December 2016

‘Navidad, Navidad, hoy es Navidad’ (sung to the tune of Jingle Bells)
Yes, we’re in Spain for Christmas and this will be our fourth festive period in a different country in as many years. Last Christmas, we had six Pomeranians to look after in France; this year, pre-Christmas, we have five dogs and fifteen cats in Spain! Next year……………..?
Winter in southern Spain is not all sun, sea and sangria. Well, in fact until the last two weeks, it has been exactly that until not just the weather brought a depression to our idyllic lives. We left Scotland in June and, after a couple of weeks camping in France and Spain, we arrived at our first house sit and the start of another glorious summer and autumn in Spain, followed by a slightly damper stay in Portugal.

Arriving in France (June)

Arriving in France (June) 2016

 

There were many great camping locations between house sits

There were many great camping locations between house sits

And even some naturist beaches

And even some naturist beaches

That changed after the first weekend in December, which saw an extended period of rain follow us on a four-day mad Quixotic (unrealistic & fateful yes, but ultimately successful) road trip across central Spain from Portugal, through the Extremadura and Castilla La Mancha regions to the Costa Blanca and then back down the Mediterranean coastal route to the Costa Del Sol and Gibraltar. Some towns in the Costa del Sol were designated disaster areas after the torrential rain caused flash flooding.

 

Flooding at a local underpass Sabinillas (courtesy of our hosts)

Flooding at a local underpass Sabinillas (courtesy of our hosts)

It wasn't just the rain that reminded us of Scotland on the Spanish roads.

It wasn’t just the rain that reminded us of Scotland on the Spanish roads.

For only the second time in three years of travelling, we had to abandon the van and take shelter; this time in a B&B, Casa Oretani, in the Castilla La Mancha region. It was a modern cube-shaped building (built in a walled garden) that consisted of a kitchen/dining/sitting room and three bedrooms; all very nice, but John always feels a bit stressed when the Slowbus is left out on the street overnight.
As John had had the foresight to dig out his waterproofs, it was left to him to bring in our overnight bags. I was feeling slightly concerned that he seemed to be taking his time but it was too wet for me to worry enough to go out and check. Happily, it transpired he hadn’t drowned as feared but had been rescuing a runaway horse! She had escaped from the field opposite our parked van and was running, in a panic, up and down the street. Fortunately, she had a leading rein attached to her bridle, which John was able to grab (after a little bribery with a carrot from the van). We always say the Slowbus is equipped for every eventuality………….
The Slowbus may be fully prepared but it was soon to transpire that we weren’t. Later the next day, being the second of two long days on the road, we decided to take a break in a service station. We were tired, distracted by what passes for news on our phones, and generally not paying attention, when a guy approached the van. He opened my door on the pretext of asking directions and, amazingly quickly, snatched my hand bag from beneath my feet. He jumped in a car, parked behind us, engine revving, and sped off down the motorway. John managed to get the registration number but it naturally turned out to be false. There followed a series of attempts to report the crime: at the service station itself; a long, unproductive queue at the police station in Alicante; a verbally abusive (to me not by me!) phone call to the English speaking policia hotline; and a slow, repetitive process of form filling at the Guardia Civil in Calpe, with the help of our Spanish-speaking house owners, whom we had only just met that morning (a big thank you to them). The fourth attempt was successful despite the slapstick comedy of marching between offices and starting the procedure again and again with a different officer! We eventually got our Denuncia (crime report and temporary travel documents), which is still currently our only proof of identity. That’s what happens when you keep both passports, bank cards, driving licence and EHIC card in my bag instead of the van’s safe!
Denuncia clasped firmly in hand, we travelled to, and camped near, Alicante for a visit to the British Consulate and we are now waiting for the new passports to arrive at the Consulate in Malaga (if the HMPO deems it to be a safe and secure address for delivery; they’re still trying to decide – go figure!!) .
Despite the lowlife that robbed us, our memories will be of the many kind people (friends, officials and strangers) who have given and offered to give us help where needed. It’s an adventure we have no wish to repeat and so the doors are now locked whenever the van is stationery, even when we are inside!

 

The Slowbus after three years of travelling around Europe

The Slowbus after three years of travelling around Europe

Talking of the van, which is now almost 27 years old, during the last few weeks, it had developed a rather reeky problem. Smoke from the back end is always worrying (!) but, in the process of reaching our last sit in an urbanización (Spanish housing estate) at the top of a ‘mountain’ overlooking Malaga, it appeared we had blown the turbo and had now left a trail of thick white smoke all the way down the Mediterranean Highway to Sotogrande, near Gibraltar. John found a VW garage run by an English mechanic in Estepona and so the van is being repaired, even as I type, in time for our return to Jerez for our Christmas sit next week (we hope!).

 

Slowbus in Portugal

Slowbus in Portugal

View from our sit in Portugal

View from our sit in Portugal

Despite our frustrating end to 2016, we have had a lovely few months in Spain and Portugal, doing return sits for three of our favourite house owners/friends, three new sits to add to our CV and a couple of confirmed sits for next year. Two of our good friends from Cornwall came to visit us in August at the house we love in Periana (thanks to our very kind and generous friends who own the place) for an enjoyable week.

Night view in Periana

Night view in Periana

 

he furries and beasties we've been looking after.

Some of the furries and beasties we’ve been looking after.

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Some of the furries and beasties we've been looking after

Some of the furries and beasties we’ve been looking after

 

Some of the furries and beasties we've been looking after

Some of the furries and beasties we’ve been looking after

 

Some of the furries and beasties we've been looking after

Some of the furries and beasties we’ve been looking after

Whilst there, we had to quickly find a replacement assignment when one of our new house owners cancelled our stay at the last minute. John had visions of going off camping for three weeks instead – I had other ideas and started looking for last minute sits! Coincidentally, a couple near Granada had their sitter cancel for almost exactly the same dates so we were able to help each other out. To say John was slightly disappointed is an understatement but he got over it when he saw the magnificent views from their pool and villa.
I returned to Edinburgh for the October mid-term holiday to see my family and look after my gorgeous grandsons. Skype and the like are great but not the same as cuddles from two wee boys (and three bigger boys!).
We’ll be in Jerez for Christmas and New Year while our house owners are in Edinburgh celebrating Hogmanay, Scottish-style. These lovely people have apparently even left us a beautifully decorated Christmas tree with presents underneath. We are indeed lucky to have met so many friendly, kind and generous people on our house sitting adventures and travels and look forward to more of the same in 2017 (well… without the robbery of course).

Sunset over Gibraltar, view from our current sit.

Sunset over Gibraltar, view from our current sit.

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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

 

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Guid New Year, and especially look forward to welcoming the forthcoming new arrival to our family next June.
Nancy and John

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Au revoir France

In the words of Plastic Bertrand’s hit single: Ça plane pour moi – everything is going well for me (us!)

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Our latest abode

The last few months since our Christmas blog have been sometimes beautifully sunny, sometimes incredibly windy, wet and cold but, above all, peaceful and quiet with views from our house to the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. I suppose the name of the property, Les Moulins meaning The Windmills, might have been a bit of a clue that we would experience quite a bit of wind (really must do something about changing John’s diet!).

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Les Moulins

Unusually during this house sit, we have had no animals to care for but have been borrowing our neighbours’ dog, Wooster, for walks and cuddles. He’s a large golden retriever with lots of energy and is a joy to look after.

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John & Wooster

His current carers (Wooster’s not John’s) are a lovely Icelandic couple who are housesitting in southern France to escape the Icelandic winter. It still feels cold to us but I suppose anything above zero degrees is better than the minus twelve in their home country!

France has thrown a few surprises at us: the language, the cost of food shopping, the weather, and the health service.

We mistakenly assumed (as we always do) that more people would speak English. However, we are finding that Spanish is more likely to be the second language in the area, which is quite close to the Spanish border, with Occitan being the regional dialect. Despite managing to communicate to varying degrees wherever we are in Europe, it has definitely been easier here as Nancy’s high school French and John’s hand gestures are usually understood. We have, however, had lots of different situations in which to put our meagre skills to practice: hospitals, dentist, garages (not our Slowbus though), hair salon. Yes, we live exciting lives.

Although the choices and range of fresh foods are wider than in Spain and Portugal, they are definitely more expensive. Like fuel, groceries here have proved similar in cost to the UK, thus putting a degree of stress on our meagre budget. Speaking of shops, one unusual service which has tickled us is the laundry arrangement: banks of washing machines and dryers in the supermarket car parks. You pop in your washing, go and do your weekly shop, and it’s all done when you come out! We have even spotted motorhome owners having picnics in the carpark whilst waiting on their wash cycle finishing. Funny as it was, it’s just one of the many ways in which facilities for campers in France are superior to the UK.

