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LOOKING OUT

Occasional Comments on the Passing Scene

Barry and Margaret Williamson
April 2013

Further comments will be added at the top of the page, as and when they occur!

April 2013

Return Delayed: We had planned to return to England by the middle of April. However (our lives are full of 'howevers'), the weather here in eastern Portugal has become so good – warm spring sunshine, light winds, flower-filled fields, blooming roses, birdsong, blossom on the trees – that we have postponed the possibility of return until the end of the month.

Also, digging back into the history of Portugal (back from the Reconquista, the Moors, the Visigoths, the Romans) we have discovered an amazing number and variety of Neolithic Monuments which demand further investigation!

March 2013

Spring in Portugal: If you haven't, please do add Portugal to your list of countries to live in for a while. We haven't been here for 13 years and now wonder why not. Spain has its fascination but it is always overlaid with its absurd burst of affluence and over-building, now all abruptly halted in mid-bricklaying, as if at a single whistle blow. As for the British, German, French and Dutch motorhomes and caravans it attracts, too much has been written about this already. But they gravitate to their enclaves on the coastal fringes, as if propelled by centrifugal forces. We kept away from them by keeping away from the coast, meeting them only on their migrations. The White version rushing south, the Brown species hurrying north.

But Portugal immediately felt different, as soon as we crossed the border. Like coming home, like knowing where we belong. A bit (perhaps a lot) like Greece. Here in the Alte Alentejo, occupation revolves around olives, cork, wine, oranges and sheep. Tourism is low key to the point of vanishing in all but a few hot spots.

The days of dominant Catholicism with its overwrought cathedrals and horrific Inquisition, of the oppression and expulsion of the Jews, the exploitations of Empire, civil wars and 20th century Fascist dictatorship are all fading into history. Now, we experience a simplicity, a calm and a welcome amid the austerity and unemployment enforced by the unholy alliance known as the Troika. It is no coincidence that the word 'Troika' is Russian for a sled or carriage pulled by three horses. In its modern usage, the three unbridled horses are the IMF, the ECB and the Eurozone, while the sled, dragged over rough ground, is Portugal (and Greece, among others).

The Troika is also a Russian dance and this country is indeed being led a 'merry dance'.

February 2013

Keep Pushing: Dealing with the recent Assault in Aranjuez, to some extent we were being ironic (really?), and to some extent we like pushing things to see what happens next. That's what studying physics does for you. 'I wonder what would happen if ...' is the beginning of many a useful bit of learning and a luxury of retirement and life on the road.

It's also how we got to ride our bikes across continents (push bikes?)

Safety First! Sorting through photographs for our new website www.magbazpictures.com and linking them to places and dates, we came across the following roadside safety slogans from India. We noted them while driving a hire car from Jammu to Srinagar on the tortuous and narrow road which runs over a 7,250 pass for 300 km (190 miles) until it reaches the Kashmir Valley at about 5,000 ft. It is frequently closed by snow, avalanches, rock falls and mudslides. Hence the exhortations to drive carefully:

No race, no rally, just enjoy the beautiful valley.
Live and let die.
Better late than never.
Speed thrills but kills.
Bad overtaker means undertaker. 
Be Mister Late, not the late mister.
Beacon Highway – not runway.
3 enemies of the road – liquor, speed, overload.

A Moving Experience: If we hadn't come across Caravaning Cambrils in the seaside town of Cambrils, if Albert hadn't spoken English, if we hadn't had time on our hands waiting for post from England, if they couldn't have got one delivered in a couple of days, if they couldn't have fitted it straight away, we might never have bought a Truma GO2 caravan mover. But we did and it's great. Both fascinating to watch the caravan move by remote control, and practical in that we can put it exactly where we want it. And now it edges precisely up to meet the tow ball, rather than the clutch-slipping Sprinter van having to judder backwards – and miss!

Catalan Independence: After spending last summer in Scotland, it's extra interesting to be in Catalonia at this time. Here they hope to learn from the experience of the Gaels; not least how, as a new country, to get membership of many international bodies and how to renegotiate thousands of agreements. The UK is a member of the EU, UN, IMF, WTO, OECD and NATO, to mention but a few, and a signatory to about 14,000 international treaties.

