Piccolo to Greece

Piccolo to Greece

Piccolo to Greece

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This trip was organised by GB Privilege and we booked via the Murvi Club – most of the vans were indeed Murvis; we travelled as a convoy of campers in April-May 2014.

Our crossing from Newcastle was shrouded in mist all the way, but still managed a gentle twist of the floor – like the earth moving?  It was enlivened by the 400 teenagers, Belgian and Hungarian apparently, who roamed in packs wearing every form of dress known to man.  Much clearer in IJmuiden, where the captain rotated his vast ship again (first time was in the Tyne): an awesome manoeuvre in a tight space with multitudinous other vessels on all sides.

An effortlessly smooth motorway run all the way to the ridiculously narrow neck of land that connects the clump around Maastricht to the rest of Holland: how on earth did this border become established?  Our site at Echt was minutes off the motorway and consisted of a well-developed rustic village of statics and cabins, some amazingly large and elaborate, but all smart and well kept.  We had the separate touring area to ourselves.  Being just off the road to Germany, we quickly found the border the next day – although none of the place names seemed to match the map … have found backwoods border areas to be curious places before, a definite  feel of “no man’s land.”

Having found the requisite Autobahn, another smooth and effortless trawl east across Germany, whose signposting is close to perfect – leaves no room for hassle.  Our target was Olpe at the head of the Biggesee, one of several inland Sees in this most attractive rolling wooded area.  The campsite was halfway along and high above – so a good view of the lake and its watersports plus a couple of smart vessels trundling up and down.  Although we learned that this area is 400 metres ASL, it was mild and fairly sunny with most trees in leaf and very many in blossom – lovely!  Turned out the the Biggesee had been formed by a large dam which had drowned many villages and parts of towns, farms and roads, most of which had been rebuilt above the new waterline: a major exercise.  It’s now a popular recreational area.

We were able to walk along the lakeside to the village of Sonderen and get a (very new and smart) one-coach railcar along to Olpe: just the sort of branch line Britain lost long ago.  Olpe was a nice clean if some characterless small town, an old castle and church being its main assets.  There was not one spic of litter ANYWHERE, including around the 2 large schools we walked by: Bannockburn Academy is by comparison a sheer disgrace.

This was deep Germany, for Germans – no namby-pamby dual language signs: virtually no non-German plates anywhere and only one (Dutch) van in the campsite.

Then it was south, avoiding all autobahns, along valleys and ridges through fairly rustic villages: all spotlessly clean, and all houses smart and exuding a pride of ownership more of which we could do with.  We arrived at the Rhein and reached Lahnstein where we found the campsite, eventually, perched atop a substantial hill next to the Schloss Lahneck Burg with spectacular views up and down the Rhein and across to another floodlit Schloss.

We had a delightful day meandering down the east bank of the Rhein (actually upstream) watching the endless stream of barges going up and down: they seem much larger than a few years ago.  As do the Viking River Cruisers: lots more cabins to fill, hence the endless TV ads.  We took the ferry (as walkers) across to Boppard for lunch: a lovely little town in the reasonably warm sunshine.  Terrific views of the vineyards that crawl up the precipitous banks of the river (how can they work them?) and of the many ancient Schlossen high up on the valley edge.  Waved at the Lorelei statue, summonings passing ships to their fate from her rock mid-stream.  Overnight at Rudesheim, a town totally sold out to cruise passengers, but they have managed to preserve its ancient character very well.  Campsite on the river bank, perfect position, but with a clutch of possibly Roma or similar, with large plate-less Mercs and upmarket caravans, something fishy there!

From Rudesheim we crossed the river and travelled country roads which wound in due course through the Pfalzerwald forest of deciduous trees: huge, quiet, sunny and lovely, until we wound up behind a large artic which crawled along the narrow roads. Meeting other similar trucks coming the other way was a very tight fit indeed.  And so we found our way to the small town of Dahn where the focus is on hiking and biking: the campsite is set in a wide valley where erosion has sculpted the the sides into towering sandstone walls and columns.  We were doing the town (about 15 minutes walk) when the other 6 vans of our group appeared and there was much waving and shouting.  Our leader, Kevin, had organised a group meal that night so we could get to know each other: the others all seem friendly sensible people – promising.

