Week 36

The Euramobil factory in Sprendlingen feels like our second home. Of course they sorted out the windscreen and found us overnight accommodation and fitted the fog lights we decided we should buy (on the basis that if we did we probably wouldnít see fog again!), but those seemed peripheral matters. The most important thing was catching up with the news.

One, quite exciting thing that happened, was that they ran an article on the trip in their annual magazine, in fact, the picture of the motorhome in Switzerland made the front cover! So we are famous in Germany now!! Annete let us have some copies, they are in German, so that will spur me on to learn a bit more than campsite German, so I can read what they have said about us!

We went out for a meal with some of the people from Euramobil and had a great evening. It was so nice to be able just to chat. There is a picture of us all, and one of Thomas and Brigit who arrived just after the picture was taken. Thomas had a horrible motorbike accident last summer and at the time we went out was just about to hear if he could go back to work. Thankfully he could and at the time of writing this has gone back part time.

Annete was also kind enough to arrange a visit to the local primary school for the boys. So they got a day in a German school with children aged 7 to 8. The best bit was that they got their hair cut for the occasion, they were not amused! They were given seats next to each other and then the work began. As it was all in German, they didnít always understand, so the boy sat behind them helped out. He only spoke German too, but somehow, children can understand each other easier than adults.

The school day began at 8.15am and finished at 12.15pm. There were two breaks of fifteen minutes and after each block of work the children were sent out to run one lap of the playground. The emphasis is very much on reading, writing, arithmetic and tables. The handwriting of the children would have to be seen to be believed, it was perfect. Naturally there was a mix of ability in the class, but even the most disinterested children (they were not hard to spot, they looked everywhere but at the board!) still had beautiful handwriting. Not good for their age and ability, just plain perfect!

At the end of the day, there was a tremendous snow storm, the boys thought it was revenge on me for making them go to school. Actually though, they enjoyed it and certainly loved playing with the other children at playtime, the language barrier didnít seem to matter at all. Tag is obviously played to pretty much the same rules in all countries.

Sprendlingen is in the middle of the wine growing region and is a very nice town. The town hall has a very unusual spiral staircase which a feature of the building Ė you might just be able to see it in the photo. It is near the Rhine and the more famous places like Rudesheim, so if you were ever there, it would be worth a visit, if the bier kellers and lederhosen all get a bit much!

We were sorry to leave Sprendlingen as we never know if we will be back, we do hope so.

We had been planning to go to Croatia via Munich, but luckily Hans at Euramobil had been listening to the news; Munich was closed off and the army had been called in to deal with the massive snowfall that threatened the roofs of the buildings. Thankfully, he came over to tell us and helped plan another route through Switzerland.

Before we left Germany, we had the chance to go to an ice hockey match near Koblenz. We had never been before, so were thrilled to have the opportunity. The friend that took us knew all about the game, so we were able to follow what was going on. It is a very fast game and frankly I didnít actually see any of the goals. I saw before and after, but not the puck actually hitting the back of the net. It must be old age!! It was amazing to watch the players. They didnít seem to realise they were on ice at all. If they got pushed over, they could swing back up again in one easy movement, incredible.

The scenery in Switzerland was as magnificent as ever. It must be marvellous to live in sight of such tremendous mountains. We didnít stop, mostly because we didnít have any Swiss Francs Ė so awkward when a country doesnít use euros!!

We went through the Gotthard tunnel, so I took a picture of it, but really it wasnít any different to any other tunnel, although Gary tells me that the engineering skill that went into it was amazing.

We just drove and drove until we reached Italy and stayed in Stezzano, just outside Bergamo where we stayed just before Phil and Eunyoung came out to see us and we went to the same restaurant where they remembered us and plied us with innocuous tasting lemon liqueurs Ė when will we ever learn?! It turned out that the waitress was from Fez, so we had lots to talk about!

