“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” –Mark Jenkins

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Day 114 – 26th August, Wednesday. Makarska South through Bosnia!

We decided to head off today and find another coastal camping area to do yet more snorkelling since the water is so calm and crystal without a strand of seaweed in sight. We consulted the map and discovered that there is a stretch of Bosnian road to go through before we get to Dubrovnik, where we hope to board a ferry to Igoumenitsa in Greece. Fingers crossed we have all the necessary paperwork to get us through the border and out the other side.

Day 113 – 25th August, Tuesday. Makarska.

Snorkelled pretty much all day from the beach. Plenty of sea urchins, small stripy fish, sea cucumbers and algae eaters.

Day 112 – 24th August, Monday. Biograd to Makarska.

We had to be out of the campsite early so spent the day driving from Biograd to Makarska via the Krka River (another national park), the Split ferry terminal (where the info desk told us no available ferries until Saturday) and the Cettina River near Kucice (where we toyed with the idea of going rafting but couldn’t find the booking office!). Eventually settled at a campsite on the beach south of Matarksa - shattered.

Day 111 – 23rd August, Sunday. Boat trip to the Kornati Islands.

We boarded the ‘Argonaut’ at 8:30am. The tourist guy who had sold us the trip told us breakfast would be included, so I was eager to get going and get fed, particularly as Ant had already had his breakfast before we left. We were set to travel around 300 or so islands, including those of the Kornati National Park, stopping twice throughout the day for free time to swim, snorkel and walk etc. We set off about 20 minutes later and cruised south down the coast to the sounds of tinkling Croatian music from the Captain’s speakers. Breakfast arrived in the form of a huge doorstep cheese and ham sandwich, but not before we were given a biscuit and a small shot of a homemade alcoholic appetiser (yes, for breakfast!!!!). It smelt like pure alcohol and reminded me of a time in Peru when I had collapsed due to altitude sickness and woke to the tour guide slapping neat alcohol on my face… so I decided to dunk the biscuit in and try it rather than take a sip. I’m glad I did, I think it stripped a couple of layers from my tongue and the inside of my mouth. Thankfully it had evaporated into vapours before it reached my throat.
Lunch was cooked on board; fried fish and pork with cabbage salad (we think), red wine, white wine and water. Simple, but very nice. Not an expensive day out (about £45 for the two of us, all food and wine included), but a long day and much of it spent on the boat looking out at the islands (which although beautiful and occasionally dotted with naked people, they do all look very similar after a while). Many other faster boats passed us and I guess they had longer at each stop than we did, but all in all a worthwhile trip.

Day 110 – 22nd August, Saturday. Biograd, Croatia.

We moved to another campsite in the town of Biograd so that we could walk to the dock to catch the boat trip in the morning. We figured Bee would be safer in a campsite than in a car park on the seafront; although theft doesn’t seem to be a problem here in Croatia at all. I spent the afternoon on a very crowded beach whilst Ant took the wiser, and less stressful, move of sitting by the van in the shade.

Day 109 – 21st August, Friday. Vranska Jezera National Park (Lake).

The lake is a beautiful bird sanctuary, 2-5metres deep and totally calm. Boats are for hire at 150 kuna per day (~£18) However, it is not nearly as clear as the sea or the Plitvicka lakes and is more of a green colour than the turquoise we have seen elsewhere. So the snorkelling gear remains untested.

We have booked ourselves on a boat trip around the islands of the Kornati National Park for Sunday and have been told the water is the clearest of any along Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

Day 108 – 20th August, Thursday - Biograd.

Packed up to leave, pleased that the Slovenian map had at last found a useful purpose for us but then discovered that sap had also dripped all over the windscreen and driver’s side mirror. Grrr.

