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Spring 2012, Albania, Montenegro & Macedonia

Tues 1st May

Drove to Dover in heavy rain. Took the 1445 ferry to Calais (P&O Ferries - Sea France went bust a few months ago). Off the ferry in sunshine, and drove another 1 1/2 hours to an aire at Blaton, near Cambrai, Belgium. Very convenient - only a mile off the motorway, a large car park beside the church.

MSF (Miles so far) 246

Wed 2nd May

On the road fairly early, but sunshine soon gave way to heavy rain. Ignored the cheap fuel in Luxembourg - we were still 3/4 full. Next time, I must remember to fill up at Calais, to have an empty tank at Luxembourg. At Luxembourg, the sun came out, and we had a pleasant journey east across Germany, reaching an aire at Aalen,  east of Stuttgart.

MSF 678

Thurs 3rd May

Another early start, across Germany & into Austria to a camp-site at Neubrunnen, near Zell am See. (Camping Bad Neubrunnen am Waldsee). We planned to do the Grossglockner on Friday, so wanted to spend the night near the base of the pass, to get an early start. We had hoped to avoid Austrian motorways to avoid buying a vignette. Trouble is, they seem to classify odd bits of road as "motorway", which wouldn't pass muster as a by-road in England, so we bought one just be on the safe side. €8 for 10 days use.

The site had lots of static vans, and not a lot of space for tourers, but was pleasant enough, and friendly owners.  We got by with no mutual language just fine. The cost was €15.70 inc 1.50 for wifi and and a discount for an ACSI card.  The site looked a bit non-descript, but the shower block was to die for - perfection. Except that, because I spent too long in a lovely hot shower, and there were too few people coming and going, all the lights went out because the sensor didn't detect a movement. I had to get dry, and dressed, in total darkness.

Fri 4th May

Another early start, and arrived at the start of the Grossglockner at 8.45. The GG was built in the 1930's, to provide employment for unemployed Austrians, and is a scenic road over a spectacular pass, rising to 2500 metres, taking in a glacier. Cost for a car (and a motorhome) €32. http://www.grossglockner.at/en/grossglockner/ The road is easy and wide, with lots of places to park and admire the view, and the marmots. We took all day to do it, with stops for coffee, tea, lunch, evening meal, and a good walk to a view point. I say the drive is easy - going up certainly is, but descent is rather trickier, as it seems to go on for ever. Even at 20 mph, in 2nd gear, we soon had the smell of hot brakes. Having had brake failure in the Black Forest many years ago, I wasn't keen to repeat the experience.

Eventually we reached a camp-site near the Italian border, at Oberdrauburg. (Natur and Familiencamping Drauburg). By the time we reached it the reception was closed, but we found a pitch and made ourselves comfortable, and found a good and free wifi connection. Unusually for Austria, the site was almost entirely free of static caravans. The pleasant little town is easily within walking distance.

MSF987

Sat 5th May

A useful site. Left about 10 am, taking the 111 to Villach, where we took the motorway into Italy briefly, turning left to Jesanice in Slovenia, where we picked up the motorway (having paid €15 for a 7 day vignette) to Ljubljana and on towards Zagreb. Halfway along we took the 105 to Karlovac (Croatia). This was a horrible road! Poor surface, narrow, twisty. Should have taken the much longer route by motorway. Interestingly, the road improved dramatically when we crossed the border into Croatia. What have the Slovenians been doing with all the EU cash they've been given?. Near Karlovak we found an ACSI site, Kamp Slapic. An adequate site, facilities good, but what to do here? (answer - not a lot)

MSF 1191

Sun 6th May

We were wondering about a return trip to Plitvice National Park, which isn't far from here. We went to this spectacular limestone karst area on our first visit to Croatia about 10 years ago. The weather wasn't special then, and we hoped to see it in sunshine. However the forecast was for rain, and we decided to dash for the coast. We hadn't got far before the heavens opened. We usually avoid toll roads, but it was a long drive to the coast, and an even longer and more tiring drive on the ordinary roads. The motorway cost us 133 Kn, about £14.50, for about 130 miles of superb motorway.

We looked for a site recommended by friends we met last time in Croatia, Autocamp Plitka Vala, at Betina. Nice site, a  trifle rough and ready, and we picked a pitch beside the water's edge. Quite a large German contingent already well dug in for the duration, set up as a large encampment. Literally "dug in" - electricity cable buried in the road. A wifi signal is available, but resisted all attempts to connect.

MSF 1367

Mon 7th May

Torrential rain and thunderstorms during the night. The ground is so porous that when the rain stopped the ground was almost dry. We walked into the small nearby towns of Murta & Betina - not a lot going on there, but Murta especially has masses of small boats & yachts. In the sun and out of the wind it's quite warm, but the wind is bitter! Back at the site, we managed to connect. Wifi costs 10 Kn for ½ hour, 30 Kn for 24 hours.

Tues 8th May

At last! Sunshine! 2 mile walk into Tisno. Here we found again the bit of Croatia we really love - a path running close to the sea along a rocky coast, with pines almost reaching the sea. Whilst there, a fishing boat and tender arrived, spread a net around a large circle (about 1/2 mile diameter), then pulled the nets back into the boat. Fascinating to watch - but it appeared to net only one largish fish.  Back at base, I posted my first blog (http://Balkanbeetle.blogspot.com ) based on this diary.

Wed 9th May

Time to move on again - just another 50 miles to Trogir, an ACSI site on an island a mile or two from Trogir, at Okrug. (Rozac Autocamp).  There is wifi - 50 Kn a day - about£5.50 - so no thanks - that's almost Caravan Club prices!  It's a lovely site - and the sun shone - and I got burnt. Move into the shade - and you get caught by the cold wind that gets up every day at this time of year. Our book says it's the Maestral. MSF 1424

Thurs 10th May

We had planned to catch a bus into Trogir, but it was 9.15 and the next bus was 10.30. So we amended our plan to walk in and catch the bus back. The walk in proved to be 20 minutes only. (Tip - as you reach the top of hill look out for a small brown sign saying "short cut" - it is!") so the plan was further amended to include walking back too.

Trogir is a sea of little dark and cool alleyways, little shops, cafés and restaurants. LOTS of cafés and restaurants! There is also an excellent market, by the "Little Bridge". We looked for a wifi signal, and found lots of them, mostly free. We chose Trogir Wifi, and sat beside the cathedral drinking cappuccino and catching up one email  and BBC headlines. Lunchtime, and we chose a meat platter for 2 - I've never eaten so much meat in one sitting! About what we normally eat in a week. With 2 large beers, and 2 bottles of water, the cost was only HRK 270.

Back at the site, and we got talking to the crews of 2 other British motorhomes, and we didn't stop talking until gone midnight.

Fri 11th May

Left the site at 9.30, with the intention of getting to a favourite site at Baske Polje by lunch time - which we did - unfortunately it didn't open until the 1st June. We looked at 2 other sites down the coast - one was unsuitable and the other was closed. The decision was made - we'll drive on to Ploce to catch the ferry to Peijesa (the peninsula that adjoins the mainland near Dubrovnik.) There were lots of road works on the Adriatic Highway, and the 2.15 ferry sailed just as we were buying the tickets. Bother! (well that's sort of what we said!). The ticket office is the other side of the road from the ferry terminal. The next ferry (and the last for the day) is at 19.30, and the journey takes an hour. Cost for 6 M motorhome and 2 adults - 274 HRK.

The first ferry of the day is at 0930, so it seems to me that if you arrived after the last ferry, it would be reasonable to stay on the quay until the next sailing. Places for wild camping in Croatia are few and far between, as there is so little land that isn't mountain, road, or town.

After some humming & hawing, and now aware that some sites are not yet open (which could be interesting in Montenegro & Albania), we decided to take the 1930 ferry, and see how dark it was when we landed. In fact it was quite dark, so we decided to stay put in the port, Trpanj, and are currently ensconced in a car park about 100 yards from the ferry. N 43 00' 36", E 17 16' 07"

MSF 1512

Sat 12th May

It seemed the area we spent the night in is also the assembly area for the ferry. Fortunately we hadn't stopped in the queuing area. Our next intended stop was Orebic, on the other side of the peninsula. The road out of Trpanj had had the surface removed - and was rather like something out of a cowboy film. After missing our turning, and having to back out of a narrow street with a large trench dug in it, we reached Orebic. We were aiming for Camping Glavna Plaza, and there were numerous signs to it, taking us down a narrow street. But the site was closed and there was nowhere to turn, so yet more reversing up a narrow street. OK then, we'll go to the big new expensive site, Nevio Camping, which had also been heavily signposted from 20 Km away. But signposts in the town? Nah! By then we had gone off Orebic - big, messy, too built up, too much traffic - and set off for a site we stayed at 3 years ago, Camping Denka at Loviste. As soon as we arrived we were invited to share a bottle of wine with the owner and his wife, chatted about Yugoslav politics, and left with salad from his garden (after he showed us the damage done by wild pigs). We're the only people here, and have the prime position. Loviste is just our cup of tea - a nice unspoilt little town with few facilities, and friendly people. Wifi is free, too.

