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Greece to France 2012 PDF Printable Version E-mail


GREECE to FRANCE 2012

The Detailed Travel Log of a Motorhome Journey from Greece to France. The intention is to sail from France to Ireland and on to Scotland and England.

Margaret and Barry Williamson
April 2012

Introduction

After makingGreece_(12).JPG 2011 the Year of the Ferry, we had spent the Winter in the Greek Peloponnese, with Christmas at Ionion Beach Camping near Glyfa, before moving south to Finikes in Finikounda until the end of March. The start of April marks the end of winter in Greece, whatever the weather – at least it is the end of low season campsite deals and the beginning of 'camping on board' on ferries from Italy. Time to get back on the road! We decided to drive to France, for a ferry from Cherbourg to Rosslare in the Republic of Ireland in May, though as ever we were reluctant to leave Greece when spring flowers carpet the meadows and Easter approaches.

For Galleries and Slideshows of images of this journey, click:

Winter in the South

Lemon Drops

In Italy 2012

Sunday 1 April – At Camping Finikes, Finikounda, Greece (Free night!)
Open all year, see www.finikescamping.gr. Winter rate for 2 people (1 Nov - 31 March) €12 a night, or €11 for minimum stay 90 days, incl electricity, private shower & toilet and free WiFi throughout site. GPS: N 36.79922   E 21.76816

Palm Sunday in most of Europe, a week before 'Catholic' Easter; Orthodox EasterGreece_(12a).JPG is celebrated a week later in Greece this year.

After  a 3-month stay at Finikes there was plenty to do - putting away the awning and bicycles, cleaning inside and out, laundry, making bread to freeze and a cake for the road, popping corn and drying herbs (oregano, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves) in the microwave, picking a few lemons, writing emails, charging up phones, laptops, mini-vacuum cleaner, toothbrush, lantern ... the list goes on!

The campsite rate rises from 1st April but Spiros, the owner, kindly waived the fee for our final night.

Monday 2 April – To Mistraki – 10 miles (Altitude 770 ft)
A tiny village inland from Finikounda, where we parked outside the home of Greek friends.

A last morning of preparation, emptying and filling tanks, descaling the electric kettle (with lemon juice) and of course saying farewell to our good friend, Rod, and the few other campers. Yotta (Mrs Spiros) opened the camp restaurant for the first time this year and we bought a moussaka lunch before finally leaving.

It Greece_(46).JPGwas a short drive into the hills to park outside Fortini's house, where we'd arranged to spend a couple of nights. The weather was just perfect, bees buzzing the wild flowers, kids (of the goat variety) playing in the sunshine, blissfully unaware of the onslaught of Easter! Greece1_2012_(102).jpg

On an evening stroll we visited the little church and cemetery to pay our respects to Fortini's husband, Nicos, who died last summer. The beautifully tended grave (see image on the right) with fresh flowers and lighted oil lamp bore a photograph of Nicos that Barry had taken on our last visit, which really brought a tear to the eye. We had also known the two old ladies, Antonia and Grammatiki, whose graves lay nearby. Both had lived a hard and largely self-sufficient life into their 90s.

3-4 April – At Mistraki

Such a restful place, the peace only brGreece1_2012_(99).jpgoken by birdsong and the nightly owl (though we warned not to wander after dark as wild boar are at large). We spent the mornings with Fortini and her daughter-in-law, Helen from Nigeria, a lovely young woman who was able to act as interpreter. The image on the left shows Judit (Hungary), Margaret and Barry (England), Fotini (Greece) and Helen (Nigeria).

Our English friends, John & Lisi (witnesses at our marriage in MethoIMG_2989.JPGni), live up the track on the hillside and we walked up to join them for a lunch. An afternoon walk followed, rambling through olive groves and meadows with many varieties of wild orchids – from the tall pale blue 'Italian Man' to the tiny dark velvet 'Bee Orchids' – all expertly identified by Lisi (see her stunning photos on her own website).

John & Lisi areIMG_2972.JPG planning a trip to Ireland, where we hope to meet them, and they lent us some excellent books and films set in the Republic. Whilst at Mistraki, we enjoyed John McGahern's 'Amongst Women' and watched the astonishing documentary 'Man of Aran' made in 1934, as well as John Wayne in 'The Quiet Man', filmed at Cong (where there is a good campsite). 'Sure, we haven't been to Ireland now for 20 years or more ...' as Moriarty sang in a favourite lament of ours – and how we look forward to returning.

Thursday 5 April – To Petalidi Harbour – 14 miles
On the waterfront, a short walk south of the town centre, there is ample well-lit space to park overnight. GPS: N 36.95775   E 21.93339

We drove 5 miles down to the coast at Nea Koroni, joining John & Lisi in the cafe/bar there. We all used the WiFi internet, followed by a Pork Souvlaki lunch, then parted company after coffee and lemon cake in our motorhome.

Another short drive along the coast, through Ag Andreas (where the campsite is closed) to the small port of Petalidi. Here we parked for a sunny, if breezy, night. Unusually, there were no other campers on the waterfront.

Friday 6 April – To Neo Itilo – 66 miles
Along the seafront there is well-lit space to park overnight. GPS: N 36.69299   E 22.38956

We awoke to find that Friday is Market Day in Petalidi, spreading along the harbour and blocking our way out. After a walk round (and a new egg whisk from the 'All €1' stall) an escape route was found, up a steep exit to the main road! Taking this, Barry manoeuvred the motorhome through the square past 5 vans of live chickens, pens with lambs and kids, stalls of local produce and gipsies selling clothes. Eventually we were on our way towards Kalamata on a very warm sultry morning, cheered by reports of snow and blizzards in northern England where it is Good Friday.

After 11 miles we stopped to shop at Lidl in Messini, ate lunch in their car park, then drove to busy Kalamata, with no space to park by the port, and out along the sea front. At 21 miles the road leaves the coast, twisting and climbing inland for 5 miles to 900 ft/270 m. Then a new wider section descends for 2.5 miles to a bridge over a dry gorge down at 615 ft/185 m before climbing again for 2.5 miles to Stavropigi at 1,100 ft/333 m.

Snow still flecked the surrounding peaks as we reached 1,427 ft/432 m, with a lay-by at 34 miles giving a magnificent view of the small holiday and fishing port of Kardamyli way below. We dropped down to sea level via Prosilio, with its lovely old stone church, and the hairpins of Kalives. Squeezing through Kardamyli at 40 miles (nowhere to park), then climbing once more, we had vivid memories of cycling this beautiful Messinian Gulf Road (Kalamata-Areopoli), where every freewheel is followed by another steep gradient, climbing into the western foothills of the Taigetos range.

At 45 miles we passed the right turn for the holiday resort of Stoupa – not recommended for larger motorhomes, with its narrow lanes. Just 2 miles further on we did take a right, signed for Ag Nikolaos, to weave our way past the tiny port of Ag Nik and along by the beach in search of an overnight stopover listed by PeeJay under 'Riglia': N 36.817599  E 22.291946. Pete Jenkins' list can be extremely useful but obviously some of the spots are only suitable for small campervans, or out of season. Here we found a parking area by the beach, opposite a bar (purported to have WiFi), but it was filled by a single Italian motorhome and some local cars. Not to mention that there were no less than 3 clear 'No Camping' signs! We asked at said bar if the lane rejoined the main road but were told it was both narrow and unsurfaced, so retraced our steps through Ag Nikolaos.

