Take a trip in a mebea – oh go on then

Life at Camp Koroni remains very quiet, we still have the whole place to ourselves. Not sure what would keep the motorhomers at Finikes as opposed to here other than the beach being closer. In exchange for the beach the town is two minutes walk and its a much more lively, lived in affair than the Finikounda. The facilities in camp are very good, it’s all clean and the showers have hot water, for us that is good facilities. The showers are almost al fresco, a stable door with gaps at top and bottom and they open out directly onto the site (ensures plenty of fresh air whilst you shower), there is plenty of plant life vying for space at the top of the cubicle due to the lack of a ceiling which adds to the breeze :). The family who run the site are very accommodating, we did a full wash in the machine here and whilst it was a big machine I was a bit horrified when Pappous Campsite owner told me the cost was €45 for a wash!!! Even worse when he said it I just smiled and nodded, I kind of hope he meant €4.50, fingers crossed.

Koroni town has continued to hold our interest, there has been something new to find each day. Added to which we are enjoying being more in a village and therefore having some daily contact with Greek people.  Whilst we enjoyed the contact with the other moho owners at Finikounda, we also felt a bit removed from village life due to the location of the site there.  Here we see people all day on the roads, in town and the owners family wandering around the site. Pretty much every person we pass waves, smiles and says some form of greeting, we respond as best we can and hope we use the right words in the right instances.

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Town square where it all happens

We must be doing something right, we waved and said our ‘kalimera’ to a lovely old chap we saw driving a cross between a moped and a trailer with a sewing machine engine attached (we think it’s maybe a Candia or a Mebea). He not only stopped, he motioned us to get in. I took the front seat and Iain climbed into the back, it was only as I sat down I realised this contraption was held together with spit and goodwill. Our driver didn’t ask where we were going, he just set off and we were on a mini tour around the streets.  Not a word passed between us whilst he drove us around, he just seemed pleased to be able to do something for us. It was without doubt one of the best experiences and money didn’t buy it. Afterwards the thought came that we would never consider jumping in a car with someone we didn’t know if it were an everyday car or van, but get something a bit wacky and yup we can overlook a bit of common sense 🙂

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Our new friend with the amazing cross bred vehicle

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Front seat for me…

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Iain had to climb in the back

Sunday morning there was a small market, very small by the time we got there as it was just closing. The local handmade pottery lady saw me coming, I was totally talked into a very cute little coffee cup for €1, I could have bought everything she owned except we don’t have enough space and I don’t have enough money to waste of souveneirs. We bought some fruit and vegetables from one stall, whilst everything was various € per kilo the guy just put it all in one bag and weighed it and came up with €1.50, no idea if we did well out of it but we paid up anyway. Pricing seems hit and miss, some things so cheap its unbelievable, and at the opposite end of the scale some stuff is really expensive – in both cases of course comparing to home. The general standard of living here seems good, house prices are very cheap (I read today on average 30% cheaper than at home). There must be a good size expat community out here, lots of German registrations on cars and the local supermarket sells German newspapers and also had several copies of the Daily Mail and Heinz baked beans – a sure signs of Brits in the area!

As the weather has become sunnier then the locals have been more out in force promenading up and down the main street and stopping for a few glasses of ouzo or wine and a plate of meze in the winter sun.  What is with the worry beads? nearly every man we see has a set being twisted or swung around in one hand whilst the other hand grasps a cigarette or a coffee. There must be something in it or surely there wouldn’t be so many of them about. My theory is they have nothing to worry about anyway other than where there next coffee and cigarette are coming from. A less stressed group of people it must be harder to find: traffic delay – no worries, they all just chat; sheep in the road – oh well lets all just chat, a customer waiting – will just pop over for a chat with someone else first. If it is the worry beads than bring about this calmness we should be issuing them on the National Health at home.

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On the olive front, we have taken matters into our own hands, literally. We went olive scrumping and picked a couple of kilos and are now doing a ‘brew your own’ experiment. We found some trees just off the site where the olives hadn’t been picked, they have now. We have started the soaking stage which will take 3-4 weeks, followed by a brining stage of 6-8 weeks, then a flavouring stage of 1-2 weeks. So it looks like we will have our own Baxter Koroni olives ready around the time we hit Estonia. Something to look forward to if it’s as bleak there are people are telling us.

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We hadn’t so far visited the main beach area for the town which is on the other side of the headland, so we set out with rucksacks for a hike to walk the coast and see what the fuss was about. Called Zaga beach, it is a pretty ok beach, I wouldn’t say you would rave over it but that might be because we walked along it in a storm force wind and had our faces sand blasted? A few beach bars and plenty of sun loungers stored for the summer season so it must be a popular place in high summer. The whole beach bar left in winter undisturbed thing is something else we have noticed. They are all closed for the winter, by closed there is some thick polythene wrapped around the ‘window’ gaps and the doors are locked. Looking in windows we see all the bottles of alcohol on the shelves, the decorations, furniture, fittings etc. yet these bars are left as they are, no damage, no graffiti, nothing stolen – fairly remarkable in today’s society anywhere in the world,

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Zaga beach – Koroni Monastery and the Taygetos mountains in the background

