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Spain to England via the Balkans (Audrey Pocock) PDF Printable Version E-mail

SPAIN TO THE UK - VIA THE BALKANS!

Audrey Pocock – June 2012

Australians Audrey and Graham Pocock motorhome from Mallorca to England via Spain, Andorra, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Italy and France.

Spain-Andorra

We left Mallorca on 6 April 2013 travelling on the ferry to Valencia, to meet up once again with Bruce, our faithful motorhome, who had been standing for almost 2 months bereft of his 2 travellers. We were surprised at how easily the motor started after such an absence and once more the wheels began to roll.

The weather was a bit cold that week as we made our way north, via Benicasim and Asco, into Andorra, where Graham was delighted to find one of his favourite whiskies for about a a third of the price it would be in Oz.

Andorra-France

With snow all around, we took the tunnel from Andorra into France. Coming out of it and into fog was not what we expected. It was quite terrifying - knuckle-whitening terrifying - for a few kilometres downhill. We finally reached an Aire at Les Cabannes and relaxed. Although still cold and still in the mountains, we knew it was all downhill from here.

After that it got warm, pleasantly so, as we made our way across the southwest of France via the Cathar district, stopping at Quillan, Agde, Comps and finally on to the Vaucluse. The villages here of course are beautiful and so we stopped for a few nights at Fontaine de Vaucluse, the prettiest of towns, if not a trifle touristy. There is a wonderful Aire here for lots of motorhomes at the entrance to the village/town, with the river at the bottom of the meadow. There is a fee to be paid, therefore no problem taking out the awning, table and chairs to sit in the sun. From there it was just a short walk into Fontaine de Vaucluse.

One thing we didn't enjoy there was a pizza we ordered one evening in the town. The worst pizza in our lives! It was so bad that we complained about it, only to be told that there was nothing wrong with it (customer always wrong in France?) It must have had a whole tin of uncooked tomato paste on it, with some awful topping. Hint – don't ever go for a pizza in France in the evening in a restaurant. Make sure it is a Pizzeria. We should have known that the Maitre'd didn't like us ordering pizza, but if it's on the menu … Meanwhile Graham went into the restaurant to tell the chef that it was the worst pizza of his life and in Australia we can expect much better.

Unfortunately, he added “also in England”, which didn't go down well at all. I mean, having worse food than England was as good as telling the chef to cut his throat. However, he did offer us something else if we would like, but we opted for paying for one pizza and left.

From there we drove into Haute Provence heading for Barcelonnette, where we continued through the Col de Larache Pass and into Italy. The pass was covered in snow but thankfully the roads had been cleared and we drove down with care.

Italy

We had discovered that the fridge was not working on gas and so we decided to head for a Fiat dealer who we had been told about by an Italian we had met in the campsite before the border. On looking at it, he said that we needed a new controller. 200 Euros later he installed it. Great to have it working again, though unfortunately it only works on and off (not the controller's fault but maybe a blockage in the pipe). A pain when you have to buy fresh food on a day by day basis.

Two years ago we had decided to go to the Cinque Terre but because of the floods then and the great damage we were not able to walk there. This time, however, we thought we would go and take a look. We drove down to Levanto via lots of tunnels. It really is amazing scenery when you get a chance between tunnels to look at it. Finally we reached Levanto and were pleased to see an Aire there, right outside the train station, that takes you to all the 5 villages which form the backbone of the Cinque Terre.

Inquiring if we could walk the CT, we found that there were only 3 walks open. We made a decision then to walk from Levanto to the first of the 5 villages. It was a walk, I will grant you - in fact that is when I decided I wasn't quite as fit as I should be for something I plan to do later in the year, namely the Inca Trail. Two and a half ragged hours later we reached the first village and were we glad to see the train station? We took it to the final village and then got off at each one on the journey back. Beautiful they were, no wonder they are UNESCO listed - Vernazza was our favourite. By the time we got back to Levanto we were utterly exhausted. But we had had a glorious day and the weather was just perfect. Italy at its best.

Next day we made our way due east toward Venice, stopping in Mestre for a couple of nights. We wanted to see Venice possibly for the last time (never say 'never again'). It is such a film set of a city. We walked and walked, had coffee as only the Italians can make it, took the Vaporetti again through the Grand Canal and just generally enjoyed the visualness of it all.

Slovenia

Then it was round the coast to Trieste and into Slovenia, which we blinked and nearly missed, before driving on into Croatia.

Graham and I had been to Croatia and Slovenia when it was part of Tito's Jugoslavia many years ago whilst living in Vienna and when the children were small, so it was relatively familiar.

