Well, how lucky have we been? Sun and clear skies have accompanied us on our journey north from Inverness to the top of Scotland. It seems we picked the perfect window in the weather to explore a section of the NC500. It was more an NC100 rather than 500 as we didn’t have time to do it all. My nephew, who we met up with in Thurso, said he had never seen weather like it in the three years he has lived there. Totes amaze! We meandered along the section across the top of the Highlands from Durness in the west to Duncansby Stacks in the east before heading south for a few days in Edinburgh. Now, I could blather on and on, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah about the spectacular scenery and beautiful weather but I’m not even going to try. The pictures say it all. So here they are………….
Well the Isle of Skye has certainly come up trumps with the weather. Apart from one misty morning it has all been wall to wall sunshine. So much so I’ve burnt the back of my knees. Doh! The first thing that struck us when we arrived on Skye at the ferry port in Uig is that we weren’t going to have the island to ourselves. I suppose that’s not surprising as it is said to be the most visited destination in Scotland.
We started our tour off on the Trotternish Peninsular north of Uig to do some walking in the Quiraing, an area famous for its rock pinnacles, sheer cliffs and rock formations.
What a great couple of days walking we had amongst the rocks then up onto the top with far reaching views across towards the mainland.
We saw several sightings of cuckoos perched on the rocks in those two days. I tell you, from never having seen a cuckoo in the flesh before we have seen more than you can shake a stick at up here.
Further south towards Portree the Old Man of Storr, the most celebrated column of rock on the island, is a real draw for visitors. We planned on an early shin up the hill and back before all the crowds arrived but with the clouds down over the hills that morning we didn’t see much. The low cloud/mist did clear in and out but we didn’t think the Old Man was as spectacular as all the hype makes it out to be.
The views on the way back down under the cloud line were impressive though.
We’d started our walk at about eight o’clock and it took about an hour and a half to get up there and back but by the time we got down the parking areas on both sides of the road were full and a steady stream of people were on their way up. It was time to move on!
We made a quick pit stop in Portree at the free long stay car park for a wander round the harbour area followed by the weekly shop at the Co-op there.
The Co-op seems to have a monopoly on the Outer Hebrides and Skye as there isn’t really any other choice other than a few tiny mini markets dotted about. It’s a shame because we’ve lost the will to live in every single one of them. It’s not what they stock that is lacking but the fact that there always seem to be member’s of staff replenishing the shelves in virtually every single aisle taking up nearly all the space with cages of new stock and empty packaging all over the place. All their shops seem to have narrow aisles making it extremely tedious to get round other shoppers and staff. I don’t blame the staff as they are only doing their job but why can’t they restock when the store is closed or not a peak times? Why?! Even Tim who is normally patience personified has succumbed to trolley rage almost dumping a half filled trolley in an aisle and stomping off back to the van. He probably would have done if he could have found a space in an aisle to park it. Anyway, rant over. And relax!
With clear blue skies and temperatures in the low twenties it was a chance to cook outside again.
I grant you it’s not often you would see sausage curry on the menu of an Indian restaurant but in the absence of any other form of meat it had to do. Try it, we recommend it!
We walked the four miles or so from our overnight stop across open moorland to Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the Clan Macleod since the thirteenth century but at £14 each to go in we gave it a miss and had coffee and cake at Jann’s Cakes in the village instead.
The following day we cycled to Claigan Coral Beaches just north of Dunvegan. The sand is made up of calcified maerl (seaweed) and tiny sea shells. Our guide book says that ‘on a sunny day the white sands and aqua water could almost be the Carribean’ but that description is probably stretching it a bit as there wasn’t much aqua water to be seen as it was full of seaweed.
It was a nice spot for lunch though. I think we weren’t totally wowed by it after having experienced the beaches of the Outer Hebrides.
A big draw for walkers on Skye is the Cuillin mountain range which has over twenty Munros to be bagged. The Munro baggers visiting Skye for the week must have been kicking their legs in the air on account of the clear blue sky weather we were having making for spectacular walking in the hills. With not an OS map between us though we played it safe with a lovely circular walk around the coast of the Suisnish peninsular which gave us excellent views of the mountains in the distance.
Our final night on Skye we parked up at Kyleakin with a view of the bridge. Whilst having a cup of tea with our door open a van parked up next to us with New Zealand flags adorning one of the windows. A young lad appeared at our door to introduce himself and we spent the next hour or so hearing all about his travels. At ten years old he is far more well travelled than we are having visited nearly every country in Europe. He and his parents are on the last few months of an eighteen month tour of Europe before shipping back their van, which they’d bought in the UK, to New Zealand. Marvellous.
So that was Skye. Again, we didn’t have time to see all that was to see but time is marching on and we need to get a move on.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
He 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
The final island before getting the ferry across to Harris is Berneray linked by a causeway to North Uist.
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?
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So that’s Eriskay. Onwards now across the causeway to South Uist.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
One 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was a bit surreal really as not one vehicle passed us in either direction. Weird.
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.
What? An encore in Greece? What’s going on? I’d planned to write this blog post whilst on the ferry back to Italy last Thursday as a distraction on the twenty one hour crossing. I’m not good on ferries and find them interminable. The time seems to me to drag on endlessly. I’d be absolutely hopeless on a cruise. Assuming I wasn’t seasick, which is quite often the case, writing the blog, then, would have kept me absorbed for a significant chunk of time even if I wasn’t able to upload it to the internet. However, I received a text from the ferry company a couple of days before our scheduled departure date which prompted a rethink of our plans.
