Up the Atlantic coast

7th September

I have a Portuguese friend Pedro Barrento, a writer I met first online. He lives not far from where we were camped at Santa Cruz and I’d been in touch. So today he came over to meet us and take us out for the day – show us a different side of Portugal.

In Pedro’s car we went first to Obidos which is a medieval town with a castle and fortifications and a load of gift shops. Very pretty but definitely still ON the beaten tourist track. Next stop was Buddha Eden, a huge landscaped garden amongst vineyards, with various statues set all about. It had grown since Pedro last visited and is no longer just Buddhist. We enjoyed the newer African sculptures. A wonderful place to stroll around. And from there we went to a small village festival for dinner. In a huge sports hall they were dishing up amazing seafood platters. We had one between us and it was delicious!

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Ignatius and Pedro at the festival

Lovely to meet Pedro in the flesh at last and we very much enjoyed our day with him. He also gave us the name of a campervan service centre who might be able to fix our broken door lock.

8th September

First job today was to drive over to Clinica das Caravanas to see if they could fix the lock. As Nuno (the proprietor) was saying yes, probably he could fix it but he was busy today, he then sniffed and said he could smell gas coming from under our van. We could, too. Another problem! On the clifftop it had been windy so we wouldn’t have smelled it there, but definitely inside his workshop we could tell there was a leak.

He tried to find where it was coming from but couldn’t, then sent us to an LPG workshop near Obidos where they had an electronic device, and were able to find that the regulator on the LPG tank was where the leak came from. But those guys sent us back to Nuno to get the regulator replaced. We had driven to Obidos via Buddha Eden and had a lovely lunch in a restaurant near there that Pedro had pointed out, and drove back to Campelos (Clinica das Caravanas) via a beach where we had a walk and an ice cream.

Spent the night parked outside Nuno’s workshop as he wanted to work on our van first thing. Hooked up to electric so as not to need the gas switched on!

9th September

A morning of hanging around while Nuno and his employees worked on our van. We had coffee in the village, walked back to the workshop, sat outside playing dominoes. Eventually he called us over to say all was done – the regulator replaced and the door lock barrel swapped with one from a side locker we never open (as it is also accessible from the inside). We can recommend Clinica das Caravanas if you’re ever in mid-Portugal and need a fix! They specialise in van conversions and from what we saw, do a superb job on these too.

We were then able to get back on track and go to Peniche. This is a town on a headland, and there was a camperstop in the middle of town where we parked up for the night. I went for a walk out on the cliffs and out to a pretty little peninsula.

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Peninsula at Peniche

10th September

Drove around the Peniche headland, and parked up near the fort for a look around there. Bit like Sagres fort but this fort was used to hold political prisoners in the time of Salazar’s dictatorship, right up till the 1970s.

We headed north from there, up the coast to look at Baleal, a town on a near-island accessed by a causeway, where we had lunch. And on to Nazare, a surfing holiday town. I do love this Atlantic coast of Portugal, with its endless wild beaches! Nazare was packed and we had difficulty parking. There was some sort of festival going on.

We decided to head further up the coast to find a quiet spot to camp. Ended up just outside a small village, on a cliff top. Lovely spot.

heading north
Heading north – lovely road for Gertie!

11th September

The plan for the day was to drive a long way north, as time is getting short. We started off on the back roads, then part of the way on motorway. Ended up a little way north of Porto at an ACSI campsite, arriving in time to relax for a few hours. Very nice beach near the campsite. We had a meal out at a local fish restaurant, sharing a locally-caught turbot.

12th September

Today we took a taxi to the nearest Metro station, then the metro into Porto, travelling with another English couple from the campsite.

porto
Porto

Porto is Portugal’s second largest town. We didn’t have much of an agenda, and were happy to just wander around and see where it took us. The weather was sunny but cool – such a change from all the hot city sight-seeing we’ve done earlier in this trip! We went to a very nice gastronomic restaurant for a long lingering lunch, and into one small museum in the house that was the birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator. Walked over the Ponte Luis bridge (designed by Gustav Eiffel and you can tell) and watched a couple of lads jumping off it, while their mate collected money. They did this over and over. Unusual summer job!

