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2007 Spring A Balkan Return PDF Printable Version E-mail



A Motorhome Journey from Greece to England

Margaret and Barry Williamson

March 2007


The motorhome journey described here took us back to England after a winter break in Greece. On this journey, we travelled and lived in Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium.

We arrived in Greece just before Christmas 2006, coming down from the north through Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. During 2006, we had lived and travelled in 28 European countries in our motorhome and were ready for our winter break.

Travelling down through northern Greece and then the eastern side of the Peloponnese, we made our way to the southernmost point on the Greek mainland: Cape Matapan lighthouse at the tip of the Mani Peninsula. This was to complement our autumn journey to Nordkapp, the most northerly point that vehicles can reach in Europe. For accounts of this journey, visit Quick Links on the right hand side of the Home Page and see, for example, A Balkan Journey, December 2006 and In Greece, Winter 2007

We eventually GR_Fini_07_(19).JPGsettled for 2 months at Camping Finikes at the end of the Messinian Peninsula, in the far southwest corner of the Greek Peloponnese. Finikes is one of 2 good winter campsites near the fishing village of Finikounda. We have used the other site, Camping Thines, in previous years and have even written a report on it for the MMM ('Motorcaravan Motorhome Monthly', the UK's premier magazine in its field). You can read the report on this website: click: Camping Thines. This time, however, we chose Camping Finikes – a mile further from the village but approaching what must be the ideal for a Greek campsite (visit: www.finikunda.com/c/finikes).

Here's what Camping Finikes is about. It faces south and is at the far westerGR_Fini_07_(23).JPGn end of a long beach, sheltering under a rocky headland but with very easy access from the main Methoni–Finikounda–Koroni road. It is owned and managed by 3 members of local, related families. Ilias runs his 'mini-market' shop in FinikGR_Fini_07_(22).JPGounda, while Spiros lives and works at the campsite for much of the year. The helpful German receptionist, Andrea, speaks excellent English, Greek, Dutch and other languages and has used these skills to produce an illustrated multi-lingual guide to local natural and historical sites. Living in Finikounda, she is quickly available on her Dominator motorbike when needed.

The winter price is currently a fixed €8 (£5.60) per night for 2 people with a motorhome/caravan, regardless of length of stay. For this, you get all the electricity you can safely use and the keys to your own hot shower and your own toilet. The pitches are all generous in size and clearly demarcated by hedges. Oranges, lemons and grapefruit grow around the well-wooded site in winter and Ilias may share some of his own excess produce, including giant cauliflowers. There is a kitchen with electric hotplates,GR_Fini_07_(26).JPG fridge and freezer; a laundry with automatic machines and large sinks with hot water. In-season there is also a bar, shop and restaurant. Off-season, you could have the campsite to yourself, as we often did.

One English couple did turn up in an oversized motorhome resembling a converted 52-seater coach, asking where the other British motorhomers flocked. 'Here', we said, 'it's you and us'. Soon, happily, it was just us. Obviously, they had made a wrong turn on their way to Spain!

After a sad farewellGR_Mis_07_(12).JPG to Finikes and its happy staff, we spent 6 nights parked and living in the remote and semi-abandoned hill village of Mistraki, among its tiny population of geriatric and charming goat herders, enjoying the generous hospitality that is only given by those who have so little for themselves. We got to know them very well indeed. Nikos (goat-herder and proud donkey owner) and his wife, GR_Mis_07_(33).JPGFotini, asked us in for coffee and we finished up staying for 2 hours and large platefuls of spaghetti, mince, cheese, bread, apples and wine – all of it their home-produce. Not home-made was the Nescafe they made specially for us.

Thinking we must be cold at night in our van, they insisted we come back at 6 pm to sit by the fire. We were again fed, with large plates of chips, egg, cheese, bread, salad, wine, apples and cherries in syrup. All of it home-produce. We were there for 4 hours. This makes 6 hours in total with not a word of English: our Greek vocabulary grew exponentially! Lovely people – lots of closeness and touching and laughter. All we could offer in return was photographs, to remember a week we shall never forget.

Four otGR_Mis_07_(37).JPGher old ladies in black passed to and fro with their goats – knocking on our van so that we would look and wave and laugh: Angeliki, Efgenia, Vassilo and Gramatiki (she is 94). Our other constant companion was a tawny owl in the tree which overhangs the village spring. Everyone in the village (including those in the churchyard), related or not, had the surname 'Kyriopoulos'. If we had stayed any longer, we would be Bari and Margarita Kyriopoulos.

Whilst at Mistraki, we did some 10-mile walks in the hills, in the company GR_Mis_07_(20).JPGof Greek- and Italian-speaking John, our venerable English friend of many years who lives in a traditional stone-built house a kilometre above the village. Miles of farmers' tracks, in every sort of condition, wend their way among mountains, valleys, headlands, bays, orchards, vineyards, remote mountain villages, goatherds and the ruins of bygone eras. We came across a wonderfully atmospheric abandoned monastery and a couple of 3,500-year-old Mycenaean tombs. We met with no gates, no problems, no sense of private ownership. Farmers in beaten up pickups welcomed us with admiration and a complete lack of understanding!

Leaving Mistraki GR_Fini_07_(38).JPGon a quiet Sunday morning, we had lunch and a long walk in the company of 50 flamingos, along with a great white heron and a few egrets on a lagoon near Gialova, north of the Venetian port of Pylos. Lovely. Motoring on to Tholo Beach just south of Zacharo (= 'sugar', its main produce), we had a free night on a peaceful beach. Then past the white concrete town of Pirgos, rebuilt completely after Greek fascists burned it for 5 days in the civil war (reminding us again of Greece's long, complex and chequered history). And so to Amaliada, our favourite non-tourist working town.

After 2 months' abstinence, we invaded Amaliada's supermarkets: Lidl, Maxi Dia and the new Champion. Then a chat with old friends in Amaliada: Peppas in the motorbike shop - he got fined €250, or so he says, for riding our old motorbike still with UK plates on it! The police are waiting to interview the original owners. And Demetrius in the computer shop who sold us a 1GB flash drive and also ordered a 40GB stand-alone hard drive so that we can back up our burgeoning data. And Dionysos Maniatis, who has processed and printed most of our photographs over the years and remains a good friend, post-digitalisation. And our man in the 'Pikantika' who sells a spit-roasted chicken to die for - well the chicken did.

On from Amaliada, we settled back at sea level on another of our favourite winterGreece_2007_(12).JPG campsites in Greece: Ionion (their spelling) Beach Camping. Major building and improvement works were underway and we hadn't seen so many Albanians since we were in Albania.

This campGreece_2007_(11).JPGground is at the end of a peninsula, right on a beach fronting the Ionian Sea, with the island of Zakynthos floating 10 miles out on the horizon. The family running the site, Familia Fligos, know us well and it was hugs all round. They gave us the key to an apartment to work in for free. It had a large living room/kitchen with several tables and a bathroom (toilet/shower) with hot water. We didn't sleep in it (preferring to watch the sunset over Zakynthos from our place by the beach) but it gave us a quiet workplace and a garage for the bicycles. The only other 2 motorhomes on this, the best and largest site we know in Greece, were both English and both came because they saw the site recommended in our website. The world of UK motorhomers travelling this far from home is a small one indeed, and it is good to know that we have a place in that close-knit community. Long-distance and long-term travellers all!

During our stay, we saw robins, sparrows, goldfinches, greenfinches,Greece_2007_(10).JPG great tits, blackbirds, a hoopoe, a trio of redshanks, and what we think is a pied cormorant perched on a rock just offshore. The latter is not supposed to be in Europe, according to our book, which it obviously hasn't read. A scops owl sounded with tireless regularity after dusk.

Our Magellan Meridian GPS was waiting for us at Ionion Beach, not seen since it went off to France for repair in early January (after dying at the prospect of taking us through Albania). It responded well to having batteries inserted and various keys pressed, though it was puzzled to find itself so far from the banks of the Loire, where it was brought back from the dead. Now it seems to know the Balkans better than we do.

We used John's Garmin GPS while the Meridian was in Paris being repaired: but we were happy to see our old travelling companion safely returned, ready to guide us back to the UK, overland via the Balkans. The final waypoint is likely to be 'Motorhome Medics' in Cheltenham.

This is a life of contrasts: A journey through 28 European countries in 2006 and then 2 months by a Greek beach. Living in a remote and virtually self-sufficient village and later shopping in modern supermarkets. Motorhoming the highways whilst cycling and walking the hills and valleys. Ancient sites and camping sites. From the Spartans at ancient Thermopylae to Greek fascists in the post-WW2 civil war. Sleeping on a peaceful beach opposite earthquake-prone Zakynthos. Struggling to communicate with a neighbour whilst we are in touch around the world. If travel is not the pursuit of contrasts, then what is it?

