Day 250 Marcialla, Tuscany, Northern Italy.

This morning we set off with a mission. The lady on our campsite had given us the name of a couple of places in the area that supposedly sold Camping Gaz. Since being unable to replenish the gas since Denmark, we were keen to exchange our two empty bottles. Whilst in Greece, we have made do with boiling our kettle on a small outdoor gas cylinder, keen to conserve the small amount of gas we have left in the van.

So optimistically, we ventured off to the first address, about six miles or so down the road. The drive there was stunning, through some exceptionally beautiful Tuscan scenery. We arrived at the town of Certaldo, and sought out the hardware shop we had been directed to. Unfortunately, it was closed.

Undeterred, we decided to defer our coffee, and head off to the next address on our list, in the town of Colle di Val d’Elsa. Here, we discovered a wonderful old town square with a splendid fountain. The hardware shop here was open, but sadly, the Camping Gaz they sold was only in the tiny cylinders that don’t fit our van.

Determined to complete our mission, we googled the first shop, and discovered that it should re-open again at 3.30pm. So we wound our way back to Certaldo, once more through some wonderful landscapes, and sought out a cafe to fill in the time before it re-opened. As we sat drinking our coffee, we noticed a sign for a Funicular Railway on the other side of the square. 

3.30 pm came, and the little hardware shop was still closed. I spoke to a girl from the neighbouring shop, who thought it unlikely to re-open before four. 

So, with another half hour to kill, we decided to give the funicular a shot. This turned out to be an inspired decision. The short ride up the hillside led us to the very oldest part of this Tuscan town. We suddenly found ourselves in charming herringbone-bone brick streets, beautiful little squares with vistas over the surrounding countryside, and a main street that led up to an elegant church. It was an absolute gem of a place, and with hardly another soul in sight. We stopped for a gelato, and took a wander around the side streets, peppered with statues, some old, and some contemporary. It was so completely unexpected. We have visited this area in the past, and been to all the high profile places such as Florence, Siena and San Gimignano – but had never even heard of this lovely old town. 

Keen not to miss the hardware shop, we hurried back down into the town below. The old man who ran the shop tutted and looked quizzical for a moment, then asked if we could come back at 7pm. We negotiated to return the next morning instead, and the deal was done. Somehow, he would re-fill our cylinders, and have then ready by tomorrow. Success! We were delighted to have resolved our problem, and I was also pleased, since it will give me a chance to take a better look at this lovely old town, when we are not so time pressured.

The reason we had to dash off, was because we had a dinner date. Two of our dear friends from back home, Vicky and Andy, are out in Tuscany this week on holiday, and staying just a few miles away from our campsite. We had been invited out to dinner with them, and so were keen not to be late.

We somehow managed to locate their obscurely sited villa, down a track that led on to a vineyard, with the help of one of their party, who was sent up the drive to find us! The setting was sublime, with gorgeous views across the hills.

So tonight we have enjoyed a very convivial evening, sharing some wonderful company, and some really tasty food. All credit to Andy for doing the shopping – he arrived back at the villa after we had arrived, very frazzled, having apparently been faced with three aisles of pasta to choose from – probably par for the course in Italy. I must say that it was a real treat to have some other people to talk to (no offence to Howard, of course), and to catch up on all the local gossip.

We arrived back at the campsite just before our ‘curfew’, when the gates are locked, feeling like naughty children. 

Tomorrow we will explore some more of this wonderful area, and will discover what our man has put into our gas cylinders!

Day 249 San Marino to Marcialla, Tuscany.

Our campsite in San Marino last night was very pleasant, and we enjoyed a meal in their on site restaurant, and de-fused after our traumas of the ferry. Two placements along from us on the campsite were an English couple in a tent – the first Brits we have come across for a long time. They arrived just before us, and I couldn’t help but laugh at their antics trying to erect their tent. Howard thought that they couldn’t have put the tent up before this trip, since they were spectacularly inept at putting it up, and by the end of it, they were barely speaking to each other. I know it is bad to laugh at other’s misfortunes, but their dialogue had me in hysterics. The point at which the wife was completely submerged in tent fabric, and the husband cheerfully shouted, ‘All OK?’ was priceless! Needless to say, they were eating their breakfast in silence this morning!

