Category Archives: Ancient sites

Another day, another car park

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There are patterns in any life that have a predictability to them, a sense of normal consequence, an inevitability. Take, for example, the look on people’s faces when I tell them that, for a significant part of my time, I travel around Europe in a large, American, RV. I have always interpreted it as a mixture of surprise and excitement, with a genuine delight for me that is sometimes tinged with happy envy.

But I’ve been living this life for a while now, and I wonder if I am mistaken: perhaps that look actually means, ‘Shit, you’ve no idea what you’ve let yourself in for, have you, girly? Rather you than me’.

They might not be wrong – allow me to elaborate on some misconceptions I once foolishly had.

We can go anywhere we want.

Er, no. Not in our particular van, Georgie.

Can’t go down narrow roads, under low bridges, or over 6 ton limit ones. Can’t go into large towns with complicated one-way systems, or through tiny villages with chicanes at either end.

Can’t do really sharp corners in less than a 15-point turn, or go up very steep hills at any speed greater than 8 miles an hour. When we do, we worry all the time that Georgie’s not going to make it, and that we’ll have to attempt that 15-point turn, on a mountain road, with a sheer drop to one side.

Can’t park on sharp inclines because our levellers can only redress this a certain amount, and if it’s too far out of whack, we can’t open the slide-out without the risk of Georgie tipping over onto her side. Plus, the bath won’t drain, and the water pump keeps freaking out because all the water in the tank has gone to the other side. And how does a water pump freak out? Well, it sort of screams.

Also, can’t park on grass if it’s likely to rain because… this.

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We can just camp where we like.

Again, no, not if we want any services. Like a laundry or wifi.

I recently watched a film starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland: they played an elderly couple who just took off in their old camper van. One morning, Donald’s character (who was ill) wet the bed, and Helen promptly stripped the bed to wash the sheets. Then they drove off along the highway, and I spent the rest of the film wondering where the hell she’d hung that sheet to dry. Seriously, where? It never appeared again and, can I just say, her sink was the size of a walnut.

As for wifi…

Before we left England we were under there impression that McDonalds always had wifi. To which, yes they do, but its speed is slow to impossible, and it is also restricted, so that I can never get to this blog, for example. So when we are a bit off-grid, most of our time is spent wifi hunting, which, in many ways, is the safari of the 21st century.

We went to Menton, a perfectly gorgeous little town in the south of France, just near the border into Italy. An artist friend of ours has been going there for years and his descriptions of it are utterly enchanting. I pictured myself wandering along the sun-speckled promenade, before stopping at a delightful little bistro and being served croissants and coffee by a super-slim, dark-eyed, waitress.

But in reality? Yes, it was very pretty, and yes, we raced down the promenade, but mostly we needed to go online in order to pay our bills and check our bank balance.

After much dithering about we found a cafe that advertised wifi – but, frankly, that was just boasting. In two hours I only managed to upload three pictures onto my already-written-in-Word blog, and I was close to kidney failure from all the coffee. The super-slim waitress had become super-surly, and my legs had fallen asleep.

We can leave behind all the responsibilities of a house.

If you want to know about ‘responsibilities’, just try taking a week’s worth of wee with you, everywhere you go. After Menton, we tried to find an Aire that had the right facilities, because our waste was nearly at critical mass, and we were running off to the public bogs every chance we could in order not to cause overflow. Our water had run out, too, so we were making do with a bucket and cup to hand-flush the loo at night, and a couple of bottles of bought water for drinking.

And then Clumsy Week happened. You all know about Clumsy Week, right? Those days when everything you touch breaks, snaps, fuses, or is smashed? Just imagine when that happens in a van, with limited tools, or space to store spares.

Imagine, also, that you are probably some distance from the shop or the repair person that is needed to solve the problem (if you even have a clue as to what shop that is, of course, because you are somewhere foreign and remote, and DIY is not universal). Trying to explain to the only person you can find with even a smattering of English, in the unpronounceable village miles from nowhere that you’ve fetched up in, that you just need to buy a small rubbery thingy, with a hole in it, about so big, or possibly a sort-of gromity whatsit, is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

On Clumsy Week I basically broke everything, including our door handle, roller blinds, glassware and taps just by looking at them, I swear. Our normally functioning leisure batteries decided to go on strike, and however many times Steve re-did the wiring, nothing happened. When he climbed onto the roof to check the solar panels, the ladder broke away from the back of the van.

Ergo, we had no lights, and the fridge and freezer had to be turned off. I located a box of candles I’d intended to use for mood-lighting rather than emergencies, but they’d been stored too near a heating duct, and they’d all melted together to form one, long, wobbly candle, with several night-lights and a glass holder sticking out the side.

