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

Monday, 27 July 2015

Italy - the Amalfi Coast

Coming up from Matera, we arrived at Salerno - the start of the beautiful Amalfi Coast. Coming off the autostrada where the speed was 110 kph, we had a very short deceleration lane of 40 kph then a stop sign. Whoa ......!!!! The locals may know about this but visitors sure get a surprise. Then you are on to the coast road and the spectacular vista that awaits.

After a couple of days amidst the mountains in the interior, it was lovely to see the water again and this coast line truly is breathtaking. The coastline runs 50 kilometres from Salerno to Sorrento, a rugged shoreline dotted with small beaches and fishing villages, and amassed with tourists. The road winds past grand villas, with terraced vineyards and lemon groves looking out across the endless sea. Yachts of all sizes are moored in the small anchorages, and some of the biggest super yachts and power boats we have ever seen. This is a playground for the seriously rich.

We cautiously wound our way along the road that twisted and turned every 100 meters, dodging the parked cars on the side of the road as well as the many pedestrians on foot taking in the view. Then there were the motorbikes! Obviously a preferred way to commute with the narrowness of the road as well as the very limited places to park. It felt like we were on an obstacle course and didn't really allow us to take in the panorama in front of us. We had opted to stay at Agerola, high up above the coastline so after turning off the coast road, we had a good climb through many switchbacks to reach our destination 700 mts above sea level. Fortunately we didn't meet any buses coming down the hill, that was our biggest fear. 

Our B & B for the next few nights was a family run stay and the friendliest stop so far. We were treated like family - from Roberto our host who gave us endless information in very good English about the area, the buses to catch and the restaurants in which to eat, to his dad Geraldo (ex professional pastry chef) who whipped up the best bruschetta with their home made cheese for breakfast, as well as delicious cakes for those who preferred sweets. He then explained to us in Italian how they were made - we just smiled at him and said 'Bellissimo' and he beamed back at us. This was truly a little haven of tranquility in the chaotic, hectic pace of the Amalfi Coast.

Our first full day started with us walking the Sentiero degli Dei - the 'Path of the Gods'. We started early morning as we knew it would take us 2.5 hours to do the 7 kms hike starting from Agerola to Positano. The path  took us through the most fascinating gorges, cliffs and precipices of the Amalfi Coast with magnificent wide views of the sea - to Capri in the distance and then down to the hamlets of Praiano and Furore located just below the path. They say it is not a trek with those who suffer from acrophobia, and in places we just didn't look over the edge but such an experience. The path ends at Nocella where there are 1,700 steps to get back down to sea level again. The calves really got a good work out doing those and the legs felt quite wobbly when we reached the bottom, but oh that first beer was amazing.


                     About 1/3 of the way along the path where it branches down to Positano


                       Spectacular scenery along the 'Path of the Gods' - looking up then down


             The start of the 1,700 steps downhill                      Thistle like flowers along the path

Along the path we had passed only a dozen other walkers, and all bar one were Australians. We had followed a French couple for most of the way and bumped back into them in Positano, so we all sat down and quenched our thirsts together. With the help of schoolboy French (our side) and schoolboy English (their side), google translate on the iPad and charades, we spent the next 2 hours 'chatting' and having a great time. After refreshing ourselves with a swim, we caught the local ferry back along the coast to Amalfi where we spent a couple of hours wandering up and down the cobbled alleyways and trying to stay cool. Record temperatures for the summer so far and day after day reaching above 40 degrees - even the locals were feeling the heat. We then caught the bus back up the mountain to our accomodation, an exhausting day nearly finished and no doubt a good nights sleep ahead.


             View from 1/2 way down the steps.                  Looking up from the beach at Positano

The next day we headed for Capri and the Blue Grotto. Busing back down to Amalfi, we jumped back on the ferry and after a 5 minute stop in Positano along the coast we were soon arriving into Capri. It was a pretty island, very touristy and very expensive but picturesque along with the rest of the region. We caught one of the small orange buses up to Ana Capri then changed for a bus down to the Grotto. The queue to enter into the beautiful blue watered cave was long and took us nearly an hour before it was our turn. Jumping into a small row boat with an oarsman and waiting our turn with the other 20 similar craft, we then had to lay very low as the tide was high and there wasn't much head room at all through the entry point. Into the cave and the most amazing coloured blue water surrounded us, so blue it really did look artificial. It was a quick 5 minute slow paddle around the interior and we were back out into blazing sunshine. 