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Porto riverside with the bridge in the background

When our legs had had enough walking we took the metro back and ended up in a taxi with the same English couple as in the morning.

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On to Portugal!

31st August

We’d been preparing ourselves for the heat of Seville, and yes it was hot. On bikes you generate a pleasant breeze as you cycle, and thankfully Seville is a great place to cycle around as it has a lot of well marked cycle paths. Not in Bolzano’s league but way better than most cities. We headed off fairly early to try to see as much as possible before the heat really built up.

After the usual tourist information office and coffee shop stops, we arrived at the cathedral. There was a queue to get in, but only because it hadn’t yet opened. Once inside there was a very good self-guided audio tour to follow. Latest measurements suggest that this cathedral is bigger than St Paul’s London, and bigger than St Peter’s Vatican. So, very big then! It is huge. Loads of side chapels, all containing countless works of art. Lots of gold everywhere. We spent quite a long time in it and were suitably impressed.

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Seville cathedral exterior

You know a town is hot when they have shades draped across the streets, and when the outdoor tables of restaurants are supplied with a constant mist of cooled water. We ate at one of these and those cooling sprays do work. Kind of outdoor air conditioning. As mad in the opposite direction as the outdoor heated swimming pool I’ve been in at Alpe d’Huez in winter.

We visited another church as well, also jaw-droppingly ornate. And then headed out of the centre on our bikes to some shady parks which were very pleasant to pootle around.

plaza d'espana
Plaza d’Espana, Seville. Would have been nice to dive into that fountain!

Left Seville late afternoon for the drive into Portugal. We’d vaguely planned to stop at a beach car park not far from the border but all the car parks turned out to be packed with people still on the beaches. Finally we reached a camperstop a little way inland. Quirky place – it had a loo and shower and electricity, but was basically just a field with a couple of permanent caravans in it. And a bloke with cute puppies.

1st September

Our plan today was to try out a couple of the famed Algarve beaches and then get to a campsite. First beach we stopped at was nice enough, and we went for a swim. Second beach was Marinha Beach, ranked amongst the best in the world. It was very busy, but we were only there to swim not to grill ourselves. You can swim into caves and through rock arches here. Absolutely beautiful and well worth the visit.

marinha
Marinha beach. We swam around the rocks at the far end.

We had lunch at a lovely cliff top spot, off a dirt road. Then on to a campsite in the western Algarve, at Salema. It had already started up ACSI discounts and at 11 euro a night was a bit of a bargain. We were ready for some campsite vegging time.

2nd September

After doing the washing and all the boring catch-up stuff we got the bikes off and cycled the short distance downhill into Salema. Had a good lunch by the beach and went for a swim (though I think Marinha beach has spoilt us for swimming anywhere else). Then cycled uphill back to the campsite.

3rd September

Just lazed around the campsite all day, doing a bit of planning etc. Our pitch had shade for most of the day so was pretty perfect in that respect. I got a fair amount of writing done too.

4th September

Today in the morning I had a radio interview scheduled with Talk Radio Europe to promote my new book (The Girl from Ballymor, out 7th September!!) Must admit I was pretty nervous about it even though it was to be pre-recorded. I was glad when it was over. We packed up and left when this was done, driving just a short way along the coast to Cabo de Sao Vicente or Portugal’s answer to Land’s End.

lands end
At Cabo de Sao Vicente

Had a look around here then went to nearby Sagres where we explored the fort, walked around the headland and into the tiny town. We spent the night at the fort’s car park along with quite a lot of other campervans. As the sun went down we strolled along the cliff top to watch the sunset. I love this corner of Portugal!

5th September

We drove up the west coast, calling at a couple of beaches on the way, but didn’t swim. These beaches are much rougher than those on the south coast, and cater for surfers. At the first we had coffee and walked along the beach and over the rocks. It reminded me of Cornish or Devon beaches. At the second we sat on the cliff top and had lunch, watching the surfers.

And then a long drive inland and north to Evora in the Alentejo region. We stopped for the night a few miles outside the town, at a megalithic stone circle surrounded by cork oaks. Magical place!

stone circle
Almendres stone circle

6th September

After a morning wander around the stone circle we drove into Evora and parked up just outside the medieval town walls. It’s much much hotter here than on the coast, although the night was cool.