We stopped at the Biograd tourist office on the way to the lake to get snorkelling gear and some details of the Boar riding we had seen in our Croatian National Parks guidebook. I had visions of us sitting, giggling atop a khaki inflatable raft being pulled round the outer shallows of the Vranska lake by a team of harnessed snorting boars. Ridiculous I know, but I couldn’t quite picture a child, let alone an adult, sat astride a wild boar (which, let’s face it, aren’t huge creatures) holding onto miniature reins and trotting through the wetlands. Given the blank look, followed by the poorly hidden smirk from the woman in the tourist office, I am going to assume that it was a most unfortunate guidebook translation error and should have read ‘Boat Riding’.

Slightly despondent, I spent the rest of the day at the Lake campsite repeating my reading mistake.

Day 107 – 19th August, Wednesday – Starigrad (Zadar Region)

Spent the day on the beach reading Khaled Hosseini’s second book, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’; must learn to pace myself, I read his first book in two sittings and fear I will repeat the mistake with this one.

Also discovered the reason why our pitch was the last one available, when we looked up and noticed sticky sap from the fir tree dripping onto the canvas roof and running down the van. Not good. Ant cleaned it all off and Gaffa-taped the redundant (and hideously over-priced) map of Slovenia over the area to protect it until morning – all observed with some amusement by the German guy opposite us.
We decided to head next for the Vranska Jezera NP (huge flat lake – good for birding, swimming and apparently boar riding which we were intrigued by).

Day 106 – 18th August, Tuesday – Lakes to Starigrad

We left around 11am as soon as the washing was done and drove through the mountains to the coast opposite the Mars-like, treeless island of Pag (famous, apparently, for its salty cheese made from the milk of herb-fed sheep). Then headed South to Starigrad where we stocked up; the only fruit and veg that seem to be in abundance at the moment are anaemic (but very tasty), green peppers and huge salad tomatoes. We found a campsite and took the only available pitch some 20 yards from the water’s edge before heading into town to watch the sunset with a beer. As usual, one beer turned into four or five and we tottered back after midnight – starving.

Day 105 – 17th August, Monday – Plitvicka Lakes (Kvarner Region)

Stunning stunning stunning. No wonder it is Croatia’s largest tourist attraction. The place is Eden. A truly magical water-world that man could never re-create. It’s pristine, it’s a land of fairy tales and enchantment. Azure blue pools and ultramarine lagoons – fish as calm and relaxed as I’ve ever seen them – living without the fear of ever being caught. Waterfalls one after the other and moss covered wooden walkways to guide you through the lush jungle that is the Plitvicka Lakes National Park.
Highly recommended – Also saw yet another snake – this time in the water.

Day 104 – 16th August, Sunday – Risnjak to Plitvicka Jezera.

Late-ish last night as Ant and I were engrossed in either guitar tab or spider solitaire (probably shouldn’t have confessed to that) we thought we heard a knock at the door and listened again to check; sure enough a second knock came some moments later. With some reluctance we eventually opened the front door and came face to face with a short Slovenian man. He spoke no English and we had used up our entire Slovene saying hello. By way of hand signals and the odd village name, we managed to deduce that he was lost and trying to get to Delnice to find the Autostrad to Ljubljana. We handed over a tourist map and pointed towards Delnice, smiled, nodded and thanked him in Croatian (I have no idea what we thanked him for, but at least this time we were only one country away with the choice of language!).

The drive south through the mountains to Plitvicka was beautiful; simple houses, simple lifestyle and only the occasional house still showing evidence of the recent wars. Many of the houses were not rendered and there were quite a few left to ruin with trees growing where kitchens would have been. But all had overflowing baskets of flowers and brightly coloured tubs decorating the porches and balconies.

We arrived mid afternoon at Kamp Borje 13kms south of the lakes just as an Italian ploughed into another car on the main road outside the campsite. We were bound to witness one sooner or later. Incidentally Croatians have a fab driving law which makes it illegal to overtake a convoy of vehicles stuck behind a slow moving truck – perhaps the Italians ought to take a leaf.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Day 103 – 15th August, Saturday – The Risnjak National Park, Croatia.

The park was there but the animals weren’t. Turns out they spend the summer deep in the forest and are not usually visible from the trails. Also the photography safaris that I had seen in the parks brochure only run in the winter months. Gutted.

