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Return from Greece Spring 2016 PDF Printable Version E-mail


A RETURN JOURNEY FROM GREECE VIA SICILY & IRELAND: SPRING 2016

Margaret and Barry Williamson

Continued from: The Ultimate Peloponnese Tour

December and January had slipped quietly past in the deep south of the Greek Peloponnese, based in Finikounda. The weather was remarkably mild and dry, encouraging us to regain some fitness cycling the quiet hills of the hinterland. In February 2016 we drove north to our favourite Greek campsite, Ionion Beach. Here there were more country lanes to ride and new paths through the Thinon Forest to explore. Margaret produced English versions of Greek Taverna menus for two good friends: George at the campsite restaurant and Michalis at 'Alati & Piperi' ('Salt & Pepper') in nearby Vartholomio. In March, preparing reluctantly to leave Greece, we booked a ferry to Bari for an onward journey towards England via Sicily and Ireland.

europe_Spring_2016_4.jpg
Map of the Motorhome Journey from Greece to England Spring 2016

MARCH 2016

SUPERFAST FERRY FROM PATRAS (GREECE) TO BARI (ITALY) –

The Sunday morning was thankfully calm. After lunch we drove 57 miles from Ionion Beach to the new ferry port in Patras for the 17–hour overnight crossing of the Adriatic. The new motorway bypass made access easier – and perhaps the exit for the port will be signed one day! Inside the port we collected the tickets and waited for check-in, watching a total of eight young male migrants climb over the fence - why not make it higher? Well dressed and carrying no baggage, no doubt they were aiming to travel to Italy under or on top of a truck. With up to 50,000 migrants trapped in Greece following the closure of the Balkan route to Germany, many more will be making that climb in the future.

The only motorhome to board, we were ushered onto an open deck as soon as check-in began at 4 pm. Directed to park in a corner right against the rails, we were soon boxed in by a pair of trucks from Cyprus. There were no electric hook-ups available. As the misnamed www.superfast.com ferries do not allow 'Camping on Board' between 1 November and 1 April, however good the weather, we had booked a 2-berth outside cabin.

Tip:  We were sailing to Bari because our next destination was Sicily. Otherwise, a much better deal for motorhomes and caravans is offered year-round by Minoan Lines, sailing from Patras or Igoumenitsa to Ancona and Trieste. Called 'Camping All Inclusive', they supply a hook-up for the vehicle, a cabin for the passengers and 30% off meals, all at the price of a deck ticket.

The boat sailed promptly at 6 pm. It had a tiny shop, a bar and a self-service restaurant which opened at 6.30 pm. Though first in the queue, our food was only luke-warm and we paid far too much for pork with rice or chips, chocolate cake and a bottle of water. We do not recommend this ferry! At least it was a smooth crossing and we slept well, only waking briefly around midnight when the vessel called at Igoumenitsa and filled every inch of deck space with trucks mainly from Turkey.

Bari Ferry Port to Camping Thurium, Corigliano Calabro, Calabria, Italy – 150 miles

Open all year.  www.campingthurium.com  ACSI Card rate €15 inc shower tokens and 6-amp elec. Free WiFi throughout site.  N 39.69098  E 16.52302

The Superfast ferry arrived promptly at 9.30 am (Italian time) in Bari, where the half-burnt ANEK ferry 'Norman Atlantic' is still docked, the letters 'TIC' legible at the end of its scorched name. It remains a chilling reminder of the disastrous fire that cost many lives as it sailed from Greece to Italy in January 2015.

Docking, we watched and admired the incredibly skilful manoeuvring of the international truck drivers as they backed their enormous vehicles round the deck and down an awkward ramp onto the quayside. As we had been first on, we were last off, finally disembarking at 11 am!

Following signs for the Autostrada, we negotiated the busy traffic to join A14 at the badly signed Bari Sud junction. We headed south to the end of the motorway at Massafra, just short of Taranto, paying a toll of just €4.90. Then rd 190 linked to the coast, to take rd 106 south along the Gulf of Taranto. The 106 was a good new dual carriageway until Roseto, after which it reverted to a 2-lane road. At Trebisacce we turned off to find a Lidl store shown on the SatNav but it had closed down. Indeed, the small town looked semi-derelict.

Continuing down rd 106, we passed the museum and ruins of Sybaris, an ancient Greek city founded in 720 BC and known for the wealth and luxury of its inhabitants, giving us the word 'sybaritic'. After another mile or so, we passed the lane on the left which leads to a pair of all-year campsites by the coast (Onda Azzurra meaning Blue Wave, and Thurium as the settlement at Sybaris was later renamed).

Before turning down to check out the sites, we continued along rd 106 to the shopping mall on the right (Decathlon, Auchan etc), and were soon re-shod with Decathlon shoes for Margaret and socks for Barry. Then it was on to shop at Lidl, by the roundabout on the road into Corigliano Calabro. It was a delight to find some goodies that were missed during our winter in Greece – such basic delights as liquorice, baked beans, croissants and tubs of ice cream small enough to fit our fridge's ice box! Even the Lidl had a much wider range than in Greece – and at lower cost. Transport and increased VAT inflates the prices there.

Well stocked, we returned towards Sybaris and turned down the signed lane. We know the second site along, Onda Azzurra, from previous brief visits, tucked in among the assertive overwintering Austro-German residents, so were pleased to find Camping Thurium almost empty! Settled under the pine trees, we cooked pork-burgers for supper and logged onto the WiFi. The antiquated showers were dismal, draughty and unusable, so Onda Azzurra would be a better choice for a longer stay in this area, but Thurium was much more peaceful for the one night.

Corigliano Calabro to Villa San Giovanni ferry terminal – 152 miles

Caronte & Tourist line ferry to Messina, Sicily (a 20-minute crossing)

Next morning, warm and hazy, we returned along the lane from Camp Thurium to rd 106 and drove briefly north, to turn left after Ancient Sybaris onto SS 534 (3 miles). Following signs for the A3 (the junctions were changed by roadworks), we joined the toll-free motorway at 22 miles at Spezzano Terme. Heading south, we soon passed the Torano exit where the Bord Atlas listed a handy Sosta but on phoning it yesterday we were told it was Chiuso or Closed.

The quiet A3 climbed impressively through short tunnels and the haze cleared, revealing a bright spring day with almond trees in blossom. We reached the top at 53 miles (2,122 ft/643 m), then descended through another series of tunnels until the sea came into view. From Falerna to Gizzera we followed the west coast of Italy's toe, then climbed once more along a new viaduct to 1,320ft/400 m. There was a good view of the coastal town of Pizzo below – a name that is also a slang word for Mafia in these parts.

At 124 miles we stopped at the Rosarno service station to eat our lunch and get a Caronte& Tourist ferry ticket across to Sicily. This is a good big service area (all the previous ones were too small to park), with the cheapest fuel we'd seen and a shop/cafι which sells ferry tickets, valid only on the day of purchase. Buying here saves any hassle and queuing at the ferry terminal in Villa San Giovanni. The 20-minute crossing cost €56 for the motorhome + 2 adults.

Taking the Villa San Giovanni exit from the A3 at 150 miles, the final 2 miles through the busy town to the ferry were badly signed – just follow the trucks and have patience with the double-parked cars! The 2 pm departure had just left and we joined the line waiting for the next ferry at 2.40 pm. The short crossing of the Strait landed us in Messina, Sicily's third largest city, by 3 pm. It seemed – as always – to be rush hour.

SICILY

Messina to Camping La Focetta Sicula, Sant'Alessio Siculo/Taormina, Sicily - 25 miles

Open all year. www.lafocetta.it  ACSI Card rate €17 inc 6-amp elec. Longer-stay deals. One-hour free WiFi (after which it is charged).  N 37.93079  E 15.35625

Following regular signs through Messina's traffic, we joined Autostrada A18 at Messina Bocc and headed south towards Taormina. It was toll-free as far as the Messina Sud junction. Remaining on the motorway, we saw nothing of the Ionion Sea as we drove through tunnel after tunnel. Italian motorway engineering never fails to impress and we willingly paid the toll as we left at the next exit (Roccalumera) – just €1.50.

