Sunday, April 25, 2010

Day 22 Greece to Albania

From our campsite, we had an early start, as we estimated about 6 hours of driving to get to our destination in Albania. It was about an hour’s drive to the border, which was in the middle of nowhere up in the hills. On the way, up in the forest, Richard and I are quite sure we saw a wolf on the side of the road eating roadkill... well it could have been a dog, but it didn’t look like any dog we had seen in Greece, and it definitely looked like a wolf to us (the fact that I think wolves are nocturnal has nothing to do with our siting of course)! First we had to exit Greece, which was a slow affair, and a bit of confusion over which piece of documentation we had that actually said we were authorised to drive in Greece. Finally we located what they wanted, and were allowed to cross into no-man’s land before entry into Albania. There were no problems there, but we were disappointed in the very average looking stamp in our passports. As with other places, there seems to be interest in the kids brand new passports, which look quite different to Richard’s and my older variety. They now have a chip inside them, a silver fern on the front, and coloured pages showing all sorts of bits of NZ history.

We didn’t quite know what to expect from Albania, but Richard had read about lots of concrete bunkers everywhere, and that was the first thing we saw once we had crossed the border. They are dome shaped, and made of concrete, and stick out of the ground about a metre. They have a rectangle shaped viewing window on one side, and entry on the other. They must go under the ground a bit. They are sprinkled everywhere, on the flat, on the hills and along the coast. I guess it would cost more to remove them than to leave them where they lie.

The next thing we noticed was all the little sheep/goat herds, which had little enclosures for night time. There were no fences, so whenever they were out, they had a herds person with them. We saw them on the sides of mountains, on the side of the road, in flat pastures.... just wherever there was a bite of grass basically. Their enclosures often seemed to be covered in plastic that looked like baylage wrap (recycled maybe???) There were also lots of donkeys and mules, and a few horses. They all looked like beasts of burden, working hard to earn their living by either carrying the herdsman, carrying loads, or pulling carts, often heavily laden with grass, which was being harvested with a scythe, and loaded by hand onto the cart piled high behind the little donkeys. There were also a number of cows, but mostly not in herds, just one or two, also being tended, or tied up by their horns.

Once we had gotten over being excited by the livestock, it was time to concentrate on the roads. Richard commented early in the piece that the road was really good... that lasted for about 1 hour, until we came to the first town! Potholes are the norm, with quite severe drop off on the sides of the road. The drivers here are not the best, and seem to pass at every opportunity, and come hurtling down the centre of the road with little regard for speed limits or even traffic lights. We are guessing that the towns look after their own roads, while the government looks after the national roads (which seemed to be in a better state). On the mountain roads, there were many slips, and as long as one side of the road was clear, they just seemed to mark it off with rocks round the bottom and leave it there, rather than clear it away quickly. The views were spectacular, as we had some massive climbs above the coastline. At one point, we wanted to get to the local beach, and investigate whether the camping was open. It was listed as a dirt road. I did try to convince Richard that campers aren’t designed to go down these sorts of roads, but no, we went anyway. It was like a dirt/sand track, with large potholes and overhanging trees, quite steep in places, and many parts only suitable for one vehicle, not two side by side. At one point ¾ of the way down, a house had been built ON the road, so the road had been re-routed through a couple of trees, and up over a few bumps, back onto the track again. After much complaining (by me who was driving), we made it to the beach. The beach itself was stunningly beautiful, with brilliant blue water and a stony beach, with nobody for miles. There was a lot of building going on, and the campsite was located, but we couldn’t get the camper to it due to major potholes and mud on the road. So.... it was drive back up the dirt road, round the new house, avoiding trees and potholes (and other cars), until we made it back to the sealed road again. One of the roads we went on was quite well maintained, but literally climbed up the side of an enormous mountain by zigging and zagging in hairy hairpins, which was mostly OK if I didn’t look over the side (I was driving again), but when a truck came the other way it was downright terrifying! Anyway, we made it up in one piece, thankfully, and stopped to enjoy the view from the top. It was many more hours before we finally reached our proposed camping spot, which is out the back of a hotel, amongst pine trees, with a tiny little building housing a squat toilet, outdoor shower (with no surrounds), and a place to plug our power in. At only 12 Euro I guess it will do for the night. On the way we stopped in Vlore (a biggish town), to use the money machine and get some Leke – we think 1 Euro is worth about 100 Leke (well, that is what we are guessing, and I hope we are right, as you cant change Leke outside of Albania.)

We ate dinner tonight at the restaurant where we are staying. The menu meant pretty much nothing to us, but with the help of the waiter, we managed to order... wait for it.... steak, chips and salad!! (Oh and a local beer each!) We all really enjoyed it, as we haven’t had real meat (barring salami and sausages) since we left NZ (except Sarah of course, who still enjoyed the chips and salad).

There is a lot of building going on in Albania – houses, roads (though you wouldn’t think it), etc, and the locals must have seen so much change over the last 15 years. However, to us, it is quite a different place to experience. There are piles of rubble everywhere – meaning rocks, as it is a very rocky place, and nothing looks properly finished. Houses often have one floor built, with columns up and metal reinforcement for the next floor, but look like they have been like that for years (just in case they want to add another floor at some stage I guess). Most have stairways going up the outside at one or both ends. There are also piles of rubbish. Not all over the place, but piled up, and often up mountain roads, you would find piles of rubbish that looked like many dump trucks worth, just tipped over the side of the hill.

Day 21 Meteora

It was to be another big driving day today, but our main mission was to visit Meteora and the monasteries that used to house Monks. We got there by a big 3 hour drive on the motorway, and due to the very light traffic, managed to get the camper up to full speed – about 120km/hr, so covered a lot of distance quite quickly. The GPS paid for itself by alerting us to a 60 km/hr area in the middle of what still seemed to be the motorway, and sure enough, round the corner were a string of police radaring and charging people for going too quickly along this stretch of road! We also saw some evidence of parts of motorways never completed – half built flyovers and bridges, motorways with only one side completed etc, obviously started long ago as there was grass growing over them, and rust on the metal bits etc. I guess they just ran out of money or something.

