Sunday, 30 August 2015


Istanbul was another of those places that I hadn't visited since 1980 when I had a year overseas, and Pete had never been here. It is a city that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait, so the blast of warm air that hit us as we stepped off the plane made us think that we were back in the east. Then when we arrived into town, the hawkers selling their wares, restauranteurs touting for your business and street stalls offering roasted sweetcorn and chestnuts all enforced this feeling. These were all characteristics we have missed over the last 15 months.

The next 3 days we played tourists to the full, flitting from one attractions to the next. A change from visiting castles and cathedrals over the last few months, this was all about mosques. We purchased a museum card that covered our entrance fees for the main places we wanted to see, and more valuably allowed us to bypass the long queues at most places. 

Starting with the Blue Mosque (which in my opinion was the most beautiful of them all) the exterior is a cascade of domes with 6 slender minarets.  Shoes off, legs and shoulders covered and a pashmina over my head, we ventured inside. The interior is decorated with blue Izmir tiles and give the building its name. The central prayer space is huge and surrounded by 260 windows, most of them stained glass. It is truly a beautiful building, and photos don't seem to do it justice. The only negative is the permanent smell of foot odour that must be imbedded into the carpet from the thousands of people who visit daily. Ugh!!!!

                       The Blue Mosque in the distance, visited by up to 100,000 people daily

               Gold leaf decoration Topkapi Palace                    The courtyard of the Blue Mosque 

                     The beautiful blue tile also used extensively throughout the Topkapi Palace


From there we went to the Topkapi palace, the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive to modern times. It is situated on the acropolis, the site of the first settlement in Istanbul and commands an great view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. There are 5 km of walls surrounding the palace with monumental gates that open onto beautiful tree shaded courtyards, a restful place to wander for a couple of hours. 

Another stop was the Hagia Sophia. It was originally built as a Christian basilica, then it became a mosque and is currently a museum. Another massive dome 55 meters above the floor and supported by 4 pendentives. On the mezzanine level you can see mosaics from the Byzantine period depicting Christ and his followers. Unlike the blue mosque, the floor on both of the levels is marble so thankfully that overpowering foot odour smell was not an issue. I don't think it is as beautiful as the Blue Mosque, but spectacular none the less.


                                                 Outside the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul


                                      Gold leaf and blue tile mosaic in the Hagia Sophia


                 View from the mezzanine level                            Colourful stained glass windows


                                                 Colourful domes really are spectacular 

                          Panorama shot - just learnt to do this. Have to do the holiday again now!!

The Grand Bazaar was also amazing. Very similar to what we had seen in Marakesh however the walkways up and down the alleys were as wide as a road in most places which was great that you didn't have to barge your way along. There were entire sections given to one trade - lighting, jewellery, pashminas, silver, art, ceramics - down one street just stall after stall all selling the same thing. The sellers there must be able to look at westerners 'features' and almost guess their origin, as in various parts of the bazaar as we pass, they would catch our eye and then hear "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" coming from them (with a huge grin)! How did they know?

                                Room to move down the laneways of the Grand Bazaar

We had a lovely long walk across the Galata bridge and up passed the Galata Tower to Taksim Square where the Monument to the Republic is located. Late afternoons most days we tried to find ourselves a rooftop bar with a great view to watch the shadows lengthen, the sun set over the city and to watch it come alive after dark. They have a very modern tram system that rounds right through the centre of the city.


                                 Galata Tower                          The Monument to the Republic - Taksim Square

                       The view looking out across the Bosphorus Sea from a bar top at sunset

Another day was spent with a ferry ride up the Bosphorus. Boarding our boat around 10.00, we spent the next 1.5 hours zigzagging our way towards the Black Sea stopping just short of the entrance where a new bridge is being built to join the two land masses. It is currently known as the 3rd Bosphorus bridge, assuming it will be given a name on completion and it is stated to be the widest suspension bridge in the world, including a rail line.


