Monday, 31 October 2011

A Country in Flux

What a great morning- hot shower, wifi, breakfast buffet which included home made yognurt and 'bacon' and eggs then a tour around the citadel, (nice but not amazing). We even bumped into our Dutch fellow overlanders again. I bought stamps, cakes and an Albanian pop cd then we were off.

The unmarked roads took a little guessing but we found our way. Our route took us through Durres, a sea port that was full to the gunnels of tower block after tower block of new, attractively built flats, both in the centre and spreading out along the coast, Many were still under construction and many more just begun. When we got to the more area of Vlore, a resort area it ws just the same. They look like chearfuly painted holiday flats but many looked like occupied year 'round and they were so many that many can't have all been for seasonal use.

Albania seems to me the very oposite to Montenagro- like someone has just handed a very poor farmer a milion dollars and, understandably he goes out and spend it, getting rid of all his old tatty things and wanting to replace it all with shiny new stuff with no consideration as to whether it's a good or sustainable idea. Albania ia a country in a huge time of flux, development and expansion just now. I have no idea how it will look in a few years time- whether all the new facilities will be bustling with tourists and the economy entirely reliant on these visitors or whether many of the things will just have seemed like a good idea at the time. Either way, I worry that there will be very little left of Albanian identity, but we will see.

We found an absolutely gorgeous deserted beach to camp on a wee way south of here. Mountains behind us, sea in front and white grainy sand with large white stones, not unlike 'Davy Jones Locker' in pirates of the Carabian with the addition of small bunkers along the front! We had a fire and played music to the stars.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Three weeks in

We awoke after a cold but comfy enough night to a breakfast of equally the same description- homemade cheeses, suprisingly inedible honey and slightly toasted (or stale?) homemade bread. Then we drove back the glorious way we had come, treated again. to amazing and colourful views with the sun at a different angle. It really does seem to be blue skies that make a great photo!

Back on the tarmac, the other road users were eyebrow raising: a car carrying two full sized soafs on the roof; pony and traps including one that appeared to be racing a horse running alongside it and overtaking cars; cyclists of all ages and in all directions on both sides of the road; tractors; vehicals that look across between a large trolly, a lawn mower and a trike; even a heard of goats being driven towards us on our side of, (had it had road markings), what was probably a duel carriageway. We began to understand why the speed restrictions were all so slow in this country! Apparently the last dictator that ended his rule here about ten years ago decreed that ony party members were allowed cars so on his downfall when everyone started getting them there was not a road system in place to deal with it or the experinced drivers on the road to guide the new ones. Going by the complete lack of agreement between our GPS, road map and reality over the next two days about the roads, the authorities are begining to to catch up but there is still a long way to go.

All along our route new properties were being built- big extravagant ones with the metal spikes left sticking out the roof to provide scope for further expansion, presumably when their purse allowed. The buildings alongside the road just never let up. Whether they were private homes, hotels or places of business, it was hard to tell. There were some really fantastic designs like this ship one.

We arrived at the most reccomended town to visit in Albania, other than the capital,- Berat. It has many Ottoman built homes up in the citadel still in good order and in use. We treated ourselves to a very nice hotel, (which actully cost less than the over priced previous night had) and had lots of hot showers while we were there, washing all our clothes out as well as our bodies. It seemed a fitting indulgence to celebrating three weeks intensively together without annoying each other too much! We had a nice beer in town then, (the out of season curse again), had to return to the hotel for dinner if we wanted anything other than pizza. Alex had offal sausages and I meatballs with a yoghurt sauce, both of which were very tasty.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Autumn Glory

We passed lots of Muslim families coming into Montenagro on the way to the boarder so I got a bit paranoid and put on a headscalf and asked Alex to wear a ring but once we'd made our first sight seeing stop I got rid of these as there was absolutely no need. It was at a ruined castle just outside of Shkoder, added to by every country who had ever occupied the area which was quite a few. It gave far reaching views out over the country ahead of us. We had read about a remote village in the North that had 'family stays' which sounded fun so we headed off there. Shkoder it's self was fairly mental and bustling, the cyclists, frequently on the wrong side of the road being the least of Alex's problems. They hadn't yet tarmaced the road out of the town and when we did reach the tarmac they kept diverting us off it as they were still building bits. There were no road makings yet it was so new. Our journey took us, again, up into the hills and although the road was moderately good for much of the way, as warned, the tarmac gave out about thirty miles before the village and it was a rough and bumpy track from then on. We felt well prepared in our four by four but felt a little over prepared when we passed a wee truck hugely over laided with corn leaves and a number of local buses (minibusess with slightly larger tires on). The views were incredible and I just couldn't stop taking photos- the landforms coupled with the goldern, yellow, orange, terracotta, red and green of all the trees were AMAZING!