We went into the park anyway and decided against the 1567m climb to the top of mount Risnjak, but opted for the 4.2km Leska trail instead which was beautiful and almost empty. We saw honey buzzards above us and plenty of bees, but no bears.

Day 102 – 14th August, Friday – The Risnjak National Park, Croatia.

We left the mud-covered campsite at noon and headed inland to the Risnjak mountain forests; home of the Mountain Lynx (‘Ris’ means Lynx in Croatian), the Brown Bear and the Wolf. We arrived mid afternoon (after a slightly desperate search for an open petrol station) and found the national park entrance. It’s not legal to wild-camp in Croatia, and with no campsites in the vicinity, we decided to try one of the village’s apartments for rent and go walking. One of the women working in the restaurant at the park owned one such apartment and it was available for 250 Kuna per night (about £30?). We were given directions (“next village along, third house on the left”) and she called ahead to arrange for her sister to be waiting outside for us when we got there. Luxury. The park will still be there tomorrow.

Day 101 – 13th August, Thursday – Slovenia to Croatia

Sad to leave Slovenia, but was excited to be going to Croatia. We realised as we crossed the border that Croatia isn’t actually part of the EU yet and so has it’s own currency (the Kuna) of which we had none. It did however mean we finally got our passports stamped for the first time on this trip.

Unfortunately we picked a very busy resort on the coast south of Opatija for our first night and then spent the evening in the van sheltering from yet another torrential thunder and lightning storm. Not a great introduction to Croatia.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Day 100 – 12th August, Wednesday – Hiblej Spring and Otlica Window, Slovenia

2 nights in Slovenia and we love it already – it’s beautiful, it’s friendly and it’s calm.
We got going fairly early walking up to see the Hublej Spring and back. The brochure said it was a one hour circular walk taking in the river, the ruins of the old power station, the stone dam and the spring itself which was half way round and had a café next to it for refreshments. We planned to be back by lunchtime in-order to get back on the road in good time.
We got to the spring ok, and yes it was a stunner, as was the river all the way up – plenty of pools and waterfalls. There was a sign pointing up another trail to the Otlisko Okno (Otlica Window) which the tourist office had said was very famous in Slovenia and not to be missed. The sign said one hour, so we decided to give it a go as we were so close. Turns out we weren’t close at all, and it wasn’t the steady one-hour walk through the wood we had hoped. The window was right at the top of the mountain! We made it up eventually and arrived back at the café by 2pm to find it closed…argh. Thankfully the Hublej river is fed by the mountain spring, so there wasn’t a shortage of water available.

We saw a large-ish black/purple snake on the way back too – moving fairly rapidly through the undergrowth in front of us. I think we disturbed it from its cool hiding place in between the rocks.

Day 99 – 11th August, Tuesday– Ajdovscina, Slovenia.

We woke to the French and the Dutch either side of us hanging out their sleeping bags and mats to dry and the small Dutch lad wailing (probably through lack of sleep, poor thing). We ventured into town and back to our friend in the tourist office – we needed internet WIFI access and a shop that sold fold-up bikes. She called the library and confirmed our laptop should work in there and pointed us in the direction of the bike shop. We found only new bikes there and so went to the library where an equally helpful man called his friend who runs a local bike rental business – but with no good news. We spent a good hour or more in the library on the internet (we didn’t win the Italian lottery surprise surprise!) but I was absolutely amazed at their collections of books in so many different languages. I’m pretty sure you won’t find a book in the Haywards Heath library written in Slovene let alone a whole shelf full of both adults and children’s books. I managed to read a short book about Charlie Chaplin, as well as most of one about Bob Geldof whilst Ant was on the laptop.
The storm returned in the evening although not so savage - so we spent it in the van reading and drinking; Ant with his incredibly large can of beer!

Day 98 – 10th August, Monday – Comacchio to Slovenia via Venice.