                     The view from the bus window looking back down to the harbour on Capri


                     Getting ready to duck our heads and enter into the Blue Grotto on Capri


                                  Our little flotilla of row boats heading out of the Blue Grotto

It's goodbye to the Amalfi Coast and we now head north and inland to the region of Tuscany. And after a couple of nights of hotel accomodation, it's back to camping through the mountains. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Italy - Matera

Our overnight crossing from Croatia went smoothly, as all our ferry trips with the Jadrolinija Line have done. With the car safely stowed and armed with a pizza, we went up on deck to watch the lights of  Dubrovnik fade away. We had taken a cabin for the night which comprised of 2 small bunks (about the size of our beds on Kittani) and a wash basin. It was a shared bathroom between 6 cabins but the ferry was nowhere near capacity and I think lucky for us we were the only ones using the facility. The engine noise was quite audible and stopped me from getting much sleep. Pete on the other hand felt quite at home and had a good nights rest.


                        Our little car first in line and stowed away for the night crossing to Italy.

Up early for a breakfast of sorts and then watched us come into port at Bari. It didn't take long to get everyone off and we were back on the road. We needed to find a bank and change some money, and that proved harder than expected. Firstly, Bari is not a particularly attractive town - existing mostly around the port and ferry terminal and very dirty. Secondly, the roads through town were particularly narrow with cars parked alongside and often just pulled up in the middle. Thirdly, Italian drivers love to honk their horn when they want to pass you, when they come out of a side street and just whenever they want. After finally finding a car spot near a bank, we grabbed our cash and couldn't get out of there fast enough. 

We decided to take what we thought would be the scenic coast road south towards Brindisi. It turned out that for the better part of it, we couldn't even sea the ocean and the roads were littered with rubbish everywhere. This wasn't a good start to our Italian stay. We continued on and eventually stopped in the small town of Gallipoli - a fishing village on the west side of Italy's 'heel' but again the debris lying around was really off putting and many of the buildings were covered in graffiti. The temperature outside had hit 41 degrees and we decided that this part of the country wasn't really doing anything for us, so we decided to push through to Matera.

Matera - the good, the bad and the interesting. The town lies in a canyon carved out by the Gravina river and is famous for its extensive cave-dwelling districts know as the 'Sassi'. As recently as the 1950's, hundreds of people still lived a crowded existence in these cave-homes, but by the 1980's, for health reasons they had all been relocated to more modern buildings on the plateau above. In 1993 it was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site as an example of 'troglodyte settlement' and since then has become more popular as a tourist destination. This was the interesting part.

                              A view of the Sassi with the ring road taken from Matera church 


                              Wandering up and down the alleyways of Matera, Southern Italy


                      The church at Matera.                              Outdoor restaurant setting up for dinner

We stayed at Locanda di San Martino, an accomodation comprising of 33 seperate 'cave' rooms all newly renovated and joined by pathways and stairs. The entire 'Sassi' is a series of grottoes carved out of limestone on the edge of the ravine with houses seemingly piled on top of each other, the roofs of some are the streets for those above. We enjoyed 2 days of climbing up and down endless steps and alleyways and again walking on those polished smooth stones that we have seen all throughout our travels so far. We descended into the cistern to learn about the towns water supply of old, and spent our evenings dining under soft lights and enjoying the cooler temperatures. We did however have to spend from midday till late afternoon in our room with the air con at full blast - this was the only way to survive the heat (and many places closed for this period of the day anyway). This was the good part.


                       Pete down in the cistern                          Locanda Di San Martino - our cave home

Sadly - the bad! We had thought to get on the road early to Amalfi thus avoiding the heavy traffic on the motorways. We moved our car from the free car park up to a residents only area for the loading our of cases which is allowed by the local law. We were away from the car for just over half an hour and when we returned, we found our 2 front tyres had been slashed. The only non-Italian number plated vehicle in the row of cars and I guess it was target for some low life. It was then a 4 hour exercise to get 2 new sports tyres on a Sunday!!! A local resident told us that he had experienced this 4 times - and he lived there!!! The locals were very helpful with putting us in touch with the right people, and they too were very sorry this had been done to us. A shame such a low point to end a great couple of days.


              Trying to appear happy after our little car had its tyres slashed. What can you do???

After a delayed departure due to our mishap, we were finally mobile again and a few hours drive to our next stop - the stunningly beautiful Amalfi Coast. 

Friday, 17 July 2015


After a sleep in and lazy start, we had only a short drive to get to the Montenegrin border. Armed with all our papers for the car and most importantly our green paper (insurance), we joined the queue of vehicles waiting to be processed. We watched a Swiss car take ages at the barrier, then another one in front of us an eon to be processed and wondered what was in store for us. Surprisingly in less than a minute the papers were handed back with our passports but unfortunately no 'welcome to Montenegro' or even a smile!

