Category Archives: 2011 Europe

7-23 December 2011: Morpeth, Edinburgh and London, England – THE END OF THE TRIP

7 December 2011 – Calais, France

We are up at the crack of dawn and head off towards Limoges where we drop my cousin at the airport for his flight back to the UK and Scott and I continue to drive to Calais in convoy.  The drive is relatively boring as we elect to take the motorway.  However, once we reach Paris the rain starts and our plan unravels fantastically.  We had made lots of plans about stopping etc but we became separated and realised that I didn’t have Scott’s mobile phone number for France and he didn’t have my mobile number for London.  After a few calls back to London we realise that I had overtaken Scott and was now close to Calais and sat at the petrol station waiting for him to arrive.  Also in the best planning we have managed I didn’t even have a jumper etc, so it was a cold wait.  By now it was getting late and dark, but once we catch up we elect to continue the drive to Calais as it was only an hour away.

Vinnie and wind turbines on the road to Calais
Vinnie and wind turbines on the road to Calais

On arriving in Calais we grab a pizza and then park at the Aires de camping spot.  It is incredibly windy here; it feels like the van is going to roll over.  We are exhausted so just crash.

8 December 2011 – Earls Colne, Essex, England

Up and finish cleaning and packing up the van.  During the night due to the wind and rain, Vinnie is now covered in sand (we are on the coast), but we decide to head to the P&O Ferry Terminal early and see if we can get an earlier ferry.  On arriving we find that due to the bad weather they have put us on an earlier ferry but it isn’t scheduled to leave until after the one we were on.  However, we get in the queue with everyone else and sit there and then sit there some more.  We eventually board the ferry and the crossing is very rough and also takes an hour longer than normal.

We are having dinner with friends in Essex, so hit the motorway and make great progress until we get to the M25 junction with the A12 and sit there for 45 minutes before electing to continue to another junction.  The traffic is a nightmare along with the road conditions.  We eventually make it to have dinner with Nancy and Marc about four hours late.

9 December 2011 – London, England

We get up early to see Harvey and Mary in their school uniforms which was fantastic.  So annoyed that the travel plans for the day before were so bad.  We pack up Vinnie and then head down to Kent to drop Vinnie off.  Sadly we waved goodbye hoping he finds some good owners and they have as much fun as us.  We are soon on the road to London where we are staying tonight.  The weather is totally different today and there is even some sun.  The roads are clear and we arrive in London by mid-afternoon.

10 December 2011 – York, England

We are still trying to do some sightseeing to head up to York to have a look at the Cathedral and the town.  It is a lovely town with the river currently at a high.  We had no idea it would also be so busy and managed to get a room at a B&B with the help of the local Tourist Office.  We park the car nearby and drop our bags in our room.  Heading out for drinks and dinner we realise it is only 5:30pm.  Considering it gets dark so early plus it is freezing, we are also exhausted; we do a quick walk around the town and have a drink.  We end up eating dinner at 6:30pm and then just crash.

11-16 December 2-11 – Morpeth, England

We are spending the next week visiting family and friends in Morpeth who I haven’t seen for about 25 years, so it is good to catch up with people and Scott is enjoying the hospitality of roast dinners and lots of pints of lager.

13 December 2011 – the weather is getting colder and windier so we decide to head to Hadrian’s Wall and have a walk around one of the Roman forts.  We are the only tourists, but it was a great place to visit and you appreciate how skilled the Romans were at building, especially ones that last.

Scott at Hadrians Wall
Scott at Hadrians Wall

14 December 2011 – we hire a car and head up to Edinburgh through the snow and ice for a night in Edinburgh.  The city was all lit up for the Christmas period.

Edinburgh Castle at 4:30PM
Edinburgh Castle at 4:30PM

 

15 December 2011 – we drive back from Edinburgh via the coast road visiting Bamburgh Castle, Craster (fantastic lunch at The Jolly Fisherman), pop into Alnwick and then head back to Ashington to visit my Uncle and Aunty.

Scott's favorite beer of the trip
Scott

 

17-23 December 2011:  London, England

We catch the train from Morpeth back to London to spend the last few days arranging some boxes to be shipped to Australia and catch up with more friends and family.  We spend the time wandering through some of the places we still haven’t visited and start organising work and travel options for 2012.  We still found places we hadn’t visited before i.e. The British Museum (absolutely fantastic), Tate Gallery (love Turner) and also revisited some favour haunts of the Morpeth Arms and Mildred’s.  In addition Scott did his best to drink as many beers as possible before heading back to Australia where he will miss traditional ales.

We can’t believe our trip has ended, although we are getting excited to see some sun and warm weather.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

27 November-6 December 2011: Besancon, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil and Coutancie, France

27 November 2011 – Besancon, France

We drive towards Besancon today with the landscape changing from vineyards to more agricultural lands and the scenery as usual for us recently shrouded in fog.  We avoid the motorways (they can add up in costs here in France) plus you get to see more of the countryside.

On arriving in Besancon we find our Aire de camping which is just on the river with a range of services.  We rug up and head for a walk into town.  Besancon is famous as the birthplace of Victor Huge and the Lumiere Brothers.  It was also a Gallo-Roman city, so we head up to the Citadelle de Besancon getting there just after 4pm.  This is a relatively new building as it was constructed in the late 17th century and the walk up is considerably more interesting than going into the Citadelle to see an insectariums, aquarium, noctarium and parc zoologique.  On starting the walk up you pass through the Porte Noire which is the old Roman entrance to the city and has some beautiful carvings which are sadly deteriorated at the moment. 

 

The roman gate
The roman gate

 

 

Just up from the Porte Noire is the Cathedrale St-Jean and the Horloge Astronomique which is a small astronomical clock compared to those we have seen in other cities, however the church is simply furnished and very serene.

Inside the Cathedral
Inside the Cathedral

Besancon is in full Christmas celebration swing with lots of stalls set up selling traditional Christmas items such as mulled wine etc.  We stop at a local bar for a couple of glasses of wine to wait for the Christmas lights to be turned on and then wander slowly back through the streets to Vinnie.

28 November 2011 – La Bourboule, France

We wake up this morning to find we have been blocked in the service point has been turned off so they can lop some trees – well lopping is an understatement, they are being totally removed to make way for a tramline being implemented in the near future.  So we eventually find the other way out of the Aires de camping and start the long drive to La Bourboule.  We don’t plan on stopping anywhere until we reach La Bourboule which is about 6-7 hour drive, so a relatively boring day in all.

Hmm the scenery isn't very good
Hmm the scenery isn

On reaching La Bourboule it is a fantastic town, beautifully located in the Auvergne region of central France it is a spa town and a winter ski resort.  Unfortunately we are there just before the ski season.  It is laid out around the river and surrounded by mountains and views.  On the main streets are lots of bars and cafes and the architecture has been preserved.  All in all a lovely stop for the night.

29 November 2011 – Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil

Not such a long drive today as our main point is Sarlat-la-Caneda.  However along the way we stop at one of our favourite villages in France – Beaulieu-Sur-Dordogne which we visited in summer.  This town still captures our interest and although the pub we went to last time is closed, we found another restaurant/bar nearby that did gorgeous food as great prices.  Obviously it must be good as it was full of locals.  After a lovely lunch we jumped back in Vinnie and soon arrived in Sarlat-la-Caneda.  The Aires de camping isn’t fantastic and is on a main road and sloping, but we park up and head into the main town.  This is mean to be one of the country’s best-preserved architectural villages, however it just didn’t grab us and we were fairly disappointed as a whole. 

 

Scott thought this was the best sight in Sarlat
Scott thought this was the best sight in Sarlat

 

 

We wandered around the medieval part of town and stopped at the Cathedrale St-Sacerdos and walked through the medieval historic quarter.  There just wasn’t much to keep our interest so we headed back to Vinnie and decided to head towards Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil which we visited in summer and wanted to return to anyway.  We arrived there just as it was getting dark and the Aires de camping is in a beautiful spot just down on the river and surrounded by trees and on a nice flat spot.  There is only one other motorhome parked there, so it was also lovely and quiet and we had a great view of the cliffs surrounding the town.  We headed to the local pub for a quick drink to relax after what turned out to be a long day of driving.

All parked up for the night between the river and the mountains
All parked up for the night between the river and the mountains

30 November-7 December 2011 – Coutancie, France

We get up for a wander in town and some fresh bread from the bakery before deciding to head to the house at Coutancie where we hope to sort out the sale of Vinnie and get organised for home.  Scary to think it is only three Sundays of holidays to go.

We arrive in Coutancie late afternoon and crash.  Our plans for the next few days are to clean Vinnie from top to bottom and do some day trips around the area, or of course we may just sit around doing nothing and have a little break from driving. 

2 December – We finally arranged the sale of Vinnie and have now booked our ferry journey back to the UK on the 8 December.  We decide to head into Riberac for a glass of wine to celebrate.  Unfortunately it wasn’t a very inspiring place and we had an insipid lunch at one of the only places open.  I hope we get one more good meal in before we leave France.

3 December 2011 – my cousin and his partner arrive from the UK to do some work on the house.  We have a homecooked meal (go Scott and his vegetarian lasagne) and due to my almost migraine I watched the boys get absolutely plastered.

4 December 2011 – the weather has changed and it is windy and misty, and as my headache isn’t that much better we stay in and can’t be bothered to go anywhere.  We do however do the final bits on Vinnie and almost ready to head off for our final drive.

 

 

19-26 November 2011: Villers-Bretonneux, Reims, Epernay and Strasbourg, France

19 November 2011 – Royes, France

A freezing night as yet again the alarms in the van went off, wish we could turn them off, but figure that may be dangerous it is bloody annoying though and as Scott has developed the ability to not hear anything I have to get up and turn it off.

Today we are driving from Germany through Luxembourg and Belgium to Villers-Bretonneux in France.  Scott still gets excited we can drive through whole countries in less than a morning (four of them to be exact).  Of course at this stage we can hardly see a few metres in from the van due to the fog, so the only sign we know we are going in the right direction is the chance of country signs and the price of fuel going up astronomically.  Luckily we filled up in Luxembourg which should last a few days.  We are finally back in France after what feels like an eternity of travelling and start the drive (not using toll roads) to Villers-Bretonneux. 

Villers-Bretonneux:  The drive here is via several other war memorials, but this one stands out from them by miles.  Strangely enough there is no actual parking next to the memorial so we end up parking right out front, soon copied by several other cars, I wonder what they do when there is special events?  The memorial here was designed by Edward Lutyens and was the last big WWI memorial built.  It was subsequently heavily damaged in WWII and refurbished although the scars are still there which adds to the poignancy.  It is a sad place to think that life is so cheap so many had to die and this isn’t just for Australians there are a substantial amount of graves for Canadians and South Africans and so many to the unknown soldier who’s remains have never been identified.  The grounds are immaculate and with fog hanging over the surrounding valleys you wonder was all this death worth the fight! 

 

A long way from home
A long way from home

 

 

Royes:  We finally found a relatively nearby Aire de Camping Car in a car park in the small city centre and via a huge amount of tiny one way streets we finally got there.  There doesn’t appear to be any parking to go with the service point, so park up near the school and as it is Sunday tomorrow, should be quiet.  What wasn’t quite true however, as there was a group of hooded youths who decided that playing with their soccer ball next to the van would be fun.  As the night progressed they moved away a bit and after the police confiscated their football they decided to beat each other up and look generally like unsavoury characters.  I stayed on guard duty whilst Scott slept! 

20-21 November 2011 – Reims, France

After a crappy night’s sleep for me – I mean who gets up to walk their dogs at 5:30am and then proceed to chat with other people next to a motorhome.  Anyway the morning brightened up, well we aren’t sure if it did as the fog today was even worse than yesterday and to top it off the Aire was broken and we couldn’t top up our water and hence I couldn’t have a hot shower, could this day get any worse.  We are driving through to Reims today which is at the start of the champagne region and also houses a Cathedral and a Basilique. 

Reims:  We arrive at the supposed location of the Aires de Camping Car to find nothing, so have to drive a million miles (no exaggeration) around the block to see if we missed it.  We find the service point so park up Vinnie and go for a walk around the area as the Camperstop book stays there is parking for 8 motorhomes.  We finally find other motorhomes and then locate a Hostel who hands out the passcode for the boom gate, so we top up on free water etc and park Vinnie in a free spot right in the centre for 48 hours free.  There are several other campers here, so we leave Vinnie in the sun hoping it would warm up and walk into Reims.  Reims (pronounced “rahns”), an ancient Roman city, was important when Caesar conquered Gaul. French kings came here to be crowned.

The Cathedral Notre Dame was originally build in 1211 and was famous for hosting the coronation of Charles VII with Joan of Arc in 1429.  It has been seriously damaged in WWI and with the help of the Rockefeller family has been heavily restored; luckily it escaped relatively unharmed during WWII.  Inside the remaining stained glass windows are breathtaking, but I am not as sure about the modern interpretations as they look slightly out of place in the gothic architecture.  Even better as this cathedral is one of the few that are free.  Built on the site of an earlier church that burned down in 1211, the resultant cathedral was intended as a place where French Kings would be anointed.  St-Remi the bishop of Reims baptized the King of the Franks (Clovis) here in AD496.  As such, every French monarch since a.d. 496 was crowned at Reims, including Charles VII who was escorted there by Joan of Arc in 1429.  Now it seems to have a place in the Franco-Germany reconciliation process that has been in place to overcome animosity after the war.  Pope John-Paul II visited the cathedral in 1996 on the 1500th anniversary of Clovis’s baptism. 

 

Reims Cathedral
Reims Cathedral

 

 

We leave the Cathedral and head towards the main pedestrian mall.  It is Sunday and as such most things are shut so we opt instead to sit in the sun and have some wine and pizza.  As the sun is out most of the restaurants are busy and doing a booming trade, however, they don’t seem very organised and almost disappointed when most customer come and they have to set the table, take orders and deliver food – honestly customers just get in the way don’t they!

Eventually back at Vinnie we have an early night as it is freezing and as usual the alarms go off, getting sick of this and starting to fantasise about a warm holiday destination.

Today we are off to the Basilique St-Remi and maybe some champagne tasting.  We approach the Basilique St-Remi and I find this much more interesting that yesterday’s Cathedral.  It is huge and the Romanesque architecture from the mid-11th century is just beautiful.  Some Gothic features were added from the 12th century, but the history here is fantastic.  The church dates from 1007 and holds the tomb of St. Remi.  The Nave is Romanesque which leaves to a beautiful choral area full of flamboyant style.  Paying the EUR2 to turn the lights on was EUR2 well spent as the inside of the Basilique lit up and highlighted the vaulted ceilings.

I have become fascinated by ceilings
I have become fascinated by ceilings

Suitably impressed we then decided to visit the Taittinger Champagne House.  There are many champagne cellars to choose from i.e. Pommery, Mumm and Veuve Cliquot, but we elect Taittinger due to the history of its cellars.  So we booked in and headed out for a coffee as we had 40 minutes to kill.

EUR14 secures you a spot on the English speaking tour and we have a small presentation about the history of the home of Taittinger before being led down to the underground cellars and this is where it got interesting.  As well as 19m bottles of Champagne the vaults were originally built in the 4th century by the Romans who excavated the area for stone.  It was then excavated by the 13th century Benedictine monks and has today been restored as much as possible for the champagne house.  Many of the champagne cellars of Reims extend for miles through chalky deposits.  During the German siege of 1914 and throughout the war, people lived and even published a daily paper in them.  The caves that are 30m (98 ft.) deep, where the temperature is a constant 50°F (10°C).  Taittinger is a grand marquee of French champagne, one of the few still controlled by members of the family that founded it (in 1930). The tour was informative, interesting and just steeped in history.  We then finished with a glass of the Brut Reserve champagne.  I am definitely a fan of Taittinger for the dry style of champagne, but at EUR110 per bottle, wasn’t keen enough to buy a bottle, however, I kept the tasting glass.

Okay now a fan of vintage champagne
Okay now a fan of vintage champagne

Off to lunch at a local restaurant where the food was a little bit disappointing, but I tried the champagne here and it was totally different, now I understand the processes behind making the different blends, makes and vintages, it starts to fall into place the differences and I am definitely a fan of the vintage style – which as usual is the most expensive, typical.  We have a wander through the streets of Reims before heading back to Vinnie.  As the sun sets so early now it makes the days of sightseeing shorter as well.

22 November 2011 –Villeneuve Renneville Chivigny, France (Champagne Leclere-Massard – France Passions Stop)

We leave Reims and head towards Epernay via the Montage de Reims Champagne Route which links the two towns via the Parc Natural Regional de la Montagne de Reims.  Scott is keen to actually see some vines as so far it has been much industrialised.

Verzenay:  as soon as you head towards Verzenay the acres and acres of vineyards take up all the visible distance.  We stop at the Phare de Verzenay which is a lighthouse on the hilltop at the eastern edge of the village and head to the top (EUR3 per person) for a view of the surrounding area.  There are no leaves on the vines and they are in the process of cutting them back which appears to be a hugely manual process with people still hand-cutting the vines.  Considering how cold the weather is, I don’t understand how they don’t freeze. 

Phare de Verzenay in the background
Phare de Verzenay in the background

 

 

Verzy:  we head just outside Verzy to the Parc Natural Regional de la Montagne de Reims for the hour round walk to see the mutant beech trees known as Faux de Verzy.  These are interesting and exquisite trees that appear to be all twisted with the branches growing over them like umbrellas.  As there are no leaves you can fully appreciate the gorgeous trunks which are covered in mosses and are gnarled and tortured in appearance.  Interesting that there are signs and the trees are sometimes fenced off, but that of course doesn’t stop some people having to climb over to take a photo!

Looks like my spinal cord after 7 months on a foam mattress
Looks like my spinal cord after 7 months on a foam mattress

Epernay:  as soon you are approach Epernay you are reminded you are now in the capital of the champagne region and you can instantly start ticking off all the big names i.e. Moet et Chandon, Mercier, Pol Roger etc.  We find the Aires de camping spot but it is full and the other parking has a maximum of one hour, so we leave Vinnie near the bus/motorhome spot and hope nobody complains and head into the town centre.  Although Epernay it only has one-sixth Reims’s population, it produces nearly as much champagne, with an estimated 322km (200 miles) or more of cellars and tunnels.  These caves are vast vaults cut into the chalk rock on which the town is built.  Walking up Epernay’s main boulevards and in particular the avenue de Champagne it radiates wealth, in one driveway there were four Rolls Royce, a Ferrari and several other cars that I am sure Scott would trade me in for.  Invading armies have destroyed or burned Epernay nearly two dozen times and few of its buildings have survived.  We find the huge offices of Moet & Chandon to do a tasting, but the next tasting isn’t until late so we book in for tomorrow instead and walk around the town which has a lot of wine shops (no surprise there) but also a huge amount of landscaping and renovation of the public squares.  We head back to Vinnie after stopping off at Carrefour City for a few snacks and drive the 20 minutes to Champagne Leclere-Massard Winery in Villeneuve Renneville Chivigny (page 321).  We are now using our France Passions book which does not have gps coordinates only a very brief description of how to get places, but luckily this France Passions stop has got up signs etc and we pull into a lovely little Aire with everything you need including picnic tables etc and buy a bottle of champagne to enjoy in the setting sun before it becomes freezing.

23 November 2011 – Cousancelles, France (Les Vergers de Cousancelles – France Passions Stop)

After a fantastic night’s sleep (we have worked out if you turn off the control panel the alarms don’t go off) we head back into Moet et Chandon (EUR15 for the traditionalle tasting and EUR28 for the vintage tasting) for our tour and tasting. 

Scott and the Dom
Scott and the Dom

There isn’t a huge group and we are lead through the history of the Champagne House (started by Jean-Remy Moet) and then head down into the kilometres and kilometres of tunnels which were warmer and definitely more humid than outside.  The tour is interesting and informative about the history of the house, although I think its early success was due to the patronage of school friend to Jean-Remy Moet (Napoleon), without that things may have been a bit different.  At the end of the tour I had elected to do the vintage tasting and Scott was going to do the ordinary tasting and I have to say you can definitely taste the difference with the Vintage being so much smoother and lighter, very similar to Taittinger yesterday.  I wasn’t so keen on the vintage Rose, but that’s only because I was getting a tad picky.  As usual I squirreled away the glass for a keepsake.

These two bottles were mine to taste - great birthday present
These two bottles were mine to taste - great birthday present

We leave Epernay after a final walk around and head to another France Passions stop just outside of St-Dizier (page 328).  This stop is something different and deals with apple products i.e. cider, fruit and an apple champagne.  Unfortunately they were out of cider and their next bottling won’t start until December, so we settle on the Champagne.  The stop isn’t as nice as last night, but we have got a spot to enjoy as much sun as possible and it is quiet.

24-25 November 2011 – Strasbourg, France

We are heading to Strasbourg today as it sounds nice and is on another wine trail.  The drive is fairly monotonous mainly due to the fog and you can’t see far into the distance, however, we seem to have hit on a small area in France that is big on wind farms, not as big as Spain, but nonetheless I am becoming keener on wind farms as our trip progresses.  We arrive in Strasbourg and have a problem with the GPS mainly due to the fact they have dug up most of the roads and changing things around.  There are also huge gypsy camps here that look like rubbish tips and they seem to be parked in any available carpark and I don’t feel very comfortable leaving Vinnie somewhere that isn’t secure.  We originally chose an Aire near the Parc du Rhin and when we get there we top up water, change grey water, clean toilet etc.  There are a couple of other campers but it is a long way from town.  It is next to a youth hostel so I grab a map and we notice another Aire at Elsau near the tram, so we drive there.  The lady at the counter at Elsau gives us all the details and we had noticed that you can only park there during the day but Scott checked and she assures us it is 24 hours.  Just as we had changed into a million layers of warm clothes she comes and apologises to say she was wrong and gives us the address of another place to stay.  We decide to head into Strasbourg on the tram anyway (the parking comes with train tickets i.e. park and ride – concept Perth can’t get the hang of) and instantly love it.  The trams are fantastic and cheap and whisk you into the centre of town.  They also have grasses down the tracks which softens the development of light rail and provides an almost architecture feel to the system.

Strasbourg:  The capital of Alsace and the site of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg is also home to the European Parliament.  In 1871, Strasbourg was absorbed by Germany and made the capital of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine. It reverted to France in 1918.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg:  The city’s crowning glory is an outstanding example of Gothic architecture, representing a transition from the Romanesque. Construction began in 1176. The pyramidal tower in rose-colored stone was completed in 1439; at 141m (463 ft.), it’s the tallest one from medieval times.  Four large counter forts divide the main facade into three vertical parts and two horizontal galleries. The facade is rich in decoration: On the portal of the south transept, the Coronation and Death of the Virgin in one of the two tympanums is the finest such medieval work. In the north transept, see also the facade of the Chapelle St-Laurence, a stunning achievement of the late Gothic German style.  In the south transept stands the Angel Pillar, illustrating the Last Judgment, with angels lowering their trumpets. Not to be outdone the organ here is one of the most decorated and drop dead wow we have seen anywhere.  The astronomical clock was built between 1547 and 1574. It stopped during the Revolution, and from 1838 to 1842 the mechanism was replaced.

This was the best organ we have seen on our travels
This was the best organ we have seen on our travels

We have a quick wander back through some of the squares where everything has been decorated in Christmas style and as it is now getting extremely cold and dark we head back to Vinnie and move to our new spot at Camping de la Montagne Vert (www.camping-montagne-verte-strasbourg.com) where we check in and try and defrost.

Strasbourg is famous for its christmas decorations
Strasbourg is famous for its christmas decorations

Up earliesh we head back to a nearby tram stop and buy a 24 hour travel as much as you want ticket for EUR4 each.  We head into town getting off near the Barrage Vauban and then going to spend the rest of the day walking through the sights.

Barrage Vauban:  The picture of what this looks like depicts a 17th century bridge but it is currently under renovation and is shrouded in scaffolding, so without using some good imagination it could look like anything really.

Ponts Couvert:  I read that this is described as a covered bridge, but it isn’t as there is no top to it, so for me I think of it as a bridge with some 13th century towers at either end which are fairly impressive.

Petite France:  Along the canals and locks is a gorgeous part of Strasbourg that is full of narrow lanes and at the moment lots of Christmas kiosks and decorations.  Originally this area was where tradesman plied their trade in the middle ages – and you can see the paintings on the tanner’s houses with the dates.  This area is full of nice looking Alsation restaurants and even a vegetarian restaurant. 

Our lunch spot
Our lunch spot

Grand Ile:  steeped in history the lanes are full of vibrant cafes and timbered houses all under the gaze of the cathedral.  Here also is the Maison Kammerzell which is now a restaurant but they have still maintained the ornate carvings and leaded windows.

Palais de Rohan:  This palace south of the cathedral was built from 1732 to 1742 and is meant to be an example of supreme elegance and proportion. Unfortunately it wasn’t open and along with the other tourists we sadly wandered off.

We decide to head up to the Parlement Europeen as I have in my head it is going to be a futuristic glass building etc (similar to the development around the Reichstag in Berlin), unfortunately it was a huge disappointment and the area is littered with rubbish and just feels soulless, but I suppose it is full of politicians.  We head back into the main squares and retake some photos of the cathedral as today it is sunnier and you can actually see the top of the spire unlike yesterday.  Next we venture back to Petite France for Scott to have a feed of local Choucroute (sauerkraut) with pork and sausages.  Suitably refreshed we head to the Musee d’Art Moderne and although it is a Modern Art Museum it would seem most of the art dates from the early 20th century.  There is a fairly good variety of artists from Picasso to Kadinsky and also an ArtCafe/WineBar on the top floor where we stop for a drink so that Scott can shake himself awake and complain some more about modern art being crap.

26 November 2011 – Pfaffenheim, France (France Passions Stop)

The drive today follows the Route du Vin between Strasbourg and Colmar following the Vosges foothills with plenty of villages and vineyards to break up the monotony of motorway driving.  We arrive in Obernai which is in full Christmas mode with lots of stalls and roads closed off and of course the GPS always wants to go through the tiny villages where we sometimes just don’t fit.  This is a gorgeous town with lots of see and do, but we don’t dally too long as Scott is keen to keep moving.  We drive through Ribeauville, Kaysersberg and Ammerschwihr before arriving in Colmar.  What a disappointment, parking for campervans was just on the edge of the main road with no services, so we had a sandwich and decided to keep going.  As we were driving out of Colmar there is a huge assortment of motorhomes spread through the street parking – wonder why they don’t put in a purpose built aire.  We head to Pfaffenheim where we find a local vineyard that is part of the France Passions (Domaine Walter & Fills pg 370) and stay there for the night.  However, we do walk through town but it is either siesta or everyone has been abducted as nothing seems open or even inhabited.  Scott has arranged with the family to do a wine tasting at 5pm, yum so looking forward to sweet wine.

Vinnie amongst the vineyards
Vinnie amongst the vineyards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11-18 November 2011: Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg

11-13 November 2011 – Amsterdam, Holland

An easy drive again today and into Holland – yeah another country with no borders.  The weather is sunny but still cold, so we aren’t really deviating along the way and hope to get into Amsterdam early afternoon.  We are staying at Camping Het Amsterdamse Bos (www.campingamsterdam.com) in Amstelveen.  We arrive, get our spot and head straight out to find something hot to eat and for Scott to try the local beers. 

 

The Scott Beer tour continues
The Scott Beer tour continues

 

 

We head to a local bar on the advice of the girl at the reception counter and have a nice simple meal with a few beers and wines.  Stuffed, warm and merry we head back towards the campsite but find a supermarket to buy a few bits from, so now with some extra food we get back to Vinnie and do some tidying up.  Scott has a friend here in Amsterdam so he is coming to stay for a couple of nights and once he arrives, we soon head back out for dinner and a few too many drinks at another bar.

Up not so early with a slight hangover for me, we head into Amsterdam for some sightseeing.  We catch a train into Amsterdam but at the station there is no ability to use cash, so we board the train and hope that someone understands our predicament.  At the main station the guard lets us through as it is obviously a known problem and we head into the world of Amsterdam.  We are now in the hands of Geoff as he knows the area much better than us – it has been about 20 years since I have been here.  As soon as we head out of the station we take our life in our own hands with the millions of bikes, trams, cars and pedestrians heading in every direction. 

 

Multi-story bike park
Multi-story bike park

 

 

Like any good tour, we start the day with a walk through the Red Light District, considering the time of day some of these women are very scary, but due to the amount of drunken groups of men around, they probably look fantastic and are kept busy. 

 

I think I am the third wheel
I think I am the third wheel

 

 

The architecture of the area and planning is also interesting; with buildings that fill every nook and cranny along the canals and it is one of the oldest parts of the city.  The women sit in windows wearing not very much, except lots of plastic i.e. boobs, lips etc and not always in the best taste, most of them also look just plain bored. 

 

When in Holland... you sit on a clog
When in Holland... you sit on a clog

 

 

In Dam Square Scott and I bought our tacky souvenir straight away as we found the perfect thing so no point in prevaricating, I mean it is a ceramic windmill in the Delft colours and also has a pair of clogs and some tulips on it, oh and we also take in the view of the Royal Palace, which apparently the royal family only use once a year, maybe they should consider converting it to homeless accommodation as that seems in high demand.  We spend a fair bit of time wandering through the streets and canals enjoying the sights and scenery.  We stop for lunch at a Dutch Pancake Shop and head back out again.  We go past the outside of Anne Frank’s House which I think she would be surprised at today – it is just a huge money spinner and you do doubt what is left of the original building.  We managed to make our way through the piles of tourists, sand (due to roadworks) and cyclists we found a cafe in the sun for a refreshing cuppa.

Canals, canals and more canals
Canals, canals and more canals

This afternoon we walk through the Vondelpark which was packed and headed towards the Van Gogh Museum (EUR14).  This is on my must do itinerary, but seeing the queue even I faltered, but encouraged by Geoff and Scott we stuck it out (yes I know, usually Scott takes the first hint of my weakness for queues and bolts).  This museum houses approximately 200 of his paintings as well as a huge collection of drawings and also some nice works by his contemporaries, this allows you to see how his work evolved during his extremely short career (approx 10 years).  The exhibition space is stark and contemporary so does not distract from this work.  As the paintings are in chronological order you can see how he is changing and can almost feel his mounting inner pain.

Once we get outside the sun is almost setting, so have a short break back in the park before deciding to have a few drinks, something to eat and head back to Vinnie.  Unfortunately I know I peaked early with my one too many drinks last night and it is coming back to haunt me now, god must be getting old, two late nights in a row and I am knackered, well actually one late night!  We wander back through the Red Light District which is just as busy and the women are just as scary, however, what is more scary is the roadworks which have a vertical drop into the canal, even I nearly walked in – we wondered how many people they have to fish out during the night, of course a bit of tape or some fencing would help!  We stop at a couple of pubs for the boys to have some of the local beers and then settle on a Thai restaurant for dinner, strategically placed next door to a traditional coffee shop, which the boys thought smelt very potty!  According to the tourist guides the drug trade has been restricted, but with the amount of drugs available and the smoking of it everywhere, can’t see how that is being managed. 

 

The closest we got to a windmill
The closest we got to a windmill

 

 

The most interesting thing is the bicycle culture.  There are reckoned to be anywhere from 600,000 and up bikes in the city and they cover every spare inch of pavement, in fact they are given more road space than cars and it is easy to take your bikes everywhere.  I wish Perth would get more into the swing of things.  Oh and the bikes aren’t the super expensive Tour de France bikes with everyone kitted out in the latest lycra, the most popular bikes are one-speed city bikes with panniers and baskets which some people have really customised with flowers, ribbons etc.  A relatively early night with the boys listening to some music stuff and me reading.

Up not too early and it is as cold as usual.  We are spending the day here at the campsite doing washing and emails etc before we start the migration back towards Dordogne in France.

14 November 2011 – Sint Truiden, Belgium

On the road again.  We leave foggy Amsterdam and drive slowly down through Holland towards Maastricht.  We can’t find any info on motorhome facilities but the town sounds interesting, so we plug it into the TomTom and head off.  The drive is not the most scintillating and we are soon in Maastricht where we find a parking spot and walk into the city centre.  Maastricht was founded in 50bc but I doubt whether there is much left from that period.  We head into the Vrijthof (the city square) which is vast and surrounded on three sides by restaurants etc and on the fourth side by the Romanesque Sint-Servas Church and the Gothic Sint-Jan’s with its soaring red belfry. 

Maastricht square
Maastricht square

 

Maastricht was also the home of the real life d’Artagnan (from Musketeers fame).  We have lunch at a local cafe sitting in the sun under a heater and watching the world go by.  The TIC isn’t far so we head off and get a map and when we ask the assistant about motorhome parking she says there is none, so we give up on the few remaining sights we wanted to see and decide to head to another town instead who seems to have worked out that people with a motorhome have money and want to spend it in the local town.  We arrive in Sint Truiden at the free Aire de camping and walk into the small town centre – it isn’t very big, but there are plenty of bars, restaurants, shops etc.  There is even an Australian Ice-cream shop!

15 November 2011 – Tournai, Belgium

We are leaving Holland and heading down to Napoleon’s last battle site at Waterloo.  The journey is awesome (sarcastically) with almost zero visibility and it is cold and I mean cold.

Waterloo:  Scott and I both thought that Waterloo was in France, so this is a surprise for us, obviously high school geography and history didn’t sink in.  Waterloo is where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte met final defeat on 18 June 1815 and the battle ground is made up of rolling farmland.  To survey the battlefield, climb the 226 steps to the top of the nearby Butte du Lion (Lion Mound) (EUR6), a conical hill surmounted by a bronze lion—it takes an active imagination to fill the peaceful farmland with slashing cavalry charges, thundering artillery, and 200,000 colourfully uniformed, struggling soldiers.  We visited the 360-degree Panoramic Mural (included in the ticket) after climbing up to the Butte du Lion.  The panoramic features the massed French cavalry charge led by Marshal Ney.  As the weather didn’t look like it was improving we decided to head towards the town of Tournai.

A monument to another French war gone wrong
A monument to another French war gone wrong

Tournai:  which is Belgium’s second-oldest town (after Tongeren) and also the first capital of the kingdom of France. The Aire is not bad, all the facilities and close to town – best of all, it is free.  The area is due for an upgrade soon and will include CCTV; the one thing to remember is that drinking water is free but only in non-frost periods.  There are only two other motorhomes here, but it is winter and the number of people travelling has decreased dramatically.  During medieval and Renaissance times, it had a position of prominence as a European ecclesiastical centre. Its importance in earlier centuries was forgotten until 1653, when a workman discovered the tomb of Childeric, king of the Franks, whose son, Clovis, founded the Merovingian dynasty that ruled for nearly 3 centuries. This led to the discovery that Tournai’s predecessor, a Roman settlement known as Tornacum, was the first capital of the Frankish empire. We walked through the town and it must be noted it is a giant building site with works everywhere.  We subsequently found out that Tournai is a Tour de France town for 2012 and wonder if the works are to pretty the town up before then.  The architecture that isn’t covered up in scaffolding is interesting and we wandered down to the Belfry dates from the late 1100s, making it Belgium’s oldest. 

The Belfry
The Belfry

 

Cathédrale Notre-Dame is a magnificent five-towered cathedral which was completed in the late 1100s and is currently closed for a total renovation, although the sign did state it would be finished in 2016.  We stopped in at a little Belgian Beer Bar (Charles Quint) for a beer and wine, but Scott ended up with a Stella Artois, so we moved on to another bar on the way back to the Aire which was lovely and Scott tried another couple of different monastic dark ales, I think he is a convert, although the British ales still are his favourite on this trip.

One of Scott's favourite beers of the trip
One of Scott

 

16 November 2011 – Hans-Sur-Lesse, Belgium

Another rambling drive today going from one side of Belgium to the other.

Namur:  an old riverside town at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers.  We are coming here to visit the Citadelle which overlooks the town.  A fortification has stood atop this bluff since pre-Roman times.  There is plenty of parking here and you get a great view of the rivers and the city below.  So we sit and have lunch in the sun and enjoy watching the boats ply their trade up and down the canals.

Another great camping spot
Another great camping spot

Abbaie de Maredsous (Maredsous Abbey):  The twin towers of the neo-Gothic Benedictine abbey stand out clearly above the rugged, forested countryside. It is famed for its own beer, cheese, and bread, but we only bought some of the locally produced beer.  In summer this would be a fantastic place to visit for a picnic and a walk as there are loads of things to see and do. The abbey’s third abbot, Dom Columba Marmion of Dublin, appointed in 1909, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Abbaie de Maredsous
Abbaie de Maredsous

Hans-Sur-Lesse:  This village sited on a scenic stretch of the Lesse River has an Aire which is EUR7.50 which includes water and power, however as nobody was there to pay and nobody came to collect the money it became free.  We parked up and walked into the town centre which looks like it would be a lively place in the summer.  We found a cafe/bar and Scott tried out a variety of beers and we had to partake in the frites which are everywhere and were excellent.  So suitably warmed up and full we head back to Vinnie and watch a movie.

On today's beer tasting this is the winner
On today

17 November 2011 – Dudelange, Luxembourg

Today we are driving through the Ardennes and along some of the battle fields that were intensely fought in WWII.  The terrain is much wooded and as you approach into La Roche-En-Ardenne you can only imagine what it would have been like in the winter of 1944-1945.  The town itself is quite lovely with lots to see and do.  We don’t stop – today is probably the coldest day we have come across, there is even ice on the ground, so unless we really really really have to get out of Vinnie and the heating I will do my photography from inside. 

Bastogne:  This is the site of Battle of the Bulge where US troops fought to hold the strategic town.  We stopped at the Mardasson Memorial which is a huge tribute to the US from the Belgium people and quite moving.  Currently there are a lot of groundwork’s going on to make the centre more interpretive and informative.  We thought we had parked under a sprinkler but realised it was all the ice melting from the trees above.  We so love European autumn, it is actually getting colder than in Tibet at winter which is saying something.

A huge memorial and so sad
A huge memorial and so sad

Dudelange, Luxembourg:  We are driving into Luxembourg to spend the night at an Aire in Dudelange which is free and fully serviced.  We know we have arrived in Luxembourg when the price of petrol drops to about EUR1.20 per litre which is about 20-30 cents per litre cheaper than Belgium etc.  On arrival we locked Vinnie and walked into the town centre as we need to find a bank.  Fully cashed up we found a little Italian cafe and had a huge meal before wandering back through town.  It is a nice town, but what surprised us was that you can smoke inside cafes, pubs etc – maybe because it is so cold outside.  Because of that we couldn’t be bothered to sit in a pub and bought some wine to take back to the campsite.  As we were enjoying our wine the Aire started to fill up and soon our side was full with four large motorhomes – so we aren’t the only people travelling, yeah.  Except so far nobody is from the UK and language is a problem.

A great view from Vinnie
A great view from Vinnie

18 November 2011 – Trier, Germany

Scott and I both woke up this morning with colds, obviously the weather has got to us and the visibility here where we are is non-existent, so we are heading to Germany for one last visit before hitting our remaining sites in France.  We can’t believe how much the time is flying by and we need to have Vinnie back in the UK and get organised for our flight home.

Trier, Germany:  We find our Aire which is spacious and even has showers, drop Vinnie off as usual.  The good thing with the Aires is that as there are other fancier motorhomes we feel safe and they usually have some form of security etc.  We walk into town which turned out to be further than we thought and considering we aren’t feeling very well it was a long, cold walk.  There is a Roman gate here (Porto Negro) which is meant to be the largest in Europe.  The gate is in good condition and it is huge, guarding one of the entrances to the town.  There is a large faire being set up for Christmas, groan, thought we were bypassing all that nonsense.  We wander around and as we aren’t feeling too flash, decide to get some hot chips and a cake for later and trudge back to Vinnie and spend the afternoon being totally unsociable and reading etc.

The Romans certainly got around Europe
The Romans certainly got around Europe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5-10 November 2011: Germany

5-6 November 2011:  Dresden, Germany

A not too early start to the day and a short drive to Dresden in Germany.   Scott loves the fact that we can just drive between countries, no passports, no checkpoints – nada.  We didn’t even know we have crossed the border (no signs whatsoever) except that the drivers seem to be faster but much more courteous.  And when I say faster, I mean faster, there isn’t even a maximum speed on the GPS.  We have found a parking spot right across the river from the Cathedral etc (EUR14 per night with security) so drop Vinnie off, rug up and head straight out to the TIC as we don’t even have a map, after all Germany wasn’t on our list of countries visit, sometimes being spontaneous can be a bugger.  We have to say that first impressions are fantastic, the city is easily laid out, great transport, lots of places to eat, and a lot of things seem to be free – what more can two unemployed homeless people ask.  So we made an executive decision and are staying an extra day to see some more of the city before heading to Berlin.  The only bizarre thing here is that the memorials to the war dead don’t really mention WWI or WWII, they mention the Nazi war, ignoring that the vast majority of people here in Germany were involved against the Allied forces.  Even here in Dresden, instead of mentioning the bombings that took place in 1945, they say the fire fights.  I suppose it is hard to acknowledge that they started two world wars where millions of people were impacted across the globe.  After the tourist office for maps our first stop is somewhere for a snack and drink and we choose that German of all restaurants – an Argentinean Grill (El Rodizio on Wilsdruffer Str. 22), it was close, they did something vegetarian and we could work out where we wanted to go.  Suitably refreshed with nachos and a couple of huge classes of wine we head back into the town.  Strangely it doesn’t even feel so cold now.

Even the lightposts are exquisitely designed
Even the lightposts are exquisitely designed

Zwinger:  Built in the 18th century this is giant courtyard surrounded by buildings that would resemble a glasshouse with a covered in roof.  The buildings are baroque and extremely ornamental.  It is hard to describe just how big some of these buildings are and how intricate their carvings and designs are.

Semper Opera House and Theaterplatz:  Walking outside the Zwinger you come straight up to the Opera House.  Again designed in the 18th century but instead of baroque it is in the Italian High Renaissance style.  Yet again I realise I should have probably studied architecture or history or anything else other than sustainability.  The building was totally destroyed in 1945 but reconstructed in 1985 with fantastic attention to detail.  In fact I didn’t realise it had been rebuilt until I read the blurb.

Catholic Hofkirche Church:  This is a strange church; it is all white surfaces with lots of gold edging, no dark gothic art that is normally associated with the Catholic Church.  Designed in the 18th century it meets the requirements of the Lutheran church (middle nave).  The heart of Augustus the Strong is buried in the church crypt.

a very different church
a very different church

We stop at a German restaurant (Kutscherschanke on Munzgasse 10) for something more substantial (Scott had sausages and I had a veggie soup) before bracing the cold weather for the walk back to Vinnie.  It may be cold but the sun is shining and loads of people are out in the parks doing a huge variety of sports and just enjoying themselves.

Dresden skyline at night
Dresden skyline at night

The next day it is sunny but still freezing, but we are up and about with an aim to finish the sights.  Scott goes for a morning jog (mad if you ask me) and I stay inside nice and warm and reading of course.  Even though I am not working it is hard to keep up with all the reading I want to do and also write up my book reviews (www.ourbookclub.net.au), not enough hours in the day and I wonder how on earth I managed working full-time, studying full-time and reading.

Bruhl Terrace:  This was a set of private gardens for Count Bruhl but is now a promenade which gives you fantastic views of the surrounding buildings.  Just below Bruhl Terrace is the river which has a large selection of paddle steamers and you can take a trip up or down the river – we elect to do a walk instead especially as I hate boats and being stuck on one just doesn’t appeal.

Procession of Princes, Royal Mews:  This is a strange art work.  Along the side of the transport museum you can see a porcelain depiction of all the Saxon rulers.

 

 

 

Dresden skyline
Dresden skyline

 

 

 

We spend the rest of the day wandering through the streets of the city on both sides of the river having a leisurely lunch back at El Rodizio on Wilsdruffer Str. 22.  As the weather starts to turn to freezing, we finally head back to Vinnie.

7-8 November 2011 – Berlin, Germany

The drive to Berlin was along motorways and we were totally obscured by fog, so didn’t really see too much.  We had picked an Aire in Germany from the Camperstop book but the first one was closed, so we then picked an Aire from the Aires de Camping GPS software and yep, that was closed or didn’t look like it had even existed for ages, so we gave up and looked up an AA Aire and headed towards the Internationale Reisemobilstation which is a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate.  On arrival there was nobody on reception so we headed out for lunch at a local Italian restaurant – loving this Germany food aren’t we.  After a couple of hours we went back and checked in and then headed back out to the supermarket to buy a few staples and Scott bought a mobile phone card for the iPhone, this didn’t work but he had to come back at 5pm when the owner would be there for a refund (we think the guy who gave us the card had cut it wrong).  It is now dark and freezing, so back to Vinnie it is.  At 5pm Scott heads back to the mobile phone shop and gets a new card, but we have to wait a while for it to activate.

Up early and tourist map in hand.  We stop at a Vodafone store as the mobile phone card we bought yesterday still isn’t working to find out that it was someone else’s card, so we bought a new one and it worked instantly – moral of the story don’t buy from a local shop that isn’t the actual provider.

Reichstag (Parliament):  The home to the German government.  Although designed in the 19th century (it originally opened in 1894) it was almost destroyed in 1933 when a mysterious fire broke out and with the blame placed on the Communists, this gave Hitler the perfect opportunity to declare dictatorial powers and should we say the rest if pretty well documented in history.  It also faced massive bombardments in WWII.  After the reunification of Germany it was rebuild with a recent addition of a large glass dome designed by Sir Norman Foster.

the Reichstag
the Reichstag

Brandenburg Gate:  The Acropolis has to be the inspiration for this monument.  Constructed in 1789, there is a fantastic photo of how it looked after WWII and the work to restore it today.  It was the boundary between East and West Berlin and was once integrated into the Berlin Wall.  Around the corner from the Brandenburg Gate is a wonderful memorial to the European Jews, very eerie with large concrete blocks in different heights.

Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate

Potsdamer Platz:  This was once one of the most prestigious areas in Berlin, it was the place where Germany’s first traffic light was installed and where the first electric street lights were installed, however it appears to be a building site at the moment and other than large amounts of roadworks, it is hard to work out what the area is.  Yes I know it was flattened during the war, but in the rebuild they could have put some of the glamour back into the area. 

Berlin Wall:  We walked to an area where this is a section of the Berlin Wall along with some information panels, a large section of below the wall and how things were cut off or destroyed. 

 

Now and then
Now and then

 

 

Next door is a large photographic pictorial of the War and the rise and fall of the Nazi’s.  There is so much information in here, that it could easily take up several hours and it is interesting to see some of the photos and descriptions.  It is a strange place and I wondered if some elderly people came in here and saw themselves in the photos in their Nazi uniforms etc, or whether they just ignore the whole thing.

Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall

Stallschreiber Strasse:  This area was known as the “Death Zone” and saw the killing of many people who tried to cross the Wall.  There isn’t much left here, but large boarding’s that have been put up show pictures of what the street and area looked like when the wall still stood.

Corner of Zimmerstrasse and Charlottenstrasse:  This is the sign of the shooting to Peter Fechter as he attempted to climb over the Berlin Wall to escape.  A few months later the Wall was demolished.

Site of Checkpoint Charlie:  This is the spot that everyone knows from the Cold War days.  Created in 1961 and was the only border crossing that all Germans were forbidden to use.  It is now a giant tourist attraction and there is also a museum.  If you want your photo taken there are plenty of people dressed up as US or Russian military.

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie

Gendarmenmarkt:  You stumble into this area and it is breathtaking.  The buildings are monumental.  It is also easy to forget it was totally demolished during WWII and rebuilt/restored by the East Germans.  The square’s centrepiece remains the neoclassical theatre (Schauspielhaus) designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1821. Restoration of the French Cathedral here was completed in 1983, and the property was returned to the French Reformed Church. The Schauspielhaus reopened in 1984 as a concert hall.

Königliche Bibliothek (Royal Library):  This library is part of the Humboldt University, which was completed in 1780 and modelled on the Royal Palace (Hofburg) in Vienna.  The library is remembered as the site of Hitler’s infamous book burnings and through a window set in the pavement, you can look below to a small library lined with empty bookshelves which is very evocative.  How can students, or anyone, burn books, you go to school and university to become educated and learn about the world around you!

An empty library
An empty library

Unter den Linden:  We take a quick walk along the Unter den Linden on our way to Alexanderplatz.  The street is a wide boulevard with the East Germans restoring many of the buildings.

Alexanderplatz:  This was the centre for activity in the old East Berlin. It is now an area of really rundown shopping centres etc.  However, we found a great Hari Krishna restaurant to fill ourselves up at before hitting the streets again.

Nikolaiviertel:  restored in 1987 this part of town is where Berlin was originally founded.  Many of the medieval and baroque buildings in the neighbourhood were completely and authentically reconstructed after World War II. Subsequently, some of the city’s old flavour has been recaptured here.  The Nikolaikirche is the oldest in Berlin, was originally constructed in the 14th century on the remains of a 13th-century Romanesque church. The restored building now displays the finds of post-war archaeological digs; during the reconstruction, 800-year-old skeletons   Around the corner from the church is an incredibly lifelike statue of St George slaying a dragon.  I also find my perfect tourist souvenir of a small chip of the Berlin Wall and for under our budget I was suitably chuffed even though Scott thinks it is highly unlikely it is from the wall itself.

Berliner Dom:  constructed between 1894 and 1905, in the style of the High Renaissance and the largest Protestant cathedral in Germany.

Hedwigskirche:  the Roman Catholic cathedral of the Berlin diocese. Begun in 1747 by Frederick the Great and was restored between 1952 and 1963.

The New Synagogue:  Originally consecrated on Rosh Hashanah in 1866, and capped with what’s remembered as one of the most spectacular domes in Berlin, this synagogue was vandalized in 1938 during Kristallnacht, torched by Berliners in 1944, blasted by Allied bombs in 1945, and finally, after about a decade of further deterioration, demolished by the Communist East Germans in the 1950s.  It was inspired by the architecture of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  It has been partially rebuilt, and capped with a gilded dome that’s visible for many surrounding blocks.

We were totally shattered by the end of today and can’t believe we managed to get to see everything on our list – whew.

9 November 2011 – Eland, Germany

Up early as the weather is diabolical and you can hardly see across the Aire.  We are heading to a hill town called Eland to have a break from cities and to hopefully enjoy some quiet.  Berlin is not the quietest city with sirens going off nearly all night long.  The drive is not interesting until we get into the forests, which originally start out as eerie and then the sun breaks through and it is all blue sky.  On arriving in Eland we even crack out the camp chairs and sit in the sun for a while – awesome is the only words we can use to describe that feeling.  Unfortunately as soon as the sun sets it drops to minus lots and we rug up.

Sun and an awesome spot - perfect
Sun and an awesome spot - perfect

 

 

 

10 November 2011 – Horstel, Germany

The drive today is through beautiful countryside, it is interesting and varied.  We are also on the hunt for a gas bottle as we are getting low and with the cold nights we need to use some gas for heating.  We following many wild goose chases until we chance on a small one man garage selling the exact bottle we need – so between his German and our English we hope we have got a good bottle.  We hit the road again and finally find our Aire in Horstel which is on the edge of a canal.  We spend the time watching the huge canal barges go by and they are so quiet it is a really nice setting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2-4 November 2011: Czech Republic

2-4 November 2011:  Prague, Czech Republic

Up early for a shower and brekkie before heading out of Vienna and onto the road to Prague.  This is exciting as it has been a huge must see for my whole life.  The roads aren’t too bad, except for the fog which makes seeming anything on either side of the road impossible, let alone the cars coming towards you.  We bought a Vignette for the car at the border which we had to veer off the motorway to get – there really aren’t any notices other than a small sign to say you are crossing the country borders these days within the EU.  We continue on and eventually we come over a hill and there is Prague in front of us, we drive through part of the town where you can already see the wonderful architecture (hmm maybe I should go back to Uni) and headed to Triocamp to park the Motorhome.  The camp is managed by Vlastimil Nemec and he speaks wonderful English and provided heaps of information on how to get the tram, buses, trains etc around the town along with a pile of maps.  It is getting cold and dark so we set up the van and sit down with a bottle of wine reading up on our maps etc all ready for tomorrow.

Up early and pick up our bread rolls from the front counter for cheese on toast brekkie.  We then head off to catch the 162 bus which takes us to Kobylisy and then we take the 17 tram which we got off just near the Charles Bridge.  Already we love Prague – there is so much to see our heads are on swivel sticks.  As soon as we get off the tram and see the massive Prague Castle complex on the hill with the Cathedral, we decide to split the sightseeing into two days instead of one, so today we are off into the Old Town area and leaving the Castle etc until tomorrow.

We do however walk most of the way across Charles Bridge which crosses the river Vltava.  This has to be one of the most beautiful structures to come across.  Dating from the 14th century, Charles Bridge links the castle to the town and although it is now a pedestrian promenade with bands and artists it is also a living art gallery with both sides of the bridge holding about 30 statues.  Of course the beautiful gateways at each end are as much a sculpture as anything else and the Old Town Bridge dates from approximately 1357 (designed for Charles IV) and designed by the same architect who drafted the plans for St. Vitus Cathedral which we are seeing tomorrow.  The statues are all religious in their nature from Madonna, to St Ives, St Dominic, St Thomas Aquinas etc including a statue of St Christopher, although he is apparently a saint no more and another of St Francis of Assisi. 

The Charles Bridge
The Charles Bridge

From here we walk back into the Old Town which is full of weaving streets that following the map is almost impossible.  There are loads of shops and interesting things going on around up and we head towards Havel’s Market to an open air market full of local products and souvenirs (there are lots of souvenirs shops here in Prague, so don’t think you will run out).  It is now getting cold so we stop for a coffee and Scott has a local beer (for the grand price of EUR20, even more than in Florence).  Warmed and recaffinated or rebeered in Scott’s case we head off to Wenceslas Square.  We pass a bookstore on the way which had a terrific section of English books, but none that Scott wanted and he lamented his lack of Czech.  We weren’t sure if we were at Wenceslas Square as it really isn’t a square as such, more a grassed area with a huge statue and groups of kids dancing.  So much for being one of the city’s more historic squares.  The only good thing is that we didn’t do a city break from London and stay here, much better to stay in the Old Town.  We continue walking through the streets to The Globe Bookstore where we hope to browse through some books and have a snack.  In the Frommer’s Guide they recommend this restaurant/bookstore a lot.  We arrived, sat down, waited, waited and waited some more and then got up and rugged back up again, on our way out the waitress said she was sorry but she was too busy running around!!  What a waste of time.  We continued back through the streets, now starving and settle for a pizza restaurant – nothing fancy but at least it was hot and there was good service.  So far everyone here speaks English as well which is fantastic. 

We continue back through the streets reaching the Old Town Square and were just in time to see the astronomical clock ring in the new hour.  This is a beautiful square full of churches and old buildings and you can easily spend a lot of time wandering through the churches.  The Old Town Hall’s Astronomical Clock was built in 1410 and isn’t exactly the most accurate; however the clock at the top of the tower is.  The astronomical Clock is meant to mark the phases of the moon, the equinoxes, the seasons, the days, and numerous Christian holidays.  When the clock strikes the hour you are entertained by a variety of doors opening, statues moving and ringing bells and in addition a trumpeter then finishes off the tune. 

They don't make them like this anymore
They don

It is now starting to get a bit dark (it is 4pm after all), so we walk back through Josefov which is the home to the Jewish area before boarding our tram and bus back to the campsite.  Josefov was once a home to approximately 118,000 Jews, but after WWII only 30,000 survived and now only 3,000 live in this area. 

Next morning we are up early(ish) and after another filling brekkie of fresh bread rolls we board the bus and tram to go back into Prague.  We walk back across the Charles Bridge and up towards the castle complex. 

I still can't believe we are here
I still can

This is a lovely walk with loads of restaurants, shops, churches and a whole swag of historical and beautiful buildings. 

Only a small uphill walk.
Only a small uphill walk.

According to Frommer’s Europe you have to be very fit to do this walk but they recommend a taxi – anybody could do this walk, just take it slowly and enjoy the scenery.  We take it slow through the Lesser Town district before we finally reach the hill in Hradcany for a few of the city and wander through the Palace grounds.  You don’t have to pay unless you want to go inside, but after seeing the entrance to St. Vitus Cathedral, I quickly go back and buy a ticket. 

St. Vitus Cathedral:  This Cathedral has to be one of the most spectacular we have seen anywhere in the world.  The Cathedral was originally started in 926AD with most of the current construction taking part in the 14th century.  Even Pope John Paul II came here three times in seven years.  We can understand why – just spend time looking at the stained glass windows, only two of them (I think) were restored after World War II – not bad going.  If they don’t impress you, try the gold mosaics which date from 1370.  Everywhere you look you are surrounded by gorgeous sculptures, architecture and it is difficult to put into words how interesting it all is without using the same words over and over again.  Of course then there is the St. Wenceslas Chapel which is a sight in itself, it is encrusted with Jasper and amethyst and sits atop the gravesite of St Wenceslas.  The royal crypt was closed due to technical issues and didn’t have a re-opening date.  This was worth the entry fee for the Palace complex (250Kz each for the short tour).  We then headed to the Royal Palace

Inside St Vitus Cathedral
Inside St Vitus Cathedral

Royal Palace:  Since the 9th century this Palace has been the home to the Bohemians and the Vladislav Hall was used to host coronations.  There aren’t a lot of rooms, but what is open are interesting and well kept and you also get spectacular views of Prague.  It would certainly have been nice to be a royal living here in the day. 

St. George’s Basilica:  This is Prague’s oldest Romanesque structure and dates from the 10th century.  Inside the church is small but beautifully designed and it is plain in comparison to the more grandiose ideals of the cathedral.  There is also a great carving on the side entrance of St George slaying the dragon.

Golden Lane:  This street is a recreation of the houses that were used up until 1952 by castle workers.  The houses were originally built in the 16th century and you couldn’t complain about how far you had to roll out of bed to get to your desk. 

We leave the castle complex and find a more traditional pub/restaurant for lunch where Scott enjoys a giant port knuckle with potatoes and cabbage along with a beer (Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen), I settled for an omelette, oh the woes of being vegetarian and standing strong in the face of such weakness. 

We head back across Charles Bridge which is now much busier than earlier and back into Old Town.  Scott is on the hunt for a traditional Pilsner glass so that becomes out mission.  After all Pilsner started here.  Eventually after much walking and almost giving up, we found one, so happily we can head back to Vinnie as it is getting dark and cold.  We can honestly say that Prague is one of the best cities we have visited and gives Istanbul a run for its money.

28 October – 4 November 2011: Slovenia and Austria

28 October 2011:  Postojna, Slovenia

As we are leaving Italy we have decided to call into Sacile and Palmanova on the way through to Postojna.

Sacile:  Just a short drive from Treviso and we are there by mid morning.  This town is described as the Garden of Serenity.  Well it is lovely and once you can actually find a parking spot for a motorhome (we parked at the local sports stadium) we were able to wander through the willow-lined streets into the main part of town.  The town is well maintained, the road crews were out sweeping out the leaves, which considering it is autumn may be an ongoing job.  The canal runs through town and there is a nice piazza where we were lucky enough to sit in the sun and have a coffee.  This is an expensive looking area but there are lots of nice shops, restaurants and cafes.  It was supposedly bombed heavily in WWII and has obviously been rebuilt in quite a few days.  I wouldn’t say it reminded me of Venice as the guidebook says, but it is a nice spot to chill out for a few hours.

Palmanova:  This is a town that Scott really wanted to visit – described as being shaped like a nine-pointed star and a town built within a fortress, you soon realise that there isn’t much left of the defences and you can’t tell anything about the stars unless you are above and there is no lookout tower etc and as hiring an airplane is a bit out of our price range.  The only part you can really see are the gates into/out of the city which are still in use.  There is a large Piazza Grande in the shape of a hexagon with three of the roads leading to the gates (Udine, Cividale and Aquileia).  We decide as there isn’t much to see we will continue to head towards Slovenia.

The trip into Slovenia was easy and you hardly felt like you were leaving Italy.  We are heading to Postojna to an Aire and for the caves.  Slovenia has been settled since 250,000 BC (evidence has been found in a cave just southwest of Postojna and it sounds an interesting combination of new and old, not only that, it is on the Euro and apparently has a high level of English – fantastic news for us as we are struggling under the mountain of languages.

Postojna:  We arrive there as it is getting dark to find the Aire has a barrier across it, so we park in the car-park across the road.  Soon we are the only people in the whole area – really strange, anyway we can’t work out the timings of the Caves, so eventually give up, rug up in the van as it is freezing and listen to the tonne of leaves dropping on the roof.  There was no option not to park under the trees, so have to make do.  It is kind of eerie being all alone here, but we watch a nearby building change colours during the night. 

29-30 October 2011:  Ljubljana, Slovenia

We get up early to find that magically the other Aire had opened – no idea how that worked, but we find that the Caves don’t open until 10am and it takes about 4 hours to do and we wanted to be in Ljubljana today.  There is still nobody around, so we pay the carpark fee (EUR10 which was cheaper than the Aire at EUR18 anyway).  However if you have time this looks like a great place to spend the day, there are excellent facilities and a castle is only another 9kms up the road.  Apparently Slovenia is just full of subterranean caves, although the most spectacular are at Skocjan which is a Unesco World Heritage site.  Because of this geological feature lakes appear and disappear at random times, which may be why the Partisans were able to stay hidden in the bog areas of Slovenia for so long.  At Postojna there is also the added bonus of seeing an albino creature called the human fish.  This sort of looks like a tadpole.   

The roads so far in Slovenia have been great, easy to navigate and in good condition.  The towns are quite big and the scenery is drop dead gorgeous.  It is autumn so the leaves are a-changing and due to the still dominant forests in this country it is a magnificent sight.  So far everyone we have had to speak to has also spoken great English, better than some people at home.

We arrive in Ljubljana and head to the only motorhome park that seems to be open at this time of year – Ljubljana Resort (www.ljubljanaresort.si ) which is just a short bus-ride from the town centre.  There are quite a few motorhomes in and out of the park, although we do feel like one of the few braving the colder weather and heading north, but c’est la vie.  As it is still only lunchtime, we head into town.  You buy a bus ticket from the reception at the campsite and that is valid for a return journey, you only need to tag on and off – bit like home.  We get off at the Nama Centre which is then a short stroll to the old part of town.  It is now drizzling, just a fine drizzle, but enhances the cold and we are both glad we dragged out the thermal trousers, groan.

Ljubljana was inhabited by the Romans in the 1st century AD and has since been inhabited by a variety of countries, tribes etc, all leaving their own inherent traits on the city centre.  Although the longest inhabitants were the Habsburgs (Germans I suppose) who inhabited the city from 1335 until after WWI.  There isn’t a lot left prior to 1511 (medieval times) due to a huge earthquake that devastated the city, but we are certainly glad that people rebuilt it.  During WWII it was occupied by both the Italians and the Germans, but today is part of the EU and seems to have found a lot of success in its management into the global markets.  Today it is one of the nicest cities we have visited and it would be an absolute pleasure to come again in warmer months.  Today we are on foot in freezing temperatures, but the city is easy to navigate.  Everything seems to look towards the Ljubljana Castle and the River.

Presernov Trg:  the first square or set of streets you come to culminate in a monument of Preseren (1905) and as well as linking the old and new towns, this leads you towards the Triple Bridge.   This originally started out as one bridge (1842) before being expanded in 1931 by Joze Plecnik (this was one busy man in Ljubljana – his name is everywhere).  The most noticeable monument in the square is the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation which is a huge pink building.  There were services going on when we were there, so we didn’t go inside.  We always feel bad having a sticky beak at mass times. 

Central Market Area:  How lucky, for once we make it to a market.  This may be a small capital city, but the market is certainly thriving and is beautifully laid out.  There is a lovely colonnade walkway along the river and then on your right there are loads and loads of market stalls in the open air along Vodnikov Trg selling everything from local produce to souvenirs and clothes.  At the end of Vodnikov Trg is the famous Dragon Bridge which is a fantastic photo opportunity at any time of day.  The dragon is everywhere here and we thought it must hail from the old days, but alas according to the Lonely Planet it is from the 20th century and was part of a bridge design to win an award.  Dominating this market area is the Cathedral of St Nicholas which was built in the 18th century on the site of a 12th century church. 

Ljubljana Castle:  We are lazy and take the easy option of the funicular up to the castle.  There has been a building on this site from Celtic times, but the current building seems to hail from the 16th century and has been recently renovated big time.  This sort of renovation would ruin a lot of castles or older style buildings, but in this case it has been done extremely well and it certainly melds the old with the super modern, using glass and steel you can see exactly where the renovated work has been done.  It is also a fantastic venue for any event as you can easily wander the areas and there are several restaurants/bars and a, yes I am going to say it, a good souvenir shop.  We climb the Watchtower to view the castle – supposedly on a nice day you can see nearly a third of Slovenia, today however, we were lucky to see each other.  Still you get the idea.  At the bottom of the Watchtower is the Chapel of St George – now this is definitely worth venturing into and sitting down for a minute to take in all the frescoes and coats of arms – beautiful paintings.  We wander through and along the ramparts and other buildings before ascending the funicular back into town and the thought of something warm.  

After the castle we find a bar to sit down and try out some of the local wines and wow are they good!  Scott also goes into roast chestnut overdrive and buys a large packet to munch on while we are sitting under the outdoor heaters.  We see a restaurant across the river (Pizzicato) and decide to head there for lunch – we hadn’t seen anyone come in or out, but it looked nice.  We crossed the river and opened the door and it was packed, so we managed to get a table and sit down.  This restaurant does both local food and pizza as well as some very nice wine.  I have a large veggie pizza and Scott ventures into the local cuisine of a stew with dumplings.  He doesn’t go for the horse steak (stallion steak) and he can’t eat veal with me as I abhor the practice.  The meal was wonderful and we are suitable stuff when we venture out.  We continue to wander through town taking in the sights and sounds of this lovely place and decide to stay another day and come back in tomorrow.  As such we head back to the campsite via the lovely roman walls (14-15 AD) and ruins as it is getting dark.  Once back at the campsite, we venture into the restaurant which is almost empty – strange, looks nice, does a good variety of food, but we are stuffed from lunch and have a drink whilst doing a few emails.

Next day we head back into town.  It is Sunday so there is no market on today, but we can still wander the streets and the cafes etc are open.  We also realise that the time has changed between here and Italy – yes it has taken a few days and of course it makes sense that people weren’t at the restaurant so early last night.  As it is not raining or drizzling today we wander the streets taking photographs and finding all the places we couldn’t find yesterday.  We head back into the Old town and find the Mestni Trg, Stari Trg and Gornji Trg which house some of the oldest and most interesting architecture that highlight some of the important historical events in Ljubljana’s history.  It is nice to spend the time just wandering and window shopping, stopping for coffee/cake instead of having a list of tourist sites.  There is also an antique market on along the river which we wander through.  The old town is full of tiny narrow streets with some lovely medieval houses and small bridges which linked the different parts of the city.  We are now starving so head to Sokol for an early lunch.  Again we hadn’t seen many people enter it, but once inside it is a huge restaurant over several floors all in the traditional style of vaulted ceilings with a huge selection of Slovenian food.  Luckily they also did a very nice vegetable risotto.  Scott enjoyed his mixed grill of different meats with picked cabbage and turnip and of course the wine was really nice yet again.

Walking past the Opera House (building 1892), we head towards the large Park Tivoli and through an art installation of paintings and sculpture, all set off by autumnal colours.  Back down towards the Serbian Orthodox Church we venture inside to a church full of blue and gold paintings, every surface explodes in colour.  We stop for an afternoon coffee and I have a cake whilst Scott has his container of hot chestnuts.  It has been a great day and we head back to Vinnie happy with everything we have seen and done and just loving the friendly atmosphere of this city.  

  

 

  

 

31 October 2011 – 1 November 2011:  Vienna, Austria

The drive doesn’t look very far on the map, so we set off early for Vienna.  We finally released it was a public holiday here in Slovenia so the shops were closed, although we did find a LeClercs open so did some shopping and bought some Slovenian wine before heading into Australia.  Our driving therefore was quite easy, with the exception along the way we had to buy a vignette to use the motorways in Slovenia and also had to buy one to use the motorways in Austria.  Not sure what the money goes on, but in Austria it certainly isn’t the roads as they are some of the worst we have travelled on in Europe, with only Republic of Ireland being worst.  We had initially hoped to be at the campsite in Vienna at 3:30pm, however after finding our first two campsite choices closed, we find an Aire, but that didn’t seem the best, so hung our luck on one final campsite (Camping Wien West) which was open, well open, but nobody in reception, so we parked in the carpark and I poured Scott and wine and cooked dinner as he was shattered driving through, in and around Vienna in peak hour.

We got up early and I then stood in the queue at the Reception counter to finally get told by the worlds must unhelpful person that I needed the number of the spot we were in, so I went back and got the number and queued again to find that wasn’t the number, it was meant to be the other number!!!  I gave up and told Scott to deal with him.  Scott came back eventually after checking in (apparently we couldn’t have been in the number Scott gave him, and he had to go and check that yes whoever was there had left).  We got a map and a ticket and headed off into Vienna, only to realise that yes, it is a public holiday here today.  Hmm we hadn’t really had a good vibe so far with Vienna and this means that nothing will be open.  Oh well, we are here now.  We get on the bus and change at the train station at Karlsplatz.  We venture towards the Hofburg area which is where the Habsburg dynasty ruled Austria for six centuries.  The buildings are seriously grandiose and overpowering, certainly no lack of money in those days.  However, they need to be cleaned and the whole area needs to have somebody go through picking up rubbish.  Everything else seems to be under some form of covering or undergoing interminable renovations.  We wander around the outsides of the buildings and through the parks.  It is seriously cold today.  Different sections of the area has been grouped into different museums, galleries etc, but we aren’t in the mood for the galleries and having been to Paris, London Scott is way over art.  Most of the monuments so far all relate to Emperor Franz Joseph I (1848-1916), he certainly liked to see his likeness around the place.  We stop and have a coffee at a small cafe – not cheap are these things and we are served by Mr Grumpy, who must be related to Mr Grumpy at the campsite reception.  So far two out of two people in the service industry have been incredibly miserable and unwilling to help, although they did speak English.

We headed towards the Stephansom (the cathedral) which you can’t see from afar like other cathedrals, instead when you walk around the corner it is literally there.  A huge Viennese Gothic building full of pillars, ribbed vaulted ceilings etc.  Mass is on so you can only stand at the back of the cathedral so we decide to come back later. 

We walk around the corner towards Mozarthaus.  This is the only remaining address for Mozart left in the city and it is certainly a desirable residence.  Obviously things weren’t tough as a composer, although he only lived here from 1784-1787, supposedly his happiest time but the effects of a gambling addiction saw the end to that and he died a pauper 1791.  We didn’t go inside as the house does not have any of his personal possessions and I am not an artistic person and struggle to imagine what it would have been like.  We then start the long walk to the Danube Canal and we go via the Prater which is an old style amusement park.  Being a public holiday you would think this place would be packed, but alas, hardly a sole here which is a real shame as it is a fantastic spot for kids with a huge variety of rides and amusements.  Continuing on, we finally reach the Danube and what a disappointment – it isn’t blue!  It is just a large canal with industrial ship works on the sides, no restaurants etc.  There weren’t even any cruises running.  Oh well we gave up and headed to the underground and back to Stephansplatz where after walking past the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Reitschule) allows you to see the Lipizzaner horses before they perform.  I am not sure if they are different to the Lipazana (or however they spell it) horses in Slovenia? We found a restaurant that was open and served local food.  Again this was staffed by Mr and Mrs Happy and service etc seemed an unexpected requirement.  Eventually we got some food and some wine (awful wine, so glad we stocked up in Italy and Slovenia).  After our fill of food we headed back towards the Stephansom where Mass had finished but as today is a public holiday you can’t see the Catacombs or take the elevator to the north tower, although with the fog or pollution no point in trying to get a city view anyway.  So we saw the bits we could and eventually gave up with the cold and started the trip back to the campsite which was actually very easy and well located.  

 

 

 

25-27 October 2011: Soave and Traviso, Italy

25-26 October 2011:  Soave, Italy

It has rained all night, so we eventually pack up and get going.  We are heading to Mantova with the aim of being close enough to re-visit Venice tomorrow if the weather clears at all.  We stick to the motorways and visibility isn’t very good, so no point in doing the scenic drive and are soon in Mantova.  The weather hasn’t improved and we just can’t be bothered to get out, go for a walk in the rain, and get cold.  So we stop and have a sandwich before doing a slow drive through town.  This looked a nice place and if we were coming through this way again would definitely spend more time here.

We have decided to keep moving and head back to the Aire in Soave that we visited last week.  We arrived at the Aire and as it was still raining we called it a day/night and couldn’t be bothered to get rugged up and put on wet weather gear.  There were still a few people there from last time (so much for the 48 hour limit).  We again saw Soave Castle which originally started construction in the 12th century, the fortress went through many hands and owners as it was conquered.  Finally in 1889 and castle and bought by Giulio Camuzzoni and his family still manage the castle and fortress.  

On the next morning the weather did look a little bit brighter, but not much so we decided to stay another day here, it is free after all and we have electricity etc.  In the late morning the weather eased off enough for us to do a wander through town where I found a hairdresser who could squeeze me in, so I stayed to have my hair deratted and Scott wandered back to the van for some peace and quiet.  In the afternoon we headed back into town where we had a drink at a little bar and then found a pizzeria who we thought was very quiet whereby it turned out to be packed later on, the food was excellent and we consumed a bit more of the local red wine.

27 October 2011:  Treviso, Italy

Yeah it is actually sunny today so we drive into Venice.  We park at the Tronchetta parking spot and take the People Mover (this is a sort of overhead tram) as there is a public transport strike today and we can’t take the ferry.  We arrive in the Piazzale Rome and head straight back into the main part of Venice to retake the photos from the other day.  San Marco Piazza has been underwater with the high tide so this morning getting across is via the footbridges that are quick assembled and as the water recedes are just as quickly stacked away.  It was nice to be out and about in the sun and there are lots of people around, but everyone just seems happier.  We also got to watch a large cruise boat coming into the harbour.  We finally decided to call it a day late in the afternoon as we weren’t going far tonight.  There is a free Aire in Treviso, so we set up camp and download the Lonely Planet chapters on Slovenia as this is a spur of the moment change of plans and we have no idea what we are even going to see there.

18-24 October 2011: Lakes and Piedmont areas, Italy (including Venice)

18 October 2011:  Fattoria La Rondine (Fattore Amico)

Back in London I collected some new books for Europe including the Fattore Amico book which is based on France passions so we decide to give this a go.  It gives you access to local producers who let you stay on their property in your motorhome for free.  So after deciphering the GPS coordinates we finally locate a local property and pull up near the vineyard.  The owners are fantastic and speak more English than we speak Italian and we have a wander around and enjoy some serenity.

19 October 2011:  Venice, Italy

We are heading to Venice today via Imola (used to be an F1 race track) and Maranello.  Imola wasn’t that exciting, and also not open for Vinnie to do a lap, so we continued on to Museo Ferrari at Maranello.  Strangely we thought this would be a quiet town, however as we got nearer the number of cars and tour buses soon let you know the museum is a huge tourist attraction, that and the number of Ferrari dealerships.  We find a spot for Vinnie near the entrance to the Ferrari race track and head into the Museo Ferrari (EUR13 each) where Scott proceeds to spend the next few hours in heaven leaving his drool marks from one end of the museum to another.  Apparently if the choice was between me and a Ferrari I may miss out.    

 

If only it would fit under the Xmas tree
If only it would fit under the Xmas tree

We then jump on the motorway to Venice.  The first parking spot we find, I totally read the pay instructions wrong and after we realised it was going to cost EUR37 (Parcheggio Al Tronchetto), we moved to another spot a short bus-ride away for EUR10 per day (Parco di San Guiliano).  Parcheggio Al Tronchetto was however at the port and there were some huge cruise boats in (that will make my Dad drool).  Once we park the van at our new spot we head off to the bus and into Venezia.    There is no motorised traffic in Venezia, so the bus drops you at a bus station and you walk from there.  We wander through the streets, bridges over canals etc having to resort to Google maps as the street signs make no sense whatsoever. 

 

We can’t work out why anybody would build a city that is so   libel to the environment but the engineering feat is impressive.  Venice is built on 117 small islands that are connected via bridges and canals making the only way to navigate Venice on foot or via boat. 

The Grand Canal:   runs from the Piazzale Roma to San Marco and although you can catch a vaporetto or gondola we wandered through the streets passing so many beautiful (and crumbling) palazzos, churches, bridges and various other gorgeous sites it is a impressive city.  Venice starred in four different James Bond films, so it can’t be too bad.

Gondola's on the Grand Canal
Gondola

Ponte di Rialto:  lets you get fantastic photos of the canals, gondolas and other seafaring boats.  This is a large bridge across the Grand Canal and is lined with boutiques and the obligatory tourists.  Up until the 19th century it was the only bridge across the Grand Canal, but that has now changed.    

 

Ponte di Rialto
Ponte di Rialto

 

 

Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs):  One of my must see items was the Bridge of Sighs which we found out is currently undergoing renovation, restoration or whatever and is totally obscured.  Not happy Jan.  The Bridge of Sighs connects the Ducal Palace with the grim Palazzo delle Prigioni (Prisons). There is mystery around the name of the bridge with some saying it is the prisoners’ final breath of resignation upon viewing the outside world one last time before being locked in their fetid cells alternatively some attribute the name to Casanova, who, following his arrest in 1755 (he was accused of being a Freemason and spreading antireligious propaganda), crossed this very bridge. 

 

Not the best view of The Bridge of Sighs
Not the best view of The Bridge of Sighs

 

By now the weather is closing in and getting dark, so we decide to head back to Vinnie, stopping for a drink along the way at a lovely little bar where the prices were about a quarter of the price of Florence. 

We awoke the next morning to gales and a massive rainstorm, but decided to suck it up and rugged up and headed back into Venice.  This was an awesome choice as we were both soon totally soaked and traipsing through inches of puddles all morning was hilarious.    

 

Great day for sightseeing
Great day for sightseeing

 

Tragedy soon struck with the demise of Scott’s umbrella but luckily he was wearing his North Face waterproof jacket which only lets water into the pockets.  We re-traced out steps from the previous day and although the weather was horrible, Venice is still a magical city.

The road linking Venice to the mainland
The road linking Venice to the mainland

 

I was keen to buy a present for my sister as I missed her birthday so we trawled the millions of Murano artisans before finally picking a small shop with a lovely shopkeeper and buying two pieces.

Piazza San Marco:  is full of cafes, well it would be on a nice sunny day, today however there aren’t that many customers around.  The square is surrounded by porticos and of course the stunning view of the Basilica di San Marco onion domes (very eastern).  When you step back out into the Piazza you can now see some of the history that surroundings the Basilica.  The 500-year-old Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) stands to your right; to your left is the Campanile (Bell Tower), and beyond, the glistening waters of the open lagoon and Palladio’s Chiesa di San Giorgio on its own island and is a photographer’s dream on any day except today.  We have left the Camapanile again without travelling to the top due to the weather.

I think this leaned more than Pisa
I think this leaned more than Pisa

Basilica di San Marco:  The Basilica is free to enter, however each part seemed to cost something, so unsure why they don’t have an overall ticket to cover all the parts of the Basilica.  This is an awesome site; every part of the church seems to be covered in mosaics, from gold ones above to beautiful tiles underneath.  The church’s greatest treasure is the magnificent altarpiece known as the Pala d’Oro (Golden Altarpiece), a Gothic masterpiece encrusted with close to 2,000 precious gems and 255 enamelled panels. It was created as early as the 10th century, and embellished by master Venetian and Byzantine artisans between the 12th and 14th centuries. It is located behind the main altar, whose green marble canopy on alabaster columns covers the tomb of St. Mark.  You can’t take photos inside and even if you wanted to sneak them in, it is so dark they wouldn’t come out without a huge flash which may give you away.

We head back to Vinnie where we change clothes and have something warm to eat in an effort to thaw out and defrost for the drive this afternoon. 

20 October 2011:  Soave, Italy

We didn’t make it far, seeing a castle from the motorway we do a quick detour and find a nice Aire (free including electricity) and walk into the historic town centre which is surrounded by crenulated walls and looks up to a castle via small streets.  Soave is famous for its white wine and Soave town is also the centre for Veneto’s wine consortium so it also deals in Valpolicella.  The town walls are encircled with 24 watchtowers with some being in very good condition.  The Castello itself is a short walk up from town and you enter it through a drawbridge.  The Castello has been resorted but nicely done.  Back at the Aire we met a New Zealand couple travelling through Europe in a massive motorhome that they are also shipping back to NZ to sell and they gave up some tips for Vienna and Prague.

The Castello - well worth a visit
The Castello - well worth a visit

21 October 2011:  Novate Mezzola, Italy

Up relatively early we are heading to Lake Como (and hopefully to see George Clooney) and then if we can make it to an Aire at the top of Lake Como.  We head down the Motorway which turns out to be totally uninspiring and bypass Milan before heading up into the mountains.

Como:  is situated on Lake Como which is ringed by the Alps and is gorgeous with views over the rest of the lake.  This place exudes money and exclusivity.  For those nerds, Lake Como served as a backdrop for the romantic scenes in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones—one of the very few settings in the film that was not created entirely by CGI computer programs.  We had thought of doing a boat trip, but parking is hard and let’s face it, I hate boat trips at the best of time, so instead we decide to take the scenic drive up to Bellagio. 

 

No 5 star luxury for us.
No 5 star luxury for us.

 

 

Well that turned out to be a fantastic idea initially, except then the road narrowed to being single lane for two lanes of traffic.  This was an exhausting and nerve racking drive and in my defence (it was my idea initially) I did give Scott ample opportunity to turn round, but he kept going forward.  Eventually we pull up into Bellagio.  Now this is by far the most stunning of towns we have seen.  It is picture perfect and is also the spot for catching a ferry.  We had thought about this but had also forgotten to find out whether we could actually get a ferry for the motorhome.  Luck would have it we could and we decided to have a coffee and a walk around before putting Vinnie onto the ferry (Ferry EUR16.30) to Varenna which would save us a considerable drive. 

 

Not a huge ferry but great views
Not a huge ferry but great views

 

 

There were only two vehicles on the small ferry and we soon pushed off for the short ride.  It was a lovely view, although I elected to sit in the motorhome with the seatbelt done up, not sure why and Scott wandered all over the ferry.  On arriving in Varenna, again another beautiful town, we took in our surroundings and hit the road for an Aire in Colico which is right on the edge of Lake Como.  On arriving at the Aire we find that you can’t get access to it until 6pm, so we do some shopping and then head to the Aire at Novate Mezzola. 

 

Sometimes being in a motorhome is worth it.
Sometimes being in a motorhome is worth it.

 

 

This was fantastic, we are right on the edge of the lake, have the place all to ourselves (another motorhome pulls in much later) and we get to sit in the sun and enjoy a sunset with a glass of wine.  I have to say this must be one of the nicest camp spots we have found.

Our view of Lake Como
Our view of Lake Como

22 October 2011:  Casale Monferrato, Italy

We caught up with our motorhome neighbour which is currently waiting for his wife to arrive from England.  Dave and his wife are looking for a house in the area and have been here so often know all the ins and outs.  I have to say if I was looking for a place in Italy, this area would have to be near the top of the list.

As we are soon leaving Italy we decide to do a small road trip to the Asti/Alba wine region which is in the Piedmont area and have elected to stop at a Fattore Amico property in San Giorgio Monferrato (Sergio Coppo Vini).  We arrive and score a parking spot at the top of the property and then go down and do some wine tasting and purchase three bottles for EUR10 and they hosts give us a bottle as a gift. 

 

Another day, another awesome sunset
Another day, another awesome sunset

 

 

The family can’t do enough to help us and we also walk away with a pile of pomegranates.  We spend the afternoon watching the hillsides and enjoying the quiet.  This style of accommodation is great as you get to taste local produce, meet local people and see a part of the countryside that is off the beaten track. 

This area is not only famous for its wine (including the Barbera del Monferrato) also produced author Umberto Eco (of Name of the Rose fame).

 23 October 2011:  Cherasco, Italy

I had made a note earlier in the trip about a truffle and wine festival in Alba, so we are heading that way today via Asti.  As the drive progresses we note that considering this area is famous for its wine, there is a distinct lack of grapes. 

Asti:  produces the sparkling white Asti Spumante wine made from white Muscat grapes, while Alba concocts Barolo and Barbaresco, both towns are also famous for their white and black truffles.  There are a huge amount of cars and people in Asti, but we find a parking spot and head into the mainly closed town where only the town centre has a sprinkling of people trawling through an antiques market.  There isn’t much to hold us here, so we decide to continue heading through hoping to find somewhere to park or some scenery to inspire us.

Alba:  is meant to be one of the gastronomic highlights of Italy (it was one of the first towns in the Slow Food movement).  Today we luck in and find a parking spot within walking distance of the annual truffle fair.  The town is an enjoyable walk, helped today with wine and food tasting.  I still can’t see the fascination of spending hundreds of Euros on truffles, but I seem to be amongst the few as there are stall after stall selling this produced.  In the Piazza there is some sort of medieval battle of the bands going on, with drums and banners which we watch for a while.  The narrow streets are lined with boutiques, bars and restaurants and are doing a roaring trade today.

Truffles galore
Truffles galore

Cherasco:  Located nearby we decide to end the day at Cherasco which is the home of the lumache (snail).  We park in the local Aire and head back into the town centre which is lovely but very very closed.  It is Sunday after all.  We find a map from the tourist office (smartly leaves tourist maps outside when it is closed) and walk through the old historic centre.  We did find a small bar open for a glass of vino and we also purchased some chocolates which the town is famous for before heading back to the warmth of Vinnie with no snails.  Although Scott did have a fair plate of snails in Marrakech.

The nights are definitely getting very chilly.

24 October 2011:  Tortona, Italy

We are heading through Alessandria and then onto Costa Vescovato to a Coop to spend the night.

Alessandria:  was sort of mid-way to our destination so we thought we would stop there for a walk and also some lunch.  As we arrived it started to rain and was freezing.  It is Monday so we expected the shops to be open, but after finding the town deserted soon realised they didn’t open until 4pm.  Luckily we found a nice little restaurant that served fresh local produce as well as the thickest hot chocolate you can imagine, so we whiled away a few hours here before heading back out into the closed and cold town.

Coop Valli Unite:  This is in the Fattore Amico book so we plug in the coordinates which are wrong (as we soon find out), we try and navigate from the rest of the book and along with some random street signs we find the Coop.  This is a commune where people work producing a range of local products (biological, wine, cheese, salami and has a restaurant).  We meet the owner who shows us where the park and gives us a tour of the compound and we stock up on cheese, wine and bread from the shop after having a lovely cup of Italian coffee in the restaurant.  The ideals of the group are fantastic.  What they don’t produce they barter or swap with other like minded coops in the area.  This style of living really appeals to me and is as far removed from consumeristic lifestyles idealised by those at home it makes a welcome change.  We head back to Vinnie and take a look at a hay bale house under construction (I would love one of these) and soon Scott makes a friend of the local farm cat and they are playing a chasing game until it gets darker and colder. 

 

If only we could bring him home
If only we could bring him home

 

 

Scott comes inside and the poor cat sits outside for a while playing with a piece of string by itself until it gives up.  Of course it is now starting to rain and we can no longer see the views of the valley around up.

Life on a commune - time for a change we thinks
Life on a commune - time for a change we thinks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10-17 October 2011: Tuscany, Italy (including Florence)

10 October 2011:  Montalcino, Italy (TUSCANY)

Montepulciano:  is described in the Frommer’s guide as one of the great art cities of Tuscany (Scott is already rolling his eyes as that description), however we didn’t come here for the art but the wine area itself.  Montepulciano may be a medieval town but it is the Vino Nobile that we are after tasting.  The town sits at 605m and has some fantastic views of vineyards.  We parked Vinnie at an Aires which is expensive to stay overnight but took the overnight option and then caught the little bus up to the town centre where we radically jumped off the bus at what we thought was the towncentre to have to walk up even further.  However it gave us a chance to have a look at the Valdichiana countryside.  We walked up the Porta al Prata to Piazza Grande which is at the top (sort of, there is a fortress come art gallery at the top) of the town and you have some beautiful architecture on all sides with the renaissance Palazzo and Gothic town hall.  The clock tower was inspired by the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.   We wandered through the myriad of wine stores and have to say had a mediocre lunch with the wine and even the wine was a bit mediocre.  It is also overpriced in the town so we picked up some nice wine at the local supermarket for a tenth of the price.  I don’t mind paying a bit more for local produce but hate being ripped off.  We spent a few hours continuing to amble through the cobbled alleyways of the town and slowly making our way back to Vinnie.

Beautiful views from Vinnie
Beautiful views from Vinnie

Montalcino:  Montalcino was a last minute choice as we found an Aire in the GPS and read that is was a pretty medieval town and again some awesome red wines (Brunello, although made of Sangiovese grapes).  We made it to the Aire and walked the 1.5kms back into the town centre where we wandered through the fort that guards the entrance (there is a wine shop in the fort – Entoca La Fortezza).  The Fort (14th century) was used by the Sienese Republic after the final defeat by Florence in 1555.  There isn’t a lot to see except you can walk on the ramparts.  We head to the Piazza del Popola and through some of the wonderful churches in the town before braving one of the stores for a supposed free wine tasting.  It is only free if you buy something otherwise it is EUR1 per tasting.  We did some tasting, but didn’t really feel inspired to buy anything, until we asked some questions about Limoncello which we are struggling to buy.  We really enjoyed our introduction to Limoncello in Buenos Aires, so after some information we bought a small bottle and hence our wine tasting was free.  We then stopped on the way back to Vinnie to sample a glass of some difference wines and also to fortify us for the trek up.

Just a small front door into the fortress
Just a small front door into the fortress

 

11 October 2011:  Greve in Chianti, Italy

Sienna:  Well Sienna was a bit of a fizzer as we couldn’t get any parking for Vinnie, so we gave up and headed to Greve in Chianti via Castellina in Chianti and Volterra.

Volterra:  In addition to its medieval ramparts, Volterra is famous for Alabaster.  For you Twilight fans, it is also home to the principal vampire coven.  The Etruscans settled Volterra in the 9th century and made their living from alabaster and alum and these are still thriving (albeit for the tourist trade) industries today.  We park near the Porta all’Arco which is the only remaining ancient gate and all that is left of the Etruscan walls, however this lowly gate lulls you into a false sense of security as you turn the corner and are faced with a myriad of steep steps. 

The Piazza dei Priori is fairly austere with huge old mansions and a lot of crumbling architecture.  The Cathedral on Piazza San Giovanni was built in the 12-13th centuries and has some lovely frescos.  The plain facade of the Duomo does not even hint at the interior, it is worth going in just to look at the amazingly intricate ceilings.

Greve in Chianti:  We have found a free Aire in Greve so are off to taste some Chianti.  The driving in Tuscany is relatively easy so we arrive in the mid-afternoon and park Vinnie up.  This is a popular aire and shortly it was full with some overflow parking in the field across the road.  Greve is a short walk away and is the centre of the Chianti region.  In the Piazza Matteotti it is one wine shop next to another with some local produce stores inbetween.  Be warned these are targeting the tourist market.  However it was a lovely little town centre and we did stop for a glass of wine to watch all the tourists go by.  We stopped at the small supermarket on the way back to Vinnie to top up our wine and food supplies. 

 

 

12-17 October 2011:  Florence, Italy (Tracy in London 13-17 October 2011)

We are heading to Florence as I have a flight booked to meet Natalie (www.ourbookclub.net.au) in London and Scott is holding fort here in Florence.  We have found a campsite as close as possible to Florence (Michelangelo) on the Piazza Michelangelo and head there.  It wasn’t too bad a drive, we missed the turn but managed to turn around and pull into the campsite.  What I didn’t realise was the cost (EUR37.70 per night), so we are only staying the one night.  We find a relatively flat site and quickly depart Vinnie for the sights of Florence.  The Piazza Michelangelo gives you a view of the city where the Cathedral rises above everything else.  It is also a short 10 minute walk down the hillside to the Ponte Vecchio, in fact everything is within walking distance and as the city is flat it is very easy to negotiate (well get around, navigating is a whole other story).  Florence is the home of Michelangelo, the Medici, the tomb of Galileo (don’t ask Scott what Galileo did, as it leads to a very long conversation) and so much art you head just swivels.  Supposedly Florence (or Firenze in Italian) was founded by Julius Caesar in 59BC as it was the link between Rome and France.  To Scott’s excitement there is also Etruscan history from around 200BC here as well (sarcasm).  Lots of duelling families, countries, religions etc have left Florence with some stunning architecture.  It was heavily bombed in WWII (the retreating Germans blew up all the bridges with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio) and then there was the Mafia who detonated a car bomb in 1993 which destroyed part of the Uffizi Gallery.  So although it has a fairly gruesome past, the city still outshines a lot of larger cities in Italy.    