When we crested the lip of valley in question my heart fell a bit. There were a lot more houses in the valley than the six or so described and as we decended, the new basic hotel and campsites, (closed for the winter of course) showed that the Lonley Planet's recommendation of the village had been the death of this valley. The main village, when we reached it, was not very preposesing and I was all up for driving on through to find a rough spot but we were accosted by a talkative, English speaking young boy. He said that his family let rooms so we decided to go for it. The rooms were fine. There was a little problem with the generator in the village so the bathrooms, while modern and sparkling did not provide water above luke warm. We stumbled across the village pub and got chatting to a Dutch guy and Estonian girl visiting the villlage. He was living here, working in Tirain so we got some useful tips off him. When we went back to our house for dinner we met an Albanian guy who ws also staying there but usually lived in Manchester now. He was interesting to chat to over dinner but, like the other tourists, he had been walking the surrounding hills all day so went to bed straight after dinner. I felt a little disappointed with this experience- the guide had made it feel like you sat down to eat with the family and socialised with them all night, much like our spontanious experience in Morocco but when I re read it, I realised much of this detail was in my own imagination. It was nice enough, just not especially special although I was very glad we had been lured into this wonderful bit of the countryside and we had more of the amazing views to enjoy tomorrow.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The perfect balance

We blitzed on south down the a faster road which turned out to have just as stunning views as all the others- gorges, mountains, bank after bank of goldern yellow trees and any time the rock impeded on the road's path, a simple little tunnel simply cut through it. We stopped for lunch in Podgorica, the capital, not because we'd heard great things about it but because we were passing anyway and knew we'd find wifi. It is amazingly like any small city in Europe- similar shops, clean, museums, sculptures and so forth. It was even hard to find anything but pizza, (very nice though it was), rather than Montenegran fare to eat.

I reflected as we passed through the country today that Montenegro is an unusually brilliant mix of old and new. When countries emmerge from a time of oppression they understandably want what all the more western countries have already and throw out the baby with the bath water. Here, they have quite sensibly kept everything that works for them- how they farm and stack hay in marvelously stable tall stcks for the winter: how they build their homes and live: the lack of hawkers indicating no desperate reliance on toursim: the way they work. On the other had they've absorbed many things that work for them- modern clothes: the Euro: cars and trucks: Italian cusine: tourism where it makes sense with no glitsy money making schemes to ruin it but useful and instructive infromation boards in different languages, walking guide books and so on. Everone we saw later in the day, out in the vast chestnut wood gathering chestnuts to sell, was in modern dress and using wheelbarrows just as we would do in the UK if we had the sense to still collect this free produce as opposed to ignore those under our feet and go and buy imported ones from the shop. THe best of both worlds woderfully combined.

We planned to get over the Albanian boarder today but wanted to take in the National Park on the shores of the humungous and stunning artificial lake Skadararks which spans the boarder many kilometers in each direction. We picked up a hitcher and after dropping him off at his car which he'd left parked some distance in, discussed that actually we'd be better stopping around here for the night as there were often queues at the boarder. Good thing we did- we were driving around for AGES looking for a spot- a combination of too many villages and not enough wee roads or lay bys on such a narrow road. We even passed our hitcher coming out of his gate in a tiny village which gave all of us an amused supprise but we found a really nice spot in the end and, for once, it was just about warm enough to eat outside and sit a while admiring the stars.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Colour in abundance

We awoke and our sleep site was just as gorgeous. Eventually we dragged ourselves away to continue north to the Durmitor National Park. The roads we were on were new and fast, not the slow ropey ones we expected so we made good time. Zabljak, the largest town was sprouting loads of new houses scattered about the immediate hills and along the larger roads- many still under construction. I assume both these and the high quality of the roads were due to this area being popular with hikers, rafters and skiers, depending upon the season, and they were mostly being built for holiday homes or let.

Alex was hoping to get on a much rated rafting trip- preportedly the best way to see the 1300m gorge carved out by the river Tara. Unfortunately, as has so often been the way on our trip, all the tourist facilities were closed for the winter so we decided to drive to a recomended peak, walk up and see it from above.

It was stunning, truely awasome, again, I really need more words but wow. It really was so high- the peak, unlike a conventional mountian was the tip of a cliff that towered over the not quite vertical decent to the waters below. The shear scale of it all was what makes it so draw dropping and the glorious colours of the autumnal trees were the icing on the cake.

