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Friday, 29 August 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Thessaloniki to Budapest

25th June. Bulgaria.
Greece was too hot, we had to escape. We stopped for diesel at an isolated garage just before the border and they happily gave us fresh water for our tank and even allowed us to empty our toilet cassette in their outside loo. The last few miles of Greek road were superb new dual carriageway – I guess the government is trying to create a good first impression for traffic coming south.

The formalities at the border post were swift: the friendly female Bulgarian customs officer spoke to me in French; I was expecting German or fractured English. Just as well though, as the Bulgarian language uses their own version of the Cyrillic alphabet, itself derived from the Greek alphabet, which makes both speech and the written word pretty impenetrable to us!
We stopped briefly to pick up a vignette, buying the 7 day version (€5 for vehicles up to 3.5t, €7 for vehicles up to 12t).

The road was now back to single carriageway, the tarmac so deeply rutted in places by freight trucks it was like driving on rails. Happily we now had GPS mapping again – nice to see that little pink blob relate to something! One after the other we passed petrol stations advertising Autogas, curious that it has been so readily adopted here, when Greece has so little.

The countryside stretched away, rolling hills and fields of corn, the rural scene spoilt by huge steel roadside hoardings - some of the more “girly” adverts would raise a few eyebrows at home.

Not a poster you would see in the UK!

The E79 to the capital Sofia has been upgraded with European Union money, which now of course seems to us like money well spent!

Lots of police were out and about, apparently speed checking, though we had to chuckle at the sight of life size cardboard cutout police cars lurking behind road signs! You only get fooled once by these decoys, but I suppose it’s a reminder.
As a sober warning to drivers, some spectacularly wrecked cars were displayed mounted on pedestals at junctions or roundabouts, though perhaps with little concern for relatives who might have to drive daily past the wrecks which killed their loved ones.

Before Sofia is a superb new section of EU funded motorway, a few miles of relaxation before the city outskirts where the roads suddenly degenerate drastically. Most of our route through Sofia was cobbled and we crawled through at 15 mph, holding up the traffic but trying to stop the van shaking itself to bits. Ancient trams often packed with people ran alongside the streets and the traffic was pretty diabolical. Direction signs through the city were notable by their absence but the wonderful GPS got us through.

Driving through Sofia

We picked up Route 84 to Montana, a smooth rural road dotted with some serious suspension-wrecking potholes. Descending into a small village past some large derelict municipal buildings, we came into what you might call the main street. Outside almost every ramshackle dwelling, sitting on the verge, were elderly women with small tables piled high with jars of honey. There was a couple of dozen of these forlorn tableaux but we were the only vehicle in sight and probably the only one to pass by for an age. We debated whether to stop and buy but there was the problem of which desperately poor woman to give our largess to. We drove on, feeling mean and guilty.

A campsite is not something you expect to find in this kind of area and just before it got dark we found a disused quarry for the night. I fancied a stroll to stretch my legs but the air was thick with huge mosquitoes so we battened down.

26th June.
We were now well into rural Bulgaria, the horse and cart a very common sight, workers still cutting hay by hand and forking it onto carts or making bell shaped stacks. Very John Constable. Many of the farmers cheerfully returned our waves. So incongruous to see these "Hay Wain" style carts, stuffed to overflowing, being overtaken by 40 ton lorries and the odd gleaming 4x4 with blacked out windows.

Children gathering up the hay

Most of the villages we passed through seemed partially derelict, houses crumbling though still inhabited. Newer houses didn't seem much better, very few had any rendering, the terracotta bricks shoved haphazardly into the reinforced concrete skeleton, some even missing window frames.

Horse gives ride to goat!

Stopping off in Berkovitsa to get some fuel, I asked the guy at the Shell garage if we could have any water for the van; before I could say "water hose" he produced one and filled our water tank as well – that's what we call service! No problem using our credit card.

So through Montana and onto Vidin. Expecting a road bridge we discovered the ferry across the River Danube. The fare was €35 for the vehicle and €3 per person. Crossing takes about 20 minutes as it goes upstream to Calafat on the Romanian side.

Ferry across the Danube

Driving off the ferry ramp we were swiftly relieved of another €10 "Port tax" for the hundred metres to the Customs! After some laborious data entry on ancient computers in a little hut manned by three women, I paid €3 for a 7 day vignette.

