Opposite end of the spectrum

The weather in Sventoji was very changable – from brilliant sunshine and shorts one minute to thick cloud cover and thermals the next. We pottered around for an extra day but the wind was blowing a gale so we couldn’t ride our bikes as planned – well we could of but we would probably still be heading in the direction of Poland with the tail-gale-wind we were experiencing.

Our next plan was to find the former nuclear missile base, internet reports were mixed from it was closed down to impossible to find. We struggled with finding anything concrete about it that showed gps and sites that did had coordinates for two places 30 km apart. Taking the chance we headed for the site that seemed most likely, through the forests, 4 km up an un-made road and hey presto Plokstine.

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We were told we needed to join a tour to visit, no problem one leaves in 5 minutes. Did we want headphones? yes please. Tour starts, just us two and guide, we get to an extremely thick iron door – she opens it. In we all go, she then says have a good tour and leaves us! Odd but never mind, we had the place to ourselves, well until a complete battalion of the Lithuanian army turned up and joined us doing a tour themselves – all of whom popped there heads around a door to check to give us a nod and a wave.

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Iain taking no chances whilst he was there

Plokstine was built in 1960, it was the first USSR underground military base, built in response to those the USA was building – back when showing yours was bigger was what bulk of world money was spent on. There was a network of tunnels and four shafts, nearly 34 metres deep that housed the missiles. The concrete domes would have been moved aside on rails in less than 30 minutes, two Russians would have pushed a button each and launched an R-12 Dvina missile with nuclear warhead, that would have been it – goodnight Europe!  Absolutely amazing to visit somewhere that the West didn’t know existed for the first 15 years it was in operation despite it being a threat to life as we know it.

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Nuclear missile launching silo

When it was operational there would have been a large compliment of Russian troops manning the facility and a large barracks not too far away in the forest. There was an electric fence surrounding the whole area – normally set to 200v but with the possibility of raising the voltage to 1700v if they felt necessary. As the missiles had a radius of over 1600 miles not sure who they thought was going to be at the fence anytime before they nuked the hell out of them.

What wasn’t made clear was where and how the missiles were removed. The blurb told how the Russians packed up and left the site, but couldn’t imagine them packing up their 40 ton missiles and sneaking off with them without much fuss or any of the locals noticing.

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Concrete silo cover

We over-nighted at a campsite on the edge of Siauliai, all looked fine and even joined by three other motorhomes. An hour later we were joined by a minibus of local road builders who appear to live in a hostel at the back of the loos. In order to use the facilities it necessitated running a gauntlet of anything from 4-10 workmen stood outside the loo/ shower door in skimpy towels having a post shower ciggy and beer, – tres chic! we moved on next morning 🙂

Whilst we had visited the Hill of Crosses in Poland, the original and better known Lithuanian version wasn’t too far away so we went for a comparison visit. No-one seems to know exactly when the practice of leaving crosses started in Siauliai but it’s believed to be sometime around 1831. It was be impossible to count how many crosses there were, estimates say anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000. Amongst the crosses are giant crucifixes, statues of Saints, and thousands of rosaries and offerings. During the occupation Lithuanians continued to visit the hill and leave crosses, despite the Soviets best attempts  to clear the site  which they bulldozed three times.

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The most obvious contrast for us was the Lithuanian version is not so much on a hill as a large mound of earth. The crosses are contained in an area a fifth of the size of it’s namesake in Poland but as there seems to be as many if not more crosses. We visited early in the morning so were lucky to see the hill before the pilgrimage tours started, would imagine it gets a bit chaotic on the narrow pathways when the buses come in. Worth a visit for sure, they don;t charge an entry fee but there are plenty of ticky tacky stalls in car-park to spend a few Euro on amber of souvenir crosses and magnets.

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Driving through Lithuania it has struck us just how empty the countryside seems, almost as if its been decreed to leave it fallow. Mile after mile of pasture covered in dandelions. The odd square has been ploughed – usually we see it being done by hand – but generally the land is left untouched. Very few livestock, just the obligatory cow outside each cottage, no herds of sheep or cows. It doesn’t feel in anyway backwards or old fashioned – it just feels like no-one has got around to using the land.