Then the fun began, as we drove north on the coast road 116 towards Nizza di Sicilia in search of the Jonio Camperstop. We had phoned to check it was open (affirmative) and went straight to the co-ordinates. It was nowhere to be seen and the streets were narrow and difficult. Giving up, we turned south down rd 116 to the next known campsite, just south of Sant'Alessio, which we eventually found despite the obvious access road being closed.

Several large motorhomes were lined up facing a black shingle 'beach' and a stormy sea. The young woman in Reception let us in, then disappeared home to avoid further questions. It began to rain as darkness fell. Welcome to Sicily.

The free hour's WiFi was enough to check incoming emails and listen to the evening news while making a pork stew for supper. It had been a long day (177 miles plus the ferry).

Sant'Alessio Siculo to Camping Luminoso, Punta Braccetto, Nr Sta Croce Camarina  - 121 miles

Open all year. www.campingluminoso.com  ACSI Card rate €17 inc 6-amp elec, hot showers and private WC/washroom. 7 nights for price of 6, or 14 nights for price of 11. (Special longer-term winter rates available.) WiFi €1 per day.  N 36.81694  E 14.46601

Woken early by the crashing of the stormy sea, it was a very windy and overcast morning. The 5-mile route back through Alessio to the A18 was congested (market day in the town) so it was a relief to rejoin the motorway and drive south for Catania, tunnelling under Taormina and seeing nothing of Etna in the mist. The service station at 35 miles had a handy chemical toilet dump, which is more than we found on last night's campsite. Three miles later we paid a toll of just €2.80, then continued for 20 miles round the toll-free Catania Ring, past Misterbianco and the junction with the A19 (Catania-Palermo), exiting onto rd 194 signed Ragusa.

Heading southwest, this good 2-lane road offered a shorter and hillier route to our destination than the coastal route via Siracusa that we had taken previously. Climbing past Francofonte, we left the orange and olive orchards of the lowlands behind. It was cold and wet as we drove across wind-swept moors, reaching a maximum 2,245 ft/680 m near Vizzini. Descending a little, we joined the trucks for a toasted Panini at the Autogrill service area at the junction with rd 514 at 82 miles (still at 1,815 m/550 m and still pouring down).

Turning south on rd 514 towards Comiso and Ragusa, we climbed again into the mist above 2,000 ft/600 m. At 105 miles we took rd SP60 southwest into the teeth of the wind and rain, descending for 12 miles to the little town of Santa Croce Camarina. From here rd SP85 for Punta Braccetto leads to a roundabout – turn right to pass three neighbouring campsites along the beach: Baia dei Coralli, Scarabeo and finally (our choice) Luminoso.

We were quickly welcomed in and provided with a WiFi code. The sea-front pitches were taken by the long-stay winter residents but we were happy to find a quiet hedged corner with more shelter from the wind. Happily, the weather forecast looked better for the coming Easter weekend.

A week at Camping Luminoso, Punta Braccetto

A  possible island-hopping onward journey, via Sardinia and Corsica to mainland Italy, proved impossible, as we found that unbelievably there is only one ferry a week between Sicily and Sardinia at this time of year (Tirrenia/Moby line, overnight from Palermo on Saturdays). This being so, the boat was fully booked for the next few sailings! Ferries from Palermo to Livorno or Genova are more frequent. Again, all are overnight (with no Camping on Board allowed).

The three campsites at Punta Braccetto provide a popular overwintering area, set along a sandy bay on Sicily's warm south coast. When we spent December 2013/January 2014 (see our article In Sicily in the Winter of 2013-14)here on Luminoso we had befriended the charming owner, Lidia, and her English husband Stan. Another old friend, Dan, winters on nearby Camping Baia dei Coralli, so we had an unusually social week

During several visits to Dan, a short beach-walk away, we talked, listened to music and went shopping in Punta Braccetto together. On Easter Sunday Dan invited us for his Signature Dish (a substantially good shepherd's pie) and we presented him with Greek olives and oil. Later in the week Dan introduced us to delicious Nachos that he topped with refried beans, chopped onion, tomatillos, Mexican sosta, cheese and sour cream – a new taste that M is keen to replicate. The ice cream man called at the campsite at just the right moment to supply a dessert of thick creamy Gelati. Meat, fish, fruit & veg and daily bread are regularly delivered by vans serving the three campsites.

On the morning of Good Friday (a serious occasion in Sicily) Lidia and Stan took us up to Vittoria, Lidia's native town, to watch events. At noon a long procession marched slowly through the town to the central square, the route thronged with people and (incongruously) balloon sellers. The band played a mournful dirge, the scouts and guides looked solemn, many of the clerics wore a crown of thorns, pallbearers carried a bier with a bloodied figure of Christ, and there was a beautiful glass coffin with an empty couch and cushion inside. The onlookers crossed themselves as the parade passed, while waving cheerily to anyone they knew. 'There's my accountant' said Lidia, greeting a pallbearer! All quite inscrutable to us non-Catholics. There was to be a Passion Play in the square that evening, followed by a resurrection of the Resurrection on Easter Day.

As soon as the procession was over, the crowd dispersed and the town rapidly emptied. Lidia led us round the old centre - the baroque theatre, the library (in a former monastery), the pharmacy that was once her father's house, the school where she taught – bringing it all to life. At a tiny bakery down a side street she bought special vegetable pies, eschewing meat and fish on Good Friday – a day on which many shops nevertheless remained open.

Our campsite had filled up with lively Italians over the holiday weekend, then reverted to the quiet over-winter mixture of Austro-Germans, Scandinavians and Brits. We had reliable WiFi, bright and breezy weather (good for line-drying the laundry) and good company, though it isn't a very good area for cycling or walking far. We followed the cliff-top footpath from Baia dei Coralli towards Punta Secca but found it was soon fenced off (Danger – Erosion), just as it was 2 years ago. Punta Braccetto village looks very neglected, with just one shop that was closed and one simple bar. The attraction is the beach, though access is very limited.

Barry helped Stan with some technical problems involving laptop, photos and printer, M taught Lidia how to make a Victoria Sponge, and Lidia cooked us all a traditional Sicilian meal. This began with creamy mozzarella and ricotta cheeses from the local buffalo farm, followed by Easter pies (lamb and fresh peas) with veal escalopes, then a chocolate and yogurt cake accompanied by sweet walnut liqueur. We left their home at midnight after an evening of great food and wide-ranging Anglo-Italian conversation

Punta Braccetto to Palermo Ferry Port, Sicily - 146 miles

Grimaldi Ferry 'Europalink' overnight from Palermo to Livorno, Italy.

On a warm and sunny morning, the last day of March, we left Camp Luminoso for Palermo, driving on well-surfaced country lanes up the coast via Scoglitti to avoid the congestion in Vittoria. After 24 miles we joined the main road 115 (E45), just before the ugly industrial town of Gela scarred by factory chimneys, a small oilfield and terribly rough highway.

It was good to turn inland 3 miles later, following the 'A19 Catania-Palermo' sign at the roundabout. In another 6 miles we turned left onto rd 190, climbing northwest through green hills supporting flocks of sheep. The road twisted upwards, reaching over 1,300 ft/400 m, with very little traffic. At 50 miles it joined rd 191, leading north to the Autostrada. This was a smoother wider road but still devoid of any rest area or lay-by.

Bypassing Caltanissetta, at 74 miles we joined the A19 (toll-free to Palermo) at Imera, up at 1,120 ft/340 m. The motorway climbed to 2,145 ft/650 m, then descended through a short tunnel and across many viaducts. Growing hungry, we were dismayed to find no services or rest areas on our side, though we passed one of each on the opposite carriageway!

At 115 miles we met the north coast motorway and turned west for Palermo, pleased to stop at a large service station 5 miles along (at sea level). It was only 25 miles to our ferry (departing at 11.30 pm), so we took our time over a late lunch. The wind had strengthened alarmingly, despite the calm forecast we'd seen, so we considered our options!

Hoping that the wind would relent, we eventually continued to the Palermo exit, then followed 'Porto' signs through 5 miles of crazy traffic in the maelstrom of Sicily's capital city. By sheer good fortune, we managed to park near the Grimaldi office and collect the tickets booked through http://www.aferry.co.uk   (no number plate recognition here!) To our relief the wind died down, the sea looked calm and boarding started at 9 pm.

