Tuesday, 6 December 2016

We ditch the car

Africa in 2003. We wouldn't put Nellie through that again.
In case it's not obvious from previous posts, I'm slightly obsessed with our car, Nellie*. She's 25 years old, has seen us safely through the wilds of Scotland, jousted with endless London buses, blanked tail-gaters all over Europe, and best of all carried us safely the length of Africa.

She has the heart of an ox. Despite losing her Ardennes Green gloss a long time ago, and random bits dropping off, she has not broken down once. As such, and as more discerning people understand, she has stately charm akin to a favourite, solid aunt.

So with a trembling lower lip we consigned her last week to a big hangar two hours out of Athens, surrounded by speedboats that are picked up by their German owners every August. Maybe between gritted grilles they swap stories about their absent owners.

Jo keeping it all in
I think she'll be OK. The owner promised to put her on blocks (saving the tyres), the tank is full (saving on condensation), we changed all the fluids (saving the engine and transmission) and I'm hoping the solar trickle charger will preserve the instant start when we return in X months.

This wasn't the plan. We were going to drive to Iran and then ship her to India. However an examination of rainfall, sunshine and temperatures (embarrassingly our main spurs to action) convinced us that we had to move pronto to India for a relaxed winter. Maybe we'll visit Iran on the way back.

Athena eat your heart out
And so we have morphed from Overlanders to Backpackers. Jo bought a new Chinese backpack for 30 euros in Athens that may or may not last three months of Indian public transport. We bounce along the road carrying a weight of only 25kg between us, which is a liberating difference from Nellie's 2015kg, and we quite like the change.

6 December: we are in Egypt, enjoying a cheap and warm side-trip, with our plane booked to Sri Lanka for Saturday.

Inevitable photos of Indiana Jones tombs and dodgy hot air balloons to follow. In the meantime here are some new snaps from great places in Greece like Olympia and scary Athens back streets.

* Full name Lady Nelson II. Happy to bore with full explanation over a pint one day.

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Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Taken for granted: loos (graphic warning)

The biggest surprises when travelling aren't people, sights, tastes etc. They are when your day-to-day reference points crumble.

This is the first of a series on this theme, and we will start with loos. In this instance I speak only for the Ladies (except - you have been warned - the last photo!).

1. No loo paper
Seatless + stinky bin
Not the greatest shock, this can happen in the UK, but still a shock. Men, this is why women have handbags. You think they are full of junk but in actual fact we keep a month's supply of loo rolls in there.

2. You aren't allowed to put the loo paper down the pan
Again, not exceptional. But when in a reflex reaction you have broken the rule, and not fed the stinky bin, what do you do next?(!)

3. No toilet seat
In a French campsite toilet block there were signs on the doors indicating the ones without seats. Being the sophisticate that I am I naturally veered to a seat-equipped cubicle to discover that they meant the toilet has a rim, not a seat. Who, intentionally, sits on the rim? On the plus side the skiing pose must be doing good things for my thighs.

No paper + wet floor
4. No lock on the door
Why have a lock for goodness sake? Doesn't everybody do the same thing in there, what's all the embarrassment about?

 Regardless, I class the toilet cubicle as private space and prefer to keep it that way. This isn't too big a deal if the cubicle is small and you have a seat to sit on: you can lodge your foot against the door. More stressful is when there is only one unisex toilet and the door is sprinting distance from the pan.

5. Mystery wet floor
What is that? Has water leaked from the cistern? From the toilet bowl? Is that water? ..... Time for a different cubicle, if there is one.

6. All the above
This configuration happens when you are truly desperate and all other toilet options have failed. You have no choice other than to adopt an advanced yoga pose to keep your foot on the door, get the tissues out of your bag and minimise contact with the toilet rim, and the floor, and the stinky bin.

7. Beyond contemplation
The below was in a church in the Men's.

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Saturday, 12 November 2016

The tiny guide to Albania

An absolute one-off, Albania combines glorious scenery and a savage history with a big, crazy heart. Pretty much everywhere is...

