Back in France
Now a very long time since I wrote anything. We are in Claviers in the south of France. The weather is still great but the Mistral is making its presence known. It is still a lovely scene when you get out of bed and walk onto the patio every morning. It’s quiet now. We had Max here for two weeks but he was ready to continue his journey. We said goodbye again in Marseille as he caught the train to Paris. A bit of heartbreak again. Marseille itself was a lovely surprise. A very attractive city and the port area where we stayed was lovely. From there we stayed a night in Aix-En-Provence before a lovely drive through the back roads to Claviers. The longer I spend in France, the less inclined I am to leave it. I have been here quite a few times but this has been longer than usual. It always helps to be not working and staying in someone else’s nice house.
It had been a bit of a hectic arrival. The flight from Warsaw was smooth enough but confusingly we arrived at a different terminal at Nice airport which took us a while and a bit of luggage lugging before we got to the hire car office. Citroen had informed us our lease car would be late but arranged an interim hire car. We got here much later that anticipated. The next day our friends Sue and Carl arrived to stay for a couple of nights. It was lovely to catch up.
But it didn’t stop there with the arrival of friend Dave straight afterwards and then Max the following day. Then Mick and Kath dropped in on their way from Sicily and returned later on their way back to Toulon to catch the ferry to Sicily.
The worst event of the trip so far was Max getting his phone nicked. Caused enormous amounts of hassle. Apple don’t make it easy. To recover your account you need to sign in with the phone you’ve lost or at least verify a sign in with the number you don’t have access to. Despite putting the phone in lost mode it appears it was still broken into but all significant passwords had been changed by then, so it looks to have come at the loss of a few photos only and of course the expensive handset itself. Luckily no credit cards or passport was lost so that made it a bit easier. It certainly caused a great deal of stress and made us look at our own security arrangements.
The supposedly two-hour bus trip to Dubrovnik turned out to be nearly five hours. We had been warned about this by an American traveller we met on the bus to Kotor. Much of this was two-hour jam at the border crossing. Back to old memories of endless immigration posts
Dubrovnik was something of a shock. A seriously crowded tourist trap. Certainly a stunning looking city with its little lanes and streets. Definitely this was the wrong time to visit. August can be bad in Europe but post-Covid the crowds are not what they would have been in previous years. Dubrovnik is also a bit cursed by cruise ships which generate endless crowds of old farts on walking tours. Our flat in the old town was not the best either, being a bit light on facilities and not the most spacious place. It was a killer bringing our hefty luggage down the endless steps. It would have worse if we were heading up. The city soaks up the heat in the stone walls and reflects it back as the day progresses. Prices for food and drink are absolutely through the roof. Stupid. In the desire to escape this we hired a car for a couple of days and headed first to Mostar in Bosnia. The price of the first night’s accommodation was paid for by the fact it had a washing machine. We had accumulated a fair bit of washing in the previous days but a laundrette in Dubrovnik was asking sixty euros a load! Our spacious flat in Mostar was less than that. It was a really nice place too with all possible mod cons and thoughtful addons. It turns out it abutted the infamous Sniper’s Tower of Mostar and our apartment building still bore the scars of war, still pockmarked with bullet holes. It was certainly cooler than Dubrovnik and we saw rain for only the second time in six weeks. The drive back though Bosnia was lovely and that gave way to some lovely old villages in Croatia on the way back the coast. The reality is that those villages are dying as the shocking depopulation of eastern Europe – Financial Times article.
We stayed in a small town called Slano, where we swam on an uncrowded pebbly beach. Definitely worth taking the loss on accommodation and getting out a bit. I certainly look froward to other trips in eastern Europe and the Balkans. It’s been a bit of a learning experience but will make future visits much better.
The bus ride to Montenegro was grim. Hot, malfunctioning seats, heavy traffic, border delays and general disorganisation turned a six-hour trip into eight and a half hours. Kotor was lovely, however. It’s not a place I would have really known much about and the visit there was as much as anything a stopover to Dubrovnik. It has a compact but lovely old town and it is set in what is basically a fiord. A really nice place and one I would happily revisit. There is a fort up the hill which climbed despite the rather oppressive afternoon heat. A great view to be had and there was a certain satisfaction to be doing that walk nearly fifteen years after nearly having my legs destroyed in a car accident.
The flight to Albania was a smooth one and arrived at Tirana airport, picked up the car and headed out. First to Kruga Castle which was in a spectacular setting. The driving was of a standard the I would expect. Traffic is generally quite slow but there are the “gangster Mercedes” as I call them that speed by at a frantic rate and do risky overtaking manoeuvres. There are many flash Mercedes in Albania despite it being a poor country. They love the car for various reasons – Mercedes in Albania. There is a fair amount of speculation that it is a favoured destination for stolen cars given the lax registration standards in the country – In Poor Albania, Mercedes Rules Road
We stayed the first night in the city of Durres. A pleasant place on the coast. Its tourist value are the Roman amphitheatre and museum. The next stop was a drive down the coast to Fier. This was not the most attractive town but I had booked two nights there, They have some amazing Roman ruins on the outskirts of town – Apollonia. The town itself lacked quite a bit of facility. There are a huge number of bars and cafes but very limited places to eat out. We weren’t too unhappy to leave it.
