Day 263 Sospel, Alpes Maritime, France to Lake Maggiori, Italy.

This morning, we were awoken by the revving of motorbikes, as they all headed off up ‘Le Route Des Grandes Alpes’. We stood chatting with the pleasant lady who ran the campsite. The told us that the route was very popular with bikers and vintage car drivers, since this route is part of the Monte Carlo rally. She also asked us a ‘special favour’. The campsite was literally closing this morning, so we were her last customers for the year. She asked if she could video us driving off, so that she could put it on Instagram and Facebook. We happily agreed – Oscar would be a star! Just as we were about to leave, Howard asked me if I had seen his glasses. He then remembered where he had left them – on the ledge of the pop up, when he went to bed. Consequently, he raised the roof a little to retrieve them, and then put the roof back down, or so he thought.

In our haste to leave, as the owner stood armed with her phone, ready to film us, the van made an odd beeping noise. No matter, we thought – the lady is waiting. So we proudly drover past her, waving happily out of the window. But as we turned the corner out of the campsite, the odd beeping noise started up again. I suddenly realised hat it was – Howard hadn’t put the roof down properly. I was mortified! Our first chance at camper van fame, and we had driven off, being filmed, with the roof half up! What wallies!!

Red faced, we drove back down into Sospel, and couldn’t resist a last coffee in our charming little cafe. It really is the most charming town, surrounded by stunning scenery, and barely a visitor in sight, just lots of chattering locals. Just brilliant.

The morning then got even better. Our drive northwards was an utter feast for the eyes. I cannot put into words just how beautiful this drive was, through a piece of France that we are both unfamiliar with. It was totally unexpected. We struggled to know which way to look, as we twisted our way up through the mountains, with 360 degree views. Utterly stunning! Once we had climbed up high, and then down again, we came to a spectacular gorge, carving through the rocks. We came to the ancient town of Tende, in the Mercanteur National Park, close to the border with Italy. Around the town are more than 20 summits, all exceeding 2,000 metres. It was just wow, wow, wow all the way!

We came to the Col de Tende, a strategic route through the Alps to Piedmont, used in medieval times to transport salt between France and Italy. We then drove through the single lane 3km tunnel, controlled by traffic lights, into Italy. At some point in the tunnel, our satnav told us we had crossed the border. This is our third foray into Italy on this trip, but we had only ventured this way in order to cut off a corner into Switzerland. The alternative route, through France, along the Grande Route des Alps would have meant a twelve hour hair raising drive, which we reluctantly decided against.

Once back in Italy, the scenery rapidly changed from breath-taking mountains, to a very flat plain, winding it’s way past Cuneo and Turin. We took the autoroute towards Switzerland, and the drive became dull and tedious, the only excitement being trying to understand the automatic toll machine, which refused to speak to me in anything other than Italian. Eventually, an Italian lady came over on the intercom, who likewise, could only speak Italian, so no more helpful. In the end, I just stuck Howard’s credit card in, and it charged us a whopping 30 euros. I’m still thinking we were overcharged, but no way of checking, since it offered me no receipt either. A stark contrast from Greece, where they don’t put up the barrier up until you have taken your receipt – no doubt part of their anti-corruption measures.

Eventually, we tired of driving, and opted to stop at an Italian campsite on the shores of Lake Maggiore, just short of the Swiss border. I suspect that we may well be the only ones on this site tonight – everything seems to be closing down for the winter! But, as the name suggests, it is indeed very tranquil here, with a distant view of the lake. Somewhere though, between France and Italy, we have lost the sunshine, and there is a definite chill in the air. I think we have just waved goodbye to summer.

Day 262 Bastia, Corsica to Sospel, Alpes Maritime, France.

As we boarded the ferry in Bastia this morning, I had the words of Simon and Garfunkel singing in my brain, ‘Homeward Bound’. This really feels like the last leg of a very long journey around Europe. 

We don’t seem to be having much luck with ferries of late. We were pulled up by a ‘job’s worth’ check in man, clipboard and tape measure in hand, saying that our van was 6cm higher than we had paid for. When we had boarded the Iceland ferry, we had been told that we had declared ourselves to be too tall, and that Californias were in the lowest category. So, since then, all over Europe, that is what we have entered on our booking form, without a single question. Catching the same Corsica ferry company from Italy, we were just waved on. But this guy was on a mission. I challenged him to actually measure Oscar, and informed him that for 10 months we had been entering car parks with his height limit. We even showed him the handbook. But no, he was having none of it. He, the little Frenchman, knew best. I did mutter to Howard that this is exactly the reason that Britain had voted to leave the EU! For fear of not being allowed on the ferry, we paid up the extra – but I am still kicking myself for giving into the man. Just as we drove on, he pulled up another van – clearly this is what makes him feel important. Of course, when we drove onto the ferry, we could have stacked 2 Oscars on top of each other, the ceiling height was so tall. We explained to the lady who came to check that our gas was turned off, and she just rolled her eyes, as if to say, ‘Oh! He’s off on that one again!’ She implied that we should have just driven on without paying, but we’re both too cowardly to do so.

Once on board, the crossing was uneventful. Apart, that is, from the mosquitos. Howard and I couldn’t believe that where we were sitting by the window, we were being buzzed by the pesky things. A couple of times we clapped our hands together, to try to catch them. The whole ferry seemed to turn round to stare at us. By an hour in, I already had three new bites on my legs. We have decided that we are positively the tastiest beings ever, since no-one else ever seems to be bothered by them. If I had known that it would be a problem, I would have taken ‘zappy bat’ onboard with us.