We couldn’t turn on the heating because the fan wouldn’t work without electricity, and our generator is too noisy for built-up areas. Plus, and God knows why, our steps suddenly decided not to retract, so we couldn’t move anywhere anyway.

We will see places we never knew existed.

Well now, this one is true, as long as we’re talking car parks. Georgie’s too big for supermarkets, but Chinese Shops don’t seem to mind us. Motorway Truck Stops are usually free when abroad, and a much better place to stay now that we’ve learned to park as far from the refrigerated trucks as possible (they literally chunder all night long).

But we were still having the same trouble with Georgie breaking down all the time that had been plaguing us since taking on fuel in Albania. Some of our desperation for wifi was so that Steve could find out what was wrong. Research suggested we needed to source the right fuel filter. This entailed locating mechanics who worked on diesel trucks, and hoping that our Chevy engine wouldn’t confuse them too much.

So the Renault truck garage forecourt at Beaune was home for a little while (no picture, it’s too depressing), as was the Scania truck version at Montelimar (where we were locked in at night). My daily view was now of burly, grease-stained, middle-aged men, with sloppy trousers and butt-cracks (FYI the Czechs call these coin boxes – isn’t that brilliant?) using noisy tools and glaring at me a lot. Ah, the romance.

It will be wonderful to drive along without a care in the world.

Until the sodding Mistral gets you. Again.

The Mo Farrah of the wind world, it rips up through France looking for old RV’s to scare the bejesus out of. Apart from the alarming rocking from side to side along roads that favour ditches over hedges, there is the awning that flaps itself into unrolling and tearing, and the outside lockers that burst open, ready to spill all your shit under other trucks tyres. If I weren’t driving behind in Nibbles, I dread to think how much damage would be done, and how much stuff left littered across Provence.

It will be an adventure.

Well, this just makes me snort tea out of my nose.

So why do I do it?

Why do I travel around knowing that Another day, another car park is a pretty adequate description of my life?

Because even though most Aires and Sostas do turn out to be the corner of a car park, this is often better than it actually sounds. Okay, it’s not the romantic view down a vine-covered Italian slope that I once envisaged, but it can often be quite near a beach or other local landmark.

The following were all in the space of a week or so. This one, at Coucy-le-Chateau-Auffrique, had a nice ruin on a hill to gaze at (ooh look, there’s Nibbles, my Smart car)…

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…and this one overlooked a river.

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Here we had an interesting view of some troglodyte houses…

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…and this was in the car park of a vineyard and wine warehouse. With free wine tasting. Nom nom.

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And where else but in a car park would we have met Bid and Ger, the Irish couple just starting out on their year’s journey, and who write the Facebook blog, Pilatesinavan? Super nice.

Or see the trucker obsessed with Joan of Arc?

Or have the wonderful opportunity to understand, to really understand that it is not where you are, or even where you are going that matters: it is how you travel.

And – if you are lucky enough – who you are travelling with (like a man who’ll wear this hat because his granddaughter wanted him to). IMG_8745

NEXT TIME: The story of the postman and the stumbling block. Thanks for reading, and ciao xxxx

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Unexpected Italy

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Ah, the romance of Italy; the beauty of Venice, the pomp of Rome and the cypress-speared vistas of Tuscany, all punctuated by the sharp scent of basil, the tang of olives, and the cool wash of wine from an earthenware jug. Then there’s the lemons, large as oranges, from the Amalfi coast, and the wonderful, mad, gesticulating language, the ancient architecture, and the imposing ruins. I love all the towers, piazzas, and pavement cafes, the frenzied markets bursting with colour, and the extravagant churches leading into cool, calming cloisters, echoing with whispered penitence and the chime of bells. Given a choice of where I’d like to be, Italy is the word that spills from my mouth before I’ve even had a chance to think about it.

But…

…that’s in summer.

And this was February. When the Beast from the East had been chucking its weight about all over Europe (yes, I know it’s May, but I’ve had no internet, so I’m still on catch-up blogs).

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So far I’d made it to Trieste in my unheated car, only to be told I needed to carry on driving another 165 miles to Ferrara, in the hope (note – not the certainty) that they’d have the part to fix my heater there. So I girded my loins (mostly in many layers of fabric and a hot water bottle) and drove to the area around Ferrara.

Which is where we found something unexpectedly nice: FREE aires, or sostas, as they are called here. And the word FREE sometimes applies, not just to the parking space for your campervan, but also to the water and electricity!!! Well bend me over backwards and call me Susan, how great is that?

The first one we stayed at was at Castelgulielmo, in the car park of a cemetery. The services were all free, and there was a little shop in the village where you could buy necessities.

Like water.

Because the drinking water had been cut off in case of freezing.

But even if it hadn’t, I still wouldn’t have wanted to drink it as it tasted like liquid Savlon. Not being funny, Italy, but for a country that prides itself on its food and drink, you should pay a little more attention to the basics.

