Our Greek #vanlife tragedy: be warned it isn’t pretty

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Every time I have to look at these photographs I get another punch in my stomach

We have all made mistakes, haven’t we?  Or are you one of those perfect people that never make them?  Well, we are not perfect and we made a big and costly mistake while we were in Greece and boy have we paid for it.  We were relaxed, we were loving Greece, we were happy and then in just a few minutes, after a moment of inattention, we were thrown in to despair.

I need to get the confession over with … we left the ‘van on a [gentle] slope with the handbrake fully on but what we forgot to do was leave it in gear [it really wasn’t that sort of slope].  The ‘van stayed put for ten minutes and then we watched our much loved campervan and our travelling home roll gently down the slope.  We ran after it, we grabbed the handles but if you have ever tried to stop something that weighs over three tonnes from moving you will know how pointless [and possibly dangerous] that was.  The ‘van stopped when it hit a wall and the photograph above shows that the Renault came off much worse than the wall [that didn’t even have a scratch].

Fortunately, no one was hurt and we have insurance and European breakdown.  Unluckily we were in Greece, as far as we could get from home, and fixing a Renault this far from France proved to be a tough call and our insurance company advised that repatriating the ‘van for fixing in the UK was the best option.  We had to make the difficult decision to leave our ‘van all by itself, waiting for a breakdown lorry to arrive from the UK and to take it the long journey home.

We were just five weeks in to a planned thirteen week trip around southern Europe and every ‘van owner will understand how devastated we were.  We were homeless, we felt lost without the ‘van, dazed after the shock of ‘the incident’ and had only ourselves to blame.  Nevertheless we were physically fine and as our breakdown paid for a hire car, we decided to salvage a little more from the trip.  We spent a few days in Greece visiting Meteora [see the next installment] when we found that a road trip in a car bears no resemblance to a campervan trip.

Getting the ‘van back to the UK took two weeks.  Our ‘van is now in a garage in the UK and the good news is that the insurance company have authorised the repairs.  But the repair is massive and expensive, needs specialist equipment and it will be at least four weeks until we are back on the road.

That one moment of inattention has cost us about eight weeks of camping in the sun, caused many sleepless nights as I relive the horror of it in my nightmares and taught us an important lesson.  We will never leave the ‘van in neutral again, even on what seems to be level ground.

For two travellers who use their ‘van all year and have never gone much more than a fortnight without sleeping in our cosy camper, being without a campervan is harder to bear than a non-campervan owner can even guess.  Without the ‘van I feel lost and as if some part of me is missing, I feel I am living in the wrong life and wonder if in another universe there is a version of me still tootling around southern Europe in an intact campervan.  Although grateful no one was hurt, I am heavyhearted and I gaze with yearning every time we pass any kind of motorhome and I want to stop the owners and tell them, we have a ‘van too, honest.  So if you see us out and about give us some sympathy.

Walking in Greece #2 The fantastic Pelion Peninsular

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Terraced olive groves on the Pelion peninsular

After just a few weeks in Greece I have to confess I had more photographs of olive trees than anyone can ever really need … I can’t help myself.  I am attracted to the gnarled, twisted trunks, the small grey-green leaves of these trees that make a gentle rustling sound in the breeze and the tiny flowers that eventually become delicious olives.  These Greek olive trees have cultural connections too and each tree is rooted in myth and history.  One Greek myth tells us that the Goddess Athena, the daughter of Zeus, and Poseidon, Zeus’ brother, both coveted the city of Athens [then called Attica].  Yet, while Poseidon drove his trident in to the Acropolis producing a well of salt water, Athena made an olive tree grow next to the well.  Zeus ordered a tribunal to decide which of the two gods should be enshrined in the city and this court decided that the olive tree was the greatest gift and chose Athena. giving the city its name.