                                A great view of the 3rd bridge over the Bosphorus being built 

                                        The grand Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus

                                        Impressive gates to enter the Dolmabahce Palace 

We arrived into a small town just short of the new bridge where we had a 2 hour stopover for lunch and a look around. A relatively short but steep climb to the top of a hill to where the ruins of an old castle still stand, we had a fantastic view both up and the water. The temperature was warm and time for a cold drink to refresh ourselves. Unfortunately, these spectacular views didn't come with any beer so it was an iced tea for now until we got back down to the bottom where we had lunch.

                     A beer was what we really wanted but had to settle for an iced tea instead

                                                Just nice to sit back and enjoy the view


                          Another view of the surrounding countryside from our river cruise


                       Inside views of another smaller but spectacular mosque that we visited

                                             Sulaymaniye Mosque - Istanbul

On the last day, we got first in the queue to enter the Basillica Cistern, a huge underground system built to supply the water to the palace. There are 12 rows of 28 marble columns in total, each column being 9 meters high. Floodlit with underwater lighting, the effect is quite magical - lovely cool air and soft music playing in the background. And it was so lovely to be the first inside and have the place to ourselves even if just for a minute. Somehow that magical effect wouldn't be the same with hundreds of visitors crammed into the system.


So that was Istanbul done and dusted. Back to the hotel for a shower then await the arrival of our car to take us to the airport and an evening flight to Dubai then on to Kuala Lumpur. It's back to the east for us now. With some wonderful memories of places we have been, and people we have met. I am glad I have had the opportunity to return to some places that I hadn't seen for 30+ years, and for most of those a first visit for Pete. Istanbul - where East meets West - an interesting destination.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Goodbye to the UK

Up at 4.00am and away from Belgium, into France and down to Calais where once again we joined the queue for the ferry back to Dover. Arriving back into the UK we headed for Guildord to unload our camping gear and collect a suitcase of 'extra things' that we had in storage. It was then onto the dreaded M25 motorway (which should really be named the M25 carpark on the weekends) and the long drive north towards Scotland. As the hours and miles ticked over, the blue skies which we had enjoyed for the last 9 weeks slowly disappeared and as we got closer to the border the dark clouds threatened menacingly. We crossed the border into Scotland and literally within 30 seconds, the rain started to fall. Welcome home Pete !!! Thankfully it was fairly isolated and we drove in and out of drizzle all the way to Tarbert, arriving just before midnight and creeping into bed - it had been a long day.

After a couple of days relaxing with Pete's mum, we decided to do a trip across to the east coast where the sun was shining. There are only so many days of drizzly rain that one can tolerate - after that you will drive anywhere for better weather. So heading north east we made our way to Loch Tay then followed the river Tay towards the A9 which would take us up to Inverness. After such a lousy summer in Scotland, the rolling hills were a beautiful green and the rivers were all running full. Even the usually rather barren highlands were a picture with the pink of the heather a contrast to the grass. 

Just north of Inverness lies the area known as the Black Isle, though not an island but a peninsula  surrounded on three sides by water. A rich fertile area with many acres under barley and wheat, as well as good land for grazing cattle. We had a wonderful 2 days with Judy and Alasdair, as always wonderful hosts and picking up where we had left off last time (a year prior) just as if it had been yesterday. Great food, great wine and a wonderful setting - a magic couple of days away.


                              A view of stunning countryside close to Bonar Bridge, Scotland


                Great fun as always catching up with Al and Judy. In the backyard at 'Drummond'

We chose to go home another way, down through the Great Glen and Oban. Glorious weather again and as expected the roads were fairly congested with tourists taking in the sights of the Loch Ness. We stopped for lunch at a tea house overlooking Castle Stalker and again the views were spectacular looking across the water to the islands beyond. A good run back to Tarbert for our last couple of days with Pete' mum and the inevitable sad goodbyes.