We decided, having a four wheel drive and having seen a local map, to decend to the river. We found the track easily and Alex was brve enough to give over the driving to me for the decent. It was over 1000m as the stone falls but 14km of tight bends on a rough but fairly regularly used road through woods of goldern yellows, rich oranges and flamaing reds. When we finally poped out at the river bank (to find a wooden hotel obviously built as an overnight stay for the multi day rafting trips), the combination of the turquoise waters of the river, the reds, oranges, yellows and greens of the trees, the white of the rock and the black of the peaty soil, well, words fail me.

After taking it all in Alex drove us back up and we left the park, heading on a road the took us past the fairly impressive Tara bridge spanning the gorge and on upstream, following it's course. Being maked as a minor road on our large scale map it looked ideal to find a quiet track off it to camp for the night. We had forgotten of course that being in a gorge the sides are steaply sloping in most places and we were quite away along before we found any such spot. As it was getting dark we made do. There was nothing wrong with the spot , it just wasn't very nice but this probably has more to do with our five star locations of the last two nights than anything else!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Montenegro. Another day, another boarder, another currency, though thankfully back to the Euro. We'd skipped Dubrovnik part two in the end as the campsite used up the last of our Kunas and we didn't want to get more and stocked up at the bakery once w'd crossed over into Montenagro. We stuck to the coast road first, drivng around the stunning Kotorska Bay, an extensive and weird shaped inlet with a coastline of over 45km. The amount of photos I now take every day has got out of hand but it's hard not to!
We got diverted by a sign promising prehistoric cave paintings at one point and got directed up into the hills above the inlet, We never found the paintings but the views were terriffic and we found some old bunkers around the hills, from what era we weren't sure.

We sunk down into the bay again passing through woods that were about fifty percent pommegranite trees, I couldn't resist any longer and popped out to pick a few and very tasty they are too. We emerged in the town of Perast and immediately took in the Venician style buildings the guide says are remiant from the Italian colonisation of the area. When we took a walk around there was less to the town than we expected but I did see someone growing kiwis in their garden. I was amazed- they grow like grapes, I had no idea. I was so excited by them that the owner picked and handed me an armful!

We headed back up into the hills via the twenty five harpin bends that rapidly ascend an almost vertical slope above Kotor. The view gets better and better with each bend until, a little like the Eiffel Tower, the distance just become unreal and the view misty with distance. We headed into Lovcen National Park and up to the tallest peak (1749m) where, at the top, not only stands the mausoleum for Peter II, Montenagro's national hero but, with stairs leadin all th way up from the fairly elevated carpark, the views out across this country are unsuppassed. The white rocky mountians or hills seem to go on forever and look like they should be wild and barren but if you look closer you see many trees and shrubs and villages, homesteads, even a city in amongst. This is because when the threat of the Ottoman empire was closing in all around, the people and monks of Montenagro retreated here and succesfully kept them out, preserving their own culture and customs.
We drove on northwards, out into this strange landscape and found the best camping spot so far- up a bare, stoney hill with a phone mast at the top with an absolutely stunning 300 degree view. Not only may I run out of memory card space for my photos at this rate but I'm raidly running out of fresh vocablurairy to describe just how increadible each new area is!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Heavenly coastal resorts

I awake feeling like we'd missed an oppertunity not going into town last night- five days in Croatia and we'd not met ANY Croations! Motivated, I contacted an Albanian resident via the international internet organisation 'Couch Surfer'. I had joined to meet locals but had been disinclined to restrict our otherwise complete flexibility, maybe once in a while it would be worth it though?

We blasted down the motorway today to make some distance. There was less of a view but plenty of atractive red autumnal bushes still. When the motorway ran out,(we could see a huge stretch under construction), we passed through a big vine and fruit growing area with lots of roadside stalls selling manderins and honey.There were some 'escaped' pommegranite trees growing by the roadside too which I was tempted by but had a memory of them being hard work to eat.

We passed in and then out of Bosnia's 10km stretch of coastline (passport checks and all) which looked gorgeous, with a tantalising turquoise sea sheltered by off shore islands. There was plenty of tourist facilities apparent but just enough to make it appealling, not overwhelming, and so so gorgeous. I'd highly reccomend booking your next beach holiday there!

