If you’re familiar with the film Field of Dreams you’ll recognise the phase “build it and they will come”. For anyone who has driven Scotland’s North Coast 500 will testify “publishing a touring route and they’ll come” also is true. however the popularity of the NC500 route with motorhomes, campervans, cars and cyclists has at times turned the sheer delight of touring around seeing all the North of Scotland has to offer into a 516 mile extension of the M25.
Fortunately the same doesn’t apply to the Wilderness Road. After our tough cross country drive to get there, we at last turned off the gravel tracks on a spanking new stretch of smooth tarmac. With no queues, wow, how impressive is that.
The Vildmarksvägen is not as long as the NC500 it’s a mere 500 km long but stretches through some of the most spectacular parts of northern Sweden.
Ok then, so answers on a postcard, who can name (no cheating) any of Sweden’s 95,700 lakes…? No, I thought not. With around half (well 9% actually) of Sweden covered by lakes and forests you’ll understand if the images in this post contain a spot of water and a few trees…!
There are circa 28 million hectaresof productive forest land in Sweden, equivalent to 69% of the land area, so actually more than a few trees then.
As they say, a picture can paint a thousand words, so I’m going to let the images taken on our route around Vildmarksvägan do the talking.
We stopped on the route to visit the Sami village at Fatmomakke. The town’s church is said to be the most prominent Sami Church town in Sweden and one of the best preserved in the world. Fatmomakke is of important spiritual value to the Sami and is still used as a cultural meeting place today as it has done for thousands of years.
Stekenjokk is one of the Sami people’s places for their reindeer to feed during the summer, We didn’t see them but it’s not unknown for herds of reindeer to wander close to the parking area. We just had to watch the comings and goings of other visitors.
Travelling around the Vildmarksvägan and with the border quite close (2 miles) there are tantalising views of the Norwegian hills. On a bright sunny day in July it’s difficult to imagine this is also one of the coldest spots (−50 °C) in Sweden in the wintertime. The highest part of the road over Stekenjokk is remote it only opens from the beginning of June until the middle of October due to snow depths of up to 6 metres.
Ok it’s not Niagara but if you were Canadian you would still say” it’s still pretty ‘awesome“.
We are very grateful to Nick & Lisa for recommending the Wilderness Road. It has been a spectacular way of re-setting our motivation for the next stage of our trip. We do hope one day to dust off our plans to visit Noway and it’s beautiful scenery.
By the way, if you do decide on your travels around Scotland to follow a puffing and panting cyclist up over the Bealach na Ba Pass in your motorhome, the fish and chips in the Applecross Inn are well worth the queueing!
“Nothing’s impossible I have found, For when my chin is on the ground, I pick myself up, Dust myself off, Start all over again.”
As immortalised in Swing Time starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Whilst you’re travelling forwards (in a car with a manual handbrake )it’s relatively easy to make a handbrake turn and head off again back in the direction you come from…
The alternative manoeuvre is the trickier J turn. For this you need to be traveling at speed in reverse (30 mph+), then back off the throttle, give the steering wheel a sharp half-turn flick to make the front swing round to face the direction you were reversing. Simples. Although thinking about it, probably not a great idea in Margo…
Heading back we remembered we’d planned to fill up with diesel in Narvik. Our thwarted attempt at the Norwegian border meant we were running on diesel mist by the time we’d retraced our steps to the tiny fuel station in Abisko. Being in such a remote location, fuel is mega expensive, but we were just so grateful when we finally reached it.
The Abisko National Park was founded in 1909, the same year some of Sweden’s first laws on nature and conservation were created and the visitors began coming here, shortly after. Their journey made possible via the opening of the Iron Ore Line Railway, that connects Lulea on the Baltic Sea with Narvik on the North Sea (that’s Norway!)
Starting from Abisko you can follow The Kings Trail also known as Kungsleden, it is Sweden’s longest and most famous hiking trail. The entire trail takes about a month to cover but because it’s broken into sections you can choose the length of your hike. The most popular section, which stretches between Abisko and Nikkaluokta, is about 105 km long and will take 10-12 days.
The Abiskojokk river eventually flows into the Torneträsk the sixth largest lake in Sweden
On the shore of the lake there’s a jetty, a camp fire pit and grill complete with free logs (it’s forbidden to cut down trees in the National Parks) and a very nice looking sauna hut. Given its position I suspect a post sauna dip in the ice cold Torneträsk lake is mandatory!
Originally hunters and gatherers, the Sami turned to herding of domesticated reindeer in the 17th century. Reindeer naturally move across huge tracks of land to graze, and the Sami historically lived lives following the herds.
The modern norm is instead to have a permanent home and a cabin in the mountains for the herding season. And those who remain in the business have long since replaced the skis with snowmobiles, AWD vehicles and helicopters. Only some ten per cent of Swedish Sami earn a living from the reindeer industry, and many supplement their income through tourism, fishing, crafts and other trades.
Designed to be above the snow and away from predators, unless they have brought their own ladder…!
Travelling through this this part of Lapland, a famous Swedish botanist once said “If not for the mosquitoes, this would be earth’s paradise.” These comments were made after journeying along the valley of the river Lule during the short summer weeks, when mosquitoes are at their most active.
The miles of lakes and forest really do make this a beautiful place. It’s also easy to find an overnight spot on the edge of a lake with a nice view, just perfect. Well yes perfect for mozzies to torment me.
It might be unfair to say Arjeplog is an out of the way kind of place, (it has in the past offered families 100,000 kronor or individuals 25,000 kronor to move to the town). However it’s biggest claim to fame is the frozen lake which is used as a winter test site for many car manufacturers and has featured in at least one episode of Top Gear.
We stopped at Arjeplog to buy some Bushman spray and got talking to the local police about a warning sign we saw for anyone heading for the Norwegian border (not us of course). Anyway one of the helpful officers telephoned the border and checked if hypothetically we were planning to drive the 85 miles to try crossing the border, we would NOT be allowed in for the same reason given at Narvik. There you are nothing personal, apparently.
Reindeer are also tormented by the mosquitoes at this time of year. This one was on his way to Arjeplog to buy a bottle of Bushman mozzie repellent spray.
Our travelling pals Nick & Lisa had recommended ‘The Wilderness Road‘ close to the Norwegian border. To get from Abisko to join the 500km ‘Wilderness’ circuit, first involved an 800 km cross country drive. Choosing the most direct route meant Margo traversing 100kms of bumpy, gravel forest roads.
So we’ve moved on and are slowly developing a new plan. Part one is to continue to enjoy the natural beauty of Sweden with the vast landscapes of forests and lakes. It’s become very clear to us how outdoorsy the Swedes are. They really seem to make the most of the nature with sporting pastimes like hiking, fishing, boating or camping that this expansive environment offers. It has certainly refreshed our spirits and we look forward to experiencing and enjoying more ourselves.
When we set out on this trip many weeks ago, it was full of uncertainty of if, whether or how we might make it to Norway. Well, today was the day of reckoning and we were unsuccessful. We thought it was going to be possible because we have both been double vaccinated and had the NHS COVID Pass app on our phones, complete with QR code for proof (which has seen us through 4 countries), unfortunately it wasn’t enough for the Norwegians. Particularly as since we left the UK’s Covid case numbers have increased and the UK is now recently in a dark red category.
Upcoming rant warning – I want to rage for a moment about how some of the things we’re experiencing on our travels have a direct relationship with the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Things like the maximum 90 day limit on our time in Schengen, the increase in our insurance costs, changes to data roaming, difficulties in trade – unable to buy MoHo spares from Italy, and fellow travellers abroad struggling to buy stuff from the UK because of a whole load of new form filling.
However it is frustratingly ironic, sitting at here at The Battle of Narvik memorial site (1 km inside the Norwegian border), reading how the Brits, fought alongside Norwegian, French and Polish troops for the control of this territory, to now be stopped from crossing the same piece of ground the allied armies fought over because some politicians think it is better for the UK to go it alone. I could go on, and on about this but…. ok enough, I’m starting to feel better already.
They say “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” we need to start again and build a new plan, for a fresh adventure.
We’re heading north, as opposed to heading south which I understand can be a bad thing, as in “the stock market is headed south“. In the early 1980″s I had the pleasure of working for a much respected manager called Phil Roberts, who had an admirable combination of wit and wisdom. One of his favourite and completely meaningless phases he would trot out with great regularity and usually with a smile was “We shall see what we shall see“. Which suggested that although he might know how a particular outcome might turn out, he was keeping his thoughts to himself. Lovely man.
In 1883 Allmänna SvenskaElektriska Aktiebolaget or ASEA for short was founded in Västerås. Many years later ASEA merged with Brown Boveri to become ABB. I joined the Robotics division in the UK in 1985 and over the 30+ years I spent in the automation industry, I have been to Västerås many times and even now can still feel the deep sense of loyalty to ABB and to the history of the town.
ABB is one of the worlds most respected electrical engineering companies especially in the field of industrial robotics and remains the town’s largest employer. Oh and as an ex-ABB employee it also provides part of my pension.
We left Margo enjoying the acrobatics of the pulled-by-wire wakeboarders expertly executing 180 degree turns, when the drag wire reverses direction. We set off on a bike ride around the shore of Lake Mälaren, past the rows of yachts and motor boats berthed in the marina and following the cycle path out beyond the airport into the countryside.
“At one time Lake Mälaren was a bay of the Baltic, and seagoing vessels using it were able to sail far into the interior of Sweden. Because of movements of the Earth’s crust, however, the rock barrier at the mouth of the bay had become so shallow that by about the year 1200 ships had to unload their cargoes near the entrances and progressively the bay became a lake”.
The wheels have come off
Almost literally, well not quite the wheels… We had stopped for a well deserved ice cream after 12 miles, the half-way point of the ride. Then set off again but only got a mile down the road when the left side crank and pedal on Dave’s bike inexplicably detached itself from the electric motor. We scratched our heads for a bit (but that didn’t help) eventually figuring we needed a large 10mm Allen key to fix it back onto the motor spline.
Luckily this time we were not in a remote forest in the middle of nowhere. By holding up the crank and looking imploringly, it wasn’t long before a passing motorist took pity. This very nice lady who stopped, took me back to her husband who had the right size key, only trouble was I then had to walk back the 16 kms (ok 1.6 kms) to the bikes and the waiting Lesley.
Bike drama over we made it safely back to Västerås for ride around a few memory lanes…
They didn’t have electric bikes back in the day, but this sculpture outside the Stadshotellet depicts a constant stream of ASEA workers on bicycles, pedalling away to start their shift making all manner of electrical stuff!
We arrived late afternoon with almost all the officially designated spots taken. Undeterred, Margo shuffled herself onto the end of the row and waited for someone to leave. This beautiful little spot is provided and maintained by the Galtström community and is free with voluntary contributions invited. How very Swedish…
Skuleskogen National Park
We’d found Skuleskogen National Park whilst researching Sweden before we left the UK. Leaving the E4 road there was a large stallplatz with 50+ motorhomes parked up. Ignoring this we carried on into the forest along a increasingly rough forest track to a free parking area at the start of the walk. Arriving early afternoon a steady stream of vans arrived after us gradually filling up the spaces.
4:30 in the afternoon felt like an odd time to be heading off for a 3 hour walk but we were certainly not alone. The way-marked route was easy to follow especially as large sections involved walking on parallel wooden planks. The reward at the top of the gradual uphill trek was the spectacular Slåttdalsskrevan crevice and the wonderful views from the rock plateau above.
Tired but very satisfied we slept soundly in the quiet of the forest setting before waking at 7am to travel the forest road before the weekenders came in the next morning. Skuleskogen is definitely a highlight of the trip so far.
Breaking our journey north we stopped for cake at a cafe in Skellefteå. We’ve been set a challenge by Toby, one of our wine crowd friends, to find a Swedish nötgrotta (nut cave) cake. Our first attempt found a rather delicious chocolate cake and the famous green princess cake but alas not the nötgrotto. That means we will need to continue our search…damn..
Just a stopover point but what a good one. It’s not that far off the E4 but it’s nothing like Hilton Park Services. Think clean, well-maintained, upmarket camp site with attached authentic local fish restaurant in an idyllic waterside setting. It was so nice I said sod the expense let’s eat out (I’ll do anything to get out of drying the dishes…)
We think we’ve landed on our feet, again. Ardent followers of our travelling laundry needs will have calculated we need a wash day. Well at the harbour-side stellplatz it’s 250 SEK for 24hrs and the laundry is free (oh and so is the sauna).
Wikipedia say Luleå is a coastal city in Swedish Lapland so we must be up north then? We have come along way but we haven’t yet reached 66°33′47.6″ north of the Equator (more of this later).
It is at this point we have to make a decision whether to enter Norway via Sweden or Finland. IF we are going to the North Cape or Nordkapp, it would make at lot of sense to go the shortest route through Finland. However because we only have 90 days (and were required to spend 10 days in France before we could legally enter Germany) we are running short of time. Actually our shortness of time isn’t just down to Covid border rules, as we are enjoying taking our time meandering through Sweden in 16 days.
Nordkapp is on the bucket list for many travellers. Many will go to enjoy the midnight sun or the sunset, but the summer sun doesn’t set between the middle of May and the end of July. Also we don’t think it’s vital to go to John O’ Groats to see the best of Scotland…. there you have it, we have just made our minds up.
66°33′47.6″ The Artic Circle
Above the Arctic Circle, the Sun is above the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year (and therefore visible at midnight and below the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year (and therefore not visible at noon).
The Arctic Circle is currently drifting northwards (shrinking) at a speed of about 15 m (49 ft) per year.
We have driven around 1,500 miles throughout Sweden with our eyes peeled for Elk. Fortunately most of the major trunk roads are now protected with Elk nets along their length. Sorry I should explain. Swedish Elks are designed to have the body of a large cow and can weigh up to 500kgs, all carried on spindly, easily breakable matchstick legs.
This flawed construction can have disastrous consequences as the Elk’s underbelly is exactly the same height as bottom of the popular Volvo 760’s windscreen. In the past (especially when Elk move ground and cross highways during the mating season) the tragic consequence this combination has had on Swedish road safety is legendary.
You’ll be pleased to know the latest advance for the safety obsessed Swedes, means Volvo’s cars now can spot Elks and hit the brakes for you.
We had to a quick turnaround to get this photo on our way to Gällivare when we crossed the Arctic Circle. That means for us tonight the sun sets 23:36 and rises again at 1:50am.
As Phil Roberts would have also succinctly said “We are where we are”.
Dave & Lesley
PS Don’t forget if you want to know where we are – follow this link to PolarSteps
Many years ago Peter, a very good friend of mine told of how his grandfather when travelling for his holidays would send a postcard home to the family, always with the same simple message “Doing fine, Grandad“. Looking at a map, there are signs that some Swedish folk like Lin and Jon are coping – e.g. Linköping, Jönköping also Norrköping, Nyköping, Lidköping, Enköping although after our first night spent in Söderköping, we were still a little worried how the people there were doing. But the next day after sampling the local ice cream we concluded like Pete’s Grandad they’re probably koping fine…!
It’s quite surprising in this day and age that there are still people who don’t believe in trolls..? I know, it’s shocking isn’t.
Buying fresh bread or rolls for lunch is one of our daily tasks on the road. We often take the easy option and find a Lidl, which is fine, but let’s face it you could be anywhere. So after some research Lesley discovered we should be seeking out Konditori‘s where great local bread and all manner of traditional Swedish patisseries can be found. Yum, yum
The troll at the candle shop recommended to Lesley a local walk down the Skurugata gorge. Getting there (the way we went anyway) involved quite a bit of rallying Margo along winding Swedish forest roads. Starting off easy, the short walk became more challenging once we entered the main gorge section. This is definitely the sort of place where the innocent and the foolish are ambushed.
I know – is he scary or what? You certainly wouldn’t want to mess with this guy down a dark passage… come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to mess with him anywhere!!
By all accounts the community of trolls who live in Gamleby are generally a well behaved and on the whole friendly bunch. As I understand it no they longer eat the locals whole (well unless they’re particularly tasty) but their pet midges are partial to a nibble or two of any unwary tourists!
Arriving at the Mem stellplatz we immediately sensed it was a good spot. There is only parking for 4 MoHo’s (or the odd caravan). So we were lucky to bag the 2nd free place, especially as getting here we’d passed huge queues on the main drag to Soderkoping – it was obvious this was a busy holiday weekend but we have been really surprised just how many motorhomes there are on the roads in Sweden.
Sweden has most caravans in the world compared to the inhabitants, in 2017 there were 300,00 caravans and 90,000 motorhomes registered in Sweden – (The UK has 225,000 caravans and motorhomes on the road 2018). Plus around 900,000 boats! For a population of only 10.2 million.