Back out on our walk to Zaga Beach we noticed a tree lined lane, which took us down to the stone built temple of Panagia Eleistria, which was built to celebrate the discovery of three statuettes, the Christ Crucified, the Virgin Mary holding the Holy Infant and another one that it is attributed to the Luke, the Evangelist, back in 1897. The temple was open to walk around, the priest was sat outside having a smoke and a flick of his beads.  To the side of the church is a tomb and a small chapel built into the rock, we were unsure exactly who the tomb belongs to, but it may be the place the icons were found. From what we gathered a woman called Maria Statjaki saw visions for 15 years telling her there were icons in the rocks, she told the villagers but they didn’t believe her, Then a child, Magdalini, led the villagers to icons, after no one had believed poor old Maria for all those years. However she is buried right outside the door of the chapel so we guess they felt bad about it afterwards. As we have found in most places in Greece, there is very little in the way of information as to what you are seeing. Even when we Google it afterwards there is a lot of conflicting information. It really is amazing that there is so little tourist information of any kind here. There are so many things to see and so little information about any of it even existing let along telling you what it is. Even good old Wikipedia is letting me down and I am having to cobble together information from many conflicting Greek websites.

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Panagia Eleistria

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inside the temple

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The crypt where the icons were found in the rock face

Our last major discovery here has been that they have Processionary Caterpillars, we spotted a couple of the hairy nests in the trees near to the temple. We first came across these in Spain where we were warned they are very harmful to humans but even more so to dogs as it can lead to their tongues swelling. The nests look very like a harmless candyfloss in the trees, we haven’t yet seen any of the dangerous little blighter’s on the ground but will be keeping our eyes peeled as they start their processions.

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We have decided to move on tomorrow, there is that little bit of usual worry that this place is so good the next one cannot live up to it.  We were aiming to go up into the mountains and visit Sparta and Mystras monastery but due to the weather forecast not being great we have decided to postpone that trip and do it in a few weeks. Instead we are heading for Kalamata, a big stock up of shopping in Lidl and maybe a stop outside the military airbase for some plane spotting, yes we know how to live it up. The next peninsular is where the sea turtle protection takes place on many of the beaches, think we may be too early for actual turtles but we are hoping something interesting about it all may be open. On the weather front, its been scorchio today, we have the same forecast for tomorrow, then rain for several days, this will be our first spell of bad weather since we left at the beginning of November, let’s get it over with – we have our waterproofs ready 🙂koroni4 (11)                                                               My Dream car!!

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“By all means..”Socrates, Greece 5thc BC

We are ending the week exactly where we started it, still at Camping Finikes. We have talked a few times about moving on but so far that hasn’t happened.  The days have passed very quickly considering we have done very little. It is amazing that a few days sunshine has turned our heads away from all the traveling and culture plans and straight towards sitting in the sun and baking to a shade of salmon pink. We make the effort to stroll onto the beach each morning and check out the water temperature (still a tad chilly) and just spend half an hour looking at the amazing views of sand, sea and snow covered Taygetos mountains – then we really do thank our lucky stars that we here.

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It is very easy to understand how people spend the whole winter somewhere like this and just amble their days away, we could do it. Entertainment each day consists of watching fellow campers, most of whom are here from November through to April, going about their days. The danger doing this being that most campers here have some great ‘boy toys’ and Iain is thinking we need to invest in some of the gadgets ourselves. The large kayak owned by our German neighbours has been launched a few times (we need one?), Pierre has what we both consider to be one of the best tow-cars we have seen, every time he starts it up Iain has the wistful ‘could I have one of those faces’ (and he has priced one on the internet). To be fair its very hilly here and there are a few electric bikes on site (on our list). We will probably need to be thinking about moving on from this site soon before we consider a 5th Wheel to tow around too as that is catching Iain’s eye daily!

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 The ultimate tow-car?

Whilst it is out of season her right now there are still plenty of campsites open, just along this stretch of road there are four open within 2 km, but as we have said before there is a distinct lack of motorhomes. Campsite prices vary across the Peloponnese from €11 per night up to €22 but the facilities offered are pretty similar. We have emailed some sites to check if they are open and some come back with great offers, whilst others quote a top dollar rate which is double the price of another site five minutes down the road. Not sure why this site has more people on than any of the others, we have had a wander around them all and there isn’t a difference we can find other than people on a site seem to attract more people.

We haven’t strayed too far this week, we did walk into nearby village of Finikounda, only 2km along the beach, although we did have to cross a river by means on a fallen cork tree at the end of the beach to get there, not the best route but we made it. The village was quiet with a few bars open but as we are finding everywhere the Greek people were very welcoming. We were looking for an ATM to draw out some cash, but someone told us that’s only possible between April and October! Most of the ATM’s are closed down for the winter so we need to go to the next town where there is a bank which will have a working ATM.  The Greek people seem to us quite akin to the Italians (bet that is a very un-PC thing to say), they are loud, happy and slightly manic, everything involves big arm waving and gestures; but most of all we have found Greek people to be incredibly friendly and accommodating, nothing is too much trouble.

By this morning we were feeling like a couple of tourist slugs, just sitting around, So the bikes were dusted off and we stretched ourselves with a ride in the opposite direction of the village to Methoni, no cycle path so we took the main road but hardly any traffic so it was fine. The only concern we had was the falling rocks on the road, all the way along the road was strewn with rocks. The council here do not clear them up, so unless a motorist or farmer clears falls away the roads can be a very hazardous. What was worse than rocks for us was the hills! we do fairly flat cycling, this isn’t flat at all and I was coming round to the electric bike idea by the time we got there.