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Moving on up

We are back at the sea again 🙂 not sure we have ever been away from the sea so long before. Quick update – it’s Day 193, driven 8000 miles, stocks are low on Marmite and Tetley tea but other than that we are not wanting for anything. Our budget is holding out amazingly well – we have some expensive countries to come but we are massively under forecast so all looks good. The sink has not leaked a drop since the second fixing, all other running repairs are holding out. So over all – everything is very rosey in our garden :).  Added to which photos of these little beauties appeared in our email inbox this week – loving the mini-me Baxterbus (thanks Rickster).

Despite agreeing to head for the Hill of Crosses we changed plan and went for Klaipeda so we could visit the Curonian Spit. Once a part of Germany and then incorporated into Lithuania by the Russians the city of Klaipeda is most famous for gigantic shipyards, dockyards and fishing ports. The docks were like something from 1950’s Britain, cranes working hard unloading dozens of container ships and warehouses all still in use. Most freight must move on railways as we have never seen so many lines all with train after train hauling massive lines of wagons – we counted 60-80 wagons behind most trains.

A big percentage of the city still speak Russian as a first language as the city was re-populated by Russians after the USSR took control and expelled the Germans. As the city is built along the coast it’s reasonably easy to negotiate – you can head either North or South – no arguments on navigation for us then!  We didn’t go too far into the city centre but the bits we did see had lots of open spaces, parks and some very beautiful old buildings – added to which were some pretty gruesome 1950’s apartment blocks which kind of spoiled the aesthetics.

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Lithuanian unification monument, 1923 – in the centre of Klaipeda

Our campsite was a good few miles out of the city, seemed good but we were unsure when Group 3 Security started patrolling on the hour every hour – maybe it was meant to make us feel secure, it didn’t it made us wonder why we needed a dedicated security vehicle! In the night we heard what sounded like gunshots! it was probably something to do with the freight train lines behind the site but late at night with shot after shot it was a little daunting to say the very least.

Rather than drive over to the Spit we planned to take the bikes, according to receptionist there was a cycle path along the coast to the city and down to the ferry. What she meant was there will be one day 😦 We followed the map and it actually had us carrying our bikes over railway line – no not on a crossing, just picking them up and crossing over four lines where massive freight trains were ambling along. Plenty of cyclists, walkers and joggers doing the same – seems to be the norm here to walk on the lines.

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Checking the map before we risk life and limb on the tracks

The ferry over to the Curonian Spit took less than five minutes it was like a speedboat, bikes were free and we paid 40 cents each return – bit of a bargain. Once over there the best way to describe it was think Liverpool (Klaipeda) and the Wirral (Curonian Spit). Pathways galore through woods and along beautiful beaches, very old wooden houses and a fair few tourist attractions including the new Dolphinarium being built. Very scenic and incredibly windy, the wind whistles along there at a rapid rate of knots, great for riding with it, horrendous coming back.

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  The Curonian Spit from the ferry

Whilst the spit is over 98 km long – its ends back in Kaliningrad – we didn’t go that mad – just a few miles to the furthest point North on the spit we could go before it was fenced off for safety, possibly to prevent us being blown into the sea. Very mixed H&S here – risk of injury by a train deemed less than drowning falling off a 40 ft wide path into the sea. However, it may be that it’s less likely people will end up in the sea as there were several signs denoting “No falling into the sea”.

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Whilst there is supposedly a very trendy and wealthy resort on the Spit at Nida, we instead went 50 km North to the resort of Sventoji, accordingly to local tourist information the ‘poor man’s resort’. If it is then it really is none the worse for it, very charming and old-fashioned resort being dragged kicking and screaming into the current century. Everywhere there are wooden holiday shacks, some must be over 60 years old and standing by the skin of their teeth, others slightly newer but all built in the style of your garden shed with a few extra windows. The beach is mile after mile of white sand stretching as far as we could see. Nothing on the beach in terms of tourist cafes, shops, parasols – oh except a wooden sauna, closed for the day but open for the summer season!

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The only building on the beach for miles – The Sauna!