MSF 1537

Sun 13th May

The wind has changed direction completely, and is now blowing over the island, putting us in the lee. Cloud and sunshine took turns, and we walked to the small cove the other side of the island, On our return, we lunched on an entire loaf of bread, soup etc, and watched a 3 foot long snake slide past us a few feet away, then settled down for a rest before deciding whether to risk the threatening rain. It wasn't long before Vladimir, the site owner, came to invite us to lunch, and wouldn't take no for an answer. It was the traditional Croatian dish of lamb cooked under hot ashes, washed down with wine, Waitrose cider (supplied by us) Grappa and an unnamed sweet liquor, and black sweet coffee. We discussed Communism under Tito (Good) and Capitalism under Trudgman (bad), Serbian hegemony (I must make a point of remembering what that word really means!), and the EU (Vladimir is against joining). That took us through to 5 pm, when we abandoned any idea of an evening meal. Vladimir assured us the snake was safe, but it would be interesting to identify it.

The threatened rain arrived later, at about 7. Let's hope it clears by tomorrow.

Mon 14th May

Torrential rain overnight - and it hasn't cleared by the morning :(. Rain on and off all day, and at mid day we put the heating on :( We had more walks planned, to a secluded cove at the end of the peninsula, but it's too cold to take a jumper off, never mind everything!

Tues 15th May

Another grey dawn. Time to move on. I always get itchy feet after a few days, a relic of my navy days, when after a few days ashore the sea called again – to find another run ashore somewhere else. 3 days here has cost HRK 348, about £13 pn.

It was about 90 miles to Dubrovnik, and we passed only one petrol station, and that was early on. We were 5 miles south of Dubrovnik before we found one. Moral of the story – keep your tank topped up! We had quite a few Kuna left so we paid for the fuel, and the LPG, by cash, and still had some to spare. Fuel here was cheap, 98HRK per litre, about £1.10 (cf £1.49 when we left England).

Beyond Dubrovnik, almost to the Montenegrin border, the road was being repaired. This is done by removing all the surface leaving an uneven mix of gravel and shingle. 15 mph was more than fast enough for us, and cars, but lorries were quite happy to overtake at speed -presumably the drivers don't have to pay for their own broken springs.

At the border, we spent at least 5 minutes getting out of Croatia – our passports, vehicle and driving documents being minutely examined. The young border guard wanted to know why we not staying in his own beautiful country. He seemed mollified when we pointed out on the map all the places in Croatia we had visited.

This was all repeated a mile further along the road, on entering Montenegro. Here the guard wasn't interested in my driving licence, only the vehicle documents and the insurance. All our books say we are supposed to declare our Euros – but no one seemed interested.

We have entered at the coast, at Herceg Novi, and urban sprawl goes on for a long way. Here there is an inland sea, which we are driving round. The camp-site we were heading for, Na Luka at Morinj, was still closed, but we had passed Camping Zlokovic at Kamenari, which was open, so we retraced our steps to that. (42 27 26 N, 18 39 49 E). A small site, with only a few pitches for tourers, most of which were taken by Swiss and French campers, and a convoy of Czech 4 wheel drive vehicles. The owner (Uros) is very friendly and helpful, and has given us a leaflet of the other camp-sites in Montenegro (all 22 of them!). This will be very useful (if they are open).

Wild camping spots are few and far between, the road is wedged between the sea and mountains, there is a large lay-by at N42 48’ 43” E 18 41’ 12” that might be usable. And we have just found reference (Don Madge 2010) that there is a free camp on a rough car parking area at the north end of Perast N42.28367 E18.69460.(Later – the area has been tarmacked, but could still be a useful wild camping spot). Pity we found that whilst already on a campsite!

More Don Madge wild camp spots – Plaza Ploce north of Budva - N42.28367 E18.80298 – wild camping on flat area that is an abandoned camp site. No facilities.

MSF 1661

Wed 16th May

Grey dawn again – heavy rain overnight.  We swapped notes with the young Swiss couple beside us. They have driven through Albania from Greece, and had some good suggestions about road usability and campsites. Uros gave us the times of buses to  Perast, and we caught a rather dilapidated bus into Perast, cost €3 (Montenegro uses euros).

Perast is a lovely little town, a major port and seafaring town under the Venetian empire of the middle ages, has some grand houses. Just off the coast are 2 tiny islands. One had a tiny monastery, where the abbot was murdered while taking mass, and for which the town was excommunicated. This island appeared to be inaccessible. The other island is artificial, and has another church dedicated to seamen. We took a €10 boat trip out to the island. As well as the church there is a rather nice little museum, and a good view of the quaint Perast waterfront.

There are numerous cafes and restaurants, and we used one for morning and afternoon coffee and lunch, the Armonia. Wifi was free (pwd perastaarmonia), and the sandwiches are superb, especially the Sandwich Armonia, toasted sarney of bacon and chicken, chips, cucumber and tasty tomatoes, and a fried egg, only €4.50. A meal, not a sandwich.

Returning, we managed to miss the bus, and waited another half hour. The fare this time was €5. All in all, catching public transport is just too much hassle.

Evening – and there's a mother and father of thunderstorms going on, with torrential rain. I have unplugged the laptop mains lead to avoid the risk of frying the electronics. And – we've just discovered the vent over our bed wasn't completely shut!

Site costs €15 pn.

Thurs 17th May

Had a long chat with a German couple, just back from 10 days in Albania. They gave us very useful info on which roads to avoid, and also gave us their Balkan campsite book, which has English text as well as German. Thanks guys.

We were slightly concerned that after all the rain of the last 24 hours we would be bogged down, but got off without difficulty. We were determined to visit Kotor, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the weather did improve. However we weren't prepared for the presence of 2 large cruise ships and their passengers. Kotor was heaving! Japanese tourists appear not to notice other people, and just barge their way through. We were less than impressed with Kotor, not a patch on the charming little Perast. We did find free wifi at the Tourist Information Office, though.

We had parked in a controlled car park, at €1 per hour. We were there for 2 ½ hours and the attendant wanted €4. We refused to pay more than 3, and he backed down. Strange he should make such a simple mistake......

So back round the loch to Risan, where there is a brand new road heading north.It's not on any of our maps or satnav, but is a superb road, rising from sea level to over 1000 metres, in spectacular scenery. (I know I keep using “spectacular” but no other words will do.) At Niksic we turned north on theE762, turning east at Jasenovo Polje along an unclassified but excellent road (and which is also spectacular!). At Savnik there is another new road which took us to Zabljak. As  we approached Zabljak we could see fresh snow on the hill tops, and soon it was 2 inches deep, although the roads were clear. We have stopped at Autocamp Boce,(N43 08' 42” E19 06' 53”) about a mile before reaching Zabljak (Height 1500 metres). There seems to be a convoy of German, Swiss and Czech vans travelling together also stopping here.

Cost is €9 inc electricity and a reasonable wifi connection – and the wind is bitter! Luckily I carry a second electricity cable – just one didn't reach the box, and it is so cold I'd hate to be without electricity.

MSF 1783

Fri 18th May

That as a bitterly cold night! I put the heating on (low) at 5 a.m. The convoy left at 8.30, and we left at 9.30. I would find travelling in a convoy like that extremely frustrating. It would stop when you didn't want to, and not stop when you did. The weather hadn't improved, except that wind had dropped rather. The Bradt Guide says that Zabljak has an ideal climate for tourists in the summer!

We stopped in a car park in Zabljak to buy bread. In the 20 minutes we were there 2 separate individuals approached us touting their own campsites. One gave us a CD and some business cards about his site. (Durmitor Camping)

From the heights of Zabljak we dropped over 1000 metres to the Tara Gorge, supposed to be second only to the Grand Canyon in depth – but this one is Green, with a capital G! We had worried that the road would be narrow and twisty, but in fact the drive down was a doddle compared to Austrian and Swiss Alpine roads, the hairpins are wide, and the slope shallow, and there was very little traffic.

In the gorge we stopped to view  Monastir Dobrilovina, a small Orthodox convent. Turning round in a tiny space outside, I managed to rip our underslung spare toilet cassette from its moorings, so while Rosemary did the convent thing, I was busy under the van with screwdrivers and screws – luckily we carry a selection of wood screws for just such an incident.