Now we are back on the road, heading to the UK, continuing with Margaret's usual daily travel log.

29 March   210 miles   IONION BEACH to IOANNINA, Greece   Camping Limnopoula

Across the Gulf of Corinth and into Epirus

As we left Ionion Beach Camping after an excellent couple of weeks, the instant grass arrived on a truck, having left Athens at 5 am that morning. George had a team of Albanians standing by, ready to roll it out round the newly built fountain. Trees and plants will follow and should be established by the time of our next visit.

Down in Gastouni we posted Easter cards and withdrew Euros for the cash economies in the Balkan countries ahead. Margaret had an appointment for a filling with the dentist but it was not to be. He explained he couldn't operate without water, which had just been cut off by the workmen excavating the main road – 'they have no map of the pipes and they had an accident! Could you come back tomorrow?' – unfortunately not.

We drove theGreece_2007_(13).JPG familiar New National Road north towards Patras, bypassing Greece's chaotic third city on the new motorway. This runs inland through 6 short tunnels before an exit for the port and ferries, then our exit north for Rio and the new French-built suspension bridge across the Gulf of Corinth to Antirion. (After that point, the motorway becomes a toll-road as it heads east to Corinth and Athens). The fine bridge, opened just before the 2004 Athens Olympics, was very windy. At the toll, on the far side we paid €13.50. We'd covered 67 miles and parked for lunch by the Turkish fort (one of a pair guarding the gulf entrance.)

Continuing north-west we passed Messolongi, where Byron literally lefGreece_2007_(15).JPGt his heart. On previous journeys we've parked by the harbour and explored the town but today we must travel further. The area is normally damp marshland but the exceptionally dry winter has left it arid and dusty. Along the way north to Agrinio, roadside stalls were selling strawberries but we only stopped for diesel, at 114 miles. The BP station handed out boiled sweets, with a flavour which could only be described as Tulip!

Paused for tea-break at Stratos by an old stone wall, where a sign indicated an ancient site and theatre which we might track down next time. On past Lake Amvrakia, its grassy shore grazed by sheep, to Amfilochia (136 miles) at the south-east corner of the Amvrakikos Gulf. We followed its eastern side, north to Arta at 160 miles. This town, in a loop of the Arakhthos River, has some fine Roman and medieval remains, especially the Byzantine churches, which we've explored on past visits. Today, though, we used the new dual carriageway to bypass the centre and continue north.

It was early evening as we climbed the wooded valley along the Louros river, reaching 1,707 ft, before the descent to Ioannina at 1,523 ft. About 5 miles before the town, near the turning for the splendid ancient Greek theatre of Dodona, we crossed the new motorway from Igoumenitsa to the west. The highway eastwards, towards Metsovo, is still unfinished.

IoaGreece_2007_(16).JPGnnina, seat of Ali Pasha's citadel and a modern university, is a place we've enjoyed exploring at length over several visits. The campsite is to the north of the centre, situated at the Nautical Club on the lakeside. Officially open from April to October, we have never found it completely closed. The 'facilities' will be locked during the winter, but the gates are open and there is a fresh water tap. Sometimes a man may turn up and ask for a few Euros if you want a hook-up, sometimes not. Tonight we were in luck – arriving at 7 pm, the power had been left on and no-one came. We slept well after a long day's drive.

30 March   166 miles   IOANNINA to NIKI, Greece   Greek/Macedonian Border Post

Through the Pindos Mountains to Florina and the Border with the Republic of Macedonia

After a detour to stock our larder at Lidl (2 miles north of the campsitGreece_2007_(18).JPGe, on the main road opposite Ioannina Airport), we backtracked a little and took the road which cuts east through the Pindos, to Metsovo. The initial panorama over Ioannina, the lake and its tiny island was magnificent, though it was an overcast morning (15 deg C).

After climbing toGreece_2007_(17).JPG 2,995 ft the view was of snowy peaks, before the road descended, to meet the still unfinished Egnatia Odos motorway at 2,070 ft. We dropped further to cross the river at Baldouma at 1,570 ft (almost down at the level of Ioannina, 12 miles behind us). Then the climb to Metsovo and the Katara Pass (Greece's highest road) began. At Mikro Peristeri (2,120 ft), 12 miles later, a link was open to the new motorway for Grevena – though with a 3.5 ton limit and (it eventually transpired) only for a few miles to the Metsovo exit. But it's a sign of things to come. Work has been underway on this motorway and tunnels to bypass Katara for over a decade, to our knowledge, and at last one section is open!

Staying on the old road through Votonosi at 2,400 ft, there was not anothGreece_2007_(19).JPGer vehicle in sight. The new stretch of motorway below us, running on viaducts and tunnels, was busy and it was obvious that the 3.5 ton limit was totally ignored! 8 miles from Mikro Peristeri, at 3,760 ft, the motorway traffic had to rejoin our route. At 4,000 ft we passed the turning for Metsovo, which clings to a ravine 1 km below on the right. (From past experience, it's very difficult to park a motorhome in the village – better to walk down from the highway.)

Now there was Greece_2007_(21).JPGincreasingly deep snow on the verges, though the road itself had been cleared. We stopped a couple of miles later (after 37 miles and at 4,538 ft) where there was a large restaurant/parking on the right, opposite a ski-pull and a cabin renting sledges and skis. We watched a few youngsters brave the sleet and mist as we made lunch.

Two miles further on at 4,646 ft we turned left onto the Grevena road, shortly before the top of the Katara Pass at 5,627 ft (or 1705 m), which we've crossed before on our way to Meteora (by bicycle as well as motorhome!) It was now raining and more misty, with snow-posts marking the road edges. We climbed to 4,949 ft, the fields gleaming white through the haze, then zig-zagged down the east side of the Pindos National Park.

At Grevena (74 miles from our start at 1,680 ft) we finally joined the Egnatia Odos motorway, open from here virtually all the way to Alexandroupolis near the Turkish border. We followed it for 30 miles, as far as Kozani, before turning north via Ptolemaida to Florina. The landscape in Greek Macedonia looked emptier and poorer than other regions of northern Greece and we saw no filling stations (we were looking) until entering Florina itself, 150 miles since Ioannina.

We walked round the town, posted our 10 'Siege of Kalithea' letters (at a dryMacd_(10).JPG cleaner's claiming to be the Postal Agency), raided a bank (next euros in Slovenia) and failed to resist the temptation of a fast supper in an empty Goody's Restaurant. Then we drove the final 16 miles of country lanes towards 'FYROM', as Greece insists on calling the (Former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia. At the tiny village of Niki, the storks were returning to the empty nests – a nice sign of spring. Macd_(12).JPG

We parked (with permission) at the Kaoil filling station opposite the border post, just as we had last December. It was a cold wet night up at 2,000 ft, a real contrast with the warm coast of the southern Peloponnese! M walked across to the border phone box to ring Mum and was surrounded by a trio of sad-eyed stray dogs, trying to shelter from the rain. The police and guards watched from their windows. The pathetic animals barked for much of the night, otherwise all was quiet.

31 March   70 miles   NIKI, Greece to PESTANI, LAKE OHRID, Macedonia   Autocamp Gradiste

Across the Macedonian Border to Bitola and Lake Ohrid

To see a complete slide show, click: Images of Macedonia 2007

Crossing the border from Greece was a simple matter of paying €50 cash forMacd_(11).JPG the minimum 15 days' vehicle insurance, putting our watches back one hour and our headlights on (day and night). There is no visa or entry fee for EU citizens.

We drove 12Macd_(13).JPG miles to Bitola, Macedonia's second city (pop 90,000), past a small lake busy with pelicans and ducks. Shortly before the city is the turning on the left for the ruins of Heraclea Lynkestis, a staging post on the Via Egnatia linking ancient Rome with Constantinople (via what is now Albania). We'd explored Heraclea on a snowy morning last December (see A Balkan Journey).

Parking by the river in Bitola, we walked round the city: founded by Philip Macedonia_2007_(12).JPGof Macedonia, it became a Roman administrative capital before falling to the Bulgars and Slavs. During the Ottoman period, a young Kemal Ataturk studied at the Turkish military academy here.

The city centre Macedonia_2007_(11).JPGwas very pleasant with wide streets, ATMs, shops, cafes and little market stalls selling vegetables and eggs (it's Saturday morning). On pedestrian Main Street we spotted the flags of the British, Turkish and French Consulates. The nearby covered Turkish bazaar was busy and the 2 mosques looked well preserved (the 16th C Ajdar Qadi mosque serving as an art gallery). The historic information signs (in Macedonian, English and French) were thorough – what a contrast with Greece! The 19th C Orthodox Church of St Dimitria was open and we tiptoed round as a service was underway.