After the gloriously hot summer we experienced on the Mediterranean coast and Portugal, the weather here is as unpredictable as everywhere else seems to be these days; no doubt a result of climate change.  For us though, it has been a bit like being in Scotland with lots of different seasons in one day (and at times, just as cold). We have decided we, and our limited wardrobe, are more suited to the warmer climes of southern Spain.

We gained some experience of the French health service when we discovered that eye problems are dealt with by private specialist eye doctors. Opticians here only dispense specs and lenses; ophthalmologists do all the testing and prescribing and have long waiting lists (six months!). So when John developed an urgent problem with his glaucoma, we had a dilemma: go back to the UK or persevere here. His sight had gradually become worse over a couple of months until, latterly, he was completely blind in his right eye. At first, he thought it was just a bit smoky and misty at our first house sit in France (remember the four wood burners??) and the fact that the light was a bit dimmer being winter now but gradually he realised that something was not quite right! After a frantic phone call with our optician, who urged John to get his eyes tested ASAP, we had to choose France. After a visit to the A&E at our local hospital, we were sent to the emergency eye clinic in Toulouse. After a bit of a wait, we saw a couple of very young doctors (or maybe it’s us who are getting old) who diagnosed a cataract behind the replacement lens in John’s right eye. Apparently, this type of cataract is not uncommon after lens replacements and is not particularly urgent to correct. Well, it’s maybe not urgent to the medical profession but when you’re the sole driver, can only see out of one eye and your peripheral vision has gone, it’s pretty damn important to see clearly! Anyway, John was offered laser treatment to remove the cataract that evening (yes, that same evening), he had the treatment and can now see even better than he did before. He had the EHIC but, in France, treatment has to be paid in full after the treatment then a percentage can be claimed back but it was worth it to have his eyesight back again.

Our days have been spent reading, doing jigsaw puzzles, walking, and watching some TV. There are lots of board and card games here to keep guests occupied on rainy days. There’s a table tennis table outside too for better weather and although we waited for a better spell, it never materialised. We did manage to play boules on one sunny afternoon when two of John’s friends came for a most enjoyable visit. We have also explored the surrounding area: walking along the Canal du Midi; visiting the very beautiful Carcassonne; enjoying the weekly market at Revel; and experiencing the big city of Toulouse.

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Canal du Midi

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Carcassonne Citi

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Toulouse

John had been waiting patiently for the rain to go off so he could get the grass cut (yes, he’s very conscientious but really just wanted to get the ride-on tractor mower out of the shed for a shot!). The grass has needed cut twice so that’s twice the fun!

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Soon, we will be back in Slowbus for a couple of – much needed – nights camping; the first since Pamplona in November (John is missing his van and getting withdrawal symptoms) and then we’re off to catch the ferry from Bilbao to Portsmouth to start our journey home via Cornwall. It will be good to catch up with friends and family (and the necessary things like dentists, doctors, opticians and financial consultants!) before we run away to the sun again in June.

We have a few house sits lined up in Scotland to give our families a break from our company over the two months we are back and, once again, hope we have left enough time to squeeze in everything we need to do and everyone we need to see, so our schedule is going to be pretty full.

So, au revoir France till we pass through you on our way to sunny Spain in the summer.

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Merry Christmas

Spain, Portugal and France 2015/16

 

And so this is Christmas

And what have we done?

Another year over

And a new one (about) to begin

…..to paraphrase from Lennon’s War is Over (although war now seems to be perpetual). Yes, it’s been six months since our last post and we have had the most wonderful summer and autumn in Spain and Portugal and are now enjoying the slightly cooler and wetter delights of France for the winter.  Summer in southern Spain was exceptionally hot with many days reaching the low 40s and the nights not dropping below 30 degrees.  At the time, it was quite uncomfortable (according to Nancy, even though having the pool to cool down in was a great relief), but now it would be nice to have some of that sun! We spent the long sunny days of July and August in mountainous Periana, with a few days on the coast at El Morche with our grandchildren.  The days were mainly spent trying to keep the plants watered, the pool clean and ourselves cool.

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As you can see, cleaning the pool is not all fun and games

We did manage some days out and one such trip was to a private sculpture garden.  It was set on a hillside and terraced to make more space for the many and varied installations.  The owner is an artist and a writer and her partner is a musician and they have a different artist in residence every year who leaves a piece of work for the garden so it was a really magical place to visit.

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A strange selfie at the Kitty Hari  Sculpture Garden

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Comares (near Periana, Spain)

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Nancy at Comares

In September, we headed westwards to Jerez to look after two beautiful jet black pussy cats for three weeks. We managed to do some camping on the way: one night just outside Olvera, one of the Pueblos Blancos (White Towns of Andalucía), and three nights at Puerto de Santa Maria. Olvera, as you can see from the photos, is a stunning hill top village with the obligatory castle at the top.

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Puerto was a good base from which to visit the surrounding area.  We took the short ferry trip to Cadiz and had a good day following the various coloured sightseeing trails (painted lines on the pavements – such a bonus for us as we can get lost even with maps and satnavs!).

Nancy working up an appetite in Cadiz

Nancy working up an appetite in Cadiz

Another day we took the train to Seville and Game of Thrones addicts will recognise the Gardens of Dorn in the photos below.  Still on a movie theme, we also visited the Plaza de Espana, used in Star Wars Episode 1.

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Water Gardens of Dorne otherwise known as The Alcázar of Seville

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Plaza de Espana, Seville

 

The Spanish are so civilised with their rail system – you can’t buy a ticket without a seat booking and, if the train is more than 10 minutes late, you get a full refund (or so we were told!). No trains we have been on in Europe have ever been more than a couple of minutes late so it’s probably a safe bet! Oh, how we don’t miss Scotrail – especially now with the Forth crossing problems.

During our stay in Jerez, we had a few trips into the town to sightsee, grocery shop and see the vet. It’s the first time we have been worried about one of our charge’s health so we took Mafi to the vet to get checked out.  He’s diabetic and needed his blood sugar levels tested twice a day then insulin jabs after his food. Nancy struggled to work the levels machine until YouTube came to the rescue and showed her how to do it properly. After that, it was a doddle as Mafi is such a docile cat.  Mushka also needed an inhaler once a day but he too was very patient with us until we perfected our technique.  Because there were no dogs to walk (the cats just didn’t seem interested!), we managed a “little” cycling and Nancy tried out the hula-hoop that was left temptingly on the terrace.  It was one of the weighted, bumpy ones and caused quite a few bruises till she got the hang of it.  Another day out was to Trafalgar (scene of the famous sea battle), on the Atlantic coast. There was not much to see apart from some Spanish tourist info boards but we had a pleasant walk around the headland, followed by possibly the most expensive burger in Europe.  On our last night, we spent a really nice evening with our hosts before we headed back to Periana for our second visit.

It was October and the weather was perfect after the heat of the summer. This time, as well as Bridget (small, loveable pooch) and the three cats, we had the addition of Lottie, their gorgeous young bull mastiff. Lottie had gone with our hosts on their summer holiday but was staying with us for their second trip. Lottie, being under two, was still technically a puppy and was rather ‘playful’ with anything that was left within her reach, but as she was such an affectionate beast, it was hard to stay annoyed with her for long.  We just had to get better at putting things like slippers and underwear higher up out of her reach.

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Nancy with Bridget and Lottie

We had such a lovely time there, and got on so well with our hosts, that we stayed on for a few extra days between sits.  They were so friendly and generous, it was a struggle to leave but we look forward to seeing them again as we shall be returning next summer.

We had a few days in hand before our next sit in Portugal so we contacted our lovely hosts (another most generous and friendly couple) in Jerez to ask if they wanted to go off for a few days so we could look after their cats. As it happened, they had a planned (business) trip to Poland so our offer was more than welcome.  The cats seemed to remember us and we slotted back in to the daily routine of jabs and puffers!  It was so nice to spend some time with our host on her return (hubby had more conferencing to do) and she treated us to a trip to Arcos de la Frontera, another of the stunning Pueblos Blancos.  It’s one of best things about our travels – meeting so many special people, as well as lots of lovely pets too!

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Arcos de la Frontera

On our way to our next sit in Portugal, we stopped off in Isla Cristina near Huelva for three nights camping. We were very pleasantly surprised to be able to be walking in swimwear on the beach in November (though the sea was a bit too cold and rough).  The sunsets were amazing though the cuisine was not.  It was John’s birthday and we had decided to be extravagant and eat out to celebrate.  We walked the few kilometres into the town at what we thought was a sensible time to eat dinner – 7pm.  Oh no, not in Spain – that’s just drinks and snacks in loud, noisy, busy bars.  The restaurants don’t open till much later.  I suppose we should have realised that from our few days in El Morche in the summer when the Minions bouncy castle didn’t deflate till 1am and the restaurants were still busy with hungry, noisy families till 3 or 4 am every night. Stupidly, we thought that was just for the summer holidays. I don’t think we’ll ever become true southern Europeans – we go to bed far too early! So, we ended up with pasta and cake back in the van and an early night watching a movie.