Walked up through the town, visited the Chapel of Bones (not a design feature you’d want in your own home) and the associated museum, then the cathedral (bit uninspiring after Seville) and the roman baths which were discovered under the town hall of all places. Had a very pleasant lunch out, actually inside, in air conditioning, as they don’t have the Seville style outdoor aircon here!

chapel of bones
Chapel of Bones. Many of the skulls were tiny – presumably children.

Left mid-afternoon and drove back to the coast, north of Lisbon. We’re skipping Lisbon as we have been before and large cities aren’t good in campervans. We’re parked for the night on a cliff stop near Santa Cruz, listening to the roar of the ocean. Substantially cooler here – needed a fleece for our evening walk along the beach!

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Tonight’s sunset over the Atlantic

One more little problem has occurred today – the habitation door lock won’t work from the outside. Which means we have to lock it from the inside and go out through the driver’s door. Another problem which happened back in June is that the driver’s door handle is broken and won’t open from the inside. So getting in and out of the van and securing it is a bit of a logic puzzle now.

Shooting down through Spain & more problems

24th August

llivia
In Llivia

Last day of the Pyrenees. We’d had a quiet night in Llivia and in the morning explored the small town which had a little self-guided history trail around it. Very appealing little place. We enjoyed our stay here.

Back through the 2km of France and into Spain again, where we drove a route that apparently Jeremy Clarkson says is one of his favourite driving roads. It was suitably twisty but nice and wide with good visibility around the coming bends so much less hairy than some of the Alpine and Pyrenean passes we’ve done! Finally dropped out of the mountains and began to head towards the Spanish coast, having decided to zoom down to the south of Spain. We want to allow time in Portugal and time’s getting short!

We spent the night at a town called Vilafranca des Penedes, not far from Barcelona. Walked into town in the evening and had a pleasant meal out.

25th August

The plan today was simply to drive southwards, so we hopped on the motorway and headed to Santa Pola near Alicante where there’s a campsite that started up its ACSI discounts today. We also needed to get more LPG and it’s not that easy to find in Spain.

Journey was going well till near the end when a huge bird flew at the windscreen on the motorway and cracked it. We have 9 cracks fanning out from a point on the top left. Three run the full height of the windscreen. Yikes. I suspect the bird came off worse.

We continued on cautiously, managed to get gas, got to the campsite and then rang Autoglass who our insurers use for windscreen damage. They have a partnership with Carglass in Europe. Trouble is a Hymer windscreen is pretty specialist and not something that would be in stock…

Got the washing done, so that was good. We’d thought August would be an expensive month with no campsite discounts but we have free-camped so much it’s actually been the cheapest month!

In the evening we ate at a Chinese buffet restaurant just outside the campsite.

26th August

No word from Carglass yet and we were feeling a bit stressed so we decided to have a sit-around-the-campsite day, even though the campsite wasn’t the nicest.

Still no call from Carglass by the end of the day, despite phoning Autoglass again to chase them.

27th August

Well we can’t sit around for ever, and Autoglass assured us that as long as the cracks don’t obscure the driver’s vision it is perfectly safe and legal to drive.

Unfortunately on leaving the campsite the bikes caught on a pole (my fault as I was out of the van and supposedly directing proceedings) and my back wheel ended up badly buckled. Sigh. Another problem to deal with!

We drove on as planned, with our cracked windscreen and broken bike, and I’ll admit it was a low-point of the trip. (The other one was when my bike was stolen.) Reached a campsite near Malaga, also already on ACSI discount, and parked up there. This one was nicer than the last so that cheered me up a little.

Huge storm overnight!

28th August

We’d thought we’d have a swim in the sea in the morning but it rained, so no chance of that. Drove on, first stop being a Decathlon store the other side of Malaga where we left my bike to have a new rear wheel fitted while we went to a supermarket. Nice lads at Decathlon did the job so that was that problem solved… or so we thought!

