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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.

 

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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….

milina walk to beach

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.

11 to 12 June – historical hot springs, phonetic food

via Thermopylae to Pelion
We awoke at Isthmia on 11th which is Neil’s birthday.  I had forgotten to bring a card but we would go out for a meal if possible.  The plan was to stay at a free overnight stop near the hot springs at Thermopyles in the pass where Leonidis and his betrayed few faced the might of Xerxes and his thousands. To get there meant crossing from the Peloponnese to the mainland via the bridge over the remarkable Corinth canal.  corinth canal
Having been considered since ancient times this six kilometre canal was not cut through the isthmus until the late 19th century.  It is at sea level at both ends so has no locks, effectively making the Pelopennese an island, and it provides a short cut from Adriatic to Aegean for shipping.  Apparently it is not used much for anything but tourist boats now, but is still an impressive sight.
It was a three or four hour drive, partly on motorway, and ended in a spectacular mountain crossing.  We were denied the spectacular view however due to the mist over the tops.  In fact it was overcast and a bit drizzly once down the other side as well.  It had never occurred to me that Thermopylae was so called due to hot springs – hot sulphuric water pours out from under the side of the mountain in several places, bubbling into pools in places or cascading down the rocks as a waterfall in others.  The hot springs are, remarkably,  undeveloped. There is a rather decrepit hotel that was abandoned as a commercial enterprise some years ago. It was thriving in 2000 when our copy of the Rough Guide was published but had been empty when peejays last reported in 2014.  At first glance it seemed to be back in use, albeit in a fairly tatty way, with clothes and bedding hanging over balconies to dry. We drove round the back to where the hot water steamed from base of the cliff and by good fortune had the rocky pool to ourselves for twenty minutes.

It was raining lightly at the time and a wallow in the hot water was a bizarre treat, notwithstanding the smell of sulphur that accompanied it – and clung lightly to our clothes afterwards.  Good for aches and pains apparently!
Walking back to the van it became clear that the hotel was not offering spa treatments to the aching anymore but was now occupied by refugees – officially or not was unclear. Not only was laundry hanging over the balconies but bedding, bicycles, household implements – everything too valuable to leave lying around outside.  Sad to say, being the only van there and, on the one hand, having lone men wandering around the muddy parking area clad only in their budgie snugglers, and on the other having groups of people hanging around with nothing to do, it did not feel totally comfortable as an overnight stopover.  The lone men were lorry drivers stopping at the side of the road for a dip the same as us, the weary families just waiting for something better to happen in their lives.  Feeling guilty at our probably unfair assumptions, but relieved at the same time, we made the decision to travel on a few miles to a nearby campsite.
Before that we paid homage at the magnificent monument to Leonidis erected on the very site of the battle, opposite the mound where the 297 heroes who died alongside him were buried.
The pass itself is no longer the obstacle to invasion it once was – formerly a narrow strip of land, a scant one hundred metres wide between mountain and sea, there are now four flat kilometres of farmland before you get to the sea.  Geomorphology seems to have decided to make it easier for any future invaders and spare the Spartans another heroic but doomed  stand.
thermo pass
Camping Venezuela is on the road that runs beside the beach, but the cool drizzly weather did not show it in its best light.
venezuala beach
It was pretty much still closed with only one other van and, later, a tiny tent occupied by a couple on a motorbike.  I remembered our camping trips of old in a tiny tent in the rain – always with a sincere prayer that it would not leak. But at least we always had a car to fall back on if push came to shove.  The beach was coarse sand with some silt as well, which always looks a bit dirty – and there were a lot of mild mannered stray dogs and puppies around.   Poor babies:-(
venez pups
I thought there was no taverna nearby for the birthday dinner but strolling along the beach we fell into conversation with our fellow campers, a cheerful young Greek couple from the tent. They pointed one out hiding behind some trees a couple of hundred yards away. venez tavernaVery simple, authentic food they said, as we conversed in Anglo-Greco-Italiano. They had eaten there the night before and were enthusiastic about what they had eaten  – phonetically, scored-val-yay with horta. When we got there the owner told us the menu choices were fish or meat and no-one spoke English to explain exactly what was what.  The owner phoned her daughter to come and talk to us and she whizzed up a few minutes later. Then it transpired that she had also met the young Greek couple on their walk and they had told her what we should eat: scored-val-yay with horta to start and a plate of small fishes to follow. Horta is very like spinach and both it and the scored-val-yay were delicious.  The owner came out and explained how to make the latter with a fair bit of mime and the help of ingredients from the shelf in the kitchen.  It seems it is white bread, without the crusts, soaked in oil, a bit of vinegar plus garlic and salt then pressed somehow into a loose paste. Definitely no food processor.  We chose fish and each had a plate of lightly fried sardines – with a squeeze of lemon a memorable birthday meal.
birthday dinner
The local strays come and look at you pleadingly but non-threateningly and gobble up the fish tails and bread. The owner shoos them away gently from time to time but they don’t go far.
venez dog
We didn’t swim from the silty beach the next day but made an early start for the longish trek past Volos onto the Pelion peninsula within striking distance of Milina.  We had now arranged to be there on 13th and keys would be waiting for us. This time we opted for motorway nearly all the way as there was no other obvious route that looked remotely passable.  Also the tolls had seemed cheap on the bits we had taken before.  This was to prove wrong – especially as motorhomes seem to be in quite a high class of vehicle tariff. Unlike the french peage system where you pass through gates to get on and then pay to get off, here there are  gates across the road at random places charging seemingly random prices to continue.  The first one at 1.30 euros was OK then we got into some pricier ones ending up totalling more than thirty euros for a couple of hours’ drive.   And you have to pay cash. Parts of the road were spectacular however swooping along the coast or over a mountain.
Volos is quite big and looked nice but we ploughed through (still not finding a data sim) to Camping Sikia at Kala Nera.  This is another campsite on a steep slope down to the beach with another steep and narrow access road. The manager comes out to greet you with a hefty chock in her hand which she wedges under your front wheel as you pause at reception – a habit clearly learned from past experience!  Together with shady camping spots on the terraces it has bungalows, apartments and an unobtrusive hotel on site as well.  We get a good spot on a shady terrace.  It is a pretty long walk to the pretty smart showers once you have actually figured out which way to go – more signage would not go amiss in this hilly mini-village! Down the slope to the beach:

