It’s in the diary for next year though.

We arrived at the meet site and backed ourselves into a sheltered corner, footled with the satellite and then moved across to the more  exposed side where there was a possibility of getting  a glimpse of satellite low in the southern sky. It makes a difference being so far north! Nice spot! Wide valley, high hills, highland cattle, friendly fellow campers.

The first evening was a shared picnic themed around “children’s favourites” and we sampled chocolate cracklettes, marshmallows, jellies and assorted goodies. And real food! There  were about a dozen of us sitting around a couple of braziers in the yard of the house as the sun went down. A very good evening.  Next day we joined the group going to Inverness on the local bus – and discovered that English bus passes don’t work in Scotland:-( £13.00 return for two!! But it was a drive of about thirty minutes. So not bad value on the whole.

We sought out the famous and truly amazing Leakey’s bookshop where a passing opera student gave an impromptu performance of an aria from Cose fan tutti from the balcony. There was an arts festival in progress in town and all through the streets – what a bonus.

Being the Capital of the Highlands, Inverness also hosts a very interesting and manageable-sized museum and art gallery( free). The Monarch of the Glen was visiting as part of a national tour. Amazing!

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Saturday night was the bonfire and barbecue and the weather stayed fair enough (if a bit breezy) to go ahead. More food than you could shake a stick at materialised from the surrounding vans and we ate nicely charred sausages, chicken, ribs and salad. Musical instruments appeared (sadly no bagpipes) and we sang a few ditties as the stars came out.  The weather deteriorated overnight. Next morning a warning “Low Battery” message flashed across the TV screen where the radio was playing. Oops. Plan B was put into action and we moved the fifty yards from field to CL. Will definitely need a new leisure battery – checking back through documentation we concluded the existing one was five years old so ripe for renewal in any case.

Sunday lunch beside Loch Ness was good – neither of us had the haggis and neeps. The wind whipped ferociously along the loch and everyone retired to the warmth of their vans for the rest of the day.

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Now the weather decided to get nasty. The tail end of hurricane Ophelia was spinning across the North Atlantic making a beeline for the north of Scotland. Weather warnings had been issued. Despite an offer of a parking spot and whisky tasting chez Jim and Elaine on the coast just south of Edinburgh, we decided just to head as far south as possible as fast as possible. We witnessed the strange darkening and reddening of the sun in Pitlochry but our flight south was thwarted by roadwork hold ups and we only made the car park in Jedburgh before stopping for the night. A short tour of the town, Mary Queen of Scots house and the local chippy and we battened down the hatches on a lovely evening thinking we had missed the storm.

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Oh no we hadn’t. The van was rocked and buffeted all night and in the morning a last spiteful gust whipped the habitation door out of Neil’s hand and slammed it back against the side of the van. The door stay was wrecked but no other damage done and at least now the door opens fully!

 

 

 

25 July to 17 August 2017- new route home

Pausing only to take advantage of the summer heat in France to give a couple of critters a good scrubbing we planned the route home.

 

Because my mother had moved down to Bristol we could easily incorporate a visit by taking the ferry from Cherbourg to Poole. This had the added advantage of passing close to friends from university days living in Dorset, whom we had not seen for a decade or more.

Heading northish/westish we aimed for the Loire valley and found a green and lovely spot beside the river Cher, a tributary, in the old town of St Aignan. Lovely, but awkward due to being on an uneven road edge with van-penetrating short bollards marking the limit of the parking. Neil navigated into the spot with precision and the panels remained unscathed – even when unparking the next day with other vans having closed the gap:-(

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The geraniums came with us as I could not bear to think of them sitting on the steps of the fermette freezing in the frosty Burgundian winter. (They made it home to York   unmarmalised and, by the good graces of our house sitters, should be coming back to France in July 2018.)

Racing northwards we spent the next night in one of the generous Aires in Fougères –  a remarkable fortified town just on the edge of Brittany. This steeply hilly old town afforded us some exercise but we did not dally as our sailing was a mere day away.