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Nancy dancing on the beach at sunset

Off we set from our campsite near the Portuguese border thinking that, in a few kilometres, we would be over the border and into Portugal – another country, another time zone. We had set the satnav with our destination coordinates and again (will we never learn?) assumed we would be taking the shortest route north. After a while, we realised that we were going north but we were still in Spain but, eventually, our satnav took us along a very narrow, single track, bumpy road to the border.  We used to think that the border roads would be well-sign posted and well-maintained – huh! If only we had a navigator and some paper maps to double check the satnav route – oh, wait………!

The Alentejo region of Portugal, our home for the next two weeks or so, is a beautiful, relatively unknown part of the country. It is a sparsely populated area, known for its fortified medieval towns, wine production and cork. The main town of Evora is a really different, quirky place and a great place to spend a day wandering (not least because of its excellent veggie restaurant!).

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Evora

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Monsaraz

Our temporary home, a lovely four bedroom villa with swimming pool, was in the countryside, off the beaten track, but only a 30 minute drive to the Spanish border.  There was very little light pollution so the night skies, sunrises and sunsets were usually spectacular.

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There was always something magical about the sunsets in Portugal

The November weather was a little different from last year when we were a little further north east in the eucalyptus forest at Arrochela where it rained every day of that month.  This year it was hot and sunny through the day (warm enough even for John to jump in the pool most days – though most sane people would not!) but cool enough in the evening to have the wood stove burning. Our pet for the duration was a joy to look after – Lois was a gorgeous black and white cat who loved to sit on your lap in the evening.  All he wanted was to be fed twice a day and petted when he requested. His owners are another lovely couple we are now pleased to call friends.

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Lois

And so, it was onwards, upwards and eastwards towards France for our next house sit. On the way, we camped again at Salamanca (Spain). It was the third time we have stopped here and definitely the coldest; it was showing minus five Celsius on the weather app and the hard frost and frozen water bottles (and Nancy’s cold feet) seemed to confirm it.  We travelled on to Pamplona, in the hope of warmer (or at least less cold) weather but sadly it was just as chilly.  We seem to pick campsites located at high altitudes so probably not a surprise that it was so cold in early December! Pamplona was a stop John was keen to make after spending the summer reading Hemingway and Michener. We spent a lovey day walking around the quiet old town, which is the historical capital city of Navarre, exploring the alleyways and following the route of the famous bull run . With a Christmas market inside the bullring, we did some shopping for ourselves: a bunnet for one of us and a skirt for the other (we’ll leave it to you to figure which is which). We did a lot of walking that day as we hadn’t realised (the quiet town might have been a clue!) that it was a holiday and the bus timetable was not as we expected. But we still managed to walk the 9km return journey (after a visit to another vegetarian restaurant with free wine!!) uphill to our eyrie before darkness fell.

Our first house sit in France was in a converted mill house in the Charentes region and was a truly welcome haven after our cold nights in Slowbus. There were FOUR wood stoves including a massive Esse wood burner/cooker in the kitchen – bliss! Nutmeg (or Nutty, as he was!), our young beagle/spaniel companion kept us on our toes and the chickens and ducks provided us with a clutch of fresh eggs every day.

Our second French sit is our present one in the Vendée region – a farmhouse with attached campsite, so Slowbus feels quite at home. We have six little balls of fluff (Pomeranians) to look after here – it was confusing at first telling them apart but now we know all their names, it’s easier. We still can’t tell who is who but if we go through the list of names, they all come eventually!  Our hosts have very kindly put up Christmas decorations for us – they must have known how much John likes Christmas! (ha-ha)  We are enjoying watching what UK tv has to offer for the festive season, especially the really bad Christmas films! The 60” surround-sound system really is the height of luxury after our van’s modest entertainment system.

We will be moving on to our next French sit after the New Year, where we will be staying until our return to the UK in April.

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Can’t have a Slowbus blog without a picture of the Slowbus which celebrated its 25th birthday this year

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Merry Christmas

We hope everyone has a lovely time over the festive season and we send all our family and friends warm wishes for a happy and peaceful 2016.

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Another year, another road

We’re on the road again! (in the style of Willie Nelson!)

Many months have passed since our last blog and we have left our retreat (and neighbours now friends) in Arrochela, which is located in central Portugal, been back home to Scotland and are now back house sitting – this time sunny Spain.  Our stay in Arrochela was made even more enjoyable by the friendship of our lovely neighbours.  They all have busy lives: working, volunteering at local kennels for abandoned dogs, tending to their land and animals but they took time out to befriend us and make our stay unique.  They shared their local knowledge to make our time there easier and, more importantly, shared their homebaking!  If you want a peaceful holiday in the forest with lots of opportunies for mountain/road cycling, walking, kayaking and sightseeing, check out our neighbours’ guest house with pool: www.superferien.com.  Close by, another new-found friend has her own olive oil soap business (www.arte-amanha.com), which was a very welcome find as fragrance-free soap seems to be impossible to buy in central Portugal.  It was strange leaving it all behind after six months but we hope to be back.

Our visit home was over before we knew it – so many people to see, things to do and so little time!  We had booked in a ten day house sit in Glenapp (west coast of Scotland) at the beginning of June so time was shorter than it seemed.  Glenapp was another peaceful retreat in the countryside. The only sounds were from the birds (actually a cockerel, hens, guinea fowl and geese can make quite a din!) and the dogs barking at an occasional tractor heading up the estate. We had a relaxing time there but we’ll need to improve our egg-finding skills – the guinea fowl are very good at hiding their eggs in the undergrowth!  The weather was very kind to us and John even jumped in the plunge pool once or twice. It wasn’t that warm – he just liked the challenge! We had a visit from friends in their “Happy” campervan, and a weekend outing with other good friends (who were staying in Stranraer) with whom we went to see the sights in Port Patrick, visiting beautiful gardens, maze and café, where we had the most delicious carrot cake. We’ll be back to Glenapp for another week next June!

Port Patrick Harbour

Port Patrick Harbour

 

Port Patrick Gardens

Port Patrick Gardens

We prevailed upon John’s parents’ hospitality yet again for most of our stay although Nancy spent much of the time with her sons, grandsons and sisters.  Our return coincided nicely with the parents’ planned mid-week break in late May too so we were able to look after Penny, the Jack Russell, while they were away.

Slowbus got MOT’d, serviced and tarted  up  – now sporting new black alloys (remember the Turkish escapade?) and extra battery power to make the most of our solar panel and European sunshine.  Incidentally, since our last blog, the Slowbus celebrated its 25th Birthday. (Well, John celebrated, the van just sat in the driveway.) For this trip, John packed, unpacked and packed again trying to make more space (rolling up clothes saves space but, then again, so does taking fewer clothes, Nancy!!!).  He was also having more problems with his eyesight in the last two months in Arrochela but, after a couple or three visits to George, our trusty optician, it’s all sorted now.  George, Liz, Anne and Anthony at Clelland & Boyd Opticians in Blairgowrie were all so helpful and accommodating of our short timescales.

Slowbus with its new wheels

Slowbus with its new wheels

One of the highlights of our visit home was the wedding of Campbell and Sarah.  It was a truly amazing day – full of love, laughter and happiness.  The humanist ceremony was really special and the bride and groom were beautiful and handsome respectively.  Sarah made all the fabulous tissue flowers  for the bouquets, buttonholes, table and wall decorations as well as the heart-shaped tablet in the delightful pouches (crocheted by Sarah’s mother) for the favours.  She also made the bridesmaids’ dresses – such a talented, lovely girl! The whole event took place at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh – a venue really worth visiting if you’re ever in Scotland’s capital city.  Although we spent lots of time with children, grandchildren, parents, siblings and friends, we still didn’t have enough time to see them all.  There’s always next year…………………..!

To a wedding we're going

To a wedding we’re going

Our trip back to mainland Europe was easy going and included two days in Cheltenham (England) where the sun was shining, giving us a taste of things to come.  The ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Santander was almost a joy (bigger vessel than our last crossing from Bilbao to Portsmouth) and, as a bonus, we didn’t break down in the Bay of Biscay. Our last ferry crossing was plagued with engine failure leaving us adrift for an hour and a half, until the captain called out the RASea (RAC, get it? Oh, never mind).  We were pleasantly surprised by Brittany Ferries – nice food at a reasonable price as well as a choice of bars and cinemas to while away the time.  Nancy even went to a free Spanish lesson.