 

A copy of Michelangelo's David
A copy of Michelangelo

 

 

We start with a walk along the river towards the Ponte Vecchio and head towards the Piazza della Signoria where you get to see some of the art – there are so many huge statues you don’t know where to look.  So we sat in the Piazza having the world’s most expensive Late (EUR13.60 for two) and watching the tour groups head off whilst staring at the Loggia dei Lanzi where Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa is located in addition to a copy of Michelangelo’s David, the Uffizi, an equestrian statue of Cosimo I by Giambologna, Fontana di Nettuno,  Marzocco and Giuditta e Oloferne by Donatello and the Palazzo Vecchio.  We don’t really have a plan just a few notes of places to go.  We thought we would head to the Uffizi first, unbeknownst to us you need to book a ticket and we couldn’t get a ticket until very late in the day, then queue to actually get in at your time slot.  So we decided to come back after the weekend.

Florence by day
Florence by day

 

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) – this is the huge dominating feature of the skyline that you can see from everywhere.  Started in 1296 it took 150 years to finish (it was consecrated in 1436) with the facade being designed in the 19th century.  The interior of the Duomo is very simple but vast and you can climb up to the Dome.  It should be noted that this was one of the first self supporting domes (designed by Filippo Brunelleschi) and was also one of the inspirations for Sir Christopher Wren in his design of St Paul’s.

Florence
Florence

 

Battistero San Giovanni was also a surprise as it is a relatively simple building next to the Duomo, however the 13th century golden mosaics that line the inner dome inside are fantastic.  It is one of the oldest buildings in Florence and Dante was dunked in the baptismal font.  The outside bronze doors are meant to be the crowd puller here, but I just didn’t get it as they aren’t the originals and I preferred the interior.

Piazza della Repubblica (originally the site of a Roman forum)

Basilica di Santa Maria Novella was begun in the 13th century and has a fantastic fresco of Trinity as well as some others by Lippi, Ghirlandaio (and another painting purported to have been worked on by Michelangelo) in addition to a Giotto (Crucifix c 1290).

Basilica di Santa Croce and although the interior is fairly austere there are some slightly famous tombs i.e. Michelangelo, Galileo Machiavelli etc etc etc.  Again Giotto had his hand in some of the murals, but they are in poor condition.  Although there is some renovation work being undergone.  There is also a cowl and belt belonging to St Francis of Assisi.  You can access the cloisters which are serene and give you a beautiful view of the church.  Considering the church was flooded in 1966 (4m of muddy water engulfed the whole Santa Croce area) you can still view some fantastic art and the famous names just keep on coming.

Galileo's Tomb
Galileo

We eventually leave Florence walking back along the Ponte Vecchio (Florence’s oldest bridge with the current incarnation dating back to 1345) which although famous is really just a long street of very expensive jewellery shops made for tourists.  We head back up towards the Piazzale Michelangelo where you can view the whole of Florence as well as appreciate one of only two copies of David.  This is a fantastic place to take pictures and so we had back there later in the day to get some night-time shots as well.

Florence by night
Florence by night

The next day we head to Internazionale Firenze (EUR15) which is a short bus ride back to Florence and where I am transiting from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1-6 October 2011: Vieste and Umbria, Italy

1-2 October 2011:  Vieste, Italy

We left Pompeii and decided to drive to Vieste which is on the furthermost tip of eastern Italy.  It is usually a beachside resort, but as it is winter, we thought it might be quite and give us a chance to laze by the beach and do nothing for a few days.  We jump on the motorway and before you know it we are suddenly following a magnificent coastal road clinging to the cliffs with hardly any other traffic and viewing the Golfo di Manfredonia.  We arrive in Vieste to find this town almost entirely shut up, it is like a ghost town.  There are loads and loads of campsites, but all locked up.  We have found a campsite in the ACSI book called Vill. Baia degli Aranci so head there.  It certainly looks stunning from the pictures and is kind of a motorhome park behind the hotel; however you have access to all the facilities.  So we park up and unload Vinnie and find a British couple nearby who advice that the washing machines are free – well it is like Christmas and before you know it we have all the machines going with everything we own.  We also find out there is free wifi, so we are on that like seagulls on a hot chip.  Eventually we have everything on our clothes lines and head off into town.  It isn’t a large town with a population of approximately 14,000 – in summer and about 50 in winter.  There is an old part of the town (centro storico) that is negotiated via small, steep and cobblestoned walks where you get fantastic views of the ocean and the cliffs.  We wandered up and down sideways and every other way through the beautiful streets, noting some of the restaurants that may look promising for dinner.  Eventually we walked back along the harbour and the beach to the campsite to find the washing all dry – perfect.  We put on some clean clothes and headed back into town, which has all of a sudden come to life and found the restaurant Al Cantinone which is recommended in the Lonely Planet and we have been staying away from these, but this was something different, the food was fantastic, wine matched perfectly and the waitress spoke great English and was very helpful.  So replete we headed back to Vinnie.

If only it was warm enough for a swim
If only it was warm enough for a swim

The next day we rewandered the area and Scott went for a run whilst we finished off some more washing.  It was pretty windy today so Tracy lazed around reading and not doing much.

3 October 2011:  Ascoli Piceno, Italy

We are driving along the coast today before veering into the middle of Italy and through some of the mountainous region towards Scanno.  We found a parking spot for Vinnie amongst the local buses (just east of the town) and walked up to through the steep alleyways into the town.  Scanno is beautiful, but alas, we arrived during siesta and everything was shut, so it was like wandering through a ghost town.  According to the Lonely Planet it is an exhilarating drive up (what a total understatement) and it is definitely worth the views of Lago di Scanno and the town is fantastic with lots of old nonna’s grapping any spot to sit in the afternoon sun.  The main square is the Piazza del Popola which has been standing since roman times (by now Scott just glazes over with the mention of Roman or Etruscan ruins and doesn’t even do Monty Python jokes anymore).   If you don’t enjoy the architecture of the town you can just view the gorgeous surrounding mountain views which are along just jaw dropping.  We stopped at a local cafe for a coffee and a cake and enquired about the supermarket and were told it opened at 4pm, however at 4:30pm we gave up and wandered back to Vinnie and drove on.

Why is everywhere up!
Why is everywhere up!

 

4-5 October 2011:  Assisi, Italy

Norcia:  We had been warned that this was the town with lots of wild boar heads in the windows and we weren’t led astray, they are everywhere as Norcia is purported to make the best salami and the area is surrounded by producers of black truffle.  However the area is beautiful and Norcia is lined with shops and local producers as well as being home to a gorgeous church.

We are staying at Camping Village Assisi (EUR15), however although it says in the book you get a shuttle to the town, you have to pay for it, so we decided to walk.  You see Assisi as you are approaching from the distance and it certainly looks like a spiritual capital.  So what is it famous for – St Francis of Assisi was born here in 1181 and preached here until he died in 1226.  This is not just a shrine to him but also a working monastic town and we were lucky enough to arrive on the last day of a festival which saw the pilgrim hoards descend.  After climbing the incredibly steep shortcut (24% gradient) we arrived just outside the main cathedral (Basilica di San Francesco) where we joined the religious masses to visit St Francis’ tomb.  I have to say I am not that religious but this was quite a moving experience.   

The frescoes are gorgeous
The frescoes are gorgeous

 

There are several levels to the Basilica, the lower level (built between 1228 and 1230) where you can go down to the crypt of St Francis and then the upper level (built between 1230 and 1253) which you can access through the monastic cloisters.  I am not sure why St Francis is so popular still today, maybe it is because even back in the 11-12th century he preached the virtues of poverty and equal respect he was also the first Dr Dolittle and this affinity may be what attracts people today.  The frescos in the church are interesting and you can easily spend a lot of time just working through them (purportedly painted by Giotto) and they make a welcome and refreshing change from the Byzantine and Romanesque art in other Basilica’s.  You can also visit the Sala delle Reliquie and view items of St Francis’ life, although it should be noted that you can also see a piece of his tunic in Florence.  From there all roads lead up through a lovely little town littered with shops, cafes, restaurants, local producers, boutique hotels and homes.   And if you are feeling a bit lost without a day of roman or Etruscan ruins, don’t fear there were more here – much to Scott’s excitement (not).   We spent the afternoon wandering through the streets stopping for a wine.  Unfortunately it started to get dark and we realised we had a three kilometre trek back to the campsite in the dark.  It was an achievement to make it in one piece and there was no edge to the road.

Sunset overlooking the church
Sunset overlooking the church

Up early the next day and back into town to do some more sightseeing now that the crowds have left and the television cameras etc are packed away. 

Even nicer without the crowds
Even nicer without the crowds

 

We stopped for a coffee towards the upper level of the town and if you are a St Francis buff you can easily visit a plethora of sites attributed to him.  We eventually headed back to a local vineyard to find it shut, but this time made it back to the campsite just as it was getting dark.

6 October 2011:  Torgiano, Italy

Perugia:  We are heading to Perugia which according to the Lonely Planet is one of Italy’s best-preserved hill towns.  Hmm parking was a nightmare and we parked in a motorhome spot but were dubious about it.  We walked up and up and up finally getting to within the city walls to find a dreary town that did not stand out from many of the other towns we had drive through although it was bigger, much bigger and we did a quick walk around the main area including the Corso Vannucci (supposedly the centre of Umbria and also the meeting point for ancient Etruscan and Roman civilisations), Rocca Paolina, Piazza Italia and Piazza IV Novembre (which has a fountain and cathedral). 

Torgiano:  I read about an Aire in Torgiano so we headed there and a walk through the town.  This town is famous for its wine and olive oil and is only a short drive from Perugia.  The village is relatively flat for a change, so we wandered through the streets.  Unfortunately it was mid afternoon so both the Olive Oil and Wine Museums were shut, so we headed to Ristorante Siro for lunch.  This is where the town seemed to have congregated and we had an awesome meal, although the deserts were disappointing.  As we have a parking spot, so also enjoyed some wine.  Eventually we headed back through the town to the Museo del Vino which traces the history of the production of wine in the region, unfortunately it wasn’t so much about wine making as it was about the history, so although interesting, the most interesting part was the pictures etc of how things have changed.  Just up the road was the Museo dell’Olivo e dell’Olio which is also a well organised museum, but again didn’t focus as much on the local area as we hoped.  Back at Vinnie we find the local Aire is also next door to the local football strip, but never fear the Italians showed up late and then only did a quick jog around the field before disappearing.

7 October 2011:  Todi, Italy

Deruta:  I really like majolica ceramics so we are heading to the place it is manufactured.  We find a parking spot and walk up the main street which has a gazillion shops all selling mostly the same stuff with the odd exception of some very huge ugly pieces.  Empty handed I give up and we head off.

Spoleto:  A bit of a drive away, but in the pictures this looks like the perfect Umbrian town.  It is now famous for the Festival dei Due Mondi which we are missing but it is a roman town full of ruins and apparently very wanderable.  Okay my idea of very wanderable is minimal uphill, this is not the case here.  You park at the bottom of the town and then walk up, up and more up.  Although the streets are pretty and there is a huge amount of history here. Umbria was first divided between the Etruscans and the Umbrians, but when Rome fell it was divided again between the Byzantines and the Lombards, Spoleto became the capital of the Lombardy region in AD890 (yes it is a long time ago), but you can see many buildings that hint at this period.  We head for the Piazza della Liberta which is the centre of town and also houses the tourist office.  From this square you can easily view the roman parts of Spoleto via the Museo Archeologico, although we didn’t go in, you can see a considerable amount of well displayed ruins from the streets above.  Back at the Piazza Duomo we visited the cathedral which although consecretated in 1198 was mostly remodelled in the 17th century.

Todi:  After a day of roman ruins, Scott was glazing over so we headed to Todi and an Aire which is at the bottom of the town but easy to navigate.  There is a furniculare that takes you up to the town which takes out all the fun of walking up (what a shame).  So for once we take the lazy option and catch the furniculare.  Todi is then a short walk to the town centre which is really nice and a surprise.  You get a great view of the surrounding countryside.  The cobblestone streets slow you down so you get plenty of opportunity to wander through the shops and take in the fantastic roman and Etruscan walls which are very much a part of the current housing and streets.  We found the Piazza del Popola and sat on the medieval stairs just watching people wander by.  The weather is quite cold today, but there is plenty of bustle around the square.  We eventually make our way to the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Consolazione which is totally different to most churches in look and feel with a huge cupola-topped dome that you can spy from a great distance. 

We want one of these
We want one of these

8 October 2011:  Orvieto, Italy

We drive into Orvieto and find an Aire, bit pricey, but next to a furniculare (liking these methods of getting up to the towns), plus it has showers, toilets, a washing machine and you can even order fresh bread to be delivered the next day.  We catch the Furniculare up to Orvieto which is perched on the side of a cliff and then decide to catch the local bus to the town centre.  The bus is small but only just fits through the tiny streets and you are dropped off in front of the Gothic cathedral in Piazza Cahen.  Now I hadn’t read the guidebook on Orvieto so when Scott mentioned it was supposedly a visual feast, nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of the Cathedral, it is awesome and breathtaking.  Originally started in 1290 and finally finished three centuries later, this is the most detailed facade of nearly every building we have seen ever.  There is so much to look at and see, no the wonder there are crowds on the steps.  The inside is also interesting with a great fresco of The Last Judgement by luca Signorelli which was meant to have been the inspiration for Michelangelo and after seeing both, I think Signorelli’s work outshines Michelangelo.  Of course Orvieto isn’t just the Cathedral and we visited the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Torre del Moro, Chiese di Sant’Andrea, Palazzo del Popolo and finally the Chiesa di San Giovenale before Scott gave up on churches for the day.

Photos don't do it justice
Photos don

9 October 2011:  Passignatio, Italy

Lago Trasimeno:  We are having a break from Roman, Etruscan and Churches for the day and heading to Lago Trasimeno which is full of walking trails and water sports.  However, the weather is cold and we give up on the two Aires we look at as they are bleak and you have to pay, so decamp to a campsite(Kursaal at Passignano sul Trasimeno) where we got a spot near the lake.  The town was very quiet, almost deserted, but we are now travelling outside of manic August and things shut down very quickly.  The weather is turning icey and starts to rain so we give up on our walk and head back to Vinnie for something warm. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

25 – 30 September 2011: Pisa, Rome and Pompei, Italy

Sunday, 25 September 2011:  Canne, France

We decided to drive to Pisa, so are just following the motorway along the remainder of the coast of Spain and France, stopping for the night in a truckstop along the way.

Monday, 26 September 2011:  Pisa, Italy

The minute you get to Italy everything changes.  Not sure where people learnt to drive, but it is beyond description and there is rubbish everywhere, so unsure if there are any rubbish collections.  We follow the GPS to an aire in Pisa, but can’t find it and the roads are fairly narrow and the drivers are just so in your face, we park near the garage and walk into the main square to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  This actually does lean quite a lot.  For some reason, I thought it was all about camera angles.  The square is also teeming with tourists.  We spend some time wandering around looking at some of the other buildings which are also beautiful in their own rights. 

Yes it is wonky
Yes it is wonky

We head to Carrefor for some shopping and the worlds slowest checkout chick before driving off to a place called Cecina along the coast outside of Pisa and an aire which turned out to have no facilities but you had to pay.  We were too knackered to argue the point and stayed.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011:  Rome, Italy

We have decided at the last minute to head to Rome and find a campsite with a free shuttle to the train, so head to Happy Camping.  We arrive, but it is late, so we go for a swim and chill out.  Of course the drive in brought us past many ladies of the night again working during the day.  Not sure what it says about the countries economic woes when the streets are lined with prostitutes.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011:  Rome, Italy

Up early and onto the shuttle bus to the train station.  We buy an all day train ticket which lets you use all public transport and head off to Rome.  We get off the train and onto the underground for St Peters.  There is a huge queue, so we decide to just walk around St Peters Square.  It is Wednesday and the Pope does a group thingo in the square at 11am.  We walk in through minimal security and then score a spot right near where he came past in his pope mobile.  Not sure why all the queues were on the other side.  Anyway, there isn’t that many people there and we listen to the first bit and decide to wander to the Sistine Chapel.  There are loads of touts out front saying they can help you beat the queues to get in etc, however, there was no queue, so we paid our money, went through many many corridors full of relics, art etc (if the church sold off one room I am sure it would solve world poverty and if I ever hear anyone bleat on about the church needing money they need to come here and see the extraordinary show of wealth that surrounds Vatican City).  Of course as soon as we get to the Sistine Chapel you can’t take photos and it is packed.  Strangely it was a tad disappointing.  I thought it would be breathtaking, but it wasn’t.  I am not saying it isn’t a good painting, but I just had something else in my head.

Just waiting for the Pope
Just waiting for the Pope

We continued following the queues like lambs to the slaughter and eventually made it outside and found a small pizzeria for an early lunch.

Next up is the rest of Rome.  So we fill up on water and head off towards the Coliseum.  We have elected to walk where possible or take the metro and not do the bus tour thing as you just whizz buy and then spend the rest of the time queuing up for the bus again.

The Coliseum
The Coliseum

The Coliseum is amazing – this was breathtaking.  It is huge and still relatively intact in parts.  Plus the surrounding roman ruins are just fantastic, although a lot of things are ruins or just in a jumble on the ground, you can still get a sense for the size and modernity of Rome.  We then walk around to where the chariot races used to be held which unfortunately is now just a field with no signs or anything.  Obviously the focus is on the rest of the roman ruins.  We meander through the streets, it seems like every turn is something new and interesting.

The Pantheon
The Pantheon

We head towards the Pantheon, which again is huge and even better, free to go inside.  Of course the crowds inside and outside are huge, but it is still interesting and aweinspiring to be here.  We walk up one of the alleyways and grab a slice of pizza and continue on through the streets until we are shattered and can’t walk any further.  We head back to the train station and get the train/bus back to the campsite exhausted but I have to say, I loved Rome.  People are friendly, no hassles and easy to get around.

Thursday, 29 September 2011:  Pompei, Italy

Up and off again today.  We are heading to Pompei, so drive out of Rome and through some very narrow streets and the GPS sends us down a road where we find out the bridge is only 3m high, now considering Vinnie is 3.5m high we didn’t think we would make it, but Scott thought we may as well give it a go as there was literally no way of turning around so we gingerly headed off, obviously some of the locals thought we weren’t going to make it either and watched in surprise as we made it through the other side – yeah. 

We arrived at Camping Zeus and parked the van.  This is right outside the front of the ruins and has a restaurant which we use and have yet more pizza.  Loving the pizza in Italy so far, so many different vegetarian flavours.

Finally a spot with no tourists
Finally a spot with no tourists

Refueld we head into the ruins.  Not sure what I was expecting, something like Macchu Picchu, but this wasn’t it.  The ruins themselves seem to be full of modern day rubbish, concrete, gravel and various other things that have just been left where they have been put.  I am also dubious about the sheer amount of renovation or restoration work.  Other than a million bus loads of tour groups everywhere you look, there just seemed so little left that you would call original or authentic.  Oh and if you get the map from the front office, it doesn’t line up with the streets or the buildings that are actually inside.  However, it takes a few hours to wander through the maze of streets and you can only imagine how modern this city was and how quickly things finished.  We were disappointed.

I told Scott to use deoderant
I told Scott to use deoderant

Friday, 30 September 2011:  Pompei, Italy

We are staying in the campsite for an extra day as it is in a nice spot and we wander through another part of Pompeii which turned out to just be tourist oriented stalls and shops and restaurants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 – 24 September 2011: on the road to Barcelona, Spain

Tuesday, 20 September 2011:  Tarifa, Spain

We have been travelling for a few days, so decide to take today to catch up on maintenance, cleaning and washing and also a wander along the beach.  Today is still very windy and there are loads of kite surfers, wind surfers all learning the sport.  Although most of them are just on the beach as they haven’t progressed to getting in the water yet.  The walk along the beach was like being in a sandblasting wind tunnel.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011:  On the road to Barcelona, Spain

A long drive – about 10 ½ hours and we are now only about 3-4 hours from Barcelona.  We camp near where there is meant to be an Aries, but isn’t anymore.

Thursday, 22 September 2011:  Barcelona, Spain

Up early for the remainder of the drive which is being done by me, first time I have driven in Spain and luckily most of it was on motorways.  We are heading to Camping Estrella which is just on the outskirts of Barcelona and the drive along the main road was interesting with lots of women of the night selling their trade during the day.

We arrived and quickly decamped Vinnie and then jumped on the first bus which leaves from outside the campsite into Barcelona and get off at Plaza Catalunya where we wander down La Rambla.  La Rambla is a pedestrian boulevard, well except for the bikes, motorcycles and various other cars that seem to not be restricted to the no cars category. 

 

Hmm too much meat - I am probably alone in that thought
Hmm too much meat - I am probably alone in that thought

 

 

There are lots of tourist shops and restaurants stopping at one of the plazas to find out where we actually are and want to head and also to have a drink and watch some of the world go by.  There is a big festival on this weekend so there are lots of areas that have been set up for music, so we listen to the band set up for a while and then wander down to the port area.  This is also the home of the Monument A Colum, the monument to Christopher Columbus. 

 

Christopher Columbus monument
Christopher Columbus monument

 

 

Apparently there is some conjecture on where he came from Genoa in Italy or here, but it is a huge monument in a similar style to the one in Buenos Aires.  We walk around the harbour and there are some huge huge yachts in which Scott spends a while drooling over before heading back up the Rambla and to Palau Guell which is one of Gaudi’s buildings. 

 

Gaudi's buildings are so individual
Gaudi

 

As usual this is an interesting building drawing on a wide variety of architecture styles and inspiration.  I am enjoying his style as it is just so inspiring and different, you tend to look at the other buildings around which are so drab.  Scott isn’t too keen and thinks it is a bit weird.

We then head off towards the roman walls which date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.  Parts of the walls are remarkably intact and blend into the city.  As you walk around there are small bars and restaurants where you can sit and absorb the history that occurred. 

The roman ruins
The roman ruins

Barcelona is a city that is very inspriring, each area different, but the history comes through.  It is now dark and getting late and we don’t want to miss the bus, if we can find the stop that is so head off ready to rush back tomorrow.

Friday, 23 September 2011:  Barcelona, Spain

I don’t think it is anything I have cooked but Scott is sick and unless we find a plug for both ends, we aren’t going anywhere.  I eventually make the 8km round trip to the local chemist and buy some drugs for him to take and then we sit and wait and hope he is better for tomorrow.  There are two other Australian couples here in the campsite who come and introduce themselves when they spot the Aussie flag.  Of course both these couples spend the summer in France and the summer in Australia.  Hmm not sure where we went wrong and can’t afford to do that.

Saturday, 24 September 2011:  Barcelona, Spain

During the night it rained and we are now camping in a mud pit.  I had woken up and thought it was drizzling so closed the windows and put the shoes under the car.  Unfortunately the shoes are now full of mud and the outside table and chairs are soaking and the electric cable is lying in a pool of water.  Scott is feeling a bit better so helps me clean up and dry out some of the things and we then head off slowly back into Barcelona to finish off our sightseeing.

First up is the Casa Batllo is meant to be Gaudi’s whimsical waltz and is a beautiful building.  Even the balconies scream for attention.  Again there is a lot of use of colourful mosaics but there are so many details everywhere you can spend ages just looking at small sections still not seeing the whole.    For me this was the best Gaudi building after Le Caprice. 

Casa Battlo - just inspiring
Casa Battlo - just inspiring

Next up was a walk to La Sagrada Familia.  The queue was amazing, almost around the whole cathedral, but it moved quickly (maybe because of the rain) and it didn’t take long before we were parted with out money and soon inside.  This building is an ongoing work and bits seem to open and close as each new part is completed or an older part renovated. 

An unfinished masterpiece - definately
An unfinished masterpiece - definately

It is amazing on the outside and just as amazing on the inside.  Gaudi himself did not see the end of the work.  What can you say except it is vertical, everything is in aweinspiring columns up.  It is different to any church you have been in before and you are just drawn to the knowledge of the environment Gaudi had to make the acoustics and light just beautiful.  This is a busy place, however, and you need patience to be able to put up with the bus loads of tourists who seem to stand wherever you are trying to gather your thoughts for a minute.  There was also an exhibition about Gaudi and nature and how he drew his inspiration.

Every surface and facet is interesting
Every surface and facet is interesting

We then continued our wander through the streets, but Scott was starting to flag, so we had a sandwich along La Rambla and caught the bus back to the campsite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 – 19 September 2011: Marrakech, Morocco

Wednesday, 14 September 2011:  Tarifa

We decided last night to head to Marrakech, so off we go.  We are going to drive to Tarifa where there is a ferry port.  The drive soon turns to being very windy and obviously it is windy in this region considering the millions of wind turbines and also the quantity of solar farms.  It is interesting that the footprint for the wind turbines is considerably smaller than in Australia and nobody here seems to have an issue with them being on the surrounding hills?  Maybe it is a case of better this than nothing.  We eventually make it into Tarifa late in the day and after checking the prices at a couple of campsites setting on Camping Torre de la Pena 1 (www.campingtp.com) where we could get a spot overlooking the ocean.  It is very windy and all you can see along the coast are kite and wind surfers.   

Wind turbines everywhere - fantastic
Wind turbines everywhere - fantastic

 

Thursday, 15 September 2011:  Tarifa

We head into the town centre to look at some car parking options and ferry prices.  We find it almost impossible to park a motorhome in a secure spot, but negotiate with a secure undercover carpark to purchase two parking spots for several days which seemed our best option.  Although Scott is getting good at reversing the motorhome back up all the streets that we keep getting sent down on our parking quest.  With the parking sorted we walk through Tarifa which has an old section but seems to be fairly boring in comparison to other towns.  We find a small electric shop and finally purchase a little gas top coffee percolator and also some coffee.  Finally a decent coffee to wake up for.  The ferry leaves every hour to Tanger and there is no need to book.  So tired, hungry and needing to pack we head to another campsite (Camping Tarifa) which turns out to be better and considerably cheaper than last night.  We also find out that we can leave the motorhome here and it will be cheaper than the other secure parking and we can leave the electricity plugged in to keep everything cold and ticking over – perfect solution.  So we have a meal to use up as much fresh food as we have and an early night after packing a few bits.

Friday, 16 September 2011:  Tanger, Morocco

Final packing and our daypacks are ready, so we lock up Vinnie and hope he is here when we return and start the walk into Tarifa, which didn’t seem far when we drove it.  It turned out to be much farther than we thought and we arrived at the ferry port at 10:55.  We thought there was no way we would get onto the ferry, but we whizzed through the ticket purchase, straight to passport control (who laughed at Scott’s passport and said not to wash it again – I know I made a mistake).  We boarded the ferry at exactly 11:00 and we were on our way.  This is a huge ferry with hardly any passengers on it, so figured they would probably wait for us if we had gone slower.  The ride was advertised as taking 35 minutes, however, 1 ½ hours later we finally arrived in Tanger.  We got a map from the ferry port and headed to what looked like the train station (or as we are now back to speaking French – le Gare), however, after walking for a long time we realised the map and where the train station were do not line up even closely.  We got to the train station and booked onto the night train to Marrakesh with a bed which leaves Tanger at 9pm and gets into Marrakech at 8am.  We bought some postcards and the lady at the postoffice (who apparently didn’t speak English but we kept saying she was speaking better English than us), told us how much a taxi etc should cost and what brand of taxi to get etc. 

   

  

 

Picture perfect
Picture perfect

 

 

 

 

This left us the rest of the day to wander through Tanger so we caught a taxi back towards the old part of town.  It is Friday and most things appeared to be shut, so we got a better map at the tourist office where the lady also gave us some names for restaurants and a suggested walking itinerary.  We thought we would walk to the closest restaurants called Hahmadi or Marhaba, but gave up after ½ an hour and walked back to one called Petit Berlin.  This was also much further away than we thought or the tourist information lady hinted at.  Anyway we got there and ordered a vegetable cous-cous for me and a kofta tagine for Scott.  We were given the obligatory free tapas of olives and some anchovies and tried our first mint tea.  The lunch was lovely although fairly mild in flavour the cous-cous was so light and fluffy, nothing like what we have at home.  We then wandered back into the old souk/mosque/medina area, but this time some of the shops had opened so we walked around exploring the area and sticking our noses into everything and anything.  Stopped for another mint tea to quench our thirst.  Eventually we head to the train station to wait for the train.  We grab another mint tea and a hot plate of chips before piling onto the train.  The cabin is fairly small with four berths.  Scott has a bottom berth, I have a top berth and another guy has the other bottom berth.  This guy was fantastic, a South African who has lived and worked all over the place, mainly running guest houses.  He was doing a visa renewal run into Spain and had imbibed a bit too much Spanish port, but had an interesting collection of stories.  I listened for a while and then took some travalcalm and promptly fell asleep.  Waking intermittendly as the train launched itself through the Moroccan countryside at night.

Saturday, 17 September 2011:  Marrakesh, Morocco

On waking we were slowly coming into Marrakesh surrounds where the landscape is fairly boring, no huge sanddunes and small communities.  Instead it seems to be a large rubbish tip with plastic bags as far as the eye can see and the ground is sort of rocky with similar crops as southern Spain.  We arrive at Marrakesh with no map, itinerary, accommodation or an idea where we are actually going.  We manage to buy a map at the train station which at least gives us the areas here in Marrakesh.   We decide to get a taxi to the Place Jemaa-el-Fna  where we grabbed a mint tea and watched the world travel by and all the sights and sounds of a different country and life.  Scott talked some fellow travellers next to us but they are on an Intrepid tour so haven’t been doing much exploring themselves.  They did point us in the direction of where Sex and the City movie was filmed.  We head off towards the medina and the souks only to find out later we had taken a wrong turn and ventured into the Qzadria area and the old palaces.  Still it was fun and exhilarating to be doing something with no plan. 

   

  

 

Not sure if the donkeys were having fun
Not sure if the donkeys were having fun

 

The old archecture is mainly rose-tinted and the old city is enclosed with a ring of ancient walls.  It is the atmosphere and maze-like souks that draw people here and I would also suggest the chaotic feeling, although it isn’t chaotic, it only looks that way.  After first impressions everything does seem to have an order to it. 

 

However, it was getting very hot and we decide we should track down some accommodation and settle on the Ibis which is near the train station.  I know it isn’t flash and glamorous but we are only going to be there for a few days and a lot of the Riads appear to be shut or alternatively are way outside our budget.  We arrive back at the Ibis and fill in the form and then wait for ages for a room.  When Scott checks on our room he is told to fill out a reservation form on the internet, this worked out more expensive than checking in with the rates on the board in reception.  Hmm not sure on their plans.   Anyway as we had already filled in the form, we stuck to our guns and they gave us a room.  We dropped off our bags and headed back into the Medina and found lunch at Cafe Argana again sitting there eating wonderful food, drinking mint tea and watching the world going by.  We venture back into the Medina which is now starting to throb with people and we get a few prices of things we may want.  Headed back to the Ibis for a lie down (Scott has a sore throat) and to relax before going back into the town tonight for dinner.

We head towards the Place Jemaa-el-Fna and wow is it a different place at night, it is absolutely fantastic, people are everywhere and there is so much going on.  The whole centre area is full of food stalls, all offering the same and for the same price, so you just pick one you are convinced to eat at.  Scott starts off at a little stall selling snails which he liked (I was dubious).  We then went to another stall for a vegetable cous-cous and Scott also had a local dish of lamb.  The food was delicious and there are so many people that it is turned over pretty quickly.  We finish our meal off with some sort of ginger/ginseng desert and a hot drink – can’t even begin to explain the flavour except we both slept like logs that night.

Better than a sleeping tablet
Better than a sleeping tablet

Sunday, 18 September 2011:  Marrakesh, Morocco

Up early and after a very mediocre breakfast (this Ibis is nothing like the one in Tanger or Istanbul) we head out to do some sightseeing.  We visit the Bab Agnaou, Tombeaux Saadiens, Palais La Bahia and the Herboristes Epices area.  From the Palais La Bahia you can climb up and see over some of the surrounding buildings.  You are instantly amazed at the sheer number of satellite dishes they are everywhere and anywhere. 

  

 

Satellite city
Satellite city

 

There is quite a lot of work being done and you just know it won’t hold up compared to the original parts of the city.  We also venture into a local market full of meat, fish and veggies.  Most of the stuff looked very fresh and there was a huge variety.  Although I still feel it is offputting to see a whole cows head etc on display.

We then hit the Medina (Souks) and purchase some Moroccan glasses, I get a new scarf (because I didn’t get enough in India), Scott gets some more hookah spice and a few other trinkets that caught our eye.  We have lunch at a little stall which was a nice vegetarian cous-cous and some haricot beans before heading back into more of the Medina. 

  

 

We wish we could bring all these back to Oz
We wish we could bring all these back to Oz

 

Honestly you could walk here for days and sometimes not find what you are looking for, we spend a bit of time trying to locate a shop that sold a specific dish to only find it later when looking for something else.  We stop in the afternoon for the obligatory mint tea and then go back to the Ibis for a lie down and get ready for dinner.  Although we were hoping to get views of Mount Toubkal (North Africa’s highest peak), there is a lot of pollution and a hazy smog that prevents you from seeing much of the horizon.

We venture back into the main place which is as manic as last night and do our last few bits of shopping.  Scott has a hair cut and shave from a local shop and we have dinner which is a gastronomic feast – lots of little bits of everything. 

  

 

Too much choice
Too much choice

 

 

 

We then stock up on dates, figs and pistachios for our trip on the train.  We will certainly miss the sheer mass of humanity and also the smells of food being grilled and cooked everywhere.  We found the people to be helpful and had no problems with the language, in fact being put to shame when nearly everyone spoke at least French, Spanish and English.  There was no pressure to buy things and you could browse and ask questions, taste foods and look at all the variety of spices with minimal fuss. 

Monday, 19 September 2011:  Tarifa, Spain

We get up early and make the 9am train to Tanger.  We have splurged out and got first class and settle in nicely for the trip.  The scenery stays pretty much the same, lots of agriculture, stock and unfinished buildings along with the obligatory rubbish everywhere.  We have to change at Casablanca where we have 1 hour so quickly venture to a nearby food vendor who was puzzled at our request for sandwiches with just salad, however, we eventually got it and then headed back for our ongoing train.  The lady at the ONCF counter said it would take 8 hours.  However, 9 ½ hours later we finally arrive into Tanger after a change of trains in Casablanca.  We manage to snag a taxi and made it to the port at 6:40 and ran for the 7:00 ferry.

The sights from the train back
The sights from the train back

We disembarked in Tarifa and whizzed through passport control, they didn’t ask any questions or even how long we would be in Spain for but we have now got even more stamps (I have gone back to using my Australian passport to keep up with the stamps Scott is getting).  There is a two hour time difference between Tarifa and Tanger, so it is now 11pm and we get a taxi to the campsite.  We arrive to find that Vinnie is still there and everything is still in it.  Whew what an absolute relief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

08 – 13 September 2011: The end of the Vuelta, Segovia, Toledo and Alhambra, Spain

Thursday, 8 September 2011:  Fromita

We are up early and head to nearby Solares to do some grocery shopping at Carrefour.  This is a massive and I mean massive supermarket – you name it you can get it.  Scott was in heaven in the jamon area of the store – huge, took him ages to make his mind up on what ham he wanted for his sandwiches.  All stocked up, we head to Rubalcaba and use the Aires to empty the toilet cassette and fill up on some water before finding a spot to wait for the riders to come through and grab some feed bags etc.  We find a good spot on an incline just before the sprint and low and behold the tour cars decide we are in a good spot and come and put their cars right where Scott has his flag out.  We then move up a bit more and other cars come. 

It can be lonely sometimes
It can be lonely sometimes

 

 

Eventually the riders come through and it is a huge panic to get all the dropped items.  Scott scores two feed bags (Geox and Omega Lotto), so he is happy and we trundle back into town and just as we are leaving town we run into Ben and Clare who are heading down south.  We make a quick drive to Noja to watch the finish of the day’s racing.  Noja looks like an awesome town, but we too are heading south, so decide to put in some kilometres tonight while the sun is shining.

We eventually pull into an Aries in Fromista as it is getting dark.  Scott talks to the motorhome couple next to us who are from Ireland.  It is so expensive there and unemployment so bad they have sold up everything, bought a motorhome and are moving to Portugal to find somewhere to live, totally awesome.  They have only been driving the motorhome a day, so everything about the trip is totally new to them. 

Friday, 9 September 2011:  Toledo (via Segovia)

Up early and off to Segovia.  This is a Unesco World Heritage listed area and it certainly is beautiful.  The drive is very arid with little to see except wind turbines and solar panels.  Segovia appears on the horizon.  It was originally founded in 80BC and was an important roman settlement.  We easily find a parking spot, have a bite to eat and walk up into town.  The first thing you see is the giant roman aqueduct.  This is huge and rises to approximately 28m high.  Made up of huge granite boulders (no cement for these lads) and brings water from the mountains to the town. 

What have the Romans ever done...
What have the Romans ever done...

 

 

After the Aqueduct is a visit to the Catedral.  This is built in the gothic style of architecture and seems to be typical of what we have seen in Spain so far.  Everything inside is grim, no cheering or happy paintings.  However, the amount of gold and other artefacts again highlights how rich the Catholic church is to the detriment to all those around it.  The cathedral was started in 1525 but had many people working on it over the decades.

Catedral in Segovia
Catedral in Segovia

We walked up to the Alcazar but didn’t go in as it is now some sort of archive museum.  However you do get good views of the surrounding town and it is a nice walk along the walls of the city.  Segovia is a great place – lots to see, do and eat, but we are off further afield, so after our fill of sightseeing, we head off on the road to Toledo.  It is a very hot drive and there aren’t many petrol stations either, so we had to back track to find one as we are getting a bit low and the last thing we want to do out in the middle of nowhere is to try and find an RAC truck.

We were planning to stop at a camping spot along the way, but it didn’t look very appealing, so continued onto Toledo where there is a campsite (el Greco).  We followed the random directions on the GPS, but alas there are some major roadworks in progress, so we felt like we were going in circles.  We pulled into Toledo and headed to the campsite to find a large car park, hmm not boding well.  We decide to drive on up the road a bit more and finally found El Greco.  This is an awesome campsite (although pricey), but has nice shaded spots, great laundry and washing facilities (spotlessly clean), a restaurant (with misters for the hot afternoon) and also a swimming pool which luck would have it closed for the end of the season yesterday.

We decamp and decide to have a drink and then dinner in the restaurant while the washing machine is attempting to destink our clothes (and what a fantastic washing machine/dryer it was).  The wine was nice and cold, although the service was nonexistent.  We ordered dinner to find that my meal was enough to feed about 4 people and the salad was enough for the both of us, however, we gave it the best we could finally staggering back to the camper tired but full.  The views from the restaurant are fantastic and you can see the city lit up.

Toledo at night from our camping spot
Toledo at night from our camping spot

Saturday, 10 September 2011:  Toledo

There is a bus from the campsite into Toledo so we head out at 10:10.  The bus ride is about 10 minutes but at least takes us to the top of the town.  We stand in the mammoth long queue at the tourist office for a map and then head off into the maze of streets and tourist sites.  This is a great place which we didn’t realise.  It was originally a roman city, but was also resided in by the Catholics, Jews and Muslims for many centuries until the Catholics made the Jews and Muslims convert, massacred them or exiled them – go the catholic church.  However, luckily there are some relics of their religions left.  Strangely enough the synagogue now appears to be run by the catholic church (there is even a nun selling souvenirs) with a note saying that all religions should live in harmony blah blah blah, wonder if they realise how hypocritical that saying is. 

The Architecture is very Moorish
The Architecture is very Moorish

 

 

We walk around every which way and then find a little laneway and have a fantastic lunch (I had grilled vegetables and Scott had the mixed grill which had a bit of everything and was huge) all washed down with wine and beer and a chat to a couple of Americans where were driving through Spain, although that also included a detour to Bordeaux for wine tasting.

We walked back to the campsite, although it was now hot, but time for siesta the walk only took about 20 minutes.  As we were sitting down to our motorhome cooked dinner, who should drive up but Ben and Clare after a few days doing their sightseeing, it was great to sit down with a glass and see what they have been up to which is as always interesting.  They are going to stay in Toledo tomorrow, but we are heading off.  Like us they too are struggling a little bit in Spain in trying to find that typical Spanish village.

Sunday, 11 September 2011:  Granada

The drive from Toledo to Granada was boring, so boring.  It was endless scenery of olive trees with some more olive trees to break things up a bit. 

An olive tree anyone
An olive tree anyone

 

 

The drive felt like it lasted forever and we only had a short break for something to eat before getting back into the van.  We arrived in Granada and headed straight to the Aries de camping to find that it seemed to be an underground carpark and therefore we couldn’t fit and there was a fun fair next door.  So we drove instead onto Reina Isabel Camping (www.reinaisabelcamping.com) where we got a campsite, not fantastic, but really cheap as they are an ACSI campsite, plus they had a swimming pool that was open (unlike El Greco in Toledo) and was very inviting.  The reception counter can also book your tickets for Alhambra, so we booked for tomorrow and then unpacked Vinnie and headed to the pool.  The drive had been long, hot and dusty and Scott cracked open a beer and distressed floating in the pool.  Meanwhile I tried to catch some rays and even out my tan. 

Monday, 12 September 2011:  Granada

We decide to get up early and head into Granada so that we leave ourselves plenty of time to get to Alhambra and not be rushed.  We get the 9:30am bus (no. 175-177) from right outside the campsite (Reina Isabel Camping (www.reinaisabelcamping.com)) which whisks us into Granada where we change onto the No. 13 bus to Alhambra.  The bus stops right out the front of the site and one of the nice gentlemen on there points us in the right direction.  This journey took about an hour.  We wander down through the entrance where the tour buses are already disgorging their clients.  Our ticket into Alhambra is for 12:30 which leaves us about 2 hours to wander through Generalife, Alcazaba and the other gardens surrounding the Palacios Nazaries.  We queue up for our tickets official as all you get off the website is a printout which must be exchanged for the tickets at the entrance gates and then queued up for an audioguide (big tip here – don’t bother).  So we have the tickets with our times on it and off we go.  Alhambra is described as the stuff of fairy tales, but to be honest first impressions are a tad disappointing.  Alhambra was built in the 9th century as a fort before being converted into a fortress-palace in the 13-14th centuries.  After the Christian conquest it was eventually handed over to the catholic ruler who of course abandoned it until the 19th century when it was declared a national monument and seems to have undergone substantial restoration works, eventually becoming a Unesco World Heritage site.

Generalife is the gardens and we started there.  It is full of water and plants which leave a tranquil feeling, except for the crowds who are very noisy.  Inside the Generalife is the Jardin de la Sultana which provides some beautiful little spots to take photos.  However it is the Patio de la Acequia that provides the best photos as you can see parts of Alhambra.  You can wander through the gardens at your own pace and there are some very interesting flowers and water features.

Water plays a major part in the garden design
Water plays a major part in the garden design

We continued walking towards Alcazaba and through the architectural ruins of the old Muslim city that surrounded and provided support to the fort/castle complex.  You can’t wander down into the ruins themselves, but you do get a bird’s eye view and can only imagine what it would have been like in its glory days.  Alcazaba is the fortified part of the complex and you can walk along the ramparts and up to the Torre de la Vela for a view of the city below. 

Some great garden ideas
Some great garden ideas

 

 

Finally we ventured into the Palacio de Carlos V which I am sure would be impressive in different surroundings.  It is a large square building (1527) but inside it is a circular two tiered courtyard and I just couldn’t really see the point of the location of the structure except now it houses a museum.
We then queued up at the entrance to the Palacio Nazaries and were ushered in along with the hundreds of other people who were also in our time slot.  So far we hadn’t been that impressed with the complex feeling it was lacking the wow factor that you get from the buildings in India.  Stepping inside the palace though takes your breath away and the Islamic architecture is beautiful with the carvings, tiles and geometric patterns overwhelming your senses.  The problem for us was that the main courtyard was undergoing renovations with the main water feature and lions being removed, so we were disappointed as nothing was mentioned anywhere about this.  Still the remaining of the buildings were beautiful with plenty to see. 

The architecture is still fantastic
The architecture is still fantastic

 

 

We finally headed out of Alhambra and onto the no. 13 bus into the town, except it dropped us in a different spot, so we asked around found where we had to catch the 175-177 back to the campsite and headed off for a drink and a snack before getting the bus back.  Exhausted but happy to go for a swim.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011:  Granada

We decided to stay an extra day and head into Granada itself.  I am sure a lot of people just come for Alhambra and don’t venture into the sights of Granada.  We caught the bus back into the town and headed off to the cathedral where Isabel and Fernando are interred.  The city of Granada is very old and has survived a lot of rebuilding and manages to keep its old charm with lots of streets and laneways that allow you to wander with minimal traffic.  Downside there are lots of little cobble streets that go up and up and up.  We walked up to the Albaycin district to get some photos of Alhambra from across the valley.

Alhambra looks more impressive from afar
Alhambra looks more impressive from afar

This is a beautiful part of town with lots of morocco themed shops, cafes, restaurants.  Scott stopped off and bought a hookah as he was particularly taken with this form of relaxation in Turkey.  We spent most of the day wandering through the town stopping to have lunch with the obligatory glass of vino before heading back to the campsite and a final swim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

02 – 07 September 2011: La Vuelta, Spain

Friday, 2 September 2011:  Astorga

Up early and off to Astorga.  It is a long drive and as we are passing through country we have already been through we decide to watch the finish of the Vuelta in Ponferrada.  We arrive in Ponferrada about a couple of hours before the cyclists and have a lazy wander through the new part of town as we have already been through the old part of the town several days ago.  There doesn’t appear much happening we have parked fairly close to the finish line which has a large big screen TV.  We stand at about the 25 metre line and watch the crowds grow slowly at first before the usual Spanish thing happens and everybody arrives about 5 minutes before the finish. 

The finish line and Scott sporting a new hat
The finish line and Scott sporting a new hat

 

The good thing about the Vuelta is that you are able to get up and close to the finish line and even see the presentations without having to be a VIP or press.  We watch the presentations and jump straight in Vinnie and head off to Astorga where we spend the night at the Aires de camping with a couple of other motorhomes.

Saturday, 3 September 2011:  Angliru

Up at the crack of dawn and into town to take some photos of Gaudi’s Bishops Palace.  Unfortunately this is where the Vuelta is starting so can’t get anywhere near the actual Palace, and can only take a couple of random photos from behind the building. 

the Astorga start line
the Astorga start line

 

Damn should have taken them the other day.  Today we are heading to the Feeding Zone which is approximately 89kms away, but we have already learnt the measurements are a bit iffy in the magazine, so we drive through the countryside looking for a sign.  At one point we stop at a Vuelta official car full of police and ask for directions, but they can’t help as they too are a bit lost.  We then continue to drive up the road and head for the sprint, and this then lets us find the feeding station.  We park on the side of the road just as the caravan comes through, well the few cars that make up the caravan, and get some of the random free stuff that is thrown out – unfortunately the fact they throw the lollipops on the road means they are shattered by the time you get them, but it is fun chasing them anyway.  We swap a few things with the guys next to us and then drive on a bit more when we find the team cars are parking near us.  As usual the manic last minute arrivals happen and we are soon surrounded by people at our spot, but we manage to snag some energy bars etc. 