Leaving, we drove west on E65 for Ohrid (or OXPI∆), well signposted. Macedonia_2007_(15).JPGWe noticed Lukoil (Russian) fuel stations now take Visa cards and LPG is available. Skirting the north side of the Pelister National Park, its peaks shrouded in mist, we rose to 3,704 ft as flecks of snow fell. 16 miles from Bitola we caught our first view of Prespa Lake, then descended 750 ft to Resen, with a moderMacedonia_2007_(16).JPGn mosque (how incongruous they seem in this Balkan setting). Then another climb to a pass at 3,880 ft, 30 miles from Bitola. At Kosel, 11 miles later and 1,500 ft lower, we were stopped by 3 girls in national costume holding a rope across the road. They giggled and sang and were happy to accept Euros! We never did find out what this Macedonian version of 'Penny for the Guy' or 'Trick or Treat' was about, but it happened again and all the cars stopped good-naturedly, handing out sweets or money.

We had lunch on a large car park outside a Christian cemetery, just before Macedonia_2007_(17).JPGthe town of Ohrid. Avoiding the medieval centre, we drove down the east side of lovely Lake Ohrid in search of a campsite. After about 10 miles, 1.5 miles south of Pestani village, we found Gradiste, its gates padlocked. Luckily, the security guard emerged from his house to explain that it was closed until 1st JunMacedonia_2007_(27).JPGe and there was no water or electricity. He consulted his 'chief', who eventually granted us permission to park overnight (free of charge, despite our offer to pay). We had a wonderful view of the gleaming limpid lake from the vast wooded campsite on its shore.

Taking a walk along the narrow gravel beach, rounding two headlands on rickety bridges, we discovered a tiny Orthodox cave-church in the cliffs, its new door unlocked, its smoke-blackened walls covered in medieval frescoes of saints who had been literally defaced, presumably during the Ottoman period.

1 April   5 miles   To St STEVAN, Nr OHRID, Macedonia   Parking opposite Hotel Beton

A 30-mile cycle ride to St Neum at the foot of Lake Ohrid, climbing 2,000 ft

Fearing that the campsite guard might disappear, leaving us locked in, Macedonia_2007_(19).JPGwe left and drove a few miles north towards Ohrid, in search of a parking place. A large area of spare land opposite a cardiovascular clinic and the half-built Hotel Beton was ideal. We talked with the friendly hotel caretaker, who spoke reasonable English after working in America and had an unpronounceable name, which means 'Silver'. We took water from his building-site tap, played with his 3 puppies (identical replicas of their little black hearth rug of a mother) and gave him some cigarettes (all men appear to smoke, in this tobacco-growing country).

Leaving the Macedonia_2007_(30).JPGmotorhome there, we cycled 15 miles south down the lake, past Camping Gradiste, to the end of the road at the Albanian border near St Naum (a crossing not open to foreigners). The hilly road twisted and climbed between the water and the mountains of the Galicia National Park - home to wolves, lynx and bears - which separates Lakes Ohrid and Prespa.

Lake Ohrid, crystal clear and rimmed by Macedonia_2007_(31).JPGmountains, is the deepest and oldest in the Balkans, straddling Albania and Macedonia. The church and tomb of St Naum at its southern end is popular with tourists, coming by boat in summer. Today the souvenir stalls and cafes were busy but we escaped the crowd by visiting the tiny nearby monastery in its own meadow. Gentle Brother Iovan, the lone Orthodox monk in rMacedonia_2007_(28).JPGesidence, gave us some Loukoumi (Greek for 'Turkish delight') and talked proudly of his time on Mount Athos.

A simple meal at a lakeside cafι (chicken, toast, coleslaw and water) fortified us for the ride back, the road a little busier with Albanian cars crossing from Pogradec for a Sunday drive to Ohrid. Once again, we were waylaid by costumed girls acting as highwaymen and Barry handed over a Lidl substitute for a Mars Bar, en passant!

2 April   At St STEVAN, Nr OHRID, Macedonia   Parking opposite Hotel Beton

A 10-mile cycle ride into and around the Old Town of Ohrid

Ohrid (pop 50,000) has a long lakeside promenade, steep cobbled streets Macedonia_2007_(36).JPGwith overhanging wooden houses, Roman ruins (it was on the Via Egnatia) and several medieval churches from its period as Orthodox capital of Macedonia. More than enough for an interesting excursion on the bicycles!

We viewed the Macedonia_2007_(46).JPGSerbo-Byzantine churches of St Sofia (11th C cathedral) and St Kliment (13th C) from the outside, as both were closed on Mondays. (Bishop Clement, whose relics were hidden throughout the Ottoman occupation, was a disciple of St Cyril and Methodius. He worked with St Naum to introduce Christianity to the Macedonian Slavs, founding the first Slavic University here in 893.) The tiny 13th C church of St Jovan Kaneo was open, in a magnificent setting balanced on a rocky headland overlooking the blue lake.

Then we climbed to the Citadel (closed) and the upper Macedonia_2007_(52).JPGgate of the old town walls, finding excavations of an early Christian basilica with 5th C mosaics still in progress. The Roman theatre has been reconstructed for summer concerts. Down in the pedestrianised town centre, we rested by a 900-year-old plane tree and bought cigarettes for gifts. A pack of 200 Marlboro cost €20, with some change given in local currency (this 120 Dinar was enough to buy bananas, a loaf and some chocolate biscuits!) We cycled back along the lakeside path, through woods and over the river, to our place opposite the hotel ('maybe open next year' said Silver).

3 April   105 miles   OHRID, Macedonia to VORE, Albania   Hotel Continental Car Park

Into Albania and over the Mountains to Tirana

To see a complete slide show, click: Images of Albania 2007

Driving 3 miles into Macedonia_2007_(55).JPGOhrid, we took the E65 north to the airport, then E852 west to Struga, 12 miles away on the north shore of Lake Ohrid. There was snow on the surrounding peaks, while daffodils and almond blossom heralded spring. Turning into Struga, the town was busy with markets and modern minarets – no comparison with the cultural and historic monuments of Ohrid. Nor could we park anywhere.

Continuing down the west side of the lake,Albania_2007_(10).JPG following signs for Tirana, we drove 8 miles to the Albanian frontier at Cafasan/Qafa e Thanes. Over the final 2 miles, the road climbed steeply from 2,270 to 3,240 ft. There was no queue at this remote border, overlooked by rows of concrete mushrooms (the bunkers of Albania's paranoid dictator, Enver Hoxha). We paid an entry visa of €10 each, bought 15 days' insurance for €53, and entered another world.

After 2 miles, the TiranAlbania_2007_(12).JPGa road turned west, away from the lake, descending the Z-bends on a good road with a 10% gradient. At a wayside mountain spring, there were stalls selling soft drinks and vegetables, kept fresh in the running water. The country was immediately and obviously poorer than its neighbour. The language is difficult but at least uses the Latin alphabet, and we recognised the common signs: Shitet = 'For Sale' and Lavazh = 'Car Wash'. Lavazh pressure hoses sprayed water high into the air on both sides of our descent!

In Prenjas, a small town with a new mosque 8 miles from the border, dAlbania_2007_(14).JPGown at 1,800 ft, diesel was on sale at 105 or 120 Lek/litre (the quality, even of the higher grade, is poor and it's better to fill up before and after Albania, though Euros are accepted if you need fuel). At Qukes, 4 miles later at 1,400 ft, we met the River Shkumbin, our road descending the Shkumbin Valley for the next 35 miles, parallel with the railway. This was also the route of the ancient Via Egnatia, linking the port of Dyrrachium (modern Durres) with Constantinople. (Built around 165 BC, it was the first Roman road outside Italy.) The river was edged with gravel works, the banks aAlbania_2007_(13).JPGbove terraced for farming. Our overall impression was of hens and chickens, donkeys and horses, sheep and (fewer) goats; Moslem graveyards and new concrete minarets; and a frequent police presence keeping order on the roads. (Most drivers have less than 5 years' experience!)

Passing through Librazhd, road E852 was still good and Tirana (the capital) well signposted. An old shepherd drove his flock along the overgrown railway lines. A few miles befoAlbania_2007_(15).JPGre Elbasan we were stopped for a Customs check, with no problems.

Elbasan, 40 miles from the border and down at 400 ft, is a large industrial town, its electricity power station serving the south-east of the country. There are old and new Orthodox churches, as well as mosques. The busy traffic was a mix of buses, shared taxis, horse-drawn carts, and cars old and new (all driven slowly to save fuel). LPG (Autogas) was on sale and some filling stations even took credit cards.