But the Catalans are way ahead on language: our Spanish dictionary has been relegated to a cupboard under the bed!

Dancing in the Dark: We are now passing the winter on the road in Spain and away from the Usual Suspects in their Line-dancing, Bingo-playing, Quiz-nighting, Lotus-eating, Bus-tripping, Sea-siding, Mono-cultural Retreats. Unemployment for the Spaniards bites deep with 26% unemployed, within which hides a figure of over 50% of young people without work. There are many signs of closed businesses, fewer visitors and unfinished construction projects. Very sad: people here once believed in Capitalism, thought they were safe in its hands, but now they are not so sure! But the line dance goes on, regardless.

The Rain in Spain falls Mainly . . . . somewhere else. For some 7 weeks we have lived and travelled in northeastern Spain: Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia, and it has rarely rained. The ground is dry, hard and dusty. Most days the sun shines, most nights the clear skies give a drop in temperature but not below zero.

Three New Websites: A good WiFi connection on a good campsite on Spain's Mediterranean coast means that we have been able to develop a website just for some of our pictures. MagBazTravels is now 8 years old: its structure is ideal for its hundreds or articles, with an almost unlimited opportunity for expansion through branching menus, but it is slow and limited for photographs.

Our new website, http://www.magbazpictures.com/, loads easily and displays pictures flexibly in a gallery or as a slide show. We will use it for photographs from some major past journeys and for all our photographs from January 2012 onwards. Photographs still illustrate articles within magbaztravels and its archive holds thousands of photographs, if you have the patience to dig.

We used Weebly again, as we did for the two websites we developed last summer for the Rev Murdoch and Dr Anne MacKenzie, old friends from hard days in Madras, many years ago:

www.murdochmackenzieofargyll.com and www.macdonaldsisters.com

January 2013

What's Spanish for Christmas?  It is possible to be in Spain and not even be aware that there is a festive or religious season, or indeed a New Year to be celebrated. In this Catholic country, as in Orthodox countries such as Greece, there is less emphasis on Christ's birth than there is on his resurrection and on year-round festivals celebrating the lives of their very many saints.

We don't miss, and thankfully here in Spain have seen little of, the German/Victorian/Nordic Yuletide indulgences such as Father Christmas, Presents, Festive Food, Christmas Cake, Christmas Pudding, Mince Pies, Supermarket Superconsumption, Christmas Trees, Christmas Lights, Decorations, Carols, Christmas Pop Music, Reindeer, Sleighs, Christmas Cards, etc. The only outward sign of Christmas in the city of Pamplona was a simple crib scene high up on a balcony of the cathedral: just Joseph, Mary and a manger. In the undecorated main square, over mugs of hot chocolate so thick and creamy that the spoon stood up, the music on the loudspeakers was not 'Jingle Bells' but Johnny Cash singing 'Walk the Line'!

On the other hand, 6 January is a National Holiday in Spain: Dνa de los Tres Reyes Magos (the Day of the Three Royal Magi). Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, representing Arabia, the Orient and Africa, arrive on horse, camel and elephant respectively, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. Traditionally this is when children who have been good get presents – left in their shoes.

Le Tour, By Gum:  We hear that next year the Tour de France will ride its first two days in Yorkshire. Starting in Leeds, the race will follow our tyre tracks over such famous (in Yorkshire) mountain passes as the Buttertubs (between Swaledale and Wensleydale) and Holme Moss (crossing the Pennines west of Holmfirth in 'Last of the Summer Wine' country).

The peloton passes through Huddersfield on its way to the Holme Valley: get your ticket now to hang out of our back bedroom window!

Yorkshire vs Australia: We also hear that Yorkshire came twelfth overall in the 2012 Olympics medal table, ahead of Australia!

Barry Crawshaw:  The MMM's illustrious Foreign Travel Editor has finally thrown in his sharp editing pencil. We never met, but over many years we built up what we are proud to call a mutual respect. He accepted our first article for publication in 1996. It was called 'By Eck' and described a Yorkshireman's experience of motorhoming in Germany. The 'Eck' referred to the Deutsches Eck, the German Corner, where a gigantic memorial to German Unity stands on the point in Koblenz (Roman name Confluentes) where the Mosel meets the Rhine.

