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Awesome Åland Islands

Awesome Åland Islands

by Ruth Murdoch  |  August 2018  | Location Åland Islands, Finland

Barking dogs, loud parties and fast trains are things you won’t hear in the Åland Island.  Particularly when you arrive on the back of their “three-week” summer high season.

Getting to the Åland Islands

While staying with fellow motorhoming friends in Sweden, whom we had met in Greece in January 2018, we were advised to head over to Finland via the Åland Islands.  We checked out the cost difference and worked out that it was a better deal and an opportunity not to miss, especially as we had plenty of time. The cost of traveling by ferry from Stockholm (Sweden) to Turku (Finland) was €321 during the day and €351 for an evening sail (8pm – 7am) including a cabin.  We spent €65 from Grisslehamn (Sweden) to Eckero (the first main Island of the Ålands) and then €94.50 for all the ferries within and across the Åland Islands to Turku.  This price included a 10% discount for booking online for two people and one 7.5 metre long motorhome.  Here’s the link; www.alandstrafiken.ax/. So comparing our actual journey which cost us €159.50 to the more direct route of €321, we saved ourselves €161.50 and visited this wonderful area over twelve glorious sun-baked days. It is interesting to note that once you are inside the Åland Islands the ferries are all free, however, they do ask that you book in advance, especially in the high season (July).  We booked and didn’t have any trouble, although we did see other motorhomes being turned away when the ferry was full (in August).  The ferries reserve 17 metres only for motorhomes (ie two at any one time), hence the need to book ahead.

The Åland Islands are a popular tourist destination for the Finnish people during their summer break and we met quite a few during our travels.  Here was our schedule 7/8/18     Grisslehamn to Eckero (1.5-hour ferry ride)

12/8/18   Hummelvik to Kumlinge

14/8/18   Kumlinge to Lappo 16/8/18   Lappo to Torsholma

19/2/18   Ava to Osnas

Aside from the ferries above that typically take less than an hour per journey, the other islands we visited are connected via either bridges, causeways, or by cable ferries.  We lost count of the number of islands we actually set foot onto but believe it to be in the region of thirty or so.  Once we arrived in Osnas it was a short ferry ride (free of charge) to arrive onto mainland Finland where we stayed at the small settlement of Kustavi.

Ferry from Sweden to Åland Islands

Besty is Last on Board

About the Åland Islands

Åland is a Swedish-speaking, autonomous province in Finland and has its own flag.  Its population boasts 30,000 people with around 11,000 living in Åland’s only town, Mariehamn. There are 16 municipalities of the Åland Islands, an archipelago made up of 6,700 named islands and over 20,000 unnamed.  Whilst the islands are Finnish owned, the language spoken is Swedish and the currency is Euros.

The pace of life here is typical of island life.  Cars meander at their own rather slow pace rather than forging ahead at anywhere near the suggested speed limit.  No-one is in a rush, possibly because there are not many places to rush off to.  To come to the Ålands is to slow down and breathe. I want or rather need a haircut and expect there will only be one hair salon on the island and I would be able to get an appointment quickly.  Oh, how wrong was I?  There isn’t one, two or even three salons in Mariehamn there are eight!  What’s more, they are all fully booked until next week (it’s only Thursday).  We are told the summer rush is over and tourists have already left to get their children ready to start school again next week after the six week mid-summer holidays.  Hmmm, obviously the locals like to look well groomed around here.

The Economy

Driving around we wondered what the mainstay or their economy is.  There are apple trees in abundance, possibly more than is necessary for local consumption.  Then there are tourists.  The numbers swell from 11,000 in the winter to three times that number in the summer.  Surrounded by water, one has to think fish would play a part in the Åland Islands exports.  Apparently, timber is also up there.  Granite replaces grass in people’s backyards and we see paddocks of granite rock where one would expect to see crops or livestock.  The few white cows and a handful of shaggy Highland cattle we saw hardly constitute a dairy industry however, there was a lot of Aland Island milk and cheese on sale so there must be some decent sized herds somewhere.

The Aland Islands are one of the few places in the world where the honey industry is still free of the varroa mite, a fact which a local producer  (apiarist) was very proud of. The Aland honey is apparently a very prized and valuable export product.

Winters are obviously harsh here and the barns which shelter the livestock animals over the cold winter months sport chimneys.  The barns are built half from double layered stone insulated for housing the animals in winter and half from timber for the storing hay to feed the animals.

Notice The Two Building Materials

This Barn Has Seen Better Days

The Churches

In every small settlement stands a church proud and tall.  Visitors are welcome and a brochure in English explains the colourful history of each one.  We unfortunately just missed the opening season for the Kumlinge church which is renowned for its unique wall paintings from the 15th century.

In common with many other churches around the coastal regions of Scandinavia, there were one or more models of ships hanging from the ceiling.  These are ‘votive gifts’, were given to the church by sailors who had been caught up in some peril at sea and who had vowed to offer the ship if God delivered them home safely.

Kumlinge Church

Geta Church

Eckero Church Model Ship

Geta Church Model Ship

Our first night had us stopping in a very large and thankfully flat parking area outside the church just five minutes from where the ferry landed us at Eckero.  In the morning, after Alan checked with the groundsman that it was okay to use the water from the cemetery tap, the opportunity to get our clothes and sheets washed was too good to resist.  Deciding this was one of those times to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, Betsy was manoeuvred into a discrete location with the intention of minimising offence to anyone who might not like the sight of our dangling washing. The glorious sun had followed us from Sweden and combined with the wind, our clothes were dry in record time.

That afternoon we drove to the only town, Mariehamn to take a look around.  The tourist information was open and the lady there was very helpful.  With map in hand and points of interest noted, we headed off.  We drove to Lemland and checked out our planned overnight stop which was also a local swimming spot.  By this stage it was getting later in the day and I wasn’t so tempted to get cold.  Alan braved the late afternoon sun and at 8pm dove into the brackish waters.    Not to be out-done I swam the following morning when the sun was warmer and we enjoyed having this spot to ourselves before more visitors arrived.

Stunning Swimming Spot Near Lemland

The next day we drove to up past Geta north to the island of Dano and stayed beside the road for the night.  There were not many options here but thankfully the road was a dead end so we only had one car an hour drive past us.  One of these was the same car, so obviously a local.

 

The Maritime Museum

The maritime museum was calling our name, so back we headed to Mariehamn for some culture and education.  The cost of €10 each for entry was reasonable when you consider how good the displays were.  The Åland Islands have an vast nautical history This museum showcases the importance the sea had on life from yesteryear. We learnt about the genuine pirate flag.  Apparently, there are only two authentic skull and crossbones flags known in the world.  It is about 200 years old and came to the Ålands from North Africa’s Mediterranean coast where piracy existed well into the 1800s.  It used to be black but has been faded by weather and time.  The museum also tells the story of Wihelmina “Mimmi” Widbom, a rare female professional sailor who rounded Cape Horn eight times and was even torpedoed once in her long career.

Godby was next on our itinerary which once again provided a great swimming spot.  Alan found this by scrolling around on Google Maps looking for somewhere near the water and big enough to park Betsy.

Calm Day for Swimming

Lifeboat If Needed

Kastelholm Castle

Ålands only castle, Kastelholm has been around since the medieval period with its heyday coming during the reign of the Swedish King, Gustav Vasa.  At just €6 each to enter we headed in to see what all the fuss was about. First mentioned in writing in 1388, Kastelholm was strategically situated in what was once the middle of the Kingdom of Sweden.  At that time Sweden extended to present-day Russia and the waterways united the realm.  The landscape has changed somewhat in the 700-odd years since then.  From the start, the castle was completely surrounded by water and was naturally sheltered by the Slottsundet’s steep beaches. Towards the end of the 1300’s Kastelholm was a typical fortress with a tower, residence and curtain walls.  Following much rebuilding and extending, the castle ruins today consist of two sections, a higher main castle and a fortification that is surrounded by a curtain wall.

In the 1400s Åland became a castle fief of its own and during the troubled century that followed Kastelholm was also drawn into the war between Sweden and Denmark.  The castle was besieged by the Danes several times but was recaptured by the Swedes in the end. In 1745 a devastating fire broke out that reduced most of the castle to ruins.  Sweden lost Åland and Finland to Russia in 1809 and the centre of power moved to nearby Bomarsund. The most recent restoration was started in 1982 and was completed in 2001.

As with most museums we are visiting over here, the displays are not only visual but interactive and we get to try on some of the clothing and armour the locals used to wear.

We had also heard about the Russian Ruins in Bomarsund so decided to check it out.

The Bomarsund Fortress & Russian Ruins

The biggest military facility that had ever been built in Åland was the Bomarsund fortress. After the war between Sweden and Russia in 1808–1809, Sweden was forced to give up Finland and Åland as part of the peace. Over 2,000 Russian armed forces, fortress workers and convicts lived and worked in Bomarsund.  A whole community developed in the area.  The foundations of the empire-style wooden houses in Nya Skarpans show a small town settlement with a post office, school, shops and offices. The Crimean War of 1853–56 led to the English fleet sailing into the Baltic Sea and attacking targets along the Finnish coast. The most tempting target was the Bomarsund fortress and August 1854 saw the landing of 12,000 English and French soldiers. At the same time about 40 steam-driven warships approached from the south whereas the defences were built to withstand attacks from ships coming from the north.  On 13 August the soldiers went on the offensive at the same time as the warships subjected the fortress to massive gunfire. On 16 August the Russian commander, General Bodisco, capitulated.  Bomarsund was never completed and a few weeks later the fortress was demolished by the victors. The bricks from some areas were kept and put to use – they can be seen in buildings like Uspenski Cathedral and the Alexander Theatre in Helsinki. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856, Sweden pushed through an international convention prohibiting the Russians from fortifying Åland. Since then Åland has been a demilitarised area and Ålander men are not obliged to do national service. Åland belonged to Russia until Finland gained independence in 1917.

We stayed the night beside the ruins of the Notvik Tower which defended the channel approaching Bomarsund.  This took five years to build but just three days for the English to defeat.

