South America Post 4 Cienfuegos, Trinidad and time to leave!

Our night was spent in Cienfuegos, a city in south central Cuba, founded by Fench families in the 18th Century. It has a beautiful waterfront, and on arrival we were taken on a slightly bumpy ‘bicycle made for 2’ taxi ride around the city.

The buildings in the centre are architecturally very different to the Spanish style in Havana, and although the city has many rather tired buildings, they are working hard here to attempt to restore the centre.

Many of the most stylish buildings are now Hotels or Clubs, which only tourists, or wealthy Cubans can afford. And that is the paradox here. It is a communist country, but we could see that there are some people making a lot of money here, while some of their countrymen are very very poor. Equal shares for all? I don’t think so.

We constantly observed shortages. In one town, there was no fuel, in another, no bread, in another no cooking oil.

We went into a supermarket in Cienfuegos. There were just 4 aisles. One aisle had just toilet paper. Another, rows and rows of tinned tomatoes, ketchup and a basic tomato sauce, plus some packets of beans. Another row was cereal and water. Another was locally made colas and pickles.

There was some very expensive meat in a freezer.. and a good selection of alcohol, which was surprisingly cheap. Suddenly we realise how we take the vast array of choice in our shops for granted. Speaking to some local people on the waterfront, they told us they buy most of their meat, cheese etc on the black market as it is cheaper and better.

Our accommodation, Casa Oriente, was lovely. The family made us so welcome and cooked us a gorgeous dinner of prawns with coconut.

The next day, after exploring the city with Tony, we headed for the hills! We had brought colouring pencils, shampoos and toothpastes from home which we gave out in the poorer mountain villages. People seemed so grateful it was embarrassing. We wished we had brought more. These things can be obtained here, but are expensive and poor quality, so people don’t. Toothpaste is £8 a tube, and a cheap toothbrush £6.

Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall, El Nicho, where a local guide led us on a walk explaining all the plants and birds. The air plants covering trees were particularly impressive!

And a weird lizard!

Then on to Trinidad, an old town that was so isolated that the first road to reach it didn’t arrive until 1953. Most of the streets are still cobbled. The architecture is amazing.

All 17th and 18th century. Very colourful, with huge windows that have floor to ceiling, ornate iron screens over them, which keep people out but let the breeze in.

The oldest buildings have wooden screens.

We loved it here, exploring the Cathedral and old family houses. The main square buzzes with music and people, and we joined the crowd, having a Mojito and a Daiquiri!

Wifi is mainly available in public squares like this. You must buy a Government card and use it to log on.

Our accommodation was in Hostal Gisela y Wilfredo. They were so friendly, and cooked us a super lobster dinner which we ate on their roof terrace, with our own salamanders keeping the bugs down!

Next morning, we visited a pottery, and sampled another Cuban rum based drink… La Canchanchara – at 10.30 am! This was necessary to relax our inhibitions enough for a 1 hour salsa lesson. Suffice it to say, thanks to our super teacher, we did well learning the steps, but the required wiggling and shimmying needs a lot of work! We won’t be on Strictly Come Dancing anytime soon!

An afternoon visit to the lovely beach at Playa Ancon was followed by watching the sunset from the roof terrace and a leisurely evening amble.

No supper, we are too full! Dominoes is widely played with a passion!

An early start for our return to Havana, via some old steam trains for Chris to play in

(Health and Safety is an unknown concept here!!), and an old sugar cane plantation village where we tried sugar cane juice. Then Santa Clara, an inland city which was a key victory in the Revolution.

The rebels had been moving westward. Santa Clara was their biggest objective. Che Guevara was leading this rebel group. Battista’s government sent an armoured train containing weapons and engineers to Santa Clara, to move east towards the rebels. Che’s men destroyed the railway line 1km east of the city. As the train moved east towards this point, rebels inside the city lifted the track there with a Caterpillar bulldozer! The train saw the track was gone and reversed back to reach the city, hitting the blockage and derailing. All were captured.Some carriages remain as a museum.

