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Greece 2011 (Phil Letts) PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

Greece en Route from Turkey

Phil Letts
July-September 2011

Introduction

Phil's background in travelling goes back many years, when he and wife Lorraine took their children all over Europe, but in tents. When he and Lorraine both retired from teaching, they bought what they call an excellent Peugeot Elddis Sunseeker van 3 years ago. They have had some memorable trips, already putting 40,000 miles on the clock! Being a keen cyclist (especially about cycling the iconic mountain passes of the major Tours), Phil tends to use the van as his operational base.

In this account, Phil describes his motorhome journey to and from Turkey, joined for part of the journey by Lorraine and by one of their children, Anna, who is still working as a teacher. When they returned to the UK, Phil was left free to ride his bicycle up an impressive number of the steep and winding Pyrenean cols, in the tracks of the Tour de France.

This Travel Log is followed by Phil's very useful Reflections on Motorhoming in Turkey, a country he has grown to love.

Phil writes: 

Through Eastern Europe

I knew the journey through Romania and Bulgaria was going to be different as I crossed the border from Szeged, Hungary and saw a road sign warning of donkey carts on the road! Things like that stick in the mind. And there were lots of carts! Takes some getting used to, that does - flying round a corner to find Dobbin, clip-clopping his way home pulling a cart full of melons after a hard day in the fields. Concentrates the mind too! Mind you, there's not so much 'flying' to be done on the Romanian (or Bulgarian) roads I drove. I use the term 'roads' cautiously - some of them are pretty dire, more a string of potholes loosely connected by tarmac! But things are improving with EU money pouring in. So the quality of their roads was something amongst others which stuck in the mind.

This was a 10-day journey taking the 'Balkan' route down to Turkey, where I was due to pick up wife Lorraine and daughter Anna in Istanbul on 24th July. Not the ideal time to be going that way because of the heat but that was the only 'slot' available. I took a fairly predictable route down – Calais-Belgium-Luxembourg-Nurnburg (1st day), Passau, Vienna, Bratislava (2nd day) and into Hungary, by-passing Budapest and finishing up at Szeged (3rd day), from where I crossed the border at Nadlac.

So what else sticks in the mind? Trucks - from Austria onwards the twin-lane motorways became progressively slower, being more choked with lorries, and so slow did it become on my intended Eastward route through to Arad in Romania that I gave up and turned south from Hungary to Timisoara. Roads also became very variable in quality.

And dogs! In both Romania and Bulgaria there seemed to be a lot of stray dogs about - pretty inactive during the heat of the day but very noisy at night, howling, fighting, roaming etc round the campsites. I say 'campsites' but there's not much set up for motorhomes along the route I took. A campsite will often just be a space by the existing dilapidated chalets with a hook-up from a chalet. Sometimes this was as part of a motel. If there is nothing en route, then the TIR truck stops are ok. One I stopped at in Calafat, on the Romanian side of the River Danube border with Bulgaria, was really a scrap metal yard but there was a security guard, who patrolled all night (with his 6 dogs!) and then presented me with a couple of lovely melons in the morning! Actually there was a lovely river beach here alongside the mighty Danube. I hadn't realised how significant the river is as a border for both these countries.

I did find the route I was forced to choose -Timisoara, Drobeta Turnu Severin, Craiova, Calafat (for the Danube ferry crossing from Romania into Bulgaria), Vidin, Montana, Sofia to Rila - was less interesting than maybe the one further East, perhaps because it's mostly pretty flat, intensive farming land. But the World Heritage Monastery at Rila is superb.

I still laugh when I recall the site I stayed on close to Rila - Kop Camping - good name because it really was 'Keystone Kops' stuff. Just a field really with an outdoor kitchen/bathroom, ie a row of all-purpose stone troughs fed directly from the nearby stream plus a cracked mirror hanging over one. But it was the electrics which made it funny. When I asked about hooking up, a very, very old camp-helper staggered with me a long way to a lamp post where there was a right old spaghetti junction of wires hanging down, indicating that I should connect there. Was I surprised after uncoiling miles of cable that there was no power? The old boy went and fetched a very, very large camp-helper who tested all sockets and connections with a very, very small screw driver and demonstrated that their street light WAS working and that my cable wasn't! Ooops! He was right of course and we soon got it sorted -motorhome AND street light both working. (I did wonder what would happen if, once hooked up to the street light, I fused the supply - did that mean the local village went 'dark' and no-one could watch Bulgarian Neighbours!

