Celebrations, healing mud and misadventures on the island of Krk

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The town of Krk

We plan to spend 1 week on the island of Krk, the largest of Croatia’s stunning thousand islands, but end up staying for 2 (more about that later). Krk (pronounced Kirka) isn’t easy to say. 400 years ago, the Turks swept through the area, looting, pillaging, and stealing all the vowels! The lonely vowels that survived this time of alphabetic terror hid in groups of consonants leaving the island of Krk behind. The scenery is sublime. As we cross the 1430 m long arch bridge connecting the island to the mainland, we are treated to sweeping views of the Adriatic before travelling towards its verdant centre. A popular tourist destination, it is also rich in natural and cultural-historical heritage. Our first campsite in the north of the island, is near Osmjali and then we move to a campsite near Krk town.

Our first week is full of blue skies, crystal clear water and it’s hot.

Beaches and towns of the island of Krk

We celebrate the ‘half New Year’ with fireworks,

music and chocolate cake at the campsite. It’s six months since we spent the full New Year at Mandrem, Goa and in another 6 months, we will be celebrating 2020’s New Year with good friends and family on another island, the island of Arran. More celebrations follow and we visit ‘Rab’ intent on having some fun. That’s not big Rab fae Possilpark, wee Jimmy’s best pal……it’s the island of Rab, which sits between the islands of Krk and Pag. We’re on a boat trip and it’s a special day. It’s Johns birthday (we won’t mention an exact figure, but let’s just say he’s now nearer his eighth than seventh decade), and today is also the day I graduate (in absentia) from Glasgow Caledonian University after 10 years of ploughing through a PhD by Publication.

I don’t have my gown, but I do have a hat and I’ve had my photo taken for the occasion, so I’m halfway there.

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We have a lovely day, the only complaint being that it’s white wine for lunch (John much prefers red), but we cope admirably!

We visit the town of Rab,

The town of Rab

which sits on a narrow sliver of land protruding towards the mainland, bounded by ancient city walls and 4 church towers. After a quick tour we have time for some more swimming and snorkelling. We stop off on the island of Pag and I visit the olive groves of Lun, where more than 1,500 wild, old (the oldest being 2,000 year) olive trees grow. The sail back along the southern coastline of krk, past the golden beach, is heavenly. What a lovely day we’ve had…. the only thing missing of course is our family, who aren’t here with us to celebrate. The next day there’s more celebration as my son who has been studying Mental Health Nursing and is nearing the end of his 3-year training, phones to tell us that he is successful in his first interview, a community post, just what he was hoping for. This time John has plenty of cheap red wine in the van to mark the occasion!

Two days later we hire a scooter to explore some of the island’s other towns. First, we visit Baska, at the southern tip. It’s windswept and interesting with stunning views of the islands of Prvic, Goli and Sveti Grgur. Then we head east to visit Vrbnik (not many vowels there either!). Perched on a limestone outcrop, the town is centred round a 13th century church. Our final stop for the day is at the sands of Soline, on the North East coast, which is famed for its healing mud. Mineral laden black mud, good for skin and rheumatic problems, line its shallow waters.

We plaster ourselves, letting the black mud dry in the sun before washing off in the warm sea.

Baska, the streets of  Vrbnik and the healing mud of Soline

We hop on the scooter again and head home but as we travel uphill out of the bay, on a hair pin bend, we skid on some gravel and in an instant everything changes……. adventure becomes misadventure! John lands heavily on his shoulder and we both have cuts and bruises a plenty. We know we’ve been lucky and before the adrenalin stops flowing, we get back on the bike and make our way slowly back to the campsite, about 10 miles away. At the campsite we apply some frozen veg to our wounds and rest for a bit. It’s only later when I help John to get his t shirt, that I notice a big bump on his clavicle. “It’s clicking when I move it” he says and then I feel dreadful. I think he may have fractured his clavicle! A trip to the A &E department confirms the fracture and by the time we get back to our van its past 1am. So much for the healing mud…. I guess its healing powers don’t stretch to prevention!

When mishaps happen, there are many ways for our thinking to go. One is to say ‘if only’…. ‘If only’ we hadn’t hired the scooter…. ‘if only’ we hadn’t stopped at Soline….’if only’ we hadn’t decided to drive across Europe in a van. But if only isn’t very helpful. Far more helpful is to ask ourselves what the lessons learned are and what positives can be taken forward. John had been thinking of buying a scooter on our return to Scotland, but perhaps this has been a warning. Its only now that stories of his many accidents when he had a scooter in his teens/early twenties emerge, one of which was taking his bike test. So maybe this accident has saved his life and it has certainly saved him a lot of money.