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Methoni was worth every single second of effort, the view as we came around the corner to the village was breath taking. The village is set around the bay and the castle, one of the largest in the Mediterranean, spreads out along a rocky promontory. It’s not just one castle, its more like two – the main one set along the sea edge and connected to village by a bridge which crosses a vast moat. Then at the far end there is a causeway onto another fortified building – the Bourtzi, which was a prison and place of executions during the Turkish Occupation. Built in 1500 the causeway is actually paved and is like a small roadway which connects the Bourtzi to the massive sea gate of the castle. Being Greece we were allowed to wander around everywhere, climb the castle steps and walls and generally take our lives into our own hands, there is nothing stopping you falling to a certain death from the tops of the walls except your own common sense and it seems the Greeks use this rather than fences and ropes – we like their style.

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Methoni Castle – first views from the National Road

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the sea gate

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Looking back over the causeway from the fortified prison to the sea gate

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the Bourtzi – prison

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One of the reasons for cycling in into Methoni was my concern that it might be difficult to park the van. I couldn’t have been more wrong with that worry, we could have parked anywhere we wanted as there were two or three tourist cars and a few cyclists and pretty much enough parking left over for a fleet of motorhomes. We treated ourselves to lunch in Methoni village square, making the basic error of not really looking at where we had chosen to eat – it was an Austrian restaurant! ok not the most authentic Greek lunch but never mind, it was all good and Iain treated himself to his first Metaxa to fortify himself for the cycle (mountain) ride home. As we left the village we spotted a small electrical shop, we have been looking for one for weeks as our kettle is on its last legs. I was prepared in advance with a translation which I gave to Iain, whilst I waited outside with the bikes. I heard Iain dutifully ask for a ‘katsarola’, then a big discussion and much opening of boxes. Turns out that I sent him him in for a ‘fish kettle’, ah well he sorted it our eventually and we are now the proud owners of something that looks like the bridge of the SS Enterprise.

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A well earned Metaxa

The other piece of equipment that has now met its demise is my Kindle 😦 This is sad as I have 40’ish new books loaded to read, it becomes even sadder when our kind neighbour passed over 100 new books to add on via a plug in. We have tried all the resets, removal of battery etc – its kaput. I have downloaded a reading app onto my mini lap top so will be testing that out until we find a supplier of Kindles somewhere on our travels. On the upside I was after a Kindle Voyage so that is now on the shopping list, back to downside they are not yet for sale in Greece.

After our first two weeks in Greece our overall impression is – loving it. The concerns of coming this far with a motorhome were always in the back of our minds, our rubbish research meant we were unsure on standard or prices of campsites, what to expect in terms of roads, shops, food, people etc; yes we know it was never going to be Outer Mongolia but it was well outside our usual comfort zone.  Without a doubt the whole experience has been made really easy and enjoyable by the Greek people and their kindness to a couple of Brits with no real plans, an incredibly limited Greek vocabulary and no map! We would have to give the roads a half tick but for everything else Greece in a motorhome is so far a fabulous idea, one of those we wish we had thought of earlier :).

the one were we finally meet a Stavros

Monday morning the weather man was predicting rain again, but as nothing had come from his predictions on Sunday we ignored it and went to plan B for the Roman bath search. This time we took the bikes and headed off down the same lanes, once we got to Arkoudi this time we carried on and low and behold just a mile or so down the road we were there. Was it worth two days to hunt it out? well maybe not, a very run down looking building, the actual baths fenced off and the smell of sulphur was as it always is – worse than rotten eggs. We persevered and had a wander round but there isn’t too much too see, it would seem that once upon a time it was a tourist attraction but its not been loved for some time. It’s hard to say whether the austerity measures have affected the maintenance or its just not somewhere people want to go, a shame as with a spruce up and a clean it could be an interesting and pleasant place to visit. Iain was fascinated by watching the sulphur bubble up to the surface but for me it was too much of a smell to stay around.

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Killini Roman Baths

Next stop was to try the thermal mud baths as we thought we might treat ourselves, they were locked up and not a soul around. It looked like a big complex, several buildings which were mainly concrete looking eyesores but one lovely church just on the edge. There is a big hotel complex just outside the baths so we assumed its a seasonal thing and we missed out on a mud bath by a few months. Trying to find anything out about either the baths or the spa seems pretty impossible, tourist literature is not something that abounds here and even the internet seems vague, one report says it has never been used and another says 5000 people come a year to use the mud baths. 

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the only building not poured from concrete at Killini spa baths

Back to Akoudi for our picnic on the beach, our very own beach as we were the only people there for the hour we sat and ate. It is a little tourist hamlet, several small family run hotels, a shop or two, tavernas onto beach but not a one open. The locals who must run the businesses are milling around but it seemed like maintenance time as much cleaning, painting and repairing was going on. Its the only real tourist place we have seen so far, not sure it would be classed a resort but sure it would be a fantastic place for a quiet holiday in the summer months. A local was telling us that its very much an area for Greeks on holiday even in summer very few other nationalities come here.

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Picnic time

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Our own private beach for lunch

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Stopping short of pedaling to Zakynthos over the water

On Tuesday it was Epiphany, as with most of Europe celebrated with a holiday, shops were closed but the tavernas in the village were open. Each time we have been in the village in the morning the sound of the Orthodox Priest singing has resounded around the village from the small church. It’s a very beautiful accompaniment to the village which looks as if nothing much as changed for many, many years.