it is a narrow shingle strip stretching around a small bay and the water is clear and cool.  Our campsite is on the steeper part of the bay and is adjacent to another which is on the flatter part and seems bit less sophisticated.   Side by side they front the beach and at the moment both have very few campers. In high season I can see there would be a fair amount of hot flesh jostling for space as the the size of the beach is clearly totally inadequate for the number of spaces both large campsites have on offer.

Tomorrow – one hour to Milina and three nights in a house.  Really looking forward to it after nearly a month in the van.

8 to 10 June 2017 – more history, more beaches, and an election

 via Sparta to the Argolid
By now we had realised we could spend endless weeks footling around the ruins, villages and beaches of the Peloponnese. Names from antiquity tumbled from the pages of the maps,Ancient regions guide-book and road signs; Sparta, Arcadia, Thermopylae, Mycenae, each calling us to loiter with the mythical shades amongst the fallen pillars and tumbled stones.  But…. we had a rough plan and it is difficult to abandon a plan, however sketchy, and there is always the possibility of next year (when there is not a heatwave).  So we decided to leave the third finger of the Peloponnese for another day and make a big leap across the Spartan valley, skirting Tripoli (Tripoli?  How did that get in there?) to a spot just around the end of the Gulf of Nafplio in the Argolid.  Yes – where Jason and his Argonauts came from!
Coming back to earth – today was election day in the UK and we wanted to keep an eye on our hastily arranged proxy votes – we needed a campsite with site-wide wifi so we could have Radio Four on all night.  Radio eats up gigabytes – a lesson we learned the hard way in Spain in February.  It is one of life’s great pleasures to drift in and out of consciousness and hear how the results are going without having to be fully alert!   So, reluctantly dragging ourselves away from the casual atmosphere at the Dimitrios beach, we headed for an ACSI campsite that promised shade and wifi for a modest fee.  It was a long day’s drive to Lefka beach, Vasari a few miles the other side of Nafplion.  We paid little attention to the port from which Jason set sail, other than to scour the shop fronts for a telephone shop that was open for business – something we still had not found – closed for lunch, 3; open, 0. The site is terraced down the steep slope to the sea.  The terraces are overhung with cloth, filling in the gaps where the sun would burn down between the trees as the sun moved around – the first time we have experienced  that. Lefka view
We pick a spot with a bit of a view that benefits from both tree and cloth shade and is close enough to Reception to get a signal.  The beach is pebbly, the water is the beautiful translucent turquoise we have come to expect and there are some rocky outcrops to make the swimming more interesting.  Lefka beach
We ate at the family-run taverna at the top of the slope. The two small fish I ate had probably been frolicking in the water beside me earlier on:-(  They were very good fried on the plate but made me work to separate their tender flesh from their tiny bones:-((
Lefka restaurant from beach
It rained heavily in the night and the cloth cover served to funnel it noisily into several big waterfalls rather than the usual all-over patter. The wifi signal was worryingly weak for streaming but artful positioning of the iBoost WiFi system magnified it and gave a constant signal that did not seem to pause to buffer all night. Surprisingly, not many fellow campers were tuned in to the overnight UK election results. Waking at one point I heard them going on about Labour’s amazing performance and dozed happily for an hour or so thinking they had done it, only to awake again as a commentator said something like “We must remember Labour has not actually won the election”  😦  Realising that Theresa May had done so badly was some consolation.