The Minoan Lines ferry leaves from Patras, cruises for four or five hours, makes a pitstop at Igoumenitsa further up the Greek coast, before continuing on to Ancona in Italy. Even though we’d booked the 17:00 ferry to depart on 1st March from Patras the text let us know that we had three options: ·
1. Depart from Igoumenitsa at 23:00. ·
2. Depart from Patras at 17:00 the following day. ·
3. Have a full refund.
Oh, OK then, no apology, just a bit at the bottom of the text saying ‘thank you for your understanding’. It’s a three hundred kilometre drive from Patras to Igoumenitsa on toll roads so option number one wasn’t favourable as we’d be out of pocket and the ferry is the same price whichever port you decide to leave from. Option two sounded pretty good and we were going to go with that. Ah But…. But…. That was until we read on the news and heard from friends and family about ‘the beast from the east’. Oh yes, the good old weather in Northern Europe was freeeeeeeezing with ridiculous amounts of SNOW. It was even snowing in Rome. Mmm, what to do. Option three was looking like the best option then. We’d had several days of rain here in Greece at that point and we were really looking forward to a change of scene and a different country to explore but, if you have read this blog on a regular basis, you’ll know by now that we don’t do SNOW. We also don’t like being cold if we can help it. I make no apology for this as we wouldn’t be British if we weren’t always wittering on and whinging about the weather now would we? So, we took the refund and have decided to stay in Greece a bit longer until the temperatures ‘on the other side’ look a bit more favourable. After we’d made our decision and contacted the ferry company the sun came out.
That’s it then, now you’re up to speed on where we are I’ll let you know what we have been up to. Well, we had a break in the weather to visit Ancient Olympia, a religious and athletic centre in its heyday and birthplace of the Olympic Games in 776 BC. To give Tim a break from driving we took the train from Katakolo harbour where we were parked up for a couple of nights watching the rain run down the windows.
We thought it was an excellent service until we realised we would have to get two buses back as the last train left Olympia at lunchtime and only went as far as Pyrgos anyway (about halfway). Still, it was an adventure!
Ancient Olympia is in a beautiful setting and we thoroughly enjoyed our wander around the whole site on the first sunny day we’d had in several days. It was practically empty with few visitors and just the sound of the birds to keep us company.
After the beautiful day we’d had at Olympia the weather, once again, closed in with rain so we decided to spend a couple of days at Ionion Camping at Glypha further up the coast. It gave us the chance to get everything recharged and turned around before moving on to what would have been our last stop before leaving Greece. The campsite is the most modern and tidy site we’ve stayed on in Greece so far but it’s a bit isolated which wouldn’t normally bother us if we are out on the bikes but with the inclement weather it was all a bit dull and miserable. After two nights we’d walked both ways along the beach and seen what there was to see so it was time to move on.
I’d been saving the Diakoftó to Kalávryta Railway till last on our clockwise trip around the Poleponnese as it was a fifty kilometre drive beyond Patras where we were going to get the ferry from. Conveniently there is a good size car park at the station in the little village of Daikoftó where we were able to stay for a couple of nights. Also very conveniently the weather bucked up just at the right time giving us two brilliant days in the area.
Built between 1889 and 1895 by an Italo-French consortium to bring ore down from the Kalávryta area, the narrow gauge railway running from the coast at Diakoftó through the Voraϊkós gorge covers fourteen miles and reaches gradients of up to one in seven in parts. A third rail (a ‘rack and pinion’ system) helps the little train up the steeper bits. The original steam locomotives were replaced in 1959 by diesel trains and we were quite surprised that the trains used now are all modern. We were expecting something a little more rustic but we weren’t disappointed as the route up through the gorge is just magnificent.
The fourteen mile journey through fourteen tunnels and over several bridges took about an hour and we arrived in Kalávryta feeling buoyant. As the only ones on the train we’d had a ring side seat behind the driver and we were able to keep swapping sides of the carriage to take advantage of the best views.
If Tim thought he was going to have a mooch round Kalávryta for a couple of hours before the next train ride back he was sorely mistaken. I’d planned a walk up to a monument dedicated to the Independence of Greece in 1821 which I thought was doable in the time we had. It was all on road but only a few cars passed us and it gave us glorious views over the snow capped mountains down through the valley. We had our lunch sat on the monument enjoying the views.
Back in the village we had time to visit the Holocaust Museum housed in what had once been the village primary school. A very humbling experience where we left very subdued indeed. On 13th December 1943, in retaliation for the killing of seventy eight German soldiers by the Greek guerilla resistance fighters, all the male inhabitants of Kalávryta aged twelve and over were marched up to the hill overlooking the town by German troops. It was there that they were all shot.
Only thirteen of over five hundred of the boys and men survived. The troops also set fire to the whole village and the primary school where all the women and girls had been locked in but fortunately they managed to escape only to find their husbands and sons dead. They then had the unenviable task of burying their dead and trying to rebuild their lives. We walked up to the site where the atrocity happened which is now a memorial to those that lost their lives.
The following day we picked up a footpath and walked up through the gorge in bright sunshine passing little goat farms with their ramshackle shelters to follow the route of the train.
So now with some extended time in Greece we plan to mosey on up to Igoumenitsa to get the ferry back to Italy in a week or so when the weather has settled down a bit. We’ll leave from whence we came having completed a big lap of Greece taking four months.