Week 37

Snowbound Slovenia was the next port of call. Minus Twelve point Five overnight, and I suppose it did get warmer during the day, but it didnít really feel like it!! Even though we had the heating on and it was 20 degrees inside the motorhome, there was a draught coming in from the vent of the fridge which was enough to freeze the water in the pipe to the sink unit.

We were hoping to see the caves at Postojna which apparently have some amazing stalagmites and stalagtites but as far as we could see they was very shut. There was a hotel just by the entrance to the caves, and was the place to stay according to the guide book. It, too, was shut, well actually it looked more abandoned than shut. The final nail in the coffin came from the guide book, it said that the caves were very cold, even in the sweltering heat of summer a coat would be needed in the caves. Well, letís face it, we did not exactly have sweltering conditionsÖ..

Finding somewhere to stay for the night wasnít exactly easy either. A kind man at the filling station said that we could stay there, but we wanted to use the cooker and we didnít think that would be allowed near a petrol station. The grounds of the hotel were a possibility, but it was a bit creepy up there, and I didnít really fancy it. It was dark and too late to move on, particularly given the extreme temperatures.

That left a car park on the edge of the town, it only had one car in it, but it seemed alright. So we went there, cooked dinner and went to bed. On the dot of 7 am, there was an almighty hammering on the door and I leapt out of bed and opened the blind. Standing by the door were two big burly men, in what seemed to be army uniform and guns. ďYou must leave hereĒ ďOK, OKĒ I stuttered. ďNow, you must leave nowĒ he shouted back. The car park was now nearly full and I noticed that the anonymous building opposite was an army barracks. Needless to say, I woke the boys (how did they sleep through all the hammering??) we all got dressed and left. Not an ideal start to the day!

Luckily, the petrol station up the road had opened and was serving coffee and cakes, we called it breakfast! At least we had an early start! The first photo was taken out of the window and sums up the day, grey, cold and dismal.

We drove straight to the Croatian border and began our journey down the Dalmatian coast. The weather was immediately warmer and we were able to put the bad start to the day behind us.

The scenery is breathtakingly spectacular and the road good, although a bit narrower than we might have liked. As you can see, at one point we came round a bend to be greeted by a JCB forming a graceful arch across the road, through which the traffic drove. The photo is taken from the motorhome and as you can see, there isnít a lot of room and an artic is coming the other way. Letís just say that everyone breathed in and it got through with at least an inch to spare!

A bit further on, it got quite hairy. The picture may look beautiful, and it was, but there wasnít a great deal of space between us and the edge of the road that all too easily could have become the edge of the sea. I had my eyes closed!

The coastline is full of campsites but they are all shut until April, so we had a bit of a problem finding somewhere to stay. Then we arrived at Starigrad Paklenica and there was a perfect parking spot just beside the sea. Not wanting to have the rude awakening of the previous night, we asked in the nearby betting shop if it would be OK to stay there Ė she didnít think it would be a problem. We spent a restful night, in blissful ignorance that it is illegal to sleep overnight in car parks in Croatia. No-one bothered us, so all was well.

Next morning, we carried on round the coast to Zadar which is meant to be a lovely walled town. We found a parking spot on the quayside and locked up the motorhome. We hadnít gone 5 yards before two separate people told us it was illegal to park there and we would be well advised to move. Obviously this didnít apply to the forty or fifty cars there. However, we did think we might be a bit close to the edge of the water and it didnít leave much room for anyone to walk through.

We spent the next two hours looking for a space, we went to all the outlying villages and found this delightful harbour, but there was no parking. We then went into the town itself by mistake and only got out by the skin of our teeth. We went in one gate and noticed the height restriction, but we were just OK, but we didnít realise that it was a tortuous one-way system and the only way out was another gate. People stopped work to enjoy the spectacle of us leaving the town, but they were to be disappointed as there was at least an inch spare all the way round! Phew!

19th February 2006

Week 38

Well, not many pictures this week as we seem to have deleted them all by mistake and are so disappointed.