Just a mile or two from the convent is Camp Suza Europe, aka Camp Eco Oaza Tara. (N43 02 08 E 19 24 25)This is a lovely little site. €10 pn inc electricity. No set pitches, all grass (I was worried about  getting bogged down, but I was assured this wasn't a problem, and it does seem well drained). As with the  last site, there is just one electricity point for the site. Below us (well below us) the Tara river eventually flows into the Drina, and then to the Danube. A path on the site promises to take you down to the river, but peters out about 100 feet above it.

At 7 pm the sun comes out, finally – but as we're in the gorge we don't get any. Typical!

Later: we have just returned from drinks with the owner, whose daughter speaks perfect English, and whose home made plum brandy is delicious. (I hope I got that the right way round...) “Our guests are part of our family”. This really is a lovely site.

MSF 1812

 Sat 19th May

And the sun is shining! It seems a shame to leave this lovely site, but there really isn't much to do here – no footpaths, and only a road to walk along. So we were away by 0900. First stop, Mojkovac, to do some shopping. Failed to find any reasonable looking vegetables. There were quite a few grocery shops – all selling the same things.

A few miles south of Mojkovas is the Biogradska Gora National Park, and this has a campsite in it. Costs €3 each to enter the park, and camping is €13 pn inc electricity. The site is a real gem, especially in May as the trees are just bursting into green. Glorious! A word of caution to motorhomers – this also the car park, and there are not many spaces. Get here in reasonable time. And if its hot showers and smart toilets you're after – this isn't for you. There are only 3 reasons for coming here – location, location and location!

There are long distance walks, and also a level 1 mile walk around the lake, and this is superb. There are also rowing boats for hire – €8 for 1 hour – and they're good boats.

As the sun went down we were joined by 2 Swiss campers in a small tent.

MSF 1834

 Sun 20th May

Awoke to another lovely day.  Today we walked up to find the “primeval forest”. Primeval apparently means it is completely unmanaged. Trees fall over? That's where they stay. Under brush is not cleared, nature does everything itself. The maps don't really give the scale of how far you have to walk, or how high you have to climb! We walked 9 miles, half of it up, and half of it down, a climb of 700 metres. Much of it is “road”, accessible by 4x4s. However even these can only go half way because the road is still blocked by snow. The road follows a series of long zig-zags, but there is a path the short cuts many of the zigs and zags – follow the white dot in a red circle.

When we returned the car park was heaving – lots of families having barbecues, but these had mostly departed by 7 pm. Maybe Sunday is a good day to avoid?

 Mon 21st May

Well that was our sun! It's raining again. We abandoned our plan to walk round the lake again before we left, and drove on to Cetinje, the old capital. For most of the journey to Podgorica (the new capital) we were driving a  deep gorge. Occasionally we would dive into a tunnel, and most of these were unlit, and some had nothing white for the headlights to pick up at all. It is just like driving at night with no lights on at all – you can't see the wall and you can't see the centre of the road - terrifying! (Norwegian tunnels are just the same.)

At Podgorica we found an excellent supermarket, “Voli”, conveniently placed on the new bypass. It even had fresh milk labelled “fresh milk”, so this time I didn't buy yoghurt by mistake. Cetinje is 26 Km west of Podgorika.

 Cetinje is a small city, with a main street full of cafes and bars. In the early years of the 20th century many embassies were built here, and show the characteristics of their countries. The British embassy was built in the style of a cottage, but was vacated in 1916 as the Austro Hungarian forces annexed Montenegro.

We are parked in a side street, labelled “P”, by the sports centre, and the plan is to spend the night here. ( N 42 23' 29.4” E 18 55' 32.3”) A large car park at the other end of town costs €2 per day, and was most unwelcoming, as was the tourist information office adjacent to it.  There are numerous wifi signals, but they were difficult to pin down to a cafe. However cafe d'Antibes had a reasonable signal and decent capucino.

MSF 1911

Well that was not to be. We discovered there was to be a pop concert in the town that night, and already youths had twice intentionally knocked the mirrors when walking past the van. We thought that by 2 am, well tanked up, there would be even more hassle, so we moved on. To a Camping Crevna Glavica at Sveti Stefan. This was in a lovely position, and had the potential to be a lovely site. It looks like it was from the Communist era, rather sad and dilapidated. The Bradt Guide said this was a highly recommended site – NOT BY US IT ISN'T! €13 inc electricity, €10 without electricity. We did without.

 Tues 22nd May

Heavy rain overnight - just to make the place really cheerful! Left the site by 9 am, moving first to Camping Maslina at Petrovac. This was very claustrophobic, mostly residential caravans, and we moved on quickly. After visiting Stari Bar, the ruins of the old town of Bar, we moved on to Camping Oliva at Utjeha. This is a superb site, with very friendly and proud owners. We are camped under 2000 year old olive trees planted by the Romans. Cost €11.50 pn.

There are 2 sites side by side, and there is intense competition between them, and their owners rush out to try to inveigle you into their own establishment. We were headed for Camping Oliva because they have gone to the effort of putting up an excellent website (http://www.oliva.co.me/index-en.htm ). They don't have wifi, but do have a couple of mobile broadband dongles which can be hired for €1 per day.

MSF 1972

 Wed 23rd May

More rain overnight. I'm almost out of knickers and shirts, and this site has the first washing machine we've seen for a couple of weeks. Cost €3, but we couldn't get the machine to work. No problem – it all went in the owner's washing machine.

Outside the site, the road surface has been removed, and work is in progress. Lorries arrived and dumped piles of paving and heaps of concrete, blocking the road, to the dismay of both campsites. However, by early evening the the road had been cleared – but not for long. A road wrecker arrived, and started scraping the surface off the hill out of the village. At the time of writing, only the surface had been removed, and there was still a firm road to drive up – the hill would be too steep to take the van up if the tarmac is removed completely.

 Thurs 24th May

Left the site by 0830 – we were keen to get out before workmen blocked the road again, and we had no trouble with the hill. The site cost €23 and €2 for the Internet.

At Ulcinj the plan was to look at the town, but it had a rather shabby air, and was full of traffic – absolutely no chance of finding somewhere to park – so we carried  on to Vladimir. Although this is the E851, it is narrow and twisty. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we came across a large, brand new, and bright red supermarket, with attached restaurant and ice cream parlour. We were the only customers, and check out girls followed us around to be helpful. Our plan was to take the unclassified road to Skadrsko Jezero, the large lake that is home to pelicans. The road started off reasonably, but got narrower and narrower, with bends every 20 yards. Maximum speed dropped to 20 mph, and averaged 15 mph. The final straw was a descent down the side of a mountain on a road just wide enough, no crash barrier, and a drop of 800 feet 2 feet from my right shoulder. Terrifying! Luckily we didn't meet anything coming the other way, and eventually found somewhere to turn around, and made our way back to the E851. I didn't want to see a pelican, anyway!

From Vladimir to the border the entire road has been turned into a gravel track as the road is improved. From time to time large machines impeded progress. Eventually, after a really good shaking, we reached the border.

I had expected the border to be hassle and more hassle, just like Bulgaria in its pre EU days. In fact it was one of the easiest crossing of a non Schengen border. The Montenegrin and Albanian officials sit in adjacent rooms, with an adjoining hatch. You hand passports and vehicle document in at the Montenegrin window. They get processed, passed through the door to Albania, and handed back to you on the Albanian side. And the Albanian official actually saluted as he handed the passports over, smiling broadly and welcomed us to Albania.

After 8 miles of rattle to the border, the smoothness of the Albanian road was welcome – and unexpected. And so it continued, to Shkoder and on to Bushat, where there are 3 sets of speed humps – we hit the first one at 20 mph – it was like hitting a brick wall!  The best speed to take them is as close to dead stop as you can get! Just beyond Bushat is Barbullish. Here we stopped at Camping Albania, a Dutch owned campsite. Chickens & cockerels roam the site, and are remarkably tame. So tame, in fact, that a hen jumped up and grabbed some bread off the table, and ran off with it, pursued by the others. They are also prone to pecking at bare feet and investigating the inside of visitors' vans!

Later, we walked through the local village – almost everybody smiled at us, and said hello. We'd been told the streets were lined with litter – not so far, they're not. We arrived with preconceptions - and so far they have all been completely false.

MSF 2058

 Fri 25th May

Rain overnight gave way to a hot and humid day. We managed to wash & dry the sheets, drive to the nearest bank at Bushat to change Euros for Lekis, and go for a walk, before there was a thunderstorm & heavy rain. It doesn't help to read in the Guardian that it's predicted to be a perfect  barbecue weekend in England! On the way to the bank we were stopped by police in a routine check. They spoke no English, and were very affable.