Lunchtime cycling style
Lunchtime cycling style

 

Within minutes everybody has left and the roadside is again silent. 

We are heading up to Alto de L’Angliru for the big hill climb tomorrow, so we start the drive.  We can’t find it on the gps, so follow the roads that we can and start climbing up, up and up.  We reach a policeman who won’t let us go any further so we park in a motorhome parking area with all the other motorhomes, watching the cars and smaller campers head further up the hill.  We can see some motorhomes further up, but no idea when they arrived.  I go for a small walk to the top of the adjacent hill to find a huge tent set up for a bar, comidas, TV screen and clothing merchandise.  Unfortunately the paddock that it is in as well as the tents is a cow/horse paddock and it is a tad wet, so everything smells lovely and very slippery.  We are fully stocked in the van so undo the awning and put out the table and chairs and kick back chatting to the Spanish guys next to us who decide to plan a travel itinerary for us which is great.

Eventually we meet up with Ben and Clare (who we met on the Tour de France), who drove from France to come to the mountain stage.  So we open up some red wine and catch up.  The Spanish guys next door give us another bottle of local wine and all of a sudden it is very late.

Sunday, 4 September 2011:  Angliru

During the night it rained and now you can’t see the mountain tops, it is also very cold.  Typical for us in the mountains.  People have been walking up all morning, but we decide to head up a bit later.  Some of the climb is approximately 24% gradient and it is hard going.  We give up with about 1.5kms to go as the crowds are quite large and there is no visibility.  We actually descend a bit down the mountain to try and see a bit more.  It is so much fun to watch everybody and everything going on, although you would think the only famous person in Australia at the moment is Cadel Evans, although we did get a couple of Casey Stoner’s as well, considering the motorcycling grand prix has been on the tv.  We particularly liked the people riding up the mountain with a bottle of wine in their water bottle holders, or beer – suppose whatever gets you there and let’s face it the Europeans like a bevvie.  Whilst waiting for the riders we meet some fellow Aussies on the mountain, although nowhere near as many as during the Tour.  Eventually the riders come through – very slowly, so we get to cheer all the Aussies on.  Don’t envy their day jobs, or can understand why on earth they would choose to do it, but c’est la vie.

Bradley Wiggins at the front
Bradley Wiggins at the front

After all the riders and then the team cars and all the other hangeronerer cars have been through we start the trek down the mountain.   Can’t believe we walked up so far.

We are staying on the mountain tonight as it is late and we can easily make it through to Villa Romana for the start on 6 September as tomorrow is a rest day in the tour.

Monday, 5 September 2011:  Saldana

Up earlyish and headed off to Villa Romana.  We pulled into a nearby town for fuel and even managed to get a gas bottle – oh what joy, we can have hot water in the van.  We drove to Villa Romana to find it is nothing but a signpost on the road and there is no parking etc.  There is an Aries in Saldana, so we decide to go in there.  It isn’t much of a place and as there is some sort of festival/fiesta in town there is also a large contingent of gypsies not that far away. 

After Ben and Clare arrive we decide to have a glass of wine to celebrate Scott’s birthday tomorrow and then go into town. 

life on the road can be tough
life on the road can be tough

 

The town is pumping weirdly.  There are some fair rides scattered around the town and a lot of places that look shut.  Eventually we come across the town piazza with more things open and find a tiny little pub that don’t do meals except tapas but they pointed us to a place a few doors up the road which did meals (Restaurante Hostal El Marques).  We felt all grown up having a proper restaurant dinner with proper wine glasses etc.  The food was lovely and the waiter/owner also spoke excellent English.  After our meal we ventured back to the first bar for a drink and to listen to a couple of the local band members belting out a few tunes.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011:  Pena Cabarga

We didn’t watch the start of the race in Saldana, instead heading to Burgos for the feeding zone.  Burgos is a huge town but we got through to the other side and parked Vinnie on the side of the road just before all the team cars started arriving.  Why is wherever Scott and I sit the team cars arrive and we have to move, very annoying.  Anyway eventually the riders come through and we score a few bits and pieces left over.  Best bit was Ben and Clare’s birthday present to Scott – two signposts for the Vuelta from the side of the road.  These aren’t like the Tour de France ones, these are huge full signs that they have been re-using each day, so no idea what happens tomorrow. 

After all the franticness of the feeding zone we then pile into the cars and head up to Pena Cabarga.  This is the last mountain stage before we leave the cycling.  It turned out to be a long and very boring drive and we didn’t get to Pena Cabarga until late.  We couldn’t get up the mountain (yet again) because the police had it blocked off, so we drove to the next village and camped near the playground and nobody minded which is great.  There is a space between the campers, so we set up a bbq with the tables and chairs and chill out looking at the mountain above us.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011:  Pena Carbaga

After watching another campervan couple start off their morning routine with a bottle of wine, Scott goes for a jog and Ben goes for a ride.  Scott decided it wasn’t worth just doing one mountain so got lost and did three different ones, eventually coming back very tired and dirty from his trail running.  The village we are in is now full of traffic and people heading up the mountain, so we pack some food and start the long trek up.  This isn’t as steep as Angliru, but it certainly feels like it.  However, we make it all the way to the summit today and the weather is beautiful, warm enough with a slight breeze.  There isn’t anything at the top, so after a rest and something to eat we head down to about the 1km mark to wait for the riders. 

At the top of Pena Carbaga
At the top of Pena Carbaga

The mountain is crazy, there are people everywhere and the police have no chance to control people.  Of course the first rider up is Fromme from the UK but right on his heels is Cobo the Spaniard and the crowds go absolutely nuts, it is deafening and I have no idea how he even knows the way forward as it is just a sea of faces.  The Australians tended to be at the back of the pack, except from Heinrich Himmler who was doing quite well. 

Annoying there were some riders (not the ones in the race) who decide that once you see the first person through you should be able to start cycling down the mountain ignoring the crowds and police.  Even worse these guys were Australian.  Some of the Vuelta riders started their descents down the mountain at crazy speeds.  Bit of a bugger to find that once you have spent the day riding up, you have to ride back down.

We are staying on the mountain again so settling into the assumed bbq spot and veg out.

You have to make the most :-)
You have to make the most 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28 August 2011 – 01 September 2011: Galicia, Spain

Sunday, 28 August 2011:  Sarria

Not many people up this morning when we were busy packing up and heading out of the campsite.  However, the festivities can’t have gone on too late as this morning the bbqs and tables etc had been packed up and we hadn’t heard a thing.

We are going to drive to Sarria today and follow the La Vuelta course backwards to see how difficult the mountain stage will be.  The drive involves lots of long uphill stretches which in some instances we had Vinnie in first gear going around hairpin bends etc.   Some of the roads weren’t fantastic, but I am sure the riders must just zone out.  We make it to Ponferrada where we get out for a leg stretch and visit the tourist information centre for a map and some information on where the Vuelta will be arriving.  We decide to visit the Castle of Ponferrada which was originally started in the 12th century and being updated and changed for the centuries afterwards.  There is a lot of restoration (unsure how much is left of the original) and in some cases demolish happening.  The town is pretty though with lots of cafes/restaurants etc, but we grab some bread and make a sandwich before hitting the road again.  On making it to Sarria we find the Aires de camping car site (free camping), which isn’t fantastic, but is located close to the town.  We head into the town centre to find a boulevard which is shaded by trees along the river and sit down at one of the local bars/restaurants and enjoy a nice quite class of wine and for Scott to unwind after the nightmare of a drive.  This has been one of the hardest drives we have done for a while and I am starting to think the La Vuelta is a much more difficult race than the Tour de France. 

Monday, 29 August 2011:  Orense

After a good night’s sleep we head to Orense which in the Lonely Planet describes the town as a thermal spring town.  Now we had the best thermal springs in our lives in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, so I am under no illusions about this as we have also been to some total shockers.  We get into the town and then end up driving back out as it was packed and nowhere to park.  We parked near the local swimming pool on the edge of the river (Rio Mino) and walk back into the town and got a very helpful map from the tourist office.  We head off to the string of thermal springs and the carpark on the river that we can camp for one night free.  We struggle to find the carpark and even the thermal springs as the map is more an artistic perception than the real thing, but after going over some flyovers and finally finding the pedestrian bridge we pull into the carpark.  We quickly don our bathers and grab a towel etc and walk to the thermal springs.  There are different centres along the river (with most of them having a water temperature of 60 degrees) and we picked the first one (Burgas de Canedo) which has several pools at various temperatures. 

Bliss
Bliss

 

Big bonus here – these thermal springs are free with the exception of two private ones where you pay EUR5 or you can select to have massage packages etc.  We are in the thermal springs before you can blink and seen enjoying relaxing in the sun.  Can’t remember the last time we just sunbathed – I didn’t even have a book.  After a few hours we were sufficiently wrinkled so decided to head back to Vinnie.  There is a restaurant nearby the carpark so we venture in there for a copa vino blanco and also a tapas plate which turned out to be fantastic (tortilla patatas for me and a tuna thingo for Scott).  Once we were back at Vinnie several other motorhomes pulled in to camp for the night so we didn’t feel lonely. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2011:  Combarro

We were woken at 3am by a motorhome coming in but soon were back in the land of nod.  Scott got up at 8am for a 10km jog and I read a book (perfect).  As soon as he came back we headed back to the Burgas de Canedo thermal springs.  We were going to try the Zen thermal springs but it was closed today (we got our Spanish days muddled up yesterday), so resorted back to the free thermal springs, except today it was absolutely backing hot with everyone turning pink.  Today is also not sunny and there are low clouds.  We decide to drive to Combarro to catch up to the Vuelta.    It is a rest day today on the Vuelta, but we do see Garmin, Liquigas and another team out for a short cycle around the surrounding mountains, we also see the Garmin and Radioshack team buses with all the bikes out getting a service.

The drive is miserable, raining and windy which doesn’t bode well as Combarro is a seaside resort.  On driving into Combarra we were expecting a postcard-perfect seaside village, but maybe it was the weather, but it just lacked appeal.  We parked Vinnie and found the tourist office hidden down many laneways and got a map etc.  We stopped and had a relatively nice lunch, nothing too fantastic and then made the stupid decision that we would go into up to Sanxenxo and O Grove.  There are loads of camping grounds but they are all big and sprawling, so we find the Aires de Camping and top up water and empty waste and continue up along the seaside drive.  This place obviously gets super popular in better weather as the carparks are absolutely mammoth.  We give up and then make an even more stupid decision to drive back into Pontevedra which has an Aires de Camping and we thought we would sleep there as Pontevedra is the finish town for the Vuelta on 1 September.  This was a huge mistake as the Aires de Camping spot is actually a rubbish tip and along with the other autocaravanas there we all left almost instantly and we found another car park but it just had a terrible feel and I was very wary at leaving Vinnie there.  We decided to go back to Combarro and stay in the Port carpark which the tourist office said we could (free overnight camping).  Once arriving back in Combarro we get out for a wander and find the most beautiful jumble of seaside shacks, bars, restaurants and shops all tucked away in a fantastic historic quarter and crooked lanes that melt into the rocks.  Now we got it. 

Great restaurants tucked away down the alleyways
Great restaurants tucked away down the alleyways

 

We walked back through the Igrexa de San Roque and the Peirao da Rua before stopping at two different bars for some wine and sampling the free tapas before deciding to eat at one of the parrilla places right on the bay (O Peirao right at the front of the waterfront horreos). 

the local tiny bar
the local tiny bar

 

The rain had now eased off and although it was cold we had a great view of the surrounding bay.

 

  

 

Up early as we didn’t have a fantastic sleep – it was windy and rainy, although we backed onto what felt like a private beach it wasn’t a very protected spot.  It is still drizzling (there’s a surprise), so we are now heading to Ponteareas which is the start town for the Vuelta on 1 September 2011.  The drive isn’t difficult and we are at the local campsite by lunchtime.  It seems to be relatively deserted so we venture into the town and get some maps and find out where the race starts etc and what is happening.  Although due to the weather probably not much happening.  We have noticed that there are no advertisements etc for the race, in direct contrast to the Tour de France which you knew was coming.  Hopefully tomorrow we will walk into the town and it will be transformed.

We head back to the campsite and get a spot with electricity and more importantly access to hot showers as it has been a few days.  The weather is still miserable so we are spending the afternoon using our Orange Wireless Anywhere precious internet account to do some catching up and connecting with the outside world.

Thursday, 1 September 2011:  Orense

We decided to head back to Orense after watching the start of the Pontearnas to Pontevedra La Vuetla stage.  We get into Pontearnas and are able to see the main stages set up in the centre of town and walk along the race route.

Another cycling mega race starts for us
Another cycling mega race starts for us

We then head to where the team buses are arriving to catch a glimpse of the cyclists getting ready for the long day.

Stuart O'Grady
Stuart O

We arrive latish in the afternoon after the drive and head to the Outariz thermal spring (EUR5 per person) for a wonderful laze in the baths.  Scott went for a jog and met me there later.  It is a great way to spend the time, but Scott preferred the free thermal springs, although this private one did have nice hot showers.  We went back to the restaurant near the campervan for a drink when it started to rain heavily and decamped inside of the restaurant for another drink and tapas before heading back to Vinnie and a late dinner.

 

 

 

21-27 August 2011: Basque Region, Spain

Sunday, 21 August 2011:  St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

We finished packing up Vinnie and sorting out our last bits and pieces before leaving the family and heading down south to the border with Spain and a small town called St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  This town is at the foot of the Pyrenees and is 8kms from the Spanish border.  We find a campsite nearby with a pool and as it is extremely hot have a swim and then a nice dinner out under the awning with our new chairs and table.  The only downside was the flies – they seemed to have come out of the woodwork and were also the horrible bitey ones.  On the shopping list – fly swatters.

Monday, 22 August 2011:  St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France > Olite, Spain

Up relatively early and Scott picked up our pre-ordered baguette from the front office.  We had a big brekkie made up some sandwiches and drove into St-Jean-Pied-de-Port for the Monday morning market.  This market is geared towards local produce and was full of local cheeses, meats and a local cake.  We did some sampling and bought a divine local cheese that was just so tasty it melted in your mouth.

We walked back into town and headed into the old town walled quarter which is full of cobbled streets with the houses filling their balconies with lovely bright flowers.  This is a departure point for hikers attempting the Santiago de Compostela which is in Spain and there are a few shops and hostels geared towards them.  We walked up to La Citadelle which is at the top of the town via a very rough (and [presumably slippery) cobbled path.  The Citadelle was originally constructed in 1628 and is now a school and closed to the public.  It is an awesome building and gives you fantastic views of the town and the surrounding countryside.  On arriving back into the town we visited the Eglise Notre Dame du Bout du Pont which is accessed via the Vieux Pont where you can get some great pictures of the houses and architecture. 

At the end of our sight-seeing we popped into the local Carrefour Market and found everything we needed, including tofu (for the first time in France), this is one of the best supermarkets we have been too, plus it had incredibly cheap fuel.  We had planned to head back to Col du Tormalet, but instead looking at the distances to drive etc, we thought we would head to Olite in Spain.

So off we went and were soon across the border, which we only knew because we stopped to top up fuel and were asked some tourist questions.  So much for Scott getting his passport stamped here in Europe.  The drive across to Spain was beautiful and steep with the fantastic scenery of the Pyrenees.  All too soon this started to change as we headed into the plains of Spain and particularly the Navarre region. 

The drive in Spain seemed to be through very industrialised towns and not particularly inspiring so we are hoping things will change.  On arriving in Olite, we park in the local car park as we were unable to follow the sign to the camping ground and there is no Aires de Camping here.  We walked into the town centre.  Olite started in approximately 1147 and is surrounded by medieval walls that take you into the town centre.  Of course it is siesta time and the tourist office doesn’t open for another couple of hours.  We therefore spend our time wandering around the renaissance and baroque palaces and streets and past the Palacio Real, stopping for a quick drink near the church of Santa Maria (13th century gothic church) and on the dot of 4:00pm we were in the tourist office door.  On getting the map we continued to walk around the town, but this time knowing what we were looking at.  It really is a lovely town with several plazas’ and quite a lot of interesting monuments which have been well preserved. 

Olite
Olite

 

We decide to move to the Camping de Olite campsite which looks really nice from the front.  Of course by the time we get to our campsite it is way down the back on a dusty piece of ground.  Nevertheless we stay where we are and after a latish afternoon snack we headed back into Olite through the 2km shortcut in-between the grapevines and almond grove.  We were hungry and wanted something to eat so we walked into the main town square and sat and watched everyone wander by.  There are lots of people walking around or sitting in the bars drinking, but a total lack of food being served.  We walked to a couple of the restaurants on the map and they don’t open until at least 8:30, so we settle on the Restaurante Asador Pizzeria which did meat and pizza and walk a few more times around the town centre and along the surrounding walls before heading back to the restaurant.  We got there and again nobody seemed to be eating, so we thought we would have a drink, so had a lovely glass of red wine which came with some cheese tapas.  Eventually a couple of people sat down and we took the plunge and grabbed a table.  Scott ordered a Lomo Parilla and I had a vegetarian pizza with ensalada mixta and papas fritas.  We had some more wine and the ensalada mixta and papas fritas came out as our starter, in the meantime Scott was keeping an eye on his giant slab of steak slowly cooking on the parilla.  When the rest of the meal eventually came it was absolutely lovely and for a total price of EUR39 for four glasses of red, two main meals and two starters.  If this is the price of things here in Spain we are going to be very happy. 

Scott loving the food one day one
Scott loving the food one day one

 

We stagger back to the camp site in the relative dark hoping we were going in the right direction.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011:  Olite, Spain > Mutriku, Spain

The weather is baking hot, so instead of staying here another night, we decide to head back up to the mountain region and discover a bit more of the Basque area and coastline, so actually headed up past San Sebastian and onto the coast road going past Zumaia and Deba.  By then the driving was getting a bit tiring due to the windy roads and also it was no longer hot it was in fact drizzling.  The drive on the map looked like it went along the coast; however it was mainly in a green tunnel with lots of trees and only glimpses of the ocean.  We did stop and take a few photos of the cliffs.  We stopped at camping Santa Elena just on the outskirts of Mutriku.  Be warned this is not a campsite for motorhomes, or biggish ones.  We struggled to get into a campsite and ended up at the front of the campsite with the other motorhomes who too were having problems.  We put out our awning as it was raining and headed to the local bar to watch a bit of the TV and also use their free wifi.  During the night we had to get up and use tent pegs to stabilise the awning and close all the windows etc as the weather really started coming in bad.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011:  Mutriku, Spain > Lekeitio, Spain

We left the campsite in the drizzle again and headed along through the ocean drive.  If it doesn’t improve we will switch onto the motorway.  We make it about an hour up the road coming across a town called Lekeitio which luck would have it has an Aries de Camping, so we pulled in and walked into town.  Lekeitio is on the central Basque Coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao and has a fantastic old city full of cobbled streets, tiny little shops and bars and a huge Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Asuncion which is one of those typical Spanish churches with huge intricately carved nave. 

The weirest church sculpture goes to....
The weirest church sculpture goes to....

 

The drawcard at the town is apparently the beaches and they are certainly very nice, immaculate and raked to within an inch of their lives.  The water was also very warm.  There are wooden boardwalks at the top of the beach with lots of showers etc.  There is also the view of an island which you can walk to when the tide is out and if Scott had agreed to take his shoes off we would off. 

The harbour
The harbour

 

We walked into town and find a bar which was set up with tapas and glasses all ready for the rush, so we grabbed a couple of chairs and while all the tapas had anchovies in them we managed to scrape off enough of them for me to sample and they were delicious.  Eventually we headed back to the Aries and had a siesta – as they say, when in Spain do as the locals.  As it started to get dark we headed back into the town, but as usual the restaurants don’t open until it is so late, we couldn’t be bothered and went back to Vinnie and made our own dinner.  It is quite at the Aries, which is a great thing.

Thursday, 25 August 2011:  Lekeitio, Spain > Comillas, Spain

Up early and out to buy our bread and hopefully find the supermarche open as well for a couple more supplies – finally in luck and we have jagged the magical time of day when some shops are open for trading hurrah.  Back to Vinnie with our food and off on a day of sightseeing.  We have elected to get back onto the motorway as the coast route isn’t that fantastic and we head to Castro-Urdiales.  To get there we have to navigate the Bilbao by-pass.  This is like a giant bowl of spaghetti, there are roads, bridges, flyovers, tunnels etc all going around the mountains surrounding Bilbao.  We thought we might stop but once we got there figured we may never find our way out, so we continued on. 

We arrive at Castro-Urdiales at lunchtime (well for us it is lunchtime) and thought we would stop.  According to the Lonely Planet this is a medieval town.  Unfortunately what it doesn’t say is that is has a one way system, impossible to get motorhomes through and when we did we couldn’t find any parking whatsoever, so we gave up and headed through to the other side of the city.  So not a promising start to sightseeing.  We pulled off into a small town and had our lunch and noticed one of our headlamps has blown, so Scott went in to get a replacement and finding out it was EUR24 for one bulb made us think we would turn them off and wait.  We only paid EUR7 for the other bulb the day before.

Next up was Santillana del Mar which again sounded beautiful, being described as a medieval jewel in a perfect state of preservation.  We looked for a parking spot to no avail and you can’t take cars into the actual town centre.  We headed for Camping Sentillana which is just on the outskirts on the way to Comillas and got a campsite for EUR30 (the most expensive so far on the trip).  However, it had been raining heavy here and the spot we picked turned out to be a wonderful muddy bog and we got stuck.  Another guy came to help and eventually after much pushing, and using the doormat to get some form of traction we got Vinnie back onto the driveway, got a refund and continued on to Comillas hoping our luck was about to change.

It was now getting relatively late, so we pulled up into the local car park and thought we might camp there for the night, but the parking inspector said you couldn’t so we went back to Camping Comillas and got a spot right on the beach side.  It had been raining here as well and a lot of the campsites looked very boggy and you could see where even some of the cars had had some trouble.  We picked a relatively flat campsite and that was it.  As the campsite is on a cliff overlooking the beaches we had a fantastic view and even though the Lonely Planet says you have to book for a minimum of five nights, we are only staying for one night. 

Not a bad view
Not a bad view

 

We walked up into the old town centre which is a pleasant cobbled walk (stopping for at the local helador for a quick icecream) and of course has the fame of having one of Antoni Gaudi buildings, Capricho de Gaudi.  We went to the supermarket got some dinner for the night and had a jug of sangria in one of the restaurants near the plaza who also gave us some tapas to try. 

Sangria - yeah
Sangria - yeah

 

We then walked to Capricho de Gaudi which I thought was fantastic.  He had used tiles of sunflowers on the outside and then designed everything on the inside to take advantage of the light.  It isn’t a huge building, but you can see how well thought out things are and how he gained the inspiration of his design for this building by the surrounding countryside, I have to say I am a fan, Scott of course can’t see what the fuss is about. 

La Caprice - gorgeous and inspiration in design
La Caprice - gorgeous and inspiration in design

 

We wander back down slowly meandering our way back to Vinnie where the weather was lovely that we sat outside while Scott cooked up his sausages and watched the ocean which is beautiful and flat. 

Scott finally getting to use the bbq
Scott finally getting to use the bbq

 

We tested out a local Temperanillo wine which cost us less than EUR2 per bottle and were pleasantly surprised, it is very nice, not the same words you would use for the white wine.  We are going to go snorkelling around the rocks tomorrow.

Friday, 26 August 2011:  Comillas, Spain > Astorga, Spain

Up early and look outside, during the night the weather had changed completely and the ocean was made for surfing today, plus it was very windy, so we decided to move on.  We walked into town and bought our baguette from the local market plus another two bottles of the Temperanillo we had last night.

Due to all the rain along the coast, we have decided to head back inland to Astorga so commenced the drive.  It was very windy today and hard going, plus we are driving through the Picos de Europa which so far has the highest hills we have driven across, it felt like we spent most of the day going up.  There is a Peage at the top which for EUR10 was the best bargain on paid motorways we have come across so far, but even after then we felt like we spent the remainder of the drive going up, up and up and of course watching the fuel take going down, down and down.  At one point we were going downhill and Scott still had his foot flat to the floor on the accelerator and we were losing speed.

We eventually reach Astorga and pull into the Aries de Camping ground which is located near the bullring.  It isn’t a very inspiring place and we decide to park a bit closer to town and work out what to do.  Astorga is famous for its roman ruins and you can see the walls and the archaeological work that has been done.  Of course it also the home of a Palacio Episcopal, another Antoni Gaudi designed building. 

It is siesta time so everything feels like the people have been abducted by aliens and we wander almost alone, except for a few other tourists.  We get into the tourist information office and the man is very helpful and speaks good English, so we are soon armed with a map and also where the mobile phone shop is, so we can hopefully get a sim card for the iPhone.  The man told us that we can park anywhere in the van, so we move to a closer carpark near the roman steps and head off for some sightseeing.

As there is some sort of fiesta on, we find that the Vodafone store is closed, the Orange store opens at 5pm and the Movistar store opens at 5:30pm.  We have a drink in the main plaza near the townhall and at 5pm head to Orange who have run out of micro-sims, so we head to Movistar who only do contracts, so we had back to Orange and buy an internet anywhere dongle for the computer which will cost us EUR3.5 per day when we use it, so we buy four days and the dongle and head off.  We have also managed to buy a Vuelta magazine with a map and times for all the stages and can now plan where we are heading to next.  After some sightseeing, we decide to try a local campsite and head to Camping La Manga in Villarejo de Orbigo where we managed to get a camp spot near the river and unpack ourselves.  The wind isn’t so strong here, but it has certainly chilled down somewhat and we are back into jumpers – we are loving the European summer.  It is relatively quiet here and we have dinner and watch a movie.  Of course the Spanish people around us decide that 11pm is the time for dinner, so you can hear everyone starting to cook, I don’t know how you can eat your main meal at that time.

Saturday, 27 August 2011:  Villarejo de Orbigo, Spain

We have decided to stay another night here as it is cheap (EUR13.20) and has everything we need.  So we managed to talk to the man in the office and pay our money and walk into town along the river.  The town is really strange, lots of electric shops but one supermarket that is packed.  At the meat counter they were up to number 20, and Scott got number 41 – we gave up and then queued at the checkout instead for probably the same amount of time.  We walked back to the campsite via the sign that said restaurant to see what was there, walking past an old man doing his veggie garden which was awesome, so much produce in a small plot of land, certainly lots of ideas for home.  At the end of the road, we surprisingly found a restaurant that had some people in, so we settled in for an obligatory copa vino blanco and cerveca.  We got a plate of olives and then Scott got some sort of mince balls in a tomato paste, everything was lovely as we were sitting in the sun and defrosting nicely.  We noticed that they were doing lunch so after much discussion with the staff I could have an ensalada mixta with queso and Scott got to order anything else off the menu, which wasn’t targeted towards vegetarians.  He settled on the squid.  My ensalada mixta came with atun (tuna), so I had to send it back, but when it returned, I had the distinct impression they just picked off the tuna.  Anyway it was huge and filling and Scott enjoyed his meal.

It was time to head back to Vinnie and maybe an afternoon siesta as it was 3pm.  On arriving back everyone else was just sitting down to lunch and also starting to organise a few bbqs in a row, so not really sure what is going on.  We had a glass of the local cidre which I thought was a bit overrated especially as you have to pour it from a great height which just causes everything around you to get splashed.  The bbqs around us got lit at about 9pm and the Spanish settled down to a giant feast of meat at 11:30pm, I have indigestion just thinking of the amount of meat and the time of night.

8-20 August 2011: Dordogne, France

Monday 8 August 2011 – Sunday 14 August 2011

We pick up the keys for my cousin’s house and decamp there.  We abrre only going to stay a few days but are going to take the opportunity to tidy up the van and hopefully get some repairs done to the damaged awning.  We also decide to do a small bit of sightseeing in the area and Scott wants to start doing some longer runs (he is preparing for the London 2012 Marathon) whilst I am going to spend the time reading and getting some sun.  Well that is the plan anyway.

So we managed to get in a bit of sightseeing in Riberac and Brantome which are both the usual French villages with half timbered houses and full of english people.  We got excited in Brantome about a restaurant we saw in the distance called Indien Coleur, but alas it was an english restaurant.  We are so missing indian food we are dreaming about it.

We also managed to find two replacement parts for our awning, but they are in Dorset, England.  There is an Omnistor dealer here in Brantome, but alas even though it advertises as being open Monday-Friday from 8:00am, for two days in a row we have been unable to get to see anybody as the gates are locked.  So in the end we are having them couriered to London and my cousin is bringing them over on Thursday so we can head down to Spain and catch the Vuelta. 

Full moon up the driveway and across the sunflower fields
Full moon up the driveway and across the sunflower fields

The weather all week has been sunny, windy, rainy, misty, foggy, drizzly, more drizzly and even more drizzly.  We are baffled by the idea of a european summer.  Definately not much good for my suntanning.  So I get stuck into the garden which has thrived a bit too much with a bit of sun and lots of rain and manage to amass six large garbage bags of weeds and it hardly looks like I have done anything.  In the meantime Scott has emptied the van and done a few repairs, so now we are just biding our time and doing nothing.  Hmm something I can’t remember the last time we did.  Although we have managed to do some changes to my cousins website for the house (www.highlivingfrance.com), some changes to ourbookclub website (www.ourbookclub.net.au) and of course our blog.

Sunset from the terrace
Sunset from the terrace

On Scott’s first long run he got totally lost in the area and ended up doing 17kms.  On his next run he did 22kms and didn’t get lost, so not sure if that is a good thing or not.  I haven’t started my marathon training, yet still waiting for inspiration!

Other than that we spent a lot of time reading, downloading books and movies and generally pottering around.  Our new computer laptop battery arrived and we are now free of cables for a while which is fantastic.  In addition the new camera batteries also arrived so we can take more than a couple of pictures without having to change batteries.  We did order some travel books, but no luck in those arriving and have given up.

On 16 August 2011, my cousins’ (Linda) son Mark, his wife Annie and their kids, Josh, Ellie and Chloe arrived for a family holiday and we settled into a louder but fun routine.  I haven’t seen Mark since he was about 7, so it was great to meet some of the family.  The kids were great fun, playing games and had Scott answering a million questions and coming up with things to do.  The underwater dive torch is fantastic for hunting for night-time critters.  Of course the decision was made to build the trampoline that had been donated to the house free, this seemed like a relatively easy thing to do but turned into an almost blood bath with springs flying everywhere and in the end to find the mat had a small tear and the netting walls were unusable – c’est la vie, in future buy good quality should be the motto at the end of the day.

On 18 August 2011, my cousin (Robert) and Kevin arrive with a massive van full of English food and equipment and our peace was shattered.  My Auntie Eve and Uncle Bob are arriving on Saturday, and the house has to be totally reorganised and cleaned for their arrival, so all hands on deck with Robert being his usual frantic self doing a bit here and there while Annie cleaned top to bottle.  Scott spent the morning installing the awning parts and they work fine, so that is fantastic news and means we don’t have to buy a whole new awning.  In the afternoon Scott, Mark and I decided to build the plastic swimming pool.  Of course the first instructions are to find a level spot – hmm Robert wanted it to go in the driveway below the back terrace which is on a slight slope, so we built it there with loads of warnings from us if things go wrong.  This was a good exercise in teamwork and also should be noted not the best thing to do in the middle of the day when it is really hot.  Also should be noted that nobody had bought any chemicals or salt for the water, so will be interesting to see how long it takes for the water to go manky when full of people and kids.  Eventually it was completed (with the exception of the cleaning thing that attaches to the hose as that got moved in the manic cleanup and I couldn’t find it again). 

On 20 August 2011, the final cleaning frenzy continued and then eventually my Auntie and Uncle arrived with my cousin (Linda) and they did the grand tour and hopefully appreciated how much hard work everyone put in.  After they settled in, it was time to christen the pool and we all got in for a few hours of cooling down.  For some reason today it is baking hot.  We had a nice time and a nice family meal.  But as the TV is now here and installed time for us to move on and enjoy the countryside some more.

 

1-7 August 2011: Central France

Monday, 1 August 2011: Avallon, Vezelay and Auxerre

 

Only a short amount of driving today and we are heading to Avallon, Vezelay and then stopping in Auxerre for the night. 

Avallon:  is a walled town overlooking the River Cousin.  We find a terrible parking spot for Vinnie on the main road, but couldn’t find anywhere else, so walked into the historic quarter and the Tour de l’Horloge (15th century clock tower).  It is very quiet in the old quarter this time in the morning, so we wander into the old church (Collegial St-Lazare) which apparently was flocked too about eight centuries ago as it was believed the a part of the skill of St Lazarus gave you protection from Leprosy.  Unfortunately it is relatively derelict and in need of some serious renovations.  It is also sad to say that one medieval town after another is starting to cause a blur in the old memory and things are seriously starting to look alike.  Scott has a theory on the number of flowerpots and is now just looking at them to see which ones are nicer.

Another medieval town
Another medieval town

Vezelay:  Now a Unesco World Heritage Site with great camper van/motorhome parking facilities (6EUR per day – you can’t camp overnight, but there is information where you can).  It is a tiny hilltop village topped by a medieval basilica (still in use today).  This town is on the Santiago de Compostela in Spain and we saw a lot of trekkers, including Scouts.  You start the walk in town at the Place du Champ de Foire (the tourist office is located near here although they didn’t have any information in English) and can visit the Porte Neuve, Maison Jules Roy and Chapelle de la Cordelle before going into the Basilique Ste Marie-Madeline.  The streets are all cobblestone streets which are bordered by art galleries, restaurants and wine shops.  Everyone aims to get to the Basilique Ste-Madeleine which was founded in 880 AD and subsequently rebuilt between the 11th and 13th centuries and then again in 1940.  It is a peaceful church considering how many people were there and very simply furnished – other than the nun who was oblivious to the note that said about silence as she dragged her vacuum cleaner along the aisle.  The Basilique is a mixture of gothic and Romanesque architectural styles and you can then wander in the grounds to see the countryside below. 

A beautifully detailed ceiling
A beautifully detailed ceiling

What is nice is that the church is still used today and is very much a working church and the nuns and priests are very prevalent in the church and also the village where they run a local shop.

On change of shift from the local shop
On change of shift from the local shop

 

We headed back down the streets to a restaurant with a terrace and just made it in before the usual French lunchtime hoards arrived.

Auxerre:  We arrived in Auxerre and joined a small queue for the municipal campsite (Eur 13.60 per night including electricity) which is approximately 20 minutes walk from the medieval part of the town.  We unpacked and set up camp and then headed off to walk along the river.  This campsite has the weirdest configuration for electricity.  Once you set up camp, the lady from reception comes out and unlocks the electricity box and then puts in your cable – when you leave she has to come back and unlock and unplug it!  Auxerre used to be a port in Roman times, but the river is now probably only used for tourists travelling along the river system in their boats and barges. 

More half timbered houses
More half timbered houses

 

At the top of Auxerre is the Cathedrale St-Etienne, so up we go again. I do wonder if these towns were just designed to ensure I have to walk uphill constantly.   Not as old as the nearby Abbaye St-Germain, the Cathedral has been dated to the 11th century.  We wander back down through the pedestrianised streets and a different way back to the municipal campsite to enjoy some of the last of the days rays.   

 Tuesday, 2 August 2011:  Chambord, Blois and Amboise

Well the beautiful day from yesterday certainly changed overnight with thunder and lighting and lots of rain.  So we set off on our long drive today driving through some villages that were deluged.  Eventually we made it to Chambord.

Chateau de Chambord:  We aren’t visiting many chateaux, so I choose this one.  Supposedly for its full-blown chateau splendour and one of the best examples of French Renaissance architecture.  However it is also the busiest and most visited in addition to being one of the most disappointing.  There is plenty of motorhome/campervan parking however, with an area dedicated which is good as the car parks were complet and this was lunchtime.  Chambord started out life as a hunting lodge when it was conceived by Francois I in 1519 – it is so small don’t know why he bothered, after all 426 rooms, 77 staircases and 282 fireplaces wouldn’t fit in the usual hunting party!  The double helix staircase was supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci who Francois I befriended.  Strangely enough the chateau turned out to be too cold and nobody ever lived there permanently.   Francois I only spent 72 days here during his 32 year reign so a perfect investment for the starving people of France during those times.  Eventually the French Government bought the property from the Comte de Chambord’s heirs in 1930.  The tour takes you through several rooms that are decorated as they may have looked during different times, notice the may bit, nothing here is original.  Chambord was disappointing to say the least, there aren’t many rooms open, not much is left of the original building and the grounds are in total disarray with weeds bigger than anything else planted here.  We were going to camp overnight to see the night show, but decided it would probably be as crap so headed off.

Chateau de Chambord
Chateau de Chambord

Blois:  The town of Blois isn’t far from Chambord so we head here.  We find a parking spot, luckily, along the riverside and witness one crash on the roundabout with a car so desperate to overtake the horse and cart is overtakes on a one lane roundabout.  So far first impressions are a town of young overhyped teenagers with cars they can’t drive and road rules they ignore.  Anyway as usual we walk up to the Old City.  Blois suffered heavy bombardment during WWII so a lot of the modern day town is post-war reconstruction and rebuilt to how Blois might have been in medieval times.  At the top of the hill is the Cathedrale St-Louis although the stained glass windows date as far back as 2000 it is a bit uninteresting inside.  One good thing about Blois is that all the tourist information is also given in English.  Across from the Cathedral is the facade Maison des Acrobates and one of the few 15th century houses to survive.  We were going to stay here but can’t compete with the hotted up cars that have stereos we can only hope drive their occupants deaf in a short space of time, so we move on.

A lot of detail for a new house
A lot of detail for a new house
At least the signs are also in English
At least the signs are also in English

Amboise:  This is the final resting place of Leonardo de Vinci.  We head to the Camping de L’lle d’Or and the even bigger than usual queue.  I snagged a spot for two nights and we head into the melee of motorhomes, campervans, antique campervans, tents and various other holiday style accommodations.  We are on an islet surrounded by the Loire River, however, due to the amount of people don’t expect it to be vaguely quiet.  To give you an idea, we are in spot 300.  We head into Amboise for a quick look around.

Amboise
Amboise

 

 We find a Carrefour and buy a few local supplies before sitting down for a beer/wine at a sidewalk cafe. 

A beautiful setting below the chateau
A beautiful setting below the chateau

 

Wednesday, 3 August 2011 and Thursday, 4 August 2011:  Amboise

Up early – Scott finally had a decent night sleep for the last few days, so hope his mood improves J  We are heading to Chateau du clos Luce which is where Leonardo de Vinci took up residence on the invitation of the French king, Francois I in 1516 at the age of 64. 

Not a bad house
Not a bad house

 

The chateau was built in 1471 on 12th century foundations and is arranged around an octagonal corner tower with two 2-story buildings at right angles.  I think Leonardo was onto a good thing, as well as the house, grounds and access to the Chateau Royal d’Amboise he also had an allowance of 700 gold ecus (no idea what an ecu is, but it sounds a lot) a year and all he had to do was to talk to the King, think, design and draw.  The tour through the house is interesting and well organised with information about not only da Vinci but the other people in his life.  I loved the fact that his cook was vegetarian, although in his will Leonardo only gave her his coat which was made of leather.  However, it is not until you read the Model Room in the basement you see Leonardo’s drawings and the models that have been done to show how his inventions or amendments to other people’s inventions were done.  As Scott argued that he didn’t invent anything just stole ideas from previous generations, it was still interesting and he was certainly a prolific and prodigious worker up until he died.  After the house you then walk through the gardens to see life-size examples of his works as well as large copies of his paintings in various areas of the grounds and is a great place for kids to actually get hands on with moving models and learn something at the same time.  It is certainly a beautiful house and the grounds were lovely, even the vegetable patch had been recreated.  Leonardo died here on 2 May 1519 and his body interred in the Chateau Royal d’Amboise.

One of the many life size models in the gardens
One of the many life size models in the gardens

We walk back through the town centre to the Chateau Royal d’Amboise and pick up an audio guide that takes you through the times of this Chateau.  The fortifications were gradually built from 503 and overlook the town below and the Loire River making a majestic impression on the cityscape.  Some of the 16thcentury structures survive as well as the Chapelle St-Hubert which is now the final resting place of da Vinci (he was originally interred in another part of the grounds).  You go inside the chateau through several well decorated rooms, although the audio guide is more interesting for its comedic value in some parts. 

Leonardo's final final resting place
Leonardo

 

After Henry IV moved the royal court to Paris the Chateau became a stopping point only for the Bourbon kings and gradually grew into disrepair.  Napoleon gave the final order for its destruction, but one fifth of the castle survived.  The grounds are well maintained and refreshing from the shambles of a garden in Chambord. 

Finally a well maintained Chateau
Finally a well maintained Chateau

 

We wandered back through the town which is full and headed back to Vinnie before setting off for dinner.  We found a nice restaurant that was slightly further up the pedestrian streets and had a huge meal before wandering back into the mail part of town below the chateau to watch a band whilst sipping a late night cocktail at the local bar.  The band suited the situation and was very Cirque du Soleil, or as Scott called it, whimsical music. 

fantastic entertainment spot
fantastic entertainment spot

 

The weather seems to be turning to drizzle, so we watched as much as we could before it started to rain heavier and headed back to the campsite.

Friday, 5 August 2011:  Cognac

Up early as we have decided to head to Cognac which is about a four hour drive south.  The weather is relatively miserable so sightseeing wouldn’t have been much fun and after the last couple of days we have had our fill of tourist sights.  We are bypassing the motorways and heading the backroads today as it should be a more interesting drive, although if it becomes too hard to drive, it is easy here just to switch onto a motorway either paid or free.  Have to say am impressed with the roads in France, but then there are so many of them.  Unlike Ireland, however, they aren’t full of potholes.

We arrive at Cognac late afternoon with the same sort of drizzle as everywhere else.  We are staying at the muncipal campsite, which is a tad fancier than most with a swimming pool.  However, it quieter than the last few we have been too and it is only a short walk into town.  We unpack and sort ourselves out and stretch out with a glass of red wine after the long drive.

Saturday, 6 August 2011:  Cognac -> St Severin

Up early and into Cognac and the tourist office.  We get the times for the tours of the different cognac houses and walk around the town.  It is still early and the shops etc are only just starting to open up and stalls set up.  We find a great parking spot for Vinnie on the river, so Scott jogs back (apparently it would be quicker than me doing it) and I stand around in the rain waiting for him to come back.  By the time he gets back, he has driven from one end of town to the other with our step down (lucky there were no cyclists around) and the gas bottle still on.  He didn’t do the checklist!!!  We both change into dry clothes and pack everything away etc and head off to the Hennessy factory where we book into the late morning tour in English.  We walk back through the medieval part of the town and have a coffee and croque monsieur to tide us over.  The town centre is very pretty with the usual half timbered 15th century houses and narrow cobble lined street. 

At 11:30 we join the tour of Hennessy which takes us to both sides of the River Charente to view the process involved with cognac.  The tour is interesting with lots of interactive screen shows and graphics as well as the ability to go through the huge cellars and look (but don’t touch) the casks from the 1800’s that are still the basis today of the more expensive bottles of Hennessy.  There are some bottles for sale at EUR6,300, bit out of our price range. 

One of the expensive bottles
One of the expensive bottles

 

The tour ends in the tasting room where we had booked for the XO tasting and as I don’t like spirits, Scott got to drink mine as well.  He was also able to have a tasting of one of the other types of cognac to compare the differences.  It was an interesting experience and if you buy two tickets, you get the second one half price which was good. 

If only this was wine
If only this was wine

On leaving Cognac it is still raining, so we decide not to stay in the town for the night, but to head near Verteillac as my cousin has a house there, but as we haven’t been able to get in contact we spent a few hours in Verteillac at the local bar, realising after a while that everybody here is English, anyway Scott got to watch the rugby with England beating Wales.  We then drove to a nearby town called St Severin which had an Aires de Camping Car.  We pulled in and walked through the town, what a revelation, it is only small but has everything, so we sit in the local bar watching the French playing pool (badly) with a couple of drinks.  On the way back to the van we notice that in the town square a large marquee is being set up with a band playing tonight, so we head back to Vinnie to have something to eat and then wander back to the town centre to watch an english rock band playing.  All very surreal, but after a few more drinks we call it a night leaving the revellers to continue dancing into the wee hours. 

Awesome
Awesome

 

It starts to drizzle when we get back to Vinnie and after trying to sleep eventually give up while Scott moves the van to a place with no trees near us which helps a bit.

Sunday, 7 August 2011:  St Severin

Up and the sun is shining, miracles do happen.  We buy a few things at the local supermarket and head back into Verteillac to do some emails.  When we get there, there is a huge monthly antique (or junk market as Scott calls it) in full swing, so we nestle down at the local pub and have a coffee doing emails and watching the world go by.  As my cousin is still offline, we decide to head to a local camping spot which turns out to only be 2kms away from his house, so we get there and settle back in the sun totally chilling out.  This part of France seems to be another suburb of England and we have no problems with language etc, a tad disconcerting.  The campsite is great though, loads of things to do, pool, tennis court, petanque ground etc.

 

25-31 July 2011: France

Monday, 25 July 2011: Uriage-les-Bains -> Annecy

This is really strange we actually have nowhere to go.  For the last month we have had a map which we have followed to see as much cycling as possible and now we are at a loss as to what to do.  After a look at the map we decide to head up to Annecy, so say our goodbyes to everyone and jump in the car.  We are heading to Annecy which is on the Lac d’Annecy and supposedly surrounded by mountains and one of the purest lakes in the world.

We arrive there to find the place is packed.  On a further review of the Lonely Planet it does state that in July and August there town can be heaving with summer visitors.  The Aires de Camping is tucked away and badly sign-posted so instead we pull up at the nearest camping spot hoping for somewhere to stay and luckily there is a spare spot for two nights, so we snap it up.  The traffic in the town was a nightmare so Scott was frazzled and this is a good spot close to the lake and only 2kms back into town.  It is on a main road, so road noise as an issue, but we were knackered enough not to even notice. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2011: Annecy

Up and out of the van and started our walk into Annecy.  The lake is beautiful and so clear, there is no rubbish, and everything is clean and tidy.  There is even what you may call beaches (white sand along with lifeguards); some of them public, some private, but the lake is definitely the centre of the activities in this region.  We continue walking into the medieval part of town which today is a huge produce market, the biggest we have encountered so far. 