We drove from Zadar to Biograd na Moru and amazingly found somewhere to stay straight away. The Tourist Information was a bit hard to find as it doubled as a newsagent stand, but the woman was able to direct us to a cafť bar that we would never have found on our own.

We asked if they did food, yes, but only dish of the day. Sounded perfect to us! As we were eating, some men at the other table began singing. Their voices were magnificent. They were singing operatic type songs, each taking a different part, the harmonies would have to be heard to be believed.

When we finished our meal, we went to the bar to pay and got talking to them. They said that everyone in that area can sing Ė really sing Ė not just warble a few notes. I can believe it too, as from time to time other people came in who they obviously knew and they would join in Ė not a flat note among them! I did take some pictures and of all the ones we lost, these are the ones I regret most.

On the way down, we stopped at the town of Trogir and it was lovely, just a small town full of narrow streets and beautiful buildings, well worth stopping at.

Then we went off to look at the Roman remains, just north of Split, well Gary and the boys did, I stayed in the motorhome and cleared away the lunch things.

The coast road was getting even more precarious, not to say dangerous, and we were only driving at a nervous 20 mph in places and never more than 30 for most of the way, except of course when the road veered a bit inland and away from the sheer drops down to the sea. Gary was obviously feeling a bit better and we reached the dizzy heights of 60 kph (about 36mph). Unfortunately, we were in a 50 kph zone and the policemanís radar showed 70kph, which I do not believe for a moment, but we were doing over 50kph. He wanted to see our papers and it was obvious we would need some money.

As I was scrabbling in the safe, Gary was talking to him, in English which he didnít speak, so he produced a leaflet in Italian which Gary doesnít understand, but the policeman was pointing to 500 kuna (£50). When Gary managed to explain Italian was all Greek to him so to speak, he flipped over the page and showed him the 300 kuna fine Ė there must be an Italian surcharge applied not only to Italian nationals but also to Italian speakers. Gary decided not to hold out anymore and we paid the 300 kunas, interestingly, the ďreceiptĒ didnít mention any money. Ah well, thatís life. Ironic though to get done for speeding on a day when we were driving so slowly for most of the journey it would have been quicker to walk!

We then continued on to Slano another small village by the edge of the sea, but this one had a restaurant! The owner did try and make enquiries about where we could park, but didnít really get anywhere and said as the tourist information was shut she didnít see why we couldnít park in the (empty) car park. If the police came along, we should refer them to her and she would explain the measures that had been taken to find a more appropriate stopping place. We were the only tourists there. We gathered that the laws about not sleeping in car parks were taken very seriously. I can understand why it would be in summer when car parking spaces are at a premium and there are thousands of campsites open, but in winter, when there is hardly a soul about and every single campsite is shut, it seems rather harsh.

Anyway, we didnít have a problem, but it did mean that we didnít stay, after the boys had had a couple of hours fishing that is. Unfortunately they didnít actually catch anything, but they certainly had fun trying.

Dubrovnik was the next stop and miraculously, we do have one photo of Josh at the main gateway. There were lots moreÖ..although not one of when we got wedged across a road trying to turn round because the carpark attendant wouldnít let us into the car park, even though it had spacesÖ..

It is a lovely city and we were lucky that it was deserted so we were able to see it all. We even took a walk around the city walls. The architecture is stunning and the colour of the marble is remarkable, but somehow it seems to lack any particular character of its own and is a tourist town, even when there are no tourists.

We had been intending to drive through Albania to get to Greece, but on reading the guide book more closely we felt that we were not up to terrible roads with craters up to metre deep, appalling drivers (it didnít even say that about Italy, so heaven knows what they must be like) and the high adrenalin sport known as crossing the road.

So we booked to cross from Dubrovnik to Bari in Italy. The ferry only went once a week but we managed to find a car park to stay in with a special 24hour rate for motorhomes, that was near the Old Town, so thought we were sorted. Then a policeman queried what we were doing with the carpark attendant, luckily he knew we were in for the long wait for the ferry so it was resolved, but they really do seem paranoid about it. There must have been a hundred free spaces in the car park that were never used. Why have 24 hour rates if you arenít allowed to stay there for 24hours? I donít know.