We drove through the ancient olive trees around Amfissa to the stuunning mountainous Pelion Peninsular [sometimes Pilion], on the east coast of northern mainland Greece.  Here we found fantastic walking on old cobbled donkey tracks or kalderimis.  These kalderimis were built to bring produce down from the mountains and today these and other paths and tracks take walkers from the rocky coves and beaches on the coast, through the olive groves and up to the mountain villages among the sweet chestnut and beech trees.  Each village of narrow winding streets has a square with a cafe.  In the centre of each square is a plane tree that was planted many decades ago and is now huge and gives generous and welcome shade to the customers in the cafe.

On our first day we walked to the village of Pinakates, following the steep path through the terraced olives.   As we climbed higher we brushed beside mint and thyme plants, releasing the sweet smells and our route was alive with butterflies.  There are springs on the Pelion and alongside the path were narrow  stone channels rushing with clear water.  We tried to play poo sticks at one bridge but the sticks hurtled away in a blur.  The path had a signpost from the coast road, was well marked with red dots and we met few other people walking.  We rested under some shady pine trees and stopped to look at the various chapels on the way.  The paved paths of Pinakates (at 640 metres) weave their way along terraces to the attractive main square, overlooked by the church and with a burbling fountain.  We had the best cheese and spinach pie we had tasted yet in the cafe here, the pastry was crisp and the filling fresh and it was coiled in the traditional pattern.

The next day we explored two mountain villages on a 11 kilometres circular route.  We expected more of the same but this hilly landscape constantly revealed new surprises and landscapes and the walking was never boring.  The ascent to Milies was easier as it is only about 440 metres above sea level and the village was bustling with people as the small tourist train had just arrived at the pretty station.  We continued along the ridge to Vizitsa from a path near the station and soon came to a cool, shady gorge with a waterfall that was a perfect spot to eat our lunch and enjoy a paddle.  We followed a narrow and overgrown path that gave us occasional views over the hills.  At a spring we climbed steps to the chic village of Vizitsa and found a square where two musicians were playing Greek music.  We descended a different way, climbing over a ridge from a tiny white chapel that had great views over the railway line and back to Vizitsa and Milies.  Our little used path then joined another of the narrow water channels as we descended the mountain.  On the hillside dotted with farmhouses we sat enjoying the view and dreamt about moving to a small house with a view of tree-clad mountains and blue sea.

Our time in the Pelion was short and we could have spent longer here but sometimes a campervan trip doesn’t go quite according to plan.  In the next installment I will tell you how our Greek odyssey became a bit of a tragedy and how we dealt with this.

You can download details of these and other walks here and here as well as other information about this fantastic area.

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A terrace with a view on the Pelion peninsular

Suede and nubuck brush reviewed

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It is a fact of life [in the UK] that our walking shoes get muddy.  Cleaning our walking shoes isn’t the favourite job of either of us but it helps if you have the right tools for the job. I recently needed to replace the simple suede brush we had as the bristles were wearing down.  I found this Kiwi Suede and Nubuck brush in the supermarket and despite it costing more than I expected I decided to see if it was better than the brush I was replacing, as it claimed to have more and better features.

This Kiwi brush is plastic and retails at around £3.  Kiwi recommend that the shorter rubber bristles are used for nubuck, the longer bristles can be used for removing soil in crevices and the shaped plastic edge can clean seams.

I found it didn’t work quite like Kiwi proposed.  After walks on sticky chalk soils and the thick clay of the Yorkshire coast our shoes were heavy with mud.  After each trip we left them to dry for a few days and then tackled the cleaning.  The longer bristles worked the same as any suede brush and got a lot of the dried mud off the shoes, along the seams, the sides of the soul and the top.  The difficult bit of cleaning walking shoes and one where I hoped this tool might help is the grip pattern on the sole.  For walking shoes to provide good traction a complicated grip pattern is designed by manufacturers, with many narrow crevices that get packed full of mud that dries to almost concrete.  In addition small stones lodge in these crevices and need removing.  Suede brushes cannot shift this mud easily and I usually end up seeking out a twig or a metal skewer to clean out the sole.  Instead I tried using the curved plastic edge of the Kiwi brush.  This did tackle these areas quite effectively but after only using the tool twice for our four shoes the plastic edge is showing significant wear; Kiwi don’t claim that this is what the plastic edges are designed for but if the plastic used was tougher it would work well for cleaning the soles of our walking shoes.

