Category Archives: Georgie

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.

The hunt for heat

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After thirty years of being with Steve, I have become less of a stick-up-the-arse, I-know-how-it-should-be control freak, and more of a roll-with-the-punches, take-it-as-it-comes kind of gal. Which is just as well considering how the next stage of our journey turned out.

CROATIA AGAIN

Croatia had been a beacon of hope to me all the way up through Albania. But as I drove, shivering, from one town to another, and totally failed to source a new thermostat for the iceberg on wheels I was stuck in, that beacon dimmed a snidge, it must be said.

Driving ever northwards, perhaps Split would come up with the goods, or failing that Zadar? And, if not, surely Rijeka would tick the box? Well, no, nothing, nada. And not much we could do other than keep on with our journey and keep looking.

The coast road was proving far too wibbly for Georgie, who was having her own problems after Albania. Ever since we’d bought fuel there, she’d developed an alarming tendancy to suddenly lose all power (including to the steering and part of the braking systems) and grind to a halt. So we took a road through Slovenia, hoping that Trieste, on the other side, would be a large enough town to help cure our automotive ills.

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This, of course, is where I, in my misted up and unheated car, drove headlong into a Beast from the East blizzard. Rolling with the punches? I was practically rotating. My first line of defence was to mainline Jaffa Cakes, which is the one single thing we’ve found in every European country so far. Jaffa Cakes – whatever they are called – are a universal language.

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I kept telling myself that the cold was doing wonders for my immune system, which was probably one cocky shit by now. I measured my fortitude against the lengths of the icicles hanging off Georgie’s downpipes.

Also, the road signs helped to take my mind off things: at one place (thanks, I suspect, to the joy that is Google Translate) I was offered the chance to appreciate ‘a honey cheese water toilet’.

Further on there was a sign telling us to watch out for wolves and bears. WOLVES AND BEARS! I’ve literally never been so excited. I could feel myself spontaneously heating up with the anticipation. Then my husband, Mr McKilljoy, kindly pointed out that it was winter and they’d all be hibernating. So, yeah, thanks for that.

We stopped for the night in a snow-clad town and went out to eat. We had two huge pizzas (half left for the next day), with chips, and mayo, and four glasses of wine. Pizza was as good as any we’d had in Naples, and the whole lot came to €13. Brilliant. Helped me to forget that the only shoes I currently own are backless or made of cloth.

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SAT-NAVS

When we were still in Greece, Deirdre the sat-nav slut had developed quite a crush on Steve. Whenever he drove down roads with long names she’d try and impress him with her pronunciation (always wrong). But when I got in the car, and we drove down the exact same road, she’d affect an icy silence. She’d also got into the habit of warning him about slow traffic conditions that would turn out to be a farmer, on a dirt road, spreading his nets to pick olives.

But despite her obvious devotion, my husband (the heart-breaker) had decided to give other sat-nav voices a go. First he tried Pritti, the Indian lady, and then he moved on to Sheila from Oz. Sheila had a way of going completely wrong, but in such a reassuring manner that you knew she was probably only detouring to the nearest pub, no worries. He went back to Deirdre for a while, but some hearts can’t be mended, and so he was following shonky Sheila all through Slovenia.

I WAS TIRED, ALL RIGHT?

As we drove on towards Trieste, I started to get hopeful that some of our problems might find solutions. The snow was starting to melt, and the roads were more down than up hill. But Steve was obeying the instructions of death-before-toll-roads Sheila, and I was listening to just-fling-money-at-it-and-leave-me-alone Deirdre. Ergo, when some kind of checkpoint turned up in the road, Dierdre directed me right to it, whilst Steve and Sheila  scooted off the other way.

Now, previously, he’d studied the map and assured me that there were no more tolls on our route. Consequently, we’d spent all our Kuna at the last petrol station (I needed more Jaffa Cakes, ok?) So when I pulled up to the booth, I whipped out my bank cards.

How much for the toll? No toll, she said. Oh, my mistake. I looked again, and considered the idea that it was a really flash looking border crossing. I gave her my passport. No, she said, politely handing it back. It was at this point that I heard sniggering from the cars behind me. Turns out it was a sort-of toll booth, but I had to pay for a weekly ticket to go on the motorway.

€15.

I didn’t have €15 (I’d eaten at least that in orangey chocolate). And her machine wouldn’t accept any of my cards. What I did have was a massive queue behind me, no way to back up or turn around, and a husband who’d gone right when I’d gone left, and was now way out of walkie-talkie range.

But I have an emergency technique that I’ve learnt to deploy in these kind of situations: I ask the other person what they think I should do, and then I smile. A lot. I’ve found this to be very effective now that I’m edging towards little-old-lady status, far more so than it ever did when I was young and hot. Plus it has the added advantage of making everything their problem. So I smiled at the girl in the booth, and waited.

In the end it was decided that I could go onto the motorway but I’d have to pull in at the first service station and pay there instead. So I set off, found the service station, pulled in – and then paused, because that’s how I roll. First I checked the map: the next exit was really close. If – instead of forking out €15 for seven sodding minutes on the road – I took that exit, what was the worst they could do? I still had no cash or a card that their machine would accept. I still had a smile or two up my sleeve.

So that’s what I did, and there was no gate, booth, or person at the other exit anyway. But I think I should add that the initial confusion of route arose because there was a diversion, so it was NOT MY FAULT.

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I caught up with Steve (which was so much easier now that Georgie was breaking down all the time), and we got to Trieste in time to locate a Mercedes garage. Yes, they could get me a thermostat (hooray) but it would take until Friday (this was Monday. Boo!).

We looked at the weather forecast for the next week. If we stayed here until Friday we’d get snowed in. So that meant, you guessed it, more frigging freezing in my stupid little Tupperware of a car, with Steve breaking down every six steps as we limped off across Italy.

My glamorous life, not.

NEXT TIME – I’ll tell you about Ferrara, how not to buy pasta, and the man who claimed he was a weapon. Thanks for reading xxxx ciao.

