Oodles of kindness found in Croatia

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Cycling by the Croatian coast near Starigrad Paklenica

Perhaps all our spring holidays are destined to have an ‘incident’ and if a bicycle accident is as bad as it gets on this trip then we are happy enough [although no incident at all would be better].  We were visiting the lovely town of Samobor, a short distance north-west of Zagreb and in a region famed for its wine and the grapes are grown in small strips of vineyards on the steep slopes.  Samobor’s main square is packed with cafes, many of them serving the local speciality cakes, kremsnita, a light and fluffy version of a vanilla slice.  These are delicious and we tucked in to a slice each while considering how friendly all the Croatian people we had met were.  In every cafe and campsite people had been helpful and welcoming and also pleased when we used our four words of Croatian.  We speculated whether Croatian people were naturally nice or if all these people were just good at their tourism jobs.

 

Our lovely campsite was a two kms easy cycle ride in to Samobor’s town centre along flat roads.  Climbing back on our bikes after our cakes we found the one-way system took us up a hill and as we then descended a steep residential street a breeze caught my much loved Portuguese sunhat I was wearing and I stupidly put a hand up to save the hat.  At that moment time went in to slow motion as it dawned on me that I was losing control of my bike and I was going to hit the tarmac.

Every part of my body hit the road in some way.  My lovely calm husband made sure I was safe and gently untangled me from my bike.  I could hardly move as I cautiously checked the many different parts of my body that hurt and when I did try and sit upright dizziness overcame me so I stayed lying down.  Over the next thirty minutes every Croatian who passed us by, in cars, on foot and other cyclists, stopped to ask if they could help, reverting to English as soon as they realised we weren’t Croatian; their kind-heartedness was both natural and extraordinary.  One man from the street bought a bottle of water, other local residents offered a pillow and everyone asked if they could call an ambulance for us.

I hoped I would be able to get back on my bike but it became apparent this might not be possible in the short-term and so Luka and his brother Noah, whose house I had fallen outside, came up with a plan to help.  They stored my amazingly undamaged bike in their garage, helped me in to their car and drove me the short distance to our campsite.  Hubby followed on his bike and then Luka and Noah took him back so that he could return on my bike; what heroes!  During our car journey I was still in shock and at first could only keep repeating ‘Hvala’ [thank you], ‘You speak Croatian!’ Luka delightedly exclaimed.  I managed to pull myself together enough for conversation and Luka, Noah and I found a shared love of Manchester United, we talked about the many beautiful places we had seen in Croatia and they told me about their studies.  They were both exceptionally generous human beings.

At the campervan I investigated my injuries, cleaned up the cuts and grazes, got out the ice packs and ibuprofen and counted my lucky stars I had no broken bones.  My left wrist was sprained, a rib cracked, my right hand had some wounds and there was blood on my face from grazes.  In truth it is easier to tell you where I don’t have any bruises than describe where they are.  The right side of my face soon swelled up and after a couple of days the bruises emerged from underneath my tan.  I keep forgetting about this visible sign of my injuries and then wonder why people are looking at me strangely, children must be saying to their parents, ‘Why has that woman got a blue face?’  I can’t open a jar of olives just at the moment, reaching up to all those high cupboards in the ‘van is painful and getting comfortable at night is tricky [even with painkillers] but it could have been so much worse.

Falling off my bike is a drastic way to test the goodness of the people of Croatia but we can now confidently say that Croatia is not only beautiful it is also truly friendly.

 

 

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Most German campsites are excellent but some are more excellent than others

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The Swabian Alb biosphere near Münsingen is perfect for cycling

We rarely plan much when it comes to our trips around Europe, so much depends on what we want to do, how we feel and the weather.  And so we rolled in to Hofgut Hopfenburg campsite near to the pretty town of Münsingen in Baden-Württemberg and south of Ulm expecting little more than a comfortable place to overnight.  We received a friendly welcome and I left reception with a local cycling map and information about the nearby Swabian Alb biosphere, a local nature reserve.  This looked promising so we decided to stay and explore.

The campsite is terraced and so pitches have a view across the town to the gentle green hills beyond.  The facilities are excellent with good hot showers, indoor washing up area [you remember how important I think that is] and were clean and modern.  Wonderful fresh bread was available every day and the campsite runs a small shop selling local products.  As well as touring pitches the site has a collection of wooden Romany caravans, yurts, tipis and some chalets so visitors have a choice of accommodation.  While we were staying a wedding was held in the garden.

