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2006 Dec: A Balkan Journey PDF Printable Version E-mail




The Log of a Motorhome Journey

Margaret and Barry Williamson

December 2006

This daily log gives an account of our motorhome journey along the Venice_(70).JPGeastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, from Venice and Trieste to a winter break in Greece via Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia.

December is the culmination of a full year of European travelling: 28 countries in 17,000 miles of motorhoming and cycling. After a winter and early spring in Greece, we left the UK in mid-May 2006 and travelled via France, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary for a 5-week journey in Romania. In mid-July we left Romania to travel to Finland via eastern Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We entered Finland by ferry from Tallinn (Estonia), arriving in Helsinki on 4 August 2006.

FNor3_(48).JPGor a further 1,400 miles, we enjoyed some of Finland's 187,888 lakes, its limitless forest (covering 70% of the land area) and glimpses of its 180,000 islands! After a canal trip into Russia, we crossed the Arctic Circle (see right), spent time in the northernmost town in the EU, reached Kirkenes on Norway's far north-eastern border with Russia, visited Vadso and Vardo on their lonely Arctic peninsula and, of course, struggled as far as Nordkapp (North Cape), the northernmost point in the world reachable by motorhome - or bicycle (see left).

After more than 6 weeks within the Arctic Circle, we travelled south from Norway's fiord and glacier-indented coast, into northern Sweden for a 1,000-mile journey down to the port of Goteborg and a ferry to Denmark. Continuing south, we passed through Germany and Holland before reaching Ypres in Belgium in tGR_Mani_(83).JPGime for the Armistice Day Commemorations.

After a brief visit to the UK for servicing at the excellent Motorhome Medics in Cheltenham, Road Tax and some English food specialities, we headed south and east through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Switzerland for Italy, Venice and the shores of the Adriatic Sea.  Our final 1,500 miles are described below. On the right, Margaret approaches Cape Matapan, the southernmost point on the Greek mainland. 

Distances are IF3_(61).JPGgiven in miles; heights in feet; and costs in Euros. 1 mile = 1.6 km; 1 foot = 0.3 metres and, at present, 1 Euro = about 0.7 Pounds Sterling. The current exchange rate for each non-Euro country is given in the log. The daily rate quoted for campsites generally includes an electrical hook-up.

A Table of Distances, Fuel and Costs will be included at the end of this journey.

For daily logs of all our travels in 2006, click: Travel in 28 European Countries 2006

To view more images of our journey through Slovenia, click: Images of Slovenia

To view more images of our journey through Croatia, click: Images of Croatia

To view more images of our journey through Montenegro, click: Images of Montenegro

To view more images of our journey through Albania, click: Images of Albania

To view more images of our journey through Greece, click: Images of Greece

1 December   122 miles   VENICE to TRIESTE, Italy   Service Station on SS14

From the Gulf of Venice to the Gulf of Trieste

After a Venice_(11).JPGmorning's work on the website and photographs, we left Fusina at check-out time, 2 pm. It was 3 miles back to the main road 309, to find our way onto motorway A4, bound north-east for Trieste.

Around Venice there is an excess of traffic (and a dearth of road signs), but once clear of Mestre we picked up a toll-ticket and had a smooth journey across the flat landscape of Friuli-Venezia. Several bell-towers, resembling the one in St Mark's Square, rose to the sky (like sharply pointed square pencils).

After 83 miles we took the exit for Redipuglia (toll €5.10) and turned north to find a little site listed in our German Bord Atlas: Camping Polazzo sounded good, in a rural park, 5 km along road 305 at Fogliano. After the problem at Lake Garda (see 28 November), we'd taken the precaution of phoning to check that it was open. It turned out that only the signpost for Camping Polazzo was 5 km along the road – the simple campsite itself was under a low, narrow bridge and then another 5 km up a twisting narrow road, climbing to 420 ft. There was a nice view of the Julian Alps and the Adriatic below, but the electric hook-up in the field would barely run our lights. Expecting more for €16, we returned to the motorway. We had done an extra 13 miles, wasting time and diesel, and we knew of no other campsites around Trieste, open or closed!

The last toll point on the A4 (€0.80) was followed by the last services, Duino, which were small and crowded. Rather than continue to Trieste on the dual carriageway, we took the SS14 coast road for 10 miles along a cornice above the sea. Backed by white cliffs, heading for the lights of the city shining out over the Bay of Trieste, it was probably very pretty but it was going dark, it was Friday teatime rush hour and there was nowhere to stop!

Trieste did look a fine city, as we made our way along its waterfront. The largest sea-port on the Adriatic, it had been the main port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a road link to Vienna. Trieste only joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1919 at the end of WWI and the stately buildings we passed looked more Hapsburg than Italianate, though the upper town, round the Hill of St Justus, is on Roman foundations. The shipyards and quays now stretch for 8 miles to the former Yugoslavian (Slovenian) border.

All very interesting, but with every car park full to capacity we could only drive on towards Slovenia. Two miles before the border we stopped for diesel at a small Agip filling station, where the kindly attendant gave us permission to spend the night on the roped-off staff car park, the lights of Trieste twinkling below us.

2 December   31 miles   TRIESTE, Italy to STRUNJAN, Slovenia   Autokamp Strunjan €17.00

Over the Border to Slovenia

Continuing south on SS15 we soon reached the Slovenian border near Rabuiese: once the frontier with Yugoslavia, behind the Iron Curtain. Since 2004 Slovenia has been a member of the EU and we passed through both border posts (there is still a gap between the two countries) without so much as a passport check. The roads were immediately quieter and calmer than any in Italy. The population of Slovenia is under 2 million, who don't yet have several cars per family!

At the first town 6 miles along, Koper or Capodistria, we saw a large shopping centre with plenty of free parking space. We stopped for breakfast and to shop at 'Hofer' – an Aldi store in disguise. Fresh bread, fruit and vegetables, meat, wine and Christmas goodies abounded. The assistant spoke good English and accepted Euros in payment. (Local currency is still the Slovenian Tolar, at about 335=₤1, but we learnt that the country will use the Euro from the start of 2007: official rate 240 Tolar = €1.)

From KopSlo_(10).JPGer we took minor road 111 past Izola to Strunjan on the shore of Strunjan Bay – part of Slovenia's short stretch of Mediterranean (Adriatic) coastline. The campsite here (one of the few in Slovenia that is open all year) is largely static caravans, with a small gravel area for tourers outside the brand new shower/toilet block. Credit carSlo_(15).JPGds (or Euros) are accepted, as well as Tolars, and the receptionist speaks English and the little restaurant was open.

Strunjan is a health resort, with an abandoned salt works in its lagoon – important for local animal and plant life and at one time for its curative salty mud baths. Slovenia's 2 package holiday resorts (Portoroz and Piran) lie a few miles to the south.

3/5 December   At STRUNJAN, Slovenia   Autokamp Strunjan

Taking Time Out

Slovenia being our 23rd counSlo_(12).JPGtry this year, we took a break at Strunjan, not knowing how far the next good campsite might be! Time for cleaning, odd jobs, work on our website and emails. Time to research the countries still lying between us and Greece. Time to watch the 6-DVD BBC series 'History of Britain', kindly recorded for us by Gordon in Greece. Time for cooking and baking. Time to wrap and pack Christmas parcels to post to the UK.

Thanks to our return to Mediterranean vegetation, we picked rosemary, thyme and bay leaves around the campsite garden – quick-drying them in the microwave to replenish our herb jars. The friendly cleaner took our laundry in – and fed the campsite cats, saving Margaret 2 jobs!

Finally, we arranged some health/travel insurance for our onward journey through non-EU countries, using Endsleigh Insurance's excellent on-line service (www.endsleigh.co.uk) and our printer. We were ready to leave.

6 December   109 miles   STRUNJAN, Slovenia to MOSCENICKA DRAGA, Croatia   Car Park opposite Marina Hotel

Over the Border to Croatia and the Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

A warm overcCroatia_(10).JPGast morning after 2 days of rain. In Portoroz (Port of Rose), 2 miles south, we found a free lorry parking area near the town centre. Parcels were posted to England and money changed at the bank. The helpful bank clerk advised us to draw 72,000 Tolars from the ATM which she then changed into low-denomination Euros. She also broke down our existing Euros. We then drove another 4 miles south to the Croatian border. What a poor deal Slovenia got when coastlines were being handed out. Both neighbours, Italy and Croatia have hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres of seashore; Slovenia just a few.

Croatia is not yet an EU member and so we had checked that our insurance with Bakers of Cheltenham covered it (which it did, a recent change), but neither of the border posts asked for anything except a glimpse of our passports.

We continued south down the Istrian Peninsula, an area known for its wine, olive oil and grain since Roman times. It is still a wine-producing area and we saw small vineyards and signs advertising Vino and the more potent Grappa. After meeting the main road E571 before Buje, we found that our map, road atlas and GPS did not agree – with each other or with the road signs. Confusion increased, as the road which seemed to go in the right direction was only labelled for Italy or Slovenia, which were in the opposite direction and neither of which we wished to return to!

We headed west towards the coast road, through hills rising to 54Croatia_(11).JPG0 ft, and found that 5 miles before Umag a brand new highway turned south, still called E751 but now re-routed. It seems that none of our maps (nor the signs) were aware of its existence. In fact, the new highway was empty, so perhaps no-one knows! Taking it, we crossed the River Mirna near its estuary on a high bridge, with fertile farmland spread below. Then came a toll-point, which took €3 (even giving a little change in Croatian Kuna), though Slovenian Tolar were not acceptable!

18 miles after Croatia_(12).JPGthe border, we lunched on a rest area, complete with toilet, new picnic tables and a playground. A service station 5 miles later was so new that the pumps could not yet deliver fuel, though the café was open. At Baderna a new motorway turned east for Rijeka but we continued south on the main road (still called E751). The land was high, up to 860 ft, before dropping to sea level at Pula, the tip of the Istrian Peninsula, 60 miles from Strunjan.

Pula (ancient Polensium) was an important port of both the Roman andCroatia_(13).JPG the Austro-Hungarian Empires. Today it's a naval base and it still feels like a busy working town with cranes round the harbour, rather than a tourist attraction, despite its amazing Roman legacy. There was plenty of space on the car park by the harbour, overlooked by the impressive silhouette of the white limestone arches Croatia_(18).JPGof the Roman amphitheatre (number 6 in the world rankings).

The elliptical amphitheatre was built towards the end of the first century BC to hold 23,000 spectators. The outer shell is still complete and some of the interior seating has been restored, as the arena now stages summer film and music festivals. In the caverns below, once used to house the wild animals and gladiators, there is an interesting exhibition with olive presses and amphorae, and new information boards in several languages.