We arrived back on the French Mainland in Nice just after lunchtime. We were swiftly off the ferry, and away. Since it was only 11 miles along the coast from Nice, we decided to take the corniche road to Monaco. It had seemed a good plan, and we had hoped to stop for a drink or late lunch. However, we hadn’t factored in on it being the weekend of the Monaco Boat Show. The drive along the corniche was lovely, if a little frantic for poor Howard, with the turquoise blue mediterranean below us, and a profusion of palms and pines along the route. When we arrived in Monaco, however, the whole of the waterfront was cordoned off for people with boat show tickets.  Consequently, all I could do was to hop out of the van quickly and grab a couple of snaps, before being swept along by the traffic. There was absolutely nowhere to park, with all the waterfront parking taken with tents, so in the end, we just gave up, and continued on along the coast. At Menton, we headed inland, and within minutes were climbing up steep roads into the mountains. We passed a road sign saying ‘Route des Grandes Alps’, and then we were suddenly in the most stunning alpine scenery.

The campsite we had chosen for the night was not far as the crow flies, but it took at least forty minutes to get there. We stopped off just before the campsite at the gorgeous little town of Sospel, with it’s 13th century stone arched bridge across the river, and picturesque buildings. There has been a settlement here since the 5th century, and the old toll bridge used to serve as an important staging post on the royal road between Nice and Turin. We picked up a few groceries, and then sat in the cafe by the bridge and de-fused after our stressful drive through the Cote d’Azur. We recounted the huge yachts we had seen and the profusion of high end cars like Maseratis. Fine, if that’s what rocks your boat – but give us Oscar anyday!

We eventually arrived at our very rural campsite, due to close tomorrow for the season. On arrival, it was just ourselves and a couple camping at the far corner. All very quiet – until half an hour ago, when a group of ten motorcyclists arrived. Now lots of loud revving and chatter. As Howard says, ‘Even Hell’s Angels need a day out in the countryside!”

Day 261 Ghissonaccia to Bastia, Corsica.

I eventually managed to extricate the washing out of the tumble drier. Howard has been instructed, yet again, not to open the door until it makes a clicking noise. It’s a bit like ‘a watched pot never boils’. Had the thing been left to finish on its own, he could have saved himself a lot of aggravation. Next time, I am collecting the washing!

Washing drama behind us, and adorned in clean clothes, we set off for our last full day in Corsica. By shear chance, we had managed to save the best til last. There is something I have heard that implies that the joy is in the journey, not necessarily the destination. That is exactly what happened to us today.

Our plan had been to divert inland to the centre of Corsica to a town called Corte, in the Parc Naturel Regional de Corse, on our way back to Bastia. We set Boris, our stupid satnav for Corte, and he gave us two options, the main road, and what we assumed was a ‘B’ road. In fact, he had offered the main road, or this tiny winding unclassified road up into the mountains. We picked the latter, thinking that this was the ‘B’ road. It was only after half an hour or so, that we realised the error. We almost turned back to the other road, but thankfully, we persisted. The drive was sublime. It led us higher and higher up into stunning scenery, with fragrant pine woods and views across the mountains. We came to the gorgeous little village of Vezzani, with its population of only 300. I stopped to take a photo of the church, then spotted a lovely little cafe in the town square. Howard needed no persuasion to stop there for our morning coffee. Sat outside, deep in conversation, no doubt putting the world to rights, were three local men, elderly gentlemen, drinking aniseed liqueur at 11am in the morning! Howard tried to order two coffees in French, but I could tell that he was having problems making himself understood. I left my seat, and in my best schoolgirl French, had a go. The lady still looked perplexed. At this point, a cyclist who had just walked in, took over, and ordered for us – in Corsican. It is the first time, since we have been in Corsica, that French or Italian has not been understood at all.

The coffee was good, and the local lady who served us was prolific in her goodbyes as we left. We continued on up the mountain, but started to confront all manner of wildlife, mostly domestic. First we came across a herd of goats, roaming wild, and in no hurry at all the move along the road. Then there were the pigs, also left to wander. Lastly we came across sheep, happily following the lead sheep with a large bell round its neck, but again very reluctant to move out of the way of Oscar. Sadly, we didn’t come across wild boar, which our motorbiking friends had seen when they had ventured into the Park, but no matter. Yet again, the red kites were everywhere, and we also saw plenty of jays flitting into there forests.

We stopped several times on our drive. Words are totally inadequate to describe this wonderful scenery, and photos cannot convey the heady scent of pine, wild flowers and shrubs that we experienced every time we got out of the van. It was just sublime, and definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

Eventually, we joined the main road again, and made our way to Corte. This citadelle town in the heart of Corsica was at one time the capital of this island. It has been ruled intermittently between the French and the Genoese. In 1735 the constitution for an independent state were drafted here, and Corte became the centre of Corsican nationalism. It was the site of Corsica’s first university, and maintains a sense of cultural distinctiveness. Many of the students here speak only Corsican, and situated as it is in the centre of the island, it is surrounded by a spectacular wilderness.