 

Sun and sightseeing - holidays at last
Sun and sightseeing - holidays at last

 

 

We buy a couple of bits and pieces, but it is hard to focus as there is so much to look at and see.  Behind the market stalls are loads of cafes etc which tend to face onto the canals (Canal du Thiou and Canal du Vasse) that flow through the town.  The architecture is beautifully maintained and there are loads of little alleyways and areas to wander through.  We get a map from the local TIC and head down to the lakefront to eat our picnic, just watching the world go by.  This is a fantastic spot and you can see how it has become so popular.  It is currently in the bid to host the Winter Olympics 2018 and I would have thought it would have a good chance with all the facilities nearby.

After wandering back to the motorhome, Scott decided to go for a job, so I took the opportunity to sit in the sun and read my book (yes there is a surprise, but it has been hard to get much reading done following the tour and I feel bad at letting Natalie down with all the updates for www.ourbookclub.net.au).  Lots of people pull into the campsite but it is now full, so the lady sends them off somewhere up the road (not sure where as we figure they would also be full). 

Tuesday, 26 July 2011: Annecy -> Chamonix

We have decided to visit Chamonix and see the snow resort areas in summer.  The weather is relatively warm and there is even some sun around so we are hopefully of some great views.  The drive to Chamonix is something else, talk about hairpin bends and it is exhausting for Scott and I (I tend to sit on the side with the drop off).  Chamonix is only at 1037 metres but there are loads of chair lifts etc to get up to various mountains including Mont Blanc.  For all you film buffs, Chamonix was used in The world Is Not Enough (Bond 007) for his ski chase. 

After taking a wrong turn in town and driving through the tiny streets, we find the Aires de Camping spot and pitch up.  We walk back into town and get some maps and information.  The weather isn’t too bad, but it is a bit cloudy so after a lunch in the main piazza, we take the opt instead for the train to the Mer de Glace (1913 metres) which is France’s largest glacier and also has a ice cave (Grotte de la Mer de Glace) which is reached via the train, cable car and then 400 steps down (and in reverse). The train takes approximately 20 minutes and was built 100 years ago, designed on a rack and pinion system.   

 

Nowhere near as good as the glaciers in South America
Nowhere near as good as the glaciers in South America

 

 

The glacier isn’t the most spectacular we have seen and it is receding quite quickly so until you get up close you can’t really see the stunning colours of the ice. 

 

Disco ice cave?
Disco ice cave?

 

 

Inside the ice cave sculptors have created carvings and they are lit up plus there are some information boards about how it was discovered etc, then comes the lengthy walk back up all those stairs. 

 

Why does everything I do involve stairs
Why does everything I do involve stairs

 

 

On the train on the way back down the mountain we felt left out as we didn’t have our icepicks and ropes, so had to do with a backpack and feeling seriously under prepared for the next ice age.  It starts to rain on our way back, so we wander through town and bought some new clothes (magically we have lost a bit of weight since arriving, so purchased something that fits better) and the Icebreaker shop had a sale.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011 to Thursday 28 July 2011: Chamonix

After waking up at 2:45am with some youths doing bog laps etc nearby we got up to find that the rain had not helped the weather and the clouds were now down to the town with no view whatsoever of anything else.  We are going to hang around and see if it improves, so walk around the town, but even though the clouds do start to improve slightly it certainly doesn’t clear so now we have a conundrum with what to do.  We did find a bookstore and purchased a French dictionary as the language here is hard going, so about time we started to learn some more words.  Of course the weather continued to be crap all day and even the cable car people wouldn’t sell us a ticket as there was no view.  We decamped to a local bar for a drink and watched the world race by under umbrellas etc.

After another relatively restless night we got up and the sky was clear on the Mont Blanc side of the mountains so we headed off to the cable car and the long trek up to the top of the mountain.  It has snowed yesterday so everything looked picture postcard perfect and we spent ages wandering around the different levels that you can access. 

 

Yes Scott that is snow
Yes Scott that is snow

 

 

L’aiguille du Midi is approximately 3842m and you can get a 360 degree paranormal of the surrounding mountains including Mont Blanc at 4810m.  The idea for a more accessible way to Mont Blanc started in 1909 with the work commencing in 1911.  The Col du Midi was finally reached by a service line in 1940 and in 1966 you could reach the summit, not a small feat of engineering by any means. 

 

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc

 

 

To get away from the crowds you need to be an alpinist and I don’t fancy strapping myself to the side of a cliff by a small rope.  We did watch some of the alpinist and climbing groups heading off with ice picks etc into the distance and then decided to catch the cable car back down and decided head off to our next destination of Beaune. 

Beaune is about 6 hours away not using the motorways, but after an hour we gave up the back roads for the Peage which cut approximately 2 hours off the journey.  We headed to the municipal campsite (Camping Lescent Vignes) where there was a queue and we were lucky to get a spot.  We set up camp and was just sitting down to the a glass of wine when we released the people next door were listening to the cricket, so went over and introduced ourselves to Linda and Eric and ended up spending the evening trying out some localish wines and snacks.  So nice to be somewhere warm.

Friday, 29 July 2011 and Saturday, 30 July 2011:  Beaune  

After finally leaving the mountains, today we walk into Beaune which is level and actually warm with the sun shining.  We walk into the local markets and purchase our salad ingredients along with a variety of different cheeses and salami (for Scott of course).  It is great the variety of the local markets and from local producers, if only Australia could provide a small percentage of these ingredients we would be in heaven.  After buying our obligatory baguette we drop our shopping off at Vinnie and continue back into town.  Beaune is a medieval town and supposedly the unofficial capital of the Cote d’Ore and hence a haven for wine tasting.  When we arrive back into the old city which is enclosed by stone ramparts, the food market and the antiques market are both in the final throes of packing up, so we sit down to lunch and watch the world go buy with a small carafe of local wines each. 

A beautiful lunch spot to watch the world go by
A beautiful lunch spot to watch the world go by

Subsequently replete and refreshed we head to Patriarche Pere et Fils for some wine tasting.  You are taking through the sales spiel of how the cellars came to be and then get to meander and wander through the kilometres of underground cellars (the largest in Burgundy) which house from 3m to 5m bottles (with the oldest from 1904). 

If only it was our cellar
If only it was our cellar

At the end of the cellars you get to sample 13 different varieties of wine and purchase them if you want, luckily for us there weren’t to our taste – if that could be possible! although we did try them all.  We eventually made it back to Vinnie.

The old and new mingle quite well
The old and new mingle quite well

We decided to stay an extra night, so left most people packing up and headed back into the town for a walk around the walls and ramparts which make a lovely stroll with lots of interesting buildings, laneways and courtyards to stick your nose into.  We had lunch in the centre of the medieval streets so we could enjoy both the sun and the atmosphere.  After lunch we continued exploring the town which is an ideal place to start walking tours and there is also a huge Athenaeum de la Vigne et du Vin (bookshop) with everything wine/cooking to keep you occupied and indulged.

The ramparts
The ramparts

Sunday, 31 July 2011:  Noyers-Sur-Surein

Back on the road today and off to Noyers-Sur-Serein which is a medieval village.  On the drive we pass the usual French countryside of Chateaux and more Chateaux, even deciding to stop at one village which looked beautiful, only to find that it is shut today.

We find a parking/camping spot near the river and pique-nique (yes that is the French word for picnic) and join the other motorhomes who have set up camp there.  As there is no municipal campsite, this looks like an ideal alternative and free.  We have lunch underneath the trees before heading into the local tourist information and getting a map. 

Not a bad view from our free campspot
Not a bad view from our free campspot

Noyers is surrounded by pastureland with a river (Serein) on one side.  The town is fortified by 13th century stone ramparts and battlements with two stone gateways leading in and out of the main part of the village.  Inbetween you have everything you need for the picture postcard town – cobble roads, half timbered houses, laneways, 15-16th century gables houses and stone archways. 

Amazing they are still standing
Amazing they are still standing

The map from the tourist office provides an itinerary and some highlights of the different architecture, so we followed that as it seemed the best way to see the different building methods from the middle ages to the 18th century and you depart from the Place de L’Hotel de Ville which is where we were standing.  At the far side of the town is the ruined chateau which we thought strangely wouldn’t be so ruined.  We climbed a million steps up to find literary a pile of rocks and some restoration work being completed, but were unsure as to why anybody was bothering restoring it as the restoration works looked terrible.  So after walking up and following some trails that provided some glimpses of the town, we ventured across the ramparts and through the Chemin des Fosses to the River Serein and a streamside walk where you can see the remaining towers. 

The village from the chateau ruins
The village from the chateau ruins

On return to Vinnie we are surrounded by a group of pensioners playing Petonque (or Boules) and getting very lively, although the rules did seem a bit random at times.  Our idyllic spot was only spoilt by the sounds of the church bells which apparently kept Scott awake most of the night!

 

 

 

 

 

 

22-24 July 2011: Final stages le Tour de France

Friday 22 July 2011 : Modane -> Alpe d’Huez (Tour de France, Stage 19)

Only a short ride today (109 kms) unfortunately it is nearly vertical and that isn’t even Alpe-d’Huez.  They have to negotiate Col du Galibier at 2,556m first.  Why on earth anybody would choose to do this as a sport is baffling.

We got up early and saw the constant stream of people heading up the mountain, so made some lunch etc and Scott headed off to run to the top and I headed off to walk up to Turn 14 or thereabouts.  The weather is sunny and it is actually quite warm.  The mountain is packed with cyclists, walkers and the constant stream of tour official cars (what a joke and waste of time most of them are).  The walk is slow and very steep, it looks okay and then you turn a corner and it is almost vertical, hard going just walking, never mind cycling.  There are a lot of cyclists that look like they won’t make it by turn 20, so not sure of their chances to make it to the top.  I was overtaken by a guy dressed up as a roman gladiator (don’t know and couldn’t even begin to ask).  There were also lots of tiny kids going up with their families and I am sure they got the biggest cheers of the day. 

Alpe d'Huez from our viewpoint
Alpe d

Since walking up the previous day the road painters have been out in force and there are loads of encouragement and banners everywhere.  Except anything for BMC, I can honestly say that on the whole of the Tour there hasn’t been much noticeable team support.  I pick at spot near Turn 10 which turned out to be between a couple from Tasmania and a family from England and waited for Scott to jog back down to me which didn’t take him as along as he anticipated.  There are so many people either camped or walking around it is awesome.  The caravan finally comes through and we score a few bits and pieces.  By now we have most of the stuff we want, so tend to just give away everything else.

We know the riders are coming due to the huge contingent of helicopters and we here that Contidor is leading the field and he just whizzes by.  Luckily Cadel isn’t that far away and looks so focused it is amazing.  It is baffling how the riders even make it through the crowds, so many people in their faces, I would be furious as surely it makes it had to focus and keep a constant rhythm going. 

As soon as the main group of riders go through people start slowly wandering back down, however, one of the campervans on the mountain has a tv and there is soon a huge group of people standing around watching and listening to what is happening – even the police.

As soon as it is finished we put on our skates and do a dash down the mountain so Scott can have a shower and we can join the huge queue of motorhomes heading to Grenoble.  The drive is extremely slow and painful.  We are heading to Saint-Martin-D’Uriage as there is a downhill stage and also a roundabout with cobbles which should make for some exciting riding.  We follow the signs and find a huge camping car carpark for the event and set-up home there, only to realise it felt like we had arrived in Luxembourg with a lot of Schleck supporters.  We hoisted the Aussie flag and opened a bottle of red.

Saturday 23 July 2011 : Grenoble -> Grenoble (Tour de France, Stage 20)

Well during the night it rained and rained heavy, so this isn’t going to be the worlds quickest time trial as it looks like a giant slide.  We missed the riders going around the track for their warm ups, but  headed out into the rain for the last caravan giveaways.  I am sure there are only so many hats that we need, but Scott is now focused on getting as many as possible.  We head back to the motorhome afterwards for lunch and then out again to see the early riders come through.  Scott went up to the roundabout with cobbles and I positioned myself at the bottom of the road.  Eventually it started to rain harder so I decamped back to the motorhome and then walked up to see what Scott was doing before he decided to come back down the mountain with me.  We were listening to the radio to keep up to date with Cadel having an absolutely brilliant time trial and were in full cheer mode when he came by with some of the people near us.  Of course the problem with some of these stages is that they just go by so fast and then it is all over. 

Awesome ride Cadel
Awesome ride Cadel

We decide to leave the camping-car spot as we are getting dagger looks from the Luxembourg groups and head into Uriage-les-Bains where we spy a laundrette.  We go into the tourist office which is open but nobody comes out, so Scott asks the local police who say we can stay in the car park across the road until Monday.  We then head off to do our laundry for an exciting Saturday night made even better with Cadel finally in yellow and well deserved.

Sunday, 24 July 2011 : Creteil -> Paris Champs-Elysees (Tour de France, Stage 21)

We get up to find a note on the windscreen from Claire and Ben who had just popped out for a coffee, so we hung around and waited for them to come back.  We decided during the night not to drive to Paris, so are going to look for somewhere to watch the race here in Uriage-les-Bains.  Claire and Ben had the same idea and soon another Australian van pulled up with Martin and Pam.  So we chatted and decided to watch yesterday’s highlights before heading into the town and pub to watch the race.  It was a fantastic race although the locals didn’t seem that excited with us there cheering and clapping (although we did that for the French riders as well). 

Yeah the end of a long trip through France
Yeah the end of a long trip through France

We had a great afternoon and all agreed that Cadel couldn’t have done it without us (not sure if he agrees). 

A bit of Australia in a French pub
A bit of Australia in a French pub

Anyway we head out to dinner with Claire and Ben to celebrate and then decide to pop into the local casino which was a shocker, just rows and rows of pockie machines.  We give up and call it a night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15-21 July 2011: Week Three le Tour de France

Friday 15 July 2011 : Saint-Gaudens  -> Albies (Tour de France, Stage 13)

 

 

 

 

 

We will miss the Tour today; they are going from Pau to Lourdes (152.5 km) because we have figured we need to be at least a day ahead to get a half decent spot on the mountains, so we’ll try to get a spot to watch Saturday’s stage 14.

The hotel car park was relatively quiet overnight, but we were awoken early by the local council workers starting their pre-Tour cleaning; leaf-blowers are internationally noisy!  We had our breakfast then headed out of town, following the Tour yellow arrows along the route the riders will take.  Just out of Saint-Gaudens, we came across the two vans and their drivers who placed the arrows along the route.  They leap-frogged their way along the roads placing a directional arrow wherever they needed to, then jumped back in their vans a drove at break-neck speed until stopping abruptly at an intersection, junction or roundabout to place another arrow.  It was great for us; we could confirm we were going in the right direction as the Tom-Tom maps of the smaller country backroads can be flaky at times.

At one point, we overtook both of the arrow-placing vans so were again reliant on the Tom-Tom to keep us on track; we ended back behind the vans when we stopped in a small village to buy a baguette.  Eventually, we overtook the vans again when they had stopped in a village at the foot of the Col d’Agnes for lunch at the pub, parking on the footpath right outside after placing an arrow on the streetsign. We started up the mountain, passing hundreds of motorhomes and campers who have entrenched themselves, ready for the tour.  The good sites have all been taken, so it’s a task to try and find a level (enough) spot large enough for a motorhome that none of the thousands of other parking-spot-hunters have seen.  We were quite near the summit of the Col when we spied a small barely suitable spot.  We surveyed the area (remembering the last time we parked off the road and got bogged in a field) and thought it suitable enough, it wasn’t going to be level and we wouldn’t be able to use the main door as you’d end up stepping down off the cliff, but as we would try to escape again as soon as the Tour passed, it would only be for one night.  Scott gingerly drove off the road onto the narrow verge covered with long green grass.  As soon as the front right wheel was off the road surface it had zero traction on the grass and again, we got stuck.  Any stuff ups in getting the van off the verge could end up seeing the van tumble over the edge of the mountain.  After several different attempts at getting back onto the road, a few Tour spectators tried to assist by pushing the 3500kg van; eventually a bloke came down from the make-shift bar on the next bend in his Fiat Panda.  With a frayed-rope between the Panda and the van, a few people pushing, and some smoking tires we were back onto the hard road surface. A check of the front right tyre shows it to be in even worse condition now, so it will have to be changed very soon.

We couldn’t get into that spot on the Col d’Agnes so decided to try further on.  As we were driving, we came to the decision that any decent places on the next mountain (Plateau de Bielle) would already be taken so we’ll try for somewhere from where we can easily escape to the next stage after the Tour passes; we headed into Les Cabannes at the foot of the Plateau.

There were a few motorhomes already in established positions in town; the Aires de Camping was already overflowing.  We used their facilities to empty wastes and headed just out of town to a small village, Albies, where there was a municipal campsite with a couple of spaces left.  We could have roughed it in a car park, but thought after the hectic day it would be nicer to have a proper pitch, hot showers and electricity.

After dinner, Scott was scouring the Tom-Tom maps to try and find what might be a suitable vantage from where to watch the Tour and discovered that we could have accidentally tripped over the right spot to be!  On the map there are four possible junctions of the main N20 road and smaller roads all labelled D522 (or D522A) on which the Tour will ride; one will have the Tour coming within 50m our campsite. 

Saturday 16 July 2011: Albies -> Montpellier (Tour de France, Stage 14)

Today is the last day in the Pyrenees; 168.5km from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille.

Scott had a terrible night sleep, listening to two sets of church bells chiming out the time every hour and half hour; Tracy didn’t notice them at all!  Having yet another look at the Tom-Tom maps and trying to reconcile them with the tour maps, we decided the D522 road nearest us was not going to be the one used by the Tour, so we decided to move to try to get a vantage spot closer to one of the other three D522 junctions on the map.  After breakfast and a shower (the municipal showers were hot although still push button) we headed along the main N20 road; there were campers and motorhomes scattered everywhere and we are convinced that some of them are in the wrong spot to be able to see the tour.  It took a couple of laps up and down a 10km stretch of road, but eventually we found a spot at the turn off onto what we think is the right D522 road; there are enough campers and Gendarme here to add credence, but still no yellow Tour arrows (unless they have all been souvenired already).

We walked the couple of km into town, through a local village which had an impressive aquaculture system growing trout, using the water from the adjacent fast flowing river.  The town was starting to heave under the Tour, with queues forming outside the local markets to purchase bread and cheese; stalls were setup selling everything from “official” Tour merchandise (not!) to straw hats.  The couple of beer tents already had many customers and the food vendor’s trade was constant, the Tour comes through here in about 6 hours.  There was a long line of cyclists trying to navigate the barricades to get onto the start of the hill climb, impeded by idiot drivers (all official Tour cars, of course) and the hundreds (if not thousands?) of spectators who were starting their trudge up the hill too.  Tracy managed to get into a shop and bought a baguette, cheese and ham, so we walked back to the motorhome on the side of the main road to await the arrival of the Tour later in the afternoon.

Parked ahead of us on the roadside was a group of four Belgian men, who had started their days drinking with some brekky wine and local ouzo-like spirits.  By lunchtime they had moved on to white wine, followed by the rosé, and then chased that down with some reds.  By the time the Caravane came through, they were onto the champagne.  Needless to say, they were quite pissed and became more and more friendly the more they drank; unfortunately their very limited English got worse until it became completely indecipherable. All four were beside the roadside to watch the Caravane and offered some of their free-junk to us (but we didn’t want it either, so it was yet another source of amusement for their pissed states to figure out!)  By the time the race actually came through, only the younger two guys were standing, the other two were nowhere to be seen!

The Peleton came passed trying to chase down a breakaway. 

 

Our first views of the Alpes
Our first views of the Alpes

 

 

We shouted and cheered for Cadel and he just happened to be finishing his water bottle and threw it towards us.  The biden hit the Armco barrier and bounced back onto the road; the other cyclists managed to avoid it but it was clipped by one of the team cars and then finally another which caused some minor damage to the very base, but we managed to collect it.  We were quite chuffed to finally get a genuine-Cadel-product from the Tour.

You can just see the water bottle - it's ours
You can just see the water bottle

As soon as we could, we got moving towards Montpellier.  We got onto the road from our parking spot quite easily but within a few minutes we stopped in a long line of traffic trying to do exactly the same thing.  Eventually we got moving at a steady rate and then onto the motorway.  The drive was easy enough, if a little dull.  Eventually we made it into Montpellier, taking a diversion from the Tom-Tom directions to follow the same route the riders will take into town (fortunately the Tour arrows had already been placed so it was quite easy to navigate around).  We ended up parking with a few other motorhomes and cars in the Carrefour carpark just a few hundred metres after the finish line.  When we arrived, we had a chat with a Belgian couple who had driven all the way from their home to see this stage and had tried to find last-minute hotel accommodation, of which there was none because the Tour had everything booked solid; they spent the night sleeping in the back of their Caddy wagon. They were a few seedy looking (homeless?) characters in the carpark, drinking and smoking dope, so we were a little wary of them, but as it got dark a beat-up van came by and they all piled in and drove off; we slept more easily knowing they were gone. 

Sunday 17 July 2011 : Montpellier -> Gap (Tour de France, Stage 15)

The Tour has finished in the mountains for the mean time, today going from Limoux to Montpellier (192.5km)

We had a reasonable sleep, only awoken occasionally by loud music blaring from cars visiting the 24hour McDonalds across the road from our parking spot. The previous night, the Belgian couple said they didn’t think the Carrefour would be open as it was Sunday, so we were pleasantly surprised to see people walking in and out of the shops, buying groceries.  Scott popped in and grabbed some fresh bread (still warm, mmmmmm) and some other bits and pieces for breakfast.  We were bemused by the fact the Carrefore was selling wine today (Sunday) but was prohibiting the sale of beer and spirits?  Was it a Sunday thing?  Or, a Tour thing?

Scott went for a run to stretch his legs and see what was going on up at the finishing area.  The place was already starting to come together; the shops and stalls were already established and the grandstands erected etc.  The only difference today from other days we had seen was, it was comparatively very quiet.  Scott followed the Tour route in reverse from the finish line and noticed some finishing touches were still being applied by the Tour machine, including the distance to go banners; he was intending to turn around after 5km but they hadn’t erected that banner by the time he went passed, then got lost in a circus of roundabouts, especially since the gusty wind had spun some of the Tour arrows around on the poles and some of the roundabouts were to be ridden by the Tour in the opposite direction to normal traffic.  Eventually he decided he must have been at least the desired distance and had to get un-lost on the way back through the roundabouts.  Eventually he came across the team erecting the 5km to the finish banners and was happy to be back on the track, running back to the finish, the motorhome and a hot shower.

At about 11:00 we wandered up to the finish area to establish our position.  We wandered around looking for a site to be able to see the big screen and the course itself.  Eventually we got our spot on the opposite side of the course, at the 150m to the finish, and waited.  Next to us was a Dutch family, with three kids who spent the entire afternoon screaming at the free product distributors and collecting vast quantities of the giveaway crap; they had a system and it worked well for them.  Next to them was a French man, who was just as greedy and snatched at the stuff as it was being handed out, pushing kids and women out of the way in the process to collect his bounty.  Sad.

We watched the race on the big screen, with no audio, just the background din of the French language from the local commentary at the finish line.  The spruiker was good; he could talk for minutes without taking a breath!  Of course, we had no idea what he was talking about, unless like the France 2/3 commentary team he said, “Mark Cavendish”; the only name we recognise and it is said very frequently, they love him here! Finally the Caravane and then Peleton, led by HTC who performed yet another sprint finish master-class to project Cavendish over the line in first place (again!).  It was curious to watch the remainder of the riders as the rolled over the line some minutes after the race had been won, and then look back to see the results on the big screen as they passed; the HTC guys were of course ecstatic their team-mate had won another stage, many of the other riders just nodded or sighed as they saw the results.

Cavendish wins again
Cavendish wins again

Once we decided to head back to the motorhome, we had to climb over the barriers to get back to the right side of the course and then fight our way through the crowds milling around the team buses hoping to catch a glimpse of the riders.  Some of the buses had already collected their riders and were trying to make their way to their next destination, so it we jumped in behind the Astana bus and made it through the masses with relative ease.  Unfortunately, when we got in the motorhome and onto the roads, we were not so lucky and spent a long while crawling around the outskirts of Montpellier and the motorway.   Eventually, the traffic thinned out, sped up and we were on our way to Gap.

The motorways were again pretty dull drives, until the sun went down and we got to see some of the lower-Alpine villages lit up.  There was a series of cliffs near (some town) which made the lighting of the trees along Kings Park (in Perth) look completely amateurish and pathetic.  The citadel at Sisteron was well lit and looked spectacular, pity we couldn’t stop and take photos from the edge of the motorway.  Finally we made it to Gap and drove through the town looking for a motorhome service point.  Like we have come to expect, signage in France is terrible and we spent a long while driving through some very narrow streets until we eventually found the right place.  There were quite a few motorhomes parked near the service point, so we decided we would stay the night here and move again the next morning.  We looked at the service point, trying to figure out how this model worked as we needed to ditch wastes and top up our fresh water; we gave up, deciding to have another look in the morning.  We had a late supper, then slept. 

Monday 18 July 2011 : in Gap (Tour de France, Rest Day)

The Tour has a rest today.

When we woke up, some of the motorhome which were near us when we went to bed had left, to be replaced with others and more.  Over a coffee, we watched as other people became just as confused as we were at how to operate the service point; everyone simply gave up and wandered off!

After brekky we went for a walk into the town to find the TIC.  Again, the signage let us down and we walked for quite a while, trying to re-navigate some of the narrow lanes and roads to find the TIC we had seen the night before.  We were just about to give up and turn back towards the parking spot when we finally spied the TIC.  They gave us a map of the town and pointed out where we could park our camping car.  The first place the TIC guy pointed out on the map was the place where were actually parked; and had to be vacated by 12:00 that day.  He didn’t know that, so pointed out another spot on the other side of town. We got back to the motorhome and armed with our TIC map started our drive to the other side of town.  Driving along one of the more main roads in the peak hour traffic, Scott pulled the motorhome to the very side of the road to allow an ambulance travelling in the opposite direction through.  It was a tight squeeze to have cars three-wide on the road, but the ambulance got through.  As soon as we went to get moving, there was a resounding crash from the side of the road; the awning had clipped one of the overhanging trees and had been ripped off the side of the van!  Bugger.  We couldn’t move anywhere until we collected the debris and secured the extension arms; we had blocked one of the lanes so all the traffic had to gingerly get around us as the ambulance had to do.  We weren’t popular with the rush hour traffic.  After a while, we managed to fix things enough to be able to get off the roadway.  We headed to the second site as indicated on our map by the TIC guy.  When we got there, there was a large empty parking area.  We thought we finally had some good luck, but no, our run of bad luck continued as we discovered this parking site had been completely reserved for the Tour official cars etc.  Bugger again.

We drove around the edge of Gap to find two commercial camping areas to see if they had any spaces, they didn’t.  We kept driving out of Gap and started following the route the riders will take up Col de Manse.  Just near the summit we saw a pub and some campers; perfect.  Somewhere to park, and somewhere to drown some sorrows. We parked on a side road and said g’day to our neighbours, Claire and Ben from Adelaide.  We had some more cleaning up to do from the awning fiasco, then Scott went for a run, before we walked up to the pub for a few late afternoon drinks, later joined by Ben and Claire.  It was cool during the day with a chilly breeze, as soon as the sun went behind the hills and the shadow of the pub was cast across the tables it started to get cold.  We decided to share a bbq and a few more drinks with Ben and Claire; their charcoal bbq and our attempts to get dinner cooked was a source of amusement, but eventually we ate enough to call dinner finished.  By now the sun was down and it positively freezing, so we moved inside Vinny to watch some tv whilst having a few more drinks and post-dinner nibbles.  The night drew to a close at about 22:30, having started badly but finishing on a better note.

Tuesday 19 July 2011 : Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux -> Gap (Tour de France, Stage 16)

This stage of the tour is 163km.  It was a cold night and in the morning it was raining with occasional thunder and lightning. We spent the morning in the motorhome catching up on some reading and other odds and sods to while away the hours until the Tour comes through at about 17:00 or so.  After the clouds cleared we found there was snow on the mountains which is spectacular. 

Snow on the mountains - summer!
Snow on the mountains - summer!

 

We are still perched on the Col du Mance and scored quite well when the caravan visited with the usual assortment of crap and more crap.  We met a lot of other Aussies all there cheering for Cadel, we wonder if he knows or realises we are cheering him on.  Eventually the riders made it over the top of the mountain and we got a great view as they levelled off and road off back into Gap. 

Go Cadel
Go Cadel

 

We headed back to Ben and Claire’s campervan as they have satellite and watched the remainder of the race before packing up and heading on out.

We are now heading straight to Alpe-d’Huez and missing the next two stages to secure a spot either on the mountain or within walking distance.  The drive isn’t too bad except for the traffic which slowly wends it way towards the Alps.  We arrive at Bourg d’Oisans at night and find a spot in the local Casino Supermarket near the Camping-Car Service Point and meet Daniel and Michael, who although are English both lived in Perth for a while. 

We take the opportunity for the next two days to chill out, do some walking and see where on Alpe d’Huez we want to stand and to get some shopping and restocking of the campervan done.  The town is packed and there isn’t much space to move.  There is plenty of things to do in the town, but seems everyone is here to ride up and therefore down the mountain and I have never seen such a huge grouping of lycra clad people (some of them should not be in lycra either).  I would also hate to calculate the amount of money there is in bikes, some of them seem more up to date than what the riders in the Tour are using.  We are also following the tour on TV to keep up to date with what is happening and also spend an afternoon in the pub watching it there over a few drinks.  Cadel was severely let down when nobody would help him at all and he subsequently ensured that Voekler continued with the yellow jersey – hope he gets a huge thank you and also has some power over who in his team actually gets a pay cheque, as from what we have seen they have certainly never supported him.

On the night before the race we get moved on from the supermarket car park and move up the street to a roadside verge which is at least quieter.

7-14 July 2011: Week Two le Tour de France

Thursday 07 July 2011: in Dinan (Tour de France, Stage 6)

Up early and into the streets of Dinan and the huge crowds that had gathered.  We walked the city route again and found a spot that was interesting, just above the roadway and with a small hedge in front, so after wandering some more and seeing the caravan come past we walked back to the spot for a perfect view of the tour. 

Perfect spot - history and cycling (according to Scott)
Perfect spot - history and cycling (according to Scott)

We shouted at Cadel and got a wave and a smile back – Scott was so excited he stuffed up the video.  Oh well.  Of course as soon as they go past the crowds soon dissipate and we sit down in the town square and have lunch in the sun.  We visit the tourist office and get a map and find a small supermarket for some provisions and continue wandering through the beautiful town.  We walk down the Rue Du Petit Fort which is a steep cobblestoned laneway that leads down to the Pont and of course it now starts to rain but it is still a lovely walk. 

 

Down at the Port there are loads of restaurants, boat trips and via of the viaduct etc, but the rain is increasing so walk back up the Rue Du Petit Fort and back into town.  I found a hairdresser who after much talking and hand signals I manage to get my hair coloured, cut and blowdried for the bargain price of 29EUR (which seems to be the going rate here).  It was nice to relax for a while and listen to everyone talking around me.  For dinner we ventured back into town to a small seafood restaurant.  The town is so quiet tonight after last night, but we had a lovely meal and another meander through the almost deserted streets.  Dinan must rate as one of the most favourite places so far.

Friday 08 July 2011: Dinan -> Chateauroux -> Boussac (Tour de France, Stage 7)

We have had our day in this lovely medieval town but now have to push on to catch up with the Tour; they are travelling from Le Mans to Chateauroux (218km).

We packed up our pitch and waited for the council man to open the gates to the park to let us out.  Whilst we were waiting, we had a chat with an English bloke who was camping out of the back of his car; he had decided to spend an extra day in Dinan too, so we weren’t the only ones taken by the town.  We headed out, navigating the narrow cobbled streets, and through one arch (we thought we might not fit but made it without a scratch and the TV antenna still on the roof).  We crossed over the old aqueduct high above the river where we were rained on yesterday, we were on our way.

We had a long drive ahead of us, so were well prepared with food, drinks and music available in the cockpit; we shouldn’t have to stop except to rest and to refuel.  Much of the trip was on motorways and other main-ish roads so the drive was pretty boring, and used a lot more fuel than we liked.  Eventually, we made it around the Tour diversions and into Chateauroux, finding a park for the motorhome is not the easiest thing to do in a city at the best of times, made all the more difficult when the Tour is in town.  We found a spot (it might have been illegal, but it seemed everyone else was doing it today and nobody seemed to be issuing tickets) and walked to find we were 3km from the finishing line.  There were crowds three or four deep at the barricades all the way to the finish.  At 250m to the line there was the big screen, so we stopped there to watch what was going on, of course the commentary was in French, so we could only look at the images without knowing the full story until they flashed up timings etc onto the screen.  As we waited, the Caravan came through, but we didn’t bother to move from our spot on the grass.  A company rep was moving through the crowd giving away free samples of some sort of alcoholic cider drink (needed to be free, no one in their right mind would pay for it?)  The Peloton was still a couple of hours away, so we just waited and chatted with an English bloke who was riding around France, not following the Tour per se, but seeing enough stages when he could.

Eventually, the race came into town.  The breakaway was caught and team HTC set up the perfect sprint for Mark Cavendish to win the stage.  We hadn’t heard so many English voices as we heard when he crossed the line, but then there were odd one or two voices that then started spruiking about English superiority over the French.  Who said the English were rude and arrogant?

As we walked back to the motorhome, the crowds had already dispersed and the “machine” was in full swing taking down the advertising and the barriers.  By the time we got back to where were illegally parked, all the cars that were near us had gone, and Vinnie looked very much out of place and obvious; thankfully we didn’t get a ticket.

We drove out of town, and as we pulled into a service station to refuel, noticed several Team buses and their support entourages at a small hotel on the outskirts.  We didn’t have time to take it all in; we had to keep moving to overtake the Tour, but did ponder about why the Team managements selected a hotel so far out of the finishing town, and why more than one Team would book the same hotel?  Maybe they weren’t going to stay there, but would just use the facilities and then move on?

We drove on for another couple of hours, eventually passing through the small village of Boussac and finding a nice spot on the side of the road where a few other motorhomes had already pitched.  We settled in amongst them, no one giving us a second thought or speaking to us, until we hoisted the Aussie flag.  Once we proved we weren’t British, people would chat with us, even though we couldn’t speak French! 

Saturday 09 July 2011: Boussac -> Dienne (Tour de France, Stage 8)

Massif Central, first day of the hills; 189km Aigurande to Super-Besse-Sancy.

Our roadside pitch was not too noisy, compared to a few nights ago, so we were pretty well rested.  After breakfast we walked the 1km into Boussac to find they were getting well and truly into the Tour spirit.  Although it was not yet 10:00, the Gendarme was out in force and the roads were already blocked off.  There were flower pots adorning the side of the roads, bunting as far as the eye could see and old crappy bikes were painted in bright colours as garden ornaments.  In the centre of the village, they set up a small market with locals selling breads, cheeses and other assorted smallgoods.  The pub across the road from the square was already doing a roaring trade in coffees and beers.

We had a bit of a potter around and bought some of the local produce, then found a supermarket for some general necessities.  On the way back, Scott found a “sporting” store selling telescopic fishing rods which could be used as a better flag pole than the broomstick we currently have, so bought one for only 5 Euro.

Back at Vinnie, we ate some of the fresh produce we had just purchased and waited for the Tour. 

Tough job watching the tour
Tough job watching the tour

 

As usual the Caravan came through first; they must have been running a bit late because they simply tore through and gave away very little.  We did manage to get a couple of bits and pieces; whatever we didn’t want was eagerly (and gratefully received) by the French kids in the neighbouring motorhome.  Finally the Tour came into view, down the small hill and around the bend in front of us.  There were eight (or nine?) riders in a breakaway about 5 minutes ahead of the Peloton (we cheered again for Cadel and he smiled and nodded) then of course the cars following.  We did not notice the “end of the convoy” truck and didn’t think too much of it, but it would be important soon.

We packed up and entered the next destination into the GPS and headed off (started in the wrong direction, thanks Tom-Tom).  We approached the outskirts of Boussac again and tried to turn around in a side street, as we came back to the main road we were stopped by the Gendarme.  We were held there with a small line of cars; eventually the Gendarme (in pretty good English) informed us there had been a traffic accident involving one/more of the Tour Team cars and the road would not be re-opened until the very end of the convey had been through.  We couldn’t do much but wait.  We watched as, much to the chagrin of our Gendarme, other traffic was proceeding up and down the main road.  He looked a little bemused at who was letting the traffic onto the road when his orders were to hold us all there.  Eventually, the end of convoy truck carrying the Vacansoleil-DCM car came passed and we were allowed onto the road to continue, in the right direction this time!

The roads were pretty good compared to what we had been on in the last couple of days.  We weaved through the countryside, the roads lined predominately with pine plantations and other timber industry requirements.  For quite a while we were the only motorhome in sight so we are hoping that by escaping the previous stage early, we might get a good position for tomorrow.  We pulled up on the side of the road at the intersection where the riders will turn, but if we walk a further 3km up the road we will be able to see them a second time as the travel in a loop up and down these hills.  Our spot is quite good and the people near us are quite friendly, especially when they see the Aussie flag. 

It's not big, but it gets noticed
It

After we got settled, Scott went for a run.  We’re at nearly 1210m altitude so it took some adjustment; and it’s all uphill!  Well it seemed that way anyway.  As he was arriving back at the campsite, one French man (from the motorhome next to ours) was cordoning off the entire area with tape to prevent late arrivals from mooching on our patch!  We should have unfettered access to watch the Tour come passed and to be able to escape as soon as they have come through.  We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the constant stream of motorhomes coming up the mountain looking for their spot to park.  When we arrived there only about 10 or so homes here, there are now more than 50 in easy view.

It is like a travelling city on the tour
It is like a travelling city on the tour

 

Just after dinner-time, a local chap drove up the line of motorhomes and campers selling cheese, yoghurt and other milk products.  I have said for days that this is what the locals should be doing to make some money whilst the Tour is nearby.  In the towns, the shops are mostly shut when the Tour is there; but when will they ever that many people walking by their shops again?  There have been only one or two small markets set up in towns; again, when will there ever be so many potential customers again?  Anyway, Tracy bought two tubs of goats’ milk yoghurt for just a couple of Euro; we’ll have these for breakfast.

Sunday 10 July 2011: Dienne -> Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Tour de France, Stage 9)

Today’s stage is the second hills stage in the Massif Central, 208km from Issoire to Saint-Flour. 

Last night it rained, and rained.  This morning there are two fast flowing streams under the motorhome, flowing down the verge passed all the other campervans, narrowly missing a tent!  We had our goats’ milk yoghurt with some muesli for breakfast – it was ok, Tracy liked it but Scott thought it lacked zing.  The local council have been around distributing rubbish bags and reset the rubbish bins, so the place should be nice and clean when it comes time to leave.

Its 10:30 and it has finally stopped raining, only because we are now in the clouds!  The visibility is terrible; we can just see the other side of the road.  Within 15 minutes or so, the cloud lifts and it starts drizzling again.  Eventually, the weather improved and stayed “reasonable” for the rest of the day.  The Tour Caravan made its presence felt in its usual subtle fashion; loudspeakers, blaring music and tooting horns.  We managed a pretty good haul, giving away all the crap we didn’t want to some French and Norwegian kids, keeping the hats (for friends at home) and foodstuffs (snacks whilst driving).  Within a couple of hours, the riders came through; the breakaway followed by the peloton.  We saw a lot more of the “names” today, but no one was smiling in the miserable conditions.

As soon as the roads were opened, we drove the 3km to the next junction to watch the Tour come past again.  We parked in the long queue of people doing the same thing; Tracy decided she would stay with Vinnie and Scott would walk down the hill to the intersection to see the riders.  We had to wait about an hour for the first riders to appear, the breakaway was still pretty much together, but the peloton was strewn all over the place.  We heard there had been a crash, but it took a couple of days for us to learn of the number of riders involved (just about everyone!)

No idea how you tell the Schlecks apart
No idea how you tell the Schlecks apart

The next day is a rest day for the Tour, so just about everyone is heading to Le Lorian Cantal, but we are going to visit Tracy’s cousin, Robert, in Dordogne so when everyone else headed straight through the intersection, we turned right and pretty much had the road to us.  It was going to be too long a drive to make it to Robert’s, so we stopped overnight in a small municipal camping area in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. The campsite is off the main road and located between quite a wide river on one side and a sporting field on the other.  There are a few other campers; one group had canoed here, one group had driven in a car and set up their tents and an old couple had towed an old, very small caravan.  The site had power and the amenities building had everything we needed, including hot showers with proper taps! There were signs on many of the pitches they had been reserved for some time mainly in August to October, so we assumed the place gets a lot busier than it is now.  We found a site and pitched up for the night.  We went for a walk to try and find someone to pay, but the reception was closed, so we had a free night!

We walked the km or so into town and spent the time trying to decide whether many of the businesses were in the process of opening or closing.  Some of the restaurants were definitely closing (it was almost 18:30) but some we just weren’t sure about.  We found the TIC to be shut but the adjacent market to be open so took the opportunity to grab some more supplies.  Just as we were paying, they shut the doors even though there were still people trying to get in for their last minute needs, so we had lucked in.  With arms full, we thought we’d take a quick look up a “side street” (turned out to be the main thoroughfare connecting the two halves of this part of town) and found a square with tables and umbrellas; the jungle themed restaurant cum pub across the road served the customers. We got a table at the restaurant and watched, bemused, as the waiters dodged the traffic trying to serve the clients in the square. Our waitress told us she didn’t speak very good English and that we were the first English people she had actually spoken with; as soon as we said we were Australian she spoke even better English! We ordered a pizza each and some drinks.  The pizza station was right next to us so we got to see our order being made from scratch, brilliantly fresh and delicious.  Tracy, with the assistance of our waitress managed to get a bottle of nice local wine and Scott ended up with a (very) large bottle of local cider.  The local cider is exceptionally dry (you almost need to wash it down with a glass of water) but quite low alcohol (less than 5%, which is why you see people drinking so much of it in one sitting).  The whole meal came to less than 28Euro and was exceptional value. 

A small bottle of cider then!
A small bottle of cider then!

Replete, we wandered back to the campsite, admiring the setting sun across the river and the walnut grove adjacent to the site.

Monday 11 July 2011: Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne -> La Coutance (Tour de France, Rest Day)

The Tour has a rest today, so we are going to Robert’s house in Dordogne to lend some support to renovations (even if it is only moral support!).   In the morning, the reception was still closed so we still had no one to pay for the night in the campsite; there was a cleaning lady doing her chores, she didn’t even look up as we drove out of the gate onto the main road.

The drive through the small Dordogne region roads was pleasant at times, treacherous at others.  The small winding roads and blind corners might be good training for what is to come when we get into the Pyrenees and the Alps, but Scott would have been happier on roads requiring less work!

Eventually we arrived at the town which the Tom-Tom said was the destination; all we had to do now was to find the house, there are no such luxuries as street names and house numbers here!  We drove around a little and eventually found something close to what we thought we had seen in photos of Robert’s house.  We were close, but it took final directions from a New Zealand couple to finally get us to the right house; we made it!

We needed to get some washing done, and pulled out our little portable washer.  Much to our dismay, we discovered the little unit had holes in the drum and the water leaked through into the electric motor.  When we had arrived, Robert and Ray were out, as it happened, buying a washing machine.  As soon as they arrived home, we unpacked it and took it downstairs into what will eventually be the laundry room.  We all tried to get the unit working, but the plumbing is incompatible, so we took the new washer upstairs and out onto the front veranda.  We managed to plumb the washer into the outside water taps, but there was no power and further investigation there was no power anywhere in the house.  Several people had looked at the fuses and all was good, but it took the workman from the power company to switch the main on/off switch on again! (Yes, our little portable washer managed to trip the power mains without tripping the safety fuses/switches?!)

The rest of the afternoon was spent doing loads of laundry on the front veranda, wandering around the house and grounds, looking at the renovation works in progress and learning more of the impending works.  As the sun set, we sat outside with Robert, Kevin, Linda and Ray, drinking and eating too much, before finally retiring inside the house onto a real bed! 

Tuesday 12 July 2011: La Coutance -> L’Isle-de-Noe (Tour de France, Stage 10)

We aren’t going to make the Tour today; they are going from Aurillac to Lavaur (158km) but they are a long way from us and we have a long way to go to get in front of them again.

In the morning, the sprightly people made those less-sprightly feel even worse!  There was work to be done today, and hangovers or no, it had to be done.  Scott was feeling good and decided it was finally time to get the roof of the motorhome clean (whenever it rained, dirt and crap on the roof would wash down the sides and the windscreen) He parked Vinnie next to the lower garage and from the balcony above, he could use the hose and broom to wash the van’s roof.  With the roof cleaned, he took the opportunity to clean the rest of the outside of the van whilst Tracy cleaned the inside.

With all of our washing done, the van cleaned inside and out, it was time to head off and try to jump ahead of the Tour.  We said our goodbyes and headed west to get onto the south-bound motorways.  The drive through the countryside was as it had been the day before, slow, undulating and winding, until finally we got to the motorways, which are straight, wide, fast and boring.  Tracy drove for a bit, her first time driving on the right hand side of the road in the motorhome.

Eventually, we had to get off the motorway and pulled onto the exit ramp.  We had to pay our 28 Euro toll dues at an automatic gate, so we put in a 50 Euro note and waited to receive the change, all in coins.  As we were no longer on the motorway, Scott was driving again through the narrow country roads.  In some places the councils had planted trees right on the roadside; 50 years ago, traffic must have been smaller, slower and lighter because now fast moving cars, trucks and motorhomes barley have enough room to pass in these tree-lined roads.  The rain and wind didn’t help matters much either.   It was a tough drive, so we decided we would have a break for the night at a small town that appeared on the Tom-Tom, but not on any other of our maps, L’Isle-de-Noe.

At the entrance to the municipal camping park, there was a sign which said something about being permanently closed (or as best we could tell in our pathetic French).  There was one motorhome in the park, who happened to be leaving as we arrived, and he reiterated the park was closed but you could stay here (just as he had).  There were some old people sitting under the veranda of the amenities block, who signalled us it was ok to stay for the night, so we made our pitch.  Once sited, we understood what the sign at the entrance and the other motorhome has tried to say about the park being closed; although there were connections there was no power, although there was a water heater in the amenities block there was no hot water, there were no large bins only small waste receptacles. We parked under some large leafy trees adjacent to a series of sporting fields.  There were signs of impending festivities with a couple of marquees in the next field (or had the festivities been?)  As soon as the sun went down, the old people left their conversation post under the veranda; we were the only people around.