The entrance fee to the amphitheatre was 20 Croatian kunaCroatia_(15).JPG (at about 10 to the ₤1), with neither Euros nor credit cards being accepted. (The friendly guard did direct us to a nearby ATM.) The car park attendant asked for 4 kuna on our return.

There are other Roman remains in the town (walls, a triumphal arch, temple and smaller theatre), as well as an archaeological museum. We must return at a time of year when the campsites are open for a more leisurely visit.

From Pula we took the E751 north for Rijeka – a slower but more scenic alternative to returning to the new motorway. Our narrow road climbed up through holm-oak forest, reaching 500 ft after 10 miles at Marcana. After Barban (650 ft) the road zigzagged down to cross the River Rasa, then rose again to Labin at 750 ft, clinging to the sides of deep narrow valleys. The woods gave way to bare limestone pavement as dusk fell.

After Plomin (480 ft) we had a view of the sea below, but the road stayed high, climbing again to 790 ft. The ferry from Brestovac to the offshore island of Cres crossed the silvery water. Then, 39 miles from Pula, we crossed the border from Istria into the Kvarner Gulf region.

Descending gradually, we came 10 miles later to the little seaside resort of Moscenicka Draga, where rumour had it the campsite was open all year. We turned right off the main road, past its firmly locked gates, but found plenty of space to park on the way to the marina, opposite the Marina Hotel at the bottom of the hill. All was quiet.

7 December   243 miles   MOSCENICKA DRAGA to VRPOLJE, Croatia   Service Station on E71 Motorway

Tunnels and Bridges – Croatia's New Motorways

It was dull and showeryCroatia_(22).JPG but still very warm (over 16 deg C). We followed the coast road north through busy Lovran, then bypassed Opatija (a fashionable Austro-Hungarian resort at the turn of the 19th century). The traffic intensified as we approached Rijeka after 17 miles, tree-lined streets giving way to Croatia's third largest city and main commercial port.

We bought diesel (about ₤0.69 per litre) then climbed above the city, following signs to the new motorway (E65/A6) for Zagreb and Split, which we joined 3 miles later up at 440 ft. We were pleased to avoid the congestion of Rijeka - we had already driven the length of the coast road to Split (and beyond) 3 years ago. Now we were looking for a smooth fast transit route.

We passed a service station, then a toll point issuing tickets (pay on exit accCroatia_(23).JPGording to distance). Immediately, the highway became a 2-lane 2-way road, crossing the highlands via tunnels and bridges. Work was underway, building an adjacent carriageway and boring parallel second tunnels, to complete the new motorway. We assumed EU funding for this massive undertaking, hardly covered by tolls from the very few vehicles on the road.

We climbed high inland heCroatia_(21).JPGading north-east towards Zagreb, the capital. After a glimpse of the sea and the island of Krk far below, the view disappeared in cloud and rain at 2,800 ft. We soon lost count of the well-lit tunnels, short and long. Dropping to 2,250 ft through the Risnjak National Park (Ris = lynx, native here) the mist cleared, before we climbed again to 2,700 ft.

The next service station, 38 miles Croatia_(25).JPGalong the motorway up at 2,600 ft, was excellent – brand new, with café, restaurant, shop, ATM, fuel (including LPG), toilets and plenty of space for overnight parking. In fact, the many service stations and rest areas, at regular intervals all the way to Split, were equally good.

After this was a stretch of completed 4-lane twin-tunnel motorway, before another unfinished section with 2 or 3 lanes and road works alongside. The surface was good and the traffic very light, though the motorway does go a long way inland (54 miles, over half way to Zagreb) before the E71 branches off southwards to Split (and eventually Dubrovnik – the final section, not yet open). The coast road from Rijeka to Split is shorter in distance – and a beautiful drive - but the motorway is faster, if sight-seeing is not the aim, and the high interior is a different experience.

We turned Croatia_(24).JPGonto the E71, now down at 700 ft, and found this smooth motorway had been completed, with 2 lanes in each direction and paired bridges and tunnels with no oncoming traffic. And it was empty, most vehicles staying on E65 to Zagreb. The first service station was 9 miles along. We stopped for lunch after another 14 miles in a rest area. Now above 1,000 ft again, the temperature outside was 14.7 deg C. We were lucky to have a warm wind from the south – a north wind would have meant snow.

Soon, at 1,800 ft, we entered a 5.7 km-long tunnel (3.6 miles) beneath anCroatia_(26).JPG 884 m (2,900 ft) pass on the tortuous old road. Then came the second service station (25 miles after the first). Dropping slightly, we passed the Lika-Senj River, forming a lake on our left. At the third services (26 miles from the previous) were a pair of Italian motorhomes – the first we'd seen since Venice.

It was now 2 pm and the rain gave way to weak sunshine as we crossed the bare limestone-strewn plateau of the Velebit mountain range at about 1,900 ft. We emerged from another 5.7 km tunnel at a rest area and paused for tea. We'd covered 176 miles, all but the first 20 of them on astonishingly quiet new motorways – how different from the traffic jams of Western Europe in general and Italy in particular.

We were still at 1,800 ft and it was 12 deg C outside, warming to 16 deg as we descended below 1,000 ft, with a view of the sea and the island of Pag below. At 193 miles we passed the exit for Zadar, the ancient capital of Dalmatia, whose Roman remains we had explored by bicycle in 2003 whilst camped at nearby Nin.

Dusk was now falling (by 4.30 pm as the shortest day approaches) and we stopped for the night 50 miles later, at the service station near the Vrpolje exit - 29 miles before the current end of the motorway, at the exit for Split. We checked with the staff that overnight parking was in order and settled in for a quiet night, joined by a single truck. It rained very heavily, while the BBC World Service told of a tornado in London and Margaret's Mum texted to report gales in Lancashire.

8 December   152 miles   VRPOLJE to STON, Croatia   Car Park by Castle

Past Split and through Bosnia-Hercegovina – Nema Problema!

It was still wet and mild (14.7 deg C) as we covered the final 29 miles of the E71 motorway. It climbed above 1,000 ft again, through a short tunnel and across more bridges. The last service station was 7 miles before the end - the turning for Split and the E65 coast road (the motorway extension to Dubrovnik being unfinished). Our toll for over 250 miles was 240 kuna (less than £24), credit card accepted. At a small filling station a mile down the road we bought a map of Montenegro, though we barely recognised it under the name 'Crnogorsko Primorje'! No-one sold a map of Albania!!

OverCroatia_(27).JPG the next 7 miles, the road dropped sharply to sea level, becoming noticeably warmer. We then detoured west for 4 miles into Split, hoping to park by the ferry terminal a short walk from the splendid pedestrianised Old Town. Modern Split is an industrial city, the largest on the Dalmatian coast, ringed with ugly factories and concrete blocks of flats, busy with commuters, their cars double-parked along the pavements. There was no chance to park anything anywhere (let alone a large motorhome), so after circuiting the Jadrolinja terminal we could only return to the E65 and head east on the coastal highway, known as the Magistrale.

We were glad that Croatia_(28).JPGwe had spent a day here 3 years ago, visiting the substantial remains of the retirement palace that Roman Emperor Diocletian built (in his native land) at the end of the third century AD. A medieval town grew within its rectangular walls, Diocletian's mausoleum developing into the Cathedral (ironic, as he was noted for his persecution of early Christians). The whole thing is an outstanding open-air museum.

As we rejoinedCroatia_(29).JPG the E65 we noticed our first orange tree, fruiting in a garden, and passed a building site destined to become a Lidl store. Two miles along the coast road (5 miles from the ferry terminal) was a sign for Camping Stobrec, a new site on the right, with easy access. It lay by the sea, next to a restaurant and tennis courts, ideally placed for exploring Split. The Reception door was open! Disappointingly, it had just closed on 30 November and would not re-open until the beginning of April, not even for us! Next time.

The dramatic Magistrale from Split to Dubrovnik follows a narrow coCroatia_(32).JPGastal ledge, between the grey-white of the towering karst mountains and the azure blue of the Adriatic, fringed by a concentrated group of offshore islands. Along the next 15 miles to the resort of Omis, we passed an assortment of hotels, guest houses, restaurants and small campsites (all seasonal). On our previous visit (Oct 2003) we had squeezed into Camping Ivo, between Dugi Rat and Omis, and taken a bus back to Split, but the site had now closed for winter.

Omis is at the mouCroatia_(31).JPGth of the River Cetina, which cuts a deep gorge into the steep limestone scenery behind. Boats were moored at a jetty by the bridge, ready to carry visitors up-river. It was market day (Friday), it was raining again – and of course there was nowhere to park. We drove on.

The road twisted round the headlands of the Biokovo Mountains, past an olive mill, then along the 'Makarska Riviera' – a string of resorts set among pine groves, though with little in the way of sandy beaches. Two oncoming cars flashed their headlights, to warn us of a police speed trap on entering the town of Makarska (not that we were speeding!) In Makarska, 80 slow miles since breakfast, we at last found plenty of room on the car park behind the 'Konzum' supermarket. This supplied us with fresh rolls, croissants and cakes, a hot roast chicken, fruit and vegetables - we lunched on the spot!

The next strip of coast has been extensively developed, with high-rise hotels and apartments, though it improved after Podgora. Sadly, our Magellan GPS navigator, which has helped to guide us for the last few years (round the world and the length and breadth of Europe), chose this moment to retire from active service (at least until we can send it back to Magellan for a diagnosis), so there will be fewer references to altitude from here on!

The small space between road and sea was now taken up byCroatia_(33).JPG rocky terraces planted with olive trees and pomegranates. The harsh and stony landscape was reminiscent of the Mani Peninsula at the tip of the Greek Peloponnese. Crumbling villages were each clustered round a white stone church and spire, with occasional tourist infrastructure round a pebbly shore. 20 miles after Makarska, the little port of Drevnik had ferries to the islands of Hvar and Korcula.

A little furtherCroatia_(36).JPG along at Gradac the Makarska Riviera ended and the road curved inland in an arc, past the industrial port of Ploce and round the delta of the Neretva River. Below us a large area of flat fertile land (very rare on the Croatian coast) supports orange groves and market gardens. It has been reclaimed from the original malarial swamp, now drained and watered by a grid pattern of ditches. Roadside stalls sold fruit and we followed a car pulling a trailer laden with oranges.

Once across the river, 23 miles from Drevnik, a road (E73) turned northCroatia_(38).JPG up the Neretva Valley, leading to the Bosnian border just 6 miles away and on to Sarajevo – names redolent with recent history. We stayed with the E65, twisting back to the coast and continuing for 11 miles to the frontier for the short stretch of Bosnia-Hercegovina which meets the sea. The border guard waved us through (though he stopped a Croatian car coming the other way), as did the guard at the exit post 6 miles later.

