A Year of Wild Living

A Year of Wild Living

Photo above is just one of the many sites we wild camped in overlooking the stunning Piazza Armerina, Sicily

If the title has piqued your interest and you are expecting to read about a year of drunkenness and debauchery, then you will be sorely disappointed.  This is a family blog after all, one that our mothers are likely to read.

Wild camping, otherwise known as free camping, has been our main form of bunking down overnight, in fact for seventy five per cent of the time, hence the title.

Happy Birthday to our motorhome Betsy.

One short year ago from today (29th June 2017) we picked up our beloved, much anticipated Betsy. Eight months in the planning from conception to birth, every part of Betsy’s entrance into our world was meticulously planned and thought out. Like expectant parents, we had Betsy’s first year or two of her life roughly sorted. We knew she was destined for wild camping. We knew she would be our home away from home, and that we would have many awesome adventures together.

And she didn’t disappoint.

Italian built, French registered, and driven by two Kiwis who had been living in Australia for the best part of the previous decade, Betsy already had an international feel about her.

She continued in this vein.

Twelve months have seen Betsy visit sixteen countries including Italy, Vatican City, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, San Marino, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany and travel over seventeen and a half thousand kilometres.

For those of you interested in such details, here are Betsy’s stats for the last twelve months:
Total Cost for Diesel € 2,215.35
Average Cost per Litre €1.34
Average cost per km € 0.1265
Average Miles Per Gallon29.26
Total Kilometres traveled 17,511
Average Litres/100kms
9.65
Total Litres consumed
1,690.31

Our Stopping Places

We stopped overnight in 170 individual locations over twelve months.  This shows we moved every second day on average, although we stayed in one stop for a month in Istanbul alone.

Out of 170 stopping places, 136 (275 nights or 75%) were free. These were a mixture of car parks, beaches, and other public or more remote locations which we call ‘wild camping’.

We paid to park in 18 designated camper parking area (51 nights or 14%).  Most of these were in Istanbul where we found an excellent base for exploring that wonderful city.

And we camped in 16 campgrounds for a total of 31 nights (11% of all nights). The only times we stay in camping grounds is when we had family staying with us, we were meeting up with friends who are there, or where it’s the law, e.g. Croatia doesn’t allow wild camping.

Betsy’s two large solar panels allow us to wild camp easily because we very rarely need external electric power.  We also carry an extra toilet cassette just in case we are caught short, although so far we haven’t needed it.  We can go for three-four days with our 100 litres of fresh water and before we need to discharge our black water (toilet).  Not bad for each of us showing daily.

We usually turn up at a location in the late afternoon, dismount our bikes and ride into town, then go again into town the next day if there’s plenty to see.

Below is an interactive map of our stopping places for the year.  If you click on the different stopping points you will, usually, see Betsy parked here and the details for other motorhome users, e.g. water, power, dumping points, costs for the night, etc.

Top City

People ask us ‘what is your favourite country’. I cannot honestly answer this, however, I would have to say my favourite city is Istanbul hands down. The vibrancy, energy, people, attractions, food, ease of cycling around and the cheap prices are just a few of the reasons why Istanbul gets my vote.  Below you can see the different places we visited while there.  The photos below are of the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern, (underground water storage built by the Romans).  If you want an interactive map of this wonderful city, please email me.

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Our Favourite Places

That being said, here are just a few of our other favourite places we have visited over the past twelve months.

1. Meteora, Greece: This is as close as you can get to God from Earth. Monasteries built literally on top of rocks standing hundreds of metres in the air, this is one place not to be missed if visiting Greece.  Visit our blog here for more information and pictures of this beautiful and majestic place.
2. Acrocorinth, Peloponnese, Greece: – located about a hundred kilometres from Athens, this intriguing and diverse ancient Acropolis provides spectacular 360 degree views as a suitable reward after one climbs its gentle (and not so gentle) slopes. Whilst I’m not into hiking I hardly noticed the climb or distance due to being wowed with the view of the surrounding mountains and overlooking the ancient and new towns of Corinth. If you have ever read about the Corinthians in the Bible, this is where they hail from.
3. Olympia, Peloponnese, Greece: As the name would suggest, and you may have already guessed, Olympia is the original home of the Olympic Games, founded way back in the 8th century B.C.

Walking through the ruins it’s not difficult to imagine the buzz and excitement of the athletes training around the now silent and extensive ruins. A stadium and temple built here were dedicated to the gods Hera and Zeus. I managed to stand in the place where the Olympic torch is still lit today.

4. Delphi, Greece: This town is situated on Mount Parnassus in the south of mainland Greece. It’s the site of the 4th century B.C. Temple of Apollo, once home to a legendary Oracle. You may have heard about “The Oracle of Delphi”. Well this is the place where the Oracle hung out, so look no further. The archaeological site is literally sitting on the side of a mountain and contains the remains of the sanctuaries of Apollo and Athena Pronaia, as well as an ancient stadium and theatre and dozens of other buildings and structures.  We managed to park off the road nearby, backed up close to the edge of a steep cavernous valley (a bit too close for my liking and  I was nervous all night we might slip and wake at the bottom) and high mountains in front.

5. Monemvasia, Laconia, Greece: This town blew me away more than any other. Why? Because it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Having visited castle ruin after castle ruin, I just thought this would be the same again. Boy was I wrong. Monemvasia is ancient, however, it wasn’t in ruins, it is still being lived in, just like it was when founded in 583 (although with more modern people wearing more modern clothes). The town, built on top of a rock on a small island off the east coast of the Peloponnese, it is linked to the mainland by a short causeway just 200 metres long. I was so impressed with Monemvasia that we had to visit twice in two days so I could soak up all she had to offer. Please read my blog for further amazing facts and details of this little gem in Greece. This one is totally unmissable.

6. Erice, Sicily, Italy. The castles in Erice have been designed and built exactly how I would imagine kids would draw a castle nowadays. Erice, which sits at 750 metres on top of Mt Erice, is a medieval hilltop town located near Trapani, with superb views over the coast. A cable car joins the upper and lower town and although we didn’t use this because we rode our electric bikes, the cable car had just recently become operational again after a forest fire in 2005.

7. Monreale, Sicily. This stunning town sits overlooking the city of Palermo and I kicked myself after Carrie, my sister in law left us, that we didn’t take her up here. Having travelled around and visited cathedral after church after basilica soaking up the many styles throughout the previous eight months, nothing could have prepared me for the jaw-dropping beauty, craftsmanship, and sheer magnificence of the Monreale Cathedral. Instead of the typical painted frescos, this cathedral’s pictures were made using the painstaking and time-consuming art of mosaics. We were told that each mosaic piece was hand placed on just the right angle for the light to reflect off the golden piece, hence giving the illusion of glistening, expensive and decadent gold. Each of the  216 mosaic frescos illustrated a different story, which could be a Biblical parable or story, or an event or person from the church history.   This remains today as my most favourite of churches, surpassing the impressive Milan Cathedral, the Blue Mosque in Turkey, and of course the very famous Sistine Chapel in Rome.
8. San Marino: I knew very little about this impressive place, but soon discovered that San Marino is the fifth smallest country of the world’s 196 independent countries while enjoying one of the planet’s highest GDPs per capita. Not only is it cute, but San Marino, which boasts just 61 square kilometres of landmass, has unsurpassed views, the greatest we have ever seen in our lifetime. Everywhere we looked the word ‘wow’ just slipped out of our mouths. The locals also know how to cook up a pretty good traditional Italian style lunch accompanied by a warm fire and a cold Chardonnay.
9. Milan, Italy. When I see the word Milan (Milano in Italian) the words ‘fashion capital’ come to mind ( ‘Paris, London, New York, Milan, Hong Kong’). So off I went looking for something to tempt me, but alas my purse stayed firmly shut, despite walking and biking for miles in search of something special to buy.

What I did like about Milan was the variety of architecture throughout this city. Some very old, some gothic, some ultra modern. The Gothic Duomo Cathedral of Milan, having taken some 600 years to build justifiably takes pride of place in the centre of Milan, check out the photos to see what I mean.  But first, click on the video below to see the Cathedral.

Now it’s time to share our…

Outstanding Experiences

1. Mother Nature showing off her power in Pylos. Read our blog about our exciting night where the waves tried to claim our Betsy for themselves.
2. Cooking classes in Istanbul, Turkey and Palermo, Sicily – follow our recipes here and see the pictures below.  For both these cooking classes we were fortunate enough to be the only participants and for Palermo we were joined by Carrie, Alan’s sister who flew in from London to be with us for a few days.  The Italian cooking class was a birthday gift to us from Carrie and Geoff (Alan’s brother in the USA).  A very memorable experience.
3. Experiencing a two Michelin star restaurant in Sicily – read our blog and then go out and book your own two Michelin star experience. You won’t be disappointed.
4. Standing on a live volcano at Mt Etna – just glad she didn’t erupt. Even the scoria under foot was warm.
5. The south-eastern corner of Sicily is a USECO registered area of unique baroque architecture.  The principal towns including Noto, Caltagirone, Siracusa, Ragusa and Catania were all rebuilt in the baroque style after the devastating earthquake of 1693.
6. Crossing the Italian Alps into France – over the top instead of through the tunnel and then we came to an unexpected and grinding halt – see why below. This tested Alan’s skills of reversing uphill and around bends (thankfully no-one came down the road).  The location we ended up parking for the night afforded us beautiful views (when the cloud lifted).
7. Le Quesnay in France – for it’s continued tribute to Kiwi soldiers from WWI. Look at the photos and if you are from New Zealand then please feel proud of what your forefathers did to protect the people and infrastructure of this quaint French village.  Here’s the statement which sits on a plaque in the New Zealand memorial garden.

On 4th November 1918 the New Zealand Division attacked and bypassed the fortified town of Le Quesnoy, consolidating positions beyond it and gaining around 10 kilometres.  After the success of their advance, they determinedly turned their attention to the town itself, which had been invaded by the Germans in 1914 and held ever since. 

The 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade penetrated the town’s outer ramparts.  However, when a section of the 4th Battalion reached these inner walls they found that the walls were too high for their ladder.  They positioned the ladder on a small ledge atop a sluice gate and scaled the wall one by one.  After exchanging shots with several German defenders, they went in further.  When the rest of the Germans inside learned that the walls had been breached, they promptly laid down their weapons and surrendered. 

The relief of the French inhabitants was immense.  Not only had their town been liberated, but it had been done with relatively little impact on the local population.  The armistice was signed a week later, and to this day, Le Quesnoy people remember and honour the New Zealanders who rescued their town. 

8. Louis Vuitton Foundation – a hidden gem of Paris and an un-miss-able experience. If you are visiting you must check this out.
By now you will probably be thinking this is a long blog. So in the interests of not over-boring you I’m just going to bullet point a few other highlights.

(a) Hiring a yacht in Volos, Greece and sailing with our good friends Pip and Ross (Kiwis living in London)
(b) Paris – who can go to Paris and not mention something wonderful about this city. We didn’t spend a long time here but managed to see the Eifel Tower (Alan says my facial expression was priceless when I first saw it), the Louvre (to see the Mona Lisa), and the beautiful gardens and buildings.
(c) Ghent in Belgium is worth a mention. We stopped here to watch the second All Blacks test against French in an Irish Bar (yes, you can find one of these in every city).  Ghent was a surprisingly vibrant city and a great alternative to the usual tourist trap of Burges. (We will probably go here another time).
(d) I must mention the churches. One would think we would get sick of going into so many churches but every church is so very different. I will endeavour to post some photos (and I have lots of them) in another post so stay tuned to see these.

That’s where I’m going to stop on this subject.  Needless to say, we have seen and experienced so much in just one short year.  We are looking forward to what this next twelve months will bring us on our travels.

Hiccups or unsettling experiences

• Putting a hole in Betsy’s head. When hearing a crunch from a low hanging tree branch, it’s best to take a good look as there could be more damage than you think! Then when it rains there could be a water leak inside! Dhu!
• My Worst Fear Realised (you will need to click here to see what it was, as that’s all I am saying.)
• Ruth turning on her bike in front of a Tram in Amsterdam – don’t try this at home kids. Thankfully no damage done to Tram, Bike, or Person ☺
• Not knowing to turn the gas off when traveling on Ferries (why wasn’t this obvious and why were we not told by authorities that this is a requirement?).  All sorted now.
• Scary roads in Italy – watch the video below
• Scary roads in Greece thanks to our GPS, Emily, who forgot how big we were and how narrow the roads could morph into.

Additions to Betsy

• Air suspension fitted in Greece to help smooth out the potholes around Greece and in Italy
• Omnia cooker – negated the need for an oven to be installed, saving us over €800
• USB/powerpoint in the living area has made the world of difference.
• Household Dyson Vacuum cleaner (don’t look at the price Alan, it will be worth it). This proved accurate when our stovetop glass exploded leaving splinters of glass splattered all through the kitchen, floor, sink, bench, and of course stove top. Grrr!
• Portable washing machine – the convenience of having this on tap has been priceless.  Typically the cost of laundry is about €16-20 per time and it is often a hassle finding one that we can get to easily.  It’s an equation between time and money. When travelling for an extended period of time we have time, however we don’t want the money to run out just yet and don’t want to spend half a day hunting for a laundromat. Therefore being able to do our laundry in our washing machine has been a godsend.  We just need a water tap handy, a sunny day to power the solar panels and a place to hang out the washing line.

Best Buy Ever!

If you’ve read any of our other blogs it is possibly obvious, especially when we were in Turkey. Have you guessed it yet? Our best ever buy has been our electric bikes, by far. These allow us to park up where Betsy can fit then cycle in to see the sights or top up on groceries.  We are particularly grateful for these in Paris, Belgium and Holland where the cycling infrastructure is fantastic.

The Costs

Before starting our adventures, we read a few blogs about the costs of being in a motorhome. We wanted to get an idea of what we should expect to spend.

However, the reality is that everyone is different and they will adjust their spending to suit their available money, the type of travel they are doing and what is most important to them.  Whether you are just on a holiday or full-timing in a moho also makes a difference.

You can live the life of Riley, drive thousands of kilometres, stay in flash camping grounds, eat out every day and visit every attraction known to man and you will spend a small fortune.  At the other end of the spectrum, you can hole up in a free parking area for months on end and live on pasta and water and spend bugger all.

We sit somewhere in between, where we choose to spend our money on what is most important to us.  We avoid camping grounds, toll roads, eating out and anything that feels overpriced. We spend gladly on quality experiences, diesel to get to cool places, quality groceries and things that make our lives easier and more enjoyable.

We track ALL of our spending on an App called ‘Moneywise’ and review it regularly together.  Luckily Alan is still working part-time while we travel which helps to keep us on the road longer.

When reading this you must remember that we live full time in our Betsy; we don’t have rent or mortgage payments to pay, or another vehicle at home, or any other typical costs of living, e.g. electricity, rates, water, etc.  It also means that all our costs are lumped in here somewhere.