                         Our lunch stop overlooking Castle Stalker and to the islands beyond

Having sold our little car to Tarbert locals, we then had to get ourselves back down to London so, with thanks to Andy (one of Pete's Easyjet colleagues) we took our last flight as 'staff' and said farewell to Tarbert for who knows how long. Now back in London for a few days with Liz and Bob, time to chill and have some family dinners. One last train ride up to Harpenden to our local haunt - the Thai restaurant at the Harpenden Arms hotel and a dinner with all the gang from Easyjet, and to learn how life after 'Policeman Pete' and his new systems were working. Goodbye and thanks to AD until 'next time', and we have no doubt there will be a 'next time'. Where in the world that might be, we have to wait and see. 

Our time in the UK had come to an end. Despite the negative start I had with my visa issues, it had all been such a positive and worthwhile experience. The time spent with family was invaluable, the destinations visited were amazing and the new friendships made great fun - all in all a wonderful 15 months. Now we have to think of getting back to the boat and the next stages.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The last week of our European vacation

The holiday is coming to a close and we are down to the last week. Leaving Italy, it was lovely to cross back into Switzerland - a land so clean and tidy, no graffiti and no rubbish - a refreshing change. However, the 45 euro vignette (Aud$66) for 2 hours driving on the motorways is highway robbery. It is valid for 12 months but we only needed it for one short trip - you would think they could have a lesser fee for just transiting the country.

In Basel, just inside the Swiss border, we picked up the Rhine river and we would follow this now almost right through to its mouth into the North Sea - 1230 ks. Our first stop was in Germany and we stayed for a couple of nights, camping again at Bad Beligen. Again great facilities with lots of local walks alongside the river. Many local therma and spas in the area and again we found a nice way to spend a couple of hours cooling off. From here we headed north into the Rhine valley following the river and stopping for a night at Assmannshausen right on the banks. We sat having lunch and then dinner watching the various cruise boats leisurely making the way up or down, the diners onboard themselves enjoying their meals with panoramas of castles, vineyards and quaint villages.


                    The view from above our accomodation at Assmannshausen looking south


                    Then looking north, and nicer temperatures than the intense heat of Italy

                         Landscapes along the Rhine valley, castles and churches at every bend

On the road again and next stop was just inside Germany before crossing into the Netherlands. Just when we thought we had put the tent away for the final time, out it came again. The weather was lovely and we had found a great little campground so we just had to set up again for one final time. We had mastered the whole process very well over our holidays, getting it down to a fine art and in total had camped for 27 nights. Once done, it was off to the pool for a swim then the afternoon spent lounging poolside reading. We were heading into Holland in the morning, a step closer to Calais and our ferry back to the UK.

In the morning it was rejoining the autobahn and making our way north to Utrecht where we were catching up with friends that we had made in Montenegro. Always lovely to reunite with people that you have shared travelling in common and we had a wonderful nights stop. Once we finally located the address (after finding ourselves lost and in the dreaded one way 'bus only' lane), we headed into the city to explore before dinner. We jumped on one of the glass top canal boats and spent a leisurely hour getting a different perspective of the city. Utrecht is one of the Netherlands oldest cities with a compact medieval centre set around canals that are so unique to Holland. However, their system is different to Amsterdams in that there is a lower level to the canals where warehouses were located back in the 13th century and these give the canals a split-level character. The lower levels nowadays have many bars and restaurants so you can drink and dine down at the water level, and this was where we enjoyed a great tapas dinner watching the canal boats cruise past. A lot of wine, some great food and wonderful company made it a night that we will always remember.


                                                A view of the canal from our cruise boat


              A night shot of the split level canals in Utrecht where we enjoyed a great tapas dinner


   A canal shot with the Dom Tower in the background                Very picturesque Utrecht

It's away from Holland and into Belgium for the last night of our holiday. We headed for Ghent in the Flemish Region of the country and leaving us only a short drive to the ferry the following morning. Checking into the Holiday Inn, we then jumped on one of the very modern trams for a 20 minute ride into town. Lots of beautiful old buildings once again, St Nicholas Church, the Belfrey, the Courts Castle all within easy walking distance from the tram stop. We learnt how bells were forged (not made) and of the long process it takes before they are deemed suitable for use in the belfry. Then after a couple of hours ambling around the canals and Graffiti Street, it was time for dinner. We have eaten great continental food over the last 9 weeks, but by now were hankering for a burger and found ourselves a great gormet burger bar on the square. A 'burger with the works' whilst people watching was an idyllic way to end the day.