John’s to have another x-ray in 7 days, so we decide to stay on an extra week at the campsite in Krk. The next 7 days pass in some degree of discomfort and frustration. There’s no swimming, no cycling, and no scooters, but we’re healing. After the hospital visit, I pack up (John’s on strict princess duties) and I now must take over doing all the driving of this giant motor-home for the next few weeks at least. It’s not the driving so much as the manoeuvring into tight pitch spaces that are challenging. John suggests its empowering, another positive to emerge from our situation, but I’m thinking that it’s terrifying! It’s time to leave and it’s raining. Just as I’m trying to figure out the logistics of my 10 point turn out of the pitch, our lovely Belgium neighbour, who just happens to be a lorry driver, offers to reverse it all the way up to the main campsite road. A big sigh of relief from me. The first part of the journey has gone well. This is definite case for a celebration……get the kettle on!

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Croatia’s stunning national parks; Krka, Kornati and Plitvice Lakes

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I’m a country girl at heart and although we have visited many stunning towns and cities in Croatia, I will remember the country in blues and greens… for its coastline and its national parks. With such a long stretch of coast, which is dappled with more than a thousand Islands, the warm aqua Adriatic Sea has never been far away.

The visibility is amazing in these crystal-clear waters,

so snorkelling has been a dream. I even plucked up the courage to go diving again after 5 years. With the sunlight penetrating the surface, it was an underwater delight to find schools of Anchovy’s, strange looking cuttlefish swimming through the sea grass and large crabs scuttling across the sea bottom. But Croatia has much more to offer than its coastline and a visit to one of Croatia’s 8 national parks takes you into another world, a green world which is also full of water. You will be in awe, there is no question about it. We visited 3 national parks whilst we were here and I would recommend you add them to your bucket list now, if you haven’t done so already!

The oldest national park in Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National park

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is a UNESCO world heritage site, and a magnificent gift from nature, unlike anything I have ever seen before. Situated between the mountains of Mala Kapela and Ljesevica it attracts more than 1 million visitors a year, so, it’s very busy. There are 16 turquoise coloured lakes interconnected by waterfalls ranging from 25 to 78 meters tall. The water in Plitvice has eroded rocks over the millennia, and the dissolved calcium carbonate has sedimented to create a porous stone, or ‘travertine’ forming barriers (falls and cascades) between the lakes.

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This ‘travertine’ or ‘tufa’ also coats and petrifies trees which have fallen into the lakes. So, as you walk on the boardwalk trails which wind across the lakes, cascades and waterfalls and peer into the clear turquoise water there is another world beneath…one where petrified trees and leaves form an underwater forest. Brown trout gather to face the current, bright blue butterflies and dragonflies’ dart across the surface and birdsong echoes in the forest. Around every bend is another beautiful view and despite the throngs of tourists, if you can stop for a moment and take in the view, listen to the water and to the forest, here is a place that you can be at one with nature.

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In Plitvice mother nature blew me away and reminded me just what a wonderful world, we live in…. this park is a definite 10.

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We bought a 2-day ticket and spent our time wandering around the marked-out walking trails……but come early, by midday busloads of tourists had arrived, stopping at every conceivable spot for selfies!

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I visit Krka National park as a day trip from Trogir.

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The park is focused around the Krka river and has 7 impressive waterfalls. It’s like Plitvice in that there are outlaid promenade board walks and paths, but here you can also take a dip in the lake’s cool clear waters at the base of the striking Skradinski Buk waterfall.

I’m picked up from our campsite early and delighted to be greeted by 4 ladies from Paisley in the minibus. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Scottish voices (apart from John’s obviously) and even longer since I’ve had female company. So, we have a good natter on the bus, and enjoy some girlie banter!

After boarding the boat at Skradin we glide across one of KrKa’s emerald green lakes

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and arrive at the Skradinski Buk trail. As a day trip my time here is limited and there is so much more to see in the park; 47km of walking and 470km of biking trails, 6 more waterfalls, 2 traditional watermills, 5 medieval fortresses, a roman military fort, 2 monastery’s and an island in the middle of one of the lakes! So, next time I will have to come for longer!

The final park we visit is Kornati National park,

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which is a spectacular archipelago of 109 mostly uninhabited islands, islets, reefs and craggy rocks scattered like jewels over an area of 320 square kilometres. So, we need to do visit by boat from Zaton.

