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2010: A Year of Two Halves PDF Printable Version E-mail


Newsletter for 2010

Barry and Margaret Williamson

North-east Greece

December 2010

Dear friends

2010: A Year of Two Halves

We have already received a number of annual newsletters from friends and so we thought it time to retaliate. As ever, this email is for travellers: if you are not a traveller it is not for you; if it is not for you, you are not a traveller, but you can look at the pictures.

The two halves of our year were defined by two journeys in two very different vehicles, in our attempts to find, and then escape, the sun. Firstly, between the winter solstice of 2009 and the summer solstice of 2010, we chased the sun south to the edge of the Sahara. Then after the summer solstice of 2010 we headed into the Arctic North. Now, at the winter solstice of 2010, we are on the edge of the Aegean and about to cross the border into Turkey, again travelling south to greet the sun as it turns and begins its journey north.

In summary, the first journey by Sprinter van was 9,000 miles (14,400 km) in 4 months through 17 countries with 13 ferry crossings. The second journey in our Fleetwood Flair motorhome was of 6,300 miles (10,000 km) over 6 months in 19 countries with 6 ferry crossings. So, the total for the year has been 15,300 miles (24,500 km) in 30 different countries, including 19 ferry crossings. To this could be added a not inconsiderable number of miles by bicycle!

Maps below summarise the two journeys and so we will give the briefest of descriptions of the highlights. The very full, indeed daily accounts are available on our website under the relevant countries – all 30 of them!

The Journey of the First Half began a year ago at the Winter Solstice, as we boarded the TransEuropa/LD Lines Ramsgate-Ostend ferry in our newly acquired short wheelbase Mercedes Benz Sprinter van. The Motorhome Medics of Cheltenham, Darren and Martin, had relieved it of its earlier task of carrying reupholstered furniture and helped us to equip it for the road, with extra batteries, an inverter, lights, drawers for storage and strong locks. The van was just the right size (17 ft or 5 metres) to access remote places unsuitable for our motorhome, carrying us, two bicycles, camping and cooking gear and enough food, books, maps and clothing for our purposes.

Snow followed us across northern Europe and through the Swiss Alps into the St Gotthard Tunnel (at 10.5 miles, the world's third longest road tunnel). The promise of blocked roads and traffic chaos around Milan led us to divert into the Swiss-Italian fortress town of Bellinzona for a quiet and snowy Christmas. A cold and expensive journey across Italy led us to Ancona, for New Year's Eve aboard a ferry to the familiar and warmer ground of southern Greece. The Fligos family at Camping Ionion Beach, followed by Spiros at Camping Finikes, each gave us use of an apartment for a relatively small contribution in cash euros as we waited for the sun to edge nearer.

After a ferry back to southern Italy, another short voyage across to Sicily, a catamaran to and from Malta (our first visit), then a ferry from Sicily to Tunis, we finally arrived on the crowded shores of Tunisia, on the doorstep of ancient Carthage. An all too brief journey of 1,800 miles (2,880 km) presented us with a kaleidoscope of experiences stimulating all five senses, and perhaps more. Roman and Ottoman sites; Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries recalling the sacrifice of war; the Island of Jerba; the Ksour of the South; Matmata; the Sahara Desert ; souks and bazaars; the Arab, Berber and Tuareg peoples; the long lonely empty sand-blown roads; police and customs officials at roadside checkpoints, suddenly smiling to find our steering wheel on the 'wrong' side.

We must revisit this fascinating country with more time on our side.

Our return journey north took us back to Italy and Greece, with a day in Corfu, before the long drive through Albania and the former Yugoslavia: Montenegro, The Republic of Srpska, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and through the 5-mile long Karawanken tunnel under the Julian Alps, emerging onto the bright sun-on-snow lit autobahns of Austria, Germany and Belgium.

Back in the UK, we were greeted by our tenantless house in Huddersfield and Margaret's 95-year-old mother in a Care Home near Blackpool. The house problem was solved when we found our sixth house agent in 16 years, Frank Whitworth, who now supervises a house that is home to a happy rent-paying family, safe behind a complete set of new double-glazed PVC windows, a complete rewiring, new guttering, cleaned or new carpets and a full house-wide paint job. As each month passes, we and the HSBC slowly become happier with this investment!

Margaret's mother's problems, ones awaiting us all in their different forms, are not so easily solved. Indeed, they may turn out to be insolvable.

The Journey of the Second Half began as we emerged from these issues, swopped from Sprinter van to Flair motorhome in Cheltenham and sailed from Dover to Dunkirk at the Summer Solstice, courtesy of TransEuropa ferries. Our aim was to follow the edge of the North Sea north, through France and then Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark. In this we succeeded, taking full advantage of the cycling paths these countries provide (the UK should hang its head in shame), particularly in Dutch Zeeland.

