Category Archives: The Big Trip – Getting Ready

Week 38 – Lithuania week one

Posted by Stuart 

So after Poland, the trip northwards continues through the Baltics. Although the countryside remains virtually unchanged, Lithuania is indeed a very different country.

It feels like we have one foot in Scandinavia already and after nearly nine months on the road we have discovered people who actually love beer! It has been a hard week of research but I’ve struggled on (see the Beer Gallery page in due course)

Anyway, this week has been very different as Helen spent most of it back in Ireland with her mother where she was joined by her children Ciara, Conor and Regan. And swapping places in the passenger seat, my daughter Mary flew in to Kaunas to join me for a   few days on the road.

Just before Helen went back, we kicked off our travels round Lithuania with a visit to a park that has gathered together memorabilia from Russian occupation times. Grutas Park has been dubbed ‘Stalinworld’ as it’s a bit like a theme park of all things Soviet.

It’s a controversial place as the Russians are not much loved here (to say the least) but the argument is that by preserving this stuff people don’t forget. The park is the brainchild of  a local millionaire businessman known as The Mushroom King and it’s an impressive and fascinating place to spend a few hours.

Apparently he had wanted to use cattle trucks (the very ones used to deport people to Siberia) to transport tourists to the park from the local station. The Ministry of Culture put the kibosh on that idea –  this one is for decoration only…

Throughout our travels so far in Lithuania we have had difficulty finding any buildings that are more than a few years old- the Germans and the Russians obliterated most Lithuanian towns during the war and what has come afterwards isn’t exactly easy on the eye.

This diversion to the quaint village of Ciziunai was worth it though…

According to all the guide books, the castle of Trakai is a “must see” in Lithuania- on an island in a truly beautiful location amidst a number of lakes but we were a little underwhelmed. Very touristy, expensive and actually largely re-built in the 60s and 70s. it didn’t help that it was pouring rain.

Anyway, after trying out Lithuania’s signature dish, potato cakes shaped like zeppelins…..

…a meal interrupted by a blast from the past….the jolly jingles of a Hare Krishna parade…….

..I dropped Helen off at the airport in Vilnius and set off to meet Mary off her plane flying into Kaunas.

Hello to Mary and hello to Lithuania’s second city.

Things were looking up ..sunshine, a beautiful old town at the junction of two large rivers, some interesting stuff to see and best of all lots of time with my daughter.

The exploits of Oscar Schindler in Krakow helping to save 1,200 Jews are world famous and rightly so. What is (a lot) less well known is the bravery of Chiune Sugihara, who was a Japanese civil servant in Kaunas. We visited his house to find out more.

Despite there being no instructions from his superiors, from 18 July to 28 August 1940, before he had to leave, he took it upon himself to issue visas to allow about 6,000 Jews to escape Lithuania to Japan via the Trans-Siberian express (the Russians charged five times the usual cost) – he was still signing visas as he left the city. These fortunate refugees then had to move on to other countries before Japan entered the war.

The Old Town was lovely and very relaxing.

Some interesting Art Deco buildings in the newer part of town,

Anyway, some more good food and an occasional beer and we were ready to crash this gig-I’m told that’s what young people say. Very enjoyable but decided to leave before the bouncers realised we didn’t have wristbands. (Anyway, last time I ‘crashed a gig’ was The Undertones in Aberdeen in 19-something)

FYI- Volfas Engelman is a beer not the band.

We really liked Kaunas.

From Kaunas we sped on to the Curorian Spit (otherwise called Neringa). It is a 60 mile long narrow strip of sand covered with pine forests- a larger version of the Hel Spit in Poland.

Slightly stung by the 30 euro ferry crossing – it took all of four minutes- we then had to smile and joke with the toll booth attendant on the other side to reduce our 20 euro charge to drive on their roads. Result = 5 euros- well done Mary.

Whilst there has been a heat wave back home, the weather here has been er…changeable.

Rain-and-cagoule weather unfortunately, so we drove down the length of it and stopped on the border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. We thought better than snapping away at their border post.

A very careful U turn and then back across to the mainland and Klaipeda, the main port of Lithuania …

..where we enjoyed some R&R in the hotel health club followed by some ten pin bowling.

I show this photo as my scores were excellent. It all went horribly wrong later.

All this exercise was undone by some good Lithuanian food and beer.

Blood sausages and sauerkraut and a pint of Svyturys. Yum.

The weather improved so we headed further up the coast to the beach resort of Palanga.

Great place, great beach, great atmosphere.

We headed back to Kaunas and enjoyed the nearby Cade Valley Park- a beautiful place of lakes, woods and lots of happy Lithuanians enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Excellent.

Then to Vilnius which was lovely – the weather was again good to us and we had a good day wandering around.

The Museum of Illusions was entertaining and the staff there helped us to get the most of the exhibits.

And that was the week… quite a lot of miles, weather changing frequently, great beaches, excellent food and beer, some nice towns and then Mary back to England and Helen returning.

Normal service will be resumed next week.

That’s all folks.



Slainte Stuart – glad you had a great week with Mary. I had a great time with my three too! See you back in Lithuania.

Helen x

Week 37 – Poland week two – Gdansk and the Baltic Coast

This week we went to Gdansk, to Hel and back, saw the moving sand dunes on the Baltic coast and had a serious amount of tomato soup.

Heading north from Wroclaw to Gdansk, we broke the journey with an overnight stop at the spa town of  Ciechocinek. We arrived just as hundreds of fire engines were assembling for a convoy into town, all sirens blaring…

…which was an entertaining diversion but not quite as diverting as spotting in the distance this enormous construction. It’s an inhalatorium….

….no, we’d never heard of one either though apparently there a few others in Germany and Austria. It’s a 19th century health therapy which works by channelling streams of brine …..

…. down the blackthorn twigs stuffed into the massive frames of these graduation towers…

… which causes the salty water to vaporise in the wind and sun, creating a microclimate rich in iodine. Breathing in the salty air is apparently as good for the health as a walk by the sea.