If you are using this marvellous campsite as a stop-over there is a nature reserve accessible from the site where you can stretch your legs for an hour or so after a day of driving.  This hillside reserve with meadows, woodland and an arboretum has views over the town and is also a pretty walk in to Münsingen.

For around 100 years [until 2005] the undulating meadows and woodland to the east of Münsingen were used as a military training ground.  Initially by the German army and after 1945 by the French army who, in particular, used the area for tank manoeuvres.  Inaccessible to the public the area in some ways stood still and the wildlife was protected, although always at risk of being blown up.  Today this area is once again accessible and managed to protect the wildlife, although visitors need to stick to the paths because of the risk of un-exploded ordnance.

We began at the Biosphere Centre in the old military barracks which are surprisingly charming buildings.  As well as the information centre there is an art gallery here but as we cycled around most of the buildings appeared to be empty.  The Biosphere Centre has headphones with an English tour and we learnt a lot about the wildlife, geology, culture and the management of the area.

The tarmac paths around the reserve are perfect for cycling and are all way-marked and numbered.  The area is fairly flat with only small hills to conquer and cycling is just the right pace to enjoy this landscape.  On a sunny weekday there were few people around and we were happy cycling on these traffic-free routes lined with trees rich with blossom.  In the fields are large herds of sheep that are managed to maintain the diversity of plants in the grassland and kestrels and buzzards hunted over the fields.

On a hilltop is the abandoned village of Gruorn.  The villagers were forced from their homes to make way for the military training in 1939 and the houses were used for practice.  Today the church and old school house have been restored and both can be visited.  The schoolhouse has a museum about the village and a cafe.  The churchyard is attractive and colourful with flowers and we sat in the sunshine enjoying a beer before continuing back to the excellent campsite.

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Part of the old military barracks

Reasons to loathe winter washing up at campsites

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Outdoor washing up

Picture the scene.  It is dark and the wind is whipping around the campsite and heavy showers rush across the site in flurries.  The showers and toilets are cosy and warm but there is a frozen camper standing at the outdoor washing up sinks wrapped in fleeces, cagoule and a hat.  As they run the tap the water is whipped across the sinks as it is caught by the wind and under their breath the washer-up is cursing the campsite owner that has saved money by constructing dish-washing sinks that are open to the elements.

We like to camp all through the winter and in all sorts of weathers.  In winter we like to spend some time at a campsite with warm facilities that we can use in comfort and many sites fit this bill but let us down when it comes to washing up.  An all too common design for campsite dish-washing facilities is to have a roof but be open to the elements.  This has the advantage that you can stay dry in the inevitable rain [unless it is windy too] but even wrapped in layers the biting cold of the wind is tough for whoever is on washing up duties.

I understand outdoor washing up sinks in hot countries but in England, Scotland and Wales it seems optimistic at best.  Yes, of course we can wash up in the campervan and given these outdoor facilities we often do but this isn’t the point.  When we are on a campsite with facilities we like to use them and rather resent having to boil the kettle in the ‘van for hot water and do the dishes in our tiny sink when there are perfectly adequate sinks provided if only they were indoors.  We start to wonder why we pay for sites, we might as well be wild camping on these inclement nights [and often do this too].

There must be an off-the-shelf campsite facilities block that all these different campsites purchase as we see these outdoor sinks so often.  Or have these campsite owners never been camping themselves and so have never experienced the dish-washer agony?  We are so relieved when we arrive at a site, check out the facilities and find a room [with a door] [and ideally a window to watch the world from] for washing up in.  This luxury on a campsite is worth paying for!

A selection of campsites [not exhaustive] we have found where the dish-washing facilities are indoors:

Castlerigg Hall, Keswick

Inver Caravan Park, Dunbeath

Eye Kettleby Lakes, Melton Mowbray

Holgates at Silverdale

Caravan and Motorhome Club site at Wharfedale near Grassington

Caravan and Motorhome Club Site near Barnard Castle

 

 

 

Three weeks and as many seasons in Scotland

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A mistle thrush in the snow

Mr BOTRA and I have visited Scotland at Easter most years since 1981 [apologies if I’ve told you this before but it does tell you something about me].  I love going to Scotland and having been so often I am used to the variable Easter weather and the need to pack for every season.  On previous trips we have had both heavy snow and warm sunshine [shorts and t-shirts needed] and every weather in between.  This year’s holiday was no exception.

