Tag Archives: Europe

Camping for Free in Europe

It is definitely possible to camp for free Europe across Europe.  Free camping, dry camping, wild camping and boondocking (all of which have slightly different meanings) are terms used to describe camping somewhere other than a paid campground.  In most countries in Europe you can camp for free with a motorhome anywhere it is legal to park overnight.  Free camping is usually not allowed (or is much harder to do) if you are sleeping in a tent or a trailer (known in Europe as a caravan).

We choose to free camp because it allows us to stay in unique places where we couldn’t stay otherwise (e.g. in the wilderness, at the beach, close to cities or attractions, or at any desirable stopping point along our journey). In some cases there is no campground available or conveniently located, or they’re not open (which is often the case when traveling out of season).  We also choose to free camp to reduce costs.  Campgrounds in Europe typically charge $20 – $45 a night for two people.  On an extended journey, these costs really add up, so we try to spend multiple nights free camping for every night we spend in a campground.

In some places, free camping is illegal or discouraged.  It may be against the national law (like in Greece where this rule is commonly ignored), local bylaws, or the sensibilities of the local residents or police.  There may be signs restricting overnight parking or specifically RV parking.  There are often height barriers on parking lots to prevent RVs (and particularly gypsy caravans) from entering a parking area, in which case we are forced to take our free camping and our business elsewhere.

There are several common ways to free camp in Europe.

Aires

Aires de Service (service areas) are places designated for the parking and servicing of RVs.  They are very common in France and are available to a lesser extent in several other European countries (e.g. Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal)  Aires provide free or very cheap RV parking and often services like drinking water, grey and black water and garbage disposal, but rarely electricity.  No trailers or tents are allowed.  Items should not be set up outside one’s RV (e.g. no awnings, folding tables, chairs, or clothes lines.)  Aires are usually provided by cities, towns, or businesses to encourage visitors and patronage.  Provided a parking place for RVs also discourages visitors from parking overnight on the streets, and concentrates them in a particular area.

Sign saying 'Aire de Stationnement Reservee Aux Camping-Cars'  showing a picture of a car being towed awa

‘Parking Area Reserved for Motorhomes’

Aires are usually basic affairs — parking lots, paved or unsurfaced, with a service point where clean and dirty water can be on and off loaded.  The service points are often custom-built, just a fresh water tap and access to the sewer.  Sometimes the service points are commercially produced versions, which use money or tokens to gain access to the services.  Most Aires are unmanned and the service points are sometimes in disrepair, which is made worse if some people dump their waste anyhow.

A white metal box with buttons and hookups for water

A Nice Service Point

Aires rarely have the charm or the privacy of a national or state park campground.  European commercial campgrounds almost never provide privacy anyhow, so they aren’t much different in that regard.  Aires provide hassle-free parking that is often close to cities, attractions, or beaches, and a place to service one’s RV.

A white sign with blue border showing a black motorhome dumping water below

RV Service Point Sign

There are web sites and books that identify and describe the thousands of Aires available in Europe.  As a traveler, it’s useful to have all the information you can get when trying to find a place to stay.

Urban Camping

The main advantage of staying in an urban setting is proximity to attractions, restaurants, and nightlife.  It’s nice to be able to walk to the city center.  It’s great to be able to enjoy a night on the town without worrying about driving or transport back to a campground.

When staying somewhere other than an official overnight camping place, it is important to choose wisely.  In the city, it’s important to blend in, typically some place where other vehicles are parked like a truck stop, commercial parking lot, residential neighbourhood, etc.  Ideally it will be a place with good lighting and people nearby (for safety reasons) but no noisy or nosy neighbours, loud traffic or pedestrians, nor trucks running their refrigeration units all night.  In some countries like Germany, Austria, and France it is safe to sleep at the roadside rest stops, but in other countries like Spain and Portugal this is ill advised as robberies sometimes occur.

OUr white RV parked beside a canal with cars in front and back

Parking by the canal in Gouda (yes, where the cheese comes from) in Amsterdam

If you choose your parking place wisely, remain in the vehicle, and don’t disturb anyone, only rarely will you be chased away.  This has never happened to us.  I’m sure it will be very disconcerting when we eventually get a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  If this happens, it will hopefully be the police knocking.  Being forced to move along could be a real problem if we’ve had a drink, and are therefore not in a position to safely drive away.

OUr motorhome parked by the river in front of Rila Monastery

Camping in front of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

In urban camping situations, especially in places where it is questionable to stay, we try to arrive at or after dark so as not to draw attention to ourselves.  We don’t exit the vehicle and camp in stealth mode with shades drawn and no external lights.  Cocooned in the S&M Motel, we can enjoy a lovely evening, with a fine meal, a good book, or a movie on the laptop.  In the morning the pressure is usually off as there are no issues with parking during the day.  In some iffy situations it is best to depart early in the morning.  Sometimes we’ll drive a short distance enjoying our coffee and tea before stopping somewhere nice for breakfast.

Wild Camping

Camping in the countryside or wilderness settings is a great way to get close to nature.  It allows us to stay close to parks, mountains, beaches or other places of natural beauty and outdoor recreation.

In addition to campgrounds and aires, it is sometimes possible to stay on private land (e.g. farms, wineries, churches, monasteries, restaurant parking lots, etc.)  In these cases permission should be obtained from the owner, which is sometimes difficult to do if they are not to be found or you don’t share a common language.