As we walked through we were approached by three young boys, all under 11, who were playing basketball. In near perfect English they asked if we knew how to play the game and then asked if we were on our way to visit the church. Considering very few English apparently come this way the children here still obviously learn to speak English from a young age and do so incredibly well and use it confidently. It was time to sample our first Greek coffee so we headed for the busiest looking taverna. As we approached we were stopped outside by a table of three who insisted we join them for a holiday drink (achieved by much arm waving, gesturing and dragging of chairs). Whilst they were mixing wine with coke, water and some form of firewater we stuck to our choice of coffee. We then spent the next 40 minutes in bizarre ‘conversation’ with Stavros (no really he was) who only spoke Greek to Irinia, who spoke Greek and then German to Eddie, who spoke German and then English to us. They had obviously been at the drink for a good few hours before we arrived so conversation was somewhat diverse but probably the most entertaining interaction we have yet to have with any nationality.  Stavros was as someone with that name should be for a Brit with a stereotypical view of meeting a Greek villager – a more charming, friendly and loud chap we would find it harder to meet.

Today we finally got around to visiting Chlemoutsi castle, which is visible from miles around and we have been saying we would visit since the day we arrived. It was built in the early 1220’s and is said to be the finest castle of the period, largely preserved in its original 13th-century state. Captured in 1460 by the Ottoman Empire it lost importance over the next couple of hundred years and was deserted for many years. As we drove into Kastro village the road up to the castle looked doubtful, even for our little 6 metre van. We erred on the side of caution and parked up in the village to walk up the steep hill to the castle. First thing we were shocked with was there was a lady sat in the ticket hut, if she saw anyone other than us today would be amazed. For €3 though it was worth the spend, there is an inner castle within the main outer walls, a small museum and everything there was also written in English so we could understand a bit about it.

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From there we walked back into the village as Iain had spotted a bakery, once we he was fully armed with a supply of bread and cakes we headed down to the port to investigate the ferry crossings over to the nearby islands. I thought they were going to be cute little ferries with space for a few vans, not at all – only slightly smaller than the average cross channel ferry. The ferry for Zakynthos was in so we priced up a day trip, €100 return, which was a cheaper option than Kefalonia where they wanted €166 return – so that was the cheap ferry day trip idea blown.

Weather update, its getting colder again. The skies are blue with the odd cloud and the sun is warm but someone up in Northern Europe is sending an icy wind down and the last two days have become a bit chilly, to the extent that kite flying has ceased until warm winds prevail. We intend to move a bit further South tomorrow, not for the weather just for a change of scenery so we are heading to a campsite a couple of hours down the coast, The site we are on, Ionion Beach, is one of the best we have stayed on anywhere, being told by our British neighbours that this is the best one in Greece does make us wonder whether we should move on just yet. Then again what one person likes isn’t always the same as the next so fingers crossed we find somewhere as good if not better.

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Kite flying before winds got too chilly

καλημέρα = kali̱méra = Good day (it’s a start)

Greece so far has been a revelation. Simple things such as Corfu being pretty much next-door to Albania and opposite to Italy, when we thought all the islands were down by Crete, who would have thought it? Just confirms our total ignorance of the geography of the country. I expected all the housing to be whitewashed villas with blue roofs, a bit Mama Mia really but we haven’t seen sight nor sound of Meryl Streep and now find that we would need to visit Rhodes or the other Cycklades Islands for that type of architecture. Most shocking of all – not sniff of any houmous, we have tried several shops and a couple of supermarkets and not a hint of it anywhere – the search will continue.

The weather too has been a bit surprising – for the first few days it has to be said it was cold, not only that it was overcast too, but low and behold the sunshine moved in on New Years Day, we were out with the awning and sun chairs and sat in the sun by mid morning. Since then the sun has made a longer appearance each day and temperatures have climbed slowly. We are liking here that the Greeks do not go for that pretend winter look – all bundled up in boots and big leather coats when its warm enough to sit on the beach, there were people without coats on in town yesterday and they were not tourists!

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 New Years Eve – somewhat chilly, refuse to wear a coat but the hat was needed

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Normal sunshine service resumed on New Years Day

It is certainly significantly quieter here than we have experienced in Spain or Portugal at the same time of year. Our campsite here, Ionion Beach, has pitches for upwards of 200 motorhomes, this week there have been between seven and ten most days, several Bulgarians, a couple of French and a few British coming and going. Everything is very, very laid back at the campsite, you just come in park up and pay when you want to leave. They don’t check you in as such, no passports or details are needed they just smile and wave a lot and leave you to enjoy it. Most motorhomes are taking advantage of the pitches right on the edge of the beach, premium pitches in high season but now just €15 per night (which is cheaper than with an ACSI discount?)

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New Years Day walk – first outing for the milk bottles

The village we are staying at is called Glyfa (or Glifa depending on which sign you read on the roads), its beyond small, its minute. There is a very old fashioned shop that is as big as the average living room, four tavernas, a church and many goats dotted around in large gardens and olive groves. We are an hour and a bit South West of Patras and we are looking out over to the island of Zakynthos which is 10 miles across the sea from our pitch. It is a small tourist industry here which appears to rely on the many campsites and a few villas, we have only seen one small hotel on the edge of the village. Walking along the beach from the campsite here there are houses, huts, villas, in fact pretty much every type of dwelling imaginable right on the shoreline for at least a mile or two. Each has its own small piece of beach, the homes vary from beautifully restored large whitewashed villas to smaller fishing cottages, then right down to what can only be described as shanty shacks. Amongst them there are tavernas that look like they are just a 10 ft square in someone’s garden and a few restaurants perched out over the sea.  Not sure this is ever a hub for the mass tourism industry even in high summer, more its a little bit of 1950’s Greece stuck in a bit of a time warp, and it really is all the better for it in our opinion. A few miles up the road is the town of Vartholomio, again not really geared towards tourism but very much open and lively, plenty of shops, bars and cafes.

