Romantic Romania

The vast and beautiful Danube flows through ten countries-more countries than any other river in the world, also forming several borders including that between Bulgaria and Romania.

Crossing into Romania was a little like stepping into a fairy tale, or into a Constable painting, for while the roads, infrastructure and villages were better kept and looked a little more affluent than in Bulgaria the communities were also quaint and olde-worlde.

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I’ll admit to being surprised, having assumed Romania to be much poorer than its neighbour. Having said this, there were countless signs that Romania is stranded in a bygone age, such as hand-tilling in the fields, hay-making with horses and carts and horse-drawn transport.

The pretty, tree-lined streets of the villages are made up of tiny, single-story homes-many with tiled exteriors in intricate patterns. Outside many homes there are benches positioned to catch the evening sunshine, often occupied by a couple of women in headscarves having a gossip.

On the road we followed an open truck with a horse tethered in the back. The horse was blinkered and attached each side but even so the truck lurched around corners, swaying and jolting but causing no apparent distress to the equine passenger.

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We stopped for lunch alongside the Danube basin, where the waters again form a border, this time between Romania and Serbia, so that the wooded hills of Serbia are visible on the other side.

As in the previous country [see last week’s post] we’d scant information on camp sites but headed for ‘Hercules’, a tiny, five-pitch site behind a restaurant opposite a busy road and railway line. We drew into the driveway to be greeted by the owner and shown to a place, which was not a problem since we were the only van there. The sun beat down into the small, neat back yard, a chance to relax after the journey. Though small, the site boasted clean, efficient showers, a washing machine and every convenience.

This being one location where our mobile internet was unobtainable we took devices to the bar and used the site wifi while we had beers. Later an Austrian couple pulled in to be our neighbours for the night. We settled down to sleep. At around midnight we were woken by loud, staccato bangs from a building next door and looked out to see the sky alight with fireworks. Odd timing-but who are we to judge on another country’s customs?

Next day we were off north again towards Hungary, travelling through ravishing green countryside and rustic scenes that included thousands of beehives. I spotted them in industrial numbers along the verges and in the fields, often being tended by veiled beekeepers, the results laid out in modest roadside stalls. Then there were beehive trucks:

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These unusual vehicles were parked in lay bys or pieces of wasteland. It was uplifting to see such a large-scale industry from bees. At least someone is taking care of them!

Having passed mile upon mile of queued lorries we arrived at the border with Hungary. I felt bereft. We’d whisked through Romania in two days and a part of me clamoured to stay and explore, to wander along the village streets and photograph the countryside. But don’t worry, Romania, we will be back. Besides-a visit to Romania just has to include an exploration of Transylvania.

And then there was Hungary…

 

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Bulgaria: Beauties and Beasts

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We left beautiful, spectacular Delphi, swishing around a series of hairpins into a mizzly mountain rain and on towards Thessaloniki and the seaside town of Nea Moudania for a last blast of sun before the long trek north. In the event, both Nea Moudania and the sunshine failed to excite and we cut short our last blast in favour of discovering the delights of Bulgaria.

Hitherto my one experience of Bulgaria was a solo skiing trip to Borovets, where the skiing, social life and scenery were all delightful, the hotel food atrocious and the staff gloomy and depressed.

Having negotiated the border we knew we’d have to buy a road tax ‘vignette’ and  obtain some currency. The road on Bulgarian side of customs is lined with stalls selling all manner of goods from liquor and cigarettes to bottled water, also currency [exchange-euros for ‘lev]’.

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We set off towards ‘Sapareva Banya’, using the co-ordinates from the German website we’d had to use to find sites. The rolling, green countryside was delightful; the towns were the ugliest I have ever seen-crumbling, grey blocks and abandoned factory sites. This is the legacy of the iron curtain. I wondered how it was possible to create such brutal ugliness and how will it ever be possible to eliminate?

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The co-ordinates took us down an increasingly rutted track and through some gates. It looked promising. Inside the gates the driveway rounded a large, stately building in wooded grounds but nothing resembling a camp site. I ran around to the front of the building and climbed once-grand steps into a huge, gloomy hallway containing booths housing white-coated people with clipboards and papers. My hesitant enquiry as to whether anyone spoke English yielded blank shrugs. I’d stumbled into some kind of sanatorium; clearly not a camp site.

Husband was all for turning back, although we’d had a long day’s travel already. I determined to find the site, striking out down a track I’d spotted where builders were constructing a bar by a pool. A kindly builder explained in good English how to navigate to the site, [next door].