Just after dinner, it started to rain again.  The big drops of water fell from the leaves of the trees overhead and crashed into the roof of the van.  Sometime later, we remembered we had left our shoes outside the door and of course they were fully soaked when we retrieved them.  The rest of the night was spent trying to watch some TV on the computer, with the volume turned all the way up to compete with the rain and thunder, and making dashes through mud-puddles to the amenities building.

Wednesday 13 July 2011: L’Isle-de-Noe -> Col du Tormalet (Tour de France, Stage 11)

Up and out of the campsite early and back on the small narrow roads – oh joy of joys.  We get close to the turnoff for the Tour de France route and stop in the town having a look around and also getting directions for a nearby Intermarche (huge supermarket) where we head off so that we can stock up the now empty cupboards.  We are soon back on the road and decide to try and jag a spot on the mountain.  As we are driving up and up and up, we find a spot about 5 kilometres from the summit and park up.  There is a constant stream of traffic, so we decide to stay here as sure there can’t be many spots higher.  We are parked opposite a New Zealand couple so we will have a competition for small flags tomorrow J  We walk up into La Mongie the nearest town for a walk around, but the weather is closing in and we are drenched by the time we get there so decide to return to the van and do the summit tomorrow. 

Lovely view of the Pyrenees
Lovely view of the Pyrenees

We invite the Kiwis over to watch the remainder of the tour on the TV.  Scott and I thought we would have an early night after watching a DVD, but it didn’t help that every car going up decided to toot their horns and the traffic was constant still into the night.

Thursday 14 July 2011: Col du Tormalet  -> Saint-Gaudens  (Tour de France, Stage 12)

Up early – couldn’t help it as still there is a stream of cars, motorhomes, trucks, cyclists heading up.  There was a small gap between the back of our motorhome and the front of the next motorhome and sometime during the dark of night a couple of Spanish guys managed to manoeuvre their campervan into it!    

The weather is better and we decide to head to the summit, so up we went, and up and up and up.  This is steep and brought reminiscences back of Nepal.  The roadside and everywhere is covered in people and flags, with a great contingent of Aussie and Kiwi flags to be seen, although not that anybody could compete with the Spanish.  We made it to Col du Tormalet which is just swamped with people and the Gendarme has little hope of keeping any sort of control over the crowds. 

Yes I made it
Yes I made it

We walk back to Vinnie and wait for the caravan to come buy with Scott, Rueben and Clare sharing some sort of horrible ouzo drink with the Spanish guys who have advised they will be driving after the tour unless they are very tipsy, hmm seem to have reached that stage now.  Anyway we scored big time on the caravan with lots of lollies and snacks and giving all the other assorted crap to the kids around us.  We have a policewoman near us who is ruthless in keeping everyone behind the white lines and making all the cyclists dismount and walk etc – maybe they should clone her.   Of course between the caravan and the tour itself, it is picnic time and the French have this down to a fine art, it is amazing what they produce out of the backs of their cars.

We then settled in for the wait for the riders to make it up the mountain to us.  Eventually they came, slowly, very slowly, looking shattered and exhausted (made me feel better after walking it). 

Here they come...
Here they come...

 

 

Voekler making a meal of the race
Voekler making a meal of the race

We got to see most of the favourites as they were going much more sedately today and were very spread out. 

Yes this is Cadel's ear
Yes this is Cadel

As soon as the main group had gone by we all jumped into Vinnie to watch the remainder on TV (although the commentary is in French, we can just guess at what they are saying).  Eventually it is all over, so we pack up Vinnie and join the throng of people now descending the mountain.  It takes us over an hour just to get to the bottom, painstakingly slow and putting us behind where we intended.

After a long tiring drive we made it to St Gaudens where we find a MacDonald’s and quickly do some emails etc before finding a camping spot in the town centre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1-6 July 2011: Week One of Le Tour de France

Friday 01 July 2011: Port-en-Bessin-Huppain -> Les Essarts

The guy at the campsite pointed us in the direction of Bayeux and the mobile phone shops so we could sort out our mobile and internet access.  Hmm this turned out to be a debacle.  We don’t have a French bank account and therefore can’t get an account, so we bought a prepaid card.  You have to pay for the sim card, then for the prepaid card and we get the grand total of 8 hours in 30 days access to the internet, although we can top up so more.  There is no unlimited internet and no mi-fi for our 3 modem.  The solution according to both Orange and SFR is to use MacDonald’s!  We pottered around Bayeux for a bit, which is a lovely old town and again great parking before heading off to Les Essarts.  We followed the main motorway which isn’t a toll motorway and was in fantastic condition, so fast and easy.  In fact the whole journey was extremely easy, apart from some roadwork’s in Nantes where we just couldn’t work out where they went, so after a couple of goes around in a circle decided to head to somewhere in the general direction of where we are going and picked up the road again. 

le Tour de France - we are finally here
le Tour de France - we are finally here

On arriving in Les Essarts we find a huge fluorescent sign saying camping-cars, so when going past the municipal camping site which is complet, we find a field with quite a few other camping cars.  It is very self sufficient, so we head back to the municipal camping site to ask if we can top up our water there and are pointed to a motorhome service point in the adjacent park, so for the grand price of 2Eur we fill up with water and head back to the camping car site, this time deciding not to traverse the hill field and stay near the entrance.

A bit quiet - or so we thought
A bit quiet - or so we thought

After parking and setting up Vinnie, we come across the only other GB van in the field and chat to the British couple who had also done the Tour before and who gave us some good advice.  We wandered into town and had a drink at the local Tabac / Bar, finally finding a relatively decent white wine.  They serve them in the smallest wine glasses here, so you think you have had heaps. 

Saturday 02 July 2011:  in Les Essarts

We had a nice quiet night in the camping field.  The plan was to have a lazy day and a bit of a potter around town, seeing what there was to see and watching the Tour de France “machine” setting up.  After breakfast, we walked the short distance into town.  The village itself is unremarkable and many of the businesses were shut for the weekend.  The bakery was open and was doing a roaring trade; the cliché appearance of people walking down the road carrying their baguette was well and truly alive!  We walked around in circles for a little while (it doesn’t take long to walk the entire village) and then stopped in at the TIC. We were greeted in English by a girl who gave us a handful of maps and brochures, then apologised they weren’t in English.  C’est la vie.  One of the brochures showed we could get into the Chateau on the outskirts of the village, so we headed in that direction.  We found an entrance gate and stepped through into the grounds behind a large, old stone wall to be greeted by an old man who informed us the Chateau was closed to visitors because it hosting some of the Tour machine.

We left what looked like an interesting old building and grounds, and then headed back into the village, stopping at the local butcher for some sausages and the market for some other provisions.  We slowly wandered through the convoys of arriving visitors and motorhomes back to the campsite to catch up with a few chores and a general lazy day sitting under the awning on a fine, sunny day.  Another English couple came over and asked about the campsite etc, they had snatched a campsite on the road, so if they got moved on they would come into the field.  All afternoon the motorhomes rolled into the van and each time we wandered around the town, there were just more and more people – although I would say about 99% were French.  We headed back to the van and had dinner.  Dinner was started on the small portable BBQ, but unfortunately the wind came up just at the wrong time so dinner was finished inside on the hob.  Scott said the local sausages and chorizo were excellent, even though they were washed down with one of the remaining cans of Guinness left over from Ireland.

After dinner we headed back out to the local square where there is a food festival with some jazz music.  We meet some Australians who are following the tour for a few days and have a chat.  My glass of wine was unachievable, so I was given a bottle which Scott and I shared – it wasn’t the best, but we are in France, it is hot and sunny – even at 9pm at night and the atmosphere is great.  We then snagged a spot closer to the band and were joined for a French group who could speak some English and they gave us their contact details if we are in their region and we had a great time.    

 

A few drinks to celebrate the tour
A few drinks to celebrate the tour

 

 

Eventually staggering back very late.  It is still relatively light, and the nice council has put toilets near the entrance to the campsite along with rubbish bins, very organised.  Although now there seems like thousands of camping-cars everywhere you look.    

 

Hmm now where did we park
Hmm now where did we park

 

 

The fireworks start at about 11pm, but there wasn’t many and it didn’t seem to last long which was good. 

Sunday 03 July 2011: in Les Essarts (Tour de France, Stage 2)

Overnight, Le Tour “machine” had almost completed all the changes to the town, so in the morning they were just adding a few finishing touches and erecting some barricades.  The small town had started heaving under the weight of the machine and the visitors.  After brekkie, we wandered into town to have a look around and were hoping to locate a vantage point or two from where to view the racing.  It was just after 10:00 and people had already established their camps along the barricades, so we decided we had better find our spot and stay there too.

We found a suitable place just near the start point, far away enough from the loudspeakers but close enough to the action.  There were company reps (some dressed in costumes) giving away trinkets and freebies; a family next to us had the collection of these gifts finely tuned and managed to amass several bags of promotional material (most of it useless junk).  We did get a few snacks and a couple of hats, but as we don’t speak French we weren’t able to shout at the gift-distributors to pay us some attention.

At 12:30 the Tour Caravan started their procession along the race route.  As they came passed they were also throwing freebies into the crowds, which attracted even more crowds to the already filled barricades.  A small French boy continuously kept pushing at Scott and made himself a general nuisance trying to get some of the freebies; had he been smarter than he was he would have noticed that just about all of the freebies were thrown over the heads of the people at the front so that people could scramble for the pickings some way behind the barricades.  Eventually all of the floats and oddly decorated motorcade passed and most of the crowds left, including the annoying little boy. (It seems the interest in the le Tour is mostly about getting “stuff” and not the cycling?)

At 14:30 the first team headed off on the Team Time Trial.  We didn’t have a programme of events and of course we couldn’t understand the announcements, so we only knew which team was rolling off next when they arrived at the start line.  The spectacle of the teams whizzing by obviously grew thin for many spectators (it was quite hot after all) so by the halfway stage, most of the crowds had left from near us and headed off for cooler climes or off to the finishing area.  The penultimate team to depart was Team BMC with Cadel Evans, so we cheered them off.  

 

A rare sight - BMC in team formation
A rare sight - BMC in team formation

 

 

As soon as soon as he came by, we too headed for the finishing area.  To say it was packed there was an understatement. We tried to find a vantage to see the presentations but only the press had access and the spectators had to resort to pushing and shoving and climbing all over each other (Who said the French were rude and arrogant?) We couldn’t see anything of interest so started making our way back to the campsite, along with the thousands of others heading in every different direction.  The French have some strange inability to walk in a straight line at a constant speed?

By the time we made it back to Vinnie, the field was starting to empty as a convoy of motorhomes started making their way to the next stage.  We had a quiet dinner and a cold shower and packed up early in preparation for a fast getaway tomorrow. 

Monday 04 July 2011: Les Essarts -> Lorient (Tour de France, Stage 3)

Le Tour stage today is Olonne-sur-Mer to Redon (198km).  Having done most our preparations to travel, we got up early for brekkie and a coffee then headed out of town making towards the Tour, intending to find a place on the roadside in the vicinity of the feeding station mid-point during today’s leg.  There wasn’t much traffic on the road (thankfully) and we ended up driving down some of the roads the riders will use, to find a spot a little further down track than we had anticipated, or so we thought.  We pulled off the road into a mown field where a few other motorhomes had already set up and we got set up too.

We walked into the local village of Saint-Mars-De-Coutais and found the bakery.  We did the usual French thing of queuing for to be served only to find they had already run out of baguettes, so we settled for another “ordinary” loaf.  We popped next door to the small supermarket and grabbed some salami and cheese too. By the time we got back to the motorhome, a few more motorhomes and cars had parked near us in the field. Everyone is flying flags and setting up picnics; the kids keep clapping as anyone on a bicycle who comes past.

The start of the promotional crap caravan
The start of the promotional crap caravan

At about 13:30 the Tour Caravan came past.  Yesterday, in town, the entourage set a sedate pace but today it was whistling through, throwing small packages of marketing material to those lining the roadside; some pieces flew very fast but I suppose they have been doing this long enough, we haven’t heard of any injuries! Through the middle of the Caravan came the team cars, jostling for positions on the limited space by the road – we discovered we are AT the feeding station.

We had a bit of a wait until 15:00 when the first riders were expected so we had some roadside lunch, how very French of us! 

Ah the sun at last
Ah the sun at last

 

Afterwards, we went for a wander up the road a bit to see if we could find the Team BMC feed-station car, it was a long way up the road, so obviously they didn’t want to talk to us!  We started heading back towards a better looking site than where we parked and before we knew it, the first 5 breakaway riders came through the feeding station, escorted overhead by five helicopters, ahead by a plethora of police, press and officials and then from behind by it seemed every man and his dog!  We only had to wait a few more minutes until the peloton came through the station, collecting their feed bags and ditching what they didn’t want onto the roadside.  We managed to get a Team Katusha and Team Lampre bidons (we later swapped the Lampre bidon for a BMC bidon with the Belgian couple who had parked their motorhome next to us).  Kids (and adults) scrambled into the roadside ditches to collect every piece of paraphernalia, and people came through after the car convoys on bicycles scouring for any last remnants they could souvenir.  By the time the last truck came through, there was not one piece of litter or Tour debris to be found; recycling at its best?

 

Mine, mine, mine, mine
Mine, mine, mine, mine

We wandered back to Vinnie and hatched a plan to get to the next stage that night, so started moving on as soon as we could.  Within just a few kilometres we were stopped at a roadblock by the Gendarme who were directing traffic onto a small side lane where the cars were doing u-turns then waiting for the roads to open, but as we could barely fit into the lane, the chances of a u-turn were very slim so we just kept going deeper into very rural France.  Eventually we found ourselves detouring the roadblocks and emerged at one of the main roads we needed, and ahead of the traffic that was probably still sitting in some side lane somewhere.  We stopped to grab some (cheap) fuel (and of course a few km later we saw even cheaper fuel!) and changed the plan to head towards Lorient tonight.

A few hours of motorway driving later and we arrived in Lorient; which is much bigger city than we thought.  There were some Tour-no-parking signs around but we didn’t see any down near the marina and the TIC so pulled up.  The guy at the TIC did speak reasonable English, but wasn’t actually that helpful; he sort of knew something about the Tour being in Lorient but not much more.  We grabbed some maps and glossy brochures and went for a walk through town.

Lorient is a nice city (although parts did look a little dishevelled and disused, especially down by the docks) but the central section was good.  We found a restaurant in a main-square and decided to have a meal and a beer/wine. The local seafood was flogged as the special of the day, but Scott preferred a steak with “homemade” sauces and chips, whilst Tracy in her “best” French managed to order a pizza-like dish with the world’s thinnest crust.  Both dishes were good, so we had a cheese platter too.

On the way back to Vinnie, we stopped by a car park where Rabobank mechanics and Garmin mechanics were going through their end-of-day rituals of washing everything and checking all of the bikes, then storing everything in the massive trailers.  There was a small crowd of interested onlookers; Tracy was bemused they allowed people to get so close to the machines.  We wandered back to Vinnie to grab the camera and when we left we were the solitary campervan and now there are six of us, including another GB van – safety in numbers we always say.  Anyway by the time we got back to the team vans, only a few bikes were left to be scrutinized, including Thor Hushovdt which Scott got a photo –

Yellow jersey leader so far
Yellow jersey leader so far

we weren’t sure if they would appreciate anybody actually getting on it!  We decided we should have one more drink and found, of all things, an Irish bar just across the road from where the mechanics were working.  On the footpath next door was the portable kitchen for one of the teams ; we nosed around to see what was on the menu, all we saw was a tomato salad being prepared (without any “special” additives!)  We had a beer and wine, exploited the free Wi-Fi to get our emails for the first time since arriving in France and then headed back to where we parked. 

Tuesday 05 July 2011: Lorient -> Plouha (Tour de France, Stage 4)

Today is Stage 4 of the Tour, starting in Lorient and going 172.5km to Mur-de-Bretagne.  We had a plan to see the start and then try to leap-frog the Tour to get to just before the finishing line, to see the start of the ascent and hopefully the start of the attacks.

We woke up to discover the Lorient volunteer workforce had already started blocking off the roads for the Tour; each worker in their issued safety vest, carrying a plastic bag with a drink and some Tour souvenir goodies!  Before retiring last night, we spoke a British bloke and his son who had seen the Tour before and they suggested if we went to the start area early there might be a chance to see some of the riders as they begin their warm up routines.  We headed towards the port area where the Tour machine was located but took a wrong turn somewhere and found ourselves in the very much less attractive port operations area.  Fortunately, we weren’t the only ones to have this detour so we followed the string of people ahead and eventually found the intended destination.

The start area was already filling up with onlookers and freebie-hunters; there was no sign of any Tour cyclists, a fact confirmed when we re-met the English bloke and his son (from the previous night).  Around the back of the starting marquee was a marina filled with some VERY expensive racing yachts, so we took a look there and then headed further down to the old WWII German U-Boat pens.  This is where part of the ending sequence of Das Boot was filmed? Anyway, the concrete structures were massive and still standing, even after the continual Allied bombing campaigns.  Very impressive, but the museum and tours weren’t available today because the Tour was in town!

The Germans certainly know how to make things solid
The Germans certainly know how to make things solid

Back at the starting area, we watched as the freebie giveaway continued, and then decided to watch the Caravan from near where we parked.  The weather was starting to turn as we walked back into town; it was drizzling by the time we arrived.  We threw some stuff we didn’t need back into the motorhome and grabbed some wet weather gear and umbrellas and staked out our spot on the small bridge near one of the many Lorient marinas.  We had our Australian flag on display and that drew a few cheers and even a g’day or two; one French guy even offered to buy the flag.  As we were standing there in the rain, a French man walked up and introduced himself to us; Eric was an teacher of English and asked if we would like to have a chat in English with one of his students at the very nearby cafe (he’d be shouting the coffee!)  We went to meet Bernard (age 62, had been learning English part time for 4 years, retired 5 years after working in BNP Paribas for 43 years!) We had a great chat with Bernard whose English was more than acceptable (and certainly better than any pathetic efforts we make at speaking in French).  Our chat was briefly interrupted to watch the Caravan come through town and to collect some obligatory freebies as they were thrown from the moving vehicles (today moving much slower than in the countryside, and many of the smiles were more grimace-like as the rain was now pouring down).  We said goodbye to Bernard and Eric then went back to our spot to watch the Tour on the rolling start.  We were interrupted by another Frenchman asking if he could interview us for the local newspaper and taking some information about our trip and what we were there to do as well as our tip for the winner of the race.  The rain continued and eventually the riders came into sight.  Today, Scott caught glimpses of Cadel Evans, Thor Hushovdt and a few other “names”, but didn’t get to see any of the other Aussies in the peloton, but we gave a general cheer for them all to do well.  As the Team cars came passed after the riders, BMC gave us a toot and the HTC Team Manager waved at our Aussie flag.

A lovely French summers day
A lovely French summers day

We grabbed a couple of the marker signs (a favourite souvenir) and headed out of town.  We plugged the destination of Plouha into the GPS and got onto the motorway.  A couple of hours later and we arrive in the lovely village and found a parking spot behind the TIC.  The lady in the TIC was very helpful and gave us some directions and maps.  We went for a short walk through the village looking for someone to serve us lunch at 16:30!  Needless to say, the only places open were bakeries and bars.  Deciding we had some lunch-worthy food in the fridge, we started heading back to Vinnie when we chanced upon a Cave de vin (wine merchant).  The lady in there spoke very good English, although she said her German was better; she managed to tell us enough about the area etc that we bought a couple of bottles of wine and some locally produced beers.

We drove out of the village onto the road the Tour will use tomorrow in search of a spot to camp for the night, hopefully near the feeding station for Stage 5.  We crossed a narrow causeway over the roadside ditch into a field.  We didn’t survey the site well enough before pulling into the field and in the attempt manage to drop the rear-left wheel off the top of a small anthill into a sufficiently deep hole, well camouflaged by the surrounding grass.  With the recent rains making things slippery, we were stuck with three wheels on the flat, wet, long grass and no traction, and one wheel in a deep hole!  We tried in vain to un-stuck ourselves, until eventually Scott flagged down a bloke on a tractor as he was driving down the road.  He didn’t speak any English, but with enough hand signals and pointing he understood our predicament.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have any rope or chains on his tractor so couldn’t immediately help, but he did call someone on his mobile and eventually another bloke showed up in a car with some chains.  Of course, as a Murphy’s Law would dictate the chain hooks were too large to fit in the towing eye, but with a bit of ferreting he managed to get it “close enough”.  A gentle pull from the large tractor was all that was required to free Vinnie’s wheel from the hole; we paid the fellows handsomely for their generous help with a bottle of red and large bottle of locally brewed beer (purchased only an hour earlier from the Plouha Cave de Vin!)

Whilst working to free Vinnie’s wheel from the hole, Scott was constantly under attack from the ants whose nest he had disturbed.  Their bites were painful and were causing a very irritating and painful rash on his legs and arms.  As soon as Vinnie was free, a wash with some warm soapy water, a few anti-histamines and a painkiller slightly improved the situation; drinking the sole remaining locally brewed and purchased stubby bottle of beer made things just a little better again.

We settled in for dinner and another night in the rough, waiting for the next stage of the Tour. 

Wednesday 06 July 2011: Plouha -> Dinan (Tour de France, Stage 5)

Camping rough on the side of the road has its benefits; it’s cheap, but it’s also very noisy.  The traffic wasn’t heavy at any particular time but it was constants all during the night, and our bed is just a metre or two from the road. Already being in the place where we need to be has its benefits too; we didn’t have to get up early and rush anywhere.

We eventually pulled ourselves out of bed and had some coffee and muesli for breakfast.  We are just 2.5km outside Plouha, so Tracy decided to walk into town to get some provisions; some fruit, ham and cheese, and of course the obligatory baguette.  Scott went for a run, initially in the opposite direction and then back into town to meet up with Tracy in the village and then run back to Vinnie with Tracy walking, arriving a few minutes later.  Shortly after the caravan went through we found ourselves blocked in by the Leopard Trek feed car, so yet again we found the feed station all by mistake.  This turned out to be a good idea when the Saxobank feed person dropped all their bags and we managed to score a complete feedbag consisting of 1 bottle of water, 1 bottle of powerade, 1 small can of coke, two power bars, two power gels and a Panini of nutella and banana.

 

Certainly no shortage of funds for some teams.  Matt black Mercedes for Leopard Trek
Certainly no shortage of funds for some teams. Matt black Mercedes for Leopard Trek

After the race had been through we decided to head into Dinan where the tour was starting tomorrow, so joined the queue of people that also had the same idea.  We headed for the Municipal camp ground of Chateaubriand and got a spot, no idea why this was not absolutely packed as it was perfectly situated for everything plus had the luxury of hot showers.

We left Vinnie and walked into town and past the tour village being set up and followed the medieval steps and walls into the main cobblestone streets.  This is a beautiful town and full of interesting buildings and streets.  We wandered around following part of the tour route and found a pizzeria for a pizza and wine.  Dinan was originally founded in the 11th century and is famous for its half timbered houses.  Although these now appear to be falling down it is still interesting.  The town is also surrounded by Ramparts which extend for nearly two miles and include a Keep, 10 watch-towers and four monumental gateways which give you views of the city and surrounding countryside. 

Dinan steeped in history and architecture - love it
Dinan steeped in history and architecture - love it

 

28-30 June 2011: Dublin to France

Tuesday 28 June 2011 : Dublin, Ireland -> Bishops Waltham, England

We finally found the Dublin Port, after a few wrong turns and some missed directions from the TomTom, but the Irish Ferries staff checked us in early for the express ferry trip to Holyhead and we didn’t see any security or even a passport or immigration officer – so much for needing a visa to get back into the UK!.  The ferry trip was just a few hours, so we found a seat and vegged out for the time, listening to the people around us complaining about the economy etc.

We made it into the UK on-time and whizzed through any form of security or immigration again we headed straight to Bishops Waltham and a campsite near Portsmouth.  We didn’t have a booking, but the lovely lady organised a spot for us and told us where to go for dinner, shopping and all about her daughter living in Adelaide.  She is a great host and full of great travel stories.

We headed to the local pub “The Black Dog” for a drink and a meal.  Scott was ecstatic to try something other than Guinness and we listened to the tennis on the TV and all the English accents surrounding us – so different to Ireland.

Wednesday 29 June 2011: Bishops Waltham

We headed into Portsmouth and bought some groceries, TV and some DVD’s which we arranged and set-up in the supermarket car-park just to make sure they worked.  We haven’t watched any TV or listened to radio for over a month, so this should be novel.  We did a bit more searching around for different pieces before heading back to the campsite and doing the finishing touches to Vinnie ready for the trip to France.  We again headed to “The Black Dog” for a final meal and drink – leaving Old Blighty behind at last.

Thursday 30 June 2011: Bishops Waltham, England -> Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, France

Up and at the ferry terminal a bit early so they could print out the tickets etc.  We were finally embarked onto the ferry (after having to drive Vinnie on in reverse). 

  

 

Finally heading to Europe
Finally heading to Europe

 

 

 

There was no immigration control, so we presume that will happen in France.  We got some seats at the front of the ferry and Scott caught up on some work on the computer (the battery has completely failed, so we need to be plugged into power to use it – and you can’t buy another battery, it has to be ordered on the internet which is all well and good when you have an address).  Tracy took a travalcalm for the three hour crossing and slept most of the way.  Before you know it we were in Cherbourg and as we were on the ferry towards the end, they kindly let us off first which wasn’t our plan as we fully intended to follow everyone else and get the hang of driving on the other side, c’est la vie.  Again we drove out of the ferry port with no immigration and hence no stamps in Scott’s passport, we are convinced this is going to come back and be a problem later.

We decide to grab a bite to eat in Cherbourg as the parking was incredibly easy, even in a motorhome, and then drive to view the D-Day beaches and memorials.  We headed to Quettehou and along the coast past Utah Beach and towards Omaha Beach. 

 

Scott at Utah Beach
Scott at Utah Beach

 

 

The beaches are huge swathes of sand and you just don’t get the same feeling of despair as you do at Anzac Cove, but considering the quantities of men who died landing and leaving this beaches it is again just makes you realise that wars are just pointless.  We then continued to Bayeux and onto Port-en-Bessin-Huppain on the cost to a campsite where we pitched on French soil for the first time.  The weather is wonderful – warm, sunny etc and Tracy lazed in the sun for a bit to catch up on some much needed rays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 June – 27 June 2011: Galway > Dublin

9 June 2011 (Thursday) Galway

We get the local bus into Galway for a day of sightseeing.  Galway is made up of the new and old parts of town and we mainly stayed in the old parts visiting Colelgiate Church of St Nicholas  of Myra, Lynch’s Castle, Spanish Arch & Medieval Walls, Galway Cathedral, Eyre Square and surprising the most interesting of places the Salmon Weir.  We talked to one of the gentlemen there fishing and he told us he booked his six hour spot of fishing nearly a year ago.  There is even a camera inside the lodge so you can see where you are casting and where the salmon are.  Luckily after all that effort, he had managed to catch a salmon.  We continued walkingW through the town, whereby Tracy found a bookstore and bought another bag of books – in case there is a nuclear disaster and there are no more to purchase. 

We catch the bus back to closeby the caravan park whereby Tracy spots a local hairdresser who can fit her in for a cut while Scott heads off some r&r at the campsite.

10 June 2011 (Friday) – Galway ->  Renvyle

We left Galway to head towards Renvyle as there is a ScubaPro Test Dive Weekend at Scuba Dive West (http://www.scubadivewest.com/index.php).  Leaving Galway we followed the coast road (R336) in the usual rainy weather.  The scenery is wonderful, all cliffs and small roads with tiny farming hamlets.  We stopped at Ballyconneely to pick up some smoked fish that Scott has become a fan off.  Before heading through to Renvyle where we drove to Scuba Dive West and had a tour of the facilities and put our names down for tomorrow.

We then parked up for the night at the Connemara Caravan & Camping Park, Lettergesh Renvyle, Leenane, Connemara, Co. Galway.  We were the only non-static motor home here, so got a great spot on the top of the hill with the oceans and cliffs surrounding us.  We had a walk along the coast as far as we could, although when it started to feel like we were walking in quicksand we gave up and headed back watching the wonderful sunset.  Strangely the weather has improved and there isn’t a cloud in the lovely pinkish sunset.

11 June 2011 (Saturday):  Renvyle

Up early as we had run out of gas and needed to get a refill.  Unfortunately at this time in the morning, things aren’t open or they don’t have exactly what we need.  So we give up and headed into the Scuba Dive West (http://www.scubadivewest.com/index.php) where everything is all set up.  The scuba complex here is fantastic.  The classrooms and everything are all on site and you just walk out the front door and down a small ramp and you are in a small sheltered bay where you can dive to about 10m in with the kelp and natural reef.  There are approximately 40 other dive sits in the immediate vicinity that can be reached via small boats.  In the complex there is a shop, chill out area, ample parking, showers and large change-rooms that can be reached from outside steps that also allow you to wash your gear and hang it up.  A well set up area and definitely worth going to.  We sign up and grab a new dry suit, gloves, hoods etc (and because it is a dry-suit my seawing nova’s don’t fit, so I had to get a larger size boot and a larger size fin.  We headed out to the sheltered bay for me to practice in a dry suit.  Okay from the beginning, this is definitely not for me, I found the dry suit overly complicated as you need to inflat and deflate it, as well as your bcd and manage the camera.  The neck had been tightened for me and I started to find that a bit uncomfortable and not least of all, found it very difficult to control my buoyancy, so after much frustration from Scott, we eventually gave up.  On the good side i was toasty and warm and dry.  We came back into shore where I swapped my dry suit for a Nova Scotia semi-dry and that was it we were away, I loved it.  I think having my own boots and fins also helped as they weren’t so floaty. 

Again we just did the reef dives and it is amazing just how much sealife there is.  Considering it is about 10 degrees, I would have thought most things would have given up.  There were huge crabs, eels, loads of nudibrachs, slugs, kelps, corals and even starfish.  It was great fun fossicking around.

Scott signed up for the boat dives being held tomorrow, but I thought I would give it a miss as it will give Scott an opportunity to try out some more of the Scubapro gear without having to worry if I am rocketing to the surface or not.

The best thing about the Scubapro day is that you get to hand everything back at the end of the day and don’t have to worry about gear being wet etc.   The other benefit is the discount if you buy anything making is considerably if not nearly half the price of items in Australia.  If only we had known that before we left.

We headed off to a different camp-site tonight as we wanted to be closer to some of the larger towns to try and get gas, but alas it turns out that our motorhome isn’t set-up to accommodate the European gas cylinders and fittings, so we head back to Renvyle Beach Caravan & Camping Park, Renvyle Peninsula, Connemara Co. Galway (www.renvylebeachcaravanpark.com) for a rethink of what we should do.  The campsite doesn’t have the same views as yesterday, but it is right next to the ocean and there is nothing better than falling asleep listening to the waves.

 12 June 2011 (Sunday) – Renvyle

And what a difference a day makes.  Got up this morning to a howling gale and wind.  Hmm not boding well for diving, but we are here, so off we got to Scuba Dive West where Scott rugs up and heads out for his first dive and as I am not with him, he opts for the Scubapro dry suit.  I spend the morning pottering around in the van doing some bits and pieces, although mainly reading watching the increasing storms around me.  Scott only does one dive today as he was cold even in a dry suit with climacool underneaths. 

We head off into the nearest big town and start the process of changing the fittings in the van over the EU standard and hope that we don’t blow ourselves up in the meantime.  However, it seems after fitting all the bits and a new cylinder, we can get gas into the van, but the pressure readings and gauges don’t work, so that is another thing to fix later.

We head back to Renvyle Beach Caravan & Camping Park where we spent last night as that is closer to the main motorways for tomorrow’s drive down to County Clare and the Cliffs of Moher.

13 June 2011 (Monday):  Renvyle -> Doolin

We bite the bullet and take the main road down through Galway into County Clare as I think Scott is a bit over all the small laneways.

The scenery therefore is relatively bland and depressing with house after house for sale, and the ones that have for sale signs that look really old are actually empty along with lots of new housing estates where the work seems to have just stopped.

We have decided to drive along the coast from Galway and see some of the pretty inland towns in County Clare.  We get to Doolin which is also a ferry point for the Aran Islands, which we haven’t made it to yet as we went scuba diving instead.  We park up at the O’Connors Riverside Camping & Caravan Park, Doolin, Co. Clare (www.oconnorsdoolin.com) which is a small site backing onto a river, with a pub, shop, etc just across the road – perfect for us.  Scott goes for a job and I read a book.  I do think my method of training for the London Marathon is far better.

When Scott gets back etc we head across the road to the tourist information counter to get the ferry times for the Aran Islands and then pop into Fitz’s Bar for a quick drink and maybe a snack.  That quick drink turned into many as we met an old Irish couple and listened to the spontaneous irish music being played.  It all became a bit of a blur after that and all I can say is that I had just the one too many.

14 June 2011 (Tuesday):     Doolin

Well I got up and then decided it was heaps better if I actually just stayed in bed with some panadol and a glass of water.  Scott annoyingly was his usual chirpy self.

Eventually I got up after lunchtime and we had a short walk down to the ferry port and looked through some of the shops and basically just pottered around.  There is no way i can get on a ferry , of course there is no way I can get into the car, so we are stuck until I start to feel slightly more human.  Luckily it isn’t the best weather today, so ideal for doing nothing.

15 June 2011 (Wednesday):  Doolin -> Killarney

We drive into Killarney not actually knowing much about it to be faced with a large very touristy city that has American flags hanging everywhere.  We park Vinnie and walk around the town which is very pretty.  We find a lovely little cafe for lunch before deciding to stay for a couple of days and head out to Fleming’s White Bridge Caravan & Camping Park, White Bridge, Ballycasheen Rd, Killarney, Co. Kerry (www.killarneycamping.com), although we also looked at another caravan park nearby but it was a bit further out of the town.

We settled Vinnie in and put on our walking shoes and headed back into Killarney for a walk through the laneways and a visit to the local tourist information centre to get some information on tours of the area.  As the roads are tiny here and it is about time Scott had a day off driving, we have decided to do the tourist thing and do a bus tour of the Ring of Kerry.  We stop in at a little pub for Scott to have another Guinness (just to ensure that it is the same as everywhere else) and list to some local music for a while.  Scott loves the fact that most pubs at some point play the Pogues, I am still missing Abba, so can’t really comment.  We then wander back through town and find a kitchen shop and actually buy a decent knife, a small thing, but very important. 

16 June 2011 (Thursday):  Killarney 

We pay for our tour of the Ring of Kerry and the bus picks us up from the front of Fleming’s White Bridge Caravan & Camping Park.  We head into Killarney where we all change to the relevant buses for our tour and head off.  The bus is full of mainly Americans – we just can’t get over how many of them are here.  First up we follow the N72 which takes us through to Killorglin, before turning onto the smaller road of the N70 and passing through Glenbeigh where we now see Dingle Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

We drive through the peat bogs and stop at a local pub and bog museum (Scott opted for an irish coffee instead of the museum tour).  I of course spend more time just listening to the mindless drivel of other tourists who I would hazard a guess have never been anywhere else in their lives.

We then stop at several of the tourist towns for differing size breaks.  Although I would have preferred to by-pass these and stop at some of the old ruins etc to take photos, but you know what it is like when you are on a coach tour, need to make everyone happy.

After the tour we get dropped off at the caravan park and Scott goes for a jog and on his return we head into Killarney for a nice pizza and a few drinks at some of the different pubs before walking back in the rain to the campsite. 

17 June 2011 (Friday):  Killarney -> Skibbereen 

We leave Killarney via the main road, as the smaller roads were very tight for Vinnie as we saw yesterday on the drive through the Ring of Kerry.  However, we managed to make it across the Killabunane Road (not suitable for HGVs or buses – hah, Vinnie made it) which cuts through the Caha Mountains.  This is some of the most bleak terrain we have come across.  The villages are little more than one or two houses and the area is mainly sheep farming.

Bantry:  After the hectic driving, we stop in the town of Bantry for lunch. On the entry into the harbour there are loads of loads of oysters and mussle farms, so we figure this must be the main type of industry.  We find that Friday’s is the Friday Market in town and there is a wide selection of both food and other vendors – you can even buy a pony.  Damn won’t fit in Vinnie, so we venture into a local pub and have a soup and chowder.   

Durrus:  we wind our way through some very small roads, laneways and what even appear to be people’s driveways to get to Durrus Cheese.  This is a small local producer of cheese what we have seen advertised.  When we get there Jaffa Gill has just left to go to England, so we speak to her husband who we purchase some cheese from and he explains the set-up and the property.  They bought a almost beyond repair old cottage in the 1970’s and have been restoring it ever since.  It is now a lovely home that fits perfectly into the surroundings – so jealous.  We then have to rewind our drive back through the laneways etc to the main road.

and to the town of Baltimore and it is a lovely picturesque town that is definitely a sailor’s paradise, protected good pubs, restaurants and views.  We tried the local dive shop, but it is closed, so Scott calls them and there is no diving tomorrow due to bad weather.  We park in one of the many car parks and have a walk around the town in the sunshine.  We are thinking of camping here tonight, but as there is no diving we will head into Skibbereen for the farmers market tomorrow.  So we head to The Hideaway Camping & Caravan Park, Skibbereen, Co. Cork which was recommended by a lovely Dutch/German couple parked next to us.

18 June 2011 (Saturday):  Skibbereen -> Baltimore

As there is no scuba diving today due to bad weather we head into the Saturday farmers market for Skibbereen (runs from 10am to 1:30pm).  This is just a short walk away from The Hideaway Camping & Caravan Park, so we wander into the market town which has a worn down look.  There are a lot of shops and empty properties, but no different to most of the market towns we have been through nearly everywhere in Ireland.  Anyway we eventually find the farmers market behind the Supervalue and it has a great range of local organic produce including veggies, seafood, meats, baking etc.  So we purchase a few nibbles including some very gorgeous looking samphire and wander around tasting and trying different items.  This was definitely worth a visit and we picked up some venison burgers, salmon, veggies, tarts, olives, hummus, samphire etc – we are going to live like royalty for the next few days.  The weather is of course not the best, but you have to be realistic and go with the flow, so we wander back through the town and head back to the campsite where we use a break in the weather to do some maintenance on the van and actually do some “housework”.

19 June 2011 (Sunday):  Baltimore 

Up early and down to Aquaventures Scuba Diving in Baltimore for two boat dives.  We pick up our rental thermal wetsuits, hoods, gloves, weights and cylinders.  Not as luxurious as last weekend for the Scubapro Try day, but hopefully we will be warm enough.  We then do a quick 5 minute walk down to the pier with the other four divers and onto our dive boat, which is even fitted with a dive lift so there is no lugging your wet gear etc – awesome is my thoughts on this matter.  Anyway today we are blessed with sunshine and relatively warmth, so our first dive is about 10 minute boat trip out of the harbour to dive with the seals in a giant kelp beds near a couple of islands.  We kit up, grab the camera and jump in and omg it is freezing – well only a little bit freezing, anyway, Scott and I head off in a different direction to the other divers and start fossicking around in the kelp and come across a huge area just jam packed full of giant crabs and lobsters plus the most beautiful jellyfish.  There are a couple of crab pots down there that are empty and you are so tempted to cut them loose.  We continue going in and out of the kelp, but can’t find any seals, and they don’t come and find us – they are mostly lazing in the sun on the islands.  After about 30 minutes we have frozen through so head up to the surface where the boat comes to us and we stand on the lift and wella we are onboard.  Again awesome.

We motor around to the other side of the island for our second dive which is a wreck in between 20 and 5 metres of water.  However this time as soon as we both get in we are cold – it is 10 degrees.  We have a quick swim around the wreck which is really interesting and there is loads of marine life and the visibility is really good.  The camera either doesn’t like the cold or is having a day off and has decided not to work on this dive.  After 25 minutes we head up to the safety stop and spend our three minutes shivering before surfacing and being lifted onto the boat.  This is one of the easiest dives I have ever done.

We head back to the pier and unpack the boat and have a shower at the dive centre.  We then park Vinnie on the waterfront near the harbour and head up to the town centre where the pub is packed with people taking advantage of this one day of summer and have a drink with a couple we met at the dive school.  We are parking Vinnie in the harbour and camping there tonight, so head back and sit and watch the sunset over the bay. 

20 June 2011 (Monday):  Baltimore -> Blarney

On a total opposite from yesterday the weather is very grey, windy and rainy.  Obviously yesterday was summer.

Drombeg Stone Circle:  according to the map should be signposted; alas no signpost was visible anywhere near where we had expected this to be, so we gave up.  Secretly I am sure Scott was pleased as I think he has had enough of stone circles, cairns, piles of rocks, standing rocks or any other form of rock.

Clonakilty:    we were going to stop at Clonakilty as it is the birthplace of Michael Collins, but were unable to get a parking bay.  It seems towns either encourage people with cars over 1.5metres or they don’t and Clonakilty was a don’t town, so we just drove through.

Kinsale:  is a lovely seaside town with windy streets and picturesque settings.  We even managed to squeeze through some of the smaller streets as we looked for a parking bay, however, we soon managed to get into town and yet again find a good parking spot in the centre of town and had a quick walk around where we managed to get soaked and settled on a fairly average pub for a hot meal.  When we ventured back outside, it is raining (hard) and extremely windy, so we head to the not very appropriately named town of Summercove to see Charles Fort.  This is a fascinating star shaped fort which was originally built in the 17th century.  It has fantastic views over Kinsale harbour and you can walk and wander through the buildings.  Although most of them are derelict (they were burnt down by the Irish in 1921 so that nobody could use them) there are a couple that have been restored and now hold exhibitions showing photos and items from the early 1900’s.  We also listened to a talk by one of the guides on the history of the fort and the changes over time.  Very informative and only 4 Euros per person.  If the weather had been nicer there was plenty more buildings to explore, but as we were now totally drenched headed back to Vinnie for some warm clothes and heating.

We left Kinsale and headed up via the M27 skirting through Cork to Blarney Caravan & Camping Park, Stone View, Blarney, Co. Cork (www.blarneycaravanpark.com).  This campsite is nicely laid out and has the huge added benefit of unlimited hot showers.  We also did the boring and mundane washing and drying of clothes.   

21 June 2011 (Tuesday):  Blarney -> Tramore

Blarney Castle:   We got up early to ensure that we weren’t standing in the queue with hordes of American tourists.  The park opened at 9:00am and we were there by 9:30am with only a few other people around.  We headed into the park (10 Euro per person) surrounding Blarney Castle where you are gradually led to Blarney Castle itself.  The stone sits atop the 15th century castle and you wander up the spiral staircase through various rooms and plaques describing castle life in its heyday.   Once you do make it to the top and walk around the battlements a lovely old gentleman will help you lean over backwards and hang onto two rails as you kiss the blarney stone.  Because I did it first, Scott didn’t want to lose face so he did it as well.  Although we must both confess we didn’t actually kiss the stone – gross.  We meandered back down as the crowds were starting to stream in as a couple of bus loads had deposited their cargoes.  We headed into the Poison Garden which is made up of medicinal and toxic plants.  We were surprised how many of them we have in the garden, so now we may rethink a couple of things.  The funniest part was the exhibition of cannabis plants with a sign that the bed is currently empty due to the Garda not recognising the permit that the castle has to display them.  We then did the walk through the Rock Close, which is described as breathtaking, hmm not sure it is the words I would use, and even the waterfalls are installed.  It does look like it has been abandoned though.  You are meant to walk up and down a set of stone steps with your eyes shut and think of nothing except the wish you want to be granted.  Unfortunately the four loud Americans that were there who were too worried about how many steps they had to go etc didn’t quite get it.

Barryscourt Castle:   We popped into Carrigtwohill to have a look at this castle and it was certainly a roundabout drive as the signposts make you go in circles, finally getting to the Castle.  This is a 12th century castle which has been restored.  We lucked in and tacked on the end of the tour that had just started (this castle is free but still has guided tours).  Take note it was a great tour and you went through the history of the castle, the restoration work done and the life of the families since then who lived in it.  The gardens are also well maintained and restored.  Not sure how this all gets funded but it was extremely informative, interesting to hear about the history and be able to put it in perspective.

Youghal:  After Barryscourt we thought we would head to Youghal for some lunch.  It didn’t get a good wrap in the Lonely Planet, however, it was the place where John Huston filmed Gregory Peck in Moby Dick and I wanted to see harbour etc.  We found a parking spot (free for three hours) right in the middle of the town and walked across the road to The Nook (or Treacy’s Bar) for a great home cooked lunch and even a local ale for Scott.  The pub was fantastic and the staff very helpful.  They recommended we head up to the church, so off we ventured to St Mary’s Collegiate Church which was originally built in 1220.  The graveyard is fascinating, they have set up a walk through the gravestones and there was even a guy sitting there singing and playing his guitar (not even busking), all leading to a very other worldy feeling.  As well as a walk they had information pillars about the plants and wildlife and yet again didn’t charge for this.  However, the church was locked so you couldn’t go in.  We then followed the medieval walk through the city past the Clock Tower (1770) and down to the pier to see the harbour.  It is really a great city with plenty to see and do and worth a stop.

This morning when we left Blarney we had thought we could make it all the way up to Kilkenny for tonight, but on a realistic rethink and how long we have spent sightseeing today, we have decided to make for Tramore for a break before continuing tomorrow.  We find the Newtown Cove Caravan & Camping Park, Newtown road, Tramore, Co. Waterford (www.newtowncove.com) which is on the beach and only a 2 km walk into the town centre.

Wednesday 22 June 2011: Tramore -> Kilkenny

As usual it is raining, so we leave the seaside resort of Tramore and drive inland to Kilkenny bypassing Cork.  Scott is getting a tad sick of Guinness so thinks maybe Kilkenny will refresh the tastebuds.  We park up at the only campsite we can find and then do the short walk into Kilkenny for a look around and to see what is happening.  Kilkenny seems to be a relatively typically Irish town with a new part and an old part.  There is loads of history as well.

Thursday 23 June 2011: in Kilkenny

Up early and after making a few calls to the English and Australian embassy to try and locate the “missing passport” we head into Kilkenny and walk around some of the old sites and also do the Kilkenny brewery tour which was actually good fun.  The guy giving the tour had worked there all his life and knew a lot of the history and information and you could see he was just holding himself back from keeping us there all day.  After the tour there was the free pint (at least as he poured some extras) so Scott had a few more. 

Can Scott manage all those beers....
Can Scott manage all those beers....

We walked back through the town enjoying the sights.  We stopped for a late lunch and for Scott yet another pint before heading back to the campsite and a afternoon nanna nap.  Kilkeeny was great and a must stop on the tourist trail.