The Romanian language is much more accessible than Bulgarian as it uses the Latin alphabet and reads like a mixture of Italian, French and English; which makes sense, as it is derived from the Latin spoken in the ancient Roman province of Dacia, which coincides roughly with modern Romania.

We found our way onto the 56A though Vanju Mare to Drobeta. First impressions were that the housing was prettier and better constructed than we saw in Bulgaria, some nice fountains and lavishly decorated churches gave a more developed feel. Again, it was strange to see nests of phone lines hanging from the telegraph poles, you forget that a similar sight once lined the streets in the UK.

Then we hit the E70 to Timisoara and the beginning of probably our harshest driving experience to date. Our Slovenian white-van-man acquaintance at the ferry terminal wasn't joking, it was in a hell of a state. As the outside temperature rose to 40C we suddenly had the impression we were back in Kenya. Broken tarmac with dirt tracks either side, dust, donkeys, blistering heat, primitive housing with water still being drawn from wells.

It is a 200km drive between Drobeta and Timisoara but the original road has, and is, being smashed to bits by countless 40 ton freight trucks; every bridge, every culvert, every embankment needs rebuilding, the whole length of the road is a work in progress. Small sections have sublimely smooth new tarmac, but at its worst it is driveable only at a walking pace if you value your van. When it is finished it will be a fantastic drive, with varied and beautiful scenery from wide riverside to mountain gorge. Finding a pitch for the night wasn’t easy and we ended up in a layby, still within earshot of huge lorries pounding the broken paving.

Typical stretch of the E70

27th June.
It rained during the night and it was mercifully much cooler in the morning. We saw our first campsite in Timosoara, a fairly lively looking place, but decided to press on to Hungary. Highway 6 from Timosoara to Sannicolau Mare was almost bereft of trucks and smoothly surfaced. For the first time in Eastern Europe we were quizzed at the border about cigarettes and booze, but they soon waved us through.

Hungary immediately felt more prosperous - trimmed grass verges, neat houses and tidy gardens. Our first stop was Szeged - straddling the River Tisza – it is the fourth largest city in the country and is an attractive place with a vast array of architectural styles, elegant squares, parks and gardens.

Camping Partfurdo (GPS 46.2533N, 20.1581E) offered us a vast pitch by the river and a view of the town. In the communist era this would have been a holiday resort for the privileged party members – there are three large open air pools filled with hot mineral water tapped from the earth right on the campsite, plus many apartments, elevated on concrete stilts to improve the view and protect from river flooding.

Riverside pitch at Camping Partfurdo

A flower bedecked steel bridge provides a short walk into the centre. Tescos, Spar and C&A have all landed here, but there are plenty of native shops and restaurants to sample.

Pedestrianised street in Szeged

As it was Friday night we wended our way to a large square to find a fashion show in progress. We settled ourselves at tables under a canopy near the fountain and had a beer. Looking at the plastic card menu there seemed to be some strange concoctions on offer: catfish and bananas, curry with blueberries – straight out of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares!

We should have known better but after the second beer and enjoying the buzz we ordered lobster salad (a snip at €6) followed by baked salmon with lemon grass sauce and "acorn-fed” pork ribs with spicy sauce. A pleasant green salad arrived with a few tiny griddled shrimps on the top – of lobster there was not a sign, however the shrimps were fresh and tasty so we put the absence of lobster down to their sense of humour! Our humour failed though when the mains arrived, cold and inedible and bearing not a passing resemblance to the overblown menu. We expressed our disappointment in a civil manner but were met with a shrug. Great atmosphere but a few wasted Hungarian Forints.

The setting for the open air fashion show

Another pitfall to look out for according to our Guide book is medical care; apparently as a hangover from the communists it is common practice to tip doctors and nurses – so make sure you’ve visited an ATM before you have your heart attack!

28th June.
The streets are well served by trams and trolley buses, and some lovingly maintained older trams are still rattling, screeching and creaking their way to the Szeged Plaza – an out of town shopping centre to which we escaped in the heat of the day. Clutching a new pair of sandals we returned in a swift, modern tram and enjoyed another swim and our view of the city across the river. Later there was music and fireworks, but the disco boat kept us awake till the early hours.