We set off early (ish) to explore San Marino. Just as well, since within five minutes of parking up in the old town, the last parking place had been taken. 

San Marino Old town sits aloft a spectacular hill, Mount Titano, and comprises of four forts, which from a distance looks quite impressive, like something from a fairytale. We set off and walked to the summit of Mount Titano and it’s tower, along a scenic path through the wooded park. We then walked along to the first of the forts, which had the most amazing views of the surrounding countryside. We stopped for coffee at a cafe, before continuing on to the next fort, up the cobbled lane. There was a profusion of souvenir stalls, mostly selling tat, but some selling some rather expensive leather bags. We purchased our San Marino flag for Oscar, which was our sole purchase. We were surprised to see that amongst the bag and souvenir stalls, there were also many shops selling weapons – knives, bows and arrows, and many with handguns and rifles. I’m guessing the firearms laws are different, or more lax in San Marino – but they clearly like their armaments.

We walked down to the Basilica, and took a look inside. Olive green columns led the eye up to the ornately plastered ceiling, very effective. We then walked down through the town, before returning back to Oscar.

It was a snapshot visit of this micro-State – a Republic since 301 AD. It was established on a Roman system of democracy, with six monthly elections of Captains Regent, two heads of state for the council, one from each of the opposing parties, in order to maintain a balance. It was officially made an independent country in 1600. Throughout both World Wars, it maintained it’s independence, but was invaded by the Germans right at the end of the war in 1944, but shortly relieved by the British. During the war, it took in 100,00 refugees from Rimini, an extraordinary achievement, since at the time only having a population of 15,000 itself. It is a member of the United Nations, but not of the EU, despite using the Euro as currency. It has largest GDP of any country in Europe, it has no deficit, and a positive balance of payments. It is the only country to have more cars than people (33,000). It has it’s own parliament, and makes it’s own rules. It seems strange that such a pocket sized state of 23 square miles can continue to exist in the 21st century – but it seems to be doing remarkably well for itself. It was certainly well worth the visit, and quite an education.

We continued on our journey, heading towards Tuscany. Howard decided that he had had enough of Italian motorway driving, and opted to take the ‘cross-country’ route. Unbeknown to me, this involved driving directly over the Apennine Mountains.

The route was long and tortuous, but took us through some of the most spectacular scenery that you can imagine. We found ourselves driving along the Mandrioli Pass, through the Alps Di Serra, a hair-raising drive up the mountains, by means of multiple hair-pin bends. This is clearly a very popular biker’s route, since we encountered convoys of biker’s in their leathers, revving their way up the mountainside. The view at the top was quite something – looking back over the odd formations of sedimentary rocks. We then passed through the beautiful Casentino forest in the Casentine National Park, popular with walkers, and peppered with little stone villages.

A little further on we came to the Passa del Consumo, another spectacular mountain pass, not quite as white knuckle as the Mandrioli, but stunning, nevertheless.

As the landscape slowly changed from dramatic mountains to undulating hills, we then found ourselves back into fertile valleys of olive groves and vineyards – the classic Tuscan landscape, and just so beautiful.

We didn’t arrive at our campsite until gone six o’ clock. It is a pleasant site, set on a terraced hillside, with glorious views across the Tuscan landscape. When we arrived, we were told that tonight was ‘Pizza Party’ night, and asked if we wanted to join in. How could we resist, especially since the campsite also has a supply of it’s own wine on tap?

We were also delighted to find that two placements up from ours, is another Acapulco Blue California, from Cornwall – so Oscar has a friend, This is the first Cali like ours that we have seen in nine months. We were also pretty chuffed that Oscar was looking so good – we had cleaned him just before we caught the ferry from Greece, and the owners of the other Cali commented how clean ours was. It was hard not to well up with pride. ‘That’s our boy!” I thought to myself.