It was a huge victory and Che Guevara has Super hero status. A huge mausoleum and statue overlook the town.

Che was a socialist who grew unhappy with Russian communist influence in Cuba, and in 1965, left to go to fight with rebels in Bolivia, only to be killed there soon after. His body was found in the 1990s and brought to Cuba.

Finally, back to Havana for a night, before our flight tomorrow. Tonight we have an ‘in room gecko’ for mosi control.

A long walk, watching cruise ships arriving and departing. Tourism is the lifeblood of Cuba. It has felt very safe here. They need and love tourists, but if you come, please try and use locally run businesses rather than Government owned or international ones. We spoke to some people at a restaurant who told us that the Army control 70% of the tour companies here. Finally, a last Mojito at the Art Nouveau Hotel Inglaterra, soaking up the sights and sounds of this bustling, musical mixed up country.

Motorways can be empty…but full of potholes.

Our accommodation was always clean, but often with a 1960’s feel! Here is our guide Tony outside our Hostal in Trinidad.

Surprisingly, and thankfully, each one had air con! Everyone was friendly, the food was better than we expected, the buildings were a mix of ornate splendour, simple dwellings, and ghastly, Russian built blocks of flats.

I was tickled by the rows and rows of washing lines we saw, full of vibrant colourful clothes!

It sums up Cuba – vibrant and colourful!

(With our guide Tony, we have been trying to follow the news anxiously due to the Venezuela situation. Tony because the Cuban Government are asking people to sign a paper to say they support Venezuela’s current PM, and could potentially be called upon to fight there. Us as we fly to Ecuador via Colombia which seems to feature centrally in the USA’s aid plans!)

South America Post 3 Cuba – Vinales and Bay of Pigs.

Leaving Havana we drove along the Malecon, the sweeping Atlantic seafront that once was home to the best hotels.

We stopped at Fusterdoria, a suburb where the Cuban artist Jose Fister decided to create a tribute to Anton Gaudi as a way to rejuvenate his impoverished village. The result is a Gaudiesque mosaic art park, and also, all the front walls of his neighbours properties are decorated by him too!

Driving west, the lack of cars became increasingly noticeable, even on the highways. Bikes, and ponies pulling carts were common sights. As were hitchhiker’s… loads of them. Whole families sometimes with no other way to get from A to B. Bizarrely, on the highway, there were spots where a sign suddenly reduced the speed limit from 100 kph to 60, often at bridges where hitchhiker’s waited in the shade. Frequently police lurked here, giving speeding tickets. At other spots, there were fake inspectors, trying to scam a fine from unsuspecting tourists.

Our next stop was Las Terrazas Biosphere reserve, a vast area of forested hills created after the revolution to provide homes for poor hill farmers. After the revolution in 1959, **** trees were planted and homes built. It is now a wonderful place, and a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

This tree is called the tourist tree because it is red and peels!!

We visited an old coffee plantation and saw some beautiful birds, including the Trogon, Cuba’s national bird.

A great lunch at Buenavista cafetal was followed by locally grown coffee at El cafe de Maria, overlooking the village, watching Emerald humming birds to our right, while Turkey Vultures landed on the grass to our left to scavenge the chicken feed!

A visit to an artisan paper maker was followed by a stop at a beautiful Orchid garden.

We drove on, finally reaching Vinales, a pretty village in the heart of Karst scenery… large, and rare outcrops of limestone rock forming dramatic hills, just as we had seen in Vietnam.

We also discover that here, we are as far from southern South America is as we are from London.

And we chose not to go for a ride on the bull!!

Being a communist country, Cubans have had little access to world news until recently, and have obviously been told a lot of things about how great their country is. So we are frequently told that things are the biggest in the world, the first in the world, the finest in the world. We weren’t sure if Tony was a bit upset that we had seen Karst scenery somwhere else!