Parked and settled, we’d spotted the attractive looking lunch menu at the pub by the Marina. It had to be done. Lesley had a very nice Swedish Cullen Skink I had a tasty butternut squash with a creamy garlic sauce. Apart from pizza this was our first proper eating out experience and for pub food it was excellent.
Hearing tales of a “too die for” at the ice cream parlour it was time to get out the bikes and cycle along the canal tow path past the locks to Soderkoping. It was particularly good ice cream.
As well as the ice cream tip, Lesley’s ears picked up when our friendly stellplatz neighbours told us they were off next to Sweden’s Skåne county (the southernmost bit) to a wine tasting, we nearly fell off our deckchairs.. Swedish wine? Really? However perhaps it’s not that remarkable, as temperatures today are expected to reach 31 celsius so not as daft as it sounds.
“Scientists say the world’s wine map could be fundamentally changed by global warming, with traditional winemaking regions in southern Europe, as well as Australia, California and Latin America, becoming simply too hot while more northerly areas such as the UK, the Netherlands and Scandinavia boom”.
We’re starting to fall in love with this county, although it’s not easy to capture the essence of the Swedish landscape. There is a reassuring consistency in the blend of softly rolling fertile farmland, dotted with pretty red and white painted farms and houses, Interspersed with swathes of commercial forest and mixed woodland extending for miles and miles.
From what I can make out Sweden has no toll roads and just two toll bridges. I thought we’d test this by taking a ferry as a shortcut to Stendörren, a popular coastal destination located along from Nyköping. We timed it perfectly as there were no queues and no attendent so we just drove onto a Margo-sized space in the middle row, 30 seconds later later we were off.
It took just a few minutes to cross this stretch and it avoided Nyköping and was 30 kms shorter than the long way round, oh and of course it was FREE…
A dirt road took us the last kilometre to a popular grassy parking spot for our lunch. Fancying a dip we took our swim gear and towels and followed a path to reach a small archipelago of rocky islands linked together by several wire suspension bridges. Limited to two people and their bags at a time these structures were bouncy affairs but they allowed us to find our own spot at the waters edge.
Unfortunately as we got closer to the water it no longer looked that appealing as the shoreline was covered this green-yellow soupy sludge that you need to swim through to get to open water. Other people (and their dogs) were managing ok, but we had read warnings about blue-green algae (especially of its toxicity to animals) so we decided on this occasion not to chance it
After our non-swim we headed up the road a bit further to what was suggested by others as a free overnight spot. at Sibro Kvarn. Reading the information at the gate, the pricing has changed and is now 150SEK / night which although reasonable was difficult for us as they only accept Swish (a Swedish payment card). Without a Swish card we parked outside and left early the next morning.
Parking outside the official spot had the advantage of watching this gorgeous sunset slowly develop over the lake.
That’s all for now, once again thanks for reading.
There’s some sort of important football tournament going on in Europe at the moment…? A Google search suggest it’s The UEFA European Football Championship.
Apparently Wales were pretty chuffed to reach the last 16 and their fans were really looking forward to watching their match against Denmark in Amsterdam. However due to the blumin Covid-19 rules, the Welsh fans weren’t allowed to go to the match, so the Danes won. Luckily for the England team their last 16 match against Germany was at Wembley so England won that game…, Lesley says Scotland were just pleased to be invited.
Germany has many interesting places to see, as we had discovered on a trip in 2019. However trying to abide by the Germany’s Covid transit rule of <24 hours made it hard to do anything more than take the most direct route. Ok it would be breaking the rules but we discussed the risks of long hours of driving and decided to take a bit longer and make two stops.
“The infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was located not far from Bergen. Liberated by British forces in 1945, is now a memorial site with a comprehensive visitor centre. Today, only the sombre mounds of mass graves remain along with various monuments to those who died; the original camp was raised by the British after its survivors had been rescued The suffering of Anne Frank and her diary are worldwide associated with the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen after she died here.”
Due to the many roadworks we averaged around 40 kph as we passed Hanover and Hamburg, even though on the generally good German roads Margo would happily cruise at 100 kph plus. As we crossed over the river Elbe the sky-line around the Port of Hamburg was filled with neat groups of colourful cranes.
We felt a sense of nervousness as we approached the Danish border. Looking at Google maps (what would we do without this technology) we could see the middle border crossing road had less traffic queueing for this smaller border post.
As we inched forward in the queue we saw the Danish cars were just being waved through. Our turn came, we gave the friendly young border guard our passports, he asked to see our CoronaPas (we don’t have one), I waved my NHS Covid QR code in his direction, Lesley couldn’t get hers to open! He just smiled and waved us through….!
Gråsten – Lærkelunden Camping
Feeling a sense of relief we decided if we made it to Denmark we would stay here at Lærkelunden Camping near Gråsten to chill and relax for a couple of days. We booked a pitch with waterfront views, put out the awning, got out the chairs, opened a bottle of wine and breathed.
Whilst I sat and watched the world go by Lesley, (never one to miss the opportunity to use a laundry) decided as it was gloriously sunny and 14 days into the trip, it was time for wash day!
Whilst the last of the washing dried in the sun, Widow Twankey took time out for a quick paddle and to check out the Danish firemen rehearsing with the water hoses on the beach.
Nick & Lisa who we met in Rincón de la Victoria near Malaga in January, arrived late afternoon and it was time to share notes of Norway plans and a glass or two.
To get to our next destination Odense we had to cross the Storebæltsbroen ‘The Great Belt’ bridge that connects the islands of Zealand and Funen. We knew we had to avoid paying the full price toll on the famous Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, but we hadn’t realised the Storebaelt would turn out to cost much more (610 DKK to exact – equivalent to £80.50 ouch).
We’d targeted Odense at it was the birth place and home of Hans Christian Andersen. Coming from a poor family his birthplace is in a very small town house which we skipped in favour of the newly opened H.C.Andersen Hus that only opened 5 days before so it was billed as a soft opening with half price entry tickets.
Part of the reason it wasn’t yet fully open is that some of the exhibits were still having technical problems and in particular there were no English language headsets, which was a bit of a shame as english actor Simon McBurney performs as H.C. Andersen in the English version of the museum experience.
I’m sure the Danes don’t blame the Brits but there appear to be quite a few working on this project including: Andy Gent – British puppet maker, British animator and illustrator George Shelbourn, Noah Harris British graphic designer and number one culprit British sound designer, director and scriptwriter Lewis Gibson.
I’m sure when it is all working properly it will be a great showcase of Hans Christian Andersen’s work. He wrote many famous fairy tales amongst my childhood favourites were The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea and the Ugly Duckling.
With the English audio broken we had no idea what was going on here but we think it represented the the Snow Queen…?
I assume when the museum is fully open these will be animations of his most most popular fairy tales. For now this is a fairly static multi-layered image from the Ugly Duckling.
Museum experience completed, we headed back towards Margo waiting patiently at Odense station carpark. As we passed this shop on the way… we though what harm could it do to just ask about Danish prices for the latest iPhones. Worryingly for the budget, the demo of Apple’s iPhone 11 pro max was very impressive – we eventually left with even less trip budget than we started with (it was just a curious question as we were passing).
Roskilde Viking ship museum and Cathedral
We had a very quick look at the Roskilde Viking ship museum but decided we would spend more time in the Norwegian Viking museum in Oslo later in the trip.
Whilst touring around Europe, it is inevitable that churches and cathedrals are the local attractions which will from time to time demand to be visited. We’d spotted the pointy spires but we hadn’t realised Roskilde Cathedral was such a significant and important building.
The Cathedral is the most important church in Denmark. It is also older than it looks as it was constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries, the cathedral has been the main burial site for Danish monarchs since the 15th century and is therefore unsurprisingly listed as a UNSECO World Heritage Site.
I am not a church goer or a fan of all things religious but the cathedral inside was bright and airy with a clean modern feel. Yes of course there was the usual showy opulence but somehow it felt ok. Oddly there was also lots decorative arty pieces in the style of The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. There’s an idea for later.
As Danny Kaye once so memorable sang “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen“. But neither Lesley or I knew very much about it. We found City Camp, only 2kms from the centre, a perfect place to park Margo and explore the city from.
Setting off on the bikes, we passed through the University area on cycle ways and eventually found the main riverside district.
It has been said of Copenhagen “where there are more bikes than people, and perhaps more bridges than bikes.” Riding passed the Opeream- the Copenhagen Opera House we soon saw what was meant by bikes.
Cycling is incredibly popular with separate cycle lanes and traffic lights although it might take us a while to fully understand how bikers safely turn left?
Nyhavn is probably Copenhagen’s most iconic image so we had to get a couple of pictures. Ideally we would have liked to stay awhile and soak up more of the atmosphere. But we both thought this is a place to come back to so for now it’s a 24 hour whistlestop affair.
With rain threatening it was time to find a cash point to pay for the overnight stop (the enterprising Markus wasn’t yet able to accept cards at City Camp’s impromptu field. The heavens opened – panic ensued – we took a few wrong turns – we got very wet.
Reaching Margo and with rain getting ever stronger we hastily chucked the bikes on the bike rack only for it to inexplicably jam! Taking off one bike we got it to move and then added a second – we got very, very wet.
Few of Copenhagen’s well known (or photographed) sculptures are more famous that this one – Hans Christian Andersen “The Little Mermaid“
Before leaving we found a good place to park Margo before taking our morning constitutional around the Kastellet.
I think I first became aware of the Øresund Bridge after watching the tv series The Bridge, this then lead to growing interest in Scandi noir including the excellent “Kurt Wallander” and the Swedish television series Rebecka Martinsson Artic Murders a big favourite and most recently the binge worthy series The Killing which we just finished before we came away.
Anyway back to the bridge –
The Øresund Bridge is an approximately 16 km long road and rail link between Sweden and Denmark with from the Danish side a road rail tunnel then the bridge. To cross in a motorhome and pay the full price is €128. with the tag it’s €48. As we left home not knowing if would make it this far we were not able to order a tag (also used on tunnels and ferries in Norway) but after telephoning Øresund pay we picked up a tag from the toll both on the Swedish side. Sorted.
Well, with England’s football team beating Denmark in the semis of the Euro’s (albeit after a disputable penalty) and remembering the noisy fans who watched their team beat Croatia at the campsite in Gråsten, demonstrated how passionate the Danes are about their footie. We thought it’s time to swiftly move countries before they recognise the GB plates.
Toodle Pip till next time.
PS – Please feel free to leave a comment.
PPS – Our new (thanks Lisa) Where are we now link to Polar Steps seems to be working well, if you’re a FB user.
Plan A is to go to Norway via Harwich and the Hook of Holland, plan B is still Norway but via Dover Calais, plan C is an alternative idea to tour France, plan D is to tour Poland instead going via Italy and Bulgaria and Plan E is … err we don’t have a plan E.
Unlike the temperature shock on returning from Portugal in February, we left Cumbria enjoying sunny weather with temperatures in the low 20’s. The grey skies approaching London soon changed to a steady drizzle and the typical slow M25 traffic was viewed though metronomic wipers struggling to clear the screen.
Due to the need for the last minute change, the Dover – Calais ferry at £137 was chosen instead of the Eurotunnel at £246 (ok so you don’t get choppy seas in the tunnel). Waiting for the ferry we were surprised to find aside from a small convoy of horse boxes, we were the only motorhome on board. There was just one car but we were surrounded by lots of large trucks most of which had European plates.
Ever since we came home in February we have been talking about our next trip, we were confidently planning a tour of Norway and Sweden. In February it appeared a real long shot, but we hoped that by the time the summer came EU Covid numbers will have improved and borders will have opened up. Well it’s not that easy….. FR, NL, DE, DK SE and the NO governments have all multiple changes to their plans for opening up. The current largest hurdle is Germany.
Organising the Norway trip has been a nightmare. Each country on our route has repeatedly changed their entry requirements, with contradictory statements adding to the confusion. This has made it almost impossible to plan with certainty. Thinking we understood what we were allowed to do, we booked a ferry from Harwich to Holland only to have to cancel as Germany announced the Delta strain is a “variant of concern” meaning Germany will not allow UK residents to enter or transit through unless they quarantine or (we think) have spent at least 10 days in the EU!
France changed their rules on the 9th June 2021 and (currently) we’re allowed in provided we’ve both had PCR tests within the previous 72 hours and are fully vaccinated. So the plan is to start with a slow meander down to see Lesley’s family near Chalon-sur-Saône.
The dreich weather continued into France and followed us to a free aire on a disused railway line at Marcoing just south of Cambrai. Avoiding parking under the trees to avoid the drip,drip,drip of Chinese water torture, we had a good nights rest.
It was very sobering driving through the tranquil rolling landscape of north eastern France, how many well tended war graveyards we passed. Each small town we drove through made you think of the sacrifice made my hundreds of thousands of young men who gave their lives fighting over yards of foreign soil for our freedom and our shared values..
Next day the weather improved slightly and we were able to enjoy a ride from parking place in Saint Quentin along the canal and around the old town. This was after a false start when we had to return to put a charge in Lesley’s bike battery (mine had been charged twice though)!
Saint Quentin’s town square had a couple of bars around periphery open but the middle was fenced off and looked as if it had been organised to marshal people for a Covid test in a shed.
Moving on, our next overnight stop was at Saint-Imoges to a free aire which was a credit to the townsfolk who created and maintain the clean service point and tended the well manicured spacious pitches. We did consider a bike ride through the surrounding countryside, but still feeling jaded after all the departure hassles we opted for a stroll in the woods and around the village.
I had always imagined that grapes were picked by armies of students or cheerful peasants, gently laying the precious bunches into wicker baskets before settling down to a hearty lunch in the vineyards.
The reality is that most vineyards (where the terrain allows) use mechanical harvesters that resemble some kind of sci-fi grapevine grazing monsters, that straddle the vines and thwack their way along the rows, beating the vines with the help of rubber or fibreglass rods to shake or strip ripe grapes from their stems and bring in the harvest.
Machines can pick large areas quickly at optimum ripeness, or perhaps before a weather front sets in, helping to prevent crop loss.
Catching a good weather window we mapped with the help of Komoot a cycle route along the canal tow paths and river banks near Tornerre (translates as thunder in French).
Lesley discovered yet another lavoir (wash-house) but thankfully our washing basket is nowhere near full yet!
Time to leave our very comfortable Chablis camp site and head south to Bourgogne and visit the rellies.
Can you spot the very proud and pleased looking Aunt next to Bruce, Lena and Scott.
Our stop to see Bruce’s first house was sadly very brief as the next day we were due at Lesley’s sisters house near Chalon-sur-Saône. It was our first time visiting Sue since she moved into Jean’s house. It was also a chance to meet Jean’s daughter Manon who was lovely.
Fed and watered we set off once more this time Margo was headed north-east towards Alsace.
Although Alsace is part of France, its borders have not always been clear. The region has been passed between French and German control several times since 1681, when Strasbourg was conquered by French forces. As a result, Alsatian culture is a unique mix of French and German influences.
Having previously been to Colmar on route to a ski trip and as we like the medieval Alsatian buildings we picked out Eguisheim as a good place to land. Margo liked the swanky new aire but complained that new tarmac could have been laid level!
All very chocolate box pretty but you could imagine the number of day trippers coming here in the height of summer?
Every other shop in the town sold wine, but you could not buy a bottle of water or milk anywhere we saw..
Leaving behind the pretty village we set off on a bike ride through the vineyards
This machine was working along the rows adding new supporting wires to the top of the vines. Our route took us to the next village before we turned back to follow a track up and through the forest. After a steep start the rough path became gradually overgrown until crossing a stream we came face to face with 3 French soldiers out on manoeuvres.
I thought they were going to tell us to go back in case we were accidentally shot. These guys were carrying some serious kit and looked as though they’d been in the forest all night. When they spoke to Lesley, it turned out they were only interested to know if we’d seen any other “combatants”….. phewee.
With that drama over we returned to Margo and headed for a France Passion (FP) site at Spitz et Fils a winemaker in Blienschwiller (I know not very French). FP’s sites are usually free to stay overnight and you’re not obliged to buy their produce, but we usually think it would be rude not too.
Mark the owner’s son (Fils) gave us an excellent tasting experience. He spoke very good English and shared his extensive knowledge of wine making. We hadn’t previously understood just how much work there is, not only to harvest the grapes and produce the wine. But the vines need staking, pruning, cutting, wire stringing as well as all ground management. (Mark and his dad plant radish between rows as tillage for soil improvement). Well I didn’t know that?
Next morning Margo took us up into the hills to the east of the Vosges mountains, she struggled slightly with the extra 3 bottles from last night but managed the climb up to a parking place near Cascade du Hohwald.
The walk up to the waterfall was just 800m, but was a good uphill leg stretch and likely to be our last bit of exercise before the first ‘attempt at the German border’ tomorrow.