 

 

We spent our last night in a paid aire in a small fishing town a few miles from Cherbourg called St Vaast la Hougue. A charming spot with a chapel to seafarers and a café on the front that will sting unwary visitors hard for a mere cup of tea:-(  Lesson –  check the menu before sitting down even if it does make you feel miserly. Rain showers patrolled menacingly across the horizon but failed to make landfall.

 

Last day in la belle France and we parked up early in Cherbourg for a late afternoon sailing to Poole – not ideal but that is what happens with late bookings. Roaming the town in search of some mimolette cheese for Lorna and John, Neil found just the person to ask.

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Sun set as we crossed the Channel.

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Darkness fell before we arrived in the undulating field that passes for a campsite near their house. We parked on a bit that looked flattish in the dark taking pains to avoid guy ropes and feeling guilty at weaving between tents after ten thirty:-( Next morning we found a bit that was actually flat!  It was a holiday weekend and the site was filling up – we had to ask the next van that arrived not to park with their awning practically extending across our door. Campsite fire safety rules say you should be at least six metres from the next person so it was an easy ask.

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We spent the weekend walking and talking with Lorna and John and their two sons (whom we had last seen as babies!) and eating in their amazing, quirky, stone cottage. Then on to try and park near enough to my mother’s home in Bristol for her to manage to walk out to see the van. The tall stone entrance gate to the car park is very narrow and the road outside busy so we did not fancy tackling the manoeuvering that would be required to get a straight run at it – with no guarantee of success! By some miracle the minor road beside the park opposite her home is marked on park4night as spot where you can overnight! We did! Mummy managed the two hundred yards including a dash across the road, with our support and our urgent advice not to stop for a breather on the white line! She was amazed at the van and how it managed to contain a whole house in such a compact space. I am very pleased that she got to see it. Onto a CL a couple of miles away near Helen’s house (another lovely old stone cottage!) and another day or so with family.

We could not make York from Bristol before closing time at our storage so we spent a final night at a rural CL in Alne where the chickens welcomed us back to Yorkshire.

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And that is it for summer 2017. The garden at home had suffered slightly more than the one in France as it had been untended, except for some pot watering, for over three months. It was a tad overgrown:-( There’s a large shed somewhere back there!

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24 June to 24 July 2017 – Alps to fermette

Too far for one day’s drive to the fermette we picked a campsite beside a lake about half way back – Cormoranche-sur-Saône. The drive out of the mountains was scenic and relaxed, for a change!  It was still hot and the lake was welcome although not as nice a lake as our local one – I guess we were focussed on getting back by now.

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Stopping only for lunch at a tranquil aire beside a canal at Beaulon, and noting it as a nice stop for future reference, we headed home. Frustrating things in hot weather canals –  all that water and ne’er a drop to swim in.

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We had been away the best part of six weeks at the height of the growing season. My wild flower border was more wild than flower; my tomatoes had failed to thrive – they had not died, but seemed not to have grown as fast as the grass and weeds around them:-(

 

The baby hirondelles in the barn were learning to fly and we fell into our usual summertime round of activities of swimming, mowing, walking lazing in the sun, feeding the donkeys. Always cut the carrots long-ways and don’t give them bread – they can easily get diabetes apparently.

 

 

A few brocantes were attended, more for the chipos and chips than any desire to buy more stuff. A glut of apricots meant really low prices so I made apricot jam and then plum chutney.

 

The highlight was the communal game of boules and picnic.  I was privileged to be partnered with the mayor (Xavier) but Neil and the local carpenter, Jean Michel, won. Yes, we are on first name terms now, after only 12 years.

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The monument in the background is the memorial to the Maquis Julien who were based in the woods further down the lane. Many other resistance groups were based in this area as it was on the direct route from north to south so ideal for disrupting communications. Many brave men and women fought and died in guerrilla actions hereabouts and their memorials are scattered across the countryside and in village squares. They are all honoured on the anniversary of their notable battles – many in early August (1944) – when all the local dignitaries, the police, pompiers, and usually a small band will turn out together with flags and hunting horns.  A couple of years ago there were still a few very old maquisards present, tottering to attention for the national anthem.