Hidden away in the sand dunes was a sculpture called the ‘Fisherman’s daughters’, unlike most of the many sculptures we have seen that are post 1989 this one was dated 1980. Awaiting the return of their father from a fishing trip they were joined by  a tiny person (ok, the sculptures are 4 metres high). As with many sights in Lithuania there is nothing to point out they are there, you either come across them or you don’t.  Tourist literature is very much aimed at locals as it is only in Lithuanian, then again we have seen a couple of German and Dutch registered vehicles and nothing else so possibly they don’t have a great number of foreign tourists here.

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We are pitched up in someone’s back garden here for £8 a night, a few metres from the beach and have decided to stay a few days. Sventoji is at the end of the so-called “Amber Road” which runs up the coast from Klaipeda. The next resort back down the coast, Palanga, advertises a stack of amber shops and museums so weather permitting we are cycling there tomorrow to see if we can pick up an amber bargain or two.

Once we leave here it’s a week on Cold War attractions – Plokstine Nuclear Missile Base and the abandoned Russian secret military town of Karosta – thrilling stuff! However, our route has changed again and the Hill of Crosses is back on the itinerary so there is good to come too.

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 Sunny but windy on the beach at Sventoji

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 We left our mark 

Salt mines and stripey flint

Much as we could have spent another week in Krakow we needed to move on to keep to my well planned itinerary (aka couple of handwritten lines on a sheet of paper). Yet again camper folk proved to be dead friendly, our Dutch neighbours, Francis and Cees, sent us off with a box of tea for Iain as he is running low, then gave us the tea strainer to go with it, along with their address, we hope to stop off in the Netherlands and catch up with them if they are back from their RV tour of Canada.

At the Wieliczka Salt Mines we were directed, very formally, into the car-park and charged  £4 to park on a grubby old piece of waste land, the real car-park was 100 metres up the road for half the price! You have to give it them for ingenuity, I maintain I would rather they make a few euro from the tourist in a scam like this than pick someones pocket or mug them, we could have driven out but for £2 standing in roasting heat all day they can have my cash.

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Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Salt Mine has been going since the 13th century, the tour takes in various caverns and even two of the chapels carved out of the rock salt by miners. It goes down over 1000 ft, we took the steps down over 300 ft and that was far enough. A very dry and witty Polish guide gave a running commentary in English as we fairly sprinted along the corridors for nearly 3 kms. There isn’t much time to stop, another tour is always right behind you so you are constantly jogged along. We wrapped up warm as it was going to be cold down a mine, saw all the other Brits in shorts and sniggered to ourselves at how clever we were. Wasn’t even slightly cold! we were way hot and pretty sure everyone else thought we were overdressed.

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Just needed to start playing “It’s a small world”

Strangely enough half way through the mines they have built a gift shop and refreshment stop – too commercial and a bit Disneyland, they don’t need gimmicks. The highlight was St. Kinga’s chapel where even the chandeliers are actually made from rock salt and not glass. The tour takes nearly 3 hours and you see less than 1% of the mine, the biggest cash cow we have witnessed so far – stunning to visit but felt like we were on a whirlwind, even at the end instead of just waiting for the lift out another guide took us on a 20 minutes hike around tunnels to keep from queues forming. Even the guide told us the salt used to be a big money maker – now the tourist makes the money.

Salt mine carvings – St. Kinga’s chapel

Next stop Sandmomierz, four hours North East, taking mostly minor roads cross country. It’s a small town and another that has faired reasonably well in terms of lack of war damage.  As with anywhere in Poland its been invade numerous times – the first time we have come across the Swedes as culprits – they invaded back in 1655.

There wasn’t any industrial development during the Soviet era hence its a tourist heaven of historic buildings in beautiful countryside. Other than the history its supposedly famous for its striped flint, which they push in jewellery, ornaments and general nicnaks, as the flint is only found here they have christened the town the “world capital of striped stone” – probably not the catchiest tagline to date!

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Sandomierz Castle

The town square is home to all the  usual, pavement cafes and trendy tourist shops. bakeries, a few hotels and a 14th century city hall slap bang in the middle. We strolled around with hardly a soul in sight, then suddenly primary school children started to appear from every side street – hundreds of them all in two’s heading towards the square. No idea what was going on, we made a break for the Opatiwska Gate where Iain climbed the steps to the top – all 30 metres of it, I on the other hand stayed on terra firma. Sandomierz boasts a castle, a cathedral, the oldest college in Poland, a palace and two monasteries. It might not be Krakow but it’s not too shabby on the historic buildings scene.