Drove on to Gibraltar where we parked just outside the territory in a marina car park.

gibraltar1
At the Gibraltar camperstop

Very pleasant spot. And the temperatures were MUCH lower here than we’ve had the last few days – much more bearable. We had a short walk around in the evening, had a look at the border to see how to cycle across etc. Then got chatting to an English couple from another camper, ended up sitting outside till midnight talking and drinking. They are travelling for a year, which makes our six months seem hardly worth doing.

29th August

Got the bikes off the van, and realised that Ignatius’s town bike also had a slightly buckled wheel. It was rideable with the front brake let out. Luckily that nice Mr Google confirmed there was a bike shop just over the border in Gibraltar. Then it rained (proximity to a British territory seemed to bring British weather) so we hung around till the worst was over before setting off.

Crossing the border by bike, passport held between my teeth, was a first. And then you have to cycle across the main airport runway! Obviously the road is closed whenever a plane is due to land or take off (and they come in groups) and this leads to a long queue of traffic at the border periodically.

runway
Ignatius on the Gibraltar airport runway

We found the bike shop, bought another new wheel and had it fitted. Then headed into town. Gibraltar is not really a cycle-friendly place – too much traffic and in the pedestrianised area, too many people! We ended up locking the bikes and walking. Funny to see all the familiar British shops and businesses, and signs in English, prices in pounds. We had a lovely full English breakfast as a brunch, then took the cable car to the Top of the Rock where the views are astounding, across the straits to Morocco.

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Top of the Rock

Bought a Portuguese guidebook in the bookshop. All in all a good visit and I felt a lot happier!

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Macaque monkey at the Top of the Rock. I wouldn’t sit where she is!

We left Gibraltar late afternoon and drove along the coast to Cadiz, with a short detour around Tarifa which is the most southerly point of Spain. At Cadiz we parked at the docks, near the cruise liner terminal. From 8.30 to 11pm a huge brass band set up near by to practise (and they REALLY needed the practise!) but it was quiet after that.

30th August

Bikes off again, and into Cadiz. We locked them up in a large square and went round the cathedral on foot, including up its bell tower. Cadiz is a lovely looking town. Weather was sunny but only about 25 degrees so pretty much perfect. After lunch we got back on the bikes and cycled around the seafront, out across a causeway to an old castle fortification, through some pretty parks with huge trees, and back to the van. Really liked Cadiz – it has a lovely atmosphere.

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Seafront at Cadiz
tree
Meeting a remarkable tree

We”d vaguely thought of visiting Jerez but didn’t like the look of the camperstop there so headed on to Seville where we are now parked beside the river, ready to explore the town tomorrow. It’s a lot hotter here, but Seville is always hot, I believe.

Up and Down the French Alps

28th July

As we’d got to the Argentiere campsite early yesterday we’d managed to get all the washing done, leaving today free to go walking. We packed some sandwiches and took the bus towards Chamonix then the Flegere cable car up the mountain, after queuing for tickets for far too long. We knew from our previous visit in 2013 that this side of the valley offers stunning views across to the Aiguille du Midi and to Mont Blanc itself.

chamonix
Looking down on Chamonix

We walked part of the Mont Blanc circuit path which basically contoured along the mountain, up and down a bit, and eventually arrived at the Plan Praz ski lift which we took down. It wasn’t a long walk -we took it at a leisurely pace with a picnic half way.

This lift takes you down to Chamonix town centre so we wandered around the shops for a while before taking the bus back to the campsite.

29th July

Another trip into Chamonix today – this time by bike. There’s a good network of mountain bike trails in the valley and those along beside the river are relatively flat – or so we thought. Remember we have town bikes that weigh a ton and don’t have many gears! Anyway it was mostly downhill into Chamonix on mostly well-made gravel tracks. Got there to discover it was market day so we had a look round that and then a very enjoyable lunch out.

bikes
If only they had pedalled themselves!

Cycling back was somewhat harder work – some parts were steep and rocky and our bikes weren’t at all suitable.

30th July

I’d have stayed in the campsite longer but Ignatius wanted to move on. Lots more mountains to see, he promised me. So we headed out of the Chamonix valley and picked up the Grande Route des Alpes which runs approximately north-south from Lake Geneva down to Nice. The plan for the next few days is to follow this.