As we glide along the water the early morning sun dances across the surface of the ocean like a symphony of sparkles.

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In contrast the island terrain, karst-limestone is dry and dust yellow and there is little vegetation to be seen. These islands arose from sediment from the sea many millennia ago, forming stark, almost lunar like bizarre shapes, unexplored caves, areas of flat rock and towering cliffs. It’s a sailor’s paradise.

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Below the surface there is a seascape of caves, tunnels and walls that host an incredible variety of marine life, an underwater diver’s paradise too. We stop at the south-eastern end of Dugi Otok, in the Telascica Nature Park near Mir Lake. This Salt Lake is fed by the sea which seeps in through underground cracks. We swim in the water, which is always at least 6 degrees warmer than the sea and walk to the cliffs reaching height of 166 meters on the other side of the island.

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After a late lunch onboard, we slowly head back criss-crossing through the islands, the wind in our hair.

I sit here writing this blog as the sun sets and watch a luminous green Italian wall lizard as it scuttles across our path and a blackbird couple, who frequently join us for the evening, dart in and out of the bushes with their necks stretched forward, collecting grubs and extra nesting material for their family. And I reflect on what a truly wonderful world it is that we live in. I believe that we are the custodians of this planet, and as such have a responsibility to protect Earth and to limit the damage, we as humans are inflicting on it. There are changes we can all make individually, but we need to work together at a global level and start taking our responsibilities more seriously. Spending time in these national parks has underlined how amazing our planet is and has given me some hope for its future. We can protect our natural habitats and wildlife in the parks, so with a big effort surely we can start making a difference on a larger scale…….maybe I’m just a dreamer, and sometimes dreams come true.

Gargano: a piece of paradise on the spur of the Italian boot

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The beach on Baia e Cala Campi, Gargano

We arrive safely in the port of Salerno and had planned to stop at a campsite near Pompeii to visit Herculaneum and Vesuvius, but a tip from a friend who had recently visited and was disappointed, made us rethink. So, we are off on an adventure again – definition; an exciting experience that is typically a bold (sometimes risky) undertaking – with only half a plan. We need to head to the east coast to catch a ferry to Croatia in 4 days, so following a recommendation from someone we met at a campsite and a quick review of our Italian guidebook, we decide to drive to the Gargano coastline in Puglia, with no particular expectations. The Gargano Peninsula juts out into the Adriatic Sea and is the spur in the heel of Italy’s boot. For the last 20 miles of our journey we snake along its coastline, where rocky limestone cliffs rise above the crystal-clear aqua sea. We arrive at our campsite and I can feel a smile rising.…we’ve come up trumps with this one. Situated in an Aleppo pine wood, where the only sounds are the forest birds chirruping and the waves swishing on the pebble beach, I am in heaven. There is also a fantastic restaurant overlooking the cove, a well-stocked shop, a small fruit and vegetable stall and free (all the showers in Sicily were token-ed and timed), hot, roomy showers. What more could a girl ask for…this is one of the campsites I will remember.

 

John doing some yoga, the campsite beach

Gargano is a popular beach destination for vacationing Italians but seems relatively unknown to other Europeans, except the Germans who seem to have travelled everywhere. The area has small resorts with lovely beaches, hilltop towns and seaside villages. Here, you will also find the UNESCO site Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo, the Umbra forest known for its ancient oak trees (500 years old) and an unspoilt national park. Over the next 3 days we cycle along the coastline into the nearby town of Vieste (no mean feat as the road rises above the cliffs), kayak around the little islands from our drop-dead gorgeous beach and generally unwind from the assault to the senses which was Sicily. The scenic small town Vieste sits on a white cliffed peninsula jutting into the sea. The old town is an atmospheric maze of steep staircases with washing dangling from the simple white houses and there are restaurants and small shops along every alleyway – just perfect for wandering.

 

The Gargano coastline, the town of Viesta, lunch with a view 

We slowly cycle around the edge of the town where there are stunning sea views and stop at a lovely little restaurant for lunch with a gorgeous view. John was also on a mission……to find a barber. It had been 10 weeks since his last haircut and he was beginning to look like a 1970s hippy. The barber spoke no English, but with a few gestures going on between them, John managed to come out looking a whole lot better than when he went in!

With so much still to see in this area we would have loved to stay for much longer, but with a ferry to catch, we must leave. The spur of the boot has left a lasting impression, a little piece of paradise, that sometime in the future I hope to return to. But for now, we are leaving Italy and make our way to catch the ferry in Ancona. There’s no stopping off to visit coastal towns and the journey goes smoothly, no hitches, no stress and before we know it, we are on our way to Croatia.