We reached our destination Meteora, just on lunch time. The enormous rock formations which dwarfed the town were an absolutely incredible site. Perched precariously up the top of one of the tall narrow rocks, was a monastery! Now I was thinking it was a darned long way to walk, when Richard said there is a road that drives up the back of them , right to the top. Right I thought, much better plan than walking up... these things reached to the clouds!!! The road up was a surprisingly easy drive, and near the top, we came across our first of 9 remaining monasteries, all perched on top of tall narrow rock formations (really, they were like something out of a cartoon, but real)! This first one was open, and not many people around, so we decided to visit it. There is a strict dress code, so Sarah and I had to put our skirts on, and Hayden had to change into long pants. I tried not to think of how far down it was, as we walked down to the start of the ascent up the rock to the monastery. There were stone stairs literally carved into the side of the rock, with a stone wall to stop us from falling to our deaths. At the top, just the same size as the top of the rock, was a monastery. It was beautifully restored, and had a cool, calm melancholy feel about it. There were beautiful frescos painted on the walls and in the domes, and I could actually imagine loving living somewhere like that... oh, except for the walk down and up and the way it was just perched atop the hill! We had to take some Grandma photos – you know, the ones were it looks like the kids are ontop of a vertical cliff with miles to the ground... only this time, that is exactly where they were!!! There weren’t any guard rails, so you had to be just a bit careful you didn’t go too close to the edge.

We saw about 6 of the monasteries all together, and every one of them was incredibly balanced on top of a rock, with bridges or steps to get to them. Richard is very keen to come back and explore this area in more detail some time in the future. In the lower rocks, closer to the town, there were signs of people having lived in the caves that pocked the side of the enormous rocks. We were even lucky enough to see some climbers abseiling down a particularly high rock face.

We were loathe to leave this amazing area, but we had to press on as we had another 3 hours of driving ahead of us. In the hills it was quite common to see small herds of goats and/or sheep grazing the hillside, being tended by a goad herd boy (there were no fences). The animals seemed particularly well trained, and didn’t want to run all over the roads or motorways, as I know very well our NZ sheep and goats would want to do! I guess it is just part of their daily routine.

We got up to nearly snow level before we started dropping down to sea level again. The scenery has been nothing short of spectacular! Once we got lower, there were a whole lot of fruit stalls on the side of the road, selling a wide range of produce. Finally we reached our destination – Ionina – a town where we are camping next to a lake. We have been entertained by some guys waterskiing just out in front of us. Tomorrow we head to Albania – we are about 1 hour south of the border. Richard has the children convinced that the camper will be searched at the border crossing, so much so that they have tidied up their cupboards.... a jolly good thing really!

Day 20 Athens to Delphi

We left the camp by 7.30am to try and miss rush hour traffic in Athens. Luckily, we had an easy route out of the city, and were reasonably quickly on our way to Delphi. It took a couple of hours driving through the hills to get to the wonderful ruins of Delphi – in olden times, many thousands of years ago, an Oracle (sage type wise woman) used to give readings to people, and many a battle was started or not, based on the Gods favouring or not favouring the current visitor to the Oracle. The ruins were on a steep hillside, and much was hard to recognise, but of special significance was the writing engraved on the rock walls, telling legends of the time.

The museum in Delphi was very well laid out, and showed how various artefacts were discovered. The relief work in marble off the temples, the gold from burial chambers, and a very rare bronze charioteer and his horses (well, parts of, like a hoof here and there) – were things that stood out for me. Hayden and Richard were very interested in the bronze helmets from the time, and a huge sphinx, also from one of the temples.

From Delphi, we drove down and down the winding hills, headed for Stilida, on the coast, were we were camping for the night. The day got very hot – up to 27 degrees, and when we arrived at the camping, Sarah and Hayden decided to go for a swim. It was pretty chilly in the water, but the gravelly beach was a nice safe swimming spot. Richard even decided to brave it, but was much slower than the children getting in.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 19 Athens

Athens was to be a long walking day. We caught the bus then Metro in to the Acropolis. I knew Athens was hilly, but looking up from the base to the Parthenon on top, it seemed like a very long way up! As we wandered up the hillside, there were ruins of all varieties to keep us entertained. Every so often there would be another flight of old worn marble steps to climb. Finally, we made it to the top. There were a lot of people milling about, and of course the ever present groups of school kids.

The walk was worth it, because when we got to the top we could see the whole of Athens sprawling out on every side of us. The wind was blowing, which cooled us down nicely, and we listened in on a couple of English speaking tour guides to gain some knowledge of the area. We have no more Rick audio guides left, and we had come to quite enjoy them. The Parthenon is thousands of years old, and has been (is) beautifully restored, with the new white bits of marble filling the gaps contrasting nicely with the age old yellowed original marble. After walking carefully down the steps again, taking photos from every angle, Richard was keen to climb up on a nearby rock, where a cache was hidden. That achieved, we wandered through more ruins further down the hill, and viewed a church and a well in tact Doric Temple. Hayden and Richard walked over for a closer look round, while Sarah and I sat under the shade of a tree, and listened in to an Indian guided group, whose guide was luckily speaking English. There was also an excellent museum on the same grounds, which we wandered through. We are now starting to recognise some of the styles from the different periods of history (from the other museums we have visited).

At the base of the hill, we chanced upon some markets – the shops were fascinating, selling everything from natural sea sponges, to hand crafted things, to flash bicycles! We had lunch at a cafe, and visited even more of the market. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the Athens Archeological Museum, which is meant to be stunning, it was2.58 pm and we were out of luck – it closed at 3 pm! That was a real shame to miss it, so we will have to put it on our list for next time. After a wander through the Botanical Gardens, which seemed to be filled with lots of very weird people, we found our way back to the Metro to begin our journey back to the campsite. There were lots of police around, armed with machine guns etc – Richard said it was because of a bombing in Athens, where one person was killed – I hadn’t even heard that it had happened! The Metro stations are some of the most modern in the world, and they are like museums themselves, with glassed cases filled with pottery, statues, marble and other artifacts. We managed to find our correct train, then catch a bus back to our campsite.

The washing strung round the inside of the camper had managed to dry nicely, so got packed away before a quick dinner, round of Canasta and into bed.

