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Pippins in the Balkans 2012 PDF Printable Version E-mail


Batting Round the Balkans

A 2-month Ruby Wedding Tour in the Spring & Summer of 2012

England - France - Germany - Austria - Slovenia - Croatia - Montenegro -  Albania - Greece - Albania - Macedonia - Bulgaria - Romania - Hungary - Austria - Germany - Luxembourg - Belgium

Rosemary Newton

Final Update 3 July 2012

Rosemary and Andy travel in a Rapido 746F, which they have had since the untimely death of their previous motorhome, Tilly, in Bulgaria in 2005. The dramatic and laconic account of the drowning of Tilly after 11 years of faithful service, and the subsequent bureaucratic battles with the Bulgarian Customs and UK Insurance Companies, is well told athttp://www.pippins.me.uk/2005/2005_bulgaria.htm.

Since 2001 the Newtons have motorhomed in France, Turkey, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece and now the Balkans, as well as travels within the UK, covered in their own website. Andy now has his own website'Pippins', by the way, refers both to the apples they would like to grow and the name of their house in England.

Since 2007 they have aimed to travel for 2 months in May and June, and again in September and October. We are all fortunate to be able to look over their shoulders, in words and pictures, and thereby experience Europe afresh.

See their Travel Logs on this website: Pippins in the Peloponnese in 2010 and Switzerland and Beyond by Motorhome Summer 2011

Here is Rosemary's Travel Log for the Balkans:

INTO FRANCE 

Tuesday 1 May. We left Shaftesbury in the rain. Is this a good omen, at the start of a trip that will eventually hopefully reach Bulgaria? The weather gradually improved as we went east, and after crossing the Channel we found bright sunshine. We drove south and stopped at Blaton, near Cambrai, beside a large Romanesque church.

INTO GERMANY 

Wednesday 2 May. A lovely bright morning that soon gave way to heavy rain. Looking at the fields I don't think we are alone in having lots of rain. The SatNav took our route further north than I had expected via Kaiserslautern and we eventually decided that we fancied going over the Grossglockner, which meant a dive south to an aire at Aalen, a leafy spot.

I have purchased a ipod touch to make it easier to keep in touch abroad, and tonight tried the voice activated app. This resulted in someone singing who I just could not stop - while Andy was having trouble with his computer and thought it had broken!

I've bought so many things to do I could sit in the van for the next two months and not be bored. Generally however we are travelling much lighter as I had a good sort out and was amazed to find how often we were carrying 2 of things! Must have cleared out at least a quarter of what we usually carry.

INTO AUSTRIA

Thursday 3 May. A shorter drive today. Round Munich in indifferent weather, then we had the usual anguish whether we needed a vignette at the Austrian border. The trouble is that not only motor ways need them, so in the end we bought one, though on reflection I don't think we needed to! Always an annoying worry. On to a very pleasant site mid-afternoon at Neunbrunnen. Interesting to notice how many cowslips we have seen but no sign of bluebells at all.

We went for a local walk through fields and a village. It's always amazing how old some of the houses are - these were dated 1600-ish and looked almost identical to some of the new ones.

Tonight I had my first go at messaging and face-to-face calling, similar to Skype. Isn't it sad - old ladies with young people's technology! It must be the biggest time waster ever! However tonight I started baby knitting, so there is competition.

Friday 4 May. We were up early as wanted to spend the whole day on the Grossglockner pass. In case you have not visited, this Austrian pass was built as a tourist route in the 1930's to provide employment during the Depression. It is very spectacular with many hairpin bands and viewpoints, which we used to our advantage today. It had only opened on May 1st, and had very high snowdrifts either side as we got higher. As we approached we were amused to see a flock of cyclists in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats, on old-fashioned bikes, who looked charming.

We had a walk up a side road with even wider views, closed at present to traffic - a good job we did as subsequent foot paths were under many feet of snow. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth had hiked to the glacier and much is named after them. After dinner overlooking the glacier, we dropped down, with smelling brakes, to the valley and a site at Oberdrauburg near Lienz, which is very pleasant and quiet but also has internet access so I must make sure I don't waste another evening. Mind you it was nice to read some Oscar Wilde while I stirred the dinner - but I could have done that with a real book.

The site is in a very useful position on the road to the Plockenpass on the route to Italy, as well as Istria and beyond. The views are excellent and the usual rather sad static caravans that fill sites in Switzerland and Austria do not mar the site.

VIA ITALY AND SLOVENIA INTO CROATIA 

Saturday 5 May. We drove along the Gail valley and then took the motorway south briefly into Italy before turning into Slovenia along the Dolinka Valley. It was very attractive but the road surface was appalling, (and it was only along the motorway that the surface improved). The Soca Valley joined us, an area we have explored before. It was the site of a great deal of fighting and massive loss of life during WW1.

The impressive motorway  swept us round Ljubljana (which we have visited before and would recommend for a city break), then on another poor road to the border with Croatia at Merkita. Here the road improved a bit and we drove around Karlovac, having yet another argument with the satnav before eventually finding our site, Slapic Camping near Duga Resa.

The site is pleasant enough but there is very little to do here. It is near a pleasant slow river but with no footpaths alongside to enjoy it, surrounded by pleasant but unremarkable scenery and scattered habitation.

Sunday 6 May. We woke to sunshine, which had given way to showers before we had even got the breakfast on to the table. We had considered revisiting the Plitvice Park, which has most spectacular tufa limestone waterfalls, but the weather did not seem inspiring and as we later had heavy rain, we were right. We decided to move on down to the coast, using the motorways after all the poor roads yesterday! It was £15 well spent as we swept easily southeast.

Inland the houses are scattered throughout the countryside; it is interesting how countries vary. We noticed previously that Poland was the same but at the border with the Czech Republic most houses were in villages, as they are in Romania and largely in England. There were also many unfinished houses built largely of breezeblocks, as well as a few old 'wild west' style houses built of tree trunks. There was no sign of the bullet holes we had seen on our first visit to Croatia ten years ago.

There were lots of well-marked cycle tracks throughout.

I think that most of Europe has had bad weather this weekend. It was certainly promised for the Alps and we drove through torrential rain today, though the temperature did rise from 12 to 20 degrees as we approached the coast. The vegetation turned to low scrub and habitation almost died out as the motorway swept out towards Pag, although there were still traces of snow on the tops of the surrounding mountains.

We found the site recommended by Sue and Ian on the attached island of Murter (south of Zadar) called Camping Plitka Vala and found a spot right beside the sea in time for a late lunch. We camped on the landward side of the island and were quite protected. However there was a strong breeze blowing and it was very grey and overcast

So many of the campsites are pleasant enough but there is nothing to do from the site. Here however there are walks along beside the sea to neighbouring towns in both directions, which suits us admirably. I had a wander in the afternoon and got to the outskirts, promising to return when rain did not threaten, hopefully tomorrow. During dinner it came on to rain quite hard; the Med does not look very blue as I write - more battleship grey!

Monday 7 May. A tremendous storm early morning with torrential rain. It was gradually getting better by the time we got up and after jobs we wandered along the shore into Betina. It is a quiet unspoilt little village. On the way we crossed lots of little bridges across tiny slipways; the village was known for boat building and this is still carried on, giving the village a good atmosphere. I am amazed how few people are about; there were a few more yesterday, getting their houses ready for the season, but today everywhere is almost deserted. The campsite has about a dozen resident Germans with motorhomes and encampments, who have probably spent all winter here; otherwise it is quiet.

We wandered further into the adjacent town of Murter, which I did not feel was as nice, and bought a picnic in the supermarket to eat on the sea front, whilst the clouds gathered and started to look threatening. However the dark clouds swept passed us and went inland, so we wandered back to Betina where we had a beer and I sketched before returning to the van. It is very warm and pleasant in the sunshine but not so good when it goes in.

Tuesday 8 May. After rain in the night, it dawned bright and warm and I was able to eat my breakfast outside at last. We then followed the coast path round, a lovely old road, which I think was previously the main road before it was superseded. The smells and flowers were really lovely, as were the views. Eventually we walked through a much larger and more organised site than ours, where there was one enormous encampment - about 8 posh gazebos, including lounges, a dining room and even an exercise room with table football and exercise bike, all topped with a German flag. I'd have been too embarrassed.

We reached the pleasant town of Tisno and walked along the lovely path beyond - just what Croatia does best - promenades and beaches shaded by pines! After lunch on the beach we watched a fishing boat put out what I think is called a Seine Purse net (I've remembered that from lessons 50 years ago!) The fishing boat sent away a smaller boat, which kept the line, then went in a large circle paying out the line and eventually a net. The boats then hauled in the line and eventually came together to haul in the net, which as far as we could see only held one very large black fish!

After wandering round the little town and buying ices, we wandered back along the path which was now often in the shade. We relaxed back at the site, which was lovely till a strong and rather chilly wind got up once more, I managed to finish my painting, but we had to eat dinner indoors and it was too cold to sit out even when the wind dropped later.

Wednesday 9 May. We had an uneventful day driving south through pleasant coastal scenery to Rozac AutoCamp, beside the historic Venetian town of Trogir. We visited the town on our last visit but it was very rushed because the parking was very expensive; today we were well positioned on a good site. After a leisurely lunch, we decided to catch up with ourselves and found the washing machine. We were parked beside the sea, which was lovely at first until the usual mistral wind got up and it was really breezy, but chilly when sitting out of the wind and sun! At least the washing dried in no time! The site has many of the sweet smelling bushes I have seen in so many gardens - can anyone identify it?

Thursday 10 May. We were up in good time and, rather than wait for the bus, we walked into town along a rather busy road to start with, then down a very interesting lane through old houses, look out on your right!

We came out onto the waterfront and the view over the town, straight onto the bridge. We had an extremely happy day wandering round and round the little streets, full of interesting old Venetian houses, coffee in the Cathedral Square where we caught up with our emails and I sketched the cathedral. We continued to stroll up and down the quay and had lunch there trying a mixed plate of meats, which was an experience but we can't manage it again! We visited the excellent market, buying lovely strawberries, asparagus and cherries - there are piles of them everywhere! We went back to a café in the square, where I tried iced tea and found it surprisingly drinkable. It's often difficult to find something if I don't want coffee or freshly squeezed orange juice. We then walked back uphill to the site.

We spent a very pleasant evening with two other English couples from the site, swapping experiences.

Friday 11 May. A rather frustrating day!!  We were up as usual for a good start and set off for a site we enjoy at Baska Polja, near Makarska. (We have visited twice before - once 10 years ago, when it still showed signs of its communist glory days, and 3 years ago, when it was faded but full of happy ghosts!) We swept in but were very disappointed to find it closed. We had visited in later May before and did not think there would be a problem. We tried 2 other sites in the area: one we did not like and the other was closed. There were interesting ships of traditional design in many of the tiny harbours down the coast. We had lunch with a view and then went for the ferry at Ploce over to the isthmus of Leljesac.

The 2.30 pm ferry was there waiting but as Andy crossed the road to buy the ticket it sailed - next one 7.30 pm! Rude words! And a big discussion - did we wait, drive round (no) or just head on to get to Montenegro early. But will any sites be open, as we seem to be early, despite all the books saying May is best! Would it be nice to have a few more days of rest before we move on to something more challenging?

In the end we decided just to wait, which is where I write this! We do have a lovely view and I'm just about to go out to see if I can walk round the wooded peninsula opposite.