Captain Virgil Hiltswould have found a border fence to jump his Triumph motorbike over, but Margo is not that kind of ride, so lets hope the nice border guards look favourably on our friendly faces, double vaccine +10 day stay in France (EU) + plan to transit through German in <24 hours.
After many weeks and at least two attempts to leave, only to return we finally dragged ourselves away from Mikki’s Place to Stay. This quirky Algarve campsite had been an unplanned but welcome refuge during the worrying and turbulent times of the second wave of the Covid-19 crisis. We definitely count ourselves amongst the lucky ones especially with the time we had on our hands when reading the devastating human cost around the world. In our tiny bubble it took us a while to realise our well researched and mapped out touring plan had ended and to accept the need to stay put and make the best of where we were, was our new normal.
Someone once said “Happiness is the art of making a bouquet of the flowers within reach”, spending 80+ nights at Mikki’s wasn’t always a bunch of roses but on the whole I’m sure we will look back upon the time there with mainly fond memories.
Negatives – smoking inside the bar & restaurant, having to put the toilet paper in a bin (always a joy), night-time dogs barking, people not wearing masks and still unbelievably…. Covid deniers!
Positives – friendships we made with fellow motorhomers, the big blue skies, mainly sunny weather, daily walking with a friendly group, trips out to see long, beautiful beaches and rocky coastline, availability of Heinz baked beans…
Our first Christmas in relative warmth and sun was a strange affair. Like many many others who weren’t able to be with their families because of Covod-19. We made the best of it with some cheap Chinese lights to brighten up the van and joined friends to share a joint Christmas meal.
Our shared Xmas lunch with 5 couples all contributing part of the lunch turned out great. Helped along with a bit of alcohol, the food was followed by an absolutely hilarious time watching the contortions on everyone face as they tried to slide an after-eight mint from their forehead into their mouths. Side splitingly priceless memories.
We saw some pretty unusual sight during our various cycling expeditions around the the hills away from the beach action. This collection was part of a strange roadside menagerie randomly assembled by the roadside, a few kms inland from Praia-de-Luz.
The weather wasn’t always sun and blue skies. Wash day sometimes brought it’s challenges as in: –
Aliens Stole My Underpants To understand the ways of alien beings is hard, And I’ve never worked it out Why they landed in my backyard. And I’ve always wondered why on their journey from the stars, these aliens stole my underpants and took them back to Mars. They came on a Monday night when the weekend wash had been done, pegged out on the line to be dried in the morning sun. Mrs Driver from next door was a witness at the scene when aliens snatched my underpants – I’m glad that they were clean! It seems they were quite choosey as nothing else was taken. Do aliens wear underpants or were they just mistaken
The situation in Portugal seemed like it was getting progressively worse from a Covid point of view with cases rising and hospitals running out of beds. For the last 82 day that we’d holed up in the Algarve we felt very, very fortunate. In the early days there were no tourists, some bars and restaurants were open, it was 19-20 degrees with big blue skies. We could think of worse places to be especially as we made a several good friends and we could cautiously socialise.
On the 20thJanuary – We left Mikki’s, fingers crossed we’d get across into Spain unchallenged as the Spanish border (EU border posts are largely long gone) was supposedly closed. We also expected problems getting into the local municipality of our campsite but in the end had no issues.
Compared to the restrictions in Portugal, arriving in Andalusia felt like going back two months as there were quite a few bars and restaurants open on the sea front. Within this local area we also had freedom to walk / cycle (provided you wore a mask) anywhere within our new temporary home in Rincón de la Victoria. We had to be back home for the area’s 10pm curfew, but that aside if felt quite relaxed.
25thJanuary – Our plan at that time was to head slowly up the south coast of Spain enjoying as much of the good weather whilst we could. After five days we moved on a very windy day to overnight at a harbour at Almerimar. I would use this place again another time, as it’s very handy if you’re travelling up or down the A7.
The next day another 240 kms took us to El Berro, in the Sierra Espuña national park near Murcia, this time with a different set of restrictions meaning all bars and restaurants were closed. We had the campsite there more or less to ourselves and chilled for a few days although we did complete a mega 2500ft climb ride (why?) up a local hill.
29th January – After 3 days our next hop was to Peñiscola, somewhere we’d been during better times but to a different campsite at El Edén. The campsite was quite busy with 30-40 mainly German vans appearing content to sit it out for the winter, in contrast to Peñiscola itself which was like a ghost town.
Since leaving the UK in late September we’d been keeping up-to-date with Covid developments around Europe. So, when we heard the French were planning to require a PCR test the following day for anyone entering (including by road), we decided it was time for us to up-sticks and head for the French border.
30thJanuary – Knowing the French curfew started at 6pm and with 400kms to cover, we knew we had to get a move on. Looking at the night-time wind forecast for Argelès-sur-Mer it was now forecast for 115kms/hour! So we changed plans and chose an aire just across the border at Le Boulou, arriving at 5pm thus avoiding the £200 cost of two PCR tests. Phew, when we made it we felt very relieved.
31st January – The next day we indulged in a proper French baguettes and decent yummy French cakes. Deciding to stick to the minor roads (we had seen the gendarmes at a road block near the border) we made our way north stopping off en-route for a short walk to see Les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Tet (closed due to Covid), before an overnight stop at the familiar (to us) Pass d’ Etapes aire at Castelnaudry.
1st February The ever-changing regulation landscape suggested the UK government were thinking of bringing in a requirement for travellers returning to the UK from one of 30ish countries of which Portugal was one to stay in a hotel for 10 nights. It seemed this would apply to us so we said “Come on lets just get home”.
Apart from a short section around Toulouse the A20 motorway is a toll free route to Tours. It’s a long 570 kms so we set off in the rain, before daybreak and arrived at an aire south of Tours just before the French night curfew. This then left an easy route the next day to get to Neufchatel on Bray where we’d booked online to have our PCR tests before entering the UK.
2nd February – After making good progress we arrived around lunchtime and rewarded ourselves with more French patisserie. We also changed the time of the tests to bring them forward to 3pm. We were impressed by the ease and efficiency of the Neufchatel en Bray clinic. Although having swabs were stuck up our noses and relieved of €135 is not the best experience. We were slightly sceptical when they told us we’d have the results later that day (not the 24-48 hours we had feared).
However armed with this information it prompted a further change of plan and resulted in us leaving Neufchatel en Bray to spend the night behind the sand dunes at Stella Plage instead. True to the clinic’s word we picked up the negative test results from their website around 10pm and so were all systems go for Calais.
3rd February – The tunnel was as usual very straightforward but quiet. The French customs asked for our Passenger Locator Forms and negative test results. (although we accidentally showed them Lesley results twice but they didn’t notice)! British immigration asked for the same (we’d found my test results by then) a quick whizz though the tunnel and we were home free. Well free to spend the next 10 days locked in the house completing our quarantine.
So here endeth another chapter in our travels. It wasn’t the trip we had planned but in the end we felt really lucky to spend the winter somewhere safe (ish) warm and sunny. Arriving home was a bit of a shock weather wise but we enjoyed spring in the lakes and spending time sorting out the garden and planning our next adventure in Margo the motorhome.
After enjoying the BBC series ‘Life’ we have now opened our long overlooked box set of the US television series The West Wing. First aired in 1999 the shows gave an insight into daily dramas of the Whitehouse staffers and a fictitious US democratic presidency. Watching this now, has been all the more fascinating as it’s coincided with the real life horror show of the current US administration and the 2020 election amplified by the defeated President’s unprecedented, unpresidential bonfire of respect for facts, truth and shame! Nate White expresses Donald Trump’s qualities (or lack of them) so colourfully here.
Thankfully we’re a long way from the USA and we’re not intending to go any further west than the Algarve’s west Atlantic coast (as opposed to its south Atlantic coast which is to the south unless it’s moved!). Anyway after leaving Ourique, we arrived by way of a very uncomfortably crowed Lidl to Vila Nova de Milfontes in Alentejo district. This coastline is a mixture of long sandy surfing beaches and dramatic rocky cliffs fully exposed to everything the Atlantic ocean can throw at it.
The popular Portuguese holiday destination of Milfontes sits at the mouth of the Mira River – the same river we cycled around from our previous campsite. This coast normally attracts its fair share of surfers dudes due to the big Atlantic rollers. However the stormy conditions we witnessed were rather too fierce to persuade us to don wet suits and hire cool coloured polyurethane ironing boards. Anyway “Life’s too short for Ironing”…!
The very useful ‘Search for Sites’ app directed us to an overnight parking spot on a headland. Whilst taking in the view, we spotted a fish restaurant with outside tables looking out towards the sea. The socially distanced tables and masked waitresses added to the Covid-safe feeling.
After the very nice food and wine at Porto das Barcas restaurant a post lunch nap was required before watching the sun go down with a crowd of (predominantly) unmasked sunset snappers at Milfontes, Lighthouse Beach.
I have become quite sensitive to how people appear to respect the coronavirus regulations. Observing how many people are wearing masks is for me a way of sensing the risk. Having overnighted in Margo in Milfontes we were planning to spend a week or more on this coast. However after arriving at Zambujeira do Mar, I really didn’t feel comfortable as most of the tourists and locals milling around seemed either immune to, or unaware of, the dangers in the world outside their blissful oblivious ‘carry on as normal’ bubbles. I turned Margo around and we headed back south.
Statista recently published the result of a survey entitled How often have you worn a face mask outside your home to protect yourself or others from coronavirus? Significant differences existed between European countries in terms of wearing a masks, which they suggest is mainly due to the differing legislation. According to the results, over 95 percent of Spanish respondents always wore a face mask outside, while a large proportion of respondents in the Nordic countries hadn’t worn a mask at all.
“How about we go back to Mikki’s”? It was disappointing to cut short our southern Portugal mini tour and head back to Mikk’s place near Albuferia, but it was somewhere where we had felt (even though mask wearing wasn’t universal) much more comfortable.
With the pitch from our previous stay now taken, we spent a noisy night under a tree before changing our location to a spot opposite Beertje & Babsy two Göttingen mini pigs, with two alpacas and two goats as their next door neighbours. Beertje and Babsy are very docile and seemed to love having their backs and belly’s scratched with a garden hoe by one of our Belgium fellow campers, as do I – although I prefer Lesley to do it rather than the Belgian neighbour!
Settling back into the campsite we set of to explore the area. The bikes cope well with most off road condition but we decided to find a better way to get to Armação de Pêra than attempt cycling along the beach.
We had to cycle the long way round to get to Armação de Pêra but the ice cream was a nice reward for our efforts.
Like other urban centres on the Algarve coast, Armação de Pêra developed out of a small fishing village. However, in the middle of August, its population peaks at around 80,000. Although fishing has lost its importance due to rise in tourism, where it has become the main source of income, not only in the former fishing village, but also in the wider municipality of Silves.
I’m not sure how many tourists would normally be slapping on the sun tan lotion on the beaches in November. But cycling through the town it feels quiet and the near deserted beaches give an indication of the drop off in visitor numbers which must be really hurting the local and wider Portugese economy.
Expensive data – Having wittered on in the last blog about our marvellous O2 Data SIM costing only £31 per month for 45Gb. How shocked were we to receive a bill this week for the 2nd month of our O2 contact for £2,287.87. Quite shocked actually! An urgent call to O2 was made and they explained that in the small print it says we have to pay £25/Gb for every extra Gb of usage above 45. However as we were first time offenders a refund was speedily applied to our account along with a data cap set so we would not be able to go over our limit again. Phew!
From Mikki’s there are numerous routes to walk and cycle. Silves is a 19 mile return trip with the promise of lunch at a fish restaurant at the halfway point.
Our route back guided by Google maps took us right through the middle of the Amendoeira golf course. (In 2016, Faldo’s course won the title of Portugal’s Best Golf Course, given by World Golf Awards). No one stopped us as we cycled nonchalantly through its manicured landscape. We only came unstuck when we found the security gate at the far side was closed. Fortunately we spotted a bike size hole in the fence nearby….. needs must.
Well I am disappointed to have to report Beertje and Babsy have been moved. One morning the vet came and we feared the würst(joke). A team of six was needed to catch them one at a time. By putting something tasty on a wire noose the vet was able to snare and muzzle them with the loop. Their squeals were probably heard for miles (especially from the female when the male was being caught!) But we needn’t have fretted, as it turned out they were just to be moved to a bigger enclosure and be kept company by a couple of young kids. More on B&B next time.
The Portuguese government in an effort to combat the increasing numbers (especially in the north) has put further restrictions on movement for the next few weekends. But as the camping is in the Silves municipality apart from the weekend curfews it shouldn’t affect our freedoms too much. We just need to stay local, be respectful and keep safe.
Thanks to our O2 data SIM’s 45Gb monthly allowance, even when in Europe we’ve been catching up the drama series ‘LIFE’ via BBC iPlayer. We’ve both really enjoyed the format, although we were ever-so slightly disappointed with the final episode which we both thought a bit short on drama compared with the previous twists, turns and surprises. As a Guy Garvey fan I was also taken by the theme music ‘My Angel“. No this is not a tenuous (although much overdue) link singing the praises of my beloved, but more of an insight into our ‘LIFE‘ in the Moho.
Having moved on (for now) from Mikki’s place to stay near Albuferia, we found our way west along the coast to Praia de Luz and the very different campsite at Turiscampo. If Mikki’s is earthy, by contrast this Yelloh Village site is highly manicured with indoor and outdoor swimming pools and even 5 star showers for the residents’ pampered pooches!
Talking of showers our arrival coincided with the onset of rain. The forecast suggested we were due a serious thunder and lightening storm. When you’re handicapped by the weather, there’s not much else to do in the van during the daytime – it’s time to find a good book, practice duo-lingo or perhaps research where to go next. However after dark and with dinner in Margo’s exclusive restaurant taken, the nightly phone calls made, it’s time……. to get the cards out. Oh what exciting lives we lead.
During the night of the predicted storm, we realised rather late that our awning was still out and it had started to lash it down. Waiting until it eased a bit, I grabbed the umbrella (is that a lightening rod I’m holding?) and dashed out to put our sodden ‘sunshade’ away. As I was about to come back in, I noticed our neighbours struggling to put the their awning away. They hadn’t been so lucky and the wind had got hold of one corner and snapped off the retract arm from it’s outer mounting point. A quick grab for my International Rescue outfit and the toolbox from Thunderbird One and between us we quickly repaired the connection sufficiently for it to be retracted in time before the heavens opened up, F A B. Mr Tracy.
The next night brought even more drama. Two nights before we had found a (keep-Dave-happy) pizza place in the village next to Turiscampo. Nearby Lesley had spotted Sunita’s Castle – an Indian restaurant – so we decided to satisfy her longing for a curry. Alas, walking along the rough tarmac road in the dark, Lesley stumbled and fell on her hands and knees in the mud. As a result she sprained her ankle quite badly, although the thought of the curry temporarily overcame the pain. The discomfort didn’t improve when arriving at the restaurant with embarrassingly mucky knees and hands that were too muddy to accept the mandatory alcoholic hand sanitiser, oh dear.
Sunita’s Castle’s brown panelled decor had all the charm of a1970’s London transport canteen, but the food was surprisingly good especially the naan bread.
With Lesley’s ankle needing 72 hours rest and regular application of ice packs, it was difficult to walk anywhere far. Even so, we made a short journey to the coast and managed to get Margo close enough to the beach at Salema for Lesley to sit on a road side bench whilst I found a parking spot for Margo behind the village.
Feeling like we’d ‘landed’ ourselves in the Algarve we decided we should get a better feel for the whole area and go and explore the countryside away from the coast, so we made a bee-line for the five star Monchique Resort and Spa.
No I’m only joking we didn’t desert Margo, instead she found her way up a rough rock strewn track about a 1km south of the spa to Camping Vale da Carrasqueira. The campsite’s website makes the very bold claim to be”the best caravan park for mobile homes in the Algarve“! (I think they should consider sacking their publicist and hire someone with fewer concerns for truth decay and false modesty – I hear Donald Trump will be looking for work in January).
After a couple of nights R&R we left behind the creature comforts of our gravel parking spot (complete with on pitch EHU, water and GWD*), heading on to an overnight spot at the new (this year) Area de Autocaravanas de sao Marcos Da Serra.
We had no idea why the trees in the main square in Marcos Da Serra have been so beautifully crocheted. Apparently after years of extensive research Portugese scientists have discovered that some tree species feel the cold this time of the year and ‘Yarn Bombing‘ helps them keep warm! Who’d have believed that?
Clearly Cork trees are much hardier and don’t mind at all spending the winter without their trousers on.
The dog’s bark, was probably worse than his bite., or wait for it .This dog was barking up the wrong tree…. groan oh forget it.
After a few days rest, Lesley found cycling easier on her ankle than walking. Using Komoot once again we found an easy 9 mile circular route from the auto-caravans site in Marcos Da Serra.