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Evening ferry from Ancona to Split

 

 

A holiday from ‘the holiday’ in the land of a thousand islands: Croatia

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“Is that another glass of wine?” I say to John as he pours his third red. 

“Well, we’re on holiday” he replies, as he’s stated repeatedly since we set off on this road trip. I usually reply by reminding him that we are not on holiday, but on our senior’s gap year and that if he treats this like a yearlong holiday then his liver is not going to hold out! But, here in Croatia, for the first time since we left our base campsite in Spain, I feel that we really are on holiday. Perhaps it’s the non-stop sunshine, the heat (by Thursday it rises to 35 degrees), the endless miles of coastline and aqua blue sea? Sorry guys, I know it’s not been a good Summer in Scotland so far, so I really should stop there! But I have to say that so far Croatia has been amazing. Our first stop is the Island of Čiovo, next to the medieval town of Trogir and not far Split. There is so much to do, and the campsite has its own beach, so we decide to stay for a week. It’s the longest that we’ve been in one place since mid-April and it’s nice to take a step back from all the travel planning and unwind.

The town of Trogir, is squeezed within its ancient walls and is like a mini Dubrovnik.

It lies on a small island connected to the mainland and the island of Čiovo by bridges. We take a water taxi from our campsite and as we arrive at Trogir’s seaside promenade lined with bars, cafes and yachts you can’t help but be impressed.  The 13th-century Cathedral of St. Lawrence houses the Renaissance Chapel of St. John and I climb the bell tower which offers sweeping views from the top. The maze-like marble streets glint in the sunshine, but just around the corner a cool courtyard restaurant is waiting to offer a refreshing beer, and a dalmatian or mixed sea food platter for two!

We visit Split on one of the hottest days so far.

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Split’s impressive promenade

I download a free walking tour of the old city (www.split-walking-tour.net), but not before we head to the nearest shopping mall. I’m on a mission…. for hair products! Being a frizzy haired girl, I use a certain brand and I’ve just about run out. I’ve not seen this particular brand so far on our travels and disaster is about to strike any day now. But as we enter the cool air-conditioned mall, I see it, a kind of Croatian Boots, and yes, they have it. I am soooo excited…. this has made my day! John has brought the rucksack and we load up.

Back to the old city. Most of the main attractions sit within the walls of the Diocletian’s Palace, the residence of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, built in 305 A.D. The old city now contains a unique mixture of Gothic and Renaissance palaces and squares built over time within the city’s original defensive walls.  Our walking tour starts at the Golden Gate (Zlatna vrata), the Northern entrance to the Palace.

Nearby stands the impressive statue of Grgur Ninski,

Statue  of Grgur Ninski and the Golden Gate

a Croatian bishop famed for his promotion of Christianity and the Croatian language. He has a shiny left big toe and legend has it that luck and a return to the city will befall those who touch It. I have touched his toe before, almost a year to the day…. spooky….and here I am returning. Perhaps this means that this is not the last time I will be visiting this city.

The main square of Split, The Peristyle is surrounded by Roman columns, arcs and temples, the Cathedral of St Dominus and Gothic palaces.

The Peristyle, The Vestible and the ‘Let me pass’ street 

Not far from the square in The Vestibule, the entrance to the Emperors apartments, a Capella male choir sing under its circular dome……lovely. After passing through the Pazar (the Green Market), the biggest open-air fruit and veg market in Croatia, we arrive at the Bronze Gate (Broncana Vrata) and walk through the Diocletian’s cellars, the substructure halls of the palace. Today local crafts and souvenirs are sold and In a deeper part of the cellars there is a treat for Game of Thrones fans – their lies the dungeons where Daernerys Targaryen’s kept her dragons. We visit the Temple of Jupiter and slip through the ‘Let me pass’ street (the narrowest street in the world??) into the charming Fruit square. We have only got to #16 on our walking tour and it’s time to walk back along the city’s palm fringed promenade to catch the ferry back to Trogir. A whistle stop tour, but I hope this has given you just a flavour of what this fabulous city has to offer.

The following week, we visit the small town of Nin,

The town of Nin, ancient Roman ruins and the Church of the Holy Cross

and lo and behold there is another shiny toed statue of Grgur Ninski. I later learn that this small town, built on an islet (500m in diameter) was Grgur’s birthplace. Nin is a very old town (> 3,000 years), was a sea and trade centre of the Romans and the first Croatian capital in the 10th Century.