Saturday 12 May. We got pretty fed up with the wind, I don't know how the locals put up with it all the time but it died down later and we boarded the ferry without problems. However it was almost dark by the time we disembarked after the hour's crossing, which seemed to be a very long time for just a short hop! We decided to stop on the quay at Trpan rather than find a site in the dark. In the morning we went shopping for bread and then took a delightful path beside the sea, full of flowers and flowering shrubs; the honeysuckle was a pale yellow/pink.

We set off or so we thought for Orebic across the island, only to find the entire road dug up with no other route offered. We retraced our steps with difficulty and then found a new road, which was obviously the new route but without signposts to tell us! We then reached Orebic, only to find another planned campsite closed and a very difficult backing up! I had wanted to visit the town as it sounded interesting but we were much put off by crowds and road works, so when we did not find the second planned site called Nevio, we decided to press onto Loviste, to Camping Denka which we knew was open – it did not disappoint.

Loviste is a quiet remote seaside village, undeveloped and charming, with a lovely campsite where we were warmly welcomed. I had emailed before to check they were open so I was greeted with kisses and sat chatting to the owners over a welcoming glass of wine. We discussed the wild boar that had been digging up the garden, the cost of sending children to university, being a 'pensionaire' as they called it, Tito, politics, Bosnia and the Serbs plans for a greater Serbia, the Euro crisis, and our plans including Albania. We were warned about all the rubbish (I had heard about this and the fact it washes up on Croatian shores, which are generally so very clean); and much else! Most interesting. We left them for a late lunch with armfuls of salad, feeling rather light headed as breakfast had been quite early!

We had a leisurely stroll round the bay this afternoon; everything was much as it had been when we visited here 3 years ago; it felt like coming home! The site is well protected from the winds and we are just a tiny road's width away from the sea.

Sunday 13 May. We woke to milky sunshine and I collected bread from the local shop round the bay, then went for a walk along the shore away from the village, then over the top to a bay on the opposite side. There were many flowering shrubs including dog roses, cistus and honeysuckle, and butterflies: one blue one and a larger black with white spots. The wind was blowing straight into the bay and the end was so full of the rubbish that had been spoken of yesterday. There was also a collection of fisherman' s tackle, and above it a memorial to 5 partisans who died in 1942 and mention of the Italian fascists. It was interesting that the hammer and sickle had been erased from the monument. We have seen memorials all over Croatia, in streets and beside the road. We had noticed that the hammer and sickle had featured on several of the gravestones in the graveyard we saw yesterday. But as our owner said yesterday, by and large Tito's times had been good times for the people of Yugoslavia, or so they remember.

We returned for lunch and too much of the excellent bread. I was horrified to see a large snake - a yard long - slithering along beside the wall beside him. Biggest I've seen outside captivity. I was quite sure he was a grass snake but it was a bit much all the same! After a sit we were about to have another walk when Vladimir, the owner, said we had to come now for more wine and we were ushered into their cabin beside the informal veranda bar. He insisted we had some of their dinner - lamb and vegetables, cooked by putting into a covered pan and covering with hot ashes in a large open oven, and then being left. When this was dished up, they put in bread. It was delicious but difficult to do justice to. We then sat and drank more wine and the cider we bought and talked to their neighbour, whose husband had fought with the partisans and had been body guard to Winston Churchill's son, when he was in Croatia.

Later the sky darkened and Vladimir hoped for rain to help his garden.

Monday 14 May. A very wet night, followed by a chilly and damp day! The view remains nice but often blotted out by rain. I can see those large traditional boats sailing past the mouth of the inlet, presumably on their way to Korcula.

I managed a short walk round the bay to the shop for bread this morning. They were kind enough to let me pay for things I got yesterday, when I discovered I had not brought enough money! Imagine that in Shaftesbury!

The palm tree we are parked beside, and whose shade we were so grateful for when we arrived, make a rustling noise in the wind and rain. It has geraniums and even a fig growing in the folds of its trunk - have these been planted or does that occur naturally?

Hoping for better weather tomorrow as we are aiming to cross into Montenegro - to pastures new and out of our comfort zone!

INTO MONTENEGRO 

Tuesday 15 May. We woke to milky sunshine and I wandered round the bay again for bread and a top up of supplies in the little shop. A posh yacht had arrived in the bay but the rusty dredger, which dominates the central harbour, had gone. We said our goodbyes to Camping Dinka and Loviste and headed off south down the peninsula. We drove through a wine growing area; the vines were kept very short indeed, new growth on a basic trunk only about a foot tall, and no wires or training. We also noticed abandoned villages on the hillsides.

We drove past Ston with its saltpans and enormous walls, which we visited on our last visit, then on past Dubrovnik, which we have also visited before. We had lunch overlooking the city. We then drove on to the border over a road, which was being rebuilt by taking it up completely! When we reached the border the gentleman who looked at our passport could not understand why we were going to Montenegro. He only let us go when we listed the places we had camped in Croatia and we emphasised how much we liked it!

We entered Montenegro with no problem. The official's first words were 'no EU'. He proceeded to look at everything, saying it was taking so long due to trouble with his computer, but in fact took no time at all. There was nothing extra to pay and we drove on. First impressions were that it was much like Croatia but with more petrol stations, which were more expensive, and more large supermarkets!

Second impressions were that the ribbon development went on for a very long time. However we reached the Bay of Tivat, a noted bay which in its turn gives access to the bay of Kotor: amazing views all the way round, steep-sided cliffs with the road and occasional villages clinging to the edge.

There were so many ladies of all ages wearing black - just ordinary clothes. We had heard of the terrible driving though so far have no evidence, except that in a car coming towards us as we waited at traffic lights was a child aged about 3 sitting on his driving father's lap.

We noted a campsite at Bijela but drove on past a shipyard and a ferry cutting off the long drive round. We passed several attractive villages before reaching the campsite we were aiming for, Autocamp Naluka, which was closed. As we could not find Camping Morinj, we returned to Camping Zlotkovic and a very welcoming owner. The site has many ancient caravans in various states of repair, and a few damp pitches for tourers that are well supplied with electricity and water (15 euros). Already here are a Swiss, a French and a German van, with Czech campers. The owner has helpfully supplied us with a list of Montenegrin campsites, promised to find bus times for tomorrow and reassured me about a road we were hoping to take.

We took a stroll along the promenade, where everyone was getting ready for the season, whilst the busy shipyard towered over all.

Wednesday 16 May. We woke to find more grey skies and rain, still very chilly! The Swiss couple next door were very helpful in telling us where they had been in Albania, which I guess would be roughly our route, now we know it works! We waited for the 9.30 bus for quite a long while and, when it did arrive, proved to be old and in quite a poor state, though nothing like as bad as that we had travelled in Romania! The chair rested back at an alarming angle and nothing I could do would make it sit up. We reached Perast easily, to find ample parking where we could have put the van or even spent the night! We live and learn.

The town was a delight - beautiful faded Venetian mansions set beside the sea with a lovely promenade in front. Perast was a seafaring town, which was taken by the Venetians and became a major sea port. The Perastians fought so bravely at the battle of Lapanto that they had the right to guard the Venetian standard. Peter the Great sent his captains here to be trained. Now the mansions that stand along the waterside are gradually being done up. We visited the Bujovic Palace, which now houses the town museum, with many ship models, portraits of sea captains and Venetian lions, including an emotional picture – saying farewell to the Venetian Standard. One hand-written book listed the rights and responsibilities of the town in 1590.

We found a friendly café with Wifi for coffee, where we also had lunch. Then we caught a boat over to the island of 'Our Lady of the Rock', a manmade island from the 1630's on which a church and piazza has been built in memory of seamen. Great views all round of the bays and narrow waterway that leads to them.

When we arrived to catch the bus back we failed to recognise the first one and it drove straight past us. As we waited, Andy swore we would stick to our own 4 wheels. However we were Ok on our third attempt to get on a bus, which inexplicably cost 2 euros more on the way back. The driver insisted on dropping us back just outside our campsite!

During the evening we experienced one of the worst storms we have ever had: lightning and thunder and unbelievably heavy rain. At least we were beside sea and not a river!

Thursday 17 May. Before we left the site the couple in the German van kindly supplied us with a lot more information about Albania. I went shopping along the rather busy road, avoiding puddles, while Andy managed to get the van off the site without too much trouble. We drove round the Bay of Risan, past Perast, then the Bay of Kotor to reach the town of Kotor, which is a World Heritage site. We were amazed to see a very large cruise ship drawn up alongside, with 2 more anchored off.

Kotor was another Venetian town and had been an important influential town before that. Its most famous building is St Tryphon's cathedral, dating from the 9th century but rebuilt following several earthquakes. The building is held up by rose coloured columns, which are rough hewn and most attractive, as is the domed structure over the altar telling the life of the saint. We also went into the tiny church of St Luke, where an Orthodox priest was conducting a service for 3 ladies, which involved cutting some of the central lady's hair. Interesting.

Generally however the attractive little town was totally and utterly swamped by all the parties from ship and shore that were visiting. It was impossible to move easily round the town and in the end we gave up and returned to the van, where the chap tried to charge us for 4 hours when we had stayed 3, becoming very agitated when he realised we had discovered his ploy!

As we left a terrific wind came up and there were even large white horses on the bay.

We decided to take the new road we had heard about, from Morinj to Nikaic - an excellent road - then north on the no 18 to Jasenovo Polje and Savrik. On the way we passed through most spectacular mountain scenery. It was amazing that when we went over an enormous brow of about 1500m the vegetation changed from sparse scrub with many rocks to luxurious spring green deciduous woodland, with many beech trees clothing the steep hillsides. We reached a lovely pasture area around Mokro where it would have been nice to camp, then right down to the town of Savnak in a deep valley. After that there was a new road up to our destination of Zabljak, which is the centre of the Durmitor National Park. As we got higher we began to notice a dusting of snow and by the time we reached Zabljak at 1500 metres, there was at least 2 inches of snow everywhere except on the roads! We eventually found a site, Autocamp Kod Boce (9 euros), being very unwilling to pull off the road anywhere not paved, and settled beside a group of Swiss on an organised tour.

The view out of the window is unbelievable! We have the heating on full and are hoping it does not snow more in the night! Not for the first time I just wish I had brought winter clothes. We are not going to be able to go further into the National Park tomorrow, as planned. At least we have an internet connection in the van, so if we are stuck here we can keep in touch.

Friday 18 May. We woke to a cold dawn but not more snow. Sadly there wasn't any sun to make it look pretty. It smelt just like snow and cold and Christmas, most confusing! I went shopping in the supermarket at Zabljak, where the fruit and veg were very sad and I could not work out how to weigh the oranges; nobody looked as if they might help.

Almost as soon as we had dropped a bit the snow disappeared and there was an attractive plain dotted with houses with amazingly steep roofs - even steeper than Switzerland! We dropped much further into the Tara Gorge and stopped at the Tara Bridge, a concrete structure which has seen better days but is interesting. The bridge was constructed in 1941 and the following year the engineer blew up one span and himself to stop it being used by the Germans, which enabled it to be recompleted after the war. There is a tremendous drop down to the bottom, like the Bristol Suspension Bridge.