Onward and upward now, through Pigi and other tiny inland villages of the Outer Mani, to a maximum height of 1,499 ft/455 m. In Thalames (1,460 ft/440 m) there is a private Mani Museum, the 13th C church of St Sophia and a couple of stalls selling mountain herbs and honey: worth a stop if the little car park isn't too full. We passed more charming Byzantine stone churches before Langada, with its beautiful Church of the Metamorfossis dating from the 11th century. then began the serious descent to sea level, crossing the border from Messinia into Laconia. Look out for the remaining walls of Kelefa Castle, the huge 16/17th C Turkish fortress at Itilo (the ancient capital of the Mani), spread across the hillside on the left before the road drops dramatically into Neo Itilo.

This tiny village on a sheltered bay may be very quiet now but in the 17th century, as the port for Itilo and Areopoli, it was the point of embarkation for Maniots leaving for Corsica. Further, Napoleon's fleet anchored here in 1798 on their way to Egypt.

We turned off the main road to the waterfront and parked by the shore under the tamarisk trees, a very short walk from the centre and a couple of fish tavernas. It's a favourite overnight place of ours, also listed by PeeJay.

A stroll round the village did not take long before settling in to eat and watch a man set up 2 fishing rods on a tripod outside our door, under a full moon. A lone Greek campervan joined us later.

Saturday 7 April – To Gythion Bay Camping, Gythion – 16 miles
Open all year, see www.gythiocamping.gr. ACSI Discount Card €16 incl electricity (special lower long-term rates in winter). Free WiFi in the empty restaurant. GPS: N 36Ί43'45”        E 22Ί32'43”

The Greek campervan GR_Mani_(99).JPGhad flattened its engine battery overnight (in the absence of a separate leisure battery) and Barry helped with our Jump-Start. The couple rewarded us with a bottle of their home-grown wine and the man explained that he is a retired economist, living in Amaliada. Thanking him, we said Greece needs him back! Before we left, Neo Itilo was visited by a potato seller and we also saw the fish van delivering live lobsters to the 'Black Pirate' taverna.

The onward road climbs 900 ft/273 m to Areopoli, 3.5 miles laterGR_Mani_(27).JPG. We parked easily, opposite the road junction where you turn left for Gythio, and walked into the centre. We love this little town, perched high above the sea at the entrance to the Inner Mani - the rugged peninsula formed by the southern spur of Mt Taigetos between the Messinian and Laconic Gulfs. On a sunny stroll we passed the 18th C Taxiarchs Church, remembering a night in the adjacent tower guesthouse when cycling round the Peloponnese. We had a room at the top, next to the bells – a Sunday morning not to be forgotten! Nowadays there is much more choice of places to stay or eat, with the focus on tourism and the restoration of old, and building of new, stone tower houses. Saturday proved to be Market Day here, with many stalls around the bus station.

The road eastwards for Gythio climbs for another 2 miles, reaching 1,080 ft/327 m before rolling across the peninsula to the opposite coast. The route was guarded at the eastern end by the Frankish Passavas Castle, whose restored crenellations are just visible high above the right of the road.

At 14 miles a new road turns left for Sparta, bypassing Gythio, so keep right for Gythio itself, the ancient port for Sparta (from which Paris sailed off with Helen, leading to the Trojan War, if you believe Homer). It is now a small holiday resort and fishing harbour with weekly ferries to Kythera and Crete. There are 3 campsites along the beach on the way in, the best being the middle one, Gythion Bay (after Mani Beach Camping and before Meltemi Camping).

We knew that our friends, Viv and Al, had spent the winter here and were waiting to greet us. Soon we were settled in and catching up with each other's news over tea and biscuits in their motorhome. They spent last summer working on a campsite we know well in northern Bulgaria (Camping Veliko Tarnovo), so there was much to tell!

The campsite itself has been partly renovated and improved since our previous visit, 4 years ago. The toilet block has been refurbished with good hot showers and there are 2 new washing machines. Free WiFi works in the empty restaurant (though not yet across the site) and a swimming pool is planned for next year. Best of all, perhaps, the site has joined the ACSI Card discount scheme, which now includes 27 Greek sites for the very first time.

8-10 April – At Gythion Bay Camping, Gythion

On the Sunday morningGR_Mani_(13).JPG we cycled into Gythio (2 miles east over a hill) with Viv and Al, succeeded in finding the 'Athens News' paper and enjoyed a Club Sandwich and Chips together. We rode on along the coast for another 5 miles, as far as the landmark shipwreck just off the beach (a popular free-camping spot with 3 German vans in residence). The wind strengthened as we cycled back and rain set in for a stormy night.

A showery Monday kept us busy with laundry, internet and cooking, then we invited Viv and Al round for a meal of lasagne and trifle. It was a great evening – on the eve of Margaret's birthday.

The 10th dawned fine and we set off on M's choice of birthday treat – a 40-mile cycle ride to lunch inGR_Mani_(30).JPG Areopoli, returning on the quiet back roads of the Mani via Kotronas and Skoutari. The 13-mile ride southwest along the main road to Areopoli was into a cold head wind. After a welcome lunch and coffee in one of the cafes round the main square we changed from shorts to trousers, then continued briefly south before turning east on a minor road that climbs high into the hills before dropping to the sea at the little port of Kotronas. Soon it was raining, then hailing!

There was no shelter anywhere, with even the churches locked (a sad sign of the times). Donning all our Goretex gear we rode on, dropping into Kotronas (10 miles from Areopoli) just as the only Kafenion was about to close! The kind woman took pity and made us mugs of coffee as we waited for the squall to pass. We completed the ride along the magnificent coast road to Skoutari, eventually rejoining the main road back to Gythion. By the time we reached camp we were almost dry!

With our bags, shoes and waterproofs hung out under the awning, Margaret had just enough energy left to spend half an hour talking to Illiana, the owner's daughter, about suggestions and plans for the campsite.

It was a memorable birthday all round. Viv had made dinner for us and there were presents – a painting by Viv and a CD by Alan (playing guitar and singing his own compositions). Many thanks to a very talented pair of friends!

Wednesday 11 April – To Vlacherna – 88 miles (Altitude 2,513 ft)
A large parking area at the fuel station/cafe on the main road east of the village. GPS:  N37Ί43.594  E 22Ί14.120

Leaving Gythion Bay after an early lunch, we drove 2 miles west, then right onto the new rd 39/E961 for Sparta. This climbs to 940 ft/285 m before descending slightly to the town. We passed a Lidl store after 26 miles and turned right 2 miles later to avoid the town centre, following signs for Tripoli/Athens.

After crossing the old bridge over the Evrotas River at 30 miles, down at 630 ft/190 m, the good road climbs northwards away from Sparta. Clouds shrouded the snowy peaks to the west as we reached almost 3,000 ft/900 m before the descent to Tripoli. Fortunately we met the Tripoli-Corinth-Athens motorway at 63 miles (still high, at 2,175 ft/659 m), shortly before Tripoli itself, so didn't have to cross the city.

We left the motorway 8 miles later at the second exit (signed Vyronas), neatly placed after the Services and before the toll booth. The service station had a shop/fuel and plenty of parking space for a night but it felt too bleak, high and windswept.

Our route headed northwest into the mountains on rd 74/E55 – a well-surfaced road and fairly quiet. At 82 miles, up at 2,800 ft/850 m, the mountain village of Levidi offered nowhere to park, so we continued towards the next place, Vlacherna. We stopped just short of the village at a petrol station/cafe/shop on the left, with plenty of parking space and a children's play area – obviously intended for coach tours to pause.