Barry Crawshaw has also edited his final reader's report on a foreign campsite, and will no longer manage and compile the magazine's popular 'Marketplace Products and Publications' Section. Now Barry and his wife Muriel can concentrate on their own travels in a new, specially modified 5-metre 'masterpiece' (his words) from East Neuk Campervans. They recently completed a 5-month, 4,000-mile (25-ferry) journey in Scotland surveying 160 campsites for a new edition of the Vicarious 'Seaview Camping Guide'.

In addition to first name, motorhoming and writing, I also share with Barry a history of teaching physics, a similar age and a love of life!

December 2012

Motorhome vs Caravan: The more time we have spent in our caravan and Sprinter van this winter in France and Spain, the more we like what we experience. So far, in 2 months we have travelled 2,600 miles but only 1,000 miles towing the caravan. This is about the right balance between travel and exploration! The overall average of about 43 miles a day is also about right for a long-distance bike ride (although not for 'Le Tour'!) We've highlighted the differences from our perspective in Motorhome vs Caravan.

Spain Away: It's 13 years since we were last in Spain when we circumnavigated the Iberian Peninsula, escaping at its southern end to travel for 2 months in Morocco.

For years we have been discouraged by stories of Spain's crowded campsites: bingo, quiz nights, line dancing, queues at the gate to get in, ranks of so-called 'wild campers', scams and muggings, all practised against a background of camper apartheid (Germans here, Brits over there, Dutch somewhere else).

Now we have discovered that other Spain, the real Spain, away from the coastal strip. In Navarre, Aragon and Catalunya, in the high country south of the Pyrenees, there is a different world. Incredibly quiet roads, free empty highways, splendid scenery, castles, traditional towns and villages, indigenous languages, friendly helpful people and good food.

November 2012

Kindling: Like many another, we resisted Kindling for quite a long time. We clung to the idea of 'real books' - the feel of paper; the turning of the page; the joy of finding good English-language books in a foreign bookshop, a UK charity shop, an exchange with a fellow traveller or expatriate; the row of books on the shelf, some old friends, some waiting to be opened for the first time. All that. But then we bought a Kindle, once it could be seen in a store rather than purchased from Amazon's virtual shop, and we have never looked back. We still have a full bookshelf in the motorhome but now we also have potentially hundreds of other books to hand and to take cycling, many of them free or at sub-charity shop prices. The Kindle also provides two excellent full-size dictionaries; we have the Guardian/Observer newspaper delivered every morning for a small monthly subscription and there is free access to the internet to Google and check incoming emails. Enough said.

Leaving England: We felt our usual sense of relief when we boarded the DFDS ferry in Dover, bound for Dunkirk. Relief at leaving behind the crowds, the busy roads, the packed parking lots (often with height barriers), the lack of free parking on motorways, the 24/7/365 shopping culture, the people with no time to stand and stare, the invasive cameras, the bureaucracy, the exploitative campsites, the dumbed down TV and press, the inability to get away from noise, and so on. What do we miss? It used to be Radio 4, the Guardian and English cheese. Now we have the Guardian delivered every morning on our Kindle, we listen to Radio 4 via the internet (when we can get WiFi) and it's surprising how much cheese can fit in a motorhome freezer. We feel good about being English, but England has changed beyond our comprehension in the course of one generation.

October 2012

German Television: After nearly 3 weeks in Germany, staying in 5 different places, we have become familiar with the 12 channels which form the basis of widespread terrestrial digital television. There is an honesty and directness in the way programmes face the country's 20th century history of aggression, occupation, suppression and extreme crimes against humanity. This became particularly clear across the 3rd of October, a National Holiday commemorating the day of German Reunification in 1990. All the events, including the Hitler years and the war which led up to that day, are pictured and discussed with brutal frankness.

German Paradise: Germany is a paradise for cyclists. Dedicated cycle paths are everywhere: short ones around towns, longer ones between towns and long-distance ones criss-crossing the country. For the most part, rivers can be followed with signposted cycle tracks. The 25 longest rivers within Germany vary in length from 120 to 540 miles, including the Rhine (540 miles), Weser (470 miles), Elbe (455 miles), Danube (400 miles), Main (325 miles), Neckar (230 miles) and the Mosel (150 miles). For the weary, local trains have free carriage space for bicycles where you can sit by your bike for company.

