On to Sunnier Parts

The weather has turned gloomy and drizzly as we leave Unterager and head towards Italy. Lake Lucerne is shrouded in mizzle, its frame of snowy peaks almost obliterated.

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We drive through the St Gotthard tunnel, waiting in line for our batch of vehicles to get a green light [presumably this is to avoid jams inside the tunnel]. Then it’s a short hop to Lugano, which holds a promise of stunning views as we travel through the pretty town and suddenly we are alongside the lake itself, adorned with intriguing towers, villas and churches. A quick glimpse and we are winding up hairpin bends, through tunnels and the border is upon us, vestiges of the old controls still there in the customs sign and the checkpoint.

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The weather brightens and soon we are driving into Porlezza, our first stop in Italy, a large site on the shores of lovely Lake Lugano.

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The town is a tiny, little known gem, with narrow, cobbled lanes against a backdrop of steep cliffs, a miniature square, a little church painted with frescoes on the walls and ceiling, bars and cafes along the waterfront, where I’m surprised to see a terrapin swimming alongside the ducks!

Rain sets in overnight and for half the next morning, before clearing enough for us to set off on along an old railway track turned cycle path towards Menaggio at Lake Como. As it’s a rail track we think the gradient can’t get too steep and to begin with it isn’t, leading off through the back of town and along the side of pretty Lake Piano, a nature reserve.

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The track climbs-and climbs. It becomes a relentless, knee-numbing challenge. We are overtaken by the inevitable E-bikes, prompting teeth-gnashing and finger gestures [from ourselves of course]. I begin to run out of gears. At last we reach the top and begin the descent, during which my hands become numb from holding the brakes on. We come to an abrupt halt at a road which snakes down in hairpin bends into Menaggio and I decide that’s enough, since mixing with Italian traffic on steep bends is not my cappuccino.

Then it’s back up again; up and up, and more up.

And then down.

The next day is to be devoted to Lake Como. We’ll drive to Menaggio and get a ferry across to Bellagio. Easy! But there is nowhere to park a van along the steep sides of the lake and we don’t find a car park until we reach Cadenabbia, which is ok because the ferries cross from here.

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Bellagio swarms with tourists, its steep, narrow lanes lined with designer outlets and gift shops. But it is pretty and worth the effort. After a wander up and down the streets and an ice cream we return to Cadenabbia to drive up the lakeside and find a site. Easier said than done!

 

 

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The Rain in Spain

Comillas is a small, pretty town, a stone’s throw from the Northern Spanish coast and home to architect Antonio Gaudi’s ‘El Capricho’, a typically wacky house commissioned by a wealthy lawyer. It is one of Gaudi’s first works and one of only three buildings of his outside Catalonia.

On Good Friday of Semana Santa, Comillas is seething with day trippers and we are glad to have caught the bus here from our site. We join the queue for El Capricho and once we’ve bought tickets we have to run the gauntlet of hordes of visitors and guided tours throughout the rooms and on the balconies. But it is worth it. The villa is a joyous, colourful creation bedecked in sunflower glazed and vibrant green tiles, odd terraces and tiny windows giving on to views of the town’s terracotta roofs or of the surrounding parkland.

The rooms are beautiful, restful spaces with examples of quirky furniture and clever technology like slatted blinds that roll up sideways to open. This would be a wonderful home-and I hope it was enjoyed by the inhabitants!

Comillas is choc-a-bloc with market stalls, the cafes and restaurants full to bursting. We content ourselves with an ice cream in the square while we watch the stallholders pack up-then head to our bus stop for the ride back.

Next day we set off to Cudillero, an authentic fishing village akin to a Cornish coastal settlement. There is enough time for a walk down into the town, although it is a steep and treacherous one, the pavement horribly narrow and winding. En route the street is lined with buildings in various stages of decline and later exploration reveals a town of quaint charm but shocking decadence. Here and there are pockets of redevelopment-tricky given that the sides of the ravine are impossibly steep and homes are accessed by a tracery of stone steps, slopes and pathways in a higgledy-piggledy web.

