the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!


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The Bulgarian job: Greece # 1

What do you do if you can’t speak the language but know your final destination is Bulgaria? In Bari, our final stop in Italy, Digger plays a game of follow the BG car and lorry registration plates. He’s right, and we easily get to the ferry port despite the majestically convoluted one way systems in place.

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He jumps down from Leo and chats to the Bulgaria truckers in their cabs, and finds out the latest news and technical details of the embarkation. These long distance drivers have come from all over Europe, shuttling their loads through countries and weeks. Many travel in pairs, so one sleeps as the other drives thus ensuring no delay on the items they are shifting. There is an edge of competitiveness, each trying to outdo each other with tales of their speeds at covering certain routes, and dismissing those who achieve it in less time as simple rookies. They are away from their homes for six weeks at a time, and carry photos of their children stuck on their cab dashboards. Their salaries are around €1000 a month, three times a typical Bulgarian wage. You can see why they tolerate the working conditions.

At the check in we show our passports for the first time since being on UK soil, and then have a few hours to spare before we can board. We head for a long lunch into the town centre to while away the time until the night crossing. The newer part of the city of Bari , the Murat quarter, is built on a strict block system, and is filled with high end fashion shops and Italians drinking coffee, and the parks are filled with (we assume, perhaps wrongly) African immigrants using the free wifi and waiting. We prefer the old town Barivecchia which is the original settlement between the two harbours. It is a veritable maze of buildings and narrow cobbled streets, where people open their kitchen doors straight onto the streets and cook on gas burners in alleyways. We see three generations of women sitting round tables rolling, pinching and drying pasta together, while the men sit in the cafes and let their opinions disperse through the passageways. We visit the 11th century Basillica and view the relics of St. Nicholas, and chat to Sicilian monks on holiday.

By the time dusk begins to fall, we load ourselves back into Leo and attempt to follow the directions to the actual ferry. The port is a mini-city in itself, and we are sent into a seeming dead end in a trucking graveyard. The truckers shift and reverse and wave us forwards to squeeze through tiny gaps, it is a free for all medley and the port authorities seem little bothered by the hodgepodge fashion in how we get on board. We are a little lost campervan amongst a sea of juggernauts. We finally get on board, and hook up to the electric. We have chosen the cheaper ‘camping on board option’ which means we  will sleep in Leo on the deck rather than pay for a cabin. The crossing from Bari to Igoumenitsa is eight hours through the night, and we squeeze up past the huge greasy vehicles to get up to the main lounges for an evening meal amongst the truckers. They are loading themselves up with huge plates of beetroot salad and moussaka and red wine. Alcohol turns out to be necessary to lull us of to sleep later given the droning thump of the engines beneath us.

We arrive in the port town of Igoumenitsa at 4.30am. We drive and park on the prom, and wait for morning to arrive. The day is a national holiday, and the Greeks have clearly been out celebrating the night before with the knowledge of not having to work today.  Out-all-night revellers stop to wave through the windows at Tiddler, and ladies with high heels and shiny clothes do the greek equivalent of the morning walk of shame home in their party clothes. The first rain in weeks suddenly arrives and within half an hour the streets are awash, water funnelling down the streets and out into the harbour. We understand why the pavements are so high in comparison to the roads. Later, the morning’s weather is soon forgotten as we set up camp on a little spit of land that is surrounded on all sites by a narrow beach. The sun shines, and we spend a few days doing nothing but dig sandcastles and swim in the perfectly clear sea. Tiddler collects shells by the bucketload, and our peace is only slightly disturbed by the arrival of a convoy of caravans and motorhomes from Ireland, who turn out to all be part of an extended family and spend a disproportionate amount of time shouting at each other and their dogs. We move to the other end of the campsite and peace returns.


From here we travel on to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We see nothing here, only the inside of a hotel room, as Tiddler goes into meltdown and flatly refuses to walk anywhere. There are famous roman architectural sites, and the white tower, and market places, but only if you are visiting without a truculent toddler in tow. We decide to move on, knowing we have plenty of opportunities to drop back down into Greece from Bulgaria when the weather is better and Tiddler is more willing.

So we head north, through the plains of Serres where the biting winds rattle Leo’s doors and the bleached out fields look as dry and pale as the cotton growing there. We stop for lunches in border towns where people finish eating direct from paper tablecloths and jump straight into their tractors that they have left parked on the kerb. We take the twisting turns into the Rodopi mountains, and arrive at the Bulgarian border.