Our RV in a parking lot with snow and ski slopes in the background

Parking at a ski resort in Andorra

But wild camping is best done on public land away from civilization, in a quiet, remote place.  Ideally this is near a lake, river, ocean, mountains, or other beautiful vista.  There is nothing like free camping with the windows open, to wake with the sun rising over a beautiful landscape.  We experienced this on a beach near Tarifa in Southern Spain, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar.  By day we walked the long sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and at night we enjoyed the lights of Tangier across the water in Morocco (Africa).  We also stayed at the beach in several villages on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece.

Our RV with awning extended with dinner table and chairs set outside

Staying at the beach in Kala Nero, Greece

Our RV in a line with others in a sand parking lot on the beach

Camping ON the beach in Kastro, Greece

The biggest challenge with wild camp sites is how to find them.  If you’re staying closer to civilization, it is necessary to find an out-of-the-way place, preferably a spot on a quiet side road or dead-end street that is obscured from view.  In these conditions, you should try to keep a low profile by following the guidelines for urban camping above.  You should not stay on private land without permission or you risk facing the wrath of the owner.

Our RV in a parking lot overlooking the Tuscan countryside

Camping with an amazing Tuscan view in Cortona, Italy

Sometimes we learn of wild camping locations from other people.  They share this information in person or on the Internet.  A more challenging way to find pristine wild camping spots it to scout them out oneself.  A good approach is to seek out a body of water using maps or the GPS, then follow along it checking the side roads until you find a nice place.  This is a skill that our friends Sue and Martin have mastered, and that we are still developing.

Our white RV parked beside a Swiss lake

Staying beside the lake near Bonigen, Switzerland

We did a lot more free camping in Phase 2 of our European adventure.  The combination of more experience and warmer weather allowed us to stay in some amazing places and to lower our costs.  And when we do get that knock on the door in the middle of the night, there will probably be a blog story in it.

Diane at sunset with a long sandy beach and buildings below ni the distance

View from our campsite on a cliff in Nazare (Sitia), France

Note — this is one of a continuing series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels that didn’t quite get finished while we were on the road.

Cinque Terre

Flashback Friday — this is the first of a series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.

Our plans to visit Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’) on the west coast of Italy in 2011 were thwarted by a killer storm on the night of October 25th.  We arrived in La Spezia during the early part of the tempest that did harm to the entire region, and catastrophic damage to 2 of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  In progress rescue work and the damage to the trail, the roads, and the rail line made doing the hike impossible at that time.  Not only could we not hike, but we were trapped in La Spezia for 3 days until the first road opened that would allow us to leave.

After this trying experience, we were glad to have the opportunity to revisit Cinque Terre in June, 2012.  We weren’t sure whether the famous Sentiero Azzurro (‘Azure Trail’) that connects the villages had been re-opened or what state it would be in, but we suspected that the people of the region would do everything possible to resurrect the primary source of their livelihoods as quickly as possible.

After our bad experience last visit in the only RV parking place in La Spezia, we decided to stay in a campground by a river in Ameglia, a few kilometers south of town.  The large, concrete bridge over this river that we had crossed during the storm had washed away later that evening, so on our return trip we had to detour upstream to another crossing and back down again to get to the campsite.  The receptionist said that the entire campground, including the buildings and the swimming pool, was flooded under 2 meters (6.5 feet) of water during the storm.  Thankfully everything was restored in time for the 2012 camping season and looked in fine shape to us.

We left our campground at 7:20 AM the next morning, drove to La Spezia to park, walked across town, and caught the 10:06 train to Corniglia, the 3rd of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  By doing so we avoided the crowds who walk only the easiest section of the trail between the 1st village (Riomaggiore) and the 2nd village (Manarola).  We would return to see these village and hike this section later in the day.  When we disembarked in Corniglia, while most others walked up the stairs, we hopped on board the free shuttle that runs up the steep hill (something the others may have been unaware of), bypassing the 368 steps and getting a head start.  Corniglia is a tiny village suspended on a rocky outcrop overlooking steep cliffs and the beautiful Mediterranean.  After a quick walk around (these villages are tiny, but we still managed to get lost in the labyrinth) we found the trail and started our hike.

Many coloured houses atop a green slope

Corniglia viewed from the trail

It took us about 1 hour to hike to Vernazza. Despite our proximity to the sea, it was very hot.  I was sweating like a tourist.  We found that lots of reconstruction had been completed (rock retaining walls, hand rails, trail work, etc.) and more was underway, but the trail was easily passable.

Diane standing on a yellow walkway that allows one to bypass trail construction work in progress

Trail construction under way

Vernazza also clings to the cliff along this glorious stretch of coastline.

Village with coloured houses on a cliff jutting out into the ocean

Approaching Vernazza

e ate the Italian salami sandwiches that we’d brought with us on the rocky point by the harbour while children were swimming around us.  Others were eating fresh pizza from the village, or sitting at the restaurant in the bay.  We continued hiking and soon were treated with a postcard view back on Vernazza.

Village of many small buildings surrounding a harbour

Vernazza

By mid-afternoon it was really hot and humid.

Patrick wearing maroon shirt and beige hat, sweating, with grees in background

Patrick Sweating

This last section of the trail was the most rugged and challenging.  We could see why most people skip it on the faces of those hiking towards us.

Steep cliffs covered in trees alongside the ocean

Rugged coastline between Vernazza and Monterosso

Despite this, It took us only 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach Monterosso al Mare.

A beach on the ocean with a small village and boardwalk behind and mountains in the distance

Rounding the point towards Monterosso

Hot and tired, we went for a swim here on the small section of beach which is open to the public.  It didn’t have the amenities of the private beach areas (umbrellas, change rooms, and lockers) but it did have a small fresh water shower to rinse off afterwards.