Off we set in glorious sunshine on our first convoy and I was surprised how well this worked – just follow at a decent distance and the reduction in stress and effort is very worthwhile.  Easier on the autobahn, and more important to take the right exits!  We all got to Luzern campsite, on the banks of its lake, early enough to enjoy a lakeside walk and found a swan on her nest who obligingly stood up to reveal 8 eggs, and a nest of red-headed cootlets.  Alongside, a group of tightrope walkers were practising on ropes slung between trees and it appears this is a regular event and tightrope walkers come from all over to join in.  Interesting to note that the groups from German speaking cantons spoke to groups from French speaking cantons in English as their mutually preferred lingual franca.

We got the bus into Luzern the next day: an old, very well preserved city still with some of its mediaeval walls (walkable) and watchtowers, very solid timeless buildings – and very wealthy.  We noted a style of mature very well dressed lady parading gently, and oozing wealth:  very smart. There are charming old wooden covered bridges across an icy river through the centre.  The tallest watchtower, atop a hill, is actually a fascinating museum of huge ancient mechanical clocks, most of them working.  And numerous boat trips around the lake on offer: delightful, in warm sunshine.

Our next leg was through the most spectacular parts of Switzerland, sunlight glinting off the snow covered peaks, the motorway soaring effortlessly through the most challenging terrain, through the 19km Gottard tunnel into the Ticino area where they speak Italian and across Lago di Lugano. At a motorway stop we compared vehicles with a Pössl camper – they liked our spacious Murvi lounges, and we were impressed by their rear bed which rose effortlessly to the roof during daytime.

The next bit through Italy (and the dreaded Milano ring road, or Tangentiale) was harder going and it was 287 miles before we got to Bologna: too far for one day (but a nice campsite).  On the next day to Ancona on the east coast, via a convenient Lidl, and straight onto the ferry – bigger, newer and smarter than the Newcastle one – AND we got an electrical hookup for the van to keep the fridge going (can’t use gas in the car deck). Van 7 of our group had decided to drop out and had stayed in Luzern but since his passage had been paid for, Kevin managed to negotiate a free dinner (and breakfast) for the rest of us! And very nice it was, against a spectacular sunset.

Our first sight of Greece in the morning was as we docked at Ignomonitsa – and it was grey and wet, alas, and even wetter getting off at Patras, but the sun had reappeared as we reached (on atrocious roads, surrounded by atrocious driving) the campsite at Katos Alissos.

Day 2 was better weather and we piled into a very smart little Mercedes coach and sallied off to the village of Olimpia which is of course the site of the original Olympic Games. They started around 800BC but later came to be named after the village.  Nice if touristy wee town up in the foothills a bit and the site of a much older city dating from around 2500BC when Greece was a power to be reckoned with (all now in ruins).  The original arena (allegedly) survives, where originally the powerful men engaged in physical struggle: the winner got to be leader until the next contest.

Day 3 was off in the other direction in the same mini coach to ride on a narrow gauge cog train up a deep steep twisty gorge to a town at the top. Built originally to haul ore down to the coast, it’s now a tourist service and very scenic it was. The town is famous for having its entire male population aged 13 and over, massacred by the Germans in retribution for an attack by Greek partisans on German troops. There is a very memorable monument at the massacre site above the town, listing the names and ages of all those (around 1000) who were killed. Moving, and chilling.

On the way back in the coach we visited a monastery clinging to a cliff, built half into a cave:  a huge building filled with religious icons and ancient texts but now with only 8 (old) monks: what will become of it? The Greek orthodox church is still very strong but …  We have been amazed at how mountainous Greece is – everywhere, and we have seen snow still on the highest peaks.

The mountains are all covered in olive trees, and in every hamlet each garden has some – along with orange & lemon trees, all laden with fruit, and some grapefruit trees too. We picked oranges off the tree beside the van – fantastic taste!  The campsite sold us (for not much) a bottle of freshly pressed extra virgin grown on the premises.

On my birthday we drove a long way south via Kalamata to Gytheio, and what a drive!  The last 60 miles were among the most spectacular and scenic ever, away up high above the sea, winding through old villages with lovely old buildings, and everywhere carpeted in Alpine flowers of all colours – a real birthday treat.  We were told they would all be burnt brown within weeks. Nice campsite at Gytheio in an olive orchard and on the beach, so we have now paddled in the Aegean sea to add to the others. We have had more sun than initially but the air remains stubbornly cold – disappointingly.