On New Years Day I walked into the village for some bread, one taverna was open as was the village shop but there were very few people around. The shop sells pretty much most essentials, the elderly gentleman running the shop did not speak any English so it was my three words of Greek greetings and then lots of arm waving to describe bread – its nearly impossible to describe bread with your hands believe me! In the end I tried a bit of French and he smiled and pointed me to an old wooden box which contained what was definitely fresh bread once, but probably a good 24 hours before I was in the shop. I didn’t have the heart not to buy it just because it was a bit stale, I paid my money and the fresh bread we planned to have for lunch was replaced by toast.

Everywhere we go there is a shrine, we are not talking massive here just small box like structure at the side of the road, outside houses etc. some have doors, but are never locked, others are open to the elements. They all contain holy pictures, fresh flowers, small tokens etc but what is amazing is they are not damaged, robbed or daubed with graffiti. At home I cannot believe the beautiful plaques and pictures could be left yet here there seems to be a respect that people use these shrines not only to honour the dead from road accidents but also to give thanks if someone survived an accident. For the first days it was exciting everytime we spotted one, now we realise they are every couple of hundred yards its a bit worrying just how many road accidents there must be.

First impressions of Greece, we are loving it. People are very kind and patient with us and the weather is glorious now (and fingers crossed stays that way for a while). Diesel is very cheap here at €1.11 per litre (87p) which is nearly 30p a litre cheaper than home. Food is cheap too, we did a massive Lidl shop and only stopped buying due to the size of our fridge. We stocked up on essentials and also went mad with treats and  and still only spent a few euro over our normal meager budget. We have used a couple of the local small mini-markets, just as cheap there to be fair, rice and grains are sold by the sack load so we will be sticking to Lidl pre-packed for space reasons.

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We hear that Greece is facing political turmoil over the coming months, with massive 30% unemployment you cannot blame them. Whilst we read before we came about the lack of shops, food etc – its simply not something we are seeing. In the larger villages the grocers are packed full with good fruit and vegetables, there are of course empty shop units, no more than we have at home. There are beggars in the towns and villages, mainly women and young teenage children, some sell vegetables or wash windscreens, others just sit on kerb-sides and call for money. I had a few concerns that the Greeks were reported to be anti tourists from Germany and the UK, that has certainly not been the case with anyone we have met. People are very kind, polite and friendly. A young lad in the garage yesterday told us its rare to see British here as its usually German or French that visit, he was pleased to be able to practice his English. The chap that sells tomatoes on the roadside a mile past the campsite waves to us as we pass each way, the Greeks so far have been more welcoming than we could have hoped for.

We had a fright on Friday when we tried four different atm’s to get some cash out – not a one would give me any money. Our thought was there had been a run on the banks as they had a few years ago, at the fifth bank Iain went and tried and got cash no problem, so it looks like it was just my card not being liked – phew!

We have enjoyed our ‘mini break’ holiday here at Glyfa for the last 5 days, so much so we may stay for the next week too. There are some thermal springs, a castle and some Roman baths (in Greece??) we need to explore before we leave and Iain is becoming quite addicted to a couple of hours sunshine each afternoon so its going to prove difficult to drag him off to do some cultural touring. As today was a little overcast we took the opportunity to get out for a bit of a walk, with the intention of heading over to the said Roman baths, we got as far as the next village Arkoudi before we realised we didn’t actually have a map or any firm idea where we were heading. Having walked to the village along the rural road for nearly 5 miles we had seen only three cars, there really is hardly a soul on the roads. The nearest we saw to traffic was the lonely sheep herder moving his flock at break neck speed outside at Arkoudi. We stopped for a picnic on the beach, were stunned to see someone swimming in the sea (its no way warm enough for that malarkey) and found a  new friend in a stray dog who adopted us in the hope of some spare titbits (he was disappointed!). Several miles later we are back at the campsite, the sun it making its way out so that is us finished for for the weekend.

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That old cliche of ‘rush hour’ but its fairly true around here

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Arkoudi – the teeniest of holiay resorts

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Whilst our Greek is progressing painfully slowly we are still trying. Obviously Google Translate is the ‘go to’ for any words we want to learn. I did however come across a website that showed there is room for lots of confusion using literal translations:

Greek Saying “Η ζωή είναι σαν ένα αγγούρι, ο έναs το τρώει και δροσιστείτε, και ο άλλος το τρώει και ζορίζετε.”
Literal English Translation: “Life is like a cucumber, one person eats it and is refreshed, and another person eats it and struggles.”
What the Greeks really mean: “Life is simply what you make of it.”

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Week 8 -San Marino & Adriatic Italy

San Marino is one of those places we have always thought we would like to visit, and yet in truth we weren’t even one hundred per cent exactly where it was. We found where it was reasonably easily; a swift drive from Anghiari up the worst duel carriageway that must be known to man, then that old chestnut of plotting ‘shortest route’ on sat nav meant a pretty hair raising trip over the mountains. Our first view of the republic was from above the cloud level, we could see the iconic towers of San Marino  poking through the clouds, giving our arrival a very Disney-ish feel.