Looking along the beach with umbrellas and sunbathers and ocean to the right

The beach at Monterosso

I changed on the beach under Diane’s wrap and she changed in the train station bathroom across the street.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have another set of clothes, so we had to put our sweaty and smelly ones back on.  Afterwards we walked out to the point for yet another amazing view.

Small boats at anchor in the ocean with a beach and village in the background

Boats at anchor in Monterosso

We caught a mid-afternoon train back to Manarola (the 2nd village).

A narrow streat filled with people with balconies and awnings on both sides

Manarola’s main street

We watched the kids swimming and jumping from the rocks near the boat launch and then wandered out to the point for another tourist photo op.

Patrick in burgandy t-shirt and sunglasses with Manarola coloured houses and cliffs in the background

Patrick and Manarola

Leaving Manarola, we walked about 15 minutes on perhaps the best ‘trail’ I’ve ever been.  Hugging the cliff, it was more like a sidewalk and is wheelchair accessible.

Diane waving from the window of a section of the 'trail' enclosed into a rock tunnel with windows

Diane on a great ‘trail’

We arrived in Riomaggiore and decided to immediately catch the train back to La Spezia.  It had been a long, hot, and very memorable day.

Close up of Diane and Patrick seated on the train

Still Tickin’…

Things have been pretty quiet on the blog for the last couple of months.  This left more than a few people wondering where we are and what we’re up to.  Don’t worry.  We’re alive and ticking.  Things just got busier through August and September, including a bunch of visits to Europe from friends and family, and some time spent in all-consuming activities like mountain climbing.

We spent the summer exploring Western Europe, including Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  A lot of this time was in the company of others who visited from Canada, or that we’ve met on our travels.  Making friends and experiencing new things with those I care about is always fulfilling.  Thank-you so much to those of you who joined in our adventure and/or invited us into your homes.

We arrived home safely and are staying with Diane’s brother (our home is still rented) while we catch up and prepare for our next adventure (more on this in future).  Despite the NHL (ice hockey) lockout, we still seem to have plenty to do.  We’re getting back in shape (a steady diet of bread, wine, and cheese can pack on the pounds), and plan on spending as much time as possible through the holiday season with family and friends.

I’ll be continuing to post on the blog.  I still have tales to tell about the last part of our journey.  I have a number of blog postings written but not yet published, and a few stories that just need to be shared.

Patrick kissing Diane in front of a fountain in Dole, France

Capuchin Crypt

One of the most shocking things on our trip thus far was a visit to the crypt under the church  Santa Maria della Concerzione dei Cappunccini in Rome.  I’ve seen human bones before, but nothing like this.  Sue and Martin had strongly suggested that we go see this atypical attraction, so we made a point of tracking it down, but didn’t know what to expect.  We were amazed.

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (O.F.M.Capuchin) is an order of friars in the Roman Catholic Church, an offshoot of the Franciscan monks.  The Order arose in the early 16th Century when a Franciscan friar was inspired to return to the lifestyle of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.  Originally persecuted by their superiors, they were granted refuge by another order of monks and adopted their hooded habit (capuccio) from which their name Capuchin derives.

Present-day Capuchin Friars (source: blog Stumbling After Francis)

Due to their visual similarity, both the Capuchin monkey (hooded appearance) and cappuccino coffee (the shade of brown of the friar’s habits) were named after this order of friars.

Capuchin monkey with the brow of his ‘hood’ showing

The Capuchin friar’s life is one of extreme austerity, simplicity, and poverty, following the ideals of St. Francis.  Their chief work is to preach among the poor, impressing them with their devotion, and the poverty and austerity of their lifestyles. Neither the friars nor their monasteries should possess anything, not should any provisions be laid down for future.  Everything should be obtained by begging, and the friars were not even allowed to touch money. Today there are still over 10,000 Capuchin friars and a female branch of the Order called the Capuchin Poor Clares, whose life is so austere that they are also known as The Suffering Sisters.

On our last day in Rome we visited the Capuchin Crypt.  When Capuchin friars arrived at the church in 1631, they brought 300 cartloads of their deceased brethren with them.  Their bones were arranged in 5 small crypts under the church, not as complete skeletons or as simple groupings of similar bones, but in decorative patterns!  The friars also brought sufficient soil all the way from Jerusalem for the floors of the crypts to bury their newly dead.  When someone died, they exhumed the bones of the one who had been buried the longest (typically 30 years) to make room for the new body.  The exhumed bones were added to the decoration, which includes amazing artistic creations (including light fixtures) made from the human bones of approximately 4000 people!

Crypt of The Skulls

The Catholic church explains that the display is not meant to be macabre, but to remind people of how short life is, a powerful message regardless of one’s religious leanings.  On the ceiling of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons there is a skeleton holding a scythe, a reminder that death will cut us all down, and a set of scales, implying that we will all be judged.

Crypt of the Three Skeletons

What you are now, we used to be.  What we are now, you will be.   – plaque in the Capuchin Crypt

Note – Photos are prohibited in the crypt so the images above were scrounged from Google image search.

A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum

Our 2nd day in Roma (Rome) didn’t go as planned.  It was sunny and hot, very warm to be touring the monuments.  From our campground outside the city we caught the bus, then train, then metro to the famous Colesseum, a 2000 year old amphitheatre, the largest in the Roman Empire, originally capable of seating 50,000 people.  We did the audio tour, listening to tales of senators and citizens, gladiators and slaves, of Christians and lions, and of the glory days and the decline of Rome.