Since we'd reserved a 2-berth outside cabin on the Livorno-bound ferry, it was a nice surprise to find ourselves upgraded to De Luxe at no extra cost. The spacious forward-facing cabin with front view window had a comfortable double bed, fridge, TV and even a trouser press! We slept so soundly that we didn't hear the ferry set sail.

APRIL 2016 – RETURN TO MAINLAND ITALY

Livorno Ferry Port to AgriCamping Lago Le Tamerici, Coltano, Nr Pisa, Tuscany - 9 miles

Open 21 March-16 Oct. www.lagoletamerici.it  ACSI Card rate €17 inc 6-amp elec. 7 nights for price of 6. Extra €1.50 per person per day tourist tax (payable for first 3 days only). Free WiFi near Reception. Pizza restaurant/bar open all year. N 43.63535  E 10.36567

After a late breakfast of yogurts, fruit, orange juice and biscuits in our cabin, we bought coffees in the bar and explored the ferry. Grimaldi's 'Europalink' is a small quiet boat, with one self-service restaurant and a tiny shop selling clothes, perfume and the inevitable Toblerone. Back to the cabin to read until lunch was served (12.30-2 pm): a disappointing choice of main meals, salads or ham & cheese sandwiches. M had grilled fish with a mushroom risotto, B chose a tuna salad. Unsatisfied, we returned to the bar for chocolate mousse cake and coffee, then read in our cabin until we were ejected at 4 pm.

Arriving in Livorno before 5 pm, the ferry spent a long time manoeuvring into its berth on a fine warm hazy evening. We finally disembarked at 5.30 pm, emerging with ease onto the SS1 (Via Aurelia) and turning north. Four miles later we turned off for Coltano and followed SatNav and signs along unlikely narrow and potholed lanes to a small campsite at the end of the bitumen, set alongside a little lake in a nature reserve. The Reception was staffed by a very helpful English-speaking girl and we soon settled in, with only one neighbour (a Dutch motorhome) on site.

The nearby bar/pizza restaurant - eat in or take away - was open from 7.30 pm (and all day at weekends), as well as in the mornings for coffee or to collect orders from the bakery. It also sold some local farm produce. The pizzas we tried (ham & mushroom and tuna & onion) were absolutely delicious with a thin crispy base, cooked to order in a traditional wood-fired oven.

There is also a simple Camperstop outside the campsite with water and dump, charging €12 per night (plus €2 for electric) but with no access to the toilets/showers or the WiFi code. We preferred the privacy of our campsite pitch at €17 all-in.

At AgriCamping Lago Le Tamerici, Coltano

Over breakfast next GR_to_IRL_(11).jpgmorning (lovely fresh croissants) we watched a Hoopoe in a tree right outside our window. Taking a rest day here, we had a half-hour walk round the lake, seeing cormorants drying their wings, a grey heron fishing and many cattle egrets feeding among a flock of black sheep. 

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The ewes are milked to make the local Pecorino cheese.

A fresh breeze stirred the water, planes flew low in and out of Pisa airport and a few more campers arrived for the weekend (German, Italian and French). In summer the site, with its outdoor pool, will be busy with anglers, family picnics and, no doubt, mosquitoes but today it provided a welcome respite before the long motorway drive to and across France.

Coltano to Camping Avigliana Lacs, Avigliana, Nr Turin, Piemonte – 235 miles (380 m high)

Open all year. www.camping-aviglianalacs.it  €25 inc 10-amp elec and non-use of disgusting facilities. Free WiFi.  N 45.05891  E 7.38594

Three miles of narrow sunny lanes returned us to SS1 Via Aurelia, joining it midway between Livorno and Pisa. After another 3 miles north we met the A12, a quiet 2-lane toll-motorway, at Pisa Centro and took it for Geno(v)a. After pausing for diesel at services near Viareggio at 27 miles, we drove on past the many marble works of Carrara, its quarries visible on the hillsides. This high quality white marble was used in Ancient Rome (eg the Pantheon, Trajan's Column), for Renaissance sculpture (eg Michelangelo's 'David'), to build cathedrals such as Siena and Pisa, for London's Marble Arch and many more monuments worldwide.

Between La Spezia and Sestri Levante the motorway turned inland to climb through a series of short tunnels past the Cinqueterre coast, reaching a maximum of 1,100 ft/334 m before descending via more tunnels. The toll of €13.70 at 78 miles was willingly paid.

At 110 miles by Geno(v)a we left A12 to join the busy A10, tunnelling its way past the huge port and on towards Ventimiglia and the French border. Preferring the Alps to the Riviera, we turned north onto the A6 towards Turin at 138 miles, leaving the warm (19° C) coast to climb rapidly up a gorge with the motorway carried on two separate viaducts, one on each flank. Stopping for lunch on the next services 9 miles later we were already above 1,325 ft/400 m with snow ploughs standing ready on the car park! The magnificent A6 continued climbing through wooded hillsides to 2,310 ft/700 m, with a toll of €20.60 at 204 miles near Carmagnola.

After another 9 miles we joined the Turin(o) Tangential clockwise, crossing the River Po (toll €1.50 for the 13 miles of ring road), then turned west on A32 towards the Frejus Tunnel. Appropriately, Turin lay in a Shroud of mist and rain. We took the exit for Avigliana Est, 5 miles along, and followed signs along rd 659 for the lake - Lago & Sacra di San Michele – where we knew of a year-round campsite only 4 miles away. Of it but not about it, or we certainly wouldn't have diverted to this site.

We drove through a tunnel below the town of Avigliana and on to the small campsite between two lakes: Lago Grande and Lago Piccolo. It had small muddy sloping pitches and disgusting facilities – dirty toilets with no seats, paper or hand-wash, cold grimy showers and a very slow WiFi connection. Even the disabled washroom (sometimes the better option) had no seat and no electric light! We have seen worse (rarely) but not for €25 !

Just as we decided to leave and take our chances along the A32, the rain began to pour down, veiling the lake view and rapidly turning the ground into a quagmire. It had been a long day and we reluctantly paid up for one night, only to have to move pitch in the early hours when we could no longer stand the torrential noise of water drops drumming on the roof, dripping from high surrounding trees.

 

It was with great relief that we left as soon as the gate opened the following morning, happy that at least we didn't get stuck in the mud. We would have spent a much more comfortable free night on the excellent Gran Bosco services along the A32 motorway before the Frejus tunnel. Next time!

FREJUS TUNNEL INTO FRANCE

Avigliana, Italy to Camping Les Peupliers, Lιpin-le-Lac, Rhτne-Alpes (Savoy), France – 133 miles (388 m high)

Open 1 Apr-31 Oct. www.camping-lespeupliers.net   ACSI Card rate €14.44 inc tax and 10-amp elec. 7 nights for price of 6. Good but expensive WiFi (10 minutes free, then various on-line options, eg €13 for 48 continuous hours). N 45.54028  E 5.79928

Pleased to get away early on rd 659, through the tunnels under Avigliana, we joined A32 after 5 miles at Almese. It was typical mountain weather, drizzling rain and low cloud. After Susa the motorway climbed through smooth well-lit tunnels, reaching over 3,320 ft/1000 m on the Gran Bosco services at 34 miles. This is a huge place with a separate overnight parking area for trucks, as well as water and a dump for motorhomes. Croissants from the cafι supplemented our breakfast before continuing 11 miles to the Frejus Tunnel, paying a total of €13.20 in tolls along the way.

The subalpine Frejus Tunnel is 8 miles or 12.8 km long, crossing the Italian/French border midway. There is only one lane in each direction, though they are wide and bright. We paid a toll of €58.50, entered at a height of 4,314 ft/1307 m and exited at 4,025 ft/1220 m into the Savoy Region of France, once part of Italy. The French side of the Alps was much less misty (no need for headlights now) but with more snow on the peaks. All the passes were labelled Fermι, many remaining closed until the summer.

The road dropped steeply to join A43 toll-motorway at St Michel-de-Maurienne and we stopped to lunch on the services at St Julien Montdenis at 67 miles, down at 2,190 ft/663 m. The air was still bracing. The A43 continued northwest along the Valley of the Arc, turning southwest and then northwest again past Challes les Eaux to Chambery. Here we turned off at 120 miles to shop at Carrefour in the enormous commercial centre alongside exit 14. French motorway tolls are high compared with Italy but at least we qualify for Class 2 (up to 3.5 tons, max height 3 m) rather than Class 3 for larger motorhomes.