We have been on a lovely campsite on the edge of town, just across the road is a major DIY centre so a bit more stocking up on essentials to hold the van together means we are comfortable of taking all our bits and pieces with us for the next few months. As the budget is looking very healthy we shopped in Carrefour this week, we felt the need to vary our diet a bit, we may go totally mad next week and try Tesco.

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Views from the tower

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City Hall in the centre of the town square

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Opatowska Gate

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Collegium Gostomianum

After a day exploring town on foot we set out next day on our bikes for a ride around “The Apple Trail of Sandomierz”. Mile after mile of orchards with old fashioned farm buildings dotted along the roads together with roadside shrines and wooden or stone statues and crosses at every corner. Not sure where we could have found for a prettier bike ride at this time of year with the orchards in bloom everywhere was covered in pink and white blossom as  far as we could see.

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Driving in Poland has, so far, been a pleasure. The roads are great, we can understand the signs as they are in the Roman alphabet and with the exception of one small piece of motorway its toll free. We have found though the Poles have a habit of flashing their headlights at us – we know not why. Once it was as we expected for a police radar trap but only once. Every time we drive someone flashes at us every few miles, we keep thinking something has fallen off the van. They don’t wave or smile, just flash the headlights – it’s probably a game to make motorhome drivers paranoid, if so it’s working :).

We have now hit the half way mark of the trip, six months to go. Its all going rather well, we are loving everything and everywhere (easily pleased). Everyone said “it will fly” – it hasn’t – we both feel we have been away for years. What we have experienced so far has exceeded all our expectations and then some. It is without doubt so much easier than we ever thought it would be, once we got over the language /money / driving traumas in one country the others followed on easily.

We don’t have a Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide or anything other guide books , we just choose a place on the map that seems the right distance from where we are and in the right direction, we are continually amazed that around every corner is something totally worth seeing. So its nine countries done and possibly ten to go – the plan is still there but as always our motto is “keep it vague”!

Krakow and repairs

Our van is mended!!! Things all work as they should again, for a while at least. First stop was Elcamp – motorhome dealer just a few km away who stocked all the parts we needed – sadly just not in UK sizes :(.  Not to be thwarted by minor details the guy there gave Iain a steady supply of bits to try.  We parked in their forecourt and Iain spent an hour modifying parts – hey presto water now runs in the manner and the places it should.

We couldn’t get a new ignition for the oven – a lighter works anyway, but hotplates do ignite again. Loo door fixed – things that should be private can now be kept so. Lastly, the LED strip has a band-aid over the flashing bits – no more cab disco. Yes we know the power of sods law is something will fall off next week. But why carry a big box of tools if you aren’t going to use them? Iain is still glowing with his status as motorhome Super Hero and is available on all campsites for repairs (though not wearing his pants outside his trousers)!!

Krakow – holy moly we didn’t expect even half of that. We walked down to the tram (we love trams) cost £3 to ride all day. There isn’t just one type of tram there are loads – old fashioned, new, retro – its tram heaven. Our plan was to jump trams for the day, nothing organised like knowing where to go and get on and off – hence at the end of the day we found ourselves leaving the city in the wrong direction – just a good excuse for another tram ride.

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Our first Krakow tram

Once off the tram in the city we were approached by a milk float – trips around the city, old town, Jewish quarter, anything from 30 minutes to all day on a little electric buggy (they were swarming everywhere). We did the old town, just us for £7 each, the tour took in 40 historic buildings or monuments. Not sure I could, even if I wanted to, tell you all we saw. Our eyes were out on stalks and heads spinning trying to take everything in. Everywhere there were palaces, churches, mansions and theatres with incredible historic architecture. Loved the Archbishops palace with a permanent gigantic portrait of Pope John Paul II gazing down from a window to celebrate his time as Archbishop of Krakow, he is without doubt a much celebrated son of Krakow (even though he was born up the road at Wadowice!).