Down at sea level the street is lined with bars and fish restaurants, everyone drinking until about 8.00pm, [by which time we are famished] and at last there are a few diners and we can sit down to peruse the menu. We choose a prawn salad and a seared octopus dish to share and a hake dish each. It is all delicious.

After lunch the next day we find an off-road footpath leading down to the town. We walk down-and up-and down-and up, by which time my knees are wobbly as jelly from steps and slopes.

Time to leave Cudillero. We make for Louro, just beyond Muras and rain sets in with a vengeance. The small town is nondescript but has a good beach along an attractive bay. It rains in a relentless deluge so that by next morning we feel it necessary to hunker down and ride it out.

Then we head off to Santiago de Compostelo, renowned for its rainfall, justified on this occasion as it rains en route, rains when we arrive, rains throughout the visit and continues to rain as we leave. But that, reader is another story…

Sacrilege

NZ Queenstown

We travelled to New Zealand in the autumn of 2011 when the Rugby World Cup was scheduled to be held there. This was to be our retirement treat-a three month stonker of a trip that also encompassed Australia [where I have cousins] and a small add-on of a stay in Hong Kong on the way home.

The thrill of such an enormous piece of travel was tempered, initially by having our flight from Heathrow cancelled by Quantas for no reason we could discern. This meant that our onward flights from Brisbane were scuppered, messing up our arrival to Christchurch, New Zealand and losing us a night of accommodation.

2011 was also the year of Christchurch’s catastrophic earthquake, which was heartbreaking in itself, besides disrupting the Rugby matches and venues involved.

After a tortuous and exhausting series of flights we arrived to Christchurch’s small airport. In the arrivals hall we staggered to the information desk and were directed out into the sunshine of the afternoon, where a kindly driver took our bags and we slumped into the back of his car to be taken to the hotel. I felt I’d stepped into a warm bath.

Even in my almost comatose state I was thrilled to see the verges and green spaces which were lined with nodding daffodils-a novelty for we northern hemisphere-ites in autumn.

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Although our hotel was a forest of steel ceiling supports and those roads that had not been blocked off were cracked with fissures the hotel staff welcomed us in.

Having slept we explored our area, Hagley Park and looked at the quake-damaged centre of town. The park hosted an exhibition of the proposed rebuilding of Christchurch.

A couple of days later we collected our rental camper-van, which was exquisitely equipped and set off to explore beautiful, pristine South Island on a gentle, meandering road that followed the railway track and took us through small communities, past stunning scenery and into wonderful camp sites.

Throughout this time I don’t think I ever stopped smiling. People were unerringly kind, the ease of travel unprecedented. In spite of the terrible earthquake we were welcomed. Even the creatures were friendly.

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The rugby games were like huge, joyous parties with dancing displays, music, dressing up and buzzing atmosphere. I lost count of the number of times we engaged with those around us, laughing, conversing and getting hugged.

In between matches we went sightseeing-following the beautiful, wild south coast road to stunning Milford Sound, viewing penguins and snow-capped mountains and scoffing New Zealand pies and scones from the dairies. Then we turned north via Kaikoura, went whale-watching and walked in glorious Abel Tasman National Park before taking the ferry to North Island.

In Wellington the camp site was full so the local rugby club accommodated us, throwing open their showers and their clubroom and even offering us a curry sauce to go with the chicken we’d bought to cook. We visited the amazing hot springs and geysers at Rotarua, 90 Mile Beach, Coromandel, the gigantic Kauri pines.

The trip remains, to this day my favourite to date. If asked I don’t hesitate to say that New Zealand is my favourite of all the destinations we’ve visited for the reasons I’ve detailed and so much more.

What has happened there is heart-breaking. This most beautiful and idyllic of countries has been sullied for it’s innocent beauty.