 

 

The best driver in the world

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It’s me. I’m the best driver in the world. Or I was, for at least one day.

It all began quite normally: Steve and I set off to drive back up from Greece to Croatia, crossing Albania and Montenegro on the way. Travellers be warned: I have found the original road that is paved with good intentions, and it is the A5 north out of Patras. It is advertised as having plenty of service stations, but they are actually all still in construction. Ergo, the look of panic on most of the motorists’ faces, as their fuel dials drop precipitously low, is so common here it counts as local colour.

The first place you can get off the motorway and fuel up is at Amfilochia, a little town on the shores of a sheltered inlet. They say that all journeys begin with a single step, but ours frequently seem to start with a handy restaurant, a table of locals taking us under their wing, and some lovely old drunk bloke giving Steve a hug.

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This chap was the husband of a friend of Costas’ mother (stay with me here), and all four of them adopted us when we stopped at Amfilochia and went to find somewhere to eat. Costas is an interior designer of the calibre that is required in super-swanky hotels all around the world.

Being a nice Greek boy, he takes his mum on trips all around the world too. He showed me pictures of the two of them everywhere from Bali, to Dubai, to Graceland. The drunk fella chatted away to us quite happily, regardless of the fact that we couldn’t understand each other, and bought us another jug of wine. The mum and her friend just smiled and nodded and laughed. Good times.

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Now, I’d had a problem with my windscreen wipers, but Steve had bought me a new one, so that was sorted. And we’d also discovered that my heating had stopped working on the drive up. Steve reckoned it needed a new heat sensor, so we kept our eyes open for a likely place to get a new one, fuelled up, and headed off up to Albania.

Albania. A place that even Google Translate can’t cope with: when we stopped at a café it told me I was eating ‘connection specs’.

At this point I’d like to say that I’m sure the coastline is beautiful (we didn’t see it), and I’m sure it has lovely cities (again, didn’t go near them), and that the people are as nice as it’s possible to be (didn’t actually meet any).

But we drove straight up the middle, in winter, in the pouring rain. And it was even more of a grim and unrewarding experience than the first time, because it was daylight, and I could see more.

For a start, they have a significant rubbish problem, as two-fifths of the country’s waste is never collected. And because the land alongside the rivers is free, that is where two-fifths of the population go to get rid of it.

We saw them doing it as we drove through, just parking up and lobbing bags of the stuff into the river. Recent flooding had scattered it all, so that the land was covered for about twenty metres on each side, and the trees and bushes that bordered it were totally festooned with plastic. I’ve never seen anything like it.

(I couldn’t stop to take a pic so I’ve borrowed one from another site. It gives you a slight idea of what it was like, just imagine it on a much bigger scale.)

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And I have to mention the potholes. Because you know those holes so deep that Chinamen pop out of them in American cartoons? They were that sort, but full of rain (I’m sure I mentioned the eternal sodding rain), so you couldn’t see how bad they were until after you’d lurched to one side with a sickening crunch of your tyres. I spent the whole day apologising to my own car.

And then, of course, there were the drivers themselves, who like to overtake you on single carriageway roads – on both sides at the same time! – horns blaring, and never indicating or using their lights, even (or especially) at night.

In towns, it is just a big free-for-all at any junction, and there are no lights at all in the tunnels.

What with the endless rubbish, the awful weather, and the nightmare drivers, my preferred descriptor – Albania, the armpit of Europe – seemed appropriate. When we passed a village called Puke, it didn’t surprise me in the least.

And of course, there were the technical problems that added to the experience. My windscreen wiper (my DRIVER’S SIDE windscreen wiper) wasn’t fixed by getting a new one. So that was … challenging. Georgie kept losing all power (including the power steering) and grinding to a halt, after being filled with Albanian diesel. And then Steve’s phone cut out (with the sat-nav on it).

So, to recap: it is winter and I am in a soft-top car with no heating. I am wearing woolly tights, jeans and leg-warmers. I have on a vest, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a really thick, hooded sweatshirt and a body-warmer. I have shoved my legs down the sleeves of Steve’s padded coat to simulate salopettes, and have buttoned it up to my waist. I also have on gloves and a scarf, and I can barely move. Later, I add joggers, another jumper, and a hot-water bottle, just to stop me shaking.

Also: it is pouring with rain, and I have to duck down and to the right to see out of my window every time the wiper cuts out. The traffic is coming at me from all sides, and there are no road signs or markings that either make sense or are adhered to. My windows are misted up due to the lack of heating, and the only way to clear them is to open the side window until I turn a fetching shade of lavender.

Furthermore, I am desperately trying to avoid the potholes, as well as the dogs, children, donkeys, mopeds, and little old ladies that just march in front of me with some kind of mad, Albanian death-wish. And now Steve is several cars in front of me and he’s asking me to give him directions through the town, because his sat-nav has gone bye-bye. WTAF?

My visibility is shit, my life-expectancy – either from hypothermia or multi-car pile up – is on the low side, and I’m having to work out what instructions he needs before it even appears on my phone screen.

Major driving skills and endurance? Yes, I think so.

By the time we get to Montenegro I am long past all rational thought. We get a ferry over the river, and I am halfway across before I notice that Steve and Georgie aren’t even on board. They put him on the next one, thankfully, and I wait in a layby for him to disembark.

But the cold, and the long drive, and thinking I’d lost him freaks me out so much that I forget to turn on my lights, and immediately get stopped by the police. Steve is unaware of this and has already gone ahead. By the time I’ve worked out what the cop is saying, Steve is well out of range of the walkie-talkies.

The fine is thirty euros, but Steve has all the cash, and his phone died in the middle of Albania. I have nothing on me, apart from all the clothes that I own and a rather stupified smile. After a long discussion the cop says I have a week to pay, but I point out that I’ll only be in his country for another half an hour. Eventually he gives up and lets me off with a warning.

So, considering I got pulled over, why do I claim I’m the best driver in the world?

Because I drove like that, from the freezing pre-dawn darkness, through the wet, grey and terrifying day, and back into darkness again, FOR THIRTEEN HOURS!