As this tool will be worn out very soon I will go back to an ordinary suede brush and a metal skewer to remove the soil from the grip on the soles of our walking shoes, as I really can’t justify the expense and waste of resources involved in buying a new plastic brush every six months.

 

 

Walking in Greece #1 at Delphi & Corinth

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The Acrocorinth has spectacular views

During our three weeks in Greece we saw so many beautiful places, visited plenty of ancient sites and enjoyed some great walking.  I thought I would concentrate on the walks in my blog posts, firstly a very memorable walk from Delphi and then a walk from Ancient Corinth that did include visiting the Acrocorinth.  My second post will tell you about our walks on the stunning Pilion peninsular on the Aegean Sea.

The old zigzag path from Delphi to the beautiful Livadi plateau climbs the hillside from near the Museum of Delphic Festivals at the top of the town and black and yellow markers indicate the E4 path.  The path firstly follows the ridge through flower-rich meadows above the site of the Delphi oracle and the Temple of Apollo [a fantastic site we had visited the day before] and there are good views on to the stadium.  The path soon joins the old stone zigzag route that takes a gentle meandering route up the crag.  This timeless path, that has been used for generations, is broad and cobbled and gave us continuing stunning views down to Delphi and the sea at Itea.  Stopping for a rest was always interesting as around us there was an abundance of flowers, including giant fennel on the lower slopes and lots of tassel hyacinths, hypericum and sage as we climbed higher and we were accompanied by hundreds of butterflies.  Each time the zigzags reached the most easterly point of the crag we had views down in the spectacular rocky gorge above Delphi.  At the top of the crag we entered a sheltered valley of cropped grass, juniper bushes, more flowers and sparse trees with paths branching off across the red earth.   This was such a tranquil and peaceful spot we spent some time here, identifying the flowers, watching the birds and practicing tai chi.  The valley opened out and we reached a wooden water trough, farm buildings and suddenly, after a morning of solitude, met other walkers.  We continued upwards to a grassy meadow on the ridge and had lunch with a view of the snowy massif of Mount Parnassus, cows quietly moving across the meadows in front of us.  We returned the same way.  The walks climbs about 700 metres and we had taken our time and so were out for six hours.  We both agreed it was a fantastic day!

From Ancient Corinth we set off to climb the obvious hill you can see from the town.  This craggy hill is topped by a fortress, the Acrocorinth.  We found the Fountain of Hadji Mustapha easily enough just outside Ancient Corinth.  When we arrived it was swarming with what we christened the Corinth walking group.  The group, like any walking group, were chatting, checking their rucksacks and filling water bottles and we couldn’t get anywhere near it.  Giving up on the fountain and avoiding the starving puppies we took the path behind the fountain.  There were no signs and we quickly misplaced the path and followed a steep route that merely cut off the corner and took us back to the road.  Rather than double-back we chose to walk most of the four kilometres to the Acrocorinth on the road.  On the way back down we realised we should have stayed lower and taken a more gentle path that traversed the hillside.  Fortunately, the road only goes to the fortress and was quiet and it was delightful with so many flowers along the verge and a fantastic view over the bay.  Arriving at the Acrocorinth we were pleased to see the entrance was free and also pleased we had come in the morning as it only opens until 15.00.  The castle was first used by the Greeks from the 4th century BC, in the 12th century first the Frankish took over and then the Ottomans and during their rule the Venetians took control briefly.  Each of these different rulers extended the castle walls outwards and today these walls extend over two kilometres and visitors enter through three defensive gates.  We walked up the steep hillside on marble paths in to the vast castle.  The castle was used as a refuge from pirates by the people of Corinth and they built houses, churches and mosques here so they could survive a siege.  The different occupiers have left a mixture of architectural styles and the buildings that remain are dotted around the hillside.  Getting around these buildings takes some effort as you climb up to the different buildings on what are often very rocky and steep paths bordered by colourful wild flowers.  I breathed in deeply, enjoying the sweet aroma of camomile, its scent released as we crushed the profusion of flowers on the paths.  The animals that now call the Acrocorinth home are hundreds of house martins.  They have found a perfect place to live here: castle walls with nooks and crannies for nests, an abundance of flowers that bring in insects for food and they constantly swoop acrobatically through the air above visitor’s heads.  Health and safety is less of a concern in Greece generally and visitors are expected to use their common sense, so when you reach the outer walls, if you have a head for heights, you can stand on the walls enjoying the terrific views all around, a precipitous drop below and no railings to protect you.     We had a picnic at the high tower looking over the patterns of olive groves below and then found the highest point where there had once been a temple to Aphrodite, followed by a Byzantine church, then a mosque and finally a Venetian belvedere.  The Acrocorinth was a hard to beat place; it had great views, fascinating history and it was free!   Walking back down the hill we met the Corinth walking group once again at the fountain returning from their own walk.