Staying at Nenita’s bnb, we had a good supper, then walked into town where the main street was cordoned off for Saturday night festivities. There was a definite theme to all the stalls!

Night times are interesting here. Loud conversations, often accompanied by music, can go on into the small hours. Dogs bark whenever anyone comes close to their patch, and ignite a chain of barking up and down the street. Nearly everyone has chickens, which start crowing around 4.00 am. The room fridge gurgles and rattles, and the aircon or fan whirrs and clicks. And of course, there is the tiny, but dreaded sound of the whining mosquito. Walls and windows are thin and sound carries. Oh where are noise cancelling headphones when you need them? Chris of course sleeps blissfully through most of it. However I am never a good sleeper, and in the 5 days we have been away, have already finished 4 books on the kindle! Luckily, I’m usually quite awake the next day, even after just 4 or 5 hours sleep!

On Sunday, we explored the area, starting with a boat trip in some dramatic caves – Cueva del Indio.

Then we visited El plaque de Los Cimarrones, caves where escaping slaves would go to hide. Then to a huge (120 metres x 180 metres) outdoor mural depicting prehistoric life, in honour of all the fossils and early remains that have been found in this area.

All the while seeing local farmers driving their horse drawn carts, and using oxen to plough the fields.

Another super lunch at a local restaurant, La Carreta, (we had been warned that the food was not great in Cuba.. we beg to differ!)

Then to an organic farm, which grows fruit, vegetables and tobacco. We were taken through the whole process of cigar making. 90% of their leaves go to government factories, but they keep 10% to make beautiful handmade cigars.

The wrapping leaves are marinaded in lemon and honey, and the mouth end of the cigar is dipped in honey before you smoke it. Chris smoked one… well a little… he will bring the rest home for special occasions! With that beard he just needs a green uniform and he could join Che Guevara’s rebels!

A last walk into town for a light snack of some tapas at Olivos cafe….well ‘light snack’ just doesn’t exist here! The diet is heavily centred around rice and black beans, but there is meat and fish and loads of fresh fruit and veg.

The weather has been great 27 – 30 degrees but with a breeze. Very few mosquitos, but we still used our amazing bed net as it only takes one to cause havoc!

Tomorrow we head to southern Cuba, where the mosi count will increase, preparing us for what lies ahead in South America.

So, a 400km drive to the South through farmland and plantations to our first stop at Playa Largo. Tony, our guide is excellent company, providing an entertaining commentary of explanations of the things we are seeing, and funny stories. He is very knowledgeable, and proud of his country.

We have left the Atlantic coast and are now on the Caribbean Sea coast. Our knowledge of Cuban history was very limited, so we were interested to hear the Cuban version of the Bay of Pigs incident. After the revolution, many wealthy Americans lost their homes on Cuba. Eisenhower ordered a force of mercenaries, some of whom were Cuban themselves, to invade Cuba, landing at the Bay of Pigs, a quiet, undefended area. However there was a spy amongst them who got word to Castro. He moved army units down in secret and was ready for them. He himself rode in a tank, and claims to have fired the shot that sank the ship. Every town here has huge signs claiming ‘This was the first time Americans were defeated in the Americas’, or ‘The invaders only reached this point’.

It was over in 72 hours, and there are memorials everywhere to the Cuban people who died.

Castro never let on that it was a military operation. He claimed it was just the Cuban people rising up to defend their land. Interestingly, Kennedy did not support the invasion.

However it was enough for Castro and Russia to decide to bolster Cuba’s defences…with nuclear missiles which precipitated the Cuban missile crisis, where the world literally teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

Nowadays this an area for recreation, with good diving, and a gorgeous natural pool, 70m deep and full of fish.

And of course, time for another lunch… this time with local crab and lobster! We are not splashing out .. the meals are all included in the tour.

Chris had his first sight of the Caribbean sea, and Anne paddled in the Bay of Pigs. They have mass crab migrations here in breeding season, blocking the roads. The crabs are black and orange. We saw one, which was too fast for a photo! Wild pigs used to congregate here to eat them, which is what gave the bay it’s name.