THIRTEEN HOURS!

Who’s the fucking Man?

I am, that’s who.

I absolutely dare you to disagree.

 

The delights of Drepano, and Xmas-on-wheels

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THE VILLAGE

Drepano is a funny little village on the coast of the Argolid. It has one big church in the middle, surrounded by cafes full of old blokes, a decent baklava shop, no police, and one benign, homeless chap with a mental health problem and a lot of different hats.

There’s also an old, nay positively ancient, lady who sits in front of her house and gives you sweets as you pass by. The sweets are mastic masquerading as mints, and there’s a skip you can spit it into just up the road, so no worries. Once when we passed, I glimpsed her through the doorway, trying to sweep around a series of cloth-covered tiny tables that were groaning with stuff. She was so hunched I think the broom may have been holding her up. Another time I saw a woman leave a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese on her doorstep.

One of the local restaurants is manned by Stephan, who’s the owner’s son and a really nice lad. He’s shy to start with, but when he gets to know you he opens up more. We also found that, the more he got to know us, the cheaper our meals became. I think he works by assessing how much trouble it is to make, and if he likes you, then it’s barely any trouble, is it?

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THE BEACH

When we first arrived we tried several times to go to another restaurant nearby, but it was either shut, had odd opening hours, or we were turned away. One day we met the proprietors on the beach – Vicelis and her husband. They had brown plastic ‘milk churns’ beside them, and were standing out on a rock, heaping things into a big garden sieve and swooshing it through the seawater. It was the olive harvest from their small plot of land, yielding masses of fruit from five different varieties.

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We helped sort out bruised or damaged fruit, bits of stalk, and leaves, then Vicelis rinsed them in the sea before tipping them into the churns. Her husband filled my pockets with olives. He said I had to slice five cuts down the sides and put them in salt water. The slits would speed the curing process and they’d be ready for Christmas. If I left them uncut, then they’d take three months.

I was very excited by this. I raced home and put them in seawater, one lot cut, and one lot left whole. After a week they’d developed a rather unhealthy-looking froth on the water, which had also gone distinctly murky. I asked Janine what she thought and she suggested I put more salt in. So I got fresh seawater and added more salt, and then waited for Christmas, to be impressed by my olive-curing prowess.

But ready by Christmas, my arse. I tried one then and it was absolute pants. Rock hard, bitter, not good at all. Obviously the instructions I was given were for someone who had at least a basic knowledge of the process, or perhaps just far more common sense.

Because I’ve just checked them again, and now our van smells as if the King of the stink bombs has been released. Only from one jar, mind you. The other jar with the slit olives are pretty much there, if rather over-salted. However, smell is a strange thing – it hit me just after I’d taken a bite of the devil’s fruit. So, if I don’t finish this blog it’s because I’m doubled up with food poisoning, ok?

That walk on the beach yielded more than olives, though. I also found a shell as big as my foot. It was beautiful – orange and spiny on the outside, with a mother-of-pearl coloured core. I had to wade out to get bits of it, but it was worth it.

We Googled it and found it’s called a Pinna Nobilis, or Pen Shell, and it’s a type of clam that grows upwards from the rocks, by attaching itself with hair-like fibres that are known as sea-silk. This is where it gets special: the shell is rare, and has been sought after for thousands of years because the sea-silk is incredibly fine. A pair of gloves made from them can fit into half a walnut shell. And when the fibres are treated with lemon juice (of which, plenty around here) they turn golden and never fade.

CHRISTMAS PREP

When December came I started to decorate Georgie. I have a small box of decorations that are lightweight, unbreakable, or made by the kids (felt Xmas trees, that sort of thing). I also have a cardboard reindeer that flat packs, courtesy of M&S.

So I went for a walk to pick some evergreen stuff with which to make a wreath to hang around Rudolph. I didn’t want to scalp any of the bushes on site – that felt a tad like taking the piss. On the beach I found an old, broken, Japanese fan wall-decoration that would provide the struts I’d need to make the wreath foundation. Then I picked some green frondy things and headed back to the campsite.

I met Christina, the owner, and she was horrified that I’d gone elsewhere. She insisted I go into her own back garden and take as many branches as I wanted from her fir tree. Far superior, she said. And do I like lemons? Yes, I do. Well here you are, she said, piling me up an armful, because the ones on her personal tree are the best.

I find this level of generosity incredibly touching. Especially from a woman who, soon after we parked up, replenished all the gravel around our van causing us to live in the world’s biggest cat-litter tray because of the sixteen cats. We were very careful where we walked, and avoided anything hilly.

So, van duly decorated, I set about finding some games for us to play at Crimbo. I downloaded some pictures of celebrities as kids (inspired by a friend on Facebook) for Steve to guess. He did badly. Here’s a few of them, have a go if you like.

SHOPPING

I took Steve into our local town of Nafplio, where one of the cafes gives you a bowl of lovely, sticky little doughnuts with every coffee. Once fortified, I gave him a budget of no more than fifteen euros, and sent him off to buy a silly present for me.

I knew what I wanted to get for him, and headed straight for the pet shop to buy a cat toy for when Velcro shimmied under the toilet door. Then I saw a truly hideous travel mug that I just had to get as well.

He found me an exceptionally kitsch candle – purple, and glittery, with odd flowery shapes and bits of driftwood. If anybody out there actually likes it and wants me to keep it for them, let me know, because Steve nearly binned it on Boxing Day.

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Santa did make an appearance for the kiddies in town, but he arrived by pirate ship (as you do), his reindeer, perhaps, having taken a break in the Caribbean. He had this elf-man/MC hybrid inviting them in.

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Later that day, I bumped into Santa packing up for the day. In typical Greek-waiter fashion, he gave me a lascivious wink and said, ‘welcome to my boat’. Er, no thanks, matey.

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CELEBRATIONS

On the actual day I cooked a chicken, which is the only thing our oven does well (it thinks it has to melt The Terminator with every meal), and ignored the packet of stuffing mix that, according to Google Translate, required me to add 12 hard-boiled eggs and 750g of rats. Feeling happily fat, we walked along the beach after lunch, and cut through the orange orchard to pick mandarins to eat on the way home.