Day 18 Mycene to Athens

Our first stop this morning was Mycene – more ancient ruins – a walled city, with the “Lions Gate” in a wall to enter it by. The lions were remarkably well preserved, and are dated back to 1140BC – one of the best preserved examples from that time. After a wander up the hill, with incredible views over the countryside (a great vantage point to see your enemies coming), we visited the museum also on sight. The pottery was so very fine, and wonderful to look at as it was highly decorated. I was also fascinated by the art – necklaces and beads, statues and figurines of women and bulls mostly. A very worthwhile and well displayed museum. We are by now getting used to the myriads of school children in groups at all these places. Hayden and Sarah were again free entry, so it must be a special thing for students at the moment.

After a few hours drive, we again reached the coast, where the children braved a swim in the Adriatic Sea. The water was a divine blue, and clear as a bell, but it was windy, and the water looked freezing! They stayed in for a good ten minutes, putting on a brave show, but came out realising why there was not another soul swimming on the beach! I imagine that in the summer, you wouldn’t even be able to see the beach for people!

From here we went in search of a`cache in a little hillside village. The GPS really needs to learn how to measure the width of streets, as this was the worst yet. On a steep narrow corner bit, our path was well and truely blocked by a car with no driver. Just before I got out to direct Richard backing back down the hill, a friendly local on her upstairs balcony (no doubt watching in wonder why a camper van was up their little road), gave us a wave and ran inside, coming back out with the phone, where she rang her neighbour across the road and got her to come out and move the car for us (no easy task with no room)!

Up over another very big hill, then we dropped down and down and down to Corinth, where the Corinth canal is. We could see the big freight ships out in the harbour waiting their turn to go through. Apparently this cuts 400 km off the boat trips to go through the man made canal. We drove over the canal, then back again, to look at it – it was very very deep, and only about 26 m wide, and went for just over 6 km. An incredible engineering feat!

I got the honour of driving from there into Athens (oh yes, I was excited – NOT)! Luckily, it was reasonably easy to find the camp ground, even though the stupid GPS took me down one very narrow one way street. I must have had a mean look on my face, because when the cars saw me coming, they quickly got out of the way!

I am not impressed that I had to pay 8 Euro just to wash a load of washing tonight! I have just retrieved it from the dryer (another 4 Euro), and the darned stuff isn’t even dry. Now I have two very unhappy children, because I have set up a washing line across the camper (above their beds) and all the underwear is strung up to dry!

So... its off to bed, as tomorrow we will walk round Athens! I know its going to be hilly, so I am doing my best to not tell my legs that they have to walk up steps and hills again tomorrow!

Day 17 Patras, Olympia, Mycene

Hayden set his alarm for 2 am. Luckily, only he and I heard it, as we didn’t actually dock until 4.30 am – the ferry was quite late for some reason. We had all slept quite well in the camper on the ferry, even with a stop along the way (about midnight), to drop off some trucks, cars and people to another port (including the two other campers on with us). We lined up with the big trucks, for once feeling very small, instead of oversize, and drove off with all the trucks and out the gate, with not so much as a border control. We had decided to drive straight to Olympia, which is exactly what we did. We were actually only about ½ a day behind our schedule, even with the ferry hiccup.

The drive was spectacular, over some very big hills, on some countryish sorts of roads, to get to Olympia. Richard was very pleased that there were no cars (which tells you what sort of roads we were on). There were lots of little churches, and olive groves everywhere. We had to stop at one point to look at some roadkill – which turned out to be an enormous badger. Sarah loved it, and now wants one for a pet (along with all the stray dogs up for adoption at Pompeii!) We arrived quite early at Olympia, which was good, because it was quite hot and humid. Even though the ruins were quite, well, ruined, compared to Pompeii, it was amazing to be there, and imagine what effectively the first Olympic village must have been like (the buildings of course were also about 1000 years older than the Pompeii buildings.) Sarah was the only one of us brave enough to line up for a sprint on the running track. I think Richard might have bribed her with an icecream. They seemed to be just getting started again for the summer season, and lots of areas were sadly still roped off, and men were running round with weed eaters, making sure we could actually see some of the ruins.

More spectular driving (which basically means I had my eyes closed – Richard thought I was sleeping, but really I just didn’t want to see us going over one of the many cliffs!) We were thankful not to have the dreaded tourbuses coming towards us on the tricky, narrow corners... then what do you know.... in the trickiest narrowest corner in the narrowest of streets in a little town, we come across a tour bus!!! We had to back up, and worm our way out of his way, so we could pass. Finally we reached Mycene, and a sleepy little camp ground that was thankfully open (though again, we were the only ones there). The kids and Richard walked just down the road into the town and returned with a miniature bottle of Ouzo which the kids decided they had to have a taste of because it smelled just like black jellybeans. I have my eye on some nice ancient brass Greek horses I keep seeing in the souvenir shops. At least it wouldn’t break bringing it home.

Richard taught the kids how to play canasta tonight, and they have been enjoying it. I was nearly finished Sarah’s book, so hid away to read that instead. No getting out of playing Canasta tomorrow night though!

Day 16 Bari to Patras Ferry

It was a boring morning waiting for the ferry, as we had to be at the port 3 hours before the sailing. Just as we were ordered to drive on, it was discovered we didn’t have the paperwork we needed, so it was a quick zoom back to the ticketing office to get what we needed, and back in line with the trucks. We are parked on the top deck, but under cover, two steps from the edge of the boat, with open railing into the sea. The sea is as flat as flat can be, and I write this as we sit in the camper reading and relaxing, waiting for dinner time. We have a Camping On Board pass which means during the 15 hour ferry crossing we can sleep in our camper, but have access to the rest of the boat when we want to. We can’t, however, cook in the camper. There are toilets and showers available nearby and all together it’s a pretty good setup for us. Lunch was expensive, and I expect dinner will be too, but never mind. Hayden has been banished from the camper as he was going stir crazy in here, and needed to get some exercise and fresh air. I write this as we are on our voyage. Time seems to be going pretty quickly, and its not doing us any harm to be relaxing for a bit, as the pace has been fairly hectic with either driving or sightseeing.

Day 15 Paestum to Bari

We got away early so we could take a look at an ancient Greek Temple in Paestum which dated from 6th century BC – it had a huge Roman wall around it, and was remarkably well preserved for its age. The kids were most interested in the lizards that were running round and disappearing in cracks in the wall, and set about trying to catch one, while Richard and I walked up the road to take a look at the temple. We managed to see what we wanted to without going in, so it was a cheap morning, as we had also beat the parking attendant, so saved ourselves another 5 Euro there.