29th June.
We left our lovely pitch and drove the 20 km north to Ópusztazer, home to the Nemzeti Történiti Emllkpark, or Hungary’s National Historical Memorial Park. This site was chosen for the 1896 Millennium celebration memorial to Árpád, the legendary hero, who led the nomadic Magyars into the area over a thousand years ago and by conquest established the kingdom of Magyarország, or Hungary.

The Hungarian language is not part of the Indo European family (Russian and Hindi are closer to English than Magyar), but belongs to the Finno Ugric group, hence its closest cousins are Finnish and Estonian. It is apparently a very hard language to master.

The National park contains a days’ worth of attractions including the Feszty Panorama – a magnificent depiction of the Magyar migration onto the Great Plain; also a brilliant waxworks of Árpád and his fellow dukes, ancient kings and rulers.

Arpad and his warriors share each others blood

Don’t miss a very entertaining show by costumed warrior cowboys (and a cowgirl) who shoot their bows and wield their swords and spears with stunning accuracy from horseback. You are also invited to enter an archery practise and a tug of war on horse back – we declined (health and safety you know!)

I don't fancy trying to run from this guy!

Yes... the arrow went straight through the middle!

All these attractions cost an extra ticket over the entry price to the park. We paid 3500 HUF (€15) per head including the panorama and the horse show but inadvertently (really!) managed to slip into the waxworks for free.
The rest of the park includes a fascinating recreated village of 19th C buildings and windmills, various other monuments and some modern wooded Yurts containing anthropological and historical museums. Much of the display content is in English, so if you want to get a bit of history and feel for the Hungarian culture, this is a great place to visit.

Heading off late in the afternoon, several of the campsites shown on our map failed to appear or were found closed and we finally stopped at the Dutch owned Aucost Holiday Parc at Vajta (www.aucost.nl) (GPS: 46.7283 N, 18.6542 E).

30th June.
A chill-out day. Campsite very quiet.

1st July.
It was still very warm and sunny so we went for a swim at the popular nearby lido; the campsite will issue you a pass for a 2500 HUF deposit.

Basic, but refreshing

2nd July.
The pitch worked out at around 20€ a night. When we asked why the campsite was so expensive (and unsurprisingly empty) we were told that the Hungarian government levies a 50% tourist tax on campsite fees! By the owner’s unhappy demeanour, we guess he was struggling to make ends meet.

Off to Balaton lake, the largest lake in central Europe and apparently referred to as Budapest on Sea. We started with the northern, less developed side. In true communist fashion the railway line hugs the waters edge all the way around except for one loop up to Tapolca. The only access to the water is via the campsites or lidos. We found one such lido at Szigliget and parked up on the verge until the crowds dispersed as the sun went down. Then we decamped to the wooded lakeside car park and settled ourselves in for the night.

3rd July.
After a peaceful night we headed for Keszthely on the South Western tip of the lake. Now we were into a major lakeside resort. Everywhere there are German signs, Zimmer, Haus Frei, etc, fairly obvious who their target market is.
A Tesco’s hypermarket (there are 31 in Hungary apparently) came into view and we did a mega stock up.By the roadside we passed several traders selling the traditional rounded goulash cooking pot and tripod, a must have tourist buy.

4th July.
Still seriously hot and we checked into Camping Zala (GPS: 46.7462N, 17.2442E) for some cooling off in their pool – to be honest the lake water looked pretty mucky and smelly. Despite getting the third degree on the campsite rules when we signed in, the “no diving, ball games”, etc, rules were comprehensively ignored and you had to choose your time to avoid potential injury from divebombing “children”. Meanwhile, the gardeners cheerfully trimmed the hedges through the official “siesta time”. You gotta laugh!

We also fell out with the management over the Wi Fi signal. Despite assurances to the contrary and coughing up 14 Euros for three hours we could not pick it up reliably and had to move to an exposed pitch virtually underneath the single Wi Fi aerial. Trying to complain in English was not a fruitful exercise: “we speak Hungarian, Slovakian, German and Dutch – how many languages do you speak?!” Fair comment I suppose, but it wasn’t going to get us Brits (or French and Italians for that matter) rushing back. Considering it was now into peak season there were few campers on site - perhaps it’s not just the 50% tourist tax?

