Tag Archives: Food

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.

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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 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.

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

 

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

 

Down by the Danube 3 – Ruined Romans, and a Renaissance night.

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I lived in Bath for ten years, so I know a bit about what the Romans did for us and, better still, I know what they buggered off and left behind them. The Roman Baths are one of my favourite places and – as is usual with any of our national heritage – they are meticulously maintained, thoughtfully laid out, and cost a pretty penny to visit.

So when we read about all the Roman ruins in Budapest, we were quite excited – a town at Aquincum, and an Amphitheatre in Buda. Well, alrighty.

And the first place we discovered was the Roman baths. Notice I have not used a capital letter on baths this time. That is because they are not given quite the same level of reverence in these parts.

Well, when I say, not given quite the same level, what I mean is they are treated like old bus stops. Open to the public. Totally unmanaged. And under a flyover.

I’m not even joking.

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But to be fair, they took out the good stuff – you know, plaques to the Emperor Claudius, and interesting tombstones, etc. – and put them on display elsewhere.

Well, when I say elsewhere, I mean they stuck them on the walls of the underpass.

And I’m still not kidding.

 

Slightly appalled, we went in search of the Amphitheatre.

And found it – fenced off, used as a roundabout, and overlooked by crappy flats. Sigh.

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BUT TO BE FAIR…

A few weeks later we visited Croatia, where they also have some Roman ruins; a massive complex at Solin, comprising baths, theatre, forum, amphitheatre, the lot. But, unlike the Hungarians (who I suspect they consider rank amateurs), their disregard for ancient monuments was at a whole new level. How? Oh, they build houses on it.

I am utterly serious, look – a natty little semi-detached perched neatly on the West Gate.

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And if they can’t build on it, they build into it. The centre of nearby Split uses the leftovers of the Diocletian Palace as its foundation. Whole houses have odd windows, arches and decorative stonework sticking out their sides. Shops, restaurants, churches and public buildings – all half Roman and half every age since, with no clear lines in-between. I have to say, I think it works in Split but, to a Brit, it is still very strange; a bit like using Stonehenge as the base for a new roller-disco.

 

BUT BACK TO HUNGARY

Thankfully, at Aquincum – the Roman town just to the north of Budapest – they have got it right. We spent a happy afternoon just wandering around, watching lithe, green, lizards darting under the cobbles, and studying the artistry of the stonework. Yes, it’s right next to the main road, but that means everyone gets a free look as they drive into town.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Our actual campsite was at Domos, to the north of Budapest, and somewhere between Esztergom and Visegrad. We both needed to get our hair cut, so we pottered into Esztergom looking for someone with scissors and a modicum of skill.

Now, Esztergom has been inhabited for 20,000 years, and there is evidence of a very early Celt settlement. It was also the capital of Hungary until that upstart Buda got all above itself in the middle ages. And our old friend King St. Stephen was crowned there.

So although we couldn’t find a barbershop or hairdresser’s (they all shut at noon, apparently), we did find a rather nice castle and a basilica.

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The next day, we left a little earlier, and tried Visegrad. You could say we struck lucky, in that we found one that was open. However, she did cut our hair as if she had a train to catch, and Steve ended up still fairly shaggy, whilst I was lop-sided. Ah well, at least my hair was short enough to stop bitch-slapping me in the face every time I drove along with the windows open. And she did have a rather interesting tiled sink/channel thing.

I’d spotted a nice looking restaurant there, so we popped back later for dinner and found out that, although the Hungarians are a bit blasé about the Romans, they take the Renaissance very seriously indeed. Visegrad had once been the royal seat of King Matthias, and Visegrad wasn’t about to let you forget it.

We walked into the restaurant expecting the usual incomprehensible menu, plastic flowers, and a TV screen What we found was this – a full medieval banqueting hall!

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The waiters were in full costume, but so were the diners! Steve took one look at the thrones and said, ‘I want to sit there.’ We ordered some medieval platter – we’d no idea what to expect – and then went with the waiter to get kitted out in full medieval clobber. We both had crowns, and Steve had a choice of swords and other weaponry.