Croatia

We visited the Istria Peninsula, which was still as lovely as ever, spending a couple of days there relaxing after the frenetic feeling left from Italy. There are some lovely places on this peninsula. We stopped at Rovinj for 3 days, which must have one of the biggest campsites we have ever seen.

But the true beauty has to be the Dalmation Coast with its dramatic coastline and islands, a surely stunning drive and unspoilt still. In fact we reckon it is the Mediterranean coast as it once was, no high rises to speak of, just pretty little inlets and coves and tiny villages for miles and miles. A couple of the campsites we stopped at overnight were just at the edge of the water, which was so clear and blue it defied belief.

We stopped in Starigrad for a few nights, inches from the sea, and took the local bus into Zadar. The White City I named it, for the stone all around. Classy little town with the Sea Organ (the singing steps) and the Sun Salutation, things that are unique to Zadar. The organ, as it is named, are pipes set into steps that go down to the sea and with the movement of the air and water they appear to be playing a repertoire of melodic sighs. The Sun Salutation collects energy throughout the day and releases it at night to form a beautiful light show. Zadar has no shortage of places to have coffee or eat in. Very smart, clean and delightful.

We continued on our way a few days later to reach Trogir, a gem of a little place situated in a beautiful location. Trogir is just to die for and the World Heritage old town is lovely to visit with plenty of history; the new town too is worth a visit. It has been discovered of course by the cruise ships that enter the waters - and who can blame them, it is so attractive and there is a lot to see for such a small place.

From Trogir we drove to Split, camping just beyond the town in a lovely bay. We took the bus in the next day to Split. Another lovely city with a UNESCO Word Heritage listing. Here is Diocletian's Palace, abuzz with cafes, restaurants, shops and monuments. It was built for the Roman Emperor Diocletian and has continued to be part of the essence of the city since then. It is old and new, wonderful pillars and capitals with steps to sit on and be served coffee, which is what we did.

We walked down to the front also - the streets are so tidy and of course the stone here makes everything look even cleaner. But it was hot (early May) and we ended up seeking the shadows with ice cream, sitting in the park. Footsore we came back to camp to put our feet up and have a cold beer. (Fridge must have been working that day!)

The next day we took the bus into Split again and caught a bus into Bosnia-Herzegovina, our intention being to go to Mostar and stay overnight in a little pension. It seemed to take all day to get there, with the coastal highway being dug up for improvement and, in Bosnia, the driver stopping at various places en route to deliver goods. We arrived in Bosnia about 5 pm in time to sit down at a cafe, look up the internet and choose a pension to stay in. We found one easily enough, about half a kilometre from the famous bridge.

The bridge at Mostar (Stari Most) is what we had come to see: the beautiful bridge that had been flattened during the Bosnian Conflict and rebuilt with funds from the EU, exactly the way it had been when it was built 500 years ago. We even saw an athlete preparing to jump off it, as had been done right through history. A modern addition was his mate wandering around with a cap into which money was being dropped.

The streets around the bridge were cobbled and there were lots of shops selling tourist merchandise and we enjoyed wandering around. Back across the bridge again and this time we spotted one of the restaurants that look right onto it and so we decided to go and have a beer there and maybe eat. We got front row seats of the bridge and I sat and snapped photo after photo of that bridge from dusk until dark. It was dramatic and amazing.

After that we made our way slowly back to the pension along the other river which flows into the Nereva. There we spied a miniature of the big bridge. By this time it was really dark and the falls were thundering down beside some lovely restaurants and mill houses. It was glorious and I would definitely recommend a visit there.

In the morning we walked via the bridge to the bus station to wait for a bus back to Split. I am so glad we went into this small part of Bosnia (actually this part is Herzegovina). It is quite easy to see that it is poorer than its Balkan cousins and with only about 20+ kilometres of coastline and mountains to contain it, I am not surprised.

Back to Split and the next day we set off down the road, through the 20+ kilometres of Bosnia. Going through the border was easy. They just checked our passports and then we went through. Of course we didn't have insurance for this short distance through Bosnia as we couldn't find anyone to insure us going into that country, but soon we were back in Croatia again.

We drove on to Dubrovnik with the scenery as wonderful as ever. Truly, the whole coastline is just magic. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see any of the islands and I would have liked to see Hvar particularly, but we just didn't have time.

Superlatives galore when you see Dubrovnik. All the towns up until now had been lovely. However, when we saw Dubrovnik, it was really the Jewel in the Crown. The old town is to die for. The walls must be the best preserved walls in the world, is all I can say. We walked round them taking 2 hours to do so. Then inside the town too until our feet were killing us. It has to be one of the top cities to visit in Europe and, with the scenery surrounding it also, like a fairy tale. Cruise ships aplenty here and who can blame them. The whole coastline is magnificent.