Just to complete the day, after logging off from our internet session our half dead laptop finally gave up the ghost, the screen going irretrievably black. No more blogging for the time being.

5th July.
The Southern lakeside has the best beaches and is still attractive, small resort towns with few tower blocks, fishing, windsurfing and camping available, plus the ever present railway line.

I think we'll give a miss!

Stopped for fuel and to buy our vignette for the Motorway to Budapest. (You also need a Vignette on main roads if you are over 3.5t). Our licence number was entered into an electronic terminal, no badge or paperwork other than your receipt is issued. Presumably video surveillance cameras use number plate recognition to check vehicles on the database at regular intervals.

Heading for a small campsite with access to the river boats, we had a reasonable transit through the centre of Budapest, the traffic seemed light for a Saturday.
Mini Camping (GPS: 47.6043N, 19.0701E) turned out to be not much more than the back garden to a restaurant but we were only the second camper. In the morning we would catch a boat down the Danube and into the heart of Budapest.

6th July.
After a 40 minute wait our 25 year old river steamer arrived. Just a skipper and mate/engineer/deckhand/bar steward on board but they were friendly and pleasant. On the upper deck we had a perfect view of the passing waterfront and could readily inhale the fumes from the engine crankcase breather.

Our elderly river steamer approaches

The Danube is wide and swift flowing and well used by pleasure and commercial craft from canoes to hydrofoils. There were dozens of ancient low freeboard river craft like ours moored two or three deep as we approached the city, but also some modern ones, vast luxury touring cruisers.

The Hungarian Parliament - communist red star now removed from the dome

The waterfront parliament building is a magnificent sight, well on a par with the London Houses of Parliament. On the other side the Liberation Monument high on Gellert Hill is equally awe inspiring.

The inspiring Liberation Monument

Disembarking on the East side of the river, we strolled along the embankment of Central Pest towards the pedestrianised Vaci Street. As ever, the scaffolders and road diggers knew we were coming, though this time they appeared to rebuilding the sewers, and on a hot day it was pretty ripe. Vaci Street was ok but seemed nothing special as tourist promenades go (are we getting jaded?).

Traditional dolls and clothes for sale in Vaci Street
We crossed the Elizabeth road bridge to the Gellert Hill and began the climb to the monument, the steps and railings are in disrepair and it’s a good hike to the top but the views are worth it, you can of course drive up if you have a vehicle. After re-hydrating ourselves we started the easier but longer trek to the old town and castle district.

Finally it was time for lunch and we settled ourselves at what seemed a popular restaurant. Though a characterful setting, the food was disappointing and we didn’t really need the “surprise” addition of a piece of green chilli in the salad garnish. The service charge certainly wanged up the bill and the waiter's reluctance to bring our change was irritating. I guess a basic rule is that if a restaurant appears in a guide book: give it a miss – as once in it they go for a killing.
There is in fact an English speaking “tourist police” in Budapest which tries to curb the excesses of entrepreneurial endeavour towards tourists – which should give you a clue about being on your guard.

If its culture, history and architecture you’re after then Budapest has it in spades, a week might do it justice.

View from Gellert Hill towards the Parliament building

Monday, 25 August 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Epidavros to Thessaloniki

19th June.
is famous for its open air theatre and it doesn’t disappoint - it is vast, capable of seating 14,000 spectators in 55 rows. It has been skilfully restored for modern productions and is certainly the most impressive part of the Sanctuary of Aesculapius. Apparently the acoustics are so good that a piece of paper crumbled on the stage can be heard from the back row!

The acoustics are amazing
Asklepios was the Greek god of medicine and it is from the representation of him leaning on a stick neatly entwined by a serpent that the widely used Doctors Emblem is derived. According to legend he was a son of Apollo, but was struck dead by Zeus for overstepping the mark in his medical endeavours and subsequently buried at Epidavros. Consequently people came from all over Greece to consult the oracle and seek rejuvenation.

The rest of the ruins take an hour or so to wander around and there is also a museum with the best of the recovered statues and artefacts.
Around the perimeter of the old gymnasium (now considered to be a vast dining room where devotees of the god ate food sacrificed in his name) new blocks of stone have been added to redefine the boundary. It’s hard to estimate the cost of sourcing, cutting, dressing and laying these huge blocks of stone but they are only one part of a big project. A considerable amount of very meticulous restoration – even re-creation – is taking place around the site, and in the centre is a massive steel staging with lifting gear that has been built around more intricate reconstruction. Overall it must be a hugely expensive effort, apparently financed by the Peloponnese and the EU.