Asking the lone man insidIMG_2991.JPGe about parking overnight, we offered to buy fuel: 'Sorry, we're out, it may come tomorrow – but you can stay, no problem.' So should we buy something to eat: 'Sorry, only coffee and drinks .' Margaret looked in the little shop, where most of the shelves were bare except for local wine, mountain herbs and cheeses. We purchased a large wedge of hard salty cheese (sheep or goat?) and stayed for a quiet night – just us, the man and his dog. Directly across the road was a large butcher's where we bought 2 of the largest pork chops we'd ever seen. The meat was promoted as local, so perhaps it was a mountain boar!

Thursday 12 April – To Ionion Beach Camping, Glyfa – 95 miles
Open all year, see www.ionion-beach.gr.  Winter rate for 2 people (1 Nov - 31 March) €10 a night, incl electricity and 3 hours free WiFi per day. ACSI Discount Card €16 for specified dates. GPS:  N37Ί50'11”  E 21Ί8'1”

Luckily the weather remained fine and clear for a morning of challenging driving as we followed rd 74/E55 across the mountains to Olympia. From Vlacherna it turned to climb south, passing one or two more tavernas or fuel stations where parking would be possible.

After 12 miles, up at 3,640 ft/1103 m, we noticed a campsite (closed) on the left. In Karkalou villageIMG_2999.JPG, 2 miles later, our road turned right and north for Langadia. (The left turn is a minor road to Dimitsana, Stemnitsa and Karitena – beautiful medieval villages all, but best visited in a smaller vehicle!) We reached 3,675 ft/1113 m (the max for the day) before dropping down to Langadia at 20 miles and 3,111 ft/943 m. These lovely Arcadian villages lie at the heart of the Peloponnese, in remote positions well away from the tourist coast and still not easily accessible.

LanIMG_2997.JPGgadia – a maze of narrow streets, steps and old houses - clings dramatically to the mountainside overlooking a deep gorge. No bypass here! The road squeezed across a narrow bridge (2.8 m wide: we measure 2.5 m) and along the main street, where it was market day! The small car park (on the left after the bridge) was full. It's on PeeJay's list as a stopover but is only suitable for a small camper arriving after the shops have closed. We once spent a night in a hotel here when cycling round the Peloponnese and it was good to explore the lanes and browse the shops selling carved shepherd's crooks, but now we had no chance of parking a motorhome. In order for us to drive through, a shopkeeper moved his sign and umbrella out of the way – though he did appear used to doing so for buses, etc!

Once through Langadia, the road dropped swiftly to Lefkohori, a tiny narrow village down at 1IMG_3000.JPG,770 ft/536 m (after which we paused to let the brakes cool off), then climbed 200 ft/60 m to Stavrodromi, a village with tavern, rooms, shop and petrol, at 28 miles. Those 8 miles from Langadia, with a steep drop at the side of the mountain road, are perhaps not for those of a nervous disposition!

After that we dropped to 700 ft/212 m on a good broad road following the River Ladon through a green flower-strewn valley. Shepherds roaming the fields carried the carved wooden crooks of the region and a roadside peddler sold mountain herbs. By Dafni village at 33 miles we were down at 340 ft/103 m, only to climb again over a bluff, reaching 880 ft/266 m at 41 miles. Down once more to cross the Erimanthos River at 330 ft/100 m, then up to Louvro, above 700 ft/212 m. A very wiggly and narrow road.

At 49 miles there was a left turn onto the end of the (unfinished) new rd 74/E55 but – in typical Greek fashion - it was unsigned, with no traffic. Unsure, we didn't risk it and carried on along the old rd 74 through Moyria for another 2 miles until we joined the new road. What a relief to find a good wide new highway. Through 4 short tunnels we bypassed Olympia, ancient and modern (exit for Ancient Olympia at 56 miles, just before a large Carrefour store), crossed the Ilia River down at 60 ft/18 m, and eventually found ourselves on the familiar New National Road northbound for Pirgos.

On familiar territory, how good it was to see the sea and the view of Chlemoutsi Castle at Kastro, before turning right at the traffic lights for Amaliada. First stop was Carrefour on the right at 78 miles (a spit-roast chicken for tonight's supper). Then we returned to the main road, via Lidl and a brand new fuel station (between Lidl and the traffic lights), which actually sells LPG as well as petrol and diesel, and has plenty of room to manoeuvre. Marvellous: GPS:  N 37Ί 46.917  E 21Ί19.318.

On up the New Nat Rd to the next traffic lights, where it was left for our favourite market town of Gastouni, at 85 miles. Market day is Thursday but we didn't stop, wanting to reach the post office in the next town, Vartholomio, before it closed at 2 pm. We were expecting mail there and knew it wouldn't open again until next Tuesday, after the Greek Easter weekend. Parked on the main road, we made it to the post office with 10 minutes in hand and the package was waiting. What a successful day!

And so on to Lygia, up at 400 ft/121 m, where we turned left for the final 3-mile descent to the coast, through Glyfa, past the right turn for Camping Aginara Beach, then right to a long-time favourite of ours, Camping Ionion Beach. We were here over Christmas and now returned for Easter.

The site is fairly quiet and we settled on our usual sea-front pitch with a wonderful view of Zakynthos and the setting sun. It feels like home.

13-16 April – At Ionion Beach Camping, Glyfa

The weather turned GR_2_BG_(93).JPGsurprisingly stormy over the Orthodox Easter weekend, with fears that the traditional feast on Sunday would be 'indoors if wet'. In fact it had been much warmer here last December and January!

The usual activities – internet, reading, planning, laundry, religious epics on TV(!) – were interspersed with a good walk or two on the beach between squalls.

On Easter Sunday it proved fine enough to eat outdoors and the Fligos Family laid on a grand spread, with 3 spit-roast lambs cooked over glowing charcoal, as well as sausages, pork, salads, bread, chips and wine. Over the meal we talked with a couple from Canada who had just arrived – and knew our website!

Tuesday 17 April – To Ioanina – 195 miles (Altitude 1,570 ft)
Overnight at Avin fuel station on the Ioanina Ring Road. GPS: N 39.63455Ί  E 20.83607Ί

Leaving Ionion Beach it was 10 miles via Vartholomio and Gastouni to the New National Road/E55. Turning left towards Patras, we drove north through a drizzle of mist. After 3 miles a sign advertised LPG/Autogas in Tragana, 3 km away on the right - certainly easier to find in the Peloponnese now.

We joined the new motorway A5/E55, which bypasses Patras, running inland through several tunnels (free). Note that for the new ferry port at Patras it's better to keep left and along the sea front rather than taking the motorway. Our exit at 58 miles (signed Hospital and Rio Bridge) was just before the first toll point on the way to Corinth and Athens. Then we kept left for the Bridge (right is the old toll-free road to Athens). Traffic returning to the capital after Easter was surprisingly heavy.

At 60 miles we crossed the impressive Rio-Antirio suspension bridge spanning the Gulf of CGreece_2007_(14).JPGorinth (toll €13.20). The old ferries still run below the bridge, costing a little less if you have the time to wait. Once across we turned left on A5/E55 for Messalongi, a road that climbs to 600 ft/182 m with wide sea views. The line of cars, buses and coaches coming in the opposite direction, returning from the Easter holiday, was continuous and there was no space to park at the Olympus Plaza services where we usually have a break. We managed to stop in a layby for lunch at 71 miles.

