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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Sandstone, Churchill and a climbing wall: Bulgaria road trip (the return journey)

Waving farewell to the place we have called home all winter, we set off on the bumpy road to the capital city of Bulgaria, Sofia.

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(Leo parked in the snow just eight days before we set off, thankfully Spring burst into action for our departure!)

Digger and I both observe that Leo the campervan, in an unspecific way we can’t put our finger on, definitely sounds different than before. We hope it is making some genuine top notch improved clicks, whines and general shuddering rather than ‘help me help me’ morse code on the potholed main arterial route from east to west across the country. The trouble is that neither of us has an ear for engines. Digger goes back to his old approach of wind the window down and switch the tunes up (in this case a medley of Tiddler’s including the Wombles, Poddington Peas, and Filbert the Frog) which is enough to drown out and disguise any slightly unnerving thrumming from beneath our feet.
We also operate the ‘top drawer’ scale of road quality. How quickly the bumps, twists and half finished road works shoot out the drawer from its moorings in the back of the van determine the state of the roads, and by default the economy. I could snooze my way across Europe missing all the road signs, and would only have to look at the specific precarious balancing angle of that drawer to make an educated guess as to how far west or east we were. Suffice to say in Bulgaria I had to wedge that drawer shut with a stick I got so fed up getting out the van to shut it tight again.

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We hit rush hour in Sofia, which amounts to any time in and around the radial roads. Despite the rest of the country losing its population and with a negative growth rate, Sofia continues to boom and expand. It is a central amoeba, sucking in its countrymen (and plenty of foreign industries) through a centripetal force. However, the centre remains oddly low rise and provincial, with the multi gold-domed St. Alexander Nevski cathedral sitting comfortably squat across the plaza of yellow ceramic cobbles (ordered specially from Budapest) along from the parliament buildings, across from the street artists with religious curios and the vintage Russian army kit sellers.

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We spend a few days in the suburban apartment of Tiddler’s great aunt and uncle, who as is typical feed us extremely well and eventually send us on our way a few pounds heavier. Tiddler is in seventh heaven as the twelve year old son of Digger’s cousin has come to stay from England for the Easter holidays. A three year old girl might not be the normal playmate of choice, but M took it all in his stride and the pair of them were soon tearing round the rooms with a mix of Bulgarian and English cries of glee and roaring of dinosaur teeth and waving of tiny little dinosaur hands. To save Aunty from an early grave we spent a day at the incredibly well presented children’s interactive museum Museko, which didn’t stop the mayhem but meant everyone got a rest from T-Rex impressions.

 

 

From here we hit the road, making a last stopover before Greece in the border village of Melnik. This aspirational little place wasn’t content with its amazing sandstone cliffs and pinnacles as a draw for tourists and amateur painters alike, but thought it had better invest in some high quality wine production too. We try samples in an underground wine cellar, where Digger’s palate coincides with that of Winston Churchill, who ordered a particular product of the region by the barrel load. I suggest to Digger this may be a symptom of an addled, rather than a refined taste for wine. Back out in the bright sunshine, I’m more interested in the wide flood management channel that divides the two sides of the main street, not from a geographical view an more but rather after all those snifters in the wine cellars I’m concerned I might fall in.

 

 

 

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In the late evening sun we also visited the humble medieval Rozhen monastery a few kilometres uphill from Melnik. The sparseness of the decor (aside from the church itself) was a welcome and peaceful change after the more showy and famous Rila monastery. Tiddler drank water from a copper cup on a chain at a fountain, and tied a final martenitsa on a blossoming tree.
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We ate the last of our ridiculously cheap Bulgarian restaurant meals, including a mountain of thick buffalo yogurt topped with a blueberry compote, and then headed southwards to Greece.

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You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs

It turns out Leo the campervan needs further work before it can take us overland back to the UK. The suspension problem we thought was fixed went kaput again on a trial run at the weekend. The garage mechanic shakes his head at us, citing either age or the perishing cold that has ruptured the rubber on a different part to what we just paid to get mended. We have two options, either sit and wait for a few weeks while the parts are sent for from either Germany or UK, or replace the suspension completely with a different system. Both are costly. Both are a blow to the finances. But if we wait here for option one, we will take a loss on ferry bookings.
“There is always option three”muses Digger in an Eeyore sort of mood, “We could sell Leo here for spares and repairs, and fly home instead”. Quick calculations on the back of an envelope reveal this is not a sensible option at all. Never mind the cost, we don’t want to give up on our adventures and plans for Greece, Italy and Spain. Tiddler sadly sticks out her bottom lip at the thought of leaving any of her precious and already minimalistic spectrum of toys behind in favour of only what can be crammed into an overhead locker on a plane. I don’t want to admit defeat, and am privately cosseting the beautiful blue enamel tins I had planned on carrying home. Digger seems to have temporarily forgotten the large heavy box containing his jigsaw machine that he has already informed me I am resting my feet on in the campervan footwell for the entire journey home.
Option two it is then, and we are now playing a waiting game to see if it can be fixed by Friday, so we can set off on the Monday as planned. Apart from the actual packing and loading up of the van, we are set to go. Tiddler finishes at the nursery on Friday. The wifi has been cancelled for the same day. We don’t want to postpone ourselves into a limbo that might stretch out for weeks.