This is where we met Mitia – a nice chap, from Slovenia, with a gorgeous Boxer dog. He had the campervan opposite to us and came over for a beer and a chat. He said he never worried about the security aspects of travelling alone because he’d been trained in a particular Martial Art when he was in the military.

If I even touch Steve, I am in BIG trouble, he said.

So, basically, you’re classed as a weapon? I quipped, (I know my humour doesn’t generally transcend language barriers, but I can’t always stop myself).

But he said Yes, and nodded very solemnly, clearly pleased that I’d got such an accurate grasp of the situation.

We went for dinner at a local pizza restaurant where, as usual, we were the only diners apart from the owner and his wife, who’d settled at another table and were watching a quiz show on the telly. While we all ate, Steve and I tried to guess the quiz show questions by the intonation of the voices and the looks on the contestants’ faces. Our twenty or so words of Italian weren’t quite up to the job, but we got so involved in our little ‘game’ that I began to think I knew some of the answers and started shouting at the telly.

This backfired slightly, as the owner (mistakenly thinking we actually understood it) turned the volume up for us, and then spent the rest of the show making incomprehensible comments to us about the contestants, the compere, or the results. Best I could do was nod, and try to intuit whether I should look appalled, amused, celebratory, or disappointed. I might have said Yay too many times.

They were a lovely couple, though. He used to be in a blues band in the 60’s, and there were framed photos of them on the wall – all long hair, and Afghan coats, and embroidered waistcoats. There was probably a flute. There usually is.

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His wife showed us YouTube footage of them performing recently at Deltablues, as the Caledonia Popexa Blues Band. Then he got his guitar out and played us Blackbird by The Beatles.

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The next day, inspired by Italian cuisine, Steve went to the supermarket and bought back a packet of ravioli. He hadn’t a clue what was in it though, so I asked him what the picture on the packet showed – the Italians are usually helpful that way. Er, meat, he said? Something red, anyway. He showed me the packet; it was radicchio. Which is lettuce. Steve bought lettuce ravioli. (To be fair it tasted great, but that might have been down to the fifty million things I put in the sauce, including meat).

By now my car was booked in to have the heater fixed the following week, so we moved to another sosta, this time at Migliarino. It was situated in a car park, next to a rowing club, that had lots of strange, sea-themed sculptures. Here we met Frederik, the local beggar. Most days he would stand, quietly and respectfully, outside the Coop and Steve liked to make sure he always had some change for him.

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Frederik told us that he came from Nigeria three years ago and had no intention of going back because he liked the cold. He gave Steve his CV, which described him as an agricultural engineer and farm worker. I’m not sure what he thought we could do, but he liked us, and I suspect it was all he had to give. The following day it snowed heavily, and Steve went to check on Frederik, who cheerfully informed us that he had a mate whose floor he slept on, if it was too cold even for him.

While we were snowed in, Steve got out his Dremmel (not a euphemism) and reproduced the broken part of my windscreen wiper from a tiny rubber gromit that he’d found. It took a couple of goes, but then it worked perfectly. As my friend Anna once said, Steve is a legend.

To celebrate we went out to a local restaurant for dinner. I hadn’t quite realised it was a fish restaurant, of course, and happily asked the waitress to recommend something – but not fish (I wasn’t in the mood, that day). Ooh, the look I got!

She made up for it later by leaving a bottle of Limoncello on the table for us at the end of the meal, and then not charging us for it. I love Limoncello. I prefer to drink it until I can’t actually say it. By the time we left to go home it was just that lubly lemony stuff.

Ferrara itself is a smashing little town, half Renaissance, and half medieval in architecture. Both sides meet in the middle of town by the properly moated Este Castle.

We walked down a street of original medieval archways…

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…and then back up past all the renaissance buildings, admiring the door furniture as we went. Lots of lovely knockers (don’t embarrass yourselves).

We passed a strange little park with allotments run by a local co-operative, that sold honey, and some utterly unidentifiable produce, from a log cabin under the trees. And ended our walk at the Diamante Palace, with its studded walls casting impressive, constructivist shadows in the waning light.

And then, car fixed and Ferrara seen, it was time to crack on with our journey home. We drove a long way to a sosta – that turned out to be up too steep a hill and too windy a road for Georgie, our RV, to manage. So we drove further – to a sosta that we found had been taken over by a circus. So we drove further still – and ended up at a sort of lay-by in Vezzano Sul Crostolo.

But the long drive had left tempers, not so much frayed, as completely unravelled. We had a good shout at each other and I huffed off to the bedroom, disgusted, yet again, by the fact that my bedroom door refuses to slam. Steve went for a walk in the nearby woods to cool down.