Past the turn for Messalongi (a historic town that we've explored and camped in before) at 82 miles, we continued northwest, still with heavy traffic coming back. We had expected the roads to be quieter today, with a return to work, but it seems many Greeks have taken an extra day's holiday. Orthodox Easter is the big festival of the year, when families gather and city-dwellers return to their native villages. We noticed a Shell station with LPG at 88 miles -and decided to stop noting them up here as they are increasingly common in northern Greece.

Then a roundabout (2nd exit) opened onto a new 4-lane section of the A5/E55, bypassing the workaday town of Agrinio. This was a relief for our tyres and suspension, as the road had been potholed and patched in many places. Sadly, the smooth carriageway only lasted 34 miles before returning us to the bumpy and busy old road, though some day there should be a fine new route, the 'Ionia Odos' that will link Rio Bridge to the 'Egnatia Odos' motorway near Ioanina. 

The road was lined with many stalls selling strawberries, though with no price on display. In Amfilochia at 122 miles police were controlling the holiday traffic that came non-stop from the west (Lefkada, Preveza, Parga). We continued north up the side of the Amvrakikos Gulf, which was now a little less busy. The road twisted and climbed to Menidi at 138 miles (245 ft/75 m) before an easier stretch, entering Epirus region 3 miles later.

From Komboti at 144 miles another new section of dual carriageway was complete, bypassing Arta. After 3 miles of this we were able to turn off left at a roundabout to reach a Lidl store, less than a mile along on the outskirts of Arta. Then back on the new road we continued towards Ioanina in heavy rain. It was now 5.30 pm and shepherds under big black umbrellas were herding their flocks home along the muddy country lanes.

At 155 miles the new road ended, dumping us onto the deteriorating surface of old rd 5/E951. This led up a lovely green wooded river valley, reaching a max height of 1,752 ft/530 m before descending a little towards the unlovely industrial side of Ioanina. There is a shopping mall (with Jumbos and Ikea) at 186 miles, 2 miles before the interchange for the wonderful 'Egnatia Odos' motorway that crossed the country from the port of Igoumenitsa to Alexandroupolis, near the Turkish border.

Continuing towards Ioanina, past 'Praktiker' (DIY emporium), we turned left onto the Ring Road to bypass the crowded city centre. Part way round the Ring we spotted an Avin fuel station with plenty of space on the adjacent service road to our left, so doubled back to it at the next junction. Since the very nice man said there was no problem in parking overnight at the back, we bought petrol and were pleased to stop. It was dusk, still pouring with rain, and we much preferred it to 'Plan B' – continuing to the Ioanina campsite at the Nautical Centre on the side of the lake, which is awkward to access and probably waterlogged, if indeed open. The weather remained dismal overnight.

Wednesday 18 April – To Kalami Beach Camping, Plataria, nr Igoumenitsa – 55 miles
Open April to mid-Oct, see www.campingkalaribeach.gr.  Member of 'Sunshine Club' with discount for Minoan Lines passengers: €19.60 a night, incl electricity and free WiFi. GPS:  N 39.47346Ί  E 20.2392Ί

It was still wet and windy as we discussed options over breakfast. We had reached the decision point: whether to take the motorway in the direction of Grevena to return to western Europe overland through Macedonia and via either Serbia or Albania; or to take the motorway to Igoumenitsa for a ferry to Italy. The ferry would be quicker and less expensive (taking fuel and insurances into account), while a route via Serbia would be a new experience (we'd already motorhomed in Macedonia and Albania). Another factor was a new problem with the engine starter motor – not something we wanted to fail on a journey through countries with no full insurance and breakdown cover. Agreement was reached: we would take the ferry and save Serbia for another journey, with more time in a smaller vehicle.

It was 5 miles back to the 'Egnatia Odos' motorway, where we turned right for the ferry port of Igoumenitsa. This excellent 4-lane motorway climbs for 4 miles, including a short tunnel, to reach 2,200 ft/667 m just before the exit for Ancient Dodoni. We might have revisited this classical theatre had it not been so wild and wet. The toll point at 16 miles (down at 1,000 ft/303 m) charged €5 (€2 for a car + caravan), which seemed a bargain given the terrain. Climbing above 2,000 ft again, though with a gentle gradient, there was a rest area (no fuel) about half way to Igoumenitsa, before more short well-lit tunnels. What a piece of engineering through the bleak mountain landscape. At 43 miles there was a fuel station (with LPG too).

The exit for Igoumenitsa town centre was at 49 miles, then the motorway ended near the new ferry port a mile later. It was easy to park by the new Embarkation Terminal, which has ticket offices for all the ferries crossing to Italy (Brindisi, Bari, Ancona or Venice), as well as a cafe, toilets, Duty Free shop and Tourist Info, though the latter is usually closed. There was no sign at all of the wretched illegal immigrants who used to hang around the port in large numbers, so it felt quite safe to leave the motorhome while we went to check out the ferry times and fares.

There is less choice these days, since Superfast and ANEK have combined, with the same fares for Ancona. Minoan Lines (now part of  the Italian Grimaldi group) charge slightly less to Ancona but are no longer crossing to Venice, leaving ANEK without competition on that line. Endeavor Lines have the cheapest crossing, to Brindisi, if you want to drive the length of Italy. To summarise, for a single crossing with 2 adults (both over 60, so qualifying for a small reduction) and a motorhome in the 6-8 metre category, we were quoted:

€345 Minoan Lines to Ancona; €382 Superfast or ANEK to Ancona; €450 ANEK to Venice. All these allowed Camping on Board (from 1April to 31 October). The fare to Venice was higher than the brochure price, explained by 'fuel surcharges'. Passengers boarding earlier at Patras pay exactly the same. See www.superfast.com  www.anek.gr  www.minoan.gr  or www.endeavor-lines.com for details.

Choosing Minoan to Ancona, running every day except Wednesday, we booked for tomorrow and sail at midnight.

Along theIMG_3008.JPG road that climbs by the coast towards Parga, there is a seasonal campsite on the right just 6 miles from Igoumenitsa port. It is ACSI-listed, though not in the ACSI Card scheme. We were made very welcome by an English-speaking receptionist and soon settled next to the only other campers: a friendly Finnish couple on their way home from wintIMG_3025.JPGering in Turkey. It's a convenient site for the ferry, with good laundry and WiFi, though only a tiny shingle beach that took all of 5 minutes to walk along.

Checking the headlights before their compulsory use in Italy, Barry found one sealed unit not working. We had a spare which was awkward to fit and, as it turned out, the wrong electrical connection to the motorhome's plug. But a bodge will get us through to France where the nonsense of daytime headlights comes to an end.

Thursday 19 April – On board Minoan Lines 'Europa Palace' ferry from Igoumenitsa to Ancona
Camping on Board includes electric hook-up and access to toilets and showers on the Camping Deck. Internet is available on the ferry for a fee.

A leisurely day at the campsite, catching up with emails and writing, cleaning, etc. Barry worked on the starter battery problem and also a rear brake light that had stopped working. Both seem to be fixed – time will tell. The weather gradually improved, light rain and no wind, with a good forecast for tomorrow.

We left at 5 pm to drive down to the port, collected the ferry tickets (credit card OK) and drove through to leave the motorhome in the guarded harbour area when it opened at 6 pm. Still no sign at all of illegal immigrants, which is a big improvement. After walking along the sea front to Goodys (Greece's own fast-food chain) for a light meal, it was back to the motorhome to read and await the arrival of the ferries from Patras. Superfast came in at 11 pm, leaving as our Minoan ship came at 11.30 pm.

