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!

 

 

 

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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!

Ditch the Bucket-

By the time you read this we’ll be wending our way into the next adventure.

If anyone were to ask me what the most important ways to enjoy retirement were I’d have to say having adventures.

Adventures come in many forms. They may entail travelling somewhere, but travel is not essential to having escapades. All I’m saying is escape from routine is a requirement of happy life. It doesn’t matter what the escape is. A visit somewhere different, an encounter with someone new, learning a skill, joining a shared initiative-these are all adventures, as was the move to a new house we made last year.

A friend who, [by her own careful, clever planning], achieved early retirement tackles a different, arty hobby each year. Some enterprising older folks in Devon have established a business growing and marketing oysters-and have provided employment for many younger people along the way.

You hear a great deal about ‘bucket lists’. In my view these smack of the ghastly ‘targets’ that those of us who are retired are so relieved to have left behind. You don’t want your adventures to be a source of anxiety. It is a blessing to be flexible, to be able to change your mind, revise plans. As we age there are going to be many things we’ll never do, skills we won’t learn, marathons we won’t run, places we’ll never visit, foods we won’t eat, books we won’t read and plays we won’t see.

Three years ago we’d a mind to escape the chilly UK spring and take our camper van down to the Spanish Mediterranean coast where we would visit friends and find somewhere without too much development to enjoy some sunshine [not an easy undertaking, as those who know that coastline will know]. Passing heaps of scruffy snow in northern France we got down as far as Bordeaux and realised the temperatures were not likely to improve any time soon, so took the decision to turn right instead of left, aiming for Portugal. As soon as we crossed the border from Spain it was warm sunshine all the way. Result!

Of course much is published about the poor, subsequent generations and how we, the Boomers have robbed them blind and how they’ll be working themselves into their graves. Most of us, however have done all we can to support our children through further education and beyond, while also caring for aged parents. But having read that life expectancy is increasing by five hours per day I feel that our children and grandchildren, too will enjoy the benefits of retirement, albeit at a later age. I’ve pledged to do my utmost not to be a burden to them when they get there!

Until that time I remain unapologetic about enjoying our freedom. I imagine there may well be a time when I’ll only be able to enjoy the photos and the memories so I’m making sure there will be some to look back on…

 

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…