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Monday, 27 July 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Montgenevre to Home

25th June.

The morning was crisp, clear and bright, and after slipping €10 into the machine for a ticket to open the barrier, we left the aire at Montgenevre and enjoyed some more spectacular scenery to Briancon.

Where has all the snow gone!

Sue then decided she wanted to have a look at Risoul - what she thought would be a small village ski resort suitable for a possible winter visit.
I love driving the van up mountains (sometimes) so I readily bent my arm behind my back and agreed. As it turned out there was a spectacular view over the valley 1925 metres up, but Risoul resort was a purpose built village of modern apartment blocks, the original settlement long since submerged in development.

The view from Risoul (1925 metres up)

After lunch we came down the hill again and checked out Camping Cariamas, but left under whelmed by its lack of views, proximity to the main road and rough and ready set up – who in their right minds sites the rubbish bins next to the shower block where the flies and smell migrate inside?

Camping Le Roustou on the shore of Lake Serre Poncon was a different ball game. On its own south facing peninsular, it offers a nice swimming pool, a boat jetty and slipway and tennis courts. After a lengthy walk around the site we discovered a pitch on a hillock with 180 degree views of the lake and only one adjacent pitch, backing onto some static homes.
The lake already had a stiff chop on it in the increasing wind, but a dip in the largish swimming pool put us to rights.

GPS: 44.5218 N, 6.4301 E

Another fantastic pitch, Caravan Club eat your heart out!

26th - 27th June
A gentle couple of days spent swimming and relaxing. The site reception has some fast, free wi-fi but you have to sit on tiny wooden stools – good for some high speed downloads, but keeps your browsing to a minimum!

If the lake's too cold, try the pool!

28th June
Reluctantly leaving Le Roustou behind, we picked up the N94 through Gap, Serres, Rosans and down towards Nyons. Uphill and down dale, it’s a scenic transit route popular with motorcaravanners (judging by the regular use of our waving arms) and passes through attractive limestone gorges between Rosans and Nyons.

It was another meltingly hot day and we made the mistake of stopping too early, despite finding a delightful France Passion outside of Mirabel Aux Baronnies. (GPS: 44.3319 N, 5.1113 E)
Parked on gravel, with a view over the fields but no shade, we nearly fried, only the fan dragging a cooling draught in through a small side window saved us from expiring.
Once the sun went down we opened the large side windows, but it was late before we felt like eating.

At last the sun goes down, that was a hot one!

29th June
Visting the “cave” in the morning we bought a litre of AOC olive oil for €20. Perhaps it was the seductively cool cellar and friendly chat from the owner, but the oil tasted superb and magicked the money out of our pockets. Try to remember chewing on the freshest piece of grass you ever tasted (as a kid of course) and imagine that as a liquid in a teaspoon, it didn’t taste oily at all. Applied liberally over fresh salads, meat, fish, pasta or potatoes it really is a treat - though nearly the same price as a drop of malt whisky!

Down to the cellar for a little oil tasting

We drove into the little hillside town of Mirabel Aux Baronnies, a charming, quiet place, with steep cobbled streets and flower baskets everywhere. There is an aire for four or five vans a few minutes walk away from the centre. (GPS: 44.3129 N, 5.1002 E).

Unusually there was a donation box, but also a notice thanking the “Camping-caristes” for their generosity, which according to the notice had paid for a children’s day out and a ceremony for the local fire service.

Deciding we needed a few days by a pool we crossed the Rhone and booked into Le Medieval near St Thome. This is a lovely wooded ACSI site by a river gorge with a very laid back atmosphere. There is a popular restaurant used by the locals, two pools and free wi-fi on the restaurant terrace. It was fairly empty and the ACSI discount still available.
We gratefully settled ourselves on the river bank with plenty of shade and a limestone cliff opposite. Above the cliff we regularly saw birds of prey wheeling about on the thermals, looking for their next meal.

GPS: 44.5057 N, 4.6201 E

Camping Medieval, calm and tranquility - well almost

30th June - 2nd July
The only downside to this near perfect spot was a Dutch couple two pitches away, the man smoked the most disgusting pipe tobacco - amazing that the smell could travel so far in the evening air. Their dog barked endlessly too, perhaps he couldn’t stand it either. Fortunately they left the following day.
The pools however got visited on a regular basis, the smaller one unheated and blissfully more refreshing.

3rd July
Once more reluctant to leave, we headed north and stopped markedly later in the day at a France Passion based on a fruit farm at Chateauneuf Sur L'Isere. (GPS: 45.0162 N, 4.9602 E)
This time we had a pitch (to ourselves) by a bank of trees giving us complete shade, but also a tantalizing glimpse of a swimming pool in the accompanying Gite.

4th July
The farm specialized in fruit, including rare varieties and a cross between a Prune (plum) and an Abricot (apricot), imaginatively called a “Prunotte”. We bought some and they were actually very nice, dark green skin revealing a reddy-orange flesh that was tangy and sweet at the same time. The automated packing shed was in full swing when we left and we picked up some nectarines and apricots and some cherry confiture.

Another sunny, uplifting morning in the French countryside

Now we hit the N7 for Lyons in search of some goodies for the van at various motorhome concessionaires.
One item purchased was a new set of Thule (Omnistor) leveling ramps. They are 1 cm higher than our Fiamma equivalent and stronger with two spines instead of one. Usefully (for free campers), they are less conspicuous in black rather than yellow and come with a tidy carry case - for only €3 more - no contest.
Another essential item was some new insulating screens, but we struggled to find the French make we like for our 2002 Ducato. Eventually at the fourth try we lucked out, the screens being on a promotion and only €50!

With some time to spare we looked at some new Esterel motorhomes (Rapido groups premium brand), and were shocked at what we saw. The exterior bodywork was as beautifully finished as ever, but inside we found a toilet compartment without a hand basin to wash your hands in, a shower room with sticky-back vinyl lined walls (the exposed edge of the vinyl already peeling off!), awkward cupboards with stiff doors and cheap exposed hinges, a tiny kitchen work surface with a water tap folded down in the sink (WV camper style), and all in a van costing over €100.000!
The trend to huge walk around beds just seems a pose too far, especially when the space taken up means you are reduced to ridiculous compromises elsewhere - what are they thinking of?