He came back later and said dear?

Yes love? I said, hoping he’d come to apologise first.

No, he said, deer. Come and see.

And there they were – a whole herd of them in the field next to the van: wild, and skittish, and part of a nature reserve that also boasted wild boar and wolves.

Following them, we found an abandoned cottage that had once boasted a rather fabulous outside loo – complete with bidet and everything. Not like the tiny concrete or wooden shacks I remember from my childhood (FYI I’m not that old, they just hadn’t all been demolished then).

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So it seems that some lovely wildlife, and a broken bog is all I need to cheer myself up. I picked daffodils, apologised to my lovely, car-fixing, husband, and went home to cook weirdly-stuffed pasta behind my non-slamming doors.

Next time – the south of France, clumsy week, and that Mistral again.

Greek Moments

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I spend my life shouting at the telly, which I find it quite therapeutic. I am particularly vocal during films where medieval castles are getting bombarded (I have sons – I’ve had to watch a lot of these) and all the equipment the invaders needed were a selection of big ladders. I mean, for God’s sake, stick some spikes out of the wall why don’t you, or cover the gaps in the battlements with a sodding wrought-iron fence. If all the baddies have to do is climb up and climb in – well just do something, ok? (I’d personally favour a trench full of alligators.)

But the Palamidi Fortress in Nafplio (our local town where we over-wintered in Greece) has actually nailed it, in my opinion. Big strong walls – tick, plenty of bastions surrounding the heart of the fortress – tick, high on a hilltop where you can see the invaders at least a week before they reach you – tick. In fact so high up it has 999 steps that trudge up to it. I’ll say that again: 999 steps.

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In Vienna we’d climbed to the top of the tower in St. Stephan’s cathedral, but that was a mere 343 steps. I remember how my thighs complained (as my muscle tone is on a par with my gran’s old knicker elastic), and so before attempting the Palamidi, I did some training. By which I mean I used the stairs whenever I could (but probably no more than 20 at a time) and walked a bit more than usual. So, not that trained, really.

I also waited until Joe came to visit, so he could climb the steps with me. Steve’s medical history includes a quad bypass, two stents and a stroke, so he was getting sent up the long way around, by car, no arguments. But my son Joe is a bit of a mountain goat anyway. As a child he used to shimmy up the walls of the hallway and wait, arms crossed, until you walked below him. Then he’d drop to the ground behind you, giggling hysterically, while you double-checked to see if you’d actually peed yourself.

So, the pair of us set off and, to be frank, my legs were aching on the short walk up the hill just to reach the steps. At about halfway I made Joe stop and come back down a step, so that when we got to the top, we’d actually have done a thousand steps (this is what passes for fun in my head). I had to sit down a lot on the way up, but I could see the walls of the castle getting nearer and nearer and it felt do-able.

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And this is where I think the Palamidi architects were so clever, because I reached those walls (having paced myself accordingly) and then found it was merely a bastion – and only two thirds of the way up. Still, literally, hundreds more to do. But I pushed on, got to the gate, paid our entrance fees, and turned a corner only to find … lots more steps. The Palamidi is not flat, it seems.

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But it was a stunning view, once blood had returned to my brain. From the top we could see the Bourtzi (which is another fortress, built on a rocky outcrop in the bay, and reachable only by boat). Honestly, these Nafplions knew what they were doing.

Nafplio itself is rather lovely. It was a major stronghold of the Ottoman Empire until the Greek War of Independence, and then it became the capital of Greece (until King Otto decided Athens was everything, and moved there instead). We sat at a café and watched sea bream swimming around by the quayside, and then walked through the narrow streets of the Old Town.

In the main square is a stone lion, which is worth a look, because over the years, children have happily filled the holes that delineate his whiskers with BB gun pellets. And there is another lion carved into a rock face just behind the local Lidl. He’s the Lion of Bavaria and commemorates the sad death of Bavarian soldiers in a typhoid epidemic. However, the locals believed it was death by cucumber (the Bavarians are said to have eaten too many) and consequently call the statue Agouroon (which means cucumber in Ancient Greek).

We visited the Archaeological Museum and I found some more nipple-tweakers and a shocked-looking lady saying, ‘talk to the hand’. Feeling you, sister.

But my favourite was the Folklore Museum, which is a gem of a place – full of wonderful costumes, fabulous painted furniture, and traditional dolls.

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I would have killed for this blouse, it had so much detail on it.

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And there was this pair of twin dolls in their natty knitted gear. I like to think of them as representing my grandkids, Kit and Sky, if Satan was their dad instead of Laurence.

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And that was it for our time in Greece, as we needed to make our way back to the UK to MOT our vehicles, and catch up with family. This meant driving through Albania again and – now that I’d got over the shock of that – I was prepared to review my opinion of the place. Next time I’ll let you know whether or not I did.