Neil fought his own battle with a stray hornet whilst up a ladder cleaning the roof of the van. The hornet won! A trip to the pharmacy was needed. For information, take plenty of anti-histamines and take care to avoid an infection. It looked a bit grim.

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Portia relaxed in the garden and our next trip was a leisurely drive to a ferry port.

19 to 23 June 2017 – Heading back …

After Delphi we had two nights to get back to Patras for our ferry on 20th June. We wound back along the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth looking down at the small villages in the bays below. Each had a cluster of buildings in the middle and rough roads extending either side along the beach. A motorhome could easily park up discreetly away from the buildings and stay the night. After trying one or two we found a spot just along from a taverna where the van did not obstruct anyone’s view or access. A passing bus driver told us we were fine there.  The view was nice, the water was but feet away so first we had a swim (that speck is Neil) and then a cup of tea at the taverna. We had post cards to write. It’s all go.

 

Being nervous of missing the boat we wanted to stay the night before the sailing just a short distance away. So over the Gulf we went on the amazing Rio-Antirrio suspension bridgeimage  back to the first camp site we stayed at when we arrived a few weeks ago. Next morning we found the right road back to the ferry port by ignoring  Stella’s directions to the shorter, narrower, busier minor roads we had followed on arrival.

Our sailing was mid-afternoon so we got there late morning and parked up in the blasting heat of the port car park. Check-in informed us the ferry was two hours late and, as afternoon turned to evening, this extended to five hours. The chaos beside the dock was even worse than the outward trip. The only staff around were there to chase the skinny brown young men who raced across the concrete with their small backpacks trying to get onto a ship or a lorry. Or a motorhome.  It was sad. But we all checked our back doors were locked:-(

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As the sun set the ferry arrived and boarding of the vehicles took forever. No one had directed any vehicle into a queue for its destination – the Ancona travellers, who would get off first, were randomly mixed with those for Igoumenitsa and Venice. We were amongst the last loaded so it was approaching midnight before we were finally on and plugged in. The restaurants were closed, despite assurances they would stay open late, so we went supperless to bed.  Ah well.

The time was not made up over the twenty-three hours sailing so we arrived in Ancona after dark with a few possible campsite destinations just hoping they were still open. They weren’t.  We finally found a parking area where motohomes were permitted to overnight and pulled in gratefully.  One nasty point on the journey was the low underpass that did not reveal its height until we had descended the short, narrow, concrete culvert that was the slip road – a flat 3.00 metres! Oh my god – we are 3.10:-( Braced for the crunch of shattering satellite dome we shot under it. Nothing happened. Phew! We are definitely 3.10 so the underpass was fibbing!

By now the whole of southern Europe was in the grip of a developing heatwave and I was getting anxious. The cool of the Alps beckoned and we decided on a fast trip back across the northern Italian plain  on the motorway. This took us to a farm most of the way across where the farmer was not yet set up for the agritourist season, but ushered us into the shade of his courtyard and brought us cold water to drink.

image  We spent the rest of the  sweltering 40 degree evening wilting in the farmyard and watching the sunset over the plain. imageNext time we go to Greece it will definitely be earlier in the year.

We raced on the next day choosing the route across the Alps we had been unable to take on the outward trip due to a road closure. We assumed the road down the other side of the mountains would be open by now. Dangerous things assumptions:-(  we passed various notice boards warning of road works and seeming to say no vehicles over eight metres should proceed. We are only six, so no problem. To cut a long, heart-in-mouth story short, a “route de secours” had been created from a goat track on one side of the steep valley to by-pass a damaged bridge on the proper road on the other side of the chasm! Oh bugger!! There was enough room to edge past on-coming traffic in most places, and passing places had been newly-carved into the cliff face in others. And there was quite a surprising amount of traffic using this emergency road. There was no going back as we could neither turn around nor reverse up the hairpins. We were on the outside of the road with the sheer cliff below us so it was hairy in the extreme.  Only one angry French driver shouted that we should not be on the road endangering innocent motorists. We agreed but had met the only criterion specified, had there been fuller information, we would not have been. Not our fault guv, honest! The final section was single lane only and controlled by traffic lights so slightly less scary and after ten kilometres we could drive back across the dam to the proper road. Never again! My hands were glued to the armrests in terror so no pictures were taken.