Then we played the games I’d prepared, including Make your own Christmas Jumper out of plastic carrier bags. Now I know I had an unfair advantage here as I’ve made my own clothes before, and I know that the pattern for a sleeve is much bigger than you’d expect. But to be honest, not giving Steve that information was part of the fun. We followed it up by watching Groundhog Day. Perfect.

For New Year, these perky chaps fetched up at the campsite and serenaded Christina. I saw them sit on her doorstep afterwards counting their spoils. They saw me watching them, and promptly fetched up on our doorstep and sang their tuneless and incomprehensible New Year song (with triangle accompaniment, no less). They were great. I bloody loved them. They got on their knees afterwards and took photos of all the cats under the van.

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In the evening we glammed up as best we could, considering it was a bit parky. For Steve this meant a clean jumper, and for me, well I washed my hair. We went to a restaurant that did a special New Year meal deal, where we’d previously had coffee while I admired the lighting.

The deal included a piece of the traditional cake that, like our Christmas pudding, traditionally contained a coin. In our case, that would’ve been a sixpence (2.5p), whereas this coin was worth 60 euros. Everyone else had made a bit more of an effort dress wise. These glamour-pusses were at the table next to us. And no, we didn’t find the coin. We found a lot of Sambuca though, so happy days.

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And after that it was back to real life. We discovered a liquer (oh thanks, Stephan) called Tsipouro, which is 44% awful. I bought worry beads from a lady who wrote my name in Greek for me. And Christina’s husband, Vangelis (I know), got out the big tools, digger and forklift and – with scant regard for health and safety – trimmed the palm trees and levelled our bit of the beach.

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Well, I appear to have survived the evil olive, so that’s it for now. I’ll write about Nafplio and the 1,000 steps as soon as I can. Thanks, again, for reading. Ciao xxx

P.S. The celebrities are:- Meg Ryan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Freddie Mercury and Keira Knightly.

My life as a cat-herder

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Triton II, near Drepano, is a lovely little campsite opposite a beach, run by an equally lovely lady called Christina. We’d read about it on Barry and Margaret’s website (magbaztravels.com), and they’ve been everywhere, so that made it easy. Here’s the beach – looks nice, right? Peaceful? Tranquil? Deserted?

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Well the beach was, but the campsite …

At first we were completely disarmed when two sweet little tabby kittens turned up and purred at us, gently rubbed our legs, and were no trouble at all. They’d sit happily on our laps, and meander along with us when we walked on the beach. We felt their little ribs when we stroked them and bought more cat food. We called them Sausage and Spot, and liked having them around.

And so it started.

After a few days of the tabbies, the fluffy gingers turned up. Thing 1 and Thing 2 began to camp on our doorstep. And several specimens (that after three months still each only had the name ‘Ugly Cat’) began to settle underneath the van. By now, leaving the door open with the fly-screen closed was not an option. Sausage had discovered she could climb up the screen and yank open the handle cover to climb in. Thing 1 thought this was brilliant, and all the others began to follow suit.

Still, not a massive problem, and so we started to put down our roots at Triton. We met travellers Bob and Lynne (who also fed Sausage and Spot), and Janine and Arno, who lived there permanently now, and had adopted three of the cats as their own (Charlie, Fritz, and Fritz’s sister).

Janine gave us the lowdown on the surrounding area – where to go for good, reasonably priced meals, where to shop, where the hardware stores were, the local sights etc. Really kind lady, makes beautiful jewellery (Esfera jewelry on Etsy). So when she asked us if we could feed her three cats, as she and Arno had to go to back to Holland for a fortnight, well of course we could.

And this is where the cats really played us.

They would follow us every morning and evening as we went to feed Fritz and co., and try and muscle in. Persistent little buggers they were too. Janine had left a broom there but it wasn’t enough to keep them at bay once word had got around. No, the only thing that worked was Steve enticing them all to one end of the site by rattling the dried food and feeding them there, while I sneaked off to give Janine’s crew their meal.

Initially, there were the tabbies, the Things, and the Ugly Cats. Then came a gorgeous, fluffy tortoiseshell with a bulbous tummy (that I wrongly assumed to be carrying kittens) that I called Mama Bear. She was a sweetie, so we fed her.

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Bob and Lynne left and we think they probably took Spot and Sausage with them, because we never saw them again. Good for them. But the gap had been quickly filled by some ginger and white jobbies, and one in particular was friendly and fairly devoted to Steve. We’d just watched the finals of Professional Masterchef and had been very impressed by one of the contestant’s tenacity: Louisa was a very young girl, with a great personality, who worked incredibly hard, and never allowed herself to be knocked off her goal of professional excellence.

Steve called his new follower Louisa-from-masterchef, because of her affectionate nature, combined with an extraordinary determination when it came to food. No other cat got a look in when she was around.

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Then we met Velcro. This little tabby could lift the skin from your bones and the carpet from your floor when you tried to pick him up to put him out. His ability to hold on was just extraordinary. His masterstroke was he made you give up trying to chuck him out because you prized your ‘surfaces’ too much. He quickly became Steve’s favourite. He’d follow Steve when he went to the loo and then shimmy under the door to be next to him.

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There was also a cross-eyed ginger we called Clarence (you have to be old to get that one), and one that sang all the time she ate – she became Geri or Ginger Spice.  Tricolour was ginger, white and black, and a bit of a cow, and Bruiser was a fat-faced, big-footed bully boy. He’d pick on the other cats, start fights, attack people (he once jumped onto Janine’s head and dug his claws into her scalp) and generally be a nuisance. He was a tabby version of Tom after Jerry has hit him in the face with a frying pan. At feeding time he would lurk.