On other "high quality" vans, Bavaria and Autostar we found locker doors with no positive locking, only spring loaded catches - useless to prevent stuff flying out on bumpy roads. Also the hatches to the double floor storage were just loose plywood lids, ready to fly through the air in the event of a collision, or even hard braking!
Our accident in 2006 showed how vital these features are, the only spring loaded catch in the whole van allowed the bathroom locker to discharge its contents, causing considerable damage to the shower and bathroom door as heavy toilet chemical bottles smashed around.
At the same time, inside the other lockers and drawers (which held fast as we teetered on the edge of rolling over onto our side), the contents re-arranged themselves in an unbelievable fashion, top to bottom and side to side. If the lockers had burst open the chaos and damage would have probably finished the van off, and us - maybe.

We tackled the salesman on the design and cost of the Esterel, but surprisingly he said the factory could not produce enough to meet demand, reckoning they could sell twice the quantity they could lay their hands on.
He also went on about costs of homolgation, the approval of design process that will hit the British manufacturers in a few years time. You tend to wonder where their designs started from (before homolgation), if they are getting away with some of the features we’ve seen.
One other interesting comment he made on the recession: the high end was still selling well, but they were piling up stocks of second hand vans – hang on for prices to free fall!

After we were thrown out of the Rapido dealership (closing time), we looked for the nearest aire from our part of Lyons and back tracked a bit to St George d' Esperanche, a largish village south east of the city centre.

The aire at St George d' Esperanche

The aire is by a roundabout on the outskirts of the village, with a tarmac area assigned for motorhomes, but a couple of French vans had already parked themselves on the grass, so we joined them. (GPS: 45.5559 N, 5.0745 E)

Later we walked around the town, finding only one restaurant open, and had a rather expensive and mediocre pizza. A bottle of the house Chianti, two pizzas and two blobs of ice cream came to €36.

5th July
Strolling into town in the sunshine for a few groceries, I found a long queue outside the bread shop but some rather fabulous pastries inside - some real works of art and selling like hot .…. pastries. A young and rather exhausted looking boulanger was attentively watching his night’s labour fly off the counters.

Back down to the aire, the French campers had their awnings out in the morning sun, one even had a BBQ going - free camping!
However, there was some dark menace in the sky and we packed up. An hour later we pulled over in Vienne as a mighty downpour flooded the roads.

Our satnav once more showed abject confusion over the renumbering of the French roads and we reverted solely to the map book to avoid any more wrong turns.
A France Passion at Demigny gave us a quiet refuge for the night. (GPS 46.9215 N, 4.8350 E)

6th July
The vineyard owner seemed too busy to be bothered with us and we departed with just a friendly wave.

We're missing it already

A visit to the medieval town of Beaune was on the agenda and we found the local aire, within easy walking distance of the centre. (GPS:47.0175 N, 4.83668E)

You won't catch a Frenchman at a table without a tablecloth!

The famous multicoloured tiled roofs of Les Hospices drew our attention but the €6 entrance ticket just to get a decent look at them didn’t seem worth it in the time we had allowed ourselves.

Our final France Passion was at Humbécourt near St Dizier (GPS: 48.5831 N, 4.9042 E). The charming owner, a retailer for local produce, opened up his barn doors for us to drive through to his paddock at the back “to get away from the road noise”. He seemed keen for his wife and teenage age children to practice their English on us, but they all shyly declined to be drawn into conversation.
We collected another pot of jam on the premise that it was something that his wife had made, and therefore all the value of the sale would go directly to them, but to be fair he didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered whether we bought anything or not.

7th July
Leaving early, the vast Caravan and Motorhome centre at St Dizier was still closed so we pressed on up the N4, through Chalons-en-Champagne, picking up the D966 out of Reims, a lovely clear straight road through unspoilt rural scenery.

The Sunflowers have had their fill, but the rain is coming

At Vervins, we took the N2, then at La Capelle the D1043 to Catillon sur Sambre.

The aire at Catillon sur Sambre is a familiar refuge for us, we spent several days there last year waiting for some spare parts to arrive for the van’s front suspension. It’s on a nice spot by the canal and has the added benefit of free electricity, though the noise from the lifting bridge as the road traffic thunders over it can be intrusive. There is additional parking on waste ground on the other side of the canal if the clanging of the bridge disturbs you, but without electricity. (GPS: 50.0760 N, 3.6465 E)

Mid afternoon, a mobile grocer turned up and opened up his counter just for us. Feeling compelled to buy something I chose a large bunch of brilliant red tomatoes.
Then two more British vans turned up, one a six wheel Hymer containing Michelle and Eddy, who were off on an extended tour over some of the same ground as us, and hopefully well into next year. We enjoyed a cuppa and a lengthy chat with them before opening a beer and continuing. I think they were still on English time and later were a little surprised to find it was 9 o’clock and no supper!

8th July
Said cheerio to Michelle and Eddy, slightly jealous that they were on their way out and us the opposite.
Our steadfastly non-peage route then took us through Cambrai to Arras and the D937 to Bethune, then the D943 past St Omer and to Calais.
After stocking up on fuel and groceries we parked in the compound at Calais to await the Sea France ferry at 2300. Sue tried to get an earlier ferry but they wanted £26.50 to upgrade our cheap ticket to the 1730 one.

Off to the ferry we were pulled over for a search by the English customs officials and were relieved to find they were only interested in where we could hide an illegal immigrant! A glance in the bathroom and under the bed and we were on our way.

9th July
Coming off the ferry in light rain we parked in our usual spot on the seafront in Dover - free parking for van’s between 2100 and 0600.
After a couple of hours kip we rose at 0330 to hit M25 before the rush hour, though it was still busy.
The new Solstice business park across from Stonehenge was the venue for a proper breakfast, though it would be nice if they provided some open parking instead of having to use KFC’s litter strewn car park.