P.S. I found so many things about Greece to be brilliantly bonkers that I posted them on Facebook, under the title Greek Moments. If you haven’t seen them, I’ve reproduced a few of them here. I hope they make you smile the way they did me. Ciao xxxx

GREEK MOMENTS:

When you ask, ‘I wonder what’s on at the big screen?’ but this is the size of the cinema…

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When even the furniture makes you feel fat…

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When the Virgin Mary has had all she can take…

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In case you’re not sure which bit of a house the roof goes on…

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When the local DIY store caters for all your goat-herding needs…

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And the local hardware shop also sells …. yes, it’s wine…

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Bit harsh – what’s wrong with the naughty step?

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And, finally,

the chap with the impressive arse is painting his own yellow lines on the road.

Cos, why not?

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Tripping

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There are obviously many things to see in Greece, but also a limit on how much broken, headless, collapsed or reconstructed stone stuff I can maintain an interest in. Ergo I suggested a trip out to the Lepida waterfall as a bit of a change. It is known to be a bit dry in the heat of summer, but this was the winter and it’d done nothing but rain since we arrived. I excitedly packed a very nice picnic and off we went.

After an hour or so’s driving, Deirdre the sat-nav slut kept insisting we veer off onto various dirt tracks. All the options she offered looked pretty dodgy, so we tried to find another route, and our drive got longer and longer. At one point we climbed up the side of a mountain that took us through ten of the sharpest hairpin bends I’ve ever encountered. Our ears popped on the way up, and on the way down again. It would be worth it though, because … waterfalls!

Eventually we submitted to the will of Deirdre and let her take us down a track – until it got to be a lot more rut than road. The sign said the waterfall was a mere 2km further on, so we parked up and started to walk. We passed tracks in the dried mud that I thought might be deer, mainly because I always want to see deer. Steve said no, those are goat tracks. We argued about it a bit and then I kept quiet, because I knew we were going to see deer.

It was a surprisingly long 2km, as it turned out, and so it was hours later that we came to the waterfall. Except there wasn’t any water and nothing was falling. Not a drop. We saw where the waterfall had been though, but it didn’t help; we sat in a totally dry riverbed to eat our picnic.

This is what a waterfall looks like without it’s clothes on.

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On the way back we heard bells. Cowbells? No, said Steve, it’s the goats. I really wanted it to be cowbells and deer tracks, but of course he was right. They all flooded across the road in front of us and eyed us with deep suspicion. Then they all trundled up the opposite hill, and had almost disappeared when we heard … the sound. To start with I thought it was an odd bird call – some kind of magpie, maybe? It was incredibly shrill and loud and went something like, ‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-ya, eeeeee-ya eeeeee-ya eeeeee-ya eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-ya.’ Yup, not a bird, just the goat-herders calling them back.

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We started the long drive home and immediately heard clonking noises from under the car. Steve got out and checked, but could find nothing. Later we heard a bang, as if we’d driven over something. We pulled off the road into an old lady’s driveway and found a very flat tyre. It was almost as flat as the frog I’d seen on our walk to the waterfall. The poor thing had been squashed by a farm vehicle, and then a dog had come and pooped on it’s head. This helped me keep things in perspective – whatever kind of day I was having, that frog had had a worse one.

The old lady said there was a garage a couple of minutes up the road, so we carefully drove up there, (Nibbles is a Smart car, and they don’t carry spare tyres – that’s how they stay so light). The guys at the garage couldn’t help us but said there was somewhere that could, about 4km back the way we’d come. They pumped up the tyre so we could get to the new place, and it lasted all the way. God knows how, though, because when the flat was removed, they found a hole the size of a fifty pence piece and the inside had completely shredded.

But we are incredibly lucky in that, whenever we’ve broken down or had a problem with either vehicle, we’ve found the right people to help us nearby. So even though they had to go and find a new tyre for us, it was all sorted within half an hour.

We drove back down the ten hairpins to a road that was merely very bendy, and had a sheer drop to one side. Despite the double white lines in the centre and the lack of visibility, a horn-honking lorry overtook us and the lorry in front of us, in one hit. Well, he has a death-wish, I thought. We caught up with him later: he had a banner stretching all across the back of his lorry, hanging below his number plate. It said, (in English?), ‘In memory of my beloved Uncle.’ I couldn’t help wondering if he’d run him over.

They are very keen on remembering lost loved ones here, especially by the use of roadside shrines. We’ve noticed this all over Europe but the Greeks seem to have taken it to the next level, and blurred the line between shrine and chapel rather effectively. Our local garden centre offers all the usual shrines, but also this rather nifty one-man job as well.

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And a local business has done even better – because you never know how many times in your working day you’re going to need a quick pray.

