the skinflint philosopher

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


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Monasteries and mobiles: Greece

 

Over the border into Greece we head straight south. The first few kilometres are on a bone shuddering scratched off stretch of road, but we then ease onto the main drag and sail along smoothly. We stop for a roadside cafe breakfast and are treated to a huge platter of cheeses, cured meats and fried eggs, and freshly squeeezed orange juice. This is not your typical greasy spoon or bland and processed service station fodder.
Tiddler stands and makes cow eyes at the lady behind counter, and is promptly rewarded with a lollipop. This is the start of what becomes her clear mission for Greece (and later Italy). that is “if I look cute and stand here long enough I will get given a gift”. I’m afraid to report we leave behind us for the next few weeks a trail of conned shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and souvenir sellers as Tiddler manages to bring in booty everywhere we go. I begin to wonder if the culture of family, and the love of treating young children has serious impact on smaller businesses, if all children who enter the shops are treated as we are. We have to start rationing Tiddler’s consumption of chupa chups before it gets silly.

 


On the coastal plains below Mount Olympus and its fifty two peaks, south along the mainland coast from Thessaloniki, we visit Platamon Castle. This was a crusader castle built in the early 1200’s, and the imposing medieval tower now overlooks the modern highway below. Inside are the remains of a smithy, a pottery, and rusted old canons. The hill is ablaze with spring flowers.

 

 


Further inland, and at what we later decide is our favourite campsite of the whole trip, we stay more days than expected in Meteora. From a distance these huge grey rock formation loom out from the landscape like some real life Gormenghast.

 

As we reach near we see them for their real beauty.  Massive rock formations like these are usually the result of resistant volcanic rocks left standing proud as the softer rocks around them are weather away. These however are a mixture of sedimentary rocks, and so not only have resulted in huge pillars and domes, but these individually have been eroded with numerous caves and potholes.

 

The caves became shrines and hermitages, and a complex of Eastern orthodox monasteries have been been built precariously perched on their peaks. Tourists either come to climb the worn steps to the monasteries, or bring ropes and carabiners and scale the peaks themselves.

 

 

 

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We do nothing so adventurous as this, though Digger manages to cut his head open (on a cupboard in Leo) and we are in two minds whether to go to A&E to be better safe than sorry, but eventually just stick him back together with the medical supplies we had left over from his hand operation and that does the trick.

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In the village below we speak to a Greek-American who makes huge metal mobiles in a garden workshop that twist as meditatively in the wind as the climbers on their ropes.
We walk trails around the base of some of the peaks, and stumble across so many tortoises along the way that even Tiddler loses a bit of interest in them eventually. We pick wild thyme and oregano along the way to garnish our salads.

 


Tiddler befriends two dutch girls and the three of them race around the campsite on scooters and bikes for a few days. We swap addresses when it is time to travel on.

 

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In Igoumentisa, we spend a day at the beach waiting for the ferry to arrive. We talk to a German police woman, swimming in the sea on her day off, who is working with the Greek authorities at the port. Many people are trying to arrive in Greece with fake German documents, trying to reach northern Europe. She laughs when we talk about Bulgaria, and she says all winter she has seen the Bulgarian gypsies crowding on to the ferries to Italy all winter with all their pillows and blankets as they will sleep on the decks rather than pay for a cabin. It is only now that spring has arrived, and she meets travellers such as ourselves, that she has realised that not all Bulgarians are from the gypsy community. She laughs and shakes Digger’s hand.
Later in the evening, sitting in Leo on the chaotic dockside, where juggernauts, campers, cars and foot passengers jostle for position, and nobody apart from a teenager in jeans and sunglasses with a piece of paper in his hands seems to have any sort of authority, we board the ferry for Italy.

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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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Hop on the bus, Gus

No need to discuss much? What was Paul Simon thinking when he penned those lines? If Digger and I, with the added matured-with-age input of Granny and Papa Westcountry are anything to go by, any attempt to hop on a bus needs plenty of discussion, pontificating, and generally going round in verbal circles. Hopefully Digger and I will still be speaking to each other when we finally do hit the road otherwise it’s going to be an awfully quiet journey all the way to Bulgaria.