We stopped for a power nap at Cartgate picnic site (GPS: 50.9695 N 2.7395 E) - there are signs up for no overnight parking, but we’d give it a go another time.
Our race to get home to deal with a domestic problem produced its only casualty as I burnt my arm loading Autogas. The first time I’d done that, the awkward British spigot catching me out. Advice to deal with a freeze burn is the same as a hot one – stick it under cold water, it relieves the pain and reduces the burn.

A welcome pint and fish and chips for lunch (we did that last year!) calmed the frayed nerves, but by the time we had unpacked the van and returned it to its campsite storage it was late and we were utterly knackered.

Still, we were safely home (just) after 5 ½ months and 5 ½ thousand miles through 7 countries, in ice and snow and baking heat, up and down mountains, precipitous coastal roads and an amazing 12 ferry trips.
We saw some sights that will stay with us for ever, had some laughs and some anxious moments, made many new friends and visited (and re-visited) old friends - it’s the only way to travel, autonomous and free to go almost where we please.
Where next? Turkey? Sicily - Sardinia - Corsica? Morocco? Scandinavia? The Baltics?

A few figures just to finish off.
We were away for 168 nights, of which we spent 116 in campsites at a cost of £1802, or an average cost of £15 per night. Not the ratio or expenditure that we normally have, but it’s difficult to avoid staying in campsites on Croatia’s islands and coasts and though of high quality they don’t come cheap. None the less, the ACSI card saved us a bundle and also helped to choose a site. Be sure to get yours early next year as this year’s quota has long since sold out in the UK.

5562 miles burnt up £995 of fuel, which works out at 5.6 miles per pound or 18p per mile. We don’t travel light and all that mountain climbing takes its toll on consumption and brake pads.

We also spent £568 on ferries and boat trips (including cross channel). The ferry from Dubrovnik to Rijeka was £152 plus £55 for a cabin, which saved a return journey of over 400 miles, and for us, another ferry trip to avoid the 10 km dash through the Bosnian coastal enclave. Using the coast road, we would probably have taken 3-4 days over it and would have added the cost of campsites, so for us it was a no-brainer, we had an enjoyable time and saved a day or three retracing our steps for the same money as the ferry fare (minus the cabin).

Incidentally, we spent £134 on Autogas, £75 on campsite laundry machines and nothing on toilet chemical thanks to the SOG! A worthy fitment for long term motorhomers.

Another worthy fitment was the fabulous Fantastic-vent, it not only gave us a quick and efficient way of clearing the air when our new Carbon Monoxide alarm showed us we had insufficient ventilation for cooking, and safely kept the inside of the van cool when we were out - thanks to its automatic rain sensor, but above all gave us a wonderful cooling draft when the temperatures soared into the 30’s and upwards. When the air was still and stiflingly hot outside we found we could actually be cooler inside the van than out!
As our wise friend Brian said: “look at one of these before you consider air conditioning”, it’s certainly a cheaper, lighter, less power and space hungry option than either conventional or evaporative systems.


Monday, 20 July 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Dubrovnik to Montgenevre

18th June.
Rather than endure a sweaty bus ride, we again choose to visit a major city by boat, walking down the hill from Camping Kate to the waterfront at Mlini.

Mlini's picturesque waterfront includes several restaurants
The Vivado Travel Agency boat to old Dubrovnik was 70 kuna a head (€10) for a return ticket. The company runs two boats, the larger one, an old converted fishing boat complete with mast and bowsprit, arrived on time and easily swallowed up the crowd that had gathered on the Mlini quayside.

The Vivado passenger ferry to Dubrovnik arrives

Initially hugging the coastline, remaining evidence of the war soon appeared in the shape of a bombed out and abandoned holiday complex. Warning signs proclaimed that entry was forbidden, but a few swimmers were on the beach and graffiti had found its way to the upper parts of the buildings.

Part of a shelled and burned out holiday complex south of Dubrovnik

Before entering the old harbour of Dubrovnik the boat dropped a few passengers off at Lokrum island, a nature reserve, and then crossed the bay to bring us in sight of the ancient UNESCO protected walls of an old city that is on every cruise ship’s itinerary.

Dubrovnik's old harbour comes into view

I last saw Dubrovnik in the 80's from the P&O cruise ship Canberra, before the destruction wrought by the Yugoslav army, Serbs and Montenegrins in 1991-92.

One of its key glories was the aged patina of its terracotta roofs - looking down from the surrounding walls (free entry in those days) you could really imagine that an actual medieval city was below - a few people walking about in period costume would have done the trick.
The advent of satellite dishes, velux windows and wall mounted air conditioning units would no doubt have destroyed that illusion by now, but the 2000 shells fired at the city damaged 80% of the roofs, burned out many buildings and broke up the stone pavements.

Then, before the war, with the Canberra anchored in the distance

And now, original tiles can be seen on the far left

Despite the greatest care being taken in replacing the tiles the result is generally a mass of orange rooftops, a world away from the originals. Someone said that the tiles all looked plastic - and unfortunately they do, despite some introduced colour variation. The new tiles are totally symmetrical and evenly finished, whereas the original were handmade, uneven in shape and coarse in texture.
Having said that, looking through my old photos from 1985 it's evident that back then, a number of roofs had already been renewed.

No self-respecting city goes without its Irish Pub

Despite the devastation, the street paving and the masonry have been remarkably well recovered, and if you can visit on a day when the floating hotels are absent, or later in the evening when they have gone, the atmosphere would be completely different. Bear in mind though that access to the ramparts is closed at 1900. Tickets to walk the top of an unbroken 1,940 metres of walls are 50 Kuna (€7). Our stroll around with Rosemary and Andy took over two hours.

19th June
We said goodbye to R&A who were also off to Mostar, their insurers (SAGA) not having any objections to them visiting Bosnia.
Another blisteringly hot day, the coolest place was inside the van with the fabulous fantastic fan going full tilt. Later when it had cooled off a bit we trudged down the steps and along the waterfront to the FKK beach for a spot of skinny dipping. Even then the beach was quite crowded, though quite a few weren’t “playing the game” as it were.