We took three days to toddle down to the south coast to meet up with our next  house owners who made us feel  extremely welcome, taking time out from packing their own camper van to show us around and introduce their friends . As we travelled south through central Spain, it got hotter and hotter and now, one week into our house sit, the temperature is still rising, but, believe us, we are not longing for the cold, wet Scottish weather we are seeing on the internet.  Travelling in our wee van though, with only open windows for air conditioning in 40°C heat, is no fun especially when the heater has to go on full blast to alleviate the over-heating engine on the steep hills (and sometimes the not-so-steep ones as well). Sleeping in such extreme temperatures is also problematic, as the temperature builds up inside the van during the day and doesn’t really dissipate at night as outside isn’t that much cooler.  Also, our bed is on top of the engine bay (rear engine!), which, as you can imagine, generates a good deal of heat, alleviating the need for an electric blanket in the winter but not great in the summer.  It was so bad one evening, we took a chance and slept with the doors and windows open to create a through draft. Fortunately, no one stole us during the night.

Santillana

Santillana, one of our stopovers in Spain

So, here we are in Periana – or just a kilometre outside the town down a steep track on the campo – our summer residence.  We have a beautiful villa with private pool, and a dog and three cats to look after.  The view is amazing, overlooking Lake Vinuela and the mountains (north of Malaga) with a little glimpse of the sea in between when the heat haze dissipates. We are surrounded by olive, fig, peach, mango and avocado trees.  John is now proficient in pool cleaning and land irrigation (tick, tick – add to the house sitting profile).  The weather may be incredibly hot and getting hotter but there’s always a shady veranda for reading, the pool for a cooling swim, and a refreshing glass of Nancy’s homemade lemonade made with freshly picked lemons from the garden. Bliss!

View towards Lake Vinuela

View towards Lake Vinuela

 

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A Guid New Year


Feliz  Ano Novo

(or a Guid New Year)

Our last blog left you (and us) in Carcares.  After an extended stay of 12 days (well, it was a nice site with a ‘four nights for three’ offer and a wet room hut on each pitch as well as being close to the lovely old town), we headed north to Salamanca.  By now, it was late October and, even in Spain, autumn comes eventually. The leaves were turning gold and orange and the nights were getting cooler.  We picked one of the three sites near Salamanca from the reviews and we were not disappointed.  The site was situated behind a hotel and was a large flat area with the biggest toilet block we’ve seen yet.  The site was very quiet and was within cycling distance of Salamanca.  There was also a regular bus service from the hotel carpark.  We used the bus once and also cycled in after John’s bike had been repaired – carrying heavy 8L water bottles on the rear rack (in Peniscola) had caused several spokes to break; oops!  We found a bike repair shop in the back streets of Salamanca and were very surprised to be charged only €8!!

Salamanca is a beautiful place – a university city with lots of interesting buildings and lively cafes.  It’s a delight to walk around, exploring the streets and alleyways, finding more amazing buildings around every corner.  The sun shone and it was perfect sightseeing weather.

Salamanca

Salamanca

Salamanca

Salamanca

Salamanca

Salamanca

Salamanca

Salamanca

Nancy

Nancy

Nancy insisted I post this

Nancy insisted I post this

We needed to be in Portugal at our house sit for 3 November so we reluctantly left Salamanca and travelled south west into Portugal.  Once across the border, we took a less direct route to our next site to avoid the Portuguese toll roads.  The tolls here are all electronic so, if you haven’t prepaid or rented an electronic sensor, visitors have to pay the toll fee at a post office.  You have to wait 48 hours then go to the pay shop and pay the fee. It all seemed a bit too much hassle so we took the scenic route.  We spent a few days at Ponte das Tres Entradas – a village built around a unique (in Portugal) bridge which spans the three rivers converging below.

Ponte das Tres Entradas

Ponte das Tres Entradas

Ponte das Tres Entradas

Ponte das Tres Entradas

It was a short drive from there to our new temporary home in central Portugal, a white house set in a clearing of the eucalyptus forest, kilometres from the nearest village and a little further to the nearest garage where the Slowbus got a long over -due service.  We have two dogs (one a recent kennel rescue dog, the other a lively Jack Russell) and two ginger and white cats to look after.  There are plenty of forest trails to explore – rain or shine!  The garden is on a slope but blooming beautifully with large shrubs, flowers and fruit trees.  When it’s not raining (as it was constantly for the first three weeks we were here), the days are sunny and warm and the nights, frosty and cold. We have seen some spectacular sunsets.

Most evenings the sky is ablaze

Most evenings the sky is ablaze

Spectacular dog walks through the Eucalyptus forests where we are staying

Spectacular dog walks through the Eucalyptus forests where we are staying

We have a few a neighbours, scattered through the forest, of various nationalities including Swiss, German, Austrian, English and even Portuguese! When we’re not walking the dogs, we study our language courses (French for Nancy, German for John), read or just sit in the sun!  We go to one of the local markets for fresh fruit and veg or to the nearest supermarket (20kms) once or twice a week for supplies.  Our very tasty free range eggs are supplied by our nearest neighbours’

hens.  It’s been a very bad year for olives (tip: buy lots of olive oil now as the price will escalate in 2015) but we have lots of lemons, kum quats, pomegranates and some mandarins.  The pomegranates are a bit of a challenge to deseed – Dexter would be so proud of my juice splatter on the white kitchen tiles!!

We wish you all a happy and healthy new year and look forward to seeing at least some of you in 2015.

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Spain

And so to Spain!

After the exhilarating drive through Andorra, we crossed the border into Spain but not before we were again stopped by a custom officer wanting to look inside the van – this doesn’t surprise John as well, why wouldn’t you?? Apparently, the officer was looking to see how much alcohol we had and was a little disappointed by the solitary half-empty bottle of gin!! We were now in Catalonia with its dual language road signs and yellow and red striped flags flying everywhere.

Catalonia

Catalonia

We drove about a hundred km to our selected campsite at Solsona, up and over some bumpy roads and hills (this may be important later…).  We stopped off first at a motorhome parking area in the town to empty the waste water but it was all a bit too complicated (and smelly) so we left for our campsite. These parking areas are strange places, situated next to car parks and sports grounds but basically open areas of waste ground with lots of bins and a unit to buy water and electricity – not the most scenic of views!  We arrived at the campsite, which was a large site mainly for bungalows, and found the small area for campervans.  Luckily, it was quiet with only one other van parked up. It was a nice site with lovely loos, laundry facilities and even a huge drying area!   The eco shop and restaurant were only open at the weekends though.  The only other down side was the strange agricultural smell that pervaded the area.  We had smelled the like before in the Netherlands (and sometimes in Scotland) when manure was sprayed on the fields – it was not pleasant!  We also noticed that something was missing from the back of the van – the red and white warning square attached to the back of the bikes had gone! (Remember the bumpy, hilly roads…….though the roads were nowhere as bad as those in Romania and the sign stayed put there.)

The next day being 18 September, as a special concession, the tartan bunting (made by our friend Judy) was permitted to be erected. We took a trip into the town and explored the old part of the town.  We also had a shopping success in the newer part, finding a couple of Sigg water bottle coolers in a strange jumble of a shop, which stocked an assortment of seemingly unrelated items.

On 19 September, after a depressing start to the day, we decided to move on to the Costa Dorada to visit Barcelona, staying at a site a train ride away at Canet del Mar. We had a slight detour first to find a Fiamma dealer so that we could replace the warning sign for the bikes (legal requirement in some EU countries), which involved doubling back on the motorway and driving up a dirt track to reach the desired location.  Really, Spanish road signage is not good!  We were greeted at the camp site by a friendly, multi lingual Catalonian young woman who, after checking us in, was desperate to find out what we thought of the referendum result.  The Catalonians have a referendum coming up in November, which is not being recognised by the Spanish government, and a positive result (a yes vote!) would have helped their case. (As of 16 October, the Catalonian referendum has been put on hold…)

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 La Sagrada Familia

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Gaudi designed architecture is abundant in Barcelona

Now in coastal, sunny Spain, the weather had improved and our day in Barcelona was hot and sticky. We walked for miles (or so it seemed) but stayed in the centre so the outlying areas and gardens will have to wait for another year. We were on the move again – back up into the hills but heading south to Prades, a little village some 1100m high.  We had planned to stay here for a few days but the cold, rain and mud got the better of us.  So it was back to the coast again to Peniscola for a week of staying put.  We unhooked our bikes and rode most days, up and down the promenade cycle path, to the sea, the shops and the obligatory castle on the hill.

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 Peniscola

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 Peniscola

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Peniscola

Peniscola is a lovely elongated town, following a long curve of sandy beach, culminating in the old fortified town on the hill.  Here, we found some amazing beer (made from local products according to the season – artichokes, pumpkins, oranges) called Badum.  The label featured a VW campervan so that made it even more enticing!