We used to go to Scotland for a week but now we are retired [yippee] we can go for longer.  An early stopover was the lovely Sunnyside Campsite in Arisaig; we scrambled over the rocky bay in evening sunshine watching an orange sun go down behind the islands of Rum and Eigg.  Only a few days later we reached the top of Fionn Bheinn [933 metres high] in low cloud and snow and getting no outstanding view for our efforts.  This was particularly annoying because walking up the mountain we had been mostly in sunshine and had needed sunglasses to deal with the glare from the snow.  It took a long time to get out of the cloud on the descent but once we had visibility again we relaxed throwing snowballs down the steep slope.  We moved across to the Black Isle and on a dull cloudy day decided on an easy walk up Cnoc Fyrish a small hill [just 453 metres high] with a folly above Alness.  As we climbed up the paths it started to rain and even on this small hill the rain became snow as we got higher.  At the summit [again no view] we were in a winter wonderland and we played in the deep snow and built a snow robot that waved at us as we left the hilltop.  A few more days later we were in shirt sleeves as we walked over the Corrieyairack Pass.  Next a cold snap rolled in and we were wrapped in every layer we owned and still felt the sharp chilly wind as we looked around the impressive Linlithgow Palace on our way south.

We had perfect weather for a stunning short walk from Blair Atholl in to Glen Tilt.  From the car park we followed attractive paths through woodland, stopping to watch agile red squirrels high above our heads.  We emerged at a view point with a panoramic view along the glen.  It was so peaceful and sunny here we kicked off our shoes and practiced our tai chi forms on the soft grass and in the fresh air before walking back down to the village with its splendid white turreted castle.

This year [as a birthday gift for our son] we booked a wildlife guide for a four-hour wildlife watching trip for us and son and daughter-in-law to give us a better chance of confidently spotting golden eagles.  We spent a morning with John from Highland Nature based at Nethybridge and we experienced dramatically changing weather in the four hours we were out.  John proved to be an excellent guide who took us to Strathdearn along the river Findhorn and revealed all manner of wildlife to us.  As we set off it started to snow heavily and there was little visibility as we watched red squirrels scampering up and down the pine trees.  We stopped to see golden plover and other waders by the river before continuing to the head of the valley.  Stopping in the car to watch some sikka deer on the hillside we were entertained by a large horse in the field next to the road that was desperate for some attention.  We wound down the windows to get a better look at the sikka deer and the large working horse insisted on putting its head through the window, blocking our view!  We also spotted red deer on the hillsides and a group of feral goats sheltering in woodland.  The mistle thrush I managed to catch a photograph of [above] was singing on a fence post as we drove down the single-track road.  At the head of the valley John spotted a mountain hare on the hillside and we watched it through the scope quietly nibbling the surrounding grass that was showing through the snow.  The snow shower eventually moved on and the valley was transformed by blue skies and sunshine in to a magnificent landscape blanketed in snow, bright in the sunlight.  We saw a couple of golden eagles [helped by the younger and alert eyes of our daughter-in-law] making their way over the mountains, as well as a red kite, a goshawk and a peregrine falcon.  On the river we watched a dipper marking its territory with song and the common gulls that nest here wheeled overhead.  It was a fascinating and wonderful morning and I learnt so much from someone that is regularly out watching the local wildlife.

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Sunshine on the way up Fionn Bheinn

A Scottish challenge: crossing the Corrieyairack Pass in snow

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Heading up the Corrieyairack Pass

Okay, I admit it, I laughed when Anthony sank to his waist in the soft snow near the top of the Corrieyairack Pass, silly me as minutes later it was me that was floundering in the deep snow.  Frustratingly, the snow would take our weight most of the time and then without warning one of us would cross a particularly soft and deep patch and down we would sink.  Walking on this unpredictable surface was hard work and really not what we needed on a long day of 33 kilometres of walking but the sun was shining and I was achieving an ambition so didn’t complain.

We were tackling the Corrieyairack Pass, a remote old route that stretches across the Monadhliath Mountains in Scottish Highlands.  In 1731 General Wade was responsible for constructing military roads across Scotland to enable troops to move quickly around northern Scotland and the Corrieyairack was part of his route from Fort Augustus, on the shore of Loch Ness to Laggan and Ruthven Barracks.  It is now so long ago that I can’t remember when I first noticed this old road on a map but from the moment I did I knew I wanted to walk this route one day.  This was the day.