In the meantime, we are saying goodbye to Bulgaria. I think of all the things I had planned to blog about, the bizarre dual shift school session system that changes halfway through the year, the coffee shop culture and the hookah pipes, the constant digging up of the roads, the wholesale perfume shops, the inability of Bulgarians to let you serve yourself with food resulting in a warm hospitality that threatens severe indigestion if not full-blown gluttony, the constant surprise that a toddler can speak a foreign language (and while we are at it, has she got enough warm clothes on!), the British ex-pats and their social media curiosities regarding life here, the telling off we receive by the bespectacled and slow moving postmistress because we have dared to receive a package from the UK with the sender address written in the unofficial wrong place, the from-pillar-to-post approach to try and get Tiddler her entitled Bulgarian citizenship (which we gave up on at this stage, lacking the approved paperwork), the warm soft breads and banitsas in the little outdoor cafe that constantly plays jazz to the pigeons, street dogs and patrons alike. These will all have to wait for another time.

Our last experiences here are the preparations for Easter. The supermarkets are full of cardboard stands selling ink pellets and sachets to make traditional Bulgarian dyed eggs, though there are plenty of made-in-China plastic chicks, rabbits and baskets that have crept on to the shelves as well.

 

Images from powerling.com and zikata.wordpress.com

From a midnight mass to the cracking of the eggs in the big egg fight (for the British, think of an egg-themed conker challenge to get how that works) Easter or ‘Great Day’ (Velikden) is a big deal here.

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Image above from BG Vestnik

Tiddler and I have a go at making the traditional dyed eggs (red coloured ones are the most important), though we poke a hole with a needle and blow ours first, when for prime egg fighting success they are usually hard-boiled. There is a little unexpected excitement when Tiddler decides to suck instead and ends up tasting her first egg nog. With the hard boiled versions, the surviving uncracked egg is declared the winner, and should in theory be kept until next Easter, although I’m not sure of the olfactory benefits of that, particularly through a long hot Bulgarian summer.

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We stuff ourselves with kozunak, the sweet Easter bread, and wait for Leo. I am not unaware of the irony and the inappropriate timing, as people across the globe are celebrating the resurrection and the victory over death, that we are somewhat preoccupied with the fate of a battered old van, albeit that it might be a renewal of sorts. We can only hope that Tiddler, Digger and I are fortunate enough to go forwards with grace, as the new and next steps in our lives continues to unfold.

 

 

 


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Ciao, Bulgaria.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
You can take a Bulgarian back to Bulgaria, but he’s not necessarily going to stay there.

The decision has been made that this visit to Bulgaria has come to an end. We have spent five months here, plus the two months overland travel time on the road in the campervan Leo to get here.
Here is a quick review:
1. Tiddler’s bilingualism has seen a huge boost through attending a local nursery, and hearing real conversations around her. Prior to arriving here she did understand a few things Digger would say to her, but we have now progressed to a very good understanding (she translates some things into English for me to understand), she speaks various correct words and sentences, alongside a general constant stream of gobbledygook which is her playing with sounds and language, which neither Digger and I can fully interpret but is all part of the learning process. Digger also feels more inspired to chat with her in his native tongue, now he is getting a conscious response. (My language skills are now being tested in order to keep up!)

 


2. Stay-at-home mama life suits me. Having worked for more than 10 years in the secondary education sector, Digger’s big fear of me resigning from my post in July last year would be boredom, particularly in Bulgaria with the absence of my friends, my normal routine, and playgroups/events I could take Tiddler to. Yes of course, it would be better if all those things could have been here too, but I have not been bored. We have cooked, and baked, and crafted, and invented games, and acted out make-believe stories. I have had long conversations with my child. I have sat and brushed her hair, for no reason other than to chat. We do yoga together. We have read stories, and made our own books. Tiddler has started to learn to read and I have the time to help her. Digger laughs at my ‘letterwork’ folder I have put together with resources for her reading. “I can tell you are happy because you have got plastic wallets and are organising your files! You enjoy her learning to read more than she does because you get to have bits of paper, and post-its, and a checklist of things to tick off once she has done them!” There is no point being defensive, because it is true. I am an educator by trade, a purveyor of instruction and worksheets. I may be more used to teenagers in the classroom, but I am learning how much fun a pile of coloured beads and reward stickers can be. As an only child, Tiddler has a lot to gain from books.