We left the road to visit the Manastir of St George at Dobroilovina ; in turning the van, Andy caught our underslung toilet cassette and had to fix it whilst a young nun eventually emerged to unlock the church. I love Orthodox churches, though sadly this one had been much knocked about over the years since its foundation in the 1600's. Despite modest trousers I was asked to don a long skirt. There was confusion as I left, having taken off the skirt, when I wanted to give money to the church. The nun indicated she did not want to take it and wanted me to put the skirt back on again to take 3 steps to the offertory box! In the end she held the money and put it in.  

We then followed the gorge, which is reputed to be the deepest in Europe, and found our campsite, Tara Eco Oaza Camping at Dobroilovina (10 euros), down at 800 metres but high above the river in an attractive meadow. There are cabins, sheep and cows for company, and we have been invited for a drink later. The owner said there had been 2 metres of snow this winter and 3 metres where we had come from! I can see snow on the mountains at the top of the gorge and at last the clouds have lifted and the peaks are bathed in sunshine. I'm wearing two jumpers and will never travel without warm trousers again!

We tried a walk that we thought would lead us to the river but it started to get very difficult, so we left it after discovering that the river is flowing in the opposite direction to what I expected, away from the sea! I think it joins the Drina, then the Danube. Over a glass of plum brandy, we had a lovely chat with the daughter of the household who spoke wonderful English, while her mother looked on proudly! She spoke of being stuck at the home of her Aunt in February, in the town where she goes to school, then once she returned home she could not leave for the rest of the month due to the snow. I now remember seeing snow in Serbia (which is only a short distance away) mentioned repeatedly on the news.

Saturday 19 May. We were reluctant to leave such a beautiful site but there was a limit to what we could do there, apart from walk up the road, so we drove down the ravine. Only looking back could I appreciate how special a spot the site had been.

We stopped in the crossroad town of Mojkovac, mainly to stock up on fruit and vegetables. There were so many little general stores, all with bakery and meat departments, and one new large one with hardly any stock, but all they all had to offer was very little poor quality fruit and veg. All I bought worth having were bananas, oranges and carrots. Most disappointing! I could have bought any Nivea product I could have wished for - and as for washing powder ...!

We then drove the short distance to the Biogradska Gora National Park (entrance 3 euros each ). The park has been a protected area since 1879 and 30% claims to be primeval forest, though I am unsure exactly what that means! The Wohnmobilstellplatz Kraljevo Kolo at the entrance was closed but we camped in the park beside the lake, all set up with electricity for 13 euros, with lovely walks just to hand.

After lunch we walked round the lake, which has some amazingly tall common trees - beech and wych elm reaching 50 metres. We saw a large toad beside the path and all the slopes were covered in wild garlic, which seemed larger but not as pungent as at home. We then took a rowing boat out on the lake, which was very pleasant. We had expected to have the park to ourselves after dusk but people kept arriving, some for a night hike.  

Sunday 20 May. We walked up the path beside the van, hoping to reach the primeval forest. It was a long walk up, taking 2 hours before we came out onto an open meadow full of wild flowers - buttercups, dark purple pansies, dark yellow cowslips, grape hyacinths, forget-me-nots - and a lovely view to the snow covered mountains in the distance. We carried on climbing to a second pasture with summer huts, then a little further, edging our way past snow drifts blocking the road up into the primeval forest which was mostly conifers and elders. We ate our lunch with a snow drift on one side and a host of crocuses on the other!

We tried to go further but higher up the road we crossed one patch of virgin snow and shortly afterwards came across a more serious patch, so decided that was far enough. We had reached 1811 metres, from a starting point of 1107metres. It took an amazingly long time to retrace our steps back to the van, having walked 9 miles in total!

Monday 21 May. We had intended to have a last walk around the lake but as it was raining we decided against it. We drove south alongside the Tara initially (it rises only 70 km from the sea, then flows inland all the way to the Black Sea), then through other most spectacular gorges. We also passed some charcoal burners with their typical beehive constructions - I think this was the first time I had actually seen it being done. Some of the most amazing 'road scenery' I have ever seen and also some of the most alarming, as the tunnels were often unlit rough-hewn rock. We reached Podgorica, the capital, now with a new bypass funded by EU money. The other side of the coin is a gypsy encampment on the outskirts, scavenging from rubbish tips. I usually like to shop in small local shops but today was very glad to find a Waitrose equivalent, 'Voli', which had an excellent stock of fresh fruit and vegetables, so now my fridge and cupboards are full again. Nivea are definitely doing a big promotion in Montenegro!

We drove on to Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro during its heyday in the 19thcentury. I found the place charming and full of atmosphere but I have to record that Andy did not like it. There are many old embassies built in the 19th century that reflect their country's taste, most easily recognisable even if it is long since they were used for their original purpose. For example the Russian one is pure St Petersburg. There is a magnificent powder blue palace built by Prince Danilo, who inspired 'The Merry Widow'. Also the palace of King Nikola Petrovic, the last king of Montenegro, who reigned for much of the 19th century and whose children married into so many of the other royal houses that he became known as the father-in-law of Europe. I enjoyed the tour I had round the palace, most atmospheric and full of interesting photos and paintings of the family. There was also an interesting monument, 'The Spirit of Lovcen', which remembered Montenegrin émigrés in the US who volunteered to come back in 1914 only to die in a shipwreck off the coast.

My visit was rather confused by the map in my Bradt Guide, which was basically quite wrong in places. 200-year-old buildings cannot have moved! I met a French couple who were having trouble with their map in another guidebook.

We had intended to stay the night in the car park next to a gym, which initially seemed quiet. Then I found that the town had a pop concert that evening and already things were beginning to liven up at 5 o'clock, with young lads full of excitement dashing about with flags, so we decided to move on.

It was already a lot warmer, still up at 690m, but we had a long way to go down as we saw from high above the coast. We avoided Budva and headed for Camping Crevna Glavica 1 km east of Sveti Stefan. It was recommended in my Bradt guide but, although the setting is great and we have a magnificent private spot overlooking the sea, the facilities are really poor. I won't be using the toilets, and the showers are outside and probably cold. We actually managed a meal sitting outside - the first for quite some time! We went for a stroll and found the beach was a long way below us. It looks as if the old coast road extended on south, which might be a nice walk.

Tuesday 22 May. A lot of heavy rain in the night. We had a walk along the road once more, past loads of flowers and wonderful views over the coast, before diving down to a beach. There had been a beach bar here but all the facilities are in a terrible state, with no sign of being done up for the season: most sad. The whole campsite should be really lovely but the facilities look even worse in the morning light and it's expensive for here - 10 euros without electricity! Cannot think why Bradt guide recommended it.

We looked at Camping Maslina at Petrovac but found it very claustrophobic, so drove on. The weather is still overcast and not very warm: not what I was expecting. Wish I could wear something other than my warm jumper, which I have been wearing for most of the time since we set off!

We drove on down the coast road, past many developing resorts, to Stari Bar, the old city of the port of Bar, high on the hill top behind. There had been a settlement here since the 5th century BC, though the Romans chose not to use the site and most of the building were medieval. A really impregnable site with wonderful views.

We then drove to Camp Oliva at Utjeha, a really beautiful little site with wonderful facilities. We share the site, which in reality is a back garden, with 2000-year-old olive trees planted by the Romans! The site and facilities are lovely and I am so excited about the trees, which really feel old just looking at them. All for 11.50 euros including electricity.

Wednesday 23 May. A working sort of day. For most of it we could not have got out anyway, because of the road works), with an impossible muddy hill in one direction and a pile of wet cement in the other! Not a lot to do at Utjeha, which the Bradt guide describes as a fishing village. I have no idea why, as there is not a fishing boat in sight, nor any old buildings. It's just a cove that is turning into a little resort, though they seem to be really late in getting ready for the season, which must be so short here.

However we used the washing machine for a fortnight's washing, and it actually dried! I drew a couple of pictures and we went for a short walk and found a couple of pleasant beaches and coves. It came on to rain again at about 5 o'clock, so we are very envious of the weather at home! I did dip my toes in the sea, to ease some mozzie bites, and it was really chilly. It did the trick but I won't be swimming!

INTO ALBANIA 

Thursday 24 May. We left Camping Oliva early to avoid the road works and reached the town of Ulcinj in good time. I had hoped to visit the old town and market but the town was very hectic indeed and we could find nowhere to park. We drove towards the beach and sandspit, crossing a river where they were practising an interesting form of fishing involving dipping the nets into the water, but the whole area was very commercialised so we drove on.

I had wanted to visit the Skadarsko lake and the road started off as fine. We reached the watershed of a hillside with far reaching views: over the coast and Albania one way, the lake and surrounding mountains the other. The road then dived into the valley and became similar to a wandering Devon lane, through chestnut forests and remote villages. Eventually it popped out way above the lake and dived down a single-track road clinging onto the hillside with battered crash barriers. Our nerves were sorely tested and when we found a place to turn we gingerly did so and retraced our steps.

We then headed for the border, along a main road that resembled one of our poorer B roads. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere stood a brand new bright red supermarket - who were their customers going to be? We went inside - fruit and veg sparse again - while the girls hovered over us. Customers were a novelty! It also had a huge posh ice cream parlour/coffee shop.

We got to the border and were greeted by a very cheerful Montenegrin official, who took just the passports and vehicle registration and passed them through to the Albanian who worked in an adjoining office. They were handed back in a few moments and we drove on - one of the fastest borders ever!

First impressions were that it was very similar to Montenegro- similar houses and scenery. We only had a few miles to drive to get to Camping Albania, near Barbulish south of Shkoder, all on good roads. The campsite is run by a Dutch couple and is very clean and tidy. We took a walk round the lanes, very impressed by the friendliness of everyone. It reminds us in lots of ways of Romania, the houses with big plots all well planted, chickens everywhere. One chicken on the site fluttered up and took a piece of bread from Andy's plate during dinner! Our first impressions are very positive.

Friday 25 May. A quiet day. We went to use the washing machine for our sheets but it appeared to be taking so long with someone else's that I got on and did it by hand and it dried easily. We took the van into the nearby town of Bushat to find a bank to change money; they spoke flawless English.

During lunch one of the resident hens again jumped up to the table and took one of Andy's pieces of bread. The hens and 2 beautiful cockerels proceeded to fight over the bread. Eating outside became a bit perilous, as the chickens always arrived and pecked round our feet.

After lunch we went for another local wander but at last it was getting a bit hot! It was the first time I had not had to wear the thick jumper at some time of day! However, the heat did trigger a thunderstorm at 6 o'clock.

It was a bit noisy outside the van as they had the generator on, as there had been no power since 10 o'clock, which meant no showers as I discovered later! We then found that the meal tonight is a special one as the parents are celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary.

I now realise why Mother Teresa always wore that distinctive headdress, as lots of the older ladies around here are wearing it. They also wear white pantaloons under a knee length skirt and a white apron, sometimes with an embroidered bib. There are only a few of the older houses round here, as so many have been recently built. I wonder how this is going to be in the rest of the country. However, there are still plenty of horse and donkey carts; as we sat on the veranda of the campsite we watched several go past. I saw with interest a couple of older ladies in traditional dress sitting cross-legged on the veranda of a modern house, which looked most incongruous! You cannot but wonder about the changes they have seen in their lives and what they make of life now. In the village there were also some graves from 1944, of partisans who fought to drive back the Germans out of the country.