Anyway, from the car park were good views of the new bridge into Dubrovnik, and we still have that photo so I thought I would include it, you can also just see how busy the car park was!

The crossing to Italy was sickening, need I say more!!

Week 39

We were all pleased to finally get off the boat from Dubrovnik after the nine hour crossing.

We thought that we would head towards Sicily to see Mt Etna. Our first night was spent in Corigliano Calabro a small town in the instep of Italy. The first thing we noticed was just how poor the south seems after the grandeur of the north. It is obviously a sweeping generalisation to say that everyone lives in miserable looking blocks of flats, but the standard of housing is the worst we have seen on our trip. I wonder what the people living there must feel when the see the vast amounts of money spent in northern Italy when they donít even have decent roads.

There is a short A road that connects the town to the motorway and it is a pity that we didnít take it! Unfortunately, ignoring the Sat Nav, I took us on roads that did not even appear on the map, so dreadful were they. Narrow and winding do not even partly describe the precipitous ledges masquerading as public highways. We were too scared even to argue!!

Once we were on the motorway, we thought that our troubles were behind us, but they were only just beginning. A fierce wind had blown up and the motorway took us across very high bridge across large exposed expanses of countryside and the motorhome, being high-sided and only five tonnes, was being buffeted by the wind. We didnít think that we would be blown over, but we were worried that a sudden gust could blow us into another vehicle. At one point I looked at Gary and he seemed to be wrestling with the steering wheel trying to control it. Luckily, we were near a service station so were able to pull in. Unfortunately, the weather was getting worse. We spoke to a man in the shop (who handily spoke English having been born in Wales), he said that the mountains continued into Sicily, when we explained the problem we were having, he opened up a private service road that let us go under the motorway and up the other side and we went back the way we came.

It was a real shame that we missed Sicily, but better safe than sorry.

We drove to Brindisi, to get a ferry to Greece. The town is the best we saw in the south and we didnít mind staying there for a few days getting the ticket sorted out. There was a bit of a problem as the ferries were all full due to a strike, in the end we could only get a ferry back up at Bari, which we did.

It was another overnight crossing and made the Dubrovnik voyage seem like a picnic. We booked on the Ionian Queen part of the Agoudimos fleet, as they had an open deck and we could sleep in the motorhome and if necessary be sick in comfort and have our own beds etc. We confirmed this on booking and on check-in, but, youíve guessed it, once we got to board we were told there was no open deck and frankly the staff couldnít have cared less. We didnít have a cabin, so thought we would make do with sofas, the ship was deserted, but they wouldnít let us sleep, except in airline type seats in the television lounge. Hell on Earth. I have never come across such surly, miserable staff. All we saw was them telling the passengers off in loud hectoring voices. Never travel with Agoudimos ferries.

Once in Greece, we were heading for Olympia, but as we hadnít had any sleep the night before, stopped off after an hours driving at a service station. I said that we were looking for somewhere to stay for a night. No problem, we could stay in their large car park. Fantastic. Croatia, eat you heart out!

The next day we arrived in Olympia. There is a small, modern town just on the edge of the ruins, with everything a tourist could possibly want and a few thousand things they would never consider owning!

We were able to stay in the car park near the museum, without any problem at all. The shops and restaurants were just a five minute walk away.

The site of Ancient Olympia is a short walk from the museum and we were able to do both easily in an afternoon. The Ancient Olympics ran for over a thousand years without interruption. The Greek states seemed to like nothing more than a war, but for a period before, during and after the games, all hostilities ceased. This not only gave a chance for the athletes to train and participate in safety, it also gave the warring factions an opportunity to meet and talk.

t was a pity that the explanatory plaques had been removed, so it was a bit like looking at a ďpile of old stonesĒ to quote the men folk, but the size was impressive. One area we did manage to identify was the boxing arena Ė the boys were only too happy to fight for the picture.