Notvik Tower Ruins

Strategic Position for The Guns

Notvik – a Perfect Position for Defending the Channel

Bomarsund Fortress – How it Looked

Bomarsund Today

The Locals

The locals are all so friendly. On Bjorko island we parked up next to the rubbish recycling ‘house’ and found it’s a great way to meet the locals. That evening we were invited to watch the sunset over the water while drinking French liquor and soaking up the last of the day’s warmth from the smooth granite rocks.

Stunning Private Sunset

Meeting The Locals

What To Bring to Åland

I would recommend stocking up on your favourite groceries before coming across as some of the prices are on the tad expensive side.  The cauliflower was €4.40 each and one wasn’t much larger than my hand.  Coffee can set you back over €10 with a packet of biscuits just under €4. There is usually a store on the bigger islands but don’t expect to find a dairy at every corner. It’s remote here which adds to the charm. Looking around we see many of the locals tending to their own vegetable patch.

Would We Recommend A Visit To the Åland Islands?

If you have the time while heading between Sweden and Finland, and you are happy to enjoy a few peaceful days, then certainly make sure you take the opportunity to slow down a wee bit and meander your way across.  There’s no need to take twelve days like we did, however, we have no regrets.   The locals are friendly, so make sure you engage them and ask a little about how life on the island suits them and their family.  You are bound to be richly rewarded with their stories.

Aland Reflections

Once Loved House

Cafe & Shop on Brändö

Table With A View

Motorhome Facilities And Stopping Places

Water was relatively easy to find on most of the islands, however I recommend you taste this first.  On two occasions the water was brownish and tasted ‘dirty’ – we drink straight from our tank so didn’t fill up there.  Nevertheless, we were never far from the next island where we would try again.  We filled up at marinas or cemeteries after asking permission first.  We spent a minimum of two nights on each island group that we ferried to and never came close to running out of water.

Each island has its own rubbish collection area, so ridding ourselves of daily rubbish was a piece of cake. Grey water disposal again wasn’t an issue given the number of gravel roads and laybys away from the public.

Mariehamn Marina has facilities for emptying toilet cassettes.  We used biological washing liquid in our cassette which made it environmentally friendly for carefully emptying into the public toilets we found along the way.  Below is a map showing our stopping points.  Click on each of the points to see a photo of where we parked and for more information.

How Finland Reduced Our Gas Consumption Part 1

How Finland Reduced Our Gas Consumption Part 1

For those of you who are seasoned travelers and/or have been to this part of the world in your moho, it may come as no surprise to learn that Finland does NOT have LPG.

We were aware of this fact and filled our Gaslow twin gas bottles up to the brim in Sweden before heading over.

Having lived full time in our moho, Betsy, we really hadn’t considered the need to conserve gas.  After all, it’s cheap enough to buy, it’s relatively easy to find (although Italy did give us some grief) and it lasts quite a while.

We use gas for our fridge and freezer, to heat our water for showers, for warmth when it gets cold (although this isn’t yet needed in Finland), for making tea/coffee, and of course to cook meals.

At what I would consider our usual consumption rate, we would get up to six weeks from our two bottles.  Then we started baking bread every second day and cakes on a regular basis, which took us to about a four-week cycle.

We arrived in Finland but were shocked to notice that after just twelve days, with considered usage, we were one bottle down already.  The weather has been relatively warm which could contribute to greater gas consumption for the fridge/freezer.  So what is considered usage I hear you ask?  We had just stopped baking cakes and bread but continued to cook dinner every night (we eat out infrequently).

We expected to be in Finland for another three or four weeks so it was time to get serious, look at how we were using gas and drastically cut down our usage or we were going to run out and have to make a break for the Swedish border for a refill.  Here’s what we did.

1.              Stopped all baking of yummy, non-essential food, ie bread, cakes, etc and bought bread a couple of times a week and a cake now and again instead.

2.              Purchased a low wattage (1000W) electric jug.  We have two solar panels and a large inverter, so by swapping from a stovetop gas kettle to an electric jug (when the batteries are well charged) has made a huge difference to how long we have the gas running every day.  We have reduced our tea consumption, which can’t be a bad thing.  The jug is also used for boiling water for washing the dishes, which we usually save for the morning when the sun is up so the batteries can maintain a higher charge.

3.              Monitored the hot water system for showers.  In the past, we would turn on the switch to heat the gas then forget it for half an hour or an hour before jumping into the shower and leaving it on until the second person had finished.  Now we set the timer for 20 minutes, the heater is turned off and both showers taken quickly while the water is hot.  We have found there is ample hot water for two satisfactory showers and we may experiment with reducing the heat time to 15 minutes.

4.              After we both have showers the residual hot water is sometimes used to wash the dishes, hence making the most from the gas heated water.  Previously we would just boil the kettle for the dishes.

5.              Reduce our shower time (I know this sounds obvious, but I really like to stand under hot water and contemplate the world).  Now I contemplate it quickly when drying off.  However, our shower routine has typically been to get wet, turn the shower off, lather up with soap and shampoo, then turn the water back on, job done.  We have also noticed a reduction in our water usage as a result.

6.              The biggest step we took was to check into a camping ground for a night, which we normally only do when we absolutely have to.   It had to be done, so just for one night we bit the bullet, paid our money, and then made the most of this resource.  We arrived at 11am and set about in the kitchen cooking up meals that we could freeze or chill so we wouldn’t have to cook for a couple of weeks.  This took the rest of the day and part of the next day.  Thankfully the camping ground had a 3pm checkout time.

We made nacho mince, (2x meals); Swedish meatballs (2x meals); Caponata (yummy on bread for meze type meals), Aubergine rolls (3 x meals); Beef and Guinness pie (3 x meals); honey-soy chicken wings (1x meal); Thai Chicken Curry (2 x meals); and our famous lemon cake.  Then we had to cool everything down and pack it neatly into our fridge and freezer.  To read more click here for the full lowdown.

7.              We have a microwave oven that will allow us to heat our pre-made meals up in no time, reducing our gas consumption.  We will just use the gas for cooking up fresh vegetables for the evening meal.

8.              Of course, while we were in the camping ground we plugged into the power (to give the fridge a break from using gas) and also used the campground’s showers.  That’s something I wouldn’t usually do even if we do find ourselves in a camping ground.

9.              We turned the temperature of the fridge up (warmer) one notch so it would use less gas.  Everything is still frozen and cold as it should be so that seems okay.

 

At this stage, we don’t know how well our efforts will be rewarded, but we are hoping to stay in Finland for up to four more weeks so fingers crossed.  We believe that we have cut our usage by at least 80% which should be more than enough, but time will tell.

I will update this post when the experiment has Finnished (excuse the pun).  If you have any suggestions or recommendations please feel free to share them.  We are keen to learn from others.

To find out what happend, click on Part 2 for the Finale.

How To Safely and Successfully Wild Camp

How To Safely and Successfully Wild Camp

by Ruth Murdoch  |  August 2018  |Traveling Help

What is Wild Camping?

Also called free camping, freedom camping or wilding, wild camping means different things to different people.

In this blog I share our tips for how we wild camped successfully in 275 stopping spots during our first year of travels through sixteen European countries.  I will share with you places to dump black water (toilet), where we found water, and most importantly how we keep safe.  I will also show you how we insert two different GPS coordinates into our Garmin and share the technology we use to find great spots for where to wild camp.

For us, wilding is not about being out in the bush surrounded by bears and moose but is when we find a place to stay for the night, away from the usual options of campervan parking, Aires, and camping grounds.  We may be parked on wasteland, car parks, laybys, picnic spots, or any other area of open and preferably flat ground we can find.  We might be near the beach, in the mountains, overlooking lakes, beside a motorway, at a marina, or down a road out in the country.  Anywhere really where it is free to stay the night and suitable for parking and sleeping.  There are usually no facilities like electricity or places to dump your black or grey water in these areas, so it’s important that you are self-sufficient.  If you are lucky you might find a rubbish bin and a fresh water tap.

Pros of Wild Camping

You may ask why do we choose to wild camp as opposed to using camping grounds or camper parking areas.  Here are our reasons:

1. Cost – it’s cheaper. We are long-term motorhomers and if we were to spend €30 per night on camping grounds that would add just under €11,000 onto our costs, or 54% of our annual budget.  If the cost was just €20 it would still be a whopping €7,300 a year, which equates to 36% of our annual budget.  Last year we spent just over €700 (3% of our annual budget) on camping grounds and €585 (2.8% of our annual budget) on camper parking.  If we didn’t wild camp, we couldn’t afford to travel for as long as we want or see as much as we want.

2. Wild camping spots are found everywhere if you know how and where to look.  So you can travel and stay where you want, not just where there are suitable camping grounds nearby.

3. Peace, Quiet and Privacy.  We rate this very highly.  When wilding, if there are noisy neighbours then just leave and find a quieter place.  There are usually no dogs barking, kids screaming, or people sitting outside late at night talking loudly.  Certainly, we have come across some spots that are noisier than others and that is where a good set of earplugs comes in handy.  Although on the subject of earplugs we are careful when we use these as at times we want to hear if there is anyone else around us.

4. Space.  Unlike the few camping grounds we’ve visited, when wilding we are not crammed into a small pitch with neighbours sandwiched close enough beside us so we can hear them change their mind.  Often there is just us in the places we find and if there are others around they are usually a respectful distance from us.

5. Location.  By far one of the great advantages of wilding.  We find that camping grounds are often located outside the city centre or away from the attractions and are unlikely to have much of a view.  We have had stunning views, unobstructed ocean vistas, and mountain top outlooks.  Just look at some of the photos to see what we are talking about.

View From Betsy’s Door, Bali Beach, Greece

Sunset on Aland Islands, taken from bedroom window

Aland Islands, Finland

Parking on a live volcano, Mt Etna, Sicily

Corinth, Greece

Betsy alone on top of the world, Meteora, Greece

6. No public transport needed.  When wilding we can often locate ourselves near a port or marina and then take a short walk or cycle into the city centre.

7.  No check-in or check out-times.  I like to stay up late and work*, which means I tend to sleep in later in the morning.  Therefore having a time when I have to check out doesn’t suit my lifestyle.  You don’t have this issue when wilding.
*My work consists of writing travel blogs, so it’s a far cry to call it ‘work’.  Lol.