So just as they did in the 1800’s, we joined the locals for a stroll along the 1.5 km path around the three giant towers, before getting back in the van and heading for Gdansk. …a journey which without question….

…..wins the passenger’s ‘Are We Nearly There Yet?’ award.

See what I mean?

Once in Gdansk, our first stop had to be here….it’s the European Solidarity Centre…

….a museum  beside the famous Gate Number 2 of the Gdansk shipyards. The centre celebrates the history of …..

….which was founded in 1980 by this charismatic man….

…and tells the story of it’s fight against the Soviet-imposed Communist regime…

General Jaruzelski’s television broadcast on 13 December 1981 declaring martial law and outlawing Solidarnosc

..and how it survived the attempt to destroy it and Polish demands for democracy.

This photograph is considered as the best symbol of martial law in Poland – armed soldiers in front of the Moscow cinema when it was screening ‘Apocalypse Now’.

It was a fascinating, all absorbing exhibition.

Leaving the shipyards and back in the historic old town, we hadn’t expected the city to be so charming and characterful. We had a wander, stopped to listen to the buskers play one of Vivaldi’s seasons …

….browsed in the amber shops  and wandered some more.

Heading further up the Baltic Sea coast, we stopped off to see some of the giant murals in the Zaspa estate. It’s like a giant open air art gallery….

..where the end wall of the high rise is the artist’s canvas.

Further on in the seaside resort of Sopot, the street art was impressive too……

….but the big draw is Europe’s longest wooden pier.

It’s a really swish resort …

…but we didn’t stop for the sniadanie angielskie, tempting as it was to have a full English Breakfast fry up on the pier end.

We were going to Hel.

That’s the little small town at the end of this narrow spit and on the map looks like this….

….but as we drove further down the spit, passing high rises and bill boards and with no sign of the sea, we thought this is not what we expected. But then, thankfully, it all changed. Once you got through the little fishing port…

……and overtook the hordes of day tripping school children and got out onto the walkway along the beachfront, it was all rather heavenly.

After our pierogi-fest last week, we haven’t done much in the way of tasting Polish cuisine  this week. For one good reason….here it is….. enormous carton of tomatoes bought for a few zlotys in a motorway polski sklep….

…a whim purchase which has resulted in a certain sameness to the campervan kitchen menu.

Our last stop this week was to see Leba and the dunes which sounds a bit like an ’80s pop combo.

The sand dunes are in the Slovinkski National Park and judging by the number of coaches ahead of us are a major tourist attraction.

From the car park, we got on board one of the electric cars to drive though the woods and up to the dunes though the first glimpse of sand…

…didn’t prepare us for just how spectacular they are. It’s a 500 hectare complex of moving sand dunes.

Apparently due to the strong westerly winds, the dunes move a few metres every year and in the past have covered a village.

Or in this case a pair of flip flops.

Ah there you are…..we wondered where you’d all got to.

And that ended our journey up the Baltic coast. It was time to turn the van round to point eastwards on our way to Lithuania, a route that took us through the Masurian lake region and an overnight stop in Mikolajaki….

…where we called in to one of the restaurants but scanning the menu options….

..maybe we’ll stick to tomato soup.

Week 35 – Hungary and Slavakia

This week we skirted along the north of Hungary and had one night in Slovakia, stopping off for a thermal bath and a spot of wine tasting.

And sheltering in the van from a monumental thunder storm, there was time for some covert filming of Stuart’s funky dance moves…..take it away Stewey.

Who knew that a pair of toothbrushes could sound that good?!

And back to our travels where we started the week crossing the border into Hungary near Debrecen on the Northern Great Plain.

At the border, the guard was even more thorough than the ‘any drugs?’ question we were asked in Corsica.

“Any drugs, guns or ammunition? Any horinca or homemade alcohol?” he asked. Nope, none of the above, not even a small bottle of the  firewater-like plum brandy we’d had in Romania before virtually every meal.  His colleague joined him. ‘Please can you blow into this? she asked offering me the breathalyser. ‘Wow, the Hungarians are really, really strict’ I thought and was ready to oblige but for her colleague pointing out that in our right hand drive van I was the passenger.

She retreated, not bothering to pursue the test and so we were waved into Hungary and it was time to learn how to divide by 350.

We headed for Hortobagy National Park.

Known as the Puszta, Hortobagy is Europe’s largest natural grassland and is home to herds of grey cattle, water buffalo, horses,  varied birdlife and Hungary’s Wild East cowboys.

We’d seen the elegant dressage of the Andalusian horses in Jerez Week 7 – From Seville to Jerez  and the cheesey performances of the Fort Bravo cowboys in Almeria Week 15 – Back in Spain – Almeria, the Ebro Delta and up to the French border.

Now it was time to see the whip-cracking horsemanship of the Hungarian csikos.

At Mata Stud, we joined one other couple on a leisurely cart drive along the dirt tracks of the steppe. We stopped to peer in at the Racka sheep with their black wool and distinctive spiral shaped horns, hundreds all  huddled together in the cool of the barn, away from the noon heat.

Black sheep in a dark barn – the photos didn’t work out too well. Here’s the barn anyway.

Our cart ride took us on  past a small group of water buffalo  with their calves, sharing a pond with this woolly pig enjoying a splash….

..and up to where one of the herdsmen was waiting to show us how he drives the ox drawn cart without reins, using verbal commands only.

The oxen are the smartest bull steers in the herd, saved from the slaughterhouse by their ability to be trained.

We got close to a skylark in song…

…and then it was time to see the  cowboys demonstrate their skills in horsemanship.

Here’s how to make the horse lie flat, a skill developed by the cowboys of old when trying to conceal themselves from their enemies in the flat landscape.

And here’s how a horse can sit like a dog. Eh, not sure why.

We declined the offer to go for a horse ride….

….posing is fine for me, thanks.

The drive out of the Putza took us through miles and miles of grassland, dotted with a few landmarks like the T-shaped sweep wells …

…and small white-washed farm cottages. We were curious to know why so many of the fields and houses had lighting conductors attached to the roof.

