Category Archives: Countries

Week 17 – Corsica


We spent this week in Corsica. Getting here was easy – but trying to get off the island to travel to Sardinia proved a lot more challenging.

And the scarcity of campsites continued. We could only find one that stayed open over the winter. The bad news was it was for naturists. But surely no-one wants to be that close to nature in winter?

An awkward telephone call to Riva Bella campsite in Aleria followed to say that ‘nous ne sommes pas naturists but could we stay anyway but maybe keep our clothes on?

Fortunately, the answer was ‘oui’ . In winter the site is for “textiles” as their website describes those of us who prefer not to bare all.


We had the site to ourselves – just us and a herd of llamas. No that’s not a misprint. We thought it an unusual choice of campsite wildlife too.

We parked up on the beach on the east coast, near the small town of  Aleria.  We met a couple of other travellers who dismissed the scenery on this side of the island. They said it was nothing compared to the fabulous mountain landscape of north west Corsica. But then they have a big white motor home complete with ensuite, big water tank and probably diesel heating  and so are totally set up to wild camp.

We were quite happy hooked up to power right beside the sea.

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We signed in…

….and enjoyed the sun…


and the moon


We had a couple of days of great weather when we could walk the beach which had a truly astonishing amount of driftwood….



…and among the piles of wood, masses of the naturally formed tennis ball shaped ‘olives of the sea’…


…and some unnatural waste…ah your croc Monsieur….


Some looked like artwork…


….or intentionally placed to look so…

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But then the weather turned and the view from the van window in the morning turned from this….

DSC_2865 this…


For the first time in our trip, we had to stay in the van for the afternoon. So we did as anyone would do on a rainy weekend afternoon….open the wine and put on a black and white film. (Dix points to anyone who can guess which one).


The storms continued and with unrelenting  40 mph winds and an angry sea,  the noise and movement around the van all night made the van feel like a sleeper carriage.  It was time to leave Riva Bella but for where? We couldn’t find any other campsite open nor was there anywhere on the app we’d been using for permitted overnight parking stops. It looked like the only option was a hotel. We found a cheap one in Propriano on the west of the island and set off to find it.

We’d also decided that a hotel might be a good idea anyway as we had another pressing problem – the bag of laundry was starting to take up all available space in the van.  With the continual rain, there was no way to wash or dry the clothes by hand.

But we got lost trying to find the hotel in the narrow streets of Propriano. By mistake we drove into the carpark at the marina…and guess what we found?


….other motorhomes parked up clearly settled in for the night and a laundrette! The gods were surely smiling on us that day.


A fellow campervanner confirmed that one night stays were allowed.  I settled in for an evening in the laundry and sorting food (pink task) while Stuart chopped wood or something (blue task).


But while luck was on our side that evening, sometimes advance planning is the more sensible course of action. We had arrived in Corsica without booking our ferry to Sardinia. We didn’t think we needed to as, from what we could see, there appeared to be regular ferries from the south of the island.

Except when it actually came to booking one, they’d all mysteriously disappeared off the ferry websites. The only one we could find was in six days time. Six days??! So Corsica is beautiful without question but in stormy weather with heavy snows predicted and no open campsites….we had started to get island fever and were now really really keen to find a way out.DSC_4707

We left Propriano and drove to Ajaccio, thinking there were bound to be regular ferry services from the island’s biggest city. We called to the tourist office there for information but that was quite bizarre…the adviser assured us there were no ferries to Sardinia from Corsica just now but then added that the tourist office found it difficult to get any information anyway.

The nearby travel agency proved more helpful. Thankfully they were able to find us a ferry which was leaving in two days time from Propriano. Yes, that is the place we’d just  come from.

So that night we stayed on the side of the airport road in Ajaccio, sheltered from the fierce wind that blows in from the wide harbour….

We called to see this man’s house before leaving Ajaccio…would have been rude to leave Corsica without visiting the home of its most famous son..


…and we had lunch at the ‘Roi de Rome’ restaurant. Stuart decided a dish of braised veal, olives and bay leaves served on penne was the best meal he’s eaten on the trip so far.

In our week on Corsica, we’d seen only a part of the island…

….including the hilltop town of Corte..


..with its narrow winding streets …


….and some tiny houses …


We tried some of the local specialities like the doughnut balls called beignets which were delicious…


We had breakfast in a cafe we quickly realised was actually a bookie’s shop cum bar.