One thing I shan't forget (or forgive certain publishers for) is the Bulgarian signage being in the Cyrillic alphabet. Now this is ok on the big main routes, where it's also in English, but once off these onto smaller roads and in towns it's just Cyrillic. Having sent away to a well-known publisher for a map of Bulgaria, I was staggered to find no place names on it were in Cyrillic. Ditto the Lonely Planet guide street plans - absolutely useless (which must mean these people never go themselves and try out their own routes). This made exploring places like Plovdiv, before crossing into Turkey, pretty difficult.

I was struck also as I drove through Romania and Bulgaria how few tourists there were this side - no GB plates at all, a few Dutch here and there. And there was a fair bit of evidence of industrial dereliction - remnants of the old Iron Curtain days, I presume. But on to Turkey! It was getting progressively hotter as I made my way down towards Turkey and I couldn't help noticing that most days it was well over 100F inside the van!

Turkey

From Plovdiv I soon travelled the few miles to the Turkish border at Edirne where, after a series of pretty routine admin checks, friendly officials ushered me through. And what a difference as I entered the country! Straight away an air of affluence and sophistication, absent in Bulgaria, impressed me. There, right at the border control, was an attractive and impressive mosque (as there is in every Turkish village) and the red national flag. Here, I thought, is a country not afraid to acclaim its pride in both country and religion. I was also struck, as I drove on an empty, good quality road to Istanbul, by the industriousness of the many people working the land. I was instantly attracted to the Turkish people who are very welcoming: 'Hello, Manchester United, David Beckham, how are you', or something like this, was the sort of greeting often vehicle-to-vehicle in traffic jams. No hassling the tourists either - if they offered something on the street, they always took 'no' for an answer.

Making my way towards Istanbul, I set up 'base-camp' at the excellent Istanbul Mocamp in Selimpasa, which is about 35miles west of the city. I needed a few days to sort the van out, restock and investigate the route to Istanbul's van stop - and to Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asian side where I was due to pick up family members.

The most iconic overnight van-stop I have ever stayed on is the one in Istanbul, just below the Mosque area of Sultanahmet and overlooking the Sea of Marmara. Loved it with all its cacophony of sounds, people coming and going, Calls to Worship all night, roaming dogs, fishermen chatting. But it works for me. There's security, water and a toilet of sorts for £12  a night, but it's great and is right where you need to be for the historic centre. Lots of vans in as well - mostly Italian and French though, no Brits.

With Lorraine and Anna on board a few days later, we headed off to Gallipoli and all routes South! Our route to take in all the 'tourist must-see' places was, I suppose, fairly predictable in this part of Turkey. Gallipoli first, then crossing from European Turkey to the Asian side (from Eceabat to Canakkale), first stop being Troy. Then the Aegean coast and its many attractions: Assos-Pergamon-Ephesus etc. We then headed inland a bit to take in the limestone terraces at Pamukkale and Hierapolis. On down to the coast again to Fethiye for boat trips and beaches, Dalyan for the Lycian Tombs and Saklikent Gorge. All too soon Anna's fortnight with us was over but we had done plenty and she boarded a flight back to UK from Bodrum.

For more detailed information about motorhoming in Turkey, please see the Reflections below and Phil's List of Campsites in Turkey.

Greece

Lorraine and I now headed back up the coast with Greece in mind!

We crossed into Greece at Ipsala and basically headed due West across Northern Greece on the empty but excellent E90, stopping off at Alexandroupoli, Asprovolta (monastery, lagoons), Vergina (Royal Macedonian Tombs) and Meteora for the World Heritage monasteries.

This Northern part of Greece seemed empty, little traffic on the motorways (and certainly no-one taking any toll money at the regular toll booths.) Culture in this part of the world seems to revolve round cafés and beaches but people seemed affluent, well dressed and shops were modern and well stocked. We liked the campsites, which were clean and often right on the beaches with large, shady pitches. We did notice that many of the road signs had graffiti over the English version and off main roads the purely Greek signs made map reading challenging.

Our intention was to cross over to Brindisi, Italy from Igoumenitsa on the west coast of Greece and I'd booked an open-deck night-time motorhome ticket (which meant we could sleep in the van) on the internet. Why I thought that might be a problem when we turned up for the midnight crossing, I don't know but the Endeavour Greek ferry company was efficiency itself and we were soon hooked up with power on a lower deck with all the other vans and cars. Fascinating to see all the trippers up on deck though, putting up their tents and getting down to sleep for the night as though it was a campsite. Even more interesting was watching the dog-owners walking 'Fido' up on the deck, oblivious to all the sleeping forms. Our night's sleep was only disrupted by a car alarm, which went off for a couple of hours.