Most of the queue consisted of Bulgarian vans, some towing a car (strangely, as they usually bring them from Italy to sell!) Also a couple of German campers and a British horse box (with no horse). Installed on the half-empty Camping Deck, a crewman hooked us up to the power and we were asleep by 1 am.

ITALY

Friday 20 April – To Monte Roberto Services, Pantiere near Iesi – 26 miles (altitude 311 ft)
Overnight at eni/Agip fuel station on the SS76. GPS: N 43.488867Ί  E 13.19071Ί

A calm day at sea, self-catering, reading and writing. The Minoan Lines ferry was a good modern boat with the usual bars, restaurant and self-service cafe, but nothing of interest in the duty-free shop.

It was 5 pm Italian time (1 hour earlier than Greece) on arrival in Ancona. We followed the traffic and the signs for the A14 (Bologna direction) for 10 miles to the Ancona Nord junction, but didn't take the motorway. Instead we continued southwest on SS76, a good dual carriageway, looking for a place to park overnight. The first services, past Iesi and just before the exit for Monte Roberto, were ideal with a large empty parking area behind the cafe/shop. We checked with the staff, then settled for a peaceful night, joined by just one truck and an Italian campervan. It was much quieter than motorway service areas.

Saturday 21 April – To Camping Village/Hotel Green, Assisi, Umbria – 64 miles (altitude 754 ft)
Open 1 April to 31 Oct, see www.campingassisi.it. ACSI Discount Card €16 but not this week. High season rate: €34 camping inc 6 amp elec, or €25 parking on Camper Stop area with 3 amp elec. WiFi €2 per hr, €4 per 4 hrs, €6 per day, €10 per week. GPS:  N 43.07489Ί  E 12.57541Ί

Started the Italian day with cappuccino and warm croissants in the Services cafe (an excellent breakfast deal at €1.50 per person – less than a cup of coffee in Greece). Then we continued west on SS76 (signed for Rome) on a very windy morning.

The road climbed across the Marches, mainly dual carriageway with a few short tunnels. Past Fabriano it reached 1,895 ft/575 m at 30 miles, then descended to 1,200 ft/364 m over the next 2 miles, when it turned into a 4-lane motorway bound for Perugia through the misty hills of Umbria.

Sadly, the motorway was only complete for a further 10 miles, after which we were back on the twisty narrow road SS318. This climbed to a maximum of 1,919 ft/581 m, then rolled down and up, with a tantalising view of a new motorway being etched across the landscape to our left, with unfinished tunnels and bridges smoothing a future route.

Driving through the small town of Valfabbrica at 49 miles, now below 1,000 ft/303 m, was much easier than negotiating the narrow streets of the average Greek town, complete with double parking. Italian drivers are more courteous and tend to keep to their own side of the road round the bends. The Polizia are also more in evidence, keeping control.

At 54 miles we gratefully turned left onto a dual carriageway for Perugia/Assisi. After a tunnel, we took the exit onto SS147 signed for Airport and Assisi. Continue east past Ospedalicchio and the large camping village (formerly Camping Internazionale) is on the right, 3 km before the centre of Assisi.

We settled in and paid for a one-dIMG_3026.JPGay WiFi ticket (ending 24 hrs after first log-in). There is a shuttle bus 3 times a day into Assisi (€2.20 per person, each way) and Reception also has printed directions for a walking/cycling route (6 km) that avoids the busy main road. Saturday is the weekly market in the town but it's over by 1 pm.

After lunch we cycled into Assisi, following the 'bikeway'IMG_3045.JPG along a riverside track, through a farmyard, then up the steep pilgrims' path to enter the old walled city through the 14th century Porta San Francesco, round the corner from the large courtyard of  the enormous Basilica which dominates the surrounding slopes. St Francis (1182-1226), son of a rich Assisi draper, founded the Franciscan Order of mendicant monks and preached poverty, obedience and chastity. This seems hardly in keeping with the splendour of the decoration in the vast and opulent Basilica (actually 2 superimposed churches) built after his death and consecrated in 1253.

Margaret IMG_3052.JPGexplored the buildings: The stone tomb of St Francis lies in the Crypt below the Lower Basilica, where Mass was being celebrated in one of the many chapels. The singing was beautiful and there were no entry fees or pressure to make a donation. A Franciscan Abbot (looking exactly like Friar Tuck) hovered to take Confessions. The Upper Basilica is embellished with a cycle of frescoes by Giotto and his pupils, paintings which abandon the rigid traditions of  Byzantine art and herald the realism of the dawning RenaissaIMG_3055.JPGnce. There is also a Treasury Museum and a small Museum of Franciscan Relics, also free of charge. There were no queues or great crowds, just a small party of young dark-faced nuns in white robes and another group of Italian Sisters in black habits who looked much more serious.

Then we contiIMG_3057.JPGnued up Via San Francesco, the steep main street of the old city, lined with restored medieval and Renaissance stone houses, many now turned into restaurants, hotels and tourist shops. The Piazza del Comune square is the site of the ancient Roman Forum, where the 6 Corinthian columns of the Temple of Minerva are incorporated into the portico of the small Santa Maria Church. We climbed further, up to Rocca Maggiore (remains of a 14th C castle), with splendid views over Assisi and the countryside. then returned past the 12th C San Rufino Cathedral (where Francis himself was baptised) and the even larger church of Santa Chiara (St Clare, buried here, was a friend of St Francis and founder of the Order of Poor Clares). Our map also indicated St Peter's, a Romanesque church built by the Benedictines, but it was getting late ... at least it was mostly downhill back to the 'bikeway' and home  – a ride of 10 miles in all.

Sunday 22 April – At Camping Village/Hotel Green, Assisi, Umbria

A cold windy dull day, though the forecast storm didn't arrive. We used the internet and the laundry, baked bread and planned our onward route to France.

Asking the campsite receptionist why the High Season rate applied from 20 April (the day before we arrived!), we learnt that it is a week-long holiday period in Italy, with 25 April a national holiday on the anniversary of the 1945 surrender of the German army to the liberating British and American Forces (the Italians had already surrended on 8 September 1943). And then there is 1 May for Labour Day. No comment.

Monday 23 April – To Camping La Montagnola, Sovicille, nr Siena, Tuscany – 85 miles (altitude 900 ft)
Open Easter-30 September, see www.campingtoscana.it/montagnola.  ACSI Discount Card €16 inc 6 amp elec. No internet. N 43.28217Ί  E 11.21886 Ί

Going west on road SS147 towards Perugia, we turned left after 5 miles onto a busy dual carriageway, E45 signed for Firenze and Roma. At 22 miles after some short tunnels, it emerged at 900 ft/275 m by Lake Trasimeno and ran along the northern shore for the next 10 miles to the border of Tuscany. At 44 miles it met the A1 motorway (north to Florence, south to Rome) but we continued west for Siena on rd 326/E78, still a good dual carriageway.

Taking the exit for Sinalunga at 47 miles, we headed for the generous car park of a new Lidl visible on the left of the highway. An excellent place to shop and eat lunch; and what a contrast with Lidl stores in poor old Greece! There was a much wider range of food and drink – not only local specialities and wines but basic groceries, like baked beans, tinned peas and sardines in tomato sauce that are no longer stocked in the Peloponnese – and everything at lower prices in Italy. Having only stopped to buy fruit and veg, we left with a loaded trolley!