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A slight disappointment on the border, again, ok there is a sign but it is a very poor one, blink and you will miss it. We just snapped it, including the lamp post, as we realised we were in another country. Nothing else would have told you as there were houses each side of the sign so we guess you can live in San Marino and your next door neighbours live in Italy. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world maybe they could do with investing in something from the ritzy country signs catalogue. First impressions other than signage problems: its very clean; its very, very hilly; if you stay at the bottom it will be foggy; everyone drives even more like a lunatic than in Italy, there are no pavements so you risk your life if you walk anywhere; its nothing like Gibraltar which we thought it may be (a positive).

There is only one campsite in the country which has a) lovely showers  b) washing machines  c) a pizza parlour – so all in all it’s our kind of place. Iain booked us in and forgot to mention we had an email quote, very good plan as they offered him a much lower price. How that works we do not understand but just rolling up secures a better price than an email quote or their last minute best offers on their website, we didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth just paid and said nothing.  The only downside of the site is the bloody peacock that wanders around outside the van, he terrifies me by standing outside the shower block doors refusing to move,  its a bit like a Mexican stand off so I have to get their early to be sure I am going to make it inside in good time 😉

Not sure if its because its a bit of an expensive campsite but we did have another motorhome try and share our pitch last night. We were in bed, it was well after 11pm and there was an 8 metre van trying to park up on the pitch opposite. After 15 minutes in and out of the pitch they gave up, drove onto our pitch – probably less than 10 inches between vans – and got out to go put on their electric. We were stunned, no one can be dumb enough to think you share pitches, each pitch has a hedge around it, there are 200 pitches and only eight are being used. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry they were chatting, opening lockers and generally setting up camp with us. Then at midnight they had a change of mind, packed up and moved off to another pitch at the bottom of the site. If they had stayed we were up for asking for 50% reduction on the pitch fee for the night. This morning we moved our van over so no-one else is getting on our pitch with us tonight 🙂

Before we arrived we had read several accounts of people finding San Marino it a bit grey, gloomy and fog ridden. It would seem that this is a regular occurrence as yesterday we woke up to a pea souper where we could just see over to the next campervan. However, based on the previous days arrival when the towers were above the cloud we thought that sunshine would be out there somewhere. We caught the bus up to the old town centre, about half way the bus passed through the top of the clouds and it was bright sunshine all around us. The bus winged its way right to the top of the mountain, and then just as quickly started its way steeply down again with us still on it.  After a couple of minutes debate I sent Iain to tell the driver we had wanted to get off at the old town – and we had obviously missed it and were 10 minutes back down the hill.  Driver nods knowingly (that dumb tourists look) and says “no problemo”, he radios another bus driver and nods to us to come to the front, a few minutes later he  stops and sends us over the road to another bus which is now patiently waiting to take us back up the hill again! That’s what we call service and all for €1 each.

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Porta San Francesco – entrance to the old town

Off the bus, at last, we are waved into the old town by a very formal police officer who’s sole job is to wave pedestrians across a road with pretty much no traffic. We entered through the Porto San Francesco and it was like another world, one that has existed since 301 AD and is the oldest Republic in the world. UNESCO gave the Republic world heritage status back in 2008 and its very easy to see why. Whilst there are more museums and monuments than a country five times the size would be proud of, the first thing that strikes you is the views. From the top of Mount Titano you can see for miles over the Italian countryside, on a clear day you can see Croatia but not today. We could see for miles but mainly cloud with just the odd mountain top poking through, which was even more spectacular when those tops had fortified villages perched on them.

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One of the things I very much wanted to see was the changing of the guard at the Public Palace, where the army wear a natty headdress with red pompoms. Having checked we knew it took place at half past the hour, but each time we tried to see it nothing was happening. To make sure we didn’t miss it for a third time we ordered cappuccino (having learned not to ask for ‘latte’ as it means ‘milk’ and that’s what you get a glass of) at the pavement cafe outside the palace and waited, again at the appointed hour nothing happened. This is the time to re-read the tourist literature, and find that changing of the guards takes place from May to September only! Our luck changed when we wandered into the Basilica of Saint Marinus just as the mass was starting and the choir sang Adeste Fideles, even the most ardent non Christmassy person would have struggled not to be moved.

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Basilica of Saint Marinus

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Public Palace – Piazza della Liberta (minus any changing of guards)

A must see was the three iconic towers on the top of Mount Titano that San Marino is probably best known for. The narrow streets climb fairly steeply up with tourist tat shops all around, it has to be said though it was good quality type of tat which runs right through from kitschy souvenirs to hellish expensive shops selling designer wear, sunglasses and perfume. Leather goods are everywhere, handbags and purses, jackets and belts all stamped genuine Italian leather. The other things that amazed us was gun shops, there were several and every type of gun imaginable was on the shelves, not behind glass, not locked – apparently San Marino has the freest and  most unrestricted gun laws in Europe.

After a lengthy climb up through the streets we reached Tower 1,  built in the 11th century, it was the country prison until 1975 but now houses a museum. Tower 2 is at the highest point on Mount Titano at 2800 ft above sea level. Luckily there is a lovely cafe there where we stopped off for coffee and cake to fortify us for a walk along to Tower 3 which is the newbie as it was only built in the 13th century 🙂 There is a walkway between the three towers, but its a health and safety nightmare, sheer drops down over the cliffs with not a rail or even a piece of rope between you and certain death. Not having a great head for heights it wasn’t a walk we lingered on, more of a case see each tower, take a photo and get back on safer ground.