 

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 Peniscola Micro-Brewery

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Sampling the wares

For the next stop, we veered away from the ACSI camping guide and went to a site north of Valencia situated just 300m from a metro station. This site was one of the best run sites we have encountered: the owners were justifiable proud of their nearby city, Valencia, giving us advice, information and maps about the sights.  We were even given their number to call if we needed any help while we were in the city.  Every morning, a van came round selling bread and pastries and, with the help of a Polish woman who spoke good Spanish, we bought some chocolate croissants.  These were delicious, flaky pastry filled with smooth chocolate cream (like Nutella) – mmmm!!  They came in bags of five and had to be eaten when fresh – it’s Spanish law, apparently!

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Valencia 

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Valencia

Valencia is Spain’s third largest city after Madrid and Barcelona and is our second favourite city of the trip after Budapest. Valencia is a beautiful city; founded as a Roman colony in 138 BCE, it is full of contrasting features. The ancient centre is almost encircled by the Turia Riverbed Gardens – the old river bed, which has been turned into a wonderful park with fountains, gardens and a cycle path. The park leads you to the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences.  Everywhere you turn in the old city, you see another beautiful building.

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 Valencia

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 Valencia

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 Valencia

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 Valencia

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 The huge fruit and meat market, Valencia

DSCF2814We spent two days exploring the city including half a day in the wonderful Institut Valencia d’Art Modern.  John also sampled the traditional Spanish dish, paella, which originated in Valencia.

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 Street art is abundant in Valencia

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DSCF2813Heading south, our plan was to visit Murcia, Granada, Cordoba and Seville, and so it was that we travelled inland, on the edge of the Sierra Nevada, into the district of Murcia to an off-the-beaten-track site (La Fuente) famed for its thermal spa. We parked up on the ‘quiet’ perimeter of the site, away from the noisy bar and pool area.  All set to stay here for a few days to rest John’s sprained wrist (he fell out of the van in his eagerness to do the grocery shopping!), we settled down to a quiet few days. This site was adjacent to a lovely little village with blue-walled buildings, which we looked forward to exploring in the coming days, and surrounded by empty dusty plains.  It also had good laundry facilities so the washing was hung out in the communal drying area within an hour of arrival.  After about two hours, at about 16:00 and continuing until dusk,  a couple of large John Deere tractors started digging up the land directly behind us, creating massive dust clouds and a huge amount of noise.  Because of John’s wrist, it was not easy for us to move to another part of the site so we put up with it that evening after being assured by the management that there would be no tractor work the next day.  The tractors started at 08:00 the next morning!  We packed up – a bit more slowly than usual as Nancy was now in charge of the heavy lifting and moving – and moved on.  As with most downsides, there is an upside and this one was driving through some amazing mountainous scenery to our next site.  Unfortunately, Nancy’s map reading skills didn’t extend to appreciating that the site was up one of these mountains and therefore entailed lots of gear changes and bends on the road for John’s poor wrist but he bore it with his usual stoicism and good humour???  We rested here a couple of days and then headed towards Granada.  Now we were in the Sierra Nevada proper and the rock formations were outstanding.

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 View from our pitch, The Sierra Nevada Mountains near Granada

We enjoyed a visit to the Alhambra and into the city of Granada, strolling through the narrow alleyways and side streets. The weather was now in the more comfortable mid to high twenties, albeit the mornings were a bit chilly. It was perfect weather in which to sightsee and stroll through the city.

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 Alhambra Palace, Granada

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 The Old Town, Granada

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We moved on a bit further west and stopped at a large but quiet site, meeting up with a lovely Dutch couple and their huge black dog, all of whom we had met at a previous site. The next couple of days passed in a bit of a blur for John as he contracted a vomiting bug (couldn’t possibly have been the cooking as Nancy was fine….!).  Luckily, (for Nancy!), John’s sprained wrist occurring a few days previously meant that Nancy was now au fait with the more practical side of camping that is usually John’s domain (chemical toilet, pop-top up and down, awning in andout, etc); every cloud and all that …………………………!  We moved west again planning to stay for a bit longer at the next site at El Rocio, deep in the Donana National Park.  Hah!  The rain and sandy ground put paid to that idea; mud baths are not our idea of fun (and yes, we are decidedly fair-weather campers).  We were on the move again!

Once again, we reassessed our plans and, having previously decided to travel to central Portugal via the Portuguese coast, we changed our route again and thought we’d be better staying away from the large coastal campsites (see blog on Italy), sticking to the smaller, inland sites. We would give Cordoba and Seville a miss (another trip!) and start heading north, up through west Spain through Extremadura to Caceres, then Salamanca and then into Portugal.  The countryside now was much more like home – rolling hills and grassy plains.  That brings to mind the old saying: the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain – and fall it did!  We were caught in another thunderstorm patch and the temperature plummeted! Still, we used the time for cultural activities and caught up with some film viewing – Tarantino really has done some excellent films!

As all things do, the rain passed and we hopped on the euro bus to the old town of Caceres, the capital city of the province of Extremadura. Caceres was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1986 because of the city’s blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles and it is indeed a charming collection of narrow alleyways, piazzas and cobbled lanes.

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 Caseres

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If you tire of visiting historical sites and yearn for the countryside, there’s an abundance of it in the surrounding Monfrague National Park with one of the largest forests in Spain, growing over 1,400 different species of trees.  Here also is the world’s largest colony of black vultures and imperial eagles and is also home to colonies of black storks, eagle owls, black-shouldered kites, great bustards, sandgrouse (and probably many more not mentioned in the tourist blurb…..).  The region is also famed for its cuisine – cherry and chestnut liqueurs, goats cheese, fig cake and hams.

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Italy part 2 and Slowbus goes fast in France

As our friends and family already know, since our previous (now regularly tardy) update, the Slowbus has had a change of pace as we parked up, decamped and moved into a house for a month, which afforded us palatial habitation and surroundings in comparison to that which we have recently grown accustomed. As we have hinted at recently, it looks as if we are managing to create a new way of travelling (for us), in which we will be mixing a nomadic lifestyle of travelling around Europe in the Slowbus with longer periods of stay in one area whilst we are engaged in ‘domesticity’ looking after homes and land as well as pets and farm animals. Our bookings so far are now dictating our travels up to June 2015 and, hopefully, we can secure more for future trips.

Without going into details about our gracious hosts in Frascati, near Rome, the van was parked up but not forgotten, whilst we luxuriated in an apartment, which was part of a traditional Italian villa, tending various animals and enjoying the fruits of the orchard. A car, which came with the apartment, along with the nearby train to Rome, resulted in a great deal of freedom of movement giving us the opportunity to affordably explore the area and spend a good deal of time in the Papal city. We’re going to gloss over our stay in the area as there is no point in boring everyone with our daily duties (feeding and walking two pigs, feeding cats, feeding chickens and watering plants) and tourist-like meanderings around Rome, so instead you will just need to accept we had a great time in a lovely place and read on for the narrative of our subsequent speedy trip across southern Europe.

Our departure from Rome was delayed by a few days, which was welcomed as the start date had also been delayed and we weren’t yet ready to give up our comfortable abode. But it did mean that we now had less time to travel northwards through Italy and then across southern France to meet friends who were holidaying in the Pyrenees. Ten days to make the 1500km trip (including detours we wanted to make) was, in theory, extremely possible but life in the Slowbus is rarely straightforward.

Our first stop involved a two day stopover in Terni, Umbria to visit (according to Wiki) the highest man-made waterfall in the world. Built by the Ancient Romans, the Cascata delle Marmore is 500 feet high and the turning on of the tap (so to speak) twice daily to feed the hydroelectric plant is a huge tourist attraction.

the Cascata delle Marmore

the Cascata delle Marmore

the Cascata delle Marmore

the Cascata delle Marmore

Although it felt good to be back in the van enjoying the cooler mountain air away from the city, we now had to acknowledge to ourselves the ever-decreasing time we had available for the next part of our trip. Not being used to tight deadlines anymore, it was with some trepidation that we abandoned the back-roads of Italy in favour of the motorways and the subsequent toll charges; jeez, they are not cheap and leave the tolls in Greece paling into insignificance!  It’s hard for us to understand how the Italian population can afford to pay the charges as part of their daily lives. Expensive as the road was, it served a purpose and we made Siena in record time but at a price – and we don’t just mean the tolls!

As we and the Slowbus happily motored on at speeds a bit higher than our norm’, the ‘charging’ warning light came on and the rev’ counter died. Now, even though my mechanical knowledge is limited, I knew that the light meant the alternator was not charging the battery and, although the van seemed to be running well, I didn’t want to stop and risk not being able to start again. But admittedly I was stumped as to why the rev’ counter stopped working at the same time. We made our stopping point at Siena and, with the use of some free Wifi and the ever-ready help of the guys at Club 80-90 www.club80-90.co.uk, I discovered that on my van, the rev’ counter is also connected through the alternator. It was also suggested that it was probably the alt’ regulator which was faulty and was an easy fix, but as I didn’t have the tools to check it and no means of finding new parts in the middle of Italy on a Friday night/weekend, we decided it was best to forget about it and find a garage for Monday morning.