Neum, the shiny BosCroatia_(40).JPGnian resort funded by the government, is a cluster of luxury villas for favoured party members and hotel blocks for the workers, with a strip of restaurants and duty-free shops. We had a tea-break on an empty free car park, off to the right above the beach. There was no-one around and it didn't feel comfortable.

The enclave doesn't provide an eCroatia_(39).JPGntry point for Bosnia (roads into Bosnia come before and after the enclave) and therefore there is no problem with visas, insurance etc. Foreign vehicles are unlikely to be stopped. Vehicles from Bosnia, coming on holiday, have to enter the enclave via Croatia! It's planned to build a bridge to an offshore island, thereby bypassing the enclave and allowing the people of Dubrovnik to feel less vulnerable!

The humped mountains of the long narrow Peljesac Peninsula run parallel with the coast here, the intervening lagoon used for farming oysters and mussels. 8 miles after the Bosnian enclave we turned right, along the narrow isthmus linking Peljesac with the mainland. After 4 miles we reached the little town of Ston, to spend a peaceful night parked in the lee of its ruined castle, round the corner from the tiny fish market ('tiny' applying to both 'fish' and 'market'!)

9 December   50 miles   STON to SREBENO, Croatia Autocamp   Matkovica €12.00

A Warm 'Dobro Dosli' (Welcome) at Matkovica, east of Dubrovnik

By 8 am wCroatia_(43).JPGe were being surrounded by cars, arriving in Ston to shop. We moved onto a new car park by the Fountain Café and the police/fire station – empty, as it was 5 minutes' walk from the two little supermarkets!

Ston and Mali Ston (less than a mile east, over Croatia_(45).JPGthe hills) straddle the Peljesac Peninsula at its narrowest point. Heavily fortified against attack, these twin outposts of Ragusa (the Venetian name for the city-state of Dubrovnik) were linked by a succession of mighty stone walls and towers, whose lines still climb up the hillsides. Ston's old houses were rebuilt after extensive damage in WW2, though restoration of the church and castle has yet to begin. The regular grid-iron of narrow stone-cobbled streets is being re-laid at the moment.

Tourists Croatia_(49).JPGmay once have paused here briefly on their way to Dubrovnik, to photograph the dramatic stone walls. Today they can climb the steps and walk the section which has been rebuilt, its apex high above the little town that is pressed against the hillside below. After breakfast we braved the cold wind to walk the walls, the effort soon warming us. The view revealed little vineyards and vegetable gardens tucked beneath us, sheltering at the foot of the hillside, as well as the sweep of the shallow salt pans on the seaward side. The settlement must have been self-sufficient, with fish, salt and produce.

Three years ago, on our first visit, Ston Croatia_(47).JPGseemed a delightfully sleepy undiscovered village. Now there are more signs for Rooms and Apartments and the new car park is obviously for tour buses. With an unemployment rate of over 20% in Croatia, the tourist industry is clearly important but we hope (as always) that it doesn't ruin the very things people come to see.

After a well-Croatia_(51).JPGearned coffee we were on our way, back past Mali Ston to rejoin the main road E65 eastwards (4 miles). At Trsteno, 19 miles later, our Rough Guide recommended the Botanical Gardens (laid out in 1502) but the entrance was through a sharp narrow turn to the right and we could see no car park. The adjacent campsite was closed. Continuing along the beautiful coast road for another 10 miles, we came to the new high level bridge which crosses a deep inlet a few miles before Dubrovnik.

Immediately over the bridge, we turned off to drop down to GruzCroatia_(54).JPG harbour, in order to check out the ferry to Bari (which comes from Split, calling here before the overnight passage to Italy). We had used this ferry 3 years ago (and hope not to repeat the experience) but collected details in case our planned overland route via Montenegro and Albania proves abortive. The old boat still runs once a week in winter, leaving Dubrovnik at 11 pm Tuesdays, arriving Bari at 8 am the next day. Cabins for 2 include a light breakfast and are very expensive indeed. Telephone bookings can be made and tickets paid for by credit card. Visit www.jadrolinija.hr if still interested!

We drove on toCroatia_(56).JPG the wooded Lapad Peninsula, following signs to the huge Solitudo Camping. In 2003 we had stayed on the freshly re-opened campsite, enjoying its new facilities 'Open All Year'. Now it was closed for winter (as we'd feared, since we got no reply when ringing). We phoned Dubrovnik's Tourist Office, who supplied the numbers of 3 campsites at Mlini (6 miles to the east). Camping Porto informed us that they were closed, while the others did not answer. Our Lonely Planet guide listed one other, Matkovica, which we tried without much hope. A friendly English-speaking woman told us to come at once!

Returning to the high-level bridge, we drove east, past the phCroatia_(66).JPGotogenic Old Town of Dubrovnik, pausing in a well-placed lay-by to capture some more images of Byron's 'Pearl of the Adriatic'. It's a magnificently preserved fortified port, pressed against the sea inside its medieval walls, and all the more amazing for its restoration after the Serb bombardment it suffered in 1991Croatia_(70).JPG.

Between the villages of Kupari and Mlini, on a quiet cove at Srebeno, there are several campsites. Matkovica is on the right, after Camping Porto, and Daniella came out to welcome us. A tiny family-run campsite, started by her father-in-law, there was no-one else staying.

We filled our water tank, had a late lunch and relaxed with an American film on TV (3 channels and good reception).

10/11 December   At SREBENO, Croatia   Autocamp Matkovica

Sunshine and Showers

Next day (Sunday) the cold wind had dropped and it was sunny enough toCroatia_(79).JPG dry our laundry on the line. We walked down to the cove, which lies between Dubrovnik and its airport at Cavtat – ideal package tourist territory, except that Montenegro is just over the mountain to the south and Bosnia just over the mountain to the east.

Fishing Croatia_(74).JPGboats bobbed in the little harbour and there was a new restaurant, but many of the buildings, including large government-owned hotels on the sea front in this bay and the next, are still lying derelict and full of shell holes. The talk is of a faltering economy, a corrupt government (filtering right down to the local school where a bag of potatoes or tomatoes does wonders for your child's marks) and an average income around ₤70 a week. Daniella told us that no-one (not even the government which is trying to sell them off) can afford to restore the decaying hotels, so they awaitCroatia_(77).JPG demolition. As the coast here was bombarded from the sea and from the air, the local population fled. They have returned but, sadly, the tourists have not.

A terrific thunderstorm in the night heralded another change in the weather and our planned visit by bus to Dubrovnik was rained off! We prepared ourselves for the next phase of the journey to Greece and made an end-of-year greeting email.

12 December   113 miles   SREBENO, Croatia to ULCINJ, Montenegro   Car Park of Hotel Imperial, Velika Plaga

Over the Border into Montenegro, round the Bay of Kotor and down the Coast

After emptying MNE_(13).JPGour waste waters of different hues (13 buckets – some kind of record!) and spending our last few Kuna coins on fresh brown bread rolls at the nearby supermarket, we were ready for the road. It was dry and sunny with a cold back wind as we headed south-east for the Montenegrin frontier. Near Dubrovnik's airport at Cavtat, 7 miles along, we used the last filling station that takes credit cards. (There's another at Gruda, 7 miles later, which wants cash.)

The border was 4 miles after Gruda. The Croatian guard checked ourMNE_(11).JPG passports and waved us through a couple of hundred yards to a splendid new Montenegrin border police and customs post, built with EU funding. It was very quiet – just us and one bus from Zagreb. Our passports and vehicle registration document were scrutinised, then (in the absence of a Green Card) we were sent to buy insurance at an upstairs office. It was just after 9 am and the appropriate official hadn't yet appeared, but a mobile phone call brought him scuttling. He sold us 15 days' 3rd party cover for €15 (the minimum period available) and we were on our way.

Welcome toMNE_(23).JPG Crna Gora – the tiny Republic of Montenegro – which recently split from the Yugoslav Federation after a referendum to become independent of Serbia. The Cyrillic alphabet is no longer used here and the official currency has become the Euro (though EU membership remains only a hope for the future). We saw that diesel (at €0.91) and LPG were readily available.

There was snow on the inland mountains MNE_(16).JPGbut we followed the E65 down the Adriatic coast. Herceg-Novi, 7 miles after the border, is a busy town with an old walled city and castle tumbling down to the shore. From Kamenari, 10 miles later, a small vehicle ferry plies the narrow entrance to the Bay of Kotor. Choosing instead to drive round this deep inlet (the only true fiord in Southern Europe), we parked by the water for lunch and watched the ferry shuttle a few cars and a truck across to Lepetan.

Bypassed by the MNE_(20).JPGferry, our quiet road, hemmed in by steep mountains, twisted round the water's edge through a string of hamlets. We had spectacular views of the fiord and its 2 tiny islands, one with a Benedictine Abbey, the other bearing the church of Our Lady of the Rock. After the village of Risan we came to Perast, opposite the entrance to the gulf, with its old town (Stari Grad), Venetian church towers and a lighthouse perched on the bay below us. Oranges and pomegranates grew by the waterside.

Kotor, at the head of the fiord, is a large sheltered port with a UNEMNE_(29).JPGSCO-listed medieval city (restored after the 1979 earthquake). We had a glimpse of its walls and gate, fronting onto the harbour, but the tangle of narrow lanes in the Old Town was not designed for motorhomes. Sadly there was nowhere to park and walk, so we could only drive past. From Kotor the road turns north, up the west side of the fiord to Lepetan and the ferry.

Our map sMNE_(30).JPGhowed a handy short cut, rejoining E65 via a tunnel, so we turned west. We never did find the tunnel but were soon climbing zigzags to cross the slopes of Mount Lovcen (about 700 ft?) with a great view of Kotor Bay. This was the real Balkans, amidst high barren mountains, with a flock of goats in the care of a bow-legged old woman clad in black.

We joined the highway 7 miles after Kotor MNE_(35).JPGand continued south-west for 10 miles to meet the coast at Budva, Montenegro's top resort, its beaches lined with high-rise apartments and hotels. Again, it had an inaccessible walled Old Town, apparently rebuilt since the massive earthquake in 1979. We did have a good view of Sveti (St) Stefan, 5 miles south, resembling an island citadel across a short causeway, but Lonely Planet inform us that it's become a luxury hotel complex with an entry fee to deter casual tourists. Best seen from a distance!

After the next resMNE_(33).JPGort of Petrovac, our road ran below sharp mountain ranges, past gnarled and wizened olives (up to 2,500 years old). The wildlife comprised stray donkeys and a flock of sheep grazing the olive groves of an Orthodox Monastery. 18 miles after Budva, there was a turning for a Peage to Podgorica (once called Titograd). We could have taken this new toll-road inland to the capital city, then crossed into Albania at the main crossing point, Hani i Hotit, but we stayed with the coast road.