If you peddle hate posts on social media; if you keep recycling jingoistic, populist, right-wing propaganda; if you keep screeching about ‘taking back control’ and closing borders, building walls to keep people out and showing hate to other races and religions you are perpetuating acts of violence and terrorism.

Enough said.

 

 

 

The Husband Post

Regular readers will know of Husband. He gets frequent mentions in posts, mainly due to being my significant other and travel companion, so that the events I’m involved in tend to involve him, too.

When you think of how detailed and intricate individual personalities are it’s surprising that any relationship endures beyond a week or two, let alone years. But, given a moderate number of interests in common and similar backgrounds after a few years people grow alike. I could never imagine sharing a small space like a camper van for weeks on end with anyone except Husband, and while we do have differences of opinion [who doesn’t?] we seem to manage.

We did not meet as fresh-faced teenagers, up-and-coming twenty-somethings or even high-achieving thirties career people-no we met as world-weary forties veterans of previous marriages and relationships, so the entire enterprise was a triumph of dogged hope over experience.

First impressions are telling. When we met, on a cold winter’s night in a pub, the attributes in Husband’s favour were:

  • His open, friendly, unpretentious, chatty manner.
  • His offering of crisps alongside the glass of port he bought.
  • His brown, leather, lace-up shoes. Men’s shoes are crucial to a first impression. Had he worn trainers, reader, he’d have been put down to experience.

During the first weeks Husband was unerringly persistent [in the face of my haphazard lifestyle at the time-another story]. On the way back from one of the first dates, his car [a Vauxhall Astra with a coat hanger for an aerial] developed a flat tyre. Without hesitation he pulled into a lay-by, whipped out the requisite equipment and changed the tyre so that within minutes we were on our way again-and all this late at night, too!

Husband Facts:

  • He is a devoted fan of Gloucester Rugby
  • He was a keen runner when younger, ran a number of marathons and now enjoys walking and cycling, except in cold weather-when his hands get cold.
  • One of his favourite activities is pottering about making what he calls ‘modifications’ to his pride and joy-the van.
  • He is a domestic god-and does not shy away from such chores as hoovering, washing windows and cooking.
  • He likes old rock/blues music, in particular The Rolling Stones but is not a fan of cinema. [He can be persuaded to watch a Bond film on occasion].
  • He likes beer [also red wine].
  • He is Dr Husband, having completed a PhD, post degree, a label I’m always hoping to capitalise when booking airline tickets but as yet with no success. His thesis, leather bound and languishing, as it has for years, on the bookshelves details his many experiments coating grains of wheat for some obscure purpose. I’m sorry to say I have not been able to read it.
  • Despite his impressive qualifications in botany, the number of garden plants Husband is able to name would fit easily on to an average sized postage stamp.

This weekend Husband is reaching a ‘milestone’ birthday. It is probable that he will be grumpy about this post, but that is a risk I’m taking and hope to be forgiven. For those who follow and have read of him, here he is:

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Happy Birthday Husband-here’s to the next adventure!

 

The Lure of Simple Pleasures

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            We’ve been spending a few days at a favourite site here in South West France. Situated on the Atlantic coast on the peninsula created by The Gironde, Le Gurp nestles in pine woods by a beach that stretches on almost as far as the eye can see, stroked by azure Atlantic rollers crashing on to the sand in frothy crescents.
This camp site is almost entirely visited by German holiday makers, who flock here for the waves, which are perfect for surfing and for its proximity to the beach, which is surveyed by lifesaving personnel and has soft, white sand, a couple of showers and a car park. The proliferation of Germans [and surfers at that] makes for a Boho, hippy atmosphere where strings of bunting, flags, drapes and all manner of camper vehicles abound-like a Mad Max movie.