We walked up the hill to the Citadelle. The old town has a wonderful atmosphere – charming medieval streets winding their way up the hill. Many of the buildings seem to be painted various shades of pink, as is the pretty church. We sat in the Place Gaffori, named after Jean-Pierre Gaffori, hero of the Corsican independence movement, Howard with a coffee, and myself with an ice-cream. I wondered how many more days it would be warm enough to be wandering around in shorts and T-shirts and eating ice-creams. Not many, I suspect.

We meandered our way back to Oscar, and headed on our way. The drive into to Bastia was much less exciting than our drive to Corte.

Tomorrow we have an early ferry out of Bastia to Nice, and so have opted to stay in a hotel close to the port. Sadly, the hotel’s WiFi doesn’t seem much better than the feeble campsite coverage, and so I am still struggling with photos. Hopefully, once in mainland France, our reception will improve, and I can put the rest up later.

Corsica has been an absolute revelation. It is a gem of a place – completely unexpected, but a real treat. We have enjoyed our visit here immensely. There is something about islands that I can’t put my finger on. Corsica is a strange mixture between Italian and French, neither one nor the other – a unique blend of magnificent scenery, wonderful cuisine and stunning towns. I am so pleased that we took the time to come here, and see for ourselves this amazing island.

It is with great sadness that we are leaving, and returning to the mainland. If you haven’t been here – come and see for yourselves. Simple as!

Since we are on a ferry most of the day tomorrow, there is unlikely to be a blog.

Day260 Propriano to Ghisonaccia, Corsica.

Eventually, our strange hooting noise faded into the night, but it must have been going strong for at least four hours before it stopped. We have been impressed with the birdlife in Corsica. Within thirty seconds of leaving our campsite this morning, we had spotted two red kites circling overhead. By the end of the day, we had spotted at least ten more. In fact, ridiculously, red kites and eagles have been the predominant birds here, much like robins and blackbirds in the UK!

After consulting our guide book, we decided to back-track a little way, and pay a visit to an ancient prehistoric site called Filitosa. The drive here, in itself, was spectacular, through gorgeous Corsican scenery, with barely another vehicle on the road – a stark contrast to yesterday. At one point we passed an olive grove, with strange coloured orange and green ‘baubles’ hanging from the tress. On closer inspection, I realised that it was balls of fine plastic netting, rolled into balls and hung below the branches. I am guessing that they lay the netting down, and shake the trees to collect the olives, but that is just surmising.

The site dates back to 1,800 BC, and is famed for it’s menhirs, or standing stones. Perhaps compared with Easter Island or even Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis, they are not quite so impressive, since they are smaller in size and fewer in numbers. Nevertheless, they still make a sight worth seeing. What is characteristic of these menhirs, is that they are anthropomorphic, resembling human forms, so it has been speculated that they may have been used to worship the dead. Some also have weapons engraved on them, thought to have been carved in times of war. In this way, the weapons were thought to provide a form of protection.

We wandered around the site for over an hour, taking in the quarry where they were carved, and a thousand year old olive tree, that formed the centrepiece of one of the arcs of stones. I think what I liked most about this place, is that it wasn’t heaving with people, like some of the attractions we have visited previously, and it was certainly very interesting to see.

After a quick lunch, we headed on our way southwards. Initially the road headed inland, before veering back down to the coast again. We drove through the pretty hillside town of Sartene. I stopped to take some photos whilst Howard filled Oscar up with diesel. In one of the photographs, I noted a line of washing, that was hung from a building at least fifty feet up, strung between two windows. It is still a mystery to me, how the person had managed to hang his or her washing up there. A real puzzle!

Once the road hit the southern coast, the views became sublime. At one point, we stopped at a viewpoint, and the water below us was the most vibrant turquoise that you can imagine, with the water as clear as crystal.

Eventually, we reached our destination for the day – Bonifacio. This stunning fortified city sits at the very southern tip of Corsica, sat high up on a rocky promontory, overlooking a fjord-like harbour. It’s massive ramparts dominate the skyline, and give the place a real wow factor. Sitting within the citadel is the Old Town, with it’s narrow streets and tall medieval buildings, perched precariously on the hill. Bonifacio was first developed in 828, and then for three centuries lived under the rule of Pisa. In 1195, it became a Genoese colony, and became a republic, able to mint it’s own money. It was at this time, that the impressive fortification took place. In 1553, it was conquered by the French, regained by the Genoese, before eventually coming under French control again in the 18th century. An influx of immigrants from Liguria early in it’s history, meant that Bonifacio developed a very definite Italian feel about the place, and many of the buildings would sit happily in any town in northern Italy.

We parked up by the picturesque harbour front, lined with cafes, and the marina full of expensive yachts. It was early afternoon when we arrived, and the heat was at it’s strongest. I tell you this, to explain what we did next. I am almost too ashamed to tell you, for fear of ridicule, but I suppose I should be honest. We decided that it was too hot to walk up the steep hill to the citadel, so for five euros, we caught the little tourist train. I know, I can hear you laughing from here, but we were short on time, and wanted to get there as soon as possible! Excuses over – it was quite fun!

We were joined on our row of seats by a mother and small daughter. The father and toddler son squeezed in the row in front. As the train started to move, Howard, in his enthusiasm, raised his right hand, and pretending to blow the train’s whistle, shouted quite loudly, ‘Toot! Toot!” (I should explain that having brought up three boys, train rides were part of our family tradition, and this is something he always did with them!) Well, the look on the little girl’s face was utterly priceless. It was a mixture of disgust and contempt, and she was probably only three years old. Clearly, a child who hadn’t been brought up to toot at trains!