The rest of the Croation coastline below this is lovely too and there is the old walled city of Dubrovnik which we really enjoyed looking around. Sadly, we only had enough change for one hours parking- I would have liked to spend a bit longer there so we resolved to come back for breakfast. We settled ourselves at a particularly nice campsite just up the road that our fellow overlanders had texted us about to say it was open. Not only were the facilities excellent but it was on a nice small scale with lovely surroundings and an easy path down throuh the village to the beach for a moonlit stroll.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The sea sings to us

Time to head back to the mainland and press on south. THe dark clouds hanging over it in contrast to the bright sun on Rab (see photo) was not very encouraging but they had lifted by the time we arrived. We took the coast road which curved with every bay so it took a long time but enabled us to admire the autumnal red bushes and terracotta roofed villages nestling in the bays.

By the time we reached Zadar it was up to a record 18 degrees C! We paid for an hours parking outside the old city walls and wandered in, managing to catch the last ten minutes of the veg market to replenish our supplies. We also took in the attractive Roman ruins, (like a VERY SMALL Rome Forum) and Zadar's main attraction that had brought us 44km out of our way- the Sea Organ. Not much to look at- about five different flights of large steps laid out next to each other, going down to the sea with a line of about a dozen holes into the stone work above each flight. The holes are pipes that go right down to the level of the sea and everytime a wave slaps at it, a pan pipe like note is produced. All of the five times twelve holes are perfectly tuned so that every note sounds beautiful with each other and the effect is like being gently but clearly serenaded by the sea. I love the long sweeping bench nearby too made of dark wood and white stone.
There is another sculpture too- a huge glass circle at pavement level so you can walk on it with other outlying sattered tiny cicles too. Apparently this charges up with solar and tidal energy in the day and produces a light show throughout the hours of dartkness. I hoped to return later see this and catch some of the evnening energy of the town. This never happened though- we drove about checking out the three camp sites of the city but they were all shut so we ended up at a suprisingly plush international youth hostel. By the time we'd bought some groceries, used the internet and had some dinner and beer, chatting to the other Dutch overlanders also staying there seemed like a much better propersition! They had a landcruiser about four years older than ours, done up beautifully and were heading for the warmth of Turkey for about theree months. We exchanged numbers so we could text details of any open campsites to each other on our shared route!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

And Relax...

Sunday, a day of rest, and didn't we just! Started the day with a wee dip in the gloriously turqoise sea, a few meters from where we were parked up,(not as painful as Scotland but not warm) and after a leisurely breakfast we strolled into town. The tiny medevial town of Rab, with it's four towers, is much praised in guidebooks. It was nice but nothing amazing although there were moments- watching these guys fishing from the town walls, the turquoise sea beneith, the harmonious singing from the church goers behind - if I had been able to strip off one of my three layers it would have been paradise! We shopped around for somewhere cheap for a tasty lunch but they started at £10 a head, (it was noon on an out of season Sunday, not much open), so we grabbed tasty snacks from the bakery and an ice cream (thought of you Grandpa) and settled into a great little cafe with beer, coffee and free wifi. We even stopped for cake at another cafe on the way back.

We spent the late afternoon reading guidebooks and checking maps of the places to come and where to head next. We got a bit of a shock to be reminded how far we still have to go before our Iranian visa starts on Nov 10th- Turkey really is ENORMOUS and will take some getting down with almost no motorways, even if we rush it. We rationalised what we most wanted to see and have put Bosnia on the return trip-it even has ski resorts. We had a read through about skiing in Romania, Slovenia and so forth to work out what we could fit in on the way back and save time missing on the way out. I really didn't expect to feel that we're not going to have enough time only two weeks in but I'm very glad we're not on the Vladivostok-Mongolia-Iran-Europe route we had originally thought about as we'd have no time to relax at all.

Spent a lovely evening singing to the sea while Alex accompanied me on the bass. We were both suprised to find how big our joint repertoire now is. The sunsets in Croatia all seem to be amazing, I couldn't resis including another one.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes,,,,

Woke to sustained dryness if not actual sunshine!
After breakfast and pack up Alex felt he fancied an explore up some more of these ‘minor’ roads. The one we had parked on was marked as such and it was entirely un driveable past about 100m where we had parked up for the night- it was over grown with bushes and grass and had never been tarmaced. We wandered whether this was standard and what the ‘unpaved’ roads on the sat nav were like!
Our conclusion was that the road states were variable and not always related to the sat nav data. We found some really brilliant tracks through some really lovely woodland though and the highlight of my day was suddenly realising I was staring at the back end of a small black bear loping away back up the road. Sadly the curve of the road hid it from Alex before it dived into the bushes and we spent the rest of the track keeping eyes wide open but saw no more.