In the campsite at Eger that night, we found out why.

The mother and father of all storms raged for a few hours and the rain poured like a shower off the van’s awning. Watching the lighting flashes all around our tin box, we would have felt a lot more at ease if there were a few lightning conductors nearby to take the strike.

We had a wander around Eger in the evening. It was a pleasant enough town.  Some good restaurants – for goulash soup of course – and an impressive baroque church..

…and familiar names for stocking the van store cupboard..

..and it has an extensive thermal bath complex. We did as the Hungarians do and whiled away a few hours in the pool.

And on the edge of the town, right beside our campsite, there is the wine-tasting area of Szépasszony-völgy (Valley of the Beautiful Women) where there are around 200 wine cellars side by side.

It was time for a tasting….

…of the region’s famous red wine ‘Bull’s Blood’.

So cheers to Hungary. It was a flying visit but now we were off to Slovakia and into Schengen agreement land with no borders. Just a signpost to say we were now in a new country and time to put away the forints and dig out the euros.

So first impressions…..Slovakia has a serious number of solar panels….

….and picturesque countryside ….

…with beautiful beech forests…

…which made a perfect pit stop.

But as we drove on from Kosice northwards, it was startling to see as we came into one of the villages en route rows of tumbledown shacks and makeshift houses, teeming with people, spilling out onto the road in front of us. It looked like the poorest part of rural India.   We read later that while a minority of the 500,000 Roma in Slovakia are well integrated, for most this shantytown is typical of the  living conditions for many in the countryside.

Our destination was a campsite near Humenne. We parked up for the night by the lake…

….and in the morning were back on the road heading for Poland.

Week 33 – Romania Week 1 – the Danube Delta and the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

Pelicans flying alongside us at the Danube Delta

We are late with the blog post this week. We arrived into Romania with only a vague idea where we were going… that spur of the moment decision to buy a house in Bulgaria (Week 32 – Bulgaria – We bought a house in Palamartsa! (and then went back on the road) has been a huge distraction.

Well I guess it’s not surprising that we couldn’t stop talking and thinking about it….Stuart on the wonders of cob wall building, me on how I can shamelessly lift the decor ideas we saw at Wild Thyme Farm and pass them off as my own.

But now we are back on the road and we really need to focus on the travels ahead…Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Baltics, Scandinavia and then the grand finale, the Faroes and Iceland.

But back to Romania. We planned to have two weeks here and arrived having done little or no research on where to go or stay. The only concrete plan was to get to the Danube Delta. That’s been number one on Stuart’s wishlist for the trip from the very start. Other than that, we were open to ideas which is precisely what we said to the border guard as we crossed over from Bulgaria. He seemed delighted to be consulted and between his suggestions and those of his five colleagues who pored over our map with us, we came up with a route taking us up the Black Sea coast to the delta, then north to the Bucovina region, famous for its painted monasteries and then west to the Maramures, famed for its remoteness. So a good mix of culture and scenery, what could be better? Well, the weather for a start.

We left the sun behind us in Bulgaria and set off with grey skies above and flat landscape surrounding us.

It was the flattest landscape we’ve driven through so far on our big trip, even more so than the Spanish mesete. For miles and miles, there was nothing between us and the horizon except a patchwork of green pastures and bright yellow rapeseed fields.

It was really, really quite ….


Just past the Black Sea city of Constanta, we stopped off to visit the ruins at the ancient Greek city of Histria. There isn’t much left of it now which is probably why the trip photographer was more interested in photographing the thatchers busy on the picnic area roof.

We pressed on to the Danube Delta where the river flows into the Black Sea forming a vast wetland of lagoons, lakes and streamlets. Stopping at a campsite overnight on the way up, we met a couple from the UK who had just come from there. They advised on a campsite we could stay at where the owner also offered guided boat trips and they braced us for the cost. It would be about 100 euro for a three hour trip, not cheap, though we all agreed that was fair enough the locals made their money from the tourists in the very short tourist season.

The birds are the main attraction at the delta and we saw birds aplenty on our trip, starting with this fellow…

…a hoopoe on the campsite fence before we even set off….

….to where the campsite owner had moored his boat. We got kitted up..

…got on board….

…and set off through the lagoons.

…where we saw…

…egrets and eagles and herons and…..

…pelicans galore.

That was the best part. We were able to get very close to these birds which look like prehistoric creatures…

… and seemed so ungainly as they galloped across the surface of the water..

..then so graceful as they took flight.

It was freezing cold the day we went out. Our guide was a taciturn sort of chap, not given to much in the way of chatter so, for me anyway,  three hours was more than enough time to be out on the water.  Heading for home along the open water, a motor cruiser came past us at speed. Our guide slowed right down till it passed and then manoeuvred the boat at a right angle across the cruiser’s sizeable wake…

….something this less experienced boatman didn’t do.

We headed to the rescue. Stuart, stopping only to take this pap shot of him sinking in the icy river,  lent a hand to try to right his craft but no joy. It’s motor was weighing it down so he had no choice but to tie it to a tree and come back to shore with us to enlist more help.

Aside from that bit of excitement, while I was happy with the bird quotient, Stuart left the delta feeling like we really hadn’t experienced or seen as much of it as he’d hoped. Of course, maybe if we’d done more research…another time, another trip perhaps.

Back on the road, we set off on the 200 mile trip north to the southern Bucovina region which borders with the Ukraine, travelling through more flat landscape….

…crossing the ferry over the Danube …

…and while the roads were a lot better than anything we’d seen in Bulgaria and the houses were a lot bigger, the striking feature of driving in Romania was the number of horse drawn carts on the road.

And we finally did find out why the horses all had a red tassle on their harness. Romanians, we were told, are deeply superstitious and the red tassle is to ward off the evil eye.

To break the journey to Bocovinia, we stopped overnight at a campsite near the salt mine of Targu Ocna. A salt mine – that’s something we haven’t seen yet on our trip. We decided to take a look.