Yes-there it was, down another rustic lane. We pulled in. When there was no response to my ringing a bell at ‘reception’ I thumped on the door which after some minutes was answered by a lugubrious young woman, bleary eyed and shoeless. I imagine I’d dragged her off the sofa and away from an afternoon of daytime Bulgarian soap operas. We could stay, she told me but they were very busy and had little room. This proved to be true, as a large tour group of Dutch caravans was occupying all of the field. We manoeuvred into a sloping slot behind some chalets, relieved to have somewhere to spend the night.

Sapareva Banya had given us no cause to linger and we drove off again in the morning to head north again and find a site called ‘Madona Inn’ from the German website.

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Bulgaria is poor. Horse-drawn carts are commonplace among the town traffic and most small village homes are in need of repair, resources being too scarce to squander on paint, render or window frames.

Madona Inn is easy to find, a guest-house and camp site with bar and restaurant along the road to Belogradchik, where a 1-3rd century AD fortress lies in an imposing position between the dramatic sandstone rocks of the area. With time to explore before checking in we drove up to Belogradchik, a town that has made no concession whatsoever to tourism in terms of beautification. We climbed up to the stunning fortress.

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Madona Inn was everything Sapareva Banya was not, with cartloads of rustic charm, although the Bulgarian cuisine on offer seemed eccentric to our uninitiated taste-an omelette topped with soggy toast topped with pork slices topped with mushroom sauce topped with…a boiled egg.

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It was a beautiful, quirky site and well worth the visit-but little did we know what impact the terrible road surfaces would have later…

 

Odyssey

Ah Greece! I used to say if I had only one country  to holiday in I’d choose it. So many beaches on so many islands, such friendly people, such reliable, warm sunshine and blue skies, such history, such dramatic scenery and delicious food!

At the point when I’d said it I’d still only been to Athens and to some islands. I’ve been to a few -Crete, Corfu, the little-known ‘Forni’ islands, Icharea [the Athenians’ favourite], Aegina, Rhodes, Naxos, Samos. The islands are lovely and each has its own special identity but this visit to Greece is for the mainland and in our van, which makes it quite special.

Arriving in dramatic, rugged northern Greece late in the day and after a long, hot drive from Albania we chose a couple of  beach chill-out stops for recovery [and for Husband to get rid of his head cold].

Then we turned south towards the Peloponnese. Husband, who is a sports devotee has harboured a long-term desire to see Olympia, which lies slightly inland on the westernmost ‘finger’ of the Peloponnese. The drive was long and temperatures were in the mid thirties. I wondered if I was hallucinating when I spotted a tortoise on the hard shoulder of the motorway, but there were further sightings in the ensuing days. Oddly there were no flattened versions upon the roads.

The landscape, as we travelled south from Patras became verdant, the hills dotted with cypress trees, vines trailing.

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We stayed high up on a hillside overlooking Olympia, waking next day to a view of soft mist and layered mountains.

We strolled around the ancient site in the cool of the morning and followed it by a tour of the excellent museum.

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As the tour buses began to arrive we made our exit and headed off south again, this time for a beach stopover at a small village.

The beach was unremarkable but was a good enough place to spend the night. Next morning we were off before we were subjected to any more ‘advice’ from our British, Spanish-living, huge motorhome owning, beach neighbours [not the first of their kind we’ve encountered this trip].

Nafplio is a beautiful seaport town on the Argolic Gulf, colourful houses painted up the hillside and boasting two large castles. We parked on the port side to wander the streets and scale the heights of one of the castles, peering down from the top at the sheer drop to the rocks below. In the town’s pastel terraces a riot of blazing Jacarandas in flaming orange, vermilion and pink cascades from every rooftop. The narrow streets are alive with gift shops, tavernas, guest houses and hotels.

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A few miles along the coast we settled into Lefke Beach, a steeply terraced site on a quiet bay.

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It was time to catch our breath and enjoy the tranquillity of this tiny piece of Heaven, although other than walking along a treacherous coastal road with no pavement or verge there was nothing besides the camp site so after two nights we were ready for more action. On, then to Delphi-

 

The Bad, the Good and the Muddly

It was all going so well. When I left you last week we’d found a place to stay in Budva, Montenegro, we’d seen the town and enjoyed a meal on the harbourside.

Next morning the local bin men obliged us by waking us up early, giving us a good start for our entry into the next country-Albania. Before we got there, however there was a dramatic mountain pass to negotiate, a journey that afforded stunning views of the Adriatic, it’s coastline becoming miniature as we climbed higher. Then it was a steep descent with hairpin bends. The landscape gradually flattened and there were lakes and marshes.