Our final stop was in the Zapata forest where we met Orlando. A local man who led us into the forest, and with eyes like a hawk spotted birds where you would swear there was nothing. It was wonderful. The greatest prize was seeing a bee humming bird. The smallest bird in the world. Just 5cm long.

My favourite was the ridiculously pretty Tody.

Another great day.

SA Post 2 Havana, Cuba

We arrived in Havana, Cuba in the midst of an apparently unseasonable rain storm of biblical magnitude. Just like everywhere else we have visited in the last few years, the locals told us ‘this shouldn’t be happening at this time of year’. Global warming in action?

Our flight with KLM was excellent. The food was lovely and the lie flat seats very comfy. I even watched 4 films, but highlights were clog cruet sets, and being given miniature Delft pottery houses containing gin! This is a tradition dating back to 1949 and a new design is added each year.

We were met at the airport by Felipe, manager of Wij in Cuba, a small local tour company. His colleague Tony will be driving and guiding us during our stay.

Our bed for 3 nights is in a Casa Particulares in the heart of Old Havana. This is a room in someone’s home.

This one is simply furnished, very clean and with a very blue loo!!

Also ample breakfasts which take care of our 5 a day in one go!!

Arriving late in the evening, we have only glimpsed the city, but can already sense the faded glory, and the passion for music… salsa rhythms resonate from shops, cafes and verandas.

What will we discover tomorrow?

Thursday started overcast, and a cloud burst had affected parts of Cuba. Tony took us on a super walking tour of Havana, gradually introducing us to some history and culture. Yes there are amazing old American cars everywhere. The best ones are pressed into service for tourist trips. More impressive are the 30 and 40 year old Fiats and Ladas, covered in rust but still struggling on.

Sometimes people are shocked in countries like Cuba, because everyone seems to be ‘on the make’. Shortchanging you a few pesos, short measures on the drinks, 5 minutes less on your 30 minute ride. Chatting to local people, we found out that Government employees are paid the equivalent of US$20 per month. People explained that this wasn’t so bad when you got coupons which ensured you got essential foodstuffs, access to Doctors and medicines etc. That has all but gone, but the incredibly low salary remains.

To put this into context, a 20 year old Lada could cost 30,000 US$. Medicines seem really scarce and hugely expensive, even for basics like Aspirin. Some food stuffs are very dear. There are shortages of basic items, and very little choice of brands or quality. Currently soap is in short supply, and it is common to see queues outside shops.

So what might you and I resort to as a way of making those dollars go a little further. A job on the side? A little fiddle here and there? Even professionals like Doctors and Teachers need to supplement their income somehow.

Havana was founded in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, and ruled almost continuously by the Spanish until 1898, apart from short period of British rule in 1764 . Then Britain gave it back to the Spanish, swooping it for Florida!! Then in 1902 Cuba became Independent.

Havana’s architecture is grand. Many buildings were erected during opulent Spanish rule, and photos of Havana’s heyday show it prominent on the World stage, visited by celebrities. Sadly, many of these buildings are falling apart. Many would be condemned in Britain, but faint lights, or some drying clothes show them as still lived in. UNESCO are helping with some restoration, and parts of Havana are returning to their former glory, but it felt as if the luxury hotels and restaurants they now house are mainly benefitting tourists, overseas multinational owners, and some local fat cats, rather than reaching the majority of the population. Having said that, without tourism, Cuba would be lost at present. It is just important to try to direct your tourist spending to local people.

Highlights in Havana are:

The Cathedral, built in 1777:

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The 19th century pharmacies.

The 16th century aqueduct:

The old fort and walls:

The old sea terminal, now used for massive cruise ships:

The wooden pavement, put in so the carriages would make less noise, not disturbing the Spanish Officers during their afternoon siesta!

Beautiful squares with 18th and 19th century Spanish, or Art Nouveau buildings.

This last one shows where the slaves would have slept.