Cons of Wild Camping

It wouldn’t be fair to only give one side of the story.  It is important to acknowledge that there is a price to pay for wilding and here I show the other side of this lifestyle.

1. Security would have to be the number one issue on people’s mind when wild camping, especially when you are parked alone at night in an unknown area in a foreign country.  To date we have not experienced any frightening situations that would have us reconsider our choice of having so many wild nights.

Safety for us is a top priority and over the last year, we have developed principles and procedures which have given us the confidence to wild camp in most of the countries we have visited.  I share these with you later in this article however, nothing is foolproof and everyone needs to make their own choices about where to stay and what feels ‘safe’ for them.

2. There is no guarantee of finding a suitable location to park for the night.  At least with a campground, you can book ahead of time to be sure of and secure your spot.

3. It takes time to do some of the basic things that are easy at a camping ground including finding and filling with water and dumping grey and black water and doing the laundry.

4. Unlike wilding where there is no electricity available (unless you are very lucky).  At a camping ground you will have the opportunity for electrical hook up, usually referred to as EHU. This gives peace of mind when it comes to switching on lights or charging up the laptop computer without worrying about your batteries or whether there is enough sun for your solar panels.

5. While wild camping is tolerated in most countries, typically you are not allowed to exhibit ‘camping behaviour’. This includes setting up chairs, winding out awnings or hanging out the washing.  You can normally get away with some of this in more secluded spots.  We save up our washing until we are parked somewhere we feel comfortable to hang up the clothesline.  Or else, you can always find a Laundromat but this is the last resort for us as it’s not only expensive but often difficult to reach in the city centre with a 7.5m moho.

6. In a camping ground, you don’t have to actually check around for signs to see whether or not you are in fact allowed to stay in the area.

Technology to Help with Wilding

1. Park4Night.  This is the free mobile application and website which is our go-to source for places to park. The app looks like this:

We have found this to be an invaluable tool and have contributed back to this app on numerous occasions by finding and listing new sites and posting comments on existing sites.  I recommend if you use this app that you should contribute back to it with as much information as you can give (including photos) as it improves the app for all who use it now and in the future.

1. Search For Sites is similar to Park4Night, although the website is free, the app is paid.  Again we use this on the few occasions where a suitable spot isn’t obvious or available on Park4Night.

2. Campercontact is another app and website that people rate highly, however, we do not often refer to this – not because there is anything wrong with it but just because we use the other tools first and they usually have all we need.  The paid version of this is required to get the full details on sites.

Note that all of the tools above also give information on campsites, paid camper parking areas and camper service areas.  Some are better in some regions than others so it is best to have access to all three.

3. Google Maps has been fantastic when the other apps above haven’t come through for us.  For example, when touring around the Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland there were no sites listed on one particular island, so we looked at Google Maps to find a suitable looking place, e.g. a clearing, a church car park, or a marina.  If we find any good new spots then we add them to Park4Night for other travelers to use.

4. Garmin GPS.  This beats Google Maps for navigating hands down as it’s quicker and gives information on when to turn further ahead of time.  If you have used Google Maps as a GPS you would have found that it can be slow to refresh your location and give directions.  The Garmin doesn’t rely on the internet which is quite often hit and miss in some of the locations where we’ve been traveling.  There are other great GPS’s on the market, which others swear by, however, we have only had Garmins so can only comment on them.  Our Garmin is the Camper model which usually directs us away from low bridges and super-narrow streets.

I’ve included two videos below to show how we easily program the GPS coordinates into our Garmin. The reason there are two videos is that you may come across different formats of coordinates. One will look like this: 60.1234 20.1234 (typical of the format from Park4Night) and the other will be in degrees, minutes and seconds which will look something like this N 60° 12.34′ 56″ E 20° 12.34′ 56″ or some variation thereof, i.e. sometimes the N for north is at the end of the numbers. You could also have N (north), or S (south), and W (west) or E (east). Each combination will give you either a N or S and an E or W.

5. Converting GPS Coordinates.  It is also possible to convert the coordinates from one to another by using this tool found online: https://www.fcc.gov/media/radio/dms-decimal

6. Maps.me is another app that many people use.  This again doesn’t require an internet connection to use and the navigation works well provided you have downloaded the map base for the region you are traveling in.

 

Successful Setup For Wilding

I am going to share our tips for how we have set ourselves up for wildling and what we’ve learnt along the way.

The additional items we have to set our Motorhome up for successful wilding included two solar panels, extra leisure battery, large 1500W inverter, portable washing machine and two good quality water containers (22 litres in total).  We also have electric bikes, which make life easier when it comes to hunting and collecting fresh water.  For a full inventory on what is in Betsy, click here.

Water Container are Invaluable

Washing Machine

Alarms

For added security, we have a good alarm system with internal movement sensors as well as sensors on the windows, cab doors, habitation doors and garage doors.  The alarm can be set on ‘sleep mode’ that lets us move inside without setting it off.  We had an extra alarm siren fitted inside the habitation area which is extremely loud and uncomfortable to be present when it is sounding.  Our alarm fob, which sits beside the bed at night, has a panic button that allows us to set off the alarm manually.

Another thing that we did was to get some stickers made up that said ‘Alarm’ and have a picture of a bell. They are UV resistant and some were made to be on the outside, and some on the inside of the glass.  Each window has a sticker as does our accommodation door and garage doors.

Alarm Stickers are UV Resistant

Extra security is provided by dead locks on the habitation and garage doors and a tie-down that we use to strap the cab doors together (in case someone broke the glass or locks and tried to open the door).

 

Safety When Wilding

For us, safety usually starts before we leave the current parking spot.  We know that many people love to fly by the seat of their pants and just drive until they find somewhere that looks good to stay at.  We prefer to have a bit of a plan for the day’s travel and research potential parking spots around our destination using something like Park4Night.  We read the reviews for each spot, note if anyone has had issues with security or break-ins, and may reject a spot or increase our security measures accordingly.  Using locations from Park4Night often means that there will be other moho’s in the same spot, which adds to the security and social interests of a location.  We will check Google Maps to get as much information about the spots as we can and to also scout around for other possibilities.  We will normally have at least two potential places programmed into the GPS with some idea about where else we could go if those don’t pan out.  Having a plan gives us peace of mind which we like.  Others prefer more excitement and the feeling of the unknown.  Everyone is different.

Listen to your gut.  We have a rule in our Moho that even if one of us has a bad feeling about a spot or a concern for safety, no matter the reason, we don’t question it but move on.  What’s interesting is that if one of us voices a concern, quite often the other person was thinking something similar.  Communication is important here so don’t let your desire to park and sleep override the need for safety.

Good general principals to follow include:

  • Avoid using leveling chocks if possible, as you may need to drive away in the middle of the night.  We have a cheap set of small chocks which we would be happy to leave behind for the sake of our safety.
  • We generally park out of sight of main roads and public areas wherever we can.
  • If possible, we like to park where there are one or more other motorhomes as there is definitely safety in numbers.
  • Have a backup for where you might go is important if you have to move in a hurry, e.g. park at a service station for the night.
  • Ensure you know the phone numbers for police and other emergency services. Have these written down or in your phone.  The main number throughout Europe is 112.
  • Limit the alcohol consumption so the driver is not over the limit should he/she have to drive.  It’s important to know the different alcohol limits in each country (some countries have a low or zero blood alcohol level limit)
  • Park your motorhome so it is facing forward and has a clear unrestricted exit, preferably having open space in front of you rather than a single track.  Pre-plan what you might do if your Plan A exit is blocked.
  • Beware of parking on grass if there is any rain forecast as you may get stuck in the mud.

Preparing the Cabin for Sleeping

Every night before going to bed we have a routine called ‘preparing the cabin’. Here’s what we do.

1. Make sure everything outside is put away at night – chairs, awning, doormat etc, and the garage doors are locked and dead-bolted.

2. Turn the front seats forward into the driving position.

3. Ensure the keys and alarm fob are beside the bed for easy access.

4. Put the computers, wallet and valuables (passports, documents and drivers licenses) in the locked safe. (Most of this stuff tends to stay there in any case, but if we’ve had them out for some reason we make sure they are returned before hitting the hay.)

5. Push all buttons to cupboards and drawers in to secure them.

6. Secure the TV and shower doors (or anything else that would typically be secured before driving away).

7. Ensure the dishes are either washed and put away, or at least stacked so if we have to drive off quickly they’re not going to crash into a thousand pieces across the cabin floor.

8. Draw the curtains around the front windows but we avoid putting up the reflective/insulating screens as these are slower to remove and can cause a lot of condensation on the inside of the windscreen especially in colder weather.

9. Remove the GPS and dash cam from the windscreen but have them handy should we need to take off quickly.

10. Set the alarm on sleep mode.

There are always going to be places where you feel 100% safe and other places that feel less comfortable.  When we are in those places we take some extra precautions to make it harder for anyone to break in.  We lock the external deadlock on the habitation door then run a tie down between the front cab door handles.

 

Leaving the Moho Unattended in Wild Spots

Here are a few tips about what we do when leaving Betsy alone in a remote location.

1. Our first tip is don’t do it. The first choice is always to re-park somewhere more public.

2. If for some reason we are going to leave Betsy unattended, then we ensure that the area ‘feels’ safe to leave.  If we have any hesitations then we will simply drive to another car park, e.g. supermarket parking area.

3. The fabric strap that we use at night may not be sufficient if someone breaks a window, because they could reach through and cut the strap.  Therefore we have a secondary system – a  light chain that we thread around our door handles and secure with a combination padlock.  The door handles have Velcro around them to protect the plastic from the metal scratching them.

Whilst nothing is full proof, this system will give an opportunist burglar a bigger headache.  If someone is prepared they may be carrying bolt cutters which would make short work of this.  Our intention is to slow the burglars down and have them look for a softer target.