I’ve averaged the weekly costs into Euros (€’s) as follows. These are sorted by most to least expensive:

  Per Week
Groceries97.38
Diesel44.83
Eating out40.77
Repairs & Maintenance29.3
Attractions29.04
Household26.06
Transport, ferries, parking18.82
Pharmacy and Medical14.71
Telephones/internet14.28
Camping Grounds13.78
Clothing, shoes13.34
Camper Parking11.25
Haircuts9.85
Alcohol9.26
Tolls6.99
Gas5.93
Books, tools, insurance3.73
Gifts3.56
Laundry2.62
Net Total€395.49
Additional to these costs are our annual healthcare insurance back in Australia, vehicle insurance in France and the initial setup costs for Betsy.

Phew, that was a lot.  If you want any further information, please feel free to contact us via email at ruth@trael-cook-eat.com or alan@travel-cook-eat.com.  We are happy to share our experiences with you.

Sicily – An Island of Contrasts

Sicily – An Island of Contrasts

by Alan Gow  |  April 2018  |  Sicily, Italy

One of the great benefits of touring in a motorhome with no fixed agenda or schedule is the flexibility to just stop and enjoy a place that we are passing through.  Often when talking to fellow travellers or locals we will hear about such and such spot and our loose plan allows us to check it out even though it wasn’t on our radar five minutes ago.

We planned on spending a month in Sicily however this extended out to over seven weeks as there were some places we just didn’t want to pass up.  Eventually we needed to leave as we’d completed the full circuit of the island and had an appointment to take Betsy back to her motorhome dealer near Turin, for some TLC (tender loving care).

It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, however Sicily is a land of contrasts.  There is much to admire, love and appreciate but there are also some less than perfect aspects.  We really enjoyed our time here however with so much still to see and do in Europe, we probably (never say never) won’t return for another stint.

Although seven weeks sounds like a long time, it is really only enough to scratch the surface of what there is to see and experience here.  The history is so colourful and unbelievable and land so rugged and beautiful.  There is a (very) brief summary of the history below. We chose to visit from late March through to early May and experienced overall nice comfortable spring weather.  It wasn’t warm enough to enjoy the many fantastic beaches but that was offset by the lack of swarms of summer tourists and the sweltering summer heat. That suited us, however if beach bathing is your thing then you are best to visit a month or two later.

As you would know if you read our other blogs, we almost exclusively free camp and use some great free Apps as well as information from other travellers to find our overnight stopping spots.  We had no problems doing this all around Sicily however in the high season there are more restrictions on where motorhomes can park.  This is probably necessary as there is a huge influx of campers in summer and without some controls, especially around the coast, I can see there could be problems.

We have shared all of our overnight stopping spots including GPS Coordinates and notes at the end of this blog.

Fresh Drinking Water

Sicily has been one of the few places where we have had to hunt around at times to find fresh water.  It may be driven by the economic crisis, however, in many towns, the public water taps had been disconnected.  We never actually ran out but we had to be a little creative in our water gathering at times.

Having said that, the water, when we found it, was usually fresh and sweet.  Our electric bikes and a couple of 10 litre water canisters were invaluable as it this allowed us to leave Betsy parked while we foraged far and wide for a functioning tap.  One hint is that if you are struggling to find water then the local cemetery is often worth a look.  Check that there are no signs advising that the water is ‘Non potable’ (not suitable for drinking), and if you intend to drink straight from your fresh water tank, you should always taste it first.  If you are happy to stay in camp grounds then you won’t have the problem of water scavenging.

For us, it is all part of the game and experience of travelling on this journey we have chosen.

Ruth joins the locals filling up at Piazza Amerina

Olivetti Public Fountain – very slow to fill but geat water

Scrounging water from a Taormina service station – we were washing clothes so needed to find it somewhere

The Roads

The roads are another slight drawback to Sicily, especially if you are in a full-sized motorhome enjoying the complete Sicily experience by avoiding the toll roads.  There are places where the main road passes through kilometre after kilometre of built up towns and your right wheel is constantly just centimetres from the kerb.  We were sometimes left swearing at our GPS which is supposed to know our dimensions and not send us down roads that are too narrow.

Accepted Sicilian parking behaviour dictates that you can park wherever you want and it is up to the moving cars to get around you.  This means that as a 2.2m wide motorhome, we were constantly stopping for oncoming traffic to pass so that we could take our turn.  It gets tiresome after a while but I reckon it would be far worse in the high season with a pile more 2.2m wide motorhomes and other holiday traffic to contend with.

Overall the condition of the roads is best described as marginal with many potholes, worn out surfaces, cracks and other defects. The south coast was much better than the north coastal roads.  Obviously not a lot of money here for road maintenance.  There is an Autostrada (motorway) around most of Sicily, however, we mostly kept off this, partly to avoid the cost but also as you just don’t see as much of the country travelling on these.

We mainly stuck close to the coast so can’t comment on how the roads crossing Sicily may be but some of them certainly looked narrow and windy (according to the infallible Google Maps).  From the roads we encountered when we did venture inland, they too were quite narrow.

Are we really going down there?

You can’t be serious!

The Food

Sicilian food is great.  It has unique characteristics compared to the rest of Italy. It is fresh, it is tasty and it is healthy (for the most part). We enjoyed a Sicilian Cooking Class at Mama Corleone Cooking School while in Palermo and learned  some great dishes which we have continued to cook.

Mama Corleone Cooking Class

Our favourites included Caponata, which is a wonderful infusion of cubes of fried melanza, (eggplant), celery, capers, tomato passata, olives, pine nuts and wherever other vegetable you can find. This is cooked slowly then finished off with vinegar and sugar.  Served cold with fresh Sicilian bread, it is slightly sweet, slightly sour, absolutely bursting with flavour and seems to just melt in your mouth.

The eggplant involtini was also really tasty and was just slices of fried egg plant, rolled around a stuffing of breadcrumbs, chopped ham, grated local cheese, and olive oil.  This is then placed in a baking dish, covered with tomato passata and cheese and cooked in the oven until the cheese is nicely melted.

Caponata with aubergine, olives, capers, pine nuts etc plus lots of olive oil

Involtimi – slices of fried aubergine, stuffed and rolled up and baked

Sicily also contributed dishes such as Arancini to world cuisine.  These are balls of rice flavoured with saffron, filled with either ham and cheese or ragu (tomato meat sauce and cheese), then dipped in bread crumbs and lightly deep fried. Their most famous desert seems to be Cannoli, which look a lot like brandy snaps with a sweet, crunchy biscuit shell, stuffed with a ricotta and cream mixture.

While in the small seaside town of Licata, we enjoyed our first ever experience of dining at a Two Star Michelin Restaurant.  To read more, click here two-star-michelihttp://travel-cook-eat.com/italian-n-restaurant/.

The Rubbish

Unfortunately, when talking about Sicily, its hard not to mention the rubbish, because it is just such a visual feature of the landscape in many areas.  From our experience, Palermo is the worst with enormous piles of garbage accumulated at the side of the road.  It was sad and disturbing that the people of Sicily would participate in defacing their country like this and that the local government couldn’t collect the rubbish within a reasonable timeframe, or control the problem.  In Caltagirone we witnessed a respectable looking woman pull up to the side of the road and start to unload plastic bags of garbage onto a clear sidewalk.  There happened to be council garbage collection man in a small truck who clearly took her to task about what she was doing.  After much waving of hands and raised voices they unloaded her small hatchback boot, back and front seats of at least 16 bags of garbage and put them directly into the garbage truck.  Maybe when you grow up with this it seems normal but to us, and any other visitors we spoke to, the amount of rubbish was quite unbelievable.

Typical Roadside Rubbish in Palermo

Rubbish Collection Day – Piazza Amerina

Outstanding in Sicily

So what really stood out in Sicily?

For me, that would have to be the churches or cathedrals and the archaeological history.

To say that the churches are amazing just doesn’t do them justice.  Nearly every major town we visited boasted a Basilica or Cathedrale that was not only spectacular but also managed to be markedly different to the others.  Monreale Cathedral, near Palermo, stands out due to the magnificence of the thousands of square metres of religious mosaics and beautiful Baroque style marblework.  Erice, perched high on the Mountain of God, also deserves a mention with so many stunning churches in such a small town perched high on a mountain. Milazzo, Palermo, Cefalu, Siracusa, Ragusa, Catania…. the list of cities with amazing churches goes on and on.  We have included photos of some of the best later in this blog.

After growing up in New Zealand, a country with a very short history, trying to digest and appreciate the impact of the various cultures that have conquered, occupied and shaped Sicily over a 3,000 year period takes a fair bit of effort.

Just in case you are interested and want to get a feel for what this place has been through, here follows a very brief history of Sicily.  I have tried to keep it short and interesting however if this sort of thing bores you, then just skip the next section.

Sicily – A Brief History

15th Century BC (that is about 3,500 years ago!) – Sicily is settled by three tribes, The Elmians, The Sicani and lastly the Sicel. The name Sicily is derived from the names of the latter two tribes.

11th Century BC – The Phoenicians began colonising the western part of the island, building important cities including what was later to become Palermo.  The powerful Phoenician city-state of Carthage in modern Tunisia controlled and protected the Phoenician interests here.

8th – 4th Century BC – The Greeks began founding towns/cities around eastern and southern Sicily as part of their cunning plan of expanding Greek influence.  The cities were fortified and sited at regular intervals so that they could communicate with, and support each other.  We had previously just been in Crete, so to hear that Cretans from towns we had visited were among those early settlers was fascinating.  The existing inhabitants were pretty much absorbed into this new strong culture.  Syracuse became the most populous Greek city in the world in the 3rd Century BC and the great temples, theatres and monuments that remain today were built during this period of relative prosperity and cultural enlightenment.

The Greek and Phoenician settlements co-existed for many centuries albeit with regular wars and sacking of each other’s cities.  Mind you, the cities ended up being governed as separate city-states and you would often find two of the Greek cities scrapping it out with each other on the battlefields, sometimes with help from the Carthaginians on one side or the other.

Around 3rd Century BC, the Romans stepped in, and had a go at the Carthaginians, finally taking control by 242BC.  Most of the cities of Sicily then rebelled and tried to kick the Romans out however by the end of the Second Punic War around 210BC it was all over rover and the Romans were in charge for the next 600 years.

200 BC – 400 AD – not much of note happened over this time.  The Romans just used Sicily as their ‘bread basket’ to grow grain for the empire.  The lands were owned by distant Roman landlords and as little effort was made by the Romans to ‘Romanize’ Sicily, the culture remained mainly Greek.

468 AD – the Vandals, a Germanic tribe responsible for trashing Rome, conquered Sicily but only had it for 8 years before it was briefly held by the Goths who were then thrown out by the remains of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantines.  In spite of various rebellions and infighting, the Byzantines had a good run at ruling until around 826AD when the Arabs invaded and over the next hundred years gradually knocked off all of the Byzantine strongholds.

900 – 1086 AD – Although under Muslim rule over this period, it was not a happy time for them as the Byzantine Christians rebelled and revolted regularly and generally made life difficult.  The Arabs did, however, leave a great legacy of North African foods and cooking techniques that help make Sicilian cuisine distinct from the rest of Italy.

1091 – 1194 AD – The Normans, still buzzing after thrashing the English at the Battle of Hastings took control with help of the Vikings and brought in a golden age for Sicily.  The Norman kings governed wisely and encouraged immigration from strongly Roman Catholic countries, such that Sicily has strongly followed that faith to this day.  The spectacular cathedrals that we saw at Monreale, Palermo, Cefalu, Erice etc are primarily due to this prosperous and benevolent period.  Many castles and other fortifications also remain from this period.

The next few hundred years was a real mess with various kings, wars, and rebellions which saw Sicily bounced around between the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Spanish and the Bourbons without a lot of concern for what the locals wanted.  Eventually, the much revered and loved Garibaldi landed with an army of 1,000 men to sort out the Spanish.  Garibaldi conquered all before him and his army grew as more of the countryside rose up to support him.  Sicily was effectively united with Italy in 1860.  Wherever you go in Sicily, you find Via Garibaldi’s (Garibaldi Roads) and statues and monuments to him.

The Earthquakes

Whilst Sicily’s culture results from the amalgamation of many civilisations over nearly three thousand years, the modern day appearance of the cities and settlements also owes much to the forces of mother nature.  Earthquakes have had a massive impact on Sicily even up until relatively recent times when in 1908 a huge quake just off the coast of Messina saw over 90% of its buildings destroyed and some 80,000 people killed.  Messina now lacks the heritage of old structures we saw elsewhere.

Although they were disastrous at the time, the earthquakes also led to some of Sicily’s most valuable and unique current architectural treasures.  In 1693, an earthquake virtually levelled the cities in southeastern Sicily and wiped out 100,000 civilians.  The cities of Catania, Ragusa, and Notto, for example were flattened.  In an amazing display of unity and cooperation, these cities were rebuilt by modifying and adapting the Baroque style of the day to construct the now famous Baroque towns of this region.

In some cases, a new town was built beside the old one.  For example in Ragusa, the neighbouring hill was used for the new site however the old one was rebuilt in any case and is known as Ragussa Ibla

Old Ragusa Ibla viewed from ‘New’ Ragusa (300 years old)

In other cases, the rebuilt town is in an entirely new location, for example, the new Noto was built 8km from the old one.  We parked outside the old Noto city walls one night, then explored the extensive ruins the next day on our bikes.  Some of the city wall and the Norman castle was reasonably intact but most of the other buildings were just broken-down jumbles of overgrown stones.

Sleeping Outside the Ancient Old Noto Walls

Old Noto Norman Castle as the sun rises

New Noto (8km from the destroyed Old Noto)

Mount Etna

How can anyone ignore that massive growth on the southwest edge of Sicily called Mount Etna?

Able to be seen from the other side of the island, this impressive active volcano lets off steam and ash every couple of weeks.  She continues to blow out lava regularly with decent eruptions about every ten years, which have spawned a series of lateral craters down her slopes.  The surrounding towns are quite used to shovelling ash as well as snow off their paths and roofs.

Catania is the nearest big city and although it has never suffered serious damage, one historical eruption sent lava right up to the city walls.  The walls were designed to repel foreign invaders but played another role of turning away the stream of liquid rock.

On driving up Mt. Etna, the vegetation rapidly gives way to weathered lava flows and becomes increasingly desolate and inhospitable the higher we climb.

As we reach the upper car park, we are not far from the first patches of snow and the outside air has that distinctive frosty alpine feel to it with 11 degrees as opposed to 25 down below.  Apparently only a few weeks earlier there had been so much snow and ice on the road that you couldn’t get up without chains.  Whew – good timing once again for the B (for Betsy) Team.

The view in the morning from the car park was worth getting up early for.

We splashed out some of the money we had saved by free camping on the Mt Etna package which includes the gondola ride, the 4W ride up to the 3,500m level and the guided tour.  A little pricey at €68 each but we would have regretted not going.  As expected, there were great views from the gondola.

We then scrambled into the 4WD Unimogs with Ruth being cheeky enough to ask if she could sit in the front passenger seat so she could take some video.  We crawled up a steep narrow gravel track into the heavy snow country and beside the two gaping lateral craters that had formed during the 2002 eruption.