In front of the Colesseum

The Colesseum looks identical today to the way it did in the movie Roman Holiday (starring Gregory Peck and introducing Audrey Hepburn) which was released 59 years ago.  I’m showing my ‘new world’ short-sightedness here though, because it has looked pretty much like that for the last 1000 years.

Afterwards we crossed the street to wander up and around Palantine Hill, the centermost of the 7 Hills of Rome, and the supposed location of the Lupercal cave where the orphans Romulus (from whom Rome gets its name) and Remus where kept alive by a she-wolf. Palantine Hill was the earliest inhabited location in Rome and became the place where Rome’s wealthiest citizens lived, including the infamous emperor Caligula.  It was getting very warm and was approaching lunch time.  We had planned to grab some food and then visit the Roman Forum located on the other side of the hill.

I was having some weird heart palpitations and periodic shortness of breath, something that started a couple of days earlier and which I ignored until they became frequent enough that they couldn’t be overlooked.  I mentioned this to Diane, who insisted that I do something about it.  I suggested that we finish visiting Palantine Hill, but it soon became apparent that Diane wasn’t enjoying herself because of her worry for me.  We went to the nearby tourist office and inquired about a hospital.  They asked what my issue was, so I pointed to my chest and breathed heavily.  They suggested the Ospedale San Giovanni (Hospital Saint John) and told us what bus to catch to get there.  After wandering about to buy tickets and find the correct stop, we finally boarded a mini-bus and in a few minutes disembarked in front of the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the diocese of Rome, and the highest ranking church in Catholicism, above even St. Peter’s Basilica in nearby Vatican City.

Notice the heavenly light?

We found the hospital around the corner and walked through the security gate and into the reception area.  I spoke to the woman behind the glass who directed us through some sliding doors.  We entered a large waiting room where other people were waiting for their turn to see a doctor.  There was a tough woman controlling the room, calling patients in to see the triage nurse one by one.  She spoke only in Italian and waved her arms at us until a man sitting nearby stepped in to translate.  He said that Diane had to wait outside because she wasn’t a patient.

After about 15 minutes I got called (well, pointed at) and was led into another room where a much nicer woman sat behind a desk with a computer.  She spoke decent English and asked me questions like, “When did it start?”, “Do you have any pain?”, and “Any nausea?” (3 days ago, no, and no).  She checked my blood pressure, blood oxygen level, and pulse.  Afterwards I was assigned a priority, in my case ‘green’, which means that I wasn’t urgent.  I figured that was a good thing, although it probably meant that I was now facing a long wait.

I returned to the waiting room and struck up a conversation with the nice guy who’d translated for me.  He reassured me that this was a good hospital (perhaps they aren’t all good in Italy?)  He was an academic doing research in robotics.  When I told him about my degree, he thought he’d found a fertile audience, and launched into a lengthy explanation of the complex mathematics of robotic vision and sensing.  It was mostly beyond me, but at least it kept my attention focused on something other than my chest.  When I changed the conversation, he recommended a small restaurant slightly off the tourist map.  He wrote its name down in pencil, which mathematicians are fond of, in the margins of my map.  After the first 2 hours of waiting, he got called away, leaving me in the room with others who appeared to be much sicker than me.

When I got my turn, I was led down a hallway to a small examination room with a white-coated young woman (presumably the doctor) and another woman wearing scrubs (apparently a nurse).   The doctor asked me some questions, and spent most of her time typing on a computer.  She directed me to the bed where they checked my pulse, blood oxygen, and did an EKG.  Everything looked normal, so she listened to my breathing, ordered a chest x-ray, took some arterial blood (which is more painful, like having an IV inserted) and sent me back to the waiting room.

Eventually an orderly arrived to walk me down to the x-ray department where I sat for just a few minutes.  It more closely resembled a bomb shelter than a hospital, with metal walls housing compartments with heavy, sliding, metal doors.  Like a darkroom, each had a red light above to indicate when entry was restricted.  I was led into one of these meat lockers by a technician who spoke no English.  He activated something that sounded like a turbine, with a loud noise that grew in pitch and volume like a death ray from a science fiction movie, adding an intimidating sonic element to the experience.  I had 2 good old-fashioned film x-rays (nothing digital here) while standing in front of a giant bulls-eye target.  It felt more like facing a firing squad than a medical procedure.  Just before each image was taken, all the lights in the room went dark, as if the building’s power was being redirected to the beam focused on my chest.  Another orderly arrived to return me to the waiting room.  He didn’t speak English either but pointed to my last name but said something about his ‘bambinos’ and the ‘lee-on king’ (presumably praise for the Disney franchise).

Being a patient in an Italian emergency ward is lonely and boring, more so than at home.  I went out a couple of times to update Diane who was waiting and worrying outside the entire afternoon (except when she went get lunch), but the staff made it clear in broken English and sign language that I couldn’t keep coming and going.  Diane was a bit freaked when I came out looking like this, but I reassured her it was only from the blood tests.

Bent but not broken!

I did talk to a doctor in the hall from Uganda who spoke good English.  We talked about Africa and the young doctors I’d met there.  She asked why I was waiting and I gave her the short version.  She said, “Italian doctors like to do lots of tests”.  I wondered what all this was going to cost me.  Surely I had already passed the threshold where I’d need to make a claim on my medical insurance.

A bit more waiting before I was called in to the doctor again.  Apparently the nurse messed up the arterial blood draw getting venous blood instead, not the bright red of oxygenated blood.  So the doctor re-did the test, repeatedly probing my forearm searching for an artery.  I don’t like it when doctors do procedures usually done by others as they don’t have much practice.  After another wait, I was called in for the verdict from the doctor.  Everything tested fine.  She suggested that it might be stress.  I thought, “Perhaps I need a vacation from my vacation?”