Montenegro

Leaving there to go into Montenegro was easy also. It cost us 15 Euros for a green card for the minimum period, which I think was 15 days. It only took about 5 minutes of our time. All done so professionally and so politely. And then we were in Montenegro.

As I said to Graham "Another ugly country" (jokingly, for soon we came to what is supposed to be the most southerly fiord in Europe). The fiord is breathtaking and we even managed to find a lovely campsite on the edge of it, where we stayed for 3 days. We would have stayed far longer if we had had the time.

It was just a small campsite but it had everything. A river flowing past to join the fiord, ducks to feed, a friendly owner and a bus stop nearby to take us to the UNESCO town of Kotor via one of the 5 top drives in Montenegro. The other top drives are inland and how I would have loved to have gone inland to see the rest of this country, but again we didn't have the time .

We spent the day in Kotor, climbing up to the fortress high above it: another nudge to tell me how unfit I am - we were passed by an 80 year old American man! Exhausted we stopped for lunch in one of the many lovely restaurants just before one of the cruise ships emptied its load of passengers. Thank God, otherwise we would still be waiting to be fed. Kotor is a beautiful little town (aren't they all)? and well worth a look round.

From there we headed down the coast staying at Buljarica, which is between Petrovac and Bar. That was where Graham saw the snake. We couldn't understand why some people in a motorhome arriving after us kept checking the ground, before deciding that they would camp near the entrance instead. Obviously it was the snake. What can I say? I've seen bigger in Oz, MUCH bigger!

We walked to the sea and found a cafe where we sat and had a beer. There had been some people in the water swimming. One of them (a young lady) decided to change in front of our table. She was modest enough to put a towel round herself but I did think it was a bit strange that she didn't just go to the Ladies. Oh well!

Albania

The next day (a Sunday) we left Montenegro and entered Albania. Again, no problem, polite border people and a Green Card for Euros 39, for which I think the minimum stay is a month. We were through the border in no time. Unfortunately it was raining and miserable, the first time for such a long time we had had bad weather.

We had heard of a campsite called Camping Albania run by Dutch people and had the co-ordinates, so we drove there via the outskirts of Shkoder.

Lovely people these camp owners appear to be, and well thought of in the vicinity. They bake a lot of bread and I saw the van going out with a truck-load to be delivered to the poor and needy. I think they also do a lot in the way of entertainment and weddings for the community and of course there are jobs at the campsite, which some of the locals have. There is everything here: meals, wifi and lots of information on Albania.

When we left we decided to stick to the coast. We had heard that the interior roads were in poor condition so, much as I would have liked to see Tirana, we declined. At first the roads were not too bad at all, in fact we were pleasantly surprised. However, a roundabout outside Durres, the likes of which I have never seen before, soon put paid to that. Pot-holed, sandy, muddy, dusty, unaligned and unmarked, it was every man and truck/car for himself. I was terrified we were going to have a crash. It takes guts to drive through that.

We stopped for the night in a campsite, which was behind a hotel in a resort town called Kavaje. This resort was in a hurry to be ready for the Summer. There were tractors everywhere and the roads were all up, making it quite difficult to walk.

In the morning we drove on southwards passing through Fier, which looked nice, and on to Vlora - also nice, but I feel it's a shady city in terms of trafficking, whether human or drugs. I guess it's the nearest route to Brindisi in Italy.

We continued on our journey climbing up the Llogarase Pass where we stopped just short of the summit. We had seen a motorhome and thought it might be a place to stop for the night, so we drove in to park in a field beside some cows. There was a restaurant there and our eyes feasted on a lamb that was roasting on a spit. We asked if we could have a meal (lamb, of course) and could we stay the night. No problems they gestured to us, using body language.

Looking forward to our meal in a few hours we were most disappointed to see 2 bus-loads of students arriving for lunch. Oh no, that will be goodbye to the lamb! However when we appeared at 6 in the evening to eat we found they had kept some aside for us. Sated, we went to sleep to the sounds of the cow bells.

It was cold up in the pass but as soon as we began to descend on the sea side the temperature rose. The pass was a tad dangerous. Some of the bends had nothing separating us from the gigantic drop below. A good time to hold one's breath. Down and down we went for ages and then all the way to Sarande the road twisted and turned. No straight bits of road to be had.

On this part of the journey you get to see lots of Enver Hoxha's little 'gems' - the Bunkers. They look like they could have played a part in Dr Who. Some of them are tiny and it must have been claustrophobic sitting inside one of them waiting for the great mass of invaders from across the sea. Seeing some of them upturned, they look difficult to remove as they are extremely thick and lots of them are just left as relics of the paranoiac years, with shrubs and roots forming screens in front of them.