Stocked with a selection of French patisserie and meats, we rejoined A43 through the Tunnel de Lepine, leaving it 7 miles later at exit 12. It was another 6 miles down rd D921, along the east side of Lac d'Aiguebelette, to a campsite on what is apparently France's warmest lake. The site is very French - level hedged pitches with plenty of flowers, trees and birdsong; functional unisex facilities; a small cafι/bar – all at a very reasonable price (apart from the WiFi in this case).

At Camping Les Peupliers, Lιpin-le-Lac

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A domestic morning (showers, laundry, emails), then a sunny afternoon walk taking photographs.

We ambled uphill on a lane signed Le Chateau that led to a stone-walled private residence overlooking the lake and campsite. The house was closed up, entry forbidden, but it was worth the climb for the view. It was good to see Spring arriving. Trees were in bud, the banks, meadows and gardens full of primroses, violets, cowslips, daffodils, narcissi and tulips.

Another campsite next to ours (still closed) had signs forbidding double-axle caravans, private washing machines, and pitbull-type dogs. We imagined the kind of experience that had led to these rules!

Lιpin-le-Lac to Camping de la Route Bleue, Balbigny, Rhτne-Alpes (Loire) – 107 miles (334 m high)

Open 1 Apr-31 Oct. www.camping-delaroutebleue.com   ACSI Card rate €15.80 inc tax and 16-amp elec. Free WiFi.  N 45.82547  E 4.16312

Leaving two coachloads of Senior day-visitors to their stroll and lunch at Camping Les Peupliers, we drove through the village of Lepin-le-Lac (railway station, shops and restaurant) and continued clockwise round the lake, meeting the A43 (for Lyon) after 5 miles. It was cool and cloudy as we entered a short tunnel at 1,350 ft/410 m, losing height as we left the Alps behind and descended to 825 ft/250 m. Approaching Lyon at 41 miles there was a toll of €13.40, before taking the Lyon inner ring road anticlockwise crossing the River Rhone (toll €3.20).

At 70 miles we joined the N7 (signed Roanne) and continued west. The road soon became a new motorway A89, on which we stopped to lunch on an Aire at 79 miles in a cold wind up above 1,000 ft/350 m. The Autoroute climbed on through a region of Puys (volcanic hills) clad in fruit trees and vines, reaching 2,145 ft/650 m before descending to the Loire.

Leaving A89 at the Balbigny exit, 4 miles after the Aire de la Loire services, we paid a toll of €8.20. Then it was just 3 miles to Camping La Route Bleue (turn right before the small town onto D56; campsite on left by the Loire).

The place was empty, its cafι/bar and main ablutions closed, but the friendly owner lived on-site and there was a small heated shower block. We soon settled in to enjoy sausage casserole and mash, followed by some delicious French patisserie.

At Camping de la Route Bleue, Balbigny

 It's a very peaceful site, red squirrels running along the hedges and just one Dutch campervan alongside. One week into April, the weather is bright, clear, cold and sunny

We walked into Balbigny (3 km each way) on a path beside the Loire which turned off along country lanes past fields of sheep, goats and pale Charolais cattle, the trees heavy with mistletoe. The town has a railway station, post office and shops including a small Carrefour supermarket. We bought new-season strawberries and had deux grands cafes au lait in the only bar open, where the regulars were arguing vociferously over the morning papers. Politics or football?

Back at camp we had an afternoon on-line writing and planning. M made a cheese, leek and potato pie, followed by the strawberries. Then we began watching the new 'House of Cards' series set in Washington DC (inspired by the trilogy written by Michael Dobbs that gave rise to a 1990 UK TV series set in London). Kevin Spacey is superb as the Machiavellian Chief Whip.

Balbigny to Camping Le Prι du Moulin, Laguenne, Nr Tulle, Limousin (Corrθze) – 162 miles (236 m high)

Open 1 Apr-15 Oct. www.lepredumoulin.com   Low season rate €13.00 inc 6-amp elec and hot showers. Free WiFi.  N 45.25020  E 1.78986

Returned 3 miles to the A89 toll motorway and continued west through high country (above 1,300 ft/400 m) for Clermont-Ferrand. There are more motorhomes on the road today (Saturday) than we have seen for weeks, mostly French or Dutch. At 25 miles we'd climbed to 2,660 ft/806 m, before a 6% descent through wonderful wooded hillsides to enter the Auvergne Region. After a second descent of 7% we settled at around 1,290 ft/390 m through the Chaine des Puys, which includes the distinctive Puys de Dome. There was still snow on the distant tops.

Paid a toll of €13.40 at 53 miles near Clermont-Ferrand, 4 miles before turning north on A71. At 70 miles we turned southwest again on A89, climbing along the edge of the Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans d'Auvergne, past an exit appropriately named Vulcania. The road rose and fell through woods sometimes cleared for sheep and cattle pasture, reaching a maximum height of 3,300 ft/1000 m. A magnificent drive.

Stopped for lunch on the Chavanon Services at 104 miles (up at 2,460 ft/745 m), then continued on A89 across the Plateau de Millevaches – meaning the Plateau of 1,000 Springs (in the Occitan language), rather than 1,000 Cows as we first imagined! After all, we were now in the Limousin Region, known for its red cattle.

We took exit 23 at 128 miles (toll €17.80) to join D1089, which parallels the motorway southwest. Keeping high at around 2,180 ft/660 m, the road rolled along the southern edge of the Parc Naturel Regional de Millevaches en Limousin, past Maussac to Egletons at 140 miles. Here we checked out Camping du Lac, which had a good restaurant, but didn't stay when we met the gang of noisy disaffected youth who had come for a weekend party!

Phoning the next known campsite near Tulle we were greeted with owner Mike's cheerful English voice: 'We're about to re-open and you're very welcome'. It started to rain heavily as we drove along D1089 through Egletons, where a Boules match continued under big black umbrellas. We paused to shop at Lidl (chocolate Easter eggs and hens 'to clear' at half-price!) then continued towards Tulle.

Following Mike's directions ('avoid Tulle town centre'), at 160 miles we took D1120 signed Aurillac. The final 2 miles were past a large SuperU on the right and a pharmacy on the left, then up the next left, an unlikely narrow and potholed lane leading for 1 km to the little campsite tucked in the woods on the side of a tumbling stream.

We met Mike on his way out, dashing to Tulle hospital as his partner Jacks (Jacqueline) had just suffered an eye injury. Left alone in the rain, we settled in and had a meal of stuffed tomatoes, strawberries & ice cream.

At Camping Le Prι du Moulin, Laguenne

Next day was Margaret's birthday (shared with friend Brian's grandson James, who is a bit younger - 4 today!) We talked with Mike, who hails from Barry's native Hull, and Jacks, still recovering from being hit by a bungee cord that sprang back in her face. She has a nasty bruise and a couple of stitches but fortunately the eye is not damaged.

They tookGR_to_IRL_(13).jpg over the site in 2004 and have opened a popular bar/restaurant (sadly, not yet open for the season). It seems a good balance for them, working hard through the summer and relaxing in Spain over winter.

The lane up to the campsite continues gradually uphill as an unpaved Chemin, forming part of a long-distance cycle route with VTT (mountain bike) trails off into the woods. We took a walk up the Chemin for half an hour, then turned back as it started to rain. A VTT event was taking place, with mud-splattered bikers racing downhill towards us for much of the time. It didn't appeal – we do prefer tarmac and mudguards on our bicycles. 

A wet afternoon was spent on-line, writing the travelog and answering emails. With no restaurant open in the area, we dined at home on shepherd's pie and gingerbread, followed by a chocolate hen each while watching the next episode of the dark political thriller 'House of Cards'. It is more cut-throat than 'Game of Thrones'!