Last night I had taken the bike back out to the salina to take some sunset shots and on the way back had witnessed an Italian producing a number two by the side of the road!! (they are worse than the Spanish which has surprised us no end)…. so that and the thought of spending another evening trapped in the van avoiding the onslaught of feasting mosquitoes, prompted the decision to get out of Italy and into Slovenia.
We drove miles north and were passing Venice on the way, so we drove across the water bridge to the city itself for a quick stop, but were immediately directed by Italian police to a parking area which was €20 for anything over 30 minutes, so we decided not to stay, but then discovered that it was €3 to get out again!!!! Needless to say we drove straight back over the bridge and out of Italy. The Italians can stick their tourist hotspots – they are not raping us for any more money. (Some campsites are wanting almost €40 a night!)
We crossed into Slovenia mid afternoon and stopped in the first tourist office we could find. A town called Ajdovscina in the Vipava Valley (apologies to the Slovenians, but I cannot reproduce all the squiggly bits on top of the letters with this keyboard). We met a gorgeous young girl in the tourist office who speaks perfect English, (we only knew 3 Slovene words by this point which the man in the border crossing duty free shop had kindly written down for us). She gave us maps, guide books in English and some pointers for driving and camping in Slovenia. We immediately warmed to the place and drove straight to the campsite she recommended. We had settled in and just finished eating moments before an awesome thunder and lightning storm started. It went on for several hours, during which the tents either side of us were battered and soaked and Bee’s roof had to be lowered again.

Day 97 – 9th August, Sunday – Comacchio (Po Delta)

Another beautiful but scorching hot day. The owner of the camper ‘sosta’ lent us a couple of bikes for the day and we cycled out onto the lagoons of the Comacchio Salina in search of Spoonbills and Flamingos. Unfortunately we didn’t see either, but we did see plenty of old fishing ‘Casonas’ still being used and lots of Cormorants, Gulls and Avocets. A very peaceful place and unspoilt by tourism which was good.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Day 96 – 8th August, Saturday – Comacchio (Po Delta)

Headed North East for the coast and reached the Po Delta just south of Comacchio. An amazing salt and fresh water flatlands by the sea. We are at a camper area as opposed to a campsite (much much cheaper, more basic and far friendlier). The area is alongside the Logonovo Canal and backs onto the ‘Salina’ (saltworks) where wildlife and water birds are promised in abundance.

Day 95 – 7th August, Friday – Vicchio

Decided we still hadn’t chilled out enough, so we stayed another night and did absolute bugger all!

Day 94 – 6th August, Thursday – Firenze - Vicchio

The time with Mum and Jon came to an end far too quickly. We had breakfast, checked out, took the bus into town one last time to get Italian lottery tickets (Obscene €115 million jackpot up for grabs) and before long, Bee was loaded up and we were on our way to the airport. We dropped them off mid afternoon and headed straight out of town for the hills. The amount of people, the heat and the expense was getting too much – not to mention the midges and mosquitoes. Grrrrr.
Thankfully we arrived a couple of hours later in a small town called Vicchio on the river with its own swimming pool and a bit of shade to chill out in. We wandered into town for supplies and thanked the fridge profusely for its decision to keep our beer cold for us – the bloody thing has a mind of its own these days.

Day 93 – 5th August, Wednesday – Firenze

Mum and I got up before dawn to climb to the Piazza Michelangelo with the cameras and get a shot of the city with the first rays on it. The climb wasn’t good, but the view was well worth it.
We returned a couple of hours later to wake the guys for breakfast after walking he entire centre of Florence again. Then spent the rest of the morning in a Serial Killer museum! Very creepy and quite disgusting at times; Google ‘Albert Fish’ for a sick way to perk up a Friday afternoon at the office.
The day disappeared into more beer, more wine and a very tasty platter of typical Italian cheese and meats, which were gone before the waiter had a chance to explain what they were – oops.
Aside from the obvious astounding art, history and architecture, Florence now seems to be the place to go for real leather handbags, tacky souvenirs and very expensive beer. I still love it but think that at the height of summer, with so many guided tours on the move through the streets, three days is probably enough time to stay before its’ charm is overshadowed by the heat, the street beggars and the stench of steaming horse crap.