So tonight we have enjoyed scrummy pizza and quaffed some very passable campsite wine. What’s not to like about Tuscany? 

Day 248 At sea in Ionian / Adriatic to San Marino.

fj8XFqnGS0KIufs9ogGDtgI wasn’t going to blog today, since we have been on a ferry overnight and most of the day – but I couldn’t resist telling the tale of our journey!

‘Grimaldi’ by name, totally grim by nature. Although our ferry from Greece to Ancona in Northern Italy was booked with Minoan Ferries, we couldn’t help but notice that when we went to check in, the board above our lane said ‘Minoan Ferries, members of the Grimaldi Group’. Immediately, alarm bells should have started to ring!

You may recall, way back in March this year, we caught a ferry from Bari to Dubrovnik with Grimaldi line ferries. This was the ferry trip that we shared with about a hundred hormonal teenagers, on ‘job experience’! We very nearly ended up being entangled in a fight that broke out between two amorous teenage males over a rather encouraging female! In the end, we didn’t complain – what would have been the point? 

So it was with some trepidation, that we queued up at the port. We arrived in good time, and were in the fourth row. By the allotted ‘final check-in’ time, there were approximately twenty lines of cars, and many more of lorries. We waited in the still intense heat of the night, waiting for our ferry to arrive. We waited, and waited. Clearly, when the ferry hadn’t arrived at our departure time of 11pm, we knew it would be a late night. Eventually, at 11.15, the ferry arrived, and started to load, mostly the lorries first, skilfully reversing onboard. They then started to load the cars – but in reverse order i.e. the ones that had turned up last, we loaded first. After over an hour or more of watching everyone else get on, and wondering how on earth they were going to fit us all in, a man came rushing out to the car park, and shouted ‘Only drivers in cars!”. This meant that all the passengers had to unload from the remaining vehicles, with overnight bags, and trudge in the dark onto the ferry on foot. Bear in mind, this is now gone midnight. One elderly lady is clearly struggling up the ramp, and starts to cry. Others, with small children they have had to wake up in the cars, and drag them across the parking lot, were besides themselves.

I managed to negotiate my way onto the boat, but realised that my phone was still with Howard in Oscar, so I had no means of contacting him. At the reception, I think I must have looked so bewildered, and unable to understand the shouting in Italian, that an elderly purser led me to my cabin. Half an hour later, Howard appeared, rather frazzled, saying that Oscar was virtually last on, right by the ramp.

Our night and day on board the ferry were much as any other ferry trip – dead boring. We slept, and ate, and slept, and ate. When it came for our time to arrive, we all dutifully queued by the barrier, waiting to descend to the car decks, a little like the ‘rope drop’ at Disney.  We waited, and waited, whilst three, yes three, officious men in their uniforms stood importantly, doing absolutely nothing, but preventing anyone from getting to their cars. An impending sense of doom started to develop. Then, just as they started to let people pass down the stairs, they suddenly shouted, ‘Only drivers!”

‘Stuff that !” we both thought simultaneously, and pretending I was also a driver, descended to the car deck, with one of the little men shouting after me. Down below, all hell had let loose. Unbeknown to us, the lorry drivers had been allowed down by another route, and were already driving their huge juggernauts off the ferry. We dodged between the lorries and back to Oscar, to find a huge red lorry, with a very irate driver, gesticulating at Howard, for blocking his exit. I must say, that at this point, Howard was far from generous in his comments back to the lorry driver. We leapt in, reversed off the ferry, and made a dash for it. I am left wondering though, how on earth the obedient car passengers who followed the steward’s instructions, and abandoned their driver, ever managed to meet up again? There was nowhere at all to stop as you drove off the ferry – it would probably be a hundred yards or more down the road, before the vehicles could stop and retrieve their passengers. Pure madness!

The Grimaldi system for embarking and disembarking borders on farcical. Having now taken over thirty ferries on this trip, we are officially awarding them the prize for the most inefficient load of idiots we have come across. It is remarkable that they didn’t insight a riot. 