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Tower 1 – Guaita

Second tower – Cesta                               Third Tower – Montale

San Marino is a photographers heaven, both in terms of the views and the monuments. Add to that the Christmas markets, Santa Clauses touring the streets playing carols on bagpipes and amazingly blue skies and we have had a wonderful run up to Christmas and not sure where we could have found a better place to stay for the festive period.

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Sammarinese Santa’s complete with bagpipes

Working on our usual principal of eating native it is becoming a little worrying the amount of Nutella Iain is consuming, the jars in the pavement cafes here were bigger than anywhere we have seen before, luckily there is no way they are going to fit into our fridge!

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Tomorrow being Christmas Day, our plan is to do little other than a visit to the Christmas markets, a walk in some sunshine and find the best pizza we can for Christmas lunch (courtesy of my Dad and step mum and Rick and Kerry – thank you all for our ‘Christmas dinner’ money xxx).

To you all  – we wish you and yours the very Happiest of Christmas and hope you enjoy celebrating it wherever you may be. x

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The choice is hot chocolate, gluhwein or hot beer – not sure we can even try hot beer!

San MarinoA well deserved rest after the hike up to Tower One 

Week 7 Italy – Liguria / Pisa, Tuscany

Every week we seem to across something that fairly blows our minds, we wonder then what could possibly top it, last week the coast in Liguria was incredible so we thought maybe a week heading into Tuscany might be a bit less stunning. We were so very wrong.

The week started with rain, we aren’t complaining it is December and we expect rain. To be fair we have seen so much good weather since we left home we must be due a fair bit of rain but its been sunshine and showers so nothing too dramatic yet.  Each morning we always check the forecast and it has to be said we now check the forecast for Greece at the same time, any drizzle doesn’t seem to bad when we see the sun is out in the Peloponnese. One of the reasons for being away in winter is without a doubt to find some sunshine, we are now keeping a close check of the temperatures in Portugal versus Greece, hoping we made the right decision to head East for a change.

From Deiva Marina the Cinque Terre were too close to pass up, the train station was less than five minutes from the campsite and it cost us €2.20 each to the villages. Using the train was a little more stressful than we anticipated, everything including the ticket machine is automated. It went reasonably well until the there were announcements of delays so we weren’t sure which train was actually ours, we took a guess and got it right. Monterosso, is a postcard pretty village but compared to the other four it didn’t compete with the overall view from the sea. Whereas the other villages sit on rocks at the sea edge Monterosso has a sandy beach but once you are in the village it is without doubt stunning. But to be honest we really wanted that amazing sight from the sea and none of the ferry trips were running. There are coastal paths between the villages that give some awesome views but all bar one had been closed due to landslides in the last couple of weeks. We thought out best chance would be Manarola as it seemed you get right down to the sea and look back so we hopped back on the train and sped through  another few kilometres of tunnel.

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Best choice we could have made, not only could you get down to the rocks but part of the walkway was open near the village. It is probably beyond me to describe just how awestruck we were at Manarola. Nothing quite prepares you for the experience not only of the multicolouted houses seeming to be stacked on top of each other but everything about somewhere that for so long was cut off except for by sea routes. The harbour is tiny and as today when the sea is slightly rough they pull all the boats up the through the minute paths and streets for safety.  For a small place there are plenty of steep narrow alleys which they call carrugi, leading up through the village or down to the sea.  We were so caught up in the atmosphere we went mad and had lunch out (first time since we left home).  A little family cafe, I was ready to practice my newly acquired Italian as I now know how to order the basics, but was beaten to it by the son of the house who spoke better English than we do.  As pesto originates in Liguria I went for the house special of pesto lasagne, Iain on the other hand went for the other famous specialty of the area, lets just say Bright Eyes wont be wandering over any hills anytime soon 😦

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Having lingered on the Genoa coast for over a week we thought we would move on and with Pisa just a couple of hours down the road there was no way we could not stop off and have a lean with the tower. An easy drive right into the city for the sosta, until the Sat Nav took us wrong in the last 200 metres and we were opposite the entrance but needing to go around the oneway system to get in. A lovely lady on a scooter appears, points to sosta and when we nod she motions us to follow her as she takes us on a shortcut across a cycle path, through a garage and then up to the barrier – without a word she is off back in the traffic, people are so kind where-ever you are in the world.

Prior to arriving in the city we had discussed the merits on staying in the city centre. To be honest we had concerns, mainly if it was only us there how safe would it be etc. We need not have worried, at least 50 vans parked up and right on the side of the main road which we think is always a good thing. We set off for a quick glance of the tower before tea, map in hand we were confident to be there in 15 minutes. Two hours later we had traversed the whole city and not a glimpse of any tower. Instead we had walked pretty much most of the city centre. The river Arno runs through the centre cutting the city in two and the whole thing is surrounded by incredible city walls, apparently these are the ‘new’ ones built in the 12th century. On both sides we found pedestrian areas a plenty and Christmas markets galore where we did treat ourselves to a very scrummy walnut brittle. All the big Italian named shops and just as many tiny boutiques and gift shops. What clinched it for us though is the buildings, every shop is topped by four or five storeys of magnificent Italian architecture. Pisa is more than worth the visit for the city itself, the tower is just icing on the cake.