We visit on the Summer Solstice, and watch the sun disappear on the floor of the Church of the Holy Cross,

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The arrival of midsummer at the Church of the Holy Cross

signifying the exact arrival of midsummer. I feel privileged to be here in this ancient town on this very special day.

We visit more islands on a boat trip.

The crystal clear waters of Croatia, and Solta

First, we stop at The Blue Lagoon, famed for its shallow crystal-clear waters and the islands of Solta and Drevnik Veli. We swim and snorkel in the intoxicating blue Adriatic Sea. It’s warm (about 21 degrees), and the combination of the blue skies, sunshine and the white shingled shores mean that these waters are just too tempting not to dive in.

The rest of the week we spend time cycling, exploring the Island and its stunning coastline, swimming and soaking up the sunshine. “Is this time well spent?”, I ask myself, “should I be spending my time more productively?” In this modern world all of us lead such busy lives. Some squeeze everything into their waking hours, some take more of a ‘maṅana, maṅana’ approach. Being more of the former type allowing myself the time to truly relax, is difficult and feels alien. I have a theory about time that the first day of any holiday is the longest, and then as the week goes on the days are over much faster. So, by moving on every 3-4 days, I have been trying to slow down time. But I begin to realise that none of us can slow down time, and that quality is more important than quantity. Here in Croatia, on this holiday from the holiday, I am reminded that time is one of life’s most important commodities and that our time on this planet is limited. A good friend once said “Life is like a toilet roll. You keep checking and there always seems to be plenty of paper left, but before you know it, just at a crucial moment, you’re at the end of the roll and it’s all gone! So, I try to savour and enjoy every square of my toilet paper, not looking too far ahead or worrying about when my last square might be. And, what better place to contemplate life’s toilet roll than in the land of a thousand islands, crystal-clear aqua sea and with a glass of red in my hand. Cheers!

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Sicily – home of temples, volcanoes and adventures

 

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The view from the campsite near Scopello

From our quirky campsite near Scopello we travel South, visiting the ancient Doric Temple of Segesta on our way. Perched on a hill in unspoilt rolling green countryside with views that stretch down to the sea, passing motorists may indeed wonder whether they’re hallucinating. The temple which is over 2,500 years old (430-420BC), was built by the Elymians, an indigenous people of Sicily, but was never completed, following an attack on the settlement by its rival, Selinunte. As I gaze up at this surprisingly intact temple through the hazy sunshine, I can’t help feel that this remarkable and peaceful site is a complete contrast to the Parthenon in Athens which although built around the same time, is crammed with tourists taking selfies.  At the Segesta site, on top of a nearby hill (Monte Barbaro) 400m above sea level, there is also a semi-circular theatre dug into its walls. The 360-degree vistas of the surrounding countryside provide a natural backdrop to the stage. Originating in the 5th century BC, the theatre was altered during the Roman period, but retains its 4,000 seats, and is still used as a venue for Greek plays, concerts and other events.

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The temple of Segesta and Greek theatre on Monte Barbaro

After our visit to Segesta we settle into a campsite in the South West of the island near Selinunte; the largest archaeological site in Europe. In 409BC Selinunte was one of the most progressive and eminent cities in Magna Graecia, but following an attack from its old enemy, the Carthaginians, the town, including its numerous temples, acropolis and agora were reduced to dignified rubble. The site is huge and most of what remains is still in ruin, although an attempt to rebuild several of the temples has been made. You get a sense of the size and importance of this ancient town, and after walking around most of the site, as well as both there and back (as there was no sign of any public transport), we were absolutely shattered. We walked back through neighbouring Triscina which felt more like a town from a Spaghetti western, than modern Sicily. Searching for a cafe to quench our thirst and rest our weary legs we stumbled across what seemed like the only saloon in town. After two beers and free tapas (balsamic pickled onions, bruschetta and some crisps) we were replete, but well and truly ‘templed out’.

The temples of Selinunte 

Next, we head to the South East corner of Sicily. After a very long drive and several diversions we treat ourselves to a lovely meal in the pretty seaside village of Marzamemi. Its renovated tonnara and fishermans houses are now lively bars, restaurants and artisan shops which sit round a charming piazza. What a contrast to Triscina. Our next stop is Catania, Sicily’s second biggest city and we visit Siracusa, rich in Greek, Roman and Norman history, on the way.