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Krakow old town

The medieval square, the largest in Europe, is without doubt dazzling. In every direction there were buildings that took our breathe away. Add to the whole mix a good touch of Polish early summer and just enough people  for atmosphere but not chaos and it was perfect for us. We loved St. Mary’s Basilica, where on the hour, every hour, a bugler plays a trumpet signal. The tune stops mid-stream, to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat sounding an alarm before a Mongol attack – over 800 years and still remembered every hour – that is some recognition of the original guy.

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An alternative to the electric milk floats

From the square there were horse and carriage rides around the city, street entertainers varied from lads doing street dancing, jugglers, clowns to the opposite end being a couple singing traditional Polish songs with an accordion who you could have your photo taken with for less than 50p (I so had mine done).  We loved the square, we had lunch there sitting in a pavement cafe watching Poland pass by, has to be one of our trip highlights.

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What a job!! loved them and was sure they wanted me to join 🙂

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We planned to walk down to the Jewish Quarter and find Oscar Schindler’s factory. What should have been a 15-20 minutes walk – took well over an hour. Krakow is good at many things, street signs are a bit rubbish though. A couple of lads came and asked us if we knew where to find the factory, as we were all at a blank they asked a taxi driver who waved in the general direction of over the river. We walked more, we turned left, right, back you name we couldn’t find it, we asked locals who stared blankly and had no idea what we were on about.

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Vistula river (wooden Polish flowers)

Whilst we were slightly lost we did however happen upon the fragment of the ghetto wall that is still in place in the Jewish Quarter. A small plague was placed there which reads

“Here they lived, suffered and died at the hands of the German torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.”

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In the end I went into a printers where the owner kindly showed me on a computer then printed off a map. The factory has been restored as part of a city museum for arts and a history of Jewish life in Krakow, there is an inscription plague to Schindler and also many photos of many of the survivors who he helped to save. I was disappointed it didn’t have the factory sign. Another must visit but by then we had been on the go for seven hours and were shattered so we took a few photos and didn’t do the inside tour.

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Oscar Schindler’s Factory

Back at Kemping Smok (favourite campsite name to date) we have experienced a phenomena not witnessed for the last 4 months – other campers – motorhomes are turning up every day. We have a German couple one side and a Dutch couple the other and we have traded life histories between the six of us in 3 days. A young English couple also on site who have toured Europe for just under 2 years sleeping in the back on their jeep – more power to them.

For the last two days we have attempted to see as much as Krakow as we can from the cycle paths. Cycling and inline skating are both very popular around Krakow – there is a definite dress code probably more expected in the French Rivera than here – there are cycle paths everywhere. Yesterday we rode 20-ish miles along the superb River Vistula path out of town to Tyniec, a small village with a ginormous benedictine abbey and a river-side beach just right for a Pepsi stop. Coming back on the other side of the river was Kolna White Water Rafting Centre, only £2 a trial lesson – no way, we both wimped out and made do with spectating.

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Kolna – white water rafting

Today we rode into the city, paths along the river right through the centre and out to the shopping centres (needed a new camera as ours have both gone into meltdown). So many people, too many people, it was a gorgeous day sun blazing but way too busy for us.  The river has views of many of the buildings in the old city but that bit of distance that allows better perspective. We managed 20 miles around and about before collapsing in a heap back at the campsite this afternoon. Four days in Krakow and fairly sure we could have done another four days and not seen and experienced everything the city has to offer. We are confirmed non city folk but this place grabbed us both totally.

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Wawel Royal Castle

Romania – step back 200 years

Yet again we struggled to find a whole country, we had a simple plan – follow the signs to Ruse and the Danube bridge crossing into Romania. Mega plan except after the first sign it wasn’t mentioned again. Next choice was follow signs for Pyce as there is a crossing there – hey presto Pyce and Ruse are the same place, something the Bulgarians were obviously keen to keep quiet! Whilst we were looking for the border we used the time to practice our six essential phrases we learn for each country – please, thank you, hello, goodbye, where is the toilet, two coffees please – we are reasonably proud that we can do this in five languages to date.