20th June
Another day of relative idleness, waiting for our 10 a.m. Sunday ferry to Rijeka.
In the vacant pitch next to us we watched in amazement as two Latvian families of four parents and six children poured out of a short wheel base Ducato panel van and erected three large tents. They spoke good English and were on an epic three week tour to Greece and back.
The weather broke spectacularly in the evening with one of the most prolonged and violent thunderstorms we have experienced, sheet and forked lightening all around and fierce gusts of wind which brought a few bangs and shrieks from the unprepared.

21st June
Alongside the ferry quay for 0830, there were 5 motorhomes already waiting, all German. We soon found out that we would have to change ships in Split, due to change of scheduling (an engine breakdown we heard), a bit of a nuisance but there you go.

The first vessel on our passage to Rijeka

The Jadrolinija vessel “Dubrovnik” docked a few minutes before its departure time of 1000 and we were soon happily seated (on camping cushions) on a wooden bench on the boat deck. Enjoying the departure we sailed past several large cruise ships, including the Carnival Cruise Line owned, Costa Line “Costa Fortuna” - a particular English joke provided by an American owned Italian company.

The "Costa Fortuna" - oh yeah?

Before long we were docking stern-to directly on the quay in Korcula town, a privilege our inter-island ferry had been denied. Minutes later were off to Stari Grad on Hvar, but the rain started to lash down – time for a modest but welcome lunch of schnitzel, chips and peas in the restaurant. Good quality and plenty of it, washed down with a beer for 180 Kuna (about €25).

Our final docking for the day, and transfer to the ferry “Liburnia” was at 6 p.m. and marked by Split’s equivalent of a tropical storm, the foot passengers got drenched, dashing though the downpour in their shorts and tee shirts.
The Liburnia is a much smaller and older vessel than the Dubrovnik, its low, dark, cave-like car deck painted silver instead of the usual white. A single flight of stairs took us up into the ancient accommodation. It didn’t take long to realise there were no Pullman reclining chairs to while away the night in, only slatted wooden benches in the covered Lido bar or short upright banquettes in the Saloon.

The writing was on the bulkhead, as plain as the night order book - pay for a cabin or endure a murderous 8 hours dossing down with the back-packers. The decision swiftly made, we paid another 434 Kuna (€62) for a two berth bunk cabin with a sink - the loo was a few steps aft down the narrow alleyway.
In comparison to my cabin when serving on an old 1950’s cargo ship, the only things missing were the exposed rivets on the deckhead!

The Liburnia was actually built in Holland in 1964, probably for a service involving longer passages, and the large restaurant is rather quaint with an art-deco appearance, mirrored columns and the like.

The Liburnia's restaurant, the largest public room on the ship

Happy in the knowledge that we had a bed to go to, we tucked into goujons of hake with boiled potatoes and tartare sauce, some rather solid chocolate pancakes and a litre of Malvasia, which came to 206 Kuna (€30).

The cabin in fact was a little haven and I slept well on the crisp starched sheets for a few hours, then awoke, listening to the throb of the engines and the creaking of a bunk next door, straining under its restless occupant. The sea was noisily whistling past, a few feet below the porthole - talk about a trip down memory lane.

22nd June
Rijeka was still asleep as we rolled off the ferry and we moved swiftly into Slovenia, the customs giving us a good eyeing up and asking if we had anything to declare.

Rolling off the Liburnia in Rijeka

We had spent nearly two months in Croatia, far longer than we originally anticipated, but we had thoroughly enjoyed it. The tourist industry that we encountered was very professional, with some of the best produced and written free tourist brochures we have come across. The campsite brochure was particularly useful, with good descriptions and listings that you won't find in the Caravan Club Europe book.
All the campsites we stayed at had modern or refurbished toilet facilities, hot water (and lashings of it) was never a problem, though of course the sites weren’t cheap in comparison to British or French sites. Most of the cities and campsites have good websites which convert to English.

The coastline is Croatia’s crown jewels, the tagline is “the Mediterranean as it once was”, and although some of it is inevitably spoilt by ill considered development, much of it is untainted, and in the many areas of national park, pristine. The water, almost everywhere, was crystal clear and endlessly azure. If you are thinking about a sailing or diving holiday, Croatia must be near the top of your list.

We only strayed inland in Istria and also to visit the Plitvice National Park, but both experiences were well worth it and would bring us back to see more. We were entranced by exposure to some wildlife that we hadn’t seen (or heard) before, and stunning scenery.

The people we spoke to about the war seemed determined the leave the past behind and look forward to EU membership and a growing economy of which tourism is a key part. Occasionally we thought they were milking the golden goose too hard (as in some of the quasi-official surcharges) and in danger of spoiling some of their assets through over development, but some of the more recent architecture and features (like the Sea organ in Zadar) are inspired.

--> We free-camped on several occasions inland with no bother, but back on the coast and on the islands there are so many campsites it really isn't viable. We spoke to some motohomers who thought differently, but heard of others who had been fined - up to -->120 Euros.Though the police were in evidence in a low key way, we never felt threatened and had few discordant dealings with people, those that we did were with the older generation who probably could not break the mould of the communist era.
We will be back!

So, swiftly through Slovenia into Italy on the E61 and we stopped for a quick look at Trieste. The city revealed a busy waterfront, marinas and some fine old buildings – some cared for, some not.

Trieste's grand square on the waterfront

We rolled along the A4 past Venezia, Padova, and Vicenza, then, late afternoon, feeling it was time to find a pitch for the night we saw a magnificent church tower rising above the green vineyard covered hills of the Soave wine area just before Verona.
We exited the motorway and, identifying it as Monteforte d’Alpone, made our way over. According to our guide there was an Area Attrezzata (AA) in the town, but we failed to find it and instead made ourselves comfortable in a large free public car park behind the church. (GPS: 45.4233 N, 11.2856 E)

Monteforte d'Alpone's stunning church tower, visible from the Autostrada

The stunning church tower belies this rather dilapidated and forlorn settlement which has definitely seen better days. When the bulk of the tourist traffic is whizzing by on a toll road, the casual visitor is almost inevitably going to pass it by and I guess that includes most motorhomes.
In the course of a stroll I later found the AA behind the school, fairly tight access and with the water supply shut off , and no vans taking advantage of the amenity so kindly laid on.