I had hoped to see some spewing lava, steaming geysers and smoking vents but alas, that was not to be seen at this level.  There are other expeditions up to the summit where that is no doubt the norm, however, that was not for us today.

2002 Eruption Crater

It’s Tough at the Top

The Valley of the Temples

With so many ancient archaeological sites to see we were inclined to get a little ‘ruin weary’ so we drove past the road that led to the ancient Greek city of Selunite, one of the largest archaeological sites in the world.

That was a shame and I regret not experiencing it.  However, The Valley of the Temples, was one place we did visit which will stick in the memory forever (or at least until advanced dementia kicks in).

Who would have envisaged this stretch of land, near the ancient Greek city of Agrigento, would be littered with the ruins of a dozen or more temples dating back to the Greek occupation?

We were able to wake up at our parking spot and watch the sun rising through the 2,500-year-old ruins

Later in the day we walked along the ancient fortifications and admired the temple structures from close up.  The Temple of Concordia is the most complete of the temples mainly due to it being re-purposed as a Basilica in the early Christian days.  Other structures are less complete but still magnificent reminders of what once was.

The remains of the massive Temple of Zeus cover an enormous area and was said to rival the temple at the Acropolis in Athens in size and grandeur.  Apparently, a man could stand within each of the flutes of the main columns, and between each stood a colossal statue of Atlas some 7.5m high. This was never quite completed and walking around the site today, it is hard to picture the ‘nearly finished temple’ over 2,500 years ago.  In the Agrigento Museum there is a model showing how it is believed to have looked.

One sad fact is that right up until the 18th century, rock from the ruins was still being taken and reused in other building projects meaning that large parts of the structures are now gone forever.

Temple of Concordia

Temple of Zeus – Atlas Statue

Model of the Temple of Zeus

Bronze Statue of Icarus

The Churches

Whether you call them Churches, Cathedrals or Basilicas, Sicily is home to a vast number of these beautiful buildings.

Many of the churches have their origin in the Norman or Byzantine times however restorations over the last centuries have bestowed upon them unique features and styles so that no two appeared alike.

The ABC of Europe (Another Bloody Church) could have been our reaction around Sicily, however, every one offered new things to see, appreciate and wonder over.

Below is a selection of photos from some of the churches that impressed us the most.

Monreale Cathedral

Monreale Baroque Marble Details

Castle of Erice (Venus Castle)

Ragusa Ibla Basilica

Royal Catherdral – Erice

New Noto

Mama Corleone Cooking Class

Our Stopping Places

We stayed in a total 20 places around Sicily and had no problems with locals, police or other wildlife at any of them.  We only stayed at one camping ground (when we had family visiting), and paid a small amount for parking at two other spots.  There are likely to be stricter restrictions staying at many of these places during the summer months so be careful.

Here are the GPS coordinates and a brief description of each of our overnight stops.

Messina ( 38.23256, 15.57133)

We stayed here after arriving on the ferry from the mainland.  This is a parking area by the sea a few kilometres north of the ferry terminal.  It is beside the main road so there is some traffic noise.  A freshwater fountain about 800m back towards the ferry is a good source of excellent water.

Capo Milazzo ( 38.2652, 15.23777 )

There are some larger slots near the end of the main carparks which fit a moho nicely.  The views from here are fantastic and Mt Etna can be seen clearly.  Walking further down and to the end of the cape is recommended. No services except rubbish bins.

 

Oliveti Beach (38.12869, 15.05817)

A bit unfriendly feeling place for free camping motorhomes with a lot of ‘no camper’ signs and height restrictions on car park entries.  There are several camping grounds available so they are wanting people to use these.  We found a car park with no barriers and stayed here for one night.  We found a public water tap in town on the left just after passing under the bridge.  The water flow rate was slow though but the locals friendly.  We were given Pasquale (Easter) biscuits which are hard boiled eggs, wrapped in sweet biscuit dough, baked then decorated with icing.

 

San Georgio (38.17555, 14.94515)

A few places for mohos to park up here just 50m from the beach.  Along the actual beach were some ‘no camper’ signs.  There are water fountains here but the water is salty.  A nice place with a strong history of tuna fishing.

Acquedolchi (38.06162, 14.59513)

Strange that the name literally means Sweet Water but there were no functioning public water taps or fountains to be found anywhere in town.  The parking is along the road beside the beach with loads of space.  There are showers but they weren’t working when we were there.  The local police came down to check that no-one was exhibiting ‘camping behaviour’. We were thankful it didn’t rain because driving back up on the slippery cobblestone street could to the main road have proven challenging.

Cefalu Marina (38.03942, 14.0316)

You can park in town for €20 or for free on the marina adjacent to the café then walk or cycle into town.  The business of the marina just seems to carry on around you without anyone being too concerned.  Cefula has a wonderful old world feel about it, very cool buildings and a great history.

Palermo (38.1977, 13.28098)

Camping Ground.  Adequate camping ground but we don’t really like going into these places.  They allowed us to leave Betsy on site for €10 per night while we spent three nights in an Air BnB in Palermo.

Capa San Vito (38.17498, 12.76962)

This is apparently a real tourist hot spot in the summer but was quiet when we arrived.  The main car parks in town had closed for the winter.  We drove out of town and found this picturesque spot beside an ancient watch tower out on the point.

 

Erice (38.04165, 12.5875)

Well worth the climb up a windy mountain road to reach this small car park just outside one of the ancient city gates.  Erice is one of our favourite spot in Sicily and the views are spectacular.  No services other than rubbish.  There may be a charge in summer.  There is a blog just for Erice here.

Marsala Saline del Stagnone (37.86191, 12.48546)

This is a signposted free camper park adjacent to the salt museum and windmills.  No services but a handy overnight stop and reasonably quiet.

Sciacca  (37.50512, 13.0800)

A good stopping place down on the fishing dock, however, may be little smelly depending on what is around you. Rubbish only available here but handy for exploring this pretty fishing settlement.

Agrigento (37.28872, 13.5840)

This is a restaurant/accommodation that allows campers to park overnight for €5.  Very close to the Valley of the Temples and we couldn’t find anywhere closer.  They have a hose which we used to fill our tanks.

Licata Car Park (37.10425, 13.9399)

We spent the night in this central car park.  A little noisy with cars passing through and could be potential for unwelcome visitors however we had an uneventful night here.  We stayed here so we could visit ‘La Madre’ which is the only Two Michelin Star rated restaurant we have ever been to.

Caltagirone (37.20503, 14.51349)

We found this small car park off the main road which is a little overgrown and unloved but was reasonably quiet and felt safe enough.  It is a little out of the main town and are other parking areas closer in, including where we parked the next day for exploring.  Caltagirone is the first of the Baroque towns that we visited and is famous for the Scala di Santa Maria del Monte stairs which run up the hills and divide the town.  These are richly decorated with ceramic tiles at each step.

Piazza Armerina (37.38022, 14.36725)

The stopping place here is in a parking area for the sports stadium and just off the main road.  No parking restrictions were seen. The view of the Baroque town from here is fantastic and there is a great public fountain not far but down a really steep road.

Ragusa (36.91435, 14.72744)

Ragusa is another fantastic Baroque town with the new Ragusa built on the hill beside the original Ibla Ragusa.  The public carpark is in the newer part and is generally quiet and motorhome-friendly, however, there are two entrances and one takes you through some lower hanging branches.  Try the entry directly off the road rather than through the car parking area.  There is a full camper service spot less than a kilometre from here and one day we were cheeky enough to do our washing and hang it out to dry in this area.

Noto (36.89502, 15.06822)

The new Noto is very touristy but this car park welcomes motorhomes and is close to a supermarket and the town.  On a slope but not too steep.

Old Noto (36.94642, 15.02305)

Very interesting place but the road in is really only one lane and if you have a big moho it’s not for the faint hearted.  The parking area directly outside the ancient walls is sloped.

Syracusa Marina (37.06915, 15.29141)

Lots of moho’s parked here on this beautiful marina so you should have company.  Syracusa is another wonderful Baroque town and is on the must see list for nearly all Sicily visitors.  We bought 2kg of juicy, tasty, fresh mussels off a boat which landed directly in front of Betsy.

Catania (Various)

We spread ourselves around a little in Catania, mostly crashing in shopping complex car parks.  The Lidl car park (37.47375, 15.04763) was quiet and convenient.  The guard at the Auchan car park at Misterbianco (37.51332, 15.02221) was going to kick us out at 11.00pm but allowed us to stay.  We also spent two nights outside Decathlon (37.46863, 15.04729) while we got our e-bikes replaced with new ones free of charge (that’s another story).  We were able to fill water containers in the bathrooms in the mall.  A bit of a nomadic time doing car park surfing but quite relaxing overall.

Mt Etna ( 7.69931, 15.00043)

A large area for camper parking at the top car park but also high demand.  Arrive in the late afternoon or early evening for the best shot at finding a slot.  The cost is €12 and the tickets are bought from the kiosk.  Views, as one would expect, are stunning from up here.

Taormina (37.84866, 15.28673)

A really nice parking area with a view over the sea and not too far to cycle up to the historic town. We even managed to get our washing done and dry here. No services except rubbish and water was hard to find.

Greece – The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (and the Costs)

Greece – The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (and the Costs)

As we depart Greece it’s time to reflect on this historic country and look back at what kept us here for so long. I hope this gives you a sense of what Greece has been like for us through the eyes of two Kiwis with little initial expectations or knowledge about this country, other than a week in Corfu twenty something years ago.

On first impressions, driving through from the Albanian border into Greece in September we found ourselves on a stunning new (toll free) motorway that appeared to have been smoothly paved just for us. It was easy to see where the EU money had been spent. However, there were virtually no other cars around despite it being still warm and only just nudging the end of the tourist season. The countryside was dusty dry, with brown tuffs of what used to be grass all around us. It looked like it would crunch under your feet should it be walked upon.

It didn’t take long for the countryside to change through the season as we spent the winter months touring all over Greece.

Here’s the summary of our experiences with this historic country.

Stats:

Time of year in GreeceWinter 2017/2018
Months of the Year2nd December 2017 – 24 March 2018 - our blog is based on this time.
We also visited Greece in September, October 2017 (our first time)
Total number of days112
Weeks16
Number of overnight stops56
Longest duration in one spotEight nights (in Kalamata)
Favourite PlacesVourvourlou, Loutra Thermopiles, Acrocorinth, Diros, Monemvasia, Meteora
Cost of living€295.39 per week (costs)

Greece: The Good

There are so many wonderful things to say about Greece that it’s difficult to know where to start. However let me kick off with the people; they are outstandingly friendly and love to enquire as to where we are from. Ply them with a few drinks of Ouzo and you have a friend for life!

We sat one night on a beach with a father and son and offered them Ouzo to keep warm (it was winter after all and the son was an adult). The stories flowed and we soon discovered they had just lost their mother and wife and were out looking for some bonding and reflection time together.

One thing that intrigued me about the people in general that are out and about is the lack of women seen in public. We often saw groups of men, sitting outside or inside Tavernas (Greek for taverns) having a few drinks, laughing, playing cards, smoking, or just chewing the fat with their friends. The cafes were the same, from a couple of men, to a table full of men eating and drinking. But very few women! Where are they all?

Another pastime we noticed, again by the Greek men, was fishing. We often parked near the oceans edge on piers or just simply on the side of the beach. Inevitably there would be at least one man sitting on an upturned bucket or old rickety seat with fishing rod in hand. He would sit there for hours and hours on end. Oftentimes the spoils were few and far between due to the over-fishing of these waters for many years. At times we would offer a conversation and/or drinks, taking them tea or Ouzo depending on the time of day. In return we enjoyed fresh fish and calamari as well as Greek fishing lessons for Alan, which resulted in some tasty dinners for us both.

While on the subject of the ocean, I would have to mention how crystal clear the Mediterranean is in this part of the world. It wasn’t something we expected, and certainly in the south the waters sparked clear showing off its schools of small fish. A lonely turtle was even seen diving around the harbour at Monemvasia.

The beaches ranged from nice white sand, through to large pebbles, and rocks!

The next positive point to mention has to be Greece’s rich and stunning history . We didn’t expect to be visiting castles, archaeological sites and museums quite so much as we did, and we certainly visited our fair share. I must confess, rather self-consciously, to knowing very little about history, let alone Greek history. It had never really interested me in school or as an adult. However if any place is going to change that, it has to be Greece. The history lessons are everywhere for example in the construction techniques of the castles where the various styles of Venetians, Ottomans, Romans, and sometimes the Franks could be clearly identified over the centuries during whichever force was then occupying Greece. Talking about construction, we also learnt to distinguish between Doric and Ionic columns, plus Corinthian columns. Then there were the different styles of walls, buildings, and of course houses. I think I could almost tell you who was ruling in certain regions, due to the road construction still seen today.
One couldn’t think or write about Greece without mentioning olives. The trees are everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Plantations can be seen literally on the side of steep cliffs high up in the mountains, as well as right down on the plains and close to the ocean. I heard someone suggest one-quarter of Crete, the island at the bottom of Greece, is planted in olive trees and given it is the third highest export, behind petroleum (number one) and medications (number two), it wouldn’t surprise me.
So what else kept us in Greece for such a long period?

It has to be the weather. In fact as I start to write this, we have just crossed over to Italy where it’s raining and cold. We went from a balmy 24 degree high in Crete last week, to an overnight temperature of just 5 degrees Celsius last night in Bari, Italy.

The weather in Greece didn’t fail us. We experienced a light dusting of snow in Thessaloniki in the north, a couple of days before Christmas and that was the coldest we felt (about zero overnight). Even this was not cold enough for us to need our heating on all night. Then in Pylos we experienced a once in five year storm, which provided some great pictures as the waves crashed over the pier high enough to cover third story apartments.

Christmas day gave us a very mild 15 degrees and from here as we headed further south the good weather followed. At one stage it was touch and go as to whether or not we would see Meteora due to its high altitude and snow, however the weather gods were with us, and the magic of this place wasn’t hidden, nor was it missed.

Betsy, our Motorhome, doesn’t have snow tires or chains, so we had to be mindful of driving conditions in the winter months. That was never an issue as we headed further south to the Peloponnese region and even less so in Crete, where the warmth was immediately obvious.

We were told to expect fresh beautiful produce in Crete at this time of the year and this was certainly the case. The citrus fruit was abundant and vibrant, (not to mention free and some, like the lemons, were even at Betsy driver’s window height and reach at times), the tomatoes tasty and the aubergines perfect. We made the most of this wonderful resource and not only was the fresh produce beyond our expectations, but the cost of eating, or buying food to cook ourselves was incredibly inexpensive. One thing I noticed that was different to home was that a grocery store often didn’t sell fresh bread as there was often a bakery within 100 metres down the road. Sometimes the fruit and vegetables were limited in the supermarket, especially the smaller ones because there would be a green grocer nearby and the local butcher was also just a few doors down. I understand that this keeps the local producers in business and I liked that we get three or four opportunities to talk to and meet the locals. In saying that, the language barriers were interesting and their language not the easiest to learn, let alone their alphabet and even a simple act of trying to sound out the word was near impossible when you see the Greek alphabet!

