The Uists, Benbecular and Berneray…. .

Across the causeway from Eriskay brings you into South Uist, home to long, white, sandy beaches on the west coast and rolling peat moors, inlets and rocky hills on the east coast.  There are sooo many deserted beaches on these islands.  Waking up in the morning and rolling out of the van straight onto a sandy beach all to myself to do my morning exercise routine has been another highlight of our trip.  Swinging about a couple of little yellow dumbbells whilst watching sanderlings skitter up and down the shoreline or listening to a couple of terns squawking their displeasure at having unwanted company sure beats wiping down the sweat of the previous occupant on the equipment at my local gym before using it.  Of course I don’t do this routine every morning as I’m really not that disciplined but when I do remember to do it and make the effort it is always worth it…….even more so on an empty beach without curious onlookers making me feel acutely self conscious and ridiculous…….except on one occasion when two gorgeous coffee and cream coloured young bullocks watched me with expressions that distinctly said WTF?

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A beach all to myself:)

After our first night on South Uist the fickle hand of the weather had us scuttling off to Lochboisdale on the other side of the island to seek some refuge from the wind which had battered us overnight at our exposed position right behind the beach.  As I’ve mentioned before high winds have us praying that our roof vents will still be intact when we wake up in the morning.  Being made of plastic they really aren’t the best and the wind manages to get under them constantly making them rattle.  Tim has solved the problem on three of them with a simple system of elastic bands and suckers to hold them in place but we have one which is a wind up affair with an integral fan within it which makes it impossible for that solution to work without taking it to bits and punching a hole through a fly screen.  On the second night of the ruddy thing rattling and constantly waking us up Tim got up in the early hours to deal with it.  I woke up a few hours later to find the temporary solution in place.  Mmm, not ideal but it did give us a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

 

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The temporary fix to the rattling roof vent.

Cable ties have sorted the little blighter out now.  We can’t open it or use the fan and the fly screen is in tatters but that’s the price we have to pay for a better nights sleep and it’s preferable to a hole in the roof.

 

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Lochboisdale on not such a good day.

Once at Lochboisdale we found some shelter behind a couple of containers in the harbour and sat out the inclement weather until it was time in the early evening to visit the hotel bar, sit round an open fire and upload the last blog post.  As there are next to no trees on the islands I asked the lady behind the bar if it was expensive to import wood or coal.  She said they buy a tonne of coal at a time which a few years ago cost them £700 but now costs £1300 and they sometimes mix it with peat if they’ve cut any that year.  Peat used to be an important natural fuel source here on the islands but now electricity, oil and gas have largely taken over.

 

A couple of days later we were waylayed by the most perfect pile of peat we’d ever seen before.  It was a work of art I tell you.

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The perfect peat pile.

We had to stop and take a photo of it.  The owner of the house was pottering about outside and after checking it was OK to take a photo he very happily answered all our questions about it.  He gathers it once a year from the moorland which has been allocated to him and it takes six people just one day to cut enough peat to supply his home with free energy for cooking, hot water and heat for an entire year.  After it’s cut it’ll take him three to four days of numerous trips to get it back to the house where he spends the next two weeks of his spare time building his masterpiece to dry it out before it can be used.  Marvellous.  The actual pile in the pictures is half of what it was and he showed us a framed picture of the completed work of art.

 

P1120801.JPGHe also told us all about how the peat is cut and showed us the tools they use which he keeps submerged in water all year round.  We were so glad we stopped and it is good to see an old tradition alive and well.

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Two consecutive days of clear dry weather had us out on the bikes again.  Apart from the punishing wind it really is a great place for cyclists and we’ve seen many a happy smiling cycle tourer blasting along with a tail wind heading north.  Those heading south are generally grimacing but I’m sure they’re enjoying every minute of it.  For us, as we are doing circular routes or out and back routes, it’s fifty fifty for the wind with or against us…..grimace on the way out and smile on the way back.

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Loch Druidibeag.
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Shetland ponies?  Not being a pony afficianado I wouldn’t know.
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Overlooking Loch Sgiopoirt.
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Shame about the car in front!
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A novel way to hold down the wire netting covering the thatch.

A day of walking followed where we had intended to walk to Uisinis Bothy and back on the eastern side of the island but was curtailed when we realised, when the path fizzled out after an hour or so, that we’d taken the wrong fork earlier on so retraced our steps and spent a while listening to the birds over a long lunch overlooking the sea.

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Peat cutting.

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Striding out on the wrong path to reach the bothy…..or not reach the bothy.
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Overlooking Loch Sgiopoirt again.

 

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Ah well, back after retracing our steps to just relax and listen to the birds.  We saw two cuckoos here.  We’ve heard them often enough but it’s the first time we had actually seen a cuckoo in the flesh.

The cycle of the weather has been such that a couple of days of decent weather have been followed by a wet and wild one.  Either a library or a museum come in handy on those days.  The Kildonan Museum on the A865 is a very pleasant place to while away an hour or so followed by coffee and cake in the attached cafe.  It tells the story of Island life through its exhibits, collections and pictures.

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Another restored croft house.

Benbecula gets quite an unkind write up by our guide saying ‘the only reason to come to Balivanich, Benbecula’s grim, grey capital, is if you are flying into or out of Benbecula airport, or you need an ATM or supermarket’. As the weather had closed in again with mist and drizzle I confess we did what most people probably do and that is drive straight across it to get to North Uist.  It is apparently pancake flat but we couldn’t tell as the mist denied us seeing it.  We did stop at the Co-op to do our weekly shop though to spread our spending on all the islands less one feel left out.