A day off next, to enjoy a special Easter Sunday lunch nearby – what a meal! Very Greek menu, and absolutely delicious – feta, olives superb tomatoes – but they serve helpings twice the size one can eat, so the dogs do well out of it.  The goat was tender and tasty!  This was organised by our leaders, Kevin and Nurcan (pronounced Nurjjan), who are very good indeed at their job.  Turns out they in fact designed this trip after extensive research and doing it all themselves.  We are well pleased with organisation and how they are running things.  The other tour members are generally good company and we’re all (10 of us) getting on fine with each other. 6 vans is a good and manageable number to hang together in a loose and well-spaced out convoy. We go at the end so we can stop often for photography.

Monday took us to Monemvasia, a small walled ancient town on an almost-island accessed by causeway, a survivor from the early centuries. Well looked after old houses piled in a heap on a steep rocky coast; lunch under the vines overlooking the sea.  Greeks seem all to be friendly and helpful: just not so good at getting their act together – everywhere are unfinished buildings, untidy roadsides, generally sloppy look (a bit Western Isles – ish). But a good & relaxing place for a holiday, and the food is superb.

We walked from our beach side campsite into Gytheio town over a headland – upmarket housing area, but even here every house has “hair” – a sprouting of concrete reinforcing rods sticking up, to prove that the building is not actually finished, meaning that no taxes were due! We understand that this convenient fiction has now been terminated – not before time.  Each house also has a shiny silver tank plus several solar panels above the roof, and this is the universal source of hot water. Nice wee town, fresh sardines under a canopy right at the water’s edge, very friendly helpful people. Full of small independent shops such as are now rare at home.

The drive through the mountains and then up the coast to Nafplio was another tough Greek road – steep, tight bends, poor surface, but lovely views out to sea and up to the mountains which are everywhere. Our leader stopped with hazards flashing: a tortoise was crossing the road! Quite a hefty one which we all had a chance to make eye to eye contact with, but it got agitated and we put it down in a safer place. Shortly after, a man herding a vast number of goats along the road.

Dominating the cliff above Nafplio is Palamidi, a massive 7-fort complex of defensive castle with the thickest walls I have seen and amazing views all around, built apparently by the Venetians when they ruled this area in 17xx.  Campsite a couple of miles away at Tolo was across the road from the beach, and a typical holiday resort place, nice and relaxed.

We journeyed from Tolo by coach south and ferried across to the island of Spetse, whose claim to fame is that cars are not allowed. This however applies only to a few streets and actually Vespas and Ape vans roam freely which are probably worse. Again, wee family shops, and they’re struggling against the ubiquitous Chinese imports of tourist goods, but we found a nice ceramic to bring home. Lunch at the fish restaurant opposite the fish market … very fresh!

Another day our coach took us to Athens and the obligatory visit to the Acropolis which sits atop a hill right in the city centre. Very impressive for around 3000 years old. Discovered that the famous Elgin marbles constitute one female statue of the 5 maidens who hold up the roof of a small side-temple, nicked with typical British arrogance by one Lord Elgin. All 5 have been replaced by replicas and the remaining 4 originals are held under cover. Centre of Athens was bright, sunny and upbeat, but again innumerable small specialist shops, each a family business:  there were 5 hardware shops in a row, each with a different type of product: no B&Q here! And a soup kitchen dispensing spaghetti to plenty of people. Nearby, the Changing of the Guard was straight out of the Ministry of Funny Walks.

A quick visit to the famous Epidavros amphitheatre allowed Jackie and Heather (of our group) to demonstrate the amazing acoustics by giving the Skye Boat song laldy – until the po-faced guardian blew her whistle … but we could hear perfectly from near the top.

The very strong family emphasis in Greece encompasses myriad small businesses and recent times have terminated many and left many others in “barely surviving” mode with no possibility of capital investment – but huge reluctance not to hand it on to the next generation (and do they actually want it?). Everywhere are buildings abandoned, vandalised or just empty, half-built and just left. Hard to see where the capital can come from to reinvigorate this country’s economy. There is clearly a substantial market for secondhand vehicles from Western European countries, particularly Germany and Holland as evidenced by the notices inside buses and coaches. Imported used trucks and construction equipment galore line the approach to Athens in yard after yard, and many cars are undoubtedly used and sourced abroad too. This feels more 3rd world than 2nd world.