The route we chose had, at some point, to cross a river to get home. We found a track that went down to the river (and continued up the other side) the only problem was the width and depth of the wet bit in the middle. I gallantly, nobly, bravely, nay foolishly, offered to go first to see how deep it was. Lesley on the other hand sensibly took her shoes and socks off, rolled up her trousers and came out the other side considerably drier than me……. hmmmmmmm.
Swiftly moving on, next day we made our way a little further north towards Ourique leaving the Algarve and entering the Beja District and to Serro da Bica. This was a gem of a camp site run by a Dutch couple where we felt very Covid safe, a completely chilled and relaxed place to be. We had originally booked for one night but ended up staying for three, although Lesley would have stayed on longer.
We didn’t do very much whilst at camping Serro da Bica except another quick 9 miler on the bikes. This time Lesley volunteered to go first across the ford over Mira river at Alento.
As members of the UK Carthago Owners Club we thought this would make a good entry for their STC (Spot The Carthago nonsense.
Well that’s nearly caught up with our Portugese wanderings in these strange Covid times. We’ll hopefully bring you bang up to-date in the next blog suffice to say we’re staying safe and hope you all are too.
Dave & Lesley
EHU – Electric Hook Up
*GWD – Grey Water Disposal not to be confused with black water, where… on second thoughts ,let’s not go there.
The weekend we elected to cross the border into Portugal coincided with All Saints Day followed by Dia de Finados (Portugals celebration of Day of the Dead). Traditionally this time is a holiday during which families come together, even spending the night at the graves of their loved ones, believing that the spirits of their dead relatives return to visit those they left behind.
A few days before the holiday the Portuguese government decreed (in order to reduce the spread of Covid), circulation across council areas would be against the law between 30th October and 3rd November. The decision to limit the circulation comes a week after the Council of Ministers announced the return of the state of calamity to Portugal, where many regions particularly in the north were placed under semi lockdown conditions.
Latin America (Mexico especially) create fantastically colourfully celebrations to mark the occasion, in Portugal it is a more sombre affair.
Having left locked down Spain behind we were now unsure of what the Portuguese travel restrictions mean to us. We decided to pause and take stock at a small friendly camp site in Covas. Getting there involved a tortuous route over a mountain road with healthy dose of hairy, blind bends. (thankfully the co-pilot in the lefthand seat, does a fine job of spotting round the blind right hand bends).
Our first day began when Antonio our talkative Portuguese live-in site warden, came by to for a chat (usually a mixture of Portugese history and European politics), and take our bread daily order. He also asked if we’d like to join him and our Swiss neighbours in a Hymer plus the French occupants of the only other Moho on site for a socially distanced lunch.
Well of course we said yes. The village restaurant had a dish of the day which on Friday was Bacalhau à Brás – a lovely warm salad mixture of fish, potatoes, egg, onion. Antonia collected it from the village and we were invited onto the patio area where each table was served with the food and a bottle of wine per table. The meal was delightful, very international and expertly orchestrated by our convivial, multilingual chatty host.
Bacalhau à Brás is one of the most famous Portuguese dishes and is considered the ultimate comfort meal in Portugal. The dish uses many of the quintessential ingredients found in Portuguese cooking: bacalhau (salt cod), eggs, potatoes and black olives
The ebikes are a great way of exploring and quickly discovering more about an area. With Komoot’s help we found a good route from the campsite albeit on ancient uneven limestone cobbled roads, that connected Covas to the surrounding hamlets. It was a steady climb up but the view from Alto da Castanheira looking back down on Covas and the Coura river valley was worth the effort. With the reward of a long perfect tarmac descent back down again.
Our three nights at camping Covas had been our longest stay so far but it had given us time to workout our plan needed to change radically. All the research we had done on great places to see in northern Portugal was going to be have to be kept for another time. With the new travel restrictions coming in imminently we needed to head south. Lesley’s analysis of the changes revealed the Algarve as one of the few areas largely unaffected by the new rules.
Using motorways from Covas to Faro is just shy of 700 kms and would take us best part of the day. We packed up and pointed Margo south. The roads were incredibly quiet – even for a Sunday. The real reason we concluded was, All Saints Day, plus the restricted local movement due to Covid, resulted in motorways that were virtually empty.
Regularly swapping drivers we made steady progress, but nearing the outskirts of Porto, traffic cones reduced the lanes from 3 down to 1 then directed us off the motorway to a roundabout underneath. Here police were pulling cars over, presumably questioning their routes and anyone found breaking the weekends local travel restrictions fined. Fortunately for us (maybe because of the UK plates) Margo was just waved through. We had been advised that as tourists going to a pre-booked campsite we were legal but it did have our pulses racing for a little while.
7.5 hours after setting off, we were tired but relieved to leave the boring traffic-free motorway near Albufeira. We were also relieved of 95€ in motorway tolls but hey ho! The sun was going down by the time we found Mikki’s very relaxed camp site. First impressions suggested an eclectic mix of motorhomes and their owners.
We quickly discovered this place is not like any standard aire or campsite. Around Mikki’s huge quirky site there were donkeys, five or six types of chickens, goats, white doves, miniature pigs, parrots, llamas, and a whole variety of budgies and parakeets. These were mixed in with the bio garden where an impressive range of fruits and herbs are cultivated with bi-lingual information boards. Last but not least everywhere you explored you’d discover more of the crazy assortment of Mikki’s colourful and bizarre pottery.
Melded into this melange, is a colourful collection of campers, where £300k portable palaces are neighbours to surfer dude’s re-cycled double decker buses. Bronzed youthful looking full-timers, share spaces with transient short stay tourers. Super fit silver surfers side by side with families with young children. Spanish, Dutch, Brits, Irish, German, Belgium French and Portugese nationals, all brought together in this one big cosmopolitan cocktail.
Mikki’s place to stay – Well I really wasn’t at all sure at first, but Mikki’s is growing on us and maybe it is a place to stay (when and if I can learn to relax)?
Obsessively checking the weather means we can adjust our plans to eek out the best of the sunny days and where to be when it’s not so nice. We also search a whole variety of websites to help choose where to go. As Phil Roberts, my boss back in 1984, used to regularly say “We are where we are” and prophetically add “We shall see what we shall see“. Indeed….! On our travels Lesley and I never usually ignore the chance to visit a UNESCO World Heritage site. However WE, for reasons not entirely clear to us, decided on this occasion to give Santiago de Compostela a miss.
Santiago de Compostela – “The famous pilgrimage site in north-west Spain became a symbol in the Spanish Christians’ struggle against Islam. Destroyed by the Muslims at the end of the 10th century, it was completely rebuilt in the following century. With its Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque buildings, the Old Town of Santiago is one of the world’s most beautiful urban areas”.
After overnighting at Brandoñas where the camp site owner -a very welcoming and friendly woman – plied us with free Café con Leche’s, pastries and chocolates, what’s not too like. With rain forecast to be set in for the day, instead of Santiago we choose to turn south and parked up for the afternoon at a huge empty beach at Carnota in front of a newly shuttered concrete pad. The next day (whilst we were out on a walk) the concrete pad had grown a fish.
Next day we made an appointment at the end of our pilgrimage, a wine tasting at Martin Codax.
Martin Codax is the largest producer in Galicia of Albariño wine. The co-operative was founded in 1986 by a group of 50 winemakers and currently comprises 2,400 tiny vineyard parcels individually managed by 550 families. We quaff a lot of Sauvignon Blanc (purely for its anti-inflammatory properties!). When we found that consumption of Albariño also protects against heart attacks, well…
As the only patrons we had an exclusive visit to the winery. We tasted 5 wines including the one we know (the cheapest) and the more expensive varietals normally outside our everyday price range but they all had BLIC….!
According to bluffer guide to wine -“BLIC” is a useful acronym to use when describing a wine.– balance, length, intensity and complexity. “Good wines are ‘good’ because they have a BALANCE of sweet fruitiness and fresh acidity. They have great LENGTH that leaves the taste on your tongue after you swallow. They have INTENSE fruit flavours you can identify. And they’re COMPLEX – If you ever want to describe a wine like an expert just rattle through the BLIC”.
Suitably inspired and with the night closing in, we headed off to a free overnight spot near Combaro, Pontevedra.
Whilst Rías Baixas brings fame to the area for wine making. Rías, the deep, sunken river valleys that have formed inlets around the cities of Vigo and Pontevedra are the heart of Europe’s shellfish industry. Spain produces 200,000 tonnes of mussels a year, nearly half the European market, with 90% produced in Galicia. (they must have some great body-builders…..groan)
Unbeknown to us we had parked outside a shellfish factory. So before dawn dozens and dozens of men and women assembled chattering noisily, then like lemmings they headed en-masse to the waters edge to rake up large bucket loads of mussels and clams. As they say “the world’s your mollusc“!
A lucky piece of research and we found a beautiful walk not far off route, along the Fraga River Trail. This easy walk winds its way gently uphill, the path semi-shaded by the trees as if to keep it secret. Nature has overtaken this place and it’s now difficult to imagine what the landscape was like when the 29 water mills along its route were all in operation. Several of the mills have been reconstructed and the information boards suggest more than one is still used today by some families to grind corn.
Constantly by your side the stream passes over multiple small, naturally beautiful waterfalls, with the water flowing over and around the rocks in its way, creating classic splits, cascades and many beautiful pools.
We cut the route short after we had to retrace our steps when I found I’d dropped the lens cap off the camera. (Well it could happen to anyone, couldn’t it?). Right ‘no time to angabout’ we have to head south and Portugal.
Ok so it’s unsurprising that the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing us to change our plans. The UK is about to go into lockdown, France is already locked down. Now Spain is about to go the same way, meaning we need to get out of Spain just in case they ban travel. However our changed plan is complicated by Portugal’s 5 day travel ban starting tomorrow for the Day of the Dead celebrations, hey ho.
But, before leaving our last task is to top up with fuel. Best price in Spain €0.89 per litre. Portugal reputed €1.30.
Since leaving home in September we have been averaging 75 miles per day and to-date covered 2,060 miles. Wherever practical our plan is to avoid the motorways and use the non toll road. The French and Spanish motorways are great, but they can be expensive. As they also bypass the towns you can end up missing much of the character of the region you are travelling through. Cost is another good reason for using the lesser roads.
That is except when you collect two speeding tickets within a hour of each other in the French region Poitou-Charentes – Oh PUTAIN…… Unfortunately this means the beer and ice-cream kitty is depleted (understandably) by €45.00 for doing 78 kph in a 70 zone and a whopping €90.00 for a careless 56 kph in the 50 zone. Incidentally there isn’t alway a 50 sign, but a red bordered rectangular sign indicating the town name is the start of 50kph zone, so for not paying attention “it’s a fair cop gov”.
Having spent a fab few days in the Picos de Europa, like the dedicated souls doing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, our compass now indicated a firm heading westwards. But in our case it’s towards Galicia and the magnetic pull of Rías Baixas (more about that later). In the meantime we knew at some point we would inevitably meet a wee bitty wet weather.
The Atalaia Camper Park is one of the best best aires we have stayed since we came out. We were greeted by a very friendly, helpful owner (as he was about to go off to Portugal in his own motorhome). He proudly showed Lesley the sparkly clean shower block and toilets, the bikes and smart car for hire but the best bit…….. it had 3 washing machines and 2 dryers – I know, I know we couldn’t contain ourselves either. Such was our excitement we weren’t that bothered when the weather decided it was also a good spot to give Margo a wash!
By morning the rains had gone and it was time for a bike ride up into the hills behind Foz. The steady uphill route took us on a circuit through the eucalyptus forest plantations that covered most of the surrounding hills. After the climb, the reward was a long decent down into the town and to the attractive harbour and a lunch of meatballs for Lesley and tortilla & beans for me.
Whilst the washing machines did a fine job on the sloshing spinning the smalls, unfortunately the tumble dryers weren’t quite as efficient and Margo ended up decked out with pegged out lines draped with a multicoloured assortment of partly damp pants.
Galicia surprised us, we’d read about the long rainy seasons but (given where we live) we weren’t prepared for the greenness that comes with the precipitation. Compared to the popular south, the most north west province is vastly underrated, which is totally unjustified.
The mountainous interior produces deep river valleys. The green wooden landscape is often blanketed in what we began to recognise as the ubiquitous eucalyptus. The greenness of the interior, is fringed by a rugged coastline with rocky inlets, interspersed with beautiful sandy beaches.
The coast of Galicia is where the Bay of Biscay meets the Atlantic bringing very strong currents. Apparently it was the British newspapers that first coined the term ‘Coast of Death’ Costa da Morte after the many shipwrecks on the stretch of coast from Malpica to Fisterra,
Useless fact 436 – Did you know, due to the high number of shipwrecks in this area at the end of the 19th century, it became law to ensure there were sufficient life jackets for every sailor onboard ships.
Famous for its Roman walls, Lugo was our next destination. The guide books say “The grand Roman walls encircling old Lugo are considered the best preserved of their kind in the world” However what the guides fail to point out, the city inside and surrounding it’s historical walls have been disfigured by years of hideous crimes against fenestration.
There is no kind way of putting this – The combined conspiratorial exploits of the Galician town planners and the regions window manufacturers, have turned Lugo into an ugly town. If Caesar‘s ancient Roman crowds were around now I have no doubt their view would be a case of thumbs down!
Praia do Ariño is an inlet on the Atlantic coast 40km north of Finisterre where Margo found a great spot amongst the trees only a few yards from the beach. We had the place to ourselves most probably because the signs now say it has now been undesignated as a MoHo parking place. I suspect, judging by the numerous picnic tables amongst the trees, the change has been made to accommodate the volume of in season visitors – shame.
After the overnight rain had eased we continued round this most westerly stretch of Europe’s coastline. The Galicia region of Spain has really tuned out to be a gem and somewhere to come back to. It’s an attractive mix of small fishing villages, powdery beaches, rugged sea cliffs topped with distant lighthouses. Most famed is the spectacular Cape Finisterre, a rocky peninsula that the Romans believed to be the end of the world.
This old cynic partly thinks the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage has been taken over and is now a money making scheme for those souls who are looking to find themselves! However there are multiple ways to follow the route of Saint James. If the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela wasn’t enough ‘cleansing’ the Camino de Fisterra is the final encore to the end of the world.
The bronze boot marks the end of the road for the tired pilgrims who have successfully completed the Camino de Fisterra pilgrimage extension. Now ready to start a new and better life, they have been known to burn or throw their shoes into the sea here to symbolise a new beginning.
For us it’s not yet time to burn our boots as our ‘journey’ to complete the calling to Rías Baixas and to ‘find ourselves’ amongst the Albariño grapes continues.
Dave & lesley
PS – Thanks to Gary and Jen for opening up our Paris postmarked mail. . . On 2nd thoughts!
The walk from Cain de Valdeón to Poncebos ( Cares Gorge) is just 7 miles. To drive there is 65 miles and 7,125ft of climb and 7,875 of decent, and when you get there, parking a 7.45m motorhome is nigh on impossible. So we went. Arriving late afternoon we needed to wait until most of the cars had gone then we secured one of the only near-level spot for Margo to sit it out till morning.
Our chosen spot was luckily right above the entrance to the funicular railway so in the morning we didn’t have far to go. Our plan was to take the funicular up the 400m to the village of Bulnes and save our energy for the steep descent back down to Poncebos.
Because of Covid-19, we were a bit concerned in case the train might be too crowded, we needn’t have worried as apart from us and the attendant there were two other tourists and three locals delivering bread.
There are no routes for vehicles up to the village so traditionally, the only options were the strenuous two-hour trail from Poncebos or the mountain path from Sortres 5 miles away.
We kept asking ourselves, why build a village here when it is so inaccessible, it’s mad, no really it is. Some might say it’s a hill farmers idyll but no. To want to live in this location is mad, completely bonkers! I bet in 2001 when the village found they could reach civilisation in 7 minutes – the villagers said “Nah, thanks very much but we’d prefer to walk”…!
Leaving the village we climbed up for 15 mins to the observation deck to Mirador Del Naranjo De Bulnes. Right so now I get it – If we build a house up here (Bulnes) we’ll be able to walk up the hill a bit and look at this big peak 10 miles away! Oh why didn’t you say so before!
Daisy was a little camera shy at first, but once we’d paid her agent the royalty fee, she turned on the charm. She wasn’t really that bothered as the hillside grass was much more interesting.
The village is well kept and has rustic mountain charm and had a few quad bikes and ultra small trucks, which had presumably put the now redundant donkey out to enjoy its well deserved retirement A couple of restaurants appeared to be doing ok, but it wasn’t obvious if it was because of the tacky flora arrangements or in spite of them. When you live in this stunning landscape I don’t really think it needs brightly coloured plastic embellishments even if some are purple….