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And now they were all living on our roof. Or under the van, or sleeping on Nibbles soft-top, or our doorstep, or outdoor furniture, or tucked under the slide-out. We’d have to check all our outside lockers before closing them in case a cat had sneaked in when we weren’t looking. At night I’d be woken by the thump of a cat landing on my bedroom roof. They knew what time we fed Janine’s three, and they’d all queue up outside each morning and yell if we overslept.

By the time we’d settled in for Christmas we were regularly feeding sixteen cats twice a day, and Steve had discovered a place to buy cat food in bulk. And even though Janine and Arno were now home, Fritz and co. would still come for ‘seconds’ at our place.

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We’d come back from the shopping to see three or four of them curled up on our coiled waste pipes, or occupying pride of place on our fold-up chairs. And then, as soon as they heard the car engine stop, they’d all come running and yelling for food, with others suddenly appearing from out of trees, or under hedges, or God know’s where.

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But then Doggo turned up, sometimes bringing his mate, and I thought maybe we’d get a little peace.

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Not a chance. He appeared every day for about three weeks, and just sat and watched. I think he was aware that he was vastly out-numbered, and that at least two of those cats were little shits.

By now Thing 1 thought she owned us, which in a Mafia sense, she probably did. She and Thing 2, Louisa, Mama Bear and Velcro would just climb into the van and make themselves comfortable, and honestly, it was easier to just let them be.

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Luckily, by the time we left Drepano, the season was beginning to open up again and more people were coming to stay. I saw other people feeding the cats occasionally, and the numbers of regulars under our van had begun to dwindle. The die-hards remained, of course, but by now they were fatter and healthy looking. Thing 1’s eye problem had cleared up after being repeatedly squirted with Optrex by Steve. Thing 2 had got brave enough to be stroked, just not on the head. Mama and Thing 1 would curl up on my lap and just be cats. Velcro and Louisa would still follow Steve to watch him on the loo.

And although I have many happy (and normal) memories of our time in Drepano (about which, more next blog), it is the cats that I’ll always remember it for.

P.s. Steve misses Velcro and I miss Mama Bear.

NEXT TIME –  still playing catch-up so I’ll fill you in on Christmas in an RV, and being a beach-comber. Love to all of you, ciao xxx

 

 

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.

 

 

‘Patience, wonder and vigilance’

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We have now driven Georgie 7,845 miles, (which sound even better as 12,626 km). During that time we’ve seen changes in landscape, signage, and architecture, as we expected. Less predictable was the naked-from-the-waist-down gentleman struggling to get into a wrestler’s jock strap, at a cafe by a shopping mall. Or this rather buxom lady made of concrete, gazing out at us as we stopped to let a build-up of traffic pass by Georgie.

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This was me on the walkie-talkie: ‘Did you see her? on the left?’

Steve’s reply: ‘Why do you think I stopped?’

In the middle of nowhere we parked by a cafe, because it was a hot day and Georgie’s brakes needed to cool. Around the corner we found a strange little petting zoo in someone’s front garden.  You could wander around the enclosures of kiwis and ostriches, turkeys, goats and pigs, and then leave a donation when you left. It was both sweet and rather sad.

At another roadside coffee stop, a few guys got out of a van and produced a piano accordion. One smiley chap proceeded to play loud, jolly folk songs to the delight of his mates. Other people at the stop were not so pleased and one chap started yelling at him to be quiet. So he played louder. The other chap went up to him and they were nose to nose as he shouted. We thought it was all gonna kick off, but the musician simply raised the accordion and played it very loudly in the man’s face, then started chasing him around with it. Poor guy was furious but I was rather entertained – I’d never seen accordion music used as an offensive weapon before.

One of the van mates had now found a traffic cone and was playing that like a kazoo. The angry man, realising he was both out-numbered and surrounded, backed away pretending that he’d won that round (in the way that cats pretend they meant to fall off that chair). The accordion player finished his songs to much applause, got in the van (with the purloined traffic cone) and off they went.

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It was the roads in Montenegro that first induced Steve to utter the advice, ‘patience, wonder and vigilance’ over the walkie-talkie. They were covered in potholes the depth of Ben Nevis, and petered off alarmingly at the edges. It was mountainous, with seemingly endless hairpin bends, around which herds of sheep or cows would suddenly appear.

This phrase was to become less of a mantra and more of a prayer when we entered Albania, five hours later. Steve tells me that there were no cars in Albania until fifteen years ago, which goes some small way to explaining the way they drive.

We arrived just after sunset and no-one, I repeat, no-one had lights on their bicycles and everyone was wearing black. No-one on a motorbike had a helmet either, and most had at least two passengers, one of which was a child (at the front). They often couldn’t be bothered with lights either. There was no right of way, and no road markings apart from the central white line, which they took absolutely no notice of. I was a jibbering wreck by the time we parked up and went to look for something to eat.

Settled in a restaurant, I used Google Translate to work out what the toppings on the pizzas were. I wanted to check Sallam Pikant, which I was fairly sure would turn out to be salami, but as we were in a new country I thought it better not to make assumptions. So I started typing and good old Google started translating ….

s = s

sa = how

sal = sal

sall = hall

salla = Hall

sallam = sausage

sallam p = salve p

sallam pi = I drink more

sallam pik = I have a pic

sallam pika = I give it a point

sallam pikan = I’m gonna drink

and, finally….

sallam pikant = I’m salty

So, sort of salami, then.

Unable to find a single campsite, we woke up the next day to find we’d parked in the school bus stop. As it was practically opposite the pole-dancing club, in a grim little shanty town, circa Morocco in 1986, we’d thought we were tucked away. Not so. We set off, nervous about the driving, but excited to see what Albania looked like in daylight.

First we drove along past slag heaps and rubbish dumps, stay dogs, and titty bars, but then we hit the road to Golem. The buildings now were all variations on a theme, the theme being, ‘what can we do with concrete?’ (We’d already spotted that the Croatians like a bit of concrete too, but there they’ve decided that greige is the new black.) Albanians prefer to use a packet of refreshers as their starting point, and I particularly liked the ever-popular mint and salmon combo.