North Uist is more of the same landscapes as we had seen on South island but I don’t mean that in any disparaging way at all but I’m running out of superlatives to describe how fabulous these islands are.

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Moorcroft Campsite on North Uist.  They’ve thought of everything here.  Well kept grounds, spotless facilities, campers kitchen,  washing machine, tumble dryer, bunkhouse and three little hobbit houses to hire. 

You see some curious things when out either walking or cycling.  From a couple of fields away, through the binoculars, I spotted a sheep with all four legs in the air.  I dimly remember reading something somewhere that said if a sheep is on its back then it’s not that way deliberately and will die if it’s not turned over.   Well we got to her and got her turned over but she was too weak to get up so we went to the nearest house to let them know.

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If you see a sheep in this position it needs to be turned over.

The very friendly lady who answered went next door to talk to who she thought was the owner.  We didn’t linger around as there wasn’t anything else we could do so hopefully she was saved.  I looked it up later and, when the sheep is in the upside down position like that, it’s the gasses in their stomach from all that grass eating that swell up and eventually press on their lungs eventually suffocating them.  They don’t get into that position on purpose but it can happen if they are carrying lambs or their fleece is heavy with water.

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Traigh Ear beach when the tide is out.

Another curious sight also involving sheep happened after we’d done a long walk around the peninsular at Granitote.  Traigh Ear beach at low tide is a vast expanse of hard packed sand.  Just as we were finishing our walk we watched a ewe with her two lambs trailing behind her wander down onto the beach.  She then just kept going.  And going .  And going.  She was on a mission.  She must have walked a mile or so to get to the grass on the other side of the bay.  Obviously ‘the grass is greener’ isn’t just a human thing after all.

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Traigh Udal beach – that’s Tim in the middle above the seaweed line!

Later, when the tide had come in creating a vast expanse of knee deep water, the farmer with his dogs, rounded up his flock and walked them all down into the water where the dogs held them there for about ten minutes or so.  They were only in up to their knees so I doubt it was a swimming lesson. The dogs looked to be thoroughly enjoying racing around in the water making sure they kept together.  They then all ambled back up the beach to recommence eating grass.  Maybe the salt water stops them getting foot rot?

 

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It was polystyrene but it was still quite heavy!

The final island before getting the ferry across to Harris is Berneray linked by a causeway to North Uist.

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Berneray.

It is just a wee thing measuring two miles by three, with a population of just 140.  It is just delightful.  I think it could be my favourite island so far.  Mind you, that could be because the constant blasting wind we have had everyday had finally tempered down to a light breeze and we could actually hear the silence .  I even had a burnt face by the end of the day.  Sun burn in the Outer Hebrides.  Who’d have thought?

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Restored Black houses.

P1120889.JPGThe little museum run by volunteers tells the story of island life with hundreds of donated photos to peruse.  Seals bask off the rocks close into the shore without seemingly a care in the world.

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Who couldn’t love a seal?

As our friend Chris would say………..happiness on a stick!

Time for a ferry ride to Harris and Lewis, the last island we’ll be exploring on the Outer Hebrides.

Feumaidh mi ruith!

 

       

 

 

 

Eriskay…. .

The forty minute boat ride to Eriskay with a tail wind and sunny skies, making it actually pleasantly warm out on deck, proved to be a very enjoyable one with seals spotted basking off the rocks.  Such is the fickle nature of the weather here that the ferries were cancelled the following morning due to inclement conditions (aka: it was blowing an absolute hooly).  If you get some bright weather here you have to make the most of it immediately as it’s sure to change in a matter of hours…….or minutes.  I’m not whinging, just making an observation.

 

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A dozen or so seals came into the beach for more sheltered waters.

In the week or so we have been on the islands we have had sunshine, wind, rain, wind, cloud, wind, mist, wind, drizzle, wind, sunshine, wind and wind.  As you can see the wind has been the only consistent element within the mix.  The windswept look is definitely ‘in’ up here.  Again, I’m not moaning I’m just letting you all know that even though it looks all sunny skies in the photos they don’t portray the full picture so to speak.  I’m not about to go out taking pictures of greyness just to show the other side of the weather and anyway even if I’d wanted to I can barely get the door of the van open at such times.  It’s too windy.

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I wonder how much washing is lost to the wind on the Islands?

On these occasions (about fifty fifty so far) you’ll find us hunkered down in the van, in our sleeping bags, reading our kindles whilst gently swaying in the gusts.  ‘3’ doesn’t seem to have reached the islands as our mifi hasn’t had a signal since we have been here.  It has actually been really good for me to have an enforced lay-off from the internet as I’ve enjoyed reading a whole lot more when I’m not constantly distracted by the thoughts of ‘oh, I just need to look up such and such’.  There’s too much else to look at anyway.  For example, last night I spent a good couple of hours just enjoying watching two Hebridean lambs frolicking around together on the grass outside the van.  They were having a whale of a time skipping around playing together it was just a joy to watch them.  It had me thinking out loud ‘do only lambs miss out if they don’t have a sibling or do they make friends with other lambs’………..’what, like on Fleecebook’………..très drole Tim, très drole.  The two were joined by another two later in the evening which, I guess, answered that question.

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The quartet of quadrupeds who kept me entertained for a couple of hours (photo take from inside the van on South Uist late into the evening).

Back to Eriskay.  Although only measuring just over two miles by one it does have some interesting stories to tell.  Probably the most famous was the sinking of the SS Politician in 1941 on her way from Liverpool to Jamaica which inspired Compton Mackenzie’s book Whisky Galore.  264 000 bottles of whiskey were on board at the time.  Great, finders keepers thought the islanders but Custom and Excise officers thought otherwise and nineteen islanders were found guilty of illegal possession and imprisoned in Inverness.