After this we headed down along the coast in search of petrol. We picked up a nice, elderly hitcher along the way who was very chatty despite our complete mutual guesswork at understanding each other. We then headed to Jablanac to get the ferry over to the much praised Island of Rab (and because I wanted to send my pal Rab a postcard from there!). We were both relived and thrilled to find a campsite just about open there- we’d resigned ourselves that we may have to splash a few days budget on a room. A campsite meant not only showers and dish washing facilities but we could afford to stay there for two nights and get a much desired rest from putting the miles under our feet. We were also excited to find the temperature had risen a little (about 17 degrees C) and hold out hopes for finding warmer sun further south.

We had a little stroll into town to get meat from dinner, a beer in a bar on the way back and a leisurely time reading, writing postcards, cooking and feeding chicken skin to the very cute and fairly hungry wildish campsite kittens. It actually feels like being on holiday for the first time in a while.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Sunset over Croatia

We awoke to dry, if bracing, sunny weather and headed out to the Postojna Caves whose proximity had determined our arrival at this site. It felt a bit silly to go underground now it was dry after our wet walk yesterday but on finding the caves were a balmy 7 degrees C inside (significantly warmer than outside) we didn’t feel so bad after all! They were INCREDIBLE. Just WOW. Really. INCREDIBLE. They put us on an electric train to drive us 2km into the cave network and even this route was covered with more richness of Stalagmites and Stalactites than I’ve ever seen in a dedicated grotto before. By the time that stopped we were 100m underground. The cavern was large and very, very long and COVERED, I mean ABSOLUTELY COVERED in incredible rock formations. I usually blether away to my companion on these occasions but I was spellbound silent for at least the first hour, the tour was about 2hours long- it was THAT big and the tourists only got to see a part of what is there. Just WOW. Photos did little for the immensity of the formations against which any human architectural endeavour just look crude and pathetic. Truly, truly stunning. I’d strongly recommend doing an Images Google search on Postojna Caves.

From here we carried on south through Slovenia towards the Croatian boarder. Seeing this beautiful country cloud free for the first time I really felt we’d not given it a fair chance- there were snow capped peaks rising on the side horizon and glorious wooded hills. At the caves we had picked up a postcard of the Bohinj area we had been at yesterday and that looked gorgeous too, it’s a shame the weather had completely obscured it. Onwards though, crossing into Croatia just north of Rijeka and veering off east down the coast. We contemplated going west to Pula from where we could get the boat across to Venice for the day but it looked like a long and expensive diversion so decided against it. As we investigated one campsite after another we began to get worried- they were all shut for the winter. Eventually we headed up into the hills and found a nice quiet track on which to spend the night. If we need to stay in hotels for the rest of Croatia we won’t be here long so fingers crossed more places will be open in the warmer south. In the meantime our spot and drive to it afforded spectacular views as the sun went down on Croatia and the sea and islands beyond.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Wet and cold, but not unhappy!

It’s all my fault- I had been saying yesterday morning that I’d been missing no proper rain since we’d set off. The rain that started last night didn’t stop and was astoundingly and consistently heavy. We set off for the lovely area of Bohinj and found that the heavy rain was of course heavy snow in the higher areas. We felt very pro in our knobbly tires and four wheel drive mode, with low range gears and snow chains also in hand should we need them and winch at the ready in case someone else was stuck. By the time we descended into our destination valley it was back to rain but we decided, fully water proofed up, to still go on the walk around the WW1 Italian army bunkers and trenches that still remained in the hills of the area. We also planned to take in the picturesque waterfall mentioned just off the route. We didn’t make it to the waterfall- the immense amount of rain had turned the gentle sluggish river into a roaring
maelstrom and higher up it had breached it’s banks and the path. Not to worry though, we saw plenty of small waterfalls spurting every couple of meters over and above the path as the limestone rocks channelled the water magically in and out of mysterious and invisible holes. The climax waterfall for us was down the hundred or so steps we faced to reach the climax viewpoint on our route. We stood, warm but sopping wet, (even on the inside of our waterproofs a little) and laughed and laughed at the fully fledged stream now cascading down the steps. We turned tail and headed for a warm, dry car and lunch!
The precipitation continued and, despite being only between 500-700m high, driving all afternoon the thermometer was stuck firmly at minus two and the water firmly formed as snowflakes. As for the morning journey we averaged 25km per hour. The snow was obviously unusually early- there were still fairly green leaves on the deciduous trees which made them bow and sometimes break onto roads. The fire brigade were out in force in one town affected by two fully fledged trees across the main street and on one bit of road we had to get the local resident out with his chainsaw to (surprisingly rapidly) clear it for us!
We enjoyed the dynamics and excitement of the trip but we were tired and it was dark when we arrived at the at the thankfully open camp site so we cruised into town for dinner. We tried in vain to find a nice, inexpensive local place serving Slovenian food but they were all shut for the season so we trudged into the pizza place everyone had been directing us to and found it buzzing with local people with lots of local twists and specialist side dishes that made it about an 85% Slovenian experience after all!
Photos to follow