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Montenegro is a tiny country-smaller than Wales-so it doesn’t take too long to get to the border with Albania; but it does take a little time to get across the border. Again there is the issue of motor insurance. Whilst we queued at passport control a casually dressed young man sporting a badge on a lanyard approached and spouted a cascade of Albanian at us, seeming to be a question. ‘Yes’, said Husband-and ‘No’ said I. There was a short hiatus, during which Husband and I conducted what I shall term a mild dispute as to whether he was enquiring if we had motor insurance or enquiring if we needed motor insurance.

The discussion was swiftly concluded by Husband’s handing over of a fifty euro note, with which lanyard man disappeared up some steps. His companion-[a would-be translator] waved us into the queue. At this point Husband’s heels dug firmly into the footwell and would not budge; he glowered until he saw a return on the fifty euros.

‘Oh ye of Little Faith’. Lanyard returned brandishing a sheet of paper embossed with a gold stamp-an advance on the scruffy scrap of Montenegro. Whether it was worth any more than the paper on which it was inscribed is doubtful, however we would not have wished to put it to the test.

On then-to Albania’s highways, upon which cows, dogs, donkey carts, pony carts, moped  carts and an altogether eclectic mix of vehicles, animals and humans besport themselves. This is a country where the population has the utmost faith in other road users-so much so that they feel confident to wander across a ‘motorway’ or wheel a barrow along the central reservation.

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The driving is outlandish, with meandering across to the other side of the road commonplace. Somehow we arrived at the campsite we’d selected near Berat and swung through the gates to see a smattering of van and motorhomes-as usual the intrepid Germans-and even another British van.

This was a little oasis with shaded pitches, beautiful showers, a bar and a restaurant. We heaved that inward sigh that follows an anxious day of travel and determined that we should follow our site neighbour’s advice and take a look at Berat, The White City, Albania’s poster-boy city.

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Ever-hopeful, and armed with a scribbled map that Donna, the camp-site owner had drawn us, we drove into Berat.

Five hours and three attempts to find the road south later we retraced our route back past the camp site and back towards Montenegro. Frazzled, frustrated, hot and defeated we acknowledged that the road marked on the atlas could not possibly exist. Mrs TT [the satnav slag] had taken us in circles or onto unpaved, rutted tracks.

At last, at the end of a long, hot, dusty day we arrived to the Greek border and it was with a mixture of sense of achievement and relief. Greece!

 

 

 

The Wild Frontier

Last time we made the long trek to Croatia we were still using a tent, which means it was very many years ago. It seemed intrepid then, to go so far; but although the roads were basic the camp sites were beautiful, the people welcoming and the produce wonderful.

There are still hundreds of roadside stalls selling local fruit and vegetables and home-made concoctions but Croatia has developed a great deal since our previous visit, with efficient roads, signs and facilities in abundance. Having previously stayed on a few islands and seen Dubrovnik we chose to go to the Unesco site of Plitvicka, an area of outstanding natural beauty with lakes and waterfalls. At this time of year, with the snow-melt water cascading down everywhere under a faultless blue sky it was spectacular, exceeding all expectations and only marred [as the day grew later] by the hoards of selfie-takers, tablet-snappers and those who consider themselves ‘serious’ photographers in that they must use a tripod for every shot. There were also, near the end of our chosen trail a number of coach parties, mainly Japanese-some of whom had chosen to wear face-masks for their day out, an inexplicable sight in the pristine environment of Plitvicka.

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Next day we were off early, continuing through the inland part of the country which is quiet and beautiful, a backdrop of mountains and occasional lakes but precious little tourism. All tourists want Croatia’s coast [which, to be fair is dramatic and beautiful, too]. Then we were back on the coastal highway ourselves, spending our last night in Croatia in a small, seaside village and enjoying an uproarious evening with another British couple, sitting outside by the Adriatic, the sound of the waves an accompaniment.

We sped off again in the morning, south towards Montenegro, a new country for us. At the border we bought our obligatory motor insurance-fifteen euros for a scruffy scrap of paper-, made deferential noises at the officials and set off towards Budva, whose alleged reputation as a mini version of Dubrovnik is a little exaggerated. In all of the books, websites and information that we’ve amassed there are no places whatsoever mentioned in Montenegro so all we had was a dubious site I’d discovered on the internet somewhere around the back of town, the location of which we’d programmed into Mrs Tom-Tom with more hope than confidence.

‘700mtrs’ said Mrs Tom-Tom as we stopped in the first car park we found. 700 meters to the camp? In the midst of the city?

We drove towards it. I spotted the edge of a caravan between the houses of the street. We drove round the corner and through a gateway and parked under the olive trees. Yes, it was basic. No, not everyone would have wanted to use the shower [although it was clean]. But it was a twenty minute walk from the old, walled town of Budva and best of all it was safe and secure.