Crossing from the top of Denmark to Sweden by ferry from Frederikshavn to Gothenburg, we followed Sweden's Inlandsvagen (Inland Road) up to the Arctic Circle and beyond. A long sweep followed above the Arctic Circle, to the coast of Norway at Alta, to the Bering Sea near the Norwegian-Russian border and down to the Northernmost point in the EU at the top of Finland.

Running south, the aim was now to keep as far east as possible, initially along the Finnish-Russian border including the Easternmost point of the mainland EU. Leaving Finland on the ferry crossing from Helsinki to Tallinn, we journeyed for the third time through the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All of them, but particularly Estonia, are much changed since our first visit in 1999. We added the German death camps near Riga in Latvia and Kaunas in Lithuania to the many sites of mass murder we have visited in north-east Europe.

Eastern Poland, following the border with Belarus and then the Ukraine, gave us further opportunity to explore the lowest pit into which human behaviour can possibly sink: the German-run extermination camps of Sobibor and Belzec. With Treblinka, these 3 camps along the River Bug account for more than 1,700,000 murders: the mechanism was slow asphyxiation by the exhaust of a diesel engine. This total is more than half a million more than that of Auschwitz, which used the faster (more humane?) cyanide gas.

Visiting these places, spending a night at the deserted site of Sobibor in the silent forest, has a fundamental effect on how one sees the nature of the human being. Paul & Sheila Barker, with their extremely effective grasp of the English language, describe leaving the site of yet another atrocity: the individual shooting of 90,000 people on the edge of pits in the Forest of Paneriai near Vilnius in Lithuania.

“This was truly a chilling sight. We were glad to drive away from this dreadful place which had left a searing mark on our recollections: the sheer animal brutality of the creatures who committed these inhuman barbaric acts here at Paneriai defies all civilised comprehension.”

Below Poland, we crossed Slovakia and the north-east corner of Hungary to enter Romania at Oradea. 500 miles of road reminiscent of the curate's egg took us to the Friendship Bridge, still the only bridge along the 300-mile length of the Danube forming the border with Bulgaria. Soon we reached Camping Veliko Tarnovo in northern Bulgaria, a new campsite built and managed by a young English couple, Nick & Nicky Kinson. We had been their first campers in June 2009 and there was much to catch up on, reviewing their progress over those many months.

Our ultimate destination was another English developed and run campsite in south-east Bulgaria, an old favourite, Camping Sakar Hills. The Jeffes family, Martin, Shirley and Matt, are still happily in charge and we found the intrepid motorhoming Wilsons already in temporary residence in their Fleetwood Fiesta. Well represented on our website, Adrian & Brenda had flown to the USA, bought a motorhome, driven it coast to coast and back, imported it into the UK, converted it to LPG and much else, driven it to Greece via Albania and, now, are using it as a base whilst demolishing and rebuilding a property they have bought nearby, above Harmanli. Adrian changed our oil and repaired our broken step. What a splendid couple to know!

We were at Sakar Hills for a month, time enough to meet old friends: Carol & John, Derek & Barbara, Bob, Otanis the Policeman, Kamen the Hairdresser, Stefka the Lady Mayor, Dimou the Shepherd and Georgi, the Man Next Door with a Donkey; and to make new friends: David & Brian and Pastors Gerard & Irene. Sadly, Ruth and her four children had fled back to her native New Zealand after many years of abuse by her alcoholic husband Darryl. Another knave in the expatriate pack is the 50-something Mervyn who Facebook-groomed and allegedly date-raped a 16-year-old schoolgirl.

And so ends a great and varied year. As the third Solstice approaches, we ourselves have migrated before the first snows of the Bulgarian winter, across the nearby border into Greece and south to the Aegean coast, here in Alexandroupolis. Soon we will cross another border, this time into Turkey, to escape the excesses of Christmas, heading south to meet the sun as it turns north, yet again.

May all your Solstices mark a turn in your life, making full use of the variations in the seasons that they bring with the lengthening and shortening of your days. And many of them!

Bons Voyages

Barry and Margaret

Map of the Journey of the First Half by Sprinter 


Map of the Journey of the Second Half by Sprinter


The Final Leg of the Journey of the Second Half


Italian Swiss Alps: Christmas in Bellinzona


Malta: The View of the Grand Harbour from our Hotel Bedroom


Sicily: The Baroque Town of Ragusa


Tunisia: Monastir Fort (where Monty Python's Brian Lived)


Tunisia: Margaret and the Sprinter in the Desert


Tunisia: Ksar at Soltane for Wheat Storage (and Star Wars)


Tunisia: Theatre in the Roman City of Dougga


Tunisia: CWGC Cemetery and Ruined Church at Oued Zarga


Cheltenham: Summer Solstice and Time for a Change


Holland: A Cyclists' Paradise (compare your town!)


Norway: Evening Light on the Arctic Ocean


Finland: Margaret on the Arctic Circle


Poland: The Renaissance City of Zamosc


Hungary: Tokaj where the Bodrog and Tisza Meet and Mingle


Romania: The Village of Carta and the Fagaras Mountains


Romania: The Friendship Bridge over the Danube to Bulgaria