Monday, 29 July 2013

Into the French Alps and beyond

Vive le France! 
We avoided Monaco (I think we might drive through it on the way back) and head up into the mountains. We found some reasonably priced Camping Municipale in the village of Sospel which was a little gem. Manoeuvring the van through Les Grande Tour des Alpes to get there was a bit travel-sick-inducing but the scenery was like nothing I'd seen before. Jaw-dropping rock formations with visible chunky layers pressed together and pushed up and up, with the sun shining through the aromatic pine forests. I gave my biggest smile (which I fear turned into a pitiful one once I saw the agonising look on their faces) to the mental cyclists attempting the 2000m mountain pass and even got a wave back from a sturdy looking bloke! Soon after that though we reached a small village, so I guess he had just set off… 
Consulting our Wild Camping book we prodded in the longitude and latitude of our first secret spot and hoped the sat nav would take us there. It did! It was a cloudy morning, and we traipsed down down down another 'path' deep into the valley. I heard Pete woah-ing a lot and suddenly the photo in the book was right in front of our eyes! White-grey smooth boulders with aquamarine water plunging between and around them. This is literally what Centre Parcs' pool and rapids are based on. Yay for beautiful wild swimming! Shame it was ice cold, but I guess that's what you get for swimming in the mountains.

Digression: I have forgotten to mention previously the state of toilets in Greece and Italy - poor. Why do the toilets not have seats?!!? Why? Several times I did that thing where you're expecting the loo seat but some guy has left the seat up and you feel like you're going to faaaaaaaaall into the loo because you're judgement is wrong and you lose your balance. Crazy times. France, however, is different. Clean and nice and lockable doors too. Wahoo! Some of our campsites have even provided loo roll - mega bonus! It's never exactly inconspicuous carrying a roll of paper under your arm as you meander past eeeeveryone to the toilet block.

Sat nav is proving very useful and has brought us to all our selected swimming spots so far. It does enjoy taking us on the scenic route though: circling, venturing into dead ends, popping us onto a road that's not there etc. Thankfully, the scenery is super so it doesn't matter all that much.

Our flights are booked to return on 15th August so we're not sure whether we'll manage to get to Spain. We'll keep exploring the wild swimming through France and see how far we get before returning to Florence to drop the beloved van off and fly out of Pisa.

Cinque Terre: an adventure in itself...

Our campsite was called 'Mare Monti' which made me think of a cheerful Italian horse every time we passed through the gates which was nice. Full to the brim but still quiet and friendly. 

The railway line wasn't far, and so we set off for the furthest town 'Riomaggiore' paying a slightly extortionate single fare. When we arrived we were greeted with multiple ATTENZIONE signs and locked gates. Hmph. Many of the paths were closed. After purchasing a €20 obligatory ticket to enter the park environment we had to get back on the train in the direction we'd come, along with half the world's population and half the sun's heat radiating down on us.

Getting off at Corniglio we took the 'path' towards Vernazza; an hour and half hike. Woooooo yeah cool idea for a pretty warm day yeah. Basically, we sweat A LOT. Really. When we reached our destination I realised I hadn't packed my bikini which was a major bummer and there were lots of people in the sea so I had to jump off a rock in my shorts and tie my scarf (which I'd fashioned a hat/turban from) around my chest. It was a good look for me; an attractive day all round. 

Saying goodbye to Monti we headed for France and hit a terrible storm. It chased us the whole way up the motorway and when the clouds finally burst we certainly knew about it. We were thankful to be driving through several tunnels but sometimes it was frightfully scary during the bits in between. The rain slammed down on the windscreen, making our music and speech inaudible and driving slowed to a crawl as it was practically impossible to see. The thunder shook the van and the lightning was FORKING terrible!!!…………..No? Anyway. Luckily there were no accidents but to calm our nerves we stopped for a croissant and a Powerade but they tasted weird, unfortunately.

Falling in love with Florence and pronouncing things incorrectly

We stayed a week with Pete's family: aunty is an artist, uncle is a photographer, and their son is a piano extraordinaire. In a house on a hill overlooking Florence, we had an incredible time having good food, drink, and absorbing the deliciousness of Florence city. Every morning we awoke to Leo (Pete's cousin) playing a Chopin piece in preparation for his exam in the autumn. A lovely way to be gently woken up, until it got to the more dramatic crescendos and chromatics which, although rather violent, made me miss playing and practising very much.