Such expenditure is probably worth it from our point of view, as it's giving the average visitor more to look at; we are not all classical scholars who can recreate the edifice in our minds from just a few broken foundations and scattered capitals!
I believe that a small section or part of the monument, rebuilt as near as possible to the original, can give you a sense of scale and as well as the artistry and dedication involved. What does seem a waste is putting up rows of plain “dummy” columns just to build up the spectacle, one fully detailed replica with pedestals for the rest will do. The unexpected thing is that given a few decades of weathering, restored stone can sometimes be hard to distinguish from the original.

The old town of Ancient Epidavros turned out to be a pleasant little fishing port and yachting base. There is a car park near the yacht berths and a main street with most of the shops you might need. We bought some more Baklava but they didn’t match the sensual eating experience of the ones from Monemvasia.

On to Korinth, and the famous canal that divides the Peloponnese from the mainland and links the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf. We looked at the Corinthian, western end first. The exit through the road bridge looked incredibly narrow to me, hard to imagine how the old P&O Sea Princess/Victoria had squeezed her way through - a trip down memory lane for me anyhow.
Off to the spectacular eastern end, three bridges spanning the amazing rock cut. Begun in 1882, it was completed in 1893, permanently altering the shipping routes and enabling Pireaus to become the major port it is.
Passage through the Corinth Canal

The ancient town and acropolis of Corinth sits on a hill 7 km southwest of the modern metropolis, which was founded in 1858 when an earthquake shattered the old city.

We drove swiftly through the spa town and seaside resort of Loutraki, then the never-ending trail over Mount Geránia to the Gulf of Alkionides. Hoping for another beachside pitch to cool off we followed the heavily advertised and twisting narrow track to Camping Alkyoni. We think “on the beach” was pushing it a bit in the trade descriptions: all the pitches on the “beach” side were terraced down a steep incline to no more than a small rocky inlet, and most of those were taken over by static caravans – by the time we’d have returned from a refreshing swim, another one would have been in order to cool us off again! We did however pick up another pot of cooling ice cream in the local store, but its effect was short lived with our outside temperature gauge indicating 43° C in the shade!

A few kilometres along the road towards Psatha we found our own beach, adjacent to a marina. Deserted apart from a lone fisherwomen, we parked directly on the stony waterside, stripped off and scrambled over the rocks into the silky cool water.

20th June.
Another peaceful free night and we headed across country to pick up the E962 to Thiva. Unfortunately, partly due to an unintelligible road sign with a poster stuck on it we took a wrong turn and found ourselves on the way to Megara. It was rather a large detour and eventually we became lost trying to find E962 outside of Elefsina, near Athens. A helpful truck driver guided us through this complex junction – you actually have to join the motorway from the coast road and then leave it almost immediately to find the road north to Mandra.

At Thiva we easily found the Jet Gas station (GPS: 38.3454 N, 23.3231 E) listed on our downloaded internet file of Greek LPG/Autogas outlets (http://www.shellgas.gr/ ). Again we were allowed to help ourselves to water to fill our tank.

Then we pressed on through Livadia towards Delphi. Stopping briefly in Arachova, the base for the Parnassos Ski Center; it was weird to see fur hats and mittens still on sale in this heat.

Camping Delphi (http://www.delphicamping.com/ ) (GPS: 38.4786 N, 22.4737 E) is a lovely campsite perched on a cliff, with spectacular views over the town of Chriso and towards the coast. The manager/owner is a young guy with a young family and the atmosphere is very relaxed and laid back. There is a super pool next to the restaurant terrace and a small shop.

Not a bad view from your dining table!
21st June.
Chilled out for the day. The Wi-fi service is cheap (€2 a day), but it did not prove very reliable whilst we were there; the owner blamed the state owned telecommunications system.

22nd June.
We rose early again and got the bus to the town, the two principal streets are one-way only. The museum is a short walk from the bus stop and you can get tickets (€9) there or from a kiosk below the site itself, 500 metres further down.