Once in the ‘Haut Ville’, we had a wonderful couple of hours meandering around, taking in the atmosphere of the place. At one point, we came to a building just below one of the huge bastions. It turned out it was the local primary school, emblazoned with the French flag and the words ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’. We took a look in the cathedral, and walked around the seaward side of ramparts to look at the stunning white limestone cliffs, that run the length of the long concave bay beyond.

By now, time was marching on, so we walked – yes, walked, back down into the town, grabbed a quick coffee, and then headed back to Oscar. We had opted to drive a little way up the eastern coast to our campsite for the night. In this way, it puts us in a better position for our last full day in Corsica. Tomorrow, we hope to divert inland, to the mountain town of Corte on our way back to Bastia.

Our campsite tonight has the added bonus of a tumble drier, as well as washing machines. In need of some washing doing, we quickly put a couple of loads on. Howard then transferred them to the tumble drier, where they have now been for the past two and a half hours. Every five minutes or so, even though indicating that the drying has finished, the tumbler makes a couple of turns. Despite all Howard’s efforts to open the door, we cannot retrieve our washing. Sadly, this had happened before. In his impatience, Howard tugs at the door too early, which then seems to set in motion some sort of endless slow tumbling! I am moderately cross with him, but not as cross as he is with himself, since he realises that he is a repeat offender!

So whether or not we ever get away from this campsite in any good time tomorrow will depend on whether we can retrieve our washing. I am smiling as I type this, since Howard just left the van to check on progress, saying, ‘I’m not holding out much hope’. Nor am I!

Hopefully photos on way soon – still downloading!

Day 259 Porto to Propriano, Corsica.


It was an early start this morning, since we had organised to meet up with our friends Sue and Ian in Porto for a coffee, having discovered that they were only staying down the road from us. An early start for us involves a lot of activity. Once showered and breakfasted, I usually do the washing up, while Howard does ‘van things’ – turning the seats back round, disconnecting the electricity and gas, taking the washing line down with the towels, removing and packing away the windscreen cover, taking the roof down, filling up with water and disposing of the grey water. Yes – I hear what you’re thinking – all that in the time it takes me to do the washing up!

We were away just after nine fifteen, and made our way down into Porto. Having met up at Sue and Ian’s hotel, we all walking down into the town. It is a lovely little port, mainly with pleasure boats that take tourists out on trips across the Bay of Porto to see the amazing rock formations along the coast, called the Calanques. Originally, we had hoped to join our friends on such a trip, but the morning sailings were all full, so we just opted for coffee instead. 

Down at the quay, a footbridge spans the harbour, giving you a wonderful view of the Genoese watchtower that dominates the headland. We sat in a harbourside cafe, and enjoyed a quick catch up on what we had both been doing sine we met for dinner. Unsurprisingly, being bikers, Sue and Ian had spent the previous day doing perilous drives along gorges and twisting mountain passes. Whereas they had covered 200km through the interior of the island, we had just pottered along the coast at a very sedate rate.

Having said our goodbyes, we set off along the coast, heading for the town of Piana. Although only 13 kilometres from Porto, the road twists and turns through the ‘Calaniques de Piana’ – extraordinary rock formations, which characterise this part of the coastline. Despite a sign at the start of the drive, barring long vehicles, much to our irritation a convoy of five coaches coming from the other direction completely stuffed up the traffic, since the roads were too narrow to accommodate vehicles of that size. So a journey that should have just taken twenty minutes or so, ended up taking over an hour, due to frequent stops while the belligerent coach drivers tooted and gesticulated their way through the oncoming traffic. As you may have gathered by now, I am no fan of coach trips, full stop. In this case, it was utterly crazy that coaches were allowed to drive along this piece of UNESCO coast. Certainly, on the Amalfi coast, there are restrictions during the summer months, from May to September. They need to seriously consider doing the same here in Corsica, or at the very least, restrict the size of the coach.

Horrid coaches aside, it was an amazing drive. The wonderful granite rock formations were stunning. The colours were a warm orangey / pink, which seemed to change tone in different lights. Many of the formations had holes sculpted through them, and some resembled animals or figures (although I cannot claim to have recognised them). At one spot, there are lovely walks through the pine forests to a particular rock thought to resemble a dog’s head. Further along the road, the rocks overhang the road – another good reason why coaches should be banned.

Eventually, we came to the village of Piana. A notice claimed it to be the ‘most beautiful village in Corsica’. It was indeed pretty, with lovely views over the Calaniques, but I suspect that there are even prettier. We took a look at the church, by a picturesque square with a central lime tree. Two little boys were playing football in the square, and much to my surprise, started to play goal practice, using the church door as target. None of the locals pulled them up on this behaviour, so we just let it pass, but in retrospect thought how disrespectful it was. Perhaps we are turning into fuddy-duddies – but that’s what we thought!