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View to South Uist from Eriskay.

The only pub on the island, the Am Politician, has one of the original bottles.  An Olde Worlde pub it is not but it is welcoming and has a conservatory that heats up nicely when the sun is out which it was when we were there.  Handily, it also has free wifi which was pretty fast so I could upload my photos and the last blog post.  If you have a dog though there is no room at the inn as they aren’t allowed in which is a shame as with all those deserted beaches to play on I can see why dogs would choose the islands as a holiday destination.  Equally the Polachar pub on South Uist (owned by the same people I think) doesn’t allow dogs in either which is a shame if you are either a dog, have a dog or are a dog lover.

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More fabulous beaches and coastline.

As an aside, we went to the only pub on Barra at Castlebay and hardly flinched when we were charged £9.80 for two pints as we thought it must be the going rate for the islands.  Later though, and after a change of barman, we were charged £7.20 for two pints of the same beer.  Mmm, odd.  After being charged £6.80 for two pints in the Am Politician the beer barometer says that £9.80 was extortionate and we will be more vigilant next time.

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The Post Office within the well stocked village shop which also has a tiny coffee shop.

Another of Eriskay’s claims to fame is that Prince Edward Charles Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie to his friends, landed on the islands main beach in July 1745 at the start of his campaign to regain the throne of Great Britain.  Following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 he fled into hiding on the Outer Hebrides with a price of £30 000 on his head.  After a couple of months keeping a low profile he escaped to the Isle of Skye helped at great personal risk by Flora MacDonald.  You can follow his story by visiting various places associated with him on the islands along the Bonnie Prince Charlie Trail.

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Another lovely, simple Hebridean dwelling.

We walked up to the top of Ben Sciathan, the islands highest point, which gives views as far as the islands of Skye, Rhùm, Tiree and Coll.  We were lucky to have clear weather even if it was a tad blowy.   The semi wild Eriskay ponies that roam free on the island can, apparently, often be spotted grazing in the centre of the island around Loch Crakavaig which is the islands only source of fresh water.  Alas, we didn’t spot them.

 

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Views towards the causeway which has linked Eriskay to South Uist since 2001.

So that’s Eriskay.  Onwards now across the causeway to South Uist.

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Not a sign you see everyday 🙂 

Feasgar math!

The Outer Hebrides…. .

Arriving on the bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond just north of Balloch on a calm day in bright sunshine I just thought why?  WHY?  WHHYYY?  Why have I never been to Scotland before now?   What have I been doing all my life to not have experienced this before?  What was the matter with me?  I’ve been all over England and Wales and parts of Southern Ireland so why did I leave out Scotland?  Strolling along the Loch shore into Balloch I started to lament all the missed opportunities over the years.

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A tranquil Loch Lomond.

With all the rugged hills in the distance contrasting with the stillness of the loch I almost felt like I’d found my spiritual home.  I’d been living half a century in the Westcountry when I should have been born in Scotland!

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The sea plane comes in for a smooth landing.

Two days later my questions were answered.  Scotland isn’t green for no reason.  Plenty of rain helps to keep it the way it is.  After a bracing windy walk across the hills near Oban the rain came in and stayed for twenty four hours.  Ah yes, I remember now, that was why I’d never been to Scotland before, the unpredictable weather.

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The ferry bound for Barra at Oban.

Living in the South West it’s a looong drive to the Highlands and every time we’d mooted about doing a tour of Scotland for a one or two week holiday we’d always decided against playing Russian roulette with the weather and opted to visit areas closer to home.  Why we were put off by the drive really is beyond me as Tim had many a family holiday in the Highlands in his younger days travelling from Devon with half a dozen other family members crammed into a Hillman Imp borrowed from the next door neighbour!  With more modern transport and road networks it’s hardly the end of the earth but we always found an excuse to go somewhere closer to home.

We had originally planned to ‘do’ Scotland last year but chickened out and went chasing the sun instead.  This year, though, we are ready for it!  Fear not, I am not going to be a whining, whinging, moaning Minnie about the weather whilst we are here.  We are embracing Scotland and all the wild weather it has to throw at us.  The waterproofs are out, we’re layered up and we are ready.

Our first stop in Oban served as a jumping off point for visiting the islands of the Outer Hebrides.  Over two hundred islands make up the Western Isles as they are officially known with just a handful being inhabited by the 28000 or so hardy residents. The plan for the first couple of weeks is to island hop our way from South to North taking in the islands of Barra, Eriskay, Benbecula, South Uist, North Uist, Harris and Lewis before jumping across to the Isle of Skye for a week or so.

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Leaving Oban.

Although I usually HATE trips by ferry I was actually quite looking forward to the nearly five hour journey to Barra across the Minch at the southern end of the Isles as for the first half of the journey the boat meanders through a narrow stretch of water flanked on one side by the coast of Western Scotland and on the other by the islands of Mull and Coll.  We’d been lucky that the weather had cleared up and was clear and sunny for the trip over giving us fabulous views all around.  Once out into the open sea though my queasiness took over and I spent much of the time outside on deck trying not to bring up the contents of my lunch.

Arriving on the island in the early evening it struck us almost immediately that the bobble hat is alive and well on Barra.  They are everywhere!  Barra is certainly a bijou island at just eight miles long by four miles wide but it is known as the Western Isles in miniature boasting sandy beaches backed by machair, Gaelic culture, prehistoric ruins and a few mountains thrown in for good measure……….and……..quicksand!