We had left our campervan at 07.00 on a glorious morning, the mist hanging in the valleys and the promise of sunshine in the air.  Our cheerful taxi driver told us stories about living in this part of Scotland and joined us in gasping at the beauty of the mountains reflected in the loch as he drove us to Garva Bridge where we intended to start our walk.  From here it is 28 kms to Fort Augustus and 500 – 600 metres of climbing.  The tarmac road continues a little beyond Garva Bridge to Melgarve where there is a tidy bothy with a fire and a wooden sleeping platform and a room called General Wade’s office.  Cars are not allowed beyond Melgarve and we got in to the stride of the walk from here enjoying the isolation and peacefulness and the feel of the sun on the back of our necks as we took turns in spotting red deer on the hillsides.  We had packed our rucksacks for survival in wintery weather but it was so warm we could have walked in shorts and sunhats.

Today the Corrieyairack is also crossed by pylons and these giant structures punctuated most of our route.  At each stream I found what remained of the old stone General Wade bridges; a few of them are intact but many are gone.  At Allt a’Mhill Ghaibh we had been expecting to have to paddle over the burn and were pleased to see a new wooden bridge had been constructed.  By the corrie that gives the pass its name the route becomes steeper and General Wade constructed the road in a series of zig-zags.  In early April weather after heavy snow the week before these were under a few feet of snow and so we tackled the hillside directly rather than taking the easier graded zig-zags.

The top of the pass is at 770 metres (2,526 feet) above sea level and this exposed spot caught the wind and the snow was frozen and shone blue with ice crystals.  We needed some of those layers we had been carrying here while we admired the view.  This was breathtaking; snow-clad mountains stretched from left to right to our north and we struggled to take it all in, looking for any familiar shapes among the multitude of mountains.  I posed for a photograph grinning at having achieved the top and tried to take in the beauty and the remoteness of where we were.

We had some difficulty route finding from the top with so much snow underfoot but in the clear conditions we headed left and eventually picked up signs of the familiar old road running parallel with the pylons.  After the excitement of climbing up the pass our slightly longer descent could have felt a bit of an anti-climax but the Corrieyairack had kept some surprises for us.

We were delighted to spot three mountains hares in total; one sat by the old road, its long ears twitching alertly as we froze and watched before it scented us and hurried away.  The hares were still in their white winter coat and soon disappeared in the snow.  Once we were off the snow the route finding was once again easy and here there were wooden posts beside the track to mark it.  With no one around we sang old songs as we descended and the panorama of mountains slowly disappeared.  We stopped to rest by one of Wade’s stone bridges and on the bridge at Allt Lagan a’ Bhaihne we met the only other people we had seen since Garva Bridge, four cyclists on their way over the pass.   I asked them where they were from, ‘Holland, said one, ‘You keep saying that,’ said another sitting opposite and explained, ‘We’re not from Holland we’re from the Netherlands.’  They asked about the snow conditions at the top and told us about their Scottish coast-to-coast route.

On the lower slopes of the Corrieyairack we saw red grouse flying low across the heather and nearer to Fort Augustus strips of heather were being burnt, the acrid smell didn’t encourage us to stop and rest.  The end was in sight as we got our first glimpse of Loch Ness spreading out to the horizon.  It was now the early afternoon and starting to cloud over after the bright blue start to the day as we passed the pink Culachy House.

The last section in to Fort Augustus is a pretty walk by the river and through a peaceful old burial ground.  We arrived in Fort Augustus very tired and in our weary confusion failed to notice the bus stop and therefore watched the 15.12 bus to Inverness drive by.  At Fort Augustus’ main bus shelter we checked for the next bus and found we had over an hour to wait.  As we were dallying a tourist from Taiwan approached us for help and even in our befuddled state we managed to sort out her public transport needs (ask any of my friends, I missed my vocation as a travel agent).  We watched three boats climbing up the series of locks on the Caledonian Canal and decided we had time for a drink before catching the next bus.  On entering the nearest pub the bar man recognised two exhausted walkers and suggested a pint each, how could we refuse.  In Inverness we feasted on chips in the amazing and popular Charlie’s Cafe, a real greasy-spoon of a place with motorbikes on display above the tables and started to revive.

The 18.45 train from Inverness got us to Newtonmore at 19.45 and we walked back to the campsite in the dusk.  Every single muscle in my legs ached but despite the pain I was happy, I had at last walked over the Corrieyairack Pass.

Practicalities:

The Walk Highlands website has a description of the route.

We used Gerry’s Taxis in Aviemore and he was on time and friendly.

We stayed at Invernahavon Campsite near to Newtonmore.  They have some lodges and cute wooden caravans as well as pitches for tents and motorhomes.

We walked a total of 33.5 kms.  Garva Bridge to Fort Augustus is 28 kms (Melgarve at the 6 km point, the top of the pass at 12 km, the hut at Blackburn at 18 km and you reach the road at 24 km).  This took us eight hours to walk, other people could certainly do it in less time.  From Newtonmore Railway Station we had a further 5.5 kms to walk back to the campsite, this took us an hour.