At 7 o'clock we went over to the restaurant to be told they were working on Albanian time and we would be told when the guests arrived. There were about 24 Albanian guests and 6 campers, as well as the family, and a live band which included several very good singers and a master of ceremonies. The happy couple spent most of the evening in the kitchen, which seemed a shame. We ate chicken, many of which were put on the tables, and the rest of the meal of rice, meatballs and salad was a buffet. When we had eaten rather a lot, some delicious steaks were produced.

After dinner the dancing started, which we were very actively encouraged to join. A favourite was the circle dance, with couples taking turns in the middle. When our turn came we joined arms round and round, then brought in the hosts. It was interesting that we found it very difficult to dance to the local rhythm but when there was a tune which we and the Dutch could easily dance to, the locals sat down!

Eventually it was time for toasts. I had foolishly mentioned that we were celebrating our Ruby wedding anniversary this year. However, last month became next week as we were announced and Andy had to do some quick thinking when asked the date, as that was not the moment to point out the mistake.

The dancing and drinking became livelier as the evening wore on but everything had to stop at midnight when the generator went off! We were rather tired and glad to go but had not wanted to let the side down by leaving earlier.

Saturday 26 May. We felt rather tired this morning, after eating rather too much rather late last night. We looked at their museum, which charts how the family have worked in the locality for quite some time, initially as aid workers when they worked on the local maternity hospital, school and with the older people. They now work at encouraging tourism and providing local employment. They also did a lot during local floods, which does not surprise us as the water table is only a couple of feet below the level of the land.

We then drove the van towards the Koman Gorge, driving through lots of little towns, very busy on Saturday morning with markets and shoppers. It is noticeable how few women there are about. We drove on to some very remote scenery and, as the road deteriorated, stopped for lunch. A gentleman on a motorcycle we had overtaken dropped by for a chat, really wanting to talk to us and shake our hands. We gave him our leaflet about Shaftesbury, to show where we live, then he spent some time going through our phrase book commenting on words that were similar and chortling at something before finding goodbye and shaking hands again.

We returned to the same campsite, where I tried to paint the chickens and had a short walk, everyone saying hello as I passed. One lady came out and asked if I was English, then said she was on her way to church. I won't be writing about all the churches and mosques we visit in Albania, because they were almost all destroyed in 1967, with the encouragement of the Chinese, as Albania was turned into the world's first atheist state. The mosque in the village looked very sad and neglected and yet I had heard the call to prayer from the campsite

We ate our evening meal in the restaurant, along with most of the other campers. Several campers wished us all the best for tomorrow –'our big day'. It's amazing when you start on a pretence how very complicated it gets and you have to keep it up!

Sunday 27 May. Heavy rain almost from the word go this morning and lots of cows were out for a walk, with their owners under brollies. We rejoined the main road and drove south on a very good road. We saw 2 police checks within a few miles and have seen so many policemen since entering Albania. There were so many fuel stations as well and later on the road seemed like a continuous development of car repairers, garages, tyre depots and petrol filling stations. I really don't think you ever get a true picture of a country by driving down its main road!

With so much rain we have started looking at rivers and definitely don't want to pull off onto grass without a good look!

We left the main road at Fushe Kruja, which was very busy and difficult to drive through. After the hill we were surprised to see such a large town, equally difficult to drive through and also on a slope in the heavy rain. After almost giving up, we came upon a patch of ground that turned out to belong to a tyre depot. We asked if we might stop and the young man said yes.

I set off for the castle, a steep walk through the town, while Andy stayed with the van somewhat exhausted by the drive and rain, which stopped shortly afterwards. I was initially disappointed by the castle, which appeared to have little to offer apart from lots of new restaurants built in the middle. However, the view from the top was magnificent. I did not bother with the Historical Museum, built as a homage to Skanderbeg, an Albanian hero who led the stand against the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century and whose strong hold this was.

I was desperate for some small change, as I only had a large denomination note, so went first to the Ethnographic Museum, where I was told there was no charge! It was in a traditional Ottoman house, laid out with traditional furniture. I was most amused to see the painting of Istanbul in a frieze in the women's room. The men's quarters were highly decorated and the whole museum very well done. Just a shame I could not take pictures and there were no postcards.

I then made for the Castle Teqe: a type of mosque for the Bektashi, which is a branch of Sufi Muslim belief from the 13th century and largely confined to Albania. This mosque escaped the destruction of 1967 because the bulldozers could not get through the streets! There were also three men looking round but the gate was padlocked. However, as I walked back up the narrow street/alley they were coming back with an elderly gentleman who let us in. One of the men offered to interpret in excellent English. It was built in 1789, the dome is most beautifully decorated and the walls have Islamic script, although rather damaged. An adjoining room is set up for pilgrims to the shrine.

On the roof was a tremendous view to the town and countryside beyond. I asked where my interpreter came from and was surprised to hear him say Kosovo! We then had a most interesting chat about travel, as he quietly bemoaned the difficulties. I said that the Internet helped. He replied that he was a telephone communications engineer but felt you had to see places and meet people to really understand and I had to agree with him over that. I've spent years telling people how amazing Romania is but still hear about orphans and thieves. We agreed you can mend buildings and roads but people take longer. A fascinating chat.

The town had really quietened down and the shops closed as I walked back. We then drove south, past Camping Nordpark which looked good, generally on good roads, turning right to Durres and avoiding Tirane, which we had heard was bad for traffic. We thought it would be good to visit Durres on a Sunday afternoon with little traffic and indeed it was. We parked easily, just beyond the bus station beside the road, and walked towards the sea.

It was a most pleasant and interesting town, with wide streets and a pleasant shopping area. The town has been in existence for 3,000 years and was very important in Roman times as a gateway tothe east. The Egnatia Way, built on an ancient route, reached to Constantinople. We visited the amphitheatre, where the Romans used an interesting technique to guard against earthquakes by sandwiching layers of building stone with layers of smaller stones. It evidently worked as the amphitheatre is still standing.

Note: The amphitheatre in Durres is probably only still standing due to its method of construction - cleverly a line of larger bricks or stones were sandwiched with much smaller stones. How would the concrete blocks surrounding it fare with the next earthquake?

We then walked down to the sea front, past monuments to Albanians who fought against the Italian invasion of 1939 and a splendid strong monument to the partisans, much decorated with graffiti (probably associated with communism). We had a coffee on the top of a Venetian tower that was part of their 15th century defences, then walked along the spacious seafront, which was so like a typical British promenade , with candy floss and a fun fair going up for the season and even a pier being constructed! It was a shame the seashore was  covered with seaweed.

We made our way back to the van, then set off to find a campsite, missed the main road out and went along some interesting road under construction before finding the excellent main road and eventually our exit to Camping Mali i Robit. It's a small site set behind a hotel and really only intended for tents, with difficult access and many tall trees. We have squeezed in and being rather tired have stayed. The hotel, where we used the internet, is totally empty but that is not surprising as there are hotels all the way into Durres. It must be awful in July and August and so quiet for the rest of the time.

Monday 28 May. Blue sky this morning through the tightly packed trees. We squeezed ourselves out of Camping Mali I Robit, which is only suitable for tents and very small vans and then really only for a night halt! There were road works on the road south of Kavaje but road building continues apace everywhere, although you have to be very aware all the time of sudden potholes or enormous cracks in the road. There were so many petrol filling stations, great big grand ones and they were building still more. I've never seen so many. Few lorries but very many mini buses.

Throughout the country so many of the hillsides have been terraced. I don't think I have ever seen so much, though sadly a lot of it is not now in use - was this during collectivisation perhaps? At last we were out of the ribbon development and into countyside.

The dual carriageway stopped before Fier and we had to struggle over poor surfaces through the town and for several miles afterwards until we were put onto a brand new motorway that last to just before Vlore. There were very few exits off the motorways and often they were not signed. Before Vlore there were vast saline works and piles of salt.

We knew of a terrible low tunnel we had to avoid going south in Vlore, so when we saw a road indicating lorries right we took it. This took us along an unmade road at 10 miles per hour for some distance. However, when we came upon the tunnel, which was closed anyway, it was at the other end of the town. We realised the original diversion had just been to keep lorries out of the town.

5 miles south of Vlore, at lunchtime, we came upon Rezidenca Cekodhima, Radhime, with a sign offering motorhome parking. This took us down to a small holiday development, deserted, on a small promontory, which was very well done with a pleasant beach. We spent a pleasant afternoon reading. Later the owner told Andy he had a lot to thank the British for, as he had been an asylum seeker in 1996 and lived in London. We could stop here for free and he was hoping next year to develop it into a small site for motorhomes, which judging by everything else will be very well done. Albano said he was missing London and the smoked salmon!

Tuesday 29 May. We set off down what is now the Ionian Highway, the road surface still good, which to our delight was to continue for most of the day, apart from the odd landslide that no one can help! We drove through a variety of resorts, then started the climb up to the Llogoraja Pass, the road rising to 1000m, past the Flag Pine, which is supposed to look like the national flag of a double-headed eagle. We had coffee here and saw a goatherd on a mobile phone, then an extremely spectacular descent with wide zigzags down the hillside. The traffic throughout was light, with very few lorries apart from some construction ones.

The road then continued up hill and down dale, sometimes dipping down to the sea. We had lunch beside the sea at Himare, where we may wild camp on our way back up, at other times through villages higher up on the hillside. We passed a loaded donkey with a CD disk attached to his forehead - to detract the evil eye? There were some old Mediterranean houses, not just the modern ones that seem to be everywhere. At sea level we saw a cave where Russian submarines used to hide, amongst a now ruined military base. The cacti had flower spikes over 2 metres tall.

There must have been a drive to put up signs and street names, as I had read they were in short supply but most streets seem to have new signs! We also found road directions when we wanted them.

At last we reached Sarande, a resort with more hotels than I have had hot dinners. Where are all these people supposed to come from, when there is no easy access to this town? That pass was a serious business and we have heard that the other road is not good.

We drove through and headed for Butrint , along a road that was 7/8 finished and only gave way to a rough unmetalled finish in about 3 places. We found the car park at the end with the intention of wild camping later. It was then about 3 o'clock.

A most wonderful spot, entrance to the archeological site for the morning and a fascinating ferry and fisherman to watch. The ferry is across the Vivari Channel, which links a large inlet with the sea and is a platform on floats. Immediately on the other side is a Venetian castle and in the distance villages. Across the low hill opposite is Greece. This is the furthest south we are going.

We crossed on the ferry as foot passengers - no charge - then looked round the castle and tried to see the line of the aqueduct without luck. We then strolled down beside the inlet for some distance, always aware we were the wrong side of the water, though as I write at 8pm the ferry is still going. We then had a drink in the Livia Hotel, hoping without luck that they had Internet, before coming back to the van for dinner and that wonderful view.

Wednesday 30 May. Half way through the tour and at the southern most point!

Heavy rain in the night but we woke to a bright dawn, after having been very disturbed by a dog in the night barking at every car that approached the ferry, which continued to work until very late.

The site at Butrint has been a town for many centuries, long before the Romans who developed the city, then it was used extensively by the Byzantines and later the Venetians who rebuilt the fortifications. I am yet to find out why it was finally abandoned but the water level of the site has risen considerably.

The site is one of the most atmospheric I have ever visited, with trees and bird song throughout. A layer of silt 2 metres thick has covered the whole site and only a fraction has so far been excavated. The 2 real highlights for me were the lovely little theatre, quite small, the orchestra area now flooded and the water quite green with algae. In it frogs and terrapins were quite clear to see.