4. We put our TV under the pillows so it’s out of sight and not obvious from a quick look around inside the vehicle.

5. The speaker system goes into the safe, as does the remote for the TV.

6. All our important documents and devices are put into the safe including extra credit cards, passports, driver’s licenses, computers, tablet, kindles, etc.  Whilst this seems obvious, we have heard about people leaving these in a cupboard and them being stolen.

7. We remove our GPS and dash camera including brackets and cables from the windscreen and these are also put into the safe.

8. Important medicines are also kept in our safe, particularly things that need a prescription to replace and are not used on a daily basis.

We have a big, good quality, and heavy-duty safe which is bolted and screwed down to the Moho.  Some pretty specialised wrecking equipment would be needed to rip it out and they would then need to carry a very awkward and heavy (16kg) safe somewhere they could take their time to break into. That’s unlikely to happen easily or without someone noticing, we hope.   By that time our credit cards would all be stopped and our passports reported.  We have electronic copies of our passports and credit card information stored up in the cloud as well as recorded and in the safe .

The most anyone could hope to find inside our motorhome is food, clothes, a microwave and the odd bottle of wine. If they are desperate for that, then they are welcome to it.

 

Being Moved On – Whoops

In our first year of motorhoming we spent 275 nights wild camping including stopping at car parks, beaches, on top of mountains, in marinas, on the side of the road or tucked away somewhere else out of sight.  Few of these places are specifically signposted as allowing overnighting by motorhomes. Therefore there is always the risk of falling foul of some local regulations, or parking in an unauthorised location and being confronted by someone in authority.  Of these 275, we have been moved on three times by officials.

The first was in Gallipoli where we were inadvertently staying on a national park.  At 8.00pm a security guard came around and asked us to leave, and gave us until 10pm to do so.

The second was in a supermarket car park in Naples where security were going to lock the gates for the night and suggested we went to a motorway service area close by.  Whilst we did that and were okay, we would not usually stay in such places as they are not considered generally the safest overnight place for motorhomes.  On that note, the Motorway Aires in France have a particularly bad reputation among the motorhoming community and should be avoided– just read the many posts on forums about people being broken into.

The third place we were moved on from was in Amsterdam where we had parked in a designated bus parking area within a larger car park.  We had been hoping some cars would leave on so we could take their place but were moved on before this could happen – it was worth a crack and we then found a nice quiet residential street for the evening.

It is important to note that anyone official will not bang on your door at 1am and yell in a drunken holler for you to move (as happened to us in Denmark).  We stay quiet and trust they will just go away but be ready to move quickly if the situation looks as if it may be threatening.  In the Denmark case, there were eight other moho’s beside us  so we didn’t feel in any danger and after waking everyone, he left.

Our number one rule for night time is…

“DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR TO ANYONE!!!”

Should you have a bang on the door from someone who is persistent and you want to respond then talk through the closed window. They will still be able to hear you. But under no circumstances should you open your door at night and definitely do not leave your vehicle at night.

One fellow camper told us a story of when he had someone bang on his door. He yelled back in his strongest, angriest voice ‘for goodness sake (ok, he wasn’t quite that polite) why can’t everyone leave me alone’.  He said this puts people on the back foot immediately because they think you are angry, already been disturbed, and may be a danger to them.

If for any reason you have a need to knock on the door of another motorhome during the night, make sure you announce yourself and what you want.  We had someone banging and banging one night, and of course, we ignored him.  He eventually spoke in English (we were in Italy) to share valid information.  Had the chap announced himself and said something like “hi there, I’m John from Australia and I just wanted to let you know our motorhome has been broken into tonight”, we would have answered him (through the windows) a lot earlier.

 

Water, Toilet, Electricity and Rubbish

Here are five practical matters that full-time wild campers need to manage as a result of not being on campsites regularly.

1. Fresh Water.  For us, we can go four or five days on our 100-litre tank, plus back up water containers.  However, we normally start keeping an eye out for water supplies after two days.  Whenever you have the chance, top up your tanks.  Some countries have been easier than others, for example, in Greece it was relatively easy to find water as there were many public taps, however south of Italy, in Sicily we really had to hunt as most of the public water taps had been disconnected.  France, Germany and Sweden were easy and by using one of our apps we generally found a service point at an Aire or Stelplatz.  Usually these are free but sometimes a token charge is made.  Most cemeteries have water taps you can use to fill containers and many service stations have a tap you can connect a hose to.  A big tip here is to always taste the water before putting it in your tank, especially if (as we do), you drink water straight from the tank (we have an in-line filter after the pump).  Some of the water is highly chlorinated or just doesn’t taste good.  We always make sure that we have a 12 litre container of known good water in the garage, for drinking and making tea/coffee, just in case we end up with a tank of tainted water as has happened three times.

We can carry our water containers on our bikes and have frequently ended up cycling around an area to find a suitable tap.  We then just make a few trips to ferry 22 litres at a time back to Betsy and fill her up using a funnel which has a filter in it.

2. Black water (toilet cassette).  Getting rid of your black water can be a challenge and you need to continually plan how to manage this necessary activity.

Again using Park4Night (or other apps) provides a source of dumping spots as these will show you the service points ahead and you can use these to plan your black dumping (and usually fresh water filling and grey dumping at the same time).  Hint – you can often access the services at many of the paid camper parking locations even if you don’t stay there.

If you find an unlisted authorised dump location then please share the details on the apps so others can benefit.

Many of the motorway or main road service areas now have purpose built motorhome service points where you can take care of all these needs.

Campgrounds may also allow you to dump, usually for a nominal fee, which is much lower than spending the night there.  However be aware that fundamentally when you free camp, they miss out on business so don’t be surprised if they refuse you.

Local tourist information centres may be able to direct you to services for motorhomes.

Service stations sometimes allow you to empty your cassette into their toilets, especially if you are buying something from them.  Just ask first and leave the toilet clean.  Emptying a full cassette into a toilet without making a mess takes practice but it can be done.  We take a separate container of water in with us so we can rinse the cassette out a couple of times.

Many people carry a spare cassette just in case.  We have one, in a separate box in the garage, but so far have not had to use it.

‘Boys pee in the bushes’ is a good principle for extending the time before the cassette is full, as long as you are somewhere wild, secluded and private.

Some motorhomers we have met put a plastic bag into the loo before doing Number 2’s then remove the bag and put it in the bin.  This a more extreme way of keeping the smelly stuff out and making the cassette last longer but wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

In an emergency, some public toilets can be used however be careful to leave no mess that would give motorhomers a bad reputation.  Also be aware that many of the toilet treatment chemicals can kill the good bacteria in septic tank systems so use environmentally friendly chemicals if you might use public loos on a septic tank system.

On that subject, there is a widespread debate on what to put in your cassette to break down the solid matter and control the odours.  Just check some Facebook Groups or Motorhoming Website Forums and you will find lots of opinions and solutions that you can try out.  In our experience, after trying many different variants, the commercially available tablets still work the best and keep the smells away for the longest.

We recently came across this map which gives a lot of dumping points across much of Europe.  The details are in Swedish but the information is gold.

Camper Dumping Points

3. Grey water.  This can usually be emptied at the same service areas as you can empty your black water.  However, if we get really desperate we find a suitable gravel (unsealed) country road layby or vacant land and release the water.  For those gasping at this admission, we have a clear conscience on this as the grey water is just water, with some shampoo and soap residue.  We avoid putting food scraps down our sink.  For sure, there is some odour, however, this goes away quickly and we never let it out anywhere near other people or buildings, promise.

4. Electricity.  Whether this is a problem depends on how well set up for wild camping your Moho is, how much power you consume, as well as local factors such as the weather and time of year.  If you run out of power, you will usually need to find an Electrical Hook Up (EHU), which may be on a campsite, or paid motorhome parking.

Some campers receive all the power they need by recharging their batteries while they drive.  They will usually run everything off their 12V system and won’t have laptops, TV’s or other power hungry appliances.  Most of us will need more.

The ideal accessory needed here is one or more solar panels to recharge your leisure batteries.  The larger your solar panels and the bigger your leisure batteries, the less you will need to rely on an EHU and the more independent you will be.  However, bigger panels and batteries mean more cost and more weight.  We run with 2 x 160W (watts) solar panels and 2 x 100 Ah (amp hour) leisure batteries and that has given us enough power and storage summer and winter so far.  Note that if you intend to wild camp over the winter, the solar panel output can drop dramatically (down to less than 10% on a wintery day) so you may need to check into a campground occasionally if there is a long spell of bad weather.  Be aware of where you park.  If you want your solar panels to work efficiently then park in the sun – pretty obvious really but we kept parking in the shade to keep cooler in our early summer days and ended up running our batteries way down.

The experts tell us that your batteries lose storage capacity over time and that occasionally putting them onto an EHU restores some of this capacity.  Therefore take every opportunity you can to plug in and give your batteries a birthday treat.

It is also good practice to avoid letting your batteries go too flat because this can cause permanent damage and reduction in performance.  A good rule of thumb is to not discharge to less than 12.2V, which is about 50% battery capacity.  A fully charged battery is around 12.7V.  If you discharge to under 12V you are risking damage.  Be aware that what your display says is not necessarily correct.  If you are actually using power, then the display will probably read a ‘lower than actual’ figure.  Turn everything that may be using power off, give it 15 minutes to settle down, then check the voltage, preferably with a meter at the battery terminals.  Believe me when I say this has taken us a lot of time to figure out, and a lot of questions to forums and other experts, not to mention my husband constantly looking at the battery display.  He’s much more relaxed these days.

5. Rubbish.  It is surprising just how much rubbish we generate and we normally dispose of it daily.  If you look around, you can usually find a public rubbish bin.   These can be found near parks, shopping precincts, beaches, or if you are really struggling to find one, then look at shopping malls or supermarkets (after purchasing your groceries, of course).  On the odd time where we cannot find a nearby bin, we put our rubbish in the moho garage and just wait, hoping we don’t forget to dump it.  Wherever possible, we try to respect the local recycling efforts and sort our rubbish into the appropriate plastics, glass, paper etc bins.

We will usually try to leave a location cleaner than when we turned up, so will pick up other peoples rubbish from around us.  At least we feel we are giving something back to the wonderful place where we stayed.