I will leave the details of exactly which passes we drove over and their heights etc to Ignatius in a future blog post.

Today we got as far as Val d’Isere, where we have skied in the past. We’d hoped to stay at a camperstop in the town but didn’t like the look of it so drove on and found a lovely car park at the foot of the Col d’Iseran. No sooner had we parked there than a huge thunderstorm came over, including hailstones. Once it had passed the sun came out and I went for a short evening walk to see what was up the valley…

31st July

…up the valley was a gorge with a path running alongside it to a mountain refuge. This morning Ignatius wanted to see it too, and we ended up walking all the way to the refuge where we were served coffee by a Nepalese man. Lovely place, in a very beautiful spot. On the way back we spotted some marmots – having been on hundreds of ski runs and lifts called Les Marmottes but never actually seen them in the wild in the Alps this was an exciting moment!

marmots
Cute marmots out to play!

After walking back to the van we drove on, up the Col d’Iseran, trying to spot where we’d skied in the past.

Lots of dramatic driving in the afternoon on roads used by the Tour de France, and we ended up at the top of Col du Telegraphique where we parked for the night.

1st August

Over the Col de Galibier which Ignatius declared easier to drive than to cycle over. He’s probably right. We saw lots of cyclists though!

And on via more wonderful passes, gorgeous scenery, fabulous gorges, still following the Grande Route des Alpes. Free-camped again somewhere on the Col d’Izoard.

2nd August

More of the same. Firstly the Col de Vars, where we stopped for a picnic lunch at the top and then went for a walk. Then our route left the roads that are used by the Tour de France. The great thing about roads the TdF uses is that they are wide and well-surfaced, even if they are very twisty. But today the Grande Route des Alpes took us up the Col de Cayolle which hasn’t been used by the Tour since the 70s, and which was very narrow in places. Not quite as bad as the Passo di Gavia in Italy about which I still have nightmares, but still very scary. There seemed to be a lot of traffic coming the opposite way, and every passing was tricky. At the top I was considering running away with a German motorbiker rather than face the drive down.

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One of the many passes

It turned out the road down was (thankfully) better than the road up and we found a nice free-camping spot on the descent.

3rd August

(Today is exactly 4 months since we left home, and exactly 2 months until our wedding anniversary which will be our last night away on this trip. So, exactly 2/3 through!)

All this driving from col to col and free-camping had left us in need of water, fuel, food, and to dump waste so part of what we’ve done today is satisfy those needs. We’ve also had coffee in a gorgeous village, lunch in a pretty spot by a river, and driven along even more dramatic narrow gorges and twisty roads over passes.

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He’s not a bad driver…

We have ended up on the Col de Turini which is only about 1600m. As we’ve gone south the mountains have changed – lower now, more forested – and the weather is substantially warmer. Temperature in Gertie reached 37 degrees while she sat in a supermarket car park. We’re spending the night fairly high so it’s cool.

 

(I wrote last time about problems with the gas fumes from the fridge. This had improved but not completely, so we did more online research. The great thing about the internet is, someone somewhere will have had the same problem and will have written about it in a motorhoming forum or blog or whatever. We began to suspect our problem was dirty LPG- the fume smells began after the last fill-up, which was in a remote Swiss petrol station a couple of days before we left the van at Bergamo airport. We were down to half a gas tank, so we filled up yesterday with (hopefully) cleaner LPG, and indeed the problem is much better now. We’re still getting occasional whiffs but few and far between now.)

 

 

 

A brief visit to Switzerland

When I wrote the last Diary blog we had booked in to get new tyres and were spending what we thought would be a quiet afternoon catching up and relaxing, at the Stezzano camperstop. Sadly there was a party in the afternoon and early evening in the park behind us, and boy were those people noisy when they were returning to their cars – spending hours chatting at the tops of their voices!

Anyway at last they all left and we had a peaceful if hot night.

24th July

There was not much to do until the appointment at the garage at 4pm, so we were resigned to most of the day waiting around. In the morning it rained heavily – I mean REALLY heavily so we just stayed in the van. When it eased off we drove to the little coffee shop (didn’t want to walk in case it poured again!). Forgot to buy bread so I went out later to buy some, and fell victim to the crazy Italian opening hours. Every shop was closed.