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

War and Peace

Started the day using McDonnald’s free internet- I find it very disturbing that I now feel a rush of excitement I never had before whenever I see those golden arches but at least it’s not because I’m eating the food, We then headed for the Slovenian boarder. Just before we hit it, at the top of Wurzen Pass, south of Villach we found a ‘bunker museum’ so decided to investigate. We were greeted in person by the museum’s sole founder and staff member: an intelligent, personable, witty and passionate man who was a fount of knowledge having been the last Station Commander at these bunkers. Since then he had made it to Head of Military Communications in government and managed to gather extra bunkers, (moved and rebuilt here), big guns and equipment that had become surplus to requirements that were also used in the region in the same era as his pet project. He gave a detailed and entertaining talk first about all the instillations on the site (in very good English) then sent us off to explore the site, map in hand. The area was left from the cold war era, created in 1955 and in active service until 2002, ever alert against the threat of soldiers streaming out from the Soviet Union into Europe. Thankfully, it’s strength was never tested- Alex’s assessment is that everyone there would have been ‘toast’ if put to the test- the shelters were very basic, the guns and equipment out of date and despite other precautions like mining and blocking the road through the pass they overlooked they would have done little more than delay an army. It was incredibly sobering to actually walk in the footsteps of such recent soldiers, (mainly emergency volunteers undergoing annual refresher training) and have the free run of the place; walking through bunkers and trenches and climbing up into the tank gun turrets now mounted, tank free on the tops of bunkers all over the site. I found it an incredibly intense and life adding to experience and left, hoping more than ever, never to be involved in any such conflict.

We headed, onwards into Slovenia, distinguished from Austria apparently by the threatening clouds hanging over the mountains. We headed first for the absolutely gorgeous resort of Bled and got to take lots of photos, like this one but found the campsite shut, We had a good look with all the technical gubbins at our disposal (including the wifi of the campsite that had been left on) and found a worryingly high proportion of sites had closed for the winter that week. Thankfully we found one not too far away and on arrival found it to be brilliant- clean, hot showers, great views and a nice, onsite bar where we drank tasty, inexpensive beer while we played Statego which I had brought with us.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A different visual feast

I spent lots of today and yesterday spotting the differences between Switzerland and Austria. Admittedly we’ve not been on such pretty or mountainous roads as yesterday but I’m less excited by Austria which seems to have a higher tree and snow line and is therefore less dramatic and craggy. There also seems to be fewer blossoming geraniums that seemed to spill from every window box, roundabout and pot in Switzerland. Instead though we have more castles; more attention to detail in the buildings themselves with even simple balustrades of balconies being cut to attractive and repeated shapes; miniature bell towers atop many private houses; wonderful living maypoles with the fir tree branches still growing at the top and church spires in a fascinating array of pointy or bulbous shapes, with an obvious ‘Ottoman’ influence.
This is true of the meadows also: there is the slightly bazaar sight of lots of little huts (on grass with no cattle) scattered over every meadow on the mountain, no matter how high up. When we came through on the way from Italy last year we saw people actually cutting the patch of grass adjacent to their hut with hand mowers and scythes. There are no houses near by so they come to tend their tiny patch of mountain specially. I asked my Austrian friend about them when we got back and she said it was to do with subsidies but Dominique or Rodger, if you can shed(!) any more light on this very peculiar scheme of mowing the very mountainside by foot I’d LOVE to hear more! Yo can just see some huts if you look carefully at the meadows in this photo.

Tonight we are parked down another forestry track just near a ski area. We took a little look around the piestes and it’s very odd to see them without the snow on. My highlight of today was buying a pair of really good quality second hand rental skis (new to the shop last year) for just E150, thank-you for helping me with those Grandpa! Not only will they be great for Iran, Bulgaria and Turkey but they’ll be way superior to the rental skis in Scotland that are only replaced every 10 years or so.
I apologise for the ropey lay out of my blog by the way but always in a rush when we're blogging and haven't had time to sit down and work out lay out yet...

Monday, 17 October 2011

A tasty day

So we made it to Austria today. We started the morning (at -5 degrees C- my drying clothes really were stiff as a board), spending the last of our francs at a Bakerie as planned. My bread rolls were lovely- made with a brownish flour and topped with caraway, sunflower and sesame seeds and a sprinkling of salt- must try making that at home. We also shared a tasty sweet bun with a sprinkling of sugar on top, stuffed with a not overly sweet cinnamon-hazelnut paste- delicious! Today I really noticed the beautiful and ornate frescos painted onto sides of many buildings and scraped into the render to reveal the grey beneath the extraordinarily colourful paint, in a way that I’ve never seen before, giving it a slightly three dimensional effect.