Friday 24 June 2011: Kilkenny -> Redcross

Up early into the horrible weather again and we are now heading to Redcross which and going through County Wicklow.  The scenery is lovely, not that we could see much as it was raining buckets, no surprise there.  We got a call from the Australian embassy to say that the passport has been located and Scott can pick it up on Monday morning – yeah, we can now leave Ireland and go anywhere. 

Once we get to Redcross, the weather has not improved and Scott and I seem to be a bit sick of being stuck inside so spend the afternoon ignoring each other until dinner time when we venture into the pub that is attached to the campsite for a drink and a meal.  Inside the pub it is defeaning with kids screaming etc, I understand it is raining, but a dull roar would be much nicer for everyone else.  Anyway, we had our meals etc and wandered back to the wet motorhome.

Saturday 25 June 2011: Redcross -> Dublin

We make a beeline for Dublin now.  We will be staying back at Camac Valley where they have free wi-fi so we can book ferry crossings etc for France.  We are now on a tight deadline to make the start of the tour.  Tracy wants to spend the day chilling out in the sun (yes it is sunny) but Scott wants to potter on the van which includes him having to keep driving to the equivalent of Bunnings for spare parts and therefore everything to be packed away each time.  A tad annoying to say the least.

Sunday 26 June 2011: in Dublin

The waiting game continues.  We didn’t do a lot in Dublin, as we had already done our sightseeing, so and as the weather was vaguely warmish we did some maintenance on the van, with Scott doing additional trips to the hardware shop and setting up the inverter etc all ready for the purchase of a TV when we get back into England.

Monday 27 June 2011: in Dublin

Scott headed off at the crack of dawn to the UK embassy to get his Australian passport back, along with a shiny long-term UK visa, so now he can come and go as he pleases without, hopefully, any of the problems previously encountered at Heathrow.  After he returned to the campsite, we headed back into Dublin to buy my gorgeous god-daughter a pair of Irish dancing shoes and posted them to Australia and went for a celebratory lunch and drink in Temple Bar, before getting the bus back to Carnac Valley Camping Group and packing up the van for the trip to the UK tomorrow.

Wednesday 08 June 2011 : Keel -> Galway

Wednesday 08 June 2011
Keel -> Galway
Overnight, the rain poured and the wind howled around the campsite.  Even though the stabilizers are down, Vinny shook, rocked and rolled in the storms which by morning time had almost blown itself out, although it was still windy with offshore breeze and heavy drizzle when we finally got up.  Not to mention that Tracy had spent most of the night away worried that vinnie may topple over.  From our cozy motorhome, looking down the campsite we surveyed some of the damage done to a group of guys who were sleeping in small tents.  Despite their best efforts last night to move their group of tents into a hollow and use their cars as a bit of a windbreak, this morning one of the tents was destroyed, one of its flexible poles now stands erect with rags from its shredded tent still attached and flapping in the breeze.  People are still scurrying to the amenities block and back to their camps, but there doesn’t appear to be anyone else about. Even the beach is deserted. We can see why kitesurfing is becoming increasingly popular in Keel, but even none of them are foolish enough to come out today.
We had originally thought we may stay an extra day here, but the weather is not conducive to anything outdoors, so we decided to head off and make our way to Cong to see a 12th century Augustinian Abbey. 
The strong winds and even stronger gusts didn’t make driving off Achill Island an easy experience, the rain didn’t help much either, but as we got further inland the weather started to abate and we even got to see the Sun at times! We headed south along the west coast of Clew Bay and then turned south-east to head towards Ballinrobe.  It had been a long drive in the conditions and I needed a break.  Conveniently we found a Tesco and did some shopping to top on some food items (vegemite for Scott, but no bbq chippies for Tracy) and then got back onto the road.  
We made it to Cong a little after lunch time and spent an hour or so wandering through the remains of the old Abbey and its grounds.  This is a 12th century Augustinian abbey which has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries, although now it is just a shell, but the grounds it stands in are beautiful and well worth a visit.  The town itself is famous for being the setting of the John Wayne film “The Quiet Man” and there is a museum etc for that.  There is also a salmon hatchery and we could see why when we looked into the crystal-clear fast-flowing freezing-cold river flowing through the town.  We had a quick peruse through the TIC then headed to a local pub for a bite to eat.  Inside, there was a peat “fire” smoldering in the hearth; behind the bar was a lad listening to American counrty and western music, whilst playing bingo on his laptop computer and watching Sky News on the big screen in the front room.  We ordered our lunch; I wasn’t hopeful of getting much so I was pleasantly surprised with a decent beef pie and Tracy enjoyed her brie filled panini. After lunch, we went back into the remains of the Abbey for a couple more photos and then clambered back into Vinny to finish the trip to Galway.

Galway is the biggest city we have been in since leaving Dublin, the traffic congestion and roadworks were not a welcome sight. Eventually we made it to the camp site which is nestled on Galway Bay (Salthill Caravan Camping Park, Knocknacarra, Salthill, Galway (www.salthillcaravanpark.com).  We got an excellent pitch right on the waterfront. After we had established camp, we went for a sojourn along the waterfront promenade, Tracy walked and I ran.  Even though the wind is still cold and there were passing drizzles, there were still people out and about, walking their dogs, jogging, cycling, and even a dozen or so lunatics swimming in the freezing cold waters of the Bay! After making it back to the camp and showering etc it was time for dinner and a glass of wine.  As we watched the tide come in and the sun (very) slowly set, we noticed people were still out and about along the waterfront promenade. We recall the arguments about daylight-saving in WA, well, people here don’t seem to have any issues with nearly 17 hours of daylight (sunrise tomorrow is at 05:12 and sunset at 21:55) and people are actually USING the time! The twilight sailing that is happening at the other end of the bay started at about 8:30 and was wonderful to see so many boats out.

Tuesday 07 June 2011 : Strandhill -> Keel

Tuesday 07 June 2011
Strandhill -> Keel
We packed up our site and headed out, intending to visit a couple of historically-significant sites enroute to Keel.  Our first stop was to see Knocknarea which is the (alleged) gravesite of legendary Queen Maeve (or Mab) who may or may not have actually existed (think Arthurian legend). As we drove to the site, some of the signs had been turned around and without any specific directions we ended up going off in the wrong direction (even Sean (our GPS) didn’t even know where the site was!) We managed to navigate the wrong-pointing signs and the road closed for roadworks ruses and eventually made it to the carpark from where we could walk to the site.  Tracy had mis-read in the Lonely Planet that it should have been a ten minute walk to the top of the hill (Later, we discovered that the NEXT site involves a ten minute walk and THIS site involves a 45 minute walk uphill along barely visible tracks through open farmland with the only thoughts going through our minds being Nepali Flat and reminiscences of Annapurna!) Anyway, it wasn’t raining when we set off but it did drizzle a couple of times on the ascent.  When we reached the top of the hill, we saw the cairn. For those not familiar with the term cairn, it means pile of rocks, and that’s exactly what was on the very top of the hill, a big pile of rocks! As no-one has ever excavated the site to determine if the remains of someone who didn’t actually exist might be buried underneath, we had no idea whether the site was actually significant or whether someone was playing some sort of long running practical joke? The views from the hilltop were spectacular though, so the walk was not completely in vain.  Of course, as soon as we started down the hill it started to rain and as we were only expecting a quick ten minutes to the top, we didn’t bring any wet weather gear.  This oversight was rammed home to us when we passed a tour of people on their way up to the cairn, fully equipped with wet weather gear, walking poles and water bottles, all the stuff we happened to have left in Vinny.

Miffed with the pile of rocks experience and the weather, we decided to forego the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetary visit (the one with the actual ten minute walk to the summit) and headed for Ballina (pronounced bally-nar) which is the reported salmon capital of Ireland. The drive itself was uneventful, although the weather came and went making driving conditions at times, wonderful and at other times, treacherous.  Eventually we made it into Ballina and found a park for Vinny whilst we wandered around in the heavy drizzle looking for a salmon-monger and a pub reported for their food in Lonley Planet. Eventually we found them, side-by-side on the same street.  We had an OK lunch of smoked salmon sandwiches on homemade Irish wholemeal soda bread and Tracy had something less fishy! Afterwards we went to the fishmonger and purchased a sheet of smoked farm salmon and a piece of fresh wild salmon. On the way back to the van, we stopped in a 3-mobile store to see if we could get a technology glitch sorted out, but the man seemed completely disinterested in solving our issue instead preferring to try to sell us an alternative.  Needless to say, he made no sale at all and we left.

The next stop on the way was just after Ballycastle on the rugged northern coast of County Mayo at another historical site, Ceide Fields which was a Stone Age settlement uncovered accidentally by a farmer in the 1930s.  On the site now is a large pyramid shaped information centre and “experience” which was interesting, but although the Lonely Planet recommends a guided tour of the surrounding area, we declined and as the LP says, all we saw was a series of small walls! we did learn a thing or two about peat bogs, which came in handy for just after Ciede Fields we started noticing farmers digging up and drying their peat bricks in the fields alongside the roads. We weren’t sure if they were digging up such vast quantities of the stuff to dry and burn as fuel in their own homes in the winter months, or whether they were selling the stuff to distilleries to be used in whisky (whiskey) making processes. Regardless of the destination, the peat “harvesting” was in full swing for many miles.  Knowing the history of peat bogs, the farming practices are only relatively short lived as once you have dug them up they don’t regenerate and nothing will grow on the land itself.  This area was once forests, but when they were burnted down they created a layer of carbon which stops anything from being absorbed into the ground, hence the land becomes sodden and nothing breaks down properly.  However it is a cheap solution for fuel and lets face it nobody cares about the future here – Ireland is very similar to Australia in that concept.  As we reached the western end of the county and headed south, the roads got narrower and the surfaces worse.  Driving was not enjoyable that afternoon. A lot of the road works have been partially supported and funded by the Eu, but that doesn’t seem to help, just gives somebody money to help put tarmac between ever growing pothols.  Eventually we made it across the bridge onto Achill Island and pulled into the seaside hamlet of Keel (Keel Sandylands Camping & Caravan Park). We checked into the park and the lady at reception was overjoyed to have Australians staying, she has friends in Perth and loves visiting whenever she has the opportunity. It also turned out she was born and lived near Trim and was fascinated to hear that we loved our guided tour of Trim Castle.

We pitched Vinny and went for a walk along the beach.  The weather was cold and it was windy but as were to discover, things would be much worse later.  Keel is another “surfing” spot, popular too with kitesurfers although none of those activities were happening when we arrived.  The beach was almost deserted except for a Dad out playing with his kids on the sand (they were dressed for their day at the beach, wetsuits and beanies!)  The toe-test proved the water was not any warmer here than further north at Strandhill.  we walked up from the beach and through the township, doing our usual routine of counting the pubs and restaurants.  Often we noticed the adverse effect of the economy; in several places renovations started some time ago had just abruptly stopped without ever being finished, one large, new building was stopped so abruptly there was still cement piles on boards in the middle of the work-site which would have been used by the bricklayers. It also seems as if every second building is for sale.  Maybe if they built smaller macmansions they wouldn’t have to sell, but again like Australia some people just build the tackiest macmansions with little forethought to financial and environmental outcomes.  There are a lot of housing estates here where all the buildings are so alike, similar to Perth where people like in housing estates and just build whatever the builders tell them too without thinking about something different, after all don’t want to be an individual, just follow the rest of the herd.  The lady at the park had said that Keel was “thumping” over the bank weekend, but now all was quiet again and it was just the locals out collecting a take away meal or coming home from a day (somewhere), and the occasional tourists wandering through the sleepy town.

We made it back to the park as the rain started down and the wind started to pick up a bit.  Any ambitions of a late afternoon run were squashed, and the bar opened instead!  I cooked up the piece of wild salmon purchased earlier in the day
at Ballina; this was the BEST fish I have ever eaten and combined with a simple salad and some boiled potatoes formed the best meal I have eaten in a VERY long time.  It’s a pity we aren’t going back to Ballina because I’d be buying a lot more of this.

Monday 06 June 2011 : Lough Arrow -> Strandhill

Monday 06 June 2011
Lough Arrow -> Strandhill
When we awoke, the first thing we noticed was that it had finally stopped raining! We were leaving Lough Arrow today, so did our usual pre-departure chores, paid our monies to the park proprieters and headed off.  We were expecting a lot of end-of-the-bank-holiday traffic but were pleasantly surprised to find many of the roads almost devoid of traffic.  First up was a trip to Carrowkeel Passage Tomb Cemetery which was a short walk (1km) from the car park.  However, this turned into bit of a furfy with a 5 km trek to what appeared to be a knocked down old shed.  Not exactly the eerie and uplifting experience we had anticipated.  So off we headed.  The country roads were only a short part of the journey today, we spent the best part of the (short) drive on the N4 heading towards Sligo.  Of course, when we did get to Sligo, because of the bank holiday everything was shut!  The shops were shut, the pubs were shut.  There were a few people driving around the city, so we assumed, like us they were travellers looking for a bite to eat and to do a spot of shopping.  As there wasn’t anything else to do here, we headed just out of town on the airport road to Strandhill where we would be staying for the night.  Strandhill is the local surfing spot, so it felt a little like old Dunsborough or old Yallingup.  From what we saw the surf was not that good and the water was very cold (toe tested).  The Gulf Stream is supposed to arrive here and keep the water temperatures “moderate” so we are now starting to get worried about diving in Ireland if they think ‘that’ water is moderate. We watched a couple of groups attend their surf school lessons on the beach before heading out into the shallow chop for their first attempts to surf.  Each student is dressed head to toe in thick wetsuits, booties, gloves and hoods. When they emerge from the water they looked excited enough to have tried surfing, but we surmised some of the smiles must have contained some element of grimace from the cold. 

Surfing Ireland style!
Surfing Ireland style!

We went for a short walk into the town (the campsite is literally at the back of the buildings on the “main” street) to count at least four surf schools, along with the surfing town favourites; bakery, three pubs, seaweed massage and spa centre, ice-cream parlour and a couple of restaurants. we decided to head to one of the pubs and had a great lunch washed down with some drinks. 

Scott is starting to believe the Guinness marketing!
Scott is starting to believe the Guinness marketing!

Afterwards, we went for a longer walk along the beach.  The top of the beach was made up of large rocks, washed smooth by eons of tumbling in the surf, but there was sand and bedrock which, as the tide was out, left rockpools near the waterline. There were a few people out walking dogs or otherwise meandering along the beach as we were doing.  Surprisingly, there was not a lot of life in the rock pools except some seagrasses and kelps, when we expected to see at least one crab or a small fish or something, but nothing.  Undoubtedly due to the fact it was freezing.
We walked back to Vinny and made dinner, but then decided we should see if the nightlife of Strandhill matched Dunsborough or Yallingup, so went back to the pub where we had eaten lunch.  There were still people at the bar, some of them may have even been there when we were there earlier in the day, but it was quieter now, so we laid out our maps and planned the next days drive over a couple of drinks.  There were a couple of guys with long lengths of PVC piping laid out on the floor of the pub as rails, using a platform with some skateboard tracks as some sort of carriage.  We watched with bemusement as they used hacksaws and fiddled with their system, right there in the pub.  We couldn’t figure out if they were making some system to move equipment, or whether they were prototyping some adventure ride!  We didn’t bother to ask, thinking it more fun to leave things to our imaginations than let the truth intervene. So with not much else happening at the pub, we headed back to the park.

Sunday 05 June 2011 : at Lough Arrow

Sunday 05 June 2011
at Lough Arrow

During the night, it pissed down!  And, when we got up in the morning, it was still doing it!  It rained all day.  At about lunch time, I was going a little stir-crazy so decided to go for a run.  It was still raining.  Tracy also decided she need to get out of the van and do something so she headed out for a walk.  It was still raining.  We headed off in the same direction.  It was still raining.  Just over an hour later I arrived back the van to find Tracy had just emerged from the shower after her walk. It was still raining.  I was soaked through and cold, but after a shower and some hot soup I felt a lot better.  It was still raining. Mid-afternoon, we decided to check out the establishment next door, we had seen it on the drive into the park but not on any of our walks or exercise regimes.  It was still raining.  We initially thought it was a pub as the park brochure made mention of a pub closeby, but alas it was a hostel and not what we had expected.  It was still raining.  We walked back to the park and curled up on the couches for a night in.  It was still raining.

Saturday 04 June 2011 : Lough Ramor -> Lough Arrow

Saturday 04 June 2011
Lough Ramor -> Lough Arrow
In the morning, there were slightly fewer midges but the air was still heavy with them.  The wind had picked up a bit and the sky was cloudy but it wasn’t raining, yet.  We decided to make a break for it whilst the weather was still reasonable, so broke camp and headed off for our second lake-side destination at Lough Arrow. We weren’t originally going to Lough Arrow, but we couldn’t get a reservation where we wanted and the other site which was recommended did not get ANY good reviews, so we were lucky the Lough Arrow people were going to squeeze us in on their busiest weekend of the year.  On the way we passed more silage cutting and tractors on the roads. The small laneways were barely big enough for one vehicle in any direction, so to have Vinny and tractors crossing was scary (especially as Vinny is left-hand drive). The area in County Cavan and County Leitrim could be called the lakes district because of all the water, but whatever its called it made for some spectacular scenery en-route.

We stopped in the largest town in the area, Carrick on Shannon to top up on supplies and grab a bite to eat at the pub.  As we walked out of the shopping centre with our hands full of bags, of course, it started raining. We went into one pub on the riverbank to grab a bite to eat.  The pub was brilliantly located, with a massive beer garden overlooking the river as well as upstairs and downstairs areas to keep every cosy in the winter, but, they didn’t serve food! We crossed over the river into the “main” part of town and joined the queue for the ATM.  We found another “nice” pub, nice in the regard they served food and had a great pub-grub lunch.  We spent the time observing some of the subtle differences between pubs at home and here.  Here, pubs still serve honest pub-grub.  Here, bring your kids.  Here, guys will sit on stools at the bar and quietly chat and drink moderately. Here, hand driers in the bathrooms can remove paint from a Boeing 747 (they all seem to be made by Dyson!) Here, dogs are allowed inside and are offered water bowls.  Anyway replete and content, we picked up Vinnie and headed off for the drive through the lake district.  Luckily, as we pulled into the drive at the campsite at Lough Arrow the rain stopped and wind dropped (briefly).  We were supposed to be getting an un-powered site on the fringe of the park, but a resident caravan owner wasn’t going to make it this weekend so we could snuggle Vinny up to his van and use his power supply ourselves. The sun was still out, so we pulled out the camp chairs and had a chat with our neighbour for a while; I later had a snooze whilst Tracy continued reading through her travelling library. Later we went for a walk beside the lake, following some directions a park visitor had given us.  We didn’t walk that far but far enough, and made plans to go further the next day.

A sunny day - Scott finally has some shorts on but hasn't let go of the jumper yet.
A sunny day - Scott finally has some shorts on but hasn

At the furtherest point on our walk there was the pad of a house under construction.  The pad was huge and the house will eventually have 360 views over two different lakes, so maybe the economic times are not tough for everyone here?  Although it should be noted that it looked like the site had almost been abandoned and nothing had happened for some time.  We went back to the park for dinner and a drink or two, then an early-ish night.

Friday 03 June 2011 : Carlingford -> Lough Ramor

Friday 03 June 2011
Carlingford -> Lough Ramor

There was no middle-of-the-night knock on the door from the Garda (police) or council rangers, so we were quite surprised when we woke up after an uninterrupted sleep. The sun was shining and it seemed the weather was on the improve as Ireland was heading into a Bank Holiday long weekend.  We had a quick brekkie and headed off to get inland before the expected long weekend rush.  The countryside was very green (I presume that is why Ireland is called the emerald isle), so very different to home where it is all brown.  There were lots of farmers working to cut their grass (silage) and get it into storage/processing whilst the sun was shining, so the country lanes were frequented by tractors with large trailers, driven by young teenagers (some would have been lucky to be 12 or 13!).  Apparently if they get it cut now and with some good weather they may get another crop in towards the end of August.  We stopped in Cavan, namesake of the county and visited the TIC to pick up some brochures on local events etc.  We were amazed by the amount of water-borne holidays available in the region, canalling is a very popular past-time and there are many, many lakes and rivers for fishing. We had a reservation beside a lake (or lough, pronounced almost the same as a Scottish loch) so were full of anticipation.  Armed with loads of brochures for all over island and plenty of help from the lady at the TIC, not long after leaving Carvan, we arrived at our campsite by the lake.

Just like all the farmers we had seen that day, the owner was cutting the grass in the sunshine, but gave us enough time to book in and showed us around his site before jumping back on his ride-on mower to finish his chores in preparation for the expected weekend rush. The sun was shining, the wind had abated, so it was time to roll out the awning and the camp chairs for their first uses. Tracy took the opportunity to catch a few rays and I went for a run, then a shower, then a cold beer under the shade of the awning (not to mention a little nap). 

All set up for the sun - perfect
All set up for the sun - perfect

A little later we went for a walk up the hill to the local shops to buy some more ciders, summer-esque snacking foods and dinner victuals.  Back at the campsite, next door, a bloke had arrived with his three kids.  He had a brand new tent, which he didn’t know how to erect, so Scott and another site visitor lent a hand.  After their tent was finally up, the bloke opened up his brand new outdoor table and chair setting to find a bolt missing, so had to improvise with whatever he found in his car.  By the time his wife finally arrived, the young kids were bored and had wandered off to make themselves fun, and it was getting near dinner time.  He opened up his brand new two-burner cooker to find it didn’t have a gas regulator, but he did have a brand new small single burner cooker which was complete and allowed him to eventually get dinner ready for his family! Our offers to provide assistance were politely turned down; so we simply enjoyed our first bbq meal.  Meanwhile, while all this was happening, the park was slowly filling up with long weekend visitors and for every site that was pitched a new cloud of midges was disturbed.  By early evening the sky was almost black with midges; if we had a bug zapper, the serenity would have been commensurate with Bonnydoon! From relative safety behind our flyscreens we watched as the sun set and the fishermen returned to the camp from the lakeside; no-one carried anything other than that which they left with, it seemed no-one caught anything! (This pattern would continue in coming days).

Thursday 02 June 2011 : Dublin -> Carlingford

Thursday 02 June 2011
Dublin -> Carlingford
We got up relatively early and readied ourselves for our trip around Ireland.  We were all packed up and ready to go, but we needed a few bits and pieces from the shops, but they weren’t open yet so we had to have yet another coffee to bide our time.  We left the campsite and made our way onto the motorways to find a shopping centre we had seen previously and had been recommended to us as having everything we would need.  When we got there, the centre was open however most of the individual shops were still shut except the bookstore where Tracy managed to find yet another book she hadn’t already accumulated.  Luckily everything we needed soon opened and we finally hit the road in earnest.
It seems that whenever we take Vinny somewhere the weather is against us, today was no exception; although the sun was briefly visible, for the most part it was wet and windy, as usual.  we got off the main motorways and found ourselves in quiet Trim. 

Trim Castle
Trim Castle

This was the town where “Braveheart” was partly filmed (although we didn’t know this yet). In the centre of town was the Trim Castle, left over from the 14th century and one of the last well preserved Normal castles from when the British first arrived and conquered (well technically that is what they say) the area.  It was picturesque and displayed some promising “modern” defensive capabilities for its era.  We were pleasantly surprised not to get stiffed on the entry fee, so were happy to pay 4 Euro each for entry and a guided tour of the keep itself.  It was 3 Euro just to tour the grounds, so this sounded somewhat of a bargain and luck would have it there was a tour started in about 10 minutes, so we did a quick wander through the grounds and waited for the tour guide.  The tour was a real highlight (only let down by another tour of hooligans, I mean school children, who despite the best efforts of their teachers and guides could not get them to stop screaming throughout the castle.  Yes we know it has great acoustics kids!) Our tour guide was exceptionally knowledgeable and very enthusiastic, she even added stories about the filming when Mel (I am not endearing myself to the local population) Gibson was pelted with real rotten fruit and stones during part of the movie when his character is being led to his execution.  After the tour we had another meander through the grounds and then into town to have lunch at a local cafe.  This was a lovely little town with good parking for the motorhome.  It seems like all the towns are in a big competition for tidy town status and Trim would be up there with the streets clean, more flowers than you can imagine and everyone was friendly.

Our next stop was in Tara (or more precisely Hill of Tara) which is described as the most sacred ground in Ireland and where there were supposed to be some interesting tombs and other religiously significant objects in a field on the side of a hill from pagan times. 

Hill of Tara
Hill of Tara

Yes, there was a lovely grassy hill with panoramic views of the surrounding valleys.  Yes, there was a tomb.  Yes, there were some ditches and other earthly-diggings.  No, it wasn’t interesting.  Or, was it that it might have been interesting if we had paid for the self-guided audio tour instead of relying on a couple of paragraphs from the Lonely Planet?  I am not going to argue the point.

It was getting on in the day and we had barely covered any distance, so buoyed by the Trim experience and deflated by the Tara experience we made a beeline for Carlingford.  There was some interesting countryside enroute and the weather was behaving itself better, so the drive was quite pleasurable, not sure if the road was worthy of being a toll road, but it certainly kept the traffic down.  We made it into Carlingford just before the TIC shut for the day.  The lady there told Tracy there was no camping site in Carlingford, the nearest site was some way up the road, so up the road we went, and back again because we couldn’t find where she was talking about!  Our guide book showed the closest park was too far away so we decided to “rough camp” for the night.  We drove Vinny to a seldom used suburban street near an almost-abandoned building site (signs of the tough economic times here) but we had views over the estuary and could watch the tide come and go. However interesting the tide might be, more interest was found by walking into the small town and counting the pubs! It seemed every building was a pub, but the old ruins of Taffee’s Castle just off the main street certainly did house a pub, with cold beer and wine. After a couple of visits to the bar, we wandered back through the little town and then back to the van for roadside dinner and sleep.

26 May to 01 June 2011: England -> Ireland

26 May 2011 – Worcester

Finally we head off from London.   This is it, no turning back now.  First up is Peachley Leisure Touring Park in Worcester where we visit the local supermarket to top up before testing out the local pub.  There seems to be a theme to this motorhome travelling.  Anyway the weather is as usual (as it has been since we bought the motorhome) windy, wet and depressing, so we head back to the motorhome for a warm meal and glass of vino tinto. It would appear that a lot of people have made this campsite their permanent home tell-tale signs include garden sheds, walking stones, pot plants etc.

27 May 2011 – Holyhead, Wales

A relatively long drive to Ty Mawr Farm in Holyhead.  Again the weather isn’t the best, so we don’t stop along the way, instead finding the farm asap.  The farm is set on rolling green hills overlooking the beautiful bays and rugged scenery of North Wales.  We pull and plug into the electric socket and whilst Scott goes for a jog, I potter around the motorhome and enjoy some quiet time reading.  Eventually Scott finds his way back and the best thing with a motorhome as a warm shower inside – no more traipsing to ablution blocks etc.  We decide to go for a walk and have a look at the RSPB lookout sanctuary for Puffins, but alas every other type of bird but Puffins, I am beginning to think they are a myth.  We walk along to the lighthouse and the weather starts to get even worse, so decamp back to the motorhome and watch the wild weather come in over the seas.  Obviously not boding very well for our ferry crossing to Dublin tomorrow, but hopefully it will ease off somewhat.

28 May 2011 – Dublin, Ireland

We arrive at the ferry port at Holyhead and join the queue for the Irish Ferries crossing to Dublin Port, the closest port to Dublin. Irish Ferries advertises that they are the cheapest, but considering there are only two companies and they are both the same price etc not sure how that works!  I head into the terminal and get a copy of our tickets and we make a coffee and wait for boarding to start.  All very easy so far, the only difficult part appears to be that nobody will stamp Scott’s passport to show he has left the UK.  So hopefully we can track someone down on the Irish side.  Anyway the sign says rough crossing so I take enough Travel calm to sink a small army and after we board and head up to the deck area, I spend most of the crossing fast asleep.  Of course when I wake up, it turns out the crossing was smooth, hardly a ripple which is apparently a tad unusual for the Irish Sea. We get off the other end and drive around finally finding the Customs House and Scott is given a stamp – yeah, he has officially left the UK and his tourist visa.  We then set the tom-tom for the camp site at Camac Valley and head off through the motorway and street system.  However, we turn off the motorway at the wrong junction and Scott does the refuse to ask for directions manly thing. I eventually ring the camp-site and get directions which Scott decides can’t be any good so we do spend a bit of time driving through car parks until he gives in and follows the directions given.

We head to the local supermarket to get a few bits and pieces as well as some wine and beer to tide us over.  Before pitching camp whilst it was still light and pitch up in a nice spot with power and water.  Cooking a curry and having a glass of wine and settling down to watch a movie.  We don’t have a TV or satellite, so are using the laptop as both.

29 May 2011 – Dublin, Ireland

According to the tourist brochure, Dublin is one of Europe’s oldest cities, hmm they obviously haven’t been to Istanbul which is way older, oh well I am sure the writers of these brochures don’t let facts get in the way of describing the area. The tourist brochure also said the weather would be mild – instead we think it is exceedingly wintery conditions.

We jump on the bus from the campsite into Dublin and start on our tourist sites.  The bus lets us off at O’Connell Street, which is the main thoroughfare in Dublin and now home to the wonderful new artistic The Spire, which was built to celebrate the millennium and is a 120 metre spire. Not exactly scintillating and looking and some of the decline in this area, would have thought the money may be better spent on providing some sort of economic assistance to the shops. However, there are still lots of Georgian architecture intact and you can see bullet holes in some of the building’s columns from Irelands past troubles. We meander across the Liffey River and into the old part of the city along the old city walls and Dublin Castle, which is a tad disappointing, except for the gorgeous chapel what has a fantastic organ and some of the most beautiful stained glass windows we have seen for a while. We then bypass the model toy exhibition due to very nerdy people standing around and eventually head to the Guinness Factory. 

The doors to the hallowed brewer
The doors to the hallowed brewer

You can’t really escape it, as it seems to engulf a huge proportion of the city and every pub is a shrine to this beer.  We head into St James Park for the tour which is a self guided tour that you meander through seven floors of all things Guinness which includes the history from 1759 to today where some of the beer is still brewed at this site.  I don’t drink beer, so Scott has the opportunity to have my pint in addition to his own, plus we got a couple of samples along the way. 

Scott enjoyed this class.
Scott enjoyed this class.

So Scott does the Guinness learn to pull a proper pint class and gets a certificate and we continue the upward trek to the Gravity Bar where he recoups his final beer voucher.  I don’t see what all the fuss is about, it is strange stuff and doesn’t taste any better here. Of course Arthur Guinness was a busy man; he founded the brewery, created an empire and managed to have 21 children – a good catholic man! He was also a great business man, signing the lease for the Guinness site for 9000 years at a rent of GBP45.

On finally leaving the hallowed ground of Guinness, I find a lovely bookstore in Cow Lane, Temple Bar (The Gutter Bookshop) and spend a while browsing before we venture into Temple Bar itself.  Anyone would have thought we were in Scotland.  Ireland is playing Scotland in soccer and the Scots are out in force – never have I seen so many kilts in one place.  Even funnier is the Scots are wearing kilts etc with Irish hats.  The crowd is excellent and we have a drink and chat to a few of them.  We aren’t sure how many will make it to the actual game later on.  Temple Bar is in the Cultural Quarter and a maze of cobbled streets full of restaurants, bars, pubs, shops etc making it an interesting hodge-podge of sights.

We have missed our bus back to the campsite, so have to wait for the public bus and end up standing there with some of the people from the campsite this morning.  Eventually the bus comes and then takes the most convoluted trip back to our campsite, probably made more nerve wracking when you don’t really know if you are on the right bus.  People here just speak so fast, it is hard for us to understand what they say.

30 May 2011 – Dublin, Ireland

We caught the hop-on/hop-off red bus again from the campsite into the O’Connell Street and decided to stay on it today and see some more of the sights, but after sitting in traffic for what seemed like hours we got off at Trinity College which is Irelands oldest college, founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I and is in the heart of the city on 40 acres, it is also the home of the Book of Kells which is a 9th century illuminated manuscript. Trinity College has some famous alumni, among them Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Swift.

We then walked around to St Patrick’s Cathedral is a huge landmark in the city and was also famous for having Jonathan Swift as Dean from 1713-1747 – okay for those that don’t know, he wrote Gulliver’s Travels. Handel’s Messiah was also sung for the first time in this cathedral.

We took the bus on a longer part of the route up through the main park in Dublin (Phoenix Park), past the Duke of Wellington memorial (which is massive) and past Dublin Zoo. Dublin Zoo is apparently famous for its breeding program of lions and tigers (most famous lion bred here was the MGM film tiger), not sure how it works as the weather is totally different. Anyway the bus-ride was absolutely freezing, so we jumped off and visited the Old Jameson Distillery in Smithfield (or Smiffield as it appears to be called). We do the tour that takes you through the history of the distillery, unfortunately it is a bit rushed and you don’t get much time to take in the information. The Distillery is no longer used by Jameson’s and it is just an information centre. Scott was lucky enough to get picked as one of the whiskey samplers, so was able to have a few comparison tastes with other brands.

Yet more classes for Scott
Yet more classes for Scott

We managed to get the bus back tonight on time and did some of that boring house-work stuff that doesn’t end when you don’t have a house anymore.

31 May 2011 – Dublin, Ireland

Big day today and up early to ensure we are smartly dressed and have all the paperwork in place. We have an appointment at the UK Embassy for Scott to apply for his 2 year visa in the UK. So we jump on the bus and then gradually make our way up to the embassy. We were there an hour before the appointment but decide to go in on the hope we might get in early. After passing through some very strict security, we are number 41 in the queue; the number when we arrived was at 22. Good job we were there early as we would be even further along in the queue if we had arrived on time. Of course sitting there and listening to some of the stories you just think some people are having a laugh – alas let’s hope they don’t think so. Eventually it is Scott’s turn and he turns in the reams of paperwork etc and we now have to wait 15 days to hear if they will accept him or not.

Next up was a local pub near the embassy for a well earned and de-stressing pint and something to eat before catching the bus back into town via the Aviva Stadium, which is massive and something Perth should think about – a purpose built sports ground, radical concept.

On arriving into town we walk through Henry Street and have a look at a few prices which are much higher here than in London and then find a funky little pub called The Gin Palace where we have a snack and relax before we get the bus back to the campsite.  Dublin is a lovely city, except for the fashion sense.  There are way too many people in velour tracksuits and if you can’t tan naturally don’t apply fake orange tan, gross, however highly entertaining for us just to see how many combinations of tracksuits and high-heeled trainers you can get.

We are leaving tomorrow, not sure where, but somewhere J

22 – 26 April 2011: Istanbul & Anzac Cove, Turkey

22 April 2011

Well we are off to Istanbul a major destination on our bucket list.  Have read loads about it, plus we will be attending the Anzac Day memorial at Gallipoli which Scott has wanted to do for years.  Istanbul just sounds amazing, originally settled by Byzas in 657BC, the city has constantly been inhabited by a variety of nationalities since and they have all left their mark.

We arrive at Istanbul Airport to be picked up and taken to the Ibis Hotel which is a short 20km bus ride.  Now we knew this hotel wasn’t right in the heart of the city, but had no idea how far away it actually was.  We checked in and booked onto the shuttle bus to the old part of the city.  We asked if we could be dropped off along the way and was told “yes no problem we could be dropped off before Taksim”, so we sat on the bus for nearly 2 hours going through Taksim and eventually getting dropped off exactly where the bus would have stopped in Sultanahmet.  The city of Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus Strait (Black Sea and Marmara Sea) and divides European Turkey from Asian Turkey.  The traffic in Istanbul was amazing, it was almost gridlocked.  Lesson learnt!  Sultanahmet is a mega concentrate of shops, eateries and history all in the size of a postage stamp as well as being a World Heritage Site.  We found a lovely place to sit in the sun (it was warm when we left the hotel, but it was now getting very cold) and had a platter of meze which included humous, tomatoes, olives and the thinnest pita bread you can imagine.  Wow if the food anywhere else is like this, it is going to be a great place. 

Shopping and very contented pussy cats
Shopping and very contented pussy cats

We had a general wander around to get our bearings and see what else was happening.  There are loads of bazaars and beautiful coloured mosaics, ceramics, rugs – everything, may have to forgo the “buy a crap souvenir” and actually get something nice.  You are constantly drawn to the old parts of the city with the huge city internal and external walls and also the unforgetable sights of all the mosques and Topkapi Palace.

A small bazaar near the Blue Mosque
A small bazaar near the Blue Mosque

As it is Anzac weekend, the place seems to have been flooded by Australians of all ages, so there are some very lively pubs, but we ignore them and found a lovely restaurant, where we sat under a heater and had some wine/beer along with a fantastic fresh dinner, I had stuffed aubergines and Scott had skewers, along with vegetables and a wonderful apply tea for desert, not quite as good as The Snow Lion in Nepal, but up there. 

See the theme of Scott and beer
See the theme of Scott and beer

We met some lovely people, who were also there for Anzac services, before heading back into the cold air.  We managed to find a taxi and headed back to the hotel. 

23 April 2011

Up early and onto an early shuttle bus where we got off at Taksim, so we could walk back down through the hilly streets and get some pictures of the steep roads and also some of the architecture.  Taksim Square is the main square in this area and is on the European Side and supposedly the heart of modern Istanbul.  We stopped at the Galata Tower (build in 528 – see how excited we are, the architecture and city is just so old and fantastically maintained/resorted) and I thought it was all stairs to made Scott go up to take some photos, whilst I sat underneath and had a lovely local tea. 

All you can see are beautiful mosques every direction
All you can see are beautiful mosques every direction

On his return he said it was an elevator and not the 61 meter climb I was expecting.  So disappointed with myself could definately have managed an elevator.  We head off back back through the streets, walking over the Galata Bridge (built 1994 to replace the previous bridge built in 1910, which was built to replace progressively earlier bridges).  This bridge provides a stunning overview of the city and joins the two halves of Istanbul.  You get a fantastic few of the mosques that are atop the seven hills of the city and is also a hive of activity with ferries and boats.  The bridge is covered by people fishing, we didn’t see many people catching things, but it seemed like a nice way to pass the time, although how they manage not to snag passing passengers on ferries is beyond me.

Fisherman whiling away the hours
Fisherman whiling away the hours

Underneath the bridge is a maze of restaurants and stalls selling fish sandwiches – strangely neither of us felt like one of these as the fishy smell was just too invasive.  Next up on the itinerary was the Spice Markets and wow, they were just full of nuts, spices, cheeses, food – everything.  We tried a lot of the food and finally settled on some nuts and turkish delight to take with us to Anzac Cove.  I don’t like turkish delight at home, but here it is wonderful, not too sweet, but very tasty.  These markets were constructed in the 1660’s, originally being called the Egyptian markets as it mainly sold products from that country. 

Spice Market - decisions, decisions
Spice Market - decisions, decisions

We then went through the Grand Bazaar which is not as impressive as the Spice Market and seems to sell a lot of overpriced souvenirs, so we just scooted through, although with approximately 2000 shops, 64 lanes and the Suleymaniye and Beyazit Mosques this was no mean fete as it was a giant labyrinth. 

Grand Bazaar Entrance Gate
Grand Bazaar Entrance Gate

We were now officially a bit lost.  There are so many entrances and laneways it is hard to know where you are for sure.  We head where we think the Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia Museum are, to be in the wrong area of town, so take the opportunity to do the long route stopping to have some freshly cooked chestnuts. 

Yum - there is nothing nicer than street food
Yum - there is nothing nicer than street food

It didn’t make a lot of difference by the time we got to these places, the queues were phenomenal, so we decided to try later and headed off for the Blue Mosque, which was now closed for prayer. 

Outside the Blue Mosque
Outside the Blue Mosque
Outside the Hagia Sofia
Outside the Haghia Sofia

After a lovely light lunch we wandered back towards the Aya Sofya (Haghia Sofia), which is Istanbul’s most famous monument.  Build in 537 it’s original purpose was as a church until 1453, then it became a mosque until 1935.  After 1935 Ataturk converted it into a museum.  There is a considerable restoration works underway and a lot has been lost in the intervening years.  However, you can’t help but be inspired by the gold mosaics that are so small and detailed. 

Inside the gold mosaics are just stunning
Inside the gold mosaics are just stunning

We wandered back behind the Topkapi Palace, which is immense and opulent.  It was originally home to Selim the Sot who drowned after drinking too much champagne, not necessarily a bad way to go.  The gardens the palace sits in is also beautiful and well maintained.  I stopped to grab a freshly squeeze pomegranate juice from a local vendor.

Hmm fresh juice
Hmm fresh juice

We called back into the meze cafe we went to yesterday and Scott had a Hooka while we snacked and grazed on yet more lovely nibble plates – somehow I don’t think you can lose weight here.  The food was similar to yesterday, but different enough to know it is fresh and the olives were fantastic.  Of course Scott enjoyed his Hooka and it was nice sitting back and watching the world go about its business. 

Scott enjoying the relaxation for once
Scott enjoying the relaxation for once

It was now getting late and we had a team meeting for the trip tomorrow, so we decided to get the train back to the hotel instead of a taxi.  On the way to the train station, we found an area that is full of seafood restaurants (next to Kumkapi Train Station) which all looked fantastic and have marked that on the list of places to come back too.  We found the train station, it was cheap, clean and frequent.  We got off at our required stop and took a wrong turn out of the train station, having to walk what felt like miles around the hotel, but it is a giant building site and eventually one of the guards let us do the short cut, which took us to the motorway where we walked trapped against a wall and oncoming cars – stressful.  We made it back to the hotel for a quick change, had a drink in the bar and then did the meeting to find out the details.  We headed back to the bar for a few too many drinks and then to bed.

24 April 2011

Up early today for the 8 hour drive to Anzac Cove.  The bus is comfy and we are soon all on board and barrelling out of the city.  It is a very agricultural scenery and we are soon near the coast.  Our tour guide tells us some history of the area and coastlines.  We do a couple of stops for food/toilets etc before arriving at the entrance to the national park, which is closed, so we all go for lunch and do some sightseeing to kill the time.  Visiting one of the Turkish monuments.  We have another go to get into the park at 4pm and made it through the gates, to soon be ensnarled in a traffic jam. 

Anzac Cove
Anzac Cove

It is a one-way system, but with so many buses it is slow going.  We get out and have a look at the trenches – it is now starting to sink in, that nobody in their right mind would have thought this a good place to land troops.  I doubt there are many english people here and nobody back in London seems to have the slightest understanding of Anzac Day and even what happened.   

The trenches at Gallipoli
The trenches at Gallipoli

We eventually start the long walk down the hill to get to Anzac Cove, stopping at some of the cemeteries and just appreciating the beautiful sceneary, I am sure 96 years ago the young troops never got a chance to even catch their breath.  We soon joined the throng to get through security. 

Anzac Cove - not much space to land the troops!
Anzac Cove - not much space to land the troops!

We made it through security who were very thorough and were given a bag by the DVA including beanie (to come in very useful), information on the event along with a timetable of all the things going on during the night, we had a wrist bracelet put on to say we had been through security and then headed into the melee.  Nearly every space of grace had been occupied so we headed up to the stands with others from the couch and put up some plastic sheeting, trying to make a little shelter.  It was a little disappointing not to get a spot on the grass, however, it doesn’t matter where you are going to be, it isn’t a comfortable night and nor should it.  We all raised concerns about the space available and how it would be managed for the 100th centenary – interesting times ahead for the organisers.   

The hills where the troops climbed
The hills where the troops climbed

It was only 6pm and it was getting cold.  We take it in turns to go for walks and see what there is to eat etc – it is very organised and although we were told to bring food, there seemed to be plenty, as well as places to buy cushions, blankets, water etc – yes it could be a bit pricey, but you are in the middle of nowhere.  We were considering nothing to be available. 

Bus L - getting settled in
Bus L - getting settled in

Finally the sun started setting on the cove.

Sunset at Anzac Cove 2011
Sunset at Anzac Cove 2011

It was about 8pm and it is now officially freezing and we are wearing everything we own and in our sleeping bags – only about 8 hours to go before the service. 

Me all rugged up with my Bulgarian muesli bars for dinner - thanks Jane
Me all rugged up with my Bulgarian muesli bars for dinner - thanks Jane

During the night we watch lots of video/movies/interviews about the event from both the Australia/NZ and Turkish sides which does pass the time.  There was a constant stream of people arriving during the night, so at least things going on helped to pass the time.   

25 April 2011

Then at about 4am, the band comes on and everyone starts to get organised and we are encouraged to wake up etc. 

Dawn Service - Anzac Cove 2011
Dawn Service - Anzac Cove 2011

At 06:15, dawn service started at Anzac Cove.  The service itself was good, as the cliffs were lit up and you are yet again reminded just how difficult this area was and impossible the task assigned.  It is certainly very humbling and moving and sadly you also realise it was meant to be the Great War, the War to end all Wars, if only people had learnt from the tragedies during this campaign.  After the service, it is then a very sombre 4km uphill walk along a trak to get to Lone Pine for the memorial service at 10:30.  Now I am sure this is very inspirational, but today the area is covered in grandstands and camera crews.  However, you are drawn to the Lone Pine. 

Lone Pine Memorial - Gallipoli 2011
Lone Pine Memorial - Gallipoli 2011

Not the original tree that was destroyed on that day, but another one that was planted afterwards.  We have the same MC who did the Anzac Service for the whole night before, who was really good and he went through what happened that day, the mistakes that were made by the allies in thinking the area would be minimally protected and the amount of people who died in the battle.  What a waste of very young lives.  Of course during the service, the weather seemed to get even colder and we were back into our sleeping bags.  Feeling bad that we were complaing about lack of sleep etc which was nothing compared to the Anzacs, Scott and I were going to go to Chanuk Bear to watch the NZ memorial, but decided to take some quiet time (and we were totally exhausted and cold) we walked around just looking at all the gravestones. 

Us in front of Lone Pine 2011
Us in front of Lone Pine 2011

The time ticked by and we met in the pre-arranged meeting point to get on the bus, which took forever, due to the number of buses.  However, we had been fully warned and prepared for the wait.  The good thing is that we had arranged to meet our bus slightly away from the main meeting place, so were organised and all ready to jump on the minute we saw it – even though we did walk down towards it as it was cold sitting on the hillside. 

A flower amongst all the memories
A flower amongst all the memories

The minute we were on the bus I think everyone was sound asleep, just keen to get back to the hotel for a shower and a bed.  We eventually made it back to Istanbul.  Now for the downside of the hotel – I don’t think they are used to large groups arriving at once as they just couldn’t handle the number of people and it took quite a while to get our room keys which was very disappointing.  We had a shower, grabbed a quick meal downstairs in the, again, seriously understaffed restaurant and bar and just headed back to bed.