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3. Financially, it has not been too bad. Having both given up work in the summer of 2017, our biggest expenses have been removals and travel. Firstly, to get ourselves and our possessions off the island where I had lived for over a decade, and into storage at my parent’s house in the westcountry in the UK. Then the travel overland through Europe. We justified it as being a long extended holiday, the opportunity that we would not have if we were working and limited to days off. Campsites, the van itself and even petrol and road tolls all chipped away at our travel kitty. We were concerned with safety for Tiddler and so chose not to park up in lay-bys as many other travelers on the road could do to save their pennies. But the open road experience, as summer faded to autumn and we still traveled on southwards into the sunshine was worth the costs involved.
Once in Bulgaria, we were able to use a family apartment as our base, so bills were limited to electricity, water and wifi. Food bills were reduced through raiding Diado and Baba’s supremely delicious range of preserved stocks, bottles and supplies. Unexpected expenses came from Leo’s hydraulic suspension breaking on the potholed Bulgarian roads. Digger and Tiddler both had chest infections in February, and without having registration numbers as residents, we had to pay through the nose to even see a doctor, who eventually came to look at Tiddler in the dark and drafty corridor of the hospital between his shifts, and that was only because Digger managed to get hold of his personal mobile number. We paid for the prescriptions to be written, and the antibiotics and the syrups to be bought. Digger also had expenses to pay for the aftercare on a carpal tunnel syndrome operation on his hand. He was charged per stitch by the scissor-wielding dour-faced nurse, even when I told him I could have cut them out myself at home. He has faith in me, but perhaps not that much.
We also had to factor in the nursery fees, inexpensive compared to the UK but we had not planned for it, expecting Tiddler’s grandmother Baba to be here, not for childcare per say but for entertaining Tiddler and prompting her language development. Diado is a lot less verbose although he tries his best. The lack of playgroup-type opportunities also meant Tiddler needed more children to interact with, and so we opted for a private kindergarten to fill the gap. Baba talks to us on skype from Canada, just another Bulgarian granny farmed out to support the childcare of relations overseas, further evidence of Bulgaria’s declining and ageing population problems. She is visibly upset every time we speak that she has missed this opportunity with her granddaughter.  If she was here, I believe we would have stayed longer.

 


4. May you live in interesting times. It hasn’t all been roses of course, but I can’t deny that it is interesting. Digger and I have bickered more than before, mostly because he has been mooching around the apartment with limited access to power tools. Digger is a man who likes to work and be useful, and the wintery weather, the flu, and his hand operation have all conspired against him. He has done odd jobs with his father and for friends, but as we decided against buying a run-down old property at this time to bring back into use he has had nothing to get his teeth into.
But I like a challenge. I like dealing with currency I don’t recognise, and food I haven’t tasted, and taxi drivers who need to put their glasses on to read the address I am waving at them because I can’t pronounce it. I like not having to be embarrassed when Tiddler makes a personal comment about someone, because they don’t understand and then I can explain a little about manners. I like the snow, and the sunshine, and the weirdness of the winters here. I like learning about the customs and the folk tales, and developing a taste for rakia with my lunchtime salads. I like walking to the farm to collect the still warm milk, and have grown to be accustomed to the whooshing sound of the rickety lift that takes us up to the fourth floor.
It is not an easy, or a clean, or even a very efficient place, but I have never once regretted the decision to be here.

 


Digger however, is itching to go. As I type this he is downstairs ‘playing’ with Leo. He wants to go now, to get on the road. We leave in 11 days, weather permitting. Right now the snow is falling and I am not relishing the prospect of cold nights in a campervan. Bulgaria has been on the news as many local people in the rural areas have been taking the storks into their homes to save them. These long-legged birds, supposedly the heralds of spring, have arrived over the last few weeks from Africa alongside the better weather. This current deterioration back into minus temperatures has seen them frozen into their nests, and icicles growing on their feathers as the cold air rises off the ground, unable to open their wings and trapping them in the fields. The villagers are going out with baskets and blankets, plucking up these huge birds like statues, and bringing them into their homes to defrost.
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Should better weather arrive, our route is planned for Bulgaria, Greece, southern Italy, but then we veer off from the outbound route and sail across to Barcelona. We are due to arrive back in the UK in May, with no house, no work, no definite plans. I’m hoping for some inspiration along the way.
I asked Digger last night, “Do you still think we did the right thing, giving up work, trying to do something different with our lives?”
“Yes” he says. “I don’t want to live out of a suitcase for ever, I want to be settled, but I don’t want to wait till I’m too old to enjoy life. We just need to find the right place to be.  Bulgaria isn’t right for Tiddler’s future. We need to see what we can find instead. But yes, we did the right thing”


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A glass less?: Welcome to Bulgaria

All the way on the long road to Bulgaria, Digger has been creating a mental list of things he doesn’t like about his country of birth. In a mode of negativity he details them as we approach the Greece-Bulgaria border.