We toured the grand Uffizzi Gallery as well as the Academia, and after that we were completely pooped and culture-filled. Michealangelo's 'David' was just wonderful though; humongous and truly impressive. 

We did a lot of wandering - more of which I think I enjoyed. I ventured in on my own and did slow paced wandering as I can never keep up with Pete and his long strides. We also ate a lot of gelato. We were steered away from the touristy spots where overpriced nondescript gelato is served, and pointed towards Grom…and others which I can't remember the name of. Useless. FYI though, Grom's hazelnut is unbeatable.

Next we were heading to the Cinque Terre next - a group of 5 small villages almost balanced upon the cliff edges of the coast. The whole area is a huge national park. When I asked Pete's Italian uncle for advice on campsites, he swiftly corrected me from pronouncing Cinque Terre as 'sank tehr' - French-stylee, to 'chinkweh terreh': Italian. Oops.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Near-death experiences along the Amalfi coast lead us to beautiful Bolsena

Pete wanted to drive the Amalfi coast. About halfway along I don’t think he wanted to drive the Amalfi coast. Windy, twisty, narrow roads complete with copious mental Italian drivers made us hold our breath more than once. As the van is British, I sit on the left side which means I spent a few hours leaning as far over to the right as possible. The view was absolutely stunning but was sometimes difficult to enjoy, being on corner-watching duty.

Just past Naples, Camping Averno was appealing with its swimming pools and heated thermal baths. The price was steeper than what we’d paid before but it was worth it for a day of laziness. The gardens had beautiful flowers, and even though it was part of a hotel it was quaint and had character.

Then I my heat rash got really bad and I was told no more sun or sea or pools or general movement. Woop. Because of this, we decided to cover as much ground as possible in the van to get us up past Rome. I’d already been a tourist there and P wasn’t bothered – I have a feeling he just wants to get to France to jump off cliffs and go wild swimming.
Luckily, we have found the most wonderful spot beside Lake Bolsena, Bolsena. We are staying in an ‘Agriturismo’ site which is part of the owner’s farmland. It’s a 20 minute walk from town along the lakeside, and every morning we are offered bread and croissants the owner’s husband has purchased from the local bakery that morning. We can buy courgettes, onions, salad, wine and oil, all produced on the farm and freshly gathered. Delicious.
Our neighbours are all German or Dutch and very friendly. We’re happy here.

The next stop is Florence where we will stay with Pete’s aunty.

Sassy Matera, Paestum, and a visit to Decathlon

Lonely Planet guided us inland and suggested visiting the World Heritage site of Matera to see its sassi – cave dwellings. The van was getting pretty sandy so we gave it a sweep and left the lido and the glares behind. Hooray!

Matera is cool. The landscape was completely different: slow-rolling golden hills interrupted by MASSIVE GORGES. The town is set upon two of them, and up until the 1950s half the population lived in caves carved into the rocky ravines. They got cleared out by the EU after some guy wrote a book which dissed them – you can Google that for yourself.

Our campsite was situated next to a solar farm, with a magnificent view beyond it. We had free wifi as long as we spoke to a charming but slightly crazy (possibly drunk) employee who did odd jobs around the place. We found a lush lake where we had lunch and chill time. Pete got the slackline out and I made friends with a manky golden lab.

We observed Paestum’s Greek ruins through the van windows and settled in Camping Ulisse, back on the coast. There was a bar, restaurant and entertainment for those who wanted it – apparently nobody. Pete got cranky because they kept playing Gangnam Style.

A big plus was that they sold mega croissants warm with Nutella which was particularly useful (and scrumptious) as we ran out of gas for the cooker. We went on a lengthy expedition to find a Decathlon and came back with the whole shop’s worth of gas canisters.

Safety first!


Have you ever felt that everyone is looking at you, but really you’re just being paranoid? How about when everyone is actually looking at you, all the time, constantly staring? Because that is what we found as we stopped at the Torre Canne lido. It was a Sunday and the place was heaving with Italians enjoying their weekend. We were part of their fun, it seemed. I was intimidated by a group of young girls who were no more than 10 years old who stood and stared as I showered, hurling Italian speech at me. I felt super stupid – a typical English person with no grasp of the national language. Poop. Our pitch was placed next to the bar/restaurant and also a main walkway of the lido. NOT IDEAL.