Laguenne to Camping La Cigaline, Montpon-Menesterol, Aquitaine (Dordogne) – 97 miles

Open 9 Apr-30 Sept. www.lacigaline.fr   Low season rate €14.40 inc 10-amp elec, taxes and hot showers. (Quick-Stop €13.10: arr after 6 pm, dep before 10 am, one night only.) WiFi €2 for 24 continuous hrs.  N 45.01241  E 0.15741

Back down the rough lane to Laguenne, stopping at the SuperU after a mile to shop (everything from a roast chicken to a wireless mouse!) Then it was left onto D1089, passing both Lidl and Aldi as we left Tulle behind and followed the River Correze (that gives its name to this Department of France) southwest to Brive la Gaillarde.

At 18 miles, north of the centre of Brive, we joined A20 south for 4 miles to exit 51 (toll-free), then continued west on D1089/D6089, which parallels the toll motorway towards Perigueux. After crossing the border into the Dordogne Department of Aquitaine Region, we lunched in Leclercs car park in Terrasson Lavilledieu at 31 miles, then continued along D6089, noticing local delicacies such as Foie Gras and walnut oil on sale at the farms. After Azerat the road climbed above 800 ft/245 m through woods and pasture land on a fine sunny afternoon.

To bypass Perigueux we took junction 16 onto the A89 at 60 miles, leaving the motorway 14 miles later at exit 14 to rejoin D6089. (This short section of A89 was toll-free.) The D6089 took us southwest past Neuvic, following the River Isle to Montpon-Menesterol, twin settlements on the south and north banks respectively.

Arriving in Montpon (96 miles) we turned right at traffic lights onto Rue General de Gaulle (D780), then next left immediately before the bridge for a campsite on the banks of the Isle, a 5-minute walk from the town centre. The site was quiet (just one other motorhome) and Madame kindly gave us the Quick-Stop rate for the first of our two nights, though it was before 6 pm. A heavy thunderstorm and rain followed and we all watched the river anxiously, as the site is closed from November to April 'because of flood risk'. It had only reopened 3 days ago!

At Camping La Cigaline, Montpon-Menesterol

Next morning (Wednesday) a lively street market filled the alleys in the town centre and we strolled amongst stalls selling fruit and veg (it's asparagus and strawberry season), basketry, clothes, shoes, household linen, flowers, furniture, mattresses, meats, cheeses, breads … All fresh produce and well-crafted goods, not cheap Chinese imports. We bought some delicious goat cheese (a local speciality) and were instructed to eat it hot, which we did.

There were some big old houses by the River Isle, many empty or for sale. We walked over the road bridge to check out a cycle-route signed along the north side of the river, but a new foot/cycle bridge due for completion April 2016 was still under construction and the cycle route was closed off, probably delayed by the winter flood.

After lunch we struggled with the camp WiFi which proved problematic (slow and unreliable and requiring a fresh log-in every few minutes!) The €2 was willingly refunded when M reported it and she left the owner shouting down the phone at the internet provider.

We also did the laundry, using the drier when another heavy thunder and rain storm swept over the campsite.

Montpon-Menesterol to Camping Municipal Le Bois Dinot, Marans, Poitou-Charente (Charente-Maritime) – 142 miles

Open 1 Apr-30 Sept. www.camping-marans.fr   €15.90 inc 10-amp elec and hot showers. Good free WiFi. N 46.31699  W 0.99009

Over the bridge to the Menesterol side of the River Isle, which was indeed high after yesterday's storm, then left on rd 730 which took us northwest through the Forκt de la Double. This is low rolling country, the Perigord, with small towns where the post and morning baguettes are delivered by bicycle. Lovely.

It was raining again as we drove through Montendre, busy with its market. Continuing on rd 730 (signed Route du Vignoble – rich in vines and wheat fields) we reached Mirambeau at 49 miles. We had entered the Charente Region, known for Le Pineau liqueur, brandy and snails. To prove it, we passed a distillery open to the public, farms selling Escargots in Lorignac, and two large snail sculptures on a roundabout.

Reaching St Georges de Didon at 76 miles, just short of the coast, we turned north on D25 past Royan to join D733 to La Rochelle, pausing for lunch on a supermarket car park in St Sulpice de Royan.  This road crossed the wetland of the Parcs a Huitres, with mussels and oysters aplenty for sale; a statue of a hand holding a pearl-laden oyster graced the roundabout. There were ducks on the water, a small pelican on the wing and a stork grazing on the marshland. 

At 102 miles we crossed a high bridge over the River Charente at Rochefort, then 6 miles later joined the dual carriageway D137 to La Rochelle. Here we made the mistake of turning off into Aytre, just south of town, to find Camping Les Sables (ACSI Card €19). Difficult access along narrow town streets led to a huge site with entertainment and pools, indifferent staff and WiFi not working (after yesterday's storm). We decided to drive on to a nice friendly little Camping Municipal we knew at Marans, further north.

We worked our way back through La Rochelle to take N11 for a few miles east, turning north again on D137 for the final 13 miles to Marans. The campsite is through the town on the right next to the swimming baths, shortly after passing a SuperU on the left. Here we joined 4 French motorhomes for a comfortable evening with good WiFi. It was still raining!

Marans to Camping La Vallιe de la Sιlune, Pontaubault, Basse Normandie (Manche) – 190 miles

Open 1 Apr-20 Oct. www.campselune.com/index.htm   ACSI Card rate €15.00 (and discounts for 5 days+) inc 10-amp elec and hot showers. Free WiFi. N 48.62889  W 1.35422

Leaving, we drove north on D137. To our surprise we saw a stork on its nest, balanced atop a post in a field in the Marais marshland. After 18 miles we filled with diesel in St Jean de Beaugne (at €1.13 a litre, or below £1), a mile before joining the A83 toll motorway to Nantes, with lunch at 46 miles on the large Chavagnes-en-Paillers services.

Continuing north, there was a toll of €11.60 at 65 miles, 4 miles before taking the Nantes Peripherique ring road anticlockwise, to the east of the city, crossing the broad River Loire. At exit 37 we turned north on N137, a toll-free dual carriageway to Rennes.

At 140 miles we joined the Friday teatime rush hour traffic on the Rennes Rocade ring road (anticlockwise) for 8 miles, exiting onto the A84 toll-free motorway heading northeast. From exit 33 (for Le Mont St Michel) it was just 3 miles west to Pontaubault, a village on the River Sιlune, with a small grassy campsite run by an English couple, Dave and Vanessa.

There was a warm welcome – and a warning about the soft ground. It was still raining as we found a firm place and settled down to cook sausages and jacket potatoes.

At Camping La Vallιe de la Sιlune, Pontaubault

With a day in hand before the ferry from Cherbourg to Ireland, we enjoyed time to make plans and write, adding a few articles to the website. The WiFi worked OK but it was necessary to log-in every 60 minutes after watching an annoying advertising video! Vanessa had been unaware of this but solved it by giving us a free 7-day ticket rather than the 1-day one.

To our dismay we found that the Hideaway campsite at Skibbereen in Ireland, which was to be our base for visiting friend John, was listed as closed until the end of April. A phone call soon solved the problem as owner Michael, in his lovely lilting brogue, said that he could surely do something for us if we rang the day before arrival! You can forget Caravan Club rules in the Emerald Isle.

The weather was cool and showery but not at all windy – good news for our ferry tomorrow. Between showers we had a short walk down to the river, which flows into the Baie du Mont St Michel. Pontaubault village lies on the WW2 Route de Liberation and is only 8 miles east of the World Heritage abbey of Mont St Michel. A new access road has replaced the tidal causeway and visitors now park and take a shuttle (or walk) for the last 1.5 miles. There is overnight parking for motorhomes for a fee, but no water or electric.  We had made our pilgrimage there long ago, in quieter freer days.

Dave provided entertainment, winching two French motorhomes off the soft muddy ground. All were glad that the wet day turned into a cold clear dry night.

Pontaubault to Cherbourg Ferry Port, Basse Normandie (Manche) - 95 miles

Stena Line Ferry 'Stena Horizon' overnight from Cherbourg to Rosslare, Republic of Ireland

Away after breakfast, reversing carefully off the wet grass without difficulty, we drove north across the river bridge to Avranches (3 miles). The town centre was dominated by a massive stone cathedral, bells ringing on this Sunday morning. Road D973 ran arrow-straight for the next 16 miles northwest, then we turned north on D971 to bypass Granville and continue to Coutances. Driving through rich green pastureland with solid stone houses, we passed farms selling apples, cider and Calvados (apple brandy) – all typical of Normandy.