My visits to Bulgaria previously have been always in the sultry hot summer months, where we stay in a little village with his parents, Diado (grandfather) and Baba (Granny). Their house and garden is a well-ordered model of self-sufficiency, with beautiful purple and white flowers adorning the pathways, and succulent red grapes hanging down above the swinging chair.
Although fully agreeing that Digger has a far greater knowledge, and perhaps allowance, to point out the faults, I do suggest he stops being so pessimistic. “Harrumph” he says “Bulgaria is a country with a glass less than half full”.
We follow a bus for a little while, and he laughs, ” That bus knows what I am talking about”.
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He says,
“One. The roads will be rubbish. It will take us far longer to get anywhere than it looks on the map.
Two. The police will stop us. They’ll spot the UK plates, and pull us over, and want to see all our paperwork and try and get a bribe out of us. They’ll think we are stupid foreigners that can be tricked into paying something”. He continues,
“Three. Did you know that Bulgaria has the worst air pollution in all of Europe? I read a report on it. People can’t afford to pay the electricity prices so everyone burns wood and coal. Everything is filthy dirty.
Four. Litter! People don’t care”, he shakes his head “there will be crap everywhere. And street dogs.
Five. You’ll spot the prostitutes out at the sides of the roads. In the lay-bys.
Six. And the gypsies will be going through the bins to see what they can find to recycle and sell on. Or steal from the empty houses”
He takes a break in his monologue of disaster to hand our passport over at the border. A long conversation through the window of the van follows.
“See?” he shakes his head sadly as we are finally waved through, “They think it is wrong we are all travelling on different forms of ID’s. They want to know why Tiddler has my surname but doesn’t have a Bulgarian passport. They are stuck in the past, stuck in the red tape legacy of communism. Nobody wants to be here, and do these jobs, and get no money for it. Don’t expect any sort of customer service”.
“Why are you being so grumpy?” I ask. “I thought you wanted us all to come to Bulgaria?”
“I came because I thought you wanted us all to come to Bulgaria?”
And with that slightly ominous note of a possible mis-communication of our grand plan, we cross the border.


We travel through to the capital city Sofia, passing into the shadow of the massive Vitosha mountains that prevents the warm Mediterranean air travelling northwards. The temperature drops immediately and there is frost on the ground. We spend a couple of days there with Digger’s aunt, uncle and cousin.


We get fed with rich banitsa and baklava, and buttery trout and stuffed roasted peppers, and the ubiquitous shopska salad, and Tiddler’s cheeks are pinched and her chin chucked. We drive on to Digger’s parents house, in the village of V_ L_ and get more banitsa, and hearty herb-laden bop (bean) soup, and Tiddler gets to dig out old toys that we left there the previous summer and talks ten to the dozen to Diado even though he does not understand a single word.

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Baba is still on an extended visit abroad, helping Digger’s brother and family in Canada. The Bulgaria diaspora is far flung, and the families and the empty houses and the ghost villages left behind are falling into slow but steady disrepair.


We decide to settle for the winter in a little empty apartment owned by Digger’s family (more detail in future blogs) in the nearby town of T_, as that way we have better access to services when the snows do come (ten weeks of metre high snow on the ground last winter) , and can visit the village without having to be exactly living under Diado’s roof. (This means however, he just ends up coming into town to see us every day, to instruct Digger on the best way of doing things, if it was him).
We take a few days to find our feet and unpack Leo properly, and effectively we are now in our new ‘home’ for the time being. So in these early days of Digger’s gloomy predictions, was he really being unfair to his homeland? No, not all. The roads broke Leo’s hydraulic suspension within three days, we got stopped by traffic police twice in one day (and they refused to accept that his island driving licence was real and valid for driving in Europe), and all his other points proved to be true too. In future days (and blogs) we see the problems and the ‘it-could-only-happen-in-Bulgaria’ solutions and the poverty and neglect that this beautiful country is suffering. But we find reasons to love it all the same.

 

 


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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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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.