The revolution museum containing the story of the revolution, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis.

Women played a large part in the revolution, some holding quite senior ranks.

Also the story of Che Guevara.

Rather strange to visit another site where vehicles and missiles were on display, partly hidden by palm trees, and it was a chilling reminder of perilous times.

We also drove along the Malecon, the coastal promenade, in a 1951 Chevrolet, with waves breaking over the road. The driver immediately turned off the prom for fear of damage to the car. Not surprising, as we later found out that with an original engine, these cars could be worth 80,000 dollars!

The high waves after the rain shows how vulnerable Cuba is to storms and rising sea levels.

References to Ernest Hemingway are everywhere. He had a house here for many years, and was a great sea fisherman. He wrote ‘The Old man and the Sea’ here. We visited his farm house in Cojimar, which was charming, and saw the bars where he drank his Mojitos and Daiquiris.

Hemingway’s bathroom with scales and his weight written on the wall!

Anne has discovered she quite likes a Mojito if it is not too strong!!

We were led to believe that Cuban food was bland and uninteresting, but so far we have been very pleasantly surprised, having some very nice meals.

Not too many birds around, but we have seen Pelicans, Frigate Birds and Turkey Vultures.

We feel very safe here, and walk happily at night in central Havana, despite limited street lighting and the biggest potholes in both pavement and the road surface that we have ever seen. It is a loud, bustling, musical city, whose vibrancy is infectious.

Tomorrow we leave Havana and head west!

SA Post 1 .. Here we go again!

So Chris and I are getting ready to welcome our house sitters, who do a great job looking after the house when we go away. They are coming because we are about to embark on the third part of our fragmented ‘Gap Year’, which has in fact spanned 9 years so far. We have brought trip 3 forward a few years due to family circumstances, and a realisation that this one is a trip we want to do while we are still as healthy and strong as possible.

Planning it has made me wonder where my urge to travel comes from.

Both of my Grandfathers were seamen, each serving for many years in the Navy and Merchant Navy. So they certainly travelled! My father proudly told me how, in the 1920’s, he and 2 friends cycled to Portsmouth and persuaded a boat to take them to France. They then cycled round Brittany, sleeping in barns, and caught a boat back! Aged 13! So travel could be in the genes!

But my travel bug was fuelled by a large book my father bought me in Leather Lane Market when I was about 8. It was about countries and their people, and every page was a treasure trove of landscapes, architecture and cultural images that were so different to anything I had ever seen. I have vivid memories of a picture of the Taj Mahal, one of Orang utangs in Borneo, and a double page spread of Venice. And I knew that I wanted to see them all! In fact, there was hardly a page in the book that didn’t make me go WOW! Even though, at 8 years old, the furthest I had travelled from my home in London was Worthing, about 70 miles away!

My first real travelling was done on a school cruise at age 11, visiting Florence, Pisa, Ephesus, Antalya, Santorini, Malta and Lisbon. I was hooked.

Luckily Chris is now hooked too!

So this time we go to a continent that is new to us. It has the potential to be the most challenging of our trips, but holds the promise of some wonderful encounters with diverse wildlife, scenery, climates and cultures. Certainly we have the opportunity to see many of the pictures that my 8 year old self dreamed of.

We are off to South America… with a stop in Cuba on the way! Sadly (but not surprisingly), this is a Bimble without Boris!

We should be used to the packing now, but the beds are strewn with clothes and kit, and we are trying to work the magic that will make it miraculously shrink and fit into our bags. Our super mosquito net is definitely coming.

We’ve had all the vaccinations we can, and have even had some Spanish lessons so that we can try to have the courtesy to communicate a little in their own language. Chris says all he needs is ‘Una cerveza por favor’!

Once again, we are using a Multi trip ticket from Travel Nation., with the long haul segments business class, this time with KLM and it’s associated South American airlines. 17 flights for less than 1 business class ticket to Sydney. The rest is planned and booked by us, using local accommodation and tour guides so the money we spend stays in the country.