German Language: The first thing to write about the German language is that many people speak English. Young people can have perfect English and the German language has allowed in many English/American words and expressions. It's a living language, unlike French. And again unlike French, it's a language that is spoken in many parts of Europe and Turkey. The vocabulary is accessible but the grammar is complex and not helped by the use of three genders (as in Latin). Fortunately, Margaret unscrambled all this many years ago and talks to the Germans in the highest form of their language: Hochdeutsch.

August 2012

Mistaking Freedom for Licence: Austerity, poverty and hunger has led to a doubling of the number of fishing licences issued in Greece this year. There has also been an unkown increase in the number of people fishing without a licence.

Man's Best Friend: A man on Ben Nevis called the Mountain Rescue Team when his dog refused to move. It had had enough! 

Whisky without Water? Somehow, the northermost parts of Scotland and the Hebrides have had little rain since Easter, while the rest of Britain has been awash. It's so dry up here that whisky production on the Isle of Skye is threatened by a lack of water.

The New Olympia: We really appreciate the sentiments of Barrie Youde's re-working of William Blake's 'Jerusalem':

And did those feet, in recent time, Race upon London's parklands green?
And were they largely Nike-shod, By some far Japanese machine?

And did the Countenance Divine Shine down on Harry, Kate and Wills?
And was ambition then builded here, Amongst those momentary thrills?

Bring me glory, known of old! Text me by internet or wire!
Let now my handkerchief unfold! Pay me so much I can retire!

Where sport was once for amateurs, All undertaken for panache,
Let all the funds be mine and yours! Pretending we can find the cash!

Thank you Barrie!

We think that the hype of the New Olympiad should be balanced with a visit to the ruins of Ancient Olympia, amid the ruination of modern Greece!

Memories of Madras: It's nearly 40 years since I met Murdoch and Anne MacKenzie in Madras (now Chennai). I was working in a Central Government University and Murdoch was the Minister of the city's St Andrew's Kirk. Travelling in Scotland, we have had an amazing reunion at their home near Oban. This in turn led to the development of a website for Murdoch's prose and poetry and for Anne's images.

The highlight of the website for me are the entries under 'Travels', particularly their three young children's account of the 1978 overland journey from Madras (as was) to Edinburgh.

July 2012

The Reinvention of a Scotland that Never Was: For the first time since we started full-time travel some 18 years ago, we are returning to Scotland, a country we once knew well when we escaped from work to cycle what were then quiet highways and byways. Of the many changes that have come in those intervening years, few are for the better from our perspective.

Scotland is deliberately and officially becoming as foreign and distant as possible, while the populace stands by, overweight and scruffy, as puzzled as we are at this drama played out with kilts, bagpipes, national flags, forced but incomprehensible Gaelic, Edinburgh Woollen Mill shops, shortbread tins with highland cattle on the lid and Highland Games (Lowland ones as well). It is fascinating in a way to observe a country re-inventing itself against a version it has seen in Hollywood films!

Almost as great a re-invention as that of the early 1800's when Walter Scott, King George IV clad in a kilt (over pink tights) and the fraudulent translation of ancient ballads triggered a romantic resurgence of the Highland Scot.

Historically, tartans were simply designed at the whim of the individual weaver: it wasn't until the early 1800's that another fraudulent publication linked a particular tartan to a particular clan or clans. This triggered a 'tartan craze' which continues to this day. Prior to the publication of the 2011 census, it was estimated that there were no more than 60,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland (1.1% of the 5.2 million population), the number falling by about 1,000 a year. And yet signposts, tourist leaflets, government papers, etc are all being printed in a bilingual form.

May 2012

Ireland was a very pleasant surprise from the moment we arrived on the ferry from Cherbourg to Rosslare. Just as it used to be, but with a rapidly fading flush of affluence. The people are unchanged in our memory – welcoming, warm and wonderful (unlike the weather!) We will return - with a vehicle suitable for its narrow country roads.