The 2 .5 mile path down must have been a real hard slog for the donkey to get supplies from Poncebos. In places it’s perilously steep, rocky and narrow. With two legs, going down is harder on the knees, however looking at the faces of the walkers we passed coming up (as we went down), I’m convinced that the 17 euros for the funicular is better spent coming up than going down.
High on a hill was a lonely goatherd Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo Loud was the voice of the lonely goatherd Lay ee odl lay ee odl-oo
When we came upon this spot I thought I might go home and rip out our attempt at a water feature. Whoever nature did its water feature apprenticeship with but they were really good tutors!
By the time we got to the bottom we were tired out and in need of some food and refreshments. The first (and only) place we came across in Poncebos had socially distanced outside tables. I was only wearing my buff and was told I needed a proper mask which was fine. We had one large cheese sandwich for me and Lesley had this enormous wedge filled to the gunnels with 3 large pork lions, sorry loins. One was enough and a quarter of the bread.
Adequately (!) replenished, it was back to Margo and to our next destination on the coast this time.
Spanish researchers have found evidence of dinosaur tracks belonging to the Upper Jurassic, between 140 and 160 million years old.
So there is some serious fossils to be found on the Asturias coast if you know what you are looking for. We don’t. Anyhow we scratched around blindly at the bottom of the cliffs and after 20 minutes came up with a rock in the image above. We decided to quit whilst we were ahead.
After all the walking in the Picos in the last few days it was nice to kick back and relax by the beach before planning where to go next.
Dear Clair Rayner,
The Spanish coronavirus regulations of wearing masks outdoors appears to be strictly observed. Everyone we’ve seen outside has been dutifully wearing a mask. However I have to confess as today was a warm 26 degrees, we went off to Playa de Rodiles beach searching for fossils amongst the rocks, had a paddle in the surf and a walked along the near deserted mile long beach. But Clair, with only a few folk around I wasn’t always wearing my mask. While I know this was against the rules, at the same time it didn’t feel so wrong. What would you have done? And do you think I need to pay a visit to Go Outdoors or Decathlon and get myself a new moral compass?
The recently launched Earthshot Prize is a global environment prize, centred around five ‘Earthshots’, that aims to incentivise change and help repair our planet over the next 10 years. The £50 million prize intends to provide at least 50 solutions to the world’s greatest environmental problems and has Prince William and David Attenborough as flag bearers.
In spite of his longevity David Attenborough has said he may not be around in 2030 to see the results of the Earthshot initiative. Although David goes back a bit, even he wasn’t around when Frias, our location today was first settled. Frias is considered to be the smallest “city” in Spain having been given that title in 1435.
From Frias we found an easy walk to the small hamlet of Tobera along a forested trail with wild, thyme, lavender, juniper, walnuts, figs and all manner of unknown berries and nuts. The figs and walnuts featured later in our tea. – BUT beware of small worms hiding in unidentified nuts!
Back in Frias, a wander around the neatly presented medieval village (strangely short of other tourists) provided some good photo opportunities. Frias strikes an imposing silhouette with the castle looking disdainfully at the tiers of houses tumbling down the terraced hill below.
“Cleese: I look down on him because I am upper-class. – Barker: I look up to him (Cleese) because he is upper-class; but I look down on him (Corbett) because he is lower-class. I am middle-class. – Corbett: I know my place. . . . . Cleese: I get a feeling of superiority over them. – Barker: I get a feeling of inferiority from him, (Cleese), but a feeling of superiority over him (Corbett). – Corbett: I get a pain in the back of my neck.”
leaving Frias we had a tough drive via Torrelavega and then on a difficult route with sections of narrow motorhome unfriendly passages ready to rip the sides out of Margo. We’d driven through quite a bit of wet and cloudy weather so when we arrived at Posada de Valdeón with a forecast of dry, cold but sunny days ahead we were relieved it was such a idyllic spot.
From the aire most of the previous reviews talk of a great taxi service to transport you down and back to Cain from where you start the Ruta del Cares walk. We rang Conchi the English speaking taxi driver, she was lovely but unfortunately in Madrid as she wasn’t anticipating fares out of season.
Conchi gave us some good tips to enable us to use our bikes to get to Cain. She also suggested stopping off on the way down at Chorco de los Lobos. This is where wolves used to be enticed into a narrowing stockade, then once corralled they would be forced into a stone pit at the end.
The rest of the journey down the 8km decent reinforced the steepness of the return journey and our plan to find a taxi to bring us and the bikes back up to Margo waiting patiently in Posada de Valdeón.
The Cares Gorge trailwas first opened along the Cares river‘s canyon between 1916 and 1921 to provide access for workmen and materials during the construction of the level channels that transported water through and around the mountainside to the Camarmeñahydroelectricplant in Poncebos.
500 men were needed to mine and excavate the 12 kilometre route of the canal, though and around these limestone mountains. 11 men died in its construction. And as you gawp at the breathtaking scenery through which this spectacular natural gorge route takes, it’s easy to overlook the ingenuity, courage and skill it took to construct.
Improved and expanded between 1945 and 1950 the Cares gorge is now one of the most well known routes in the Picos de Europa.
The route was mainly good underfoot except in the tunnels where there were puddles after the recent rains, although you still had to take care as it was a long way down.
After 9.5 kms we stopped and had our butties before heading back. The mainly level waking made the total we covered (on foot) of 6 miles feel easy. But we both agreed the 23km return route would have been a challenge!
Our only remaining challenge was to get the bikes in the back of the taxi – Right said Fred “Have to a wheel off, that there wheel is going to have to go…” Even with the wheel off we were getting nowhere and so. . . .
Useless fact 434 – Did you know “An hórreo is a typical granary from the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula (mainly Galicia, where it might be called a Galician granary, Asturias and Northern Portugal), built in wood or stone, raised from the ground (to keep rodents out) by pillars” – There you go
Well, the ride down, the walk, the sunning scenery had made it a day to remember, to recommend and to come back for more of…!
As a fan of Genesis’s early stuff, one of my favourite tracks is ‘Firth of Fifth’ from the Selling England By The Pound album. The highlights of the track include Tony Banks’ piano introduction, Mike Rutherford’s flute piece and Steve Hackett’s haunting guitar solo which have received much critical acclaim. The lyrics have received less favourable reviews, but they hold a special feeling for me. Especially the last two lines…
The Dune of Pilat is the tallest sand dune in Europe. It is located in La Teste-de-Buch in the Arcachon Bay area, France, 60 km from Bordeaux. It is Europe’s biggest at 377 feet tall in places. The wind shifts the dune as much as 16 feet a year, forcing it to swallow trees from a neighbouring pine forest.
As I was climbing on all fours (stupid idea) up this near vertical wall of sand, each upward lunging foot or handhold would immediately sink back to where it had come from. My heart pounded (pulse 176), my lungs screamed and when I paused to recover rivers of disturbed sand would flow steadily down from above, to exaggerate the futility of this exhausting enterprise. Watching the sand brought the song straight back – “The sands of time are eroded by the river of constant change”.
Gradually making our way south, our general direction was Spain, but also wanting to steer clear of the busy coastal area around San Sebastian (sob, sob we’d just love to call in for some Pintxos). With N10 motorway (mostly) free we made good progress towards Dax and on to an overnight aire at Salies-de-Béarn. Saline water naturally occurs here and our aire was behind the salt factory.
Useless fact 433 – Did you know, “Wagon trains did NOT form a circle overnight or during rest periods for protection from Indian attacks. It was simply to create a makeshift stockade to stop their animal escaping!.
Leaving France was uneventful, the first sign we had crossed into Spain was the price of diesel at 0.95€. As EU countries there is no obvious border between France and Spain. But the N-135 from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (France) to Pamplona does involve crossing a mountain range and negotiating a few wriggly bits of road!
As we were still right in the heart of the Basque country the signs in two languages continued to challenge us but we eventually shook off Pamplona and headed first for Estella, then up to Baquedano. This small town is in on the southern fringe of the mountain range that is part of the Urbasa-Andia Natural Park.
Getting to the parking spot for our walk involved a tricky narrow road with concrete ditches to the side. Luckily all the traffic was going in the same direction as us and we soon realised they were all going on the same walk as us. We managed to squeeze Margo into the fast filling car park, as the rains continued falling and still there were more families arriving. However, a quick check and we found we’d chosen to come to a very popular spot on a bank holiday Monday! But, if we waited for the crowds to disperse the chances were the rain would also ease.
Astonishingly by the time we set off, all the crowds had disappeared and were well on the way through the 7km round trip to the waterfalls near Nacedero del Urederra. Coming in autumn was just fantastic with the russet reds, orange, green and yellows colours combining with the blues, greens and white of the river beautifully.
The river is astonishingly beautiful, with some section of the river of a unreal aqua blue colour.
In spite of the compulsory mask wearing (when anyone was about) the walk to see the source of the Urederra river was just brilliant. We’d avoided most of the rain and the crowds. It was great to be out and seeing nature at it’s best, watching the water finding its path, falling over the rocks and changing course to find its way around the boulders . “The sands of time are eroded by the river of constant change”.
To avoid getting to an argument about which is the best weather forecast – BBC, the Met office or Meteoblue – we use all three. I will from time to time for the sake of editorial balance draw upon illustrations from multiple sources. Today it’s Meteoblue’s turn.
We’re not sure it’s the best way of getting a good night’s sleep but so far on the trip we have either outsmarted the worst of the wind and rain or we have timed it so it hammers down on Margo’s tin (sorry aluminium) roof just when we really should be allowed to dream, snore or dribble!
Last night Margo was parked under the blue cross at Coulon 40 kms west of La Rochelle. We chose this bonny spot after reading a review on the ‘Our Tour’ blog which describes it as the Green Venice of France.
Some places at the end of the season can feel a bit unloved, rejected and a little sad as the traders realise their punters and their euros have all disappeared until next spring. Trying to make the best of a bad job after a night of rain probably heightens their sense of futility, especially when the ground is sodden, the cushions are soggy and the boats are half full of water.
Moving on, Margo’s wheels were ready to roll unfortunately there was next to no chance of avoiding shedding mud on the road after a slippery exit from our saturated overnight grassy(!) parking spot. Destination set and we headed off.
However in spite of it only being about an hour since breakfast, we couldn’t resist stopping enroute when we saw a frite van. It reminded us both of holidays in Normandy and Brittany and those old ribbed bullnose Citroen model H vans selling pommes frites in a paper cone.
Our next port of call was Rochefort, a former naval base and dockyard founded in 1665. The cycle path from our aire, followed the river Charente to the docks near the centre of town. Sitting in pride of place is a replica of Hermione a frigate first launched in 1779 and best-known for carrying General Lafayette to America to assist in the American War of Independence against the British.
Similar to the Middlesborough transporter bridge that opened ten years later, the original Rochefort-Martrou bridge was a real accomplishment of 19th-century design and engineering. This 66-metre-high steel behemoth spans the Charente a short way downriver from the dockyards. Cables suspended from a trolley 50 metres above the water transport a gondola across the river – now just for pedestrians and cyclists.
Margo found her way to a great spot overlooking the lock-protected moorings at Mortange sur Gironde. We liked it so much we decided to drop anchor for a couple of nights to watch the comings and goings of the various chandlers and most likely expensive yacht maintenance providers.
Useless fact 432 – Did you know, in medieval times, a chandlery was the area of the house which kept candles and the wax used to make candles.
Komoot once again found us a fine cycle route between Étauliers and the fortified town of Blaye. An old railway track (now tarmaced and well signed) gave us a pleasant 18 miles of level initially tree lined cycling, amongst the profusion of vines in Bourg and Blaye – The oldest wine region in Bordeaux.
2/3rds of the way along, as the route entered a small hamlet, a frantic frenchman in a car stopped to ask us (in english) if we’d seen his small ‘black‘ dog. We said no, but if we did see it, we’d return with it. We re-joined the cycle track and after a couple of hundred yards there was this (definitely not black) King Charles Spaniel on it’s own. Once we’d made a fuss of him we had little difficulty herding it back to the spot where we’d originally met his owner. After flagging down two cars the next one was pouch’s Dad this time coming the other way.
It was a cute dog and the man was very grateful for our help. “you’re very welcome in France” was his parting farewell. As we cycle off feeling chuffed that we’d been able to help.
At the risk of coming over all noble or preachy, I often bang on about the kindness of strangers we’ve experienced on our travels and I’m a big fan of ‘pay it forward‘ but today’s experience was a lovely reminder of the rewards the helper or giver receives from helping others. A serious point but true – And one I’ll try to remember.
It seems the Citroen model H frite van lives a different life in Bordeaux. By “it’s okay to wine” I don’t think they mean grumble or moan.
Gotta dash we’re booked in for socially distanced wine tasting at our overnight France Passion stop. Tonight is free parking with electric and no obligation to buy the wine. Oh but it would be so rude not to…
We are pleased with what lockdown has helped us to achieve in the garden, but when the restrictions under lockdown started easing our thoughts turned to planning for our travels. In an impulsive moment I signed us up for a Carthago UK Owners Club three day gathering in York, as I thought it might make an ideal shake down run prior to a bigger trip.
Charlie II also seemed to like this idea and inexplicably got quite excited imagining there would be plenty of Margo Leadbetter types at such a gathering. Questioned further Charlie revealed he was fed up being in the closet and from now on he’d like to change his name to ‘Margo the Carthago’ In fact she suggested, it was about time I took off her scruffy winter wheels and tyres and fitted her with the shiny aluminium wheels and summer tyres we had stored in the garage.
The UK Carthago Owners Club turned out to be nothing like the Leadbetters, but instead a welcoming down to earth friendly bunch , who not unlike us had invested their savings in a Carthago as a way of living their dream. As an unexpected bonus MTC was very pleased to introduce Lesley and I to her original owners Terry & Dot who now own a very nice Carthago Chic E-line 51 QB. Margo was most impressed!
We like many others have found it difficult to fully understand the fast changing rules that followed the simplicity of lockdown. Especially when travelling between England and Lesley’s home town in Scotland. Our current understanding is: it’s not going to just go away – a vaccine is probably coming but is 6 months away – the majority are taking it seriously – but some are not – the economy needs society to function – for the sake of our mental health life has to go on – we shouldn’t abandon common sense – we should act responsibly.
The data provided by the New York Times has been very useful in helping us decide where we should go. Like the local restrictions being imposed in England -France, Spain and many other potential European destinations have very varying numbers of Covid cases. Our plan (along with the weather forecasts) is to stay in touch with what’s happening around us and alter our plans to suit. Living in a motorhome it’s quite possible to have very limited contact with other people, aside from food and fuel shopping, where we take care to avoid taking risks.
Matt Lucas summed up the latest advice from Boris “So, we are saying don’t go to work, go to work. Don’t take public transport, go to work, don’t go to work,” Lucas spluttered. “Stay indoors. If you can work from home, go to work, don’t go to work, go outside, don’t go outside. And then we will or won’t, something or other….” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WT59lu4tCU
With her first MOT passed, cab serviced, habitation and gas checks completed, Margo was ready to roll. But where to?
We feel incredibly lucky, privileged as retired, financially free, reasonably healthy people who have the chance to go off and explore. We have this possibility and although we may also feel slightly guilty we aren’t going to waste the opportunity we have.
When we were leaving France avec vitesse back in March we found a great aire at Neufchatel-en- Bray which held about 18 vans but was clean, well organised and about two hours from Calais. We decided to return there choosing a mainly non toll route and arrive still with no fixed plan of what next but decide to land for a couple of nights whilst we assess what to do next.
As born again cyclists, we’re discovering how biking is a great way to see nature, enjoy fresh air and explore. With great cycle paths and quiet lanes the Normandy countryside around Neufchatel-en- Bray was perfect for settling us back into our routines.
Nearby to our aire we came across allotments buy the side on the path. Lesley was especially interested in the tall spiral metal canes for the tomatoes to grow up. It all looked very productive in spite of a distinct lack of leaves? Personally I was more impressed by their ability to grow satellite dishes…
After a relaxing start, looking at the weather we had intended to head for the coast before the forecast wind and rain came through. Honfleur has a large motorhome stopover very close to the town with great views across the inland waterways.
After an afternoon strolling the town (observing the compulsory wearing of masks outside) as we returned to the waiting Margo we got talking to an English couple Martin in a van nearby. We would have loved to have been more sociable but the nagging concerns of Covid-19 inhibit normal sociability. However they did pass on some good tips regarding motorhoming in Portugal and Spain which we’ll follow up later.
Honfleur is a attractive place with boats in the sheltered harbour backed by a network of medieval streets, so we could imagine that it would be heaving in the height of summer. Out of season it was quiet whether this is entirely due to the time of year – or more likely the effects of the Coronavirus.