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On another occasion, we went down to Kalamata for the afternoon. Why? Because someone had told Steve it was really lovely. Did he check this, on Google, for instance (because my idea of ‘lovely’ could be different to yours)? No. And I suspect the dead of winter is not the best time to see any beach resort, you know what I’m saying?

But the Greeks give really good church. It’s always the most impressive building in the town/city/village/business forecourt, and Kalamata has a wonderful example of this – the Church of Ypapantis.

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And, as with all Greek churches, the inside is even better than the outside.

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At the front were pictures of saints with 3D silver relief panels over them, just exposing key points of the pictures underneath, like the faces, hands and feet. Nearer the door was an ornate shrine that people steadily approached, kissed, knelt before, and left offerings beside. A bottle of wine that was gifted was picked up pretty smartish. One lady even crawled penitently across the carpet, on her hands and knees, before kissing the shrine. I don’t claim to understand that kind of devotion, but I found it touching, all the same.

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At the beach end of the town is the Municipal Railway Park, which some websites claim is a theme park, where you can ride on steam trains and all sorts of shit. Not true. Maybe it was once, but now it is a place where a lot of old trains, carriages, and engines are rotting away on the grass. You are allowed to climb all over them but I didn’t fancy falling through the floors and gouging my legs on rusty iron. Interesting to look at though, and the kids still have fun.

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Easily our most successful trip out was to the island of Spetses, when Joe came to visit. I finally got to see some Greece that was a bit more akin to my foolish imaginings of it. Small, quiet, peaceful and pretty.

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We wandered along the beach, skimmed stones, found the harbour, had an over-priced lunch, were offered a choice of ‘scrumble eggs’ or ‘scrabbled eggs’, and got fleeced by the guy in the water taxi. Perfect, just perfect.

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I’ll tell you all about the three months we spent at Drepano in my next blog –  My life as a cat herder. Until then, thanks for reading. Ciao xxx

 

My Olympian moment, and other legends.

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Travelling in Greece brings to mind the opening lines of Harry Nilsson’s song, Remember:

               ‘Long ago, far away, life was clear, close your eyes…’

Everything here seems to have been glorious but it was all ‘once upon a time’.

It had a good run; from the eighth century BC, right up to when the Romans started getting a bit uppity over eight hundred years later. The first couple of centuries are known as the Archaic Period, and when Steve and I fetched up at Drepano, we were delighted to see a sign for an Archaic Temple just around the corner. Sadly, we were somewhat less delighted when we found it.

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The signs had been proud and proclaiming on the main road, but as we’d got closer to the site, they’d become vague, unhelpful, and pointing in distinctly off-hand directions.

When we eventually found it, we understood why – they clearly wanted you to know they had a Temple, but they just didn’t want you to see it.

Because said Temple was, in fact, a triangle of grass with a few rocks and a couple of holes in it, on a slope behind the church. The sort of place where all the rubbish blows, and people dump their old beer cans and Xmas trees, and dogs go to poo. Not very Templey. I genuinely mistook it for a bus-stop.

But who cares, because after the Archaic Period came the Classical Period, and this is when Greece really got its shit together.

MYCENAE

We waited until my son, Joe, came to stay and then we shot off to Mycenae. Here they have three Tholos (or beehive-shaped) tombs, and it’s also where the great golden mask of Agamemnon was found.

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Steve made a ‘find’ of his own; scratching in the dirt on a pathway he picked up a tiny piece of painted pottery, circa 1200 BC. Joe adored the serenity of the Tomb of Clytemnestra, with its high, domed roof made of intricately over-lapping brickwork. And, in the museum, I found more of the strange little Grecian figures that I have come to think of as Nipple-tweakers. Happy days.

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NEMEA

You’ve heard of Hercules defeating the Nemean Lion? Well, this is where the legend takes place, and we thought it’d be a good place to visit. The story goes that, as the first of his ‘labours’, King Eurystheus sends Hercules off to kill a certain lion that has been causing havoc in the area, and to bring him back the skin as proof.

Fair enough, you think? No, not really – this particular beast has fur that is impenetrable, and claws that can cut through both swords and armour, which just shows what he thinks of Hercules.

Now, the H-man has been told about the lion, but he’s as thick as two short planks and tries to shoot it with arrows, which naturally just ping off. To give him his due, he doesn’t quit, and eventually corners it in a cave and chokes it to death. Round one to Hercules.

But now he has to skin it. Having totally forgotten (again) about the strength of the animal’s fur – it having been, ooh, minutes since the arrows bounced off – he tries to cut it  with a knife. Epic fail. Aha, he thinks, I’ll sharpen my knife with a stone. Fails again. This goes on for some time, until Hercules tries to hack it off with the stone. Not a lateral thinker, our Herc.