Power has gone off at the site and, apparently, the local community. The site has a rather noisy generator, but that doesn't run our shore supplies. I enquired whether this was a common occurrence, expecting a positive answer, but she said no, this was the first power cut they had had for a long time.

 Tonight is the 23rd wedding anniversary of the Dutch owners, and they are putting on a 3 course buffet for €12.50. We arrived punctually at the stated time of 7 pm, to be told “that is Albanian time, anywhere between 7 and 8”, so we are waiting to be collected by their son at the appropriate time.

 

 Sat 26th May

That was quite an evening! 6 Dutch, 2 Brits, the Dutch owners and their daughters, and a stack of locals, a local band playing Albanian music. Lots of red wine & beer, and even more food. Numerous whole roast chickens ere placed on the tables, and steaks were brought round later, too. Lots of dancing, Albanian style – both the music and the dancing is similar to Romania. In fact the whole country has a Romanian feel, from the villages, the horses and carts, even the countryside. Roads have been generally good, but deteriorate if you leave the main roads. Today we drove up to see the gorge at Koman. After a while the road became decidedly “Romanian”, and we called a halt, to have lunch overlooking a superb view over a lake, the only sign of humanity aerials on a distant mountain top. An elderly Albanian stopped his motorbike to have a chat. No common language, but many smiles and much shaking of hands. It is quite humbling to think of the changes he has seen in his life, from a rigid form of Maoism to free market capitalism and open borders with the rest of Europe.

We returned to the site in time for another thunderstorm.

A convoy of 3 military looking German Land Rovers arrived, all with tents on their roof racks. Some of the occupants were even wearing pseudo military uniform – not the most tactful dress given the history of the Balkans!

As we didn't pay for last night's meal in the restaurant, we returned to eat again. 3 course meal €10 each, dessert was a superb Irish coffee.

 Sun 27th May

The German convoy drove to the restaurant for breakfast! We left at 0930, heading south along a good road to Fushe-Kruje, where we turned off for Kruje. Both of these towns were heaving with traffic, sometimes treble parked, and wandering pedestrians. We did see a cafe/bar called “George W Bush”, so he obviously impressed at least one person! Kruje involved quite a climb, many hair pin bends in heavy rain, to reach an old castle. Here there were narrow roads, sharp bends and inconsiderate parking making driving very difficult – it must have taken years off the clutch! Descending again, we found somewhere to park off the road. Rosemary went off to look at the historical bits, and I collapsed in a heap, with several cups of tea to soothe my nerves.

Then, back down the way we had come, but now the traffic was much reduced. Sunday afternoon seems a good time for doing busy towns. We were heading for Nord Camping, just west of Fushe-Kruje, and passed it on the SH1. By now the sun was shining and we decided to carry on to Durres. Traffic here was rather hairy, wide roads but no lane markings and even less lane discipline! However we managed to park in the centre, and walked down to the seafront. There is a Roman amphitheatre that we visited, the largest in the Balkans, although nothing like those in Turkey. The town seems to be thriving – lots of well stocked and modern shops. We were amused to see an Albanian car with a Union Jack painted on the roof – and it wasn't a Mini.

Thence, the SH4 south, still being improved. A dual carriageway, it appeared to have no exits between Durres and Kavaje, where we came off , looking for Camping Mali Robit. This is close to the sea, behind a hotel of the same name, and full of huge pine trees. It isn't really suitable for motorhomes, as the trees are so close together, however we have tucked ourselves in, eventually. €10 pn, with  no electricity. There should be free wifi in the hotel, but we have yet to try that.

Later – when the owner asked his daughter what to do, it worked fine, although a trifle slow. There are mozzies around :(.

We passed at least 3 police speed checks today – it pays to keep your speed down.

MSF 2190

 Mon 28th May

We edged our way between the pines, and headed south on the SH4. This was mostly fairly good, with touches of the truly awful! In places there are stretches of brand new motorway. Fier was particularly awful, and I envisaged that was how it would be all the way south, but after a few miles we discovered a brand new motorway, not complete but operating bi-directional traffic on one side, with a speed limit of 60 KPH. There were police with hand held radar checking this – be warned! But it was nice to be on a smooth surface after the horrors of Fier.

This motorway went as far as Vlore. We had been warned to avoid the tunnel at Vlore, it has a low ceiling, is narrow and unlit. In the event, the tunnel was closed due to a blockage, and we took the “bypass” - narrow, pot-holed, twisty, hairpin bends, but at least no scary drops beside you! This levelled out to a seafront road, and we stopped for lunch at “Rezidenca Cekodhima”, which is a small beach complex, advertising caravan parking. (N40.37700 E19.47849, about 5 miles south of Vlore) The plan is to spend the night here – but we'll see how it goes.

Later – the owner (Albano) speaks perfect English (he lived in London for 9 years), and is keen for us to stay overnight, and to let him know if we need anything. Next year he plans to set up a a campsite, with electricity & water, but he's not charging anything this year (2012). So pencil this place in for an overnight stop if you don't need all facilities. It will make an excellent campsite too – right beside the beach, mostly level, and easy access to the coast road. (www.rezidencacekodhima.com)

...and did you know that Albanian for sun lounger is “chezlong”? There are lots of them here, and hire of one umbrella and 2 chez long is 400 leke.

And later still, we were invited to the cafe for beer and home made raki, later joined by his uncle and a brother.

MSF 2262

 Tues 29th May

A tremendous thunderstorm overnight, and torrential rain (again!). And again we discovered that the vent over the bed wasn't quite closed. The bed cover got quite wet this time, but had mostly dried by the morning.

Leaving at 0930 we continued our route south, soon rising to over 1000 metres before dropping down to sea level at  Himari. Here we located a useful place to overnight on the return trip, beside the promenade just south of Himari, N40.09848 E19.47531 (Thanks to Don Madge for that one).

Carrying on, we rise again, and I have never tackled so many hairpin bends nearly 2 hours before we dropped back to sea level at Sarande. Here we failed to find Hotel Mediteranea which advertises itself as a wohnmobil stellplatz (N39 52' 14” E20 01' 04”) so carried on to Butrint, on the end of an isthmus, where we are planning to wild camp for the night outside the National Park.

Butrint National Park is home to a large number of historical monuments, and we plan to visit tomorrow. There is also a small cable ferry that takes vehicles and pedestrians across to a thin sliver of Albania hard against the Greek border. Pedestrians go free, but mostly only goes when there is a car to pay for it. We went across for a short stroll – there is a triangular Venetian fort on the opposite bank.

 We have had various reports on the road down to Butrint. The situation now (May 2012) is this: the road over the pass, and from Himari to Sarande, is mostly excellent. The hairpins are wide, and the slopes not as steep as some of the Swiss passes, and there is much less traffic. In one or two places the road edge has fallen away, but not enough to cause a problem, similarly small landslides have deposited debris on the road in some places. I descended in 2nd gear at 15 mph, with no brake problems. The road from Sarande to Butrint has been improved, and is mostly excellent, but there 3 or 4 lengths of road that are unmetalled. Taken slowly, these are fine. We had planned to return via the inland route, SH4, but have been advised by Albano that this would be unwise, so we will return the way we came.

We are parked in the small car park outside the national park, and beside the ferry, and plan to overnight here. There is a large German caravan already here in prime position – looks like it's been here a while (and was still there when we left). We took the small ferry for a stroll on the other side, free both ways.

MSF 2341

 Wed 30th May

 Another thunderstorm overnight, but the morning brought sunshine, and we went into the national park, cost 700 Lek each. Rosemary is in to archaeology, but I'm not, but even so I found it fascinating. There are remains of pre Greek, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian occupations. The water table has risen, and now there are 6 inches of water in most of the ruins, which harbours frogs, terrapins and dragonflies. Here we met our 1st Brits since Croatia, and they recommended a site nearby at Ksamil.

After lunch we crossed the ferry again, this time they wanted to charge us €1 to cross. I had no euros so paid 50 lek each - the understanding being that if there was a paying car pedestrians went free. There were no vehicles. On the way back there were vehicles, and again he wanted money, but didn't push the issue when I refused.

So back a few miles to Ksamil, and Albania Caravan Camping. (N39.77796 E20.00588 - https://sites.google.com/site/caravancampingalbania/ ) Here we received the warmest welcome we've ever received at a camp site, introduced to the owners Alexander and Linda, and offered iced coffee. The site is small and neat, and suitable for smaller and medium sized units (we're 6.2 metres, and I'd suggest nothing bigger.) There is an excellent site wide wifi signal, and the owners cannot do enough for you. Their English is excellent,- Alexander spent several years in Manchester.