A Londoner staring down the locals
You won't get caught in gangland crossfire and you won't be robbed. Bournemouth is scarier. You're more likely to be suffocated by kindness.

Just be careful crossing the road (Flickr video).

Albert Einstein - CC https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein#/media/File:Einstein_Albert_Elsa_LOC_32096u.jpg
Albania = lovely x lovely squared
Albania is the only occupied country that ended World War Two with more Jews than it started with. It also helped Einstein get to America some years earlier.

This is explained by a deep cultural obligation to help strangers, and we saw that first-hand in the hospitality of our Airbnb hosts and the friendliness of every soul we met. Aww.

Albanian coastline, beach
Where are the hotels?
Most of the country is mountainous and some peaks in the north and south are gorgeously immense, if you like that kind of thing.

Then there are the sweeping white beaches with no hotels (yet). And then the rivers, lakes (Flickr timelapse) and islands.

It's the original pocket-sized Eden.

Ksamil demolished hotel, Albania
Another government-demolished hotel. Aha.
In 1950-90 the place was, basically, North Korea. Every third person was detained, there were only 600 cars, 170,000 bunkers dotted the countryside and still do (Flickr photo) and then the place went bust*.

The effects are clear to see in attitudes, infrastructure and sights - and 1990s prices.

More snaps and videos from our 15-day visit (Flickr)

*Thankfully it is getting back on its feet now.

Friday, 4 November 2016

The power of Montenegro

Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
We're not tired of the gorgeous views yet

Having seen Casino Royale we were understandably very excited to be entering this country with its cosmopolitan mountain, lake and casino wonderland. The fact that those Balkan scenes were filmed entirely in Italy is by the by.

This wee country  is certainly mountainous and the speed restrictions appear somewhat drastic.... until you get an appreciation of the condition of the roads. No wonder Bond's Aston Martin rolled 11 times.
Unplanned offroading. Click for video and Jo's whimpers
Montenegro's currency is the euro although it has yet to join the EU, but it is at the top of the list now and things are looking good if it's a one-in, one-out policy.

If you like smoking, it's the place for you: inside, outside, cafes, restaurants, waiting rooms, shops, no-smoking carriages in trains. Whenever you want to light up, go right ahead.

The food is tasty, extremely affordable, and dominated by meat or pizza. Oh and they really like salt. One night we started to dehydrate.

Strong again
Lovely Montenegrins, hic
It also promised to be the location where we could get some welding done on our car, Nellie, to tide her chassis over for another year or two.

Vlatko, our genial Airbnb host knew of a few mechanics who could do the job and so Dave with a spring in his step and a hopeful disposition headed off with him to engage in a spot of car fixing.

Two hours later he returned rosy-cheeked and jolly from the three glasses of home-made Rajika that was "thrust into his hand" while Vlatko and he waited for the elusive mechanic to return.

Long story short, no work was done to Nellie... But Dave did return with a little bag of pears he was given, so not entirely a fruitless expedition.

Nellie's chassis Before and After. It will do.
However three days later, all the worst holes in Nellie were welded up with long slabs of steel. She is now a quarter Montenegrin. All-in for £130. Dave reckons the same work would have set us back around £1600 at home, and without three free shots of Rajika.

This saving has not as yet translated into a week at a five-star hotel but I'm working on it.

Apologies for the slow progress with the blog. We've had several adventure since and are currently in the former North Korea of Europe, Albania, which we are finding gorgeous, utterly safe and delightful. Updates to come.

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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Sarajevo: before and after photos

Bombed-out Dobrinja suburb, Sarajevo 1997
1997 disaster zone to 2016 suburb without blast holes, landmines and booby traps. 
I went to Sarajevo just after the war in 1997 with my mate Angus who had been invited to stay in the city's first Internet cafe, The Avatar.

Angus was there to interview the cafe's owner, Morgan Sowden, for Internet Magazine. I was just there for the ride.