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The food was fab. Goose liver, and roast goose, and braised red cabbage, and a nice chestnut puree thing for pud. Plenty of leftovers to take home. Happy me.

And that was the end of our time in Budapest, and we were ready to move on down to Lake Balaton. Next time, I’ll tell you about vintage cars, coaches and sleighs, how to mime to a dentist, and what happened when someone backed their caravan into Georgie.

Down by the Danube 1 – Festivals, fireworks, and the Hand of the King

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WHEN THE SUMMER COMES TO AN END

Campsites have a difficult time out of season. Most close altogether, becoming strange little glamping-pod ghost towns. Others diversify, letting out the space to groups and organisations. Several times during this trip we’ve been told we can only stay until Thursday morning, because then somebody is moving in to set up an event for the weekend.

At Jasov, in Slovakia, it was the turn of the annual Pit Bull and Staffi Weight-pulling contest. So that week some pretty impressive canine specimens pitched up, along with their proud (and equally scary looking) owners. We used to have a beautiful Staffi called Gizmo, so we weren’t phased, but the campsite cleared incredibly fast, I must say.

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One chap came over to borrow a wrench from Steve in order to fix some tracking that was to be used in the contest. The dogs were going to pull a loaded cart along it for several metres. Here’s the cart, on the left – ready to be stacked with that enormous pile of concrete blocks on the right. I’m not even joking.

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So we left, because we had to, and took a jaunt down towards Budapest, in Hungary. This meant meeting up again with the River Danube. It’s a flighty little stretch of water – it gets about a bit. So far, we’ve run into it in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia.  I’ve noticed that khaki is it’s hue of choice, although it will don shades of silver, slate, greige, black, brown or olive if the mood takes it. But not once, not once have I seen it blue.

BUT BUDAPEST THO

Sometimes we are clever but mostly we are just lucky, which is how we managed to arrive in time to see the start of the St. Stephen’s Day Festival. I’m not going to give you a history lesson about King St. Stephen (Google him if you’re interested) but he was a really big deal. The first king of Hungary as we know it today, and their version of King Arthur and the Pope, all mixed together. They’ve got his right hand in the Basilica, and it gets paraded through the streets to much fanfare and celebration, followed by fireworks.

I was concerned that parking would be an issue as thousands of people flock to the city for the event, but when we got there a helpful traffic cop said, ‘Park where you like – it’s free’. Seriously? We found a spot alongside the river, opposite parliament (here it is beautifully un-reflected in the khaki green Danube).

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We took a very short walk to ‘The Street of Hungarian Flavours’. Here you could taste everything from the soup, to goulash, to langos (a sort-of pizza dough that is stretched, and flash fried, and then covered in garlic sauce and grated cheese), to spit-roast pork, and beer, and ice-cream, and cakes, and more beer – really, lots more beer.

Our UK Health and Safety would have gone nuts. There were open fires with massive bubbling cauldrons, right on the street with no barrier between them and the crowds. I bloody loved it.

CRAFTS AND PERFORMANCES

The ‘street’ led up to the castle on the hill, where the ‘Festival of Folk Art’ was in full swing. There was a hell of a lot of beautiful embroidery, as well as traditional crafts from visiting nations such as Tibet, China, and Nepal. The costumes were amazing.

Of course, there were crafts there that nobody should either make, show, or try to sell…

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…and this strange, hairy, masked guy in bloomers kept showing up. But that was part of the fun.

We also got to see the Changing of the Guard. They have two types here: one is a dainty quick-swap two-step; the other is the full turn-turn-step-turn-kick-turn version, with drums. We saw both.

Then we heard music, and a handsome Australian chap shoved a paper into my hand. He was part of a group that sang mainly Bartok, and they were just finishing their rehearsal.   The paper had the words to the folk songs they were going to sing (with audience participation), so we thought we’d give it a go. Apart from the obvious (we couldn’t understand how to pronounce any of the words, and didn’t know the tunes) it all went swimmingly, until the guy with the bagpipes came to the front of the stage.

Here’s a picture of the soften-you-up-with-some-merry-tunes-before-unleashing-the horror bastards, in their hideous shirts.