Phew, if you’ve read all the above well done.  There’s lots of information here and I know that many of you would already be wise to this stuff.  However, we have had to learn it all from scratch and I wished that someone had given us the heads up when we were newbies.

So, thanks for tuning in thus far.  That’s about my lot for how we wild camp successfully. I hope you have picked up some hints and tips to make your travels safe and rewarding.  If you see our Betsy out and about, please pop over and introduce yourself (after parking a reasonable distance away first). Lol.

Happy Wilding

Denmark in 2018

Denmark in 2018

by Ruth Murdoch  |  July 2018  |  Denmark

On 2nd July 2018 we were Denmark bound, the gateway country to Scandinavia and it’s nice to be back in this part of the world after a 22-year break.  The countries of Scandinavia include Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway, the latter three are unexplored as yet by us.

There’s plenty to learn in Denmark, from the many ‘traditions’ about food, their way of life, the ancient Vikings, and their strong sense of family.

At the age of 15, I started writing to a girl on the other side of the world, and Lisbeth from Denmark was to become my long lasting ‘penfriend’.  This term ‘penfriend’ is likely to be foreign to many youngsters these days, with the introduction of Facebook, email, YouTube, and the Internet in general.  ‘Penfriends’ exchanged real, handwritten letters, sent from post offices, using real stamps!

Lisbeth and I forged what has become my longest lasting friendship.  I lost touch with childhood friends after away from my small hometown of Te Aroha.  Although our pen and paper writing has now moved onto email and Messenger, we have managed to catch up in person every ten years.  Not bad going without conscious planning efforts.

Spending my birthday in July with Lisbeth and her family was planned months ago and we were looking forward to seeing them all again.

Beer and soft drinks are very expensive in Denmark so the Danish stock-up ‘tax-free’  at special supermarkets just inside the German/Danish border.  We attempted to buy a load for our friends from one of these places, plonked several slabs of canned refreshments in our trolley (wondering where would we stow these in our already heavily food and alcohol laden Betsy) and headed to the counter to pay.  We knew we had to complete a declaration card, however no-one told us we had to be a Danish citizen (or Scandinavian) with a permanent address and show our ‘Danish’ passports or ID Cards before we could escape with our newly purchased goods. Damn, back they went onto the shelves. It wasn’t worth trying to dodge a system and face the authorities over a few drinks.

Skiffervej

Finally driving across the border, I could remember Denmark being flat from my last visit here, and over the past twenty-two years it hasn’t got any lumpier.  Our first destination was supposed to be Rømø, in the region of South Western Denmark. Upon reading that we could not overnight or wildcamp on the island of Rømø, we stopped short at Skiffervej, Højer about 30kms away.  The sunset was rather inviting, maybe some sort of welcome and a promise of the good weather that was to come.

Skiffervej Sunset

The internet is wonderful , and we soon discovered quite by chance, that a fellow motorhome traveller and blogger on Facebook was nearby.  So we made plans the following day to catch up over a quick cuppa before they headed back home to England.  We got on like a house on fire, and after a ‘five-hour cuppa’ they decided to stay on for the night so we could finish our conversations.  A shared meal, a few vinos, deep and meaningful conversations – we really enjoyed Monica and Chris’ company and were sad to see them heading off the next morning for their jobs back in the UK.  Before they left we gave them a ride on our electric bikes and think we have converted them.

Love the look on Monica’s face

Rømø

Next day we were off to Rømø, just a couple of days later than planned (gotta love the freedom to stay put if the mood suits or newly acquired friends stay on).

I don’t’ mind saying that in order to find out some points of interest about Rømø, I turn to Wikipedia (the font of all things knowledgeable). Here’s what I learned about this small settlement.

Rømø is an island in the Wadden Sea, (I’d never heard of the Wadden Sea) linked to the Danish mainland by a road running across a causeway, and is part of Tønder municipality. The island has 650 inhabitants as of 1 January 2011 and covers an area of 129 km². Rømø is now the southernmost of Denmark’s Wadden Sea Islands (the previous being the small uninhabited island of Jordsand which sank in 1999).

One has to wonder how an island just sinks?

The day is a little bleak and uninviting for swimming just yet, so we resolve ourselves to a short wander around outside until it starts to rain.  We don’t do rain so we hightailed it out of there, having ticked this ‘must see’ destination off our list. I could see the appeal on a fine day, however, the Danes seem to flock out here for picnics in droves even when the weather is a bit inclement.

Rømø in the Rain

Jelling

With a day up our sleeve to ‘kill’, I mean explore, before seeing my penfriend for the first time in ten years, and Alan meeting her and her family for the first time, we head to Jelling, a small settlement of just 3,400 odd people as of 2016. It seems like a reasonable stopping place halfway to our final destination of Tranbjerg, just south of Aarhus.

A message from my penfriend asking of our whereabouts the conversation goes like this.

L: Where are you now?

R: We’re in Jelling.

L: Great place – seeing the stones I guess

R: I didn’t know about the stones but they are just five minutes walk from where we are parked. Thanks

L: Ohh great you would need to see those – very historically important 

After this timely conversation, we soon discover that Jelling is in fact a UNESCO  listed area with some really ‘famous stones’.  The next day we headed out in search of said stones and discovered this place does indeed have interesting historic significance (well done Alan on inadvertently finding a place of interest on our way north).   Here’s what we learnt.

The year is 965. Viking King Harald Bluetooth* bids farewell to the Norse pantheon and embraces Christianity.  He has this message chiselled into a large rune stone in the town of Jelling close to the rune stone erected a few years earlier by his father, King Gorm the Old. On the rune stone, Harald boasts of having conquered Denmark and Norway and brought Christianity to the Danes. The inscription reads: “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.” The rune stone is considered Denmark’s baptism certificate and the figure of Christ inscribed on the stone is also featured in all Danish passports.

*Bluetooth technology, used everywhere in mobile phones and computers for wireless communication, is named after the Danish king Harald Bluetooth due to his communicative skills in bringing warring factions together.

So important were these stones that houses nearby were removed to create an ample distance barrier and the road was redirected away from the monument. Then in order to further protect the Runic Stones from erosion and to keep them in their original position they are protected from the weather by being encased in Perspex.

 

Old Friends and New

The following day we arrived at my penfriend’s house.  After copious big hugs and some tears (from us both) , Alan was introduced to Lisbeth and family.

Have I mentioned food in Denmark yet?  Stay braced for what is to come.  Upon arrival, we were seated for coffee and tea and a classic homemade traditional Danish coffee cake of sorts called Brunsvigercake.  It apparently comes from Fyn (Funen) in Denmark, the island where Hans Christian Andersen was born.  It is a soft yeast dough topped with a generous serving of butter and brown sugar.  We are told that it’s not so good the next day so we have to eat it all up. Just as well we brought our hungry tummies with us.

Brunsviger Cake

Christian & Lisbeth

Bertram waiting patiently for the cake

But that’s not all.  We were apparently having an early dinner because in true Danish style Lisbeth has organised for us to be eating a very special treat tonight called Smørrebrød.  Although simple Smørrebrød is eaten very regularly, these are to be the special ones often saved for festive occasions (or when old friends turn up).  They can be described as open sandwiches on rye bread with all sorts of cold cut meats of roast beef or pork, cold fried and crumbed flatfish, prawns, cucumber, egg, tomatoes, bean sprouts, horseradish, liver pate, to name a few, with a remoulade sauce (similar to a mayonnaise or aioli) and packed full of flavour, and colour.

The photos show just how inviting these stacked open sandwiches (Smørrebrød) are, and it’s little wonder they are saved for special occasions.  Thanks Lisbeth.

Delicious Smørrebrød

There is also a tradition of what drinks must accompany Smørrebrød. From lager with herrings, to schnapps and of course wine (especially for those of us who don’t drink anything other than Chardonnay).

Now stuffed full to the brim, we recline in the lounge to be served up an array of chocolates and licorice (just in case we’re hungry).

The next day we venture into the city of Aarhus (officially spelled Århus and known as the European Capital of Culture), the central city in the East Jutland metropolitan area, with a total population of 1.378 million in 2016.

We walked over a Perspex walkway cantilevered out over the pedestrian street below. From our vantage point, we could see out past the cathedral, towards the port and beyond, and the yachts enjoying the wind and sun on a beautiful summers day.

The Danes are a patriotic lot, they love their flag and their monarch and when the Queen’s ship is spotted in the harbour we make a quick trip over to have a gander (look).  We learn that the version of the Danish flag with the two pointy ends can only be flown by Royalty or those members of a yacht club.

The Royal Yacht

The Royal Flag

The next stopping point is the Infinite Bridge at Ballehage Beach. Originally built as part of the Sculpture By The Sea event in 2015, the locals loved it so much that the Municipality of Aarhus bought it as a permanent piece of art.  However, it’s only set up from May to October each year, making me wonder what happens in the winter months to stop it being available all year round?  Is it too dangerous, does it ice up and become an ice-skating bridge where unsuspecting locals and tourists alike plop off the side, or do the waters crash over and cause damage?

Celebrating Birthdays Danish Style

The next day is my favourite all year, my birthday.  In traditional Danish birthdays, the birthday girl/boy must be woken with chanting birthday songs, with furious flag waving, and lots of smiles.  Waking to find four others singing wholeheartedly in our small motorhome bedroom was a first for me.

The neighbours, up and down the street, all put out small Danish flags in their garden to celebrate the birthday event.

Then there’s breakfast, in traditional Danish style with small paper Danish flags lying on the table, and miniature wooden Danish flags standing tall in front of the birthday girl’s seat, along with presents to be unwrapped.  The tradition extends to not being able to partake in the food until all presents are opened!

Breakfast was special bread style buns with cheese and jams all washed down with what else but sweet delicious Danish pastries.

It was such a unique experience to celebrate my birthday Danish style, and I couldn’t have wished to be anywhere else on this momentous occasion.

During the afternoon we take a quick trip south to visit Mette, Lisbeth’s cousin whom I have previously met, once in NZ when we went travelling together, and then again 22 years ago at her small flat in Aarhus.

Drinking Aperol Spritz with Prosecco in the hot Danish sun with old, and new friends, isn’t a bad way to while away some time, especially on one’s birthday.