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           Sites vary as much as hotels do. If your preference is for infinity pools, spas, cocktail bars, beauty salons and karaoke you could have it. If, like us you prefer a beautiful location, a clean, warm, efficient shower, security, space and the basics Le Gurp is the place.
We happened upon it the first summer we travelled to the Gironde with a tent, twenty or so years ago. The site we were on, near to Soulac [having supposedly booked to no avail] was tightly packed with chalets and boasted raucous entertainment each night. During a cycle trip we found Le Gurp beach and site. Could we book? No-it is a municipal site but is vast. There was plenty of space so we moved.
From the site a network of tarmac cycle tracks radiate through the pine forests to tiny, pretty villages like Grayan et l’Hopital and Talais or bustling seaside towns like Montalivets [which has an extensive and boisterous Sunday market] or Soulac-which is touristy but pleasant. On our first visits here we were runners, jogging every morning along the forest tracks in hot sunshine as many continue to do. Later [and older] we took to cycling. On the way to Montalivets by bike you’ll go past the tight brush-work fencing of ‘Euronat’-supposedly Europe’s largest naturist holiday park, although anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of naked tennis or boules-in-the-buff will be disappointed. If you’re bent on spotting unclothed bodies a stroll along the beach in either direction will reveal plenty of devotees-but it’s not a pretty sight!
A short walk [or shorter cycle] over the hillock from the camp site towards the beach takes you past a surf shop, a small supermarket, a newsagents/beach shop, a boulangerie, a launderette and several bars and restaurants-not a massive development but everything, in fact that the average German camper needs or wants.
During the day tiny children play among the pine trees, peddling madly around the tracks on bikes and ganging together to play with sticks and pine cones before being taken to the beach. Here there are no organised activities, there is no pool, nothing but a couple of swings and a climbing frame to amuse them-and so they amuse themselves. Camping is surely the best holiday a child can have?
In these late summer evenings, the sun sets like flames through the pine trees and as twilight descends the site comes alive with twinkly lights from tents and vans. There will be an occasional gentle strum of guitar and groups of al fresco diners will sit up chatting into the night over bottles of wine. You could sit outside with a glass or two or stroll over to one of the beach bars for a late drink. Wonderful.

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Last Gasp-Germany

There is much to love about Germany; black forests, picture perfect , historic towns, grand rivers bordered by gorges and fairy-tale castles, exciting cities like Hamburg and Berlin, charming, engaging and eager-to-help citizens. But not the motorways-oh no. The motorways are strings of roadwork-riddled tedium, clogged with miles of crawling, wheezing lorries spewing fumes and large, gas-guzzling speed machines reduced to inching along with everyone else.

The drive to Wurzburg was one such journey, with roadworks every 10k and frustrating traffic queues at every junction. And once we’d arrived there was further idiocy from the Tom Tom, which led us around the city in ever decreasing circles with no sign of the camper stop, even though it was flagged on the tiny screen. At that point when we were about to give up I spotted the parking place-beneath the bridge and by the river, a smattering of vans and motorhomes in position.

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But it was perfect. And at the end of the parking lot was a restaurant serving German favourites, fat sausages, pork cutlets and servings of sauerkraut-an antidote to the annoyances of the day. Across the river the lights of Wurzburg twinkled and now and then a seemingly endless barge chugged past.

Next day we set off across the idiosyncratic footbridge into town.

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Wurzburg is home to ‘The Residenz’, [more here], a baroque folly of huge proportions which Husband visited many years ago in a previous life, BM [ie Before Me], and of which he has eulogised on a number of occasions.

Since we are not great breakfasters we strolled the picturesque town a little and settled on coffee and apple strudel at an outside table on a pleasant corner before tackling ‘The Residenz’. Our coffees came though not the strudels. We waited, expecting a slice to appear and after a few minutes two large, rectangular plates arrived laden with warm, sticky slices of strudels, pots of ice cream, pots of cream and a small heap of fruit compote. This is how you know you are in Germany-they are not into skimping where desserts are concerned.

We waddled along to The Residenz and yes-it is an impressively large edifice, matched by a suitably sumptuous interior that reminded me of Hampton Court-boudoirs within bedchambers within salons within chambers, the lot embellished with more golden curlicues than you can shake a stick at. The vast, ornate stoves in the corners of every room took my eye but of course with high ceilings and rooms of such size they’d have been essential.P1050621

The gardens were as expected, formal, dotted with statues and fountains and a labour of love.