And in the evening, another ex-pat conference over bottles of wine. (Paul & Linda, http://t4too.blogspot.co.uk/2012_05_01_archive.html)

 Thurs 31st May

We had planned to move on today, but the decided to stay on and try out the beach. And we also wanted wifi to hear about our daughter's 20 week scan – we're grandparent wannabees!

Later – scan all good, and we know what sex it is but are not allowed to say!

A disco by the beach has just tried out is amplifiers – weekends could be noisy!

2 more large vans have arrived, one Czech one German, and an elderly hippy couple – same as the 60's hippies but 50 years on, in a small tent. Site is now full. Cost is a straight €5 per person per night.

 Fri 1st June

Time to move on, and a change of plan. Alexander has warned us that the road to Elbasan and Perrenjas is very bad, so we have decided to to get to Lake Ochrid via Greece. First we went over a small pass (where we watched an eagle soaring overhead) to visit Gjirokaster, which has  a number of old houses, and also houses a museum in the house where Enver Hoxha was born. Well, it would have been, but it burnt down when he was 6, and in the 90's they built a replica. A 10 minute whistle stop tour cost 200 Leke, and the guide had pretty good English. Gjirocaster is built on a steep hill, and we parked at the bottom, so there is a lot of walking uphill in hot weather – even more walking if you get lost! I thought it was a lot of walking for not very much, but Rosemary loves that sort of thing.

After a late lunch we headed for the Greek border at Kakavje. Police were stopping all vehicles as we got close to the border, but weren't bothered about a pair of Brits, in fact we got a salute from one).  No problem leaving Albania, but the Greek border police made a big play about checking our insurance (how many Greeks even have insurance? I ask myself”).“This is only for Great Britain...”. He seemed satisfied with “no, it covers all EU countries”. 

Then our route was E853, E92, A2 to Metsovo, where Camperstop 2009 suggested there was somewhere to stop for the night. We couldn't find it, so carried on up the A2, then A29 to Kastoria, where Camperstop suggested we could stop outside the monastery. We are near the monastery, but in a small car park by the lake, N40.50438 E21.27907.

MSF 2549

 Sat 2nd June

Before breakfast, we walked along the road beside the lake to the Byzantium monastery. This is a lovely walk, highly recommended. At the monastery we found the car park mentioned in Camperstop, and an Orthodox priest busy opening up for the day. This small and ancient monastery has the walls inside just covered with paintings. After breakfast we set off back through Kastoria to the A29, then E86 back into Albania at Bilisht. It has been a pleasant change to be driving on roads recognised by Sally. This border crossing took half an hour, although the queue was quite short – why is it the car in front of you always attracts police and customs attention?. Processing our passports and vehicle docs did not take long at all.

A few miles further, and we were in Korce. Korce is a university town, and has wide boulevards, and very pleasant parks and gardens, We even saw a working fountain. We parked opposite the university and walked in to town. The town has quite a prosperous air, although we also saw buildings that looked close to collapse. The cinema has an Art Deco facade. After lunch in a nice restaurant behind the (new) cathedral, we set off to find a camp site at Pogradec. We saw several horse drawn ploughs in action, and many horse and carts, and pack mules. At one point we found a pig wandering across the street.

The road to Pogradec was quite good, and the town sits on the shore of Lake Ohrid. We anticipated walking into town from the camp site, but this turned out to be several miles further on, and the road had deteriorated to something dreadful. It wasn't helped by fsih vendors who walked into the road in front of you dangling a live eel, hoping you would be tempted to buy it. (Fat chance!). They also had tanks of live trout.

The camp site was really quite pleasant, and had a nice little restaurant where we ate grilled trout. Instead of being grilled whole, it had been split down the centre like a kipper, and the texture and taste was quite different. N40.96664 E20.64291

MSF 2631

 Sun 3rd June

One problem with the site – it is right beside the road to Tirana, and lorries rattle along it at all hours of the day and night. And rattle they certainly did! There were a number of potholes that seemed determined to shake the lorries to bits!

Another border to cross today – a short drive back through Pogradec to the small border crossing at Tushemishi. Watch out for roundabouts – Albanians have no idea how to negotiate a roundabout, but it has to be said there are no road markings or signs to give them a clue. The crossing into Macedonia was a good deal quicker than yesterday's into Albania, but we were probably the first vehicle they'd had all morning. Then only a mile or 2 to Naum, where there was supposed to be a campsite. We asked at a car park for yet another monastery, to be told, in perfect English, that the campsite didn't open until the end of June, “but you can stay here”. So here we are wild camped by the shore of Lake Ohrid, having paid  €2 ½  for the privilege.

Lake Ohrid is Macedonia's beach, and this is its favourite resort. There is a whole row of restaurants, and religious trinket vendors, on the route to the old monastery. This costs 100 denar to go in, about £1.40.

We lunched at one of the restaurants, beside the lake, with a cool air, on chicken steak sandwiches and chips, with beer and bottled water came to about £6. NB everyone seemed more than happy to take Euros and give change in MKD.

After lunch, a boat trip to see the Ohrid springs. This is by rowing boat – but we had a driver whose rowing skills had yet to be perfected.

Then, whilst Rosemary went off with her paints to paint the monastery, I settled down in a chair under a plane  tree to read a book. I hadn't been there more than 10 minutes when, with no warning at all, a 20 foot long bough fell to the ground, landing only 5 feet from me. After that I chose another spot out of range of the tree with murderous designs on me. N40.91599 E20.74537

MSF 2643

 Mon 4th June

A nice quiet night, and woke to a  mirror like Lake Ohrid. We were away by 9, but already 2 coach loads of tourists had arrived. The plan was to drive in to Ohrid, noting which of the lakeside campsites looked best, and go back there this evening. We passed 3 campsites, all firmly closed! So we are parked on Ohrid waterfront, 3 metres from the lake, almost in the centre of Ohrid, and here we plan to stay for the night.

Ohrid is a perfectly delightful town, touristy, but tastefully done. The municipal gardens wouldn’t be out of place in Eastbourne. For 100 denar we had coffee and tea, and all the wifi we could want, and we returned for the same in the afternoon. And lunchtime we splashed out 2200 denar on dinner in a very nice restaurant. The seafront promenade (well, it feels like a seafront) goes on for miles.

 We went in to St Sophia cathedral, built in the 11th century and tiny, to find an orthodox service in progress. We stayed for a while – much of the action goes on behind the rood screen, and the congregation sit around the walls and chat. Then the priest comes out to deliver a homily – by his dress and head gear we thought he may have been the archbishop. N40.10971 E20.80445

MSF 2655

 Tues 5th June

That wasn't the quietest night's sleep I've had, a disco continued until 1 am, and there was coming and going all the time.

A wet morning. We walked to the market in town to buy fruit & veg, but at 9 am half the stalls were still closed up. Then on to our usual wifi cafe to check email, BBC & the Guardian.

We were aware that Ohrid was more in tune with visitors than other places in Macedonia– and we were to find out how large the difference is. The road from the Albanian border had been good, but on leaving Ohrid, even the main road deteriorated into what you would have expected in Albania. We needed a campsite for its bunkering facilities. The Bradt Guide says that a hotel  on the shore of lake Prespa, owned by the Interior Ministry, had facilities for 20 caravans for the public. However, when we finally found it they had no idea what we were talking about. Nearby is Autokamp Krani (aka Gulag Krani)– a relic from the Communist era. We've stayed on a few of these in various ex Communist counties, and some have had a charm of their own, but this was by far the worst! Dismal, unwelcoming and depressing, they wanted to charge us €15 (£12). We said we wanted to pay in denar, and the price was 500 MKD ( £7). There are no pitches, just lots of run down cabins and static caravans, no electricity points, no showers, only 2 squat toilets (seemingly for the entire site) with broken flushes, no chemical toilet, and water only from the tap in the wash basin beside each toilet. The registration form wanted to know where we had entered the country, and where we spent last night. Even worse, the staff really couldn't care less, in complete contrast with Albania where there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit. And it's raining!

Lake Prespa is at least 400 yards away, and there is a sandy track to it, but nowhere to go when you get there. On our way back we were amazed to see a lynx run across the track about 50 yards ahead of us. It was unmistakeably a lynx, tufted ears and all, but the Bradt Guide says there are believed to be fewer than 100 Balkan Lynx between Macedonia and Albania. N40.93551 E21.08168

MSF 2706

 Wed 6th June

It has stopped raining, so Gulag Krani looks a little more cheerful. And on the way out the chief wardress, an attractive blonde, gave us a big beamy smile and a wave – a treat for 2 short term British prisoners!