Another good point about Greece is the vast amount of attractions to visit. There seems to be no end of opportunities to visit tourist type destinations, like the caves at Diros, the Crete Aquarium in north Crete, literally hundreds of archeological sites, castles, fortresses and not forgetting the acropolises. Some are free of charge like the hot thermal stream we came across in Thermopilion and the world’s supposedly oldest olive tree in Crete. When travelling in the off season many of the entrance tickets are reduced by 50% or they just leave the gates open and you can enter for free.

The scenery varies widely throughout Greece, from tall mountains, rock formations, caves, beautiful sandy beaches, green rolling paddocks, dusty dry paddocks and stunning mountain vistas. One of my personal favourites when it came to scenery was the waters around Vourvourlou in the northern part of Greece in the Chalkidiki Peninsula region.
Being a Cancerian, the star sign of a crab, I am naturally drawn to the water, however I also cannot overlook the absolutely stunning mountain scenery of Meteroa where Monasteries were built thousands of years ago literally on top of tall skinny rock formations and they are still standing today!  To read more about this stunning location, see our Meteora post.
Another plus for me personally, is the cats in Greece. They are adorable, cuddly, and mostly friendly. We miss our cats from home so having the opportunity to enjoy these feline friends was a bonus.
Last but not least is the cost of living in Greece. I suspect that you would struggle to find cheaper living anywhere else in the EU or Schengen countries.

We met a chap from another part of Europe who had rented a house for the winter at one of the lovely beaches in Crete and said he was paying €200 per month for the pleasure. I don’t know how big it was or how many bedrooms, however, I figure that’s a pretty decent figure.

If you wish to find a place to sit, relax, soak up the culture and sun, and not have it cost you the earth, then look no further. It’s definitely one of the pluses of Greece.

Greece: The Bad

 

When thinking about the ‘bad’ I have included the maintenance, or lack thereof, that is particularly evident throughout Greece. I am talking about maintenance of buildings, roads, pavements, and local facilities like water taps. While I say this is bad, I would actually rather put this in the ‘sad’ category (if I was to write one).

This lack of maintenance appears to be part of the financial crisis Greece has been in for some years. They still seem to be struggling to find the money to fix basic local government infrastructure. Unfortunately that is one thing that tourists notice and may make decisions about staying longer or coming back based on the ability to access some services, or the general appearance of the country

The interesting thing is that if basic maintenance is overlooked for too long, the cost becomes more expensive, i.e. replacement of lampposts are expensive, whereas painting them to prevent the rust happening would have been a cheaper option. However, the fiscal purse strings and their priorities must be a real headache for those governing and charged with this responsibility. Glad it’s not my job.

It would have been interesting to see Greece before this country was swallowed up in the financial crisis as I think it would have provided an additional layer of harmony to this lovely country.

The lack of money doesn’t just extend to the local government’s purse, as there are several partially privately built homes that have simply been abandoned in the midst of construction. Some have been weathered and starting to fall down, others have trees growing through them, whilst others have been tagged with graffiti.   This too best sits in the ‘sad’ category.

The next ‘bad’ thing on my list is…

Parking!

The parking lines mean nothing, zilch, naught, nada. At some time, in the deep distant past they were painted on the ground as decoration or to use up excess white paint leftover from something else important. Now there is just the faint vestige of colour to indicate that there is supposed to be some order to the parking. Cars can park on the footpath, (people can then happily walk on the roads, not that they need an excuse) and there’s never any hurry or urgency to get off the road. Parking can happen in any direction also which is handy when you have one of those tiny “Ka’s” or “Smartcars”.  You can park parallel, angled (in parallel spots), head on, nose in, back in, on a pedestrian crossing, the curve of a corner, or just double or triple park alongside other cars providing you put your hazard lights on as this indicates a legitimate car park!

You soon discover this is only bad until you need to do the same thing yourself, and then you are grateful for those who pioneered this phenomenon before you.

It would be remiss of me to mention parking without delving into some of the finer points of driving.

In Greece the road speed limits are purely a guide. They don’t have any legal ramifications at all. And overtaking must, and I mean must only be attempted when approaching a blind corner on a narrow windy road. Passing on long straight roads with kilometers of visibility is to be discouraged otherwise you may lose your Greek identity. Making an extra lane when there isn’t any is encouraged as is under-passing (passing on the blind side). If you travel slowly then driving on the shoulder is for you so you can allow the oncoming vehicles to pass safely while overtaking on a blind corner in the pouring rain at speed.

It’s also a national sport to see how close you can cut into the vehicle you’ve just passed without hitting them. The closer you get the higher the score.

Other than that, the driving and parking is perfect in Greece.

Next on my list is the Rules – or lack thereof. Now when writing this I didn’t know if the lack of rules should go in the good or bad category. So the jury is still out, keep reading and see what category you would put this into.

When we talk about lack of rules we often refer to the signposts that tell us what we can or cannot do. For example, the ‘No Parking’ sign seems to encourage people to park underneath or near it. The ‘Stop’ sign at an intersection actually means just slow down and give way, there’s really no need to stop if you don’t want to. Or perhaps you can just park under it.

Who said you can’t park near a stop sign??
Then the solid double white lines on the road don’t actually mean no passing, they just mean pass more quickly and cut in sooner than otherwise acceptable and that cars coming the other way should be driving over on their hard shoulder to give you room.

The use of mobile phones while driving I believe is normally a no-no in most countries, however in Greece the rules don’t apply. In fact the best time to use your mobile phone is when riding your scooter with trucks traveling towards you at speed head on, and as the rider you keep both your hands on the phone! I kid you not. In fact we had this recorded on dash cam and unfortunately I didn’t keep the footage before it got overwritten. Can you imagine our horror seeing the person on the scooter traveling at 50kms with no hands steering it and no eyes on the road or on other traffic. Scary stuff!

While still on the subject of driving, we anecdotally heard that a driver’s license in Greece is unofficially optional. When having a collision with another vehicle, it’s a rarity to find the driver actually licensed. This makes for an interesting insurance claim. I’m grateful we didn’t get to experience this first hand.

One of our favourite ‘no rules’ is that motorhomes can park and camp overnight wherever they like. This we used to our advantage when wild camping most nights. Given how beautiful the scenery is throughout Greece, to be able to stop and camp with the ocean outside our door every morning enjoying million dollar views was absolutely priceless. Back home in New Zealand, people would literally pay top dollar to see the views we woke up to every morning.

Bali Beach, Greece in winter. No shops, cafes, or restaurants are open – just the beaches, which suits us down to the ground
Ruins are everywhere and we love that they remain original.
I hope this ‘no rule’ rule is never rebuked, as it’s one of the attractions of Greece, in my humble opinion.

The last ‘bad’ item on my list is another one for the ‘sad’ category. And that is the high taxes imposed on those running businesses. I say this is bad and sad because I am guessing that this is a symptom of the financial crisis and the controls imposed by the organisations who have lent Greece so much money. The VAT tax in Greece reaches a high of 24 per cent on some purchases. Therefore it’s no wonder that many companies run cash businesses and offer lower prices for cash. It’s good for the purchasers, but doesn’t help the economy or the government to get back on their feet quickly.

Other taxes are not exempt, for example income tax, company tax and road tolls (another tax) are all very high. We wonder how the locals afford to drive on the motorways as these are the highest tolls we have come across to date.

When walking down the street of one unnamed town, we saw a sign on the shop door of a hairdresser saying “closed due to tax fraud”. The government authorities obviously caught up with this business owner. Interestingly this sign was in English as well as Greek.

That’s it for my ‘bad’ list.

Greece: The Ugly

 

Before I tell you what’s on my ‘ugly list’ I want to share a true story.

I mentioned to a fellow motorhome owner that I was writing this story and the first question was ‘what is the ugly?’. I was surprised that someone would jump straight to the ugly. Is this human nature? Are we curious, or do we just like to get into the dirt immediately?

This threw me a bit because there are so many good items on my list that I would rather have shared, but this camper didn’t want to know about them.

Now that I’ve kept you in suspense long enough here’s my list of ugly for Greece.

Rubbish!

That’s it; rubbish is the only thing that made it onto my ugly list.

Let me explain. In fact pictures show a thousand words.

It was sad to come across this in such a beautiful location.  So we decided to do something about it, instead of just grumbling.

Here we are in the most angelic spot of Greece, the Chalkidiki Peninsula and we came across this mess. In looking through the rubbish it actually appears to be left by someone camping. Is this the work of locals camping or tourists? I don’t know and I don’t want to guess.

And that started our mission to collect other people’s rubbish from the area around where we stayed for the night.

However the beautiful beaches of Greece are also littered with rubbish with the biggest culprit being plastic bottles. I know this is not a surprise to many, especially to those working with or supporting the organisations who make it their business to rid the world of plastic.

So what can we do about it?

We made it our mission to clean up wherever we stay. Before we leave an overnight location we collect at least one rubbish bag full of garbage and deposit it in the local nearby bins. What’s interesting is that there are ample bins around Greece but yet rubbish doesn’t find its way into them. We shared this on a couple of Motorhoming Facebook pages and were overwhelmed with the support we had from fellow motorhomers.

I have another solution to the rubbish problem in Greece and that is EDUCATION. At school in New Zealand we were taught to be a “Tidy Kiwi”. This instilled national pride into the country and forty years later it has stayed with us.

I suggested on my Facebook post that instead of children selling chocolate to raise funds, I propose we pay them for every bag of rubbish they remove from the beaches and parks around their area. This is a win/win solution as it will also bring awareness to the issue of unsightly rubbish and hopefully prevent these children from becoming offenders in the future.

Rant over.

Greece: The Costs

During our time in Greece, 112 days, we spent €295.39 per week. This was made up of an average €92.31 per week on groceries, €5.19 on lunches out, €11.61 on dinners and €4.21 on food, which is basically street food. Our grocery budget included cat food, not for our cat (we don’t have one) but for many strays we encountered as you saw above.

The grocery total excluded alcohol which was recorded separately. The entertainment/attractions budget had us investing €165.50 (€41.37 per week) on our (my) history lessons.

This weekly figure didn’t include maintenance on Betsy, our Motorhome.

Our travel costs were €40.50 per week, which included among other things the cost of traveling to and from Crete by ferry. The trip over on 6th February 2018 from Githio to Kissamos cost €232 and returning on 22nd March 2018 to the same port, the cost was €202.

If I was to extrapolate all the above costs to a monthly figure, we are looking at roughly €1,290 per month, (€300 x 4.3 weeks per month). This sits at the lower end of an expected €1,200 – €1,500 per month that many people reportedly budget on for typical monthly living expenses while touring in a motorhome around Europe.

Greece: Where we visited

Below are the various locations where we visited in Greece during the months of December 2017 to March 2018, roughly in the order of our stay. Our first time in Greece was to go sailing around Skiathos and Skopelos in September 2017.

We have GPS coordinates and motorhome service details for each location, which we are happy to share on an individual basis. Please feel free to drop us an email should you be interested in this level of detail.

Greece MainlandPeloponnese Region** Island of CreteGreece Mainland
VolosKyparissa Kissamoss Monemvasia **
Leptokarya Lemon BeachPilos (Pylos**)KoymvariNafplio
ThessalonikiMethoni ** MalemeMycenae
Agios VasileiosThines Chania Iguana BeachKato Vasiliki
Kavala Batis BeachKoroni Livadi Beach (Bali) Menidi
AlexandropulousKalamataHeraklion Igoumentisa
Nea Iraklitsa Agios Nikolaos Thalassokosmos
OlimpiadaNeo Itilio Agios Nikolaus
Chalkidiki Peninsula
Mani Region Irapetra
Vourvourlou * Diros ** Kata Kastelliana
Nikiti Harbour Mavrovouni Matala Beach *
Neos Marmarus Githio Rethymno
Meteora **
Loutra Thermopiles *
Delphi
Aspropyrgos
Athens
Korinthos
Acrocorinth *
Aigio
Agios Vasileios
Patras
Ag. Panteleimon
Olympia
* Depicts favourite places that are un-miss-able!
** Our all time favourite places to visit – check out our blogs on these places

Driving in Italy

Driving in Italy

Driving in Italy can be fun and it can be a little bit challenging at times…

Today is one of those days that will stick in the memory and be a talking point, as well as a show and tell opportunity, for many years to come.

Why?

Because it was the day we took the non-toll (aka free) route to our destination and nearly came unstuck.

Looking at these roads, otherwise called spaghetti, we should have known better.

Take another look at that photo above.  When driving in Italy and following a GPS you need to know that  the pink road is our destination (according to Emily our GPS), then the green are secondary roads, the orange other main roads we could take, the blue is a river, and the grey, well don’t go near the grey, they are narrow and horrible.

You see we came across a very poorly maintained secondary road, which apparently is okay according to Emily who knows Betsy (our motorhome’s) dimensions.  However, someone had decided to place two huge concrete blocks and barriers accross the road with a miserly 2.2m gap between them.

How wide is Betsy?

Well, err, um, she is 2.2m wide.

So, what would you do if you were driving in Italy?  No, really, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

Stop for a moment to contemplate your fate here.

They say the operator always blames his tools.  Alan, the mild-mannered ‘hardly ever swears’ one blames Emily.  He even called her a b*t*h!  He never(!) uses that word because he knows I hate that word.

Anyway, here’s what we did.

I got out to survey the opportunity or lack thereof.  Watch the videos to see what happened next.  Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to hide on the dash cam video that picks up every word (sorry)!

When I got back into Betsy I was nervous that the barrier was an indication of narrow roads ahead.  The driver of the car that passed us suggested we should turn around (spoken in Italian so that we could only assume that’s what he was saying – despite our language learning lessons).  I was envisioning a 5 metre long bridge that was 2.2m wide.  Alan thought that slips ahead could potentially have washed out the road and provided a 2.2m clear way.  Understandable given we have driven past snow on the road today in these high mountains.  It was just three weeks ago when it was mandatory to carry winter tyres!

We nervously carried on our way thinking that we will cross that bridge when we come to it, so to speak. Or we will turn around and go back. The thought of going back was nerve-wracking.  It would have to be the lesser of two evils.

There always has to be a silver lining when driving in Italy, right?  That’s how the universe works, doesn’t it?

I hope so.

In fact, I believe so, because we were richly rewarded with the views.

OMG!  Villa Santa Maria!!!!!

Look at the picture above.  Can you just imagine coming across this when you are driving in Italy?

We drove around a corner and saw this sight.  It came out of nowhere, it was unannounced, on no tourist destination, and almost felt like a town forgotten by time.  She is so beautiful “bella” they say in Italian.  We would love to go down there and explore if Betsy wasn’t so large.  I doubt anyone down there speaks English, let alone having ever seen a 7.5m long motorhome in their streets before.

There are townships and villages stuck on the side of rock faces everywhere we look when driving in Italy, particularly on the mountainous backroads.  Why would people live like this?  The answer is, ‘possibly’ because they always have and why not.

I think there would be very few motorhomes taking this route, however, should you feel keen, then you too will be richly rewarded when you are driving in Italy.