Delphi (Delfi) is the site of the celebrated Oracle of Apollo and was considered by the ancient Greeks to be the centre of the earth. The oracles were given by a priestess (in her later years), who would go into a trance and deliver ambiguous replies, on behalf of Apollo, to questions asked by pilgrims.
The sanctuary itself is situated on the slopes of Mount Parnassos overlooking a deep gorge carved by the river Pleistos – during its heyday it attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek empire. After the Roman conquest of Greece and the spread of Christianity Delphi declined, much of its treasure being removed by the Romans, particularly Emperor Nero (quite a boy this one) who helped himself to 500 statues. The oracle continued however until AD 390 when it was disbanded by a Byzantine Emperor.

Thus we climbed the “Sacred Way” to the temple of Apollo, the paving dating from the Roman period. The air was still and the sun’s rays had not yet found the temple, though the other side of the gorge was warmly lit. A few worshippers (pilgrims?) were sitting in silence on the terrace in front of the columns.
A Homeric hymn to the God Apollo
Out of nowhere, a man dressed in tee-shirt and jeans walked up to entrance, spread his arms high in the air and made a long recantation lasting several minutes! The other visitors seemed rapt and appreciative throughout his recital – he certainly grabbed our attention.

Other worshippers arrived, some apparently meditating. We waited expectantly for the shafts of sunlight to creep around the mountain and gild the remains of the temple. A cloud had temporarily obscured the sun, but suddenly it lifted and the columns were illuminated for the first time, as if by stage lights. Undeniably a magic moment.

Later on we saw the poet on the street and Sue engaged him in conversation via his English speaking companion. He told us that he was the son of Apollo and he had been reciting the Homeric Hymn to Apollo which tells how Apollo killed the son (a python) of the Earth goddess Gaia, expelling her and then giving his own oracles through a priestess called Pythia. Whether he literally thought he was descended from a God or just a disciple we don’t know – a lot can be lost in translation!
Overlooking the site of the temple of Apollo
The hike up to the ancient stadium above the temple was more impressive for the fantastic views than the stadium itself, particularly as you are now not allowed to enter it for fear of getting a falling rock on your head! Guides are on sentry duty in little tinted glass boxes to make sure you don’t trespass.

Lunch was at a hotel in town and comprised Mousaka, salad, souvlaki and chips and ice cream: €25.50 with beer and water. Some American visitors came to join us on the terrace overlooking the valley and we were soon swapping stories again. (Thanks for your message Mei and Vincent).

There was no bus until 1600 so we sat outside a bar, watching the empty taxi rank. Chatting to a gentleman who we presumed to be the owner of the bar we waited some time for a taxi, despite his assurance that one would soon appear. Eventually he hailed a passer-by, had a quick conversation and then came back saying "this man is my cousin, he will drive you home"!
Despite our protestations we were bundled into the car and proceeded at high speed to the campsite. We arrived in one piece and thanked him heartily. In how many countries would a local do that for tourists?

23rd June.
Hit the road again, through Amfissa, Lamia, Karditsa and Trikala. The heat seemed to increase hour on hour – the cab A/C was still working, but well out of its own comfort zone; without it we would have fried.

Eventually we got to Metérora. James Bond addicts will remember some breathtaking shots of this group of monasteries from “For your eyes only”. Miraculously constructed on the top of precipitous grey rocks that rise bizarrely out this corner of the Thessalian plain, they look like fantastical images from a computer game.
A view and a prayer
We turned right just before Kalambaka, took a drive up the minor road to the monasteries and snapped a few pictures – scary stuff as the scrubby edges to the rock towers have no barriers or borders (hang glider heaven, I should imagine).
Unfortunately we couldn’t complete the round trip as the road was closed for repairs, so we retraced our steps to Kalambaka and through the town to Camping Meteora Garden (http://www.camping-meteora-garden.gr/ ) (GPS 39.7087N, 21.6100E). The site has a nice pool but was generally not very clean or well cared for, it looked and felt tired and there was a lot of road noise.

24th June.
We were out of the gates by 0815 and drove the other end of the road to the monasteries. We visited Varlaam monastery and although the chapel was interestingly dark and intensely decorated, there was not much else to see, it was so twee’d up with modern paving and recessed lights it lacked the haunting or invigorating atmosphere you might expect.