26 April 2011

As part of the tour, we did a two hour Bosphorus Cruise and you realise that there is a very wealthy population in Istanbul, some of the houses and boats were just spectacular.  You also realise how big the city is and how much we still have not seen.  Good excuse to come back later.  After the cruise, we left the group and headed off on foot to see the remaining places on our list.  First up was the Blue Mosque which wasn’t closed for prayer this time.  This Mosque was buillt by Sultan Ahmet I to surpass the Aya Sofya’s grandeur.  I think it certainly does that, as it is spectacular inside, so peaceful and beautifully maintained and decorated – it was also free, so makes you wonder what some of the other churches do with their money. 

Inside the Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque

There doesn’t seem as many people about in town today, so we walked back through the park for Topkapi Palace.  There is a tulip festival here, so everywhere you look there are the most amazingly bright flowers, it just looks fantastic.  Everything is also clean and the people are really friendly. 

We head back into a market and barter for some bowls, a door number plate and some turquoise prayer beads before having a lovely meze plate in the sun.  We can both say this is one of our best city breaks and have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

However, before you know it, it is time to get onto the plane and head for London.  On the plane we catch up with some of the On-The Go-Tour Bus L travellers and have a good laugh on the plane and on the tube afterwards.

7 – 11 April 2011: Iceland

7 April 2011

Up early and excited about flying to Iceland.  Neither of us have been there before and it just sounds and looks awesome in all the photos and information.

So we make it to the airport.  Due to flying Icelandic Air we can’t access BA Executive Club (Qantas Club), besides we haven’t been to Terminal 1 before, so it is a chance to wander around and see the huge array of shops, eateries etc.  Wish Perth would learn a few lessons from other airports, but we all know what Perth is like so no point in hoping for something vaguely interesting to be implemented.

We board our flight and are blown away – fantastic plane, huge space for the seats (and yes we are in economy), Scott didn’t even have to get up when I went to the toilet – yes there is that much space.  It is a budget airline, so no food etc unless you want to pay for it, but we settle in with our Lonely Planet and pick what we want to do, or try and do, in addition to Scott’s hope to see the Northern Lights.

It is only a three hour flight, so before you know it, we are landing at Keflavik Airport, quickly pick up our bags and head straight out to the shuttle service into Reykjavik – all very well organised and so far so good.  We had booked a City Breaks package with Icelandic Air, which included flights, hotel, the Northern Lights tour and the shuttle service between the international airport at Keflavik and the capital Reykjavik.

The drive was approximately 40 minutes and it felt like we were driving through a lunar landscape – huge lava fields, moss and the clearest water you can imagine.  We then arrived at Cabin Hotel, which was targeted towards the discerning traveller looking for a good hotel but at budget prices.  We were at the back end of a huge group of school children and were immediately in panic mode.  We fought our way to the front of reception, checked in and got our room key – there is nothing “good” about this hotel and as soon as we walked into the room, we quickly backed out in dread.  The room was tiny (and I mean tiny), it had twin beds, there wasn’t any room to put your bag anywhere and it was noisy.  I quickly headed back down to reception, and asked for another room, to be told – it is busy, there is nothing else and we are more than welcome to find another hotel!  So we grabbed our map and wandered towards the old part of the city, which was a long walk away and found a hotel (Foss Baron), who let us look at a room, which overlooked the harbour, was clean, tidy and perfect for us.  So back at the Cabin we grabbed our bags and left – what a start to the holiday.  I have since complained about the hotel, but did not receive any feedback (no surprise). 

View from our hotel window
View from our hotel window

We checked into the Foss Hotel, who changed our trip bookings etc, and walked into the old part of the town.  We were meant to be going on the Northern Lights tour for tonight, but due to the cloud cover etc it was cancelled and rescheduled to the following night.  It is very very cold and windy here today, but we walked into town.  There are several streets that are small and although open to traffic, there isn’t a lot around and the shops are a good variety of clothes, shops, bars and eateries along with art galleries and studios.  Most of the streets have a glimpse of Hallgrimskirkja, which is an immense concrete church (Lutheran?) 

Night view of the Church
Night view of the Church

The town is quite large with lots of shops, cafes, sites.  We headed to the Reykjavik Hotel/Restaurant so Scott could have an Icelandic buffet of seafood and I had veggie lasagne, which was surprisingly good. 

Scott is non-plussed about the beer
Scott is non-plussed about the beer

There is also meant to be an ice bar here, which he had a quick look into and the term “crap” came to mind.  It was a tiny room, where most of the ice had melted – even worse you had to pay just to get into the room.  Very strange.

Anyway, we had a couple of drinks in the other bar, before walking back towards the hotel.

8 April 2011

The Hotel does a buffet breakfast, so Scott attempts to eat his body weight in salmon and other fish whereas I stick with the fruit.  Today we are off to the Blug Lagoon at 10am.  The bus picks you up and drops you there, then you just catch any shuttle bus back into town.  Apparently the average length of time people stay here is 2 hours.  So the Blue Lagoon is touted as the Eiffel Tower equivalent to Paris.  It is set in a black lava field inbetween Keflavik and Reykjavik with the water being a milky-blue colour.  It states that it is 38oC, but it is definately hotter and cooler in different areas.  There was a constant rolling mist coming over the thermal springs when we were there, just giving it an other worldiness. 

We arrived and it was snowing and bitterly cold, but after running from the warm building we were into the fantastic warm waters of the blue lagoon. 

You feel like you are on another planet
You feel like you are on another planet

This is everything it is described as.  You are in the middle of nowhere and the water is warm (varying degrees of warm) and it is a whitey/blue colour.  We spent ages just floating around and putting loads of silica mud on our faces hoping that I came out of the water looking like a super model. 

Yep - super model material or what
Yep - super model material or what

Not convinced it will work – but hey, have to give it a go.  The water is rich in blue-green algae, mineral salts and fine silica mud, all supposedly to condition and exfoliate the skin.  I have also booked at salt glow treatment at 1:30, so we jump out of the lagoon and have something to eat, before getting back in for yet more silica mud and just floating around.  At 1:30, I head to the treatment area, which is still within the water and have a wonderful salt scrub and massage.  You are on a mat where you just float near the surface on a sort of floating lilo and then you are kept you warm with large blankets.  Weird feeling, but sooooooo relaxing, just floating while you are also being pummelled by the masseuse. 

Sadly it is over all too soon, and we are back to floating in the lagoon.  You don’t just have to be in the thermal spas, I am sure on a warmer day you can lie out on the wooden decks, plus there is a pumelling waterfall that Scott was particularly partial too, in addition there are sauna’s and steam rooms to keep you occupied. 

When the bar opens you realise there are quite a few others here as well
When the bar opens you realise there are quite a few others here as well

At about 3 they open the swim up bar for beers/cocktails, but after a whole day in the thermal springs, we decide to give it a miss and eventually drag ourselves out of the springs and head back to Reykjavik on the 4pm bus, definately getting our monies worth of the whole trip.  If you are heading there – note:  take conditioner and plenty of it, even after using the toiletries provided, my hair was like straw for days.

On the way back we decide to hire a car for the following day, as the weather is still raining and cold and we can get out of the city and head towards the coast line, so back at the hotel, the receptionist organises everything for us and we head out into the nightlife for dinner and drinks.

Another quiet night in town
Another quiet night in town

Reykjavik is meant to have a heaving nightlife, not sure if the global financial crisis has quietened things down, but there aren’t a lot of people around and we find a small little bar/cafe where we had some drinks and snacks for dinner whilst watching the Icelanders wander by.  There are some interesting sights of people and due to the cold nearly everyone is rugged up to the eyeballs.  We have stupidly only brought one pair of thermals each and are feeling the cold.  So fortified with drinks and food, we call it a night.

9 April 2011

We pick up our Hyundai i30 hire car (with Garmin gps) from Procar in Reykjavik and head off with our limited maps to go past the black lakeof Kleifarvatn and down towards the coast.  This area, although on the Reykjanes peninsula doesn’t seem to attract the tourists heading to the more extreme glaciers to the East and North of the city.  The first problem is remembering to drive on the other side of the road – something we need to get used to and also work out road names which aren’t in English.  Kleifarvatn is the largest lake in the Reykjanes peninsula.  It is a deep grey (black to us) lake with submerged hot springes and black-sand beaches and although it says the lake can be reached by a track, on the maps it definately is described as a “road”. 

The city is much bigger than we expected, but soon enough we are heading along the road – which suddenly becomes a non-road and the gps tells us we are off road?  It is bleak weather, the snow is coming sideways and we are almost blown off the gravel path on many occasions.  We are soon off the gps map and heading up into the mountains where the tarmac becomes gravel, becomes potholes and continues to climb.  We now have no clear idea of where we are except somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Kleifarvatn.  We feel like a million miles from anywhere.  Driving along the roads is amazing, the roads seem to have been carves through giant lava fields where the boulders have been covered in moss which go on fore miles.  We pass fish drying racks, some of which just seem to have collapsed, but you are reminded that fishing is what Iceland is famous for.   This area is meant to be covered in walking trails and we did see lots of signposts etc, however I would suggest the weather needs to be a tad warmer and not blowing a gale force wind to enjoy which I would suggest is fantastic scenery. 

We get to Kleifarvatn which is awesome, looks so fantastic with black water, black sand, black rocks.  Big downside was the wind which meant our car was soon caked in black sand, along with everything else we owned. 

Positively balmy
Positively balmy

 

 

 

We just out of the car for some pictures and a video, but it doesn’t do it justice.  

Not our idea of a beach resort
Not our idea of a beach resort

 

 

 

We continue along the twisting road which initially follows the lakeshore, before coming to Seltún. 

If only photos came with smell-o-vision
If only photos came with smell-o-vision

 

 

 

You can smell Seltún before you arrive there – it is a huge area of sulphur springs within a geothermal field.  The rain has continued, so photography isn’t fantastic, but we head out of the dry confines of the car following the path through the snow covered hillsides with wafts of steam and sulphur smells.  There is a wooden walkway (although collapsed in parts), which guides you through the area – be warned, it is extremely slippery in parts.  You do get close to the bubbling mud, but again it has an eerie out of world feel.  The Krisuvik valley has lots of sulfur springs, but we felt that Seltún was the easiest and best signposted/documented.  We then travel further up the road and stop at some sulfer springs.  Even though the weather is freezing we do a small walk around the area – with Scott deciding the best pictures can only be achieved when standing next to them and by ignoring the safety signs.  Oh well. 

This is the scenery we saw all day
This is the scenery we saw all day

We continue driving through the countryside and through some small villages, that you can’t even imagine what life out here would be like – this is almost summer but still everything is coated in snow and ice.  Then there is the wind which just goes straight through you and finally, the lack of roads, once you leave the main centre it is pretty much potholes held together with more potholes – glad it isn’t our car and that we also took out the additional gravel insurance.  We have now given up with the GPS it is a shocker – never buy a Garmin, or ensure that the maps are up to date and I am sure there are other things to check, but it was constantly wrong, gave the wrong advise and it spent most of the time sayign “drive 1.2 kms and turn around”.  We found a lovely spot in Selfoss for a warm lunch.  The one thing about Iceland is that food/drinks are very expensive, but it is good quality.

After lunch we decide to drive back to Reykjavik a different way and end up heading towards Blafjoll ski Resort.  The road was trecherous, you could hardly see due to the fog and then all of a sudden it said the road was closed, hmm, reverse out and head up another route to find that the ski resort was closed. 

Poor Scott - finding the car was even difficult in this weather
Poor Scott - finding the car was even difficult in this weather

The weather was by now even worse, you could hardly see a hand in front of your face – enough time for some photos before back into the car. 

Ski Resort?
Ski Resort?

Doing down the mountain to the main road, I just out and take a few photos of the lava rocks with moss and was absolutely drenched through and I am sure on the way to frostbite.  Anyway, once back in the car we decide we are not leaving the car again.  The weather has not improved all day, so we head back to Reykjavik.  We did however do a small detour to through the city and dropped the car back.  Had a long hot shower and as the Northern Lights tour was cancelled again, we headed back out for some dinner/drinks. 

The church in daylight (yes it is still raining)
The church in daylight (yes it is still raining)

The weather then decided to change and became clear, so we took some night photos along the harbour. 

Unfortunately with the night clearing, it also became even colder.

Reykjavik is full of art and sculptures
Reykjavik is full of art and sculptures

10 April 2011

Last morning in Reykavik, so we went for a walk along the harbour. 

The city
The city

The area is meant to have many bird spotting places, but due to the wind and crappy weather, they are probably rugged up warm somewhere else. 

The beach
The beach

We checked out of the hotel and got our shuttle bus (yep on time again) back to Keflavik Airport.  Now the fun started.  It was windy, very very windy, so just as we arrived, they started to delay flights.  No planes were taking off and only a couple landed, so we waited.  Eventually we decamped to the bar and Icealandic Air gave out food vouchers, so we had a comfy spot, some drinks, some sandwiches.  By this time, the people who had landed were still stuck on the planes, as the docking stations couldn’t meet the planes and they had the planes all stacked up tip to  tail so they wouldn’t blow over.  The Airport room sounded like it was going to blow off.  After a few hours, Icelandic air gave us vouchers etc for the Hilton hotel and we headed back into town for a luxury night in the Hilton Executive Club. 

11 April 2011

Okay the choice is be at work – or be here in Iceland.  Overnight the wind had dropped, but now it was snowing, so we stayed inside the hotel. 

Snow, snow everywhere
Snow, snow everywhere

Scott taking advantage of the constant supply of salmon and various other fish treats while we waited for our shuttle bus to take us back to the airport.  I am sure my boss didn’t believe me when I sent him a message about being delayed.

21 March – 6 April 2011: London, Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, Washington Gig

Well a quiet week is planned after Paris and a week of working beckons again.  The time is just whizzing by, no idea where it is going and the hunt for a motorhome/campervan and a plan of what to do continues.

26 March 2011

Big day today, it is the Oxford/Cambridge Boat race being held on the Thames with the finish line at Chiswick Bridge, a short walk from our apartment.  Scott’s friend Geoff is coming over to visit along with my friends Sally and Pete, their daughter Francesca and her friend.  We head off to the local pub for a quick bite to eat and a couple of drinks, before following the throng on people that were also heading up to the finish line.  This is a very historic and English thing – only ever the two colleges involved and neither of them are based anywhere near where the race itself is held.

Sally, Pete, Scott and Geoff
Sally, Pete, Scott and Geoff

You don’t really know what is going on, you just stand there on a bend in the river until you hear the cheers coming up the river and then the boats make it around the final bend – Oxford by about 4 boat lengths from Cambridge followed by a huge flotilla of boats, then it is all over and you go home.

Oxford won
Oxford won
The flotilla behind the row boats
The flotilla behind the row boats

They finished at a private rowing club so you can’t go in and the public footpath (obviously right of way gets forgotten at this time) is closed to the public.  So we headed back along the river into some of the local pubs which are all now heaving with people for a quick drink.

28 – 30 March 2011

Tracy is back to Bulgaria for a couple of days training/support.

31 March – 3 April 2011

Finally Scott and I have succumbed to some super cold/flu virus which has seen us both totally knocked out and living on cold and flu medication and doing absolutely as little as possible.

However, on 2 April 2011, we staggered out to socialise and see if a change of scenery would help.  We visited The Botanist on Kew Green.  I really like this gastro-pub/bistro, so different to the traditional pubs in the area.  The food and wine is also good and interesting, although they have limited ales on tap which is a downer for Scott.  We tried to drink some red wine, but obviously are very sick as we couldn’t manage more than a sip each.

Again on 3 April we were starting to feel a bit more lifelike, so headed up to Shepherds Bush for a walk around, loving the fact it was a weekend and all the shops and restaurants were open.  We had a hot stone pizza at Fire and Stone, Westfield, which was very very ordinary and also very expensive, definately one to cross off the list of places to go back to.

4 April 2011

Tonight we have tickets to see Washington at the Hoxton Bar & Grill in the East End.  So we venture over towards Hackney/Hoxton for a walk around and to grab some dinner and drinks.  I haven’t been to this area for many years and it has certainly changed into a very urbane chic part of town.  We found a fantastically eccentric bar (Electricity Showroom) and had a drink and some chips and mushy peas (only in England) before venturing back into the Hoxton Bar & Grill to see the band.  It wasn’t a very big room, but it was packed full of Australians who enjoyed some music from home.  The lead singer, Megan Washington, puts in a very vibrant show and has a fantastic voice – her rendition of The Divinyls “I Touch Myself” was great and could be a possible release.

6 April 2011

Off to my cousin Robert’s for dinner and for Scott to meet my Aunty and Uncle.  Scott is warned in advance about the Geordie accent and any quirks in the slang that we can think off.  However, the night went well and he survived with a couple of beers.  I think the hardest thing for him is understanding the huge range of English accents – hadn’t thought of it before myself.

17-20 March 2011: Paris, France

Well today we are catching the Eurostar to Paris.  We arrive at Kings Cross St. Pancras with plenty of time and buy some snacks for the train, go through check in, whizz through security and Scott has his passport stamped with no fuss or problems – this is so much easier than the airport.  Unfortunately we thought it would all take a bit longer, so now have about an hour to wait for the train.  There are several trains heading out of London tonight – Brussels, Lille and Paris, so the terminal is busy with people milling around.  The building is gorgeous, however, the refit for the Eurostar has tried to make it very minimalist with furniture and stupidly no rubbish bins, so of course, rubbish is strewn everywhere with staff just milling around doing nothing.  There isn’t a lot going on until an american man comes running in trying to catch the train to Brussels which is just departing and is mightly upset they won’t stop the train for him.  The fact the ticket tells you to get to the station with 40 minutes to spare obviously doesn’t apply to some people.

17 March 2011
St. Pancras Train Station gearing up for the 2012 Olympics
St. Pancras Train Station gearing up for the 2012 Olympics

Finally the train is ready to board and we get our seats easily with minimal of fuss.  Only problem is that they are near the door which is constantly being opened and closed as people wander up and down the train.  As the windows are tinted you also can’t take pictures.  Not that there is must to take pictures of we you litteraly whizz by the countryside before going into the tunnel.  When we pop out into the French countryside it is starting to get dark, so we settle down, eat our sandwiches and read our book.  Before you know it you are in Gare du Nord, Paris.  Now comes for the fun bit – the announcement is made – no smoking within the train station, unfortunately that doesn’t count for all the smokers who now block the exits of the train as they are busy lighting up.  I understand it is an addiction, but honestly have some consideration for other people.

We find the ATM and get some Euros.  I think we really need to be a bit more prepared and travel with some currency for the countries we are going too.  We then stand in the huge taxi rank for what seemed like a lifetime.  Of course I have everything, but a map that shows me how close the hotel is to the train station.  So when we get in a taxi, the taxi driver is extremely unhappy and rude about the short distance to go.  Luckily when we get to the hotel, the staff are wonderful, very helpful and have everything all ready (Hotel Pavillon Opera Lafayette).  We drop our bags off.  The room isn’t very big nor that flash, but has a bed, shower and a window to watch the world go by from, but as we don’t plan on staying in, it is well situated to all the sites.  We ventured into Montmartre and find a little restaurant for dinner  (Le Carrousel on Rue de Rivoli) where I had a huge salad full of beans, asparagus, tomatoes, carrots etc and Scott had French Onion Soup.  Full and happy after having some of the local French wine, we wandered back through the streets taking in the views of Sacre Coeur before calling it a night.

18 March 2011

Well today looks relatively sunny, so we have the continental breakfast of coffee and croissants before heading out to do the sites.  We have a huge day planned.  We set-off into the quite streets of Paris and head down towards Notre Dame, which obviously we soon realise we have got wrong and actually end up at the Louvre.  It is only 10am and already there is a huge queue, so decide to bite the bullet and start queueing, which is moving slowly, mainly held up by the security procedures you have to go through.  Strangely enough they didn’t even ask us about our full water bottle, so not sure how rigid they are. 

The Louvre
The Louvre

Inside the Louvre we then need to queue up for tickets which is all automated and isn’t particularly user friendly, but we eventually get two tickets out of the machine and then head to the first lot of galleries.   The Egyptian displays.  Always on my bucket list is a visit to Egypt, but we want to let the recent turmoil settle down a bit, so instead here we are in the museum which has a good display (lacking some of the big items that the British Museum has) and we also realised in hindsight that we didn’t get the audio display and absolutely nothing is in English.  Still we can decipher enough to keep us happy and even better you are allowed to take photos here – not meant to use a flash, but that doesn’t seem to be policied in anyway.  What you can’t do is touch the displays which some people don’t seem to get.  We eventually came out of into an older part of the Louvre where the building is by far the star of the show.  The ceilings and adornments are so much you can’t focus and end up walking around trying to look up, down and sideways. 

Pictures don't do it justice - but this is one of the ceilings in The Louvre
Pictures do not do it justice, but this is a ceiling in the old part of the Louvre

Of course the next big item on the list to see is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci.  He has a few paintings in the Louvre, but this must surely be the star attraction – it is like a rugby scrum to get a picture.  Scott took pictures instead of people taking pictures of the painting.  I don’t think most people were that interest in the actual painting, just having a picture of themselves taken.

Realistically who is going to get a decent photo - better to buy a postcard.
Realistically who is going to get a decent photo - better to buy a postcard.

We continued walking through the museum, but Scott was getting picture/art etc overload.  Not his strong point, so we decided to venture back outside.  We were now extremely pleased we had gone in earlier as the queues were massive and snaking all around the entrance.  If you are planning on visiting the museums etc here in Paris make sure you get here early.

Next we walked to Notre Dame Cathedral which is a beautiful building and also home of the myth of Quasimodo – well Scott thought it was a myth, but I was still undecided if there was some truth to it.  We walked around the outside of the building as the queue again was down the whole length of one side.  I do find a lot of churchs you can’t take photos etc, so admiring the architecture from the outside can be a whole different perspective, plus you get to study (or stare) at people.

Notre Dam - the home of Quasimodo
Notre Dame - the home of Quasimodo

After this visit we walked back along the Seine and stopped at a small cafe for lunch.  My waiter was very upset I was vegetarian, but Scott made up with it by ordering duck and a bottle of wine.  My omelette and salad were lovely, so tasty and interesting.  Scott seemed to thoroughly enjoy his meal almost licking the plate clean. 

So happily stuffed we hit the road again.  This time it was the walk up the Champs Elysees, where Scott was planning where he would be standing on the last day of the the Tour De France. 

Avenue des Champs Elysees.  The finishing line for the Tour de France.
Avenue des Champs Elysees. The finishing line for the Tour de France.

This is a long street full of loads of shops, which are no different these days to anywhere else we have been in the world.  What is different is the amount of homeless and beggars – they are much more prolific than even India, plus they just beg and the item of choice to beg with is a dog.  It is sad and you do wonder about their life and how they ended up here.  A lot of people looked like they were immigrants and it is hard for me to comprehend that their life in their home country could be much worse than living on the streets of Paris in the winter.  I know a lot of European countries are having financial problems, but there must be alternatives somewhere for people.

At the end of the Champs Elysees is the Arc de Triomphe.  Scott did wonder that France would need it for due to their recent battles in history, but it was obviously for Napoleon and before, although my history is a bit limited.

Arc de Triomphe
Arc de Triomphe

Walking back to the hotel we stopped for a quick fortifying red wine (Medoc and Bordeaux) at La Tour D’Auvergne on Rue Des Martyres which was a great spot, inside and warm, to watch the world go back and everybody shopping at the tiny little food stores along this part of the street.

I have to say after all this walking, eating and drinking we are feeling a tad tired, so start the long trek back to Montmatre and the possibility of a very short afternoon nap.  Besides it was getting cold and as usual we were underprepared with hats, gloves and jumpers in the hotel keeping nice and safe.  After a super short nap we were up and rugged up ready to hit the streets of Paris at nighttime and get to see some of the sites in a different perspective.  However, in the short time we had a snooze it had begun to rain.  That wasn’t in my plan of sightseeing in Paris.  Luckily after living in London for the last few months, we now carry umbrellas with us wherever we go.  We still decide to head out and find another local restaurant (Le Paprike on Avenue Trudaine) that served French/Hungarian food.  I had a delicious mushroom risotto and Scott had hungarian goulash along with a lovely bottle of Bordeaux AOC, just the thing to take away the rainy blues.  The restaurant had a constant turnover of people and it was fascinating to sit there and watch all the different types.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of tourists, mainly french people.  The same for our hotel, we were the only English people for breakfast that we noticed, everyone else either spoke very good fluent French or were French themselves.  So fortified with wine and food we made a dash for the very seedy district surrounding the Moulin Rouge.  This is reminiscent of Kings Cross, but sadly even more tacky, if that is possible.  We ended up the night standing in the rain taking photos before giving up.

Moulin Rouge
Moulin Rouge

19 March 2011

Another early start with a croissant and coffee, ready to cover the other side of the Seine and some more sights.  So today we headed up first to the Musee D’Orsay which is a magnificent building housing the impressionist era paintings.  We usual there was a queue, which moved very slowly even in the ice cold freezing weather.  The security here was a lot slower (only two people checking bags), before we got our tickets and were toasty and warm inside the art gallery.  Disappointingly you can’t take photos inside the Musee, which is a shame as the building inside is so impressive and outside it is under renovations.  However, I spent another few hours dragging Scott from one Monet, Manet, Degas, Rodin, Seurat, Gauguin, Pissarro, Sisley etc until he looked like he was going to collapse with boredom.  He it totally nonplussed with art, although did begrudgingly say he liked one of the Monet’s.  So we re-rugged up and headed back outside.  This time with the Eiffel Tower in our sights.

The Grand Palace
The Grand Palace

We walked along the Seine past the Grand Palace which is a huge glass conservatory building flanked and surrounded by columns of gold statues, amazingly intricate light poles and any and every other type of ornaments you can think of to decorate the bridges, statues and columns.  Scott did think it was probably a good thing the revolution happened as the profligate spending must have been crippling for those who weren’t in the royal family or their mates.

There is sometimes no end to the decorations you can put on a lamppost.
There is sometimes no end to the decorations you can put on a lamppost.

You may think that Paris is all relatively old architecture designed by Haussman in the last century, but there is actually some new and very interesting designs.  Around the corner from the Eiffel Tower is a large green building, with vertical green walls which is also attached to a large conservatory/greenhouse that houses  a restaurant.  Not sure how the plants survive the cold, but it seems to be thriving and does not look out of place amongst the classical architecture of previous times. 

The new and the old
The new and the old

Finally we made it to the foot of the Eiffel Tower.  Scott was disappointed, it was much smaller than he thought, but the intricate work within the building is fantastic.  We decided not to go up, as it is now very cloudy and bitterly cold, so you can’t see much, the queues are horrendous and we were starving.  All good motives for moving on to the park behind the Eiffel Tower and taking in the views from a distance out of the wind. 

Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower

We found a lovely restaurant around the corner where we soon bunkered down to thaw out and watch the world go by – a fantastic passtime that I love.  Unfortunately the table next to us was soon taken over by an American family who eventually decided there was nothing on the menu at all they could eat, so they were off to McDonalds – honestly what can you say about people who won’t try the local food.  We have hated that in lots of countries, isn’t the point of travelling to experience the local culture and cuisine.  If you can’t or don’t want to, stay at home and let us keep it to ourselves.  Anyway after a moan about rude westerners we decided to head off, taking a longer route back to the hotel which would take us up through the smaller parts and side streets in A 2e.  Although we stopped along the way for Scott to make sure he knew where he wanted to be for the final stage of the Tour De France.

Scott has his place for Le Tour already marked
Scott has his place for Le Tour already marked
The fountain at the start of the Champs Elysees
The fountain at the start of the Champs Elysees
Of course while Scott was making sure and checking he would be able to see the riders, I was busy looking at some of the architecture.  Even the lampposts have the most beautiful engravings and moldings, you forget that they themselves are a piece of history and architecture – and even better they have not been vandalised as would happen in some many places.
Lightpost
Lightpost
Beautiful copper and gold engravings and moldings
Beautiful copper and gold engravings and moldings
A view from the Fountain to the Eiffel Tower
A view from the Fountain to the Eiffel Tower
Walking back towards the hotel you are aware of the hold that Sacre Coeur has on the city, it towers above everything and all streets seem to hold a view of even a small part of it.  I do think Paris should be renamed city of churches as there are so many and they are huge.
A view of Sacre Coeur on the way to the hotel.
A view of Sacre Coeur on the way to the hotel.
After a small sojourn into a local fromagerie for a small sample of cheeses and wine – you have to, it would be rude.  We stopped at the pub near the hotel for Scott to watch the Italy vs Scotland 6 Nations Rugby game.  This is a tiny pub and the highlight being two chickens who roam through the bar/main eating area.  This is strange and not sure how it would go in Perth in relation to food hygiene, but it was funny.  Of course unlike our chickens these ones didn’t poop everywhere and were extremely tame and interested mainly in what was going on outside the window in the street. 
Yes there are chickens in the pub
Yes there are chickens in the pub
After game number one of the day, we headed back out to a different pub to watch the final two games on the 6 Nations where we managed to have something to eat/drink and enjoy the local vibe.  We won’t talk about the game as it was not the best outcome for England. 
Tonight it is meant to be a full moon and also the closest it has been to earth for a while, unfortunately it is also cloudy and we caught the smallest glimpse.  However, we still went up to Sacre Coeur for some night time photos.  The front of the Basilica was full of music and groups of people – all watched over carefully by the local army with their machine guns.  Inside the church it is meant to be silence, but people can’t even follow that simple rule.  You can’t take photos inside, but the main pulpit area is a huge painting of Jesus in blue and gold and surrounding that are what look like paintings, but are in fact mosaics.  The main noise in the Basilica does unfortunately come from the donations machine which is somewhat like a slot machine.
Sacre Coeur at night
Sacre Coeur at night
So after walking to the top, we of course walked down past the buskers and a million little stalls selling the same extremely tacky Eiffel Tower ornaments – must get one of those.
20 March 2011
Last day in our flying weekend to Paris.  So we got up and had the traditional coffee and packed our little daypacks and hit the streets.  Not before Scott was able to watch the world go by our local Patisserie and buy a baguette.
It would be rude not to have a baguette
It would be rude not to have a baguette
We decided this morning to go to some of the local markets.  There seems to be one in every suburb and we wondered what they would be like.  In addition to market stalls, the shops also have extended areas where they put out different items.  These strawberries looked amazing and we tried one and they were so juicy and tasty – nothing like the strawberries at home that tend to taste of nothing.
Yes they are as good as they look
Yes they are as good as they look
There is also a huge range of heirloom varieties on sale.  The prices, however, off all items seemed to be expensive but the variety is fantastic and there was no shortage of people at both markets we went to.
Not your usual varieties of fruit and veg at Parisien markets
Not your usual varieties of fruit and veg at Parisien markets
Just to remind ourselves that it was springtime in Paris, we visited some lovely gardens.  Paris has a lot of concrete and built areas, but the parks we wanted through were well keps and full of flowers.
Just to remind ourselves it is spring
Just to remind ourselves it is spring
Blossoms and flowers everywhere
Blossoms and flowers everywhere
Decided to visit another market and the last two monuments on our list we also ventured by the Pompidou centre that houses a large museum/art gallery, as usual, although it was early on a Sunday morning, the queues were already snaking around the building, with people patiently eating pastries and drinking coffee until it opened and they could venture inside.
Pompidou Centre
Pompidou Centre
The Bastile Monument is in a horrible part of town, although it appears to be one of the older parts of town, you are inundated yet again by the amount of homeless people and beggars.  However, this area also houses a huge open air market that was packed to overflowing and if you can’t buy it here, I doubt whether you can buy it anywhere.
Bastile Monument
Bastile Monument
We enjoyed our coffee in a sidewalk cafe where you just sit and watch everyone going by.  Of course if you are going by you are stared at as well.  There didn’t seem to be any restrictions where you can sit, as a lot of the roads were blocked off to cars, they were only busy with pedestrains and cyclists, so you weren’t dying of fumes.
Drinking coffee on the sidewalks
Drinking coffee on the sidewalks
Our last main monument was the Republique monument celebrating the creation of the French Republic (different to the Bastille Monument).  This was again surrounded by the prerequisite beggars with dogs and variety of homeless people.
Republic Monument
Republic Monument
We found our way to Gard du Nord and had a lovely lunch at La Maison Blanche, including a bottle of very good wine (Bordeaux) – not that we haven’t had anything else other than good wine, but it certainly helped us face the journey back to London.  We then headed into the terminal to board the Eurostar train back to London.  A fantastic weekend away and made all the better that they let Scott back into the UK with only a couple of questions.  Maybe the rude immigration officers at Heathrow should take note.

9 – 15 January 2011: Sofia, Bulgaria

10 January 2011

Well up at the crack of dawn and into the cold cold English early pre-dawn morning.  The only good thing as that the streets are quiet and it doesn’t take long to get to Heathrow.  On arrival at the huge Terminal 5, we dropped off the GPS bag for Avis – who have been very good about the missing bag and didn’t charge us an exorbitant fee as car rental companies love doing.  We then ventured tentatively into the British Airways Executive Club (there is no Qantas Club in Terminal 5), and they let us into the hallowed club lounge and it was fantastic, can’t believe the array of food, drink, snacks and a variety of other things to keep you amused and occupied while waiting for your flight.  In future we will get there earlier.  Anyway our flight was called, so we loaded up our bag with packets of chips, fruit, bottles of water etc in case of the likely event I don’t get my vegetarian food, something that happens more often than not.  We had managed to get exit row seats and had to listen to the spiel about getting the doors open etc etc etc, of course I can honestly state that I would probably only really care about me, but nodded etc to keep the seats.  It was a fairly uneventful flight – I got my vegetarian meal which was nice, and Scott who had made the decision not to worry about gluten free meal was faced with pasta, so lesson learnt, book him a special meal in future.  The flight to Bulgaria only takes approximately 3 hours and there wasn’t much to see, even during the landing as it was just bleak, no greenery, just snow and ice. 

Sofia Airport is new and we passed through all the immigration formalities quickly – they didn’t worry about how long we were staying etc, got our bags and found our driver who escorted us to our car.  So we bundled in and were greeted with the melodic sounds of Metallica at full blast.  Strangely I wasn’t surprised, as I always had the impression that Eastern European countries loved heavy metal.  The trip to the hotel highlighted the large amounts of ice and snow everywhere and also the huge amount of new buildings going up – I think they need to invest a bit more in the road infrastructure as the tarmac only seemed to hold the potholes together.   Before you knew it, we were at the Hotel Anel, not sure where it is as it isn’t on the Lonely Planet Guidebook map and we couldn’t find the street, so could be anywhere.   We checked in easily and were soon ensconced in our huge room.  The hotel is decorated in the art deco, overzealous art collector and floral style, with patterns everywhere and all over the place.  Of course centre of our room was a large concrete pillar which added to the strange layout.  We had enough furniture to fill a house packed into a large room.  Anyway as it was only mid afternoon and sunny outside we decided to brave the minus temperatures and headed back to the reception counter to get directions of where to go and get some money etc (no maps, so we left hoping we were going in the right direction). 

We found the Mall Sofia, Sofia’s newest shopping centre, probably about the size of Garden City, but housing some very ordinary stores.  We found an ATM and took out some Bulgarian Levs (or shit bits as Scott calls them) from an ATM that was located in the front door of the shopping centre, now that possibly was a big mistake as we found out afterwards.  We wandered through the shopping centre, finding a supermarket and getting some snacks, wine and beer.  There isn’t a huge variety of groceries, but everything looks fresh and is certainly very cheap.  So far we have realised that people can’t understand us and we can’t understand them, so may be having fun in the coming days.  It was starting to get cold and dark outside, so we continued back to the hotel.  The roads and sidewalks are treacherous with ice, making walking fun (not) and then you throw in the fact that everything is on the opposite of the road, we can only follow other people when crossing, hoping we don’t get him but trucks, cars, trams etc and stay upright. 

Due to the cold weather – it takes about 20 minutes to get rugged up to go outside, and the fact that we can’t find anything in English, we are going to eat in the hotel restaurant for dinner.  The restaurant is meant to have views of the surrounding mountains, but as it is dark you can’t see much and as there were only two tables with people we were also the centre of attention for the seriously underemployed wait staff.   The food was very good though – I had a greek salad that was lovely and fresh and full of flavours and Scott went with pork and vegetables which he said just melted in the mouth.  So after eating and a few drinks we retired early, it has been a long day.

11 January 2011

Sofia - beautiful christian architecture
Sofia - beautiful christian architecture

 

OMG huge panic, Scott woke me up at 9:30 and as the breakfast buffet closes at 10 we went racing down.  We have never been ones not to have a free buffet breakfast, so we entered the breakfast room with great trepidation, wondering what would be provided.  It was a feast – there were tables just groaning with produce, and strangely we were the only people in there.  So after filling up on yoghurt (Bulgaria is famous for creating this dish), muesli, nuts and fruit, we rugged up and headed out into the ice and snow. 

We had bought the Lonely Planet guide book as our Cyrillic isn’t the best and couldn’t find much information that was in English.  So we worked out where we were and where we wanted to go and off we went, slowly ice skating our way across the non-existent pathways. 

Banya Bashi Mosque:  Sofia’s only working Mosque, we were unable to get in and almost expect the Mosque to be in the process of being demolished or maybe refurbished, hard to tell.  The Banya Bashi Mosque was originally built in 1576 and architecturally stands out from the other buildings, with its minaret.  We also did not hear any calls to prayer etc.  Maybe it is closed for the winter. 

Mineral Baths:  this building is behind the Mosque and between the two is meant to be a modern fountain and hot-water drinking fountain.  The modern fountain was boarded up and the surrounding area looked like a rubbish tip.  The main building is beautifully restored on the outside, but not open for viewing, so not sure how far they are going with the new civic museum – slowly I would have thought as it has been ten years of renovating so far. 

At this point Scott suggested I navigate to where we should go next, so off we headed and as usual in the wrong direction.  Although we had been walking for what seemed like an eternity of taking our lives into our own hands, Scott finally asked where we were going.  When I showed him on the map, he took over and we backtracked for a while.  I have no idea why he lets me navigate, as I have never been able to, it is unlikely I will in the future.

Sveta Nedelya Cathedral:  This is a massive domed church that you seen from a lot of the capital.  It was built in 1856 on the foundations of older churches.  We couldn’t find the glass case with Sveti Kral Stefan Miloten.  But then again we couldn’t see much, it was very dark inside, lit only by candles.  It is a working cathedral though with people constantly lighting candles and visiting their favourite saints.  This cathedral is famous for the explosion in 1925 in an attempt to assassinate Tsar Boris III – 120 people were killed, but Boris survived.

Sofia Synagogue:  This was the only place we have visited where we had to pay.  We weren’t sure if the person we had to pay worked for the Synagogue or just had a rort going on, but anyway, we were let in and left to our own devices in wandering through the Synagogue.  This is a relatively new building (1909) and has the biggest brass chandelier in Bulgaria – it was huge.  There is room for 1170 worshippers, but there aren’t that many seats and it was also one of the coldest places we have been inside – that is saying something considering where we are.

Sofia Monument:  This was originally a monument of Lenin, was changed to a gigantic civil symbol which is a female figure that bizarrely seems to have half her face in gold and the other half in concrete (the guide book says bronze).

Royal Palace:  we didn’t realise we had even seen this until we retraced our steps and went back.  It is now used as an Art Gallery and isn’t that impressive from the outside.

Sveti Nikolai Russian Church:  It doesn’t matter what religion is the church, they are all basically similar with golden domes and glittering mosaics.  Particularly today when the sun was out, they did look beautiful.  This church was also very dim inside and considering it looked big on the outside it was very small and you can’t imagine more than a couple of people in here at one time.  So far the churches we have visited are in serious need of restoration inside, as you can see the basis of the murals, but they are blackened due to the candles or other lighting used. 

Sofia City Garden:  Accordingly to the guide book, this is a hive of activity with people sitting around amongst the flowerbeds.  Hmm in winter, it is covered in snow, the pathways are covered in ice and people are only scurrying through on the way to somewhere warmer or more interesting. 

 

 

 

Presidency:  We came across this by mistake, wondering if it was originally the Royal Palace.  There were a couple of weather hardened soldiers out the front, but no other visible signs of anything military or presidential apart from a long row of blackened window Mercedes.   It really looks like an office block.  Of course the other half of the Presidency is the Sheraton Hotel.

 

Sveti Georgi Rotunda:  wow this was very impressive and for me the highlight of all the sightseeing in Sofia.  In between the Presidency and the Sheraton, this small preserved building (the oldest in Sofia) was originally built in the 4th century AD and is a roman structure.  It was rebuilt in the 6th century and converted into a mosque in the 16th century.    After being damaged in WWII it is now opened to the public and you can ramble through the ruins and see the restoration works that see the different murals.  Definitely a highlight and also looks beautiful with ruins covered in snow.

 

Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church:  This is huge, although relatively new in the scheme of church dates here in Sofia.  Built in 1912 to commemorate those 200,000 Russian soldiers that died fighting for Bulgaria’s independent.  Again it has huge golden onion domes that compete with the gorgeous mosaics.  Inside, the church is massive, but very sparsely furnished and adorned.  One thing that we have noticed is the lack of graveyards and also the lack of memorial plaques within the churches themselves. 

Church of Sveta Sofia:  for a country that is relatively small, there are a lot of churches.  However, this is another old church and the oldest Orthodox Church in Sofia being originally being in the 4th century; however the present structure only relates to the 19th century.  Outside is a tomb to the Unknown Soldier and its eternal flame which is guarded over by a huge lion.

Sofia University Botanic Garden:  Another garden, which I am sure will be beautiful in Spring/Summer.  However, in winter it is fairly bleak and you can’t see what it includes except for rubbish.

Borisova Gradina:  This is a huge park that seems to have been overtaken with graffiti and skateboarding ramps along with a large collection of broken bottles and rubbish.  It is a shame as there are some beautiful pathways and sitting areas.

Yuzhen Park:  From this park you are meant to be able to see Mt Vitosha the large mountain that overlooks Sofia, but there seems to be a constant haze of fog, smog or both and you can’t see anything.  Again this would be a beautiful park except for the rubbish.  There are loads of bars and cafes here, but they seem to have shut up shop over the winter months and everything looks derelict.

So our sightseeing day drew to a close along with the afternoon and with the cold increasing, we skated back to the hotel.  Our mini-bar isn’t working, so luckily we left the wine and beer on our balcony as they are suitable frozen for a pre-dinner glass.  We did venture to have a look at the gym/pool area of the hotel which is very impressive and made a note about coming back tomorrow, and then went to dinner and had another glass of wine.

11 January 2011

We are again down for the buffet breakfast which is the same as yesterday with plenty of variety and freshness.  We have our fill as I am off to the office and Scott is heading out for another wander around the town to see what there is off the beaten track.  The office is only a 10 minute walk, but certainly gets your heart rate racing with the treacherous conditions and the addition of a lot of traffic that makes crossing the street a nightmare.

Scott spent the day finding some local markets and walking the streets looking at different places to eat for dinners and trying to work out the language.

On arriving home from the office, we had a refreshingly cold glass of wine before staying in the hotel for dinner again.  It is just so cold that going outside really involves approximately 5 layers of clothing.  Besides everywhere seems to encourage smoking – even the restaurants with non-smoking, allow you to sit at a smoking table which are interspersed with the non-smoking ones.  Not sure if they understand the problems, but it is their laws.  If you are a smoker, this is the country for you though.

12 January 2011

Another day in the office for me.  Scott today was going in the other direction of the Hotel to find some of the local growers markets and some of the areas that people live in.  He managed to find a market that you could bring your own bottles and fill up from wine casks.  Some of the fruit and veg were of good quality and there was mounds of cheese.  It is one thing we are loving and that is having the variety of cheeses – you name it, you can have it in a cheese. 

Not a bad way to buy wine ?
Not a bad way to buy wine ?

 

We had dinner with a few people from the UK Office in the hotel restaurant, where yet again we were the only people.  They surely cannot make any money and that is considering the hotel is nearly full and there aren’t many places close by to eat at.

13 January 2011

Scott found a restaurant on his walk today that we went back too.  A pizza/pasta/salad and other bits restaurant.  We entered through the smoky haze that we are getting used to and found a waitress that could speak English and a menu that was also in English.  So we ordered a salad and pizza, along with the prerequisite bottle of wine and the food was great.  The pizza had a thin crust with exactly the toppings we ordered and the salad was freshly made and full of flavour.  Rozko Pizza was just around the corner from the hotel and did a great selection of meals, definitely recommend it.

14 January 2011

I am only working a half day in the office today.  So as soon as 12:00 comes I zoom back to the hotel to pick Scott up.  It is sunny and the snow and ice has almost melted so we can enjoy the walk around the city and get some different photos.  On our wander up through the mall and shopping districts, we come across a wonderful Indian restaurant.  We enter with trepidation as it looks deserted, to find that downstairs the restaurant is full.  We order our usual staples of Indian cuisine – Palak Paneer, it is my thought that if a restaurant can cook this dish well, it is a good restaurant, and we weren’t disappointed; the food, service, drinks and atmosphere were great.  So if you are in Sofia, check out Kohinoor (www.kohinoor.bg).

We made it back to the hotel in time for my massage that was booked and Scott was also going to venture into the gym.  Considering it has been there all week, we haven’t made it any further than the bar.  I have a really sore back and neck from the chairs in the office, so Scott has booked me a massage for an hour.  I will call him Sven – wow, I could feel my back groaning under the pressure, but sucked it up and let him work on my back and neck and when the torture was finally over I could actually turn my head sideways, amazing.  Should have done this each day.  Scott in the meantime had gone through a few machines which he rated as good quality and worked up a sweat.  So what is the best way to recover – a few beers on our last night.

15 January 2011 (Saturday)

Our flight isn’t until lunchtime, so we can go out for a walk around the town and wandered around back to the Sveti Georgi Rotunda where the snow has now totally defrosted.  It is an interest city, but what would be more interesting is to come back in the warmer months just to see the change in people (who all seem depressed and without a smile amongst them) and also see the gardens and parklands.

Back at the hotel, we got into our organised car and headed to the airport.  Surprisingly there was no British Airways lounge so we had to sit with the common people, however we bought some duty free and waited for the trip home.  The plane ride back was extremely bumpy and the flight was full.  Although my food arrived, I was too paranoid about the bumps and jolts, I almost cheered when we landed at Heathrow. 

We then queued for the agonising wait at Immigration for Scott.  This time we are fairly prepared, itineraries, bank statements etc, however, yet again they questioned us about our plans and cannot believe that anybody could afford to have 6 months off work.  However, Scott was given a three month entry visa and we were also advised that for the foreseeable future he can come through the EU residents passport control lines.  Yippee, now we can actually make some real plans.  We then piled onto the tube for the trip back to Holbourn and some well deserved champagne.