Fountain of Diana and seafront view at Siracusa, Piazza at Marzamemi

We have one more ‘must do’ before leaving Sicily, and that is to visit Mount Etna, so we arrange a trip with Escursioni sull’Etna, a small tour company offering trekking experiences on the volcano. Our tour guide Marco speaks excellent English, is an accomplished mountaineer, member of the mountain rescue team, volcanologist extraordinaire and has first-hand experience of living on the volcano. Mount Etna, 3,300 metres high, is the biggest active stratovolcano in Europe. It first erupted beneath the sea some 500,000 years ago, and the original crater is still visible on the coastline to the North of Catania. Etna’s most destructive recent eruption was in 1669 and the resulting lava flows destroyed 10 villages before reaching Catania’s city walls, destroying much of the city of Catania and filling its harbour.  More recent eruptions in 1991–1993 saw the town of Zafferana threatened by a lava flow, and although the lava flow stopped short of the town it destroyed our guide Marco’s family farm. “We are lucky today”, Marco says “Etna has been very active and has started erupting in the last few days”. But although we hear the eruptions in the distance (just like quarry explosions) there is low cloud at 1,800m and as we walk over the rocks of the old lava flows, there is an eerie mist which shrouds our view. Marco points out a lava cave, formed as a result of surface solidification of the lava flow during its last stages of activity. A frozen crust forms as the surface cools over actively flowing liquid rock and volcanic gases from bubbles in the lava collect under the tunnel roof and support it, forming a cave. Strange rock formations remain from multiple eruptions leaving a landscape that feels more like mars than earth. As we travel back towards the sea Marco reminds us that the city of Catania sits on the volcano, and its people accept that the volcano both gives and takes and by living here they accept this gamble every day.

A lava cave and walking on an old lava flow of Mount Etna

Our last day in Sicily and we have an overnight ferry to catch. Just enough time to squeeze in a visit to the coastal town of Cefalũ (bad decision number 1), or so we thought. We’d forgotten it was Sunday, and the Sicilians seem to go a bit crazy on a Sunday…… it’s the lethal cocktail of religion and drink! They head to the coast, spend the day lunching with family, filling up all seafront parking spots and cause chaos on the roads. By the time we arrive at Cefalũ, we only have 45minutes to visit one of Sicily’s prettiest coastal towns, before we need to make our way to Palermo for the ferry. We set off in time, but after a series of wrong decisions we find ourselves chasing the clock. We miss the turning for the autostrada (mistake number 1) and by the time we get back on to the motorway there are roadworks and the traffic is down to one lane. We decide to come off the autostrada hoping to catch the quiet coastal road (bad decision number 2), only to find that we have to go back to Cefalũ in the opposite direction. At Cefalũ we decide to take the coastal road to Palermo which then climbs into the mountains (bad decision number 3) and by the time we hit manic Palermo, packed with Sunday revellers, we decide to follow google maps instead of the satnav (bad decision number 4) and the route takes us through the middle of the city which includes a 90 degree turn after a very tight stone bridge (not easy in a 7.5m motor home). Stress levels are high and by the time we reach check in, we have only 40 minutes before the boat leaves (latest check in is 90 minutes before!). We resign ourselves to missing the ferry, but by some miracle they let us check in and join the queue. So, we leave mad, wonderful Sicily behind and we are on our way back to mainland Italy, where our adventure continues………..

The streets of Catania

From Sestri Levanti to Sicily – why not?

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I’d always planned to spend some time in Italy on this trip, so after our time in the South of France we drive across the border and travel along the North Eastern coastline of Italy. As soon as we cross the border there is a noticeable change – there are many more potholes and roadworks are ‘a plenty’. In this part of Italy, the scenery is stunning, but the driving isn’t easy. The motorways are built above coastal towns and bays and the lush mountains are to the North, which means there are tunnels, followed by viaducts, followed by more tunnels.  And as we enter Genoa, everything goes a bit ‘pear shaped’. There is major roadworks across the city and the satnav lady gets herself in a bit of a pickle, taking us round and around in circles. We pass through the same Piage 3 times, and as we head in the wrong direction again, my stress level begins to rise. I pull over at the next Piage, where we stall and cause more havoc, and John takes over the driving and I do the navigating (a better combination!). I switch to google maps in the hope that we might find a way out of the city and eventually after 90 minutes going around in circles, we break free and head in the right direction……. welcome to Italy, where road chaos reigns!

Italy is very different from France. While France is on the chic side of shabby chic, its neighbour, Italy on the other hand is definitely on the shabby side. Being more on the shabby side myself…. I just love it. I have always found Italy to be ‘untouristy’, very up front, yet unpretentious. It’s somewhere where that’s easy to blend into the background, to disappear even. Our first port of call is Sestri Levante, a beautiful little town on the Ligurian Riviera and the campsite has stunning views over the bay. We take a stroll into town and

Enjoy lunch on the beach. It is Wednesday after all, so why not!