We boarded the bus, just like a normal bus into town, except this time our journey was 240 metres below ground….

….which is pretty dark…

…until you reach the main tunnels where there’s everything a well equipped salt mine should have…

…like a church…

…and a gym…

…and a coffee shop, though most people seemed to have brought their own picnic and were just sitting around and breathing. Apparently a few hours spent in a salt mine is very good for your asthma though way less convenient than a puffer.

Then after a salt mine selfie…

….it was back on the bus above ground…

..and off on the second leg of our big stomp to Suceava where for two days the weather was lousy. It lashed rain. But after two days of long drives, it was quite nice to have an excuse to spend the afternoon in the van,  watching old movies…

…and colouring in.

Yes, this was finally the time to dig out a Christmas present from daughter Ciara and find out for myself what the adult colouring book craze is  (or was?) all about.

So here’s me staying within the lines mindfully.

And then when I finished, I meditated on what people do with their completed works.  Maybe keep it as a diary of where you were that day. Then chuck it in a mindful way.

Our purpose in coming to Bocovinia was to see the region’s vividly colourful painted monasteries. They date back to the 15th century and are famous because of the colourful frescoes which cover the outside walls and depict religious stories and biblical characters.

We decided we would get more out of it if we went with a guide so found Sorin Fodor through his website The Painted Monasteries of Bocovinia.

It was a good call. Sorin drove us to see four of the UNESCO protected monasteries, at Voronet, Moldovita, Sucevita and Arbore. He brought the frescoes to life for us, pointing out the biblical characters depicted…

….like the Queen of Sheba …

…and explained the religious scenes shown, like this one where the monks are working their way up the ladder of 34 virtues. Behind them the angels are whispering moral support, dangling a golden crown as the enticement to get to the top.

And he’s made it. The chap at the top gets the crown and a nice certificate by the look of it.

But just as we have found throughout our travels, the benefit of booking a guide is you get the chance to talk to a local about life in their country.

And so it was with Sorin. We heard from him about the strength of the Eastern Orthodox church in Romania.  Attendance at Sunday mass is generally high and there is apparently still high demand from young men and women to become priests and nuns.

He also talked to us about life under Ceacesceau’s regime and his recollection of the infamous Decree 770. This was the oppressive law enacted in 1966 to force population growth by banning contraception and abortion. Sorin recalls how he and his 14-year old schoolboy friends would titter as their female classmates were taken off for the monthly pregnancy check.  If the test was positive, the young girl was monitored by the police till she gave birth to ensure she did not try to terminate the pregnancy herself.

Reading more about the policy later, it seems Ceausescu did achieve his aim. By 1969 Romania had a million more babies. But his policy also resulted in untold number of deaths from botched backstreet abortions, orphanages filled with unwanted children and – be careful what you wish for – a new generation of twenty-something year olds to lead the revolution which resulted in the execution of Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day in 1989.

After our tour of the monasteries, we headed back over the hills to Suceava..

…stopping off for some souvenirs….

…to pack up and head west to the Maramures region, hoping to see a more remote, more picturesque part of Romania.

Week 32 – Bulgaria – We bought a house in Palamartsa! (and then went back on the road)

This week we bought a £4,500 house in Bulgaria, spent three days clearing it out then drove to Romania to continue our trip. That’s the short version.

This post gives the longer version but I appreciate the story of someone else’s house purchase is a bit like hearing about someone else’s dreams – every detail fascinating to the narrator but deeply tedious to the listener (as I well know from the glazed expressions received when I can’t resist recounting mine). So do please feel free to leave now and we will catch up again next week when we are back on the road.

Before you go, here are some photos of the outside of the house and the main road leading to it…

That’s the main road to the house – the entrance is through the green door

And for those still with us, here’s how we came to buy it in just 12 days from first viewing to unlocking the front door as the new owners.

First off,  we weren’t quite as spontaneous as the couple we met this week who bought a house in the same village  in an eBay auction. They were still in the UK, had never travelled to Bulgaria before and the bidding followed an evening in the pub. That was about six years ago and they have been coming to their new home regularly ever since. So no blurry hangover regrets there then.

By contrast we were actually in Bulgaria when the idea of buying a house in the country struck. We were about two weeks into our travels here and all the negative views we had of the country before arriving had evaporated.

But why negative in the first place?

Well it was mainly down to what we had heard from fellow travellers before we came. Gill and Chris from the UK (we met them first in Morocco and then caught up with them again in Greece) had the very nasty experience of being robbed on their first day in Bulgaria. Thieves broke into their motorhome while it was parked up in a supermarket car park and they lost a laptop, handbag, GPS, wallet. As they said, it is all stuff which can be replaced but understandably it left a sour taste.

And a week or so after hearing about their experience of Bulgaria, we were chatting to a German couple on a Greek campsite about their travels. They were taking their second circuit of the whole of Europe by motorhome, except for Bulgaria or Romania.  They told us they would not go to either country because of ‘the crime and the dirt’. Their damming comments were then repeated to us by another couple of veteran motorhomers a few days later.

All in all, these stories (albeit two from people who had never even visited the country!) meant we weren’t in the best frame of mind about Bulgaria as we crossed over the border from Greece. Nevertheless we decided to focus on seeing as much of rural Bulgaria as we could hence our stays at Wild Farm in Gorno Pole….

…and Wild Thyme Farm in Palamartsa.

In between we stayed at the lovely Camping Velika Tarnova and had a great few days on the Black Sea coast in Varna. The positive stories from the ex-pats we met, the friendliness of the locals, the beautiful (and clean!) countryside, the glorious sunshine, the good food…..they cancelled out all the negative stuff we’d heard. Add to that the possibility of buying a home in the sun for the price of a car back home? So we were already starting to think on those lines when Claire from Wild Thyme was called on by her neighbour Dara.