Day 92 – 4th August, Tuesday – Firenze

We decided to visit the Galleria Michelangelo to view an exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s machines, mocked up from his codices drawings. Very impressive and kept us from the heat outside.
We spent most of the day perusing the markets, the sights and the bars of central Florence. Still a beautiful place although many more tourists than I remember from my last visit over a decade ago, and sadly no chance of getting into the Uffizi… the queue of people who already had tickets stretched around the building and looked about five wide.
After an entire days walking, we took advantage of the buffet-style dinner offer at the hotel which was surprisingly nice.

Day 91 – 3rd August Monday – The Grand Hotel Meditteraneo

We woke to the sound of bagpipes and discovered a group of campers eating breakfast outside the café and clapping along to a guy playing a single bagpipe and his mate banging a bongo. The growing crowd were clapping along and very soon a few were hauled up to dance. Very impressive and highly unexpected at nine in the morning!
We met up with Mum and Jon at the Hotel in Florence around lunchtime after putting Bee to bed in the safety of the hotel’s underground car park. As expected, we drank our way through the afternoon catching up on gossip and goings on, before venturing into town for a meal.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Day 90 – 2nd August Sunday – Ant’s in his pants

Spoke too soon. The day started off well… opposite the camping area there was a small area of river deep enough to swim, so a refreshing dip was called for. We then had a fairly lazy morning, but needed to be out of the area as the road was closing for some cyclists to come through. The day also ended well… we arrived safely in Florence at a campsite just on the edge of town with showers, shade and electricity.
The bit in the middle was hot, sticky, itchy, stressful and probably best forgotten.

Day 89 – 1st August Saturday – 3 months living in the van!

We drove and drove, up and down, round and round and eventually found a wonderful place to stop on a tiny river somewhere near Caselo de Linugiana in the mountains. We were the only people there and thankfully the Italian owner also spoke French. We bought a lovely bottle of wine from him and befriended his cat who decided to sleep on our bed in the van for a while. Maybe Italy isn’t so bad after all.

Day 88 – 31st July Friday – Welcome to Italy!

MacLouf wished us well on our journey, wrote a message in French (and Hebrew) on Bee’s roof and we set off for the Alps. We climbed the French side in bright sunshine, stopping at the top for a nice brew, some photos of the grasshoppers and meadow flowers and an oil check, then descended into Italy and a very misty backdrop. We had lunch at the border and continued winding our way through the mountains on roads that got slower and slower until we reached Cuneo and a more main road.
Although we had been driving for hours, we hadn’t really covered many miles, so we decided to press on to the coast at Savona and find somewhere to park up… big mistake. The coast was beachless, built-up and busy. No sooner had we reached it than the Italian police pulled us over at a roadside check point. We produced all the necessary documents and they called through to the international database. Ten minutes later after they had satisfied themselves we had no drugs on board they let us go. It was getting late and we still couldn’t find anywhere suitable to park up, so we had to pay extortionate rates and stay in a campsite where the showers were extra and the pitch was barely big enough to open the van doors. Not a good introduction to Italy.