Sometimes, you just have to accept that things will work themselves out without a great deal of effort on your part. By sheer luck, an extremely friendly couple (Keith and Val) from England were staying long term on the site and when Keith came calling to admire the van (as many do!), he told us of a garage nearby that he knew of through recent experience and offered to take us there on Monday. As we have a split charging system on the Slowbus (both leisure and car battery recharge when we are on electric hook-up), I had no real fear of restarting the van so, putting our problems to the back of our minds, we bought bus tickets to go off and enjoy Siena.

Siena is indeed a beautiful city and, like others we have discovered in Italy, was full of maze-like narrow streets and alleys, which are a real joy to explore whilst you meander your way to the heart of the medieval centre with its amazing architecture.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

The Piazza is famous for its twice yearly ‘Il Palio’ horse race, as well as its stunning architecture and will be familiar to many from the Bond movie ‘Quantum of Solace’. Within the square, you can find the Campanile (bell tower), Torre del Mangia and the Palazzo Publico and it was here I spent some time studying a series of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti known collectively as ‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’. Considering recent events in Scotland (and the Middle East), I’m now wondering if it would not be worthwhile sending some Members of Parliament over to contemplate the effects of their actions and moral duties of office….. After leaving the Palazzo, I located Nancy people-watching and enjoying the sunshine in the Piazzo and we once again set off wandering through the narrow streets to find the Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral. Originally intended to be the largest cathedral in the world, funds for the 12th century building ran out before it was finished. But what was built includes one of the most impressive facades in Europe. Inside is an art lovers’ paradise and its famous Gothic Pulpit by Nicola Pisano is joined by works from other artists such as Donatello and Ghiberti and an intriguing statue of St Peter, which is widely believed to be a self-portrait by Michelangelo.

Siena Cathedral

Siena Cathedral

Monday came around all too soon and we hopped into our van and followed Keith and Val to the garage. It was a pleasant surprise to find a Bosch agent sign outside (makers of our alternator) and an (almost!) English speaking mechanic inside. After a few minutes of checking, he confirmed it was indeed a faulty regulator and went on the phone to locate a new unit. This seemed to be a harder job than diagnosing the original problem but eventually one was located. Unfortunately, it was another eight hours before the part was to be delivered by special courier (and fitted in just two minutes). In the meantime, Val and Keith took us shopping and then let us borrow their dog, Sunny, for a walk to the little village near the campsite to while away the day.

By now, we had just four days to get to the Pyrenees so it was with reluctance and a great deal of haste that we sped through northern Italy and southern France. We’re sure that Genoa, Marseille, Montpellier and Perpingnan, not to mention the French Riviera, are great places to stop and explore, but for us they will have to wait for another trip, and we arrived at our destination in the small town of Laroque des Alberes in time to meet up with friends Karen and Mary. Once again, the Slowbus was vacated whilst we moved into a traditional Catalonian town house for four days of exploring the area, thanks to Karen and her hire car

Laroque des Alberes

Laroque des Alberes

Laroque des Alberes

Laroque des Alberes

Collioure

Collioure

Collioure

Collioure

It seems that since leaving Rome, our rather sedate lifestyle had fallen by the wayside, as we rushed along the Mediterranean coast. Subsequently, our time in France was extremely brief and certainly not what we had envisaged before embarking on the trip.…. Now that it was over and our impromptu vacation from our vacation had ended, all sense of urgency seemed to be behind us. Our schedule revealed we had about five weeks to make our way through Spain to Portugal and the biggest problem we now faced was deciding which route to take.

Therefore, having had our fill of straight lines, we decided to detour through Andorra before entering Spain and finding our way back to the coast and Barcelona. The CG-1 road through Andorra, which takes you across the Pyrenees, is simply stunning and is certainly one of the best routes we have driven so far. Our one wind-battered night camping enroute included our highest camp yet at 1400metres near the village of L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre. This was followed by a morning of steep climbs and hairpin bends, which slowly took the Slowbus up and over the mountains from France through Andorra (with the cheapest fuel since Luxembourg) then down and onwards to Spain.

camped near the village of L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre in the Pyrenees

camped near the village of L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre in the Pyrenees

Easy Riders crossing the Pyrenees

Easy Riders crossing the Pyrenees

Next stop Barcelona!

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Italy (part 1)

Arriving in Italy was, in a way, like coming home. We’ve both visited and travelled the country a number of times separately and together but still, making our way into the port at Bari, instilled a sense of anticipation. The slowing down of the ferry as we approached the harbour walls gave us time to be entertained by the antics of the pilot boat manoeuvring in the choppy seas before positioning itself off our stern. A harbour pilot then exited the cockpit of the small craft and climbed the mast with no sign of a life jacket or fear of the choppy waters. In one sure footed leap, he crossed between the two vessels and entered the ferry via a door that had been opened on the ship’s side. It seems that, like Greece, matters of health & safety are not a priority.

Pilot boat at Bari

Pilot boat at Bari

In contrast to our exit from Greece, which was mired in officious paperwork and vehicle searching, including a customs officer trying to remove the bicycles from the rack on the back of the van (common sense eventually prevailed), our official entry to Italy was made via a headcount through the windscreen as several lanes of vehicles squeezed through a livestock pen-like gate and raced out of the harbour area on to the city streets. With about 20 days to kill, our aim was to head south before dog-legging north along the coast to Rome. We last toured this area about eight years ago after driving from the UK in a 1980s Westfalia Joker (info’ for our Club 80-90 readers) so we had a good idea about where we wanted to start the Italian leg of our journey. Alberobello is a magical place and, as such, is a popular tourist destination so it once again surprised us to find a practically empty campsite on arrival. A 10 minute walk took us into the picturesque old town with its whitewashed traditional conical houses, shops and churches built in a style called Trulli. The steep, narrow cobblestoned lanes just beg to be explored but, of course, all the shops and a good deal of the private dwellings are fully experienced in separating the bewitched fools, I mean tourists, from their money.

Alberobello

Alberobello

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Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

The temptation was to stay in Alberobello for a while. The site was cheap (still charging out of season prices) and quiet but we felt we should do a bit more touring. So, after a second day exploring the town, doing our best to avoid the shops, we headed for the Corriegliano region. This was a foolish plan and experience in Italy should have forewarned us. Missing the pools and beaches of Greece, we had a hankering for a swim. We had been lulled in to a sense of serenity by the last few weeks of empty campsites and had completely forgotten that coastal areas in Italy (especially where a beach is involved) were likely to be extremely busy and embroiled in a party-like atmosphere as friends and families decamped from the cities to meet up at their static caravans for the month of August.

We did get our beach though and, in the spirit of things, we lived up to the expectations of “mad dogs and Englishmen” (well, I suppose Scots are close enough). The beach was, again empty but this was due to the fact that we were the only fools swimming in the mid-day sun (siesta time in Italy is followed with an almost religious fervour). Unfortunately, it was to be our last peaceful moment until we ran away early the next day. Back at the van, the siesta was over and the poolside children’s disco was just starting up, this was immediately followed by a couple of hours of Karaoke, both experienced through speakers which appeared, due to their size and volume, to have been donated by the Plutonium rock band, “Disaster Area” (see Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe). After a half hour of respite in which we eventually concluded we hadn’t in fact gone deaf, the evening disco for adults began. The management had used the half hour to bring in heavy lifting gear and truck the speakers 50 metres to the specially reinforced stage at the bar area and, as we were not in the recommended (by Disaster Area) concrete bunker placed 37 miles away, we were eventually rendered unconscious by the noise at some point during the early hours of the morning.

We don’t want anyone thinking we are complaining about this style of holiday. It is there for a purpose, and families and young folk who only get a week or two away from home and the workplace are well within their rights to cram as much as possible into their vacation and if this entails partying all night long and sleeping on the beach all day, whilst the kids are officially and royally entertained at the pool, so be it. But for us (old buggers), the trip is all about freedom of choice and if a place doesn’t suit us, there’s no point in staying put and grumbling, we move on.

So move on we did – to Pompeii. Although set in the Bay of Naples, Pompeii isn’t a beach resort but it does boast two of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy so there’s no way we could have expected anything less than it to be busy and expensive. That said, we did (eventually) manage to find a quiet, newly-opened site which offered us a deal to stay. Thumbs up for Nancy’s ability to get a bargain. The historical site of Pompeii, which dates back to the 7th or 6th BCE, was just a few minutes’ walk from the campsite. The archaeological site covers a huge area and demands quite a few hours to explore fully. It was destroyed and buried under 20ft of ash after an eruption of the nearby Mt Vesuvius in 79AD. At the time of the eruption, the town is believed to have had around twenty thousand inhabitants. This was a reduced population as it was still being rebuilt after an earthquake which devastated it 17 years previously when a lot of its citizens fled to other towns and cities during the chaos and panic that followed. We learned that, contrary to popular belief (or maybe just our belief!), the excavated victims of Pompeii are not actual human and animal remains but plaster cast replicas made from the void left in solidified ash as the bodies slowly decomposed over time.