A quick scurry up the ladder to pick fresh juicy delicious cherries before heading home had us set for the return journey, in time to relax before going out for dinner.

Waking the Birthday Girl

Ahh, Fresh Cherries

Polle, Mette, Alan, Ruth

Our dinner venue this evening was at Bondehuset, a half timbered, thatched roofed restaurant located at Saksild Strand by a beautiful beach that seems to go on forever. The dinner was delicious, a traditional Danish feast that was scoffed and enjoyed with lovely wine to boot. Thanks Lisbeth for my birthday dinner.

Don’t be fooled by the weather, it was a swimming day

Saksild Strand Beach

Legoland

The next day we visited that well known Danish icon – Legoland!

No trip to Denmark would be complete without a visit here and it’s a full on day with the entire family.  An hour’s drive east of Tranbjerg we arrived soon after opening time on a rather warm summer’s day and we left about an hour past closing time!  A full day of walking around, going on rides, seeing small cities made from Lego and being genuinely amazed by the imagination and time that has obviously been devoted to building this amusement park from scratch.  It’s only open during the summer months and I wonder if they put everything away or cover it up somehow to protect it from the below freezing temperatures they have here in winter.

The Famous Danish Icon

The next day we headed to the one and only high point of Tranbjerg to a lookout point to see the view overlooking the brown fields (due to the serious lack of rain) and out to the ocean.  The day was once again warm and we are soaking up the unexpected summer rays.

Aarhus Art Museum

On the list of things to see and do in Aarhus is the art museum and this is one I can highly recommend.  It has a rainbow walkway lookout that doubles as a hothouse in warm weather!  We braved the humid conditions and walked around taking photos of the views below through different coloured lenses.

The museum itself requires a mention.  It was nothing like I would imagine and I can see why Aarhus has the reputation for art culture. “The boy” was …. Hmm I really don’t know how to describe him, so I will let the pictures tell the story.

“Boy”

One exhibit that really hit home to me was the beggar’s signs – the artist travelled the world and collected the signs that beggars had made.  He bought them from the beggars, swapping them for money  (presumably for a good price) and then framed each and every one of them. Language was no barrier, they are in Spanish, Italian, English (USA, Canada), Greek, Russian, Hungary and many more.

This suitcase made entirely of clothing depicted the iconic buildings of Aarhus and plonked them together in the lid.

Then we came across a black and white collage of old and broken boats, which was sad to see and I couldn’t help but think about what these boats had seen over their years and the happy memories they must be hiding in their hulls.

Do you think she is real? How could she stand so still for such a long period of time?  It took me a while to realise however, this is a statue of someone pretending to be a statue.  Pretty clever.

The following day Alan and I took a drive out to the lovely region of Ronde, about an hour towards the east coast. We were told to take a walk out to the end of the peninsula for ruins of an ancient castle. However the day was rather warm, and the walk long, so we opted for half way.

An introduction to a Norwegian

First it was time to stop for lunch, and Alan managed to park Betsy inside the car park at the outside end of the parking boundary straddling two parks and she tucked up there nicely out of the way, or so we thought. We were just finishing lunch and had the cabin door open towards the café where people we sitting having lunch or sipping on their afternoon coffee in peace and soaking up the sunshine.

The next thing I hear someone yelling in my general direction (in a foreign language no less). I called out that I didn’t understand and was hit with a barrage of abuse and was told we couldn’t park there, and that I was a ‘f****n idiot’.  Absolutely shocked at such foul language from a complete stranger, I in no uncertain terms told him there was absolutely no need to use language like that and it was uncalled for.  He pulled his head in with a shocked look my way and drove away, with his kids in the car.

Silence overcame the lunchtime crowd who had heard every word (English is widely spoken in Denmark) and their eyes were focused in my direction.

A couple walked up to us and shrugged their shoulders as if to say what was that all about. I was still fuming at the exchange of words and the couple said don’t worry, he’s not Danish, he’s from Norway. And by the way you speak very good English (obviously thinking I was French because we have French licence plates).  That explained the shocked look on the Norwegian’s face.

With plans afoot to be heading into Norwegian territory, I was starting to wonder if they were all like that. Then I realised that every country has ‘them’.

I was saddened that a father with kids in the car felt the need to 1) use such bad language to a stranger who really wasn’t causing any harm, and 2) would show his children how to treat foreigners or people who don’t comply with what he considers okay.

We just hope that he gets treated the same way one day to see what it’s like.

I felt grateful that a father who obviously flies off the handle with little or no provocation didn’t bring me up.

Moving right along.

Ebeltoft

Ebeltoft was the next village we visited and it was lovely with its half timbered and somewhat crooked houses.

Do You Think This Will Stay Standing?

The Colours Really Stood Out

The following day saw us all heading to Skagen, the northern most point of Denmark and an obvious location for wealthy holidaymakers.

On the trip north, we stopped off at Fyrak to take in the Viking Centre where a farmstead comprising of nine reconstructed houses lay in wait for our visit. These houses have been erected using techniques known in the Viking Age and based on the excavated remains of more than 1000-year-old houses found at Vorbasse in South Jutland.

In complete contrast to the ancient Greek ruins we had experienced earlier in our travels the thing that struck me most about these houses is that they were built out of timber. Of course they didn’t have the knowledge we do these days, so the wooden posts were dug straight into the ground, causing moisture to rot the timbers. It is now known that the Viking houses would survive no longer than 30-40 years before needing to be replaced. That explains the glaring lack of Viking ruins for us to see today.

Walking through the farmstead, we were greeted with modern day people dressed and toiling away like Vikings of yesteryear. Baking bread in an open fire (on a hot day), moulding clay pots, and sewing leather shoes, the day-residents worked hard to give us a little glimpse of how they believed Viking life would have been.

We arrived in the far north, Skagen, and quickly found the camping ground our friends were staying in.  We rarely choose to stay in camping grounds mainly due to the cost, and given we are totally self sufficient it just doesn’t make any sense to be squeezed into a site like a sardine. Thankfully for us, the pitch sites at Camping Skagen were of a very generous size, allowing Betsy to park parallel to the pitch with the door facing the hedge for privacy away from the roadway. Lisbeth and family were in the throes of pitching their caravan and awning next door and we were happy to join in to help them beat the wild wind.

In Skagen we visited the sand-covered Church, also known as the buried church and Old Skagen church.

During the last half of the 18th century, the church was partially buried by sand from nearby drifting dunes; the congregation had to dig out the entrance each time a service was to be held.  The struggle to keep the church free of sand lasted until 1795, when it was abandoned. The church was demolished, leaving the tower with crow-stepped gable as the only part of the original structure still standing.

The sunsets over the ocean attract hundreds of people every night, especially in the good weather. Check out the sunset at old Skagen.
Ruth’s Hotel and Wellness centre is the place to be seen, particularly if you own a car worth more than the average house. The carparks around Ruth’s Hotel were filled with Jaguars, Teslas, Ferraris, Daimlers, Austin Martins, BMW’s, Mercedes and every other luxury car you can think of. The local constabulary were stopping all these cars for the purpose of checking that they have paid their taxes. In Denmark the tax is a whopping 150% of the value of the car which must be paid when purchased, then there are further taxes depending on the fuel economy of the vehicle. It’s not cheap to drive flash here. Their efforts appeared fruitless however, as every car the police stopped had complied.
Our last evening meal in Skagen was enjoyed alfresco at a local Italian restaurant called Restaurant Casaitautalia. The food was delicious, as was the company and we all left with full bellies and smiles on our faces. If you are visiting Skagen and are in need of a good recommendation, try Restaurant Casaitautalia.

On 19th July, just eighteen glorious sun-filled days after arriving in Denmark it was time to leave. But we will be back, on our way down from Norway we will drive to Copenhagen for some more Danish fun and hospitality.

A big thanks to Lisbeth, Christian, Bertram, and Mikkel for making our stay so memorable.  We look forward to seeing you all again, the next time sooner than ten years!

Wilding in Denmark

Wild camping is allegedly illegal in Denmark so be prepared to be discrete and you may be at risk of being moved on receiving a fine.

Thankfully we only needed to find stopping places for two  uneventful nights before spending the rest of our time with friends and  the in the Skagen Camping Ground.

 

Overnight Stopping Locations for Denmark

#1     55.027, 8.63785         Skiffervej Free Parking

#2     55.75638, 9.41632    Jelling Supermarket and Viking Museum Car Park

#3     57.72176, 10.54216 Skagen Camping Ground

Sandworm To Take Us Out To The Spit

The Point Where Two Oceans Cross

Unexpectedly Awesome South-West Sweden

Unexpectedly Awesome South-West Sweden

by Alan Gow  |  July 2018  |  Sweden

We came to Sweden with no real expectations of what we would find here.  From our distant home in NZ, my preconceptions were of Volvos, snow, herrings and blondes.  However, we have been delighted to find a country rich in varied and beautiful landscapes, with friendly people and some really tasty food.  Oh, and yes, the blondes are here too.

Gothenburg

We arrived in Sweden at about 3.30am on the late night cheap ferry  (€113) from Frederikshavn in Denmark to Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city.  A little lost sleep to save €120 in comparison to the daytime fares seemed a fair deal.  Now desperate for sleep we found a likely looking car park, pulled in, set the alarm and grabbed a few hours kip (with the cunning plan of leaving before the arrival of any overzealous parking wardens looking to get some early parking ticket runs on their board).

On rising way-too-few hours later, the first order of business was to fill our depleted LPG tanks.  For such a large country, Sweden doesn’t have a lot of LPG filling stations but luckily myLPG.eu directed us to the only one near Gothenburg which was just 4km away.

After securing our gas supply for the next month or so we decided to head out of Gothenburg as we were already a bit tired of the big city feel and too sleep deprived to feel up to cycling into the centre.  This, however, presented another hurdle as Gothenburg has an unusual congestion zone which pings you even when bypassing the centre on the motorway.  Ultimately this meant we needed to detour about 45km to avoid getting snapped by the cameras.  It wasn’t that we didn’t want to pay the fee but more that because the fee demands get sent to the registered address of the vehicle we were not confident that would find its way to us in time to avoid us getting a 250 SEK (about €25) late or non payment fine.  After reading up on the zone and confirming our concerns with some Swedish motorhomers, we took the safe, albeit long route around and out of the city.