Day 87 – 30th July – Thursday

I woke about 5:30am and was too cold to get back to sleep. The sun was about to come up, so I got my camera gear together and spent a couple of hours wading around in the river shooting damselflies and frogs. I wandered into town to get fresh bread and on the way back over the bridge, spotted a heron fishing downstream looking stunning in the first morning rays. So I left the bread and my flip-flops on the riverbank and waded in… I stalked that bloody bird for about half a mile up the river before he flew off leaving me with nothing but soggy jeans and a long barefoot walk on pebbles back to my flip-flops.
We got going again after a couple more hours of me trying desperately to get a shot of the blue/green damselfly with its wings open (unsuccessfully I might add). We headed for the Verdon Gorge which Erik had told us was Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon and not to be missed; how right he was. The valley was breathtaking. We stopped for lunch in the bottom of the valley and swam again in the river before heading out of Provence on the eastern side towards the Alps. We found a very cheap campsite on the same river at the foot of the mountains and parked just passed a 1975, canary yellow, bay camper – the only one we had seen for weeks. Ant disappeared to do some washing and I started preparing dinner. I then noticed an oldish man dressed as Jesus approaching the van – slightly panic-stricken I pretended not to see him thinking he was going to start preaching at me. Hoping that he would walk past, I waited inside the van, but he had stopped outside the door and coughed loudly. I knew I had to be polite… I bent my head down to look out towards him and wished I had videoed the event, because Ant would have loved it…
I saw an oldish, round man with white beard, wearing a cream cotton bib with doily-like edging and plenty of beads, a long maroon decorated skirt, leather sandals and one of those small round Jewish hats. He was carrying a white bible and wooden walking stick and standing feet from the river bed. I nervously smiled at him and he lifted his hand and gave me the internationally recognised V-dubbers hand sign!!
He turned out to be the wonderful and very hospitable MacLouf; the owner of the canary yellow combi. He had a look around the van and marvelled at how clean and tidy it was, he said we must go over to see his when he returned and he disappeared off into the woods with his bible.
He took us over to his van a little later and we drank strong lemon liquor and listened as he told us about his van, his family, his religion and the current Jewish fast… he couldn’t eat or drink anything until the next morning.

Day 86 – 29th July – Wednesday

Got going fairly early and headed inland for Provence. We skirted round Marseille on the coast and arrived in the small town of Vinon-Sur-Verdon mid afternoon and parked up along the banks of the river. The water was crystal clear, wide and mostly not very deep. We could see trout swimming about in the depths and a sign that read – only take 5 trout per day please!
We wandered into town for supplies and had a swim in the waterfall area before cooking and sleeping. The temperature was 34 degrees at 7:30pm, but the nights get much much colder here in the highlands.

Day 85 – 28th July – Tuesday

Back on the road, round the coast to the Carmargue region. Beautiful fishing territory, open marshes and lots of canals.
We are currently camped on a farm alongside a canal / river. It’s very hot, but it has given Ant a chance to check the tappets again (we have covered 4,000 miles already!!!) and have another look at the fridge which is now not even working on hook up either. It’s become just a very expensive cupboard now. We bought a 12v plug-in coolbox on Sunday to try and ease the situation, but we don’t think the solar panels generate enough power to support it properly, especially as the split relay is broken and so not charging the leisure battery when we drive. I have gotten used to warm red wine, but arrgh…. how I long for cold milk on my cereal, and hard cheese in my rolls instead of the warm, oily, spreadable mess we have been suffering the last two weeks. Still, just bought a bottle of chilled, home-brewed, white wine from the farm owner for €2 (need something to toast Jakki’s birthday with!), so I’m sure things will seem better in a wee while.

Day 84 – 27th July – Monday

We headed north along the coast towards Sete and drove along a thin stretch of land with the sea on one side and a lake on the other and decided to stop – along with literally hundreds of other mobile homes; they stretched as far as the eye could see down the beach. Unfortunately, the road didn’t quieten down at night, so sleep was a little patchy.

Day 83 – 26th July – Sunday

Very sad to leave the campsite, a very surreal, but fantastic few days (and I was leaving with a hangover – not good).
We left around lunchtime and stopped at a flea market in the morning to peruse a load of French garage clear outs which was interesting to say the least. We headed for Gruisson on the coast where Frank and Sarah (a London couple we met at the Airstream park) had advised is a good place to go to sample the seafood on a quiet stretch of beach. When we got there we are guessing they didn’t go on a Sunday… the place was rammed. Mobile homes, cars, bikes and people everywhere. We continued to Gruisson-Plage where alledgedly some of Betty Blue was filmed, and found the seafood place right at the end of the beach. Unfortunately they only had oysters left which neither of us fancied, so I got some much needed sleep and woke just before sunset in time for dinner.