Then we got onto the motorway. Well, Google Maps called it a motorway, but I called it a fairly crappy, pot-holed dual carriageway. It had a rather variable hard-shoulder which,  it turns, is absolutely the place to be. There were lots of loitering men, numerous donkey carts and eleventy billion guys on bicycles, some with as many as ten planks of wood balanced across their handlebars. There were wizened little old ladies, in white headscarves, waiting for lifts, or buses or, possibly, death. There were loose chickens, and cows and goat-herders. Goat-herders! There were men who waved plastic bags of something brown at me, and another who waved flowers. At one junction a man had parked his motorbike in the middle of the road and was standing there, bag on the road, no helmet, just waiting. And there were lots and lots of things like this.

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We stopped for coffee and petrol at a garage called Kastrati. Its logo was a petrol pump filling up, um, a UFO? And when we looked to see if they had wifi we found it under ‘Shyti petrol’.

There is simply no explanation for Albania.

 

The road masquerading as a motorway had two solid white lines painted down the centre which, to the average Albanian, is the thing he likes to drive along best. His favourite place to overtake is, of course, a blind corner.

If he overtakes you, he will drive as far as is feasibly possible on the other side of the road, for as long as he can (even if there is an empty over-taking lane to the left of you). When he sees the on-coming traffic, he will wait until the very last second before skidding in front of you. If you brake and swerve he knows he has done it right.

However, if the vehicle heading straight towards him is wide – a lorry, coach or bus, say – then he will attempt to hold his ground over the central lines and see if he can fit in the gap between the on-coming lorry and you. If he succeeds without killing anyone then he knows he is a God amongst men.

They learn this early on, I think. In one town I witnessed a young lad pushing a baby in a pushchair along the road – and several feet out from a totally empty pavement. He was coming towards me.

As for signage – that was … variable. Off a roundabout in the busy town of Fier, Steve attempted to follow the sat-nav instructions and all the other cars down a turning. Oh no, people said, jumping in the way and signalling to him to back out again. Now, we were already a bit frazzled at this point. Double-parking in single lane roads is a thing here, and manoeuvring Georgie around them had taken every bit of Steve’s considerable driving skill. There were people parked on the sodding roundabout, for God’s sake.

As I drove round and round while I waited to see what Steve was gonna do, I saw people stop their cars halfway around, get out, leaving the door open, buy a coffee, and get back in and drive off. So I pulled in behind Steve while they sorted out getting him to reverse back onto the roundabout. Oh no, no, no, they said, in mad but obvious gestures. I had to reverse back onto the roundabout, with all view of me hidden from oncoming traffic by the idiot white van that had parked there! And I had to do it three times because they kept changing their minds about where they were going to let us go!

Eventually we got into the south of the country and headed off through the mountains towards Greece. Here Albania was beautiful but, it’s got to be said, that it’s Mother Nature that’s done most of the heavy lifting. Where the actual Albanians have been involved…. I’d like to say that it’s merely a bit run down, but I’m not sure if it was ever run up in the first place.

We reached the customs on the border into Greece and, boy, were they thorough. Nibbles is only a tiny car and you can see everything through the windows. It is impossible to smuggle using a Smart car, but those guys took no chances – they even had my carpet up.

There was a family of beggars working the queue of cars. I genuinely had no money on me at all, which really got their goat. They sent in the big guns, by which I mean the little girl. All I had was a banana, which I offered apologetically. They looked disgusted, but took it anyway. The little girl endeavoured (quite successfully) to eat it with as much scornful disdain as she could muster. I wished my car was bigger so I’d have somewhere to hide.

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And then we were on our way and driving down the mountains, into Greece and the Shirley Valentine moment I’d been waiting for since 1989. I’ll tell you all about that next time. Until then, thanks for reading, and big hugs to you all. Ciao.

 

 

 

The good, the bad and the vomity.

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FOOD

Since we sauntered into the Czech Republic all those months ago, we’ve got very used to being offered a choice of pizza or schnitzel pretty much everywhere we’ve been. The schnitzel wins hands down; beaten to the thickness of an atom, coated in the crispiest of crumbs, and fried in less than a nano-second, it is delicious. But as we approached the coast of Croatia, the food suddenly changed. Now it was cheese with everything, and that ‘everything’ quite often turned out to be honey. Seriously? I’m not big on cheese, anyway.

In Zadar we had a burger that was honestly a bit grim, but the wifi password there was ‘David Bowie is alive’, which kinda made up for it. At our campsite near Split, the lovely girl at the onsite restaurant recommended a Croatian speciality called Cevapcici. I said ok as I always like to try the regional food. Apart from anything else, it gives me a clue as to what I can cook with the local (and usually only) produce in the shops. The cafe had sea-views and black squirrels jumping in the trees overheard, so I felt that compensation was plentiful if the meal was shite.

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But Cevapcici is brilliant – little spiced sausages, a bit like kofta. At the supermarket I found sachets of Cevapcici spice mix for about 60 cents, so I bought six packets. Used the last one a week ago and wish I’d bought more.

So I was pretty optimistic when we went into Split, armed with the name of a good restaurant from my friend’s website, Unravel Travel. The restaurant had a queue outside (as expected) – but it was raining. Consequently, the owner said that he wasn’t gonna serve any more people after the couple in front of us, and would close for the day. Oh, ok. Never mind. There are other places, such as Marta’s Fusion, a vegetarian restaurant that we’d passed, just around the corner. It looked nice, and it was raining, and we were hungry. You get the picture.

For those of you who are my age, you’ll remember a time when vegetarian food had a bad rap. It was considered to be dry and tasteless and mostly lentils. Worthy is the word that sprung to mind. But then times changed and things moved on wonderfully in the veggie world. However, someone forgot to tell Marta.

We both ordered the black-bean burger, which was our first mistake. If we’d chosen different things, then we’d have increased our chances of having something edible. The lukewarm burger arrived – with no bun, and covered in cold ketchup of the vividly scarlet sort that usually squirts out of a plastic tomato. It was tasteless, had no seasoning, and a dry, suck-all-the-moisture-out-of-your-mouth texture. It wasn’t even worthy: it was miserable. I felt sorry for the beans. I got the giggles and then I felt sick. Steve tried to give them some feedback, but I had to excuse myself and rush outside in case I marched into the kitchen, grabbed a pan and said, ‘look, it’s not that hard, here’s how to make falafel. And use some effing salt!’