Here we left theAlbania_2007_(17).JPG River Shkumbin (now full of rubbish) to climb steeply north on SH3, traversing the mountains called Kodrad e Kerrabes, towards Tirana. The narrow road wound its way high above Elbasan. At 850 ft there were gnarled olive groves, with stalls selling oil and olives, as well as citrus fruit, figs and pomegranates. After 7 miles of climbing, at 1,830 ft, we passed a 24-hour filling station. By now it was raining and we hoped that Gracen (4 miles later, at 2,558 ft) was the summit. It wasn't – we reached 3,333 ft, then drove along a ridge at about 2,600 ft before curving down to Ibe, 9 miles after Gracen, at 858 ft. Then the descent was more gradual, following the River Erzenit for 5 miles to Mullet at 544 ft.

Three miles later (and just 2 miles from Tirana) the road became suddenly worse,Albania_2007_(23).JPG chaotically busy and badly pot-holed. It led straight into the capital city, with none of the suburban approaches of western counterparts. There were no signposts at all and no ring road. Thanks to the GPS, we managed to find our way to the city centre and across Skanderbeg Square, recognised when we saw the statue of Skanderbeg (a 15th C naAlbania_2007_(22).JPGtional warrior-hero who fought the Turks) mounted on horseback with sword and winged helmet. The site of the former Hoxha statue is now a funfair with Dodgems and a Ferris Wheel, adding to congestion in the square, once designed for communist rallies and the adulation of the leader.

Eventually we emerged onto the dual carriageway leading north-west to Tirana's airport at Vore. The atmospAlbania_2007_(24).JPGhere was smog-laden, the driving reminiscent of India and all 6 lanes slowly shuffling forward. After 4 miles of crawling along through rain and mud, we met a 4-lane motorway and began to move. It was 3 pm and we had found nowhere to park and eat since breakfast! At Vore, 7 miles later and only 150 ft asl, the motorway divided (left for Durres port or right for Shkoder).

Turning right (north), we soon stopped at a large hotel near the airport, noticing another motorhome parked behind it. This turned out to be a McLouis from Italy, left there with a damaged rear wheel (not a good omen). We obtained permission to park overnight if we ate in the restaurant, where we had a good meal next to a table of airline cabin crew.

4 April   152 miles   VORE, Albania to LASTVA, Montenegro   Roksped Service Station

Through Shkoder to Montenegro and over the Mountains to the Adriatic

It was cooler anAlbania_2007_(25).JPGd cloudy, after overnight rain. We doubled back onto SH52 northwards, a good 2-lane road, passing Tirana airport after 4 miles. At Zale, 4 miles further, we met a new 2-lane road for Lezhe, Shkoder and Hani I Hotet (the border).

Our route was busy with trucks and buses and the Lavazh Special car-washes were doing good business. Sheep and lambs grazed the rail tracks, the minibuses labelled Durres or Tirana were packed full, horse-carts mixed with the traffic. Roadside butchers hung flayed lamb or goat carcasses in the open air – a great encouragement to vegetarianism. There were frequent fuel stations and police patrols.

We crossed the River Drin at Lezhe, where it was impossible to photographAlbania_2007_(26).JPG the hilltop citadel (where Skanderbeg was buried in 1467) as hoardings for Vodafone or Amstel beer filled the lens! Then the road followed the level Drin Valley north-west, with snow-capped peaks visible to the north-east. Many new petrol stations and restaurants are being built along this route SH1/E851 to Shkoder, 65 miles from our start.

Albania's Albania_2007_(30).JPG4th city (pop 92,000), was a nightmare! All the main roads had been dug up and left unsurfaced, with no diversion signs and narrow side-roads. The huge pot-holes had filled with water and mud. After a wrong turn or two, we drove along what seemed a good road in the right direction, only to find it turned without warning into a muddy lane linking a series of small ponds. Cars struggled through them and there was no turning back! We weaved and wallowed, damaging our entry step but finally regaining a semblance of tarmac. A pair of donkeys pulling a cart laden with milk churns overtook us!

Shkoder is one of the oldest cities in Europe, its strategic crossing (where thAlbania_2007_(37).JPGe Buna and Drin Rivers meet) already guarded by the Illyrian Rozafat fortress in 500 BC. The town changed hands often (most recently during WWI) and was badly damaged by a 1979 earthquake. All traffic to and from Montenegro has to pass through, to Hani I Hotit or over the river to Sukobin (our outward route in December).

Albania hadAlbania_2007_(39).JPG been under Christian influence since the time of St Paul. The division of the Roman Empire by Diocletian resulted in the north-west of the country becoming Roman Catholic whilst the south remained Orthodox. Islam arrived with the Ottomans in the 15thC and by the start of WWII the country was 65% Muslim, 25% Orthodox and 10% Catholic. Older men still wear the local white woollen fez. Hodger enforced official atheism but religion is now re-emerging, with Shkoder (birthplace of Mother Theresa) the centre of the Roman Catholic Church in Albania, complete with cathedral. We wondered if that was a reason for the town's neglected state?

Whatever the reason, for the next 10 miles or so to Hani I Hotit the road, lAlbania_2007_(41).JPGined with concrete bunkers, was in terrible condition. We wondered at the police speed trap along the way, as driving was scarcely faster than walking! The links to Greece or Macedonia are far better, reflecting better relations and trade. We parked for lunch outside a defunct petrol station just before Koplik, a town with a new RC church as well as the usual pale green minaret. At Bajze, the last town before the border, a large Catholic church was being restored and we returned some friendly waves.

There was a short queue to exit Albania (our release cost €8) and enter Montenegro, where 15 days' insurance was a modest €15. The road, though narrow, was immediately smoother. We'd driven 80 miles but it felt like much more! The Euro has completely replaced Montenegro's own currency (beware anyone offering to change Euros into local money, as it is now worthless). A few road signs are still in Cyrillic, but the country is changing over to the Latin alphabet.

After 7 miles we drove through Tuzi, a busy and dusty little town with market stalls, a church and a minaret. Five miles later, at 3.25 pm, we were sitting in a traffic jam on the outskirts of Montenegro's capital, Podgorica (formerly called Titograd).

The Montenegrin traffic was busier, with cleaner roads and an absence of Lavajh car washes. Almond trees were in blossom, the surrounding mountains bare and grey, the scenery similar to Albania. The country was obviously poor but not at the level of desperate grinding poverty we had just experienced.

We followed the River Morala, parallel with the railway, south-west towards the coast. 26 miles from the border we crossed the north-west corner of Skadar Lake (National Park, the biggest lake in the Balkans and shared with Albania), home to grebes, pelicans and wildfowl. It began to rain as we drove through a rocky gorge, between cliffs on the right and the water to the left.

Seeing nowhereMontenegro_2007_(10).JPG suitable to park at Virpazar, we left the lake (almost sea level) to climb over a pass to the coast at Petrovac. We could have taken a new road (not on our map or GPS) which runs west through a toll-tunnel, meeting the coast between Petrovac and Bar, but we stayed on E65 across the mountains. We rose over 1,000 ft in the first 9 miles, zigzagging up to a high plateau. It was another 5 miles to the highest point at about 2,150 ft before hair-pinning more steeply down, dropping 2,000 ft in 6 miles. Alpine cattle grazed at the roadside in the rain, oblivious of the wonderful view of the Adriatic.

At Petrovac, a modern resort, we hopefully followed signs 'Parking – Bus Montenegro_2007_(11).JPGand Lorry', which led us round in a circle with nowhere at all to park! Continuing north along the coast road, perched 500 ft above the sea, twisting and turning with the high barren cliffs, we passed several signs for historic monasteries (11th to 17thC) above. Below us the picturesque island of Sv Stefan, joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway, arcs into two perfect beaches seen on a thousand posters. The abandoned 15th-16thC settlement has been converted into an exclusive tourist retreat, with an entry fee to deter casual visitors. Best seen from above!

Next came the crowded resort of Milocer, given prestige by the Yugoslav royal family's erstwhile summer palace. Further round the bay, on a sandy beach a couple of miles before Budva, Becici has developed from a pleasant fishing village into a crowded conglomeration of massive hotels. Still nowhere for us to park, after driving 60 miles from the border.

Budva, Montenegro's top package holiday destination, is a crass mixture of concrete and glass in a pretty setting. The Venetian-style Old Town, a tiny walled citadel on a promontory to the west, was restored after the 1979 earthquake. Again there was nowhere to park among the hotel complexes, casinos and restaurants - it was 5.30 pm and extremely busy.

Driving north and through a short tunnel, the road for Croatia leaves the coast. Looking in vain for a hotel/restaurant with parking space, we finally stopped at a big modern fuel station on the right, 13 miles after Budva. It sold LPG and diesel, accepted credit cards and had no objection to an overnight stay. It rained very heavily.