Fortunately, there were no washouts, narrow bridges or any other thing for that matter to justify the 2.2m width restriction.  Maybe they just had some excess concrete blocks they needed to put somewhere?  There were, however, two other blocks placed 2.2m wide another 10km or so further down the road, but this time there was another lane with some barriers that we could, and did, dismantle and moved so we had a comfortable 3m or more to cruise through.  Phew!

 

 

 

Erice – The Mountain of the Gods

Erice – The Mountain of the Gods

by Alan Gow  |  April 2018  |  Sicily, Italy

Seven hundred and fifty metres above sea level, atop the mountain of San Giuliano and overlooking the city of Trapani sits the medieval town of Erice, or as it is pronounced in Sicily, “Air-reach-ay”.

For nearly 3,000 years this unique place has inspired man to contemplate the deeper meaning of life and his/her relationship with the gods.

We had read other travellers accounts of their pilgrimage to Erice, and their recollections of their experiences here placed this mystical spot firmly near the top of the ‘must-do’ list for Sicily.

Our travels around Sicily had so far been confined to the coasts and this was our first foray up into the mountains that crowd much of Sicily’s interior.  We hoped to see beautiful churches, ancient buildings, mountainous landscapes and to sample some of the local delicacies while we were there.  We were not disappointed.

Our short journey from our last stopping place near Capo San Vito was unremarkable until we saw San Giuliano, the mountaintop partly shrouded in mist, with the Erice perched on top and clinging on tightly.  Betsy happily climbed the steep road to the summit, regularly dodging buses on tight hairpin bends.

We pulled up outside the ancient Spada Gate, parked up beside the other campers and immediately poked our noses inside the town walls.   The wide path directly to our right sloped steeply alongside the ancient walls which were originally constructed around 800 BC.

Steep road inside Erice’s 800 BC  walls
Directly ahead was a flatter path leading to a church and beyond.  We pulled our noses back in and took in our wider surroundings.  The view from our lofty parking spot was over the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea and the lush countryside we had traversed that day.  The parking area was fringed with a profusion of yellow, orange and blue wildflowers and the only sound was the wind rustling the trees which towered over the lichen covered stone walls behind us.

This is what we absolutely love about the motorhoming lifestyle – being able to park and sleep beside absolutely unique and astounding landmarks and sites, where all the money in the world couldn’t buy you a room.

Betsy’s view from Erice

Betsy’s view from Erice

We couldn’t help ourselves and just had to have a quick looksie around the area while it was still reasonably light and warmish.

At this altitude the wind certainly had a bit more bite so we took some warmer clothing just in case.  Unloaded the bikes and we were off through the Spada Gate only to meet a small on-coming truck – how the hell was he going to fit through there???  Somehow, he made it with a couple of centimetres on either side of his wing mirrors.  He had clearly done that before.

It seems that everywhere in this village there is a unique story to tell and the gory story of the Spada Gate (Gate of the Sword) was the massacre of the French Angevins in 1282, who were occupying Erice during the Sicilian Vespers Wars. We made it through un-massacred fortunately.

The track went steeply upwards and was obviously not made for bikes, (not even ebikes like ours) and included some gravel and rough paths.  But we made it safely onto the streets of what is said to be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.  The first thing that struck me was how they have built the roads.  The stones are laid in an eye-catching geometric pattern which combined with the grass growing up through the cracks created a very attractive effect.  Four long stones are chamfered at both ends and butted up to each other to form a square, which is then infilled with other stones to make a solid road.  The result is not just aesthetically pleasing but also robust as nearly all of the roads are in good condition despite having to cope with modern traffic.

The Stone Lattice of Erice’s Roads

The Road and Wall of the Royal Cathedral

This same technique was used for both the larger roads and smaller footpaths and perfectly complimented the local stone buildings.

Erice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sicily and can be reached by private car, bus, taxi or via cable car from nearby Trapani.  In the summer it is usually heaving with tourists but on this pleasant autumn evening the crowds were nearly non-existent.

No-one can visit Erice without popping into some of the nearly 60 churches of historical value.  Why so many churches you may ask?  Well, it seems that the site has been occupied since at least 800 BC, conquered and resettled by many cultures and virtually everyone has considered Erice to be a special, sacred place.  Therefore, every civilisation left traces of their unique religious heritage in the form of history, ruins, churches and traditions, which we can still appreciate today.

We made great progress around the town, ever thankful for the convenience and ease afforded to us by our ebikes and came across the Chiesa San Martino.  This is one of the most impressive of all the churches, built in the 1600’s on the site of a 14th-century Gothic church.  We wanted to get a head start on our sightseeing so we purchased the discounted tickets for seeing eight of the best buildings, only to find out that two were closed – ever mindful of getting the best value for money, I was a little dismayed to lose 25% of the discount before we even started.

You would think that after having visited dozens of churches, cathedrals and mosques in Italy, Greece and Turkey over the last ten months, it would all become a bit old for us – the ABC of Europe (Another Bloody Church), but no, we still had our breath taken away regularly.

One of these occasions was previously at the Monreale Cathedral and today was another epic one.

The majesty, the elegance, the lightness and the opulence just grabs hold of your bottom jaw and wrenches it as open as it can possibly go.  Many churches are darkened and you have to look hard to see their hidden treasures but San Martino is white and light grey, delicate stuccos, bright frescos, mottled columns and intricately inlaid marble altars, floors and bannisters.  Best of all, we were totally alone in this treasure to enjoy the solitude and to marvel at the workmanship and quality of the restoration work.

San Martino Church Interior

San Martino Church

San Martino Church Ceiling

Still buzzing from our experience, we wandered down the steep decline of Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Monastari de San Salvatore, which to be honest was a bit of a let-down after our last high, as it was completely unrestored, and many rooms were closed off.  There were however the original ovens (in use until relatively recently) used by the monks to bake bread and the local speciality, sweets.

Original Monastery Ovens

By this time, it was starting to cool down and the wind was whistling through the narrow streets like a herd of screaming banshees so we high tailed back to Betsy for dinner and bed.

As the sun dropped below the horizon we were blessed with a lovely sunset and we couldn’t wait to get started tomorrow and see what else Erice had to offer us.

The sun sets over Erice (and Betsy)

The next day thwarted the weather forecast and dawned misty and cool instead of bright and sunny.  Apparently, Erice makes up its own mind about its weather and tends to like hiding in the clouds.  Probably to keep up that mystical appearance.  Tendrils of mist wafted around Betsy and blocked out the view below and the peak above.  This didn’t seem like good ‘cycling-around-Erice’ weather so we rested up and waited for the clouds to clear.  Once the sun was shining we cycled around the road to the main gate of Porta Trapani, which was close to two buildings on our hit list; Duomo Dell’Assunta (Cathedral of the Assumption), otherwise known as the “Royal Cathedral” and the Bell Tower beside the church.

The Bell Tower was a little freaky to climb up inside and is no place for anyone who is claustrophobic as with a ducked head you climb the tiny staircase that wraps around the inside walls.  We both managed to navigate our way to the top.

This was originally built as a watchtower to look out for enemies so the view from the top was spectacular as expected.  From the town and salt marshes of Trapani with the cable car stretching to Erice, to the inland pastures and mountains and over the roofs of the township, everything could be seen for miles around.

The view over the town roofs from the Duomo (Royal Cathedral) Bell Tower

If entering Chiesa San Martino was a ‘wow’ moment, then the Duomo (Royal Cathedral) was at least as big a ‘Wow’ and maybe even a little wowier (is that even a word??).  How can they have made each of these churches so different inside?  They are similar in how they are laid out but so varied in the details that each appears entirely unique.  What stood out here initially was the ceiling of the Gothic arches, which was an amazingly detailed lattice of cream stucco, originating from restoration work in the mid-1800’s.  Each nave and apse held new treasures to exclaim over and photograph.

Royal Cathedral Interior

On our day went, with the visiting of buildings only briefly interrupted by a quick sidestep into a bakery for a selection of local sweets and pastries, one of which was so loaded with alcohol we weren’t sure we should be riding our bikes afterwards.

After lunch, we rode around to the 12th-century Norman Castle of Erice or the Venus Castle, so called because it is built on top of an ancient Temple to the Goddess of Fertility.  The castle is not large but still looks spectacular perched high on the walls and surrounded by clouds of spring wildflowers.  Inside there is not a lot to see however again the outlook is out of this world and you could image the pagans carrying on their fertility rites here a couple of thousands of years ago (well what you can imagine will depend on your imagination eh?).

Castle of Erice (Venus Castle)

The View from Venus Castle

Meandering further around the outskirts we found the twin medieval towers of the Torri dal Balio and stunning panoramic views over the sea and landscape.  Looking down you can see the Torretta Pepoli, which is a small quaint castle built in 1870 that is now a place for quiet reflection.

Panoramic from the Torri  dal Balio

The Torretta Pepoli and Venus Castle

The Torretta Pepoli – 19th Century Castle

The Church of Saint Giuliano was our last church stop in Erice and was a little understated compared with what we had seen previously – I guess they can’t all be just outright amazing.  The plain white interior still exhibited nice stucco features.

Church of Saint Giuliano

Church of Saint Giuliano

Of particular interest were the Easter (Pasqua) religious displays which are carried through the village during the Easter parades.  We were there just in time as someone turned up and started removing them while we were looking at them.

Church of Saint Giuliano

Church of Saint Giuliano

We ended our time in Erice with a final cycle through the steep streets and around the central square then back to Betsy, where we slept a second night before continuing on our way towards Marsala.

The overall impression I had of Erice is a sense of the very long and continuous relationship between man and God that has existed in this place.  While other towns in Sicily have been sacked, burned or toppled by earthquakes (often all three), Erice has consistently displayed the reverence and devotion to faith of whomever has occupied her.  As far as I can see there is no sign of that changing any time soon.

Experiencing an Italian Two Star Michelin Restaurant

Experiencing an Italian Two Star Michelin Restaurant

by Ruth Murdoch  |  April 2018  | Sicily, Italy

Why would someone dine at a fancy Two Star Michelin Restaurant when they can cook great food themselves?

Reaching deep into my purse and parting with hard earned cash just to fill ones stomach for an evening doesn’t sit well with my financial values. In fact this traveller has avoided such gastronomic pleasures.

That is, until today.

After a hearty recommendation from a wine expert in Marsala, we decided what better time to indulge in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant experience ourselves than when in Italy?  After all, we only live once, right? Although we didn’t need another excuse, we also had a second, Alan’s birthday provided the perfect reason and soon we were booked and looking forward with keen anticipation.

One can only assume that in order to achieve such accolades of not one, but two, Michelin Stars there must have been hours and hours of hard work slaving over a hot stove only to have someone scoff the food within a matter of minutes.  Then there would be the wait for praise or criticism by some apparent food critic that could change your reputation (one way or the other) after a single plateful or two of toiled delights.

It so happens that the Michelin stars are the most coveted food award that a restaurant can achieve. The reviewers are all one hundred percent anonymous and the stars are based only on the quality of food. The ambience, furnishings and the quality of the service are not supposed to make any difference.  Although the exact judging criteria are nearly secret, in order to win two stars the chef will generally have to display unusual creativity, use unique and specially sourced top quality ingredients, and display exceptionally high consistency in their dishes. 

Two Star Michelin Restaurants are supposedly inspected monthly and just one less-than-perfect dish can be enough to drop one or even two stars. Gordon Ramsay is said to have cried when his New York restaurant lost its stars due to inconsistency.

So is it really worthwhile?

Let me tell you about our first ever experience worldwide dining in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant, let alone an Italian one.

Ristorante la Madia can be found in the most insignificant streets of Licata, a smallish town located on the south coast of Sicily, at the mouth of the Salso River, about midway between Agrigento and Gela.

With just a small nameplate to identify its almost hidden location, we arrived at the frosted glass door of the entrance to Ristorante la Madia at 8.02pm for our 8pm reservation, only to find the door was locked!

What restaurant would lock its doors after the opening time? Were we even in the right place, on the right day, at the right time, or had they just forgotten to unlock the front door?  It seems that our door knocking eventually landed on someone’s ears, and the door is opened by two impeccably uniformed maître d’s.

Welcoming smiles saw us entering the unassuming premises and we notice the door is locked again behind us. This felt like we are entering a private, somehow exclusive, establishment we have been granted temporary access for the evening.  One maître d takes our jackets while the other confirmed our reservation.  I cringed as Alan handed over his leather jacket to expose a very un-ironed shirt underneath (it’s not easy to get creases out when you live in a motorhome and you can’t justify the space or weight that an iron would require).

Having confirmed our reservation, we are led down a short hallway into a sparsely, but classically decorated room.  Two walls have simple light brown timber panelling with a couple of quotes in Italian (of course).  The other two walls are painted a dark grey, almost looking sad and dreary.  I spied an old-fashioned record player with some vinyls (on top was Tracey Chapman) sitting on a ledge, which unfortunately just sits idle all evening.

Clearly, this place is about the food, not the music.

A curiously uninspiring single photo adorned the room.  I ask myself, “who puts up a photo of a couple of bed sheets hanging on a washing line with a cat in the yard?” Even the cobblestones beneath the cat were obviously not staged as they were amassed with weeds growing in what little sand they could find.  If this photo is intended to piqué ones curiosity then it achieved its goal. Perhaps it meant something to the chef?

Looking around, there is just one window that is located behind my seat, enclosing a small courtyard with various ceramics and green plants.

That is the extent of the lavish décor of this Two Star Michelin Restaurant.  Artistically pretentious this place was not and I just hope the food is of a higher standard than the ambience.

As we settle in for the evening, we ask to sit side by side, only to be politely told ‘no’. Whether our request is lost in translation or not, we didn’t push the point. The seating appeared to be meticulously planned and who are we to upset their careful creation?  Looking around I counted 23 place settings and assumed, incorrectly, that the restaurant was in for a busy night.  Sadly, there were just three couples keeping the staff on their toes this evening.

Menus are delivered, in Italian of course.

Our very basic understanding of Italian and even Google Translate cannot help us decipher what was being offered as the words just don’t seem to translate into anything sensible.  With some assistance from the waiter, we settle on a menu heavily weighted towards seafood and look forward to enjoying the evening.

We order sparkling water, which is the easy part whilst I combed through the vino (wine) list.

The most beautiful tall fine steamed wine glasses I have ever seen arrived on our table.  Being tactile, I can’t help but touch and am instantly taken back into my childhood where I could hear Mum say ‘don’t touch, you’ll break it’. The delicate glass is fitting for the fine Chardonnay that soon follows.

On each of the tables sits an odd diamond shaped clay jug decorated with a face and has a fish for the lid. What this is for, we never found out. There was also literally a small rock of pink, almost translucent, salt and a miniature grater.

Cute!

I wondered if this is more for decoration than use, as I would expect the dish to be perfectly seasoned before leaving the kitchen.

The first dish to arrive is an unexpected treat from the chef.  A kind of pre-starter to our seven courses, because in traditional Italian cooking, and especially in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant as we are learning, the chef must ensure the guests are well fed!