Back on rd 326 we reached over 1,000 ft/330 m before taking the exit at 72 miles onto E78 (2-lane road signed Siena Tangential/Florence). Then we turned right 2 miles later for Siena before joining the narrow rd 73 southwest. This twisted and turned through the Tuscan hills for 8 miles, past 2 smaller right turns signed Sovicille, then at Malignano we turned right on rd 37, at 82 miles. 

Approaching the village of Sovicille, look out for a left turn with a Camping sign (just before a small roundabout) and follow the lane for the last mile to a peaceful wooded campsite on the right. With marked pitches shaded by tall oaks, it reminded us of a typical French municipal site. There is a small shop and bar at Reception, where the friendly couple speak English and have bus timetables and tickets for visiting Siena (6 miles away. The bus stops at the camp gate, takes 20 minutes and costs €3 pp return.) ACSI Card rates apply (only Assisi appears to regard this week as High Season) and the only negative is the lack of internet. Actually that's a nice change, leaving more time to read!

There is another camp a mile or so north of Siena (Camping Colleverde) but it is expensive and we read reports of problems for larger vehicles, with narrow site roads and tight pitches.

24-26 April – At Camping La Montagnola, Sovicille, nr Siena, Tuscany

On Tuesday morning, our planned day in Siena was postponed due to heavy rain. Only one couple stood at the bus stop with umbrellas (British, of course!) The weather improved in the afternoon, when we went into Sovicille (a good walk on a footpath through the woods, full of birdsong and wild flowers including pink cyclamen). There is a free car park (large enough for motorhomes, of which there were three) at the edge of the village. In the medieval centre the Tourist Office was closed until 4 pm but we found the square, where the church, council offices and cafe/bar were open. The war memorial (for 1915-18) had a Fascist-looking statue dressed as a Roman soldier with a tin helmet! More appealing were the nicely restored stone houses with pantiled roofs. We returned past newer housing and a few shops; home for tea just before it rained once more.

Wednesday was dry and a National Holiday (anniversary of the 1945 'liberation'). After lunch we went a 5-mile clockwise circular walk through the Tuscan countryside, partly on quiet roads and partly woodland paths, past tidy vineyards and farms selling Chianti wine and olive oil. There were also a few fig trees (the name of the local village Sovicille is from the Greek for 'fig blossom'). The tiny hamlets – Trecciano, Piscialembita, San Giusto (with a 10th C parish church), Petriccio – sound quaint but consisted of private property with elaborate fences, locked gates and signs meaning 'keep out' and 'go away'. We did miss the freedom (and cafes) of roaming in Greece.

On Thursday, warm and sunny, we took the late morning bus into Siena (to the terminus in Piazza Gramsci). A pavement cafe provided disappointing pizzas for lunch (neither freshly cooked nor hot: cost €20 with 1 cola and 1 beer).

We wandered through the narrow Gothic streets to the Duomo (the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta or Our Lady of the Assumption), begun in the 13thC. The richly decorated white facade contrasted with the black and white bands of the more sober campanile but the area somehow lacked any feel of history or spirituality, with too many tour groups and school parties and none of the reverence sensed at Assisi. Security guards wearing black shades checked tickets at every entrance, with separate fees for each part (Cathedral, Crypt, Baptistry, Museum) or a 'bargain' ticket covering them all at €12 pp. We bought none.

Next we strolled on to the Piazza del Campo at the heart of the medieval city: a huge fan-shaped 'square' that slopes down to the long Palazzo Publico or Town Hall. This was the seat of government in Siena's golden era, when it was an independent republic, rich with trade and banking, to rival neighbouring Florence. At one end of the facade is a square tower, which can be climbed. The small chapel at its base was built in 1352 tofulfil a vow at the end of the Black Death that had plagued and decimated the city, marking the start of its decline. The Campo is also the site of the Palio delle Contrade Festival, held annually since the 17th century in honour of the Virgin Mary. Twice each year (2 July and 16 August) the whole town turns out for the procession of the contrade in medieval costume, who then compete in a frantic horse race round the 'square', with much betting on the results. The Palio is an effigy of the Virgin (the city's protectress) awarded to the winner. The Campo was busy enough for us today, we couldn't imagine the summer crowds!

Returning to Piazza Gramsci with half an hour in hand, we sat in the nearby La Lizza garden and enjoyed sunshine and ice cream, watching the pigeons courting under the eye of Garibaldi high on his horse. Finally, the no 33 bus delivered us to the campsite.

Friday 27 April – To Camper Parking, Via Pietrasanta, Pisa, Tuscany – 108 miles
Open all year. Large free car park behind Tamoil petrol station, next to bus and coach park. Toilets/cafe at bus station. No internet. N 43.72831Ί  E 10.38995 Ί

From Sovicille it was 7 miles via rd 73 back to the Siena ring road, then north on the dual carriageway for Florence. This was bumpy, with no hard shoulder and little space.

At 45 miles we took the A1/E35 toll motorway, much smoother with 4 wide lanes. Circuiting to the west of Florence, it was sunny down at 220 ft/67 m, with a view of snowy peaks to the north. Ten miles later it joined A11/E76 for Pisa/Genoa. The services at 75 miles (Serravalle North) were too crowded to park, but there was room in a rest area at 84 miles where it was warm enough to lunch outside. Exiting for Pisa Nord at 103 miles, we paid just €6.10 toll.

Driving south along the SS1 (Via Aurelia), we turned off left at the sign for Centro then into the car and coach park on the left behind a Tamoil fuel station. Importantly for us, it is shortly before a short tunnel under the railway with only 3.3 m headroom!

We had believed this to be the official 'Camper Parking' for Pisa, with water, dump and an overnight fee of a few Euros. It's even listed in our Caravan Club guidebook. However, things change. The area with water etc is now fenced off, for coaches and buses only, with a notice giving the location of the new Camper Park:  N 43.72170Ί  E 10.42131Ί  on Via di Pratale. This lay beyond the low bridge! Nevertheless, there were several campervans and motorhomes parked along one side of the free car park, so we joined them and investigated.

The men in a pay-cabin on the coach park told us they were not the Tourist Info office! The staff at the bus station said the car park was free but they had no idea if campers were allowed. The motorhomers we spoke to (both German and English) said they'd parked since yesterday, with no problem. It was exactly half a mile from the Cathedral, with a shuttle bus for those unable to walk in. We stayed.

We strolled along past the souvenir stalls to the Piazza del Duomo, the gleaming white marble of the graceful complex contrasting beautifully with the vivid green lawns and sunny blue sky. The 'Leaning Tower of Pisa' is of course world famous but this campanile is just one of the four magnificent buildings that comprise the finest architectural ensemble in Italy, if not Europe – the Baptistry, Cloistered Cemetery, Cathedral and Bell Tower. Newly cleaned and restored (though still leaning!), the Tower is now open to climb the spiral stair to the belfry. However, with a fee of €15 pp, a long wait for the next group admittance, not to mention signs warning that the strenuous climb (of 300 ft = 91m) is unsuitable for those suffering vertigo or dizziness, we were content to marvel at the columns of Carrara marble and stroll around the Piazza, camera in hand. There were small entry fees for each of the other buildings (Cathedral €3).