After a wander around, we stopped for a drink, before heading on our way. We continued south along the coast, until we came to a town called Cargese. We parked at the top of this wonderful little hill town, and followed a cobbled alleyway down through the quaint little stone houses (just as beautiful as Piana, and barely a soul in sight, even better). Eventually, we came to what we were looking for – two churches, built face to face, across a small valley. One a Greek Orthodox Church, the other Catholic. Cargese was founded in the 17th century by Greek refugees fleeing Turkish rule. Over time, an agreement was reached between incomers and islanders, and the Greek refugees built their church across the valley from the native Catholic Corsicans – facing each other, and both enjoying splendid vistas to the bay below. Remarkably, between 1964 and 2005, they were administered by the same priest, who conducted services in each on alternate Sundays. On his retirement, sadly he was not replaced, and now a priest from a neighbouring town conducts services in the Catholic church, whereas a priest from Athens attends several times a year to conduct services in the Greek church. They were both wonderful churches to look at. The Corsican church had splendid frescoes in hues of pink, and was quite elaborate. The Greek church was simpler, but also had stunning frescoes, which were quite recognisably Greek.

By now, time was racing on, so we continued on our way, down along the coast. The scenery was yet again spectacular, with wonderful vistas out to a turquoise blue sea, and inland to tree and maquis covered hills and mountains. We had hoped to reach Bonefacio, in the far south, but ran out of stamina, and so stopped in a place called Propriano.

No matter. The campsite is lovely. The showers are piping hot, and we have enjoyed a scrummy meal in the campsite restaurant – probably the best campsite food we have eaten this trip. The only downside, is yet again, rubbish WiFi and 4G coverage – so for a second night, I have been unable to download any photos.

Hopefully we will fare better tomorrow in Bonefacio. Tonight we will be sleeping amongst pine trees, with a peculiar creature, possibly an owl, or maybe a frog, making a strange, but somehow soothing noise, approximately every fifteen seconds! If anyone can enlighten us as to what it is, we would be grateful.

Day 258 Calvi to Porto, Corsica.

This morning we awoke to a bright, blustery morning, with Oscar pitched in a copse of large umbrella pines. It had been so dark when we had arrived last night, that we couldn’t see much of the campsite at all. It was a pleasant enough site, and still quite busy despite it nearing the end of September.

After breakfast, we set off to explore Calvi. This 15th century Citadelle town sits on a rocky promontory looking out to sea. The Citadelle consists of four massive bastions, three of which look to the water, and these days, overlook the up-market marina, with a profusion of expensive looking yachts. In 1794, the Citadelle was bombarded by 30,000 cannon shots fired by the British fleet, fighting against the French, alongside the Corsican irregulars. It was during this battle that Captain Horatio Nelson lost his eye. Calvi also claims to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and at the base of the citadelle is a square, Place Christopher Columb, linking the old and new towns.

We parked up at the bottom of town, and walked past the marina, and then up the narrow stone cobbled streets towards the Citadelle. In the backstreets, we passed by the pretty pastel pink church of St-Marie Majeure, built in the baroque style.There were plenty of cafes and up-market tourist shops, including boutiques and craft shops. We passed by the statue of Christopher Columbus, and started to climb the steep walkways up past the bastions to the Old Town. The focal point inside the Citadelle is the 13th century octagonal domed cathedral, with it’s tiled floor and collection of relics. By now, the wind had whipped up, and the sea below was a mass of white horses.

We selected a quiet cafe in a little square, and had our morning coffee. Despite our resolve to stop eating pastries, we were tempted by an apple and almond flan, which was indeed very tasty. We then meandered our way back down the hill to Oscar.

By the time we left Calvi, it was gone lunchtime. We set off to our next destination, Porto. The drive initially headed inland, but then veered off towards the coast, and became utterly spectacular. The road twisted and turned, with huge drops down to the sea. Despite the distance covered being moderate, it took us til gone five o’clock by the time we reached our campsite, since there was no way you could pick up any speed on this journey. Periodically, we had stopped at viewpoints, either looking out over the sea, or towards the mountains. I must say, I am bowled over by the scenery here in Corsica – it certainly takes a lot of beating.

We had an extra treat when we arrived at our campsite. The receptionist hinted that at the top of the site, were some pitches with amazing views, and suggested that we just drive up and take a look. The area where most of the larger vans were parked was in the shade of pine trees, with no view at all. I walked a short distance further on, and spotted the most fabulous spot, definitely location over size, but large enough to park Oscar lengthwise. From our pitch, we look out towards Porto and the sea, and as the sun slowly began to set, it is perfectly placed for the best view on the campsite. 

Anticipating a lovely sunset, Howard and I set up the tables and chairs, and sat with our cups of tea (honestly!) – waiting. It seemed over the next ten minutes, we were joined by most of the other campers, who came to admire our ring-side view. One chap told us that he had been on the site for the three previous nights, and that this was by far the best sunset he had witnessed, the others being partially occluded by cloud.

We all gasped as the deep red sun slowly dropped below the horizon – a real show-stopper. Now, in the dark, we can clearly see the Genoese watchtower in Porto, illuminated in alternating colours – red, blue, white, mauve.

Tomorrow, we will venture down to explore Porto, before heading on round the coast. The only disadvantage, of course, of our wonderful cliffside pitch, is that there is absolutely no WiFi or internet coverage, so the photos will have to wait for another day. As they say, everything in life is a compromise. Well, Howard says that all the time, for sure!

Day 257 St-Florent to Calvi, Corsica.

We had a slow start, after our rather disturbed night in our budget room, vowing to research accommodation  better next time. Online reviews, only looked at subsequently, should have warned us to avoid this place. Comments such as ‘damp and musty’, ‘frayed at the edges’, ‘dirty sheets, black hairs everywhere’ (thank God we didn’t look!), the swimming pool ‘like primordial soup’, ‘patched up bathroom’, and compared to ‘time travel Romania circa 1980’, all would have alerted us to avoid this hotel. Never mind – a lesson learned. Next time I will pay more heed to Trip Adviser!