Finally it was time to go to the garage. We played cards while they fitted the new tyres. They were done by around 6pm and we then drove off towards Lake Maggiore, via the motorways. Reached a camperstop at Mergozzo (tiny town at the end of a tiny lake just off Maggiore) around 8pm, and went for a meal at a pleasant lakeside restaurant. That rain had left the air fresh and cool.

However we were not destined for a good night’s sleep – quite a lot of traffic noise, a rooster, and worse – a smell of gas fumes in the van that has been there since the van was left at the airport and was getting worse. Before you worry too much we do have a carbon monoxide detector in the van. But I spent a sleepless night worrying about it and thinking that just as one problem was solved another one rears its ugly head…

25th July

We spent some time this morning investigating those gas fumes. Eventually after some online research and sniff testing around the van, we realised it came from the fridge flue. The fridge has been running on gas except when we are driving a lot lately as we have not been on campsites to use electric. At the back there’s a flue running up behind the fridge and venting outside via a grill. Above the fridge is a cupboard and the fumes smelt strongest there, so we figured that a seal is broken somewhere letting the fumes in via that cupboard.

There is only one answer to problems like this – duck tape. We taped up all joins between that outside vent and the inside cupboard. It seemed to help.

Drove north, into Switzerland, taking our time through gorgeous Alpine passes. We reached Saas Fee, in the next valley along from Zermatt. Here there is a camperstop – well, a car park where you are allowed to stay overnight. There is some confusion about whether free-camping is allowed in Switzerland at all. It was the most complicated system ever – had to go to tourist information office to get day passes, then to the car park office to get a key so we could open the box and plug in our electric cable (wanted a fume free night!) Both offices were a five minute walk in opposite directions to the car park. Finally we got ourselves settled. It was cold up here at 1800m – Google was telling me 2 degrees but I don’t believe it. Definitely under 10 outside though. Shame I’d left my fleece in Bergamo airport arrivals.

At some point on the drive up here a cupboard had swung open and broke off its hinges. So that was yet another running repair needed – this time Ignatius fixed it using a cook’s match and some superglue to fill the holes and allow the hinges to be reattached. Sigh. One thing after another!

26th July

We made good use of our day passes today – they covered all the cable cars and gondolas in the valley. Went up one to a glacier and had a walk around, at about 3000m. It was a bit cloudy – we were under the cloud but could not see the summits.

Kath walking

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Lunch stop 2

Then we went back down to the village and up another gondola to 2300m, and walked to a peak at 2700m (approx). Lovely walk, loads of Alpine flowers, and the weather improved as the day went on. Very enjoyable. However at 25 CHF a night we did not want to stay another night, so we left around 5.30 and headed to the Zermatt valley.

saas fee2
Summit view

Here’s where things went wrong. We knew you cannot drive private vehicles to Zermatt and have to park at Tasch and take a train or taxi. But we’d assumed we’d be able to park overnight at Tasch. You can – but you may not sleep in your vehicle overnight. We checked out the two small campsites in the area – both were very full and very expensive. We aren’t prepared to pay 43 CHF when we don’t actually want to use any of the campsite facilities – just need somewhere to park overnight. Eventually after checking out all the limited options we concluded campervans simply aren’t welcome in the Zermatt valley. We headed back out, looking for laybys that did not have a ‘no camping’ sign. Found one a long way back, and stayed there for the night, feeling very cross.

Before switching the fridge to gas, we had another go at duck-taping up all the seals. This time it worked and we had no gas fume smells overnight – hurray. We will obviously have to get this properly sealed and a full gas service done, but hopefully this fix will last until we’re back home.

And we re-planned. Switzerland, although beautiful, is not particularly campervan-friendly. France, on the other hand, is. We found ourselves longing for the French aires, free-camping laybys, cheap campsites. I had wanted to see the Matterhorn hence our attempts to get to Zermatt, but on checking the weather forecast I realised we would not see it tomorrow anyway -the cloud would be too low.