SPLIT, IN SIX LINES

But Split itself was great. Apart from the Diocletian Palace (which I’ve mentioned before) there was a rather fabulous statue of the Croatian hero, Gregory of Nin. Local folklore states that Gregory will grant your wish if you rub his big toe. Consequently, said toe is now massively shiny. I rubbed it, course I did.

But it’s quite possible that some tourists only know of the superstition, and not the actual whereabouts of the statue, because I noticed a lot of other statues in Split had shiny toes too.

VRANA

Wanting a day in the countryside, Steve read about a place called Vrana. To be honest I wasn’t really listening when he told me the history of the place: something about two famous sculptors, or authors, or something. Plus the usual – a medieval town, a place of great political and religious significance, monasteries, and Knight’s Templars, yah dee yah dee yah. Sometimes I just like to go with the flow cos that’s how I roll.

Anyway, we set off and although I didn’t have a clear idea on what to expect, I certainly envisioned something more than the crappily run-down little village we drove into and, moments later, out the other side. Was that it? Apparently so. Where were the plaques and history and interesting stuff? I personally don’t think that locals staring at the two puzzled-looking idiots driving backwards and forwards in their Smart car count as ‘stuff’.

But I’d spotted a place on the outskirts that had a menu up outside. Yay, coffee time. Coffee sweetens many an abortive trip out, and if there are cakes, then it’s a spree! So we parked up, walked in and got slapped in the face with history. In 1644, the commander of the Turkish Fleet started building his summer palace here, and the ruins of it have been newly restored and renovated.The Maskovic Han, as it is called, is now a lovely hotel with very nice coffee.

 

As we left, the waitress asked if we’d seen the ninth century ruin over the road? Oh, so there‘s more stuff here? Great. We pootled over the road to what, at first glance, appeared to be a field with a lot of fallen down stone walls. But then, after climbing up and down some dips and navigating gaps in the overgrowth, we found ourselves inside the remains of what were once impressive buildings.

It was totally silent, apart from the occasional chirps of birdsong. The sun was beaming down, the air trembling with butterflies and it felt completely peaceful. Like a secret garden that had been carefully avoiding Monty Don.

I heard some rustling in the bushes (which I hoped wasn’t a snake), then I got distracted into pursuing a big, bright-yellow butterfly with black spots, that I’d never seen before. Which is why I almost trod on this little sweetie as it wandered onto the path in front of me.

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A tortoise! A genuine wild tortoise! My ignorance again, but I had no idea that they lived here. That pretty much made my week, let alone my day.

MORE FOOD

We’ve had some surprisingly wonderful meals in shopping malls, of all places, including a terrific curry and some great Chinese food (I worry what tourists in Britain think when they rock up and are faced with a choice of Burger King or KFC). So I was happily encouraged by the sight of Soparnik under the counter of the cafe we ended up at a few days later. Soparnik is a Croatian speciality, and is basically a flat pie made from flaky filo-like pastry with a filling of chard and a white cheese. I like chard. We’d often been served chard and potatoes, the spuds being boiled, but golden and the chard, rich and iron-y. So a chard pie, with some cheese – how wrong can you go with that?

Now, perhaps I should have been worried when I heard the microwave ping. Hands up who’s over-microwaved pastry before now, and turned it into an un-chewable, rock-hard slice of sweaty brown stuff? I think you know what I’m saying.

But it was the cheese. The cheese! I don’t know what animal’s milk that had been made from, but I’m guessing a really pissed-off Tasmanian Devil or a dead Yak. It left a taste in my mouth that was beyond-words-awful, really rank. And then I realised what it reminded me of. You know that taste that is left in your mouth just after you’ve just thrown up? Bingo. Now, I discovered Parmesan when I was in my late teens and remember being surprised that it smelt of vomit but tasted of cheese. This one smelt of cheese but tasted of vomit. Steve was hungry and chomping it down so I thought it best not to expand on this theory at the time.

ON TO DUBROVNIK

Driving down through Croatia is certainly an experience. For a start, my knowledge of geography is so poor, that I genuinely had no idea that to get to Dubrovnik from Split you pass through a bit of Bosnia. I just hadn’t zoomed in that much on Google maps. So it was a bit of a shock when we fetched up at a checkpoint. I imagined that Deirdre the sat-nav slut had taken us down a wrong road again, and just followed Steve into Bosnia assuming he’d sort it out.

After a while we approached another checkpoint and I got my passport ready to show. But, to my surprise, Steve just drove straight on to the last kiosk and was then waved through by a chap standing outside it. Strange, I thought, but oh well – I’ll just do the same. I couldn’t see anyone in the first kiosk anyway. And so it was that I drove mindlessly past the lady with the out-stretched hand in kiosk number two, didn’t show my passport to anybody, and just sailed past the confused-looking man standing outside. When I realised what I’d done I frantically called Steve on the walkie-talkie. Don’t worry, he said, if there’s a problem they’ll just send the police after you. Thanks mate.

The Croatians like simple campsite names, such as Camp Martin, Susie, Petar or Antonio – which to choose? Not Camp Bozo, I think, or (given that a ‘j’ is pronounced as a ‘y’) the untrustworthy sounding Camp Dunja. We settled for Camping Kate. On arrival we were told that it was due to close in a couple of days, but if we wanted to stay longer, then they’d stay open longer too. Fantastic. We suggested a week, and they said that was fine.

It was nestled on a hilltop amongst olive, orange and persimmon trees. There was a tiny chapel overlooking the sea, and stairs that took you down the hill to the beach at a sweet little place called Mlini. Bit of a climb back up, but so worth it.