We then headed up into the mountains for a tree change from all the beach side camping we had done. More of a track than a designated road but we were soon there, had our tent pitched under some lovely shade in no time at all and then sat back to enjoy the tranquility of the countryside. A small camp ground with only about 20 people and run by a lovely English couple - it was fun to sit around the communal table and have some great conversation in English at long last. At night the stars and satellites were very apparent without any street lights, and with very little passing traffic, all we could hear was the sounds of crickets in the trees, the hoot of a owl in the hills and the occasional bray of a nearby donkey.

Next day we headed our for a day of sight seeing, stopping at first in Herceg Novi to REGISTER for tourist tax and then to a bank to PAY our tourist tax for the duration of our stay here. So much for progress! We then followed the coast road around the bay and down in the very pretty town of Kotor. Yet another huge cruise liner was docked at the wharf with hoards of people everywhere so we pushed on further around the foreshore to a little restaurant perched right on the waters edge for a fabulous pasta and risotto lunch.

                                      Lunch on the edge of the water in Kotor, Montenegro


                  FolÅ‚wing the coast road around into Kotor - one small village runs into the next 

After lunch, we headed up to top of the mountains to visit the Njegosev Mausoleum, perched high on the hill at 1500ms. The road up contained 25 switchbacks and hairpins bends as we climber higher and higher - the good aspect was that we were continuously looking upwards and didn't dare look at the view over the edge until we got to a safe vantage spot. The view was breathtaking, the large cruise liner in the harbour looked more like the size of Kittani. But then we had to go back down ��������. This time we could see the drop! Thankfully there wasn't much traffic and we were able to go at snails pace and every so often find a small area to pull over and let the very impatient Montenegran drivers fly past. After we reached the bottom, Pete told me that over lunch he had googled the road up and it was listed on the worlds most dangerous drives. Glad I didn't know that before the trip.


                   Looking back down from on high after 25 switchback bends to get to the top


              Njegosev Mausoleum - 461 steps from the car park to reach the top for a great view


                     Our route up the mountain from Kotor - 26 switchbacks of nail biting driving!!

Leaving our tent pitched, we headed off up into the mountains in the north of Montenegro. Being such a mountainous country with rivers cutting valleys at the bottom, it can take some time to get from A to B. The roads often wind back and forward and sometimes seem to double back on each other. There are many tunnels along these roads dug through the mountain side, some nearly a kilometre long and others really only an arch. And the Montenegrin drivers are very impatient and intolerant of foreigners to say the least!! They race around these mountain roads as if they own them, playing leapfrog over any car they come up behind and often endangering other on road. They cut corners terribly and it is not strange to come around a corner and meet them coming towards you literally in the middle of the road. With a last minute swerve they do avoid you but it can be nerve wracking - no wonder car insurance companies generally charge an extra premium if you are driving here.

We made a stop at the small village of Pluzine at the base of the gorge to enjoy a panorama of the turquoise water before starting our climb again up the mountain. Once at the top, the scenery was quite different. We followed the winding track through wild flowers that were nearly taller than the car, then the area opened out into a panorama of majestic rugged mountains that were truly breathtaking. Out stop for the night was the village of Zabljak - a ski resort in Winter and a hikers delight in the Summer months. On the outskirts of town is Black Lake - a glacial lake sitting 1,416 m above sea level and fed by numerous mountain streams. A popular spot for tourists walking and cycling around the 3.5 perimeter. It took us an hour walking at a brisk pace and had some spectacular photo spots along the way - always a lovely setting surrounded by forestry and in the shadow of imposing mountains.


                        Some of the amazing mountain landscape in the north of Montenegro



                         The turquoise waters around the village of Pluzine in North Montenegro 


                                           Scenic Black Lake outside of Zabljak, Montenegro 


Next morning we headed off back south towards home with a first stop to see the Tara River bridge. A concrete arch bridge that sits 172m high and spans 365m across the Tara River. A popular tourist attraction here is zip linning across the gorge for those wanting an adrenalin rush. Launching from the forestry on one side to traverse the gorge 824m, the excited voices of the zip liner echoing up the valley. 


                                              Tara River bridge near Zabljak, Montenegro 


                                                 Looking from the bridge across the valley 


                          Enjoying the Montenegrin landscape  - a very picturesque country 


                               For someone with an aversion to heights, Pete has managed well ��

We headed back to our camp for one more evening before crossing back into Croatia for an overnight ferry crossing from Dubrovnik to Bari, Italy. We have loved Montenegro (apart from the anx with the drivers), and enjoyed the mountains as well as the coast. The roads have generally been good, though some quite narrow in places and made for interesting moments. We have enjoyed the food which has a distinct Italian influence and even quite enjoy olives now. So now it's on to Italy for us as and the next stage of our holiday.