The highlight of the museum was the sculpture of Hermes carrying the new-born Dionysus to the nymphs. Dionysus is the god of wine (among other things) so thank goodness he did the job properly.

There is also a museum to the modern Olympics full of memorabilia, including the torch used for the Torino Winter Olympics.

From there we drove to Corinth. New Corinth is just a modern town with nothing much to recommend it, but Old Corinth is quite the opposite, a delightful very small town. There was no car park that we could see in the dark, but the lady in the newspaper kiosk said it would be fine if we parked on the side of the road, which we did for three days with no problem at all.

The ancient site is only small and most of it can be seen from the road, but we were still glad that we visited it. It is quite eerie seeing an ancient town, with it shops and market place, only yards from the modern town.

Next stop was Athens and a campsite Ė put the flags out. We have electricity, water, hot showers, loos and best of all, washing machines and dryers. There is plenty of space for the boys to play in as we are the only visitors. It is just 7kms from the centre of Athens and the bus stop is just outside the campsite, the stop for Athens is on the other side of a four lane dual carriage way, but we have sussed out how to get across, so no problems.

Modern Athens is a bit of an eyesore and as you can see from the picture, is sadly lacking parks and green spaces. The only greenery seems to be around the ancient ruins, so thank goodness they are there!

We visited the Acropolis and decided to have a guide. She certainly knew her stuff and told us everything we are ever likely to want to know about the site. This was done at breakneck speed, in a heavy Greek accent and it seemed to be a point of pride that she didnít pause for breath for the whole two hours! It took untold amounts of concentration to keep up with her, but over the subsequent days bits have kept popping into my head, so perhaps the manic method has some merit after all!

One interesting thing I did catch was that the columns were fastened together by putting short holes at the top and bottom of each section, putting a wooden block into the hole and then saturating the wood with water, so that it would expand and be a good fix. Given that so many of the columns are still standing after 2500 years, I guess it was a pretty good method.

Also, the Acropolis is not rectangular but slightly curved, to maintain perspective from a distance. It only took 10 years to build and apparently canít be replicated today as we still canít do it, despite the wonder of the computer age!

We went back to having Sunday as a rest day. The boys took down the washing line, found a piece of a branch and made a swing that they played on for hours.

Week 40

On Monday, we took the bus into the centre of Athens and decided to walk around the pedestrian area at the bottom of the Acropolis and go and see The Agora the ancient cityís marketplace and administrative centre. As it happened, it was a public holiday (it seems we only have to enter a country for a public holiday to be declared!) and all the sites were free, which accounted for the thousands of people walking the same route that we were. The holiday is outwardly celebrated by kites and every child (bar two!) seemed to have one; it certainly made for a colourful day out. Because we were too mean to buy kites, we did a deal and they had candy floss and popcorn instead.

By the time we eventually got to the Agora, there was only fifteen minutes to go before closing, but this was long enough to see the pack of wild dogs who live there and hear horror stories about the number of visitors and staff the leader of the pack had bitten. The staff kept complaining to the authorities that the pack ought not to be in the enclosed space of the Agora, particularly as it is a major site and the dogs were a vicious, dangerous nuisance, but to no avail. So we had a quick look round and didnít go back.

The following day, we went back into the centre and saw the sights of modern Athens. In many ways, it is quite an old fashioned place. There are many small independent shops and this are arranged by trades, so for example, all the ironmongers are in one area, all the bathroom fitment shops in another. It would make for easy shopping as you wouldnít have to traipse all over the place.

We went to the Central Market and looked round the meat and fish sections. There must be over a hundred stalls, all selling much the same produce. The most gruesome, was the array of lambís (we think) heads. There must be a very popular dish calling for a head or two, but frankly, the look of them staring with dead eyes at me, put me off rather. The other thing that put me off was the number of stall sellers who were smoking their cigarettes whilst arranging the stock Ė yeuch!