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Over the last week we have got out to explore Barra by boot and by bike.  Nearly all the roads are single track but with passing places every few hundred metres or so and little island traffic it has been completely stress free getting from place to place.  Everyone seems to drive at a sensible speed and gives a little wave on passing which is all very civilised and a welcome change from our usual type of driving.

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Island residents.
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A walk on the western side of the island.

P1120703.JPGOne of the islands claim to fame is that the airport that sits on the edge of Traigh Mhór bay is the only beach runway in the world receiving scheduled flights.  It is quite the attraction.  The runway is tide dependant and the public aren’t allowed on the beach when the windsocks are flying.  Whilst we were walking on the other beach behind the airport a little twin otter plane circled above us in the squally wind and rain getting ready to land but because the dunes are in the way obscuring our view we didn’t see it touch down on the sand.  When we  arrived at the airport cafe fifteen minutes later, the place alive with steaming waterproofs and steaming people, the three cheery ladies working at the cafe were  belting out Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’.  I guess it must have been a bit of a bumpy landing.

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The only scheduled flights in the world to land on a beach.
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The tide goes out a looong way.

The plane taxis right up to the airport building to drop off its passengers where they can then take a short walk to the bus shelter around the side of the building which also doubles up as the baggage reclaim.  Fantastic.

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Be careful not to slip on the seaweed as you exit the plane.
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The baggage handlers go to work.
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Also doubles up as the bus shelter!

We whiled away a couple of hours over coffee and cake drying out and soaking up the jovial atmosphere of the place only leaving after the plane had taken off again.

We’ve tramped around various areas of the island in some interesting wild weather but we’ve enjoyed every minute of it.  The beaches are some of the best we have seen on our travels so far with the ground up sea shells giving them their distinctive light colouring.  Learning that the crushed cockleshells are used to make harling (the rendering used on many Scottish houses) changed my opinion of what I deemed to be ugly pebbledash which I had assumed was imported in.

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The shells are also used in other ways.
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A scallop sea defence.

 

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The beaches are all empty.

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I love the contrast of all the colours of the fishing paraphernalia.
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Lobster kennels.
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You don’t come to the islands for the picturesque villages.

Cycling round the island yesterday in beautiful sunny weather was an absolute treat despite being against the wind for half of it.  Stopping to take photos at low tide with the seaweed revealed captured some of the iconic views that the islands are famous for.

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A spring lamb taking five. 
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We were going to walk across this field until Tim spotted the bull.
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Some of the best beaches we have seen on our trip so far.
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That could just be my dream house……
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……or that one!
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Fab…..u….lous.
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Views don’t get better than this.

So far our Scotland trip has already surpassed our expectations and I’m still bashing myself over the head for not having visited before.

Today we hopped onto the ferry which took us, in the warming sunshine, across the water to Eriskay  where we docked forty minutes later scraping our back end on the tarmac coming off the ferry (roll eyes).  It doesn’t take much of an angle to ground out the electrics on our tow bar!

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Off to Eriskay.

Happy days 🙂

Mar sin leat!

 

 

Loving being back in Blighty…. .

Ah yes, the blog.  I’d conveniently forgotten about ever having written a blog once we’d got our four tyres and four feet back onto UK soil.  In my head I’d given myself permission to have a holiday from the blog whilst back visiting family and friends but with it now being three weeks to the day that we arrived back in the UK I guess my holiday is now, strictly speaking, over. So, as it’s raining and I have a lovely view of a Scottish beach framed by the vans rear window which just happens to be next to the bed, I thought I’d do the next enthralling blog instalment from the comfort of my bed.  And why not?

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You can’t beat a full English!

It’s hard to believe that three weeks have disappeared so quickly but they do say time fly’s when you’re having fun.  And we were having fun.  Friends and family in the west country to meet up with, appointments to attend and old haunts to check out.  Then the trip ‘oop north’ to catch up with my parents and enjoy some home cooking, a free washing machine and a couple of pets to stroke.  In fact the free use of the washing machine turned into a complete service wash and iron.  It’s the first time our clothes have had an iron run over them in over two years.  If we had more in the way of clothing we’d be saving them for ‘best’ but as the service wash constituted half our wardrobe that’s not really practical. Even the bedding and tea towels underwent the same treatment….imagine.  Thank you Mum for all the home cooked meals and for doing our washing with such love and care. I must say I’ve never seen Tim’s underwear looking quite so, well, flat!

And thank you also to all our other friends and family for fitting in with our tight schedule for meet ups.  It still amazes me how we can just slot back in to other peoples lives as if we’ve never been away.  Our return this year was made all the more enjoyable as we didn’t have to revisit the question of our ‘stuff’.   That was dealt with last year (you can read about it here if you feel so inclined).  We’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable three weeks ‘holiday’ but all good things come to an end and as of yesterday we are now back to ‘work’.  The ‘work’ being a six or seven week tour of Scotland. It’s a tough job but we’re happy to take it on!

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A tranquil scene on the Grand Union Canal outside Loughborough on our way ‘oop north’.

I’m not going to talk about Scotland in this blog post though as we only arrived a couple of days ago.  Instead I’m going to give you some thoughts and musings on things that we’ve noticed or had forgotten about on our return to the UK after the best part of two years away from it.   Don’t worry, politics won’t feature.

Firstly then, the price of groceries.  You’ve never had it so good here in the UK.  I can’t say I noticed it last year as we came back to the UK from Spain which was maybe slightly cheaper than here or about the same but this time around we couldn’t believe the difference.  Especially things like fruit and vegetables, bread, tuna, biscuits, sweets and cakes.  A tin of tuna in Greece will set you back €1.79 (£1.57), here it will cost you a measly 87p.  A friend of mine asked what foods I missed whilst being away from the Uk and I think my exact words were ‘nothing really apart from real ale’.  Why then did I come out of Aldi with Hot Cross buns, crumpets, decent crackers, savoury noodles, Fox’s Golden Crunch creams, Branston pickle, Melton Mowbray pork pies, baked beans and spaghetti hoops piled high in the trolley?  Moral of the story?  If it’s out of sight then it’s out of mind.   We’ve calmed down now after our binge!