From Paestum, we were headed to Matera, to visit the Sassi, an ancient town dating back to when people lived in caves. Mel Gibson directed “The Passion of Christ” movie which was filmed there. Some people still live in some of the more inhabitable buildings in this fascinating old town, which seemed to have houses built on houses built on houses, and old cobbled narrow streets and steps. Once we reached the back of the city, we could see the caves up on the hillsides, but sadly did not have enough time to walk up to them as we were due to catch our ferry late that afternoon, but wanted to arrive in plenty of time to sort out transferring our voucher for tickets. While there, we found, literally on the side of the road, some sort of Ferrari convention – car club thing. We all picked out our favourites. Sarah’s was the yellow one, because she thought it was cute. There were 33 of them parked on the street.

We were driving basically from one coast to the other. The changing scenery is interesting (although Richard thinks I don’t see much of it when he is driving – automatic sleep mechanism kicks in!) Maybe I just had my eyes closed because the roads were so scary!

We arrived in Bari in plenty of time, and managed to find the port OK. Unfortunately, when Richard went in to sort out our tickets, we had a hiccup.... our ticket was booked for the day before!!! We had to wait 15 minutes before they could sort out what to do with us. The ferry that night was fully booked, but they managed to get us on one the following day, leaving Bari at lunch time and arriving at Patra in Greece at 2 am in the morning. Fortunately, the shipping company decided not to charge us for the second booking. The only thing to sort out was accommodation for the night.

There were no campgrounds in the close locality, so we had to drive 40 min down the coast to the first camping we thought would be open. No luck. Shut up for the winter! Now we were in the middle of nowhere, with no other options for camping, so we had to camp on the side of the road. I had visions of us being robbed in the middle of the night and hardly slept a wink. I think the place we were parked was some sort of night time meeting place for couples because there were cars coming and going and stopping all night long (even though it was practically a dead end). I looked out a couple of times as I heard cars stopped very close to us... and both times wished I hadn’t! Morning took a long time to come, but at least the other three got a decent sleep. We got out of there at daylight, and moved back up the coast towards Bari have breakfast while watching fishermen head out in their small rowing boats. At least the sea was flat - a good thing for a long ferry crossing.

Day 14 Pompeii and Amalfi Coast

We were staying exactly across the road from Pompeii – a Roman town buried when Mt Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79 AD. It has been excavated (and still is), and is very well preserved as a result. For some unknown reason, instead of 11 Euros each, it was free – a special day maybe? We never did work out why. We had yet another audio guide to follow, which really help our enjoyment and understanding of the places we were visiting, and it gave us an insight into what it must have been like to live in Roman times. Some of the houses were palatial, and still had frescos painted on the walls, and mosaics on the floors. Most of the larger houses had internal courtyards with fountains etc, which had the rooms around them. There was also a public Roman bath area that was very well preserved, with an outdoor gymnasium, massage room, changing rooms and of course baths (like big square marble pools with seats round the edges (like a modern day spa pool). The kids really liked the take out food joints – because many of the houses were small, they often didn’t really have cooking facilities, so locals would go to the bakery or cooking place to buy their meals. The cobbled roads were also very well preserved, and you could see chariot wheel marks, where the chariots had worn away the rocks the roads were made from. The layout of the city, and the way things were done seemed like a very organised sort of society, which I guess is no surprise when we are talking about Romans. There was also a temple there that was over 2000 years old. I am still coming to grips with just how old some of the ruins we have visited are, compared to NZ history.

It was a beautiful day (I even got sunburnt, but thats not hard for me), and that afternoon we headed past Sorrento and along the Amalfi Coast. This road was nothing short of spectacular, but I was quite pleased Richard was driving, as we had many very tight squeezes with buses on corners of cliffs and tunnels. The road winds itself around the tops of cliffs, where houses are clinging to the rocks, seemingly built on nothing at all. As we climbed up and up, with views both up and down the coastline, I alternated between wanting to look and wanting to close my eyes! Sometimes, in tight spots, we had literally less than inches to spare as we inched our way past buses, looking down over the wall to nothingness until the rocks many 100s of metres below. The towns we passed through also meant tight squeezes, past parked cars, motorbikes, and the odd truck. The shops and stalls seemed to be right on the road, and sold all sorts of interesting things, from strings of chillies and garlic, to brightly painted ceramics, to beautifully embroidered clothes. We had seen the beautiful Amalfi coast on a TV travel programme, only from memory I dont think they were doing it in a camper!!

Unfortunately, when we had got ¾ of the way along the coastline, and Richard was getting used to the tight squeezes, and I had got used to the extreme views, a policeman waved us off the road and onto a detour.... there was no arguing with him, and we had to wind our way to the very top of the hills, and ended up just about back in Naples, where we had started from, some hours after we had left. Oh well, I guess we still got to see the scenery.

From there we drove to Paestum which was further along the coast, and worked on finding a camp grounds for the night. Many of the ones here didn’t really look open and ready for the summer season. We parked in one, then decided to move to another, which Sarah thought was even worse than the first one! It was, however, cheap – only 20 Euro, which was less than half the price of some we had been staying at. There was a supermarket just across the road as well, which was helpful. We were the only people staying in the whole camp grounds, which feels really weird. There were lots of semipermanent caravans there, all wrapped up for winter, so i am sure it is a buzzing place in the summer.

Day 13 Drive to Vesuvius

I had my first experience sitting in the back of the camper today first with Sarah, then Hayden. I was trying to type on the computer while we sped along. It was horrible, and made me feel quite carsick watching all the traffic backwards out the window.

We were headed to Naples. On the way, Richard spotted Monte Casino – the site of a major battle in World War Two where apparently many Maori Battalion soldiers lost their lives. The hill was certainly severe, and would have been a great vantage point for the valley. Thankfully, we didn’t drive up there – I could see the road from a distance and it looked steep and windy.