There was also a baptistry, the best and largest one after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, its lovely floor protected by gravel as the whole site regularly floods due to the changing levels of the lagoon. I am sure that is why the site is no longer occupied.

After a most atmospheric wander we went across the ferry once more and had a walk along the shore, past Ali Pasha's castle.

We have camped in a tiny but pleasant campsite, in a garden at Ksamil, where the owner cannot do enough for us. Access is along a small road and the shower is a little primitive but the owner has tried so hard and is so willing.

Thursday 31 May. A quiet day today. We had been told that the local beaches were very nice, so wandered around to have a look along the promenade, which was being repaired. We spent a while under our sunshade watching the sea. All the best beaches had been grabbed by local restaurants. However we really did not want a sun lounger, just to sit and watch the sea. The other English couple staying at the site had a nice meal in a local restaurant.

The site was very pleasant and Alexander tried very hard indeed. He had also spent time in England and used lots of colloquialisms. He explained that the buildings that are concrete shells, which lay badly damaged, had been attacked by the building police who chase up illegal development. He also said that the communists had burnt all the deeds and destroyed all boundaries so that afterwards no one knew which had been their land. (Alban said they had lost their family land in 1945 and managed to reclaim it in 1990.)

The site is very small, just the land around his house, with one toilet and shower but the family work so hard to keep it very nice. The only drawback is the disco on the beach, which may be annoying at weekends in season.

This evening we have had a big change of plan. We had intended to go back up the coast to visit Berat, then turn right and explore Elbasan and on to Lake Ohrid, then round the lake to head for the border with Macedonia at Tushemisht. However, we have been told that the road is very bad between Elbasan and Perrenjas, as they are building a tunnel. So we have decided  to miss Berat this time, we are so sure we will be back,

Instead we are going over the border into Greece after visiting Gjirokaster. We will use the motorway, then re-enter Albania to visit Korce and come up to Lake Ohrid that way - we hope!

INTO GREECE

Friday 1 June. We left the site promptly this morning and then after navigating around Sarande crossed a small pass and turned left for Gjirokaster. As we drove an eagle soared overhead and in one of the villages a large pig sauntered in front of us. We are more than used to cows and goats but a pig was more of a surprise. I have noticed a change in the women's clothing since being in the south. There are not the ladies in costume and the headscarves are like the ones routinely seen in Greece; indeed lots of the people here are ethnically Greek.

The road to Gjirokaster was excellent, though we had been told it deteriorated severely after the town. We were waved through a roadblock and, not for the first time, the policeman saluted. The town had a great many fine 19th century Ottoman houses, all very vulnerable and fragile. They look magnificent marching up the various hills of the town. We took a very steep path up through them; they almost stand on each other's roofs. We went inside the ethnological museum, which was on the site of Enver Hoxha's birthplace, and had been rebuilt. Andy was delighted to see a rag and bone man on a horse and cart, like he could just remember from his youth!

We retraced our steps towards the coast through the alluvial plain, with the villages set on the steep valley sides. We have already noticed how very high the water table is in the flat valleys in Albania.

We crossed out of Albania and into Greece without any problems. We joined the motorway at Ioannina, then eventually turned north once again and came to the town of Kastoria, which is set beside a lake and very pleasant indeed. We understood from the Camperstop guide that there was a place we could wild camp, so followed the lake around until we found a really pleasant spot. It was full of birdsong coming from the reed beds and a family of grebes floated by.

BACK INTO ALBANIA

Saturday 2 June. What a wonderful place to wild camp. We had an early morning stroll by the lake before breakfast and found a Byzantine monastery. We were beckoned in by the monk, who indicated firstly an extremely old church, full of wall paintings, and with a very small rood screen. The second bigger church was much more typical, with two rooms and an unusually large rood screen, the walls still covered with elaborate wall paintings.

The town of Kastoria is really lovely, more like an Italian lake town, and we must explore it and the surrounding countryside in more detail in future.

It took us half an hour to cross back into Albania and then into a very intensively farmed area. There were people working in so many of the fields and I even saw a couple of people ploughing using a horse and traditional plough. We also saw more horse and carts in this region. Everything was against a background of snow-capped mountains.

We parked easily in Korca, beside the park and opposite the university, and walked into the centre. The town had wide often tree-lined streets and was full of bustling cafes and shops. We discovered the market, which was based in old Ottoman buildings and very extensive, and the Mirahori mosque built in 1496; I don't know how it escaped the destruction of 1967.

There is a large modern cathedral and behind it a maze of old houses, in one of which we had a light lunch. In fact there are old houses scattered throughout the town and I could glimpse them in the side roads as we walked in. Lots of the grander mansions were dated 1933, when the Italians were in power in Albania. We were impressed with the cinema, which was in an art deco style.

We tried to find St Mary's church at Mborja , a suburb, on the way out but as it was Albanian lunchtime (at 3 o'clock), did not feel it was worth a long walk. Later we stopped at a fruit stall beside the road, with 2 young boys manning it. I would like to think that either they had no idea of the prices or I misunderstood the number they had written, but we drove on to a lady's stall where I bought quite a bit of good fruit. The fruit and veg in greengrocers and stalls has been as good in Albania as it was bad in Montenegro.

We drove on to Prodgorica trying to find the publicised campsite but it took quite a long drive alongside the lakeside to find it and we were on the point of giving up. We were not helped by people dashing in front of the van holding up live eels, which they hoped we would buy!? Camping Peshku was set right beside the lake and we had a nice meal of fish, meeting a German couple who had been a great deal more adventurous than us, venturing on far more difficult roads, though Andy thought they had a tougher van!

Sunday 3 June. We had a rather noisy night, due to the main road behind us. However Camping Peshku was certainly being very well looked after. The showers and toilets were aged but clean, and the restaurant very well presented. The grass was cut and the sand raked well by grandma and a team of little boys.

We drove through Pogradec, which was very busy indeed - towns in Albania seem to be at their busiest on a Sunday morning and only seem to close Sunday afternoon. A very long working week indeed. The town is partly pedestrianised and has a pleasant tree-lined promenade.

First thoughts on Albania- a more considered report later!

We really liked Albania. The people were utterly charming, always so keen to really help and smile. They are also very industrious and many are entrepreneurial.

The roads are becoming much improved. It is largely possible to drive across the country only encountering any length of potholes in towns, though they can be met just about anywhere. Some of the secondary roads looked much more challenging.

Albanian driving can also be challenging, as overtaking – anywhere - is common. They also don't understand roundabouts, though this is hardly their fault, as there are no road markings to help. Police checks are everywhere, checking speed and sometimes documents.

Signposting is generally found on all the main roads and is being improved on others. There are brown signs everywhere and potentially so much to see, though actually finding the signed item may not be quite so easy. There is so little money to look after so many treasures. There are street names on posts everywhere that look brand new.

The towns we saw were elegant with wide tree-lined boulevards and lots of parks with statues. The markets were interesting and we had no problem shopping for fruit and veg, as well as daily bread. So many interesting old houses in the towns, quite a few needing TLC.

There has been a lot of development, especially on the coast of new concrete apartment blocks. Who will use these is unclear and they are already spoiling lovely spots. We had been led to expect a great deal of rubbish, from our reading on the internet and from a Croatian campsite owner, who blamed them for all he had to clear up from his beach. We did not see massive amounts: there were sometimes overflowing bins and gipsies living near rubbish dumps 're-cycling', but we have seen worse in Greece.  

We fully intend to return in a couple of years to continue our tour.

INTO MACEDONIA

Macedonia really is unknown territory for us. I've been able to find out very little about it on the web and very few English people have written about it at all. There do not appear to be any campsites apart from those around the lake - we will see!

Macedonia has had a very complicated history and is not even recognised by the UN, as Greece has an area called Macedonia and is very worried that the Macedonians within its borders might want to join with the new state. It really is such a mix of races. 25% of the population is Albanian and they only recently had the right to an education in their own language.

Sunday 3 June (continued). We were all by ourselves at the small border post at Tushemisht and passed through without problems, both sides only wanting passports, vehicle documents and green card. Very soon we were at St Naum and asked for the neighbouring campsite, which we were told was not yet open - Camping Ljubanista. It was suggested we park in a corner of the car park, which we did.

St Naum also stands on Lake Ohrid and for Macedonians this is their seaside, unless they cross borders into Albania or beyond. There was the usual row of tourist stalls, though no one bothered us to buy, as well as a few restaurants where we later had a light lunch. We walked on to the monastery, where a 16th century church stands above the remains of a 10th century one. St Naum himself has been reburied in the 'new' church and it is said if you put your ear to his grave you can hear his heart beating. We obediently queued and of course kneeled to listen - I'm sure our inability to hear was due to our scepticism. The rest of the church was covered with wall paintings.

We took a boat trip to the springs that feed the lake, which was very peaceful. Then I took my painting kit up to the church while Andy sat in a peaceful spot by the lake, where he was nearly killed by a sudden falling branch.

The priest in the kiosk came out to get a cup of coffee and insisted on getting me a drink as well, then found a stool to put it on, all with the biggest smile.

Monday 4 June. We woke quite early but it was not long before the first coach party arrived! It was a pleasant drive beside the lake.

We parked easily in Ohrid, near the quay and town centre. We were very surprised indeed by Ohrid, bearing in mind it is their principal holiday destination. It is a lovely town, with gardens, cut grass and flower beds that Eastbourne would be proud of. The promenade is wide and pleasant, the old town interesting and even the new town with its shopping street has been beautifully paved.

We visited the 11th century cathedral of St Sophia, where a service was taking place. We listened for a while, then a priest dressed in the most magnificent vestments and a jewelled hat came out to speak - I'd like to think it was the archbishop! I later went back to see the unique 11th century wall paintings, which were preserved under whitewash when it was used as a mosque during Ottoman times. We walked round the headland to the idyllically situated St Jovan, on rocks above the lake, where a lady with limited English showed us the treasures of the church.

We walked up through the modern shopping centre to the market in the Turkish area, where there was a 900-year-old plane tree. In its trunk there had been a barber's - we had seen a barber's inside a similar tree in Turkey!

We decided to adopt Macedonian times today, so ate late and came back for a siesta before heading out once more.

Tuesday 5 June. A rather noisy night due to a nearby nightclub and then someone assembling a boat at 5 o'clock What do we expect if we park so near the town centre! We were at the market by 9 o'clock as planned and by then it had started raining. To our surprise the market was only just starting but we were able to stock up on excellent supplies. Why was it that Montenegro could not provide fruit and veg when it has been excellent since! We then made our way for coffee near St Sophia's, where once again we picked up our emails etc.

We then drove via Resen on a main road that was tarmaced but often crazed and with potholes. Quite poor. We turned off south beyond Resen on a minor road that was excellent and headed for Lake Prespa, where we understood there might be a campsite open. This lake is much shallower than Ohrid and not developed. We found the first place, mentioned in the  Bradt guide, Hotel MVR, but they were only open to the general public at the height of the season and denied all knowledge of camping, hook-ups etc. We went on to nearby Autocamp Krani, which was open - just. I had to fill in forms including when I had entered the country and many other details. They wanted to charge €15 but when Andy asked the price in denar it came to about 7 pounds. It always seems worth paying in local currency.