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Walking the Harrogate Ringway again.

One thing we had forgotten about was that shopping at a supermarket in the UK accompanied by a 7m motorhome is much more of a challenge than we remembered, especially at Aldi or Lidl.  The carparks are generally much smaller and much busier than their European counterparts.  Unless you shop very early or late in the day then it’s probably best to find another place to park up and walk or find a bigger supermarket.  Also, we’d forgotten that it’s not always easy to find any parking at all with a motorhome and that you usually have to pay!

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We really enjoyed watching the spring lambs frolicking about.

Next up, traffic.  There’s probably not significantly more traffic on the roads as opposed to two years ago but the volume of traffic here is much higher and it was noticeable as soon as we rolled off the ferry in Dover.  From local traffic to motorway traffic it’s just busy, busy, busy.  There are definitely more potholes and some of the driving has been reminiscent of the roads we experienced in Italy.  The worst has to be yesterday being shaken to bits whilst circling around the suburbs of Glasgow trying to find LPG.  It seems the ‘beast from the east’ has done its worst to the road network.

And finally, my driving leaves a lot to be desired.  Apart from the odd occasion driving various cars when on our Helpx assignments I haven’t really driven for the last two years as Tim is driver and I’m navigator.  For overall harmony in the van it’s better that way.  This, though, has left me somewhat rusty on the old driving front.  We hired a car for a week to make it easier to get to friends, family and various appointments and to give Tim a break from driving it was just insured for me to drive.  Well, all I can say is my driving skills are now shocking.  Dithering at junctions, being in the wrong lane on roundabouts, hesitating before driving round parked cars when you could fit a bus through, passing too close to cyclists, forgetting which way to give way to on a roundabout and not quite making the turn on a mini roundabout and having to reverse are just a few of my motoring misdemeanours.  The worst was taking off and driving at least one hundred metres on the right hand side of the road before realising I should be on the other side.  Fortunately it was on a very quiet housing estate.  Even my navigation skills are shot as I’ve directed Tim to take the third exit on several roundabouts instead of the first as, in my head, I’ve gone round it the other way!  Shocking, shocking, shocking.  Of course, I’m now thinking should I drive more to keep my hand in so to speak?  After witnessing me driving a tiny Toyota for a week I’m not sure Tim would let me loose with driving the van now though.

So anyway, that’s us up to date now and we are thoroughly enjoying being back in the UK and feeling revitalised and re-energised.  We’re now getting layered up to take on whatever Scotland has to offer.

 

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Highland cattle at Pollok Country Park just outside Glasgow:)

Beannachd Leat!

Feeling fatigued on our final days in France…. .

The last ten days have passed us by in a bit of a travel fatigued blur.  After leaving the Ardèche region we’ve just been making our way north towards Calais in a more or less straight line with little regard to any sightseeing on the way.  I couldn’t even really tell you what regions we have passed through or towns we have stayed the night at without consulting the map.  Mentally, in our heads, we have been two weeks ahead of ourselves.  My little brain has found it hard to focus on ‘seeing’ France when I’m thinking about our return to the UK to meet up with friends and family, scoff a full English breakfast and enjoy a cheap pint at a Wetherspoons pub!  Everything else has taken a back seat, including the blog.  My plans for France have, therefore, not gone according to plan.

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Le-Puy-en-Velay.

For the last week I haven’t even taken the camera with me on our excursions out.  It’s actually been rather nice not to have it welded to my side like an extra appendage.  The photos you are seeing were taken a week or more ago.  Fear not, though, the mood in ‘chez Ollie’ hasn’t been a glum one but a kind of ‘chomping at the bit I just want to get back to the UK and get on with things’ one.  We just need a bit of a ‘reset’ and some downtime with familiar people and familiar things to rejuvenate the travel mojo.

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Semur-en-Auxois.

Still, being in France for the last three weeks has given me the opportunity to come on in leaps and bounds with practising my French everyday with my constant chatter.  NOT!  Ah, I wish.  I had hoped to have a bit more confidence in shooting the breeze with any passing French person I encountered but my introvertedness has definitely got the better of me.  It has been an epic FAIL.  I shouldn’t have been surprised really as I’m socially inept at making small talk in my native language let alone in one I’m learning.  Sitting comfortably behind a laptop watching Youtube clips, listening to podcasts, reading the news and flicking through children’s stories isn’t quite the same as engaging in a halting conversation about the weather with a surly Frenchman in the van next door.  Oh, I’ve been able to converse in the shops to get what I want and quiz a lady at the Tourist Information Office on the whereabouts of the nearest ‘Laverie’ but I haven’t exactly been taxing myself. Instead Tim has had to endure me stopping at any random information board and reading it out loud just to get some practice at speaking French outside the four walls of the van.  I had mentioned to Tim that maybe if we were to have a dog again then it would serve as a lead in to getting a conversation started but it fell on deaf ears, he’s not buying it.

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Semur-en-Auxois.