We were both feeling pretty tired after our busy few days of socialising, so decided to take the day at a slower pace than usual. Thankfully, we had declined the offer of a 10 euro breakfast at our ‘hotel’ – a sixth sense perhaps, as the reviews of that culinary experience passed an entertaining half hour’s reading later in the day! Instead, we opted to eat our breakfast sitting in one of the many harbourside cafes in Saint Florent – very pleasant, watching the world go by. 

After doing a few administrative tasks, we decided to explore the coast a short distance from the town. St-Florent is blessed by a beautiful sandy beach, La Roya, just west of the town itself. From the beach, we gained a wonderful view of the town itself, it’s pale buildings and citadel standing out against the background of dark hills. After a wander along the shoreline, I was unable to resist a paddle in the warm waters. Howard declined getting his feet wet, but then decided to make up for it by ‘Dad dancing’ on the way back to Oscar, just  to prove that he wasn’t a party pooper.

West of St-Florent, the road winds upwards and looks out over the expanse of the Desert des Agriates, a 35km stretch of uninhabited wild and rugged coastline, which looks like a rocky moonscape, and hills covered in maquis. Inaccessible by road, this once fertile area of the coast, used by Genoese sheep and goat herders, over generations was reduced to desert by soil erosion and forest fires. Today, it is a protected area, and home to many rare species of birds. Boat trips from St-Florent run excursions out to it’s beautiful sandy beaches, but it’s interior remains barren and inhospitable. From the road, there were several viewpoints, where you could stand in the maquis and look out at the strange rock formations. As yesterday, the fragrant smell of the maquis pervaded the air, as you brushed past the undergrowth. One of the shrubs had small, bright orange fruits, like mini-clementines. I wondered if this was the plant used to make the liqueur drink that I had purchased earlier in Bastia for my cough.

Eventually, we headed towards Calvi, our campsite destination for the night. We stopped at a wonderful viewpoint looking out over the glimmering Ligurian Sea. A narrow sandy path, littered with lizards basking in the warm sun, led you to the best vantage point. Originally, we had planned to stop at L’Ile Rousse, a smaller eighteenth century port to the north of Calvi. However, our plans changed when we were confronted with a massive traffic jam, due to a serious road traffic accident a few miles beyond. The queue was at a complete standstill, and backed up for miles, so we joined the locals in taking a diversion inland, along narrower winding roads. All was well until we started to meet traffic driving the route from the other direction. The narrow road really did not have the capacity for this amount of traffic, and in many places it was not much more than single track. Consequently, it took an age to negotiate our way through, with frequent stopping and starting to allow the counter-traffic to pass.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Calvi, the sun was setting, casting a magical red glow across the sea. When we eventually arrived at our campsite and set up on pitch with Oscar, it was dark, so it will be a surprise in the morning as to where we are actually situated. We grabbed a quick supper and fell into bed. What a relief to be back in Oscar, after our run of nights in hotels. Despite it’s small size and lack of facilities, this little blue van really has started to feel like home to us after all these months on the road. The upstairs bed is truly comfortable, and for some reason, we often sleep better in the pop-up, cocooned within its canvas, than in a real bed.

Tomorrow we plan to explore Calvi, before continuing southwards. But for now, sleep awaits.

Day 256 Bastia to St-Florent, Corsica.

Today, having bade farewell to Keith and Helen, we returned to Saint Florent in order to meet up with our friends, Sue and Ian. This intrepid pair have motorcycled all the way from Scotland to see us! Well, actually that’s a fib – they were coming anyway, but it just happened to coincide when we were to be here.

Having already driven to Saint Florent from Bastia just a few days earlier, we opted to take a different route – over the mountains. Within a few minutes of our ascent, the scenery became utterly dramatic. The mountain road twisted and turned up the hillside, giving us ever more wonderful vistas. It was hard to stop, since the roads were so narrow and tortuous, and there were few pull-ins. When we did find a lay-by, however, we just stood and admired the wonderful views. As we stood by the roadside, a pungent scent of herbs and wild flowers pervaded the air. This is from the ‘mediterranean maquis’, know in the Corsican language as ‘macchia’, and not dissimilar from the Scottish machair found in the Outer Hebrides. My guide book tells me that the Corsican maquis is one of the most luxuriant types of vegetation in Southern Europe. It consists of rosemary, juniper, myrtle, thistle, lavender, heather, broom, sarsaparilla and rock rose, to name but a few. The resultant smell is just wonderful, and various herb mixtures are used in many of the Corsican liquors and in their cuisine.

As we drove further up into the mountains, we started to spot large raptors up in the air, catching the thermals. Corsica is renowned for it’s raptors, including Honey Buzzards, Bonelli’s Eagles, Lammergeier, Harriers and Black and Red Kites. Most were too far away away to exactly identify, but when two pairs of red kites started spiralling above, their v-shaped tails immediately gave away their identity – just spectacular.

The first destination on our route was the village of Murato. This village is famous for it’s 12th century church, San Michele de Murato, which was built in the time when Corsica was ruled from Pisa. Consequently, it wouldn’t look out of place in the corner of an Italian piazza. It immediately stands out by it’s use of alternating layers of dark green serpentine and white limestone, giving an appearance similar to the black and white striped Duomos in Siena and Florence. On the outside are reliefs of motifs of plants and animals, and in places, the stone is arranged in a chequer-board pattern, making it very Romanesque.