It started to rain before we reached Naples, and continued to do so as we wound our way through the narrow streets. I was shocked by the decrepid state of some of the buildings, and by all the rubbish everywhere. There were some very tight points on the road that gave Richard a few squeezes. The area we drove through looked very poor. The rubbish on the roadside continued right up the hill... we were driving to the top of Mt Vesuvius – a live volcano. The road was steep, as expected, and narrow, as we have come to expect, but it was also quite slippery with the rain on it, so in a few places, the camper struggled to maintain traction. All the way up the hill, amongst the rubbish, were beautiful statues of all sorts of things, just at bends in the road. Finally we reached the top. It was hard to see much, as the weather had not improved. It was about a ½ hour walk to the summit, but given the weather, Sarah and I decided we would stay in the camper. I write this as the boys have gone off to walk to the summit and see the crater. It is much colder up here than it was when we left Rome this morning in tee shirts. (You would expect that – I am not sure how tall Mt Vesuvius is, but we certainly seemed to climb up the hill for a long time.)

Hayden and Richard enjoyed the summit walk, and by the time they got back the rain had stopped and visibility had increased a bit. They said there were souvenir shops every 50 metres or so on the track to the summit!

We made it to our camp site, about 50 m walk from Pompeii, our destination for the morning. This campsite is much cheaper than the last week or so, where we were way over our predicted budget, but the facilities are also poorer, with squat toilets that Sarah is pretty horrified about! We are right next to a train track, and there seem to be quite a few trains, so I hope we sleep OK.

Day 12 Second Day in Rome

Richard was back on deck today. Still not 100% but OK enough to wander round with us. We had an earlier start this time, caught the bus, then Metro right in to the Colloseum, not 20 steps away. The Colloseum was every bit as grand as I had remembered, and we spent some time there listening to yet another audio guide (we are really enjoying them – even the kids). Mostly it is ruins, but at one end, they have restored what the stadium floor would have looked like (wood with sand over the top), and some of the marble seats, it is easier to imagine what the spectacles would have been like in there. It was very noticable that there were much fewer cats there than last time. I don’t like to think what might have happened to them all, but I imagine they probably became quite a problem because of the numbers.
From there we wandered across the road to the Roman Forum, turned on our audio guides again, and got taken on a great tour of these ruins. It must have been a buzzing incredible place in its hayday. I don’t think I have mentioned the hoardes of school kids all over the place, each with an identifying cap on (bright red for one school, bright yellow for another, and one with stars on). All European children under 18 can go to the historical sites for free at the moment, and schools seemed to be taking advantage of it. Anyway, at the Roman Forum, at the place that Julius Caesar is said to have been killed, some of the kids had left postcards to him. One was written in English, and said “Yo Julius, You are a bamph, sorry about Brutus, he is an arsehole”! We don’t know what a bamph is, but the second part was very clear. We wondered whether the teacher actually checked them before they were dropped off at the site! Some of the columns there were 2000 years old – hard to imagine life that long ago.
We had lunch with the pigeons, then walked on to Circus Maximus, where the chariots used to race. There is not much left now except an elliptical grassy area with embankments, and a few ruins in the further distance. It was a short walk from there to an island on the Tiber, where Richard wanted to do a cache. The whole time we were walking, we would hear sirens from police and ambulance. We just couldn’t take seriously the cartoon like sound they made, nor the smart car ambulances that were painted bright yellow and looked like a clown should hop out of them rather than an ambulance officer! We walked through the Jewish Ghetto, then on to the Pantheon. This is an incredibly old, and incredibly beautiful building. Its proportions are mathematically perfect, like a perfect sphere inside a perfect cube. Again, one of the oldest buildings in Rome, it defies its age, and has been beautifully maintained as it was used throughout that time (mostly as an church).
Still walking..... (yes, our poor feet were complaining bitterly by now), we went again to the Trevi Fountain, then tried to find a church Sarah was interested in visiting, but when we got there, it didn’t seem like the one we were looking for – with catacombs. Wearily, we made our way back to the Metro, then bus, and gladly back into the camper. Hayden cooked tea for us, and we fell into our beds.

Day 11 First Day In Rome

Richard woke up not feeling too well at all with that cold, so decided to spend the day in bed in the camper to recover. The kids and I decided we could manage Rome without our navigator and protector, so off we went!

We got an all day pass for the buses and Metro (Underground), and armed with some very good instructions, a map, and the GPS, we caught the bus right in to the Vatican. The first thing we saw was a queue that went for about 3 blocks (not exaggerating), to get into the Sistene Chapel (which you could only visit by going through a whole heap of related museums). We decided we would walk round the corner and try to go to St Peters Basilica first. The queue for that went ¾ of the way round the piazza in front of the church, however it moved quickly, and again we had Ricks audio guide playing on our MP3 players to keep us entertained. First we visited the tombs of all the old popes –fascinating – down in the dungeons it was cool and dark, and befitting the people who lay there.

Finally we made it up into St Peters – it was an incredible building of huge proportions, with lots of gold and decoration, and a massive bronze alter canopy. It was interesting to learn that the statues surrounding the walls were built so that the highest ones were much larger than the lower ones, trying to make the place seem smaller! The floors of these places just amaze me too – lots of marble and mosaic like patterning in all colours imaginable. It is easy to imagine all the great and famous people of history that have walked there. Again, we were blown away with the age of the building. (In fact, I am feeling younger every day!)

Once out of St Peters, we ate a quick lunch (yes... the kids can polish off a whole pizza, then Hayden can even have some of mine), then walked round the corner to try our luck at the Sistene Chapel again – well what do you know – there was NO QUEUE! We have concluded that the best time to see popular stuff might be at lunch time. We walked for what seemed like miles up corridors, down steps, through alleyways etc, looking at increasingly grandly painted rooms and statues, with Sarah asking “is this it?” at every turn, until finally, we reached the Chapel. The audio guide was excellent, and talked us through all the panels on the ceiling and front alter wall, all painted by Michael Angelo. He was truly a great artist, and the Sistene Chapel has been called the greatest art work of all time. The kids really enjoyed it as well, which was lucky for me, because we sat there for quite some time admiring the paintings.