We continued further down the lake, and came across a barrier, a sign saying “border area” and a soldier with a machine gun. Turning back towards the main road, we found an area suitable for wild camping around Pretar, a beach resort at the end of the lake. (N40.97377 E21.05634). This minor road, going nowhere in particular, was excellent. Soon we joined the M5/E65, and the road became appalling – some serious pot holes to avoid.

At Bitola we parked beside the sports hall. We would never have found it, but we had to follow a diversion and found ourselves right beside it. From here it is an easy and pleasant walk into town, and what a pleasant town it is. Not touristy, like Ohrid, just wide pedestrianised streets, & an interesting old town, where we bought a hand made barbecue from the man who made it, 1200 MKD, Free wifi with our coffee on the way in, and free wifi with our lunch on the way out.

From Bitola we headed for Krusevo, a town populated by the Vlache, a “tribe” who came with the Romans, speak their own Latin based language, and are the main entrepreneurs here. We had planned to wild camp at the ski slope here, but it is in the centre of the town, with no real parking. An attempt to camp beside a nearby monastery foundered when we found how narrow the road to it is. So instead, we are parked near the Hotel Montana Palas at Krusevo, on a verge. 4 large coaches stuffed full of school children have just arrived at the hotel – it could get noisy! N41.36456 E21.25416

MSF 2800

 Thurs 7th June

Leaving Krusevo, we dropped several hundred feet, down a road that was mostly OK, but with pot holes to keep you on your toes. (also, our third suicidal tortoise, casually strolling across the road.) On the way in to Prilep we spotted a large steam locomotive close to the road, and unusually, with somewhere to park. It seemed to us it was an old Russian loco but with some conn rods missing. We stopped to look at Prilep, another pleasant town with good coffee and wifi. At Prilep we picked up the M5 going northeast, a fair to middling sort of road. Then E75 going ESE, a really good new road built by the EU taxpayer (ME!). When the motorway ran out it turned into reasonable road twisting through gorges. Round one of the bends we found police directing traffic around a lorry that had jack-knifed, hitting the gorge wall. There was a lot of blood around, which fortunately turned out to have come from his freight – water melon. Then the 604 to Strumica. Strumica was described as a really pleasant and interesting town – but that wasn't our experience. We spent a couple of hours here, decided it wasn't for us, and went to look for the Monospitovo wetlands, home of a fish eating spider – and failed to find it. We had rather hoped to spend the night there. There followed another hour searching for a suitable overnight spot (we had already stayed at the only campsite in Macedonia that is open at the moment!). We are now on a piece of ground that has been cleared for development, at N41.37940 E 22.80082

MSF 2926

 Fri 8th June

Hmmm. Quite a noisy night!. The nearby garage cum cafe played music until 1.30, and tractors started buzzing about at 4. So we had an early start – on our way by 7.30. We took the 523, a very scenic road over the mountains, parallel to the Bulgarian border. On the way we saw a cart pulled by 2 oxen and another drawn by 3 donkeys. South of Berovo there are numerous places suitable for wild camping. The road surface was really quite good, except, of course, for some stretches that were truly awful. Coffee and wifi at Berovo, where we spent the last of our MKD on diesel, then on to Delcevo and the Bulgarian border. The road on the Macedonian side was excellent, and we had no trouble leaving Macedonia – we weren't asked to account for every night we spent in the country (which some guidebooks had implied would be necessary). Then no man's land, through the relics of Communist border control in Bulgaria – a trough of water and an overhead gantry that used to sprinkle a few drops of water “to sterilise the vehicle” (actually, as a means of screwing hard currency out of visitors. We had this charade on our last visit in 2005. We also had to pay €5 for a 7 day vignette - at least that is a reasonable price, and we could have paid in local cash, if we had any. The road from the border down to the town of Blagoevgrad was as bad as anything we've seen in Albania – a disgrace for an EU country.

We went into town at Blagowotsit to find a cash machine, then headed north to find the Rila Monastery. It is good to have Sally Satnav talking to us again, giving directions in English, because many of the road signs are only in Cyrillic script. The E79 is a good new road, but we saw several police radar units and checkpoints, so watch out. The road to Rila Monastery is pretty good, too. Drive past the monastery and you find Zodiac Camping. We came here 7 years ago, and it hasn't changed a bit. Very pleasant - €10 pn, or 20 Lev.

We spent the afternoon visiting the monastery. We saw it 7 years ago, but this time the sun was shining. Bulgarians regard it as one of their jewels – and they are right to do so – very impressive, and no cost to go in. Highly recommended. And walking back to the site, we came across another snake, about 12” long, brown, and unidentified. Zodiac Camping N42.14272 E23.35836. NB Bulgaria is 2 hours ahead of GMT/BST.

MSF 3034

Sat 9th June

On the way out we stopped for another look at the monastery. Noticed that 2 Italian vans had camped in the car park overnight.

To the main road, then via the E79 (excellent road) 19 (good road), and 84 (appalling road, 20 mph max for quite a few miles. Come back Albania, all is forgiven!) to Eco Camping Batak beside Lake Batak. (N41.95835 E24.15468) This is a fairly new site, and is still being established. A number of flat terraced pitches, each with electricity and water, but recent extended periods of heavy rain made these unsuitable for a motorhome. Instead we are parked on a gravel track, beside pitches still being established. Wifi is site wide and free.

Despite being beside an attractive lake, there is not a lot to do here, and we shall move on tomorrow. The owner speaks excellent English and is extremely helpful.

MSF 3156

Sun 10th June

Time to move on – a long hop this time to a British owned and run campsite near Veliko Tarnovo. A real battle over some awful roads until we were close to Plovdiv (where we lost our last van in a flood). Here we picked up a reasonably good motorway going east, which turned into a really good motorway, taking us to Stara Zagora. Turning north, we went over the Sipka pass. Approaching Sipka, we could see 3 very bright lights, and we were curious to know what they were. Getting closer, we could see that it was sunlight reflecting from 3 golden domes over a church. They were so bright there's a good chance that they were covered with real gold.

Sipksa pass is easy – not steep, hairpins fairly wide  (and frequent) and could be done mostly in 3rd or 4th gear. The main hazard was people overtaking on blind bends (and most people don't wear seat belts, and often children and babies are sitting on the passenger's lap (and also, on the driver's lap!))

At Ljubovo we turned east again to visit the small town of Trjavna -  a pleasant little town with cobbled streets. In one of the churches is a collection of icons. I'm generally of the opinion “if you've seen one icon you've seen the lot”. However, one particular icon stood out above all the rest. Dark, monochrome, and doesn't pull any punches in depicting someone who is about to be crucified.

Camping VT is in the village of Dragizevo, and we didn't get there until 6.30, feeling like wrung out dish cloths. (It is HOT!)

This site has had lots of recommendations – and I'm not surprised. A good swimming pool, a good bar, a good restaurant at reasonable prices, a large mostly level field, wifi, and English spoken. 2 large beers that didn't touch the sides, and we ate in the restaurant. (N43.03'.59” E25 45' 15”. The previous 2 Bulgarian sites weren't at all interested in our passport details, but this one insisted on photocopying both of our passports.

MS 3351

Mon 11th June

A day to chill on site. Actually, it's pretty hot. A breeze in the morning petered out mid-afternoon. 2 machine loads of washing dried in 2 hours, including towels. A convoy of 23 Dutch motorhomes has arrived. They arrived in dribs and drabs, unlike the Geman convoy we encountered in 2005 at Rila monastery, which resembled the German army on manoeuvres!

We have been planning our route through Romania. Our first draft was to go via the painted monasteries but that was scuppered when we realised they were in the north east, and we needed to exit Romania in the north west.

Ate in the restaurant again – their beef & ale pie is superb!

Tues 12th June

Took a taxi into Veliko Tarnovo. The site has an arrangement with an English speaking taxi driver, which is very convenient. 10 lev each way. When you want to come back, get the restaurant/coffee bar to give him a ring. And he knows every pothole between site and city by name.

It was too hot to do too much, but we visited the castle, and the old town, and had an excellent salad in the Hadji Nikoli Inn, which also houses a museum. We were back on site by 3 pm, ready for a swim. This is one of the best pools I've swum in – not too chlorinated, scrupulously clean, and an ideal temperature. Ate in the restaurant again.

Wed 13th June

So much for Bulgaria, now back to one of our favourite countries, Romania. Eventually, we picked up the E85 to Ruse, where the only non-ferry border with Romania is. The E85 is mostly pretty good. “Friendship Bridge” was built in 1952 to celebrate the friendship of the 2 newly Communist counties, and before Ceausescu fell out with the Russians. I'm sure it still has the original road surface! Cost for the van, less than 3.5 tonne, was €6. There were no passport checks by the Bulgarians, and only a cursory check by the Romanians

We are required to buy Romanian road tax, but the office that sells them couldn't “because our system is down”. Instead we had to call at a filling station, where a dragon demanded our vehicle documents. Typical! Every other country in Europe that requires a vignette can just sell one over the counter. Romania, the land of Ceausescu and the secret police, demands documentation which is slowly entered onto computer, presumably so they can track you across the country. 