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Now, I assume that these were traditional instruments, because there’s absolutely no excuse for them otherwise. Apart from the bagpipes – which both looked, and sounded, as if he’d trapped a startled pig – he had a tin whistle (sigh), and a long, bamboo, tubey thing he blew down. Well, they all did. It was very impressive – not.

And a recorder – which he hummed into as well as blew into it, which added a weird didgeridoo-type of element. To say it was shrill is to be kind. Within a minute I had the sensation that all the fillings in my teeth were vibrating.

Three weeks later, one of my fillings fell out. I know who I blame.

Then It was time for the finale: fireworks over the Danube. And they were great because even crap fireworks are great, and these were not crap. Went on for a full thirty minutes. They included some that I genuinely hadn’t seen before – they formed gyroscopic shapes, which I thought only Gandalf could do.

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COSTUMES TO DIE FOR

As I said, we are lucky, and on our last day in Budapest we chanced upon another festival, a bit like our Harvest Festival, I think. Lots of dignitaries in regional costumes walked up, two by two, to put baskets of local produce on a huge map, outside the Basilica.

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We’d gone to the Basilica to see the hand of King St. Stephen, having drunk too much beer to catch it on it’s jaunt around town the previous week. And here it is – THE HAND OF THE KING, been around since 1038. That’s a set of knuckles you are looking at there.

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NEXT TIME…

I’ll tell you more about Budapest, from the Vasarely Museum to the Roman ruins at Aquincum. Thanks for reading. Ciao. xxxx

 

 

Angloville 2: My LOVELY wife

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(I’ve covered most of how Angloville runs in my previous blog, but as each one is different, here are the highlights.)

Although we totally failed to walk to Poland in my last Angloville (distracted, as we were, by cheap booze and haribo), we finally make it to southern Poland and it is beautiful. Loads of steep-roofed, four-storey houses covered in intricate patterns of timber and stone. I’m fairly certain that everyone has a cow in their front garden or, failing that, at least a couple of sheep. At dusk we see perfectly normal people wandering up the street carrying huge buckets and milking stools.

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As we drive to the hotel we pass a traditional wedding party, with everyone riding in beautifully decorated horse-drawn carriages, and wearing national costumes.

The cavalcade is led by two men on horseback, singing loudly in rich, tenor harmonies. They are followed by a six-piece band in a covered wagon: the musicians try desperately to keep their violins and cellos from bashing together, as the horses sway along the road.

Next are the happy couple in a white open-topped carriage pulled by four smart, white, horses bedecked with roses, ribbons and brasses. Although they smile and wave, both the bride and groom are terribly busy on their mobile phones.

Then come the wedding guests. The males sport camel-coloured, heavily embroidered suits, with trousers that split at the ankles and spread over their shoes, all topped off with black, round-brimmed hats and loose-sleeved shirts. The females have brilliantly flowered skirts, with matching shawls, and lace-up bodices.

The whole thing is joyously colourful and exceedingly relaxed. We stand and watch as the horses gently wander up the hill, and the strains of some unfamiliar folk song drifts back to us.

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Now, the co-ordinator needs a mention here – not just because he was brilliant at his job – but because he looked just like Ryan Gosling with a bit of Ryan Reynolds thrown in.

And his name was Ryan. I’m not even joking.

On the first day he took care to warn us about ‘The Game’ – the Polish participant’s habit of getting the native speakers as drunk as possible. We were allowed to miss a session if we were genuinely ill, but not if we’d played ‘The Game’. Fair do’s. Realised now that the Voluptuous One from the last Angloville had been giving that a good shot, just before she confronted Steve’s nipples.

THE FOOD – BETTER THAN LAST TIME?

Oh hell, yes, what a change! Each meal was an all-you-can-eat buffet with loads of choice, including two or three salads with every meal (even at breakfast). As we had a high percentage of vegetarians and vegans on the course, it was such a relief. The coffee was awful, which proves you can’t have everything, but I was one happy bunny.

ONE TO ONE’S

We had a much larger group, so it was harder to get to know everyone the way we had on our first experience, but they were just as lovely and hard-working.