Next post: Digger’s black humour predictions about life in Bulgaria are proved to be true.

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Amici, Romans and countrymen: Italy 3

From the (hopefully) healing waters and sparkling air of Cerravezza Terme, we continue on a slightly less tortuous route, fortunately given the dense fog that has descended overnight, down the other side of the Apennines and into Reggio de Emilia.

 

In a town that has rather been benevolently neglected due to the twin sisters on either side of it of Parma and Bologna, we are fortunate to spend time and have a guided tour from two friends and colleagues who themselves are taking a sabbatical here for a year. They have been residents of Reggio a few months, enough to find a wonderfully high ceiling-ed rental flat above a hidden courtyard behind a huge stone archway and facade, and purchase just enough crockery and furniture to be comfortable, and find work in a local language school. Even so they regale us with their thankfully unfounded fear that they would be permanently sofa surfing with airbnb for the year. Despite their fluency in Italian, the bureaucracy gears that were needed to move rental agreements, and parking permits, and Brexit spanners in the works for potential employment, all took time to get resolved. Tiddler is joyous that she has found old friends in the middle of this strange journey across Europe. We ourselves enjoy it even more so, conversation, good company and being ordered for in restaurants and the compulsory gelato shop, without struggling to translate the menus for a change. I eat deliciously sweet pumpkin ravioli, and given that the region is famous for its meat, Digger devours a platter of smoked hams and salami. In the icecream shop, we perch on white-painted log stumps while Tiddler tries almost fluorescent pink forest fruits, I take sharp lemon and figs in ricotta flavours, while Digger manages to consume a chocolate ice cream so rich it gleams as slick as a ganache under the shop lights.
In the park, as a promotion advertising a new museum exhibition ‘The way of the road’, we stumble across another reminder of the history of this country. Tiddler occupies herself admiring swords and beards, and collects conkers to add to her acorn collection, and waves our friends a wistful Ciao when it it time to move on.

 

From Reggio we travel on southwards, stopping in Bologna to potter round the square, eat pizza slices and spicy courgette dumplings. The police are out in force, and we wonder if this is normal, or a symptom of ongoing fear of terrorist attacks in crowded public places.

 

Parking is difficult and costly and we have taken to leaving Leo in the car parks of the huge cemeteries to visit the towns where it is much easier to manoeuvre. My father has talked for many years of visiting Milan and also Palermo to try and research and track down records of his family tree, but visiting these cemeteries confirms it is a mammoth task he would be undertaking, and I do not think it is a viable project for his age now. There are tombs and plaques stretching out, row upon row. The numerous flower stalls and sellers at the entrance had seemed superfluous, until we realised the scale of just this one premises, where a step ladder on wheels is a necessary requirement when you come to pay your respects.

 

Digger’s recent diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome (years of using power tools has begun to take it’s toll) seemed worsening with the regular driving, and we decide to try and cover more mileage on the autostrada, the Italian motorway. This would not only reduce the driving time, but also reduce the amount of turns and rotations he needs to make with the steering wheel. These roads would have made the Romans proud.