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The toll to cross the Danube Bridge was only €2- (aka as the Friendship Bridge, honest to God if that’s friendship would hate to see the state of their enemies bridge) the trucks veer across the roads to miss the craters and the whole structure looks like it is about to lose its fight against gravity, maybe the ferry is a better option. Anyway, for us our first ever sight of the Danube, very big, very grey and a bit murky as it was raining but none the less impressive. The option of not knowing which country we were in (Greek / Bulgarian border scenario) didn’t manifest itself as the border is smack in the middle of the bridge. Oddly the bridge changes in structure there too, the Bulgarian side has no overhead steel truss work, as soon as you pass under the border sign the overhead trusses are very dense.

The Danube / Friendship bridge from the Bulgarian side

Once safely over at the Romanian side we met a delightful Customs officer who asked why we want to come to Romania in a motorhome and for how long, we told him, he pointed and said ‘GO’. No marks out of ten for charm but 10/10 for swiftness. Iain purchased our latest vignette, €13 for a month, so we are toll free and can drive where we like and we then went mad and bought a map, I am sick of plotting on an atlas. At this stage we were ripped off, massively. Chap appears and tells us we missed paying Bridge Tax, we need to go back and its ROM 3000 (£500!!!) we knew it wasn’t and said no thanks. He then tried €60 – we asked for a receipt, he offered €30 no receipt – I tried  €20 no receipt – all agreed and done. Checking later on the internet its only €6, ah well someone had a good story to tell in the pub of how he made €14 out of a daft British motorhome 🙂

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We were fairly keen on missing Bucharest ring road, as usual we weren’t planning on visiting the capital so saw no reason to put ourselves through the pain of negotiating what we had heard was a bit of a nightmare. With the aid of a map (amazing things) we plotted a good route to the West of the city through the countryside. Our first impressions of Romania? it’s doesn’t appear as poor as Bulgaria – based on the standard of housing and the amount of flash cars. Every village we went through had new houses being built and the older homes were well renovated, we were both very taken with the tin roofs which come is many colours and were often actually styled as tiles. The people were generally dressed in a very old fashion manner, the best way to describe it was peasant style. Whereas Bulgaria was very much the uniform of the tracksuit, big jewellery and black leather jacket – here its more knitted layers, head scarves and dressing gowns with a rope belt.

We fully expected to say Romania was the same as Bulgaria, it isn’t (except the roads which are still atrocious). We saw very few factories or any real industry all the way up.  Here its mainly farmland, ploughed and ready for scattering. We are still on the lowland plateau which resemble the Fens, very fertile, very flat and views over the fields for miles.  Plenty of horses and carts around but seem to be used more for farming than daily transport. In the village we are currently in every house has a small barn in the garden and also a giant haystack, seeing haystacks makes it feel like stepping back a few centuries for some reason.Probably every third car here is a Dacia, whilst this was originally a Romania company its long since been swallowed up by Renault but they continue to churn out nearly half a million cars a year from a factory just up the road.

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the campsite house

We hadn’t been able to find a campsite listed as open before April so we took a chance and headed for Curtea Des Arges. We had details of a small site on the edge of a MTB course, pulled in just as the young lady who owns it was leaving for the weekend. Even though not open she was happy for us to stay, hooked us up and gave us the run of the place – for less than the cost of two coffees in Switzerland!  With heavy rain forecast for Saturday we agreed to stay an extra day, and enjoy the rain from the warmth of the van. The site has everything we need, including a hammock strung up under the eaves to keep Iain occupied.

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Not letting the rain bother him 🙂

We attempted a walk into the main town yesterday, it was about 4 miles and raining hard but we thought it would be a good way to see more of the surroundings. Less than 10 minutes into the walk a very shoddy car pulled over and we were gestured to get in. We did, why who knows. Very kind Roma gentleman took us into town, his 3 year old daughter entertaining us with her ability to count in English! We offered a few RON for the lift but he firmly refused. After a wander around town we started the walk back, half way another kindly gent stops and motions us to get in – and then dropped us off less than 5 minutes back to the campsite. Not such a great walk but a great introduction to the kindness of Romanians and another lesson for us not to believe everything we read about people.

Today we are off to Bran to meet with our new friend Constantin, who owns a campsite up there which isn’t yet open. When I emailed to check on dates he offered to let us use the site anyway – which means we can now visit Dracula’s castle with somewhere to stay just outside, we have our garlic and wooden stakes at the ready.

