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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.

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.

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.

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, Cyprus, 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 a NZ or Australian passport, and want to spend more than 90 days within a 180 day period touring within the Schengen Zone borders.  Because that is forbidden.

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, i.e. 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 had two such border crossings so far where we may have been questioned by border guards and we had no problems whatsoever.  The first was from Greece to Turkey and back.  The second was leaving Finland for St Petersburg after eight months continuously in Schengen then returning to Finland a few days later.  On both occasions, my wife and I exited and re-entered Schengen with no questions and without even being asked for our marriage certificate.

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 is likely to 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 and 2018 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 citizen

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

Fabulous Mani Spirit in the Peloponnese

Fabulous Mani Spirit in the Peloponnese

Alan Gow Checked Out in the  Mani Peninsula in Greece
6 February 2018

Soon after leaving Kalamata, we entered the land of the Maniots, the traditional inhabitants of Mani, which is the centremost of the three peninsulas which make up the southern part of the Peloponnese. Image result for map of mani greece Mani is a mountainous, rugged, semi-arid and hard land and many of the coastal villages were only accessible by sea until relatively recently.  The Maniots are a proud and independent lot and were a source of constant problems for any power that tried to subdue and control them.  The Greek War of Independence (from the Ottoman Empire) originated in this area in the 1820’s and the locals swore a pact of “Victory or Death” which gives you an idea about what sort of the people they were.

Mani Flag  with ‘Victory or Death’ slogan

This independence and pride appears to be exemplified in the distinctly different architecture of the building here.  In most other parts of Greece we have visited so far, many of the villages look run down, dirty and unmaintained.  It is as if the inhabitants have been so weighed down by the Greek economic crisis that they have given up and allowed their surroundings to reflect their economic prospects.  The Maniots on the other hand, seem to have looked the crisis in the eye, like they have done to previous invaders, and said “you will not change who we are, and we will be here long after you have gone”.  Sure, there were still a fair number of totally derelict buildings, but this just seems to be the norm for Greece.  Rather than tear down buildings once they reach a certain state of disrepair, they just leave them and build new ones alongside.  This seems a little unusual for us who are used to a throw away society but it actually makes reasonable sense here, and this very practice means there are so many ancient buildings and sites that we can visit today.

Derelict Buildings on Mani – tomorrow’s ancient sites?

There was a very obvious change in the architecture of the buildings where suddenly nearly all of the houses, businesses and hotels, both new and old were constructed from beautiful local stone, with a similar design and obviously superb craftsmanship.

Modern Hotels in the Traditional Style

Older Mani Buildings

Tower Houses

Many of the building were tall, narrow, multi-story, rectangular and very symmetrical and some had battlements around the top edges or even small towers at the corners – almost like miniature castles.  Stone of varying colour was used to create decorative effects.  We soon learned that these were the ‘tower houses’, the design of which goes back to early Maniot history where every village was fortified, with every family house virtually being an individual fort.  There is a strong and relatively recent history of ‘vendettas’ between Maniot families where after some real or imagined insult or incident, families would try to wipe out other families.  These tower houses also gave protection and shelter in those times.  The vendettas would often last until one family was either exterminated or left the area.  It is certainly a different world to the one we grew up in. 

We passed some very impressive buildings giving an air of prosperity to the region, which may be a little deceptive.  Like many coastal Greek areas, the economy relies heavily on the seasonal tourist industry supplemented by olive oil production and some other minor agricultural produce.  There seemed to be little in the way of good arable land in the way that we would define it.  Instead, the olive trees had to cling onto small patches of soil that had managed to accumulate on the steep rocky mountainsides.

New ‘Tower House”

Mani Seaside Village with Tower Houses

We had a pleasant night’s sleep parked by the Ionian Sea in the small seaside town of Agios Nikolaos, located just an hours drive from large town of Kalamata.  Agios Nikolaus is sleepy in the wintertime but probably goes off in the high season.  The people here were very friendly, as were some of the local cats.  The seas were quite high from the steady on-shore wind which made for some great photos around the coast.

It always seems a little hard to get moving early in Greece.  Maybe it’s just because we are on holiday or possibly we can lay blame on the overall slow pace of life so the relaxed attitude of the locals rubs off on us.  Anyway, by mid-afternoon we managed to get on the road again and pointed Betsy further south.  As seems to be the norm when driving from coastal town to coastal town, the route first careens inland, taking you up some serious mountains with hairpin after hairpin before heading back to sea. The road width varies from very comfortable to ‘geez I hope we don’t meet anyone coming the other way’, and the road condition goes from almost immaculate to nearly falling apart.  Scraping our way through the small villages normally produced some of the most interesting moments of the day where a road originally made for single file donkeys now has to accommodate whatever modern vehicles come along.  In many cases these tracks between the old houses are virtually single lane and there is absolutely no way two vehicles could pass without some serious manoeuvring.  Fortunately, the locals are incredibly relaxed about this and no-one seems to get upset.  I guess you just grow up here accepting that it is how it is and sometimes you have to make allowances.

Sometimes the roads here get scary narrow and you pray you don’t meet on-coming traffic

Our ‘Wow Moments’

The biggest wow moments came when we were able to find somewhere to pull over and investigate a few of the many ancient Byzantine era churches dotting the landscape.  We will share more about these in another post but it is fair to say that we had some seriously jaw-dropping moments.

Byzantine Church of Ayioi Anargyroi
Betsy and another ancient Byzantine Church

Fish is a staple part of the diet around this region and we try to buy it fresh whenever the price is right and quality looks good.  When we rolled into Neo Italio we saw what looked to be someone selling fish from outside a restaurant. Smelling a good deal for something fresh we stopped and investigated.  It turned out that the fish belonged to the restaurant and we could buy what we wanted and they would cook it or they would sell it to us whole and we could take it away.  That all seemed fine until the takeaway price for a modest one kg fish of 30 Euros was quoted.  Too rich for our blood and the obvious lesson learned is not to expect a low price if you buy from a restaurant (obvious duh!).  Never mind, we had a light dinner in the restaurant anyway and spent a quiet night parked on the road outside.  Interestingly, if you were to come here in summer, the area we parked on is covered over with platforms and seating for the restaurants.