imageThe autostrada system is quite clear, take a ticket from the machine on entry to the motorway,  and on exit the ticket works out the cost, and you pay. It is all automated, instructions can be in your language of choice, and it has all worked perfectly fine so far the few stretches we used them in France and just across the border into Italy. We had confidently negotiated the problem that Leo is too high to be at the car height buttons, and too low to be at the lorry height buttons, so I (being the passenger as we are a right hand drive), have to carry out a series of yoga stretches with my whole torso out the window with Tiddler holding my legs for balance in order to operate the system. We also worked out the confusion that France has blue signs for toll motorways and green for free route, whereas Italy has the complete opposite, clearly to lull unwary motorhomers into paying unexpected charges. So we were feeling fairly confident by this stage. Picture the scene. Digger drives up to the booth. I launch myself out the window as normal, and press the button for the ticket. No ticket. I press the button again. No ticket. No ticket. Car behind beeps. Still no ticket. Lorry trundles up behind. There is no option to reverse. Digger is visibly sweating, if only I could see it, but my head is halfway down the side of the van. The barrier goes up, without issuing a ticket. Digger puts his foot down and drives through with me scrabbling back into my seat with a bump. And this is how we end up on the autostrada without a valid ticket.
“Not to worry, we’ll sort it out at the other end” is our mantra of the day. Four hours later we pull up at the exit booths, gratefully seeing this is unusually manned.  Manned by a non-English speaker however. We wave our hands and point and try and explain. We give the name of the junction we entered, and point and wave and hand signal a bit more. The chap sees the light and turns to his computer. He prints us a receipt for 73 euros. We are flabbergasted. We repeat the name of the junction, in higher pitched voices. Bear in mind this is all happening with me in my favourite leaning-out-of-the-van yoga pose. He takes Digger’s driving licence details, and gets out to write down the registration number, which all now gets entered into the computer too. “ponto blu” he repeats at us again and again, along with a whole host of other things we can’t understand. “ponto blu, ponto blu!” He waves the receipt. Tiddler shouts “pontu blu, pontu blu!” It is clear on all sides we are getting nowhere.
He conceded defeat and writes €17.20 underneath the receipt. We hand this over. He wants Digger’s signature. He lifts the barrier, calling “ponto blu” forlornly after us as we drive off.
Some time later, our nerves steadied with the best falafel wrap I have ever tasted, from a Pakinstani shop where the owner give Tiddler slices of kebab straight off the rotating skewer while we wait, and whose whole face lights up when we say we are from England. He talks about Sadiq Khan with a misty eyed glow of delight. We learn from him we need to go to a Ponto Blu office, the administration for the autostrada system. Fearing we still need to pay a €73 fine for not having a ticket, we are pleasantly surprised if a little confused when the following day at the Punto Blu we hand over our receipt, the bespectacled man taps his computer, Digger signs another paper, and the matter is resolved. It seems that without a ticket you are liable for the whole stretch of motorway toll to prevent people losing their tickets on purpose. Once our registration plates were checked by the autostrada entrance photo recognition system, we were off the hook. Tiddler, in some act of defiance for the stress and inconvenience, did a wee in the Punto Blu car park and we hustled her into the van before we got fined for that too.

 

The Republic of San Marino was a clear tourist destination, with American cruise goers popping up from Rimini port to waste their time there queuing up to pay five euros to get their passport stamped with the official (though unnecessary) border pass. Like Le Mont St. Michel in France, the town of San Marino itself was historically and architecturally fascinating, but full of random shops as a glorified duty free location. Whether leather bags, souvenirs or guns, it was all there on display.

 

It also hosts various museums, including the museum of vampires, and the museum of curiosities, both of which seemed out of place in this hill top fort. We spotted the guards, and took the cable car, and Digger heard some snatches of Bulgarian conversations around him. “We are getting closer” he said, “I’m not sure how I feel about that”.

 

Tiddler befriends a German couple who give her an Italian deck of cards with its forty cards and random pictures of coins and cups. They try and teach us a game but the rules get lost in translation. We move on through Pescara, to Bari. The ferry is waiting for us.

 

Next post: crossing the Adriatic sea and follow the BG plates!


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Hairpins and smurfs: Italy # 2

Just exactly how steep is a 7-12% road gradient, and will Leo cope? Digger and I ponder this in relation to hills and ascents we know from back home as we drive onwards into the Apennines. Our fears are temporarily allayed when we meet a caravan (with French plates) coming in the opposite direction.
“Well, it must be okay if a caravan can be towed surely?”
“Unless they also didn’t know what they were getting into on the way in but then couldn’t turn round to get out again”, Digger suggests.


We are leaving the coastal stretch heading into a little town called Cervarezza Terme, just south of the larger and more well known town on Castelnovo de Monti, famous for the historic bell factory that still survives there. Cervarezza Terme itself is over 1000m altitude, and as we climb upward, ever upwards, we see the countryside morphing with every turn of the road. The colours change to oranges and russets, and distant hills take on a reddish-purplish tinge. Summer weather on the coast is a picture postcard receding through our back windscreen, and by the time we reach the brow of the mountain range we have clearly dropped into an alpine-induced autumn. We are grossly undressed and I pull on my bedsocks as we drive along. Digger snorts in amusement. “No wonder the Italians despair at the British fashion sense”.
After triple, nay quadruple, uphill hairpins in a row, with me clinging onto the side of the door as we negotiate the curve, we realise how the caravan, and all other drivers cope with these roads. They simply drive in the middle and those with any semblance of passing courtesy for other drivers sound their horn as they go round blind corners. Note to self, massive delivery lorries don’t feel the need to warn you of their presence on your side of the road. Luckily all that extra adrenaline released served well to warm up us slightly, and we arrive just before dusk, Leo and nerves fairly intact, into serious chestnut country.image

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The large campsite is set onto a slope, and has around two hundred pitches as well and numerous wooden cabins, some of which are obviously privately owned as the bespoke additions of pot plants and pizza ovens. The dense woodland, part of the Fonti national park means that the scale of it is hidden like some forest wonderland beneath leaves and thousands and thousands of fallen chestnuts. The chap on reception seems a bit concerned about us turning up unannounced. “There is room tonight, but if you are still here at the weekend there might be a problem. You need to let me know first thing in the morning how long you are staying”. We are slightly bemused as the site seems deserted, apart from two little Italian grannies, dressed in stereotypical black, poking at the chestnuts with their walking sticks.