We drove around the campsite in the rain. We could see many chalets and old caravans but no toilet block, so drove back to ask. We were then shown a single toilet in a large building with a broken flush, where we did notice we could get water tomorrow. I really don't know what to say about this place. We are very used to ex-communist campsites, having seen them in a variety of countries, but this really is the worst. We cannot see a shower/toilet block at all, let alone a hook-up, and we think this is the only site open in the country. In Albania we were routinely offered electricity and there were always showers  which they worked so hard to keep clean. I really feel that here in Macedonia they just don't care. The chalets are really squalid.

We thought we were alone but met a couple as we walked towards the lake who could speak French and had a caravan here. I was expecting a beach but there were reed beds, which were full of frogs and we could hear many birds. As we turned to come back a creature ran across our path. We both are convinced it was a lynx! There is a Balkan lynx but they are very rare. However there just isn't anything else that shape with those ears. Most exciting!!

Well, we have got what we wanted - somewhere to empty the toilet and fill up with water before travelling on. The contrast between here and Ohrid could not be more extreme!

Wednesday 6 June. We woke to warm sunshine but that really did not improve the site. I heard car movements long after we had gone to bed. I did find one large newer hall set out for a wedding reception but the entrance was grotty. I have investigated and it seems we did see a lynx as the area backs on to the Pelister National Park where lynx live, though there are only about 100 in Macedonia and Albania!

We continued down the excellent road by the lake to Dupeni and the closed border with Greece, where there was an excellent little beach. A border guard with a gun studied us closely. We found another pleasant beach area suitable for wild camping out of season at Pretor.

It is very nice to be away from the endless half-completed concrete apartment shells that blight so much of the Mediterranean and to be in a more mature landscape. We drove east. We had wanted to visit the Vlach village of Maloviste but the road looked rather too narrow for the van. The Vlachs came to Macedonia in the 2nd century BC and are known for being excellent business people; their settlements often mirror the Roman roads.

We pressed on to Bitola and managed to park near the sports hall, where half of the car park was taken up with youngsters starting to learn to drive. It was an easy walk along the Marsal Tito into town. The streets were lined with lovely 18th and19th century buildings and there was a military academy where Ataturk trained.

The town was already old in Roman times, when it was an important crossroads on the Via Ignatia. As a vital trade centre, it became the largest town in the Balkans after Constantinople and Thessaloniki. However, it was passed over as capital and that has only served to increase its recent isolation. A large statue of Philip of Macedonia, father to Alexander the Great, who lived here dominates the centre. Also a very large national flag, one of which dominates every town and monument.

It is a lovely city. We walked through the bustling street, had coffee and checked our email, then visited the old Turkish quarter, which was full of interesting small shops. We bought a BBQ from an old metal worker's shop, where the craftsman was proud to show us details of his workshop in a publication about the town.

On the way back through the town, we visited a Vlach church, which is easiest to describe as a sort of non-conformist Orthodox church. The gentleman who showed us round splashed us with water as we left and giggled! We then found a stall selling giro-meat wrapped in a flat bread - we last had one in Sparta.

We then drove northwest till we found the turning into the hills toward Kruseva.

This Vlach town is the highest in the Balkans and beloved by Macedonians, since it was the site of the first uprising against the Ottomans in 1903 after 500 years of occupation. This revolt only lasted a few weeks but they got their freedom in 1912, only to suffer occupation by so many other forces including Bulgarians and Nazis.

The town was a bit of a challenge for the van, being on a hill with narrow streets. We found parking above the town by the Hotel Montana from where it was an easy walk to town, which was rather sleepy and full of lovely Ottoman and early 20th century mansions. We decided to wild camp where we were.

Thursday 7 June. We left Kruseva, which sits in a well-protected bowl high up in the mountains, and made the very gradual descent to the very extensive plain below. There were lots of cows with their minders and extra bright red poppies. People were riding in carts at the back of elderly tractors without roll bars.

As we approached Prilep we came upon the railway station and an enormous steam train: possibly the biggest I had ever seen. It appeared oiled and almost ready to go.

Parking has been a problem throughout this trip, as there are seldom spacious car parks and they are usually roadside, face on and unsuitable. However we often have more luck on side streets, as today.

Prilep was perhaps not as nice as other towns visited but we really did not give it quite so long. However we found the usual nice street cafe to catch up with our email and watch the world. There were fewer old buildings but the usual number of driving schools! We did some shopping, with all the usual brands in the shops. Fruit and veg as usual, seasonal and excellent. We have noticed that in this area there is very little Latin script.

It was very sparsely populated east of Prilep; the fields that were being tended were very labour intensive. There were some vineyards, which were trained but very low. There are many tortoises on the road and many storks in the field and nested on poles.

We eventually joined the Alexander of Macedonia motorway, which was very lumpy and claimed to run from to Skopje to Athens, 650 km from where we joined. It was very empty indeed. We did see a Dutch caravan and German campervan, not surprisingly on the main road through. We also saw 2 crashes. In the second a lorry was smashed into the side of the road with many watermelons all over the road. For all the bad driving we saw in Albania, we saw not one accident, so it seemed so surprising here with so little traffic.

Eventually we reached Strumica, which proved to be a disappointment The heart of the town was a large empty square dominated by an extremely large statue to the 1903 uprising but we failed to find any nice streets, only a well tended park. There were some very interesting tee- shirts being worn - did they know what the English meant?

We then drove east aiming for a much vaunted wetlands centre - Monospitovo wetlands, known to the locals as the Blato - reputedly with boardwalks and hides (or so the book said!) In the right village there was a faded brown sign in Cyrillic, which we followed. It led us to a pitted track, which we followed for a distance till it turned along a dyke and we gave up. Where the watchtowers and boardwalks were we had no idea, as all we could see were fields and many poly tunnels growing peppers and tomatoes!

We were hoping to spend the night there and to see the birds before breakfast and had left it rather late. Going up roads to waterfalls led us to tracks, so we ended up on a patch near a village. It did meet our criteria: not in the wilds, out of sight, but near habitation. It is interesting that this area was converted to Methodism and the churches we saw bore that out!

Tomorrow we head north over a pass, then the border. Will they let us cross? I did read we are supposed to get a certificate for everywhere we have stayed! If we get past that hurdle, will they let us into Bulgaria with the very interesting Cyrillic writing put in Andy's passport after we lost Tilly (a previous motorhome – see 2005 Bulgarian Disaster)?

Friday 8 June. We had a disturbed night and the tractors were on the road well before dawn! We decided on an early start and retraced our steps across the intensively farmed valley. We saw 3 donkeys harnessed abreast to haul a cart, many more horse and carts than we had seen in the west of the country, and once again a horse and plough as well as horse and harrow, with the man adding weight by standing on it - must have been very bumpy! However, mostly it was quite elderly tractors!

We took the quiet road 523 north towards Berovo through wild countryside, up into mountains and then through beautiful meadows and woodlands. It was a wonderful scenic route even if rather rough in places. We were impressed with the town of Berovo, largely modern but well cared for and cheerful. At the school a band was playing lively music and, despite it being only 9 o'clock in the morning, lots of the students were circle dancing. I would guess it was a school leaving celebration.  

The road then went through more agricultural land and we saw a cart harnessed to 2 cows for the first time. The road then dropped down to the town of Delcevo and the Bulgarian border.

First thoughts on Macedonia - a more considered report later!

Macedonia is the least visited place we have ever been. Apart from the Ohrid region, it seems totally unaware of visitors. While Albania is waking up to tourism (and we met two owners who were busy developing campsites that would appeal to motorhomers), nothing appears to be stirring in Macedonia at all. We only saw 2 other motorhomes and a couple of foreign cars on the main road through.

There is plenty to see and there are brown signs but nothing is developed apart from around Ohrid. There is every chance that even following the brown signs you will have difficulty in finding what you are looking for. There are whole Roman cities just waiting to be uncovered! I feel there is a whole world here yet to be discovered.

Apart from the one grim campsite, the only option was wild camping; we did feel totally safe doing just that.

So often the minor roads are better than the major ones. Generally the roads here have been better than the worst Albanian roads but never as good as their best ones.

Everybody is extremely friendly and helpful apart from the odd 'communist' moment in shops etc, when the old ways can still be glimpsed.

INTO BULGARIA

Friday 8 June (continued). I will not deny being a trifle concerned about this border, which turned out to be one of the most cheerful and smiling ones we've ever crossed. Jokes were made about Newton and apples and the guards who looked in the van were more interested in the layout than contents, let alone checking the fridge. Smiles and compliments all round. So, back in the EU and the approach to the Bulgarian border post was the worst bit of road of the whole holiday. We think it was supposed to include a water dip ... and it was no better on the other side. There were potholes that could have swallowed us up! It continued like that intermittently till we reached the main road north and Blagoevgrad, a shabby town covered in graffiti where we were looking for an ATM.

We then drove northeast up into the Rila Mountains, still snow-capped, and on to the Rila Monastery and Zodiac Camping beyond.

This was a bit of a pilgrimage, as this was the last site with campervan Tilly before her demise at Plovdiv. The site looked more cheerful in the bright sunshine, as well as much greener, and it was empty. We walked down to the monastery and had forgotten just how magnificent it was! It was founded in 927 but has been much damaged over the years, mostly through fighting with the Turks and by a disastrous fire in 1833. However it is Bulgaria's holiest place and full of atmosphere, warm and inclusive. The much-decorated church with an incredibly rich interior is totally surrounded by galleried buildings 4 storeys high, reached by decorated staircases. The whole place is magic. We watched while a monk circled the church banging a carved wooden plank.

Back to the campsite and planning a route through Bulgaria. After a week of wild camping we are in need of relaxing at a couple of sites.

Saturday 9 June. The sun had not reached the Rila Campsite as we had our breakfast, since it is beside a fast flowing river in a ravine. We stopped off at the monastery once more. Even though I had seen it yesterday, I was still surprised by its scale and magnificence. I lit a candle, not for any particular religious reason but thinking of our campervan Tilly etc, it just seemed right! The ambience is just so calm and warm.

We drove south, back past Blagoevgrad, then turned east along the 19 and then the 84. The scenery was interesting but so was the road - poor all the way and quite appalling in places. There were notices of promises to rebuild it and in one place a badly signposted diversion, where one kind gentleman took us back to where we should have been!

We considered visiting Bansko, with an interesting old town, but the hoardings on the way gave us a clue and when one of them read 'Biggest casino in Bansko' we did not go!

There were many Great Mullions growing beside the road – it seems to do very well in the Balkans. I have seen it in so many places: at sea level by the Mediterranean, above 1000 metres high, and sometimes in wayside verges in England. A very versatile plant.

We noticed that the whole area had mosques, not surprising being so close to Turkey. Everyone was turning hay or gathering it onto horse drawn carts.

Eventually we reached Eco Camping on the shores of Lake Batak and had a very warm greeting indeed from the owner, who spoke excellent English. He was very worried about siting us, as it had been wet for much of the last 3 weeks and the site is still under development, with newly sown terraces to compensate for the considerable slope. The area round the lake is much visited and there are lovely views but also some sad development.

So far the towns and villages have been more unkempt than Macedonia and we are missing the warm smiles we got in Albania and Macedonia.