At the port of Bar, 2 miles later, we parked near the quayside to check out the Montenegro Lines ferry to Italy (another fall-back position!) The ferry does run to Bari (3 times a week in winter, daily in summer) leaving at 10 pm and arriving at 8 am. At €260 for a one-way passage, including motorhome and an economy 2-berth cabin, it was less than half the cost of the boat from Dubrovnik to Bari. The new terminal has a restaurant and a large guarded car park (charging €0.80 an hour – including overnight). Visit www.montenegrolines.net for the schedule (also summer sailings to Ancona in Italy and Durres in Albania).

Another 20 miles south, past the crumbling inland ruins of Stari BarMNE_(36).JPG, we reached Ulcinj. The residents of this holiday resort, just 10 miles from the Albanian border, include many ethnic Albanians, as well as refugees fled from Kosovo in 1999, and we saw headscarved women in Muslim dress. There was a small beach below the ramparts of the old town but no hotels or restaurants with parking space.

About 3 miles south-east, we crossed a river and continued a little way down the 7-mile stretch of grey sand called Velika Plaga (Great Beach). The road is a dead-end (no crossing point to Albania) but there are several hotels along the way and a nudist campground (closed) at the end of it. Passing the new Imperial Hotel, we saw its lights were on. The waiter spoke no known language but fetched a girl with some English, who kindly phoned her 'boss' to see if we were allowed to park overnight. Agreed, provided we bought a meal – no problem! Our dinner was excellent: a fresh loaf, sopska salad topped with cheese, chicken and beef fillets with mushroom sauce, assorted vegetables, hot chips and good beer, all prepared at short notice (there were no other customers) for a total of €16. We'll be sad to leave Montenegro.

13 December   148 miles   ULCINJ, Montenegro to FIER, Albania   Autogrill-Express Services

Over the Border into Albania – our Final Frontier

Following instructions MNE_(10).JPGfrom the hotel staff, we drove 3 miles back towards Ulcinj and then turned right (signed 'Vladimir') on a narrow twisting country road. It was surprisingly busy with cars coming towards us; frost lay on the fields after a cold night. In Vladimir village, 11 miles along, we saw a petrol pump, an old man with one leg crossing the road on crutches, and a woman leading her cow along the lane on a length of string. The women in this area wore long skirts or baggy trousers, their heads covered.

Arriving at the border village of Sukobin 5 miles later, we saw our first Yugoslav mosque with the white concrete pencil of a minaret. The shabby frontier posts were not EU-funded! Passports and insurance document were checked as we left Montenegro.

Entering Albania, bypassing an empty disinfecting trough, we produceAlb1_(15).JPGd passports, vehicle registration paper and an entry fee of €10 each. The 'sting' was the charge for 3rd party insurance (minimum 15 days = €53). The Albanian currency is the Lek (at about 130 to the Euro) but we found Euros were accepted for diesel (costing 120 lek per litre). Again, fuel (including LPG) was widely available – in fact, filling stations were only outnumbered by roadside car washes, called Lavazh. It seemed that every young Albanian male had set up business with a power hose and compressor, removing the dust from the black Mercedes cars.

After onlyAlb1_(16).JPG 20 minutes' delay at the border, we were in Albania – Shqiperia (the land of the eagle). Its red flag with a double-headed black eagle flew from public and private buildings – and came in handy as a red flag for road-workers to wave. It was immediately poorer, shabbier and bumpier as we made our way for 9 slow miles to the city of Shkodra (or Shkoder) near the lake of the same name. Albania's 4th largest town, it changed hands several times during WWI.

A mile before Shkodra we saw the Rozafa fortress at the strategic confluencAlb1_(14).JPGe of the Buna and Drin Rivers, a site guarded by a fort for 2,500 years. We couldn't give it the attention it deserved, distracted as we were by a confused impression of horse-drawn carts shifting haystacks, donkeys laden with corn, wobbling bicycles, overloaded mopeds, stray pedestrians, minarets, merchants' stalls, riverside car-washers, and rows of the little concrete bunkers built by the paranoid ultra-communist President Enver Hoxha, fearing invasion.

Absorbed by thAlb1_(18).jpge scene, we missed the right turn for Lezhe and had to turn back in the midst of the throng. Actually we did notice it, but failed to believe the narrow wooden-planked bridge across the Bune River was the only one! Finding it carried one-way traffic controlled by a policeman, we gingerly followed a lorry over to join the SH1 south-east. This road was much better and we followed the Drin valley for 22 miles until we crossed it at Lezhe. We passed many flocks of free-range turkeys along the verges, kept back from the tarmac by young lads with sticks.

8 miles later we bridged the broad Mat River and continued south oAlb1_(22).JPGn SH1 for 14 miles. The road continued to Tirana (the capital) but we turned south-west for Durres. Immediately we faced 2 miles of unmade highway, reduced to rubble by roadworks and blocked with lorries in both directions. After crawling over this stretch, it was good again for 6 miles, past Tirana airport and on to Vore (and the main turning for Tirana).

It was 14Alb1_(25).JPG miles from this junction to Durres, the former capital and major port of Albania. The chaotic traffic and lack of signs (or good map or working GPS!) almost made us circle the first roundabout and retreat, but we persevered past the docks to the sea-front. Our reward was a pleasant parking spot by the shore, to eat lunch in the warm sunshine (astonishing for mid-December) and watch a man in a wetsuit spearing octopus in the shallow water. He walked past our window, carrying his tentacled prize.

Durres is an ancient port, founded by Greeks and renamed (DyrrachAlb1_(26).JPGium) by the Romans. Durres was at the start of the Via Egnatia to Constantinople (whatever Greeks may tell you!), linked to the Via Appia (Rome-Brindisi) across the Adriatic. More recently, Mussolini's troops landed here in 1939, fought off the resistance and occupied the country.

Extricating Alb1_(33).JPGourselves from modern-day Durres, we rejoined the coast road, past a strip of hotels along Durres Bay. Though Albanian driving standards were atrocious, we were surprised to see parked cars with the sign Shitet (later realising it meant 'For Sale'!) The town of Kavajhe lay 15 miles south. At Rrogozhine, a town of fruit and vegetable stalls 11 miles later, we crossed the Shkumbin River, which divides the cultures and dialects of North and South Albania. A new 4-lane dual carriageway began here, stretching for 9 miles to the next town, Lushnje.

The good road ended abruptly 3 miles later, with roadworks for the neAlb1_(32).JPGxt 15 miles as far as Fier (with an apologetic sign and no mention of EU funding). We could see distant snowy peaks under a fringe of cloud and roadside stalls selling olives and citrus fruit. Then we hit the ecological disaster of Fier, centre of the country's oil industry. Its atmosphere is polluted by a refinery, a gas-fuelled thermal power plant and a fertiliser factory. Luckily dusk was falling.

Amidst the evening rush, we saw the bright lights of an 'Autogrill' sign on the left – a service station in the middle of the town, with petrol pumps, café/bar, restaurant, motel rooms, workshops and plenty of truck parking space behind. The Autogrill logo on the roof was that of Italian motorway services. We parked here with relief and went inside to check. No-one spoke English (or any language we know), the smoky café was full of men (and only men) and the restaurant was closed. No matter, there were clean toilets, no charge, and nobody objected to our stay.

14 December   123 miles   FIER – DHERMI - FIER, Albania   Autogrill-Express Services

Over a 1,027 m Pass to Dhermi – and back again!

We left Fier past bAlb1_(86).JPGelching factory chimneys, then south-west on a minor uneven road towards the coast. After 10 miles we crossed the Vjose River at Novosele, its large market spread below the bridge on the banks. Nothing picturesque in the squalid scene, the dusty produce simply laid out on the dirty litter-strewn ground. We saw a pair of sheep being unloaded from the boot of a car and a live pig carried in a cart. (Pig? The majority religion here is Muslim, though Albania was officially an atheist state during Hoxha's rule.)

There were frequent police check-points along all the roads we travelled, though we were completely ignored. The practice of stopping foreign vehicles for bogus offences has obviously been stopped. Petrol stations were also numerous, even on these minor roads, with little variance in price. LPG is Gasauto and we saw both cars and bottles being filled. As the Nartes Lagoon came into view, we passed orange groves and vines, the roadside stalls selling wine and oil in recycled plastic bottles.

Vlore, 23 miles Alb1_(34).JPGfrom Fier, is a very poor port town, giving its name to the Riviera of Flowers – the beautiful coast south to Dhermi which we were about to drive. We didn't have a good start. Passing through a short unlit tunnel cut into the rock (with no height indication), the motorhome's roofbox just clipped the edge of the curved roof. WeAlb1_(37).JPG stopped to survey the damage (roofbox lid cracked and broken at one corner) and had to continue, hoping for no further tunnels.

After 16 miles along the coast, the road left the Gulf of Vlores to begin its steep climb to the Llogarase Pass. At the village of Dukati there was a large Muslim cemetery, a stall selling mountain herbs and a couple of stray dogs. The road was very good, newly resurfaced, with dizzy views and sharp hairpin bends – most of them decorated with a memorial stone, carrying the photo of the accident victim(s). In the Llogorim Park there were a few rooms and cafes as we approached the top of the pass, after an 8-mile ascent.

At the summAlb1_(50).JPGit was a hotel/restaurant, a view of the sea below and room to park for coffee. Our map showed a height of 1,027 m (or 3,390 ft). We tried not to watch a pair of open-air goat butchers at work. A couple of animals were hung from the trees for slaughter and butchering, while others awaited their turn in the pick-up truck.

Descending down more zigzags (less steeAlb1_(78).JPGp than the ascent), the road levelled out after another 8 miles, then deteriorated for the next 3 miles into the village of Dhermi, with a pair of Orthodox churches. We had been warned that the next 50 miles (to Sarande) would be slow going because of roadworks, but it proved to be more serious than that - impossibly narrow, unsurfaced and potholed. We were forced, reluctantly, to turn back after passing through Dhermi and before it got any worse. A smaller vehicle could get through, but not our 6-tonner.

Climbing 11 Alb1_(52).JPGmiles back to the top of the pass, we stopped again for lunch. In our absence, the goat butchers had finished their work and gone, leaving a feast in the woods for the many crows wheeling overhead! Making the steep descent, we were delayed by a flock of sheep, led by a Muslim woman in baggy trousers who gave a friendly wave. We've felt no hostility here and only wish we had a common language.

Approaching Vlore, we were relieved that our northbound road didn't pass through the low rocky tunnel! At Novosele, the market was long cleared away, though the rubbish was not. Back at Fier, we returned to our place behind the Autogrill-Express for an undisturbed night beneath a cold clear sky. The restaurant was still closed but we bought some diesel.