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Nearly at Fort Augustus
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Reaching the snowline

A starling murmuration is the Blackpool headliner

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The murmuration of starlings over Blackpool’s North Pier

Continuing the theme of a winter that is full of sunshine [yes I know we’ve just had a very wintry week] we have managed to get away in our blue campervan at various times this last few months in the sunshine.  In truth walking through the carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall in Bretherton near Preston you don’t need the sunshine to make you feel good; the bright white snowdrops bring their own light and it is impossible to be unhappy surrounded by flowers that mean spring is just around the corner.  We chose another sunny day to visit the wonderful Cobble Hey Farm on the slopes of the Bowland Fells looking over Garstang.  Here a beautiful woodland garden has been created that shows the full range of different varieties of snowdrops; snowdrops with yellow stems, tall snowdrops and early flowering snowdrops are all here.  In the barn we also met our first spring lamb.

Before Storm Emma arrived we spent a couple of sunny days around Blackpool.  It was cold in the clear weather and we had a much better time than we expected.  The Fylde coast around Blackpool is brimming with attractions from trams to public art, from history to the pleasure beach.  We walked along the front taking in all the old and the new, munching freshly-made doughnuts from a seafront stall.  Despite all Blackpool’s sights, the best show by far was the evening spectacular of the murmuration of starlings over the North Pier.  Thousands of starlings swooped in unison around the pier and the Irish Sea creating black clouds in the sky before roosting.  The starling’s captivating display was even more impressive than the stunning sunset that had hundreds of cameras clicking.

Away from the brashness of Blackpool we visited Fleetwood, a traditional seaside resort that I remember from childhood visits.  I have always loved the Knott End Ferry, The Mount and the sense of a bygone age that Fleetwood has.  I had relatives who lived in Rossall near Fleetwood and my family would house-swap with them for a week in the summer; they got a chance to meet up with relatives still living in north Staffordshire, we got a cheap week by the seaside.  In 1969 I also stayed there for a week with my Grandmother while she house and dog sat.  I treasured time with my Grandmother but this was a memorable trip for two particular reasons; firstly my Grandmother allowed me to stay up and watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and secondly I found a wallet stuffed with money on the wide and generally empty Rossall Beach.  My Grandmother took me and the wallet to Fleetwood Police Station where the Police Officer emptied the sandy and wet notes on to a sheet of newspaper laid across his counter so they could dry out.  A few weeks later the grateful owner sent me ten shillings [a small fortune for a nine-year old] as a reward.

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Carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall

Camping comfort food: dhal or lentil curry

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Dhal simmering in the pan

While the weather is below freezing I want to eat warming comfort food that is quick to make and delicious to eat.  My go-to recipe in these circumstances is lentil curry.  The recipe is below but it is a versatile dish that you can make your own and add to as suits you.  This is made from ingredients we always have in the store cupboard either at home or in the campervan and for me lentil curry is the ultimate comfort food, you can eat it from a bowl with just a fork [or even a spoon], it is warming and spicy and tasty and memories of all those other lentil curries from the past linger around it.

Dhal / lentil curry for two

Boil a pan of water with a pinch of salt and add two good handfuls (maybe 200 grams) of dried red lentils and a couple of bay leaves.  Boil and skim off any white scum as they boil and top up the water if necessary until the lentils are soft [about 20 minutes].  For this recipe you don’t have to boil the lentils dry.

Remove the bay leaves and put the lentils to one side [I put them in a bowl in the campervan and reuse the same pan for the next stage].

Fry a finely chopped onion in vegetable oil until it starts to catch and brown slightly and then add spices to suit you.  At home I use a teaspoon each of ground tumeric, ground cumin and ground coriander, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a pinch of chili flakes or a fresh chili chopped and maybe a little fresh ginger if I have some in.  In the campervan I usually only have a garam masala mix and fresh garlic to hand.  Fry these for a minute or two and then add the lentils to the pan.  You are now more or less finished but you can garnish the curry with fresh coriander if you have this available.

For variety I sometimes add a couple of chopped tomatoes to the onion or a chopped courgette.  Sometimes I add some finely chopped spinach at the end and this adds some colour.

I serve this wonderful simple food with either plain boiled rice or naan bread or home-made chapattis, the choice is yours.  Not only is this quick to make it is also a cheap eat.  In the campervan naan bread keeps the washing up to just one pan which is a win-win.  Enjoy!