Dara wanted to sell her house. Stuart was off in the woods foraging but there was no harm in me having a quick look…

Claire acted as translator in the first viewing – how much did Dara want to sell it for. She wanted £4,500. Most of important question of all, was she in a position to sell i.e. was she the sole owner? This is crucial given that many so properties in Bulgaria prove impossible to sell because of the multiple family owners (thanks to inheritance) are scattered round the world.

Yes she was….here’s the key document you need when buying a house in Bulgaria.

It’s the original ownership document which shows that Dara had legal title to sell.

Inside it was hard to believe that parts of the house were just 35 years old. The walls and floors are mainly made of cob which is a mixture of straw and clay and the roof is made from green oak beams with clay tiles. The same building materials and building style has been in use in the village for many years.

If we went for it, some clearing out  would be needed. And a bathroom – there is no toilet in the house.

And definitely some new wiring.

What’s that famous Oscar Wilde misquote about wallpaper? Yep, that would definitely have to go.

Then Stuart came along to have a look….

Here he is deciding that if we did go for it, we’d need some windows in the back. Bulgarians sensibly never put windows on north facing walls because of the severely cold winters but to make the most of that fabulous view we need a couple in here.

And that was the big selling point…the great view out the back. We were sold.

The next day we met up with Mel from Living The Dream Bulgaria. From Wales originally, she has settled in the village with her husband John and is in the business of selling properties in the area. Mel agreed to act as our agent to sort all the formalities which involved:

  • passing Dara’s and our identity documents to the solicitor in Popovo – the nearest town to Palamartsa;
  • ordering a new skitza from the municipality – that’s the plan of the property; and
  • ordering the government valuation document which sets the tax payable on the property.

Within a few days, everything was in hand except the government valuation document. The relevant person dealing with that at the municipality was ill and there was also the May Bank Holiday Monday in the way so that meant a delay of  one day. One whole day to wait….

We did more touristy stuff….

…like visiting the Aladzha Monastery in the cliffs…

…and driving out to Cape Kaliakra where we hoped to see the moving statutes (and I don’t mean in the Ballinaspittle sense) of the local girls who tied their hair together and jumped to their death to avoid the marauding Ottomans. We did an about turn when we saw the bank holiday traffic. These statues would have to suffice.

And then it was back to Palamartsa where we heard the good news that the sale was ready to complete. That involved travelling back to Popova with Mel and Dara…

…visiting the solicitor to provide our original identity documents, visiting the bank to transfer the purchase funds to Dara and then all of us attending at the notary’s office to confirm officially that we had now paid the funds, Dara had received them and we could now be formally registered as the new owners.

After a spate of signing copy documents, we had completed on the sale. The whole process took no more than a couple of hours and we were now the owners. The only thing left to do was return to Popova the following day to collect the new ownership documents. All in all, the total cost was £5150 including the cost of the house, agent and lawyer’s fee plus the updated legal documents.

It was astoundingly efficient.

Back at the house, we helped Dara move out the last of her stuff….

….and gave her a wee something from home.

….and carried on with the clearout of the house, though my efforts ground to a screeching halt when I pulled up one of the beds to find this ex-rat.

Moving it was a blue task.

Somehow it was good to see that Dara who has been an agricultural worker all her life was just as squeamish as me. I didn’t feel such a townie wuss.

We spent three days clearing the house. Paul ( he of the wood gas powered car from last week’s post) was enlisted to help.

Stuart tackled clearing the attic.

And by good fortune, we had a monumental rain storm on the second night. That gave the perfect opportunity for Paul and Stuart to work out where the leaks were….

…and get up on the roof to fix them.

So the house is now, hopefully, weather-proofed. We won’t see it again until after our trip which now continues with our travels next week through Romania.

Week 31 – Bulgaria – Varna

We spent most of this week on the Black Sea coast where we were staying in Varna, Bulgaria’s third biggest city.

Our friends Dave and Carol were flying in from Inverness to join us so it was time to leave Palamartsa….

…which we did with a bang.

Thankfully it wasn’t from our van. It was from Paul’s motor which is, well, have a look….

 Paul is from the UK but has been living in the village for several years. He stopped by Wild Thyme Farm and showed us his car which is fuelled by gas made from wood. He built it himself mostly from scrap and although it looks like something from ‘Back to the Future’ it is does actually work (sometimes) though the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang noises were just a bit alarming.

We were agog at his inventiveness but he assured us that these cars are much more common then we’d realised. Looking into it, it seems that there were over half a million wood gas powered vehicles in use in the 1940s.

But going a tad more high tech than Paul, our first stop in Varna was the VW main dealership for Northern Bulgaria.

Van Service time:

After 12,000 miles driving, it was time to give Molly the full once over. We also needed two new tyres, new oil, petrol  and filters, two new rubber gaiters on the steering rods and the brake fluid needed to be changed.

We’d also been having problems with the hand brake so asked for that to be adjusted. Labour costs are a lot cheaper in Bulgaria than in the UK but there’s no real difference in price when it comes to parts.

Here she is  – our home for the last seven months – up on the ramp ready for her close up under supervision from Teodar.

A short break in Varna:

When Dave and Carol arrived, first it was beer time….

….then 0ver the next couple of days, we set about sight seeing in earnest.

We had a leisurely stroll along the sea front…..past some traditional sculpture…

.. and some not so traditional.

In the distance, we could see part of the colossal sculpture commemorating the Bulgaria-Soviet friendship…

..and we got up close to The Pantheon, commemorating those fallen in wartime.

We had a leisurely walk through the Sea Garden, an enormous park which runs along the coastline. It’s a wonderful park and a great space beside the city to relax…

…and have more beer.

We met this brave soul ploughing a solitary furrow in trying to promote craft beers in the land where fizzy Zagorka reigns. He’s got a shop called The Beers in the Black Sea town of Burgas.

And we couldn’t have planned this better – next day in Varna, the city was staging a carnival to celebrate the arrival of Spring. So we hung around for the afternoon….

…watching the different groups participating in the parade arrive and sort out their traditional costumes…

…which they were happy to show off to us..

With the vibrant colours….

