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…;)

 

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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…

 

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…

 

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…

 

 

OI!

I’ve coined a new phrase, or perhaps identified a character trait, or at least christened a well -known characteristic. I call it the the OI factor. Reader, you will know someone with the OI factor. In fact you may, like me know several persons with this unfortunate and debilitating feature of their personality.

OI stands for opinionated ignorance. Myself, I know a number of people with this affliction. One is a near neighbour. I am safe to mention it since the person is unlikely to read this blog, but were he to dip into ‘Anecdotage’ and read this post he would not recognise himself. He indulges almost daily in a selfless mission to help all of us, his neighbours, with advice on how to improve our gardens, enhance our houses and live our lives. He is a deep well of ignorance about what we should drink and which supermarket we patronise. Apparently we don’t have enough pictures on our walls. He has even been known to provide me with top tips regarding doing our laundry. [I should wash everything on a thirty five minute cycle and must not ever iron items.]

Another of the afflicted can be found at the local pub. Rather than holding forth on a broad range of advice subjects, however he tends towards labouring his point whilst increasing the volume of his voice; many of his views [in an uncanny similarity to Neighbour] concern the upgrading of our home.

There are also members of our family who have the OI factor. On the increasingly rare occasions when we meet, one of my own siblings [again there is no danger of his reading this] likes to pass his opinion on the subject of camper vans, a topic which regular visitors to Anecdotage will know is not only dear to Husband and my hearts but is one that, after six or seven years we may know a little about ourselves. But Brother considers himself to be an expert, despite having never in his entire [seventy year] life experiencing a single journey in a camper or a motorhome. He is a devotee of cruising, the mechanics of which I confess to knowing nothing at all about apart from having watched the antics of a ‘tender’ coming and going in a fjord to take the passengers into a gift shop and return to the eyesore that was their ship, and having undertaken a few lengthy ferry crossings [and very tedious they were, too].

Here in the UK we are experiencing an explosion of OI factor all over the media as the dastardly election approaches. There is a veritable glut of OIks blabbing about how we should all live our lives and pretending to know how other’s lives are lived. It all reminds me of Margaret Thatcher earnestly telling a reporter she knew how the other half lived because she ‘didn’t even have living-in help any more’…

I’m ready for a quiet, soothing blanket of self-deprecation; a refreshing confession of ignorance, some heart-warming humility but feel this is unlikely to occur any time soon.

 

 

 

 

There are members of my family [distant geographically].

Oh The Joys of Sicilian Public Transport…

Taorminha. Sicily’s tourist jewel; the magnet for package holiday visitors and justifiably so, perched high on cliffs, the many levels of buildings clinging like limpets in precarious view of the azure sea and topped by the Greco-Roman amphitheatre with its outstanding panorama of Mount Etna.

We shouldn’t miss Taorminha. Having settled into our ramshackle site overlooking a black beach at the edge of the small seaside town of San Alesso Sicula we investigated transport options. Driving up the almost sheer cliff face was out of the question but buses made regular trips and a timetable was posted at reception.  We strolled out into the modest little town and stopped for a seafront beer then found the bus ‘fermata’ ready for tomorrow.

The bus came, and on time. There were some moments of anxiety as it appeared to go in the opposite direction but then it turned in towards our goal, along the autostrada the finally up a series of hairpin bends, up and up into the town, where the driver reassured us that we should wait, later for the return bus. So far so good.

Even now, in April the historic streets were thronged with tourists, the bars and gelaterias doing thriving business. The theatre and its views are worth the hype. The lackadaisical service at the famous ‘Wunderbar’ was not. We gave up waiting and got a drink at the modest bar by the bus stop. Then we waited. And watched the battered, scraped, stove-in and dented vehicles lurching by. And waited.

‘He’s just late’ suggested Husband, ‘It’s the traffic’.

Less sanguine, I nipped into the information booth and learned that the return stop had been changed that afternoon and was now the bus station, many levels down. It had left. The next bus was at 19.40pm. Wonderful.

We got an overpriced and mediocre meal before trudging down to the bus depot to wait. The sun was gone, the evening cooling. Buses came and went with shrugging drivers. At last, cold and disillusioned we returned to the information booth to be told the bus driver, who’d evidently chosen to go home for dinner rather than do his last run, would come back for us at 21.30pm. Unable to face the inhospitable bus station once more we climbed into a taxi. This is Sicily.

We left San Alesso to meander along the south coast towards Mount Etna and a site that boasted an uninterrupted view of this, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. There among a strip of unedifying bars, guest houses and hotels with bizarre South American influenced names-‘Ipanema’, ‘Mokambo’-we found our site. Clearly Sicilians feel there is no advantage in capitalising on proximity to another tourist magnet. There was no ‘Etna Bar’, ‘Lava Lounge’ or ‘Eruptions Night Club’. The site was modest but clean and adequate, with precious few visitors for such a prestigious position. Etna’s head lay still shrouded in clouds but remained an impressive sight, towering above the coast with snow clad slopes.

Next morning, however we were treated to a clear, unsullied view of the entire volcano and its vast crater. Result!