Tonight, we have just arrived in San Marino, a self-governing republic or micro-state within Italy. It has a population of just over 33,000, and sits on the slopes of Mount Titano. Tomorrow we will explore, but for tonight, we are calming down after our rather stressful journey.

Having survived the ferry, already we are able to laugh at the sheer lunacy of their system.

My only photo of the day, therefore, is Howard raising a rather sarcastic toast to Grimaldi!

Day 247 Igoumenista, Greece to Ancona, Italy.

We were slow to pack up the van today, since we only had a short drive to the ferry terminal. As it turned out, we left the campsite at the very same time as a group of three Calis travelling together – so a little convoy of four Calis drove up the track from the campsite. California owners have this unwritten rule, that we always smile and wave to acknowledge each other – something that I don’t see Big White owners often doing. 

We headed into town, on a mission to do something about my hair. In the past few weeks, it has got incredibly long, and very, very blonde in the sunshine. It is always quite stressful looking for a hairdressers, having no idea what they will be like. By definition too, if you find a hairdresser with no customers, who can fit you in straight away – it always makes me a little nervous. Do the locals know something that I don’t?!!

As it turned out, within minutes, we passed a hair studio that looked OK, so we parked up and went to investigate. We got off to a bad start. I asked, ‘Do you speak English’, to which the lady shook her head, and said, ‘No’. I started to type in my request in Google Translate, when her husband and young son walked in. Fortunately, he understood enough English to convey my needs, and a deal was done.

As I sat in the chair, helpless, I watched Howard smirking in the mirror, reading the news on his phone. When the husband came back in, I asked whether his wife cut men’s hair too! Indeed, she did – so that quickly wiped the smirk off Howard’s face, as he sat in the chair next to me, whilst I waited for my colour to set. In actual fact, she made a good job of Howard’s hair, which instilled a little confidence in me, for when my turn came.

The result is passable. I’m no longer looking like a blonde bombshell, and I can see out from under my fringe – so all is good. We took ourselves of for a celebratory cup of coffee, and to de-stress.

We still had most of the afternoon and evening to kill, so we headed out of town, following the signs for an Archeological Site. The road took us to a spitting distance of the Albanian border. Eventually, a sign directed us down a very pot-holed track, in the middle of nowhere. We came to a narrow old stone bridge, that looked barely wide enough for the van, so we parked up, and walked along the track. The heat of the sun, by now, was intense, and despite walking for ten minutes or so, there was still no sign of said Roman ruins. In the end, we gave up, and re-traced our steps. I suspect if we had continued for another five minutes, we might have found the ruined amphitheatre – but it was all looking so unlikely, that for once, we chickened out.

On the way back into town we stopped at a gorgeous monastery, surrounded by bougainvillea and lime trees. We then diverted along a little peninsula to a beach, separated from the mainland by a lagoon with a small causeway. We stopped for a cool drink, and did a bit of people watching. Most of the people here were spending the day at the beach, sitting roasting under raffia umbrellas  – but it was way too hot for us.

Back in town, we had an early supper, before going to the ferry terminal to check in. We stood by the harbourside, and watched our last Greek sunset. They have, without exception, all been superb – and we swill miss them, although they still come a close second to a sunset over the Tay!

We have an overnight crossing to Italy, and don’t arrive until tomorrow afternoon in Ancona. We then plan to visit San Marino, and wind our day across Tuscany.

I am hoping that Tuscany will be as I have remembered it, and hopefully less frenetic than Southern Italy. It seems a long time ago that we were there, way back in March. Since then we have travelled over fifteen thousand miles. Hard to believe!

Day 246 Mikro Papingo, Vikos National Park to Igoumenista, Northern Greece.

Today has been our last full day in Greece – tomorrow we catch the ferry to Northern Italy.

We left our wonderful little village of Mikro Papingo, and made our way back down the mountain. First we stopped at the Vikos Gorge, at a place called Papingo Pools, where channelled water runs down from the steep mountainside, and forms a series of pools at the bottom, before flowing into the river below. Here the layers of sedimentary rock are clearly visible, forming stack upon stack of wafer thin layers – quite a spectacular sight.