After a little look around the pretty village of Murano, and stopping for a drink, we moved on to the hill-top town of Oletta, visible for miles, perched on the mountainside. We parked up at the bottom, and walked in to the largely pedestrianised town, the narrow passageways and steps making it impossible for vehicles to negotiate. As we walked higher, we found ourselves looking out over the lichen-covered slate roofs, higgledy-piggledy up the hillside. It was like walking through a place from another century. We barely saw a soul, but a large barking hound persuaded us not to follow his particular street.

Eventually, we re-traced our steps, returned to Oscar, and drove down into Saint Florent. We had intended to camp for the night, but when we arrived at our designated campsite, it was already closed for the winter. We quickly changed our plans, and needing to be in Saint Florent to meet our friends, we quickly obtained the cheapest room available on – maybe not our greatest choice, but a bed, nonetheless.

After a quick tidy up, we walked the short distance to Sue and Ian’s rather more upmarket hotel, where we were shown the wonderful view from their balcony. Travelling with them, in convoy, is their friend Chris, who dutifully snapped our photo for prosterity. We then set off into Saint Florent, first for a drink in a harbourside bar, and then a meal. My choice of drink didn’t go to plan. I had thought I was ordering a glass of Cap Corse white wine, but in fact, Cap Corse Blanc is a type of strange vermouth type aperitif made from the Maquis – not totally foul, but definitely not good! Our choice of restaurant was much better – a typical Corsican rustic affair, with a small menu from a blackboard and tasty food.

Save to say, a good evening was had by all. It was lovely to see Sue and Ian again, and meet up with Chris. As they returned to their lovely sea-front room, we returned to our rather damp, dusty attic room, and spent half the night swotting mosquitos with our zappy bat! We were temped to de-camp back to Oscar in the car park, but didn’t quite have the inclination. There is a moral to this tale, of course. You get what you pay for! If we ever return to Saint Florent, we are definitely staying at their place!!


Day 255 Macinaggio to Bastia, Corsica.

Another lovely day in Corsica. Howard awoke early, and summoned me out of bed to witness the beautiful sunrise over the bay from the balcony in the apartment where we were staying. Well worth the early wake up call!

After a leisurely breakfast in the sunshine, and another swim in the sea by Keith, we set off, continuing our drive down the eastern side of Cap Corse. The drops down from the wiggly road weren’t quite as dramatic as yesterday, but nonetheless, the scenery was still stunning. We took a few minutes to take another look at Macinaggio by daylight, having only seen it the night before in the darkness. It is a pretty harbour town, and apparently somewhere there is sited a plaque to mark the site where Napoleon landed, which sadly eluded us.

We continued on to the town of Erbalunga, which was divine. We found a shady square to have our morning coffee, and then went for a wander round. We passed by the Michelin starred restaurant ‘The Pirate’, perched right on the rocks, and perused the menu. We decided that lunch was probably not too bad for 42 euros, but decided that the 192 euro dinner menu was more than a little steep! We took the narrow path around the harbour front, and as we turned a corner, came to one of the watchtowers, standing proud looking out to sea. 

We continued to dawdle our way around this picturesque town, taking in the pretty buildings and doing the inevitable photo stops. By now, the heat of the sun was starting to defeat us, so we decided that we had earned another stop for an ice-cream! I am watching the size of my waistline slowly stretch, as we fail to resist our ‘once a day’ ice-cream habit. It has replaced our morning pastry habit, which we eventually kicked about a month ago! Every country /town seems to have it’s own speciality cake, which is always offered at morning coffee. I suspect that by the end of this year, I won’t be able to face another pastry or look another ice-cream in the eye!!

The last part of our drive along Cap Corse led us back into Bastia. We parked up, and set off to explore the ‘Old Town’. It has a touch of the shabby-chic, but is utterly charming. Some of the buildings on the walk in, wouldn’t look out of place in Naples, multiple storeys with balconies crammed with plants and washing. We took a look at the lovely cathedral of St-Marie, and then at St. Clare’s Convent, latterly a prison. We did wonder though, if it wasn’t more of a prison when the poor nuns lived there. When they entered the order as young girls, they passed over the step engraved with Dante’s ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, meaning that once they had gone into the convent, the young novices would never go from it.

We then came to a lovely walkway that looked out over Bastia Port. We sat having a cool drink, watching the ferries come and go, and also were intrigued by a massive sleek UK registered yacht, that had someone on a paddle board making their way round the outside cleaning the windows. En route back to the car, we stopped at a Corsican Delicatessen, and purchased some traditional cheeses and fig preserve. Not before the owner had insisted on us trying various cheeses, from a decidedly fly ridden plate, which would have sent Food Standards officers into orbit! As we were making our purchase, I had a small coughing fit. The wily shopkeeper offered me some Corsican lemon liqueur, which she claimed was good for coughs. It took little persuasion to encourage me to make another purchase of a small bottle! An excellent piece of salesmanship! We then drove a short distance along the sea front in Oscar, and enjoyed a lovely picnic of baguette, cheese and preserve, looking out over the sea – very pleasant.