Rd D2 took us north to Lessay at 56 miles, where the supermarket was open until 12.30 pm allowing us to grab a last box of pβtisserie and croissants and a block of Normandy butter. Continuing north to Valognes, we joined the N13 (a fast dual carriageway) for Cherbourg. At 88 miles turn right on the signed Truck Route via Tourlaville down to the port, avoiding the town centre. The sea looked calm and blue as we descended steeply from 365 ft/110 m to sea level.

Arriving at the ferry terminal at 1 pm, we joined the queue to check in for the Stena ferry, leaving at 3 pm and due in Rosslare at 8.30 am (Irish time – watches back one hour) tomorrow.

The self-service restaurant opened at 7 pm (French time) and the food was good. The fixed price of €14 for any main course, plus €2 for any dessert, included unlimited water, soft drinks, tea, coffee, cream for the sweets, as well as bread & butter and chips if wanted. We had beef curry with rice and mango chutney, one chocolate mousse cake and one strawberry gateau. Most of the passengers were truckers, big lads tucking in to chip butties alongside their chosen dish! We had a comfortable cabin for a smooth crossing. M slept right through, while Barry kept watch as we passed the lights of England's Land's End.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND

Rosslare Harbour to Dunmore East Holiday Park, Dunmore East, Co Waterford – 62 miles

Open 1 March-31 Oct.  http://www.dunmoreholiday.ie/  ACSI Card rate €19.00 inc 15-amp elec. Coin-op showers €1 (refundable with ACSI Card). Coin-op electric rings in kitchen (not refundable). Free WiFi ONLY in the Golf Club bar/restaurant, 300 m away.  N 52.15923  W 6.99215

Our Stena Horizon ferry arrived promptly (8.30 am Irish time) at Rosslare harbour in the southeast of the Republic and, with nowhere to park, we drove straight off taking the N25 for Wexford. No Wild Atlantic weather here - it was neither windy nor raining, just cool and grey. West from Wexford, approaching New Ross at 34 miles we parked on the left at Aldi to make breakfast, then continued (past Lidl on the right), following N25 across the River Barrow on O'Hanrahan Bridge and southwest for Waterford. There was a good view of the restored 'Famine Ship' (a historic emigrant sailing ship) moored at New Ross but nowhere to park and visit (www.dunbrody.com/visitor-info/).

At Waterford we crossed the River Suir on the Ignatius Rice Bridge and took R683/684 south to Dunmore East, a small town at the entrance to Waterford Harbour. Here we turned left, following signs for Strand and then uphill for Golf Club/Holiday Park on a cliff overlooking the sea. After checking in at the Golf Club it was 300 m further to a new campsite, with gravel pitches and good (though unheated) facilities. The site was open to a bleak cold wind, it was a 1-km downhill walk to the town and there was no internet except in the unfriendly Club House.

We spent the afternoon going through our campsite guides to check opening dates and WiFi provision and plan a route. There are two booklets, available free from most campsites here, which cover Northern Ireland as well as the Republic: 'The Green Guide to Touring Caravan & Camping Parks' (http://www.caravanandcampingireland.com/) and 'Caravan Camping & Motorhome Guide' (http://www.campingireland.ie/). Some sites are in both, some only in one or the other and a few small sites are in neither(very Irish)!

Dunmore East to Clonvilla Caravan & Camping Park/B&B, Youghal, Co Cork – 60 miles

Open 1 March-31 Oct.  http://www.clonvillayoughal.weebly.com/   Overpriced at €25 inc 10-amp elec and showers. Free WiFi at Reception (weak signal nearby).  N 51.912378  W 7.924542

After the descent to Dunmore East and a couple of miles north on R684, we took R685 west. It was a lovely late-spring morning, daffodils at the roadside, baby lambs and calves in the fields. In Tramore fuel cost under €1 a litre, less than in France and much less than the UK. Tempted by the in-store bakery, we shopped here at Lidl. What a wealth of food on sale: lovely sultana & cherry scones, cheese & onion rolls, Irish meats, bacon and sausage, local fruit & veg. After 10 months outside the UK, even crumpets were a treat!

Continuing west on the twisting R675 there were wonderful views and we lunched by a sculpture on the viewpoint car park at Dunabrattin Head (19 miles). This is the Copper Coast Drive 'shaped by ice, water and fire'. Then it was downhill to Kilmurrin Cove (another good car park with no height barrier) before another climb. The road is signed as Cycle Route No 4, but only for those with low gears and strong legs! We passed the abandoned chimney and stone walls of an old copper mine, then a fenced area signed 'Keep Out – Deep Mine Shafts', before Bunmahon, where R675 turned us inland and on to the port of Dungarvan. Here we joined the smoother wider road N25 towards Cork.

After crossing the River Blackwater and bypassing Youghal, we took R633 towards Ballymacooda for the last few miles to a tiny campsite/B&B run by a friendly old rogue called Billy. The only campers, he directed us to park next to Reception, claiming 'If my wife opens the window, you should get the WiFi'. It did work, slowly and intermittently – like Billy himself.

The Irish pork meatballs from Lidl went well with spaghetti and a tomato sauce, followed by a chocolate mousse cake. Despite the prevailing weather, we do love Ireland. Above-average prices for camping and dining-out are balanced by low-cost diesel and shopping – and you can't put a price on the craic (the chat).

Youghal to Blarney Caravan & Camping Park, Blarney, Co Cork – 33 miles

Open 24 March-31 Oct.  http://www.blarneycaravanpark.com/  €25 (or €22 with Camping Key Europe card) inc 10-amp elec and showers. Free WiFi throughout site. N 51.94765  W 8.54696

Next morning there was no WiFi signal at all on Clonvilla and no sign of Mr or Mrs Billy, so we left for Blarney which proved a much better campsite. With hindsight, we'd have driven straight here from East Dunmore. The route was west on R633 to Ladysbridge, then R632 briefly to Castlemartyr where we rejoined N25 for Cork. It was a relief to leave the narrow bumpy roads to the tractors. In Cork City we took N8 and the busy northern ring to join N20 northwest, signed Limerick.

At 30 miles we turned off the dual carriageway for Blarney, then followed the campsite sign, turning right at the garage just before the centre of the village. The narrow lane led northeast over the railway to a Caravan Club affiliated site, next to a pitch & putt course. It's a nicely organised campsite with grassy hedged pitches and a discount for the Camping Key Europe card, which we have (no reduction for Caravan Club members!)

Our washing was soon line-dried in the wind and sun. The free WiFi worked well, with no code or password, and we emailed friend John in Skibbereen about our imminent arrival. We had kissed the stone at Blarney Castle many years ago and decided not to risk walking or cycling the dangerous lane for a repeat performance!

Blarney to The Hideaway Camping & Caravan Park, Skibbereen, Co Cork – 60 miles

Fully open 28 April-19 Sept.  www.camping-ireland.ie/parks/cork/hideaway-camping-caravan-park   €18 pre-season (normal rate €23) inc 10-amp elec. Showers €1. Free WiFi at Reception only.  N 51.54202  W 9.26039

On a grey cool morning we drove 11 miles circling to the west of Cork City on R617, R579 and N25, to join N71 southwest. It bypassed Bandon and continued all the way to Skibbereen, where we took R596 south towards Castletownshend. The campsite, a mile along this road on the left, was officially closed but owner Michael had left the gate unlocked as promised. We phoned him, only to discover that his mother had just died (a few days after her 100th birthday), so he would call round in a day or two once the funeral was over. We did have neighbours on the site - a couple staying in their motorhome while builders worked on a house they'd bought 10 miles away in Ballydehob – and basic facilities for a reduced rate. Naturally, the WiFi was not working!

As we settled in, our good friend John arrived and we were soon catching up over a pot of tea. Our friendship began in the Greek Peloponnese, where he and Lisi lived for many years; indeed, they were witnesses at our wedding in Methoni. Recently they had relocated to Ireland and were living 5 miles down the road, near Castletownshend, though Lisi was currently away.

Margaret cooked toad-in-the-hole, John produced a bottle of wine (and a cola for Barry – how thoughtful!), and the conversation flowed.