Sunday 10 June. The lake looked lovely in the morning light, with loads of noise from the frogs we have heard all over the Balkans. There were also seagulls over the lake, which surprised us, and lots of fishermen but no swimming allowed. It was a pleasant spot but we were awkwardly parked on a road and really wanted somewhere with a proper pitch where we could spread out and relax, so drove on. Initially still at 20 mph but eventually, when we reached the outskirts of Plovdiv, the road improved. It was good to have the satnav back again, though it does need to be kept an eye on.

We drove through a very wide alluvial plain with large fields, for the first time for over a month. Mostly we have been seeing small farms or even large allotments, as people here have always had to rely on their own resources. The plain was also characterised by large hoardings, black winged storks and loads of poppies, occasionally contrasting with a patch of lavender.

Eventually we turned northeast and past the town of Kazanlak, famous for its many Thracian remains. To us it seemed full of very high-rise flats. It is interesting that an average city here in Bulgaria is much bigger than the largest in Macedonia, where we saw very few high-rise buildings.

We drove past Shipka, where the golden onion domes of the monastery really glinted in the sun, and up and over the very gentle Shipka Pass, famous as being the site of a large battle during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877. We turned off road 5 onto a minor road NE to Trjavna: a poor road all the way.

Trjavna is a really unspoilt well-preserved little town with a sleepy atmosphere, full of 'Bulgarian National Revival' houses and cobbled streets. We visited St Michael's Church, which was rebuilt in 1819 after destruction by the Turks but felt much older, and admired the elaborate woodcarving for which the town is famous. We also saw a small portrait of a face, Christ with crown of thorns, which was one of the most powerful portraits I had ever seen. It was very real and believable and the blackened eye and lifelike hair was really compelling. I hope Andy's photograph comes out. I went into Daskalov's House, built in 1808. As well as wood carving there were 2 elaborate ceilings that had been completed as part of a competition between a master and his apprentice: July sun and May sun, surrounded by 88 daisies.

Eventually we reached the site of Veliko Tarnovo Camping in the village of Dragizhevo, an British-owned site with proper pitches where we could unwind for a bit. See http://www.campingvelikotarnovo.com. There is even a swimming pool and restaurant that does Full English breakfasts. Funny hearing so much English being spoken!!

Monday 11 June. A catching up day with washing and other chores. I walked into the village for bread .The village was quite a large one with neglected communist-type civic buildings and square and shop. There are locally grown veg but obviously very seasonal, and the shop is not as well stocked as previous village shops we have been in. There was a bar outside, as usual, and also a room with seats all round the edge and central stove for winter use. It reached minus 29ºC last winter! It also only stopped raining hard here about 2 weeks ago.

There were quite a few houses with large gates that would have taken wagons into a courtyard, as we have seen in Romania, and some National Revival houses, which I think are the same as Ottoman houses, and some 1920's and 30's houses with plasterwork decoration, though often sadly losing vital plaster cladding.

The valley in which the campsite stands is very attractive and reminds me of the wide Nadder Valley around Tisbury, with spacious fields and wooded slopes. We had a wonderful swim in the pool, which was just the right temperature, before a meal in the restaurant.

Tuesday 12 June. We were at the Castle Tsarevets by 9.15 am by taxi - such a kind driver - as we were anticipating a hot day. The castle is largely ruins but spectacularly set, as indeed is the whole town of Veliko Tarnovo. It is set amongst the many bends of the Yantra River on several hills and the views are spectacular. There has been a settlement here for millennia but its golden age was when local brothers were proclaimed Boyars and gave the area independence from the Byzantine empire. This lasted until 1393 when the town fell to the Ottomans.

The castle once boasted 800 buildings including a grand palace but all that stands today is the rebuilt Church of the Ascension that has striking modern murals illustrating the history.

We then made our way into the old part of the town. Firstly along Gurkho, the old high street, then along a modern row of shops that had balconies behind overlooking another bend in the river and a spectacular enormous modern monument that celebrated 800 years of the establishment of the kingdom.

We found the area called Samovodska Charshia, which was the old market centre, and after exploring had our lunch in the atmospheric and well restored Hadji Nikoli Inn, the only one of 70 surviving. We then called the taxi back to the site as by 2.30 pm it had become too hot to sightsee.

After relaxing we had another swim in the excellent pool while yet more vans arrived, then dinner once more in the restaurant.

INTO ROMANIA

Wednesday 13 June. We left the site early, trying to cover as much as possible before it got really hot once more. The road was moderately good once we joined the main road north and we reached Ruse without incident. Ruse was large with a great many very tall shabby apartment blocks!  

We were charged 6 euros to cross the 1952 potholed Friendship Bridge across the Danube. (We had chosen this route rather than the ferry crossing further west, which we had heard was expensive and bothersome.) There was no one to look at our passports as we left Bulgaria and just a glance from the Romanians, who remarked on 'our house' with a smile! It all took a few minutes.

We had decided that we did not want to visit any of the principal cities in Romania, as we had done so before, but just wanted to wander and enjoy the country.

Once into Romania we were straight back to people carrying mattocks, horse and carts and long thin fields across the hillsides. The road round Bucharest was as dismal as I expected, with lots of lorries and poor surface in places. At one point it had no surface at all where it was being repaired. The surface of the motorway west was good but the scenery boring in the extreme: large dusty fields extending as far as the eye could see, with occasional flocks of sheep or herds of cows and once a nodding donkey, but at least few of the hoardings that had so blighted Bulgarian scenery!

At last at Pitesti we turned onto the 7a and instantly things improved - rolling hills, interesting houses with beautifully shaped windows, some of them rather eastern with 3 semi circles, and all so much better kept than in Bulgaria, painted attractive colours with plaster decoration in good repair. Typically they are rectangular with an open balcony in one quarter. The larger ones had little turrets, either round or square. There were wells outside some of the houses, which we saw being used. There was a gypsy convoy of covered wagons. We saw many wayside shrines, often decorated with fresh flowers.

Eventually we came to the town of Curtea De Arges, which was well cared for and seemed to have a good range of shops. On the way out was a market just for building materials - doors and piles of cement!

We then made our way through most attractive rolling countryside to Camping Comarnic Dragos, which proved to be a delightful small site, with well-tended grass and hanging baskets, an attractive circle of cabins and lovely views beyond, and with a pleasant breeze. It could not be bettered - all for £7 a night.

Thursday 14 June. We drove back to the town of Curtea De Arges in pleasant sunshine. We parked easily and at last someone found the key to the Princely Court or Curte Domneasca, which had housed the palace of Basarab I in the 14th century when the town was the capital of the area, Wallachia. Once inside we were met by an interesting gentleman who told us, almost without taking breath, the history of the church and Romania, not to mention the situation of Europe and the wider world. His father was a professor in Italian and he appeared to know most European languages, as well as most other things.

The church was unique as it combined Byzantine ideas and art with those of the Italian Renaissance, ie the figures were perfectly proportioned and lifelike, yet the church still had the wall paintings describing the bible in detail. He was especially scathing about the strong rood screen, describing it as Russian influence which he detested and put as the cause of Romania's woes.

At first he asked if we were the archaeologists who he was expecting to investigate the stone casket, which was a tomb of one of the princes. When opened in the 1920's it contained a skeleton (still intact) and a purple cloth and wonderful gold buckle.

Outside there were many rose bushes - I think Romanians have a thing about them and they are very good at choosing the most scented.

We then had a wander along the most pleasant tree-lined street and were delighted to see the children returning from school. The boys were in smart black trousers, very white shirts and even ties, while the girls wore decorated blue pinafores.

We had lunch before visiting the Monastirea Curtea De Arges, which was built in the 1520's using marble and mosaic tiles from Constantinople, making it look most Islamic! Legend has it that the wife of the master stonemason Manole was embedded in the stone walls but I've read this story so many times in Europe, as well as the story about removing the scaffolding so that he fell to his death and could not build a better structure!

The building was extensively rebuilt in 1875 and is an incredible chocolate box construction. I was especially pleased to see the grave of Queen Marie, Victoria's granddaughter, who we had heard so much about on our last visit. ('There is only one man in Romania, and that is the Queen'.)

We then came back to enjoy the lovely campsite - so nice to be able to sit out in perfect temperatures in the evening, with no flies and few mosquitoes to spoil dinner and the view! So many very loaded log lorries rolled past the site.

Friday 15 June. We drove west, the road being rather uneven at times, but on the whole we have noticed a big improvement in Romanian roads and they are so much better than Bulgarian ones. There were a couple of people using horse-drawn hoes between the maize. We passed several elaborate gypsy palaces, with ornate bright metal roofs. Loads of people were making hay and almost every house has a barn and outhouses. We drove past the industrial town of Ramnicu Valcea, then continued west on rd 67 to Horezu Monastery.

The monastery was most attractive - whitewashed buildings surrounding a highly decorated church with a graphic illustration of Hell on the outside wall. Inside the figures were very Byzantine but the faces would not have gone amiss in a National Trust house! They were those of the family whose money built the church. We had thought about wild camping in the area but did not see anywhere that suited, so drove north up rd 7/E81, the trans-Fagaras Highway, which cuts across the Fagaras Mountains. The road passed through a gorge and was most attractive but very busy indeed with many lorries and there was rain just as the road got interesting!

We turned right onto road 1 near Sibiu and were soon at 'De Oude Wilg' Camping at Carta, which must rank as one of my favourite campsites, sitting as it does in an ordinary Romanian village. We enjoyed a warm welcome, not to mention the delicious home-made liqueur. See http://www.campingdeoudewilg.nl/  

Most magic of all, at 8.30 pm we went to the outskirts of the village to watch the cattle and horses come home, splash across the river, then walk back to their own gates.

Walking round the village after the cattle, I saw a gypsy girl in colourful red skirt and red top, pushing a pushchair with two young boys each wearing the gypsy boy's hat, and with a mobile phone clasped to her ear!

Saturday 16 June. A most pleasant day in and around the site, wandering round the streets. It is interesting how different the houses are from those in Wallachia. Here in Transylvania there is the regular pattern of a house, then a large gate, followed by another house with the door firmly inside the enclosed yard. Proper road surfaces and pavements are coming to Carta, so next time the street outside the camping will be tarmaced; the mud and dust must be a nightmare!

A most pleasant garden has been made next to the ruins of the Cistercian Monastery. Most surprising to find it here, so far from others. Next door is the German elementary school that we learned about last time. Carta is on the edge of the Saxon lands, where the Germans have settled for many centuries. Many returned to Germany in the 1990's, though there is still a small community. Many of the houses in Carta have German inscriptions and there is a German cemetery still in use.

It was interesting to hear such a lot of hammering and sawing as I walked about, since all the houses have workshops as well as barns in the back yards.

We went out at 8.30 pm once more to see the horses and cattle come home. I followed a sizeable group home and then watched as they went in through the iron double gates.

Sunday 17 June. Another day in and around the site at Carta in Romania. We went for a stroll before it got too hot, starting by walking alongside the river. We came to the spot where the river is crossed by a floating bridge. Nearby was the new sewage works, paid for by the EU. Before that it went untreated into the river.

This really is a go-ahead village, as the campsite owner was telling us later. Almost all of the houses are so well cared for and attractive, with running water and gas recently installed. It remains so interesting to wander through, with the German inscriptions and multicoloured houses. Several people greeted us in German today and the owner said that now there were about 20% German speakers left in a village that was originally all German-Saxon.