On our second night deciding to eat out, it wasn’t difficult to find a harbourside table in a restaurant with just one other couple. Our galettes washed down with local cidre was enjoyable, but we felt the pricing may have been set to make up for the lack of custom.
We had half a plan to head north west for the likes Quimper and Concarneau but a close look at the weather maps showed storm Alex would hit that corner with 60-70 mph winds so we changed our minds and headed south in the general direction of Alençon. We later read winds of more than 110 mph were recorded in Brittany on Thursday and Friday!
Avoiding the toll roads we made good progress on the smaller D roads and see more at the slower pace of a less direct route that is interspersed with the occasional village. The landscape in this region is littered with half timbered buildings many in the rural parts in need of TLC or renovation. Mmmmm there’s an idea!
Chosen as one of the ‘prettiest villages in France’, Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei was a good spot for a bit of Komoot-researched bicycling . We also intended to stay the night . When arrived it was certainly pretty and pretty narrow to drive a 7.45m motorhome through. The second challenge was the 2m height restriction on our planned overnight free (close to village) parking spot.
Finding a temporary parking spot in a rain soaked car park, we set off on the planned bike route in search of a couple of interesting river crossing points. The first one was meant to be a raft with a wire to pull yourself across, but unfortunately had closed 3 days before… Whilst I struggled to keep my bike in lower gears we carried on in search of the ‘bridge of five stones’. We did find the location indicated by the Komoot app but no bridge. however after hunting in several places we were about to give up when Lesley spotted an overgrown sign for Pont de cinq pierres, voila!
With parking limited we abandoned our beau village and set course for a overnight parking spot 20kms down the road at Fresnay-sur-Sarthe. We joined on a free parking spot next to the recycling bins by a rarely seen GB plated motorhome. We would have been up for a safe disanced chat but curtains were still drawn when we left for Le Mans inthe morning.
The town of Le Mans must feel pretty neglected. As most visitors (us included rush by to get to the 24 hour Le Mans circuit. We were quite close when yet another confusing Mal de Sat Nav sent us down a route which lead us, first onto an industrial estate, then a long detour back and round to join a traffic queue that took us eventually 24 minutes later back to where we started… arrrrgh.
With no racing taking place, our target was the 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum.
Seen through a 2020 lens there are examples of all manner ridiculous contraptions. Steam powered from Léon Bollée Automobiles and De Dion Bouton Trepardoux Steam Quadricycle from 1890. There were also examples of early electric cars from 1900 that had a range of 310 kms on single charge.
The museum was much more than the story of the 24 hours. Yes it was full of examples across the history of 24h race. However I was most impressed how it also told a brilliant story of automotive development, of mechanical ingenuity, craftsmanship and of the characters involved in the history of motor car manufacturing. Many branches of motor sport have helped advanced everyday motoring. However the 24 hours is first and foremost an endurance race. The test upon the cars, the drivers and the teams behind them is designed to separate the wheat from the chaff.
According to Wikipedia – In 1803, Hayden Wischett designed the first car powered by the de Rivaz engine, an early internal combustion engine that was fuelled by hydrogen. Lesley and I both think the future is H-powered cars, but maybe the risks of crashing a hydrogen fuel tank during competitive motorsports and the interests of big oil have held back the development?
Continuing the British Racing Green theme…. The Bentley Speed 8 that won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2003.
Bentley was the first British manufacturer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The 2003 win provided Bentley with an unusual 24 hour record: the longest time, 73 years from 1930 to 2003 between two overall Le mans 24h victories for the same manufacturer.
Le Mans is the name of the town that hosts the legendary race course, Circuit de la Sarthe. Much of the 8.46 mile circuit comprises closed public roads.
The circuit has many familiar (to petrol heads) turns and landmarks like Dunlop Bridge, the Esses and the famous Mulsanne Straight . This once single very long straight connected Le Mans and the town of Mulsanne. The straight now has two chicanes to keep top speeds down.
Talking of speeds the quickest cars lap the eight and a half miles in around 3 mins 20 secs. That’s an average of more than 150 mph with top speeds of 210 miles per hour. Le Man authorities are known for its openness to new categories. e.g. diesel, hybrid. So how about motorhomes! The test might be how long would it take to complete a lap in Margo whilst boiling an egg? Just a thought…
Okay, okay, that’s enough about cars already. I promise….!
It seems a world away since we cut short our last trip and skedaddled out of France and returned to back to ‘Blighty’ back in March. Oh how things have changed. I’m not sure many of us knew back then how blighted the UK or the world was about to become.
With the global situation becoming ever more serious and as our concerns grew, we became increasingly cautious during the last two weeks travelling through France. On the 14th March when we heard (in a take-away) in Mehon Sur Yevre the French were going into lockdown, we knew it was time to go.
Looking back, our re-entry into the UK via the customs post at Folkestone Eurotunnel terminal seemed very, very casual. No health checks, no masks, and no questions asked. Just a cursory glance at our passports and we were waved through.
Continuing our ‘virtual quarantine‘ in the van, we decided to slowly make our way up country and did our best to observe the principles of the government’s 14 day quarantine. Our first stay at Love Lane Campsite near Hertford had no other campers, so felt right.
We then found a pitch in the car park of the Thaymar Dairy Farm shop. Very handy for isolating from others, yet with fresh produce literally on the doorstep. And… they made their own ice cream – what’s not too like…
Having agreed to let some friends stay in our house until the middle of April, arriving back in the UK mid March we therefore weren’t immediately able to go back home. So we booked ourselves into a campsite five miles from home.
But when a few days later the government announced all UK campsites were to close we started to run out of options. Luckily we persuaded (we’re coming to park on your lawn, you don’t mind do you?) our friends Martin and Dawn to let us stay in Charlie in their garden. Dawn kept us topped up with groceries as we continued our self isolation and took rides out to sample the beautiful but conveniently remote countryside around Crosby Garrett – Where?
Like many others the Covid-19 lockdown encouraged us to tackle some of the ‘elephant in the room‘ jobs around the house and for us our largest land mammal is our rear garden. This area has been the dumping ground for all the stones, rocks and building detritus, left as a task to be tackled some time in the far distant future.
Well, Lesley with the help of Liam, a neighbour’s son, and encouraging noises from me, the three of us set about clearing the multitude of stones, by digging, shovelling, raking, sieving and levelling the soil to prepare this wasteland for a lawn. After a couple of weeks 200 sq/m of turf arrived and was laid in double quick time before we all had to go for a lie down. It’s amazing what can we achieved when you’re metaphorically chained to the job!
As I write this we’ve not finished the construction of the waterfall we planned to compliment our large exposed rock face. However after falling off my mountain bike (cracking a cheekbone, bruising a few ribs and tearing a ligament in my shoulder), this provided the necessary excuse to stop any further hard labour in the garden this year.
With UK garden centres and plants sales in the summer hitting record levels many of us found solace in our gardens. We’re pleased lockdown helped us to achieve what might otherwise taken several years. But not everyone was in the same boat.
The Same Boat by Julie Sheldon
‘We’re all in the same boat’ they say But I would disagree So many different sailing crafts Upon this stormy sea
Some sail on ocean liners In comfort, style, and ease Relaxing on their balconies ….Sipping their G & Ts
Some speed along in motor boats As if it’s all ok…… With little care for smaller crafts Which may get in their way
Some struggle on their battleships Where nothing’s going right Endlessly preparing….. For the next relentless fight
Some huddle in their lifeboats… And pray that they’ll be saved Hoping for a calmer sea… And fearing every wave
Some drift around upon their rafts…. They barely stay afloat They’re praying for a change of luck… And chance to board a boat
Some haven’t found their sea legs yet…. And dread each wave and swell They’re struggling to stay upright And don’t feel very well
So whilst you’re on your journey To a safe and calmer port Look out for fellow sailors Who may need some support
Could you throw them a life belt? Or a paddle or an oar? Perhaps you could help guide them A bit nearer to the shore
Well that’s all for now. A blog of our next adventure is currently with the type setters and should be published in the next few days.
We recently witnessed the destructive power of the 2016 earthquake(s) in and around Norcia. We can all also remember the devastating effect of the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami, the recent Australian bush fires or perhaps more locally living through the awful weather the UK and elsewhere has experienced this winter. These all provide clear reminders of how limited our control is over the power and forces of nature.
We arrived late in the day at the motorhome parking at Marmore Falls to find it busy with other vans. This wasn’t surprising as it was Friday and the weekend is the time when the water is diverted over the falls for a couple of hours to show off the splendour of the falls to dozens of increasingly moist visitors.
The Romans built the Cascata delle Marmore, the world’s tallest artificial waterfall in 271 BC. The falls are an impressive sight. Water from the hills above the city of Rieti flows along the Velino River then it’s channelled to top of the green 165-metre-high cliffs, before plummeting into the valley below.
Generally, the water from the Velino River is directed to feed the Terni hydro-electric complex, with the full flow of water only released at certain times to show off nature’s tremendous power that man first tamed 2,291 years ago.
Missing the sign for the ticket office we had to backtrack and join a very slow-moving queue along with several dozen others. After the water had been released, we were too and we made our way up an assortment of paths that were easy at first but as we climbed got harder, with the spray making it increasingly difficult to get close up photos and staying dry just wasn’t an option. Stopping off to get our breath back at various vantage points when we neared the top we were able to witness a spectacular sight of a rainbow appearing to originate from the bottom of the highest cliff.
If you zoom in you’ll see Charlie waiting patiently in the car park below.
Our reward on reaching the feed channel at the top was a much-deserved ice cream and a short rest before the walk down. Going down is definitely easier than coming up.
Chronicles of Narni
The next morning, we made our way to Narni. A popular place at the weekends judging by the very tightly packed parking spot, with six vans already occupying most of the available space. Charlie breathed in and we managed to fit him in on the end. Extracting the bikes from the garage we found my bike had a puncture on the front tyre, but with tools at hand we changed the tube faster than a F1 pit stop.
We started with a quick wheel around the town before dropping steeply down through the narrow streets, we found our way onto the old railway track that we followed under a Roman bridge and along a busy road.
Leaving the the road, signs indicated a track that followed the river which flowed into a beautiful shallow pool with crystal clear water, where people were enjoying the sunshine and chilling on the decking around the river bank.
Our route back was on the disused railway track, where lots of families were enjoying the level walking and sometimes oblivious to our friendly bell tinkling. The uphill road section back into Narni was a little steep but the thought of ice cream at the top kept us going.
With all the other motorhomes now gone (I must have a talk with our Charlie), we decided to do the same and headed for San Gemini, where we found a free spot and spent a quiet night parked up with some ambulances.
With a course set for Orvieto we stopped off for a brief look around the small hilltop town of Todi. Parking was at the foot of the town, but next to a free funicular that whisked us up to the town and its attractive main square. It was very pleasant to wander around in the sunshine, but with no obvious places open for lunch and not much else to detain us, we continued on our way to Orvieto.
The MoHo parking area at Orvieto was a few hundred yards away from a busy motorway and between two railway lines one of which carried the Frecciarossa (red arrow) the Italian equivalent to France’s TGV, so it seems we were in for a noisy night.
After ordering bread and croissants for the morning from the site manager, we settled in resigning ourselves to a night spent listening out to see if we could detect the the difference between trans regional and the high-speed trains.. Such fun!
Somewhat sleep deprived, the next day (after our compensatory jam filled croissants) we took the conveniently located funicular railway up to the town and bought a multiple ticket for various attractions including the first, at the Pozzo di San Patrizio, or St. Patrick’s Well.
The central well shaft with two helical ramps in a double helix, accessed by two doors, which allowed mules to carry empty and full water vessels separately in downward and upward directions without obstruction.
The well has 427 steps, which was no problem at all going down, but “I can tell thee, it were lung bustlingly tough coming backup”.
“Let’s find an ice cream” I said (I’m not an addict), “good idea”, Lesley said. Temporarily sated, our next challenge was the Torre del Moro clocktower guess what yes with more steps and more steps, but I have to confess the view of the town and the surrounding countryside from the top was impressive and worth the effort.
Time to stop going up and go back down again, this time to the fascinating underground complex of the Pozzo Della Cava in the oldest part of the medieval quarter of Orvieto. We discovered later that almost all the houses in Orvieto have caves underneath.
I saw these modern day plastic pots for sale a few yards along from the Museum displaying ancient Etruscan pottery dating back from the 10th to the 1st century BC and couldn’t help but notice the incongruity.
We found a shop down one of the side streets selling some quite unique wood in all forms of art and some really imaginative furniture designs.
To finish off the day we concluded with a visit to the cathedral. Yes it’s an ABC (Another Bluming Castle/Church) but that apart, it was quite unusual on the outside and heavily decorated inside with some famous frescoes.
“Built in 1290, the cathedral is a masterpiece of Italian gothic architecture. The decoration of the Cappella Nuova, commenced by Fra Angelico in 1447 and magnificently completed by Luca Signorelli in 1499 and 1504, displays an awe-inspiring Last Judgement and Apocalypse and, below it, scenes from Dante…”.
Feeling a bit tired of all the sightseeing it was time to go back to Charlie and head on to pastures new. But before leaving we needed to service the van (get some fresh water and empty the waste water etc) but once again we discovered the handle on the waste water tank turned but didn’t open the valve….. “Oh flip, what again..!” I said or something similar.
There was nothing else for it but to make arrangements to drive back to Terni to the nearest authorised Carthago garage and get them to look at the problem in the morning. The next day the garage wasted no time in fixing the fault which is apparently a common problem in Italy where the roads are so bad they shake the poor motorhomes to bits and cause issues that Carthago don’t experience in Germany or anywhere else with smooth tarmac!
Maybe when we get to Tuscany the roads will improve (yeah right….!)
But before entering the next phase of our Italian tour we decided we must go back to Orvieto and see Orvieto Underground, that we’d wanted to see but missed off the day before. This time no expense was spared and we propelled Charlie along the smooth toll road to get back in double quick time. Aiming for an English-speaking guided tour we parked up on the top of the town, close to the centre. As we had arrived in good time, for completeness and for research purposes we thought we’d also sample more of the ice cream flavours we’d missed from the day before (have I mentioned how good Italian ice cream is).
We both agreed returning to go on the tour was worthwhile and were impressed with the knowledge and the enthusiasm of the guide but doubt that photos can really do an experience like this justice.
Returning to Orvieto’s magnificent Duomo for a moment. This is considered one of the must-see churches in Italy because of its stunning gold-and-mosaic Gothic facade and magnificent frescoes. BUT I can’t help thinking that if the Italians spent half the money they spend on churches on their roads, they could really improve the country’s road accident statistics (just a thought?).
Ok, so let’s set a new course for Tuscany. However we have been avidly following the news of the Coronavirus Covid-19 strain coming from Italy which has become increasingly worrying – particularly the increasing number of cases in Lombardy and Trento.
Deciding to overnight in Montepulciano, we talked about what to do. Tuscany has been the area we have been looking forward to exploring the most, with Florence, Siena, Pisa and so many other smaller places we have planned to visit. BUT as we have journeyed around we have been swithering more and more over the worsening situation with the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy. Should we make a mad 650km dash for the French border, are we panicking? In the end we decided rightly or wrongly, for now, to carry on with the next part of the trip but to take sensible precautions and keep a watchful eye on developments in Italy and elsewhere.
In the morning we woke and said. “Let’s go to France”, we’ll come back and see Tuscany another time.
Right better Toodle Pip then…
Dave and Lesley (safe and well in Provence)
PS Depending on your political point of view you may wish to ignore the linked article below by Will Hutton, that suggests that collectively perhaps we can influence if not control the power of nature?
Coronavirus won’t end globalisation, but change it hugely for the better
Umbria is awash with tiny, medieval, hilltop towns, so we are getting used to the idea that visiting anywhere interesting often involves a fair amount of up. Our 4-mile circular mainly level walk around Spoleto today was a bit different. Above Spoleto’s old town is a medieval Rocca and spanning the deep gorge to one side of the Rocca is the town’s most famous sight, the Ponte delle Torri or Bridge of Towers.
The bridge is an ancient Roman aqueduct rebuilt in the 1300s that used to be possible to walk across, but access has been restricted and it is currently closed awaiting a structural health check following the 2016 earthquake.
Circular routes are marvellous for getting you back to where you started…
Once we’d reached the top of the bridge it was mainly level walking with great views of the Rocca and the aqueduct.
Extract from the Life of Brian
What have the Romans ever done for us…? Xerxes: ” The aqueduct. Reg: Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That’s true, And the sanitation! Oh yes… sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like. Reg: All right, I’ll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done… Matthias: And the roads… Reg: (sharply) Well yes obviously the roads… the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads.. Masked Activist: Irrigation… Medicine… Education… Health… Reg: Yes… all right, fair enough… Activist Near Front: And the wine… Francis: Yeah. That’s something we’d really miss if the Romans left, Reg. Masked Activist at Back: Public baths! Stan: And it’s safe to walk in the streets at night now. Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order… (general nodding)… let’s face it, they’re the only ones who could in a place like this. (more general murmurs of agreement)
Reg: All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us? Xerxes: Brought peace! Reg: (very angry, he’s not having a good meeting at all) What!? Oh… (scornfully) Peace, yes… shut up!