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Nancy as a pillar of the community, Pompeii

Nancy as a pillar of the community, Pompeii

Going out for the evening

Going out for the evening

You can’t explore Pompeii without going to the source of its destruction and that is Mt Vesuvius. Located about 9km east of Naples on the Campanian Volcanic Arc, there are many ways to get to the crater/summit 1300 metres up but one of the best (although far from cheapest) has to be by specialist 4X4 bus. Catching a shuttle bus near the train station in Pompeii, you link up and transfer to the huge Mercedes 4X4s at the base of the mountain, which travel in convoy up the rough track to about 100 metres from the summit. Today, the volcano is the only one on the European mainland to have erupted within the last 100 years and is even now regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world. Standing on the edge of the crater, we were reminded how, only a few years earlier whilst travelling by night train to Catania, we witnessed a lava flow light up the slopes of Mt Etna, Vesuvius’ larger active near neighbour on the island of Sicily. Both volcanos are highly studied due to their level of activity and locations near large bodies of population but the only activity during our visit was the construction of a stage near the crater for a rock concert.

Vesuvius

Vesuvius

4X4 bus on Vesuvius

4X4 bus on Vesuvius

Vesuvius crator

Vesuvius crater

Vesuvius crator

Vesuvius crater

After about a week, we had explored Pompeii (old and modern) to our hearts’ desire and were feeling the need for something quieter to balance our equilibrium so we headed for the hills. We knew next to nothing about Abruzzo, other than what our wholly inadequate map showed: a large green splodge, located south east of Rome, with few towns. What we found was the The Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, a 50,000 hectare conservation area set within forests, mountains and remote valleys. The park opened in 1923 with the aim of preserving wildlife and fauna including species such as Brown bears, Appenine wolves and Golden Eagles. For eight glorious days, the park was also home to a pair of migratory campers nestled in the Fondillo valley. After exploring the region by van and by foot (not finding any bears or wolves though), we would return to the large and empty site to find the days melting away to the tin on tin clanging of cowbells drifting across the valley floor. Peace, perfect peace.

Spreading out in Abruzzo

Spreading out in Abruzzo

Fondillo valley

Fondillo valley

Looking for bears in Abruzzo National Park

Keeping an eye open for bears in Abruzzo National Park

Opi, a small hilltop town near our camp in Abruzzo

Opi, a small hilltop town near our camp in Abruzzo

Time really was marching on and eventually we had to repack and set the wheels in motion for Rome. Before we could decamp though and give the Slowbus a few weeks rest, we managed a quick stopover at Monte Cassino to visit the abbey which is situated 1700 feet above the town of Cassino. It is famous throughout the rest of the world for the part it played in the Battle for Monte Cassino in 1944 where the building was destroyed by allied bombing (it was rebuilt after the war) but, in Italy, it is also famous for being on the site of the first monastery established by St Benedict in 529 and is one of the few remaining Territorial Abbeys within the Catholic Church and has been visited numerous times by the Popes and other senior clergy.

Monte Cassino Monastery

Monte Cassino Monastery

Monte Cassino Monastery

Monte Cassino Monastery

Next update, Rome

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The Slowbus of Culture

For all you people out there (well, one or two: you know who you are), who have been demanding the next blog update, here you go. We’re making no more excuses (see previous blogs) for tardiness in the writing department but all this travelling and cultural sightseeing is hard work and takes up a lot of time and, believe us, Greece, after the first few weeks of lounging around on the beach, has become a time-consuming culture fest. We know, it’s a hard life!

Sikia

Sikia

Sikia

Sikia

Sikia

Sikia

Our last blog found us at the Blue Flag beach at Sikia on the peninsula of Sithonia. One km of fine sandy beach on a crystal clear blue bay with not a single hotel in sight meant it was sparsely occupied by the few campers who had ventured this far down the isolated coastline.  Again, we found it difficult to tear ourselves away, easily slipping into a beach-bum lifestyle with only our kindles to help pass the time of day. Of course, all good things come to an end and, after eleven days, the arrival of the school holidays meant that overnight, paradise turned into a parking lot (hmmm, think there could be a song in there?). As we were saving money (not spending it on fuel), we even managed a night out at a beachside taverna and, once we managed to tear the chef away from the World Cup on TV, had a couple of rather fine pizzas. This is worth mentioning because, unlike most people camping around us, we mostly eat at our van whilst longingly looking on as people change from beach to evening wear and head out for the night. We have to remind ourselves that we are not on a one or two week holiday and are creating a way of life for ourselves (hopefully) and, just as if we were at home, budgets have to be watched.

Talking of budgets, this nomadic lifestyle is proving to be rather more expensive than we had originally envisaged and budgeting, so far, has fallen by the wayside. If we are to continue travelling in the future, we will have to find alternative ways to make our savings work. In the last blog, we mentioned we have been booked to look after a house in Portugal for six months over the winter. Since then, we have also been booked to look after a property near Rome for three weeks in August, so it looks as if we may have found a way of minimising our expenditure on campsites and fuel. We will be back in Scotland in June 2015 for Campbell and Sarah’s wedding but, after that, doing two or three house sits a year would probably mean we could travel around Europe indefinitely. Well, we’ll see, as you are all aware, our plans are always changing.

After eleven hot hedonistic days and a ton of books, we pulled ourselves away from Sikia and steered the Slowbus on an historical cultural tour of the Peloponnese region of Greece. We had set our sights firstly on Delphi but, due to the distance involved and the Slowbus being, well, slow, we had to break the journey up at a couple of beach stopovers on the way, but we got there eventually!

camping at the beach

camping at the beach

camping at the beach

camping at the beach

camping at the beach

view from the van

The road to Delphi involved leaving the coast near Thermopylae to traverse the steep gradients of the Kallidromo Mountain, the hot climb almost proving too much for a weighed down Slowbus which soon had to take a breather for a while to cool the engine. After that, it seemed to find a new lease of life and managed the next 70km of undulating dusty mountain roads and passes remarkably well.

Delphi; Left to ourselves after the high winds

Delphi; Left to ourselves after the high winds

Compared to the shore-based campsites, which had become extremely busy in the last few days, the site we had chosen at Delphi was a breath of fresh air, literally. High in the mountains, with views to kill for down the valley to the Gulf of Corinth, the place only had a few campers pitched around the pool, which was great for us, but less so for the owners. During the first night here, the wind gusted to gale force (forcing us to lower the pop-top) and blew across the exposed site causing most of the vans to break camp and retreat to lower locations in the morning. Their loss was our gain. We stood our ground and the weather quickly improved, leaving us with a practically empty camp site and swimming pool in Greece, in July! It really was a joy to sit out here for a few quiet evenings, beer in hand, watching the sun go down over the mountains whilst the sporadic street lights sparkled like fireflies across the eerily silent valley below.

Mountains on three sides of us, leaving the view down the valley to The Gulf of Corrinth

Mountains on three sides of us, leaving the view down the valley to The Gulf of Corrinth

Unlike the hot weather in Greece, something that can’t be relied on here is a bus timetable. After unsuccessfully managing to catch the bus outside the campsites gates (twice) to take us to the archaeological site of Delphi, we finally managed the trip to the museum and steep hillside location of the ruined ancient city on the second day of trying. Dating to the Classical Period of Ancient Greece (510 – 323 BCE), the site is associated at differing periods with the myths of the Delphic Oracle, Zeus locating the centre of Gaia (his grandmother Earth) and the worship of Apollo after he slew a dragon, which supposedly lived there. It was also one of the locations for the Panhellenic games which were attended by athletes from all over Greece and were a pre-cursor to the modern Olympic Games. It was hard to see how the athletes still had the energy to compete in the marble terraced arena after the climb to its location overlooking the ancient city. Feeling the heat of the strong sun ourselves after a hot tour of the ruins and a cool tour of the refreshingly air conditioned museum, there was only just time for a quick wander round the narrow streets of nearby modern Delphi, a taverna lunch, and some grocery shopping before catching the bus back to an invitingly cool pool at the campsite.