So onto other news then.  Today is a big day in our calendar as it marks the second anniversary of our vagabond life.  Two years ago today we locked up our house, passed the keys over to our letting agent and drove off into the sunset never to look back………..or something like that.  Seven hundred and thirty days on the road.  It’s hard to believe really.  Where has the time gone?   Over the past two years we have:

  • Visited fourteen countries (UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and Greece)
  • Driven fifteen thousand one hundred and forty two miles
  • Stayed two hundred and eighty eight nights on aires (some paid, some free)
  • Stayed one hundred and one nights on campsites
  • Wildcamped for one hundred and fifty two nights
  • Stayed three nights at Britstops
  • Endured three nights on ferries
  • Done one hundred and sixty seven nights with seven different Helpx hosts
  • Completed a sixteen night Housesit
  • Taken seven ferries and
  • Had one insurance claim for the bump we had in France in the first year.

All in all it’s been a roller coaster and quite the journey which, looking back, seems to have passed by in a flash.

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Man about town with his new trolley!

Looking forward now, what have we got coming up for season 3?  As ever, we don’t plan too far in advance but we do have a loose plan for at least the next four to five months or so.  We’ll be spending more time in the UK this year with perhaps up to six months on UK soil.  After three weeks or so of visiting friends and family and our annual dental and opticians appointments and the like we’ll be heading north for a tour of Scotland for around six weeks.   It was something we’d planned to do last year but we just never got around to it as other countries beckoned.  This year we WILL do Scotland as I’ve only ever been as far north as Berwick on Tweed.

Then we’ll travel the length of the country back down to Cornwall at the end of June to start a job.  Yes, you read that correctly, a J.O.B.  We’ve proved to ourselves that we aren’t quite unemployable just yet and we’ll be working on a campsite in July and August which will give us time to stop, stay still and focus on something other than travel for a short while.  We are really looking forward to it as it will be a complete change for us and nice to return to familiar territory as we know Cornwall well having spent many weekends and holidays touring there in the past.   At the end of our assignment, assuming we make it through to the end, we’ll temporarily part company with Ollie for a brief period and either visit the Isles of Scilly or spend a week or two walking a stretch of the South West coastal path that we haven’t yet done.

After that?

Who knows?

The road leads ever on……………

À toute à l’heure!

 

A finale in France…. .

Sitting in the queue waiting for the ferry to dock at Igoumenitsa we were sad to be leaving Greece but equally excited to be moving on to pastures new.  We’d decided that when we got to the other side at Ancona we would head straight across Italy making a beeline for the south of France to finish Season 2 of our European tour.  Italy will have to wait for another time.

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The view arriving at Ancona, Italy.
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The boat reverses in to the port.

It was a wise decision to splash the cash for the tolls on the motorways. The roads in Italy really aren’t great.  No, that’s being kind.  The roads in Italy are diabolical.  I know we have only seen a small part of Italy on our travels which isn’t really enough time to make an informed judgement but going by what we have experienced so far I think it’s a fair assessment.  The road surfaces are just crap.  Travelling at any reasonable speed would be pure folly.  If you wear dentures then it’s probably wise to leave them in their jar for the day.  It’s maybe not so bad in a car but in a motorhome it’s oh so tedious.  Constantly being shaken to bits, avoiding lumps, bumps, potholes and humps is just no fun.  It’s also no fun for the other motorists trailing along behind us as we crawl along at a reduced speed.  Even so, it still seemed like a long drive to get to France and it took us two days.

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Ah, the joys of being back on busy motorways in Italy.

We were, though, extremely happy to be back in France and both punched the air when going over the border despite the gloomy weather and heavy rain.  We exited the motorway just over the border into France and dropped down the steep winding hill to the wonderful, beautiful, picture postcard town of Menton.  Ah, what a marvellous looking place (even in the pouring rain) set at the foot of a steep hill on the French Riviera.  It was such a shame, then, that we never actually got to see it.

We parked at one of the marinas giving us a view back over the town.  I had a little gander at the parking metre and discovered that you were only allowed to park for a maximum of three and a half hours.  Undeterred we had lunch whilst contemplating our options.  It looked like there was an industrial estate outside the town where we might be able to park up for the night and then come back down to the town in the morning for a look see.  The rain might have stopped by then too.  There was also an Intermarché supermarket there and we needed provisions and diesel.  Tim never tires of cruising the aisles of large supermarkets even though they all seem to sell the same stuff so it would keep him entertained for several hours on a wet day.   Excellent.  Off we went back up the hill in search of a likely place to stay overnight.

We discovered that everything is very compact in Menton, including the Intermarché which has an underground car park with height barriers.  Tim was not to cruise the aisles that day.  The industrial estate was also extremely compact with only on street parking with not a metre of space to be had.  As we were alarmingly low on diesel we swung in to the Intermarché, went down an extremely steep ramp, grounded the tow bar on the tarmac at the bottom, looked at the layout designed for nothing bigger than a Smart car, sat blocking everyone’s way whilst deciding what to do, decided to exit the garage, at the exit changed our minds, swung in to the entrance again, went down the extremely steep ramp, grounded the tow bar on the tarmac once again (rolleyes), and took another go at it.  There wasn’t enough room for us to drive in, fill up, and then follow the one way system around two tight bends to get to the pay booth so I queued up in the rain behind the cars to pay what we owed whilst Tim kept dry in the van.  Obviously, being British I didn’t like to jump the queue.  We then had to reverse back from the pump to get out causing more chaos.

By this time we were a tad fed up with the traffic, the rain and seemingly no options to park up for the night.  We took another attack on the town to see if we could park further along the sea-front but with ‘NO MOTORHOMES’ signs everywhere we gave up, decided to get back onto the motorway, exit at the first services and decide what to do next.  By the time we got to the services we really couldn’t be bothered to move again so stayed the night.  It’s not something we’d normally do, in fact, I don’t think we’ve ever stayed at a motorway services overnight but it’s always nice to do something new for a change!  We slept pretty well considering that lorries were coming and going all night.  This is the reality of living the dream folks 🙂  Those sorts of days are few and far between though and the following morning we awoke to bright sunshine streaming through the skylights, the smell of diesel and lorry engines revving all around us.  I can’t think of a better way to start the day.