5 April   74 miles   LASTVA, Montenegro to MLINI, Nr DUBROVNIK, Croatia   Camping Matkovic   €12.00

Round the Bay of Kotor and into Croatia

A bright sunny morning with fresh snow visible on the inland mountains. Continuing NW on E65, motorists flashed a warning of a Policija radar trap ahead, though we were in no danger of speeding! After 6 miles we passed the right turn for Kotor (through a tunnel or over the pass we crossed on our outward journey). Today we drove straight on past Tivat aerodrome: 'Welcome to Tivat Riviera'.

8 miles on, at Lepetan a regular ferry shuttles to Kamenari, across the narrow entrance to Lake Kotor, but we chose to drive the 25-mile circuit of the deep and beautifully rugged fiord, unique in the Mediterranean. The first 8 miles south, through Stoliv to Kotor, was on a very narrow road. Prcanj and Muo were tiny clusters of white stone houses with a hotel or two and a few rooms – very little developed, considering the stunning setting.

The World Heritage medieval fortified town of Kotor was busy, with a cruise ship at anchor and a produce market along the pavement below the walls of the Old Town. From the castle, stone walls scaled the hillside as they do at Ston (Croatia). Cars filled every gap and we were again disappointed that we couldn't park and explore.

The drive round the rest of the fiord was on a better 2-lane road. At Perast, 8 miles later opposite the inlet, we were able to leave the motorhome above the village near a crumbling castle to walk down long flights of white stone steps to the waterside. One of the Venetian gothic churches bore the Lion of St Mark and the date 1691. The little Museum, restored with US aid, was closed but the port has a long history. Its sailors held out against Turkish attack and piracy; Venetians and Russians came to the nautical school here; its cartographers charted the Adriatic coasts; its navigators steered the Venetian fleet at Lepanto; its engineers designed ports in the Baltic. Now in graceful retirement, the leading sea captains' houses line the waterfront while overgrown decaying buildings on the hillside return to nature, shrouded in ivy. the one small shop sold lovely fresh bread.

Two tiny islands float off Perast – Sv Djordje, with a restored Benedictine abbey, and 'Our Lady of the Chisels'. The latter is a man-made island (its origin depending on which legend you believe), with a baroque church dedicated to the Virgin containing a miraculous icon. Picturesque and peaceful, they are served by boat trips in summer.

At Risan, 2 miles further, there's a Roman mosaic and the ugly modern Hotel Teuta. (Teuta was the Illyrian queen who committed suicide here in 229 BC after being defeated by the Romans). There are also prehistoric drawings at Lipci. The road wound its way round the northern end of the fiord, on a ledge between the white rocky hillside and the sparkling blue lake. Spring is fresh here at leaf-burst, mauve wisteria draping the houses. We passed a couple of tiny campsites, for tents or minute caravans, then saw the ferry again at Kamenari, loaded with 2 lorries and a few cars. No room to linger at the ferry, but we soon parked for lunch at the port of Bijela.

North up the coast we came to busy Zelenica, then the resort of Herceg-Novi with its Stari Grad (Old Town). The Montenegrin-Croatian border, 13 miles after Bijela, was quiet and we crossed with a quick passport check. (Our own motorhome insurance covers Croatia.)

On familiar territory, it was a straightforward 9 miles through Gruz (where the filling station does not take credit cards) and past Dubrovnik's airport near Cavtat. The final 11 miles brought us to Mlini, on a bay a few miles before Dubrovnik. The spacious Camping Porto (on the left of the main road) was closed but the smaller campsite round the corner, which we used last December, is always open. Access is a little awkward and the grassy ground was soft after recent rain, but luckily there were no other campers and Danielle, the very friendly English-speaking owner, urged us in.

Home and dry, we were soon supplied with electricity and water. After a pot of tea, we began to wash the mud and dust of Albania out of our system - the only visible sign of damage being to the outside doorstep.

6 April   At MLINI,   Nr DUBROVNIK, Croatia   Camping Matkovic

Good Friday – and a Good Rest Day

A quiet day, watching a Collared Flycatcher in the trees, doing the laundry, writing and texting. We celebrated Good Friday by poaching some salmon and making a chocolate cake for dinner.

7 April   180 miles   MLINI, Nr DUBROVNIK, Croatia to ILIDZA, Nr SARAJEVO,   Bosnia Autocamp Oaza   €13.40

Into Bosnia-Hercegovina to Visit Mostar

A fine sunny Easter Saturday morning for the next adventure. Driving along E65 towards Dubrovnik, it was just 2.5 miles to a right turn for Bosnia-Hercegovina, signposted Gornji Brgat. Following it northwards and upwards for 3.5 miles, we reached the border (at 1,148 ft), exited Croatia and crossed the no-man's land. The guards at the B-H frontier did not sell insurance and turned us back, saying we might be able to buy it in Montenegro (unlikely!)

We re-entered Croatia (to the surprise of their friendlier border guard), returned to the main road and continued west for Dubrovnik. Approaching the magnificent medieval walled town from this direction, the views were superb, the clear blue sky melting into a calm turquoise sea on the horizon. Bypassing the town on E65 (the Magistrale), and across the new suspension bridge, we followed the stunning route between the island-studded Adriatic and the Mljet National Park – a study in blues and greens.

22 miles from our start, we passed the arboretum at Trsteno, laid out in 1502, now with a small campsite alongside (but we saw nowhere to park a large vehicle). After another 8 miles was the small port of Slano; 9 miles later, the left turn for Ston (worth a visit, with a large car park good for an overnight). Continuing up the coast, there was a good view of the castle at Mali Ston, its walls scaling the hillside. The aquamarine inlet between the mainland and the Peljesac Peninsula was home to oyster and mussel farms.

At 44 miles, we reached the border post for the Bosnian enclave of Neum (click: The Bosnian Salient in Croatia), waved through as usual by the guard with no formalities, passport or insurance check. Neum was a workers' holiday settlement funded by the Bosnian authorities on their short length of coast (along with some scandalous luxury villas for the party elite). Today there is a strip of restaurants, hotels and duty-free shops, with a large free car park 6 miles along, down on the left. After another 3 miles, we passed another border post to re-enter Croatia. At Duboka, 2 miles later, a bridge is going to be built to take traffic via the Peljesac Peninsula and Ston, bypassing the Bosnian enclave to link Dubrovnik and the southern end of Croatia with the rest of the country.

Then the E65 curved inland, climbing away from the drained plain of citrus groves and dykes 200 ft below, to Opuzen, where orange-sellers line the road. Here, 63 miles from our start, we turned north-east on road 9 for Mostar and Sarajevo, and another attempt to enter Bosnia-Hercegovina. It was 8 miles, alongside the east bank of the broad Neretva River, to the border at Metkovic (complete with a Lidl store on the Croatian side, where we spent our remaining Kuna on Easter marzipan/chocolate eggs!) At the border, we were directed to a little office selling 'Green Card' insurance, at €20 for 7 days, no problem. The currency in B-H is the KM (convertible mark), at about 2KM to the Euro. Diesel cost 1.8 KM or €0.90.

We followed the wide Neretva valley for 24 miles to Mostar, a town divided by more than its river. Approaching from the east (Islamic) side, with its cobbled streets and bazaar, we were met by the chilling lines of hundreds of new white headstones facing Mecca in the graveyards. Across the river, the western sector also bore the scars of intense Muslim-Croat fighting, with many blasted, bullet-ridden buildings. Reconstruction continues in this shell-shocked town, eerily quiet for a Saturday afternoon, its shops closed.

The few tourists were at Mostar's landmark, the Stari Most (old bridge), its steep and elegant arch, destroyed by Croat shelling in 1993, now rebuilt. (See the poem: Stone Arise!). Mostar's very name meant 'bridge keeper' and the old stone bridge (replacing an earlier wooden one) was built in 1566 by the Turks, who made the town their capital of Hercegovina, complete with mosques, baths and a caravanserai. The bridge towers, added later, served as a gunpowder store at the eastern end and a barracks/prison on the west bank.

Hopefully visitors will return to the segregated town on the aqua-green river, as it restores its medieval buildings and Ottoman charm. The Pavarotti Music Centre, opened 10 years ago in Mostar's eastern sector, offers music and dance courses for children, free public concerts and a cafι. We certainly intend to come back.

Back on the E73 heading north, we passed a busy area of market stalls at the edge of town. The road continued along the east bank of the dammed Neretva River and through short tunnels, parallel with a railway on the opposite side of the valley. Cabins along the river were selling trout. Most of the cars coming towards Mostar carried football supporters, scarves streaming, returning from a match in Sarajevo.

The Neretva valley became a sheer-walled canyon, the stark diagonal strata of the karst rocks fingered by waterfalls. At Gabrovica, about 30 miles from Mostar, by the uppermost of the 3 hydro-electric power dams, our road crossed to the west side of the river, re-crossing 6 miles later in Jablanica, up at 920 ft. Here the restaurants were busy, their rows of spit-roast lambs or goats being rotated by mini-waterwheels. This reminder of the Orthodox Easter tradition made us think of our many friends in Greece, preparing for tomorrow's feast.