The doctor gave me my results all nicely done up on computer, something she had done herself in between talking to and testing me (very different from Canadian emergency rooms).  I asked where I should pay and she said that they have a system to charge foreigners for treatment, but not at this hospital.  Pardon?  She said, “They might send you a bill”.  I thought, “I wonder how many of those they ever collect?”

After 5 hours in emergency

So I left with my wallet intact and a clean bill of health, relieved but a bit worried that they didn’t find a definitive cause for my symptoms, which have abated since.  Don’t I look relieved?

The doctor prescribed fluids!

Crazy Driving in Southern Italy

Driving in Southern Italy is challenging and exciting.  It requires me to be on my toes, constantly ready to react. It stresses Diane out.  I’ve written previously about driving in Europe, but driving near Naples takes this to another level and is not for the faint of heart.  Here are some of the challenges we face…

Most people here drive small, maneuverable cars much faster than the posted speed limit.  They rarely stay in their own lane, often spanning two lanes or crossing into an oncoming one. They pass whenever possible, even on hills or blind corners when it seems unsafe to do so, expecting that the oncoming cars will make way.

Some of this erratic driving is necessitated by parked vehicles blocking the roadway.  Despite the fact that the cars are generally small, the parking spaces are even smaller, and people frequently exceed the boundaries.  They will park wherever possible, including on sidewalks, at corners, and in crosswalks.  They will park nose-in to a parallel parking place, with their tail hanging out in the street.  The drivers of parked cars often open their doors without looking, requiring one to be constantly on the lookout for motion in parked cars.  They will often double park (parking in the street beside cars that are parallel parked) as if putting their 4-way emergency flashing lights on magically turns wherever they happen to be into a legitimate parking spot.  Sometimes I’ve seen them triple park, blocking not only one lane, but part of the oncoming lane too!

A narrow street flanked by colourful buidlings that is filled with people and shops with good spilling out onto the street

Try getting a motorhome down this street!

Most shocking is a peculiar practice in Naples where drivers will shop from their cars.  They stop in front of a small store, usually double-parked, and honk their horns.  The shopkeeper will emerge, get their order and their money, then disappear into the store to return a minute later with their purchase and their change.  This is happening while other cars stack up behind or attempt to pass, without any apparent concern for them, as if this is completely normal (well, I guess it is in Naples).

Diane standing beside a tiny yellow car an night witha brick wall behind

Yes, this is someone’s real car!

If the cars are bad, the motorcycles and scooters are worse.  The majority of them are scooters (a lot of Vespas but now many Asian manufacturers too), so I’ll refer to them all as ‘scooters’.  Lane splitting by this plague on wheels is normal.  They drive between the other cars, passing on the left and right while traffic is moving, on blind corners, and in busy intersections.  At stop lights they worm their way to the head of the line, often performing major acrobatics to get to the front, or as close to it as possible, wedged in between the other cars and/or the curb.  When the light turns green, they race off ahead (they’re quick off the line), but they sometimes get passed again if the roadway has a higher speed limit, in which case they repeat the procedure at the next light.

Crazy scooter driving was commonplace in Asia, but I wasn’t behind the wheel there.  It’s much more exciting when one is in the thick of it.  A particularly shocking example we’ve seen was a man driving his scooter with a very young child, perhaps 3 years old, standing between his legs while he drove.  The child wasn’t wearing a helmet, wasn’t secured, and appeared to barely be old enough to hang on to.  The child wasn’t tall enough to reach the handlebars, even while standing, so was holding on to something lower, behind the front console.

Many scooters parked together

Scooters Everywhere!

On the other hand, we did receive a very nice favour from a scooter driver.  A scooter behind us started honking and drive up beside me so I slowed down and eventually stopped.  The driver reached over and gave me my swim goggles, which I’d forgotten to bring in off the rear rack of our camper where they’d been clipped with a clothes pin to dry.  Although she didn’t speak English, she must have seen them fall off while we were driving, retrieved them in the middle of this crazy traffic (at no small risk to herself), and then chased us down to return them.  Perhaps scooters are good for something after all?

The Blue Grotto

One of the items on my Dreams List is to swim in the Blue Grotto.  I saw this on a television show years ago, and it looked incredible, so I added it to my ‘bucket list’ without knowing how I might achieve it, or even where it was.  So it was with great delight that I learned it was on the island of Capri, just off the western coast of Italy, a place that I could visit on this trip.

After arriving by ferry in Bari, Diane and I drove across Italy in just a few hours to the famous Amalfi Coast.  This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy, with beautiful seaside villages set into a chain of steep rocky cliffs looking out over the Mediterranean.  The incredible drive from Salerno to Sorrento hugs the spectacular coastline and is a testament to Italian civil engineering.  It was fifty kilometers of the most challenging driving I’ve experienced on this trip, with narrow roads, tight corners, and hazards on both sides of the route.  More than once Diane had to fold in the passenger door mirror to squeeze through between a rock (the cliff) and a hard place (an oncoming bus).  When we arrived at a campground in the village of Seiano, I told the manager with a mixture of relief and pride that I’d done this drive, and only then learned from him that motorhomes are prohibited on this road, though we didn’t see any signs to this effect.  I recalled passing several police officers, but he said that they don’t enforce this rule as they should.  Lucky for us.