We spent much of the day chugging through to Austria via the Nauders boarder. Luckily there are two roads in here as one was blocked by an avalanche; the rivers were churning so I expect our vision of glorious Switzerland is rose tinted by unseasonably warm weather. A little way into Austria we stopped for a delicious lunch of Schnitzel, only the second time we’ve eaten out the whole trip.
We continued into Austria, and eventually found a quiet forestry track up which we parked for the night above Zell am Ziller.
I’ve been meaning to say by the way that sending texts is very cheap and free to receive, unlike calls, so feel free to contact me this way as I’ve not been checking my email that much. Also I've been REALLY loving some fantastic compilations CDs Claire made for us to take, if anyone feels inspired to send us any for the return leg I can give you an address in Iran or of my Edinburgh pals I am meeting out there in mid Nov, if they don't mind!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

I think I’m in love...

I just can’t get over Switzerland. I’ve taken so many photos today that choosing just one to go up is going to be impossible. Every view, every vista just gets better and better and everywhere the pleasant discordant clonking burble of the cow bells. Managed to squeeze in a lovely walk in hot sun with snow patches crunching underfoot.
We were going to head into Austria today as we got out a particular amount of Francs from the cash machine but since we rough camped last night we still have some to use up so we decided to take the southern route past Lichtenstein, having another night in Switzerland, and cross the border tomorrow. I’m so glad we did- it took us over a spectacular pass 3995m high and the trees changed to a mix of evergreen and deciduous on the decent , a much softer feel to the rest of the country.
Sadly we’re in a campsite tonight so I won’t be spending our spare francs on a fancy Swiss meal but should be enough for a few cakes at the Bakerie on the way out the country tomorrow. I have to note here how excellent Alex’s school boy German is, I knew his French was good but his German is all coming back to him too-I’m very impressed especially since I’m so hopeless!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Switzerland takes my breath away

I’ve taken to writing these on the netbook when I get a chance and downloading them onto the net when we find a McDonalds (free wifi!) so as I write this we’re camped in a lay-by about 1000m up in absolute pitch darkness with gob smacking characteristic Swiss views awaiting us in the morning outside. We had a good long drive around all the little roads locally, turning at the dead ends in lots of farms before we settled here, so have taken lots of nice pics of dramatically sloping grass meadows with cute wooden homes and light brown cows roaming all over. I was very excited when we first heard the huge clonking cow bells they all wear- like a discordant burbling brook but now I’m rather glad the coos have either gone in or gone to sleep for the night. May be a good morning alarm call though.

The Jean Tunstil museum was excellent- really inspiring to see his very simple early pieces (thinking I may have a go), through to his far more complex ones for example the F1 racing car pictured here opened out like a transformer that flaps it’s bat like wings and flaps and swivels various other parts when you press the on button on the floor in front. It’s about 13ft high. He was a very interesting guy, much of his attitude made me laugh and despair at the same time at his ill thought through approaches on many levels. You should Google him to find out more.

Friday, 14 October 2011

A walk in the woods

Awoke to glorious sunshine and stunning scenery. Was plenty warm in bed so was surprised to find it was about 5C in the shade even by 11 am when we set off. Spent a while exploring the small forest roads by car and had a lovely wee walk into the incredibly maze like immense spread of forest paths that run over the whole region. Had a lovely surprise encounter with the chocolate box village of Ribaeuville on emerging from the forest and couldn’t resist taking a long walk round, buying postcards and eating my first pretzel (tasty but not hooked).

We decided to camp in a surprisingly attractive and green campsite in the suburbs of Basel so as to be able to go to the Jean Tinguely Museum tomorrow. He is a kinetic sculpture artist who works with scrap and who sounds surprisingly like Edward Bulsky (sp?) of the Sharmanka Gallery, Glasgow though with a more comic outlook than the dark brooding work of the latter that reflects his life behind the Iron Curtain.
New Currency today- almost a novelty for travelling in Europe, a Swiss franc really doesn’t go far though does it? Think I’ll wait until Austria before we go food shopping again.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Close encounters

Next stop Switzerland, or maybe. Decided to have a moving on day on faster roads although did stop to post some mail and investigate a beautiful private castle where they make Champagne. Decided to stop short of Switzerland in the beautiful Ballons des Vosges region. The map suggested beautiful forested hills as far as the eye could see and our surprise encounter with a deer on the road supported this, (well done Alex’s reflexes). We hoped to see this with our own eyes in the morning as the drizzle and mist only allowed about 10m visibility today, lovely campsite with a burbling brook though.