A Long Weekend at The Hideaway Camping & Caravan Park, Skibbereen

GR_to_IRL_(14).jpg

Bantry, Priest's Leap and Baltimore. Though next day poured with what the Irish call 'soft rain' John gave us a wonderful introduction to the area. First stop was 18 miles north in Bantry, where Friday is market day and the Organic Food Shop/Cafι was packed with traders and customers alike. After coffee and cakes and purchases of local cheese and milk, we were taken a more-than-scenic drive: 5 miles north to Coomhola, then off into the mountains on steep single-GR_to_IRL_(15).jpgtrack roads to the remote Priest's Leap viewpoint (NB roads suitable for a car – not a motorhome!) We circled the slopes of Coomhola Mountain, which peaks at 1,560 ft/473 m, passing no-one but lambs and sheep, before regaining the main road N71 near Kenmare to return to Skibbereen and a pot of tea at John's new residence. Finally, a drive about 8 miles southwest along more back country roads past Lough Hyne to Baltimore for a fish supper in the lovely old Jacob's Bar overlooking the harbour. The fish of the day was hake, oven-cooked with chips and salad. John is a regular here and was very much at home: 'What no Murphy's? OK, I'll settle for Guinness.'

Skibbereen. Saturday saw a much bigger market in Skibbereen itself, a lively affair on a dry sunny morning. We got an 'Irish Artisan Hand-raised Pork Pie' as well as 'breakfast sausages' from the butcher's stall, while John bought a pair of knitted tea cosies: one in Greek colours of blue & white, one in Irish green. He also purchased a book of poetry (from the author) and a pack of 3 wildflower seed-bombs from the persuasive woman making them. The focus of the market, nay of the whole town, is on arts and crafts, wholefood and local produce. After coffee and cakes at the Church Cafι, a lovingly restored 19th century Methodist chapel which all but burnt to the ground in 2006, John took us back to camp via a large garden centre to buy a rhododendron for Lisi's imminent birthday.

In the afternoon the campsite owner, Michael, called round to meet us and collect his dues. Then another excellent meal cooked by John at his cottage: tender Irish steaks with garlic mushrooms, strawberries and cream, cheese and coffee. We talked until midnight about books, the past, the future, and more books, ordering some as we sat, thanks to the wonders of Amazon and the Kindle.

Ballydehob and Skull. John collected us again for a drive 10 miles west to Ballydehob, pausing en route for a stroll round an atmospheric graveyard with an ivy-clad medieval church ruin. There was a distant view of the Fastnet Rock and lighthouse out to sea, as well as a nearby castle colourfully restored (and sometimes inhabited by) the actor Jeremy Irons. John would return to the village the following weekend for its annual Jazz Festival. Another 5 miles west to Skull (also spelt Scoll or Schul), a busy little harbour town where yes, Sunday was market day! Many of the same fascinating stalls sold everything from home-made preserves to carved wooden 'Unicorn Wands' (for the customer who has everything). We lunched in a typically Irish pub - a pot of tea, a glass of Murphy's stout, and open sandwiches of soda bread piled high with fresh local crab and plenty of salad. It had been hard to choose between that and the beef-in-Guinness stew. The return drive was along more of John's favourite steep country lanes in the lee of Mount Gabriel.

After tea at the campsite it was hard to say goodbye after such a memorable three days, so full of the impressions, sights and tastes of West Cork. Above all, we had renewed and cemented a close friendship and we certainly aim to return to John and Lisi's new bailiwick.

Skibbereen to Hungry Hill Lodge & Caravan Park, Adrigole, Ring of Beara, Co Cork – 42 miles

Open March-31 Oct.  http://www.hungryhilllodgeandcampsite.com/  €19 inc 16-amp elec and hot showers. Free WiFi near Reception.  N 51.69372  W 9.72579

Away through Skibbereen, quiet on a fine Monday morning, we followed N71 10 miles west to Ballydehob, then north through Bantry at 20 miles. In Glengariff at 31  miles we left N71 (the Wild Atlantic Way), turning west on R572 along the south coast of the Beara Peninsula. Lovely bays and harbours lined our route, ropes of mussels were strung in the water and cormorants were drying their wings anywhere they could perch. The Ring of Beara is much less busy and tourist-saturated than the more famous neighbouring peninsula to the north, the Ring of Kerry.

In the tiny GR_to_IRL_(16).jpgvillage of Adrigole, 11 miles along (shortly after the road that heads north over the Healey Pass) we found a campsite and hostel run by an English couple, Barbara and Owen, who walked over from their adjacent house to greet us – the only campers! They left their jobs in the Midlands 3 years ago, run this delightful place in summer and take their own motorhome to Spain for the winter. Sounds like a good life!

Owen told us to look out for red deer on the hillside, a sea eagle in the sky and seals at the harbour (none of which we were lucky enough to see). The site is directly below a hill with a large white-painted stone that looks precariously balanced on the top. Apparently a local custom, these were known as a Shepherd's Stone and were deliberately placed facing the prevailing wind to provide a shelter for shepherds caught up there in a storm!

We settled on a pitch right below the hostel/reception building, to access the WiFi, and spent the afternoon writing emails, baking and cooking. 

At Hungry Hill Lodge & Caravan Park, Adrigole

A 60 mile circuit of the Beara Ring - We drove a bright sunny clockwise circuit, throughGR_to_IRL_(17).jpg Castletownbere (10 miles west), Ireland's largest whitefish port, with a Spanish fishing fleet in residence (http://www.castletownbere.ie/).  It was too crowded to find a parking place, so we continued west on the now quieter road R572 past Cahermore. At 22 miles in tiny Lehanmore we had lunch in a scenic layby, complete with picnic tables and charming statues of a donkey, sheepdog, sheep and a lamb, opposite the former village shop. There was a donation box and a sign saying visitors were welcome to take photos of the animals but 'Do Not Mount'! As we sat, an old shepherd with a lively black & white dog passed by, fetching his flock and their tiny lambs along the road and up a lane.

Short of Dursey HeadGR_to_IRL_(19).jpg the road ended at a car park, 2 miles later (at N 51.60986  W 10.15411), from where a cable car crosses to Dursey Island – a small car-free isle inhabited by a few farmers and bird-watchers. The only one of its kind still running in Ireland, the cable car was closed for repairs this week, with 3 workmen bravely clipped to the pylon ready to abseil down at the end of their shift! Built in 1969, the carriage takes a maximum of 6 people (no bicycles or animals, except small pets): adults €8, children half-price, for the 15-minute return crossing. We walked around in a blustery cold wind and watched a  smallGR_to_IRL_(18).jpg inflatable dinghy ferrying a couple of hikers across – a temporary replacement for the cable car. Apparently sheep, or even the odd cow, used to be taken over with the cable car but now they go by boat because of 'Health & Safety' – theirs or the other passengers, we wondered?

On the way back we spotted one of the old wooden carriages in use as a farmyard shed. We followed a post van and a school bus serving this scattered farming area for 4 miles to Cahermore, then turned north on R575 round the Beara Ring. The narrow road led through Allihies, a picturesque village important for copper in the 19th C. It now has a Copper Mine Museum, the Copper Cafι overlooking the sandy Atlantic beach, pubs and painted houses. Continuing clockwise it was a short drive to charming Eyeries at 40 miles, a tidy village where the shops and garage were all called O'Sullivan's, the original clan name of the Beara Peninsula. Along R571 to Ardgroom, a bigger village 5 miles later with post office, petrol station and pub, we parked by the church for a stroll. Soon we crossed the border from Co Cork into Co Kerry, with a noticeable improvement in road width and surface!

In Lauragh, at 51 miles, we turned south on R574 over the Healey Pass to Adrigole. The road climbed for 4.5 miles, high above Glanmore Lake and woods, to the pass in the Caher Mountains at 950 ft/287 m, marked by a small cafι (closed) and a striking white statue of the crucifixion group. We well remembered climbing this route on a challenging cycle tour of southern Ireland many a year ago! The road was built in 1847 as a Famine Relief Work project, following the original track for the 8-mile crossing of the pass, which lies on the Cork/Kerry border. Apparently goods – and even coffins – would be carried to the summit by men from one side and handed over to others at the top. The descent to Adrigole was steeper, hair-pinning down to sea level and the village shop/post office/cafι on the R572, busy with trucks on their way to and from the fishing port at Castletownbere.