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AND YET MORE FOOD

The nice lady at Camping Kate suggested that we go over the road to a restaurant called Flamingo’s if we wanted a decent meal. It was fairly unpretentious and a little bit basic looking inside, but we’ve learnt never to judge by appearances. We ordered The Flamingo Platter, which was a sharing plate for two, and stopped us having to spend ages thinking about what we wanted and get down to the wine.

In the corner, three guys started playing an Argentine tango on a guitar, a double bass, and an accordion. When they sang, their voices were rich, melodic and harmonious; they had clearly been performing together for a long time. They finished their set and then moved over to the first table.

‘Where do you come from?’

‘Hungary.’

No problem. They launched into several songs that the chaps at the table could sing along to, and so on around the room. Then they reached us.

‘Where do you come from?’

‘The UK.’

‘Where?’

‘Er, England?

Britain?

You’ve heard of London, maybe?’

‘Ah, ok.’

Then they got in a huddle, had a little chat, smiled, and launched into What shall we do with the drunken sailor, followed by a Scottish reel, and Fly me to the moon.

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Bit surreal, but then the food arrived and it was humungous. The plate (which was larger than my bathroom sink) had roast chicken, steaks, two sorts of kebabs, chips and potatoes and a vegetable rice, roast Mediterranean vegetables, chard mixed with some other veg, and fried breaded cheese. Plus eight homemade bread rolls, and a soup bowl full of mushroom and cream sauce. We took a lot of it home in a doggy bag and it lasted us for three days.

NEXT TIME

We were now within reach of Dubrovnik, aka, Kings Landing from Game of Thrones. That’s a whole blog on its own, so until next time, thanks for reading. Ciao xx

 

Filling out, filling in.

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There’s good toothache and there’s bad toothache, right? The good kind is just a dull ache – enough to induce the weirdly enjoyable need to constantly press on it, whilst not exactly being a throbbing pain. The bad kind makes one want to commit murder.

Luckily, it was the good kind that started up for me as we drove across Hungary to a campsite at the south end of Lake Balaton. I had a good feel around with my tongue, concluded that a tiny bit of tooth had chipped off (a sucky sweet may have been involved – I couldn’t possibly say), and seriously considered asking Steve to get his Dremel out once we stopped. Then I forgot about it.

The next day we went into Hevis to check out the market. Steve had an urge to buy proper Hungarian paprika, and spent a long time with a little old lady testing the samples on one of the stalls. Steve is pretty nifty at working around language barriers and only resorts to the joy that is Google Translate as a last resort. In fact he has an absolute gift for finding words that can be understood across a fair whack of the board.

So, ‘piquant?’ he asked the lady, pointing at one of the samples. ‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘piquant’. He indicated another sample and asked again. ‘Brutal piquant,’ said the lady,  offering to bag some up. Er, no thanks, we’ll stick with the piquant – my mouth is sore enough.

In fact, the toothache was now ratcheting up and this meant I’d have to do something about it. Bollocks. My entire knowledge of Hungarian consisted of the word for thank you and now I had brutal to add to the mix. Didn’t bode well.

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The next day was a Sunday so I just had to bide my time. By the end of the day another chunk of my tooth had fallen out. On Monday morning I went to see Janos in reception. He was a nice young man – big smile, bald head, had a nice Rhodesian Ridgeback and a good command of English. He explained the problem to the dentist next door (cos that was handy) and made an appointment.

By 10.30 I had a brand new filling, and had honed my negotiation-through-mime skills as to the price. Sorted. Went back to the van, waited for the pain to kick in, ate soft stuff, and watched The Handmaid’s Tale.

The next day we went to Keszthely to visit the Festetics Palace. This baroque beauty housed a fabulous library, several museums and exhibitions, a bird park, tropical gardens, and more besides.IMG_5129

The nerdily brilliant model railway took up an entire hangar, and featured trains through the ages hurtling through lots of well known Hungarian towns and landmarks. It had so much detail that I went round twice, happily spotting a couple snogging on a park bench, a lady with carrier bags trudging up a hill just past the bus stop, and – my personal favourite – an army tank that had sneaked in to the drive-in movie.

Outside the Palace was a vintage car rally. These were all old Russian cars – Volgas – and many of them were clearly still in use. One had a microwave perched on its passenger seat.

We saw exotic birds, some stunning cacti and amaryllis, and an interesting ‘Travelling Aristocrats’ exhibition, before discovering a building that housed over fifty old coaches, carriages and sleighs. They were lush.

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And then it was off for coffee and cake at a cute little tunnel of a cafe, almost a corridor, really, but covered – absolutely plastered – in antique clocks.

And then my brand new filling fell out.

The next day I went back to the dentist, where she did a terrifying mime to show me that my tooth now needed to be extracted. We agreed, and she injected the living daylights out of me. I thought my throat was going to close over, and I certainly couldn’t swallow. I imagined saliva filling my mouth and dribbling out of my nose.

She got to work but what the poor woman didn’t know was that one of my main personality traits is tenacity, and it seems that that applies to my teeth as well. At one point I genuinely thought she was going to put her foot on my chest in order to provide the necessary leverage, and she was actually sweating. She managed eventually, and it was Dentist:1, tooth:nil.

An hour or two later, and it was the pain that made me want to murder someone. Steve had raced to the shops and come back with broccoli to make into soup, so it wasn’t going to be him. Then Georgie gave an almighty lurch and there was a horrible crunching sound. We’d been hit!

We both raced outside to see a rather large caravan stuck on our back ladder and a red-faced Latvian woman shouting furiously at her husband. Some careful backing-up of their van revealed a whacking great tear in their side, and on Georgie? Not a scratch.

The woman told us that she’d thought we’d been sticking out too far, but then she’d had a walk around and seen that we were, in fact, touching the fence at the front. So deffo her husband’s fault. Damn. Couldn’t vent my pain at him, either, because his wife had got that sewn up already.

On our last day we saw her again and Steve invited her in to see the walkie-talkies. She looked so relieved at the idea that I thought she might cry. I was so heavily medicated that I felt perfectly benign towards them both and besides, it was time to discover another country.

And then one of Steve’s fillings fell out…….!