This is an enormous monument to remember the American soldiers that fought and died locally in WW1 that we came across. To give you some idea of scale, Alex is the dot between the most left hand columns.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Today’s plan was Champagne country, in the region of Reims. After a long lie (late train back from Paris last night and 30 mins walk back to campsite), we gently headed off via some food shops. This included a surprisingly challenging quest of buying milk for Alex’s tea. It seems that when the French get hold of milk they turn it into cheese but eventually some was found in the biggest supermarket we’ve yet seen.
Once we’d got onto the Route de Touristique de Champagne we were astounded by the multitude of producers - around a dozen small to large ones in every village and vines as far as the eye could see. We found an excellent wee campsite to stay in attached to the family run Norwack Champagne. An intimate site with an excellent, warm and sparklingly clean shower block with table tennis, table football, barbecue, and sheltered seating indoors and out. We never got around to buying any Champagne in the region in the end because we saw all of Norvack’s kit when we went into pay and three of the other five people staying were English and travelling the region tasting and buying Champagne. They were kind enough to share a couple of their purchases with us...

This it our sleeping set up in the TLC (Toyota Land Cruiser, very snug.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Duck in Paris

Paris was relaxing. It turned out the trains there from L’Isle Adam were less frequent than we hoped and took longer but we arrived at 1pm and had a lovely walk around Montmatre (yes, including the steps up to the cathedral that feature in Amelie) followed by a delicious and slow lunch. Got excited by a whole street FULL of fabric shops but managed to remember I was going to be away for three months and didn’t need any.
Full of good food and French wine we gently drifted to the metro to get into the city centre and although it wasn’t worth paying for entry into any of the more time consuming galleries by this time, I really enjoyed the walk around- very like London but with landmarks refreshingly new to my eyes. I was astounded what an eyesore the Eiffel Tower was by day but we went up around sunset to catch views by day and night and when we got down I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it as now it looked so eye-catching!

View from the first floor. We skipped this humongous queue by walking up instead of the lift- only 2 people in our queue!

I can't resist putting another one in, I took SO MANY photos!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Alex wields his engineering skills

Our first day driving in France went fine, (Alex has driven more miles on the right during the last year than in the UK), although the journey was not without its problems. We realised on route we had mislaid the beam deflectors we had so brilliancy ordered online weeks ago so we made do with the old fashioned method of masking with tape. Alex realised after a while that the netbook and two GPS machines we were running for various GPS reasons off the same cigarette lighter were now running on battery. Thankfully we had looked at the campsite map earlier so we found a suitable and rather nice campsite at L' Isle Adam despite this. When Alex opened up the dashboard we found some soldering on the cigarette lighter wiring had melted but luckily I had bought my gas soldering iron along so we quickly repaired it and decided to only charge the computer while it was off and nothing else is plugged in. We cooked a nice dinner, (after Alex brilliantly fixed the stove which also proved mysteriously but temporarily troublesome), and after this we pleasurably settled down to a G and T and fiddle and bass music practice.

Alex fixing the stove

The great journey begins

Waiting in the ferry queue at Newhaven watching the strong winds with dismay having realised I forgot my accupressure bands, oh well, it's only 4 hours of my life! Had a great curry with my sister's lot last night. Both she and alex tried to persuade me that Paris isn't that great but i'm still keen to go there, probably tomorrow, as i've never been. Just a wee trot up the Eiffel tower and maybe a look at Montmartre. Champagne tasting in it's origin area of Reims is quite tempting too though, I wander if we can do both?

Alex and my sister studying where in the world to go last night

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The night before it all begins

I'm exhausted, we both are, but the TLC is packed, the flat is sparkling and the cat is away on holiday for a week before Eleanor arrives to take over flat and cat. I'm meant to be writing a useful email for her about the flat but I decided to investigate Blogs instead. I tried to create a Facebook Page so I could post little witticisms that even non FB folk could read but it won't let me so I've gone the whole hog on a blog instead. Lets see how well it lasts. Wish I'd taken some pictures of the cat now- how she's been hanging out with either me or Alex all day, even out in the rain while Alex did car stuff while I was out. Poor we thing, still, think she'll be pampered tonight. The car is packed, the Newhaven-Dieppe Ferry booked for 9.30 Monday morning and we're bushed so off to write that email and then to sleep...