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Bohus Fortress

The roads were good, the traffic light and the driving easy.  The Swedish countryside was quite scenic with more ups and downs than Denmark but no particularly big hills.  As we approached the town of Kunglav we spied an impressive looking castle up on a hill and being in no real rush, we decided to turn off and investigate.

Bohus Fortress from the Road

Festung Bohus (Bohus Fortress), was built from 1308 and has a particular claim to fame.  It was besieged on 14 separate occasions but was never captured.  There has been a lot of restoration work carried out recently.  Much of this was made necessary because after it was no longer of military value, from 1786, the locals were encouraged to take the stones to build houses and gardens and the fortress was allowed to fall into ruins.

We had a glorious warm and sunny day for our visit and because we arrived just an hour before closing we were allowed to pay the student rate rather than the full adult entry cost €11.55 – a savings of 80 SEK, very nice.

We entered the fortress through the large doors of the ‘Blockhouse Gate’ – doors which were locked when we tried to leave the complex just a little after closing time.  The path led us past the Commandant’s quarters and into the courtyard where there were some people playing old instruments and there was an opportunity to have a go at some archery.  My old skills quickly returned and I managed to place some arrows in the black, impressing the young girl in charge (at least I reckon she was impressed).  Ruth marched up for her first ever go at shooting a bow and arrow and also managed to hit the black after a few pointers from the hired help.

The Entry Gate Locked – Whoops

Robin Hood Ruth in Action

Climbing up a steep path to the top of the fortifications, we were treated to fantastic views over the surrounding waters and countryside.  Bohus was strategically built on an island on the fork of the Nodre and Gota rivers which made it an ideal defensive position.

View from Bohus Fortress

The ‘Red Tower’ is where the fortress was saved from being captured when one of the defenders blew up the tower, himself and several hundred attacking Swedes with explosive charges in 1566.  The Swedes reportedly “flew into the air like crows”.

The ‘Fars Hatt’ tower contains a dungeon which is a 6m deep pit, where no natural light penetrated and into which prisoners were lowered.  Can you imagine being left there for years in the total blackness?  On the next level up were some medieval suits of armour including some pieces we could try on ourselves.  With just a breastplate and shoulder/upper arm protection on I already felt weighed down and with the addition of a heavy helmet you could start to appreciate how strong the knights and soldiers of the time must have been.

Alan in Armour

Fars Hatt Dungeon – 6m deep black hole

We lost track of time as we took our own journey back through the history of this remarkable place and before we knew it, closing time was upon us.  We chose to head back walking around the outside of the main walls however by the time we got back to the Blockhouse Gate, the doors were closed and locked.  There was another exit door however that also appeared to be locked shut.  A few choice words were said and we shared our predicament with another couple who sauntered down the path even later than us.  Just as we were starting to get a little concerned, one of the staff came down the path and demonstrated that the exit door just needed a really hard tug to get it open.  Phew!

Festung Bohus was the first attraction we have visited in Sweden and was a nice introduction to what we will be enjoying over the next month.

That night we stayed in a quiet car park near the beach on the island of Tjorn.  It was so nice and quiet in fact, that we stayed two nights.  The local blackberry bushes were prolific enough to provide enough blackberries for apple and blackberry crumble made in our Omnia cooker – yum. We nearly went for a swim but the wind picked up and put us off (we must be getting soft in our old age).

Our free parking spot: 57.98369, 11.68679

Tjorn Island Evening

The next night we spent tucked into a comfortable Rastplats (Restplace) with a stunning view overlooking the sea, parking areas designated for motorhomes and with a toilet block.  This was our first experience of what appears to be a standard Swedish design of toilet blocks sited on the public rest areas, where there is a separate room at the back setup for emptying and washing your toilet cassette.  We found a lot of these along the main roads and I was very excited to see them.  Isn’t it interesting what becomes important to you when you are wild camping in a motorhome?  Convenient places to empty the loo or fill up with fresh water are godsend to folk like us.  This is another example of how motorhome friendly these Scandinavian countries are.  The reality is that there are going to be thousands of motorhomes travelling the countryside so it makes sense to have facilities to deal with the waste they produce.

Our free parking spot 58.262700 , 11.680155

View from Restplats near Henan

Toilet Cassette Empying Point – Swedish Style

Bovallstrand

I should rewind here and explain how we ended up being in this small part of coastal Sweden.

Back in last January as we were whiling away the winter in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece, and we found ourselves parked up on a pier in the small town of Pilos with about four other motorhomes.  This was a novel experience for us, as motorhomes in Greece in the winter were rare and we could go for days without seeing another.  We all introduced ourselves, then went out for dinner that night, which was followed by a potluck shared dinner the next night.  We made our famous Mediterranean stuffed squid which went down a treat with the others.  Haken and Helena are a retired Swedish couple with a gorgeous wee dog Louise – a cross between a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Poodle.  They had a photo on the back of their camper of the blue seas and islands around their hometown of Bovallstrand which looked nothing like what our naïve conceptions of Sweden could conjure up.  That evening a tremendous storm hit Pylos and their motorhome, in particular, was hit with massive volumes of spray through the night.  The story of that storm is told in this blog. As often happens when you are on the road, they invited us to come and stay when we made it up their way.

The great time we had with Haken and Helena on their home turf just reinforces how important it is for us to connect with our fellow travelers whenever possible because it can lead to the most enriching experiences.

Anyway, fast forward about six months and there we were, rolling into Bovallstrand, following Emily’s (our GPS) directions to their house.

Bovallstrand is a small seaside settlement with a population that winds down to under 800 in the winter and swells to over 5,000 in the summer.  Smorgen, one of Sweden’s most popular seaside resorts, is just a few kilometres down the coast.  Heading further north to Norway is a procession of historic fishing villages now reliant on the summer holiday trade for their prosperity.  We all visited Hamburgsund, Fjallbacka and Grebbestad which all were bustling and attractive with uniformly traditional building designs and colours.

Sweden is having the best (for tourists, not farmers), summer for 250 years and the seaside is swarming with locals and visitors enjoying the warm days and reasonably warm waters.

Bovallstrand Harbour

Bovallstrand Sunset

Smorgen Harbour

Smorgen

Granite

If there was one word that comes to mind about the region, that would be the word ‘Granite’.  Granite is everywhere.  From around Bovallstrand, the famous red granite was shipped around the world to decorate the finest buildings, such as the Empire State Building.  Houses, wharves and other buildings seem to be perched on top of the immovable granite worn smooth from thousands of years of being ground down by the massive glaciers which once covered this land.  Deep cuts worn into the granite now form natural habours which offer protection to the many boats hidden away here.  Granite is used everywhere – for house foundations, piles and columns, as fence posts, and to support wharves.  Although the peak time of the stone cutters has long gone, the evidence of their activity remains in the vast piles of waste stone and the drill marks left in the surviving bedrock.

There is a fantastic local art collective which makes sculptures out of the granite.  The skill and imagination of the artists was immense and there was something almost sensual about feeling the soft, yet hard, polished granite.

Sculpture at the Collective

Meeting the Granite Sculpturer, Linda

The waters around here once supported a massive fishing industry built on the seemingly endless stocks of herring (sil).  The vast fish stocks were depleted by the late 1800’s and now there is only a scant handful of boats operating out of these harbours.  Our hosts generously procured fresh prawns and langoustine straight off the prawn boat for us and we had a feast fit for a king that night with the seafood served on fresh bread with homemade dill and garlic aioli.  We were also served up a range of pickled herrings which to the surprise of both us, and Haken and Helena, we really enjoyed. The herring flesh was firm to the bite but was not fishy at all and the flavour went really nicely with the various herbs and spices that went into the pickling liquid.

Haken Purchasing Fresh Prawns straight from the Boat

A Feast of Prawns and Langoustine

Haken and Helena took us out on their small runabout where we secured the rope to the shore by hammering a wedge into a crack in the rock.  We had a relaxing Bovallstrand style afternoon swimming, eating and exploring.

Traditional Style Boat

Unique Granite and Flora on the Islands

Ancient Vastergotland

Bovallstrand and the neighbouring towns are in the Vastergotland region of western Sweden which has a record of continuous occupation for thousands of years.  Numerous archaeological sites tell the stories of the Bronze Age farmers around 2000 to 500 BC through to the marauding Vikings from 1000 AD.

One of the benefits of having local tour guides is being taken to places that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise known about.  One of these was the rock carvings and museum at Vitlycke.  There are a staggering number of these images engraved into the granite dated from 1000 BC through to 1 AD showing a vast array of scenes and shapes of ships, people, battles, hunting, gods, animals and so on.  For example, there are over 10,000 images of boats or ships recorded in the greater area.  The Vitlycke Rock Carvings, however, are the most famous collection in the area and the free museum of the ancient culture and carvings gives an in-depth insight into the people who inhabited this land.  They really ‘do’ museums well in Sweden with lots of interactive displays and learning opportunities for adults and children.

While most of the world is worried about rising sea levels, Sweden has the opposite thing going on. The whole country is actually rising by about 1cm a year.  Most of the sites for the rock carvings were coastal when they were first cut into the granite but the land has risen about 25m since then and the sea is now many kilometres away.  This is due to the country being pushed down by the weight of the ice during the ice age about 15,000 years ago, and now, like a rubber mattress which has been compressed, it is slowly springing back to its original shape.  This means that some of the ports are facing expensive dredging operations if they want to stay in business.

The ancient church of Svenneby Gamla in Hambergsund (GPS 58.499662, 11.324094) , which dates back to around 1000 AD is well worth a visit and is open most days.  Of particular interest are the racks where the parishioners were supposed to hang up their weapons before entering the main church and the beautifully restored paintings on the wooden roof.

Svenneby Gamla Church

Wooden Ceiling Paintings

We spent our last evening in the area in the town of Fjallbacka wandering the streets of historic buildings, enjoying an ice cream and live music down on the foreshore then finding a flat safe area set aside for motorhome and bus parking just on the outskirts of town.