27th July

So this morning we cut our losses and set off, along the Rhone valley to Martigny then over the pass into France, down to Argentiere near Chamonix. There’s a campsite here we stayed at and loved in 2013, along with the boys, in a large tent. Thankfully they had space for us, and so here we are for a few days. The washing’s drying around me as I type, there are loads of walks we can do, the campsite costs about 20 euro a night and is lovely, and we have free travel on local buses and trains in the valley.

argentiere
Settled at Camping Glacier d’Argentiere. That snowy mountain in the background is part of Mont Blanc

We’ve had a few good days in Switzerland – the little trip to Davos and then Saas Fee. We’ll come back some other time and do more of it.

 

Four days in England

At the end of the last post we were camped for the night by Lake Como. After writing the blog we went for a gorgeous cool swim in the lake – much needed to cool us down, after returning to the heat from those lovely mountain areas.

18th July

The tyre looked ok in the morning… so we drove cautiously to Bergamo, to the camperstop we’d stayed on Fionn’s first night and parked there for a few hours. Fionn and I went for a walk in the local area. Then drove to our airport parking (we had luckily found airport long stay parking that would take campervans), parked, transferred to the airport, hung around for hours as you do, playing cards etc.

Finally reached Manchester, picked up hire car which I am driving so that Ignatius keeps his left-hand drive, Gertie head on, and drove across the Peak District to Sheffield. Fionn is temporarily sharing a flat with an old course mate so we stayed there, after calling at a supermarket for essential breakfast items – bacon! sausages! – that aren’t available in Italy.

Funny to be back in England though not at home.

19th July

A day of running errands. We had a number of things on our ‘UK shopping list’ to buy, and Fionn needed to do a few things as well, so basically we drove round Sheffield doing all that was needed. Bought some new sandals as mine are falling apart. Had lunch with old friend Simon. In the evening I picked up our other son Connor from the bus station – he’d come up from Leicester. We went out for a tapas meal. Apart from one day in March it’s the first time since Christmas the four of us have been together. family

20th July

Graduation day! Spent the morning scrubbing up – thankfully I had brought a decent dress with me so did not have to show up in jeans and a t-shirt. But it’s fair to say we were not the smartest family at the ceremony. It was the usual procession of graduands marching up on stage, shaking hands with the vice-Chancellor as their names were read out. degree

An honorary degree was awarded to astronaut Helen Sharman who was the first Briton in space back in the 1990s when she went up to the Russian space station Mir, that our cat is named after. She gave a good speech. From a chocolate taster at Mars to the stars. One cool woman.

Outside after for photos with our new graduate. I may have shed a tear or two. Very proud mama.grad3grad2

In the evening we went out to eat at a Thai restaurant Simon had recommended. Very good place.

21st July

In the morning we spent some time online, planning when Connor can come to join us. In the end we picked a week near the end of September, near the end of our trip. We’ll be in northern Spain then. By the time we’d finished we had the flights booked and paid for.

Then it was time for more shopping – a Spanish guidebook needed! And Ignatius wanted some novels and sudoku puzzle books. Spent the afternoon walking through various parks in the centre of the city. Dropped Connor off at the bus station in the early evening – he’s off to our home in Bournemouth for a couple of weeks. Fionn went out with his mates so we went out with ours – Simon – to a very nice restaurant and then a pub in the old industrial quarter of Sheffield, now being ‘gentrified’.

22nd July

Lazy morning, had a stroll around Fionn’s local area and lunch in the nearby “Gertie’s Cafe” – well we couldn’t pass that by, could we? Turned out to be a very good spot. And then it was time to say goodbye and head back to Manchester airport. Fionn has a busy couple of weeks ahead – he has a job in Liverpool starting on 7th August and needs to get some accommodation sorted and his stuff moved by then if possible. It’s been so good to spend time with both sons, and nearly two weeks with Fionn.

We drove the Snake Pass road to the airport, did the usual hanging around and eventually arrived back at Bergamo around 10pm. The tyre was still inflated, thankfully. Drove out to the same camperstop we’d used on the day Fionn arrived to spend the night.

23rd July

Neither of us feel very comfortable about that tyre – the screw that went into it was huge and the repair seemed a bit temporary – just some gunk squirted into it. So we decided to at least get it checked before going any further.