We’ve just spent a super, laughter filled weekend with all the family which included a fabulous Moroccan meal, lots of games including Human Buckaroo… sorry Tracy… how you slept through this was a miracle!!!

I cannot end this preamble without mentioning the ‘B’ word! Brexit! Our return is just after the deadline. Whatever will we return to? Still in the EU? Out with a deal? No deal? Or just a postponement of the uncertainty?

As most of you know, our blog is our diary. We are very happy to share it. If you have received notification of this blog post, then you are all signed up and ready to receive the posts from this trip. They may be at erratic intervals because internet is very variable in some locations.

We look forward to having you join us vicariously on our trip. We love your comments and messages, and we wish we could sneak you all inside our bags…but it would play havoc with our weight allowance! XX

Post 10 The very last days…Home via Austria, Switzerland and France!

Into a less visited, but stunning part of Switzerland, Appenzell, we stopped at a free riverside aire just outside town, and walked in. I used to live in Switzerland, so loved hearing the Cowbells!

Lovely painted buildings, some updated with a modern twist.

Appenzell is one of the older Swiss cantons, and still practice democracy in the old fashioned way. Once a year, since 1403, the community gather in the square. A church service and lunch are followed by 3 hours of voting on local issues. Men vote by raising hands or swords, women with their hands. (It is a little known fact that women in Switzerland were not able to vote at all until 1971!) Photo not mine!

Their shops also sell an alarming array of potential souvenirs! Crossbow anyone!

A lovely, peaceful night, then we treated ourselves to a cable car up to Hoher Kasten, with stunning views at the junction of 4 countries – Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Liechtenstein (and a very strong wind!).

We had coffee in the revolving restaurant . Chris nearly lost his hat!!

We drove past Lake Constance. The opposite shore is Freidrickshafen where Zeppelin airships were, and still are made. We were lucky enough to see one flying over the lake. On to beautiful Stein am Rhein, with the most beautiful decorated houses we have seen.

Finally, to Neuhausen, to see the Rhine falls. Not the highest, or widest, but with a phenomenal amount of water pouring over them each day – up to 600 cubic metres per second in spring spate.

From here, we pressed on across Germany and into France, to spend the night at a lovely free aire near Colmar, next to a pretty grotto for Our Lady of Lourdes!

Next morning, we did a self guided tour of pretty Colmar. The many timbered houses are 15th century, coming from a time when this was a very successful merchant centre.

The church contains a rare 15th century artwork , which was stolen in 1972, and then ‘found’ in 1979! Not exactly portable!!

Ten minutes drive up the vine clad hills into the Vosges mountains is Kayserberg. Also worth a stop. More beautiful houses, and a ruined hill fort with great views.

Crossing the Vosges, looking lovely in Autumn colours, we drove to Champagne country, near Rheims, making a special detour to the Lac du Der. We have wanted to visit here for many years because it is where a rather remarkable bird event happens. Each autumn. Literally thousands of Eurasian Crane fly in here as a stop on their way south for the winter. We were a few weeks early for the larģe numbers… but maybe a few had come early? The huge lake was showing the devastating effect of the Long, dry summer. The water was a long way off. But… what was that… a long skein of birds flying in. Could it be…. yes it was! Crane! In all we were privileged to see about 200 birds before we had to continue our journey.

Arriving at Champagne country, we found a super free aire right next to the river at Mareuil sur Ay. Champagne houses were everywhere, and we awoke to the heady aroma of fermenting grapes…hic!

Our last day was spent doing a lovely walk along the river, doing a large shop at Super U, and visiting the Champagne house of Canard Duchene.

Very interesting it was too. When Chris discovered that Champagne making is quite akin to beer brewing, and 1 vine = 1 bottle, he started to rethink his home brew plans! We also learned that the bottles need to be turned every day. A good bottle turner can turn 40,000 per day! The cellars were built in 1868. They are miles long, and have 11 million bottles stored. In World War 1 and 2, their chateau was destroyed, but many of the cellars were bricked up, so they were never discovered. I cannot drink wine, so Chris enjoyed both glasses!