And from the graffiti daubed on walls on country roads where the word ‘assassin’ features heavily we got a sense of the hard undercurrents in life on Corsica.

But in the cold stormy weather with uncertainty over where to stay, and while knowing we didn’t see the island at its best, we were mighty relieved to be heading south to Sardinia.

Boarding the morning ferry from Propriano to Porto Torres in Sardinia

Week 16 – Puivert, the Camargue and getting to Corsica


This week our van was off the road while we spent a few days in the small French town of Puivert catching up with old friends of Stuart and having the van serviced.
Then it was time to get on the move again. Our destination was Toulon, just past Marseilles, where we were travelling on the overnight ferry to Corsica. Our route took us through the wetlands of the Camargue Natural Park, very much like the Ebro Delta in its flat, expansive scenery but with the added extra of fields of white horses.
Once we left Puivert, the biggest challenge was trying to find somewhere to stay overnight. In this part of France, it looked like all the campsites were closed for the winter. But following up on a tip from a fellow traveller, we downloaded an app called Park4Night which lists places either where wild camping is accepted or where there is an official Aire with some services like a water tap. It proved to be extremely useful.

And the highlights:

Relaxing in Puivert:

We had a very enjoyable few days as guests of Julia and Steve …..


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… their home in an idyllic setting  at the foothills of the Pyrenees.



They have been living here for many years and are part of a small number of ex-pats who have settled in the town permanently. It sounds like the blow-ins are helping keep this rural community and other smaller towns nearby alive.

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While the area had an influx of newcomers from Spain back in the 1930’s as they escaped from the civil war, the population has declined steadily and now numbers around 500 people.
Among the Brits making their living there are Jayne and Paul Bayliss of Brasserie Du Quercorb. Their bar/brewery in a converted bus depot has become the social hub for ex-pats in the area…


…and they make excellent craft beer….




And we ate very well at one of the only places open in the town on a cold January night. Here’s the cuisse de lapin en civet served up at Le Refuge Gourmand…


..but the best meal of all was Julia’s home cooked cassoulet which she makes by simmering toulouse sausage, haricot beans and a chunk of chorizo in loads of red wine for ages and ages.

This isn’t it…..

When we were back on the road, I was inspired to do a campervan cassoulet which unfortunately photographs like a bowl of Chum but tasted magnifique si je say so moi-meme.

As we left Puivert, the rain started — a very welcome arrival to the town where during our stay the local Mairie had to distribute bottled water to all residents because one of the main reservoirs had dried up after an unprecedented dry spell.

Servicing the van:

By the time we got to Puivert, we’d clocked up more than 6,000 miles on our trip so far. It was time for an oil change and – thanks to the potholes in Morocco – we also needed two new pneus.

Sadly we didn’t get the chance to ask for (phonetically speaking) too noo noos as it seems the ‘p’ in pneumatic is no longer silent once it crosses the Channel depriving us of an opportunity which I’m sure would have been comedy gold.


With the benefit of a scripted shopping list of service requests for Dominique le Mechanique – helpfully prepared for us by fluent French speaker Steve – we were back on the road and heading to the Camargue.

We saw the famous white horses…

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….including this one with an egret perched ready to pick off some parasites in the mane…


..and these resting flamingoes, though a faulty and failing camera zoom lens which is causing much angst to the photographer has made the image a tad fuzzy.


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But sadly the only Camargue cowboys we saw were framed on the wall  and looking marvellously Brokeback here.



Our journey from Puivert to Toulon where we were catching the ferry to Corsica involved two nights staying in places we’d found on Park4night – one in a car park beside a vineyard in Monz and the other in a car park facing the sea in the Camargue village of St Marie.

So we were very excited about getting on the Corsica-Sardinia ferry to Bastia because our cabin for the overnight crossing had a shower which was going to be most welcome after two nights of no washing facilities. There’s only so much that can be achieved with a handful of wet wipes.


And 10 hours later, after a stormy crossing, we were in Bastia and being pulled over for a search.’Where have you come from and do you have anything to declare to French customs’, asked the officer in rapid French.

‘Eh Spain, Portugal, Morocco and no’, I said just catching up with what she’d asked.