            2 different views of St Nicholas Church - the 2nd one taken from the top of the Belfry

                                                  The Courts Castle - Ghent, Belgium


                                                        Enjoying the canals of Ghent


                            'Pete and his dragon' that lives in the Belfry and protects the city


                        One of the amazing examples of the art work in Graffiti Street - Ghent

       Roland's Bell that hangs in the Belfry - 2.15 m height, 2 m diameter and weighing 6,200 kilos
                                                            Now that's a bell !!!

The final run into Calais was smooth and we were soon joining our queue to board the ferry. After all the recent media hype regarding illegal immigrants going through the tunnel, we didn't know what to expect when we arrived. However. We saw no sign of refugees and very little police presence. Once in the queue, we did however have to open the boot for an inspection by the border agency team - just checking that we weren't trying to smuggle any into the UK. So that was us finished with our holiday and coming away with memories of a wonderful 9 weeks and 9 countries - of  some amazing places visited and some very interesting people met along the way. It is now time to make our final farewells to family in the UK and head back to the East.

Italy - Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre is a string of centuries-old seaside villages on the Italian Riviera coastline. Each of the 5 towns - Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are full of colourful houses surrounded by steep terraces of vineyards on either side and joined by a winding road for cars or great scenic walking paths. This was always going to be of our highlights for hiking tracks. We had planned to follow the main coast road up from La Spezia and got as far as the turn off to Levanto (where we were basing ourselves for 3 days) only to find it was closed to traffic. The only option left to us was to backtrack all the way to La Spezia and then take the autostrada north until the Levanto turnoff, then descending into the village.

Our first walk was across the range from Levanto to Monterosso - a 2.5 hour 5 mile hike with spectacular views back across the bay. The track is lined with lemon groves and fig trees laden with fruit that seem to grow so easily in this area, as they do in most of the places we have been. Thankfully a good part of the track was in shade as once again we are battling the heat. Arriving in Monterosso, we were suddenly assaulted with loads of tourists - something Levanto was thankfully spared (in comparison). And being weekend, they were there in their droves with bathers, sun mats and unmbrellas. The bars were doing a roaring trade with the costs of a beer much more than what we were paying around in our little bay. Being day 1, we opted to catch the train back one stop and save our energy for a longer hike the following day.

                              Looking back into Levanto on our walk across to Monterosso


                         The view arriving over Monterosso before our descent from the range

Next day we purchased the Cinque Terre Card which paid our entry into the walks as well as unlimited bus and train travel for a 24 hour period. So catching the train back to Monterosso, we did the next stage of the walk to Venezza, then followed on to Corniglia here we stopped for a cold beer and lunch. Unfortunately the next 2 stages of the walk had been closed for some time since land slides about 4 years ago - wonder why they don't repair them given the number of tourists visiting - so we didn't manage to walk those sections. Corniglia is set high above the water whereas the other villages are set around harbours at sea level. From here we decided to descend down to the water and walk through a disused train tunnel to a black sand pebble beach and cool ourselves in the water for an hour before catching the train back to Levanto.


                             Starting on our walk from Monterosso to Vernezza and onwards 


                            View looking across and down to Vernezza before our descent


             Looking across to Corniglia set up on the hilltop with Manerola in the back ground

Our last day was leisurely spent, after 2 days of pushing ourselves over the goat tracks from village to village. A sleep in, a slow breakfast then a couple of hours spent in a laundromat cleaning our grimy clothes from the last 2 days. Tomorrow we would be leaving before sunrise and heading north into Switzerland then Germany. Our little B and B in Levanto has been great, with our host Luca so helpful with local information and his mum baking home made croissants, plain and sweet for breakfast each morning. Yum!!