April 2012

Le Tour: The bicycle is for us the best way to travel: slowly and independently. Secondly, it is transport for the masses – cheap, non-polluting, healthy, requiring little infrastructure, etc. This is seen and respected throughout the developing world and in the countries of northern Europe. Not yet in the UK by any means, despite Sustrans turning old railway lines into short rides for tourists on holiday!

We are not competitive and do not compete, so the resources and attention that are given to bicycle races are to be regretted. How green is the Tour de France? It's just part of a culture that needs heroes and 'celebrities' to distract people from the real issues in life. Bread and Circuses! We have cycled many of the Alpine and Pyrenean mountain cols used in the Tour, but one at a time, at our own speed and carrying everything that we needed.

Money: Written in part as a response to receiving a circular email comparing the relative costs of many material objects. For example, petrol at (say) £7. 50 per gallon with printer ink at £5,200.

What is the purpose of money except to pass on to the next person? It has no meaning in isolation and only takes its meaning when it becomes a means of exchange. What we term 'value' is purely subjective and must ultimately relate to the labour required to produce the object and all the exchanges involved in that.

Think of the great majority of the earth's human inhabitants who have nothing to exchange except the pain of labouring in all its forms: and often that goes unwanted and unneeded. Everyone in the over-affluent west should spend at least several months in a developing country (there are plenty to choose from), living at the level of the average peasant or worker. And then they may complain less on their return. And waste less time attempting to generate sympathy for their hard lives and all the choices of consumption they have to make!

While we await the collapse of capitalism, let's just be happy to be alive with enough affluence to live a good life, even if we don't really deserve it and we are robbing many other people in order to have it.

(Reference: Marx, Karl (1867) Capital: Critique of Political Economy)

March 2012

Greece from the Inside: We have been asked a number of questions during our winter in Greece. What's it like? Is it safe? What are the effects of the crisis? Has it affected motorhomers and other travellers? Etc. Here is a summary of what we have actually observed and experienced over the last months. It is different here and none of that difference is an advantage to us as visitors, to the British who live here or to the Greeks themselves. Indeed, far too many Greeks are really suffering and they don't know why. If they blame anyone, it is the Germans and the corrupt ruling elites in Athens. These are the sort of things we have noticed and experienced:

A steep rise in retail prices including petrol, although diesel is still about the European average. Overall, Greek supermarket prices are nearly 20% above the European average.

A sadness among the people and a greater willingness to talk and discuss what they call the 'crisis'.

An increase in anti-German feeling in the media, particularly the newspapers and their cartoons. Parodies on the television recall images from the 1930's and 1940's. MP Panos Kammenos, launching a new political party (see below) with a policy very much against all the recent German-imposed austerity measures, gave his inaugural speech in Distomo, a town where 200 Greeks were murdered by Germans in 1944.

A smile and a warm welcome when Greeks learn that we are from England. They identify with us from our mutual history, from geography (they see themselves as a maritime nation living on an island) and because we are no part of the current Eurozone debacle.

More immigrants wandering about (many of them illegal), even in remote villages and on quiet country roads. The Greeks are increasingly worried about them and security has become an issue for the first time in modern history. The campsite gates are now locked at night following an increase in reported crime, mainly by economic migrants whose hope of work fades by the day.

Soup kitchens, once set up for immigrants, are increasingly used by unemployed Greeks. Sleeping in the street is increasingly necessary for homeless Greeks, especially in the capital. The distribution of free food, including potatoes direct from farmers, once provided for immigrants, is increasingly necessary for Greeks whose income no longer covers basic needs.

Many fewer motorhomes and caravans were seen here throughout the winter. Good campsites in the Peloponnese, such as Thines, Koroni, Ionion Beach and Aginara Beach, have been empty all winter. The one we use (Finikes) has averaged about 9 outfits through the winter; now there are 5 outfits – 4 English, 1 German – making 8 adults in total.

Fewer cars on the road. Indeed many country roads are spookily empty: this is fine for cycling but not for Greeks who can no longer afford the petrol or indeed the car itself. Cars that are no longer in use, not taxed and not insured, no longer have their number plates which have to be handed in to Government offices.