Pisa, once a Roman naval base, grew into an important maritime republic, the ruler of Sardinia and Corsica, rivalling Genoa and Venice. It reached the height of its power and prosperity by the 13th C, when the university and fine buildings of the Piazza were constructed. Eventually Pisa fell to the Florentine Medicis but remained important in the world of science. Its most famous son was astronomer/physicist Galileo (1564-1642), who dropped objects from the Tower to investigate gravity and formed his theory about the movement of a pendulum after watching the lamp swing near the Cathedral pulpit. The Camposanto (at the centre of the Cemetery) contains earth that the Crusaders brought from the Hill of Calvary in the Holy Land. The Cemetery also contains numerous Greco-Roman sarcophagi.

This was our third visit to Pisa – as impressive as ever. Back at the car park, by evening there were 24 motorhomes of varying size and nationality and we all had an undisturbed night.  

FRANCE

Saturday 28 April – To Canaver Services, A8 near Frejus, Provence – 260 miles (alt 109 ft)
Overnight at Motorway Services west of exit 37: GPS: N 43.46661Ί  E 6.67367Ί

After returning 5 miles north on SS1, we joined the toll motorway A12 northbound and spent the whole day following the coastline on Italian and French motorways (about 30 miles of that in tunnels!)

At 28 miles we passed Carrara, on the edge of the limestone massif of the Alpi Apuane. The marble quarries here have been worked since Roman times, Michelangelo came in person to select blocks of the pure white stone to sculpt, and marble works are still to be seen along both sides of the highway.

After La Spezia the A12 (Autostrada Azzurra) climbs inland to over 1,000 ft/ 330 m, through many short tunnels and across viaducts, to avoid the rugged coast of the Cinqueterre Riviera. At 91 miles near Genoa we joined A10/E80, the Autostrada dei Fiori, along the coast to the French border. The first 10 miles was a narrow 4-lane highway miles to Voltri, where it improved with 6 lanes and countless tunnels. Being a long weekend holiday (for May Day), the traffic was extremely busy, with a major hold up for 5 miles between the port of Savona (junction with the A6 from Turin) and the exit for Spotorno on the Italian Riviera. Traffico Intensivo as the warnings said, while the temperature reached 24ΊC at noon.

After lunch in the Andora Services (complete with motorhome waste dump), we continued to Ventimiglia, paid a final Italian toll of €36.60 (credit card OK), and crossed the border into France at about 200 miles. Welcome to the Cote d'Azur.

Over the next 12 miles the A8 motorway climbed to 1,519 ft/460 m, then dropped steeply to 80 ft/24 m, with a toll point (€3.30) at the bottom. Another toll (€6.50) was paid 11 miles later, which lasted 24 miles to a booth where we collected a ticket for the onward stretch. French motorways are generally excellent, with good services where you can park freely overnight, but the tolls (Class 3) are an expense. Smaller campervans and caravans cost less, as Class 2. However, we did find fuel is now cheaper than both Italy and Greece.

We stopped at a new service station with a spacious parking area designated for campers/caravans, away from the trucks, equipped with a Flot Bleu for water and waste. There was even a McDonalds, providing free WiFi to check emails while eating. The burgers were followed by dessert in the motorhome: Panforte Margherita, a delicious almond cake with candied fruit (orange, lemon and melon), which is a speciality of Siena. We saw them in all the bakeries in that city, though ours came from Lidl and was excellent!

Sunday 29 April – To Services de l'Aveyron, Severac-le-Chateau, Auvergne – 254 miles (alt 2,400 ft)
Overnight at Motorway Services by exit 42 on A75: GPS: N 44.33040Ί  E 3.08235Ί

Continuing west on the smooth wide toll motorway A8/E180, the traffic was much quieter than yesterday, with very few trucks. After a rainy night the weather was fresher, misty on the hills, as we gradually climbed to 1,000 ft/303 m after 40 miles. The tolls – the first being after 62 miles near Aix-en-Provence - were usually automatic, displaying the amount due, to be paid by inserting credit card or cash (change given) into the appropriate slot.

At 87 miles in Salon-de-Provence we turned due west onto A54, paying an exit toll at St Martin-de-Crau. The N113 (free highway) continued past Arles, crossing the Grand Rhone at 114 miles. In this area of wetland around the Rhone Estuary and the Camargue, green rice paddies were planted along the roadside. Rejoining A54 toll motorway at 116 miles, we soon crossed the Petit Rhone, the border between Provence and the Languedoc Region.

Near Nimes we joined toll motorway A9 (the Languedocienne) at 132 miles, to drive southwest for Montpellier – the route taken by the Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Italy and Hispania through Gallia Narbonensis in what is now southern France. The big service station at Ambrussum at 146 miles was full of trucks but we found space for lunch on the Aire de Nabrigas rest area 4 miles further along.

Taking exit 31 west of Montpellier (32 might have been better!), we followed the SatNav and road signs for Millau via the D132. At 168 miles it was left onto A750, to join the A75 la Meridienne) northbound 21 miles later. These motorways are free until Clermont Ferrand, apart from the Millau Bridge toll.

The scenery was stunning as we climbed high above Lodeve, past a 500 m altitude sign (1,650 ft). At 212 miles, height 2,545 ft/770 m, we entered the Midi-Pyrenees Region in the Parc Naturel Regional des Grands-Causses. The last services before Millau Bridge (at 220 miles, up at 2,640 ft/800 m) have good food and shops but no fuel.

Ten miles later, the modern bridge, Millau Viaduc, is stunning. We have crossed it shrouded in cloud but today we had a clear view of the Gorge du Tarn and the town of Millau way below. It is the world's highest suspension bridge, with a length of 1.375 miles or 2.5 km. Once across you can park in a large rest area and walk a gusty path to the viewpoint – literally breathtaking. The bridge toll is paid on the north side: €23.50 in our case.

The free motorway keeps climbing to a col at 2,930 ft/888 m before the gradual descent. We took exit 42 (towards Rodez) and almost immediately turned into a large service station on the left. This proved a good overnight stop, with a view of the floodlit hilltop castle of Severac-le-Chateau. As in many French service stations, showers are available for €2.

Monday 30 April – To Camping La Valette, Sazeret, Nr Montmarault, Auvergne – 171 miles (altitude 1,579 ft)
Open 1 April-30 September, see www.valette.nl/English.htm. ACSI Discount Card €16 incl 6-amp elec. Free WiFi. N 46.35915Ί  E 2.99294Ί

Rain gave way to early morning sun, as we woke to see a rainbow over Severac. Back on the northbound A75, we almost reached 3,000 ft/900 m before dropping to cross the River Lot down at 997 ft/300 m 14 miles along. 

Climbing once more to a col (3,700 ft or 1121 m) at 31 miles, it was drizzly again with a cold wind. This high country is a magnificent landscape of rolling pine forest and green slopes clothing the lava domes or Puys of the Massif Central. Descending the wooded valleys, we were rapidly crossing the contours on the GPS screen, with an emergency stopping lane on the bends.

After 87 miles, at Lafayette Services in the Haute Loire, a windy 10-minute walk led up to a viewpoint and orientation table, with a panorama of the chain of dormant peaks of the Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans. Some were still snow-capped, including the Puy-de-Dome.

The free A75 motorway ended at 124 miles near Clermont Ferrand and we dutifully took our toll ticket for the onward A71, stopping for lunch in the next rest area. It was still rainy as we drove through the Gorges of the Sioule River, now at 1,750 ft/530 m.