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Day two, map in hand we set off for the tower, again. This time we found it fairly easily and have to say, it really does lean and to be quite frank looks like its going over someday soon.  I had thought it started leaning a few hundred years after it was built, but no it was leaning as they built it so they just carried on and built the lean into the structure. Whilst we knew about the tower, we didn’t know that there is also the Cathedral, the Baptistry and the Monumental Cemetery, not sure if its just in your eye to look for leaning but the other buildings do not look that straight either. Of course we did the photo posing holding up the tower, it seemed that pretty much everyone there was doing the same, when in Rome…..

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….. we are not going to Rome. Its been an on / off idea as to whether we want to go there or not and we have finally agreed we don’t. No reason other than its going to be hellish busy, so instead we are heading inland to Tuscany and over to the Adriatic coast for Christmas. We came a few miles inland last night to Montopoli to stay at a campsite we had found. We pulled in and it looked ok, no one else there and €27 a night. On our way through we saw a sosta in the village, free with 15 motorhomes on it. We went for the sosta, perfect for an overnight although we did realise during the evening all the other vans were empty – possibly just the villagers using it for parking during the winter.  We were both pleased this morning to wake up and find we weren’t in the middle of a gypsy encampment as that thought was crossing our minds!

We had a brief stroll around Montopoli, well more a stroll up as the village clings to side of a hill. At the top there was a viewpoint to see the glorious views of Tuscany set out around you – that didn’t happen due to severe fog. Today we move inland searching out medieval Tuscany.

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Week 5 France – Midi Pyrenees

Following our epic decision to cut a whole country we left first thing Monday in a South Easterly direction towards Toulouse. After a fairly long day driving we gave up 30 minutes from the city and headed for Samatan, a small market town a few miles down from the main road. We found an aire outside a hotel just off the town centre, only us there and we couldn’t work out how to pay, we need not have worried, later in the evening a jolly little French Monsieur with his petty cash tin knocked on the door and looked enormously relieved that we had the money ready and he didn’t need to translate that we had to pay him.

We kept on with the budget reduction strategy of keeping off the toll roads until Toulouse when we splashed out €2 to use the ring road instead of having to drive through the city centre. Absolutely worth it for the lack of stress and the lack of driver / navigator altercations about lane changes and directions. At Albi we popped into a Carrefour supermarket to fill up with supplies. It seemed quiet, the lights started flashing, there was a tannoy of something in French. Iain jokingly said bet they are closing, then we realised they were indeed shutting for lunch and all the staff from the store were waiting for us to pay and leave before they could go. Seriously that is like Tesco closing for lunch, we know smaller shops do but we didn’t think it happened in the large supermarkets. Onto Albi where we were faced with three choices on route – Sat Nav, road signs or mine – ‘we’ chose Sat Nav, an epic fail. The most minor of minor roads across the mountains, made even worse by fog which was so dense our visibility was less than 50 yards in places. We stopped off for lunch in the town that France forgot, Requista, we are sure its lovely but we parked in the town square and made lunch and didn’t see one person for the hour we were there.

By the time we had arrived at Millau we decided to head into the town and find the aire, get the kettle on and chill. We found the aire but couldn’t actually get in. The computer said no, and no matter what we or our new friend the French campervanner did over the next 20 minutes we were not getting in. All the while we were very aware that the aire was right outside a Resto Coeur, where large numbers of French homeless were receiving food and clothing, and then settling down to watch the dumb British try and open a barrier, with the machine piping up in English every 30 seconds with “do you wish to enter the area” as loud as it could. In the end we gave up and rang the aire company, Camping Car-Park, and within seconds they had opened the barrier and we were in. We had bought the Etape Card but you need to ring and activate it before the barrier works, now it all makes sense but would have been easier if the machine also knew that.

Millau Viaduct, is absolutely breathtaking. It is the highest road bridge in the world, and just over 2490 metres across; the scale is just too immense to describe. We drove down to the bottom of the valley to look up at the pillars, up and over to the various viewing points, walked to the closest spot possible for photos and then coughed up the toll to drive across (although everything showed we would pay €25 the auto machine charged us €10.90, result). As ever photos do not do this structure justice. The central pillar is higher than the famous French icon, the Eiffel Tower, and even the smallest pillars dwarf the Statue of Liberty and Big Ben. To be honest, it was bloody freezing, 37 degrees and snow in the distant hills. There are only so many ways and vantage points you can look at a bridge from  – so by lunchtime we had enough and decided to clear off and find warmth.

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P1070206Now he have Camping Car-Park etape card validated we decided to use their next aire just down the A75 at La Cavalerie. This would have been a better stop off for the viaduct as its just off the A75 and a few miles down rather than the long haul into Millau, we still live and learn. Anyway, this time we were in and kettle on in seconds, its so easy when you know how! After a warm up we crossed over the road 200 metres into the village and just wow! A few streets of oldish French houses and then right in the centre the village founded in the 12 th century by the Knights Templar and fortfied in the 15th century. The most incredible houses, tiny streets and archways through the walls. The strangest thing was we were literally the only people within the fortified walls. There were a few people outside the walls, but inside the shutters were closed and people must have been keeping warm. One of the benefits of touring at this time of year? we have these unbelievable sites all to ourselves.

Tomorrow its moving on time and we have taken up a tip of the Pont Du Gard on route into Provence. Fingers crossed its going to be a fairly quick run down as far as Montpellier as we are on a toll free motorway, then an amble over towards Avignon. Once we hit Provence we are going to find a campsite, we need a full clean out of the van and we have a mountain of washing so a couple of days somewhere we have ample hot water and cleaning and washing possibilities is high on the list, if there is any such place open!

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