The next morning, with little idea of what to expect, we caught the expensive ferry to Capri.  It stopped first in the seaside town of Sorrento to board additional passengers, many of whom appeared to come from a cruise ship docked offshore.  The high speed ferry made the crossing to Capri quickly and disembarked hundreds of people into the island’s main port of Marina Grande.  We got a map at the indifferent tourist office, and decided to take the local buses across the island rather than attempt to negotiate with the taxi drivers requesting outrageous amounts, and rather than join one of the many boat tours offering passage to the Blue Grotto either directly or as a stop during a circumnavigation of the island.

On the first bus we met a beautiful blond named Courtney, the wife of an American military officer stationed in Naples, and her nephew visiting from Georgia.  They were here on a day trip from Naples.  On the steep and winding road up to Anacapri, a village above the island’s main town of Capri, the talkative Courtney shared her recommendations for Naples with us while Diane did her best to write them down on the swaying bus.  We all changed to another bus for the short ride down to the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto).  I still had no idea what to expect, but we lined up with the others who appeared to be waiting for the same thing.

The queue wound down some steep steps to a small, wet platform at water level.  From the stairs we could see a lot of boats jostling about in a small cove.  Some were tour boats bringing visitors from the main harbour while others seemed privately owned.

6 large white boats in close quarters surrounded by small rowboats on blue water

The Cove directly in front of The Blue Grotto

Skirting between them were many small wooden boats carrying tourists, each piloted by a standing boatman with 2 oars.  It became apparent to me that this would not be the mystical cave swimming experience that I had imagined.

Diane in pink shirt and white visor waiting on steps with others below, and a white boat floating near the platform at the bottom

Diane waiting on the steps

We soon began to see a pattern emerge from the insanity.  The small boats collected tourists from either the landing at the foot of our stairs or from one of the larger boats and then jockeyed for a place to gain access to the Grotto.  The fee was per person, so they crammed the boats as full as possible, with a minimum of 4 adults or up to 6 East Asians in each.

A small white row boat with standing pilot and 6 Asian people crammed in to it

A full row boat

Entry was gained through a small opening in the cliff, just over 1 meter wide and with a height that varied from a maximum of less than a meter to almost nothing, depending on the rise and fall of the waves.  Courtney commented that the boatmen weren’t typically Italian but instead had some muscles, which they used to manhandle their boats into position and then to propel them through the gap in the cliff.

8 small white row boats pushing for entry into the Blue Grotto

Jostling to gain entry

We finally reached the foot of the line and got our chance to board.  We shared a boat with Courtney and her nephew, and were arranged with them and Diane in the stern facing forward, me in the front facing backwards, and our captain standing in between, his tanned feet slotted in between our tangled legs. We did the compulsory circuit past the cashier boat (yes, a floating cashier), paid our fees, received our change, and noticed that our boatman immediately got his cut for this journey.

Two men in white shirts, one smoking, handling cash, on a small boat covered by a white awning

The cashier’s boat

We then battled our way into position to gain access into the Grotto.  In addition to thwarting the other boats seeking entry, we needed to wait for those that periodically burst forth from the fissure in the cliff.  Entrance and egress to the grotto are via the same hole in the rocks.

Patrick in red shirt visible under the oar and beside the jean pant leg of our boatman

Me in the bow

I made conversation by asking whether it was always this busy.  Our pilot said, “Yes”, then added that today was very dangerous because of the high seas.  I relayed this to Diane, who started to stress out further, but was generally enjoying the crazy tourist frenzy of the whole experience.

Diane holding on and looking worried in the stern of the row boat

Diane realizing what she’s gotten herself in to

Our pilot told us to lay down in the bottom of the boat — not just to duck down, but literally to get our heads below the gunnels.  This required a fully prone position, and created a soggy mosh pit in the bottom of our row boat.  He grabbed a chain secured to the cliff and carefully studied the swells.  It is essential that he time his pull just prior to a wave trough, allowing us to shoot through the opening without being crushed into the roof by a rising swell.  As our boat surged forward, he lowered himself backwards to lay on the bodies of his passengers, squishing them further.  Diane still smiles when she talks about it (something about his beautifully tanned legs).  He did all of this admirably, and we arrived suddenly into the dark grotto.

Diane and others laying prone in the bow of our roatbat with other boats in the background

Getting to know our new friends

The cave itself was relatively small, perhaps 15 x 25 meters.  The ceiling and walls were dark and difficult to make out.  The air inside smelled clean and fresh and lacked the typical cave odour of bat guano.  From the water came a bright blue glow, the ‘Blue’ of the Blue Grotto.  The glow is caused by the sunlight from outside shining through an underwater opening and reflecting off the white sandy bottom of the grotto.  It causes the water to glow a surreal blue, like viewing a blue-bottomed swimming pool with underwater lights at night.  The blue fades the farther one gets from the entrance, but casts sufficient light to see the outline of the many other boats milling about in the darkness.  This effect is interrupted periodically by the strobes of camera flashes.

A blue glow in a black space

Not the best picture, but you get the idea

Each boatman made what appeared to be a couple of laps of the cave, deftly avoiding collisions with walls or other vessels.  Between the waves lapping, oars splashing, and tourists talking, it was noisy in the close quarters of the cave.  Like Venetian gondoliers, many boatmen sang a few phrases of Italian classics like ‘O Sole Mio’, apparently a requisite part of the job in an attempt to secure tips, but which only added to the cacophony.  After about 5 minutes, we headed once again towards the cleft in the cliff to queue for our departure from the cave.

In the boat beside us a young woman pulled off her clothes and jumped into the water wearing a bikini.  It was a dangerous place to do this, in between boats rising and falling on the swells near the gap that provided the only entrance and exit.  Apparently she shared my dream of swimming in the Blue Grotto.