…and the jangling noise of the bells as the different groups danced in competition with each other….

…it was a fantastically joyous afternoon.

And when the smartly dressed navy band arrived…

….we braced ourselves for some sombre military tunes…

….but were delighted instead with blasts of Glen Miller.

We finished the tourist trail with a trip to the Retro Museum where there were some familiar faces from Bulgaria’s Communist comrades …

The museum was a car buff”s dream. On display was the very smart car used by the Politburo in Moscow….

….and something more modest for the proletariat.

The Lada Niva (now Stuart’s favourite car)
More Ladas

Then it was time for Carol and Dave to head home so for our last day in Varna, we had another leisurely stroll round the Sea Garden and back through the town where we followed the sound of Bulgarian folk music and joined the audience…

…watching the locals, young and old, folk dancing.

Then it was a tour around the Farmer’s Market…

…before heading back to our hotel beside the symbol of Varna, the Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral.

When we were trying to work out a good place to meet up with Carol and Dave, we decided on Varna only because it was the closest destination to Romania – the next country in our trip – and the flights were (sort of) convenient for them.

By lucky chance, the place we plumped for turned out to be perfect for a short break. The Sea Garden, in particular, is a wonderful place to hang out and the town has plenty of good restaurants and a few good pubs. Our favourite for food and beer was The Black Sheep Pub and it’s clearly popular with the locals too.

We couldn’t get in one night because all tables were reserved to watch these guys in action….

Local boy Kubrat Pulev was taking on Kevin Johnson and the live screening of the match taking place in Sofia packed the restaurant. (His name might already be very familiar as winning means he now takes on Joshua, a match everyone back home seemed to have been watching the other night).

Of course, our plans have changed a bit since we picked Varna. So tomorrow we are not heading north to Romania. Instead we are returning to Palamartsa.

That house bug, it’s hard to shake.

Week 29 – Bulgaria – the Eastern Rhodopes Mountains

The view from our window at Wild Farm

We spent this week in a remote corner of Bulgaria enjoying the wild landscape of the Rhodopes mountains, swapping van life  for the comfort of a farm guesthouse.

On our last night in Greece, we wild camped by the harbour in Farni. It’s a village close to the border with Bulgaria and near Lake Vistonida.

It was a good spot for flamingo watching.

But thanks to some boy racers revving up round the van after 3 am, we didn’t have a very restful night. Things did eventually quieten down but we headed for the border feeling exhausted.

Thankfully the crossing into Bulgaria was painless. The road there was excellent and the process very smooth.

Pull up to a booth with Greece passport control in one window, Bulgaria in the other, buy the 15 euro road tax vignette and then we were on our way to the Eastern Rhodopes mountains, home to wolves, bears and vultures. ….

…and very, very loud frogs. (I’ve put a Campervanmatters tweet up with a recording of them…forgive the abysmal filming! It’s the first attempt at putting video on the blog.)

We pulled over by this lake astonished at the din from their mating.

Our destination was the village of Gorno Pole.

We were staying at the Wild Farm where Beti and her husband Nickolai and their four children have lived and farmed for over 20 years. It’s a big organic farm with around 700 cows which they raise for beef. We discovered when we got there that the couple have also very recently become reality TV stars in Bulgaria since they took part in ‘Fermata’ (The Farm).

Bulgaria’s new reality TV star – Beti from Wild Farm

Beti and Nicholai were the ones setting farm challenges to farmers and celebrities in the series which attracted over 1 million viewers per episode hence the reason why she is now finding herself in the odd position being asked for selfies from total strangers when she travels within Bulgaria.

Gorno Pole really is very remote. The village has just 59, mostly elderly, inhabitants.  Most of the young people have moved to the city or abroad to find work.

Here’s the main square of the village…the building on the right is the shop though it’s hard to tell that from the outside.

It only opens in the mornings.

The shop keepers on the way to open up

Judging from the way locals gathered outside in the mornings, it looks like the shop also serves as a sort of community centre for the village and maybe a mediation centre too judging by the heated exchanges we overheard as we passed one morning. It was most likely a row over why one man’s donkey was grazing on a patch normally used by another man’s goats, we were told later.

But the striking feature of the village  was the number of derelict houses….beautiful stone buildings with traditional tiled roofs, all tumbling to the ground.

The problem is that many are impossible to sell for renovation because there could be 50 or more family owners with a share in the same house. So the willing buyer faces a lengthy and potentially costly task even to get to the first base of finding who has authority to sell.

We heard this is a problem not just in this part of the country but in the centre of cities  in Bulgaria where properties with multiple owners have scattered far and wide.

Ivo was lucky. He and his wife came to Gorno Pole because they wanted to raise their young family in the country. They came close to buying one house in the village but discovered at the 11th hour, their ‘seller’ owned just one fifteenth of the property. They pulled out but luckily found another house next door with just one owner. They are doing it up by themselves bit by bit, a story he is telling in a blog called which is in Bulgarian but with the photos and the sometimes weird Google translation, you get the gist of their ‘Good Life’ story.

Before coming to Gorno Pole, Ivo’s career was spent working on vulture conservation projects so he was the ideal person ….

….to guide us to this spot on the mountainside where we saw vultures nesting in the cliffs and, rising up the thermals in front of us, fly overhead…

….including this rare sight, an Egyptian vulture back from Africa to nest.

In the valley below we could see the sweep of the Arda river where during the Balkan war in 1912, after the border with Greece was redrawn, some 2000 women and children trying to return to Bulgaria were killed by the pursuing army of the Ottoman Empire ….

Also in sight is the closest town  to Gorno Pole. It’s Madzharovo, once a prosperous mining town with 10,000 inhabitants…

…and now a ghost town since the closure of the mines in 1997.  Today there are just 600 inhabitants and we heard you can buy one of the apartments in these high rise blocks for about £1500.

Vultures and wolves:

Of course, it’s not strictly true that everyone is leaving Madzharovo. We met Vanya who came to live there very recently when she took up her new job at the Vulture Conservation Centre.