As of today we have now covered 6500 miles, which if we had driven in a straight line would put us on the outskirts of New Dehli, so thank the Lord between Sat Nav and I we have managed to get us here!

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Us having a break – it’s tiring all this travelling!!

Who ate all the olives?

Being used to plenty of good quality vegetables when we have visited Spain and Portugal we were expecting the same here. Alas its not the case, aubergines, tomatoes and courgettes are plentiful, other than those its all looking a bit sorry for itself. We never knew there was so much you could do with an aubergine, they are pretty much now our staple diet. Fruit is ok for apples and bananas but not much else. I thought we were going to be on this healthy Greek diet with loads of fresh stuff but its a bit hit and miss in the villages here, with the exception of oranges and lemons which are treated almost as weeds and it seems no one much bothers picking them.

Similarly fish is very expensive considering we are by the sea, the Greeks have supposedly over fished the waters, so much of the fish for sale here is imported. I thought we might have a chance at locally caught fish when Iain dug out the fishing paraphernalia,  the talk was cheap but his story was good, lets just say fish stocks have in no way been impacted!

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Our neighbours lunch – courtesy of the local fish monger

The other thing we have been surprised it’s a struggle to find has been olives – where are they? The whole country is one big olive grove and we expected to see stalls at the side of the road and signs for local olives everywhere. Not happening anywhere we have been, we are buying tinned ones from the supermarkets, no wonder they have a financial crisis – they need to get selling the mountain of olives that must be stockpiled somewhere here.

Yesterday we decided it was time to mosey over the hills to the Gulf of Messenia On the way we passed a very elderly couple going in the same direction, he walking, she on a donkey. We pulled over and I asked them if I could take a photo, they were more than happy to pose. We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, ok they had no idea of what I was saying I guess but they smiled a lot and nodded at whatever I said.  Not sure if you can see from the photo but she was a dead ringer for Stephanie Cole, I was thinking a BBC film crew were going to pop out at any second.

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When we arrived outside Koroni and there was a sign for the campsite which came about over 2 km sooner than Sat Nav was telling us it would do on the motorhome route. As you do, we ignored Sat Nav and followed the sign up the hill, the road became narrower, then we squeezed down between some white-washed cottages, then we breathed in as we went further and we both realised this could end horribly as the road was looking more akin to a footpath 100 yards ahead. At this stage a lovely Greek lady in her car started gesturing to us to spin around, we smiled and nodded, not sure how she thought we could spin a 6 metre motorhome on a road 2.5 metres wide. Iain took the decision to reverse back up the hill, take the first turn and keep his fingers crossed – that didn’t work either as it was a dead end on the beach! By now we were fed up and Plan G was just get the hell out of town and back on the main road, by use any road we deemed suitable i.e. ignoring the odd one way sign. From there we followed Sat Nav, amazingly we were taken smoothly around the outside of the village and in the other side, lovely wide road perfect for motorhomes bringing us straight to the door of the campsite 🙂

Camping Koroni is our new home for the next few nights, just five minutes walk from town it’s on the ‘first finger’ of the Peloponnese.  We are the only people on site, hard to understand why as it is lovely, much bigger pitches than our last site and less trees so plenty of sunshine too. When we arrived the owner offered a reduction for ACSI card, when we said we didn’t have one she said we could have the discount anyway. We have yet to find a campsite that doesn’t give the discount with or without the card but that might change as we go into spring and places are busier.

Koroni is another town that was once a Venetian naval fortress and has a Venetian castle, the sister castle of the one we visited in Methoni a few day ago. They were jointly known as the “The Eyes of the Serene Republic” and guarded the Venetian seas from pirates in days of old. The castle is nowhere near as complete as Methoni, its the standard H&S nightmare, but this one does have signs warning of danger, you walk right up to the edge to read them but they are there! There is a great deal of restoration work being undertaken and some areas are magnificent, to be fair as with nearly everywhere we have been in Greece it is free to enter so what’s to complain about.