Back at the camp, we phoned the campsite at Cashel, our next proposed destination, but it was full for the coming weekend because of a Dog Show! We had better luck booking at the Glen of Aherlow near Tipperary.

A Rest Day - A third night at Adrigole was free of charge, courtesy of our new friend Owen: a favour he extends only to certain British and Irish campers! We caught up with some correspondence, worked on the travelog of crossing Italy, did the laundry and cooked a pork stir-fry with rice.

It was a day of warm sun, light showers, rainbows and a blustery north wind, typical of the Wild Atlantic Way: 1,500 miles of old coast road from the Head of Kinsale in County Cork to Malin Head in Donegal. That is 5 times the direct distance, due to the jagged ragged Irish seaboard. The Irish government spent €10 million on promoting this tourist route, marked by many wavy blue & white signs, claiming a sub-tropical climate due to the Gulf Stream. That may be an exaggeration but we saw an abundance of wild flowers round the Beara Peninsula, which also has formal woodlands at Derren Gardens at Kilmakilloge Harbour near Lauragh, planted with rhododendrons, azalea and New Zealand tree ferns, or the garden haven of Garinish Island in Glengariff Harbour (http://www.glengarriff.ie/).

Adrigole to Glen of Aherlow Camping & Caravan Park, Newtown, Co Tipperary – 123 miles

Open all year.  http://www.tipperarycamping.com/  €26 (or €25 for British Caravan Club members) inc 10-amp elec and hot showers. Free WiFi throughout.  N 52.42081  W 8.18734

Next day was colder and wet but at least it wasn't snowing – as it was in Scotland, England and even France for this, the last weekend of April (and the May Day bank holiday)!

It was 10 miles east along the coast to Glengariff, then north on N71 - a narrow twisting road with no shoulder. We couldn't recommend the area for cycling these days, with so much more traffic than we found 30 years ago. N71 climbed 7 miles to a short tunnel at the Caha Pass at 1,023 ft/310 m (slightly higher than the Healey Pass), then exited into Co Kerry to descend to sea level once more. Again, the road was better surfaced after leaving Co Cork! We passed Molly Gallivan's Traditional Farm/Tea Rooms/Gift Shop before Bonane village, then saw a Red Deer doe at the roadside.

At 28 miles after crossing the inlet we turned right on R569, just before the busy narrow town of Kenmare, gateway to the popular Ring of Kerry (http://www.kenmare.ie/).  Now we left the tourist trail behind, driving northeast via Clonkeen and Glenflesk to Barraduff at 50 miles, then N72 via Rathmore where we crossed the River Blackwater and re-entered Co Cork. About 20 miles further, we turned off briefly north to Kanturk, past its castle and into Lidl to shop (and lunch on their cheese & onion baps and delicious fruit scones).

Back on N72 we continued east through a short hailstorm to the busy town to Mallow, GR_to_IRL_(20).jpgwith its racecourse and railway station, then took N73 northeast to Mitchelstown. Here at 107 miles we turned north on R513 to Galbally, then east on R663 along the Glen of Aherlow, below the northern edge of the Galtee Mountains.

The big new campsite about 6 miles along the Glen is beautifully wooded and well organised, the only disappointment being that the nearby pub/restaurant had closed down, though the campsite hopes to open a cafι soon. We settled in and dined on salmon & asparagus pizza, followed by fruits-of-the-forest strudel and custard (thanks to good old Lidl).      

At Glen of Aherlow Camping & Caravan Park, Newtown

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A Walk to Clonbeg Church and Aherlow House Hotel – A brisk walk on a chilly morning, with a cold north wind bringing rain in the afternoon. We turned right out of the camp gate, briefly along the main road, then left (south) down a short lane to Clonbeg Church. The old church is an ivy-clad ruin amongst the old tombstones, alongside the newer St Sedna's Church of Ireland (Tipperary Diocese) that is still in use every Sunday. In a far corner of the graveyard we found Sedna's Well, a sacred spring since pagan times, 

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below a tree whose branches were decked with an array of ribbons, rags, belts, jewellery, etc. There was even an Italian silk tie and a mobile phone case! A sign quoted a 4-verse poem to St Sedna, patron of the Galtee Mountains, whose slopes drain into the Clydagh River, flowing down past the church to join the River Aherlow that runs east through the Glen to meet the River Suir.

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The Galtee, to the south of the Glen, rise bare to over 3,000 ft, the highest peak, Galtymore, reaching 3,033 ft/919 m.

Returning to the main road, we followed another lane north leading uphill through woods for a mile to Aherlow House Hotel & Restaurant, which lies on the Ballyhoura Way long-distance walk on its way to Tipperary. Coffee on the terrace was very welcome before strolling downhill to the campsite, arriving just before the rain at lunchtime.

MAY 2016

Next day, May Day, was also Orthodox Easter Sunday in Greece and we sent greetings to good friends there, George at Ionion Beach Camping (http://www.ionion-beach.gr/) and Michalis at the Salt & Pepper Restaurant in Vartholomio (http://www.alatipiperidelicatessen.gr/), thinking wistfully of their celebrations and spit-roast lamb.

With a good internet connection we took time out to write, booked the Stena ferry from Dublin to Holyhead for 5th May, and ordered a new Camping Card International through the Camping & Caravanning Club. We also enjoyed an excellent film (Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins) telling the story of London's Windmill Theatre: 'Mrs Henderson Presents'. On a more serious note we watched a 6-part American series shown on BBC2 called The Brain which was fascinating and enlightening, covering the brain's development in childhood, comparison with other mammals, schizophrenia, addiction, dementia and much else.

The nearest shops were in Tipperary (12 miles return) and we drove there on R664, hair-pinning up and down over a low pass crowned with a Christ the King Statue. The town centre was busy but we managed to park at Lidl on Main Street (as recommended by the campsite) to replenish our lockers. It was too cold and rainy to venture any further.

Glen of Aherlow to Stena Ferry Terminal, Dublin – 135 miles

Luckily the wind had dropped and it was a lovely morning for a drive to the Port of Dublin. We took the narrow R633 for 5 miles, twisting along the Glen of Aherlow to Bansha, then the better N24 east to Caher. At 15 miles we joined the M8 motorway (junction 10) northbound past Cashel. At 56 miles M8 merged with the M7 Limerick-Dublin toll motorway and we continued northeast, paying one toll of just €1.90 after 9 miles. The motorways are good, with 2 quiet lanes each way, and charge leisure vehicles (motorhomes and campers) the same rate as a car, while caravans go free.

On past Port Laoise we took exit 14 at 85 miles, between Monasterevin and Kildare, to access the large service area for a fill of diesel at €1.149 (bargain compared with the UK or even France). It was a good place for souvenirs or presents (a box of Barry's Tea and some delicious chocolates by Butlers of Dublin) and we also bought the 'e-flow toll ticket' required for the M50 Ring round Dublin, which works on number plate recognition and costs €3.10 for one journey.

Approaching the capital, the M7 became N7 before meeting the M50 Ring. Strangely, the M50 is free for vehicles going anticlockwise (south) but the e-toll applies if going clockwise (north), which is the easiest way to the port. Note that there are no longer any ferries from Dun Laoghaire, on the south side of Dublin. We drove round M50 clockwise to exit 3, on the north side, whence a long tunnel led under the city to the port, well worth the €3 toll that was collected at the far end. Following Stena Line signs, we were in good time to check-in, then sit back with a pot of tea and scones.

Our ferry sailed promptly at 3.10 pm for the 3.5 hour crossing to Holyhead on Anglesey. It was a calm voyage, celebrated with fish & chips in the self-serve restaurant, with the added bonus of unlimited refills of tea or coffee. As ever, we had appreciated the Irish people, the craic (conversation), the food, scenery and feel of this pro-European country. They drive on the left, speak a delightful form of English, yet use the Euro currency and metric measurements – a fine combination! The only negative is the Irish road network, so narrow and busy, to the detriment of motorhomers and cyclists, both of which we remain.

From Holyhead we drove another 64 miles along A55 to Rhualt in North Wales, where the crowded and rule-bound Camping Penisa'r Mynydd stood in stark contrast to the friendliness of every site we've used in Ireland. We had booked 2 nights but only stayed for one … No Refunds, of course.

Welcome to the UK!