The thin outer buffalo casing is the skim off the cheese with its delicate flavours enticing.  Perched on top sits finely grated herbs, green mint leaves, and a thick tomato jelly type dollop (sorry that’s not an official description).  Inside we are delighted to find a fluffy aerated buffalo mozzarella cheese centre that seems to dissolve like a savoury candyfloss in your mouth, surrounded with a cold, smooth, flavoursome pomodoro zuppa (tomato soup).

If this is any indication of the other food yet to come, then bring it on.

I’m looking forward to an evening filled with intrigue and discovery, and that’s exactly what unfolded.

Next to arrive is a variety of two breads – warm crusty wholemeal bread obviously fresh from the oven and breadsticks with the finest Sicilian olive oil.  I had never before laid eyes on such green olive oil.  The waiter pours his precious liquid gold into the small dish sitting patiently beside the bread.

This was no ordinary oil – it is the best money could buy and is treated with the utmost respect.  It appears the waiter has earned the right to possess such an important ingredient in our presence with his fine wrist movements, slow gentle pouring, and slight twist at the end preventing spillage.

The next delight to adorn our table is a delicate scallop and prawn temptation that is out of this world in both presentation and taste.

The outer scallop casing appears to be scallop rolled thinly and placed back into the shell to resemble the shape of a traditional scallop shell.  Atop are fine slivers of orange zest that appeared to have been soaking in pure orange fragrance, as the flavours are intense, making this a welcomed original tang away from the usual lemon citrus one would expect to find with seafood.

Now I’m getting into the swing of this Two Star Michelin Restaurant food experience.

Towards the rear of the outer shell casing a delicious light pink sauce peaks through.  Created from the orange scallop roe this dressing is silky smooth and delicately sits on ones tongue to enrich the flavours suitable only for the finest seafood.  Inside the scallop casing rests poached prawns cooked within milliseconds of perfection and sliced lengthwise.  Cooked for one second longer or shorter and the prawns would have been spoiled (or so it seemed).  They are perfect.

Arranged and served upon finely sliced crispy fresh lettuce, the prawns nestle into a circle, hugging each other while the roe dressing intertwines to coat each element and brings together a skilfully balanced creation.

How can this food get any better?

Just you wait…

Each dish is served on a silver platter by two professional waiters and beautifully presented before our expectant eyes.

I watch as a theatrical play appears to unfold before our eyes.  The performers make us believe we are the most important people in their lives at that very moment and they live only to serve.

Next is ‘rock octopus’, according to the waiters?  I’d never heard of rock octopus.

Ah, it means octopus in a rock.

Here the octopus is beautifully presented in a foam-like, slightly crunchy, aerated dark pink coloured outer casing which resembles the rocks from where it once may have lived.

Unfortunately for this poor octopus, it poked its head out to a waiting and willing fisherman and wound up on our table for our tasting pleasure.

Within the ‘rock’ and under the octopus is a fragrant and flavoursome sauce concocted from mussels, sea urchins and other oceanic delights.  The octopus has obviously been marinating for some time, as it is perfectly tender.

What a shame to break open and eat this delicious dish as in doing so means destroying the masterful culinary art that has obviously taken hours of design, tasting, testing, and reengineering, to arrive at the final goal of perfection.

A lovely card preceded the following dish that provides the story of Mamma (I presume the chef’s mother) and the Atalunga Tuna.

On one side is a picture of a Mamma and child and the other side holds the story that the chef wants to impart to his diners.

For those of you who can speak or wish to practice your Italian, here are the beautiful Italian words, followed by my close translation below.

Memoria Visiva

 Un po’ tutti siamo cresiuti con la fettina. 

La fettina era l’attenzione della mamma quando le sembravamo magri o ammala ti. 

Era una fettina sottile e tenerisdima, quasi non masticabile, condita solo con un po d’olio e limone.

Un piatto semplice e nutrien te.

Questo piatto di Tonno Alalunga e un omaggio all’amore delle nostre mamme e alla memoria della nostra infanzia.

Per me, il suo simbolo piu forte e il seme del limone: la perfezione imperfetta del gesto domestici… Mai una mamma lo avrebbe tol to, mai una mamma lo avrebbe fat to mancare.

 

Visual Memory

From little, we grew up with the slice.

The slice was the mother’s attention when we looked thin or sick. 

It was a thin slice and tender, almost not chewable, seasoned only with a little oil and lemon. 

A simple and nutritious dish.

This dish of Alalunga Tuna is a tribute to the love of our mothers

and to the memory of our childhood.

For me, its strongest symbol is the lemon seed:

the imperfect perfection of the domestic gesture…

Never a mother would have taken it away, never a mother would have missed it.

This thin slice of tuna is the third dish to grace our table.

It was lightly seared on one side, drizzled with oil and the slightest hint of lemon, miniature chives and one perfectly placed lemon seed in the middle. (No this wasn’t a mistake, as both plates had the seed strategically placed in the centre of the tuna).  Sprinkled lovingly with crystals of rock salt this addition provides a delightful crunch and adds more flavour to Mamma’s dish.  Served lukewarm this is a simple but delicious dish and every bite melts in our mouths like it need not be chewed.

By this stage, we are really enjoying ourselves and the flavours of each dish seem to complement the one before.

We wait for the next masterpiece with a sense of anticipation and expectation, as we know we are in the presence of a culinary magician.  What appears before us next does not disappoint.

Sicilian food traditionally features a lot of pasta and aubergines but what turns up now is far from traditional.

I guess it is this sort of creativity that is expected in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant.

The al dente (harder than we’re used to at home) thin spaghetti is wrapped tightly around what appears to be a whole baby aubergine, stalk intact.  This is topped with a special Italian tomato sauce, miniature basil leaves and finely grated ricotta (I think) cheese.

I open the parcel to reveal that the aubergine has been transformed into a buttery smooth puree that was wonderfully flavoured and perfectly seasoned.  Multo saporito! – “very flavoursome” are the best Italian words I can come up with to describe this dish.

We ask for another bottle of wine as the beautiful vino that has been accompanying us all night has run dry.

The waiter won’t or can’t allow us to have another Chardonnay.  Again we didn’t know if this is lost in translation or they just didn’t want to sell another expensive bottle of Chardonnay.  The waiter, however, has a half bottle of something he is willing to serve us, which for me, unfortunately, tastes just like a Sauvignon Blanc – the one white wine I actually detest.

Alan, bless him, takes one for the team and devours this all by himself.  For me, it’s sparkling water from here on in.

Given that we still have a few dishes due, it is somewhat of a pity to be denied a decent tipple to accompany them – this is Italian food after all!  

Moving right along…

The name of the menu we are enjoying is called “Illusion” and had been specially created by the chef so that each dish would be a surprise and would be somehow magical.

This was best demonstrated with the next delight.

I’m not a big barbeque flavour fan at all, in fact, I would run a mile from that smoky, burnt, charred ash flavour.

To my delight, the coals were nothing more than part of the illusion (thank goodness for good logic and a sense of humour).  Lying before us was steak and potato, but not as ordinary as my label might suggest.

On the first pass, the beef looks raw.

Served just above warm in temperature, this melt-in-your-mouth beef, which appears to have been cooked in sous vide style, lives up to the expectations I have now come to realise is all part and parcel of a two Michelin Star restaurant.

I could get used to this and become an expert in things food (or at least be the taster).

The detail on our plate is impeccable; from the finely sliced square of rock salt on the beef to the tiny specs of ash sitting below the oil and the jacket potato which needs no further flavours for enhancement.

The spud and beef are perfectly complemented.

Wisps of breath over the top of the charcoal and she lights up, (providing one doesn’t blow too hard and decorate the table with ash – Alan!). The glow adds to the theatrical intrigue of a dish simply labelled by the waiter as “BBQ steak”.

There is nothing simple about this divine dish.

Unsurprisingly, I’m getting full now.

Just two dishes to go… Pre dolche and dolche (before sweet and sweet).

Making room for the next scene, everything is cleared away from our table silently and without fuss by the waiter whose experience shows through his lack of intrusion into our space.

Now for the dessert…

But wait, before the dessert I must sample the Masala, especially as we had recently visited the township down the road and bought a bottle after an enjoyable Marsala tasting session. (Plus, there’s only so much sparkling water one can drink in an evening!)  I just love the glass the Marsala is served in, another favourite!  I grasp it with a full hand underneath and navigate it to my lips!  Yum.  Just as well my hands are no smaller, or the glass any larger.

The ‘ore dolce’ is first to come to our table, it’s a mandarin jelly bursting with incredibly intense citrus flavours topped with pistachio nuts.  Yum.

This pre-dolce is, I assume, to cleanse the palate before the final act appears on our stage.

Take a good look at the photo and pretend you can move it – then imagine how the wobble moves in front of you.  The bottom appears fixed to the plate while the top dances all around as far as it can reach.  Such fun.

The final dish appears.

Tiramisu!  My all-time favourite Italian dessert for me and for Alan, the Profiteroles.  The Tiramisu, whilst incredibly creamy, was on the strong side for a non-coffee drinker.  I know, I know, I’m in Italy and I don’t drink coffee!  Perhaps that is what kept me awake all night.

Alan’s dessert was past his lips, over the tongue, and down into the depths of his stomach within minutes (if not seconds).  A hazelnut moose on a slightly chewy base garnished with two freshly split juicy raspberries and a single mint leaf on top.  A colourful and divine plate.

We go to bed with full bellies, a smile on our faces and the memory of the best gustatory delights of our trip to Europe so far.  I doubt we could find a better restaurant in all our travels.

If this is what a Two Star Michelin Restaurant is like, I’m in.

We just need to figure out how to make the budget stretch to enjoy more delights like those professionally served at Ristorante la Madia.

Pino Cuttaia, the creator of this fine theatrical experience greeted us with his presence, post scoffing.  I love it when Chefs do this.  It’s like there’s no place to hide and we can ask questions of him, compliment him, or pick his brains for the recipe.  Just kidding, I doubt he’d give me his recipes in any case.  With his limited English and our limited Italian, the smiles said it all.

So what did we think of our fine dining experience?

I would rather visit one special restaurant a year than ten ordinary restaurants if this is the quality of food on offer.  The entire evening was delightful and I’ll soon be looking for the next excuse, reason, or occasion to find another Two Star Michelin Restaurant…

La Madia is unaware of our review and we paid for our meal in full (in case you were wondering).

La Madia Snc Restaurant – Corso F. Re Capriata, 22 – Licata (Ag) – Tel. (+39) 0922 771443 – info@ristorantelamadia.it P.iva 02292500846 Visit their website

A Good, Good Friday in Sicily

A Good, Good Friday in Sicily

Easter’s Good Friday started with the Gow/Murdoch family tradition of a cuppa tea in bed with a Lindt Chocolate Bunny to scoff.  We decided it’s too long to wait until Easter Sunday to start eating chocolate, so we start on Friday and make it a four day event.

We discussed the first quarter financials and discovered that despite being significantly over budget in March due to ferry crossings back from Crete and then over to Brindisi, Italy, not to mention toll costs, we were actually under budget YTD.  That put us on a high for the morning, until we then realised we have significant fixed costs, namely insurances back at home, that put up the cost of just simply being alive. Oh well, at least our day to day living expenses are tracking the right way.

Jumping out of bed, I decided, involuntary, to kick the toilet door and proceeded to take off half my big toe nail.  Alan said ‘ouch’ more than I did while I just held my toe and watched the blood pooling around and under my nail that was only just attached.  Bugger.

It didn’t stop us though, and being a tough Kiwi I put a plaster on it and carried on, as we had a big day ahead.

First stop was to ride our bikes to the most northern point of Sicily and admire the stunning view on such a perfect day of 26 degrees and a gentle warm breeze.  From up high with the beating sun warming our faces, it was most tempting to want to dive into the crystal clear waters below and just have the cool water envelop us.

Our next visit was the ‘Church in the Cave’ at Capo Milazzo called Santuario di Sant’Antonio da Padova.  Why a church would be built here is anyone’s guess, however, they did a great job constructing this into a cliff face.  Check out the ceiling, which is still original.  I’d hate to think how cold this place would be in the dead of winter!

Thirdly we drove to Castello di Milazzo (Milazzo Castle), and ignoring Google that suggested the castle was closed until 4.30pm (it was now 1.30pm), we parked close enough to walk into the town that is built around the base of the castle and headed up to see how far we could venture. To our delight the castle was in fact open, so we paid our ten euros and walked in.

The castle is one of the few we have come across that is a mixture of old and newly reconstructed.  In fact, this place has the most chequered history of any Castle during our travels.

The first fortifications were built around 4000 BC and the present castle built between the 9th and 17th centuries.  It appears that anyone who was nearby had a part to play in the history of Milazzo Castle.  The Greeks modified it into an acropolis, then it was later enlarged by the Romans and Byzantines, the Normans had a crack around 1200 AD, and built a ‘keep’.  Next the Arabs built and enlarged the castle, and the outer walls are of Spanish construction.

The castle was subsequently converted into a prison in 1880 and underwent a number of alterations.  The prison closed in 1959 and the castle remained abandoned for a couple of decades.  There was a Benedictine Convent built during the 16th century and has been since restored, as is obvious from the lift inside.  The basement still looked fairly original and upstairs, newly laid marble adorned the floor in what appeared to be conference rooms.

After many years of neglect and deterioration, the castle was restored between 1991 and 2002, and again between 2008 and 2010.

The entrance of Castello di Milazzo

Newly renovated Cathedral showing the new and the old side by side

Looking down onto the prison courtyard from above. 

Stunning view of the surrounding Milazzo township

Evidence of prisoners counting the days on the cell’s ceiling

We continued to drive further around the coast and arrived in Oliveri where after the unusually difficult task of finding a suitable place to park Betsy, a water hunt began.  The camper occupants in front of us suggested there was no water, except for in the camping ground.  Being mindful of budget restrictions, we decided to ignore their suggestion of having to book in and went searching for water.

Luckily, most of the townships have a water fountain, and Oliveri was no exception.  We found it but it has a slow flow, which meant sitting in the seats provided and waiting to fill our two bottles, about 20 litres in total and about 15 minutes waiting.  Meanwhile, I went off to find a few groceries and came back having hunted down dinner from a local butcher – chicken schnitzel (supposedly).  After cooking up however, it resembled white boot leather in texture and tasty slightly ‘porkish’. Not out best experience of buying local produce. I also wanted to buy eggs, and instead of asking for uova (eggs) I asked for olio – an honest mistake.  Being directed to olive oil, I proceeded to tuck my arms into my side and make out like a chicken with the customary clucking noises and then showing the size of an egg with my hands.  The shop assistant picked up on my charades and we both laughed at our language translations and communication methods.

Meanwhile, while waiting for the water fill, the neighbouring household was outside, decorating what looked like biscuits.  We asked what they were and on the next water fill visit, Alan was given two of these delightful treats by this lovely family who spoke not a word of English.  Although we know a few Italian words, Google Translate helps to fill in the gaps.  The son was offering Alan a ‘regalo’ (gift).  They are called Biscotti or Pastaria Easter Cookies.  The Nonna (Grandmother) was baking with her son and grandson (figlio and nipote) who were decorating these biscotti with lemon icing and colourful sprinkles. They were still warm when Alan came back home.  It made my day to be partaking in something unexpected and so very traditional.  A bonus of being here at Easter time.