Overall tourist numbers are down, particularly those from Germany, normally the major customer for Greek holidays. Bookings for 2012 are also well down, causing a reduction in flights, etc.

The media (TV, the 'Athens News' and other online sources) have their coverage dominated by the 'Crisis' as Greeks call it.

More and more existing and former corrupt practices, fraud, swindles, scams, embezzlement and financial malpractice (including massive tax avoidance, smuggling, bribery, etc) are being exposed. See our Greek Tragicomedy! However, the legal system and the police are also politicised and corrupted so it is uncertain what is or can be done to bring the perpetrators to 'justice'.

Strikes are frequent, including a current one of all seamen, including ferries. Even professionals are striking – lawyers, doctors, pharmacists – all in protest at reduced pay, reduced pensions and reduced resources.

Politics is fragmenting. Ever since 1949, with the exception of the 7 years of the military junta, politics has swung between PASOK (Socialist) and ND (Tory), rather as in the UK. But their support has dropped away since they are both blamed for causing the crisis and for agreeing to the German terms for massive austerity measures. Now there are about 10 parties, some made of defections from the two main parties. The three parties of the extreme left could hold a majority of the vote, if only they could stop fighting each other! Elections are due at the end of April/beginning of May and that should be interesting. We'll be gone by then!

It seems that yet again there is history in the making, here in Greece. Perhaps Greece is rediscovering its ancient role as the source and inspiration of European development?

Scams - to Win or to Lose? We enjoy scams and the whole process of recognising them at an early stage and watching how the game unfolds. Deciding whether to play or not to play; if playing, then deciding whether to win, lose or draw. Looking behind the game into the life and aspirations of the other player(s). For example, in the market or on the street in India, we are happy enough to bargain upwards if we know the money will give a large family a good meal. Our insignificant loss, their gain.

January 2012

Failed Again? Why are 'New Year Resolutions' so called? Perhaps resolves of the previous year failed to produce results and so need re-solutions. Will we ever get that weight down; get up earlier; cycle further; clean the motorhome more often; be kinder to caravanners? Let's try again, let's attempt to re-solve the problems.

Camping 40 ft above Snowdon: Hristo Simeneov has opened Eco Camping Batak at 3,600 ft (1090 m) above sea level, by a lake in Bulgaria's Rhodopi Mountains. Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales, reaches only 3,560 ft (1085 m) asl.

Travel as Art: We draw analogies between oil painting and travelling; between the artist and the traveller. Each requires a start on an empty canvas; each begins with only an outline idea of what is to be achieved. Some start with a large canvas and the time and resources to achieve a great ambition; others prefer to work in miniature and perhaps in greater detail. Some artists and some travellers specialise in close ups, still life or portraits; others reach for sweeping landscapes. The time line stretches from an interest in the historical through the contemporary to a vision of the future. Eschewing photographic reality and documentary detail, both artist and traveller may trend to the illusory, the ideal, the figurative, the abstract.

Each painting, each journey proceeds with a multitude of brush strokes, working and reworking each part of the surface of the canvas or the country; in each, the picture emerges only slowly; in each, scenes, objects and characters can be added, avoided or removed; and the process has no end. The mood can be dark and sombre, or light and lively. Time defines the need to pause or stop, sometimes in a comfortable place, sometimes abruptly and in full flow, sometimes through a breakdown, sometimes through failure, a giving up; but the picture, the journey are never finished.

The images generated by the artist and the traveller may have the freshness and vigour of a first encounter with their subjects, or they may have the depth of mature reflection, the insight of experience or, indeed, the weariness or disillusionment of repetition.

The painting may be hidden away, or ornately framed and hung on a wall, privately or in a gallery. The journey may be kept in a private log or diary, or shared with friends or elaborated into a magazine or website article. Other people may seek the original of the picture or the journey and copies may also find an audience. The journey remains the unique property of those who made it, but other people want a replica of it, they may want to copy it, in whole or in part. Or just dream of it. Perhaps, above all, it is the artist who is recognised and remembered, as well as the object of the painting. And so it is that the traveller is remembered, along with his/her writing, as well as the subject of the journey. The object of the painting and the subject of the journey remain, independently of the artist and of the traveller.