After that the drive down the coast to Sarrande was lovely. Firstly, taking us high over the Llogara Pass with rugged scenery and spectacular views over the coast as we came down the other side. It was beautiful. We stayed at a lovely place in Sarrande itself that had ocean views and you could also see Corfu in the distance. Quite touristy at this time of year but mostly Albanians there for the weekend, it got quiet after that. Next, we drove inland to Gjirokaster. This was higher and slightly cooler. It has a lovely old town that was nice to walk around, and I visited one of the many bunkers that the old communist regime became obsessed with building. North Korea apparently inspired this. Then we headed back to Tirana via the lovely old town of Berat. It had a well-situated castle and a rustic old town. Tirana was quite lively and noticeably wealthier than the rest of the country. More bunkers to visit here. They have made them into quite popular attractions called Bunk D’art. One in the centre of the town was more of an art gallery – not so impressive and stifling in the heat. The second on the outskirts of town was really interesting and very big. We luckily went there quite early in the day as when we emerged there were busloads of tourists arriving. Albania was pretty cheap and relatively untouristed compared with neighbouring countries. It was a place I had always wondered about seeing I’m glad we went there. There is more to see than we saw especially some more of the more mountainous areas.
Transylvania and Greece
Again, this is a long time between instalments but since this blog probably has an audience of less than 20 on a good day at the moment that’ll be enough.
I left it last time when we had arrived in Bucharest. One of the touristy things to do there is a visit to the Parliament Buildings which loomed large in the city skyline as we looked out the back window of the flat we were occupying. Its main claim to fame is it is the world’s heaviest building. Bulk is its main virtue as there was little of style in there. Started under the dictator Ceausescu, wasn’t quite clear if it was entirely finished. Overall, a curiosity of sorts but not that memorable really.
After this it was the painful hiring of a car which had been a schmozzle from the word go. I forgot my own adage not to go cheap on this. We finally got a local car, a Dacia Duster, a sort of SUV. It had 100k kms on it but was adequate for the purpose. Despite the endless warnings of how bad Romanian drivers were, I didn’t think they were that bad, probably on a par with driving somewhere like Italy. They weren’t particularly bad tailgaters, like the French and Spanish, but overtaking is the worst bit. I drove with headlights blazing all the time. If you are a road where you see a truck approaching you needed to slow a bit and be on your guard as you knew there would be a queue of impatient drivers waiting to jump out at you. On my side I pursued a policy of driving reasonably slowly and letting the nutters past, pulling off the road if necessary. There were very few hairy moments even driving over the Transfagarsan mounting route.
Our first stop was Brasov, an old Saxon town with a lively centre. The term Saxon appears to be used all the time but should really read German for it. There had been German migration to Transylvania since the 12th Century that waxed and waned over time. In the post world war era this population declined for all manner of reasons. The population is a fraction of what it is today with many of the Romaninan Germans resettling in Germany over this time. The legacy is seen mostly in Saxon churches that followed protestant teachings and are in contrast to the Orthodox sect that is dominant in Romania. The Black Church in Brasov is one of the largest but they decorate many of the smaller historic towns that we encountered in Transylvania. We stayed in a lovely old house (or part thereof) in Brasov despite being a bit of a nightmare getting the car in and out of the yard. The obligatory visit to Bran Castle, supposedly the home of Dracula was a pain. Of course it wasn’t the real home of Vlad the Impaler but it appeared as such in Bram Stoker’s book that popularised the whole legend. I’ve never been much interested in the whole thing really and Bran Castle was a hideous tourist trap. Long queues stretched out of the place and although were able to bypass much of it by buying tickets on the phone in the queue, it was a still in the end not worth it. We visited the nearby citadel of Rasnov which was far less crowded but somewhat unspectacular. Some of these places are clearly being restored with EU money which is great but some of them are surrounded by scaffolding and have limited entry.