We pulled gratefully into a French aire half way down the other side of the Alps in what is a ski resort in winter. It was still very hot and an icy stream beckoned – fed straight from the glaciers above. Neil wimped out but I got in. Neil video-ed the process, with sound, and it is painful viewing and listening. Definitely the coldest yet but a certain numb euphoria comes over you after a minute or so and you can stay in longer than you would think (without needing emergency resuscitation).

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Here is the proof – note the reflections of frozen peaks in the background.

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And here they are in person. Brrrrr.

 

18 June 2017 – Catching up after a long break….

Not sure why my blogging ground to a halt back in June 2017 but, once halted, it is hard to get going again. So here we are in January 2018: house sitters are in place enjoying the snow in York and we are idling in the Portuguese countryside in full sun and 16 degrees. I want to start going again but feel obliged to fill in the missing parts.  What follows on this page, and maybe the next, is a lightning summary of the intervening six or so months. I did not bring my Mac on this trip so these pages are produced from my iPad. The editing functions seem to be more limited on here so apologies for differences. Also – the wifi connection seems able to cope with only short blogs – so lots of short ones follow.

18 June – Delphi

Our drive from our campsite one side of the town of Delphi to the archaeological site on the other entailed a nail biting, heart stopping detour via winding streets that became so narrow we had to stop and reverse to avoid wedging our ungainly six metres between ancient stone buildings.  The main road, once regained, took us straight to ancient Delphi – centre of the world – and this stone omphalos marks the spot. It was thrown

imagethere by Zeus after two eagles had indicated the approximate spot. There seem to be several such omphalosses in existence so there is a chance that this story is not true.  It was also the home of the amazingly powerful Oracle of Delphi whose seat over the gaseous vent is now nothing but an unprepossessing pile of rocks.  Earthquakes have taken their toll here as in other Greek sites. The whole site is truly magnificent, containing the remarkable amphitheatre (still used) image the temple and sanctuary of Apollo imageand attendant treasuries from the kings of all regions.image

The treasures from the site are in yet another not-to-be-missed museum. The entry ticket to the site includes the museum up the road (12 euros for oldsters from memory).image

Now back to Patras for the ferry to Italy.

 

 

 

13 to 17 June 2017 – Milina and turning west…

Rosy-fingered dawn gave way to an intense morning sun as we wound our way up and down the mountains of the beautiful Pelion peninsula.  There are sweeping views of the clear blue water of the Pagasetic Gulf as you round the last few hairpins to sea level, and take the coast road to Milina. It is a village of narrow streets so we need to find a place to park from where we can find Rob and Rachel’s place on foot.  The place we find is right next to the beach, just about far enough off the road for safety in the shelter of a seafront building.  We have instructions to find the house which conclude:

“200 years up that road/concrete track is our place, two red tiled roofs with a white gate in the middle.”  Rob blames auto-correct for the distance, but atmospherically, it is just about right for the road….

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Down the steps the other side of the white gate the two old stone buildings under the two red-tiled roofs face one side of a paved courtyard. On the other sides, a picturesque stone ruin Milina ruin and catand a half-tamed garden waiting to be transformed into a cool oasis with splashing water. Perfect.   milina garden

The courtyard has orange trees set into the flagstones which entangle their branches overhead to provide shade for eating, drinking, sitting, reading – all the quiet activities such surroundings invite.  I chose to sit there to eat apricots with yogurt and honey in the morning. Thank you Rob and Rachel.