A Website is an Art Gallery.
A Blog is Graffiti, easily expunged.
A Tourist Trip is a Jigsaw Puzzle with a pre-set picture and pieces just waiting to be bought, collected and put in place.
A Holiday is a Sketch, a Doodle, Art as Therapy
A Packaged Holiday is Painting by Numbers

Staying at home is a Blank Sheet.

How Much to Pay the Ferryman? The two brand-new Minoan ferries now operating between Ancona and Patras don't have facilities for 'Camping on Board', which is available on all other ferries from Italy to Greece between 1 April and 31 October. Instead, they offer 'All Inclusive Camping' - a free cabin and an evening meal for motorhome/caravan passengers, with an electrical hook-up for the vehicle. The Patras Office of Minoan Lines said this offer did not exist during the winter months; the Ancona office said it did. We chose to book at Ancona, thereby saving over 200 euros!

December 2011

Got a Light Mate? We are trying to find out when the 2012 Olympic flame is to be lit, here in Greece in the temple of Zeus at Ancient Olympia, but with no success so far. We were in Olympia for the lighting of the flame for the 1996 Atlanta Games; us and Mrs Clinton, with a young Chelsea in tow. Not until the very morning when people started walking to the Ancient Site did we discover the day and the time. The Virgins of the Temple, in flowing white, went off stage to the Temple of Zeus, out of sight (and probably out of the site), to return with the flaming torch. These were the Vestal Virgins with, we suspect, a box of Swan Vestas under their diaphanous robes. Vesta was, after all the, the Goddess of the Hearth. How the Swan got into it, we do not know, but may find out this year. (Margaret now tells me that Vesta and her Virgins belong to the Roman pantheon and that people would know that, having looked it up in Wikipedia, but I know you would do no such thing and that you believe everything I write.)

On Tow: We have seen many ways in which British motorhomers avoid paying for insurance, road tax and MOTs when travelling long term outside the country. There is also the contentious matter of pulling a car with an A-frame, something that is illegal in most countries except in an emergency. However, we met the most blatant abuse on a campsite in Greece this winter: a lone motorhomer, Peter Day, towing a car with an A-frame, the car having the same number plate as the motorhome and a sign saying 'On Tow'. The car therefore appears to be a trailer which wouldn't need road tax, insurance or MOT! But this man also drove his 'trailer' off the campsite with the fake number plate and the 'On Tow' sign still in place. In addition, the motorhome displayed no road fund licence.

We also understand that the car was bought and insured in France, even though insurance is only legal if sold to a person resident in the country. Apparently, the registration document (V5C) could not be obtained in the UK, although the car was fitted with two sets of UK number plates - one set of its own and one set matching the motorhome's when on tow. It also follows that the car could not have a vaild MOT from the UK or its equivalent in France.

None of the following requirements were being met:

Any vehicle on tow must

be fully road legal (insurance, road fund licence, MOT, registration document)

have its rear lights, brake lights and indicator lights operated by the tow vehicle (as with a caravan pulled by a car) or a separate lighting board must be in place.

display the number plate of the towing vehicle as well as its own number plate which will be different.

have its hydraulic brakes fully operated by the tow vehicle and not just a device to work the handbrake.

In addition, the driver of the tow vehicle must have a licence to drive the combination of motorhome and towed car which will be in excess of 3.5 tons.

Perhaps this man has also joined the motorhomers (and some expatriates) who risk imprisonment in the UK by declaring a 'SORN' in the UK before driving the vehicle out of the country, thereby avoiding road tax and an MOT! Not least, any of these practices would also make any insurance on the vehicle invalid.

Who's Who: We cycled to the local port of Killinis recently and met an old fisherman on the harbour. He asked if we were from Germany, and he and we were all relieved that we weren't. We got the idea of 'England' firmly established in his mind ('Anglia' with the emphasis on the penultimate vowel, pronounced 'ee'), to which he replied 'Ah, Sarkozi'. Shocked, we demurred and said 'Cameron', at which he showed a complete lack of knowledge and interest. How refreshing!