Greece was certainly proving to be excellent for walking.

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Walking on the Livadi Plateau

Polish Shops: #surprisingsalford #13

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The Polish shop on Langworthy Road

Time was when you had to travel to the USA to get Reece’s sweet peanut butter cups, Poland to find Polish curd cheese or Ireland to buy Tayto crisps but today in Salford our local supermarkets all have a ‘World Food’ aisle or two and you can buy these delicacies, as well as large bags of red lentils and basmati rice and goodies from Spain, Caribbean islands and other Asian countries.  Much as I love trying the local food when we travel I also love being able to get some of my favourites when I am at home and I am truly grateful to all those people who have been prepared to leave their own country and move to the UK and created the demand for food from other countries.

In the 2011 census 1.6% of the Salford population spoke Polish.  These people and those from other countries add new and interesting flavours to our city and different outlooks.  Of course, since the Brexit vote, many of these people are feeling insecure and even friends who moved here decades ago are concerned about their ability to stay.

But for now I am able to enjoy shopping in our local Polish shop.  I walk in and I am always greeted with ‘dzien dobry’ and I like to confuse the staff by replying in Polish, although in truth that and thank you [Dziękuję] is pretty much the extent of my Polish.  We visited Poland in 2007 in our campervan and at the time I could manage some of the language needed to book us in to a campsite but most of this has been forgotten in the haze of other languages.

I love that many of the items the shop sells are a mystery to me; I might as well be in one of the gloomy small grocery shops we found in Poland.  Mostly I just buy the delicious rye bread, although I sometimes return with other delicacies such as paprika crisps and cream cheese with chives.  I drool over the large jars of gherkins but know that with Mr BOTRA having no interest in pickled vegetables I would struggle to get through so many.

 

Doing just one thing a day in our frugal retirement

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The Stretford End is usually packed for a match!

Now we are both here we are finding this retirement life pretty good.  As with our pre-retirement life, we are continuing to live frugally [that is within budget], stay active, get out and engage with the world and generally enjoy our lives.  We are also trying to remain relaxed and content by adopting a strategy of doing just one thing a day.  So far we have slipped in to doing two things just occasionally but the policy mostly applies.  Below is a list of our activities and spending on additional activities in the last week:

Day one – We attended a political meeting [free].

Day two – We bought day passes for the bus [£4.50 each] and went for a countryside walk.

Day three – We got free tickets for a play through the wonderful Show Film First and we went to the matinee because we can, walking there and back.

Day four – We walked in to Manchester to spend a book token Mr BOTRA had received for his birthday.  While we were choosing books, the book shop had a fire alarm and we went for a drink while we waited for it to re-open [£3.30].

Day five – We joined a shared lunch with friends and drinks for a friend’s birthday in Manchester in the evening [two things]!  [Public transport £13.20, drinks £23.60].