15 December   112 miles   FIER to SARANDE, Albania   Hotel Britania Car Park

South through Gjirokaster and West to Sarande

After yesterday'sAlb1_(91).JPG attempt on the coast road, we left Fier on the inland route south-east via Gjirokaster: a bumpy 2-lane 'main' road with one-lane extra-bumpy bridges over rivers. At Ballish, the first town 15 miles along, there were the usual car-washes, a boy selling live turkeys, vines in the dusty fields. The smell was of oil and we passed a couple of 'nodding donkey' oil wells.

Impressions: We saw railway lines but no trains; Alb1_(99).JPGvery few women or children; no recognisable schools or places for recreation, sport or entertainment. We met no-one, young or old, waiter or policeman, who spoke anything but Albanian. Partly or newly finished buildings often had a teddy-bear or a dressed scarecrow hanging on them – very strange! Perhaps a modern version of walling a woman into the ramparts as an offering to the gods? Rubbish was strewn along every roadside and river bank; 'recycling' meant youngsters picking through this litter, collecting cans and bottles – a sight we've seen in India but not in Europe.

We paused by aAlb1_(97).JPG wayside spring, where the concrete roof of a café/bar had caved in and been left. A new cafe had opened alongside, with a man selling vegetables at a stall outside. After another stretch of road works, we began to climb up a valley alongside a dry river bed, beneath the grey folds of the Mallakaster mountain chain (missing our GPS for heights). Another al fresco goat butcher was at work. Donkeys and small horses were hobbled at the roadside, or pulled carts or carried a rider, seated sideways on a pack saddle.

Despite the sunshine (the warmest winter in Europe for 200 years!), the newAlb1_(101).JPG lambs and the fresh snow on the peaks, the whole picture was so poor and grimy that it had none of the charm of rural Bulgaria, Romania or Greece. Even the olive groves and grass looked dusty, like the whole scene needed a good polish. The reservoir was low, waiting for winter rain. The grim concrete houses of the villages told of grinding poverty - yet we saw no-one begging or asking a lift. Albanians are so unused to foreigners or tourists that most just stared, some ignored us, some waved.

At Tepelene, 51Alb1_(88).JPG miles from Fier, we crossed the River Vjose and parked for lunch. A dead sheep hung outside the door of a butcher's shop and we noticed a new Orthodox church. Following the River Drino to Gjirokastro, we encountered more road works (with an EU-funding sign) and passed a man selling fresh trout from a small concrete tank. It was a joy to see our first sign for Kakavia (the Greek border).

Modern Gjirokastro, 20 miles after Tepelene, looked like a gathering place for migrants (legal or illegal) into Greece. We saw nothing of the Old Town and Citadel overlooking the Drino Valley, a mile or more west of the highway, and the description of 'preserved traditional narrow cobbled streets in Enver Hoxha's birthplace' Alb1_(102).JPGdid not encourage us to turn off!

From here a brand new road SH4 covers the 20 miles to the Greek border at Kakavia. We began to notice village names were subtitled in the Greek alphabet, there were more churches and wayside crosses – we had entered the Greek-speaking Orthodox region of south-west Albania. Rather than head straight to the border (tempting as that was!), we Alb1_(105).JPGturned west onto SH78 after 11 miles. A well-made mountain road, it wound its way for 4 miles up to a pass (perhaps 600 metres or 2,000 ft), marked by a concrete memorial to the fighting of the Partisans against the German Alpine Division in 1943.

Descending, we went through the village of Mesopotam with a river (Greek potamos), an old Orthodox monastery and a very new Orthodox church. At last, 21 miles below the pass, we reached Sarande (at the foot of the coast road we'd tried to take yesterday). A seaside town with a long promenade, squeezed between the mountains and the Ionian Sea, andAlb1_(107).JPG Corfu (served by ferry) clearly visible offshore in the evening sun – it looked inviting. The resort is growing fast (hotels being built on every spare piece of steep land) and we soon found that there was nowhere to park – indeed, we had difficulty finding a place to turn round and withdraw!

We retreated 2 miles south, along the road towards Ancient Buthrotum (Butrint), and spotted a new hotel with car parking space opposite – 'Hotel Restorant Britania: 24 Ore', flying the Union Jack! However, no-one spoke English and the restaurant was not open-all-hours, whatever the sign said! But the family running it were very friendly and tried hard to understand our (minimal) Greek, as weAl_But_(18).JPG negotiated permission tAl_But_(19).JPGo park for 2 nights. They insisted we sit by the log fire in the bar with a jug of wine, to eat a simple meal of salad, toast, white cheese (strong enough to taste the sheep!) and steaks (mutton or goat?) For this (and 2 nights parking, a fill of water and the use of toilets) they asked only €12.

There was a power cut for an hour on the Saturday evening, which seemed to be a regular expected feature, as they had plenty of battery lights standing ready! The 3 small children of the family paid us a visit, leaving with gifts of pens and paper, which they preferred to our biscuits!

16 December   At SARANDE, Albania   Hotel Britania Car Park

To Butrint (Ancient Buthrotum)

We left the Al_But_(61).JPGmotorhome safely at the hotel in order to visit Butrint. The very narrow road wound south for 10 miles, between sea and lagoon, terminating at the entrance to Ancient Buthrotum, next to a little vehicle ferry across the narrow channel at the salty lagoon entrance. There is an hourly bus from Sarande, or you can get a taxi.

The ancient site (part of a wooded national park) was extensive, well labelled in Albanian and English, and a joy to Al_But_(30).JPGwander in warm sunshine. Entry was €6 each (since we had no Leks) and included a leaflet/map in English. The café and museum were closed for winter but the site was far from deserted. We talked with Australians Tom and Trish, and were entertained by a lively group of 18-year-old Albanian students on an educational visit. (As we sat in the ancient theatre with our packed lunch, they practised a mixture of Italian and English on us, took our photos, played guitars and sang to us – until their teacher had to drag them all back to the bus!)

The Roman poet Al_But_(38).JPGVirgil claimed that the Trojans founded Buthrotum. No evidence of that, but certainly Greeks from Corfu had settled the hill by the 6thC BC. A fortified trading city developed round this acropolis, with Cyclopean stone walls, a 4thC BC sanctuary to Asclepius and a Greek theatre.

Romans took over in 167 BC, adapting tAl_But_(44).JPGhe theatre and building baths. Julius Caesar founded a colony, extending the lower city via a bridge and an aqueduct onto the plain beyond (though a splendid villa had to be abandoned because of flooding). As the Roman Empire began to fall to vandal raids, Christianity reached the area and Butrint became a Bishopric. The Paleo-Christian ruins of a Baptistry and Basilica from the 6thC AD still have mosaic floors, hidden from view under protective sand. The Norman castle on the acropolis (bought by the Venetians in 1386) houses a museum (closed) and there is a great view from its reconstructed turrets, over the channel to Turk Ali Pasha's 19thC Triangular Castle.

The settlementAl_But_(49).JPG declined and was left for Italian archaeologists to unearth in 1927. WW2 interrupted their work and the site was abandoned until 1993, when a British charity, the Butrint Foundation, was formed to sponsor further excavations. It was one of the best anAl_But_(59).JPGcient sites we've visited (and we've lost count of how many that is!), for the sheer pleasure of wandering among the woods and ancient stones around the edge of the lake, stumbling over a history spanning 2,500 years from Hellenistic to Ottoman.

A delightful few hours in a Unesco World Heritage Site, by a Wetland Site of International Importance – once visited by Lord Byron and painted by Edward Lear - yet so little known outside Albania. Visit www.butrintfound.dial.pipex.com.

17 December   65 miles   SARANDE, Albania to IOANNINA, Greece   Camping Limnopoula €9.00

Welcome to Greece

Back towardsAlb1_(108).JPG Sarande to return over the pass to the Gjirokaster/Kakavia-border highway. After 8 miles a minor road turned right to a new Greek border crossing at Konispol (for Igoumenitsa), which we didn't take. The corner is marked by a quartet of Hoxha's concrete bunkers, which also proliferate along the highway.

A mile further on we followed the clear blue river thAlb1_(115).JPGrough Mesopotam, then began to climb past a semi-abandoned mountainside village, the houses looking very Greek. By the top of the pass we had covered 20 miles and guessed a height of at least 2,000 ft. Splendid views for the next 4 miles, descending to the smooth highway for our last 6 miles in Albania and a fill of both diesel and LPG.

Exiting the country, our passports Alb1_(118).JPGand insurance document were checked and a €5 'exit fee' was charged. Then we joined the queue to enter Greece, driving through the empty disinfection trough, past the disused disinfectant spray booth. After a passport check and a Customs inspection ('Are you carrying anything illegal?' the guard asked), we were back in the fully-insured safety of the EU and Greece – ΕΛΛΑΣ! We left Albania with a mixture of relief and regret, sure that we shall return. It can only get better, though outside help would speed up the process. We summarised it as: Grim Country, Great People. The opposite of France!

In the remote mountains of north-west Greece (against the long-fearGR_North_(10).JPGed Albanian border), we lunched by a little lake. It began to rain! About 15 miles from the border, we met the E90 at Kalpaki and turned south, descending through the Pindos Mountains for 21 miles. A couple of wild boar were hanging from a rack at the roadside!

Reaching Ioannina,GR_North_(11).JPG a busy town on a large lake (which we know well from several visits), we drove straight to the lakeside campsite, by the University Nautical Club boathouse. The gates were open, Reception was locked. The water was on, the electricity was not. The usual dilemma! We filled our water tank and settled on the empty campsite. Eventually, a young man appeared to explain that the site was 'closed' but if we paid half-price we could have electricity and stay, using our own toilet and shower. Done! We put our clocks forward an hour and cooked the last of our frozen salmon steaks from Norway, to celebrate our safe arrival.

18 December   At IOANNINA, Greece   Camping Limnopoula

A Wet Day by the Lake

It rained heavily all day – a good excuse to stay and catch up on emailsGR_North_(12).JPG and log-writing. We learnt that our website has been 'off the air' for at least 4 days – don't know why and have to investigate.

Noticing the date (one week to go), Margaret made 2 Christmas puddings. We also enjoyed watching Greek TV again (there were the usual dozen or more channels), with a forecast of better weather. Our only neighbours were the birds on the lake – rare Pygmy Cormorant, as well as Moorhens and Gulls. The Storks, of course, have flown south (and so should we!)

19 December   132 miles   IOANNINA to KASTORIA, Greece   Market Place

Following the Trucks through Zagoria and being Moved On at 3.30 am

We took the E90 north, past Ioannina Airport/air force base and the new out-of-town supermarkets (Maxi-Dia, Champion and Lidl). Lidl offered chestnuts, Brussels sprouts and French pate (to the bewilderment of Greek customers), as well as the usual Christmas treats. In Asfaka, the next village, the bakery supplied warm bread and delicious cheese & ham pies for lunch.