The highway now turned east, along the south shore of Lake Jablanicko via another series of short tunnels and through Ostrozac to Konjic. In this busy little town, 45 miles from Mostar and still at 920 ft, we finally left the Neretva River and began to climb up through the mountains to Sarajevo. Roadside vendors sold honey and new potatoes as we came to Bradina, 7 miles above Konjic. An occasional new minaret seemed out of place in such a remote setting, the hay-making and carts reminiscent of Romania. A couple of bombed-out and deserted villages had obviously found themselves in the wrong zone of the conflict.

The Ivan Tunnel (645 m long), 2 miles after Bradina at 2,908 ft/967 m, marked the top of the climb. On the steep descent towards Sarajevo we saw one or two motorhomes (Italian and German) – no British since Greece. In Tarcin, 5 miles down at 2,150 ft, we passed another Moslem graveyard, next to the workshop of a stone mason who had been kept busy. On a happier note, we met a wedding convoy, horns hooting, the cars decked in flowers and ribbons and flying the Islamic flag (green with a white crescent and star).

18 miles after Ivan Tunnel we reached Ilidza, at 1,680 ft, near Sarajevo's airport. A dual carriageway covers the last few miles from here to the Bosnian capital. Ilidza was busy, the road lined with stalls selling garden tools and iron or copper pots. To our surprise (and delight), the hotel signs where a road forked right included one for 'Hotel Ilidza & Autocamping Oaza' We found our way to a Hapsburg-era spa and park, with horse-drawn carriage rides. Part of the park was occupied by a hotel, restaurant and long-established campsite, consisting largely of cabins – an oasis indeed!

A coach party had just arrived and the harassed receptionist (new to the job) asked us to return later. Eventually, we had sole occupancy of the small camping area, a hook-up on an outside wall and the key to an empty cabin (toilet and shower for the use of). The price was quoted as 26 KM (convertible marks) or €13.40, though Euros were not accepted! Without local currency, we paid by Visa card. Check-out time was strictly 10 am.

8 April   273 miles   ILIDZA, Nr SARAJEVO, Bosnia to A1 Motorway Services Nr MEDAK, Croatia

Round Sarajevo, Back to Mostar and West into Croatia

On a rainy Easter Sunday we drove 9 miles into Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia (pop 500,000), along a dual carriageway with trams running down the centre. In the siege of the city from 1992-95, it was dubbed 'Snipers Alley', as ordinary civilians crossing this road were shot by Serbs in the surrounding hills. Today it was busy with cars and tram queues.

The large Holiday Inn we passed had survived the war and been given a face lift. We remembered it well from television broadcasts, when it was the base for international journalists reporting from a city, whose only other link with the outside world was a tunnel under the airport (now collapsed). During those terrible years, 10,500 Sarajevans were killed by sniper fire and shelling, their home pounded into rubble by Bosnian Serb artillery. The scars of the war are still raw; the hoardings proclaiming Sarajevo an Olympic city (Winter Games in 1984) difficult to believe.

Sarajevo was already infamous in European history at the beginning of WWI. Here in 1914 half a century of Austro-Hungarian domination, following the end of Turkish rule, culminated in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, by a Bosnian Serb nationalist.

Surrounded by mountains, Sarajevo lies in the Miljacka River valley. We slowly circled the centre twice, following a one-way loop along the river and back, searching in vain for a place to park. The place looked vibrant, its main pedestrian street busy with cafes, a crowded market, church bells, mosques, an old Turkish bazaar. We saw no-one in Islamic dress, and little sign of Easter celebration – just one Nun and a couple of people coming out of a Catholic church. We felt there was much to learn and explore here and a longer visit, based at the Oaza campsite and travelling in by tram or bicycle, is now an aim for the future.

Returning to Ilidza along the dual carriageway, we followed yesterday's outward route to Mostar, over the mountains on road E73. The road climbed quickly, following a river through a wooded valley with snowy crags above. Islam sat lightly in the poor villages. A few new houses each had a plot of lawn, though the occupants were busy ploughing up the grass to grow vegetables. In Pazaric, up at 2,000 ft and 5 miles before Tarcin, the older women wore long skirts and headscarves. Again, a recent stone mason's work filled the Moslem graveyard.

After the Ivan Tunnel at the summit (2,908 ft/967 m) we dropped more steeply to Bradina, then a short tunnel at 2,100 ft. Primroses and daffodils lent colour to roadside verges, while fresh snow lay on the peaks ahead. At Podorasac, 7 miles below the Ivan Tunnel at 1,192 ft, there was a large filling station with truck parking round the back (possible for an overnight), but we paused only to photograph 2 men loading a hay cart. At Konjic we met the Neretva River again and turned west along the dammed lake. The rain gave way to warm sunshine and we stopped for lunch 11 miles later, by the lake near Ostrozac.

In Jablanica we crossed the river and turned south past the restaurants, still busy with Easter roasts, their spits turned by waterwheels. After 5 miles on the west bank, the road crossed back to the east side, looking down the lovely Neretva gorge with its revealed rock strata, the river a glaucous blue-green suggesting snow-melt. This was a stunning drive, passing a couple of anglers and the salmon and trout farms on the gradual descent. At 350 ft we emerged from a tunnel into a broad river valley. It was much warmer (22 deg C) now we'd left the mountains. In Potoci, 7 miles before Mostar, we noticed a couple of large Christian churches, their cemeteries also witness to recent events.

In Mostar, down at 250 ft after driving 94 miles, we crossed the Neretva and headed west from the town centre, following signs for Siroki Brijeg and Split. Climbing away from the river and into the rain, we rose 500 ft in 2 miles. It was another mile to the top (with a good view of Mostar) at 1,156 ft, above a tributary of the Neretva which was flooding the fields. The villages on our route had churches rather than minarets.

The road was good and quiet and in Siroki Brijeg, 12 miles from Mostar, we saw a EUFOR jeep leave a EUFOR office, flying the EU flag. 6 miles later in Kocerin (still above 1,000 ft) we met a Christian wedding convoy, car horns tooting. Another 6 miles to Vranic, a tidy village at the top of the next pass (2,280 ft) with new housing and a school. Posuje, 6 miles later on a dreary plateau at 1,990 ft, was the last town before Croatia. Houses were being built and trees in blossom relieved the damp grey scene.

At Vinjani Gornji, 4 miles on and at 2,196 ft, we exited Bosnia-Hercegovina with just a passport check. There was no separate border post on entering Croatia. Heading south-west, it was downhill for 4 miles to the town of Imotski (1,500 ft). Relaxing (we were now fully insured!) we celebrated Easter with a pot of tea and a marzipan/ chocolate egg. Continuing down road 60, we passed another Croatian Lidl store.

The road turned west and remained high for 10 miles, climbing to 1,836 ft. Dry stone walls marked the fields in the hillside villages. In Cista Provo, 17 miles after Imotski at 1,530 ft, a pile of stone Stecci lay at the roadside. These are the funerary monuments of the Bogomils, a heretical Christian sect who avoided persecution by becoming nominal Muslims when the Turks arrived in the 14thC. Carved with figures and Old Cyrillic inscriptions, we had read of a collection in Sarajevo's National Museum.

At Trilj, 22 miles later down at 990 ft, we crossed the River Cetina and climbed north-west to Sinj. (A left turn, 2 miles before Sinj, led to the end of the motorway near Split, but we took road E71.) 10 miles after Sinj we met the Cetina River again, forming a long thin lake to our right. The road ran above it, through a few abandoned hamlets (not shown on our maps), their stone cottages utterly destroyed. The Croatian border lay 10 miles to the east, on the other side of the river, and these buildings must have been in the front line. A shepherd grazing his flock on the lake shore was the only sign of life.

At the end of the lake, 22 miles from Sinj and at 1,295 ft, the village of Vrlika was being rebuilt and resettled, as was Kijevo, 5 miles further along. A small ruined castle stood on the rocky crags. It was now 6 pm, rain fell from a dark sky, we'd driven 199 miles and we were ready to stop, but the desolation from the recent conflicts was all too tangible.

We crossed the Krka River 11 miles later (729 ft) and turned left into Knin, a busy town at a crossroads beneath a towering castle. In the centre there were plenty of places to eat but nowhere to park. Disappointed we headed north, still on a good 2-lane road, climbing through heavy rain. After 25 miles, up at 2,200 ft, the road turned west. All the villages were deserted and crumbling, probably the victims of 'ethnic cleansing' with refugees unable to return.