Had a very interesting session with a lady who told me about a massive crush she’d developed on a much younger man (and what came of it), and another with a mother of three young children, who described them as ‘sweet little energy vampires’. Pretty good grasp of English, that.

I still had my work cut out for me though, especially with one chap. He was middle-aged, and quite tough looking. Not someone you’d think to mess with. Most of the week he was seen wandering around the hotel spa in a bathrobe, and the general consensus was that this was a cheap holiday for him and he wasn’t that bothered about learning English. My one to one with him was nearly over in ten minutes.

‘I answer all questions, what you want, is done.’

‘No, we still have forty minutes, so let’s just talk, ok?’

Shit. What are we going to talk about? But I persevered, and we discovered that if you look at his house on Google maps, you can see one of his hunting dogs. So, that was useful.

After each session, Ryan would give us a small form to fill in detailing what the participants strengths and weaknesses are, and what we think they need to work on. I looked at the paper for ages, and in the end I wrote:

Honestly, no idea. Think I may have spent an hour with a very charming ex-gangster.

OUR MENTEES

I met up with Steve later and told him about the lovely girl I was going to be mentoring: young, sweet, enthusiastic and funny, with some great pictures of a sky-diving day that she could build her presentation around. I asked who he’d been allocated?

‘The Gangster. And all he wants to talk about is what he kills when he goes hunting, and I keep telling him he can’t because of the vegetarians, so he buggers off to the spa.’ Nearly snorted my tea out of my nose.

THE LOCATION

We are perched on the top of a hill with a wonderful view of the mountains. At the end of the road is a beautiful church, a sweet little chapel, and a stunning cemetery. The church is famous for being linked to a major one in Prague and is a place of pilgrimage. The Sunday we were there it was absolutely packed, with people lining the grounds and path outside, all standing silently (even the children) to hear the service taking place inside.

The whole place was a forest of honey-coloured wood, each surface carved by hand. And the little chapel, with its separate bell-tower, was the same – even the lampshades were made from slats of fan-shaped wood.

But the cemetery – wow. They really like plastic flowers here, plus enough candle-lit lanterns to light a small city. Sounds tacky and it actually was, I suppose, but it was also joyous and celebratory and how I’d like my grave to look, (though a plastic Bambi and a hip-swivelling Hawaiian dancer better find its way in there too. Just saying.)

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PRESENTATIONS

We had some brilliant presentations that showed just how hard everyone had worked. My girl got us all laughing with her sky-diving story, and she looked so delighted: I was really proud of her. Last up was the Gangster, and none of us knew quite what to expect.

‘I am successful businessman but for weekends I go to my house in forest. I take my dogs – here is picture of my dogs. I take my children. I take my gun. And I take my LOVELY wife.’

He proceeded to describe looking for animals in the forest – to photograph them. This was Steve’s intervention, I knew. Each time he mentioned his wife as an afterthought, but with great emphasis. By the third time, he simply had to cup his hand around his ear and look expectantly at the audience who all chimed in unison, ‘my LOVELY wife’.

By the end of the story, he’d been confronted by a bear, saved his dogs, chased away the bear, ‘See, here is picture of bear from CCTV camera‘. Big gasp, not kidding, genuinely impressive. ‘And final, here is picture of my family. Here are dogs. Here are children. Here is car. Here is house. Oh, and here is….?’

‘MY LOVELY WIFE!’ we all yelled. Well done Gangster. Well done Steve.

THE AFTER PARTY

Well, we all played ‘The Game’ a bit. There was a lot of dancing. One lithe young lady was a hula-hooping yoga teacher, who’s sinuous moves looked almost impossible. One chap was a fantastic break-dancer. Another refused to take Steve’s reluctance to dance seriously, scooped him up in his arms, carried him to the dance floor, and plonked him down in the middle. It was a good night. Maybe a bit too good for some people as the next day, at the certificate ceremony, some of them could only lie on the floor clutching their heads and looking weepy and green.

And that was it. Another Angloville. Another country. Another wonderful set of people and experiences. We still had a van full of Dory and a shed-load of laundry, but it was time to move on.

In my next blog I’ll tell you the Dory story, and how we ended up in Slovakia again.