Exit 11 at 167 miles (for Montmarault and Sazeret) is only 4 miles from a Dutch-run campsite on an old farm. The first 3 miles, northeast on N79, were easy but after turning left (signed) the final mile is a very narrow country lane with no passing places. It was a relief to arrive without meeting any oncoming vehicles.

Tuesday 1 May – At Camping La Valette, Sazeret, Nr Montmarault, Auvergne
A French national holiday, with all shops etc closed. We had a quiet rest day at the campsite, using the WiFi for emails and ferry booking. The site restaurant looked good but was not open.
There were hens, a dog, cats, pet rabbits, a pony ... and too many low trees for high vehicles.

Wednesday 2 May – To Camping Municipal de Guerame, Alencon, Normandy – 264 miles (altitude 437 ft)
Open 1 April-31Oct. €14.30 incl 10-amp elec. Free WiFi in Common Room.  N 48.42567Ί  E 0.07357Ί

Returning 4 miles to junction 11 of the toll motorway A71, we headed northwest. Rich green pastures were grazed by the blond Charolais cattle that thrive here. At 29 miles we dropped from 1,200 ft to 600 ft (363 m to 182 m) to cross the River Cher, the border between the Auvergne and the Centre Region. The 'Centre de France' service station provided a break, 20 miles later.

Continuing north we crossed a wooded plateau with deer fencing, alternating with open agricultural land. Fields were of gold (oilseed rape) or pale green with wheat. A lunch break at 89 miles was in the Aire de la Chausee de Cesar – no wonder the Romans settled and farmed this well watered land. At 96 miles, past Vierzon, we turned west onto A85, which crossed the Cher again and shadowed it through flat low country dotted with ponds and canals.

There was a toll to pay at 159 miles, 2 miles before we met A10 and turned right (northbound), over the Loire at Tours. The short section of motorway across the bridge was toll-free, but not for long! We exited onto A28 for Le Mans at 173 miles, travelling north along the valley of Le Loir (masculine, not to be confused with La Loire, feminine!)

The services of Sarthe Touraine at 195 miles didn't look good for overnight (too sloping, with only space among noisy trucks), so we carried on, crossing the river near the pretty town of Chateau-du-Loir. At 228 miles near Le Mans it was west onto A11for 5 miles, then north again on A28.

Knowing a good municipal camp, we took Exit 19 (Alencon South) at 259 miles, then D338 towards the centre of Alencon. Follow the SatNav and look out for campsite signs. There is an entry barrier at the campsite, with Reception open until 8 pm. Outside the entrance is a motorhome service point and small parking area, which can accommodate late arrivals.

Thursday 3 May – At Camping Municipal de Guerame, Alencon, Normandy

The site was surprisingly quiet and peaceful, with privately hedged grassy pitches. We made good use of free internet in the cosy TV room and appreciated the sunny weather, enabling us to clean the outside of the motorhome and dry some laundry outdoors.

It's a short walk from the Municipal de Guιramι campsite into the historic lace-making town and departmental capital of Alencon. On our first visit (the site used to be open all year) we were so impressed that we produced a report and photos which MMM magazine published in Nov 2002.

In the evening a lone English cycle-tourist arrived, Robin, on his way from Caen to Provence. It was good to talk with him over a pot of tea, reminiscing about the days when roads were much quieter, the Cyclists Touring Club past and present, and our late friend Ian Hibell.

Friday 4 May – To Cherbourg, Normandy for the Celtic Link ferry 'Celtic Horizon' (bound for Rosslare, Republic of Ireland) – 166 miles (Sea level!)
Overnight crossing with a 2-berth cabin. Internet is available on the ferry for €5 per hour.

We left Alencon on the ring road to the west, stopping at a huge Carrefour to buy a bumper box of croissants and pains au chocolats for the journey. It was 5 miles round to the N12, then 4 miles east to Alencon North junction on A28.

At 22 miles we turned onto a new motorway, A88, northwest towards Caen. It was drizzling with rain and misty, up at 800 ft/240 m, as we paid our last toll at 44 miles. After Falaise (with a castle where William the Conqueror was born), the highway was toll-free - and also free of service stations, fuel or rest places. This is battle-torn Normandy and we passed signs for Commonwealth War Graves and a Polish Cemetery.

Onto the Caen Peripherique at 70 miles, then 8 miles clockwise to exit 8 onto N13 for Bayeux and Cherbourg. The services at 117 miles, just before Carentan, were the first since Alencon. We gratefully refuelled, though there was no space to park.

With time in hand (the ferry sails at 10 pm), we turned off at 122 miles onto D913 and took a diversion through St Marie du Mont to Utah Beach, just 12 km (7 miles) away, along the lane marked as the Voie de Liberte. Opposite the new museum lies a huge free car park, with areas designated for buses and motorhomes.

Utah Beach was the furthest west of the 5 beaches designated for the D-Day landings in June 1944. See www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utah_Beach. After lunch we took a rainy walk across to the beach, to see the memorials of 'Operation Overlord' and monuments to the American forces. At Le Roosevelt internet cafe and gift shop, inside the former radio operators' bunker, there is a small display of wartime memorabilia. It is dwarfed by a huge modern museum that includes a hangar complete with a WW2 US bomber plane – entry fee €7.50 for seniors and (incredibly) 'free for Veterans', who would now be well into their 80s or 90s!

Returning to N13, via St Marie du Mont and then D70, we continued north on the rainy dual carriageway. At 148 miles we slipped off into Valognes. On the main road through the town there is motorhome parking signed on the left, opposite Lidl and next to Carrefour. After this final chance to shop, we rejoined N13 for Cherbourg.

At 158 miles we turned right (signed Car Ferry and Tourlaville) to avoid the town centre and reached the port 8 miles later. Brittany Ferries, Irish Ferries and Celtic Link share the terminal, with a large free long-term car park at: N 49.64525Ί  W 01.60146Ί  Interesting to be west of Greenwich at last! The adjacent Esso fuel station had the lowest prices seen in France (€1.549 petrol, €1.399 diesel) but was unstaffed, so we couldn't ask whether foreign credit cards worked – and we'd already filled up.

The terminal cafe/bar offered good basic meals and we joined the Irish truckers, tucking in to sausage, egg and chips. Our ferry to Rosslare (see www.celticlinkferries.com) was the only boat still to sail tonight, carrying mostly trucks with very few private vehicles. The check-in opened at 8.30 pm and we sailed promptly at 10 pm. We went straight to our 2-berth outside cabin (en-suite, 2 floor-level beds, no TV) and slept well.  

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND

Saturday 5 May –To Apple Farm Camping & Caravan Park, Cahir, Tipperary, Ireland – 82 miles
Open 1 May-30 Sept. See www.theapplefarm.com/camping.htm   €15.50 inc 13-amp elec and free showers. Free WiFi in Common Room. No dogs.  N 52.37668Ί  W 7.84340

We were up early for breakfast on board the Celtic Link ferry from Cherbourg – in fact, too early as ship's time was Irish time and we hadn't put our watches back one hour! But it was worth the wait and very good value at €4.90 for a 'continental' or €7.90 for a 'full Irish', both very generous and with unlimited tea or coffee.

We arrived in Rosslare, Co Wexford, after 16 hours and on time at 1 pm. The only parking at the port was a small 'Pay & Display' so we drove straight out onto the N25, immediately confronted by the anomaly of this wonderful Republic – driving on the left but observing prices in Euros. Petrol at €1.65 is about the same price as France. Don't know about England – yet!

(to be continued