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View through castle gates down over the Gulf of Messenia

This is much more in the ‘Greek style’ I had set in my mind that Greece should look like. Lots of narrow, cobbled streets and stairways are clustered against the hill, which all lead up to that inevitable Venetian castle. There are houses plugged into every available gap, tiny old cottages and more modern houses all jumbled along the streets with steep steps running up between them. We do like they whitewash lines on the paths and steps  to help you see where you are going – oddly they also whitewash the trees – not sure how you wouldn’t see a tree but we have seen this in most towns.  Even at this time of year there is plenty of colour in the flower pots that line the streets, and if not the pots themselves are brightly painted in many cases.

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Less steps – more a whitewashed ski run to get up and down

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Who needs flowers with this lot

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How I thought Greece would look – and does

We followed the streets up around the castle and by chance came upon the monastery, occupied by the Timios Prodromos Convent. I really do hate to keep saying everywhere and everything is amazing, stunning, incredible etc. – but again this was. There was nothing stating we could or couldn’t go in or even signs that tell you it is a monastery. It looked like a big church and the door was open, so we walked in and  found ourselves in the courtyard. There were several monks and nuns wandering around and they seemed fine with us being there, so we had a meander and then spotted the gift shop, from which we reasoned they accept visitors. At this stage a weeny old nun came over and offered us both some of her small star shaped biscuits. Being us of course we never refuse a biscuit (honey and tasty), she seemed happy we had accepted them, said a few words and waved her arms in a go  look around type gesture.

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St. John the Baptist Monastery entrance

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View over the monastery grounds from nearly the top of the old castle in the grounds

The tiny chapel was open (I was asked to put on a skirt, the nuns have a pile of them handy for female tourists in trousers) ornately decorated (chapel not skirt) and full of iconic paintings, we both felt very honoured to have been allowed to go inside.  We were allowed to wander freely all over the monastery grounds, at one point a nun came over to send us onto the roof of one of the churches. Behind the chapel in the parapets there were tiny cells in which we guess the original monks lived, one was set out with all the possessions a monk would have had which you could view through a gate, it was taller than it was wide or long, the bed no more than a couple of feet long.

As there wasn’t an entrance fee or anywhere to donate money we popped into the gift shop to do some spending. It sold small religious Orthodox paintings, jewellery etc. I picked up several bits and pieces and the shopkeeper nun charged us just €7 for the lot, worth every penny as an entrance fee.  A very beautiful place to visit where we were made to feel really welcome, and to be fair they do bake some pretty good biscuits 🙂

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One of the many friendly nuns in the courtyard, selling her postcards

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Inside the tiny ornate chapel

Back down at town we had a wander around the harbour and the shops, stopping for an afternoon coffee. Well I was brave and had Greek coffee, Iain was wise had had tea. Its not the strength of the coffee that bothers us, its why they put half a ton of coffee grounds in the cup with it.  As usual the cafes were full of older Greek men passing their days drinking strong coffee and smoking, and also as usual not a female coffee drinker to be seen.

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Many of the old town houses here seem to have fallen into ruin, but there is still plenty of Venetian architecture with wrought iron balcony railings and arched windows and doors. Down at the harbour are the biggest buildings, mainly empty now, there are old public buildings and what would have been large houses. Towards the castle are the pretty smaller cottages, called Laika or folk houses that have small courtyards but no real gardens, here the washing is hung proudly on the main street, string vests, undies the lot!

There are plenty of shops, including several hardware shops, they must be popular for some reason. Even though it was siesta time and most shops were shut they still leave everything outside, despite the poverty problems here is seems people are able to resist shoplifting from outside closed shops.

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 A town of many hardware shops, colourful and trusting

As we were on our way back to the campsite we spotted a small shop that sold olives! It said closed but there was an elderly Greek lady inside, we asked if we could come in and she opened up – hurray at last we have found good local olives, expensive good local olives but they taste superb so are worth the money. As we left the shop we spotted the bakery, and very cute very old Greek lady merrily waving to us out of the window of her shop with a very fetching gap toothed smile. We just had to go in to her shop and buy a small loaf, nope she wanted us to buy the biggest loaf she had, suckers that we are we did. 

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bread, olives and small bottle of Metaxa – that’s Stick sorted for food for the week