‘Any drugs?’, she asked hopefully. ‘No’, I confirmed, suppressing a laugh at the bluntness of the question. How does anyone answer that? But satisfied we weren’t part of the French Connection, we were let continue our journey.

We’d arrived in Corsica – the first of our three-stop island hop, freshly showered and smelling fresh with hints of magnolia and honeysuckle.

Week 4 – Porto, Coimbra and back to Spain

This week we spent a few days in beautiful Porto while waiting for the new van part to arrive, travelled south to Portugal’s leading university city Coimbra and just when we’d finally worked out our ‘obrigados’  from our ‘obgrigadas’ *  we have crossed the border back to Spain.

And the highlights of week 4:

Exploring Porto and the Douro Valley:

The 80 mile drive down into Porto was challenging, following narrow, steep roads with frequent switchback turns round the vine-covered hillsides which overlook the Douro river.

We travelled past acres and acres of terraced vineyards which seemed to cover every slope on the hillsides, like these:


Views over the Douro Valley snapped en route


…and we finally arrived into Porto. It was dull and misty when we got there so it was very hard to capture on camera just how beautiful the city looked.

Grey mist hanging over Porto

Over two days, we tramped up and down the hills and through the atmospheric back streets of this gorgeous city where slum homes are crammed in topsy turvy fashion against elegant mansions and designer shops and the number of decaying and derelict buildings was truly startling.

These sharp contrasts have been a striking feature of our experience in Portugal so, for example, we had wifi on the bus from our campsite to Porto where the signal was so strong, we could download country maps quicker than our home wifi. But soon after,  we could see people seemingly living in conditions of real poverty and it was like stepping back 100 years.

A kitchen break in Porto
A kitchen break from one of the many restaurants in Porto’s Ribeira district


Cat nap in Porto
Cat nap in Porto


Porto university students – in their standard outfits of black suits with capes

Up near Porto University, where these young students gathered, we had another glimpse of the mix of traditional and modern Portugal.  The group in red in the background were doling out ‘free hugs’ – a freshers week event probably and we willingly obliged.

The others, clustered in their black capes and suits, cut very formal figures. First we thought it was for a special occasion, a graduation ceremony perhaps. No, it turns out these black suits and capes (called traje) are frequently worn by the students at Porto and also at Coimbra university where the tradition originated. And if they somehow look familiar – think Harry Potter. Apparently JK Rowling who worked as an English teacher in Porto for a few years was influenced by their outfits for the Hogwarts uniform,

Do please excuse the quality of the photo above which was taken from a distance by mobile phone and then cropped. It is clearly not up to the standard of our resident photographer. This is because Stuart resolutely refused to take a photo of the young female students as requested on the grounds it may have led to him spending the afternoon having an interesting discussion in the local El Nick trying to explain himself.

Learning about Port production in the Douro valley:

There aren’t many ‘must sees’ on our wish list for this trip but going to one of the port houses in Porto was always one of them. I guess because the story behind port production in the Douro valley has so many elements. Apart from the practical stuff like how it’s made, there is the romance and adventure in the stories of those English merchants from the 1600’s making their way over to the Douro valley to secure wine supplies for their home market.


Then there are the standout characters you want to know more about. Like, for example, John James Forrester, a Yorkshire man, who in the 1800’s became a leading light in the development of the port wine production as well as being a noted cartographer of the Douro river.

There are about 60 or so port lodges in the Vila Nova de Gaia area of Porto. All are open to visitors but how do you choose which one to tour? The Sandeman port house was right on the river front near the town centre and looked like a massive, slick tourist attraction. We thought something more olde worldly would offer a more authentic experience and headed to Taylor’s where we followed a self-guided tour through the cave where the vats and casks of port are stored, finishing up with a tasting session.

Chilled white for me, late bottled vintage for Stuart


The archive film shown during the tour which showed how the port was transported down the Douro before dams were constructed and it was still a wild and dangerous river was awe inspiring.  Special flat bottom boats had to be constructed to navigate the waters which ironically ultimately did for JJ Forrester mentioned above. He drowned in the Douro when his boat was hit by rapids.

Anyway, have a look at this archive film I found on You Tube and you get the idea. Skip to the middle to see the rapids – it’s like white water rafting.


And not quite the highlight – what can we say about Portuguese food?