Next on the programme Sarah had planned for us was a visit to the Trevi Fountain. To get there we had to take the Metro, which we negotiated very successfully, even with the language difference. On our way to the fountain, we found the Spanish Steps, and enjoyed the artists working there. The kids got keen and also found a cache for Richard while we were there. My feet were getting pretty tired by this stage, but we managed to press on to the Trevi fountain. It was getting renovated last time I was in Rome, so I was keen to see it in its full glory. It was stunning – the water was very clear, and the horses in the statues were beautiful. There were loads of people there, all enjoying themselves, and throwing a coin into the fountain (backwards) for good luck. The kids also did this, but wouldn’t let on what they had wished for. They tried to do another cache there, but there was a horse (and carriage) tied up to the pipe they wished to search behind, so they had no chance of trying to locate it. We trudged drearily back up the hill to the Metro station, and after a small hiccup where we went the wrong way, we managed to make it to our bus stop and catch the bus the rest of the way to our camp.

Richard was looking a lot better by the time we returned, so heres hoping we can all be together again tomorrow for our second day in Rome.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Day 10 Drive to Rome

We had an early start (lots of driving again), and were out of the camp grounds by 7.30 am. Richard had woken up with a cold, so wasn’t feeling too hot, but managed to drive the first short leg to San Gimiginano (sp?) – a medieval walled village up on a hill top. We got into a spot of bother by squeezing the camper (literally) into a park only for cars, but unfortunately got moved on as soon as the engine stopped. That meant we had to squeeze out again, and go about 2km away to camper van parking. From there we had to get a bus back up the hill. The village was amazing, with little shops all along, and castle like walls and towers on the outside. I managed to find some easter eggs that hang on an easter egg tree (branch), like we had seen all through Germany, but had been unable to find in the shops. Sarah’s eagle eye spotted them in one of the little village shops for me. Hayden was very taken with a roman helmet (very authentic looking full sized replica), but at 200 Euro, he decided against it. I think though that he will end up with something like this or a sword or dagger by the end of the trip. Richard managed to find a couple of caches, so we were all happy.

We caught the bus back to our camper parking. The bus was a mini sized one, and soon we saw why! It hurtled up the hill through the walled village, not slowing for anyone in its path (who were pressed against the walls to keep safe). We all held on tight and enjoyed the ride.

Richard was feeling pretty awful by this time, so I drove the rest of the way to Rome (about 4 hours), but had to stop and have a little rest myself about half way. This time the GPS correctly routed us onto the ringroad around Rome (rather than through the centre) – I was unsure whether Richard was too sick to drive because he had a cold, or because he didn’t want to drive the camper in Rome, after Florence! Luckily for me, the camp ground was easy to find (only a few km from Rome’s centre), and it is a lovely camp ground, with excellent facilities AND FREE WIRELESS INTERNET! So I am busy writing the last few days of my diary so I can catch up with my blog posts.

Day 9 Florence

Our main mission today was to visit the Uffizi art gallery in Florence. We bought our tickets before we left New Zealand, due to its popularity. It was raining, and while we were waiting to enter the gallery, there was an almighty flash of light, then heavy thunder, which echoed around the walls outside the gallery, and the whole line of people jumped! Again, we had some MP3 audio guides Richard had downloaded (they are excellent), which toured us through the gallery. The building itself is beautiful with ornate painted ceilings, and marble busts of famous people at every turn. The paintings and sculptures we saw dated back over 800 years, and were like a live art history lesson. The audio guides explained how olden day painters didn’t paint in perspective, and showed their early attempts at gaining a 3D perspective in their paintings. It was fascinating to trace the changes in the figures, and to see early works of the famous painters – Boticelli and Michael Angelo (some of his work when he was as young as 14 years). I hate to think what the value of the art collection held there is – most of the paintings would in fact be priceless, but must have a value for insurance purposes. It was neat to be able to get up so close to such amazing artworks.

From their we meandered our way around the city, to look at a couple of churches Sarah had earmarked, one of which held the bones of Michael Angelo. These vast buildings are incredible to explore – their size, beauty, stained glass, and marble work of the likes NZ is just too young to compare to.

Sarah gets quite excited about all the markets we come across, and the Florence one was no different. Richard bought me a leather bag for my birthday.

Sarah again cooked dinner for us – pasta and spaghetti (what else in Italy), and we had an early night.

Day 8 Drive to Florence

Sarah and I got up early, to watch Amelia and Emma do their morning chores with the horses, and because Amelia said we could watch Suzie schooling her Grand Prix dressage horse – “Dodo”. She was saddled up – a beautiful (but small) black mare, who Suzie had bought already at that level. It was a privilege to be able to watch them work together. Dodo moved amazingly and could perform all the advanced movements well, the passage and one time canter changes particularly impressive. It will be interesting to see how they do at the world equestrian games in October.

Sadly we had to leave then, as we had another fairly big driving day to Florence. On the way, we visited the leaning tower of Pisa – very leaning indeed! It was a beautiful late sunny afternoon, and lots of people were sitting round on the grass enjoying the sunshine. Its interesting that Pisa was completely different to how I remembered it last time we visited 20 years ago. I am sure nothing had actually changed, just my memory of it.

A while later we reached Florence, and found our camp ground for the night, on the hill overlooking the older part of the city. We didn’t like this camp ground so much – a big trek up the hill for the toilets (and not toilet paper supplied at this camp – lucky we had some with us). The advantage of this particular camp was that it was walking distance into the city, just down the hill and across the river.

Day 7 Drive to Amelia's House

We left Furina early today, as it was a reasonably big drive to my friend Amelia’s house just south of Milan, and because it was my birthday, we decided we wanted to pop into Switzerland for lunch (just to add another country to our list). Richard and I are getting used to the motorways now, and I am getting the hang of not turning off as soon as the GPS gives a direction (checking the distances first). Once we got to the Swiss border, we were ripped off bigtime, having to pay 30 Euro for a toll pass for one year, even though we knew there was cheaper, and were only going to be in the country for an hour or so! There was no budging the non-English speaking border control people, so we coughed up, but bitterly! Things went a bit hazy with the GPS when we were looking for a lunch spot, so Richard pointed to a hill road and said “go up there” – I was driving, and so off we went... up and up the hillside (you know the story – cliff on one side and stone wall on the other..) road narrowed to just camper width, and I started to chicken out... then it was narrower than camper width, so guess what, I was the lucky one who had to back the darned camper down the hill, being careful not to hit the brick wall on one side, nor to drive off the cliff on the other. I made Richard get out to check behind us and direct a bit, and luckily we finally managed to find a (tight) turning spot, and ended up facing the right way down the steep hill again. We ended up stopping for lunch in a carpark, close to a cache that Richard wanted to do (up another fairly narrow winding hill road). It was lucky we had stopped there apparently, because Richard came back from the cache saying that the road narrowed considerably between buildings and the camper definitely wouldn’t have fitted!