From the bridge we continued the E85 to Bucarest, mostly a reasonable road. At Bucarest it all became pretty awful. Lots of road works, and we missed our turning for the E70 ring road. A U-turn in a gap in the traffic took us over some newly laid tarmac, so I don't think we did much for Anglo Romanian relations there. The ring road was entirely road works, and nose to tail lorry traffic. At one point the road disappeared completely – and I thought the M25 was bad!

The E70 took us all the way to Ptesti,  where we picked up the 7C to Curtea de Arges. Our campsite is at Berlusi, on the 73C, having crossed a small pass.

Camping Comarnic Drago is an absolute gem. Beautifully mown lawn, camp fire and barbecue set-ups,, surrounded by trees and a lovely view. It caters mainly for non motorhomers – a number of chalets and small static caravans circle the site, but we found ourselves the only people here. Cost 35 Lei pn inc electricity, about £7. Not much English spoken, French preferred. N 45 06' 40” E 24 31' 12”.

MSF 3564

Thurs 14th June

The nights are nice and cool here, and we can sit out in the evening without being plagued by flies and bitey things.

Today we drove in to  Curtea de Arges, about 6 miles away. The 2 primary sights to see here are “The Princely Court”, which initially comprised a church and a palace, but only the church remains, and Curtea de Arges monastry, the Episcopal cathedral.

The princely court is magnificent, and completely covered inside with medieval wall painting which, unusually, combined Byzantine and Catholic artistic tradition. i.e. Byzantine stories painted in Italian style. The curator of the nearby museum, who seemed to speak most languages fluently, and a professional historian, talked without taking breath for at least 20 minutes. He had strong views on most things, including corruption, Russia, and the stupidity of allowing Romania and Bulgaria into NATO (because all its secrets are fed straight to the KGB). Here also is a tomb of a medieval prince which is due to be opened next week to take DNA samples.

The monastery was rebuilt in the 19th century, and looks quite Islamic. Here is buried Queen Marie of Romania, Queen Victoria's grand-daughter, of whom it was said “there is only one man in Romania, and that's the queen.”

We have just discovered that our 7 day road tax actually expires at midnight the day before we leave (i.e. only 6 ½ days)

Fri 15th June

We left the site fairly early and made our way east to the UNESCO listed monastery at Horezu. Romania is awash with lovely old monasteries, with completely painted interiors, but this is one of the best, and entry is free. Unfortunately photography inside is forbidden, and I thought it unethical to grab a sneak shot (and they rarely work, anyway), however I enjoyed the depiction of hell in the porch, which I could photograph.

The area wasn't particularly suited to wild camping, although we did notice that the 2 Italian vans that wild camped outside the Rila monastery in Bulgaria were setting up to overnight north of Costesti. Instead we made our way north to one our favourite site, Oude Wilg at Carta (Cirta). The E81 is very busy – lots of heavy lorries, but has a very good surface. The E68 east is much quieter, and now has a superb surface – it was being rebuilt the last time we were here. Extricating myself from a wrong turning I backed into a small tree and smashed a light fitting :(. Bother! On arrival you are given a small jug of their home made blackberry liqueur, which is delicious, so that helped a bit.

Oude Wilg is at N45 47' 00” E24 33'58”

Here many householders have a few cows, sometimes only one, in a barn behind the house, and they are still turned out to pasture some distance away as a village herd. At 8.30 (in mid summer) they are brought back to the village and collected by their owners – some make their own way back to their own barn. It is quite a sight to watch them fording the river as they come back. The practice of keeping a cow or 2 and sending it out to pasture daily is diminishing – there are fewer animals (cows, bulls and horses) now than when we came in 2007.

There are many more mosquitos and midges than I remember, and especially compared with our last site, where their were none.

A British girl of about 25 arrived on a bicycle. She's cycling on her own to Istanbul. Now that's impressive! Tomorrow she tackles the Transfagaras, the classic mountain road, which was only cleared of ice and opened today.

Free wifi is available close to the house – which is where the mozzies lie in wait!

MSF 3733

Sat 16th June

A nice easy day on site – warm sun but a cool breeze and shady trees. The local shop sells superglue, so I spent the afternoon attempting glue the rear light fitting back together. Hopefully it will be sufficient to get us home. I shall have to investigate reversing cameras!

Sun 17th June

Another easy day on site. My rear light cluster doesn't look too bad – good enough for the 1500 miles home.

After lunch the Dutch convoy we met in Bulgaria arrived. Arriving and travelling en masse, the do adversely affect the dynamics of places they visit, and I've come to the conclusion that it's all rather antisocial, and spoils things for lone travellers.

During the afternoon there were sounds of a fierce argument in the street, seemingly a gypsy woman and a gypsy man having a real ding dong, which lasted 20 minutes and ranged up and down the street. You never heard such screeching and yelling. Then about 9 pm it flared up again, now several women and several men, all dressed in traditional gypsy garb. It sounded like a tribe of monkeys (really!). It centred on the house opposite the site, and mostly took place in the street. 2 women started throwing punches. It was like a scene from Carmen, but more so (except they didn't pull knives). They were completely oblivious to the spectators from the campsite. Apparently it started when a  gypsy man hit his wife. Her mother then waded in to have a go, and it escalated from there. NB according to the Dutch campsite owner, the gypsies here are very wealthy, earning 5 times more than an average wage, mostly from begging. So don't feel a moral obligation to give – and that goes for the Romanian gypsies in London, too.

Mon 18th June

Left the site rather late, so Rosemary could walk round the village again. Took a couple of minor roads, first to Agnita, then west to Seica Mare. These proved to be a mistake – much of it was unmetalled, and the bits that were metalled were awful. Av speed 15 mph. Then north to the fortified Sacon churches of Axente Sever and Vallea Villor, before heading back the way we came to Sibiu then west to Garbova, where there is a recommended camp site. We didn't get there until gone 6, very hot and sticky. There are hundreds of fortified churches in Romania, but I think I'll pass on seeing any more for a while. The Sighisoara to Sibiu road has roadworks along its entire length. It will be great when it's finished, but...

The campsite, Poarta Oilor, is behind a modern hotel. Both the proprietor (Fritz) and his wife speak excellent English – the wife has a sister living in Tunbridge Wells! We ate in the restaurant, simple but excellent meals. N41 51'58” E23 43' 42”

MSF 3848

Romania is on the up and up, roads much improved, towns and villages have been spruced up and have cared for feel, there is a feeling of civic pride. This is in complete contrast with Bulgaria. At Oude Wilg we talked to a Belgian who had come through Serbia. Things there are really bad, he says, 60% unemployment, and a dark and threatening feel to the whole country. Not a pleasant experience. (And today BBC News reports 4 Bosnian Serbs sentenced to long periods of imprisonment by the ICC for their parts in the Srebrenica massacre.)

Tues 19th June

An early start – we have a long drive today, and we don't know how good the roads will be, or how difficult the Romanian/Hungarian border will be.

We followed the E68 all the way to the border at Nadlac, and it proved to be a good road all the way, as long as you aren't bothered by travelling the same speed as the many lorries, but they did keep up a good average of 56 mph.

We have no Forints, but we did find €40 between us. A vignette for Hungarian motorways cost €7, which we bought at a roadside shack in Romania.

The border crossing proved to be a doddle. No exit checks by Romania, and a cursory look at passports by Hungary. At our last crossing into Hungary from Romania a few years ago Hungarian officials demanded a good look around the van.

Much of Hungary is flat. Even Lake Balaton is shallow enough to walk across (apparently – don't try it in case I'm wrong!). The first thing we noticed was a deterioration in road surface, and an increase in roadside litter. We're in the middle of a heat wave, and it is very hot. None of the laybys on the motorway have any shade, and there is very little breeze. At Szeged we picked up the M5/E75 which goes straight to Budapest. After some difficulty we found the site we were after, at Cegled, Thermalcamping Cegled, http://cegleditermal.hu/eng/ . This is part of a large hotel & thermal spa complex. €20 paid for the site and entry to the spa. The solar panel is working overtime at the moment, so we didn't bother with electricity. N47 12' 01” E19 44' 18”

MSF 4158

Wed 20th June

Another long drive, to Vienna, but we broke the back of it yesterday. E75 motorway to Budapest, M0 ring road, then M1/E75 to the border at Hegyeshalom. No checks on either side of the border. A4 & M60 to Vienna, then a route of Sally's own devising to Donaupark Camping at Klosterneuburg. N48 18' 38” E16 19' 42”, arriving in time for a late lunch. Donaupark is an ACSI site, so low season cost €16 all in. Wifi cost is way too high to be useable. We'll look for  a free wifi cafe in Vienna tomorrow. The site is almost full, mostly Dutch and German vans, but we have a Danish neighbour (who also has a sister living in England.)