Above 2,500 ft, the sunset filled the sky at 7.30 pm, before we dropped to Gracac at 1,880 ft. A welcome sign indicated a left turn for 'Motorway A1 and Gospic'. Just after St Rok, we joined the motorway. The first service station, 13 miles later, was an excellent place for the night. It was 8 pm, dark and wet, up at 1,980 ft with a temperature of 9 deg C outside. We made a quick supper to conclude an Easter Day to remember.

9 April   194 miles   A1 Motorway Services Nr MEDAK, Croatia to A4 Motorway Services Nr PALMA NOVA, Italy

Into Italy via the Croatian Coast, 21 miles across Slovenia and a circuit of Trieste

A fine sunny morning after a cold night, with mist on the hilltops. At 9 am it was 9 deg C, rising to 16 deg by noon. The new A1 toll motorway is excellent, with service stations about every 25 miles. It was busier than our outward journey in December, but then today is Easter Monday with a few tourist buses and cars taking Italians, Austrians and Germans back to work. We could only imagine the traffic jams on the roads of Western Europe.

We stopped at the next services for diesel and later for a coffee break, during which Barry emailed Easter greetings with images of Mostar and Sarajevo to our 100 best friends. We shared the parking area with a small convoy of Italian vans from the Roman Catholic Charity CARITAS, returning from an aid run to Albania. A local man was selling cheese and nuts from the boot of his car, but did not endear himself by blocking us in and addressing us in German!

Continuing north-west through the wooded hills of inland Croatia, with frequent tunnels, we had lunch after 39 miles at the services past Otocac at 1,570 ft. We left the motorway 5 miles later at the next exit, for the coast at Senj. The toll for about 60 miles of motorway was 78 kuna (c ₤7.80, payable in cash or credit card, not Euros). There is no charge for overnight parking (unlike the UK!)

The road (7.5 ton limit) climbed a pass then dropped steeply, taking 16 miles to reach Senj, which was only half that distance in a straight line. Stalls sold cheese and honey along the 6-mile ascent to Vratnik, up at 2,254 ft/700 m, with the ruins of a small fortress. Then 10 miles of Serpentina (hairpins), with views of the Adriatic and the island of Krk below, landed us in Senj, where we turned north on the E65 coastal highway. Driving the narrow ledge between arid white stone cliffs and blue sea, we soon crossed the 45th parallel.

Novi Vinodolski, 14 miles after Senj, is a burgeoning resort with a small harbour below its old quarter piled up on the hill. 3 miles later is the turn for Selce, a small resort with a campsite that we have used. Crikvenica, another mile on, is a larger older seaside resort below the road. We continued towards Rijeka, passing the Tito bridge which crosses to Krk.

We left the coast road at Bakar, 94 miles from our start, to join a new motorway bypassing Rijeka (signposted 'SLO, I, A'). It was much busier, with fast motorbikes and plenty of Camping Caristas – Italian motorhomers typically travelling in pairs and threesomes, free-camping. After 12 miles, having climbed to 1,000 ft, this bypass joined the A7 motorway, signed for Trieste. The A7 lasted for 8 miles (with one service station), ending abruptly with a toll point near Rupa (cost €1). Perhaps a motorway link to Rupa will be finished some day!

A mile later, and 4 miles before the Slovenian border, we met a long queue of cars and motorhomes bound for Italy, France, Austria, Germany. Road works and traffic lights caused a 20 minute delay and we finally reached the border, up at 2,000 ft and 119 miles since breakfast, at about 3.30 pm. Leaving Croatia, we re-entered the EU (and the Euro-zone) into Slovenia and continued north-west on E61, a rather rough road winding through wooded hills. The roadside truffle stalls were closed (Tartufi – a pretty name).

16 miles later, near Kozina, we passed a new motel/autocamping on the left and turned in hopefully. However, the intractable receptionist informed us that the camping did not open until June and that we were not allowed to stay on the large empty car park overnight, even if we dined in the excellent-looking restaurant. It opened from 7 pm-10 pm, and we must leave at 10 pm! She insisted that the police would come to move us, unless we paid for a motel room. So that's one campsite we won't be recommending or revisiting.

Disappointed, we joined the queue for the Italian border crossing 5 miles further on. The guards seemed to be having a 'go-slow' – at 4 pm on Easter Monday – checking cars as if Slovenia were still behind the Iron Curtain. At last we entered Italy on SS14, up at 1,555 ft with views of the port of Trieste and the sea below.

Trieste was busy and badly signed. Following E61/E70/A4, we couldn't make a detoured sharp right turn for the A4-Venice motorway and had to circle Trieste's one-way system. We passed 3 small service areas, with no parking space, before reaching the toll point at 6.30 pm and heading west on the A4. We had never seen so many motorhomes on the road, in both directions – all the mass-produced Italian names (Elnagh, Laika, Mobilvetta etc).

Eventually a large service station just past the Palma Nova exit provided a welcome resting place.

10 April   283 miles   A4 Motorway Services Nr PALMA NOVA, Italy to A2 BELLINZONA SUD Services, Switzerland

Across Italy to Milan and North into Switzerland

Continuing west on the A4 towards Venice, we were delayed after 3 miles by a recent accident. A woman was trapped in her smashed car, surrounded by people summoning rescue services on mobile phones. Amazingly, the first such we have witnessed in thousands of miles on busy motorways and crazy roads across Europe.

We crossed the flat agricultural landscape, through miles and miles of sunny vineyards. Heavy goods vehicles were still off the road for Easter. After 46 miles, we paid a toll of €5.90 at Venice East, then 10 miles later we passed the Venice exit, remaining on A4 for Milan. At 61 miles we collected the next toll ticket (the tangential round Venice being free). The motorway was now much busier, though still no HGVs, which filled the service areas.

17 miles later we turned into the services after the Padua West exit (where we'd spent a night on our outward journey last November), but there was no space to park for a break. The next services at Soave were also full and we pushed on, past Verona. We saw cordon-grown fruit trees in blossom, vines budding and some signs of industry. By now it was very warm.

At 140 miles we passed the foot of Lake Garda and entered Lombardy, finding space to stop for lunch 7 miles later, on the services near Desenzano, as lorries began to take to the road. After another stop for diesel at Brescia (save a few cents at the DIY or Fai Da Te pump), we climbed gently past Bergamo Airport at 193 miles, now at 735 ft. The next toll (€13.40) was paid at Milan East, at 213 miles, with another small payment (€1.20) 12 miles later. In Italy, the motorways are well worth paying for, to avoid the conglomeration of the towns and cities.

At 228 miles, we turned north onto the A9 for Como and Switzerland. After 11 miles we saw our second accident, with the opposite carriageway and the Lomazzo exit closed. Heavy lifting gear worked on a lorry lying on its side, with a tailback for miles. We sped by, used the last filling station in Italy and paid a toll of €1.70 at 242 miles. At 1,150 ft, sunlit Lake Como shone below us. 6 miles later we crossed into Switzerland with just a passport check. We still had a valid vignette from our outward journey in November.

Passing through the beautiful Italian-Swiss scenery of Lake Lugano, we stopped at Bellinzona South, a large service area with a small Co-op supermarket and a Movenpick Restaurant. Today being Margaret's birthday, we decided to dine and rest. It was a lovely warm evening and we ate on the outside terrace (at 736 ft), watching a hang glider soar above the valley on the thermals. The daily special of roast veal, mushroom sauce and rice was followed by strawberry patisserie and applecake. That's the way to live (but see tomorrow!)

11 April   25 miles   BELLINZONA SUD SERVICES to CHIGGIOGNA, Switzerland   Camping Gottardo   35 SF (₤14.50)

A Short Drive and a Short Walk

Margaret felt (and later was) sick during the morning, blamed on last night's veal as we'd only drunk water. So we took the Faido exit, 24 miles along the motorway, remembering a delightful little campsite less than a mile along the old main road, before Faido at Chiggiogna. Luckily, a motorhome was leaving as we arrived, giving room to manoeuvre. As we checked in we learnt that there had been almost no snow last winter. Here, at 685 m/2,260 ft, it is usually deep. Little remained on the surrounding peaks and the sun shone.

M recovered enough for an afternoon stroll into Fusnengo, a tiny nearby village. We walked along the scenic path, past the high waterfall behind the campsite, returning more directly in 5 minutes. There was a little post office in a picturesque wooden chalet and the 18thC Roman Catholic church of Santa Maria.

Barry caught up with emails and we put Cindy's account of their journey from Turkey to Hungary (via Romania's Painted Monasteries and wooden churches of the Maramures) onto the website. M cooked a light supper (fish soup), had a shower and an early night. Next birthday, we dine at home!