23rd June
A quick walk into the town to admire the church, with its equally impressive Roman style portico, was rewarded by an elegant and artistic interior. A junior school was in progress, attached to one side of the nave, some of the children scampering past the altar, genuflecting as they did so.

Plain on the outside, elegant on the inside

We bought some bread and fruit and veg to show our appreciation of a free and untroubled nights sleep, disposed of our waste at the AA and picked our way to the R11.

The R11 motorway bypass for Verona straddles the Autostrada on both sides for a section, creating a 10 lane highway divided by three barriers, the westbound carriageways all alongside each other and closest to the town.

It was a fine sunny morning and I was glad to be breezing past the now familiar urban sprawl, when suddenly there was a lot of dust in the air and as I braked our two lane highway seemed to be partially blocked off by the barrier separating it from the Autostrada. Slowing some more we realised that something had hit the barrier, bending it across our lane. I stopped as we could see the road was littered with broken glass and debris and oddly, a battered kettle and a saucepan.

Looking across to the Autostrada we could see the bare wooden inside floor of what looked like a caravan, sitting vertically in the air. Seconds later we realised that it was in fact an old motorhome, upended, cab down on the tarmac. A dazed looking elderly woman, her grey hair awry, was being led to the roadside like a bewildered child.

Suddenly blue smoke began to eject in a thick, long stream towards us from the now vertical exhaust pipe. Sue yelled: “its going to explode” and I drove across the glass and debris to a layby 100 metres further along. Shaken, we sat for some time going over what we had just seen.

The image of that stunned woman will stay with us for a long time. We don’t know for sure that she was in the van, but somebody’s home was broken and dismembered on the motorway, their possessions shattered and scattered across three carriageways.

I felt guilty for not going back to see if we could help - they might have been Brits - but even though we had passed by only seconds after the event, a string of cars were already parked past the scene and people milling about, some tearing at the broken sides of the van. The consequences for those in the cab doesn’t bear thinking about.

Did they have a tyre blowout, were they nudged by a passing car or lorry? - from our accident in 2006 we know how just a glancing blow from an overtaking vehicle can send you careering off the road. It certainly shook us up, the thought of how easily it could happen and how catastrophic the result.

We stayed on the R11 for a while after that and had a look at the southern shore of Lake Garda, heavily built up and developed as you might expect.

After a break for lunch on the outskirts of Chiari we were stopped by yet another accident, this time a truck had spun a car around on an urban street and shed its load mounting the pavement. Are we safe anywhere? With some resolve we made a detour past the carnage and headed back to the A4 Autostrada.

Bypassing Milan and heading for Turin we plucked an Area Attrezzata out of our guide “Viaggiare in Camper” for Rivoli on the outskirts of Turin. By using the cross street references we managed to pin point the AA on the satnav and found it with little difficulty.
Published by Mondadori, the guide is all in Italian of course, but is a very useful book that contains stopovers that you won’t find in more user friendly guides. Our book is a 2005 version, but I suspect an up to date edition will have GPS coordinates, which should take all the guess work out of it. (ISBN 88-370-2380-4)
www.unilibro.com (mail order to UK)

The carpark behind the sports stadium was deserted, but a full service area was incorporated, with running water. Later a French A class Rapido joined us, giving a friendly wave.
A wander into town soon revealed the "Pizza Food" take away pizza parlour. Mostly a large kitchen but with a small seating area, it was busy, a team of scooter borne delivery drivers picking up and zipping off - wow, this is how it is done, how fast the cooks worked. The Capricciosa pizzas were searingly hot and smothered with ham, mushroom, salami, artichoke and olives, a really satisfying meal for €6 a head.

24th June
After a quiet night’s sleep we set the GPS up to lead us through Rivoli towards Sestriere and the mountain passes to France.
Once clear of Rivoli it was nice to see the mountains again and be away from the endless untidy urban sprawl that is northern Italy.

We followed the R23 to Pinerolo, Perosa Argentina and onto Sestriere, a modern looking ski resort, as you might expect virtually deserted, despite the mountain biking on offer. Some great scenery all the same.

Cesana, near the border was making quite an effort to drum up summer business, bedecked with flowers and with biking, rafting and kayaking on offer. A new AA has been installed about a kilometre out of town. €10 a night including electricity and water. (GPS: 44.9481 N, 6.7948 E)

The new Area Attrezzata at Cesana is on the left, about a km out of town

A set of new tunnels are being built to replace the semi open road up to Claviere as it appears to be in danger of being overrun by landslides, several of the apertures in the open tunnel already covered by debris.

Back into France, Montgenèvre has a long established winter aire for 280 motorhomes and has had a recent makeover with new automatic ticket barriers, new lighting and power points. Sited under a ski-lift it is handy for the slopes, but is a bit of a stretch out of the town. Also €10 a night all in - a good deal in the winter if you have electric heating, but it seemed a bit steep to park up in summer in a virtually closed resort. (GPS: 44.9346 N, 6.7364 E)

The vast aire at Montgenevre

Still it was nice to be back in France, after so many summers, it feels like our second home.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Trogir to Dubrovnik

7th June.
Waiting for the bus to Trogir, a man in a car offered us a lift into town for 20 Kuna. We politely declined and he wandered off to buy some fruit at the stall by the bus stop. Then he came back and got quite pushy, then seemingly angry, and we knew that we had made the right decision to refuse.
He got back into his car and screeched out into road in front of another car, forcing it to overtake on the verge to avoid a collision, horn blaring – phew!

Trogir from the parapets of its fortress

The UNESCO listed historical town of Trogir is situated on a small islet between the mainland and the island of Ciovo, which forms the eastern half of a vast bay, thus giving it natural security from the land and a sheltered waterfront.
Its continuity of existence goes back to the ancient Greeks and there are vestiges of the Hellenistic period as well as monuments from the Middle Ages.