Sometimes walks can include a sting in the tail, maybe a steep uphill finish, with our walk today the opposite was true, an unusual and welcome easy finish. Our path had descended down about 500ft to the river and to the lower part of the town. However, to save the walk back up, the clever townsfolk of Spoleto have installed multiple escalators to transport you up to the Rocca and to the top of the town – What a brilliant idea.
Our view from the top. It was a tough job being carried up the 7 escalators to get here! How disappointed were we when after all that effort only to find we’d left the ice cream kitty back at Charlie…
Vallo di Nera
Heading to Norcia along the Nera river valley we broke the journey with an overnight stop at the small sleepy hilltop town of Vallo di Nera.
It’s easy to imagine how this well maintained, pretty little village might attract visitors in the summer, but as we walked around it was deserted. If anyone lived there they must have been having lunch or hiding.
Charlie’s parking spot looking down on the river Nera. We chose this place especially to take advantage of the La Taverna Del Bordone (just out of shot), only we’d come up on a Wednesday, the only evening the restaurant closes.
Agricamping Brandimarte was a small farm on the outskirts of Norcia, with electric hook up, a farm shop and a ‘meal to your van‘ service. As we had timed our visit to Norcia to coincide with the annual black truffle fair, our tagliatelle was accompanied with olive oil and truffle shavings – delicious.
The Nero di Norcia, is the biggest agricultural fair in Umbria and gathers together all the “trufflers” and shepherds of the area. In spite of the major rebuilding work going on all over town amidst the destruction from the 2016 earthquake, stalls lined the main street selling all manner of traditional local products such as prosciutto (ham), sheeps milk cheese, lentils of Castelluccio di Norcia, and other products of the area.
This boar’s truffling day are over, a truffle hunter has riffled him now he looks a trifle ruffled to be a truffler’s trophy….. groan!
On 24th August 2016 a earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2 occurred with its epicentre 6.5 kms southeast of Norcia. In October 2016 there was a second quake causing further widespread destruction in the area trapping scores under debris and killing in total 247 people.
Norcia was the closest town to the epicentre, the medieval basilica of St Benedict in Norcia, was among buildings destroyed, with just its facade left standing.
Three and a bit years after the earthquake Norcia is gradually being rebuilt. The building in this image has a giant image of what it once looked like fixed to the scaffold supporting what is now left.
After buying some black truffle sauce at the fair we also brought some bread. These enormous loaves were about 2ft long. We paid €5 for a quarter of one, that we sliced and froze to keep us in butties for days.
Heading up into the Sibillini Mountains the long narrow and virtually deserted road wound its way upwards though several switchbacks with barriered sections where the road had collapsed. All the way up there were great views looking back down on Norcia from above.
From a distance Castelluccio looks the same as it has done for 1,000 years, a beautiful hilltop town in the midst of one of Italy’s most celebrated plains, the Piano Grande. But even from the road below the village you can see the buildings are shattered, roofs have collapsed, it’s more reminiscent of a war zone than the Umbrian countryside.
I expect the few remaining inhabitants of the town could do with the tourist dollars, but we decided it would be wrong to stop and gawp morbidly at the rubble that is now Castelluccio.
“La Fioritura“, the spectacular summertime showing of wild flowers in the meadows of the Piano Grande will no doubt once again bring in the visitors. The flowers were absent as we drove through a landscape that reminded us a bit of the altiplano in Bolivia, but had an Italy-shaped forest to catch the eye!
As we said before Armco is a neglected bit of the travellers landscape, so we pleased to include a section in this photo. Judging by the drop on the other side the person responsible for this barrier’s re-shaping is pleased too!
When you discover a wild camping spot as good as this it is very difficult to pass it by. We spent a very peaceful night there under the stars, and left early the next day to descend down the valley to Pretare.
Forgive the pun but we weren’t prepared for the drive through Pretare. It was very sobering to go along the cleared road that wound its way through what was once a fairly ordinary small mountainside village where 175 people lived.
Witnessing the destruction the earthquake caused close up was quite distressing. It’s difficult to contemplate what it must have been like to have lived through the horror of the quake. And to think of the lives that have been lost and the community that has been destroyed. We only got the merest glimpse of the aftermath of their terrible experience and can only imagine how hard it must be for these people to try to rebuild their lives.
Over the last few years we have become more and more interested in the performance of our pension pot. We now keep a keen eye on the growth or otherwise of the various stocks and markets our pension pot is invested in. When thinking of which markets might perform well in the future, trainers (or sneakers to use the American name) probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. But according to newly released research, some trainers could be a better investment than gold.
For example, there are the Nike SB Dunk Low Reese Forbes Denims, which originally sold for $65in 2002 and are now reportedly worth over $4,000. There are also the Yeezy 2 Red Octobers, which retailed for $250in 2014and are now worth $5,655.
It was 80 miles from San Marino to the free Montecorona Abbey Ristorante car park 5 mins south of Umbertide, so we were quite tired when we arrived. Judging by the number of diners’ cars the restaurant is doing a roaring trade. Which leads me to suspect they are serving up something a bit more appetising than the plain fare Monks have to live on, of just black bread, plain water and vegetables?.
The modern-day church is in an attractive setting built on the site of an old Cistercian abbey. It’s a peaceful spot situated beneath a wooded mountain and surrounded by fields. The crypt of the Abbey dates back to 1000 AD and quite different from the simple church above which felt neglected with some worn frescoes and in need of a good dusting.
We didn’t quite understand why each of the stone columns was strangely different from its neighbour. Curious?
Leaving the Abbey behind our trusty bikes took us up the tarmac road that initially avoided the steepest climb by going between the wooded hills. We did feel a bit guilty when we powered passed a cyclist on a road bike peddling up the tarmac incline without the benefit of an e-motor. Our circular route took us back via an off-road section that went very steeply uphill, (this steep rocky bit soon wiped away our smugness) before a rough descent, where the challenging downhill had us pulling hard on the brakes, before hitting the water splash and onto the road section back to Charlie.
Perugia, the capital of Umbria, famous for the architecture of its historic centre, its wealth of art works and well-known cultural and artistic reputation, was the obvious next town to visit,
So that’s where we went. But I have to report dear reader that although we did spend 30 minutes circling the Perugia one-way system multiple times, in the end its maze of tunnels got the better of us and our not-so-clever Garmin sat nav. Four times we entered the tunnel on the one-way system, each time trying a different exit strategy, only to be forced back to repeat the process in order to entertain the locals enjoying our merry-go-round whilst siting outside drinking their café latte’s and expressos.
So Assisi it is then….
Seeing as the historic centre of Assisi is built on a significant bump we thought one of the best ways to see the place was by bike (with a little help from a couple of 75Nm electric motors). Komoot found us a ‘sneak up on it gradually’ route but we were still breathing hard by the time we reached the level of the Duomo or the Cathedral of San Rufino.
One of our friends said to us to say hello to Frank but who was he?
Born in Italy circa 1181, Saint Francis of Assisi was renowned for drinking and partying in his youth. After fighting in a battle between Assisi and Perugia, Francis was captured and imprisoned for ransom. He spent nearly a year in prison — awaiting his father’s payment — and, according to legend, began receiving visions from God. After his release from prison, Francis heard the voice of Christ, who told him to repair the Christian Church and live a life of poverty. Consequently, he abandoned his life of luxury and became a devotee of the faith, his reputation spreading all over the Christian world.
Today, Saint Francis is the patron saint for ecologists — a title he received apparently to honour his boundless love for animals and nature.
Right that’s enough of that, lets talk tractors.
Our parking spot (€18) had uninterrupted views of Assisi old town, but the sosta was closer to the commune of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where Assisi railway station is. Whilst Lesley watched a scary film I decided to go explore and nearing the station I heard horns and powerful engines revving.
Following the noise, I stumbled upon the closing stages of the Assisi’s Farmers’ Day 2020. Where over 300 tractors and agricultural vehicles plus an estimated one thousand people had gathered from all over Umbria and the neighbouring regions. To me it just looked like an excuse for the boys to get out and show off their toys.
After leaving Assisi, Spello was targeted as a stopover identified as somewhere with a selection of well-regarded eateries. It was also a chance to give our chef extraordinaire a well-deserved night off. Especially as she’d been required to work her normal shift on Valentines’ Day.
As predicted it was quite a hike from Charlie, up the deceptively steep ramps and through a maze of small alleys to get to the main street to see which of the recommended restaurants we fancied and more importantly which were open.
With limited options it wasn’t hard to choose Ristorante La Cantina Di Spello which had in fact been our first choice. At another time of the year we were convinced it would be much harder to get a table. At 7:30 we didn’t mind being the first ones in, convincing ourselves the emptiness meant ‘we’d discoveredit‘, that was until 9pm when all the cool trendy locals started arriving and hugging and greeting the staff.
The Head Chef heading home after her night off
Talking of being cool and trendy I have a tip to share with all the many fashionistas reading this blog. Cropped jeans or short bell-bottom trousers in combination with loud striped long socks appear to be all the rage in Italy. So anyone who’s already going around wearing tight trousers that have shrunk in the wash and Jon Snow socks – You’re hip and cool man.
Dave & Lesley
Oh in case you’re interested I’ve also come up with a fantastic idea for a footwear investment opportunity. E-boots, yes electric boots, shoes and trainers. Just imagine how fast you could run and how easily you could walk up hills (just like our ebikes). Isn’t it a brilliant idea? Ok so there’s still a bit of work to do on the (Friction Accumulated Recycled All Green Energy) technology or FARAGE for short…… But I’m convinced it’s the future.
When I saw the Republic of San Marino on the map and a potential place to go my first thought was – oh, isn’t there a Grand Prix circuit there? I knew the Italian Grand Prix was also held at the Monza circuit. What I hadn’t appreciated was that San Marino Grand Prix was held 100km’s down the road at Imola.
The Imola circuit had it transpired hosted the Italian Grand Prix whilst the Monza circuit was being remodelled (after numerous tragic fatal crashes). So the owners of the (Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari) circuit asked the Automobile Club, in the nearby Republic of San Marino, to apply for their own Grand Prix and the San Marino Grand Prix was born.
The road from Rimini on the coast was a twisty turny affair as it rose up from sea level to 1,722 ft and our designated overnight motorhome parking at Borgo Maggiore.
The large motorhome parking area was only a short uphill stretch to the cable car station, where for €4.50 return we were transported up to the centre of the town. Although arriving at the top was bit of a shock as we were immediately confronted with 30 or 40 tourists jostling to take selfies of the hazy views below.
Disappointed to discover we were going to have to share the place with others. We set off on a route away from the groups lead by guides holding up widgets on telescopic sticks, we climbed our way up to the first of the three main castles on the top of the long ridge that San Marino is built on.
Aside from no GP circuit and the attractive castles founded in 1301, San Marino which is also known as the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, claims to be the oldest constitutional republic in the world. It also has the smallest population of all the 47 members of the Council of Europe and the 3rd highest GDP per capita in the world. However, I suspect the lower levels of TAX than in Italy, mean purchases (perfumes, clothing etc) are cheaper and a draw for bargain hungry shoppers.
As we wandered around the maze of cobbled streets, posing and framing shots of the historic centre, it’s was a tough job to avoid the gauntlet of bizarre temptations us and our fellow tourist had to resist. I wanted us to buy a witch’s broomstick, but Lesley said no, we should take the cable car back down to Charlie.
When visiting NT properties in the UK, we are used to seeing the attractively packaged grapefruit and lime fragranced gel candles. Here San Marino probably also sells scented candles but we saw more than one outlet selling crossbows, a serious selections of guns, ammunition and some very lethal looking knifes.
I suspect owning a retail outlet here in the height of the summer is quite lucrative. But what should you choose to sell? Whatever your product choice is obviously very important, when you’re competing for a share of the tourist dollar is to make sure you get your ducks in a row!
After a few of hours of castling, our empty stomachs got the better of the chains around our wallet and we succumbed to lunch in surprisingly reasonably priced San Marino restaurant.
Reflecting later, given its hilly topography, with no flat ground and its narrow winding streets. The idea of staging a Grand Prix circuit on this most un-serene rock would be a pretty stupid one.
No, hang on here’s a thought… what about if instead of F1 cars they raced Fiat 500’s?
Although our stay was a brief one night affair, I was quite disappointed in Castel Bolognese. For a start they don’t have a castle and bolognese is apparently in reference to the famous meat sauce said to originate from down the road in Bologna, but where they also don’t have a proper castle!
Swiftly moving on…
I have to say our arrival in Brisighella wasn’t text book. Turning off the main road as directed by camper parking sign, we were immediately confronted with a 2.5m width restriction (Charlie is 2.3m wide). Managing to squeeze the van between the rear of 4 parked cars and an immovable roadworks sign, we were about to cross an unmanned railway line when we realised the road ahead was blocked by the roadworks. “Oh flip” there was nothing for it but a nervy multi point turn of a 7.5m long motorhome on the railway line. Wasting no time we quickly managed to regain the main road. That’s what you might call a twitchy _ _ _ moment!
Brisighella does have a castle (sorry castel) they also have a nice looking clock tower perched on a rock 400 steps above the town. The clock tower works on a six-hour system, compared to the 12-hour one on my watch. Perhaps that means everything here takes twice as long?
Donkey Alley is a raised and covered road lit by half-moon-shaped arches and said to be the only one of its kind in the world. Built in the 12th and 13th centuries as a defence fortification, it was later used for carrying chalk on donkeys from the quarries in the surrounding valley.
Brisighella’s history originates from an unexpected source. The surrounding hills are rich in gypsum, which was used by the Romans in making cement. Gypsum crystals were used as glass panes.
La Rocca fortress was built in 1228, ok so it’s a fortress but it looks like a castle and it’s on a hill. We know it’s on a hill because we cycled up it….
Our bike ride was going to be a there and back affair with the first half all up hill although not too steep. And at least we had the excuse to stop and take a breather and take in the vistas on either side of the ridge.
During our standard visit to the tourist information office we had been told that the area was renowned for it’s gypsum and “is what the town was known for in Medieval times.”
Near the top of the climb we left the bikes to follow a sign to the Continico Cave. We imaged it was just off the road but after 20 minutes of walking down we were about to turn back when the cave appeared. As it turned out it wasn’t that impressive and definitely not worth the slog back up. However as we turned to retrace our steps, we noticed lots of small sparkling crystal-like stones. A quick rub and our trek down was rewarded with a small gypsum souvenir.
We liked Brisighella, we’d had a good ride, recharged all our batteries and (Gary & Jen you’ll pleased to hear) we caught up with essential laundry and van washing.
We can be a bit fussy when it comes to finding the ideal spot to park Charlie for the night, somewhere safe and legal, not too noisy and if possible with a nice sculpture to look at.
At night Ravenna’s old town blossomed with a multitude of attractive looking bars and restaurants, with people sitting outside even in February.
Only opened in December this building was originally a covered market and has been renovated to contain lots of trendy bars and food outlets. We were attracted by a stall selling Piadina, a thin Italian flatbread, typical of the Emilia-Romagna region that is folded and filled. Washed down with beer and wine it was surprisingly good.
Not a particularly detailed mosaic but I liked that with just a few tiles it manages to captures the faraway look of the sitter – It appealed to me.
Some of the finest surviving Byzantine mosaics are preserved in the city of Ravenna.
The Byzantine Empire, so-called for the former name of Constantinople, was the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire.
The surviving Byzantine art is predominantly religious and follow traditional models that translate their carefully controlled church theology into artistic terms.
Lesley cycling past the church of San Vitale where the mosaic’s of the roman Emperor Justinian can be seen and which we only found out later was one of the best in Ravenna.
Cycling in Ravenna is not quite on the Cambridge scale but locals young and old move around on their (not necessarily trendy) bikes with ease. This map from the tourist office was designed to fit on the bikes handlebars and it made navigating our way between the various sites easy.
Whilst touring around the streets we came across a plaque with a quote by Henry James who was a big fan of Ravennna:
“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
Our next stopover was about 6km’s south of the city where we found a flat route to cycle alongside a canal where Lesley spotted several beavers living in the riverbank. The track wound its way through the pine forest to a waterway with fishing houses that have huge nets which are lowered into the river.
We intended to cycle as far as Cervia but a local man approached us excitedly and managed to tell us in broken Inglish! If we approached with care we could catch a glimpse of some rare Egyptian Ibis that had flow in from West Africa and were just of the road in the Salt Pans before Cervia.