The centre’s work includes giving cows to local farmers on the basis that more stock =  more carcasses = more food for the vultures. But an ongoing challenge for them is persuading local farmers to shoot wolves (and claim the Government bounty for it) instead of putting out poison to kill them which has the result of killing off the feeding vultures. But even though the Government also pays farmers compensation if wolves do kill their livestock, the practice of poisoning is proving hard to stop.

We heard that all the local shepherds have stories of wolves brazenly walking into their herds and flocks and snatching a lamb or calf. We were also told how the cows when threatened by the wolves put their calves into the middle of a circle and run round them to keep the wolves at bay.

However when we went walking ourselves on a long hike through the mountains, it wasn’t the wolves we were worried about. We had enough assurances that they are not interested in attacking people. Instead, we were advised to watch out for the fierce sheepdogs.

Beti was more sanguine. ‘Just throw stones at them. The dogs hate the stones’.

Ivan, the shepherd we met on the hillside, didn’t seem as confident about our ability to protect ourselves.

He was eating his lunch when we walked past him but he called out to us to stop and we understood enough to know from his sign language that we shouldn’t go any further but should wait for him to finish. He then accompanied us down the mountain and safely past his dogs – named Hitler and Stalin – throwing stones at them himself to keep them away!

On our way back that evening, on a different hillside, we heard the tell tale tinkle of bells. A flock of sheep and goats was nearby. We stopped still, armed ourselves with stones, bracing ourselves for when the sheep dogs caught sight of us.  We could hear in the distance someone talking. It was the shepherd on his mobile phone, too deep in conversation to notice the fearty townies stranded and waiting for the signal from him that we were safe to pass….

…….and move into territory where the only animals we disturbed were cows from Wild Farm grazing on the mountainside…….or in this one’s case, feeding her calf.

In the village of Borislatvsi, Beti and her daughter Beti kindly introduced us to Georgi Cholakov. He was a miner but now in retirement devotes his time to building his own private museum where his collection of exhibits from the local region ranges from Roman jewellery to memorabilia from Bulgaria’s recent communist past and more.

He has a special room dedicated to the history of mining in the local area. This photo caught the eye. Camels? Yes, it seems camels were once used to shift loads at the mines before eventually being replaced by trucks.

Maybe for Stuart this was the most eye catching exhibit….it is a catfish caught in the lake nearby.

And they are still out there for the catching apparently. The previous week one of these river monsters capsized a fishing boat….or so they told us.

And also in Borislatvsi, we popped in to the little home factory where Hristo and his wife roast locally grown sesame seeds to make tahini. They also produce their own honey so we had a tasting.

The most delicious was the paste mixed with one quarter honey to three-quarters tahini which is delicious spread on spread or, as we tried it, eaten by the spoon load direct from the bowl.

Easter celebrations:

On Good Friday I joined Beti and her daughter in the small congregation at the Orthodox church service. Amidst the icons, the incense and the candles and the chanting, there was a very contemporary addition. The lay helper leading the priest in procession round the small church was holding aloft his smart phone to read the prayers he was chanting.

And back at the Wild Farm, it looked like our fellow guests were having a very traditional Easter Sunday morning. We arrived for breakfast to be greeted with ‘Christ is Risen’  and welcomed to join the egg fighting.

It looked like the object was to use the beautifully painted egg like a weapon and crack your opponent’s egg to win for yourself a lucky year or lucky day.

At least that’s what we think they said. So far we’ve picked up just enough Bulgarian to say the informal words for thank you (mersi) and goodbye (chao chao) which sound reassuringly familiar.

We’ve had a very relaxing week in the Rhodopes but tomorrow we will be saying ‘mersi’ and ‘chao chao’ to Beti and will be heading northwards to stay on a camp site in the Stara Zagora area and then onward north and west.

Week 24 – Greece: Week 1 – Ioannina in northern Greece to the Peloponnese

This week we left Albania for Greece, passed the 10,000 mile marker in our trip so far and somehow managed to lose one of the windows in the van.

Goodbye Albania:

Our last task before leaving Albania was to spend the small amount of leks we had left which involved a quick trip to, um, Aldi in Gjirokaster – though an IP lawyer may find their branding strategy questionable – and then head for the  border….


….where we bought a bunch of Mountain Tea from the seller at the passport barrier. We were really pleased to see him as we’d been wanting to find this tea we had enjoyed so often during our trip here.

This is what it looks like…..


It’s botanical name is Sideritis or it is also named ironwort though Mountain Tea sounds a lot nicer. Just a couple of flowers from the stem brewed in boiling water makes a really satisfying cuppa.   I wonder could any of the Albanian farmers  currently engaged in the production of  cannabis be persuaded to switch to cultivating this plant for mass production? Nice idea though I guess there’s a lot more profit to be made from the ‘green gold’ crop.

We were sorry to leave Albania and at the risk of sounding like the  Skibereen Eagle ( the Irish local newspaper whose editorial 120 years ago sternly warned the Emperor of Russia they’d be keeping ‘an eye’ on him) we will be really interested in the outcome of the June elections. No doubt Rama and Basha will be quaking to hear that ‘Campervanmatters’ is ‘keeping an eye’ on the Albanian electoral process..

.And so here we are a few miles from the Albanian/Greek border and at a  rough estimate at least 20 minutes before Stuart first asks ‘What’s a Greek urn?’…


….to which the response is ‘about 10 bob a week’ as all Morecambe & Wise fans will know.

Our first stop was in Ioannina in Northern Greece where we parked up at a campsite by the shores of Lake Pamvotis.


Stuart spotted a Great Crested Grebe…


….and got talking to a local fisherman who was sleeping by the shore overnight in the hope of catching a carp. Stuart chatted to him about the chances of catching something (good but you can’t eat them as the lake is too polluted) and the state of the Greek economy (terrible and too many taxes).

It’s probably not the first conversation like this we will have in Greece over the coming weeks as the countdown continues to the July date when Greece has to make a multi billion debt repayment to its bailout creditors.