At MetamorGR_North_(18).JPGfosi, 12 miles from our camp, a minor road turns off into the mountains of Zagoria and the Vikos Gorge (previously explored on motorbike and foot, but not suited to a large motorhome in December!) Another 9 miles to Kalpaki (and the left turn for the Albanian border crossing at Kakavia) but we continued north-east. It was 11 deg C and raining as we climbed up through the North Pindos Mountains, pausing for lunch in a layby at Kleidonia.

The twisting narrow road was not as quiet as we might have hoped, beiGR_North_(16).JPGng the favoured lorry route from the port of Igoumenitsa across to Siatista, to join the highway for Thessaloniki and Turkey! One day, the new tunnel bypassing Metsovo and the Katara Pass will take this heavy traffic – but it's been under construction for several years and is long past its completion date. Overtaking was virtually impossible on our twisting, turning, climbing and dropping route and we made slow progress through worsening weather.

Konitsa, 17 miles aGR_North_(17).JPGfter Kalpaki, is a mountain town, set back from the highway on the slopes of Mt Trapezitsa above the Aoos River, which we'd crossed in Albania on its way to the sea! Now we crossed it again, on a modern bridge with a view of the arched stone packhorse bridge from the 1870's (a feature of Zagoria, built by itinerant craftsmen). Buying diesel, we saw piles of snow-chains on sale. Our road climbed through the Smolikas Mountains, shrouded in dark clouds and flecked with white. (Mt Smolikas at 2,637 m/8,700 ft is second only to Mt Olympos in Greece.)

24 miles later we pasGR_North_(20).JPGsed a truck-stop café with a menu board in Turkish, its parking area full of lorries from Turkey and even Iran, their number plates in a version of Arabic letters. We crawled along behind an Iranian lorry, managing to pass it only to find ourselves behind a Bulgarian car transporter, overloaded with third-hand cars. We had caught up with the line of HGV's off this morning's ferries into Igoumenitsa from Italy!

Soon we crossed the regional border from Epirus into Western Macedonia, driving through Eptahori, a village of crumbling stone houses clinging to a mountain side which looked ready to bury them under its scree. Up through the woods and into the cloud, we followed a Turkish lorry to the top of a pass (78 miles from Ioannina). Descending through the mist on the slow tortuous road, we finally left the TIR-route 30 miles later, at Neapoli, where we turned north for Kastoria in heavy rain.

Amazingly, this road (shown on our map as a very minor route) soon became a mostly-finished, badly signed, new 4-lane dual carriageway, carrying virtually no traffic for 20 miles, past the town of Argos Orestiko to Maniaki, a village a few miles south of Kastoria. Presumably, this highway will eventually link Neapoli and Kastoria with the Albanian border crossing at Kapshtika?

In the busy ceGR_North_(21).JPGntre of Kastoria we found space in the large lake-side car park, where we had spent 2 quiet nights on a previous visit. By now it was dark and we looked no further, knowing there are no campsites in the vicinity.

We were roused from sleep by insistent knocking on the door at 3.30 am. Barry bravely went to talk to an apologetic man, out in the freezing night air, setting up market stalls around us ready for morning! We relocated onto a piece of waste ground a mile away, opposite the Lidl store – only the second time we've been moved in 12 years, the first one also for a market (in Italy)!

20 December   63 miles   KASTORIA to NIKI, Greece   Kaoil Filling Station by the Macedonian Border

Over the Pissoderi Saddle to Florina and another Border

Before leavingGR_North_(25).JPG Kastoria, we walked back to photograph the extensive market. By the lake was a feeding station for the assembled swans, GR_North_(28).JPGgeese, coots, mallard and gulls. There was even a coin-op dispenser for corn and stale bread, which swallowed our 50 cents but fed nothing back! Two gipsy vans were parked on the waterside and we could see the kids asleep on the floor inside, wrapped in blankets and huddled round a gas heater. Hope they have good ventilation!

Heading north, we passed thGR_North_(30).JPGe turn to the Albanian frontier after 19 miles. Another 6 miles along was the turning for the Prespa Lakes (visited in June 2003) but we continued the climb to Pissoderi and up into the mist. We parked for lunch outside the hotel by the Vigla ski lift on the Pissoderi Saddle, at 1,420 m/4,700 ft, 32 miles from Kastoria. GR_North_(31).JPGThere was snow on the verges but the road had been cleared.

After descending through foggy beech woods to Florina, 12 miles later, we turned north for 10 miles to Niki, at the Greek/Macedonian border. This back road was hard to find, with an old sign for 'Yugoslavia' and a newer one for 'FYROM' (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.) That name is used only by Greece for the cMacd_(10).JPGountry now called the Republic of Macedonia, with a population of 2 million and its capital in Skopje.

The small village of Niki, with empty storks' nests on its lamp posts, had a new fuel station opposite the border post. We bought diesel, obtained permission to park overnight at the 'Kaoil' and settled in a corner behind a tractor. Still up at 640 m/2,100 ft, it was a cold night.

Baking our Christmas cake for 2.5 hours, while oven-roasting some pork, helped to keep us and the motorhome warm!

21 December   133 miles   NIKI to KALAMBAKA, Greece   Camping Kalambaka €5.00

To Ancient Heraklea and Bitola in the Republic of Macedonia (our 28th country this year), then through Snow to Kalambaka

It was snowing lightly as we left the motorhome to walk a few hundred metres of Macd_(12).JPGno-man's-land, over the border into Macedonia. On arrival, we only had to show our passports (no insurance or other vehicle fees being involved). The police border guard on the Macedonian side spent some time discussing Macedonian history (while a queMacd_(11).JPGue of cars waited impatiently) and looking at the various entries and visas in our passports, before kindly ringing for a taxi to come from Bitola (12 miles north). He asked us to wait in the police station.

Sitting nervously under a sign explaining in several languages what our rights were if arrested, we were put at ease by a policeman called Nicholas, who had brought in a cake to celebrate his Name Day (the Orthodox custom). We were included in the party and given a free map of Macedonia!

Our friendly taxi driver took us to the ruins at the Greek/Roman/Byzantine Macd_(13).JPGsite of Heraclea Lynkestis, a couple of miles before Bitola, collecting us an hour later for a quick tour of the centre of Macedonia's second city before returning Macd_(18).JPGus to the border. Bitola has a bazaar and a pair of mosques from the Ottoman period (Kemal Ataturk studied at the Military Academy there). We paid our driver in Euros – a modest amount, even with a good tip.

The settlement at Heraclea was founded by Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, in the middle of the fourth ceMacd_(22).JPGntury BC. It became an important Roman town and military base, a staging post on the Via Egnatia (Rome to Byzantium). The ruins of this atmospheric and evocative site (in great need of further excavation) include a Greco-Roman theatre and baths, as well as the foundations of two early (fifth century) Christian basilicas and an Episcopal palace. The beautiful mosaic floors in the Great Basilica are well preserved under a covering of gravel.

After we hMacd_(30).JPGad wandered the site for some time, the knowledgeable custodian, Mite Angeleski, emerged from his tiny house to unlock the little museum. He gave us postcards showing the mosaics, which are uncovered during the summer months when the site is fully open andMacd_(42).JPG concerts are held in the theatre. He would not accept any payment, just a small donation (in Euros) in the box for archaeological work.

The taxi took us back across the no-man's-land and deposited us at the Greek border post, which ignored both us and the taxi. We were back home in Niki for lunch, impressed with the ease and kindness of the Macedonians we had met. We hope to return to their country for a longer visit with the motorhome on our way back to the UK.

It remained bitterly cold as we returned to Florina (10 miles), joined the Macedonian shoppers at Lidl, then continued east for 12 miles to the road junction where we turned south on E65 for 38 miles to Kozani: partly old road and partly new dual carriageway. It was still high country, the fields dusted with snow. At Kozani we met the Odos Egnatia (4-lane dual carriageway), which took us south-west for 27 miles, past Siatista to Grevena. The section of motorway from there to Ioaninna, including the tunnel, is not yet open.

From Grevena, the narrow road to Kalambaka twisted and climbed over the mountains. The snow flurries grew steadier as dusk fell. Our first chance to park on level ground was in the high village of Aghiofylo – a pot of tea, but nowhere suitable for overnight. After the misty pass, the snow on the road turned to rain as we descended, meeting a snow plough on its way up! At last we joined the main road from Ioannina, turning left for the final 7 miles into Kalambaka.

There are GR_Kalamb_(10).JPGseveral campsites around the town (famous for the Meteora Monasteries) and we drove to our old favourite, Camping Kalambaka. Unusually, the gate was only half-open, with a 'Closed' sign, but the elderly owner was sitting by the fire in Reception at 7 pm, rather than at home with his wife, Calypso, in the town centre! He explained to us that it was closed because the water was turned off, but we could park for one night with a hook-up, since he knew us, free of charge.

We could make no sense of this but insisted on paying €5 to cover the electricity. Then he locked the gate, showed us where the key was hidden and went home! He has been trying to sell the vast campsite for years, to our knowledge, and had clearly given up.

22/23 December   14.5 miles   At KALAMBAKA, Greece   Camping International Rizos €16.90

Laundry and Meteora Monasteries

Reluctantly, we moved a couple of miles south along the Trikala road where GR_Kalamb_(11).JPGboth campsites were open (though empty), charging the same price. We settled on the first one, with hot showers and good facilities. On walking back into Kalambaka (about 2 miles) to shop at the Friday market and have lunch in the square, we noticed a brand new launderette (rare in Greece) on the main street.

Next morning we drove into town to drop off some laundry (wash & dry at €8 per load), then parked high above Kalambaka and Kastraki, between the monastery of Ag Triada (Holy Trinity) and the convent of Ag Stefanos. Whatever the morality of 'religious tourism', this pilgrimage has to be made, if only for the views of the town, the Pindos Mountains, the Peneios Valley and the plain of Thessaly. In the past we have visited all of the 6 monasteries now restored and have cycled the circuit in all seasons. The rocks cannot be ignored!

Today the light was GR_Kalamb_(36).JPGclear and sunny for photography, as we walked and stood among the goats on the towers of sandstone rock which mark this edge of the Pindos range. They rise to almost 1,000 feet above the plain – the haunt of vultures, hermits, monks and, latterly, tourist buses. The favourite coach stops are at Great Meteoron and Varlaam (the two largest monasteries), so the smaller ones have more atmosphere.

We chose to revisit Ag Triada, inhabited GR_Kalamb_(20).JPGby a single one-eyed monk when we first came in 1997. Now the restoration of the buildings is complete and a new stone path gives easier access to the staircase carved into the rock. Check the opening days and times on the sign before climbing the 130 steps to the entrance! The doors had just opened (10 am) and all was quiet. Margaret was handed an unflattering skirt to cover her corduroy trousers GR_Kalamb_(26).JPG(which did not meet the 'dress code'!) and we paid an entry fee of €2 each.

