A Forest Stay

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Last week we took our camper van only a few miles away to spend a couple of nights locally at a New Forest site at Ashurst. The New Forest is well-known as a tourist destination for visitors worldwide [ about  ]and we consider ourselves fortunate to live within cycling distance of this historic National Park. The camp site lies between picturesque, touristy Lyndhurst, with its bustling shopping street full of gift emporia, coffee shops and restaurants and sprawling Southampton with its cruise terminal, IKEA, shopping malls and docks.

Here there are the usual useful services: showers, washing up, laundry, water and emptying, although no electric hook-up; neither is there a play park [there is, however an excellent one at the adjacent pub] a swimming pool, organised ‘entertainment’ a bar or a restaurant.

What there is, though is a wealth of natural play options-from riding a bike around the site tracks to building dens; from ‘hide-and-seek’ to ‘cops-and-robbers’. And there is no shortage of happy children to demonstrate that pools, play parks and organised entertainment, despite having their place are not essential components of children’s happiness. Here at Ashurst they make their own entertainment, gathering together to create games, chasing, cycling, discussing, learning to organise and be part of a team.

Then there are added distractions. Here in The New Forest, gangs of cows or ponies roam wild and free, the camp site being part of their territory. They are expert opportunists, taking every opportunity of campers’ absences to forage inside the accommodation, strewing the contents of bags and bins over the grass in careless abandon to the amusement of onlookers.

For this short break close to home we’ve brought a small guest with us, a grand-offspring, coming along for a first taste of camping life. From the moment she arrives she takes to it all, loving the camp site, loving the safe freedom she can have. She cycles, apprehensive at first and then growing in confidence. She rides a circuit again and again, singing at the top of her voice. She wants to ride everywhere-to the showers [which she loves], to reception [from which we obtain a nature trail sheet], to the convenient pub [which serves perfectly acceptable food].

Next morning she is up and out straight away, cycling. If she were to become bored we could walk or cycle up the road to the New Forest Wildlife Park to see otters, owls, dormice, badgers, deer, wild boar and many more creatures in their natural habitat; or we could visit the adjoining Longdown Activity Farm, get a tractor and trailer ride or pony ride, feed the goats, scratch the pigs’ ears, stroke the donkeys, feed the calves and cradle tiny, fluffy chicks or baby rabbits in our hands. But none of this is necessary because the van guest is perfectly, ludicrously happy to ride around and around until she goes to sleep.

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Making it Back

With only three days left before the ferry crossing from Bilbao we arrive back to Spain’s north coast and settle in Islares to spend the time. The tiny village, on the edge of a bay is only just off the motorway [Bilbao/Santander] but hosts a secluded, daisy-strewn camp site laid out in neat rows of pitches. It  also houses overnighters making their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, who can stay in the year-round, static tents [green, seen in the background below].

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At last the sky is an unbroken blue and the sun makes a welcome appearance. While the site is never full there is a steady flow of vans in and out, as well as overnighting pilgrims. Some come to stay a night before or after the ferry, some for surfing and a few have chosen to holiday here.

You would have to go around the bay to find an extensive beach, but at Islares there are small pockets of sand that appear when the tide goes out across the rocky shore and the remnants of a miniscule harbour decorated with the ruins of old fishing huts. It is all outrageously picturesque.

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Santander, a half hour’s drive away, is another city we’ve tended to bypass, however we were tipped it was worth a look and decide to visit, only to discover there is nowhere at all to park the van. We drive along the sweeping seafront and back through the town. It does seem very grand, but will have to wait for another time.

Another excursion, to Laredo and further along the lengthy sandspit, takes us to another point on the Camino, where a tiny passenger ferry carries people across the water to Santona.

We make lunch by the almost deserted stretch of beach then continue around the lagoons, nature reserves and beaches. Nowhere is there more than a handful of tourists or day-trippers.

Our last day brings sunshine warm enough to sit outside and read- a rare treat this trip.

Although we rise early next morning for our drive to the ferry the site office is firmly closed, which makes it impossible to settle up, reclaim our ACSI discount card [an essential camper accessory] detach ourselves from the electricity point and exit the barrier. We learn that all this should have been addressed the previous evening. Horrors! But we are fortunate. The security guys help out, taking our cash and lifting the barrier, and I write a note begging for our ACSI card to be sent on.