On the road again by seven o’clock and having decided that Menton and the French Riviera would be better visited with a car, we headed for the Ardèche Gorge.  The Ardèche is somewhere that we almost visited on a trip to France in 2014 but decided against it as we didn’t fancy spending four days of our two week holiday travelling there and back.  We stopped off on the way at a lovely little free aire complete with picnic benches just outside the village of Chusclan.

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The aire at Chusclan.

This is why we love France so much as so many villages provide facilities for camper vans.  We thanked the village for their hospitality by spending the evening at the local bar swapping stories with Pam and Paul who were in the van next to us and on a six week trip.  We also bought some wine from the Chusclan vineyard next door to the aire.  About a dozen motorhomes had stayed the night and nearly all of them had been over to the vineyard to purchase some of their produce.  It’s a win-win.

The Ardèche Gorge is a summer playground for families who enjoy messing about in boats…..or kayaks and rafts to be precise.  The gorge runs for thirty two kilometres from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc down to Saint-Martin-d’Ardeche.  We stopped at a free aire just outside the beautiful village of Aigèze on the other side of the river from Saint-Martin and spent a couple of days walking in the area above and through the gorge.  The sun was out and life was good.

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The aire at Aigèze.
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A walk up to a viewpoint over the Ardèche gorge.
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Aigèze.
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We had to breathe in going over the bridge in the van.
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A walk along the river.
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A nice spot for some lunch.

Then it got cold…………really cold.  Well, I have get this in perspective.  It was about two or three degrees during the day which isn’t that cold but we’ve been used to balmy temperatures for so long now it was quite the shock to the system.  And there was the wind chill too.  Tim took it all in his stride, switched back to long trousers and layered up.  I just moaned.  And moaned.  And moaned.  I can’t say I’m proud of myself as I didn’t come out of it until the end of the week when the temperatures got back into double figures again.  I was also not a happy bunny when we did the washing at one of those outdoor Intermarché self service machines and it didn’t spin it leaving it soaking wet after the program had finished.  We spent twenty minutes in the supermarket carpark wringing it all out before we could put it into the drier.  Ah, happy days indeed!  Can you tell we’re missing Greece?!

After two days at the aire at Aigèze we drove the D290 which follows the top of the gorge as far as Vallon-Pont-d’Arc.  There were plenty of places to stop and pull over to admire the magnificent views down over the gorge and we had the whole road to ourselves for over an hour.

 

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The river will be chock full of kayakers in the height of the summer.
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We’ll come back one summer and hire a canoe.

It was a bit surreal really as not one vehicle passed us in either direction. Weird.

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No-one else around.

After twenty five kilometres we realised why when we came to a Route Barrée sign telling us the road up ahead was closed during the day.  Mmm, maybe the locals were in the know but it was the first we’d seen of the closure.  Fortunately we were able to do a detour around but we didn’t get to see the Pont d’Arc natural arch over the river.  Ah well, maybe next time.

For the last few days we’ve been trundling along following the Ardèche river to its source in the Massif-Central area of France stopping at some of the sleepy villages along the way.

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Balazac village on the Ardeche.
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Vogue.

 

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A pretty section of the Auzon river near Vogue.
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Devils Bridge on the Ardeche at Thuyets.

 

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It was a narrow steep path down to the river from the aire at Thuyets.

It’s time now to head further north.

À bientôt!

Back to mainland Greece…. .

We will be saying goodbye to Greece today.  We arrived at Camping Drepano in Igoumenitsa, having completed a 2600 mile circular tour, exactly four months after arriving at the same spot in Greece last November.  The cancellation of our ferry back to Italy from Patras two weeks ago was a blessing in disguise as we have missed ‘the beast from the east’ in Northern Europe and we’ve returned to where we started out on our Greek adventure.  A nice little tying up of loose ends we think.

We left the Peloponnese heading back to mainland Greece ten days ago via the eye wateringly expensive Rio-Antirrio bridge.  €13.30 for a 1.8 mile journey.  Streuth!

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Rio-Antirrio bridge.

Wikipedia informs me that the bridge is considered to be an engineering masterpiece. Seismic activity, probable tsunamis and the expansion of the Gulf of Corinth due to plate tectonics contributed to the difficulty of the build.

 

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View from our overnight spot in Antirrio.

It seems the hefty price puts off many truckers though as we had a very enjoyable hour or so watching them squeeze backwards onto the ferries that ply the strip of water below the bridge.  Depending on the number of axles, lorries are charged between €20 to €41.50 on the bridge as opposed to €11 to €21 for the ferry.

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The trucks all had to reverse onto the ferry.

Over the bridge back onto mainland Greece we were but a stone’s throw away from Ancient Delphi which, according to legend, is the centre of the earth.  In Greek mythology Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the world and Delphi was the point at which they crossed after encircling the globe, thereby establishing it as the centre of the world.  So, there you go.

 

We could also visit on the first Sunday of the month for free.  Big bonus.  All the state owned historic sites are free on the first Sunday of the month in the winter.  It was the first time we’d timed it just right to be near a site for a free visit.  We made sure we arrived early as we expected it would be busy.

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The Athenian Treasury built after the battle of Marathon and reconstructed in 1906.

From the end of the 8th Century BC individuals from all over the ancient world visited Delphi to consult the God Apollo, via a priestess, on which course of action to take in both private and public life.