The two Brothers left us free to explore the renovated cloisters (complete with winch and basket – the medieval approach), the chapel and frescoes, and the precipitous area outside, with its bells and a huge cross visible from the town below. The monastic tradition of offering refreshment to pilgrims came in the form of help-yourself baskets of delicious biscuits. Returning, we passed a familGR_Kalamb_(14).JPGy group of Greek men lighting candles and crossing themselves in the chapel, then a pair of Japanese carrying their cameras up.

For more details of a previous visit to Kalambaka and the Meteora monastaries, click: August 2004. For more images of the Meteora, click: High in the Air.

Greece has finally discovered the North European Christmas! Santa Claus climbs many a balcony and dominates the TV commercials, still advertising dolls and toys. 'Peter Pan' was shown late this evening. We wondered what Greek children make of the story – and why they are not in bed by now!

24 December   98 miles   KALAMBAKA to STYLIDA, Greece   Camping Interstation €16.00

Across the Thessaly Plain and Over a Pass to Lamia and its Port

Bright and sunny again, with frost on the grass, as we crossed the fertile Thessaly plain where cotton, tobacco and crops are grown. The edge of the Pindos rose abruptly to the west, the snowy crests hovering ghost-like in the air.

It was 12 miles south-east to Trikala, then we bypassed Karditsa 18 miles further and continued past Sofades. The road was being widened, taking a strip off the cottonfields. At Neo Monastiri, 53 miles from Kalambaka, we met the road from Larissa and turned south for Lamia through the Othris Mountains. 10 miles later (the last 4 climbing) we had reached the Domokos Pass at 530 m/1,750 ft. The village at the top was crowned by an Ancient Acropolis, with thick frost but no snow.

We remained high, rising to the Stena Fourkas Pass 12 miles later (1200 m/3,960 ft) on a road which has been improved, with a new cutting. It then zig-zagged down for 10 miles past the busy town of Lamia. Meeting the coast 9 miles further on, at Ag Paraskevi, we turned north-east on the Old Nat Road (parallel with the new highway).

A couple of miles GR_North_(43).JPGlater we came to Stylis/Stylida, once a major Aegean port serving Lamia and shipping olive oil. The town was busy on Chrismas Eve, all the shops open although it's Sunday (they close Monday-Tuesday). Here we joined the coastal highway eastwards, to Camping Interstation, less than 3 miles along.

This large level campsite (mostly static caravans) lies between the road and the sea, offering water, electricity and peace over Christmas. It is Open All Year (though that doesn't mean hot water or a clean toilet block). The owner and his son live on the site and the only other occupants are a couple in a cabin.

It's much warmer down at sea level: 6 degC outside.

25/27 December   At STYLIDA, Greece   Camping Interstation

Christmas by the Aegean

Christmas dawned bright and sunny and the campsite owner presented GR_North_(34).JPGMargaret with a fragrant red rose he'd just picked. We walked along the beach, round a bay and into Stylida, passing no-one. The shore GR_North_(36).JPGwas littered with big stranded jellyfish and a lot of V-shaped shells, up to a foot long and thin enough to break if trodden. We took one for identification.

Back at the camp, after a quick lunch (salmon pate on toast), we telephoned friends and relatives and then got down to some serious cooking GR_North_(37).JPGand eating. The menu was: roast chicken with bacon strips, apricot & peanut stuffing, apple sauce, gravy, roast spuds and carrots, buttered cabbage, Xmas pud & custard, coffee & Belgian chocolates, with white wine and Advokaat. Enough!

The highlight of the evening's TV was Kevin Kostner's imitation of Robin Hood, memorable for Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham, though we'd seen it before. Boxing Day's best offering was Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons in 'The Mission', another repeat.

During the rest of our Xmas break, we made mince pies, as well as soup with the chicken carcass (the campsite cats enjoying the giblets). We had many emails in and sent New Year greetings out, though our website is still down and in need of a new host. We also walked the beach westwards for an hour or two, meeting only a man with a trowel and plastic bag, gathering mussels.

28 December   175 miles   STYLIDA to CORINTH, Greece   Isthmia Waterfront

Via Thermopylae and Ancient Gla to Thebes and Corinth

Back on the road, it was 12 miles west to the Lamia junction, then south on the highway towards Athens – the very busy and (on the unimproved sections) dangerous road linking Greece's capital with its second city, Thessaloniki.

After 8 miles we stopped at TLeonidas_at_Thermopolye.jpghermopylae, parking opposite the heroic statue of Leonidas, King of Sparta (you can't miss him, clad only in shield and helmet!) Thermopylae (= hot gates) was where Leonidas and 300 Spartans made a last stand against the 30,000-strong Persian army of Xerxes in 480 BC. At that time, it was a more defined pass (the sea inlet has retreated 2 miles). We walked up to the Spartan burial mound, with the famous quotation which translates as 'GoGR_North_(48).JPG tell the Spartans, Thou who passest by, that here obedient to their laws we lie'. Spartan warriors returned home victorious – or not at all.

NGR_North_(45).JPGoticing the streams steaming on this cold bright morning, we walked across the fields to Loutra Thermopylion. Hot springs have flowed here since Antiquity, when they were called the Baths of Herakles. The water still felt hot enough for bathing, though the sulphurous smell was less attractive! A few motorhomes were free-camping near the spa and restaurant buildings.

Following the coast, we passed Kamena Vourla 15 miles later (a hot spa resort and fishing harbour, with a seasonal campsite). The long island of Evia (second only to Crete in size) now loomed off-shore. After another 10 miles of dangerously narrow highway, we reached the 4-lane 'motorway' which covers the final 100 miles to Athens. 18 miles along we passed through a toll-booth: €2 for cars and €3.30 for us (no indication of what distance this covered).

We left the E75 motorway after 10 miles south, at the exit for the village GR_North_(52).JPGof Kastro, to visit the Mycaenean citadel of Ancient Gla. It lies a mile or so east, across the motorway, atop a rocky plateau girt by 2 miles of Cyclopean walls - once an island in marshy Lake Kopias, drained in the 1800's. We parked forGR_North_(53).JPG lunch on the path, below the square towers of one of the 4 gates, then scrambled up to explore the overgrown site, larger in area than Tiryns or Mycenae itself, totally abandoned above the rice and cotton fields of the lake-bed. Built in the fourteenth century BC, its outer walls (5 m/16 ft thick) follow the contours of the hillside, which reaches 217 ft at its highpoint. A mysterious place, where the megaron (throne-room) of a Mycenean-type palace was excavated over 100 years ago, then seemingly forgotten.

Back on the E75, we continued to the exit for Thiva (Thebes), lying 3 miles south of the motorway and 100 miles from our start. The town bypass was badly signed (if at all) and we went through the centre and round the middle and back towards the motorway and … eventually found the road south, through the mountains to Elefsina – a short cut avoiding Athens, which seemed a good idea.

We drove among snow-flecked hills, past Erythres, then south-east climbing through pine forest and over a snowy pass, then a higher one, then down again to Ag Sotira and Mandra. We should have guessed that this narrow mountainous route would be busy with trucks, also taking a short-cut to bypass Athens and its toll road! Next time, we'll keep with the motorway.

39 miles from Thiva, we met the Athens-Corinth motorway E94 and headed west, again paying a €3.30 toll. Shortly after the toll-booth we saw a motorhome and caravan dealer on the north side, with plenty of used stock. This year, for the first time, we've actually seen a few Greek motorhomes (private and hired) on the road.

The motorwayNemea_(10).JPG runs just inland from the old coast road, with views of the Saronic Gulf, occasionally interrupted by tunnels. There's even a good service station with a Goody's restaurant before the Megara exit. We continued to Corinth (35 miles), where we turned onto the old road to park and photograph the Corinth Canal.

By the time we'd visited the nearby AB Supermarket and an adjacent Goody's, it was going dark. We turned off to Isthmia, at the southern end of the Canal, and parked by the waterfront for a quiet night, comfortingly close to the floodlit canal control tower. We are back in the Peloponnese!

29 December   96 miles   CORINTH to LEONIDIO, Greece   Car Park

Ancient Nemea, Mycenae, Argos and the Arcadian Coast Road – Treasures of Greece

We rose to a wonderful Nemea_(13).JPGsunrise over the Saronic Gulf and watched Nemea_(11).JPGa man setting up 4 fishing rods on the beach as we had breakfast. We took the motorway westwards (towards Patras), turning south-west after 5 miles on the Tripoli-bound section. The views of Acrocorinth above us were splendid. We paid a toll of €2, then turned off after 15 miles at the exit for Nemea and Argos.

The Peloponnese is Nemea_(17).JPGso rich in historic and ancient sites, most of which we've come to know over the years, that it's difficult to choose where to revisit. We're glad we decided on the sanctuary at Ancient Nemea, 3 miles north of the motorway. It's a superb site and, since our visit 11 years ago, much work has continued under the auspices of the Californian University of Berkeley. The Temple of Zeus (c 330 BC) now has 6 of its slender Nemea_(15).JPGDoric columns standing (we remember only 3), while the ritual baths look almost as good as many a Greek campsite's ablutions!

The museum, rich in models and drawings of the site (including one by Edward Lear), had a bonus in the form of a travelling exhibition on 'History Lost', fresh from Cyprus and Athens. It's about treasure-lootingNemea_(19).JPG and the illegal sales of antiquities abroad (especially to the USA and the Paul Getty Museum in particular, implicating auction houses like Sothebys). It covered not only Greek and Italian examples, but statues from Cambodia, Afghanistan, Turkey and recently the plunder from the Baghdad Archaeological Museum. Lucky the grave-robbers never found the Macedonian tombs at Vergina, which only came to light in 1977.

Like Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia, Nemea held athletic games for theNemea_(25).JPG Greek world, supposedly inaugurated by Herakles, whose first labour was the slaying of the Nemean lion. (The local red wine, strong and sweet, is known as the Blood of Herakles.) Less than half a mile's walk from the sanctuary is the ancient stadium, where we wandered in glorious sunshine (can this really be late DecembNemea_(26).JPGer?) The Nemean Games were revived in 1996, held every 4 years – enter now for 21/22 June 2008! Open to all ages and nationalities, the races are run barefoot in tunics and competitors enter the stadium through the original tunnel. Visit www.nemeagames.gr or www.nemea.org (select 'Stadium' + 'Modern Games'). Maybe we'll be there – as spectators. The €3 entry fee (or €2 for Seniors, or free on winter Sundays) covered the sanctuary, museum and stadium: great value and we had it all to ourselves.