Then it’s along the motorway to Bilbao’s ferry port, conveniently sited well away from the city’s sprawl. Once loaded we locate our small cabin before finding a comfortable place to sit and munch Brittany Ferries’ pastries and coffee-and I have to conclude that nobody can do breakfast pastries and coffee like the French.

A wander round, a read, lunch on the top deck [to the accompaniment of the noisy dogs in the on-board kennels], a snooze, a read, a wander. The day passes. After a shower in our cabin we find dinner before spending an hour with the ‘entertainment’ in the bar; the music quiz being the only item we can manage, then it’s off to find a quiet spot for another read before retiring to the twin bedded cabin.

Next morning Portsmouth has arrived.-and the sun is shining…

 

January Travels

We woke to a crisp, frosty, sparkly morning by Loch Ness, thankful that we’d been warm and were able to continue. We followed the lakeside along to the end [Dorres] and then on to the outskirts of Inverness, before turning to The Cairngorms where we were treated to a full day’s travel of wintery scenes; snow covered hills and roads lined with Christmassy, snow-laden conifers.

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I remembered being given a slender cookery booklet from the Festival Theatre, Pitlochry many, many years ago- a publication that has been lost but that contained recipes for whisky-laden concoctions [none of which I attempted]. We stopped at Pitlochry, a modest one-street town, attractive in a modest way although more yielding to tourists in days gone by, perhaps.

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At last we came to Fishcross.

At the risk of insulting the residents of Fishcross I feel obliged to say it is remarkable only in its unbecoming appearance-in other words, Fishcross is not a town that you would visit for its stunning architecture or historic value, rather there are row upon row of beige, pebble-dashed terraces punctuated by a Spar supermarket and a cat rescue shelter. Hm…

Nevertheless Fishcross is host, not only to a perfectly acceptable camp site but the site has a great restaurant, frequented by local residents, the poor souls.

But Fishcross is an ideal place to stay for a visit to Stirling, a fine and elegant city which has a stonking great castle on a hill top. So the following day, which dawned damp, dank and misty we caught the local bus there [passing the Wallace Monument en route] and ascended the steep cobbled street up to Stirling Castle.

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This is a proper classic castle, such as we used to draw in history lessons at school, for some obscure reason which now escapes me-

The castle has been restored to within millimetres of its long, historical life-even to the extent of its tapestries, which took years to construct and have their own exhibition.

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Outside was no less fascinating, although the view from the battlements was mist-shrouded and atmospheric.

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There was so much to see at Stirling Castle that little time remained before the bus returning to Fishcross but we managed a whistle-stop tour taking in the bagpipe shop, the kilt shop and Darnley’s house [Darnley was a husband of Mary, Queen of Scots]. Then it was back to the delights of Fishcross, taking care to watch out for the cat rescue centre, since this was our cue to exit the bus.

It was time to head south again, striking out firstly to the Lake District, an area that becomes overstuffed with tourists in summer but is undeniably beautiful.

At our lunch stop at Lockerbie services I weakened on my way out of the building and bought scrumptious, mountainous scones and we were entertained by the many cars arriving with dogs and owners to use the surrounding parkland for walkies.

Then we were at Keswick and this was the reward:

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Next January’s trip may well be to the Lake District!

 

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…

 

Crossing the Void and having to Avoid…

We wrenched ourselves from beautiful, sunny Paestum having ascertained that thunderstorms were amassing and that the next day, Easter Sunday would be a quiet, truck-free day on the roads.

Italy’s south west coast takes in Basilicata first then Calabria-the toe and the poor relation of Italy’s mainland. But the coast road is stunning and scenic, twisting and turning around a mountainous fringe as it wends south; a coastline to rival the famous Amalfi road and far less travelled. It was indeed quiet, Italy’s biggest religious holiday when families get together to celebrate.

As promised, towards mid-afternoon the glowering clouds vented in a thunderous, lightning-ridden deluge as we neared Italy’s toe and a few glimpses of Sicily.

Since Abruzzo we’d descended into internet silence and it was becoming clear that something was amiss concerning connectivity. We stopped just before the port town at ‘The Mimosas’, quiet, low season and dispiriting in the showery weather. The small beach, however offered our first, shadowy view of Sicily.