So much for Switzerland... we left 30 Euro worse off, and didn’t even see a cuckoo clock!

After that, it was back on the motorway, headed for Milan. As seems to be usual for us, we hit Milan right on 5 pm, so the traffic was very busy. For some unknown reason, the GPS routed us right through the middle of the city. We have come to the conclusion that Italian drivers are really quite mad, especially the ones on motorbikes!! There are no lanes painted on the town roads, yet they are about three lanes wide (give or take a lane depending on how many people are double parked). Richard’s theory was that we are bigger than everyone else so we would just aim for the middle and hope for the best! This theory seemed to work quite well for us, and we made it through unscathed. Richard was most proud of the fact that he actually passed a Lamborghini.

Finally we made it out the other side, and again pushed our way in to lines of traffic, until we arrived in Vairano, where Amelia lives. All we had to go on was a Google Earth waypoint, no phone number, or address. Amelia has been in Italy for 3 years grooming for an Olympic level eventing (and dressage) rider, Emma, another girl we knew from Sarah’s pony club, was also grooming there. Suzie, the rider, has both an eventer and a dressage horse qualified for the world equestrian games in Kentucky later this year – a first for an Italian rider apparently. We got to meet the star horses, examine their saddles and bridles, see the amazing facilities – indoor arena, outdoor arena, show jumps, whole cross country course etc. The horses are stabled most of the time, so looking after them is quite labour intensive. We also got to see inside Suzie’s truck (or lorry), an absolute monster, painted in Italian colours. Inside was room for 4 horses, grooms quarters, leather lounge suite, flat screen TV, push out wall section and push up roof section (to make a bedroom for Suzie) – WOW!.

We went out for dinner that night – to a local Pizzeria, and Amelia had to order for all of us as the waiters only spoke Italian. I had my first taste of truffles (on my pizza), and they were delicious. Kind of like salty mushrooms. Hayden, who is a bottomless pit at the moment (he must be growing, as all he does is eat and sleep at every available opportunity) – couldn’t believe his eyes when we got a whole pizza each, and he was the only one who polished off his whole pizza. We also had wine, and finished off with sorbet, so was a lovely evening out, and Amelia and Emma were very happy to have English speaking companions for a change.

Day 6 Venice

It was a beautiful morning, so we got organised early and caught the 8 am ferry to Venice. Sarah had chosen a campsite right at the waters edge, so it was a short 5 minute walk to the ferry terminal. Travelling by boat is a nice way to get to Venice (there is also a causeway), because we got to see all the waterfront houses, and canals going in between them.
Thankfully, Richard had his GPS, so getting lost was not part of our itinerary, so long as we all stuck together. The houses and history in Venice is very old, so we saw some amazing old buildings, which I am sure would all have stories to tell. Our first destination (with a cache along the way at a Gondola boat builders), was St Marks square, as we were aiming to visit the Basilica when it opened, before the crowds. We meandered our way through little dark alleys filled with houses and shops with crooked walls, the narrowest of which, Sarah could reach each side with her arms outstretched. The buildings would go up for 3 or 4 or more stories. Richard really enjoyed these alleys, as did Hayden, but Sarah and I thought they looked quite dodgy and stunk of urine. There were lots of doors going off them, and I said to Richard (as I was usually tagging along behind), that all they would hear was a squeak from me, look around, and I would be disappeared – dragged through a doorway by some dodgy character never to be seen again!

St Marks square is an impressive sight, though there were far less pigeons there this time than last (albeit 20 years ago). The basilica stood majestically at one end, swathed in golden mosaics, archways and columns made of every colour of marble. Richard had found some free audio guides in MP3 format on the Internet, so we all got our new MP3 players out, and dialled up St Marks Basilica and started listening. It was a great account of the history of the place, and described the incredible mosaics in the domes etc. Apparently St Marks remains were stolen from where they lay, and brought back to Venice by two merchants, hidden in a pork barrel. His bones were stored while the church was built, but then, many many years later when it was completed, they couldn’t remember where they had put his remains! Eventually they located him, and he is buried beneath the main alter. Most of the precious artefacts there had been stolen and looted from other countries over the centuries, so it stored an eclectic selection of goodies. There was a great story about 4 enormous bronze horses that had been stolen off Constantine and whisked away to be displayed at the top of the entrance to St Marks. They were believed to be over 1000 years old. Now there are replicas outside the basilica, and the originals are indoors (which we saw), as they have been damaged by pollution. Incredible! St Mark is believed to be one of the Matthew/Mark/Luke/John writers in the Bible.

From there we did more wandering. Even though Venice is flat, we had to climb and descend an awful lot of stairs – every time we had to cross a canal! I think we walked for about 7 hours, with only a small break for lunch. The shops were fascinating, I was particularly taken with the hand stencilled paper, and glass handled quills, the glass beads/necklaces and the lovely scarves. The kids loved the masks.

The day turned out really hot. We weren’t sure what the temperature was, but we were in tee shirts and I managed to get sunburnt! There were lots and lots of people in Venice, and we would hate to think what it would be like in peak season. We arrived within minutes of a ferry leaving, and enjoyed the short trip back to the mainland and our camp ground.

Day 5 Drive to Venice

Nothing else to call today but a driving day –our destination close to Venice - we took the scenic route over the Brenner pass (including very “scenic” when I took a wrong turn and we ended up on a very narrow winding country road, passing houses mere inches from the camper’s mirrors). The scenery was astounding, and the pictures just don’t do it justice. Our road ran mostly parallel with the motorway – an amazing engineering feat with huge spans of road and bridges crossing over and behind quaint country houses and barns. The two didn’t go together very well, but the advantages of the motorway to the driving public must have been enormous.

We climbed slowly up and up and up, over the Brenner Pass – a low pass through the mountains to Italy. We reached the snow line, and the temperature plummeted to a chilly 5 degrees, before we rejoined the motorway and started our gentle but long decent on the other side. Passing through borders is a breeze (it is more difficult to decipher the toll gates for the motorway)!