Next thing Alan knows is there is an Easter (Pasquale) parade happening right in front of his eyes. Lucky thing. The parade was depicting Jesus, the black Madonna and Roman Guards.

Meanwhile, I was back at Betsy making a lemon cake, part of which we will be taking to the family who unselfishly gave up two of their Pastarias for foreigners who are total strangers. The kindness of people is such a beautiful thing to encounter when travelling.

If you would like this lemon cake recipe, I will endeavour to put it up on our recipes tab.  Happy Easter to you all.

Amazing Meteora – “Suspended in the Air”

Amazing Meteora – “Suspended in the Air”

Meteora is one of those places in Greece that simply takes your breath away.  We were told that we had to visit this place and it did not disappoint.

The road to the area was unexpectedly long and wound through some semi-alpine areas with extensive snow on the ground in the late December.  Parts of the road were great, other parts were narrow and rutted.  Pretty typical for Greece really.

On arriving in the Kalabaka, the largest town in the region, the spires of ancient rock that mark this area towered over us.  We wound through the narrow back streets, and there was a feeling of quiet anticipation while following Emily (our Garmin) to the GPS coordinates of a parking spot some other generous travellers had provided.

Kalabaka is overshadowed by the imposing sandstone peaks of Meteora

The evening was drawing in as we came around the last corner and spied the gravel parking area dwarfed by two mountainous rock pillars crowned with monasteries bathed in the last of the wintery sun.

Our parking spot for the night under the watchful gaze of the Varlaam Monastery

We were both rather spellbound at the magnificence and wonderment of the vista.  Beautifully constructed stone monasteries perched over sheer cliffs at the top of the world.  How did they build these so many hundreds of years ago without modern equipment and technologies?  What devotion to their cause or God compels people to spend their lives, or even generations of lives, building these testaments to their faith?  The thought that we would be sleeping under their watch and waking up to this in the morning was rather exciting.

After positioning Betsy on the most level spot we could find, we hurried off to enjoy our first close up experience of a Meteora monastery.  On exiting Betsy we were met by a small dog who seemed to adopt us during our stay.  With little encouragement from us, she stayed nearby, slept on the ground outside Betsy and trotted alongside as we explored the area.  She didn’t bark once and just seemed content with even the small morsels of attention we threw her way.

The Agioi Pantas also known as Varlaam Monastery was the closest monastery to us and the light was already beginning to fade as we walked up the road and through the gates, but we couldn’t help having a quick look before coming back the next day.  This brief exposure whet our appetite for the day to come.

Evening setting in on Varlaam Monastery
She who adopted us

The rocks of Meteora are weathered sandstone spires reaching over 600 metres from the valley floor.  Their unique shapes were formed as a result of earthquakes and weathering over 60 million years.

Local myths and legends indicate that hermits dwelled among the inhospitable rocks and caves from the 9th or 10th centuries in an attempt to leave behind the morally corrupt world and unify with God through meditation and prayers.  The vertical cliffs of Meteora were regarded as the perfect place to achieve absolute isolation, to discover peace and harmony, and seek spiritual elevation.

The first church, dedicated to Theotokos, was built around the early 12th century as a place where the devout could worship together.  From here on a more organised and unified monastic way of life developed, culminating in the construction of the first monasteries in the 14th century.  Ultimately 24 monasteries were built however just six remain operational today.  The Meteora area is second only to the Athos Peninsula in the Halkidiki region (a place we particularly love) in importance to the monastic orders.

The next morning, we both rose early to see the sunrise.  The gentle morning light playing on the golden stones, the distant snowy peaks, and the surrounding mountains were stunning.  We shot off photo after photo as the early sun rays bathed first the Holy Monastery of Varlaam and then the Holy Monastery of Transfiguration of Christ or Great Meteoron, initially with a soft pink hue, then a golden glow.  As the sun gradually crept across the valley floors, the photo shooting fingers continued to fire which led to a lot of culling and photo editing in the days to come.

The pink light of early dawn bathes the Varlaam Monastery

Varlaam Monastery

The path to the Varlaam Monastery winds back and forth, across and up the cliff face.  Originally the monks accessed the monasteries using rickety wooden ladders (they had to jump from one to the other) or winching each other up the cliff face in nets, so a steep climb up a path didn’t seem too much of a hardship.  This monastery was named after the first inhabitant of the rock who built three small churches, a water tank and a cell (where the monk would sleep and pray) around 1350.  After his death, the rock was abandoned for about 200 years until two monks sponsored the construction of the buildings which make up some of the current monastery.  Just transporting the materials for the next phase of building reportedly took 22 years!

The path eventually opened up into a tidy courtyard with unhindered views in virtually every direction.  On examining the buildings, they were in very good condition, which is a testament to the careful and thoughtful restoration that the monastic brothers have carried out over the years.  Many of the original buildings date back to the 1500’s but you wouldn’t guess that by looking at them.

View from the courtyard at Varlaam
The Katholicon is the name given to the part of the monastery used for services and the one here was built and decorated in about 1560.  Walking into this is like walking into another world.  It is dimly lit and all of the walls are painted with a dark background and countless frescos depicting scenes from the Bible and church history.  The lives, deeds and martyrdom of long-dead saints and heroes of the faith are captured in stunning colour and exquisite detail in these 600-year-old visual records.

The Katholicon is divided into several rooms, most with richly decorated domes and some with rows of rather uncomfortable looking wooden chairs running along the walls.  Various podiums, altars, collections of church relics and other paraphernalia of the Greek Orthodox Church are placed throughout the building.  This is a sacred and holy enclave and you cannot help the feeling that comes with being in a place where countless dedicated holy men have prayed for hundreds of years for God’s blessing and a better world.

Varlaam Katholicon

The massive 16th century barrel in the storeroom at first appeared to be a wine drinkers dream but was actually used for storing water because originally there were  no water tanks. Twelve tonnes of fresh rainwater could be collected in this impressive tub.

16th Century water storage barrel

Great Meteoran Monastery

We next visited the Great Meteoron Monastery, which looks like it is “suspended in the air”, which is what “meteoro” literally means.  This is the oldest and largest of the monasteries, being founded around 1340 and in the 16th century was the most powerful and influential of the monasteries.  Now however it is occupied by just three monks.

Great Meteoron Monastery – The Holy Monastery of  the Transfiguration of Christ
The old kitchen still contains the original bread oven and soup hearth, and the roof is black from hundreds of years of smoke.  It was possible to get a sense of how spartan life was up here in the clouds back in the heyday of the monastic era.  How peaceful, quiet and serene life must have been, despite a life devoid of creature comforts, especially during the harsh long winters.

The old workshops contained a fascinating assortment of tools dating back hundreds of years, including wooden garden implements such as spades and forks, plus wine and olive presses and various barrels, jugs, bowls and ploughs.

Original Monastery kitchen
Museum of tools and implements

More recent additions include the ‘Martyrs Hall’ which celebrates church and Greek martyrs and a manuscript room which displays some of the many rare documents that date back to the 9th century.

By the time we had enjoyed all that was on offer the day was moving on and the weather was closing in.  There were other monasteries available to see, however our heads and hearts felt full to overflowing with what we had already seen and we decided to move on.

Our next destination was Ancient Delphi with an overnight stay beside a fast flowing clear thermal stream at Thermopillion.  That, however, is a story for another blog.

Monemvasia the Magnificent

Monemvasia the Magnificent

When travelling for an extended period around such an amazing place as Greece, which has plenty to offer, you are often seeing sights and places every day that bring the word ‘WOW’ to your lips.

Occasionally however, you happen upon a place where “wow”, even spelt in capitals, just doesn’t really seem adequate to convey the feelings of awe and wonder of experiences.

For those times, we have our own word, which is “blabbage”. This is a word which has no English translation but for us it incorporates the feelings of ‘wow, amazing, unbelievable, how the hell did they do this, all rolled into one versatile word.

Anyway if we say something is blabbage then you can rest assured that it’s the best of the best and has exceeded our wildest expectations and I hope that you grasp the sense of what this word means for us.

So when I say that the place we visited today was given the title “Super Blabbage” then hopefully you appreciate how amazing it was! That’s the first time a super has been put in front of this word because it’s simply not been needed, until now.

So what is this place that took our blabbage word to new levels of blabbageness?

Before I tell you about our Super Blabbage place I need to go back a bit in time and tell you about some of the cool things we have seen on our travels. Amongst them are the various castles, fortresses, and archaeological ruins we have come across. When entering places like these we have a certain expectation of what will be seen before we set foot on the first ancient rock. If you have read our blog about the walls of Methoni then you will know what a cool place this was. Then there was Acrocorinth, again another amazing site. Delphi was also right up high on the scale of blabbageness however none of these were awarded the title “Super Blabbage”. The only place that has come close was the Meteora region with ancient monastaries perched high on towering spires of weathered rock.

Monemvasia, is a small town in the municipality of Laconia, and includes the unique Venetian fortress/settlement on the island, which is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway.

At about 3pm on a beautiful sunny day we parked on the pier by the causeway, jumped out of Betsy, our lovely Motorhome and pointed our electric bikes towards the fortress on the island. I remember saying to Alan, “here’s another castle in the air”, meaning all castles are high and require considerable effort to hike up and see the ruins and piles of rocks that await us. Don’t get me wrong, I do actually enjoy walking around the rocks and thinking about those who used to live there, how they lived, what they looked like, what they dressed in, and what their way of life was actually like all those centuries ago.

So by now its 4pm and the sun is still shining. We knew that tomorrow was due to be cloudy so taking photos with a blue sky trumps any other plans we [meaning I] might have had of relaxing after the drive down here.

Across the causeway we rode. Passed the old stone buildings and around the access road while looking up at the shear red ochre stained cliffs with fortifications perched precariously on their edges and up to the fortress walls.  Most of the archaeological sites and museums we visit close at 3pm in the winter months so we expected that we would arrive at closed fortress gates.  Alan parked his bike and I stayed with them while he went to check out the timetable and costs for tomorrow so we could come back and explore.

“You have to come and see this” I suddenly hear from an excited Alan, there are shops and hotels in there. Not really understanding what he was saying or what he saw we quickly locked the bikes together so I could take a squiz (a look for those non-Kiwis).

Wow!
WOW!

This place was amazing!  This place is Super Blabbage!

It wasn’t just shops and hotels! It was an entire township with bars, cafes, and houses. While that in itself was amazing and unexpected, the rather special thing was the realisation that unlike virtually all of the other ancient places we had visited, this place has never been abandoned. We had suddenly been transported back hundreds of years to a long ago era. It took me back to the TV Series ‘Outlander’, (which we have been watching) where Claire found herself living in castles and visiting dungeons. Here we were, feeling the era, walking on the uneven paved and slippery stones under our feet. We were walking down the tiny walkways with stone houses and buildings on both sides, no place for Betsy on these roads. We could see the signature Venetian, Ottoman and Byzantine construction in the various buildings. How cool is this?

The walkways went up towards the fortress and down towards the sea. We were like kids in a candy shop not knowing which way to turn next. What treasures would we see if we turned right, what would we see if we went downhill? It was all too much to take in with the timeframe we had and it soon became obvious that we would need to return tomorrow to absorb everything this place had to offer.

We met a nice English couple from Bath who were also fellow sailors, and retired to their hotel for a few cold vinos and took the opportunity to take some snaps from their hotel room (above).  The photo below is the lounge room of their hotel, check out the curved entranceway.

The next day we were back, keen to soak up more of this amazing place.

We popped our heads into the ancient churches. We walked down through a labyrinth of passages, through a hidden gate in the town walls and down to the waters edge. Here there are ladders luring holiday-makers into the crystal blue ocean to cool off from the summer heat. No temptation to us though as the March water temperatures aren’t very enticing. We traced Lower Town buildings right through to the outer eastern perimeter fortification, then ventured beyond what would have been the safety of these walls just a few centuries ago. Looking upwards there were multiple levels of houses and buildings. Their colours varied from the standard clay, brownish red, orange, blueish greys and of course stones with multi colours, all being built into a large rock cliff face below massive towering fortifications.

Some of the newer buildings dated back only a hundred years or so, however, these appear to have been built around the ruins of old houses, churches and shops. These ruins are a constant reminder of the antiquity and history of the place.

There are certain rules here. The words ‘rules’ and ‘Greece’ often don’t go together in a sentence but here there are rules.  No plastic chairs outside, no satellite dishes or air conditioning units visible from the outer buildings, and no laundry hanging outside (the last one isn’t a bad rule, particularly for those looking out from above towards the ocean).  And for the most part, people seem to, astonishingly, abide by these rules.

Looking at our surroundings I felt like I was an intruder, like I shouldn’t have been here, but nevertheless this was a privilege to experience. This settlement has to be the best preserved we’ve seen anywhere in our travels around Greece and having arrived here in September we’ve managed to cover quite a bit of ground.

We learned that the houses are two or three stories with a basement and tiled roof.  At the lowest level, which is always vaulted, lie the cisterns for collecting rainwater and the cellars. The ground floor is used as a reception area and for the kitchen facilities. The family lives in the upper storey which is often a single space with many openings.

The shop owners proudly showed off their handmade crafts, from oils, to olive wood carved goodies, to brass art, paintings, sculptures, and ceramic wares.  Hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants and general tourist spots were aplenty, each having its own splendid view of the ocean and terracotta roofing tiles below.  They receive their goods by wheelbarrow as the roads are too narrow for modern vehicles to venture.

It must be a sight to see when someone moves in or out of these houses as the laneways are so narrow and the staircases so steep that one has to wonder how furniture was delivered. Perhaps it was built in place?

Old olive trees were left undisturbed and were built around, clearly respected as important to the Greek culture.

I found myself staring up at this settlement and feeling incredibly fortunate to be here and experiencing such a blabbage, woops I mean Super Blabbage, township. In past years its old inhabitants would watch out over the crystal clear Aegean Sea cautiously on the look out for the enemy, while feeling safely protected between the thick ramparts and the bosom of the cliff face.

These days Monemvasia opens her doors to tourists by the bus load (and Motorhome load) that flock to this destination, just four hours south of Athens.

If you find yourself in this region, Monemvasia is a must to visit and you can thank us later over a vino.

The settlement over the causeway
Here you can see the buildings perched on the side of the island
The map of this settlement
Don’t Let Schengen Ruin Your European Holiday of a Lifetime

Don’t Let Schengen Ruin Your European Holiday of a Lifetime

Alan Gow Checked Out the hidden secrets of managing Schengen time restraints
8 March 2018

Don’t Let Schengen Ruin Your European Holiday of a Lifetime

If you are contemplating an extended holiday (more than three months) around Europe then you may want to keep reading.

If either you or your spouse/partner hold a European passport then you definitely need to read this because if you rely on the usual information sources, then you might just miss out on the holiday of a lifetime.

Who am I and how do I know this stuff?