In the town where we were to get across the Straights of Messina we were to experience a taste of what was to come in terms of southern Italian driving behaviour. In the narrow streets there were vehicles parked on both sides, cars coming through, cars reversing, cars double-parked or parked across the road. Knowing where the port was located was no help in determining how to get to it. We drove around and around, helpless until a bystander helped out for a small remuneration, showing where to buy a ticket and where to join the queue. The stretch of water is narrow and offers a view of Messina sprawled along the coastline of Sicily.

The ferries came and went in a relentless stream, uninfluenced by the religious holiday of Easter Monday and soon we’d driven into the bowels of one. We joined the throng of passengers climbing up to the café and there was just time to get a coffee before the vessel docked-at Messina!

Having disembarked and trundled off the dockside into the rambling town we began to experience the complete and utter bun-fight that is Sicilian driving. Vehicles shooting out of side roads and parking spaces, no indication of intention, overtaking on both sides, double and triple parking, stopping mid-road and getting out, disregarding red lights, other cars and any kind of safety procedure. This was to be the norm.

The outskirts of Messina, a long built-up stretch were lined with scruffy housing, numerous assorted vans, trucks and cars selling mostly green beans heaped up in mountains in car boots and on truck beds. This is clearly not a wealthy area.

Later the road morphed into seaside suburbia and we found the way to the autostrada where we made for the first site [near as we could get to the tourist hotspot of Taormina]. Elements of doubt crept in as we bumped around an unmade road and past a cement works sporting a statue of a praying monk, [San Cementus, perhaps? –the patron saint of concrete?] but there was the entrance, shrouded in a choking cloud of barbecue smoke on this holiday afternoon; the small, dishevelled site crammed with holidaying Italians. We were shown a spot overlooking the sea front. Here at last!

 

Going Dutch

                We have arrived to the environs of Amsterdam. The last time we visited this compact but beautiful capital city was a number of years ago, despite having travelled in the Netherlands to some extent. Our last Amsterdam visited included a comfortable hotel stay near the centre. This time we have made the bold step of driving here in the campervan, despite the autumnal weather.

                Amsterdam boasts remarkable architecture and a network of canals, as many North European cities do, and like all of the Netherlands [which benefits from a flat terrain] has developed a magnificent system of bike paths. As I’ve mentioned before, the bicycle rules here, taking precedence over both motor vehicles and pedestrians, which is lucky since we have not only brought our bikes with us, but yours truly continues to be lame from foolish activities such as jogging.  Nevertheless we are here to watch a plucky family member undertake the Amsterdam marathon and provide whatever support we can, from clapping and whooping as he dashes past in a blur, to hearty congratulations and beer on completion.

                The campsite here in Amstelveen, a satellite of Amsterdam, is clean, modern and comfortable, with heated wash blocks, hard standing for motorhomes, affable, friendly staff and plenty of useful information. But Amstelveen is an odd, characterless area. We stumbled out to try and find the ‘centre’, hoping for a bank and perhaps a hostelry where we might enjoy an early evening drink. There are miles of new, pristine housing estates, neatly laid out and incorporating cycle ways, patches of grass with goal nets, basketball courts, picnic benches. There is no litter or dog excrement. There are also no newsagents, grocery stores, coffee bars, bistros, launderettes, betting shops, Chinese takeaways or bars. Eventually, among the vast warehouse factories and car outlets we discovered a supermarket and inside, a cash dispenser.

                There is an intrepid element to van camping at this time of year. A couple of years ago we ventured to Bruges, in Belgium just a couple of weeks before Christmas, to a site accessible to the centre, though a bus ride away. The weather was damp and chilly. One of the few fellow campers blew up the electricity supply, rendering our electric heater useless and necessitating using the gas rings for heating. Visiting the centre of the medieval city was nice, but cold, and in order to stay warm we had to keep nipping into bars and cafes even more than we would normally. Bruges was bedecked with lights, decorations, a Christmas market and an ice rink, but was freezing. We returned home with head colds.

                Here there is a vestige of watery, late autumn sunshine mixed in with the clouds. We are an easy cycle from Amsterdam’s centre and have the benefit of reliable, cosy heating. How was the marathon? I’ll let you know…