And in a cafe in town, we also had the first of – I expect – very many Greek salads.


It is entirely possible that like our experience with peak-tagine in Morocco we will reach peak-Greek salad, but this first one with tangy feta and crisp tomatoes, onions, olives and peppers was delicious served alongside souvlaki of ‘grilled sheep’.  How is it that somehow it sounds more palatable when it says ‘lamb’ on the menu?

And to finish, we headed up to the Byzantine Museum and in the cafe had the lusciously delicious dessert of ekmek to finish. It’s made of layers of shredded pastry soaked with syrup and topped with sweet cream.


We had a wander around the museum grounds but as we are both a bit ‘centro historico-ed’ and ‘museum/castled’ out just now, we didn’t budge from the cafe. Call it a mini break from culture.

Stuart looking like a man whose just been given a ‘pass the museum pass’

Maybe we will come back and see all Ioanninna’s attractions more thoroughly. With its lakeside setting, it does look like a nice town to come in summer .

It also has a rich history because of its links with this man who we came across in Telepena in Albania where this photo was actually taken….


He’s the Ottoman Ali Pashe – a nasty piece of work by all accounts (including Lord Byron who met him when he visited his court in Ioannina) due to his particular penchant for roasting his enemies.

His brutal reign finally came to an end on this island out in the middle of the lake which we were sort of tempted to visit but then…..well it was still raining heavily, a DVD in the van beckoned and we were still on that no culture mini break.


And the rain continued as we travelled on from Ioannina through Greek landscape which definitely doesn’t make it to the tourist brochures. The countryside was flat and dotted with empty industrial units and half built houses.


But even on a grey, rainy day the rock pinnacles of Meteora rising up ahead of us in Central Greece were jaw-droppingly spectacular.


They tower above the village. The peaks are impressive in themselves but then you get closer and see that on top of them are there’s a monstery like this one..


Actually there were about 20 of them but only a few are still inhabited. Also access is a bit easier than it was when the monks used to climb up a ladder, or worse still, be hauled up in a net.


In the gap between showers, we climbed the stone carved stairs up the hill side…

DSC_4163 reach the top and visit two of the monasteries…..


….accompanied all the way by this doggy companion who finally moved from his chosen spot in the road to join us on our hike.



And back into the cultural foray, we set off for Thermopyle – or Thermo Pile as our GPS insisted on calling it – to see this fine specimen of manhood…


Sorry –  photo mixup there. I mean this fine specimen….an easy mistake I’ll grant you.

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This well honed  warrior is the Spartan King Leonidas who in 480 BC tried valiantly, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to hold the narrow coast pass at Thermopylae against the Persian army.

And the photo above that is of Stuart bravely bathing in the exceedingly hot springs there.

Actually the brave thing wasn’t getting into the springs – the water was like a bath. The challenging part was dis-robing in the van and then legging it across the car park in the cold and rain.


The current was so strong, I had to grab onto holes in the rocks to stop myself being washed down river  and into the arms of the Czech couple skinny dipping downstream.


Memo to self though – when bathing in sulphur springs, do remember to remove any jewellery…these rings were silver before I got in the water.

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Smelling faintly of rotten eggs but feeling exhilarated by our hot dip, we set off driving to the centre of the world. At least that’s how the Ancient Greeks viewed Delphi.

On our route it was just beyond this rainbow…hurrah, the rain was finally stopping…..


and located high on  Mount Parnassus with beautiful views over valleys filled with olive groves.


We joined the hordes of fellow tourists and followed the Sacred Way past the Temple of Apollo where the Pythia or priestess perched on a tripod and stoned from inhaling natural gases would deliver advice or prophecies to all comers,  usually in such cryptic language that the meaning was open to many interpretations.

Though apparently the Oracle didn’t pull any punches with our fit warrior friend Leonidas. She predicted a sorry end for him when he sought advice before going into battle with the Persians at Thermopyle. Clearly not big into motivational speaking then, these oracles.

And up beside the stadium where the Pan Hellenic games were held, it was selfie time…


and while I went into the museum and thought how happy would you be if you were the one to excavate these boys….


..or tres heureux as the French archaeologists who did find them would have said…


And meanwhile Stuart captured his second bird of the week, perched on the Treasury of Delphi. Here it is, a Rock Nut Hatch he reckons but is open to suggestions…

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We got back to the campsite we were staying at near the modern village of Delphi just in time for this magnificent sunset…

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…and also to meet up once again with Gill and Chris, fellow travellers we last met in the Sahara.

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And we had some serious van envy inside their very plush van complete with telly and fixed bed….poor Molly looked distinctly shabby by contrast.


Of course, it didn’t help that we’ve now lost one of the van’s windows. We didn’t quite close the hinge on the roof side window so somewhere on the road from Delphi, there’s a piece of plastic this shape…..


We didn’t hear a thing so only realised there was a piece missing in the van when we pulled over to a lay-by for a tea break.

Here’s the van now patched up with plastic bags and unless we manage to find a replacement and find a way to get it shipped to us, we will just have to manage with a bit extra air conditioning for the next 6 months of our trip.


The good news about the van though is that six months in, we discovered while trying to work out how to fit four people into the van for a meal, that with a bit of handbrake manoeuvring, the driver seat swivels round in the same way as the passenger seat.

So now while I have the couch cum bed to recline in when we park up, Stuart has his own cosy den….


A beer, a book, toasty slippers, what more does a man in a van want?

Well, maybe some sunshine would be good. We’ve had 5 days of rain this week so we are heading further south now in search of some warmth and light where ideally we can find a spot to stay put for a couple of weeks.

Leaving Delphi, we headed for coastline and this is getting more like the Greece we are looking for….

…slower traffic….ah yes, here’s the stock image of a overladen cart no 157…


…and isolated island retreats….

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and not long after crossing over the bridge near Patras…


….we reckon we will find the retreat we are looking for in the Peloponnese.

PS  Stuart’s beer gallery is now a little more up to date

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.