Update needed I think on where we are at. We have welcomed into our family a new addition. Hello to Leo!

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Leo (named by the previous owners and we didn’t bother to question why- reasons no doubt lost in obscurity) is a converted minbus. The chap we bought it from scavenged and stripped an old caravan, using all the fittings to kit out Leo with a fridge, oven and hob, sink, double bed, toilet and all the expected storage units. It is clearly a DIY conversion, but that makes it a little bit quirky. We hestitated handing over our hard earned and saved cash, considering whether Leo would have any re-sale value, but in the end we decided better to buy now and get going, rather than sit and wait for the perfect motorhome to turn up for sale while we may still be drumming our heels here at Christmas. So we now have Leo, possible warts and all.

In order to seat Tiddler safely, in a three-way seat belt for her car seat, we have had to lock in an additional minibus seat into the floor, which unfortunately blocks access to the fridge. Digger and the previous owner conferred and have worked out a system where the whole seat can be slid backwards and forwards, at least allowing us to use the fridge when we need to, but looks like we’ll probably end up storing random stuff in there instead of food!

Next on the hit list of upgrades is a bed for Tiddler. The original conversion has just a (smallish) double bed, and while we could squeeze Tiddler in with us no-one will get much sleep with that option. So Digger (he is so excited as now has a genuine reason to get his tools out and tinker around in the garden with a pencil behind his ear!) is trying various plans to make and secure a raised bunk. This should go above our bed, but still needs to be dismantled and ideally store flat so it doesn’t clog up our limited space. The two benches/sofas that become the double bed are here in this picture, with a plan for a raised bunk on the right hand side.

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Inkeeping with our thrifty ways, we managed to find a suitable board to take Tiddler’s weight jammed in the roof space in Papa’s garage, and then found a couple of old dumped chairs in the corner of a carpark. I’d spotted them abandoned a few days previously and walked past without a thought, till Digger mentioned he needed some sort of stand to support the bed. Guerilla chair stealing moments later, Digger is chopping them up on the lawn, taking the metal legs as bed supports while Tiddler steals the brown seat and sets up an impromtu musical concert with herself as the star performer.

Sounds good so far, though Digger has come in shaking his head tonight and so the bunk may need a little rethink before I can post up the finished article. Plenty of opportunties of course for us all to have our pennyworth on the best way to do it. Don’t even get me started on the negotiations regarding the best way to fit the curtain to save anyone’s blushes (our own, or random Gallic passers by) around the ‘bathroom’ area.

In the mean time, I’m beginning to sort through our boxes, packing into Leo things we think we need. We are of course complete novices at the motorhoming lark, though I have survived plenty of kayak wild camps and expeditions, and Scouting in the past, so I am pretty handy with setting up a tent and brewing a cuppa on a trangia. But now I have a whole vehicle to pack, I’m a bit stumped. We are not sure when to cut back (I really don’t need all those t-shirts) and when to splurge (I am taking a pair of wine glasses) so that we actually enjoy the experience. It shouldn’t all be masochistic minimalism. China plates or plastic? Duvets or sleeping bags?
We still don’t have a plan for when we get to Bulgaria, so we don’t know what we need for that, let alone what we will need for the journey. My very good friend, found on her blog here, has started writing lists for me of things to consider. Carbon monoxide alarms. Washing lines and pegs. Hot water bottle. Maps.

We are now motivated for the off, to get on that (mini)bus, Gus, but we are still waiting. Waiting for confirmation that Digger’s island driving licence is valid with the insurance. Waiting for the V5C vehicle logbook to be sent back. Still waiting for Digger to be able to get a bank account.

So my philosophy for today is, that it is very true that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What you need to watch out for is that someone hasn’t tied your shoelaces together before you even start.