Then a drive up to Avion, near Lens, just 1 hour from Calais passing through the Canadian war cemetery there. Very poignant.

A super, peaceful, free aire again provided by the village, meant a good nights sleep. Then a 1 hour misty drive to Calais and our P&O ferry home – excellent value for £58 using the Caravan and Motorhome Club discount.

Now… can we make it home in time for the Pub Quiz?

What a fantastic trip this has been. 3,500 miles. We hope you have enjoyed reading it. I will update it soon to list campsites.

P.S We did make it home for the pub quiz… and we won!!

Post 9 Last days part 2 – Italy and Austria!

We like to ensure that our travel days are holidays as well, so we look for interesting things on, or near, our route. At the NE corner of the Adriatic, in Italy, we found 3 little gems.

Firstly, the Riserva naturale della Foce dell’Isonzo is a bird reserve where a 2km walk took us past summer breeding scrapes, and wetlands where wintering birds were starting to arrive. We have also never had such great views of snipe, and, bizarrely, Carmargue ponies!

Then, the drive to the pretty town of Grado, and across the causeway, waving a sad goodbye to the azure sea. The next seawater we encounter will be the colder, and greyer, English channel!

Just north of Grado is Aquileia! This was once the Roman regional capital, and main trading port, long before Venice existed. They are still uncovering ruins, revealing remains of a huge city. They are only ground level ruins, but a short walk revealed the site of the forum, and the vast remains of the Roman wharves, dock ramps and warehouses.

Best of all is the church, or Basilica, which was built in 1031 on the site of an early Romano christian church . Bishop Poppo, in 1031, had a red tiled floor laid over the original 4th century floor. That has been uncovered and is stunning! It is the largest paleo christian mosaic floor in the world. The detail is remarkable.

But look up too. The intricate wooden carved ceiling is 15th century!

The basilica had another treasure – the crypt of frescoes. More stunning wall and ceiling frescoes, painted in the 12th century, preserved because they are away from light.

Really worth a visit, and it set us up for our long journey north into Austria.

Being us, we don’t do things the easy way. We chose to go due north, taking the less used route over the beautiful Carnic Alps. Autumn colours were everywhere. Gorgeous.

Having reached Austria, we decided to take the route over the Gross Glockner pass, as it was a glorious day. Be warned. This is not for the faint hearted, nor a dodgy vehicle. You climb, and descend, steeply up to 9000 feet, with 38 hair pin bends! Just short of the highest point, Boris appeared to give a little hiccough. We had visions of spending the night up thete, but thankfully a few minutes rest to cool down and he was fine. Stunning, if bleak views from the top!

Then down to the glorious scenery of the lake at Zell am See, and the luxury of the Seeland campsite, which had a super restaurant – I had the best fresh trout I have ever eaten, while Chris went for a meatier option! Then the luxury of hot showers, with underfloor heating!

Next morning, we walked around the Lake to the town. Our amazing luck with the weather continues!

Zell am See is in the very traditional Tyrol, so no shops open on Sunday. St Hippolyte church was built in 1514, and is worth a visit.

Then we set off on our long drive through Austria to Switzerland. To use motorways and some other main roads you need a Vignette. Austria do a 10 day pass, costing 9 euros, for vehicles under 3.5tons, like Boris!

Beautiful scenery all the way.

Post 8 Last days….part 1!

Our last day in Croatia was spent on the Istrian peninsula, nearly at the top of the Adriatic sea. Colonised by the Romans, and Venetians, it has a rich heritage, and was part of Italy for many years, only regaining it’s Slavic identity after World War 2. There is a definite Italian feel to the architecture and cuisine here!