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

 

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Delphi, Archaeological Site

Modern Delphi

Modern Delphi

We were aware that the time we had left in Greece was running out and we still had a lot to do. We were due in Rome at the start of August and fancied a couple of weeks touring the south of Italy before heading north. Nancy spent some of our time poolside researching and booking a ferry for Italy (on which we get to camp on board in the Slowbus but more of that later). Once again, it was with difficulty that we pulled ourselves away from such an idyllic location, especially since there was no sign of the site getting busy (again, hard to believe in July). It’s time to push on to Athens. I’m sure many people will be horrified to learn that we were not looking forward to visiting one of the world’s oldest cities with its archaeological gems we were sure to find there but we were becoming rather used to the (mostly) quiet, sedate way of life we had found in Greece. The hustle and bustle of a noisy, congested city certainly was not appealing to our now laid-back attitudes but it was something we both felt had to be done.

After a couple of hours driving, the narrow country roads changed with alarming speed into two, three, occasionally four and sometimes no lanes leaving a vehicular free-for-all before changing back to congested madness. We knew we had arrived in Greece’s largest city. Fortunately, our campsite was quickly found (it was right by the side of a three lane section of chaos) but, unfortunately, it was on the other side of the carriageway and it took some time and distance before we could safely find a spot to U-turn back to it. As the site was practically in the city centre, we expected it to be busy, noisy and expensive – two out of three ain’t bad (there’s a musical theme here….!). It was noisy being next to the busy road, more expensive than our other sites (understandable for a city site). But, it was (again) surprisingly quiet with only a few vans on pitches. The owner was extremely efficient in setting us up with maps, tickets and instructions for the bus and metro systems. We arrived here early Sunday afternoon and for some reason (despite the heat, which was in the high thirties) decided to rush headlong into sightseeing. After failing to catch the first bus that sped past the stop outside the gates,(it seems they don’t actually like to disrupt their haste into the city unless you prostrate yourself on the busy road in front of them), we did manage to find our connection and caught the metro right into the centre, just below the Acropolis. Once again, despite being the school holiday period in July, we were taken aback by how quiet the place was. We were expecting to fight our way through like-minded tourists to the ancient sights but, in the end, the only thing we had to cope with was the heat.

Athens, city scape

Athens, city scape

Athens dates back about 3500 years and was home to Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum and is widely referred to as the cradle of civilization as well as the birthplace of democracy. With our unexpected freedom, we rushed (yes, I know, sacrilege) up to the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike to enjoy the huge city scape spreading out below us. At some point during the day, we had decided we could turn our time in Athens into a whistle stop tour of the sights and it was with some haste we ventured up the Areopagus Hill (Pagus, meaning, big lump of rock) and onwards to the Ancient Agora and the reconstructed Stoa. By the time we made it into the old downtown shopping area with its maze-like narrow streets, evening had arrived and with the cooler air came a torrent of tourists, which we had so far managed to avoid. It was after eleven before we made it back to the campsite (the lateness not being helped by another very late Greek bus) for a late supper and decisions being made to leave in the morning to head for Ancient Mycenae and more archaeological sites.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon (under restoration)

The Acropolis from The Areopagus

The Acropolis from The Areopagus

by The Agora

by The Agora

About 90km south of Athens, Mycenae hosted another empty campsite with a wonderful pool and cheap onsite taverna with local dishes prepared by the owners; oh and did I mention the cheap beer? A couple of lazy days here, drinking, eating, swimming and then a very early (to beat the heat) hike around the archaeological site, a major centre of Greek civilization and stronghold from the second millennium BCE which dominated most of Southern Greece. By this time, we were starting to feel a bit overwhelmed with all the history so it was off to Olympia for a bit of retail therapy. We were now on track to catch our ferry for Italy so the next few days were short journeys followed by worshipping the sun by the pool or dips in the sea at various sites along the road to the sea port of Patras.

Mycenae and another empty campsite

Mycenae and another empty campsite

Mycenae, another pool to ourselves

Mycenae, another pool to ourselves

The Lions Gate at the Mycenae Archaeological site

The Lions Gate at the Mycenae Archaeological site

The ferry was an amazing end to our time in Greece (once we eventually found the ferry terminal!). At a fraction of the supposed cost of driving round to Italy, it was a 16 hour journey across the Ionian and Adriatic seas from Patras to Bari. Despite an overzealous dockside customs official, we were first on board what looked like an almost empty ghost ship. By the time we set sail, not much had changed and with three small camper vans populating a cavernous semi-open camping deck, there was plenty space for us to get our own table and chairs out and enjoy a beer whilst watching a setting sun over the Greek Islands from our own private viewing platform. Retiring to our cabin (I mean van) early with a movie to help while away the time, it came as a bit of a surprise the next morning to find the camping deck jam packed with campers and articulated lorries, all of which had silently been loaded on at another port during the night.

Superfast ghost ship (well, almost)

Superfast ghost ship (well, almost)

Camping on board the ferry

Camping on board the ferry

All at sea

All at sea

View from our (almost) private deck

View from our (almost) private deck

Next stop, Italy.

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Turkey to Greece

It’s been a struggle to bring myself to write up the next part of our trip, as Turkey, on the whole, has not been a happy carefree episode. But now that we are chilling out in the Greek sunshine where the beaches are as long and lazy as the days, it is time to do some catching up.

I think it is fair to say that several facts have been preying on Nancy’s mind. Firstly, the cost of entering Turkey in the first place, visas and insurance, coupled with the unexpected (by us) higher cost of camp sites and fuel, the latter being the highest we have encountered since leaving the UK, have rather blown our budget for the month ahead. Secondly, now we are out of Europe and therefore have no breakdown cover for our 24 year old vehicle (I have to say this was slightly worrying me as well, considering its (un)reliability record over the last two years even though it has been behaving remarkably well so far this trip). Also, the insurance we bought at the border only covers us for third party. I suppose with these factors in mind, it should have come as no surprise that the Slowbus should chose Turkey to have a mechanical failure.

To cut a long story short (Facebook readers have already seen the long version), we are still in two minds whether we were saved or conned; we were flagged down on the road (by a concerned mechanic and his family) to tell us a back wheel was wobbling. The end result was a roadside repair which required a new stub axle and outer hub (no receipts). As well as leaving our finances severely depleted, we now have a damaged wheel, which will need to be replaced when we get home. The repair, to be fair, despite still being concerning, seems to be holding up but the address and email we were given to contact him if there was any problems, both proved to be false.

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Roadside repair with new but expensive parts

This happened on the coast road between Troia and Bergama where we were headed to visit the ancient site of Pergamon. The following day, we had a long walk to visit the Asklepion part of Pergamon. The ruins were impressive and enjoyable despite our mood. But, by the time we had gone back down the hillside into town in search of the Red Basilica, we were both hot, tired and grumpy. It was the low point of the trip for both of us and a frank discussion was had. The result was we were both disillusioned with Turkey and the only way we could see to get our spirits back was to leave and head for Greece.

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The Asklepion

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The Asklepion

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View over Bergama

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Red Basilica

Of course, just as we had decided to leave, something nice happened. We were approached by a Turkish couple, Yasmak and Atabey, who liked our van and wanted to ask us about it . They were saddened by our experience with their country and invited us back to their house for tea. As we were just getting organised to leave early in the morning (we had a planned to be in Greece in two days), we declined their kind offer. Later that evening, they reappeared at the van. Yasmak had baked us a cake and made a flask of tea. They also brought their baby daughter Deniz and their camper van-owning friends, Sultan and Atakan, for a lovely impromptu night time picnic. So to them, we say thank you and your kindness has changed our minds about Turkey (despite still being headed for Greece).

Our journey northwards included a ferry across the Dardanelles from Canakkale to Galipoli, where I got talking to a Swiss woman whom we had seen in Bergama. I told her we were looking to slow down in Greece as we feared running out of countries to visit before our year was up. She kindly recommended a nice cheap site in Alexandroupolis near the Turkish border with a quiet beach and a nearby town (where we eventually stocked up on much needed supplies, some of which we didn’t realise we needed until we saw them – electric hot plate, UV plug in fly killer!). In the end, it took us a further three days to get to Greece as our final camp spot in Turkey turned out to be quite idyllic and we struggled to leave it.

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War memorial at Gallipoli

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Crossing the Dardanelles

Greece has been dramatically different to Turkey. The weather has been glorious and the beaches close by and quiet. We have been camped at Sikia on a bay under the shadow of Mt Athos for six days now and the desire to hit the road seems far away. It is at times like this as we drift away to the sounds of the cicadas that we have to pinch ourselves and remind each other, how lucky we are. Sometimes though, you have to make your own luck and Nancy, as ever is the proactive partner in this relationship. Probably with, an eye on our dwindling finances, she spent our first couple of nights in Greece looking at house sitting websites. The result being we have been booked to look after a house and some pets for six months over the winter in Portugal. Obviously it will mean an end to our aimless wanderings for a time (pity, as I feel we are quite good at wandering aimlessly), but ultimately it will mean we can look forward to more travels in the Slowbus in 2015 J

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Camping spots in Greece are proving to be large and informal

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Nancy at Sikia with Mt Athos in the background

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