November 2011

Red Faces and Green Cards: British motorhome insurance agents still fail to realise that possession of a UK legal Insurance Policy Document also gives Green Card (minimum insurance cover) in 32 European countries, for 365 days of the year, without you needing a 'Green Card'. See the appropriate page of the Motor Insurers Website. What the agent can do is limit the countries and timing of fully comprehensive cover outside the UK, and decide if they will issue a Green Card for minimum cover in any countries beyond the 32.

Greece: What will have Changed? Writing this on our way to Greece in November 2011, we wonder in what way our favourite European country may have changed. What differences will we notice and how will we notice them? Prices will have risen, as will the numbers of unemployed. Public services have been reduced and there are regular strikes and disturbances in the main cities. But what will the ordinary, everyday Greek understand of the causes of their crisis? Has it really resurrected memories of German atrocities, looting and mass murder during their occupation of Greece from 1941 to 1945? Read the views of two resident women: Rose and Kat and our own: 'The Greek Tragicomedy'.

White Vans: Prejudice against the white van is widespread, inconvenient and expensive in and around the UK. Some cross-channel ferries charge more (eg P&O, Norfolk Line/DFDS); some campsites exclude white vans (or demand you hide the vehicle or park outside); and insurance companies charge at least double the equivalent size converted campervan. Apart from being great to drive, great to safely carry a load, including bicycles and camping gear, and great to pull a caravan, there is also a camaraderie among white van drivers and with truck drivers. The oppressed often have much in common. Good to be on the European mainland where no such prejudice exists.

Whoops 2: We will observe quite a few of these as we look out. We may even commit one or two ourselves! A recent one involved a distracted Australian filling his water tank with diesel. Good thing that Motorhome Medics were nearby.

Whoops 1: Friends motorhoming through the Czech Republic on their way to Bulgaria completed a form at the border to get a 'Go Box' (payment for using the motorways). Under pressure, they put 'UK' for their country of origin. Stopped at a checkpoint down the road, the police took them to be from the UKraine, but without the necessary papers and visas. It took a long time to unscramble that one.

What a Dick: A Tasmanian motorhomer, travelling in Europe, wrote that Dick Smith was his inspiration to travel. Well, Dick is an Australian entrepreneur (with a chain of electrical shops and his own food brand):  a multi-millionaire who once flew a helicopter round the world. More recently he and his Mrs drove a specially built 4wd camper van across the USA and then from the UK to Singapore via Russia and China, etc. He writes at length of difficulties, largely mechanical or electrical, bravely overcome. But one knows from the start that he's going to make it, because he can and does just throw money into what is a quite artificial journey, made for the sake of it. While telling us at every stage just how much money he is spending, he is quite insensitive to the parlous state of the people in the third world among whom he blusters his egocentric way! Their bad roads and undeveloped infrastructure provide his challenges. Inspiration? He does inspire quite strong feelings in us.

Old Pals: Remembrance Day, coupled with the sudden death of an old friend in Newcastle (the New South Wales version), caused us to write: “We fear that we are entering what we call the 'World War One' phase of life when companions in the Pals Brigade begin to fall about us. Some get a slight wound and soon return to the front line; some are culture-shocked and need R&R time in a sheltered camp; some get a Blighty Wound and return to their bungalows, while a few pass on to that Great Free Camp in the Sky.”

On the Front Line: It's quite appropriate to think of World War One, here in Soissons on the River Aisne. The city was 80% destroyed as the Bosch pushed forward and then retreated again before collapsing in November 1918 (or being stabbed in the back by the politicians back home, as some might have said and some did say, and hence World War Two).

Remembrance: A very dignified British Army Warrant Office, standing proud in his uniform with a red sash, spoke the words of Laurence Binyon's poem 'For the Fallen' as he saluted the fallen after laying a wreath at the CWGC British memorial in Soissons on Armistice Day.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

Bizarre Words: The French children at the Armistice service in Soissons waved Union Jacks and sang three verses of 'God Save the Queen' in English; words even more bizarre in that setting than those of the Marseillaise. 'Queens' and 'Gods' have no place in the secular Republic of France. But then neither should:  “Qu'un sang impur, abreuve nos sillons” or “Let an impure blood water our furrows”. But they do have the best tune.