In the Kerameikos, which is the ancient burial ground with a lovely museum. Gary, Josh and Rory felt that they really had seen enough museums, so they went off to explore the grounds, whilst I looked at the magnificent gravestones and sculptures. When I went to find them, I was met with Rory rushing towards me in great excitement. They had found a family of tortoises living in the undergrowth. When we looked around a bit further, there were literally dozens of them. I have never seen anything like it. I was also amazed at how quickly they could move, nothing like the torpid pets people used to keep in their gardens.

There was further excitement in store, spring was firmly in the air and two of the tortoises decided to get on with doing what came naturally. We have got some fantastic video clips, but for the website have included the picture of ďthe chaseĒ! Sorry, you will have to provide your own sound effects!

The metro stations featured some modern art, my favourite was the work at Omonia: The Tail by Niko Kessanlis, it was very effective, it really did look as if there were people the other side of the glass.

From Athens, we headed north. Thessaloniki could be summed up by the words ďavoid itĒ. Our experience wasnít improved when, having decided to leave and head for Macedonia, I did a bit of map reading and got us onto a superb road, only it was the wrong road and we were heading towards Turkey, not Macedonia!! We had to go 25kms before there was a turning and then, of course, we had to drive all the way back to where we had started from.

We ploughed on and stayed the night in a very nice car park in Litochoro, which had great views of Mount Olympus, home of the Gods. It is the white area in between the two darker mountains.

They grow a lot of cabbages in Macedonia. Gary seems to think that they also grow tobacco there, I canít say that I would actually recognise a tobacco plant if I saw one, but it definitely has an agricultural economy. It is very poor and this is evident from the dilapidated housing and the way the people are dressed.

We stopped at Veles, a small town, thinking that we would have lunch there. I went to the cashpoint to get some money out and got the equivalent of about £100. As I was walking back to the motorhome, I could hear insistent running behind me. A Roma woman and her child had spotted me and was literally running after me. She followed me to the motorhome, begging for money. The problem was, I had only been given three notes from the cash machine and wasnít about to hand over £30+. In the end I gave her 50 cents (Euros). I hope she could spend it somewhere.

There didnít seem to be anywhere to eat and we came to the conclusion that the town was too poor to support a restaurant.

We carried on up to Skopje, and in trying to find the Tourist Information somehow managed to employ a taxi driver, donít ask me how, itís one of lifeís mysteries, he thought we wanted the road to Athens, and we were half way there before I could jump out at the traffic lights and explain that we had come from Athens, we didnít want to go there. He then took us to a private travel agent, before we finally arrived at the Tourist Information that had clearly been closed for months. He wanted £25 for his trouble, but I didnít understand, and so he came down to £10, still daylight robbery, but what can you do?

We were obviously not going to find a campsite, so I tried to blag our way to staying in the carpark of the only 5star hotel in town, as it didnít seem safe on the streets, we were just attracting far too much attention and didnít feel comfortable about it. It would have worked if an international delegation of policemen werenít due to arrive in half an hour, but the reception thought the police security staff would move us on. It was a bit of a low point.

Gary was prepared to drive to Belgrade, but in the end we found a truckstop near the Serbian border and stayed there. Truckstops are not very glamorous but they have basic facilities and are safe places to stop.

Early the next morning, we crossed the border into Serbia and drove up to Belgrade. There were no campsites there either, so we booked ourselves into the 5star Inter-Continental hotel, as they had a guarded car park.

We treated ourselves to room service, the boys were thrilled!

Then, the icing on the cake was revealed: the television had English channels, including a prime time BBC, so we settled down to watch Eastenders and Judge John Deed Ė Five Star Bliss!!

Then came the rather shocking news of Slobodan Milosevicís death in The Hague. Naturally, the news channel was almost entirely devoted to the story. It felt rather peculiar to be in Belgrade at such a time. The local people were oddly non-committal about it. It was as if no-one had anything to say about it and would rather forget about it altogether. I am sure that privately it would have been very different.