Finally we arrived in Fusina, on the coast opposite Venice, where we are camping for the next two nights , and the plan is to catch the earliest ferry across to Venice, and spend the day there exploring (and probably getting lost!)

Day 4 Dachau Concentration Camp

We took a short drive to Dachau to visit the first concentration camp set up in Germany. I was unsure how I would feel about visiting a place where so much misery and death had been bestowed upon fellow man, but it didn’t hold those sorts of feelings for me at all. It was certainly sobering to listen to some recounts from people who were there, and the memorials/sculptures at the site befitted the horrors that had happened there. Many people were taken to Dachau just to put fear into the occupied territories. The concentration camps were publicised. Even though Dachau was used as a work camp, and not for gassing, many thousands of people lost their lives there through illness, torture and hangings. We went into a gas chamber, and the crematorium. It was a beautiful day, and the weather didn’t seem befitting of the place – a grey day would seem to match Dachau much better.

The camper was ready and waiting when we arrived at 3 pm. After a quick trip following each other to drop off the rental back at the airport, we started the long drive to Innsbruck in Austria – about a 2 hour drive on the autobahn – the camper sits comfortably at 110 km/hr, but anything over that felt a bit floaty on the road. It took a bit of getting used to the sucking feeling as trucks/cars went past us, but we soon got the hang of it (or rather I did... Richard took on the role of navigator). The scenery was amazing, with green fields, little villages all white and orange, and majestic mountains in the distance. The motorways are a good fast way to travel, but you lose some of the beauty of the area, and the villages. Just on dark, we arrived at our destination, and wielded our way through the narrow streets of a village (Natter-see) to find our lovely first camp ground. It was on the edge of a lake, with mountains all around. The facilities were also top notch, with flash toilets and showers with heated floors, and music playing all night long. Just like in the RV movie (Sarah’s standard of what to do on campervan holidays) – we parked within inches of the edge of the lake. She had visions of the camper falling in there in the night (like in the movie), and was quite pleased to find we were still on dry land in the morning. It took us a while to set up all of our beds for the first time, and we had to have sandwiches for tea, as we didn’t have a lighter to start the gas stove. We all slept fairly well in our new beds, so are looking forward to the next month in our home away from home.

Day 3 Traunstein Festival

Today was a day I was really excited about – we were headed to Traunstein to see a 500 year old festival which involved 400 horses and local sword dancers as a celebration for the local farmers. Richard had accidentally come across this festival while searching for easter festivals that we might be able to go and see whilst in Bavaria.

We left at 6.30 am to arrive early – it was a 1.5 hour drive on the autobahn. I got accused of being a nana driver, because even when doing 140 km/hr I got passed by the airport shuttle van. I sped up to 160 km/hr (with encouragement from all the passengers), but still got passed like I was standing still – mostly I drove in the “slow” lane at about 130 – 140km/hr. The scariest thing is that you don’t even feel like you are going fast. Our car had a lot more in her, and could have gone much faster again if I had really put my foot down. I think I actually prefer the motorways to the off roads, because although fast, at least you don’t have to worry about crossing intersections and the dreaded roundabouts. I managed to drive right through Munich and out the other side on our journey – which sounds impressive until you realise it was Easter Monday 7 am and actually we were the only car on the road.

Traunstein was a lovely old town (dated back to 1200 AD), with cobbled streets and beautiful old buildings. There were no people about however, and no reference to the festival, and we began to wonder whether we had come on the wrong day. It turned out we were just early, and found some traditionally dressed young men with a basket selling festival badges. There is some connection to St George and the dragon, with lots of reference in the town, but we never quite got an understanding of what the connection is.

The boys sold us a festival badge, and in faltering English, explained that we needed the badges to attend. After about ½ hour, more people started to be milling about, many in traditional dress, and a few four in hand horse teams pulling decorated wagons trotted through the town square, past the church. We saw hardly any tourists – this was an event for the locals, which made it all the more special for us. We found out from the information stand, (though the lady spoke very limited English), that the festival started with the sword dancers in the square, followed by the parade, that went on up the hill to a church, which she took us round the corner to show us.

The square filled to brimming with people, the music started, and in marched the sword dancers with all their extra guards, leaders, and flag bearers. With lots of pomp and ceremony, they performed their unusual and intricate dance moves and patterns with their swords. They wore funny little leather shoes with buckles, and high pieces of leather at the back of the heel. We took lots of photos, so it is easier to look at them, than explain what they were wearing. They were very bright and colourful.

Next, was the highlight for not only Sarah and I, but the whole family, as mostly heavy (and I mean heavy!) horses and riders, wagons, and walkers paraded past us. All were decorated to the maximum with straw and flowers, and all the people were in traditional dress of many varieties. Everybody from granddad to the smallest child seemed to be involved in the parade, and there certainly must have been at least 400 horses. Many of the heavy breeds I have heard of but never seen in the flesh, but they would have made our NZ Clydesdales look positively puny!

After a bit of apple strudel for lunch, we headed back towards Munich, unsure of what we might do next, as it was still early in the day. The kids were keen to go to the Munich Zoo, as they had seen signs for it. It was an enormous zoo, which took us a good three hours to walk round (and even then we didn’t see it all). All the writing about the animals was in German, so a bit hard to decipher, but we did manage to see a NZ kea (listed as Australasian)! We were keen to see the wolf (the first variety of which actually looked like a fox) – because we wanted to know what we were up against in Monte Negro! The interesting thing about this zoo was that they had big indoor and outdoor enclosures, all viewable by the public, so I guess in the winter, you can still see the animals. Most animals had babies with them, though it still seemed very early in the spring. We enjoyed the baby elephant and zebra. Also unusual, was the fact that you could have camel rides. Sarah lined up instantly. These were two humped camels, and you sat on a strip of leather in between the humps. She said it felt nothing like riding a horse. There were also Haflinger rides (type of horse/pony), but was only for under 6 year olds – Sarah was quite put out by this. The bat cave was “interesting” in that the bats were actually flying round with us, trying to get bananas hanging on strings. Needless to say, I didn’t stay in there very long once I realised they were flying with us – mice with wings is even worse than mice that run along the ground as far as I am concerned!