Tempting bars and restaurants around every corner

Apparently only 750 paces long in its middle section, it is a maze of lovely old streets, beautifully preserved and maintained but with oodles of charm, and tiny restaurants tucked away at the end of alleyways and in little courtyards. Compact enough to cover it easily in a day, it also has a vibrant waterfront with ferry boats, private yachts and small cruise vessels coming and going.

The atmospheric interior of St Lawrence's cathedral

Two must see’s are the Cathedral of St Lawrence and the Renaissance loggia in the town square. We poked our heads into the cathedral whilst a service was going on - absolutely packed with worshippers, the singing was fantastic, what an atmosphere.
Later we went for a proper look at its features, but of course we had to pay - 20 kuna each.

At the end of the town quay are the remains of the Camerlengo Castle, a 15th Century fortress built for the defence of the city. Another 20 Kuna, but worth it for the panoramic views from the top of the tower.

For lunch we selected the Kapasanta (meaning scallop) restaurant on the quayside. Large plates of perfectly grilled squid with boiled potatoes and spinach, with ½ litre of wine, came to 185 Kuna (€26).
As we were clearing our plates the hot sun suddenly disappeared and fierce gusts of wind laden with spots of rain sent the waiters scurrying to retrieve table cloths and seat cushions, they were not amused.

Returning to Camp Belvedere we met Alan and Jess and Bonny the dog in an Adria camper. They eventually selected a secluded pitch next to ours and we chatted so long we later adjourned to the pizza parlour at the reception.

8th June
This day was the first of a boat service from the campsite to Trogir and we took advantage of it to get the bus to Split. So much more pleasant than the bus and only 5 kuna more. The approach to Trogir from the water was worth it anyhow and I also got a close up look of the shipyard on Ciovo, engaged in building a large ship in the most limited space.

Trogir's waterfront from the campsite ferry

The bus ride to Split was interminable, more than an hour in a cramped “bendy bus” which became increasingly packed and hot as we lurched through the heavily industrialised outskirts of the city.
Not in the best condition, lathered in fact, we found that it was another 10 minute walk to the waterfront and old town, the new town not having much to commend it.

Split's baking hot waterfront

Founded by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Split is variously hailed by our brochures as: “the centre and true heart of Dalmatia” and the “heart of the Mediterranean”.

In the year 305, Diocletian (who ruled the entire known world at that time) decided that being Master of the World was too much of a day job and abdicated, deciding to build his retirement villa in the bay of Aspalathos. The site was well protected on the seaward side by an archipelago and backed by high mountains.

The resulting edifice, the Diocletian Palace, was a vast complex without equal in its time, though as the city has grown up in and around it, over seventeen centuries, it has lost many of its original features.

The ground floor halls of the palace (in actual fact the basement of the original residential quarters) are free to enter from the waterfront or from the raised Peristyle or central square of the palace. The dark Roman archways are now filled with stalls selling the usual tourist fodder, but you can pay 25 kuna to see unadorned, and newly restored, rooms on either side of the central hall.

Fifty years ago these spaces were filled with the detritus of centuries and have been slowly excavated and restored, though there are still areas remaining to clear. To me the quality of the extensive restorations was more interesting than the originals, which are basically identical to those in the central corridor.

Some skilful repairs to the Roman arches

The Catholic cathedral of St Dominus (executed by that same selfless Diocletian) contains part of the late emperor’s mausoleum and is also worth a look.

By this time we had had just too much heat for one day and the knowledge that there was a boat back to Trogir for the same price as the bus (imparted to us by some Brits we had met in Trogir and again in Split), was a gift, so with time for a beer before the 4 o’clock departure, we enjoyed a very much more pleasant journey home - no slog back up to the bus station either.
There was time for an ice cream on the quayside in Trogir before the boat back to Camping Belverdere.

9th June
A lazy day with some swimming off the rocky shoreline - a few sea urchins lurking for the unwary.
Later we were invited to a barbeque with Alan and Jess and friends Tony and Penny. A lovely evening with good food and conversation, sitting out as a full moon rose over the water through the pine trees, the light of half a dozen candles illuminating our faces.

Late to bed, our slumbers were broken by a wailing noise - two voices, sometimes alone, sometimes in unison. What on earth? We immediately thought of cats, but we had never heard anything like it, when they reached a crescendo it sounded like children howling - kids having a laugh?
Finally we heard the scrabbling of paws on the dirt as the cries reached a blood curdling pitch - must be cats - but Sue saw a shape in the moonlight shadows that was more like the size of a dog….?

10th June
Now our island hopping started again - down the coast to Drevenik and the ferry to Hvar. The mainland coastline was unexciting - never ending holiday apartments, and too many poorly designed and unfinished buildings littering the hillsides.

Hvar has been voted by the American magazine Traveller to be one of the world’s top ten most beautiful islands - quite a billing.
Settled by the Greeks in the 4th Century BC it has some fabulous beaches, ancient ports and luxuriant flora and fauna - wild boar are still hunted.

Sucuraj, small and tranquil

The Jadrolinija ferry from Drevenik to Sucuraj was 224 Kuna (about €32) and as soon as we landed we felt the difference from the mainland. Sucuraj has a small intimate harbour and we were able to park up on the jetty to get a few groceries from the local Konzum. Sitting on benches by the harbour wall were all the “old boys” enjoying the evening air and watching the tourists go by.

It was only a 4 km run to Camping Mlaska, situated amongst pine and olive trees around a beautiful shallow bay, perfect for swimming, with a smooth sandy bottom. There is also a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the water and a naturist (FKK) section with its own little cove. (GPS: 43.1374 N, 17.1420 E)

Sue immediately bumped into Chris and Jacky from Sheffield and they gave us a lot of information about the island and, very kindly, a map they had bought on the ferry.

11th June
Leaving Camp Mlaska (124 Kuna a night) we commenced the 40 km drive to Jelsa, the next significant settlement on the island. Until you reach Jelsa, the road (though with a centre white line) is really single track and mostly in poor condition. With a stop at a ramshackle old farmhouse to buy a mega pot of the richest, darkest honey I’ve ever tasted, and a quick lunch, the journey took over two hours.
All the same, it was wonderfully scenic driving through totally unspoilt and virtually uninhabited countryside.