From Brasov we headed to another historic town, Sighisoara, which is smaller but more significant in that is the home of an old English friend, Ian. It was great to catch up and spend time in person and to meet his seven-year-old daughter, Sonia. I’ll never know how many litres of beer passed through my system in those few days but it would be higher than the trip average which in turn has been pretty high. It was great to drive out in the countryside to see towns like Biertan and a pleasant nearby city, Targu Mures. The latter was pretty devoid of tourists and the lazy way we had got by in English (which is generally widely spoken in urban and touristed areas) didn’t work so well in a place where Hungarian and Romanian were the order of the day. People were largely friendly and the confusion we had over the parking system which incurred a small fine was sorted out by an approach to the helpful local police and nearby travel agent. A pleasant town probably more Hungarian in population. Transylvania was originally part of greater Hungary and they still claim it to this day. Romania’s chop and change, stop start participation in World War one had its ups and downs but eventually gave them the opportunity to nab Transylvania is the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
From Sighisoara we had a day in Sibiu to the west which also has its share of old buildings and was abuzz with mostly Romanian tourists. Pleasant enough but the real reason for heading that way was the Tranfagarasan road over the Fagaras Mountains. It was a lovely scenic drive but fairly busy at some points. We sighted two bears on the way down. There is quite a population of bears in Romania which can cause problems at times. Bears in Romania
Thankfully our flight to Athens the next day was pretty much on time. Bucharest airport is disorganised but not particularly busy, so it was a fairly easy trip. Athens itself was fun with Jackie getting more confident with her Greek very quickly. We had a nice apartment near the Acropolis but as we had both visited it on multiple occasions previously, we thought it best not to fight the crowds and heat this time around. We visited the new Acropolis Museum which was great and bussed and walked around the city, I posted something on Facebook about the bizarre ritual of the changing of the guard outside parliament. It remains one of the strangest things I have seen. Our ferry was delayed getting to Hydra, but it was great to get here eventually. Loads of tourists but many of them Greeks. We did a round island cruise which was lovely. The swimming stops in the sea were fantastic, wonderfully clear water and beautiful temperature.
France and onward
Been somewhat slow in starting this time. Already in France a week. Starting in searing hot Paris where to one point we saw a temperature of 43 degrees. Being dry heat, it was slightly more bearable and after some of our travels in India with temperatures that stayed relentlessly 40 + for days on end we took it as it came. Lovely Airbnb on Île de la Cité that despite having no air conditioning (not common in northern Europe) we didn.t suffer badly at all. From our rear window we could see Notre Dame, which was very close to us but sadly shrouded in scaffolding as they rebuild from the disastrous fire there in 2019.
It was lovely to walk out the door and see the Seine in front. I was surprised at the size of some of the barges that sailed down. It was a lovely scene. We had no real tourist plans and were happy to stroll through the streets and people watch in restaurants in the evening. However, this being probably the 6th time in Paris, I still had never visited the Palace of Versailles. Getting there proved to be more challenging than I thought given it is one of the most visited places on the planet. The easy method would have involved a straight through train but we were informed that line was shut and we needed to take the Metro with three changes to reach the town of Versailles. The London is a bit more user friendly than the Paris variety and there was a fair wait for interconnecting trains too. When we did reach the town of Versailles there was limited signage pointing to the palace. At one point they just ran out and I had to ask a local newsagent to point the way. You have to book a time slot and we had a bit of a quick march to get there in time for ours. The place is pretty impressive. Not just its size and gardens an=but the endless artworks, sculptures and the rich historical background. You could easily justify spending two days to have good look at it but tiredness took its toll. A great place but it felt like ticking a tourist box going to see it. After three days in Paris it was time to go to Nice to see our friends.
The airport wasn’t too bad but the plane ended up being two hours late. This caused confusion with the care rental and as the company had given away our car and we were stung for an extra 150 euros to rent a flashier model. I don’t know if they were being completely honest but that’s the game they play. There is dread in my heart about travelling this August in Europe, but fingers crossed.
What a fabulous time we’ve had in Claviers with our friends the Edwards. Their hospitality has been amazing and lending us their house in September and October has made the whole trip possible. Much lovely eating and plenty of drinking has been the order of the day and all against the wonderful beauty of the countryside. It has been hot but also made bearable by large quantities of cold beer and a swimming pool.
It is strange to be collecting stamps in our passports as the we are no longer part of the EU. British passports are pretty useless these days except for getting into the UK itself. So sad to see what was once a respected nation in these parts slowly flush itself down the toilet. The election of the gormless Liz Truss seems to be a foregone conclusion so that is good in a way that the Tory government in the UK will continue to be run by a clique of twits. It will hopefully be their final downfall. We are probably a long way off doing something sensible like joining the Single Market or re-instituting freedom of movement given the gutlessness of the British left in standing up for it.
While the plane from Nice ended up taking off nearly two hours late – a feature of post Covid travel, summertime Europe and the never-ending nonsense that is Brexit – it was on the ground that we had the biggest hassle. The baggage took over an hour and a half to emerge! One of our fellow passengers kept saying how embarrassed he was to be a Romanian and groups of other passengers were berating airport staff and even the police. The upshot was that our rental car company put us down as a no-show and cancelled us. After endless phone calls we were able to sort it out and ended up not bothering to rent in while in Bucharest.
We are staying near the Old City which is lovely and chock full of bars and restaurants. There are some really gorgeous old buildings and most of our time has been wondering the streets despite the heat. We are staying in an apartment that is reasonably new but located on the top of an old communist era building that is a bit grim when you enter it. It has its eccentricities but not to worry. Things don’t always work smoothly here but not to worry.