We drove on to Mycenae (above the village of Mykines), about 10 miles sNemea_(29).JPGouth, and stopped on the car park up by the ancient site for lunch. A different story here – we parked alongside 3 Italian motorhomes, among the fly-drive hire cars, and watched a line of people following the paths like a row of ants. Mycenae and its new museum are (deservedly) on the tourist route. The friendly Camping Mycenae in the village, which was our base for exploring this area, is still open all year.

Continuing south to Argos, we were deep among the orange groves at harvest time, following a pair of slow pick-ups laden with crates of fruit. Past a new Carrefour supermarket/Shell service station, then a Lidl, and into the tight town centre, 9 miles from Mycenae. Argos – the oldest town still inhabited in Greece - lies below its ancient acropolis, topped by a splendid medieval castle. It also has one of the largest classical Greek theatres in the country, a 20,000-seater carved out of the rocky hillside, with other ancient ruins and a museum, all of which we've explored before while based at Mykines or Nafplio.

So on we went toNemea_(30).JPG Mili, past Ancient Lerni (scene of another Heraklean Labour), to follow the Arcadian coast road south to Leonidio. We left the traffic behind, revelling in the glorious views of the Argolic Gulf from its mountainous coast. Just a few fishing villages and a pair of summer resorts (Paralia Astros and Paralia Tyrou) were perched above the sea, on the foothills of Mount Parnon. Until the corniche road was opened in 1976, the coast from Astros to Leonidio was only accessible by boat, and it's still remarkably undeveloped.

The little town of Leonidio (south of which the coast road is too narrow GR_Kosmas_(13).JPGfor our motorhome) extends from a fertile river basin along its banks, backed by a high red cliff. It has a timeless charm, as well as being the entry/exit to the magnificent road which cliGR_Kosmas_(19).JPGmbs up the sides of a gorge, past the Elona Monastery, to Kosmas – a road we have cycled and motorbiked. Leaving the climb for the next day, we crossed the bridge over the dry river-bed and parked for the night, near a beautifully repainted and illuminated English traction engine. Walking round the town, we found a newsagent selling the weekly English-language 'Athens News' – a good evening's entertainment, complete with Crosswords, Codeword and (if you must) Sudoku!

30 December   80 miles   LEONIDIO to MONEMVASSIA, Greece   By the Beach

Climbing High to Kosmas and Down to Monemvassia

Fresh bread from the oven of the traditional bakery in Leonidio, then up toGR_Kosmas_(22).JPG the top of the town, where a tower commemorates the civil war action of 21 January 1949. From here the lonely road climbs steadily over a spur of Mt Parnon to Kosmas. Passing only a single goat-herd, we paused after 6 miles to photograph the GR_Kosmas_(30).JPGfirst glimpse of the whitewashed Elona Monastery, clinging to a rock face high above us. Two miles higher we were at its entrance, then above it. (Home to a few Nuns and a precious icon of the Virgin, until it was stolen earlier this year - Margaret had visited when we cycled this route in May 2003.) The river which flows down through this gorge to Leonidio is absolutely bone dry today, its stony bed shining white – Greece is certainly suffering from the extra hot summer and dry winter.

The climbing over, we drove through snowy woodlands into KosmGR_Kosmas_(63).JPGas (18 miles from Leonidio) at 1,150 m/3,795 ft, a delightful old mountain village set around the church in a square, with café tables under shady plane trees. Its narrow road and tight corners were a challenge but Barry manoeuvred behind the church and parked alongside the dust cart. Snow lay at the roadsides, with a thin covering on the tarmac. The air was crisp. In May 2003 we'd slept at the 'Maleatis Apollon' hotel, which is still open and recommended.

LGR_Kosmas_(67).JPGeaving Kosmas, the road climbed a little higher, past a memorial to the victims of German atrocities in July 1943. Then it was downhill all the way, the motorhome free-wheeling with as much glee as we had done on our bicycles. Leaving the patches of snow behind, we crossed the border from Arcadia into Laconia. Straight over the crossroads (right for Sparta, left for Geraki), we continued south through Vrontamas village, where the churns were stacked for collection outside the goat farms. The white peaks of the Taigetos Mountains above Sparta were shrouded in cloud on the horizon as we dropped down to the coast, all sunshine and olive groves.

Meeting the main road just beyond Skala, we turned east, crossed the EGR_Monem_(14).JPGvrotas River (from Sparta) on a Bailey Bridge and stopped at a new Lidl store to lunch and shop (25 miles from Kosmas). We continued through Vlachiotis and Sikea for 30 miles, deep in orange orchards, to the medieval fortified town of Monemvassia. There is much tourist development since our last visit in the summer of 1997.

Through the busy town of GGR_Monem_(15).JPGefira (at the entrance to the Monemvassia causeway), we drove a couple of miles south along the coast to Camping Paradise (Open All Year in all the guidebooks). It was firmly locked and closed – as it has been on previous visits, so no surprise! Two miles further south, we parked on the shore of a little cove with a wonderful view across to the causeway and the monolith of Monemvassia.

In the evening we iced the Christmas cake (Barry is a keen 'sugar plasterer') – more entertaining than anything on TV!

31 December   32 miles   MONEMVASSIA to GLYKOVRISI, Greece   By the Beach

A Walk to the Fortress of Monemvassia

Driving back through Gefira, we parked alongside a (closed) Beach Bar, GR_Monem_(16).JPG5 minutes' walk from the causeway. New Year's Eve, lovely sunshine, a string of tourist cars lining the route to the gates of Monemvassia. And inside - all the cafes and gift shops were busy, but on our 3 hour return walk to the Citadel above we saw no-one!

Only accessibleGR_Monem_(20).JPG by the causeway (previously a bridge), Moni Emvassia is well named: 'Only Entrance'. The town was fortified by the Byzantines against Slav invasion but was besieged regularly, falling to Franks, Venetians and Turks (twice). It was an important trading port on the way to Constantinople (exporting the local Malmsey wine), until shipping routes were changed by the Corinth Canal. It last saw military action in WW2, when 4,000 New Zealand troops were evacuated from the rock.

The main street and square of the old town are GR_Monem_(29).JPGpartially restored and there are plenty of Byzantine and Venetian churches in various stages of renovation. It could be a delightful scene but today was thronged with holiday weekenders, whose children were singing 'Greek carols' and tinkling their triangles in exchange for money or sweets – a New Year custom.

We had come GR_Monem_(31).JPGfor the splendid walk to the Venetian citadel on the top of the rock, which reaches a height of 984 ft, with panoramic views over the old town, the coast and the mountains to the west. It was wonderful to sit up there in solitude before descending, to lunch in the motorhome.GR_Mani_(10).JPG

Driving back towards Skala, we turned off to the village of Glykovrisi (Sweet Springs) and headed past its long-dead campsite to the shore. We parked at a discreet distance from a pair of German motorhomes, further along the beach. As we watched the sun set for the last time in 2006, the temperature inside was over 70 deg F without any heating!

1 January   72 miles   GLYKOVRISI to MARMARI, Greece   Car Park

Through Gythio and Areopoli, down the East Side of the Mani Peninsula

We drove 21 miles GR_Mani_(14).JPGwest to Gythio (Sparta's port) and parked on the waterfront for a walk. A small band (with no hint of a uniform) was playing and marching through the town. The ferry office suggested that a boat might run to Kissamos in Crete every Wednesday. That brought back memories!

Over the next 17 miles to Areopoli, gateway toGR_Mani_(27).JPG the Inner Mani, we noticed the devastation caused by the summer's forest fires, with black skeleton trees and charred grass. Turning south, we decided to drive clockwise round the loop of the dramatic Mani peninsula, a favourite route which we've cycled, motorbiked and driven, but always anti-clockwise. We lunched in a layby 6 miles from Aeropoli, overlooking Pirchios, then continued down the east coast, reaching sea level 10 miles later at Kokkala. This rocky barren peninsula is the end of the Taigetos range, itself the end of the Alps. The tower houses and churches were mostly abanadoned until recently, when much restoration and (more absurdly) new tower building has begun.

Reaching Alika,GR_Mani_(77).JPG with a well-maintained stone school opposite a taverna, we turned south-east, deciding that Cape Matapan (the southernmost point of the Greek mainland) should be reached as a complement to Norway's Nordkapp! It was 4 miles to the tower houses of Vathia and another 2 miles to the end of the road at Marmari, where a rough area at a sharp bend in the narrow road was labelled 'Parking for Cars and Mobile Homes' – our first Greek Aire! The hotel complex beyond appeared to be closed. GR_Mani_(72).JPG

The weather on this New Year's Day is glorious, reaching 80 deg F inside without heating. As we walked up the side-road to check motorhome access, ready for tomorrow's walk to Cape Matapan (or Tenaro), we were amazed to see wild blue iris, tiny yellow narcissus and other spring flowers already in full bloom. Bee hives had been set out. In the Global Warmth of this southerly latitude, we had a very mild night.

2 January   42 miles   MARMARI to NEO ITILO, Greece   By the Beach

A Walk to Cape Matapan Lighthouse before completing the Circuit of the Mani

We drove the 2.5 GR_Mani_(81).JPGmiles (follow signs for a fish taverna) to the rough car park for the 'Sanctuary and Death Oracle of Poseidon Tainarios' and the start of the track to the Cape lighthouse. It was a beautiful morning for a wild and wonderful walk, taking about 40 minutes GR_Mani_(83).JPGeach way. The path followed the shore through the ruins of the Roman settlement that grew up round the Sanctuary, with a mosaic floor intact in one house showing the points of the compass. Then a new track has been bulldozed along the side of the ridge, giving easier access than on our last visit. The lighthouse felt like the end of the world, with nothing but the sea in sight!

Back in the motorhomeGR_Mani_(92).JPG for lunch, just 2 other cars arrived, stared briefly at the temple ruins and left. (A small church on a nearby hill may account for the missing stones!) A nearby cave was one of the mythical entrances to Hades, though Patrick Leigh Fermor describes swimming to a different one near Marmari in his book 'Mani'.

Now we could only drive north, through GR_Mani_(64).JPGVathia, up and down the maquis-covered hills, the rocky coast always in sight. From Alika we continued west for 2 miles, then turned north at the little port of Gerolimenas where a cargo ship lay at anchor in the bay. Up the easier west side of the Mani peninsula, more developed and less dramatic, we passed a herd of cattle and a new fuel station or two. We topped up our water tank as well as diesel in AreGR_Mani_(99).JPGopoli, before descending to the coast again at Neo Itilo.

We parked on the quiet shore, just as rain set in for the afternoon. It was a stormy night, though remained warm with a south wind straight from Africa!

Next day we drove up the beautiful Messinian Gulf road via Kardamyli (home of one of our favourite authors Patrick Leigh Fermor) and Kalamata to Petalidi, heading for a winter break at the foot of the Messinian peninsula. So ended a year in which we had driven 16,500 miles through 28 countries!