12 April   At CHIGGIOGNA,   Switzerland   Camping Gottardo

A 28 mile Cycle Ride to Airolo and the start of the St Gottard Pass, climbing 2,000 ft

A fine day for a cycle ride, alongside the river up the Ticino Valley, parallel with both motorway and railway until they disappeared into their respective St Gottard tunnels. We rode through Faido and 2 short tunnels on the way to Airolo. The ascent was fairly gentle, with a couple of steep sections. After Airolo (where the motorway tunnel starts) we continued on the St Gottard Pass road (closed higher up by snow), past an army base to a restaurant. Drinking coffee in the sunshine below snow-covered slopes, 14 miles from the campsite and at 4,320 ft, we had climbed over 2,000 ft.

Returning, we stopped in Faido (2 miles before the camp) to shop at the Co-op. We were home for a late lunch, made a Yorkshire curd cake and watched another episode of 'History of Britain' on DVD.

13 April   361 miles   CHIGGIOGNA, Switzerland to A6 Motorway Services Nr STEINFORT, Luxembourg

Motorway Transit of Switzerland, Germany and France

Paying the campsite bill (in a mixture of Swiss Francs and Euros), we couldn't resist the smell from the on-site bakery and stocked up with rolls and croissants. Then we were back on the A2 motorway, past the services at San Gottardo Sud into a very short queue to enter the 10-mile tunnel through the Alps, which links Italian-Swiss Ticino with German-speaking Central Switzerland.

It was a relief to leave the elderly tunnel with its 2-way traffic and heavy lorries, to continue descending through many shorter tunnels between stretches of Swiss scenery. The motorway was quieter after the Easter rush, though parking at the next service station, 38 miles from the tunnel, was impossibly full. We needed a pause to find new batteries for the camera (exhausted by the tunnel!) After the exit for Altdorf (William Tell's village, where we'd camped last November), we glimpsed Lake Luzern before entering a long modern tunnel, emerging onto the blue lakeside at 1,670 ft. Bypassing Luzern, the motorway turned much busier, with a narrow carriageway. At 71 miles we stopped at the next services, Luzern-Neuenkirch, and were able to change the camera batteries at last.

Continuing on A2 we passed the smaller lake Sursee, then on to Basel through more tunnels. Basel was very busy with road works, narrow lanes and scarcely a view of the mighty Rhine. At 126 miles we joined the line to cross the border into Germany: Welcome to Baden-Wurtemberg. A mile later, we were lunching in the services at Weil-am-Rhein, at 882 ft. (No tolls on the German Autobahn system, except for HGVs.)

Back on the A5 heading down the Rhine, the motorhome transmission began to fail. Pulling into the next Autohof (truckstop), Barry checked and topped up the fluid level, though it seemed to be a mechanical problem. We drove gently and anxiously north past Freiburg on the busy 2-lane motorway, annoying the lorries behind (which are not allowed to overtake unless there are 3 lanes). The river lay invisible on our left, the hills of the Black Forest to the right. At junction 56 we exited onto road 36, north through Teutonic villages, then west to a new bridge across the Rhine – the French border. It was 4 pm and very hot (27 deg C).

Turning north through Strasbourg at 210 miles, we slowly traversed the city on motorways, gridlocked with the Friday teatime rush. 10 miles later, where the A35 Karlsruhe motorway turned off, the Stau (traffic jam) began to ease. Following the A4 towards Saarbrucken, we collected our first French toll ticket at 230 miles. After 12 miles we paused for tea in the Aire de Saverne at 800 ft, then climbed the Passerelle de Gibier at 1,160 ft and crossed into Lorraine.

Rolling gently through the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, the motorway was much quieter than those in Germany, Switzerland or Italy. At 278 miles, we paid a toll of €11.30 before the mining town of Freyming-Merlebach, where we turned west. Another €6 was charged near St Avold, just before the services (which were so full we couldn't access the diesel pumps). Before Metz we turned north on A31, looking for fuel all the way to Thionville (at 332 miles), where we managed to find a manned filling station in the town. (Self-service/credit card automated pumps in France usually reject foreign cards.)

Back on the A31, we soon entered Luxembourg and took A4/E25 towards Belgium. The first service station in the Grand Duchy was full but thankfully the next one was larger. It had been a long day across 4 countries! We risked the Plat du Jour from the restaurant (chicken legs, chips and vegetables), followed by our own cheesecake (with no repercussions next day).

14 April     227 miles     Motorway Services Nr STEINFORT, Luxembourg to WESTENDE, Belgium     Camping Polder Vallei     €21.00
Across Belgium to the Coast – and Journey's End

It was just 3 miles on A6 to the Belgian border, confusingly entering the French-speaking Belgian Province of Luxembourg. We crossed a grassy plateau at over 1,000 ft, rising to 1,550 ft, and the motorhome transmission began to slip again as the engine warmed up. At 50 miles, just past the European Space Station, we paused at a small service station to check the fluid level and let it cool down. Blonde limousin cattle grazed the rolling green plains between the forests.

After a rapid descent from 1,200 ft to 680 ft to cross the River Lesse, we continued north-west on E41/A4 past Namur, crossing the Meuse at 85 miles, down at 400 ft. 4 miles later we turned west on E42/A15, the Autoroute de Wallonie, with lunch on the next Aire. At 110 miles we took A54 north for Brussels, refuelled at the services near Nivelles, skirted the Belgian capital on the busy West Ring Road, then turned north-west at 143 miles onto E40/A10, into Flemish-speaking East Flanders. This route avoided crossing Brussels, always extremely slow.

As we passed Gent at 173 miles in mid-afternoon, it was 22 deg C. More British cars and motorhomes were seen as we approached the coast. At 201 miles (8 miles before Ostend and just 5 ft above sea level), we turned towards the French border. Taking exit 4 (Middelkerke-Bad), we crossed a canal and turned left for Westende and Nieuwpoort in search of a campsite. Our guidebook listed at least 6 campings on this stretch of coast but they were badly signposted and those we found looked cramped and full.

Eventually we tried Polder Vallei, one block back from the sea, hidden by a wall of high-rise apartments. Though facilities were basic (cold water except in the token-operated showers), it had plenty of space. We settled in, to the unfamiliar cry of sea gulls, and watched a mother duck lead her gaggle of a dozen tiny young to the stream. It was the end of an amazing 17-day journey across the Balkans, arriving with a day in hand before our booking on the Ostend-Ramsgate Transeuropa ferry. We had a few emails to send! 

15 April     At Camping Polder Vallei, WESTENDE, Belgium    
A 48-mile Cycle Ride across the French Border to Bray-Dunes

A fine warm day, relieved by a cool breeze from the shore. We rode west along the sea-front and through Nieuwpoort (Belgium's largest fishing port; Europe's biggest yacht marina). Being Sunday, the promenades were very busy with every kind of attraction and obstacle. Separated from traffic, children on rented pedalos, bikes, trikes and rollerblades were the biggest danger!

A cycle path then led alongside the main road to Koksijde-Bad and De Panne, where we lunched on Croques Monsieur and salad, just 2.5 miles before the French border. We crossed the frontier, visited Bray-Dunes and returned, having cycled 76 km in 4 hours. If only cyclists were so welcome along the British coast.    

16 April     149 miles     WESTENDE, Belgium to WILLINGHAM, England     Roseberry Tourist Park     ₤9.00    
Ferry from Ostend to Ramsgate; Crowded Motorways to Cambridgeshire

A busy morning, preparing for the voyage (dumping waste, packing lunch, etc). The Ostend ferry terminal was 12 miles east along N34 (though it might have been easier to return to the motorway and avoid the town centre of the port). Of course, we filled up with diesel at just under €1 (₤0.70) per litre on the way.

Having booked by internet, we obtained our tickets at the Transeuropa Ferries office (taking mostly freight, they have a comfortable waiting room for lorry drivers with free coffee and newspapers at both ports). The no-frills ferry left on time at 1.30 pm, arriving in Ramsgate 5 hours later (5.30 pm British time).

Following a phone call to Isabel & Jim, who run the excellent campground at Willingham, we were on our way along A253 and A299 (with a slow detour via Herne Bay, caused by an accident). On the M2 near Gravesend, 46 miles from Ramsgate, the motorhome transmission began to miss again – an urgent visit to Motorhome Medics at Cheltenham will be arranged. After taking the A2 to Dartford, we went through the Dartford Tunnel under the Thames (toll ₤1) and along a section of M25, turning north at junction 27 onto M11.

We had a break at Bishops Stortford services near Stansted Airport, continued to the end of M11 near Cambridge, then left the A14 at Barr Hill, taking minor road B1050 to Willingham. The spacious campsite is 2 miles after the village on the left, and a warm welcome awaited us. It was 9.15 pm.

Roseberry TP offers American-RV-sized pitches, good facilities and a laundry. Willingham has a small Co-op store, a post office, cash machine, pub, fish & chip shop and a health centre/pharmacy. In fact, all we could want for a short stay.