Lunch at Sestri Levante

Our plan is to then move to Tuscany and visit Lucca, Sienna, Florence and Bologna. But there’s a problem. The weather forecast for Tuscany is rain for the next 10 days and we start looking further afield. On a whim, we hatch a plan to head south, as far south as you can go in Italy……to Sicily.  Some might say why Sicily? Well, there’s the weather, the scenery, the Greek, Roman and Norman heritage, the food etc, etc. But then on the other side, there are plenty of reasons not to go. It’s too far, we will need to get a ferry or drive a long way, what about the Mafia etc, etc. And so, like most people, when I make a decision, I tend to weigh up the pros and cons, the why’s and the why not’s. There isn’t a right or wrong decision of course, as I try and tell myself when I’m, struggling to make a decision, so that’s when the other why not can be helpful. This isn’t the reason not to do something why not, this is the open why not, the spontaneous why not, the ‘you will never know until you try it’ why not, the ‘embrace new things with open arms’ why not. And I have learned on this trip that if you listen to this why not it helps to challenge indecisiveness and it has taken me to places, I’d never dreamed of. After all, that’s what travelling (and maybe life itself) is all about. Isn’t it better to be open to life’s possibilities, I hear the helpful why not whispering, rather than shutting out opportunities with our fears, before they even have a chance to get going?  So, we take an overnight ferry from Livorno to Palermo (Sicily) and

We stop at Lucca on the way

The streets of Lucca

sharing the most amazing Margherita Pizza for lunch. We arrive on a Saturday evening (in the dark) in the chaotic city of Palermo, where the driving is Mental, with a capital M. Over the next few days we begin to explore this island of contrasts.

We take a train to Palermo

and visit the Royal Palace, where under the rule of the Norman King, Roger II (1130) the Palatine Chapel was built. The chapel represents an extraordinary fusion of Islamic, Byzantine and Romanesque architecture which has been awarded Unesco World heritage status. The golden mosaics covering the walls and the Moorish wooden ceiling are mesmerising.

The Royal palace and inside the Palatine Chapel 

After a lovely Sicilian lunch, we spend the afternoon wandering around the city centre, visiting Piazzo Pretorio and Quattro Canti (1608), the historic centre of the city. More stunningly beautiful baroque church interiors – don’t miss Chiesa di SS Savatore and Chiesa del Gesũ, – they stopped me in my tracks, not something that happens with churches very often.

Inside Chiesa del Gesũ, Piazzo Pretorio and Quattro Canti

Outside Chiesa del Gesũ there is a wedding party, waiting for the bride to arrive. Everyone is immaculately dressed and smiling but turn the corner and in the dirty back alleys, full of litter and graffiti there is a sinister edge. Here, I wouldn’t be surprised to meet those men in dark suits and sunglasses carrying guitar cases!

As we travel across the North West coast of Sicily,

we take in the Capo Gallo and Zingaro nature reserves and visit la Tonnara di Scopello (a medieval tuna-fishing estate). We walk along spectacular coastal paths, with wonderful spring flowers (yellow thistles, bright purple clover and red poppies), crystal clear turquoise waters and idyllic pebble coves.

     Capo Gallo, la Tonnaro di scopello and Zingaro nature reserve

But in contrast, as we travel through some of the small towns, there is a definite air of neglect. Roads full of potholes, pavements strewn with litter are uneven with weeds and trees roots and many houses seem in a state of disrepair. As other parts of Italy have moved with the times, Sicily somehow seems to have lagged behind. Perhaps Sicily, considered the most conquered island in the world (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans, Spaniards, Northern Italians, mafiosi, fascists….), dominated by outside forces and lack of investment for so long, has resigned itself to accepting its lot and has moved a little more slowly? As we tuck into a Sicilian tapa, followed by Cannoli (tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy ricotta), I wonder what the answers might be, and so I am looking forward to exploring this fascinating island and finding out more.

Were in the Côte d’Azur – ooh la la!

20190509_151840.jpgThe view from Antibes sea wall

We’re in the French Rivieria, where the rich and famous mingle and the it (no, not information technology) crowd strut their stuff. Only, we’ve got our timings slightly out. We’re 2 days early for the Cannes film festival and 2 weeks too early for the Monaco Grand Prix. However, being one of the not crowd, it means we get to see these beautiful towns without the beautiful people (apart from us of course).