This afternoon I went painting in the main street and was surrounded by 7 little girls who stayed to watch every brush stroke till I had finished, when I took their photo. I then painted the house with the stork on top and could hear the storks talking to each other.

When we got back one of the gypsies walked past, closely followed by his wife, both shouting at each other as loudly as can be imagined. They walked up and down the street screaming at each other. The owner said they had been doing this every week for 12 years without it coming to blows. Later however there was a more serious incident, which Andy saw, when several women got into a very serious argument, aided and sometimes restrained by their husbands.

We watched the cattle come in as usual and I wandered back into the streets following them home. It is so nice being in a community where absolutely everyone speaks to you. The family of jays in the surrounding trees has been a pleasure to watch. This really is a feel-good place and a lovely campsite.

Monday 18 June. Very reluctantly left Carta and headed north to have a wander through the SW Transylvanian countryside. The roads were rather rough at times but the scenery really lovely, gently rolling hills and lots of deciduous trees, with villages snuggled in the valleys. There were also nodding donkeys to bring up oil - Romania was the first country to produce a barrel of oil - and the Shaduf for bringing up water. Eventually we reached the main road no 14 and turned north. . Everywhere there are road works, either improving the road or putting in services in the villages. We stopped at Axente Sever to look at the fortified church.

This area is famous for its fortified churches, built by the German Saxons who had been in the area since the 1200's. They were surrounded by a strong thick wall that usually had rooms or arches in which the local families would store food for use in time of attack. The tower of the church was also usually fortified. Sometimes food was stored in labelled chests in the church roof spaces. There are over 300 of these fortified churches, which are usually Lutheran and sparsely decorated in gentle pastel shades. We were surprised at the toll recorded in the World Wars and wondered who they served.

Axente Sever church had pictures of the last confirmation group in 1997, all dressed in traditional German costume. After that date so many of the Germans, free at last to travel, left to 'return' to Germany, leaving a much reduced German population and many of the churches without a pastor. I have often wondered about these returnees, going to a country they had only limited contact with. How have they settled and what do they think now that their villages are being so improved with mains drainage, roads and running water? Romania has come on so much since our last visit; it's now much tidier and the rubbish and polluted rivers are a thing of the past.

We drove on to Valea Villor, a lovely village with another fortified church in excellent repair. Climbing the tower here was quite challenging but the view over the village was wonderful - one could see so well the yards behind the houses and behind that the vegetable patches.

We then drove south around Sibiu to Gabrova and Camping Poarta: a very nice campsite with an old-fashioned courteous welcome for approx £11. The proprietors have a sister who lives in Tunbridge Wells! I wandered into the village after dinner. Some of the houses in the centre were larger and grander than Carta, possibly due to this being a wine growing region. A few cows had wandered home up the street and one was standing patiently outside its gate waiting for it to open. Later a gypsy boy rode by barebacked, followed reluctantly by a colt, sometimes galloping in front of traffic! He stopped half way down the street and was joined by a boy on a bike.

Tuesday 19 June. We left very early to try and get some distance before it got very hot. It's been reaching 35ºC and too much for site seeing. As soon as we left Transylvania the houses became ordinary continental ones, though still with extensive crops in the gardens. We passed through a village of gypsy palaces and a very extensive archaeological dig on both sides of the road near Cugar.

INTO HUNGARY

There was no one to check our passports as we left Romania and just a quick glance from the Hungarians. In Romania everyone lives in villages but now instantly there were scattered homesteads, large fields and never a horse and cart! The plain stretched as far as we could see.

Immediately the road deteriorated badly and there were piles of rubbish beside the road - so bad that we had to abandon a lay-by and coffee. To be honest the situation did improve and once we were on the motorway we sped north towards Budapest, then NW to Thermal Camping near Szeged, which we struggled to find as the instructions were in Hungarian.

Once there however the campsite was fine and empty (where is everybody?) It had been a long and very hot drive. We visited the thermal complex adjacent, which comprised a series of pools and baths, indoors and out, most attractively set in lawned grounds where everyone obviously comes to spend the whole day.

Wednesday 20 June. We drove easily round Budapest and then west to the Austrian border post, past Gyor where in the past we had experienced delays. There were no checks and we did not even stop.

INTO AUSTRIA

The SatNav helped us find the campsite in Vienna, Donaupark Camping at Klosterneuburg, without too much problem. This was much busier, as befits a city site. Very hot indeed until it gradually began to cloud over and the weather started to break. Temperatures in the high 20's and showers forecast for tomorrow will make sightseeing much easier.

We had a wander round Klosterneuburg, which boasts its own grand abbey/palace.

Thursday 21 June. We caught the bus, then 'underground' into Vienna, staying on beyond the centre to the Schloss Schonbrunn, an extremely grand palace, where we saw the rooms of Maria Theresa and also those of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sissy. We had previously seen their city centre apartments at Hofburg and this added further to the picture! I must admit to being fascinated by them: Franz's devotion to his work and Sissy's waist-length hair and somewhat turbulent life. Mozart had played to Catherine at this palace aged 6 and gave her a large cuddle after the performance. We had a coffee in the palace then walked round the gardens, remembering we had visited them before but had not seen the magnificent palm house, which must have rivalled the Crystal Palace.

We caught the underground back into town and spent the afternoon happily wandering round. We were very intrigued by a gentleman in oriental gear sitting on thin air, only supported by his hand resting lightly on a staff. Then we realised that the staff must also have supported a small platform, cleverly hidden - most effective. We had tea at Julius Meinl; we must be seeking out the most expensive coffee shops in Vienna! Opposite was Cartier, where a replica of one of Sissy's famous stars was £9,400 (the security guard looked shady in the extreme), and a street of fashion houses: Chanel, Armani, Gucci etc.

We hit the rush hour on the way back and squeezed into the tiniest gap on the train. We got back to see the kind of thing wars start over - our German neighbours had put up a pup tent across our pitch on the far side of the van, meaning we had to tread on the tent to get into the garage! Fortunately they moved it the following day. At midnight we were woken by a strident noise, which Andy identified as a torpedo alarm. I did not know we had one! After much bumbling around like headless chickens we identified it as my toothbrush, which had come on by itself and was vibrating against the bathroom wall!

Friday 22 June. Despite the restless night we were still on the bus into Vienna by 9 o'clock, heading for the Schloss Belvedere, a grand Baroque palace built for Prince Eugene of Savoy, which now houses a large art collection. We were especially keen to see the work of Klimt and Andy liked the work of his contemporary Schiele. The trouble is that there are about 4 galleries in Vienna that hold Klimt's works, so it's impossible to see more than a few at one time without getting 'galleried-out'. However we did see 'The Kiss' and I was very impressed by his landscapes. We also saw work by Monet, Renoir and Cézanne. Andy said it made him realise just what a wide selection the National Gallery holds.

We had lunch at another Julius Meinl: as expensive as the rest of the holiday had been reasonable! We then had a look at the shopping street of Mariahilfer Strasse and went into the Gengoss department store. The street was much like Oxford Street but not quite as hectic, and although all the names were mostly different the content was much the same. We then made our way to a street of smaller shops, before refinding the Ring and resting our feet with tea in the Volkes Garten, full of roses, which we must explore further next time. Finally we relaxed by catching a tram.

The numbers 1 and 2 trams used to run round the Ring, which was great for an over view of the city, but now there is a specialised one which costs quite a bit. Instead we went out to look at the Prater, a wooded area beyond the Danube Canal. We then made our way back into the city centre and returned to our first Julius Meinl, in the main square; where I enjoyed an extravagant non-dairy knickerbockerglory, the first one I've had since childhood! Afterwards we did a little shopping in their amazing grocery shop behind - a bit like shopping at Harrods or Fortnum and Masons.

This really is an excellent campsite for Vienna. It's further out but it is very straightforward getting into the city and the transport links are every few minutes.

Saturday 23 June. As we left the camp, the SatNav tried to take us onto a very small ferry across the Danube near the site. It said it would take 5 ton, but we did not risk it, especially with the current, which has surprised us. The Danube is high at the moment and flowing very fast.

We took the road beside the Danube after Krems and were surprised how very attractive it was. It reminded us of the Rhine around the Lorelei Rock and there was a surprising amount of traffic on the river, more than we had seen on the Danube before. We also saw plenty of places where people were wild camping, which looked very popular.

We eventually stopped at an ACSI discount site at Grein, a pleasant little town beside the Danube, which used to be very hazardous at this point with whirlpools and rocks. There was a tiny ferry, which had to battle to get across each time and was driven sideways. The river rose 8 metres in 2002, submerging at least 2 floors of the riverside houses; the substantial flood barriers would not do much for that! The most attractive thing, however, was the historic Municipal Theatre, claiming to be the oldest in central Europe and dating from 1791. It was absolutely charming, painted in faded elaborate patterns. It had a gallery and box, and unique seats which locked in the upright position, so you bought the key for the season! There was a pleasant promenade beside the river.

INTO GERMANY

Sunday 24 June. We drove almost due west, via Linz and Salzburg, then veered towards Munich - a very scenic route with mountains on our left for most of the way. We had lunch beside the Chiemsee lake, then settled at an aire at Aichach, which had quite a charming town centre. The wonderful blue sky had gone milky at Salzburg and it remained very warm but stuffy for the rest of the day.

Monday 25 June. We left Aichach in heavy rain. There was a convenient supermarket almost next door, so we stocked up on German white wine and restocked with fruit and veg. Good to find strawberries again, as they have finished further south. An uneventful journey continued via Stuttgart.

INTO LUXEMBOURG

We eventually reached an aire just over the border into Luxembourg beside the Moselle, which was very pleasant but expensive at €9 and run very much as a campsite. We met a Swede who said he was travelling to England and Wales but had been put off by the weather, so was going to Italy. He said that Sweden had the wettest June ever and this was the first day they had felt warm. We were feeling chilly! During the evening a balloon almost ditched in the adjacent marina. I'm warming to the site as it's very pleasant sitting out. 2 barges did pass, both at the same time in opposite directions

INTO BELGIUM

Tuesday 26 June. An uneventful drive to Tournai. As soon as we got there we realised we had tried to park at these Camperstops before, equally unsuccessfully. However, we found an easy spot by the canal but away from town. It was an easy walk into the town, which has a spectacular central triangle with buildings faithfully reconstructed after the war. Attempts to catch up with email were unsuccessful at a cafe supposed to have wifi. Coffee arrived but when asked for a code the waiter said 'non'. However, we did manage to find it later.

We left the spot thinking it would be noisy but the next 2 places in the Camperstop were worse and we should have stayed put. Mouscron was not ideal but quiet and did the trick for the night.

Wednesday 27 June. We made our way to the Auchan hypermarket we often use on the outskirts of Lille: on the A25/E42 junction 6 North, 7 South. We have to ask to have the height barriers moved there but it is not problem, and the store is really huge! After a happy couple of hours collecting the alcohol for the winter and a few more essentials, we drove north to Bruges to visit the family of Kylie, Bobby's girl friend. We had a lovely evening and were very surprised indeed when Kylie herself arrived for a holiday!

Thursday 28 June. We caught the 9.30 ferry and, apart from the fact that P and O seemed to have closed all the ladies' toilets (posting notices directing everyone from one end of the ship to the other, only to find an identical notice), it was uneventful - as was the rest of the homeward journey, thank goodness!