We made our way to our hotel for the night, a short distance out of Bastia, closer to the airport, which we had thought would be convenient for Keith and Helen’s early morning flight out of Corsica. As it turns out, the taxi fares here are exorbitant, and so this was a false economy, but you live and learn. No matter. The hotel is fine, Keith has had another swim, and against all our better judgements, we ended up at the ‘Barbeque Party Night’. The food was actually pretty tasty, and the live music, which consisted of a vocalist and saxophonist / clarinetist was like a blast from the past. So we have spent our evening listening to Barry White, Simply Red, Phil Collins and the like – a bit corny, but I’m easily pleased! Howard even had a little shuffle.

We have had a lovely few days with Keith and Helen – they have been great company. I am not envious of their 6.15 am taxi pick up in the morning, or the cold and damp to which they are returning in Blighty. We said our goodbyes as we set off to bed. Ridiculously, having spent months on our own, with just ourselves for company, tomorrow we are meeting up with some other great friends, who are arriving on their motorbike! As my mother used to say, ‘You wait for a bus, and they all come along at once!’ 

Day 254 Patrimonio to Macinaggio, Corsica.

Last night, we ate in a charming little restaurant just along from our hotel. The waiter was jolly, but seemed to be struggling to understand our tourist French. At the end of the meal, as we were paying, it became clear why we had been struggling to communicate. It was because, in fact, the waiter spoke Italian. Despite being under French rule since 1769, the island had formerly been ruled first by the city state of Pisa, then it’s arch rivals the Genoese. Even today, there is a bit of a north-south divide, with the Italian influence predominating in the north, and the French in the south. Although French is the official language, in the north, many still speak Italian, and many more speak Corsican. The latter experienced a revival in the 1970s with the rise of nationalism, and now approximately 70% of islanders can speak Corsican fluently, a Latin-based language, resembling Romanian.

Today, after a leisurely breakfast, all four of us packed into Oscar to explore the north of Corsica. It felt strange to have four of us in the van, but despite all our stuff, we managed to squeeze in comfortably. First stop was the lovely harbour town of Saint Florent, situated on the north-west coast of Corsica. We took a walk along the harbour wall, the marina jammed with expensive looking boats. On returning to the town, we walked up to the Citadel, a circular bastion originally built in 1439 for the Genoese governors, but re-built following bombardment by Nelson’s fleet in 1794. By now, the heat was getting to us all, so we re-traced our steps back into the cooler alleyways of the town, and sought refuge in a shady cafe overlooking a pleasant square with a fountain for our morning coffee.

Duly refreshed, we quickly sourced a Corsican flag for Oscar, an odd affair with a black Moor’s head wearing a bandana, on a white background, and continued on our way.

Our main route for the day was to drive the very tortuous, but very scenic coastal drive up the Cap Corse peninsula, a thin finger of land, forty kilometres long, by only fifteen kilometres wide, stretching up to the very northern tip of the island. Peppered along the coastline here, the Genoese had built a series of watchtowers, to prevent coastal raids, and their presence is still very much in evidence today. The corniche road along the rocky western side of the peninsular is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, our guide book recommended that those of a nervous nature should definitely drive in a clockwise direction, so as to keep to the inner side of the road, to avoid the precipitous overhangs!

It was indeed a spectacular drive, with stupendous scenery of rocky cliffs, sheltered coves, vibrant turquoise blue ocean and occasional little villages clinging to the mountainside, or steep roads down to tiny picturesque harbours. Oscar, as ever, did remarkably well, with a little help from Howard’s driving, of course. We stopped periodically to jump out and admire the vistas.

The little town of Nonza was a gem, with it’s stunning terracotta coloured church, cobbled alleyways, charming cafes and paths down to sweeping sands. Sadly there was nowhere available to park Oscar, so I just had to leap out and have a quick wander, whilst Howard waited patiently, double-parked in the van. Further on, we stopped at Barrettali, where Keith and Helen took a paddle in the crystal clear waters. A little further on, we stopped at a cafe at Pino to have a refreshing drink, and pick up a few essential groceries for breakfast tomorrow. 

We stopped on the road above Centuri, by two watchtowers, and walked up to a viewpoint that gave us wonderful views over the town and beyond. The scrubland here was full of a fragrant yellow daisy-like plant, that painted the landscape with a vibrant yellow. Helen, being the botanist, did tell me the name of the plant, but it has completely passed me by. Napoleon had apparently said that he could recognise his native island just by the fragrance of the ‘maquis’, and certainly the smells are wonderful.

The road narrowed significantly as we came to the very tip of Cap Corse, stopping first at Tollare, where even I dipped my toes in the warm water, and then Barcaggio, a tiny little fishing harbour. Eventually we arrived at our destination for the night, the town of Macinaggio, overlooking a lovely sandy beach. Keith and Helen couldn’t resist a swim, whilst Howard and I prepared the G & T s. Since we were entertaining guests, we brought out the Caorunn, and for those of you who know me well, will appreciate just how honoured they were!! I fear that the best Scottish gin passed them by, although perhaps understandable, since lime and Schweppes had to substitute for red apple and Fever-Tree on this occasion – may I be forgiven!

We finished the evening off with a walk down past the marina, and a splendid meal in one of the harbourside restaurants – very fine indeed. Howard has now completely crashed out, tired from all his driving no doubt. 

Corsica is called ‘the island of beauty’ by the French, and I can completely concur with them on that. It is a stunner! By first impressions are wholly positive, and I cannot wait to see more.