The honey shop (also wine and olive oil)

Coming into Jelsa along the waterfront road we passed an abandoned and derelict hotel, its waterfront parking overlooking a beautiful swimming cove, unfortunately barred off.
Further along were two campsites, one, Holiday camping, was closed and some campers had removed the wire barriers and were helping themselves to a waterfront pitch, including a monster Volvo four wheel drive truck-based motorhome with German plates – it would have looked more at home in the desert somewhere.

Imagine turning up at a Caravan Club site with this!

Jelsa has a Renaissance-Baroque square and a 16th Century church, it also has one of only two fuel stations on the island, the other being on the waterfront at Hvar town.

The coastal road to Jelsa

After a quick stop we moved on to Stari Grad. This has the main ferry terminal just outside of town, but its main natural glory is the long narrow harbour, lined with a wide ancient stone quay, palm trees and elegant mansions. There is also a fortified Renaissance castle and several old churches hidden amongst its enjoyable stone paved backstreets.

Stari Grad, towards the inner harbour

Stari Grad, towards the sea

Deserted backstreets

It was extremely quiet on the day, with a lovely, laid back, almost Caribbean feel to it. The supermarkets were closed but we stocked up at some excellent fruit and veg stalls at the inner end of the harbour.

I can feel a rum punch coming on

Thinking about where to stop for the night we remembered a site that Chris and Jacky had mentioned, Camp Jurjevac. It was closed and the reception hut shuttered, but there are holiday apartments as part of the complex, so the access was still open. It seemed a gift to drive in and park under the trees. Cars came and went but nobody seemed to bat an eyelid, so we stayed for the night, joined later by a Slovenian couple in a tent.

12th June

Our morning stowaway - these beauties can fly as well!

After a peaceful night we went back to Stari Grad and took the old road to Hvar town. If you come to the island, don’t miss this drive (provided you have a head for heights) it’s one of the most spectacular mountain roads we have come across outside of the Alps, probably the highlight of our visit to Hvar.

The scenery just keeps on coming

At this time of year wild and cultivated lavender is everywhere, its soft purple hues almost seeming to blur your vision as it blends into the stony scrub. You can buy sprigs of it from stalls, but it is in such abundance you can pick your own from the roadside.

The hillside fields are divided into small plots by countless stone walls, a system preserved from Hellenic times. The number of small stones used in each wall begs the question: did they have to recover the stones to find the soil?

Note the absence of any barriers!

At the 442 metre pinnacle, Ozdrin, a roadside stall caught our eye and we relieved the lady of a large pot of dried oregano and ½ litre of olive oil. The oregano is so pungent we almost wondered whether it had been ground up with lavender, however when mixed with her light and delicate olive oil and poured over chopped tomatoes cucumber and olives, it is truly sublime, every last drop gets mopped up with bread. In comparison, our mid-priced virgin olive oil from the supermarket tastes like 3 in 1 lubricating oil!

On the way down through Brusje, we were surprised to see rusting derelict cars and rundown buildings – a sharp reminder that there are still some poor people about, scratching a living.
Just before Hvar town in a small valley was an open landfill site, seagulls plundering what they could, another mark of remote island life.

You cannot drive into Hvar town, it is privileged access only with electric barriers. Unlike the easy, free parking we found in Stari Grad, we had to pay 20 Kuna an hour in a very cramped park, 5 minutes walk up the hill.

Hvar town's fortress and walls

Unimpressed, as we walked back past a crumbling police station, only the medieval stone walls and fortress overlooking the town made us bother at all.

Hvar town's massive paved square

Once into the famous stone square with its cathedral we caught the atmosphere, very different to Stari Grad, very busy with loud British tourists and touts hassling passengers as they got off the ferry. On the quay were a couple of very large private motor yachts, multi-million dollar boats, their occupants sipping white wine whilst the passers-by gawped at them.

Park up your mega-yacht and enjoy the vibe

There was a definite buzz about the place – attractive we fancy, if you are young, footloose and fancy free, even more so if you are young and loaded, etc.
Not being at least two of those, we took our photos, paid our parking fee and headed back to Camping Mlaska, arriving late, but in time for a cooling swim.

Peace and beauty from our pitch at Camp Mlaska

13th June
Awaking with the dawn, I eventually persuaded Sue to join me in a swim in the smooth, still water of this lovely little cove.

Could you resist a swim on a morning like this?

Our plan was to take the same Jadrolinija ferry back to Drevenik, then the Mediteranska ferry to Korcula (pronounced Kochula), however we had had conflicting information about the frequency of the ferries.
The campsite owner didn’t know anymore so we left early and drove to the terminal at Sucuraj. There we discovered that the only daily ferry to Korcula (until 20th June) was at 1730, so we parked up in a layby outside the campsite with a nice view out to sea, to await an afternoon ferry back to Drevenik.

Out of the blue Sue got a message from our new friends, Rosemary and Andy (on the sea front on Korcula), to say that they had had a knock on the door of their near identical Rapido van from our friends from Karlsruhe, Ursula and Wolfgang (thinking it was us). How small a world is it!

The ancient Mediteranska ferry

The Mediteranska ferry was very old, but appeared well maintained, chugging its way to the ferry terminal at Domince on Korcula by 2000. The one way trip was 360 Kuna (about €51)

Arrival at Korcula

Camping Kalac is 3 km out of Korcula town along a busy road (not a suitable walk or cycle ride), so we decided to drive into Korcula just for the evening, before returning to the campsite.
Surprised to find a parking space by the waterfront, our pleasure was soon dimmed by a young man wanting 20 Kuna before we had even stopped the engine. Still, having paid so much to get there we weren’t going to let another €3 an hour stop us visiting.