In making the detour to see the Ibis we headed back along forest track, but only after about a mile Lesley discovered she must have dropped her mobile phone on a ramp near the salt pans. A mad dash followed with Dave arriving at the spot just as two dog walkers simultaneously discovered it. A bit breathless Entalian and the iphone was soon handed over..
With Sat Nav set for our next destination San Marino we made a small detour to find a coastal spot to have our lunch by the sea. We couldn’t face going to Rimini and with almost every other inch of the seaside fronted by hotels, finding a nice place wasn’t straightforward but we did manage at Valverde to locate a seafront carpark with views of the unusual sea defences.
Bypassing Rimini meant missing the eight hundred hotels and one thousand bars, restaurants and nightclubs, but I’m sure we’ll cope!
Before I sign off I thought I’d share a couple of more quotes this time by Groucho Marx;
Outside of a dog, a book is your best friend, and inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.
When I heard that a German film production company were planning to do a re-make of “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”, I didn’t believe it until, when leaving Les Gets we spotted these 3 Mini’s (sorry BMW’s) in the car park at LiDL…., so it must be true. I wonder if they’ll ask Michael Caine to play the lead again?
The German’s aren’t the only one’s off to Italy, after stocking up with supplies we decided to make a quick dash through the Mont Blanc tunnel (€60 ouch) and down the Aosta valley to try to reach some drier weather on the southern side of the Alps.
After a long afternoon’s drive we made it to a MoHo service point close to the town of Biella 60 miles west of Milan. We thought Biella would be a useful stepping stone as they had a Vodafone store in a large shopping Mall. To save retelling all the frustration of how much time Dave has spent on the phone to Vodafone or on their ‘live chat’, trying to organise a replacement for the Vodafone 30GB data SIM….. “No we don’t want a new 12 month contract” Anyway. After checking out a few other data SIM providers, we managed to buy from Vodafone! a 100GB / 90 day contract for 60 euro which we think will last us until we get back.
Heading south and east, we picked out Torrazzetta, an agritourismo just south of Pavia for our next stay. It wasn’t a difficult decision especially when we discovered you could stay for free when eating in their restaurant that served regional dishes complemented by wines they produced themselves.., we thought, it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.
According to the very friendly English-speaking hostess, Torrazzetta was previously their family farm that in 1984 was transformed by her Grandparents into the first farm stay (agriturismo) in the province of Pavia (possibly the 1st in Lombardy?).
This could be where Marvin Gaye first heard it…..!
We had the parking area in a huge field at the top of the residence carpark to ourselves. There was no electricity or other services but with views of the vineyards surrounding the farm and the rolling landscape beyond it wasn’t too shabby a spot for a couple of nights.
In Italy, agriturismi (that’s the plural form of the word) must by law be working farms, and guests must be served items grown on the farm – whether that’s wine or olive oil from the estate’s vineyards and orchards or fresh produce culled from the house’s small private garden. Many agriturismi pride themselves on not only using ingredients grown on their property but bringing all other foodstuffs required from a short distance away. The focus is often on hyper-local and seasonal food in a rural and picturesque setting
This is Dave on his bike before he and the bike got caked in mud when the route we took went from muddy track to field edge quagmire. Keeping your balance in mud is usually ok unless it’s really thick stuff and you lose momentum. Then, well you might fall into a prickly hedge, but that couldn’t happen could it?
Since Roman times, the unique conditions of the Parma region have made it possible to produce the highest quality hams, that have been appreciated by gourmets for centuries. ‘Prosciutto’ is from the Latin ‘perexsuctum‘ meaning ‘dried‘ – an indication of the purity of Parma Ham production and its ancient roots. It was in 100 BC that Cato the “Censor” first mentioned the extraordinary flavour of the air cured ham made around the town of Parma in Italy.
The centre of Parma was easy to get into taking the no. 23 bus from just outside our Area Camper Sosta, although we ended up not paying as the ticket machine was, as a helpful fellow Italian passenger explained, ‘Kaput’ – I didn’t realise I looked German.
We didn’t end up buying any ham but did have a very nice lunch in the ‘Ristorante Corale Verdi” just by the park. Which meant we of course had to sample prosciutto di parma and a local speciality called torta fritta (fried bread made with butter, flour and milk shaped into pouches). All the while surrounded by the music and images on the walls of Giuseppe Verdi.
This is a small yet prosperous city, that isn’t especially spectacular, but Parma was definitely worth visiting. With lots of competition for the crown of food capital of Italy producing two of Italy’s most famous exports Parmesan cheese and prosciutto gives it considerable bragging rights.
Before leaving we felt the need to get the bikes out again and begin the process of waistline recovery after all the mountain food in Les Gets and for what is to come. It remains to be seen if the Italian cycle routes are as good as those in Germany. But we both got a good work out fighting our way along on the MTB trail we found today.
Italy is starting to get to us, Lesley and I have not yet fully succumbed to all the tempting guiles of Italian food, however our resistance is weakening. Visiting Modena started ok, we felt in control. The usual visit to the I office to pick up a map and tips about the historical centre. Although in a moment of weakness whilst in the tourist office we did accidentally make a reservation for a Balsamic vinegar tasting….oops. Our wallet and waistlines also survived largely intact after the all too tempting excursion around Albinelli indoor market. But dear reader, we have to confess we could not resist the temptations of Modena gelato.
Ferrari – Maranello
Ferrari needs no introduction of course, but I have to confess I wasn’t entirely sure why I wanted to go to see lots of expensive red cars, that wouldn’t fit my 6’4″ frame let alone our bank balance! In the end curiosity got the better of my inverted snobbery.
You don’t have to be a petrol head to get Ferrari. Yes the cars are special but once again it’s the story of the people behind the cars that made this place come alive. Enzo Ferrari started out racing Alfa’s before the war. In 1929 he founded the Scuderia Ferrari team, racing Alfa Romeo’s before borrowing money to start his original factory.
The history of the development of the designs and technology behind the race performance raised the small hairs on the back of my neck. When first setting up the factory in Maranello, the area had many farmers but very few engineers, so Enzo built an academy to train Ferrari’s own. It is difficult not to be impressed. Ferrari is the oldest surviving and most successful Formula 1 team, having competed in every world championship since 1950 and holds the record for the most Grands Prix victories, having won 238 times.
After not being sure why I wanted to go, I ended up enjoying the museum immensely and was especially pleased not to break the F1 simulator which was great fun.
Acetaia Clara – Maranello
Since the friendly chap from the sosta club had recommended a balsamic producer Acetaia Clara we decided to investigate. We navigated into someones back yard following an acetaia sign. Indicating in our best sign language we wanted to taste vinegars, the shop/tasting room was opened up – a large room in an outbuilding. A leaflet was found in English, and soon spoonfuls of rich, dark vinegar were tasted, including vinegar on parmesan cheese.. We ended up buying a 25 year old and a sweet liquid called Saba made from grape must used in desserts.
Acetaia Leonardi – Modena
We had pre-booked another tasting via the tourist information at Acetaia Leonardi. When we arrived it was a very grand looking place.
We had a really informative guide who showed us around the premises explaining how balsamic vinegar is made from slow cooking juice from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, then aged in wooden barrels, each year moving to a smaller barrel with the different woods adding complexity.
What’s really impressive to see is the barrels of 100 old vinegars that were started by the grandparents, knowing they were passing on the legacy to their children and their children’s children, but they would not get to taste the fruits of their labour themselves…..
Ok – so where next?
“This is the Self Preservation Society, This is Self Preservation Society”
In 2018, an estimated 1.8 billion people worldwide purchased goods online. During the same year global e-retail sales amounted to 2.8 trillion U.S. dollars. Ecommerce in the United Kingdom increased in 2019 by 14.6 percent to over 200 billion euros. So I’m not the only one buying a few things on the internet.
Whilst at home over Christmas we decided to back up our batteries and solar panel output with a purchase of an inverter generator. With the idea for it to be shipped to the Ski 2 Chalet in Les Gets for us to collect when we arrived. Searching around the net for the best price etc, I found Generators Direct who had a good selection and lots of technical information. Before ordering I checked with Ski 2 to make sure they were ok to take delivery and rung the Generator Direct number to confirm delivery cost to France.
With all the arrangements in place I went back to the Generator Direct web site and ordered a Honda EU10i Suitcase Generator. Providing the delivery address in Les Gets. as required. Shortly after I received a payment confirmation email.
It was great to be home for Christmas and spend time with the family in Scotland and to enjoy a relaxing time being at home in Cumbria. Our good friends Gary and Jen who had collected us, transported us back to Manchester airport for our flight on the 3rd January and a couple hours later RyanAir landed us back into Bergamo. After a short wait we were transported from the airport and quickly reunited with Charlie II at Booking Camper‘s (local motorhome hire company) storage facility.
The winter daylight was fast fading as we arrived at the entrance to the Area Sosta Camper Città dei Mille in the centre of Bergamo, where we’d spent 2 days in before Christmas, so we soon settled into the familiar surroundings.
Having drained everything down and emptied the tanks before leaving, our first priority was fresh water. However in our haste the fresh water hose was passed into the van, just as Lesley was preoccupied with mopping up a mysterious liquid coming from the fridge area – a quick look into the freezer explained the cause of the smell we’d noticed on initially entering the van. Fish had been left in the freezer 😱 and awful liquid was leaking out.
So whilst Lesley is trying to deal with the smelly fish juice, at the same time filling the fresh water. Dave helpfully comes in, offers to stand on the water hose to keep it in place but instead stands in fish juice in his size 12’s, the hose flails about spraying water everywhere. What a mess!
After much mopping up, the watery re-acquaintance fiasco was ended, or so we thought. Needing food, we elected to make use of the 10% discounted pizza vouchers given out by the camp site. Arriving back Lesley tried to fill kettle – but no water. Someone had asked Lesley to close the outlet valve but someone had not specified which one. Lesley had closed waste water valve not realising there was a second fresh water valve. So, at 10:30 in the evening we were back out in the dark filling the water again so we’re able shower in the morning.
Next day Dave spent the morning fitting the replacement solar charge controller he’d smuggled past the airport security on our return flight from the UK. Which, wait for it, gave us chance to catch up on our washing, yeah…..
As we drove west across Bergamo, our route to washerie was lit by gorgeous winter sunset.
I won’t dwell on small(s) talk, but we spent an interesting! time talking to a local Italian with OCD who spent 60 mins folding his family’s laundry! – Oh we know how to live it up on a Saturday night!
Avoiding the Swiss Vignette or the performance-related heavy vehicle fee (HVF)? or tunnel tolls. There are a few ways to cross the alps either via the one of the high alpine passes or the more expensive tunnels routes. We chose to enter the country via the Simplon Pass.
Making it to the top of the pass before it dusk, reminded of us of making the same journey a few years ago in a hire car without winter tyres. We emerged from a tunnel on the Italian side near the top of the pass to 4 inches of fresh snow. On that occasion we managed to spin, slip and skid our way over the top and on to drier tarmac on the other side.
On this occasion the snow ploughs had cleared the roads days ago including the summit car park, where we enjoyed a quiet night on our own under the stars, with only the early morning trans border commuters to break the silence of the mountains.
The next morning we headed down to the town of Brigg in the valley floor for supplies. 30 kms further on we climbed up again to find the motorhome parking place we’d identified near the small hamlet of Savièse, high above the town of Sion.
Disappointingly the parking area was for some reason fenced off. However we managed to squeeze Charlie on to a levellish spot close by with super views of the mountain villages lightning up the hillside at night.
The next morning we ventured off for a short uphill walk to find the Bisse de Savièse Torrent Neuf. Nieither of us had heard of a Bisse before but reading later up they remind me of the leats we have in the UK (artificial watercourses or aqueducts dug into the ground, more often to supply watermills).
A bisse is an irrigation canal, generally 5 to 10 kilometres long, taking its water from a torrent or small river at the bottom of a side valley resulting from the melting of glaciers. Its purpose is to supply water to various crops, orchards, vineyards or simply meadows for fodder.
The big difference between the Bisse in Switzerland and the leats we have at home are the sections constructed with timbers fixed to the rockface. These channels and super scary walkways carry the water round the contours of the mountain. It is mad, crazy, gravity defying and completely awe inspiringly ridiculous.
As it was winter the walkways are closed (for safety reasons!) I think in all honesty we were rather relieved. Otherwise I may have not be writing this? Clearly we did make it safely back to the van and set off towards Martigny and the French border.
Having planned to just drive through Switzerland we had not stopped to change any euros for Swiss Francs, Stopping at the first bakery, Lesley had the embarrassment of ordering bread (and cakes) only to have put them back when she found they wouldn’t accept euros cor cards.
The route from Martigny over the Col des Montets and the Route de la Forclazto to Chamonix was a proper mountain pass with lots of hairpin bends to negotiate first up then down. Not a journey I would fancy in any vehicle in the depths of winter.
After topping with LPG and supplies in Cluses in the valley we made up the last 15 miles to Les Gets and the Perrieres parking lot, at the bottom of the red ski run making our home a ski in – ski out location for the next few weeks.
I hadn’t expected to hear from Generator Direct over Christmas and the New year holiday period, but as it was the now the 5th January I was beginning to think it strange I had not heard anything regarding a delivery date. Having sent an email the day before I decided to ring them.
There was no answer from the telephone number I ‘d previously used before Christmas. Finding the Generators Direct web site. I rang that number. They had no record of our order. Alarm bells started to ring. Soon all became clear.
Generator Direct it transpired was a clone website of the perfectly legitimate business Generators Direct.
We spent the best part of a morning on phone to the credit card company and registering an incident with Action Fraud (police team dealing with this type of fraud). According to Generators Direct the clone web site had been set up 6 weeks before xmas and we weren’t the only ones to be caught. After taking lots of details the card company told they had to give the scam supplier time to deliver and to ring back in 30 days and they will refund our money.
The moral of this tale then, if it smells fishy it probably is fishy…..
If you want to drive a vehicle in Austria and it weighs more than 3.5 tons (including all lorries, buses and heavy camper vans). A mileage-based toll applies on Austria’s motorways and expressways and you need a Go Box. The box costs €5 to buy and it must be loaded with a £75.00 minimum pre-payment. owch.
Electing to enter Austria without a Go Box meant avoiding the motorways and sticking to the minor roads, unless we wanted to risk a rumoured €2,000 fine. Following this plan the initial part of the route was a 600m decent down through Möserer. Judging by the smell of the Carthago’s brakes, if they could talk they would have shouting ENOUGH already!
This image doesn’t look as steep as it was but the descent was about 600 metres in about 6kms.
Care had to be taken after going through Landeck town to avoid the motorway tunnel and take the by-pass. Safely avoided we negotiated our way over the Resia /Reschen pass and into Italy.
Having spent the morning before we left walking the Leutasch Gorge and then with the 3 hour non motorway drive we ended up arriving about 4:30 at the parking lot on the other side of the lake from Reschen am See, just as the sun was going down behind the hills giving them a pinkish tinge.
Charlie looked a bit lonely on the huge, free, ski lift car park, which was empty waiting for more snow to entice the skiers before the lift opened in a few days time.
The lone Romanesque bell tower was part of an old church from the 14th century, which was drowned along with the rest of the town’s buildings when the water flooded in and is the only remainder of the old town of Graun and former life in the valley.
There are many stories and legends about the flooding event, and the lonely bell tower is often the main subject of them. One oral story of the locals about Lake Reschen is quite scary. It tells that the church bells sometimes still ring in the deepest and coldest hours of the winter nights. And the fact is that they were removed 60 years ago, a few days before the waters came and drowned the church and the lower half of the tower.
Heading down from the mountain ridge into the valley below we set our sights on a Carthago dealer near Merano.
The water tanks on the Carthago are accessible from inside the van. The white tank is for the fresh water the black is the grey water from the sinks and shower.
Normally you should be able to open the grey water tank (lever above red cap), but it’s become disconnected from the valve in the tank! With this jammed open we now run the risk of a frozen pipe if we rely on the tap at the end of the discharge pipe. (oh no, we’ve not got to get the hair dryer out again!).
So after some research we found the nearest Carthago dealer not far from Merano and booked Charlie in for 2 days later on Monday morning to get his water works fixed.
With the weekend to wait for the waste water tank to be fixed we settled in Merano’s very busy motorhome parking place and because it was the weekend, it seemed half the motorhomers in Italy had come to see the Christmas market.
Apparently the Penguins quite enjoy being steered round by the ears!
How could we pass by a stall selling Bombardino’s – Just has to be done
The next day the garage had Charlie fixed (common fault) in half an hour for €25 and once more we were free to head of to Brixen and up into the mountains.
We are still learning about e-bikes, I like to use mine in the TURBO setting to zoom up the hills and go as fast as I can. Lesley is more frugal (I can’t possibly comment why), as a consequence I use more battery.