Next morning we were off again, following the Main River to Ettelbach, a jolly town where pigs seem to be a theme. The heavens opened on to our riverside site but the expedition was drawing towards the end as we headed on to Belgium, Luxembourg and Calais.

Back again at the new camper park adjacent to Calais’ ferry port the evening sun beat down and we took ourselves to the sea front for a last supper while the ferries came in and went, disappearing over the horizon into a pink, candy floss sky.
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Waiting in the ferry lines and seeing the arrivals pouring down the ramp gave me a pang of regret, for while I was looking forward to going home and familiarising myself with our house I knew I’d miss the thrills and spills of exploring.

So it was ‘au revoir’ Europe. Can’t wait for next time…;)

 

Hungarian Calamity [Part 2]

Last week’s post saw our intrepid travellers, Grace and Husband marooned in their camper van in supermarket ‘Auchan’s’ car park a few miles north of Budapest…

We lunched in the car park, keeping an eye on the access road for a pick-up truck and bickering a little [Husband wanting to reverse to be located more easily, me wanting to let things be].

My phone rang. ‘My neem ees Eleezabet’. We confirmed that I was me. We went over the vehicle’s vital statistics. ‘Pleeeese beee patient’ pleaded Elizabet, before ringing off. Time crawled on…

Husband went for a stroll around the shopping centre and returned. I went for a stroll into Auchan and returned. Time passed. Slowly. Elizabet called again. ‘Eees veery imbortant about your vehicle’ she reiterated, and I gave her the dimensions once more. ‘I ‘av to find a veehicle to peek you up’ she said.

We waited.

At half past four a rescue truck appeared, driven by a white-haired, boiler-suited, moustachioed Hungarian, looking apprehensive. He’d struck unlucky, summoned to collect a Ducato van and ignorant foreigners. It took time to attach the van to the truck then we clambered into his cab as he nodded and gesticulated.

Waiting is exhausting, so by now, as we swept back towards Budapest and an unknown garage we looked forward to a respite, an opportunity to set reparation in motion. We trundled along some minor roads in a small industrial estate before coming to a halt in front of ‘Schiller Fiat’. Boiler-suit got out, uncoupled us, said ‘Schlafen’, placing his hands by his head to mime sleep and left. It was 5 o’clock. The garage had closed at 4.30pm.

Having gnashed teeth and torn hair for a few moments we deliberated our options: bed down on the sloping forecourt at the roadside/lock up, pack essentials [into shopping bags as no suitcases] and stagger to the nearest hotel [found on Husband’s phone]/wait for something to happen/phone the insurers-again.

We opted for calling the insurer, bypassing Elizabet and going back to the source-Adam, [who’d gone off duty and been replaced by Ali]. I explained our predicament. We sat back to wait. Time passed. We made tea. Ate bread and cheese. Sniped a bit. Yawned.

In a compound next to the forecourt a security man was locking the gates up. ‘That’ I told Husband, ‘is where our van should be’. Once or twice a taxi came past, prompting a slight stir, which ebbed away as it went out of sight. We drank beers. Waited.

Elizabet called to tell us a taxi was on its way, prompting us to watch for it. The several taxis that passed were not ours. We rang back, got  someone else. ‘Eet is not appropriate for meee to speeak to you’ she said.

It was dark. At some time after 8.00pm a taxi appeared from the gloom and pulled up. On arrival to the IBIS hotel in central Budapest we approached the check-in desk with our shopping bags of essential items and were met by the first smiling competence of the entire, dismal day, then dispatched to a small room, basic but adequate. We showered and staggered across the alleyway to a comfortable café where I cast caution to the still night and had two large glasses of wine before retiring to the narrow bed in our stuffy little room.

To be continued. Check in next week for Hungarian Calamity Part 3…