I am from New Zealand and I hold a dual citizenship, (NZ and Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU). I am married to a New Zealander who holds only her NZ passport.  We are travelling around Europe in a motorhome for a few years and to ensure we could do this hassle free, I engaged in some extensive research before leaving home.  The potentially most limiting factor was the time allowed to be within the Schengen Zone, which I will talk more about later in this post. There was so much misinformation and lack of clarity around my situation, that I felt compelled to put together this document to help others to find the answers easily.

I went on a real emotional rollercoaster ride as I would read somewhere that there would be no restrictions on us – yay!  Then an embassy official would say that my wife would be subject to the Schengen restrictions but I wouldn’t – oh crap!  Then I would get other information to contradict this, and so on.  This continued for some months but over this time, as I researched more, my absolute certainty that I was correct grew stronger.

At the end of it all, I found no official website or publication that categorically 100% stated that my wife was, or wasn’t going to be affected.  However, I found many documents, directives and other publications that strongly implied my wife could enjoy exactly the same free right of movement as me.  These will be explained later in my post.

What is this Schengen thing?

The Schengen agreement had a great goal, which was to abolish internal border controls within the European Union (EU), allowing passport free movement between countries.  When originally signed in 1985, five countries joined. However, this has now been extended and 26 countries, including four non-EU countries now make up the Schengen Zone.

Tens of millions of Europeans enjoy freedom of movement within the Schengen Zone.

Which Countries are in Schengen?

EU Countries

Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Non-EU Countries

Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.
Schengen Map showing which countries are in the Schengen Zone

Who has been left out?

Britain and the Republic of Ireland chose not to join Schengen.

Croatia, Cypress, Bulgaria and Romania are in the EU but have not yet joined Schengen.

What Does This Mean for Short-Term Travellers

For most short-term travellers to countries in the Schengen zone, this is all good news.  Citizens from a long list of visa exempt countries, which includes New Zealand and Australia, do not require a visa to enter Schengen.  Once you clear immigration at the first port of entry, you are free to travel to any of the above countries without needing to show your passport at any borders.

Citizens who are not from visa exempt countries, will need to apply for, and obtain a Schengen visa.  I am not going into the process for this but there is a wealth of information available on the internet, including on this site.

So, what is the issue?

The problem comes if you are travelling on say an NZ or Australian passport, and want to spend more than 90 days within a 180 day period touring within the Schengen Zone borders.

That’s right, you can spend about three months within that whole block of 26 countries, then you will need to leave the zone for a minimum of three months before being allowed back in for another three months.  As a non-European passport holder, your passport is (or should be) physically stamped with the entry and exit dates and all data is stored in the Schengen Information System.  When exiting or entering Schengen again, the dates are checked to make sure you have not overstayed your welcome.  Significant fines and re-entry bans can be imposed on those travellers who do not comply.

I guess it made sense back in the day when there were only five countries in Schengen club.  It was common for those counties to grant tourists a three-month entry permit or visa, so when Schengen came into being, it was probably easiest to allow three months within the whole zone to make sure no visitors exceeded three months in any one country.  As more and more countries joined however, this has become increasingly restrictive and senseless (in my humble opinion) for long-term travellers.

I believe that there are moves afoot to create a 12-month ‘ tourist visa’ for Schengen which will certainly ease the problem but who knows when they will get around to that.

For the average traveller shoehorning in a European experience around their annual leave, this isn’t going to affect them.  However, for the lucky travellers like us, who have the opportunity to take an extended time out, this can really restrict where you can go, and when.

What about travelling to Non-Schengen Countries?

Each individual country has its own rules and visa requirements and you are best to research these for the countries you are travelling to.  Britain, for example allows a six months visa free stay for many visitors while most Balkan states (e.g. Croatia, Bosnia, Albania) allow a three months visa free visit.  Turkey also allows a three months stay however most travellers will need to obtain a Turkish visa on-line (New Zealand passport holders are one of the few Turkish visa exempt countries).

Planning around Schengen

Unless you or your ‘registered partner’ are European citizens, there are just a few options available to you.

   Plan your travels

The most common approach, for those who don’t have an EU passport, is to plan your travels around the ‘90 days out of 180 days’ restriction.  This means that you must exit Schengen on or before the 90 days expires, and stay out for 90 days.  You can then re-enter Schengen for another 90 days.  In reality this may mean flying over to Britain for 3 months, or driving across the Schengen border to countries such as Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Romania or even Turkey, and enjoying their charms for a spell.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and pushes many travellers to experience countries they wouldn’t otherwise have given a second thought to.

You can go out of, and back into Schengen during that 180 days period but you need to keep careful track of where you have been and when so that you don’t exceed 90 days in any 180 days.

Keeping an eye on the seasons while doing your planning is important. We met a lovely Australian couple in Thessaloniki, Greece in December 2017, who were planning on driving up into Bulgaria and Romania for the first three months of winter because they needed to get out of Greece within the next few days.  Now, those countries may be nice during the summer but they aren’t the ideal spot for a small motorhome in a Northern Hemisphere winter.  We suggested they consider Turkey instead and they experienced a fantastic and much warmer time exploring the south of that wonderful country.

   Residence Permits

Another alternative is to apply for a residence permit in one of the Schengen countries.  However, these are not handed out easily, normally require you to have a fixed address with a property lease agreement, and a valid reason for being there.  These only give the right to stay longer than 90 days in that one country and aren’t intended for the purpose of then hopping from country to country.  You could theoretically then travel within Schengen and eventually exit from the country from which you obtained a residence permit however this isn’t strictly legal and if caught you could be in serious trouble.

So, short of quickly marrying a local, or having an EU spouse, are there not many ways of being able to extend the Schengen period.

One option that can help is to take advantage of the Bilateral Agreements.

   Bilateral Agreements

These Agreements are historical agreements between two countries to abolish the need for visas for non-working stays of up to three months.

New Zealand and Australia for example, established Bilateral Agreements with most European countries up to 50 years or more ago and these have never been cancelled.

Because these agreement pre-date the Schengen agreements, most Schengen countries will still honour them and allow a visitor to have up to three months in their country even if they have just spent three months in other Schengen countries. 

The catch here is that the individual countries seem to have different ways in which they allow these agreements to be utilised, for example, France will allow another three months under the Bilateral agreement only after you have spent your 90 Schengen days outside of France. Germany appears to be very flexible but some, for example, Hungary, require you to enter their country from a non-Schengen country and leave to a non-Schengen country.  Others, such as Italy are no longer honouring these agreements at all.

I strongly recommend that if you want to make use of these agreements, researching them thoroughly should be an important part of your travel preparation.

Contact the embassies concerned to advise them of your travel plans.  Here’s what to ask for in writing:

  • ask for confirmation that the Bilateral Agreement can be used for additional time in their country without reference to time spent previously in Schengen
  • ask about the process and any conditions around how to use the Agreement
  • keep records to prove that you did not exceed the 90 days in any of those countries, ie keep receipts.

What if My Spouse or Partner is an EU Citizen?

In this case, travel within Schengen just got a whole lot easier, especially once you know what I am about to tell you.

Firstly though, a simple defacto relationship will not be good enough here.  You must be either married or have a partnership that is ‘registered’ in an EU country, and the EU country you are entering has to treat ‘registered partnerships’ as equivalent to marriages.  Check the individual country requirements as to registered partnerships.

If you qualify, then the overriding European legislation that gives you the right to exceed the 90 days in Schengen is ‘European Directive 2004/38/EC’ which states citizens of the Union, and their family members can move and reside freely within the Member States’.

You should print out, and carry a copy of this Directive with you on your travels.  Highlight and be familiar with the sections that apply to you.

I apologise if this now gets a little detailed but it is vital that you understand your rights and why you have them, if you want to travel freely around Europe.

European Directive 2004/38/EC is a EU wide directive or instruction that the Schengen rules have to comply with, therefore all of the Schengen rules, codes, and regulations are written with this in mind.

Directive 2004-38-EC

In my experience, there is a lack of information, and in fact there is a lot of misinformation about how this applies to the spouse travelling with an EU citizen.

One of the fundamental freedoms of the EU Treaty is that citizens of member states can freely live and work in other member states, within the restrictions laid out in the Treaty.  However, there is no point in a citizen being able to move to another state if their spouse and children are not allowed to join them.  Therefore, Directive 2004/38/EC clarifies that all family members of a Union citizen have the same right of free movement as the citizen themselves.

 

What this means for you is:

  • You and your non-EU spouse can travel to any EU member state (Schengen or non-Schengen) and stay for up to three months with no restrictions. This is known as the ‘Community Right of Free Movement’ – remember this phrase as it’s important.
  • The only travel documents you need are your passports and marriage certificate
  • After three months, you can travel to any other EU member state and live in, or travel there for up to three months
  • This process can be repeated ad infinitum, i.e. forever
  • If you want, you can return to a member state you have previously visited, provided each visit does not exceed three months – again an important point.

What happens at Schengen Borders?

The guards at Schengen border crossings have to abide by Directive 2004/38/EC.  To assist them in correctly processing people passing through the border, a handbook ,Schengen Handbook for Border Guards has been produced in all major European languages.

Although the border guards are supposed to know their job, there are still stories around about some of them not being aware of the rights of spouses and trying to deny entry or impose penalties for overstaying the 90 days Schengen restriction.  We ourselves have only had one such border crossing so far where we may have been questioned by a Greek border guard, and were allowed to enter without question.  We have yet to be asked even for our marriage certificate at any of the many Schengen borders we have now crossed.

Therefore, you should also print, and carry a copy of this Handbook with you on your travels.  Highlight and be familiar with the sections that apply to you.

 

Schengen Border Checks for Spouses of EU Citizens

As a spouse accompanying an EU citizen you should expect the following at a Schengen border:

  • You should only have to show the guard your spouse’s EU passport, your passport and be able to show your marriage certificate if requested
  • The guard should give your documents only the ‘minimum check’, which is defined as just checking that they are valid documents and show no signs of tampering, forgery or falsification
  • They should not ask anything about your travel plans, where you are staying, how much money you have to support yourself, or question your Schengen entry or exit dates.
  • You can only be refused entry on genuine grounds of national security or public health.
  • Your passport may still be stamped, unless you yourself have an EU or EEC identity card.

Note

If you are from a non-visa exempt country, you must obtain a visa to enter Schengen in the first place.  The documents I obtained were not clear on what would happen if your visa has expired and you are exercising your rights under Directive 2004/38/EC.  You will need to do your own research in these circumstances.

Schengen Borders Code, Regulation 2016-399

EU Regulation 2016-399 defines defines how Schengen operates, however it clearly state that the rules “neither call into question, nor affect the rights of free movement enjoyed by Union citizens and their families….”.

What this means is that the Schengen Border Code cannot be interpreted in any way that affects or over-rules your rights outlined in Directive 2004/38/EC.

That sounds clear so what’s the problem?

The problem for me was that before undertaking dozens of hours of research, I didn’t know any of this and most embassy officials don’t know either.  If I had taken the first responses I received as the gospel truth, we would not be experiencing the amazing journey we are on now.  Luckily, I am a bit like a dog with bone about this sort of thing and kept digging deeper.

I’m not sure whether it is deliberate or just ignorance, but the embassy officials were the worst offenders at giving out wrong or incomplete information.  For example, the Italian consulate in Melbourne insisted my wife could only have 90 days and directed me to websites to back this up.  When I pointed out that the websites actually backed up “my” position he quoted lines from the website but added in extra words to support his claim.  When I pointed this out, I heard no more.

During this time, I was also in contact with other potential travellers in a similar predicament and they were getting different advice than me.  For example, the website ‘Your Europe Advice is an official public service from independent lawyers giving advice on EU law.  After asking very specific questions, I finally got the advice that:

“Every Union citizen has the right to reside in the territory of a host Member State for a period of up to three months without any conditions or formalities other than the requirement to hold a valid identity card or passport” and

“The EU national and family members can move to another EU Member State after three months if they wish and repeat the above process and continue to do so”.

A link to the full response is provided at the end of this document.

However, Paul who is an EU citizen married to an Australia was told by the same organisation that:

“This means that your spouse would be entitled to travel to an EU country and stay up to 90 days. The 90-day limit on short stays applies to stays in the Schengen area as a whole, not to individual countries. The limit is not applied so that a visitor can spend 90 days in each country. Instead, the limit is applied so that a visitor can only spend 90 days in the Schengen area as a whole (Articles 3 and 6 of Regulation 2016/399 apply).”

Same question, totally different answer?  How can this be?

People are making massive decisions about their holidays of a lifetime and you can’t get a straight answer! Fortunately, I was able to provide Paul with my research and documents and as a result, he and his wife travelled freely into, around, out of, and back into Schengen for many months in 2017 with no problems.

Once I was very sure of my findings, I started asking direct and focused questions of the various embassy officials.  I was able to reference the Directives and Legislation and ask for their confirmation that I would have no problems crossing their Schengen borders.  It seemed that most just found my questions too hard, and either fobbed me off or ignored me.  I eventually had a satisfactory response from the German consulate in Berlin:

              “You as an EU citizen can stay in Germany for up to 3 months without any further requirements. No matter in how many EU countries you have stayed prior to your arrival, you and your wife can stay in Germany for three months.”

The Hungarian official, after sending the question to the FREMO expert committee on Free Movement, in Brussels advised me unofficially that:

“I have received the official confirmation from Brussels that you and your wife can stay up to 3 months in each country without any administrative restrictions.”

It is always a little scary approaching a border crossing and not being sure what will happen.  Be prepared for the worse and 99% of the time you will just sail through without being questioned.

The bottom line is that as long as you clearly understand your rights, you are in a strong position.

I Have a British Passport – What about Brexit?

Great question and I wish I had an answer for that one, however at the time of writing that is up in the air.

There are two schools of thought about this.

One is that the rest of Europe is going to have to be firm on Britain and make their exit painful to discourage other countries from leaving.  Part of this could be to remove all freedom of movement for British citizens so they will also be subject to the Schengen restrictions.

The other position is that the cost to some economies of restricting British travel would be too high so travel for tourism must remain unrestricted.  Many parts of Spain for example are heavily dependant on British snow birds or retirees propping up the economy, particularly in winter.

The final solution may be somewhere in between what British citizens enjoy now and what the rest of the world have to comply with.

Who knows what the final result will be and it is a time of great uncertainty for British passport holders wanting to spend large chunks of time abroad.

My advice, get the hell over here before it all turns to custard.

There may be some grace period before restrictions kick in but who knows what is really going to happen and when.

Document Links

Here are the links to the most important documents referenced plus some others I haven’t mentioned but gives you some more background.  I have highlighted parts of the relevant sections in some documents.

Directive 2004/38/EC

Schengen Handbook

Schengen Border Code – Regulation 399-2016

New Zealand Bilateral Agreements with:

  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Austria
  • Netherlands
  • Hungary
  • Norway
  • Spain
  • Belgium
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

Freedom to move and live in Europe – A guide to your rights as an EU citizenFr

The RIght of Union Citizens and their family members to move and reside freely within the Union

Response from Your Europe Advice questions re Schengen