Rain was forecast for the next day and we were heading inland.  The coastal region of Western Sweden is certainly worth a visit (especially in the summer).

If you are a wildcamping motorhomer like us,  you sometimes have to look around to find free camping spots around the tourist hotspots in the high season but they are there if you look hard enough and take advantage of the on-line Apps available.  The main one we use is Park4Night which has built up a massive database through user contributions.  We always try to do our bit for the rest of the motorhoming community by adding new sites and relevant reviews.

Our free parking spot 58.262700 , 11.680155.

It is also important as full time motorhomers to talk with other people who obviously enjoy this lifestyle.  We want to say a massive thanks to Helena and Haken for their incredible generosity, opening their home to us, being wonderful tour guides, and providing the most delicious food for us to sample.  We look forward to returning the hospitality in the future.

Vasa Museum

Vasa Museum

The Vasa is the world’s most important marine salvage bar none.  She is the only almost fully intact 17th century ship existing in the world today.  This makes her incredibly unique, especially when you learn that when these ships were built, they had a life expectancy of just 30 years.

So how is it that we can see this ship some 390 years after her launch?

Sadly for those involved at the time, including the 30-50 people who lost their lives, the 64-gun warship sank on her maiden voyage at 4pm on 10 August 1628 having traveled just 1,300 metres down the Stockholm harbour.

Salvaged in 1961, 333 years after her sinking, the Vasa rose to become world’s most significant historic marine artifact, as well as a momentous archaeological find.

Her resurfacing allowed marine experts an unprecedented look into the reasons for her demise. It also provided an opportunity for modern-day archaeologists to study the population from the 16th century including what they ate, their health and ailments.

Fifteen significant skeletons were found, some were still clothed and one sailor even had his shoes on. The brackish water helped to preserve the bodies and even the brain of one person was intact.  The remains of these people are visible in the museum, complete with clothing and known facts on each person.  Look carefully at the photo on the left, you can see the shoes still attached to the feet.  On the right are the skeletons meticulously laid out.  Unfortunately the naming of these people has not been possible, although it is interesting to learn that DNA testing has started.  Could you imagine being told this is a relative of yours, after all these years?

The photos below show a reconstruction of three men whose remains were found when the ship resurfaced.   Isn’t modern technology fascinating?

Vasa’s Statistics

 

Here are some stats about Vasa.

  • Built by Dutch brothers Henrik and Arendt Hybertsson and constructed strictly according to the plans at the time.  Unfortunately, there are no surviving blueprints for us to view today.
  • She sank after sailing just 20-30 minutes when a gust of wind heeled her over, allowing water to pour into the open gun ports and she couldn’t right herself.
  • She was built tall at 52 metres high, 69 metres long, 12 metres wide and weighed 1,300 tons. Back then there were no mathematical calculations to determine her stability.   Clearly, she was built too narrow with insufficient counterweight below the waterline to keep her upright.
  • She carried 64 cannons, each weighing more than one ton.
  • There were between 135-200 people on board and she was on her way to pick up about 300 soldiers. Their lives were spared.
  • Of the 64 cannons, only three originals remain today and are in the museum, having been preserved due to the brackish water of the Baltic Sea.  With a cost of €25,000 each in today’s dollars, it’s no wonder that the others were salvaged back in 1660 and it is expected were used in future war vessels.
  • Vasa is reportedly the most visited museum in Scandinavia.

Who found Vasa?

So the question remains, how was she first found and then salvaged? It’s an interesting story and part of the story about her future is still being written. Let me explain.

An explorer by the name of Anders Franzén recovered a core sample of wood from the suspected wreck site, and it was Per Edvin Fälting and Sven Persson who confirmed on 4 September 1956 that the small plugs of wood came from a ship.  Further dives confirmed the identity as the Vasa.

Armed with the knowledge of the ship’s history and the divers’ reports, Franzén threw himself into building the coalition of institutions that could raise and restore the ship for the museum he envisioned.  The task would require technical expertise of many kinds, from diving and salvage to preservation.  It needed historical and archaeological knowledge of the early 17th century.  Most of all, it would require money, manpower and heavy equipment.

Known by some people as Sweden’s Apollo Program, the dramatic and complex technical effort took several years to do something few thought possible: raise an intact 17th-century warship from the bottom of the sea.

How was Vasa Raised?

The first attempt at raising Vasa failed as they could not lift her from the top as she was too heavy and it started to inflict too much damage. The first salvage attempt was in the 1950’s, but she didn’t resurface until 1961 when technology had improved.

Between 1957 and 1959, navy divers dug six tunnels under Vasa and pulled massive steel cables through them to suspend the ship in a basket. These cables were taken to two floating pontoons at the surface.  By pumping the pontoons almost full of water, then tightening the cables and pumping the water back out, Vasa could be broken free of the mud and was eventually lifted and moved into shallower water.

As the divers dug with high-pressure waterjets and dredges, they encountered a fascinating array of finds that had fallen off the ship, from rigging hardware to gunport lids, and the first of more than seven hundred finely carved sculptures. They also found the mainmast lying next to the ship, and the ship’s longboat.

One of the first things to be raised, on 5 September 1958, was a cannon.

The reason it took such a long time to raise her, apart from the thousands of suggestions that came in from around the world, was that the technology had to be readily available locally.

What was involved in the Salvage?

For more than 18 months, a small team of commercial divers plugged holes where bolts had rusted away, fitted covers over the open gunports, and rebuilt the bow and stern to make them watertight.  Steel rods were fastened across the hull to help hold it together.  It was also important to make the ship lighter. The central part of the upper gun deck, which was covered with mud and debris, was cleared. More than a thousand objects were found: coins, personal belongings, gun carriages, tools and the bones of five of the people who had been on board when the Vasa sank.

Thousands of tons of mud and water had to be pumped out of the hull to refloat her and the ship had to be moved onto a pontoon of its own, where it could be excavated and conserved.  Archaeologists had to come onboard to excavate the interior, and conservators had to begin the arduous process of treating the ship so she would not shrink and crack.  Divers would spend five more years recovering thousands of loose pieces from the beakhead, sterncastle and upper deck, which lay around the hull where the ship had been, together with the ship’s longboat and anchors.

Finally, in April 1961 Vasa came to life once more.

The ship was raised and placed on a reinforced concrete pontoon and supported by temporary shoring struts.  Excavation of the interior took place from May to September 1961, raising over 40,000 separate objects of different materials.  All the while, the hull was sprayed with harbour water to prevent the wood from drying out.

Vasa’s Preservation

When waterlogged wood is allowed to dry out without treatment, severe cracking and shrinkage can occur. The wood may look sound, but the wood cells are weakened by bacterial decay.  Conservators chose the synthetic polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to treat Vasa’s wood.  PEG is a synthetic wax that is soluble in water; it is a common component in cosmetics, such as lipsticks and face creams, and is widely used in the pharmacy and food industries.

Experiments showed that a PEG solution could diffuse into the wood structure to replace the water, and prevent cracking and shrinking.

PEG spraying began in April 1962. Initially, the work was carried out by hand which was time-consuming and not very efficient.  It took five men five hours to spray the entire surface of the ship.  More efficient spraying was achieved in 1965, when an automatic spray system was installed, with 500 spray nozzles directed over the inside and outside of the ship.  The PEG concentration was gradually increased from a low concentration of 10% and ending up with a 45% solution.

Boron salts were added initially to prevent micro-organism growth but later also to neutralise acids.

The spray treatment lasted 17 years, from April 1962 to January 1979, followed by another 9 years of slow air-drying.  A final surface layer of PEG 4000 was applied as physical protection to the ship and melted into the surface with hot-air blowers.

The photo below shows the effect of shipworms that eat wood submerged in saltwater.  Thankfully the Vasa was sitting in brackish, low salinity water, where the worms can’t survive.

Vasa’s conservation began as a huge experiment but the pioneering research by Vasa’s conservators have paved the way for numerous other shipwreck projects around the world.

Work and studies continue on Vasa even today and the replacement of the 5,000 bolts with stainless steel ones is an ongoing process.

Below are remains of the sails, found in the sail locker.  Read the plaque below in yellow to find out how the sails were preserved and how long it took.

Will Vasa survive another 100 years?

This is an interesting question. One thing that struck me upon entering the museum was just how dark it was.  I tried to take a video but the lighting didn’t allow this to be successful.

We learned that in a dark, cold room without oxygen Vasa could be preserved forever.  However, then she wouldn’t be a gift for us to ogle over.

Projects are currently underway to provide a better understanding of the chemical and biological processes in Vasa’s wood.  The goal is to be able to preserve the ship far into the future.

So to answer the question above, no one knows today how long Vasa will survive.

Vasa stands as the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle and is 98% original in her current state. After more than five hours of visiting we were still learning about this historic vessel.

If this story has interested you, or you are a marine enthusiast, I suggest you add a visit to Stockholm on your bucket list. This is without question the most profoundly interesting museum I have ever visited, and I have been to countless.

A Year of Wild Living

A Year of Wild Living

One of the many sites we wild camped in overlooking the stunning Piazza Armerina, Sicily

Ruth Murdoch | June 2018 | Countries, Summary Blogs

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.  If you would like to know how we set Betsy up, click here.

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 showering daily.

We usually turn up at a location in the late afternoon, dismount our bikes and ride into town, then ride 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 (where applicable), etc.  The blue markers indicate our stopping places for 2017, and the red markers show where we stopped in 2018.

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).  To open the list of places we visited, click on the window icon with an arrow in it, on the top left in the grey bar.  Then click on a name to see where it’s located (make sure you zoom into the map first).

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.

 

If you have Greece in your sights for a visit, then you might want to check out our blog Greece:  The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (And the Costs).

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, 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 (pronounced Ee-reach-ee), 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 (on the right-hand side wearing red), 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 destination 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 oven – 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 a laundromat that we can get to easily.  It’s an equation between time and money. When traveling 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 own 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’t 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 living 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 people 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 (where we had been living prior to coming to Europe), 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

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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!