We enjoy two quiet days, walking in the woods, collecting chestnuts and playing on the mini zip wire we find there. We walk into the town and drink coffee on a terrace, shoe-horned in on a table full of old men playing cards and clutching their leather over-the-shoulder bags to their rotund stomachs, who buy Tiddler icecream and then chuckle at her chocolate moustache. We visit the ‘has-seen-better-days’ mineral spa, famed for its hydrotherapeutic qualities (I’m hoping for some improvement with my broken toe) with the slipperiest floor I have every had the misfortune to try and walk across. Tiddler slam dunks herself like Bambi on ice.


Seven thirty on Saturday morning it all suddenly makes sense. We are awakened by motors running, brakes, shunting and tyres cracking gravel, and Italian voices calling. The Italian Motorhome Club weekend has arrived on our doorstep. Many must know each other as they hop in an out of each others vehicles, hand signally and backing in on top of each other, trapping Leo in some sort of white van corral. Children spill out, and dogs, and glamorous looking Italian campers who clearly have just left home this morning. Tiddler, Digger and I look on in our own slightly dishevelled manner. Tiddler can hear the children and jumps into her coat and hat and is out the door to play, befriending a family of three who later spend a whole afternoon playing lego and beetle drive on a picnic rug outside Leo, and in return the no doubt grateful mother showers us with little sweetened biscotti and leaves Tiddler with a toy smurf. Italian motorhoming is an organised phenomenon. The women cook up veritable feasts on their van hobs, no scrimping on the fiddly bits. Food is clearly worth doing properly. At certain times everyone disappears en masse to some organised programme, and we are in a motorhome ghost town. And then like clockwork, they all reappear again. It is a frantic, exuberant, oh so Italian few days.

 

Next post: what happens when you end up on the autostrada without a ticket.


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Europe on a shoestring?

It has become glaringly clear that the cheapest way to get to Bulgaria is not overland. We know the delightfully named Wizz Air and the like hop across with flights from London to Sofia at less than £100, but not only would that have severely restricted Tiddler’s books, toys and random paraphernalia that we could have brought, but would have meant we  would have gone straight from living with one set of grandparents (lovely as they are) slap bang into the welcoming arms of the others. We needed a little bit of a time out, as well as the opportunity to explore and experience a road trip.

Financially speaking then, let’s cut to the chase. Campsites with the discount ACSI card average around €17 per night. However it is a definite lottery as to what you finally end up paying as the French in particular have made the system so unfathomable (even with handy billboard size tables of rates on the walls for the brave or foolhardy to try and tot up for themselves). Here is the easy bit; rates vary according to high or low season. Then factor in number of people, extra people, children above a certain age, children below a certain age, dogs, tents for dogs, electric hook up or not, caravan, campervan, campervan above a certain length, motorhome, motorcycle trailer, other trailer, extra car, standard pitch size, large pitch size, grass pitch, hard standing and the list goes on ad infinitum. Then don’t forget to add on the tax on top for the final figure owed. We gave up trying to understand the system, and clearly some exasperated campsite owners had done the same and declared to us a flat fee on arrival, ignoring both Tiddler’s presence and tax in one fell swoop. Tres bon for the thrifty minded camper.

Digger’s French is not up to much, so he has taken to wearing a t-shirt that – provided he puts on a quizzical look and points to himself – mean we should end up with somewhere to kip at the end of the day.

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Sites vary immensely in terms of facilities, with heated or indoor pools in some and free wifi, right down to no toilet paper (not that it hadn’t been restocked, there simply wasn’t dispensers for the paper in the stalls in the first place) in others. Bizarrely, quite a number of the french toilet blocks had piped musak or local radio constantly on the go. I wondered if this was some sort of french intellectual cultural tradition, to ponder world politics while carrying out your morning ablutions, or perhaps a matter of french delicacy to mask those slightly embarrassing bodily sounds. Either way, a little bit of toilet paper would surely have not gone amiss.