We decided, on reaching Sarande, that we deserved lunch out and so we stopped at one of the very many cafes for a pizza. This town is full of hotels and restaurants but I don't know where the people are going to come from, unless they come by boat, as it's not an easy place to reach. Maybe boat-loads of tourists come from Corfu in the Summer, that's the only thing I can think of.

Anyway, after lunch we continued south via Butrint and then found ourselves crossing a river on a raft. It wasn't much bigger than our motorhome, I can tell you, and no sides to it. The road got narrower and narrower on the other side and I thought we were going to have to turn back and go back across the water, when all of a sudden we were on the good tarmac surface of a two-way road. This took us all the way to the Greek border and it was time to say goodbye to Albania and hello to Greece.

Greece

Greece really marked the end of the line, inasmuch as it was the most southerly point of our journey, and we drove to Igoumenitsa to wait on a ferry to take us to Brindisi in Italy. That was the ferry from hell!

We found ourselves in a queue with Bulgaria! And part of Romania too. We must have stood out a mile because soon we saw some officials coming towards us to ask why we were taking this ferry. A strange question, I would have thought, being asked why one was sailing from one country to another. 'Brindisi seemed the cheapest option from Igoumenitsa' I said, showing one of them my passport. He smiled and said the Greek version of 'no worries'. Now I know what the smile was all about.

Talk about free-for-all on that boat. We were not allowed to park on the upper deck, which we have done before, allowing us to sleep in our van and had to go up to the lounge area. By this time there was almost no sitting area, with most of the people sprawled out on the seats with their blankets, while others had spread their goods all over the foyer and were having their picnics. We finally got to sit down but it was too difficult to sleep - the place was so overcrowded. When I asked a man who was lying over a space wide enough for 3 people if he would mind moving a bit, so I could sit down (I am afraid I asked in English), he replied in English that he was very tired. I replied that I too was tired but he just ignored me.

We now realize that these people are the Gastarbeiter of Italy and they must make this journey through Greece from Bulgaria many times a year. While they did not appear ultra-friendly (and Graham spotted one girl with a knife tucked inside her clothing), I think it is a fault of the ferry company for not providing better facilities or another boat. I don't think I have seen as many trucks go onto a ferry before, even Helsinki to Tallinn was not as full as this one.

Italy

We were so exhausted by the morning that we stopped at the first campsite north of Brindisi for a couple of days to just 'chill out'. Basking in beautiful warmth, we enjoyed the peace and tranquility before starting up the long (isn't Italy long)? haul northwards along the east coast. The Aires in Italy are difficult to find. They are never where they are supposed to be. Directions too are not what they are supposed to be. It is very frustrating.

We found ourselves in the middle of the Giro d'Italia one day. Northwest of Milan and heading up the mountains we suddenly came to a grinding halt with barriers across the road. It was there we were told we had to go back down again to a town below and wait until they said we could move on. This we did and managed to see a bit of the race before they removed some of the barriers and we could get on our way again. By this time we were so frustrated that we ended up on the motorway and we just kept on going until the town of Sarre near Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) - certainly not a cheap option! No, tolls there are not cheap. We stayed there a couple of days in the little campsite before entering the tunnel into France at Chamonix.

France

Welcome to the cold side of the planet. What a change once we got through that tunnel. We stopped literally under the gondola at Mont Blanc, hoping to be able to take the gondola up to the summit. We checked at the station but the weather cam didn't look at all promising. Instead we went and had a look at Chamonix, sat and enjoyed a hot chocolate in the cold and slept the night under the wires of the gondola.

Next day we tried again but it was still not open and it didn't look like they were going to open it any time soon, so we decided to move on northwards. This we did, stopping a couple of nights in Aires until we reached Paris. Weather very dubious.

We stayed at a campsite we had been in before on the banks of the Seine and only a train ride into the centre. We enjoyed a day in the most beautiful city in the world, just walking and people-watching round the usual sights. The following day, after standing for 2 wet hours in the queue at the Musee D'Orsay, we finally got in and spent the rest of the day admiring the art there.

Then it was up to Dunkirk, sleeping the night in the docks there and over to the Old Dart.

England

Graham and his sister had some business to do with the settlement of their parents' house, which was the reason for the rush back to England. As we have planned to go back to Australia in October, we decided that we would go and say some goodbyes.

We also visited the Jurassic Coast for the first time (for me anyway) - a lovely part of England, Durdle Door and Lullworth Cove - and then on to Oxford, which I have decided is my favourite city in England (of the ones I've seen).Then it was back to London again.

We are now in Stratford upon Avon at a Motorhome Show, getting some idea of prices for the sale of our motorhome. The weather is still miserable. We saw 'Hamlet' at the Royal Shakespeare Company last night, which was stupendous.

to be continued…….