We then zig-zagged back down the series of hair-pins, and back up to the valley on the other side, stopping at Aristi for our morning coffee. The lady recognised from our outward journey, and gave a friendly smile.

We then bade farewell to the amazing Zagorohoria villages and the spectacular Pindos Mountains, and headed westwards towards the Ionian coast. The lush green of the mountains and the gorge was replaced by a more arid looking landscape for a while, until we spied the sea in the distance.

Igoumenista is a busy port, and we spotted several large ferries plying their way out of harbour – tomorrow that will be us.

Our campsite is a small affair by a beautiful pebbled beach just a few miles south of the town. For the first time in months, we are surrounded by Californias, mostly from Germany, and the ‘Big Whites’ are in the minority. There is a wonderful little taverna on the beach, where we plan to eat tonight – our last meal in Greece.

I must say that Greece has totally exceeded all our expectations. Often when you return to a place that you have fond memories of, you are disappointed – but not at all in this case. If anything, I am even more in love with this country. The people have been the friendliest of any nation that we have visited on our travels. If we hadn’t read about it in the news, and spoken with some of the locals, you would never know that this nation is just emerging from one of the worst financial crises they have ever experienced. Despite all their problems, as a nation somehow they have managed to stay cheerful and upbeat. They welcome visitors with open arms, and do it with a great big smile on their faces. The food has been some of the best we have eaten on our trip, at prices that have brought a smile to our faces too! We have been completely blown away with this part of Northern Greece, so far off the main tourist trail.

It is somewhere to which we would definitely consider returning, and we rarely do go back to the same place. Probably only Croatia, Montenegro and Norway have left us with the same thoughts, so far.

Tomorrow we continue our journey northwards, slowly winding our way back home. First we pay a visit to San Marino and Tuscany, before diverting off to Corsica for a week or two. By then, we will definitely be homeward bound. Just as well we have Paul Simon on our playlist!

PS No blog for day or two, since on ferry.

Day 245 Mikro Papingo, Vikos National Park, Northern Greece.

Last night in our village you could have heard a pin drop. A real treat after days of camping grounds, with their inevitable late night chatting groups, barking dogs and camper van doors opening and closing throughout the night.

This morning, we were greeted by the hotel’s superb breakfast – all home-made, which included fresh fruit, yoghurt, some sort of cheese pie, salad, eggs, pancakes, home-made preserves and a tea infusion made with the local mountain herbs. After that lot, we felt like we needed some exercise!

We opted to take the walk down into the gorge. Vikos Gorge is 12 kilometres long and 900 metres deep, the world’s deepest canyon in proportion to its width, according to Guinness. The walk was inevitably steep, but the path was well-trod, and thankfully dry at this time of year. Another bonus, was that for the most part it was shaded by the mountainside trees, which helped keep us a modicum cooler. On the first stretch of the walk out of the village, we followed an old hunched over lady, dressed in a thick black dress, and using two sticks, to negotiate her way down the steep path. After fifty yards or so, she opening a gate by the path, and walked into her well-tended vegetable garden, growing beans, pumpkins and courgettes. She must have looked at least eighty years old – quite a feat to be still gardening in these conditions!

As we clambered down the mountainside, the flora and fauna was varied. We passed by many beautiful wild flowers, attracting a profusion of brightly coloured butterflies – orange, yellow and sapphire blue. Fortunately, we didn’t come across any of the brown bears that are known to frequent these parts. Eventually, we started to hear the sound of water, and came to the river that flows through the canyon. At the side of the water, some bright red reed was growing – quite eye-catching and very unusual.

The walk back up the mountain was arduous and hot, but we egged ourselves on by promising ourselves a home-made ice-cream that we had seen advertised in our local village cafe. Sadly though, we arrived to find out that all the ice-cream had just been finished for the day – so we made-do with a cool drink instead. Probably much better for our waist lines too!