We called in to gawp at the Corinth Canal which crosses the tiny 6km neck of land preventing the Peloponese peninsula from being an island. Except that that canal DOES make it an island, as it (remarkably) has no locks at all: thus the whole canal is at sea level and is therefore tidal! Not much tidal range around here, admittedly, but still – surely unique. Our destination however was the Semeli Winery, and the route was through (very!) back roads, higher and higher through the vineyards with vistas all around of valleys, mountains and vines, to a shiny new building atop a hill: a wonderfully unlikely place! We camped on the helipad (and why does a winery need a helipad? Because it’s owned by a governor of the Piraeus Bank, which also explains the hefty investment). 60,000 bottles a year apparently and there was a tasting before they fed us, but I didn’t like any of them (Jackie wasn’t much impressed either).

We spoke with the mother of the very competent girl that showed us round the plant, to find that she was a widow from Wrexham with 3 Greek children & some grandchildren:  not a happy lady as Greek society requires that she wear black and have no opportunity for a new life, but feels she cannot go back and leave her family here. Still very conservative here!

The route from the winery down to the sea was as exciting and spectacular as the way up, with the added flavour of a deadly embrace as we tried to pass through a small town with the usual haphazard parking: rather optimistic to take 6 vans this way. Eventually a Greek in a tattered old van had the grace to reverse to break the impasse.

Then back to the mountains via the usual very rough, tight bends and severe gradients to visit the Hosias Loukas monastery – just another of the ancient, beautifully designed and well maintained religious establishments scattered across the endless mountains. Now more of a tourist item, there are still allegedly some resident monks. Destination however was Delfi – yes, the famous Oracle, or site thereof: quite an extensive archaeological dig straggling up the mountain from the current small town. Delfi was about 10km down a spectacularly steep valley, and the campsite was a couple of miles further down the hill, but still high enough to have a fantastic panoramic view down to the sea from a series of semi-natural balconies which had earlier been used for olive trees.

We got the village bus (so described – it turned out to be the National Express equivalent going to Athens, but toured various villages along the way) back up the hill to explore.  The bus that chugged up the hill from Chrisso, the village below us, was a good 20-25 years old, a second hand coach from an Austrian company. The other buses on this route were similarly old second hand coaches from assorted west European countries: that’s how Greece is keeping its basic essential services going. The coach had, surprisingly, a conductor, whose key role became clear when trying to fight its way through the narrow (and only) street of Arachova, a village with vehicles parked all over the place, against a tidal wave of around 30 tour coaches (and a truck plus 2 tankers) coming the other way: the Athens coach had to reverse 3 times to get through and it took 35 minutes to clear about 300 yards of village! Incredibly stupid – oh, and the 2 policemen who eventually turned up just strutted around blowing whistles and making very little difference.

We had a delightful couple of rest days at Delfi (having to face down a pack of 6 wild dogs while walking one day …) and then descended back to the seaside to Itea and drove the coast road (snow-covered mountains across the gulf of Corinth) along to the one crossing that exists. This multi-span suspension bridge was allegedly the longest in the world for a while – around 2.8km (that’ll be 13 Euros, thanks).

On arrival back at our ferry port of Patra, it turned out that, being 1st of May (we hadn’t really noticed), the dockers had gone on strike for the day so the port was closed! When the ferry eventually left it was 4.5 hours late, and this meant we were disembarking 24 hours later (Ancona is further than you think) in the dark, at 10pm ship’s time, although only 9pm Italian time. And it was raining hard: oh dear? Kevin decided (and we all agreed) that we should park up in the docks area as it was too late to reach any campsite, and eventually an acceptable place was found, at the 3rd attempt. And the thunder crashed, the lightning flashed, the rain pelted down … what a night! In the morning the other vans scarpered around 7am (as they had planned, heading up the coast to Venice) so we awoke rather later surrounded by large trucks: very interesting! We had said our fond farewells the previous night (in the rain), and now we were free agents again. We decided just to head for the nearest campsite, about 20km south in a lovely little clifftop town called Sirolo, where we sat out the weather. Discovered from Italian TV that there were serious floods, landslides and general mayhem to the north, and thus resolved to go west instead and explore Umbria & Tuscany.