We stayed another night.  Neil was a bit worried about the VERY steep access drive. It is only short but hairpins up the campsite terraces straight out onto a tight, undercarriage-scraping junction with the main road.   The main problem – the drive is on the front wheels and most of the weight is on the back. The wheels have spun uselessly before on a steep gravel drive; that time Neil had needed to back up and take a run at it with me on the road above to stop any oncoming traffic.  Stopping for a run-up was not possible on this drive so Neil waited until it was completely clear as far as he could see before taking it at speed. The unseen van coming down the slope graciously ceded the lane as we roared round the bend! That is the rule apparently – those going up the hill have right of way. Glad he wasn’t ten seconds earlier though!
Mycenae and the tomb of Agamemnon
Today was scheduled to be a short drive across to Isthmia as we planned to spend some time at Mycenae – the hill-top palace of Agamemnon.  This is the place he called home and came back to after ten years fighting alongside Menelaus and Odysseus, and various Gods, outside (and then inside) Troy.  No sooner had his armour rattled to the ground in his bathroom than Clytemnestra, his wife, and Aegistheus, her lover, murdered him.  She was upset that he had thought it acceptable to sacrifice their daughter to the gods in exchange for providing favourable winds to Troy ten years previously.  Hmmm.  He was buried in the royal grave circle with a golden death mask nonetheless.  The mask was found attached to his skull – whether it is actually him is not certain.  But you too can gaze upon his face in the museum.
face of agamemnon
The site is a fortified hill town – walls surrounding a palace, temple and all the associated buildings needed for everyday life in the 12th century BC.  Mycenae - hill view
It has some amazing tombs. That hole behind the ropes is the roof of that of Aegistheus which has collapsed. Seen from the inside ….
MY inside aegis
There are altogether nine huge tholos (beehive) tombs.  Below is the entrance to that of Clytemnestra
My Neil clytem tomb
And a rather inadequate shot of the dome inside – superior quality to the rough stone of that of her lover.
my cly inside
Some are shaft graves inside the walls…
mycenae grave circle
Starting at the famous Lion Gate
My lion gate
we made it all the way to the top in the noon day sun… one of us wilting in the heat more than the other….Mycenae hot meI needed support going down because my smooth, flat soles were inclined to slip on the marble paving slabs on the paths – brought to a high shine by generations of feet.  If you go – wear good grippy trainers.   To show the height – you can see the many buses in the car park.
My view inc buses.jpg

Learning from our experience at Olympia that museums were not to be missed, we optimistically walked over to it – it’s a small one.  There was the hoped for air-con, but they were being very south european with it – lowering the temperature only to a stuffy 29.5 degrees! The exhibits were lovely – less huge statuary and more cheery votive offerings and jewellery.

Before long I was unable to fully appreciate the beautiful things on display because the heat was getting the better of me.  Heading for the exit I found a floor level air conditioning unit  and spent several minutes draped over it fearing heat stroke more than legionnaire’s disease.
Our destination for the night was a free parking spot on the sea at Isthmia.  It would have been fine – a strip of parking alongside a public beach at the edge of town.  Because it was Saturday though it was heaving with people enjoying the sea and a dive centre playing loud music.  There was no shade and, being in a small but bustling car park, no possibility of putting out the awning or chairs.  There was a campsite only a mile away so after a few hot minutes we moved on.  Isthmia camping is right on a lovely beach, under trees and with low hedges marking pitches.
They seemed rather unprepared for the season, although there were a few campers there already, and were a bit off-hand.  The wifi was poor, the facilities were uninspiring but perfectly adequate, apart from the lack of hot water for washing up – which always annoys Neil.  And they charged 22 euros even with the ACSI discount!  Having said that – it was a very nice place to stay and the beach was lovely. The clouds rolled in overnight promising cooler, if wetter, weather for the next day’s cultural outing.
isthmia beach