By this time the Gods are all placing bets and pissing themselves laughing. Zeus is wiping tears from his eyes, muttering, ‘he’s the gift that keeps on giving’. But Athena has had enough, and drops down to Earth to give him a nudge in the right direction.

That’s quite a lion, you’ve got there,‘ she says.

‘I know, right? Got claws that can cut through armour, too. I’m bloody heroic, I am.’

‘Cut through armour, can they? Wow, that’s really sharp.’

‘Yes it is, and now I’ve got to skin it, and look what it’s done to my best knife? It’s all bent up.’

Athena tries again. ‘If only you had something here that was sharp enough to cut through armour – that would do the trick, wouldn’t it?

‘The stone didn’t work either,’ says Herc, completely mystified.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, use the claws, the claws! Seriously, what is wrong with you?’

And that’s exactly how it happened, and I personally think this story has something that every one of us can identify with.

EPIDAUROS

There’s a sunken city off the coast near Epidauros, which you can swim out to, that’s a couple of thousand years old. So we took a drive out to that, only to discover that neither of us can swim that far, or that deep – not with a snorkel, anyway. So we trollied into the local town and went looking for ice-cream instead.

While I was deciding if mine had ever actually met a strawberry, we got befriended by a lovely young couple and an older chap; Sarah, Patrick and Petyr. They were looking to buy a boat to set up an island-hopping business. Sarah was a Brit who’d gone to the States to study acting, and had then gone on to be a singer/songwriter. She looked about twenty-two. I couldn’t work this out so I turned to Patrick and enquired if she wasn’t too young to have given up on one dream already? She laughed and said she was older than she looked, but he said, ‘I hope she hasn’t given up – I love hearing her sing.’ He looked so totally besotted I nearly hugged him. Best I could do was choke out, ‘Well, he’s a keeper,’ and then float off feeling awed by how sweet they were.

Further up the beach we saw a young lad who’d caught a small octopus for his dinner. Apparently, to tenderise the hard muscles which serve instead of a skeleton, it has to be beaten about fifty times on a rock. When we caught up with this lad he’d been dragging it up and down a well-worn rock for at least half an hour, liberally dousing it in sea-water. He looked exhausted.

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Of course, there’s more than just a sunken city here. There’s plenty of other ruins including an amphitheatre, cos you’ve got to see at least one, haven’t you?

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BUT OLYMPIA, THO

If you’re not going to Athens (which we are not), then the next best place for Classical Greek stony stuff has got to be Olympia. A lot of the temples fell down in an earthquake, but even seeing the size of the blocks that made up the columns is impressive. I really liked that one of the buildings in the surrounding (massive) complex was said to echo whatever you said, seven times.

They light the Olympic torch here, and you can still run down the original 100 metre(ish) track. So I made Steve run with me, whilst workmen and other tourists looked at us pityingly. So am I now an Olympian? I think I am.

But the best bit for me was the museum – lots of muscles and beautifully draped cloth.

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And stuff that was just plain interesting (this little lion probably never met Hercules – he’s too smiley).

 

And how come glassware can survive for over two millennia in the ground here, but every time we get back to England it’s another trip to Ikea for us?

I’ll leave you with this – a photo of me crossing the finish line at Olympia, that totally belies the twenty minutes of red-raced gasping for breath that followed, or gives any hint about the bit in the middle that I had to walk. Thanks for reading. Ciao xxx

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Greece is the word

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Greece: my vision of it having been formed by films like Shirley Valentine and posters of Santorini. So the reality was somewhat to the left of centre as regards my expectations. Obviously, to start with it looked exactly like Albania (well, duh, I was ten minutes across the border), but I couldn’t see a single white building with a domed roof and a blue doorway, under a searing sun. I was, frankly, shocked.

Where were the legendarily horny and handsome Greek waiters? Wasn’t this the land of the holiday romance? Shouldn’t there be a Taverna on every corner? And how come I travelled for days and never once heard a Bazouki player?

Perhaps it was just the difference between summer Greece and autumn Greece? Or between island and mainland Greece? Between Shirley sodding Valentine’s Greece and the bits that I found?

No. It was that I was looking for the wrong thing.

What makes this crumbly little corner of Europe special….. is the people – their generosity, helpfulness, and hospitality. Now, I am a smiley person, and Steve likes to talk to strangers (his preference veering strongly towards waiters and check-out girls), so we are used to a certain amount of reciprocal friendliness, but in Greece – well, this was on a whole new level.

As we’d been driving all day like maniacs, to get away from the maniac drivers in Albania, we stopped fairly soon after arriving in Greece. There was a nice looking roadside restaurant with a massive, almost empty, car park in front. We pulled in and asked if we could stay there for the night if we ate in the restaurant. Of course, no problem, come in, have a drink.