It is way too hot to do much, so we didn't. Strolled around  Klosterneuburg later – it is a really pleasant town, rather overshadowed by Vienna.

Later – it is still hot, but now it's raining.

MSF 4362

Thurs 21st June

Have you noticed how the nights are drawing in?

There was a heavy thunderstorm overnight, and today promises to be a lot cooler, back to the more normal 28 instead of yesterday's 38. A wearying day in Vienna. A lovely and interesting city, but I think I've seen a lifetime's supply of Mozart look-alikes.

Getting in to Vienna from the site is relatively easy. 2 minutes walk from the site is a bus stop from which to catch the 239 to to the U4 underground terminus at Heiligenstadt, cost €2.  The bus stops right outside the entrance to the station. Various tickets are available - we chose the 2 day pass for €11.70, which entitles you to use the underground, trams and buses within Vienna for 2 days. Don't forget to validate the ticket in one of the machines, which punches the time and date onto the ticket. The station closest to the centre is Karlsplatz.

We took the train out to Schonbrunn, to see the enormous and grand Habsburg palace Schloss Schonbrunn. We did the Grand Tour, with leaflet or audio guide. We started off with an audio guide and a leaflet between us, but found the audio guide was only reading the leaflet words, and very slowly, so we swapped the audio guide for a 2nd leaflet. Photography is prohibited – that didn't stop the Japanese taking photos, but it did stop me.

The cafe adjacent to the palace has free and unsecured wifi, but very expensive coffee. We found the same network was available in cafe Julius Meinl, near the cathedral, but also with expensive coffee.

The last time we were in Vienna, there was a beggar, an immigrant not an Austrian, beside the cathedral entrance, making a very unconvincing show of weeping, as he held out his hands. The afternoon shift was taken by a female, but at least she didn't pretend to weep. The show was so entertaining I was looking forward to seeing him again, but there wasn't a beggar in sight. Also disappeared – the beggars doing the rounds of tables outside coffee shops.

When we got back to the site, our Dutch caravan neighbour had been replaced by a German motorhome, who had extended his pitch into ours, putting a small tent for his son right up beside our external locker. We have to step on the tent to gain access to the locker.

Fri 22nd June

An eventful night. Spot on midnight our torpedo alarm went off. I hadn't previously been aware we had a torpedo alarm, but that's what it sounded like! (to be precise, a Leander class frigate's torpedo alarm.) Turning off all the power to the van failed to stop it, and it was very loud. It turned out to be an elecrtic toothbrush that had turned itself on due, I suspect, to an ingress of water. The extraordinary noise was the sound of it rattling around inside a plastic beaker.

An early start saw us at the Belvedere Art Gallery as it opened at 10. Cost €8.50 for over 60s. It is in the process of setting up a Klimmt exhibition, but so are 3 other galleries. So although the Belvedere has Klimt's most well known picture, “The Kiss”, there aren't that many Klimmt paintings there. To be honest, it makes you realise what treasure houses the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery really are, and they're free.

The rest of the day was taken up with shops, riding trams, coffee houses and, for Rosemary, a huge knickerbocker glory. On previous visits we've taken a tram around the inner ring, a useful circuit of the city. Now the only tram that does that is a tourist tram, which costs 3 times as much for a circuit than a whole day's use of the normal trams.

Back at the site, our neighbour has moved his tent back onto his own pitch.

Sat 23rd June

Moved on to another recommended Austrian site, at Glein. A trip beside one of the prettiest parts of the Danube. Glein has the oldest theatre in Austria, established in 1791 in a building built in 1563. It still operates as a (very cosy) theatre. Well worth a visit.

There are markers on a wall in the town showing flood heights at various times. The flood in 2002 was 8 metres above its proper level -26 feet! Here the flow is as fast as we've seen it on the Rhine – the Danube in Bulgaria is slow and ponderous.

Wifi on the site costs €1 per hour. Coverage across the site is good. You can buy slots of varying lengths. A half hour slot is useful for checking email & BBC news before you leave in the morning.

N48 13' 26” E14 51' 09”

MSF 4454

Sun 24th June

South to the A1/E60, then west via Linz and Salzburg into Germany. The autobahn into Munich was nose to tail, adding an extra half hour. Round the Munich ring, A8/E52 before heading north to find the wohnmobilstellplatz at Aichach.

This isn't at the grid ref in 2009 Camperstop, but at 48 27' 31” E 11 07' 33”, and costs €5 pn. Aichach is a pleasant little town with some historic buildings, but I could'nt find a useable wifi.

Later: It seems this is where the town's 15 year olds come to smoke a hubble bubble, but they did disappear at 7.

MSF 4698

Mon 25th June

 Rain overnight – we must be getting close to home. First, we stopped at a nearby supermarket to stock up on white wine. We're not fans of German red, but German white can be excellent.

Back on the road, we took the A8 east, bypassing Ulm & Stuttgart. Beyond Karlsruhe we took a very attractive road, non autobahn, through Pirmasens  before picking up the A8 again to Zweibrucken , Saarlouis and Luxembourg. We were heading for an aire at Schwebsange, beside the Moselle, but it turned out to be more campsite than aire, and cost €9. N 49 30' 29” E 6 21' 56”.

Our neighbours were Swedes who had been on their way to Britain, but changed their destination to Italy when they saw the weather forecast for Britain.

MSF 4971

Tues 26th June

Not so far today, about 200 miles. We were aiming for an aire at Tournai, in Belgium, using the E25 then A4 via Namur, Charleroi & Mons. We found a spot by the canal on the Quai des Salines, and walked into Tournaii. This has a lovely old centre, and catherdal, and was very pleasant. Then we read an inscription:- The 13th century city had been bombarded and flattened by the Germans in 1940. There is no way that could have been a legitimate military target, it was pure vandalism. However, it has been rebuilt to the original plans, and looks great.

We had some hassle finding a wifi network we could connect to. The first cafe we tried that had a signal said no, we couldn't use it. Moving on, we asked at “Le Dragon” if he had wifi. “Oui” he said, so we ordered drinks, he then refused to give us the password. And his cappucino was crap, too! Well, we are in Belgium!  However, the tourist information office directed us to a restaurant attached to a nearby supermarket, “Lunch Garden”. This has a decent wifi signal outside, free access, and a convenient wall to sit on.

The street beside where were parked was cobbled, and we thought that would be noisy overnight, so moved to another aire at Dottignies, a few miles away. This is behind an ex fire station. We thought this was a bit gloomy, and moved on again to Mouscron. This looked good on paper, but in practice was quite seedy. Cars and youths coming and going, broken glass etc, so back we went to Dottignies. N50 43' 40” E 3 18' 01”

MSF 5184

It is interesting to note that roads in Belgium, a member of the EU from its beginning, are in a worse condition than those in Romania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Albania is improving fast, only Bulgaria is substantially worse than Belgium.

Wed 27th June

Not so far today, just a 200 mile hop to Bruges, via the HUGE Auchan hypermarket at Lille. This is convenient for a last minute stock up of wine as it's only a couple of minutes off the motorway we normally use heading for Calais. (Junction 6 of the A4 going east, junction 7 going west, good entrance at the junction of Rue de la Boutillerie and Rue des Champs on a satnav). At first glance you reckon you can't get in because of height barriers. Do not be put off! There is a speakerphone beside the entrance, and the right words will get the barrier opened remotely.

We spent hours at Auchan, and LOTS of money! We shouldn't need any wine for a while, though. We even had lunch and a shower in the car park, before heading for Bruges to meet Kylie's (our son's girlfriend) family. Whilst we were there, Kylie arrived for a visit. A pleasant evening, and we spent the night on their drive.

Thurs 28th June

The last leg. An 80 minute drive to Calais to catch the 0950 P&O Ferries sailing to Dover. We normally use Sea France, but they went bust in January. P&O is rubbish in comparison. Almost all the female toilets were closed, and staff had no idea which ones were open, and periodically they'd blast pop music at you! I hope some competition turns up soon!

Lunch on Dover seafront, and home in Dorset by 1630 – and a huge mountain of mail to open, including a cheque for £2500 from Inland Revenue, as income tax refund. A big thanks to Vanessa for keeping an eye on things while we were away.

Overall miles – 5505. Another 50 would have been really satisfying!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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