Panorama of the Avatar Internet Cafe, Sarajevo 1997
It was a memorable week in an effortlessly cool city (which it still is). I was in a manic phase experimenting with QuickTime Virtual Reality and so I spent my time taking panoramas of, mostly, bomb damage.

19 years on and as Jo and I drove into the city this week it suddenly occurred to me to recreate those panoramas.

In 1997 I had a glorious photographic team: a Nikon FE, a Nikkor architectural 18mm lens, a QTVR parallax rig, Manfrotto tripod, and my friend Glen masterfully stitching all the pictures together. The panorama-creation process, including sending the 35mm Kodachrome off for processing, took three weeks.

Photographer selfie
This time around the quality can't compare but at least each panorama only took a couple of hours to create.

So there are odd artefacts in the new panoramas if you look, but it was worth the effort. I tried to find the exact tripod spot each time (not always successfully as you will see).

It was an entertaining and sometimes emotional job, especially the City Hall interior - what an incredible restoration, which was finished only two years ago.

The panoramas are thumbnailed below. They link through to the full sizes and captions on the Flickr album.

Shelled bus

The Avatar Cafe

Burnt-out National Library

Shelled skyscrapers

City centre

Outside the burnt-out library

Friday, 14 October 2016

Friends travelling with us

We have named our storage boxes after friends. This deserves some explanation.

When we bought our car, Nellie, for our African trip 13 years ago, she came with eight green army boxes.

Lovely plastic box, mmm
They are made of over-engineered hard plastic, they fit perfectly in the back and clip solidly on top of each other,and we're using them again on this trip

Along the way we have accumulated several other boxes, as you do. We like boxes, especially tough ones.

When you have this many, you need some kind of naming system to find them and to know what's inside. The back of the car is packed solid and you don't want to unload the whole thing to unearth a scrubbing brush.

In Africa, young and confused
In Africa we randomly decided to name our boxes after islands close to our hearts. These were Hebridean islands (including Berneray, Pabbay, Boreray) and Gilbertese islands (Tarawa, Nonouti, Bikeman).

As an identification system this worked well. We scrawled the names on the tops and sides so we could find the boxes we were looking for.

But as a guiding taxonomy it was rubbish. We could never fully remember what was where, even after a year.

This time we decided to use meaningful names. Now call us crazy bohemians but we couldn't bring ourselves to use life-sapping, literal words like, "Cooking", "Camping", "Electronics". So we plumped for our friends. We liked the idea of bringing them with us, and whenever we would open a box, we'd be reminded of them.

So at the risk of alienating our friends below for misrepresenting them for cheap laughs, and for missing everyone else out*, here is our list of main boxes in alphabetical order (mostly using surnames; we know too many Pauls):

  • BUTTLE: Hiking/wild camping equipment | Keswick-based Paul is the modern-day Alfred Wainwright and has written books.
  • CALLUM: Charging and recharging plugs and cables | Mr McLeod has more energy than anyone we know.
  • HYLTON: Cooking equipment - in our biggest box, the long black one | Peter has a big capacity for food and life. Yes Peter is tall and black. Coincidence, Pete ;)
  • KENNEDY: Electronics, First Aid Kit, Angus's donated meds | Angus is our most digital chum, widely published, and knows more than most GPs about medicine.
  • LONGDEN: Spares for Nellie | The amazing Paul and Marilyn are currently driving through South America in their converted Mercedes Benz van. Enough said.
  • MARCOS: Shoes | We don't have any friends with a shoe fetish, we think, so Imelda had to stand in.
  • MORRISON: The big tent - in the grey box on the back which keeps slipping off the bike rack | A big camping family; Paul can be a bit awkward (Jo wrote that).
  • NORTH: Spices, herbs, core foods, alcohol | Holly is a great cook and a drinks connoisseur.
  • REYNOLDS: Array of different foods, the more exotic the better | Sarah is a gifted cook/baker.
  • STURGE: Legal etc documentation | Gavin is a natural organiser and a very safe pair of hands.
  • WIGFORD: Games, cards, catapault (yes), bangers (yes), cycle stuff | This family (Dave's sister's) knows how to have fun!