We chose to hand wash our clothes as the weather was perfect for drying them even overnight, but some sites also had washing machines and tumble driers for a few euros a pop. Others organised pre-ordered deliveries of croissants and baguettes just in time for breakfast every day- again slightly more expensive a purchase but a welcome treat. The best savings to be made on food and drink were local markets in village squares for fresh produce, and Super U, Lidl and Carrefour for one euro cartons of wine. Digger and I make no claims at appreciating fine wines, and are more than happy with a cut price glassful, which we were consistently pleasantly surprised by.

Our main expenditure therefore was (aside from the sites themselves, which many motorhomers avoid by using lay-bys and service stations) the diesel for Leo (pricey given the mileage) and a few toll payments on the motorways (when Digger got fed up of traffic through the more built up areas). Tourists genuinely getting out and about and seeing attractions would also end up paying out for entrance fees and honeypot-priced food and drink, whereas with Tiddler’s attention span we spent more time pottering about making our own entertainment, and unofficially eating packed lunches where we probably shouldn’t. However Tiddler once spent a solid hour and a half making her own version of a jigsaw puzzle by matching acorns to their original acorn cups. This epic task was not for the faint hearted, and no doubt far better for her at this age than anything a museum or free wifi could provide.

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Low -cost things therefore we are so glad we brought with us: the paddling pool, the ACSI card, Tiddler’s bug shoes (in and out and in and out of the van, and then in and out again), the old scooter, sarongs instead of towels for speedy drying, a stove top kettle, sleep masks to block out the early morning light… though of course we also brought lots of things we probably won’t use at all until we get to Bulgaria, and in the meantime clutter up Leo.

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“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”

“Better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road


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People in glass houses shouldn’t: Italy #1

Crossing borders in this part of Europe was very easy. Speeding along a motorway we entered a tunnel in France, and popped out the other end of it into Italy. It is a definite case of everything changes; everything stays the same. From scrubby olive trees and terracotta coloured apartment blocks, we rapidly switch to scrubby olives, teracotta coloured houses, swooping nerve defying flyovers with plunging chasms far below and impatient truckers undertaking a relatively slow moving, English-plated campervan who clearly is at fault, whatever it does. Beep beep! Beeeeeep!  The swathes of sloping glasshouses precariously terraced into the hillsides look eerily like some sort of Bladerunner-esque large scale industrial labratory. It is only later when we stop near the town of Ceriale, that we realise that many of these warehouses of glass are defunct and derelict, their old irrigation systems strung up across the beams like black and rotten tentacles, now full of dust as the agricultural trade has moved away to other regions and countries. There is more graffitti and litter. There are more signs on the gates warning of dogs and security cameras, but it is charmingly Italian, from every adult being unable to pass Tiddler without utterances of ‘Ciao Bella’ and huge platefuls of fragrant salads and tall latte machiatos on every corner.

The red dust gets everywhere. The campsite pitches are earthern, bordered by ornate succulents that the Dutch couple who own it clearly maintain, along with their aviary of perhaps twenty blue and yellow budgies. The soil has broken down through oveuse and penetrates everything. Tiddler and Leo are immediate dust magnets. I start to wonder if the terracotta coloured houses were actually painted white and I’m just seeing the stain left behind. Out of season the pool is closed, but it is hot and arid. We burrow into Leo’s inner stowaway seats and pull out the paddling pool. Tiddler splashes and makes mud pies. The few other visitors on site look on benignly and return to their newsapers. Even the gentle crooning of Mull of Kintyre, and the newly learnt strains of Jolene don’t warrant any attention.

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The motorhome season is drawing to a clear close. Digger searches for future sites but Italy has all but shut up for the season. We decide not to try the ‘sortees’- break stops suitable for motorhomes to park up alongside the long distance truckers which many motorhomers in Italy swear by, but we prefer a little more security travelling as we are with Tiddler. It is clear we must travel bigger distances at a time, tracing across a map of the Boot and joining up the dots that are the open campsites Digger has studiously marked. We are beginning the transition not only through the seasons, but through the West-East wealth spectrum across Europe. With many miles still to go before we reach Bulgaria, we are bound to see this continue.

Next posts: budget busting, festivals and amici in unexected places

p.s. a ccouple of new photos have been added to some of the France posts- we have had poor access to wifi and time for posts and photos….