Our memories of Italy are mixed. Some of the beautiful locations that should have been pristine were spoiled with rubbish and almost a lack of pride in their country. Many of the historical sights that we visited appear to be neglected without apparent maintenance. It's ok to take the money, but no long term reinvestment. Many of the roads are in serious disrepair and even worse than Montenegro, however, they did improve the further north we went. I am glad we have seen as much of this country as we have had, it is not a place that we will choose to return to. Arrivederci Italy!!

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Italy - under the Tuscan sun

Away from the coast and up into the mountains into the region of Tuscany for our next stop. Despite being in the middle of a very hot summer, the rolling hills of this region are still beautiful and the small villages with their church or bell tower as the highest point are so picturesque. The condition of the Italian roads generally is not good, making it a slower drive than usual and taking longer to get to places, but this also allows us time to absorb the vista and stop for photos. 

We stayed at a campsite near the village of Pitricci and explored the surrounding area over the next couple of days. Lunches in old towns after wandering around exploring their history, a swim to alleviate the heat in a fresh water lake and another in the surf after an hours drive to the coast. Black sand beaches and an amazing amount of driftwood which people have used (along with sarongs) to construct shelters from the hot sun. It gave the beach a very messy look, but quite unique and enterprising. Sellers walking along the foreshore laden with sarongs and doing a roaring trade. Another day we visited the thermal springs at Saturnia and had a soak for an hour in the warm surplus smelling blue waters - and free of charge which makes a change. It did take a while to get the smell of sulphur out of our bathers!!


                               Hot thermal springs at Saturnia, in the Tuscany region of Italy


                                     The village of Pitigliano - a day trip and lunch stop

Decamping and back on the road heading north, we stopped for a hike around Mt Vesuvius. It was another scorcher of a day with the temperatures showing 42 degrees outside. After the long walk from the car park all uphill to the top of the volcano, we opted to listen to the short 10 mins spiel of its history, a quick look inside the crater and then back into the air conditioning of the car. The heat coming off all the volcanic rock was almost unbearable and very few if any people were taking the circuitous route around. Still, a great view from the top across to Naples, the bay and surrounding countryside.

                                                 Looking down inside Mt Versuvius

Our next stop was Siena, a lovely medieval city in the heart of the Tuscany region.As it was only an overnight stay, it was a hotel again after our three nights of camping and we stumbled on one just outside one of the gates to the old town, a view over the surrounding countryside and a pool. The centre of town is a huge fan shaped piazza known as Il Campo. It was featured in the Bond movie Quantum of Solace and is famous for a horse race run twice during the summer months and known as   Palio de Siena. A dangerous circuit for the horses as not only is the piazza small, it funnels down to one side making the race both uphill and downhill with the spectators corralled in the centre. The architecture of the surrounding buildings is stunning, including a black and white stone church and a slender tower with a distinctive white crown.


                      Siena Cathedral.                                             Now that's a set of doors !!


            The black & white stone church                             The tower in Palazzo Pubblico

Our last campground was just on the edge of the Tuscany region and not far from Bologna. Again set in the peace and quiet of the mountains, we enjoyed a couple of lazy days chilling by the pool, reading and catching up on blog. One day we took the train and spent a day discovering Bologna. Hopping on a city tourist bus equipped with audio, we spent an hour learning about its history. We meandered up and down beautiful leafy streets with huge villas either side, passed lovely gardens and of course endless old buildings that date back so far it makes you realise Australia is such a young country in comparison. Back on foot, we wove through inner city alleyways - stalls of cheeses, cured meats, colourful pasta and delicacies. Shame we can't bring some of it home with us.


                                   A huge selection of cheeses and meats in a deli window

The further north we have come in Italy, the more we have enjoyed it. Apart from the intense heat with which we have found difficulty coping with at times, the scenery of this area has been breathtaking. It has so much to offer with mountains and valleys, cute little villages, great food and wines. It's on from here back to the coast of the Cinque Terre area for our last stop in Italy. With only a week left of our holiday, we must start making tracks back towards Calais and our ferry to the UK.

                                                A lovely Italian mountain view along the road


                            The view looking out from our tent - our last camping stop in Italy