The views to and from the monasteries are the thing, it beggars belief how the monks constructed the monastery in the mid 16th Century with no more than ropes and pulleys.
Note. There are notices outside saying that any woman turning up in shorts, short skirt or slacks will be refused entry – but in fact they are offered wraparound sheets to cover up. The influence of coach parties!

Back to Trikala, then Larisa. We got our noses put out of joint on the E75 motorway to Thessaloniki as several times we were charged the same tolls as large freight trucks, despite picture signs indicating we were in the same bracket as cars, towed caravans and mini-buses! This, we were repeatedly told, was because we were over 2.2 metres high. It felt like a scam, but we got the usual “I don’t make the rules, guv”, argument.

We came off the motorway and found a free camp at Methoni, just above Makrigialos. We shared the spot with a French couple who gave us a “help yourself” wave from their deckchairs by the waters edge. The beach was scummy though and jelly fish lurked in the water, but there were a few people swimming. We declined a dip despite the temperature being over 40 C; it was still 30 degrees plus long after it was dark.

25th June.
Back on the motorway, then the Thessaloniki ring road to pick up the E79 to Serres. A sprawling, dusty metropolis, Thessaloniki held no attractions in this heat. Interesting to see the billboards for a very youthful looking Nana Mouskouri concert tour, or if you prefer, Gloria "I will survive" Gaynor is still on the boards!

Our plan was to drive through Bulgaria and Romania, have a look at Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and some of Germany, then through Belgium to Calais for the ferry back to Blighty. Our Insurance company told us that Albania and Macedonia are rated the same as Iraq and Iran for risk and no cover would be given! Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in January 2007 and thence full cover would be available.

Our verdict on Greece:
Sue loves Greece, she studied some of its history during her education and has spent a couple of holidays there, I have had a visit from a cruise ship in the early 1980’s and a weeks holiday in Crete with Sue.

The People.
Apart from the lady butcher with the ferocious meat cleaver (and who scared the hell out of me) almost everybody we met were friendly and helpful – some exceptionally so – and it wasn't hard to find someone who spoke English .

Food and drink.
We had a few meals out which were quite good and elevated my opinion of Greek cuisine somewhat, but some very mediocre ones as well. We like to cook for ourselves, and alter our diet to use the best produce that is available, but a lot of the fruit and veg seemed poor compared to Italy – it probably just wilts in the heat! Transportation and storage at elevated temperatures is obviously a problem.

The monuments.
Generally well looked after, like Italy they have a huge amount to maintain and European money is being put to good use in most cases. We only really scratched the surface of what there is to see, but Delpi was probably the highlight.

The beaches and scenery.
Some of the best we have seen, the Mani peninsula was magnificent, truly memorable vistas and deserted beaches, rugged hillsides, tiny unspoilt villages.

The weather.
From the moment we arrived at the end of May temperatures lifted to the mid 30’s and above, the maximum temperature we recorded with our own instrument mounted underneath the van, i.e. in the shade, was 43° C.

We did acclimatize over the weeks, but as it got progressively hotter the comfort level didn’t really alter. Everyone has their own reaction to temperature but at those extremes you really don’t want to do anything else but get under the shade by some water. We spoke to one grocer who told of 48° the previous year and had invested in larger refrigerators to store his vegetables.

The roads and maps.
What you see is definitely not what you get, we bought Greek-published maps thinking they would be good, but we should have been forewarned by the fact that there is very little Satellite navigation mapping available  – for a country that has been in the EU since 1981!  Road intersections, road types, even destinations were totally misleading in some cases. We soon developed the catchphrase: “this isn’t the main road – it’s the only road!” Road surfaces generally weren’t that bad even in the most remote regions and the scenery usually more than made up for it.

We did however take exception to being charged the same as a 40 tonne freight truck on the motorway tolls – whether this was just a local aberration or a concerted effort to upset motorhomers we have no idea; we argued the toss, but the reply came back “you are over 2.2m high” – what about the number of wheels and the load upon them?

Would we come back? Most definitely, but the monuments have to be seen off season, the heat and the coach parties just suck the magic out of the ancient sites. The Peloponnese was wonderful, at places like Mani Beach we could have chilled out for weeks, just swimming and cooling in the sea breeze under a tree – gone native in fact.