Many smaller Autostops for campers have closed by October so we stayed on 2 large coastal sites. Lovely waterside pitches, nice showers and facilities and quiet.. but our idea of hell in July and August with 500 crammed pitches, pool, entertainment and queues for showers! Also, many of them are more than double the price in high season. We count our blessings that we can travel out of season.

We have also had 3 weeks where temperatures have mainly been between 20 and 27 degrees C. Perfect. Others have told us it was up to 40 degs in summer and unbearable.

Our first visit was Pula for it’s remarkable roman heritage dotted throughout the town. The Hercules Gate, Temple of Alexandra and most impressively, the amphitheatre, all date from the 1st – 3rd century AD.

Don’t miss the little church and monastery of St Francis, with it’s 13th century cloister, and beautiful polyptych .

Then up the coast to Rovinj, a truly charming pedestrianised town and port, with a warren of alleyways, and waterside paths with lovely views of the sun setting over the sea.

We walked from our campsite, passing the fishing fleet. A merging of old and new. Sailors sat repairing their nets, next to brightly coloured stacks of plastic trays, giving an idea of the size of the expected catch.

The imposing church of Euphemia is at the highest point , and the atmosphere was made rather surreal by a guitarist outside singing ‘Wish you were here’, by Pink Floyd in a strong Croatian accent!

Inside, a nun was praying while her companion studied her phone!!

We found a tiny, local restaurant, Ulika, hidden away in the old town, and had a wonderful meal there as our farewell to Croatia.

Croatia – conclusions:

1. Beautiful coast and inland, but tourism is huge so areas are feeling quite commercialised, with the potential for Huge crowds. Personally, we would avoid between mid June and mid September, and seek out more remote spots and islands.

2. Quite expensive. No cheaper than UK and in some places more. Most churches and museums charge and entrance fee, only £2 or £3 pp but it quickly adds up.

3. We aren’t beach bods, but met quite a few people who were surprised that the majority of beaches are rocks and pebbles. Sandy ones are rare and get very busy!

4. We ate out a few times, and had to really hunt for non touristy menus. Lots of Pizza everywhere!

5. Island hopping was a lot more feasible with a camper than we thought, and fairly reasonably priced. Not every route takes vehicles. Get a good timetable!

Next, back into Slovenia for a day visiting their 47km coastline, especially beautiful Piran. We parked Boris in neighbouring Portoroz, by the old salt warehouses

and walked the 2km coastal promenade path to lovely Piran, passing this hostel on the way!!!

What a delightful town. Again, very Italianate architecture, with a lovely atmosphere.

Climb up to the Cathedral of St George to see a beautiful ceiling, and statues.

There was a square here, almost filled by its Bellini fountain, with an interesting guttering arrangement.

We had a coffee gazing out over the sparkling water, feeling sad to head inland and leave the clear blue Adriatic.

Inland for 2 last amazing Slovenian surprises. A tiny detour to the middle of nowhere brought us to the church of the Holy Trinity at Hrastovlje, fortified against the Ottomans. Inside are the most incredible, original frescoes, painted in 1490 to illustrate bible stories, morality and the cycle of the seasons to the population who couldn’t read.

The dance of death is the most famous section.

In the UK we have churches with fragments of original wall friezes, mostly plastered over thanks to Henry VIII . This is what our churches might have looked like. A blaze of colour! It was incredible.

Secondly, onto the caves at Skocjan. We have visited many cave systems, but can honestly say these were by far the most impressive. We visited 2km of cave, with huge chambers full of wonderful formations, but the thing that set this system apart was the river, thundering through far below us, still cutting down and illustrating how this amazing place was formed. At times, it had a Lord of the Rings quality!

No photos allowed inside, so these 3 aren’t mine! And yes, I did manage to walk across that bridge.. gulp!

We said a very sad Goodbye to Slovenia, which wins the prize as our favourite country on this trip. Wonderful in every way.

We crossed into Italy and wildcamped in a car park by the cliffs overlooking Trieste Bay.

A very multinational spot. 5 campers there, representing Italy, Austria, Germany, France and GB. Our exact route home!