In synch with the waves, we burst forth into the bright Capri sunlight, once again barely avoiding grazing the roof of the opening.  We gave our pilot a small tip, something he was sure to remind us of, and climbed back onto the tiny platform.

The Blue Grotto was not what I had expected, although I must admit that I had few preconceived notions.  It was far more chaotic and touristy that I had anticipated, but in a unique way that added to the excitement and charm of the place.  I had hoped to swim inside, but a quick dip in that craziness wasn’t the dream I had in mind, so I decided against it.  Apparently it is possible to swim there in the evening, something that requires an overnight stay on the beautiful but touristy island, so perhaps I’ll go back some day.

Diane in pink shirt and Patrick in red shirt with arm around her, with sea cliff, water, and boats in the background

Ghost Ship – Our Semi-Private Cruise

We didn’t book a private cruise, but we had the entire ship virtually to ourselves.  It was a pleasant surprise, but strange nonetheless.  In each room the staff stood around attentively, watching our every move in the hopes that we might need something.  They outnumbered us 10 to 1.  Each time we walked past the empty cafeteria, with a full assortment of hot and cold food prepared and on display, I felt the eyes of the staff willing me to stop and purchase something.

We left Greece from the Peloponnesian port of Patras, heading to Italy by ferry.  We arrived in Patras in late afternoon, and like so often seems to happen to us, virtually everything was closed.  Another Greek holiday, in this case Whit Monday, the holiday celebrated the day after Pentecost.   Down by the harbour we did find an open ticket office for Superfast Ferries, so we went in and learned that there was a ship leaving in short order.  To make it, we needed to be at the dock in under 30 minutes.  We decided to go for it, and booked passage for ‘camping on deck’.  This is a unique option provided by some ferry companies that allows you to sleep in your motorhome on the deck.  The use of gas is not allowed, but they do provide an electrical connection to operate the refrigerator, lights, and electric cook top (if your camper has one).  Thankfully we do have one electric burner, allowing us to cook onboard, but we didn’t have any food having just spent several days free camping on Greek beaches.  We were told that there was an open grocery store near the port if we hurried.

After a blitz through Carrefour, we arrived at the dock in a scramble, and were turned back when the ‘tickets’ we’d been given were actually vouchers that had to be converted at the Superfast office.  Diane did this while I kept the engine idling, and we raced back through the security check and up the ramp onto a ghost ship.

Empty grey deck on a ship with white railing and tower, with ocean and sunset in the background

Ghost ship

We were directed to park near the rail, and a crew member pulled an electrical cable down from the ceiling to connect us.  We were under cover for some protection from the sun and or rain, but still had a view onto the ocean.

Camping car alone on a metal deck near the starboard wall with windows in the background

Our cabin on the S&M Cruise Line

The weird thing was, there were almost no other vehicles on board.  At the very far end of the deck there was a single semi-trailer. Parked behind us were a few cars which appeared to be owned by the crew.  And that was it, on a ship so big that a crew member used a motor scooter to get around our deck rather than walk.  It was basically empty.  I assumed that more vehicles would arrive, but at the appointed time we set sail empty.

An empty metal deck on a deserted ferry.  Covered with windows in the background.

Our private deck

We went upstairs to peruse the ship.  There was a beautiful main deck with several lounges, a bar, a cafeteria, and a casino, all empty.  Above this were 2 deserted decks of staterooms.  There were two external terraces surrounded by waiters to provide table service to the non-existent patrons.  Collectively, spread over the entire ship, I think that there were less than 10 people, excluding the staff who were far more numerous.  There was a deck crew, a full kitchen with restaurant staff, a bartender with servers, an information desk with 2 staff, and a variety of officers and other attendants.

Empty hallway and lounge area with seating and lights

Our Private Lounge

The cafeteria was the most shocking.  They had a full selection of hot entrees (fish, meat, etc.), side dishes, and cold dishes.  I spied at least 10 beautiful salmon salads waiting in the cooler, but I did not see a single person eat.

Empty cafeteria counter with food and display but no patrons

Our Private Cafeteria

We did our best to support the Greek economy, drinking a pricey beer on the upper deck as Greece faded into the distance.

Diane sitting at a white table with two beer glasses on the table

Doing our part to help support the Greek economy!

Despite the guilt-inducing looks from the staff, Diane cooked us dinner in the camper.  We used the terrific shower facilities on board.  Who puts marble floors and sinks on a ferry?  When we went to bed, I was still in a state of shock about how vacant the ship was.  How could they possibly afford to run such a big ferry empty, especially on an international route?

We got our answer at 1 AM.  We were awakened by the loud noise of large trucks and other vehicles.  It seems our ferry wouldn’t be completely empty for the whole voyage after all.

In the morning, we peered outside and found that we were completed hemmed in by large trucks.

Cabs of many truck side-by-side

No longer alone

Our empty deck was now full.  The trucks were so tightly crammed together that we couldn’t walk between them.

Narrow gap between two white trucks

No wiggle room

Even though our private cruise was over, we still enjoyed the rest of our voyage, arriving in Bari,  Italy in the late morning.  We still had a nice view, and Diane even hung out the laundry in the Mediterranean breeze!

 

Towels hanging from our camper van window

Towels with that fresh ocean smell!

 

I let my guard down for just a second…

I was looking forward to seeing Athens again.  I was here for 1 day only when I was 17 years old, a stop on a whirlwind educational trip to the Mediterranean that I took with my school in Grade 11.  Diane and I got up early and drove from Delphi, the home of the famous Oracle, and arrived at Camping Athens in about 3 hours.  We had a quick lunch and caught a bus followed by the metro (subway) to the Acropolis.