We ate the best meal we’d had in ages, and learned how to say hello, and a few other things, from a large family at the next table. They told us what was best to order (the lamb chops, butchered on the premises). The son kept dashing over to a laptop on the counter and finding traditional Greek music for us to listen to (and, ok, he started with the theme to Zorba the Greek, but that was actually surreally good in the circumstances). The dad sent over a local dessert (on his bill) for us to try (grapes in syrup, nom nom) and then they invited us to their table and plied us with wine. Utter sweethearts.

In the morning I awoke to a strange sound. Outside was an enclosure full of turkeys, free-ranging it like anything. I took a picture and they all rushed towards me thinking that I’d come to feed them. I figured if we stayed another day, it would more likely end up the other way around. So I felt guilty and we left.

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As travellers on a budget, we can’t really afford to cover the distances we do and pay tolls on the roads. This leads to us taking the long way around most of the time. We don’t mind this as the view is usually better, and we get an intensified sense of how people really live in the countries we visit. It can really increase our driving time, though, especially if mountains are involved.

Consequently, it was already dark (and we were both tired, and totally bereft of all concentration and common sense) when Deirdre the Sat-Nav slut took us down another wrong turn. She can be the most almighty cow at times. And that’s where we got stuck. When I say ‘we’ I mean Georgie (our American RV) got stuck, all 34 feet of her, impaled on both sides by low walls as Steve tried to turn a corner.IMG_6646

A guy on a bicycle helped us for a bit, and then a chap on a motorbike arrived and he took charge. First he went home and got his sister who could speak better English, then he directed Steve (carefully, in reverse) off the walls, back up the road, around all the bins, and into a side lane to turn around.

He had other blokes out of their houses helping too. Then he and sis got on the bike, and led us down other (larger) roads until we got back on the main road again. Said it was his pleasure to help us.

Now that we’ve been in Greece for several weeks we know that this is perfectly normal.

IMG_6653In Patras we found a little restaurant called Labyrinthos, which sounded properly traditional – no more schnitzel for me! The waiter suggested the baby goat cooked slowly in olive oil and oregano, which was so good I wanted to marry it and have its babies.

His mother was the cook and used old family recipes – Labyrinthos had been started by his grandfather. He spent ages showing us all the places in the Peloponnese that we should visit, and gave us a free dessert and a home-made liquor.

A few weeks later we fetched up at ancient Corinth. Lots of ruins, and an incredibly hard to say Isthmus. Same story, though – people going out of their way to help us. At Corinth we were unable to find the campsite as Deirdre was sulking and telling us we were already there, which is sat-nav for ‘Bog off, I’m tired’. And the signs were even less helpful. So we parked in a big car park and went off to find it on foot.

An old chap was there, so Steve pointed to Georgie and mimed, ‘is it ok for us to park here? Will we get in trouble with the police?’ At the word ‘police’ the guy burst out laughing. ‘Where you from?’ he said. England. ‘Well, this is Greece.’

Then he took us to see his mate at a local restaurant; did he know where the campsite was? No, but he knew who might, and then all the guys in the restaurant got up, raced over the road, and accosted an old fella doing his shopping. He was the campsite owner (yay) but he only wanted to speak to us in French (he wasn’t French).

He got us to follow him to the site, on his beaten-up old motorbike. He also had a beaten-up old face – with stitches. I wondered if the two were connected and if he’d recently driven in Albania. At the site we met another chap (German, I think) who offered to show us a better route, and said he’d come and fetch us the next day at 9 o,clock and lead the way.

We went to the restaurant that we’d been led to earlier and had the world’s best kebab. This chap gave us a mountain of free stuff – bread, olives (from his tree), coffee, and a plate of mandarin oranges. Lots of very warm handshakes. And then he caught up with us as we staggered down the hill to the car park, as Steve had left his car keys on the table.

The next day he saw Steve in the street and gave him a whole bag of oranges. If we stayed in Greece much longer we reckoned we’d start getting entire meals for free. The next day, a couple staying in the hotel behind the car park gave us the wifi code from the hotel.

Ancient Corinth was great. Loads of it is still standing, including an almost complete street, with shops on either side.

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There were these chaps, caught practicing their moves from the Full Monty dance,

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and some nice pieces in the museum.

Though one of the workers had given up on her sweeping and taken rather a long tea-break, I thought.

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The Corinth canal is worth a quick look, too. Here it is, just before we drove over it multiple times, because Deirdre kept wanting to take us to a non-existent bridge. She gets a bit bride-of-Chucky from time to time.

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On the subject of ruins, we also visited Olympia and Mycenae, but I’ll tell you all about that it my next blog. Thanks for reading, and may this new year bring you all you need and at least some of what you want. xxxx Ciao.