The rear of the car without the sleeping platform and the usual dozen soft bags
For the record we have rucksacks and other bags, mostly containing clothes, but they're not boxes so they don't get names.

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*If you're not on this list it doesn't mean you are not a great friend. Clearly you have such a complex and engaging set of attributes that we couldn't put you in a box.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Bimbling to the Balkans

On the 26th September we waved goodbye to a sunny Asturias and headed for the gastronomic delights of San Sebastian (at Jo's insistence; Dave had the mountains of Andorra in mind).

One happy camper
This presented the first big test of the trip: getting the tent up without argument. The last time we tried was in the back garden of our friends Paul and Marilyn and tuts and scowls were involved. 

However, we passed with flying colours. It only took us 20 minutes with one peg broken. Cause for celebration as you will no doubt agree.

 San Sebastian lived up to its exclusive reputation and has a lovely curved beach waterfront, fabulous tapas bars, atmospheric old town and great shopping. What is not to like? We have been to all of the cities along the northern Spanish coast and we love them all. But we agree: San Sebastian is the best. 

Leaving San Sebastian we made a quick scurry into the mountains of Andorra and after one hour of walking without shade concluded that hiking in the midday sun without a hat was not the best idea.

The Andorran Pyrenees
The Spanish Pyrenees
The British Pairoknees
So we called a halt to that and headed for France and its Mediterranean coastline. Canet de Roussillon was the first place flat enough to make us glad we took the "clown bikes" (our Dahon folding bikes). Following a lovely day's pedalling, in an endorphin-fuelled burst of enthusiasm Jo - self-appointed ambassador for clown bikes - opined that "Cycling turns a good day into a great day"©. That and warmth and sunshine.

New friends Mark and Rosalind
 Two days later we visited Lodève where back in 1983 Dave's parents bought a secluded plot of land with a crumbling farmer's shack which they eventually turned into a modest family estate. They sold it six years ago.

The new owners, Mark and Rosalind, kindly offered to not only to let us come up and see the old place but to stop over with them too. It was a delightful visit: good food, good wine, good company and a comfortable bed with crisp clean sheets and quilt. What luxury. Breakfasted and numerous photos and film clips later we bade a fond farewell to Mark and Rosalind.

Old Lodeve chums Carole & Simon
 We got as far as three kilometres down the road to our next social engagement, a delicious lunch with family friends Carole and Simon in their beautiful garden in Les Plans!

 And then it was off to Mandelieu-La-Napoule near Cannes for a night with our old friends Glen and Emma. This was definitely not a spot for clown bikes: even Nellie had trouble navigating the gradients and had to succumb to low range gears for a few steep hairpins. But that night: luxury beyond anything we will experience for the next few months we suspect, so it was certainly a ‘live in the moment’ opportunity.

Old London chums Glen and Emma
 We bade our farewells to our generous friends with freshly laundered clothes and “zoomed” off to Italy to battle with the trucks and speed demons on the energising two-lane-without-hard-shoulder motorways. We have a new-found appreciation for the UK’s gentle and generous motorway joining lanes.

 The weather report was threatening unpromisingly cool weather in Italy so we decided to chase the sun and warmth on the Dalmatian coast - so it was a dash to Ancona to catch the ferry to Split in Croatia.

The odd effects of fresh air in Lucca
Our cross-country trip was briefly paused to take in a spot of cycling around the walls of Lucca. This was entirely an original idea and not in any way influenced by a WhatsApp video that we may have seen a month or so before.

 The 10-hour overnight ferry to Ancona. Least said, soonest mended.

And so to Split to coincide perfectly with the arrival of a cold front. Thank goodness for Airbnb. We easily found a lovely little beachfront apartment with central heating and blankets and a washing machine and other amazing things like an oven and TV with an HDMI socket.