Italy

And so after a night's sleep in the van we docked at Brindisi, Italy around 7 am and headed up the mainland, with a few days to make Milan from where Lorraine was due to fly back home. But we had enough time to catch some sights, such as the World Heritage Trulli  Beehive Village at Alberobelli and those in Umbria, such as Assisi, Pienza, Perugia and Siena. We loved Umbria, especially where we pitched alongside Lago di Trasemeno at Passignano. Still very hot though at 35-40C but thankfully no mozzies! Lorraine caught her late evening flight back OK and I retired to the car park of The Holiday Inn at the back of Malpensa Airport - somewhere I've overnighted many times owing to a very considerate hotel staff.

France

Then it was 'me time!' Meaning time to cycle some Tour de France climbs in the Pyrenees of Andorra and France without ANY other distractions! So I had a glorious 2 weeks of cycling weather up in the mountains, climbing many of the passes the Tour de France uses before turning for home.

Great trip – 7,914 miles driven, 14 countries visited, and 25 passes cycled!

Reflections on Motorhoming in Turkey

Overall Impression: We liked Turkey and its people, who we found very friendly and welcoming. At no time did we feel uneasy or threatened. On entering the country from Bulgaria I was immediately struck by a society which is both sophisticated and purposeful, with many Turks hard at work in neat, orderly farms. Every scrap of farmable land seems to be under cultivation (Turkey being self-sufficient in food for its 70 million people), with much produce on sale at the roadside. The Turks are proud of their country and the red national flag is very evident everywhere, as is the devotion to Kemal Ataturk, the leader who modernised the country back in the 1920s and 30s - lots of statues feature everywhere.

Attractions/Tourism: The main historical sites - Gallipoli, Troy, Assos, Pergamon, Ephesus - were all pretty impressive and extensive though very crowded, it being August, with only a standard £8/20TL entry fee. The Aegean coast and beaches are stunning. As soon as you get to the package holiday hot-spots – the Kusadasi, Bodrum and Fethiye areas - you're straight into Watneys Red Barrel, Sky TV, pink wobbly flesh and thumping disco territory, but it's easy enough to avoid those and swim with the locals etc. Information centres are difficult to find open and often have nothing in English. People selling stuff always quickly accept a firm 'no thanks' without pestering you.

Climate: Don't go in July/August unless you are good in temperatures of 100F and like fending off mozzies! Or if you do, drive and do stuff early and late, lying up from noon to 6 pm. The locals tend to stay up into the small hours. As you go further south it gets progressively muggier.

Security: We didn't see any aggressive or anti-tourist behaviour, with everyone very pleased to chat, especially at traffic lights (mostly along the lines of: “Hello how are you - David Beckham! Manchester United I like”). There's a fair presence of armed military police - the Jandarma - and regular traffic police pulling motorists in. Maybe the fact that there are few bars/pubs outside the package holiday towns, and very few Moslems drink alcohol, accounts for the amiable atmosphere? The locals also are very family-orientated and spend a lot of time picnicking in shady places.

Religion: Turkey is a secular Islamic society - secular meaning that there is a legal choice about what religious beliefs and practices you follow - but most folk are practising Moslems. There's a beautiful Mosque in every hamlet and the call to prayer is going to be heard at all times of the day and night, whether you like it or not! Many older women wear a headscarf and full-length clothing but rarely the full Burka, though equally most younger women and their men folk are very westernised and enjoy normal beach attire and activities.

Driving/Roads: There's a lot of road building going on – for almost all the 300 miles we travelled down the Aegean coast - as a dual carriageway/motorway is being developed to link the European side and Asian side. So lots of changing lanes and rough surfaces - no big hold-ups though, as traffic is only moderate. Where the surfaces have been done they are good - where not, very variable. There's a good M-way round Izmir, for which you need a charge card for the tolls (£8/20TL) that you swipe at each one, deducting about £1.50 per swipe. Drivers are not aggressive but always toot as they come up on you to overtake on either side (including the hard shoulder)! It's worth noting that during Ramadan, as we found, some driving is pretty erratic as 'semi-faint famished' drivers weave about the roads. Places can be deserted during the day but come alive during most of the night, as people eat in the cool and get over the day's fasting. Diesel (£1.50 litre) is more expensive than UK.

Motorhoming: There are plenty of campsites near the tourist areas but fewer elsewhere. None are set up for motorhomes except for a hook-up. So water/waste routines have to be done by hand. The best ones we found were Mocamps - motels with hook-ups (bit like UK's CL sites) - where there is maybe only room for a couple of vans but often a pool and cheap food on hand. We rarely paid more than £8-12 for 3 adults. As you go south water is not drinkable, so buying it needs to be factored in. Where there is no site, you can usually find a secure 24-hr garage forecourt to stay on after filling up or a TIR site or harbour front