Day six – A guided visit to the interior of the lovely Ordsall Hall [£3 each]

Day seven – We went to see the Manchester United Reserves under 23 team play against Tottenham Hotspur.  Entrance is free and the crowd of a few hundred [the capacity of Old Trafford is over 75,000] watched Manchester United win 3-2.  We resisted the temptation to buy any of the over-priced refreshments.

So we spent a total of £55.10 [less than £8/day] on getting out and about this last week, this might be slightly unusual as we don’t celebrate birthdays every week [but we really enjoyed going out to the pub] and this amount is well within budget and has been so much fun.  We have learnt more about our local area, met some people with shared political views, enjoyed some culture and sport and kept very active.  Roll on more weeks of retirement!

 

 

The beauty of the Italian Apennines

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Pietra di Bismantova, Reggio Emilia in the evening sun

I love being in Italy in our campervan; I love the food, the coffee, the scenery, the wine and the vibrancy.  Every time we go we find new places to enjoy that seem more beautiful than the last time.  On this trip we were travelling across the country to Ancona where we were catching a ferry to Greece.  After a night on the lovely Ligurian coast, we headed inland to cross the Apennines on the superb SS63.  We stopped to admire the attractive fortified village of Castle Verrucolo and enjoyed the fantastic mountains views from the road.  Camping Le Fonti was the perfect place for a couple of nights; with a friendly welcome, fresh bread ordered, a sketch map of local walks and a pitch with a view of the distinctive Pietra de Bismantova (above), we were happy.  The next day we walked up Monti Ventasso, a 1,727 metre hill behind the campsite.  We walked through beech woods dotted with wood anemone, primroses and wild crocuses, a cuckoo calling in the distance.  Taking the path to Santa Marie Maddalena we crossed an exposed and loose scree slope to the grassy meadow where a refuge and chapel sit under the rocky crags of Monti Ventasso.  The steep narrow and rocky path up the east ridge was airy in places, eventually bringing us out on a wide and grassy ridge to the summit, passing a bizarre wooden hinged figure on the way.  The summit gave us great views of the valley, Pietra di Bismantova and Lago Calamone below.  We descended to the lake, a picturesque and sunny spot where a group of young men were noisily playing football on a slope, the ball regularly fell in to the lake and this seemed part of the game.  We climbed upwards to join our previous path and returned the same way having enjoyed a great day’s walking.

The lovely driving continued until we reached built up areas again at Scandiano.  We found the Camper Club Mutina in Modena, a great and well-run sosta that is close to the city but has views over fields and vineyards and we watched hares and a kestrel from our pitch.  We were given a map which included a cycle route to Modena, about 30 minutes of flat cycling and perfect for seeing the sights of Modena.  Modena is clearly a cycling town, everyone from eight to eighty was out on their bikes and we followed a signed route, the MO1, in to the centre that was always off road.  We parked near the Duomo off the cobbled Piazza Grande in the city centre; an impressive white marble building with intricate carvings.  We ambled around, taking in the sights and I loved the Piazza Roma with its fountains and large shallow pools that reflected the surrounding buildings.  Following the narrow streets we spotted a queue of people outside a shop; further investigation revealed it was for Emilia Cremeria ice-cream, so we had to join in.  After queuing we came away with hand-made cornets of pistachio ice-cream; each cornet is filled with molten chocolate first with the creamy-soft ice-cream on top.  When you have enjoyed the fantastic ice-cream you bite through the fresh biscuit wafer and still have the soft chocolate to finish.  It was delicious and I want all ice-cream to be like this from now on.

We spent our last few nights in Italy at Camping Mar Y Sierra near  to the hilltop town of Mondolfo.  Away from the built up Italian coast this was a glorious spot.  We walked along the Valle dei Tufi route that took us through beautiful countryside and in to the pretty town of Mondolfo and we cycled to the stunning walled town of Corinaldo in the sunshine.  The hot weather bought a tremendous thunder storm one night, with hail bouncing off the roof of the ‘van so loud that we couldn’t hold a conversation and lightning brilliant in the sky.  Our next stop Greece …

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The beautiful city of Modena