Milina breakfast

The buildings are the ruins of an old olive press and it is the work of Rob and Rachel that has created this quiet haven.  One building was completely without a roof but now sports an amazing configuration of beams – built in the Albanian tradition apparently.

milina beams

The airiness of the white rooms and the metre thick walls kept us cool while we spent three nights enjoying the space of a house and garden after the tininess of the van – a whole bedroom, a truly amazing bathroom, a private garden and a lighting system we still have not quite figured out!   The first night we could not get the stove to work and just had to go out to eat:-)  At the beach-front Elia taverna we shared the best fava I have ever eaten followed by the best melanzani-type dish for me and cheesy-potatoey Piliortico (?) for Neil.  (I would describe it as a Greek version of tartiflette but google search has let me  down on this one.)  He enjoyed it.

milina meal neil

The village fronts the sea with a row of tavernas and the side streets have enough small grocery shops and bakers to meet the needs of the day.  And the days are HOT.  Swimming becomes a late afternoon activity as the sun begins to set, followed by a leisurely sundowner.  milina sunsetOne morning we go early and find a solitary sleeper on the beach in his bedroll.  As people arrive to swim he picks up his bed and walks back to his van – full of fruit and veg which he sets off to sell around the streets.  Looks like a nice work – I pursue one of my favourite activities – collecting sea-glass.me millina beachThe cooker now works – the trip switch was up instead of down (or vice versa) – so I cook on our last night to finish up the bacon and eggs we had had in the van for some time.  My fault for being so un-Greek in my repertoire – the hob objected and a startling crack came from under the pan.  Horror of horrors – I had somehow cracked the ceramic surface!  Mortifying to damage other people’s borrowed stuff!  (Follow up – many emails later and Rob’s local house-guru managed to source a replacement and arrange its installation in time for family holidays – thank goodness!)  The cat in the window was unmoved throughout.milina catIt came to 16th June and we were now on countdown to our ferry date on 20th.  My usual resources showed a real paucity of camper stops and campsites across country from Pelion to Patras and I wanted to see Delphi enroute. Stella said over seven hours drive to get to a campsite at Delphi and it was so hot we were reluctant to be any distance from the sea. Fortunately the ACSI book showed a couple of the campsites near Delphi had swimming pools, but seven hours is still waaay too far in a day. Finally looking in park4night I found a parking spot just back around the top of the gulf – but three hours drive on the windy roads.  It is a public beach just at the end of the road from Nea Anchialos – right on the sea with trees.

Nea Anchialos
What the photograph does not show is the line of empty plastic bottles half way up the shingle.  It looked and felt clean in the water – must be some effect of being at the top of a gulf where the wind pushes floating litter until it can go no further – at least this is not a turtle beach!  It became overcast and stormy in the evening with biggish waves crashing a couple of metres from our wheels – always a bit worrying. One other van had shown up but parked some way away from us.  Next morning was picture perfect in full shade from the tamarisks as it warmed up. We had a peaceful early  swim and a shower on the beach – cannot praise beach showers in remote places enough! One by one or two some older folk started appearing.  Eventually there were eight or nine of them swimming along  chatting as they went – seemed to be a swimming club of some sort.  I wonder if they go in in the winter!
It was a lovely spot for a last dally in the sea before we set off inland.
Nea Anchialos - me in sea
We had a long drive of four hours and twenty minutes ahead of us over some mountains, across a plain and over another mountain range to get to the campsite near Delphi.  We were avoiding the motorway this time.  I had picked out a questionable parking spot two-thirds of the way over just in case the hairpins became too much.  We did not need to worry – the roads were good.  We even got to see the views that we had missed over the mountains near Thermopylae as we retraced the road.  The questionable parking spot high on a mountainside came and went and, on closer inspection, the lane leading to it was indeed questionable! Fortunately the drive went smoothly and an early stop was not necessary.
Sitting on an outcrop in the foothills of Mount Parnassus Chrissa Camping shares the view over the olive groves to the Gulf of Corinth with Delphi itself.
Chrissa camping view
 As you can see, it was cloudy – but still hot.  The day before had seen serious downpours here and several pitches on the gently sloping terraces were unusable due to mud and debris having accumulated. It was largely empty though and we went for a swim despite the grey skies – what a view!  And all to ourselves!Chrissa camping pool viewIt rained some more as night drew on so no cooking outside, which we normally do, and yet again we were forced to eat in the local, on-site taverna:-) Lamb chops and chips again for me! Portia nestled damply in the trees below.
Chrissa portia 2
Tomorrow ancient Delphi – especially recommended by my mother – and on towards Patras.