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While Budva cannot hope to compete with Dubrovnik it is nevertheless a pleasant and attractive old town. having strolled through the narrow alleyways and visited the ‘Citadela’ we found a seaside bar, bought a beer and sat to watch Budva’s population enjoying the evening sun. What would our next day’s travel involve? I’d read enough about the perils of Albanian roads to give me nightmares! We were about to discover it for ourselves…

 

 

The Lure of the Lakeside

We crossed from the French Alps into the Italian, driving over the border inside the Tunnel de Frejus, a 12k subterranean road that can be used for the outrageous sum of 58 euros!

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To leave France and enter a different country is to go out of my comfort zone. We’ve holidayed a great deal in France, so much so that it feels like putting on a comfortable old pair of slippers. We visit France every year at least once and far more than say, our own capital of London. For those of us with motor homes the travel is easy. After so many years of confusing the population with my basic French I’m finally able to make myself understood and elicit a response in French without smirks, blank incomprehension or arrogant ignorance.

Last year, with the help of a phrase book I began to feel my way around the Italian language, at first mixing it up with Spanish, a language it resembles and then grasping a few useful words. ‘Lavaccine gietone’ was one phrase I practised rolling around my tongue-enough that I was able to go and request a washing machine token and actually get what I asked for.

So having crossed the border I rifled around in the book box- a box that contains all our useful travel documents, atlases and guide books-for the Italian phrase book. I reached the bottom of the box to find two French phrase books, neither of which we need, but no Italian one. Husband, who’d spent days preparing the box declared ignorance on the subject and I suppose I only have myself to blame for the omission. Ho hum…

We are passing through the north of Italy on our way south towards Croatia so the lack of phrase book is insignificant. We’ll be crossing a number of countries whose languages I’ve no clue about at all, meaning that stressing is pointless. In any event we have arrived on the shores of Lake Garda in late afternoon sunshine, a soft haze like gossamer hanging over the water which laps gently on the quayside here at Pescheria.

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Is it any surprise that people flock to the Italian lakes? Pescheria is outrageously beautiful, with pastel painted buildings along the water, bars and restaurants lining the streets, their tables outside on the cobblestones, their lights reflected in the lake. A flotilla of leisure boats is moored in the marina. The evening continues warm enough to stroll without a jacket.

The sun becomes a bright tangerine casting a gold column down across the water. We are here for two nights but I am sure we will return and next time I’ll make certain I have the phrase book-just in case I need something else besides the lavaccine gietone…

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Lower Your Expectations!

A wonderful lady I worked with years ago sometimes used to say ‘Lower your expectations’. She would use this phrase whenever we felt jaded or that events were taking a downward turn. It was intended to be droll-and it was, because it always brought a smile to our faces.

But the idea of lowering expectations is not without advantage. If I consider a worst case scenario in life then the outcome will either be a] as I expected or b] not as bad as I expected, both of which are better than a disappointment.

I can apply this approach to all aspects of life. We have just embarked on a new expedition into Europe, intending to travel in directions hitherto unexplored [by us]. The preparations for this odyssey seem endless and difficult, partly due to it’s being the first major road trip of the year and partly because my brain is losing its propensity to be sharp. I appear to spend a great deal of time writing lists and forgetting to add items, or writing lists that prompt further lists. I begin a task and become distracted by another. I forget what I do, forget how to prepare.

Eventually, however we seem to be ready. We get away on time. We arrive at the ferry port on time. The crossing is uneventful-pleasant, even. We breakfast, we slump, we snooze in the recliner seats of the quiet lounge [both of us having had a fitful and short night’s sleep]. The weather is warm and sunny. This is a bonus, since cold, wet weather was expected for a few days at least. See what I mean? Expect the worst, lower your expectations.

It is easy to see why many prefer the simple process of buying ready-made holidays. Everything is done; everything laid on. You are transported somewhere, you are ferried to sights and brought back [as on cruise ships]. You follow an itinerary someone else has prepared. You look, perhaps take snaps, perhaps buy a souvenir. You are taken home.

The road trip requires planning and preparation. We [mostly Husband] plot each day’s route, we search out possible destinations, we fuel up, shop, service the van [water, waste]. We make decisions, try to agree. We problem-solve. Sometimes we are successful. In the two days since we began we’ve had to overcome irritants like lights that will not switch off, devices that bleep in the middle of the night, van alarm going off [also in the night] and no internet access. Above all we have to adjust back into camper-van life, remembering where we store stuff, routine when we park up, routine when we leave each day.

But we know we must make our brains and bodies work for us if we want to get into healthy old age and I imagine that it’s one of the reasons there are so many ancient motor-homers out here in Europe, just like us. Oh-and there’s the freedom of course. Who wants to be told what to do and where to go? Now what on earth has happened to all my ‘Word’ documents???