We saw a queue for this place and like pre-Glasnost Muscovites joined it…


…it was for the Cafe Majestic,  a popular eaterie for the Porto bohemian set since the 1920’s and this week our destination for dinner. And now that we are here, is this a good time to raise the sensitive subject of food in Portugal?

The food critic Giles Coren created a social media ruckus a while back when he dubbed Portuguese food as ‘the worst in the world’. Well, we are not quite saying that but let’s say we haven’t struck lucky so far.

Ok so there’s bacalhau a plenty but really, there is only so much salted cod a person can eat. It’s everywhere you look. Here it is on sale when we were at Barcelos market…


It’s also on sale in every shop and supermarket and on every menu. But it was surprising – though maybe it should have been obvious given depleted fish stocks – that this Portuguese national dish is not home grown but is actually imported from Norway.

After that, the only other option offered in the restaurants we’ve been to was frango (chicken) with rice and chips- but in all cases the chicken’s breast appeared to have been served to someone else so all that we got were the legs and thighs with a teeny bit of flesh on them. Fair enough we were generally in very small towns where the choice of restaurants was limited and maybe we just didn’t do enough research to find the right places to eat. Anyway, back to the Cafe Majestic, we ordered pasta.

Portugal’s Cambridge – a visit to Coimbra

In the film ‘A Room with a View’, there’s a joke told about the American father on the European Grand Tour who is asked by his daughter what they saw in Rome. He answers something on the lines – “I guess that was where we saw the yellow dog”.

There’s a risk that my memory of the medieval university city of Coimbra – ancient seat of learning in Portugal for  some 500 years – will be on the lines ‘oh that’s where I managed to order a cheese and ham toasted sandwich for breakfast for the third time’.

Sadly, due entirely to my failure to communicate effectively my order for toast and jam has always resulted in a cheese and ham toastie. I thought I’d cracked it in Coimbra with the aid of the guide book language glossary together with vigorous nods to convey I most definitely did not want ham or, indeed, any cheese with my toast – many thanks obrigada (*thank you when addressing a woman). No joy.  It’s porridge from now on.

And aside from the trivia of my breakfast, what of Coimbra? It was magical at night…




And more gritty by day, especially up by the student accommodation where the political graffiti was everywhere.



Coimbra was also where we had the opportunity to listen to fado music and despite guide book warnings which made it sound like  this mournful music was to be endured rather than enjoyed, it was a good evening’s entertainment, especially the guitar accompaniment. Think of Radio 2 crossed with the Ukranian Eurovision entry with a blast of Christy Moore.


Back to Spain

And so we have left Portugal – possibly to return again – and crossed the border back to Spain. Our first destination was the beautiful border town of Ciudad Rodrigo. Here is yet another photo of picturesque Spanish town artistically shot through tunnel..(bear with us – there are lots more of these to come).
Scenic Spanish town photo no. 407 – this time it’s Ciudad Rodrigo
The view from Ciudad Rodrigo’s city walls


And the photo above was another view – oh look we thought an overgrown bullring. They must have stopped all bull fighting, possibly due to an EU directive. Actually no, a 20-year old American tourist was gored and severely injured by a bull at a festival in Ciudad Rodrigo only last year. So not quite over the sport as yet.

And from Ciudad Rodrigo we headed north where the hills of the Douro valley are far behind us and now all we have around us are the flat plains of the Meseta. What a relief for our van.







And finally, an update on the van trouble:

We had diagnosed that the problem was that the radiator fan wasn’t coming on when it should hence the regular episodes of boiling over.

We ordered a new switch from JK Kampers.  So there it is below, newly installed by Stuart and the offending one sitting on the bumper.

At the same time to help with steep climbs in the future,  we dropped some weight i.e. only had half a tank of diesel, half a tank of fresh water and dumped the bag of BBQ coal.

And the verdict? The jury is out on whether the new switch has actually sorted the problem because we’ve yet to hear the fan actually switch on.. We have been adopting a more cautious driving strategy which has also helped i.e. only driving at 25 miles an hour in 3rd. gear and 35 MPH in fourth, rather than forcing the engine. Fingers crossed!


And we’re finally on the road

Gorgeous photo album from Ciara and the holy grail – our MOT cert

The van has passed her MOT! She went in this morning at 8.30 am. Stuart paced the corridor outside, chain smoking furiously, beads of sweat glistening on his furrowed brow as he waited for, no he didn’t. I just made that up.