 

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Temple of Apollo.  The remains seen today date from the mid 4th Century BC.
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Temple of Apollo from the other end.
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Looking over the Theatre built 2,500 years ago and capable of seating 5000 people.

Delphi was also home to the panhellenic Pythian Games.  These were, after the Olympic Games, the most important sporting event in the Greek calendar.

 

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The Stadium, almost 180m long and partly hewn out of the rocks above the main sanctuary.  7000 spectators gathered every four years to watch the Pythian Games.
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Across the road and further down the hill from the main site is the Marmaria Precinct.  It is still unknown what the purpose was of the circular Tholos.  Built in the 4th Century BC it was originally surrounded by twenty columns. 

It has to be said that the site itself is set within spectacular scenery at the foothills of Mount Parnassos.  Even though it was a bit hazy the views through the valley were superb.

 

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The Sacred Way leading to the Temple of Apollo.  It was lined with up to 3000 statues and treasuries built by city-states to house their people’s offerings.

We had a very enjoyable couple of hours roaming around the site, basking in brilliant sunshine, with very few other people about.  By 11.00am though it was heaving and we only managed a quick lap around the museum as it was engulfed with people so just not enjoyable for us.  We’re not anti-people we just like our own space!

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Naxian Sphinx Statue in the Delphi Museum.

P1120451.JPGWe spent the afternoon walking one of the footpaths from the village which climbs up above the site and gives far reaching views down to the sea at Itea where we had stayed the previous night.

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Looking down the valley towards Ithea.
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The view above the site of Delphi.
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We had to wait for this guy to cross the footpath in front of us.

DSC05530.JPGAll in all a top day which we were glad we’d made the detour to do.

Back along the coast we stopped for the night at the very pretty little fishing port of Galaxídi where we made the most of the evening sunshine people watching from one of the numerous cafes.

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Galaxídi waterfront.

The town was home to some of the most important shipping families back in the 18th Century.  The neoclassical housing and mansions nod to its former wealth.  It had such a lovely atmosphere with many Greek families out enjoying a meal together.

 

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International memorial to the Wife of the Seafarer at Galaxídi.

Continuing up the west coast of mainland Greece we stopped in at Mesolóngi which is famous for its salt pans, eels and pressed cod roe.  Also Lord Byron died here in 1824 after joining the resistance during the War of Independence.  Much of the town is run down and reminded us of parts of Ioánnina we’d seen last year.  It is a fascinating place though and we stumbled across an old Ouzo shop which didn’t look like it had changed since the day they started trading in 1907.

 

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Ouzo shop in Mesolongi.

Such a lovely couple running it too who were very proud to tell us that the marble fireplace had come from the Acropolis in Athens.  Mmm, not so sure about that.

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What a place!
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We have yet to taste the Ouzo we bought.

Another little gem was a tiny bakery which still had the working wood fired bread oven along with a wizened old lady just behind the counter who did a remarkable job of upselling us some spinach pie along with our bread.

 

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The little bread shop.

Then there were the boxes of eels outside the fish shops.  I watched in morbid fascination as a chap stood perusing a box full of the sorry looking creatures before reaching in to choose his victim to take into the shop to be weighed.  I wouldn’t have the stomach to deal with an eel especially as some of them were still alive.

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A box of eels outside one of the fishmongers.

Driving out of Mesolóngi the following day we spotted flamingos, some avocets and a handful of pelicans which was a real treat as the only place we’d seen pelicans before is in Green Park in London.

 

Our last stop before completing our circular tour of Greece was the island of Lefkas connected to the mainland by a causeway.  Here we saw the most beautiful turquoise sea and probably the best beaches we have seen in Greece.  If I’d said ‘just look at the colour of that sea’ once I said it a thousand times.  What can I say I don’t get out much and I was bowled over by it!

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Just look at the colour of that sea!
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The view towards Pefkoulia beach.

Poor Tim had to endure hours of me going on and on about it.  He always puts a brave face on it.  After all, he’s used to it now after thirty years.

 

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Kathisma beach.
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Agios Nikitas.

Lefkada town is a really vibrant place too with a huge marina where a good number of people see the winter out moored up on their boats.  We spoke to a German lady who, along with her husband, spend their winters at Lefkada on their boat and the summer touring the rest of Europe in their motorhome.

 

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Identical sailboats lined up in Lefkada marina.

The old town is a wonderful warren of tiny narrow alleyways, independent shops, restaurants, cafes and brightly coloured corrugated iron clad houses.

 

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The pastel coloured corrugated iron clad houses in the old town of Lefkada.
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Such a lovely place for a wander.
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A doer-upper.
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Church bell tower (earth quake proof) in Lefkada.

So that brings us full circle back to Igoumenitsa.  We’ve spent the last couple of days on the campsite getting all the washing done, cleaning the van inside and out and watching the comings and goings of all the ferries from our front row beach side pitch.  It sounds idyllic but it looks more like a building site than a campsite.  Even though the campsite is open they are doing some major renovations so the shower and toilet blocks are closed, the wifi is flaky and the electricity goes off randomly.

 

Tim had set himself up to watch the Six Nations Rugby on Saturday night but had a mild tantrum when the wifi suddenly disappeared ten minutes before the first match.  He went off to see what was going on to be told it would be switched off for an hour or so along with the electricity as some trees needed to be felled.  Oh dear.  I could have balanced a dinner plate on his bottom lip when he returned to the van.  Ah well, this is Greece!  I’d been able to get three loads of washing done so at least I was happy.

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Goodbye Greece.

Onwards then to the manic roads that are Italy.

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