The rest of the day we have just been chilling out. We have done a little bit of planning, and I have been attempting to download photos onto the blog. The only downside of staying somewhere as remote as this, is that the Wifi sucks, so I may have to delay the photos until I get a stronger signal.

This part of Northern Greece has been a revelation. I cannot commend it enough. If you ever get a chance to visit this part of the world, away from all the trippers on the islands, then do so. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed.

Day 244 Meteora to Mikro Papingo, Vikos National Park, Northern Greece.

Wow! Wow! Wow! Today we left one amazing place, and came to somewhere even more incredible. We drove north-westwards, towards the border with Albania. The first part of our drive was through undulating mountain roads, with spectacular views. At one point, we stopped at the top of a hill, in the middle of seemingly nowhere, to take a look at a solitary white-washed church. It was beautifully maintained, and had commanding views across the entire valley, but we did wonder where on earth it’s congregation would come form.

After a spell on a major road, we then turned upwards towards the mountains, and the Vikos National Park. I suspect that the Greeks are keeping this place a secret, just to themselves – but fortunately, yet again, Howard’s Greek colleague has come up trumps. It is situated in a region called the Zagorohoria, which my Lonely Planet describes as one of Northern Greece’s most attractive and mysterious regions. Tucked into the Pindos Mountains, it is home to 46 traditional stone and slate villages, and the dramatic Vikos Gorge.

The villages are indeed extraordinary. It is like visiting a land that the world forgot, from another century. Perched precariously on the mountainsides, they can be seem from miles away, but the approach to them has to be seen to be believed!

We stopped for a late coffee in the tiny village of Aristi, which sits at an altitude of 650 metres.. The main street through the village is so narrow, that a traffic light system works, allowing vehicles up and down the steep winding cobblestone road that leads to and from the town square in the valley below. The small square looked out across the valley, and several attractive cafes were positioned roundabout. We called in to look at a small craft studio, of small art pieces, many made from the local wood from the Gorge. The attractive young woman who served us, told us her mother was the artist. A stunningly beautiful woman then appeared, the mother – certainly some good gene stock in that family. She was so charming that we purchased a small wooden heart to hang on a door. The gift wrapping procedure made me chuckle – it was like Rowan Atkinson in ‘Love Actually’, if anyone recalls the scene – the gift wrapping being just as beautiful as the gift itself.

A little further onwards, and we came to the Vikos Gorge itself. We stopped at a point where a beautiful stone arched bridge crossed the gleaming green turquoise waters. A trail of orange brown chestnut leaves were slowly floating under the bridge – a sign that autumn is fast approaching.

Our guide book then told us, ‘Aristi is the last village before Papingo (our destination). After Aristi, prepare for white-knuckle driving as the roads winds upwards’. It wasn’t wrong!! As we zig-zagged up to steep, ever narrowing hair-pin bends, with vertiginous drops on the edge, to add to Howard’s driving skills, we started to meet with herds of goats, cattle and even horses, just milling around on the road. As we approached the village where we are staying, we spied the stunning ‘Papingo Towers’, the towering rock formations that form a backdrop to Magalo and Mikro Papingo, the large and small villages of Papingo.

Our hotel is situated in Mikro Papingo – a stunning little place, which is completely pedestrianised, for no other reason than the fact the cars won’t actually fit down the tiny cobbled lanes, which wind steeply up the hillside. We deposited Oscar in the parking just outside, a short distance from our ‘hotel’. This place is to die for – the setting is sublime, the panoramas across to the mountains breathtaking, and the hotel is an absolute gem of a place. The building is made from the same old grey stone as the rest of the village, and is a series of rooms set around stone terraces, on different levels. We immediately felt as if we had struck gold with this place. Our feelings were confirmed as we took an early evening stroll around the village. It is just gorgeous – so un-touristy and authentic, just our sort of place.

We finished off the day with a simple meal in the hotel restaurant, which views across the valley to the blazing red sunset. As an out of the way place to visit, this must be one of the best. Tomorrow we plan to have a ‘driving-free’ day, and enjoy some walking in this spectacular area.