He was as calm as any man would be when you’ve already replaced virtually every part of the van and the pre-MOT check two weeks ago carried out by our nice local garage (hello M&D Motors) revealed nothing more sinister than a teeny hole in the floor and leaky drive shaft seals – all easily fixable.

And so we have started our journey and are now staying the night on a pretty soulless campsite 20 minutes from Portsmouth. The last few days have been hectic –  seeing family and friends, some seriously enthusiastic partying on Saturday which meant a slower than required pace on Sunday, leading to an even more manic Monday of house clearing and packing.


Thanks Susan and Steve Watson for the brilliant mugs xx
Thank you Susan and Steve Watson for our brilliant pink and blue mugs xx

But by 11 am this morning, we were pulling out of our road after one final check that Stuart hadn’t substituted his passport for a bag of apples. And yes that did happen to us a few years back – he unaccountably swapped the bag holding all our passports for  6 Braeburns. This resulted in a tense wait at Gatwick at 4 am while he did the eye wateringly expensive round trip taxi journey home to retrieve them.

But no such drama today. It will be a quiet night in, with good memories of the fond farewells with our much loved family and friends and much to look forward to – all starting tomorrow.

Very apt quote - thanks Karen Venn!
Very apt quote – thanks Karen Venn!

A fish in every country (plus one)

Posted by Stuart

One of my aims for the trip is to fish in every country we visit over the next year. As a precursor, we are in Kilkenny in Ireland this week to see Helen’s mum before we set off and my birthday present was a day’s salmon fishing on the nearby River Nore at the Mount Juliet estate.

Mount Juliet in Kilkenny
Mount Juliet in Kilkenny

Although I have been fishing on and off since I was 14 I have never caught a salmon despite much trying so to be honest everyone’s expectations were low.

Eddie, the gillie, and his Patterdale terrier Jack looked after me and confirmed it has been a difficult season.

Eddie and Jack
Eddie and Jack

Sure enough there was not even a sniff of a fish all morning. So after lunch I set off up river on my own.


After an hour or two I came to a lovely pool, cast a few times with my trout rod and hooked into a salmon. After a few leaps (from the fish) and much toing and froing ( by me) I eventually had to jump into the river and lift it out on to the bank. My first salmon and on the fly!!


A brief rest for a photo op before swimming back into the Nore
A brief rest for a photo op before swimming back into the Nore

Of course, it went back into the river and after a few moments it swum slowly into the pool.

And that was it- after all these years with not a soul anywhere to see it happen – just me standing there trying to believe that it really did happen, the river flowing past, the rain pouring down and a dipper, its white front bobbing up and down, on the river’s edge.

The little Dipper


By this time it was lashing down, my waders were full of water so I headed back to the hotel, a grin plastered across my face, looking for someone to tell.

The capsule wardrobe challenge is looming


I’ve never quite managed the art of the ‘capsule’ holiday wardrobe – you know the sort of packing advice you get in women’s mags where you are assured that with a few carefully co-ordinated pieces you can glide from beach to poolside cocktail party with one artful twist of a sarong and an accent colour cardi. But the big trip is getting closer and the challenge involved in packing enough clothes for a year on the road with no space is clear. So how do I get this….
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..into this?
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With all the other stuff we’ve got to carry inside the van, it is looking like my clothes storage is going to consist of one and possibly half of another of these plastic boxes. That ain’t much. Apparently the secret is to squash everything into these Tardis-like Eagle Creek zip up holders. We’ll see.

Irish Road Art

Driving on the N52 to Tullamore in Offaly, we pass these four 25 feet tall figures watching from the hills overlooking the motorway.


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They are part of the Irish Per Cent for Art scheme which sees 1% of the cost of every new road in Ireland set aside to fund a piece of art. These figures are by sculptor Maurice Harron and depict the theme Saints and Scholars. One carries a chalice, the others a book, bishop’s staff and flock of birds or souls. Continue reading Irish Road Art

Hooley in the House – music or the big match


I like a bit of country music. Nothing too tragic or hardcore – say some Patsy, Dolly or the Man in Black (Johnny not Joaquim). Stuart? Not so much – unless maybe it had a ska beat.

So that’s why at the Hooley in the House music festival in Westport, he was here …behind the main stage,  watching Mayo play Dublin in Gaelic football on a big screen.

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Continue reading Hooley in the House – music or the big match