Beyond the lido owned area was a large sandy beach. Yay! Though there wasn’t a space to perch anywhere so we enjoyed a quick dip but were still exhausted from the journey up. We had a pizza for dinner that was oddly watery but delicious enough. That night there were fireworks in the town centre, so low and loud it made the van shake. It was also roasting hot and we were afraid we’d get robbed by the children in the night. Not a good night’s sleep.

We have decided never to stay at a Lido again.


Daytime-mosi-infested-creepy-place + Ferry Fun

The next camp stop I will call ‘daytime-mosi-infested-creepy-place’, which is located nearby Patra. But first I will mention the 51 degree heat of Olympia which we thought would be a good cultural fun-stop en route. We managed a 2 minute walk down to the entrance of the site but had to return to the air-con for fear of our vital organs MELTING. Literally.

Later, we parked up at daytime-mosi-infested-creepy-place and sighed a big sigh: it was definitely no Navarino beach. As soon as we opened the doors mosis attacked us which was totally uncalled for so we briskly walked towards the sound of the sea. Unfortunately, this led to more sighing as weeds and rubbish washed up onto an empty stony bay. We explored for a while, and then I saw a fat rat scuttle off so that was the end of that. Blergh. I think I got about 30 mosi bites that night, despite the Autan.

We were ready to escape the extraordinary heat of Greece and boarded the (very delayed) nighttime ferry from Igoumenitsa to Brindisi, Italy, with a massive tub of tsatziki and canned stuffed vineleaves for dinner. A culinary delight! The van was directed to park next to the ferry’s engine which was mega loud. I managed to sleep a bit somehow, but Pete’s mistimed espresso shot left him very awake at the wrong hour. After customs rooted around in our dirty laundry bag for various illegal items, we drove off in the darkness we finally found Torre Canne, our next stop...

Two dinners, one boat, lots of ginger tea and the beginning of the advanture

Two/three weeks in and I finally get the chance to write a little bit. I’ve just been far too occupied absorbing sunshine and observing beautiful views. Yes, yes, it is mostly blissful, but don’t feel too jealous as the real reason I have time to write now is because I have a ridiculous heat rash that is 100% minging. I’m not allowed in the sun or the sea. Cool.
We set off for Greece to join Pete’s parents on their boat on an 11pm flight that arrived in the ghetto of Athens at 4am. A bonus was that we received an inflight meal that we weren’t expecting, meaning we ate two dinners: one at dinnertime and one as a post-midnight feast. Thank you Aegean Airlines! However, the lack of sleep made us wobbly and disorientated at dawn whist trying to search for our ferry transfer to the small island of Hydra.

Adding to the wobbliness, it was the first time I’d met the parents and set foot on a proper boat with sails and stuff. Obviously we were warmly welcomed and all was fine until a massive storm hit the port… Yep. A stupid massive storm decided to greet us too, which meant splish splosh wavy rocky loveliness to add to the sleep deprivation. Cue seasickness! Ugh.

Meanwhile, Pete was in his element and continued to be throughout our time on the Carpe Diem of Ipswich: installing a new anchor light and clambering up the mast, unhooking tangled anchors, swimming out to attach ropes to things etc. Saving the day most days. Mostly I drank ginger tea and cuddled the dogs - yes, two Labradors live on the boat, and so does a cat.

We stayed in Poros anchoring in the tranquil Russia bay and then sailed to Methena with its sulphur infused sea. Eggy but good for arthritis and ailments, apparently.

As the first day of the advanture loomed we were fully settled into boat life and it was a shame to leave. We had a long bus journey ahead to take us to Kalamata where the infamous van was chillin’.

Our first camp stop was at Navarino beach just outside of Pilos. A long, yellow, fine-sanded beach peeped through the trees 5m from our pitch. As we looked along the bay we found we were the only ones on it! The sea was calm, blue and very very cold. On numerous occasions we found ourselves the only ones bobbing about – or in Pete’s case, splashing and back-flipping about.
Bummer, we thought. This is too beautiful; we’ve peaked too early.

Turns out we did!