 More on Split and Croatia another time but we didn’t stay long because the weather badly let us down - but we vow to return when we do our tour of the northern Balkan states. And so we have headed off south in search of sunshine, warmth and the chance to keep wearing shorts.
Nellie admires the city of Split in a snatched moment of sunshine

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Saturday, 24 September 2016

Rust and cow pats

Our house in the clouds
We have been gazing at the clouds from our little Asturian mountain house for a week now, bimbling about, dining with friends, going to the slightly chilly beach, repacking our cases and fixing stuff. 

Necoras - the crabs which Jo's dad fishes
and exports to Spain and we eat here 
My mangled Spanish continues to mystify and amuse our neighbours, while they’re not herding their cows up and down the mountain.

The space that holds up the car

Rust has eaten a fist-sized hole through a beam which supports a quarter of the car’s weight. I only discovered it yesterday. So priorities have changed: I spent today Waxoyling what’s left of the chassis while putting the organisation of packing cases on hold.

Cutting the wood for our sleeping
platform in the DIY store car park.

Our main objective when we reach the Balkan countries will be to find a cheap welder with time on his hands. Half of the adventure is seeing if the car makes it there without packing cases crashing through the floor.

We have found ourselves blowing up cowpats with bangers (video to come) and wondering aloud which animals can poo while walking and which ones cannot, and so have decided it’s best to move on. We leave the house this Monday 26th.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Veering from rough to vomity

Jo and Range Rover Classic Nellie
Jo revving up Nellie for the ramp
Leaving Portsmouth on the hottest September day on record was a promising start to our 2016 south/eastbound odyssey. 

Unfortunately a cursory check on the Met Office shipping forecast predicted Force 9 veering to Storm Force 10 seas in the Bay of Biscay. Uh oh.

Our ship is the Britanny Ferries' Pont Aven with 9 decks, 3 bars, 2 cinemas, restaurant, self-service cafeteria, beauty parlour and a swimming pool (hah!). It takes 24 hours to reach Santander. 

Naturally my thoughts turned to food and what on earth we would eat that could be relied upon not to make a return appearance. I've been caught on out this front before.

The food on the Pont Aven is French with a British twist (chips always available and a fry-up in the morning). Here's what is great: the bread, the Brittany butter, the range of salads, the wine. Here's what is not: the tea.

Bay of Biscay waves
Force 8+ from the starboard side
We sensibly opted for the easily digestible, and had salads with smoked salmon and cream cheese (plus a drop or two of wine to lubricate). Happy to report it was a once-only affair.

Having said that, Dave was up and about at 4am pacing the ship wondering why all went quiet on the engine front and the seas had suddenly calmed. Did the engines fail? Were we floating helplessly towards the Brittany rocks?
Dog cages on Brittany Ferries' Pont Aven
The poor howling pooches at 4am

Having established that neither was the case Dave made a mercy mission to the dog pound where the poor souls are incarcerated for 24 hours in little cages. He reported back that most of them were comforted by his calming presence, a couple of notable exceptions for which he was relieved that there were bars in the way.

As we near our destination the seas are easing, the sky is clearing and Dave no longer has to sip Coke and eat dry bread. Happy days.
Arriving in Santander. Phew.

Because I am in charge of the first night's stay in Santander I have unilaterally decided that we will be staying at the Hotel Real as this may be our last accommodation splurge for some time.

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Saturday, 3 September 2016

Starting with the best

Jo finished her job last week and we find ourselves up on her Hebridean island, Berneray, to say hello and goodbye to her folks.

Between the rain showers we visit Berneray's West beach whose sweeping white sands have been confused understandably for a Thai resort.

Berneray West Beach, Outer Hebrides
Berneray's secret: the West Beach
Looking around I am not convinced we will find anything to match this scenery on our trip.

We head back south on Monday, and get on the ferry to Spain the following Tuesday 13 September!

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