It doesn't take long to explore Korcula's streets

Marco Polo, no less, was born in Korcula and set sail from this town built on the ruins of an earlier Greek settlement. The town’s streets were cleverly designed in a herring- bone fashion so that they remain cool despite the rays of the fierce morning and afternoon sun.
It took 10 minutes to walk the perimeter, then we wandered the hilly and narrow internal streets as the evening sun faded and the street lights grew brighter. Some passages were made even narrower by restaurant tables, levelled up on blocks on the inclining pavements.

Korcula's sundown

It was all a bit busy and touristy (a cruise ship was berthed on the town quay) so we drove back towards the ferry terminal and Camp Kalac. The reception, as expected, was closed but the barrier was up and we just found ourselves a spot under the trees.
It was too late to cook so we filled up on bread and cheese and flopped into bed.

14th June
At 0730 there was a loud rapping on the door and another grumpy old man demanded: "passports - reception - 10 minutes!"
Sue later got a better reception at the reception, and the bill was 86 kuna (about €12).

Another brilliant sunny day and we drove on the main road to the western end of the island and the port of Vela Luka. Unusually there was plenty of waterfront parking by its nice palm tree fringed harbour.

Parking on the waterfront at Vela Luka

The one way system takes you around the back of Vela Luka where they are titivating the waterfront, just before you reach a small shipyard.

We turned off to Blato, its pleasant tree lined streets giving shade to the road, then on a minor road to the south coast and the small hamlet of Grscica. A quiet and pretty little bay but plenty of new building going on. There is yet another diving centre - the crystal waters of Croatia are a diving mecca.

Grscica, the developers are on their way

Along the coast road going east there were some glimpses of beautiful coastline, Prizba turned out to be well developed with holiday homes and apartments and proffered a small Autocamp. Brna was more of the same.

Just outside Cara we turned right onto what is shown on our map as a scenic route – it starts off as an old narrow track through a lush green plain filled with vine groves, then suddenly opens up into a brand new two lane highway carved out of the cliff side.

Pupnatska Luka is a tiny bay, entirely enclosed by forest, the sparking emerald and azure water looking utterly delicious. The road down was precipitously steep and narrow so we didn't even think about taking the van down, but if you have the time to walk or the energy to cycle - what a spot.

Pupnatska Luka, and not a yacht in sight!

Once back on the main road we passed by Korcula again out to the eastern tip and the ancient settlement of Lumbarda. Just before the village is a shallow enclosed bay, now surrounded with houses and apartments. They have started to twee up the roadside with new kerbs and pavements, but there was just enough grass verge left for us to park up for lunch.

The ferry to Orebic (pronounced Orrybish) on the Peljesac peninsula from Korcula is a 15 minute trip, 158 Kuna (about €22).
Once ashore, it was a short run west along the coast to Camping Palme, a lovely small site of gravel terraces and olive trees in a sheltered bay, separated from the gently sloping gravel beach only by a narrow access road. (GPS: 42.9765N, 17.1290 E)

Baby, its b-b-blue out there!

Wolfgang and Ursula were already on site and Wolfgang had managed to reserve a pitch next to theirs and a provisional booking for the lamb roast being put on by the campsite that night. (120 Kuna each, including salad and wine.)

Ursula, Wolfang and Sue get stuck into roast lamb

The lamb roast was a night to remember, being the only Brits in the company of five (mostly English speaking) German couples, we obviously missed out on a lot of the conversation but after a while it didn’t seem to matter. The red wine was included and when even that had dried up, a 1 ½ litre plastic bottle of chilled schnapps appeared. That was fully dispensed with before we were cleared from the table!

15th June
Remarkably, we managed a swim in the calm water before breakfast. Sue and Uschi went shopping on the bikes whilst Wolfgang and I played with the laptops.
After a few more swims during the day we had our own BBQ, and put the sun to bed.

16th June
Goodbye to Wolfgang and Ursula, they were off to Mostar in Bosnia, a very popular motorhoming destination it would seem.
Another lazy day, recuperating from the making of new friendships and the renewal of old.

17th June
Heading down towards Dubrovnik we halted briefly for a look at Ston, with its 5.5 km of defensive walls running up the hillside.

Ston, its a steep old climb in the heat

Once over the spectacular suspension bridge dedicated to Franjo Tudjman, a key figure in the Croatian War of Independence and President of Croatia from 1990-99, we worked our way down to the Dubrovnik waterfront and booked a ferry to Rijeka. From Rijeka it is just a short drive into Slovenia and then Italy. 1267 Kuna (€185 for a 7 metre motorhome, in low season)

The Franjo Tudjman bridge to the city of Dubrovnik

To drive up the body of Croatia again on our way home would have entailed retracing our steps up Peljesac to Trpani, and another ferry (224 Kuna) to Ploce on the mainland - this in order to avoid the Bosnian enclave of Neum, which extends to the coast. The 10 km strip of Bosnian motorway is off limits for us as we cannot get insurance for Bosnia with Towergate Bakers. (Plans are in hand to build a bridge to circumvent this, but it may be a long time coming)

An alternative would have been a ferry from Split to Ancona in Italy, but this would have still involved the ferry trip to by-pass Bosnia. Also, Dubrovnik to Bari in Italy, but that would double the mileage to get to Milan – one of our homeward waypoints.

All in all, a 24 hour cruise sailing past the islands we had just visited, and cutting out 3-4 days driving up Croatia, seemed an agreeable choice, and not that much more expensive when you allow for campsites on the way and fuel for the mileage.

The old city of Dubrovnik

On our way to meet up with Rosemary and Andy at Mlini, another Lidl’s supermarket popped up - they certainly seem to have Croatia covered, but then it seems like 75% of the campers we have seen were German so I guess they know where to expand their market. Relative to a lot of the products in the in the national Croatian markets, their quality was way higher.

Camping Kate is a pleasant family run site on two levels, its main drawback being the steep 10 minute climb up from the waterfront if you want a swim.

Here, Rosemary solved the mystery of the nocturnal wailing of kids? cats? dogs? in Camping Belverdere near Trogir.
An Australian émigré Croatian whom she met in Loviste on Peljesac told her that wild red coyotes exist here. Only found elsewhere in India and smaller than, but related to the wolf – could they have been the animals that disturbed our slumbers?