Trying to get out of Ancona on a small road to Sirolo had me beat – utterly confusing, so for the first time outside Britain we cranked up the Satnav, and Lo! it worked, and delivered us effortlessly to the obscure side street where the small family campsite (with 7 cats) was hidden away. With this success, the next day we dialed up a campsite in Assisi about 100 miles away and off we went, in better weather, on a nice country roads route through the lovely countryside of Umbria and a whole succession of amazing – looking hilltop towns, starting with Recanati (Google it).  No sign of the storm or flooding inland.  About 70 miles in the Satnav advised an unexpected right turn and we set off on a succession of tiny country roads twisting up, down and roundabout, mostly with poor to terrible surfaces: striking views from time to time, but after an hour we finished up but a short distance further along the road we had been on!!  Satnav’s next suggestion we ignored and it humped and mumped but got us to Assisi. Up a tiny steep very narrow road, in fact, to where there had been a campsite, but were now some flash new houses, and a metal gate with no turning point. So, reversing down this lane, round a corner, managed not to hit any of the various obstacles, we sought a local for advice, who pointed us in the direction of another site 2km away, and very nice it was – even providing a minibus shuttle to this ancient and striking town.  At the campsite we watched with awe a family with a 1 and a 3 year old arrive on 2 bikes, with an attached kid-bike and a trailer, and all the panniers you could fit: they unloaded it all, erected a tent, did the washing, cooked the dinner – and in the morning took it all down, packed it away, and cycled off …

Assisi was a bit as if you took the buildings and style of Venice and straggled them down from a hilltop, with a city wall, natch. Dating from Roman times onward, it was exhilarating and fascinating. We lunched on a superb sandwich from the “Slow food shop” and soaked in the historic feel of it all. The Roman amphitheatre at the top of the town was long gone but its oval shape was preserved in the walls of the houses built on its site. Everything was just so OLD!

Next destination, going west, was Siena, because of its reputation as something special. Which it certainly was – more amazing buildings, ancient narrow streets, built on several hilltops – and with about the biggest street market we have e countered anywhere: a bit of retail to balance the culture.  En route from Assisi the main road had about the worst surface for 80 miles of any I have suffered, resulting in a broken bathroom mirror (I was able to tape it up) and a malfunctioning SOG toilet, which we found we could get around by switching the water on and off (don’t ask). Lunch beside Lago Trasimento, a new one to us and a very nice place.

Now in Tuscany (Toscana), the countryside en route to our next target of San Gimignano was absolutely bewitching – as of course is its reputation:  beguiling, fertile and lovely. San G is famous for having numerous mysterious stone towers, and indeed it has: they have no windows or indeed obvious purpose, it is a lovely tourist site atop a hill. At the campsite we lounged and watched bright green lizards doing the same, in the sunshine. The Pössl owner next to us admired our Piccolo’s onboard gas tank, which Pössl apparently refuse to fit – and, he said, are not interested in users’ opinions: what a contrast to Murvi!

North to Lucca the scenery abruptly deteriorated but Lucca town was nice: its city walls were so wide there was a 2-way road (but no traffic, just joggers) round the top.  Again there was the ghost of a Roman amphitheatre – just the oval shaped by shops but some of the original arches had been colonised. Being classed at the campsite as a “small” camper brought home the extent to which European campers have grown in size (and numbers) in the last decade. Then to Pisa and that truly scary (especially if you’re on the top (18 Euros please)) tower: but Lucca was a nicer place.

We had reluctantly abandoned plans to visit the amazing Cinque Terre – just not enough time – or, in fact, energy: but our journey up towards Genoa gave us a taste of the Ligurian coast – it really is fabulous! Eventually found our campsite away up a ridiculously steep and narrow lane, high above the village of Bogliasco. There was a stairway all the way down with amazing views, and the campsite thoughtfully provided a minibus to take us back up again. An allegedly original Roman bridge in the village (it did look the part).

From here on, we were going home, and the first stage was along the mind- boggling Italian Ligurian autostrada, so high up you’re either on a soaring bridge or in a tunnel: this rooftop road winds all through Genova before turning north. Then it was Aosta (disappointing), the Grand St Bernard tunnel (superb galleries in sunshine; the pass was still snowed up), Bern (very cold indeed, and wet), Belfort in the Jura (nice), Luxembourg (always a treat), and back to Holland. Just at the roadside near the campsite in Echt (revisited) we found a quiet memorial to a downed Lancaster bomber, crashed 3-9-42, and its 5 crew, and adjacent to this a field of ridiculous-looking alpacas which made extraordinary noises. Later, lunching in a small town called Uden, randomly chosen, we were halted in our tracks by a war grave, absolutely immaculate, right in the centre: these places are just so sobering. Mr Satnav then gave us an unexpected scenic route involving 2 ferry crossings (Maas and Waal), to Woudenberg, where we found an old preserved Eastbourne Corporation double decker masquerading as a campsite restaurant. Not far from here to the overnight ferry, and home.

It was a great trip! That’s it, until the next adventure…

Campbell Sayers

Stirling, Scotland


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