Our first port of call is Antibes,

famous for its 1920’s American Jazz scene and inspiration to the surrealist painter Pablo Picasso. It’s a beautiful sunny day and just a 5-mile cycle from the campsite. We wander through Vieil Antibes (the historic quarter), with its narrow cobblestone streets festooned with flower boxes. We visit the towns impressive 16th century ramparts and sea wall where there is a spectacular view across the bay to Nice and beyond where in the distance the impressive snow-capped Alpes Martine complete the vista. We soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a beer in the sunshine.

The historic quarter of Antibes

Next, we take a local bus to Nice

I have wanted to visit this city for some time, and its impressive. I’m surprised at how much it has to offer. The city centre is pristine and there is certainly plenty of money here. We head for the Cours Saleya (market Square) for a cuppa and wander along its stalls; flowers, vegetables and local produce. I buy some Provençal herbs, tapenade and aromatic jasmine tea. We continue along the tiny alleys of the historic quarter which are brimming with delis, bars, boutiques and restaurants and visit the Musée Masséna, an Italian neoclassical villa which retraces Nice’s history from the 18th century. A walk up the hill through the leafy Cimiez district to the Musée Matisse, a French painter who spent most of his life in Nice, is not be underestimated, but well worth the visit.

The market square and a little bar in the historic quarter   

Henri Matisse is known for his bright colours and his work continually evolved throughout his career, though painting and sculpture and in his later years through decoupage. I’m still not sure about his more abstract pieces after my visit to the museum and as I descend the stairs, I find John in the main foyer staring up at a supersized Matisse decoupage picture. “I don’t understand” John says, “it’s like he had too much blue paper and ran out of the other colours. That bit in the middle just doesn’t make sense” I look up and the finished work could be the giant-sized painting of a 4-year-old, but I guess the mystery of modern art is that it leaves you with more questions than answers. As they say beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. We finish our day in Nice with a lovely meal washed down with a Picon biere (a caramel coloured bitter made from a base of fresh dried oranges). It’s what I would call interesting, an acquired taste, but it’s a perfect match for the sunshine.

Central Nice

We visit Cannes,

and we’re early for the famous Cannes Film festival. The Palais des Festival et des Congrés and some of the beach front restaurants/stages are still under construction, but there is a definite buzz about the place. We walk along alles des etoiles du Cinema, a path of celebrity hand prints, and the boulevard de la Croisette, past the legendary art deco Carlton International hotel, and soak up the atmosphere. The prices are jaw dropping, one beach front restaurant offers an Aberdeen Angus steak for 99 Euros! We quickly walk past and stroll along the marina, full of impressive yachts of the rich and famous. I spot a rather shiny yacht, called Glow. I’m sure that’s the name of Jennifer Lopez’s perfume, but alas, she is nowhere to be seen!

Outside the Palais des Festival, celebrity hand print, Carlton International hotel

We make a snap decision and take a ferry to Ĩle Ste-Marguerite, a tiny island just 15 minutes away from Cannes and it’s like stepping into a different world. We grab coffees and a sandwich from a snack bar (12 Euros 50!) and walk one of the many well marked out paths across this tranquil castaway Island, its clear blue shores fringed with pines and eucalyptus.

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The shores of Ĩle Ste-Marguerite

On our last day we take the train to Monaco

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View of the bay of Monaco from the Jardin Exotique

Squeezed into 200 hectares Monaco is the world’s second smallest country (principality). How do they do it, you may ask …well it’s because it literally hugs the cliffs. So, if you ever visit be prepared for the hills and the steps, the ups and the downs. We start off with Jardin Exotique which hosts the world’s largest succulent and cactus collection – you guessed it, it’s up a hill, but the views of the bay from the top are spectacular. Next, we head to the Musée Océonographique de Monaco (down one hill and then up another) with its centre piece being a 6m deep lagoon.  On this pistol shaped rock (called le Rocher) the private residence of the Grimaldi dynasty, the Palais du Prince and Cathédral de Monaco is also worth a visit (although we didn’t as I was absolutely shattered by the time, we made it up there).The roads in this city snake their way up and down the hillside and you really get a sense of what the atmosphere would be like with the Grand Prix……maybe next time! 

Getting ready for the Monaco Grand Prix, Jardin Exotique & on le Rocher

And there ends our visit to the French Rivera, and we are on the move again, heading for Italy. So, for now it’s Au Revoir France, Ciao Italy. I’m looking forward to visiting a new country and a new adventure.