We decided to beat the heat of the afternoon by first visiting the air-conditioned Acropolis Museum, a beautiful new facility at the base of the Acropolis.  It was built with easy money prior to the Greek debt crisis to house the treasures of the Acropolis, the temple complex on the hill above.  The Acropolis is the site of the famous Parthenon, a 2500 year old temple to the goddess Athena the Virgin and the finest temple of the ancient world.  This museum provides a good history of the Acropolis from ancient through classical to modern times, displays many pieces of statuary, and has a full-scale installation of the frieze of the Parthenon.

We headed up to the Acropolis around 5 PM, hoping that the majority of tourists would have vacated.  We hiked up through the Propylaea Gate, past the Temple of Athena Nike, then around the Parthenon and the Erectheion.  I took lots of photos, some of which were undoubtedly outstanding, but we eyed an approaching storm and headed down the hill.  The sky became grey and the wind picked up.  The marble steps and rocks were slippery enough on our way up and were likely to be even more so when the rain started coming down.

I climbed Areopagus (Mars Hill), a bare marble outcrop across near the base of the Acropolis upon which the Apostle Paul was supposed to have delivered his famous speech (Acts 17:16-34) to Athenians about the Christian god.  Diane needed to go to the bathroom, so she headed off to the ticket booth to find the loo.  The storm looked like it might bypass us.  I sat there with some brave tourists watching the storm sweep down on the city of Athens below us.  Diane soon returned so I stepped away from my choice bit of rock, leaving my backpack there to secure my spot.  I helped Diane up the final bit of stone and we returned to my chosen seat.  Streaks from the clouds showed us where the rain was falling.  Lightening arched down on the distant hills.  It was a spectacular show.  Luckily I brought refreshments.  Salted peanuts and a large can of beer to share.  I was really enjoying myself.  Diane didn’t like the look of the approaching storm and wanted to go down.

A grey rock outcrop viewed from above, surrounded by trees with houses in the distance

Mars Hill viewed from the Acropolis (source: Wikipedia)

I reached for my camera to take another amazing picture of the storm, but it wasn’t there.  I remembered setting it on the rock beside me, but it was gone.  A quick feel of my backpack confirmed that it wasn’t there either.  I said to Diane, “My camera is gone.  Stay here with the stuff” and I jumped up to see what I could see.  I had only set it down beside me one minute beforehand.

I didn’t see anyone obvious carrying it, so I headed for the steps.  There were two young guys there, one of whom was carrying a camera protectively, but it had a different strap than mine.  I ran down the steps and found 2 Greek cops at the bottom, sitting in a marked Smart Car.  I was eyeing the crowd retreating from the rock, but I didn’t see my camera.  I told the policemen that someone just stole my camera.  To their credit, one of them jumped into action, and I followed him up onto the rock.  By this time the rain had started falling, and Diane was packing to leave.

Because I hadn’t seen who took the camera, there wasn’t much we could do.  We scanned the crowd, but no one looked suspicious, until the cop spoke to 3 young men carrying plastic bags.  They started to scatter, and the cop started to chase them, so I started to chase them too.  The cop quickly called it off though, and said that they weren’t camera thieves, but illegal umbrella salesmen, operating without a license.

And so, my camera, 2 spare batteries, 2 memory cards, and the case were gone in an instant.

I am an experienced traveller (48 countries and counting…)  I know better.  In all my travels, the most valuable thing I’ve had stolen was a travel alarm clock somewhere in Indonesia.  I’ve met many others, including close friends, who’ve lost valuables while traveling though.  In certain places you only need to let your guard down for a second.

On the bright side (I’m an optimist), the camera had served me well.  It was 40 months old and had been traveling for over 15 months of its life, visiting 4 continents.  I got my money’s worth.  And fortunately, I made a copy of my photos only 2 days before, so I didn’t lose many. Apparently the person who took it wanted it more than I did.  Unfortunately, I won’t be able to share my Delphi or Acropolis pictures with you, but let me assure you, they were awesome.

Update – I’m going to buy a new camera, spare battery, memory card, and case to replace the ones I’d lost.  Let’s hope that I can record as many wonderful memories with these as I did with the last ones.  In the meantime, we’re using our back-up point-and-shoot camera and iPhone for photos.

Author’s Note — Today’s blog cost hundreds of dollars.  I never knew that blogging would be so expensive!

Europe Phase 2 Update

We’ve reached the point in our journey where we are about as distant as we’re going to get from London, our starting place for Phase 2.

The blue lines on the map below show our route for Phase 2 so far.  Phase 1 is in Red.

Colour map of Europe with a blue line showing our route from London through France, Germany, and South through Easter Europe to Greece

Our European Journey. Blue = Phase 2. Red = Phase 1.

This may look like the random walk of a drunken sailor, but there is considerable planning behind it.  The only places we’ve re-visited so far are in eastern Germany, but we expect that we’ll cross our tracks several times before we’re done.  Despite my best efforts to proceed in an orderly and efficient manner, there are a lot of factors that have influenced our route including desirable locations, weather, meetings with other people, special events/festivals, etc.  We’ll be heading through Italy next then continuing West.

So far, Phase 2 of our European journey is going well.  The S&M Motel is running great, and we’ve gotten back into the swing of free camping after a lot of campgrounds in Eastern Europe.  The weather has finally improved after raining almost every day in April and May. We’ve learned how much nicer it is to be traveling by motorhome when it’s warm and dry.  We sit outside to eat and read.  We can shower without heating the water first.  Now we’re wishing we had air-conditioning!