After walking up to Stezzano centre for a coffee we headed off to stock up on food and then call at a tyre place I’d found online which was open Sundays. At the tyre shop they offered to properly repair the tyre but said all the tyres looked a bit worn. We had originally intended replacing all four before this trip, but when the van was serviced back in the UK we were told the tyres were good for another 10,000 miles or more so we left them. Anyway, now, after two punctures and with that dodgy repair we agreed it was time to replace the lot. They’ve ordered the tyres which will arrive tomorrow, and we go tomorrow afternoon to get them fitted. So – another night at the Stezzano camperstop and a quiet day tomorrow until it’s time to go back to the shop. I can get some editing done – just as well as I have a deadline looming!graduate

Travels with Fionn

13th July

After a very hot night at the Lake Garda campsite we headed north, via the shores of Lake Iseo and up towards the mountains. We drove over the Gavia Pass, which frankly was not suitable for campervans. It gave a 3.5 ton weight limit at the start of the pass but no other warnings, and we are 3.5 tons, so thought we would be ok. But it is a very narrow road, with not enough passing places and no crash barriers between the road and the sheer drop. We could not even pass an oncoming motorbike (and there were a lot of those driving cautiously over) without one of us having to pull over. Thankfully we met few large vehicles and when we did, there was always a passing place nearby. I was very thankful to reach the top and see the better road down the other side. Well done Gertie and Ignatius for making it over safely!

gavia pass.jpg
Gavia Pass. This was one of the better sections.

Drove on to Bormio, where we had a welcome beer in the town centre and spent the night in a camperstop car park.

14th July

Another day, another mountain pass. The Stelvio pass, which is the second highest in the Alps. The original plan had involved Ignatius and Fionn cycling over it – Fionn using my Boardman bike (the one that was stolen). The Plan B involved driving over it. We knew this pass had a proper road over it so it was a relatively easy drive – just around 48 hairpins on the way up and same again on the way down!

At the top Fionn and I went for a walk. We were at about 3000m (the pass is 2757m) so could certainly feel the lower oxygen levels. In the First World War there was quite a bit of fighting in this area between Austro-Hungarian troops and Italians, and we saw remains of some barracks way up in the mountains. Sadly we could also see how badly glaciers in this area are retreating due to global warming.

stelvio walk
Fionn walking above Stelvio pass

On down the pass, through spectacular scenery, to a small town Glorenza by the river Adige, where we stayed at a very pleasant small campsite. Lovely cool temperatures here!

15th July

To Switzerland! We drove through more gorgeous Alpine scenery, over the Fluela pass. Again Fionn and I had a short walk at the top, then we dropped down the other side to Davos. Once over the border we had a coffee and nearly dropped with shock at the price. We’ve been used to paying 1 euro, maybe 2 at most for a coffee, but in Switzerland you pay more like 4.50 or even 5 Swiss Francs, which are worth almost as much as a euro. There won’t be so many coffees out while we are in Switzerland.

My aunt and uncle live in Switzerland, and were staying this week in a holiday flat in Davos that my cousin has rented for the whole summer. We’d arranged to park outside the flat for a couple of nights to spend some time with them. We arrived in the early afternoon and it was good to see them looking fit and well. They took us for a walk up the mountain behind the flat – a couple of hours of walking uphill-  and then down via a funicular. Aunty Miriam cooked us a meal, and Fionn slept in the flat (we stayed in Gertie outside). It was a cool night – delightful to actually need the duvet and blanket over us for a change!

aunt and uncle
My inspirational aunt and uncle

16th July

The 5 of us set off for a trip up the Jakobshorn mountain. We took a bus into Davos centre, then two cable cars to the top of the mountain. From there we walked an easy path to a small lake where we had a picnic lunch. Ignatius, Fionn and I then walked up a peak – the Jakshorn – and along the ridge from there back to the cable car station, while my aunt and uncle walked back the easy path. We took the first cable car down then walked down the second stage. I am not going to admit I was worn out after the walk as my mid-80s aunt and uncle would not admit they were tired either.

summit ridge
Fionn and Ignatius on the Jakshorn summit ridge

Back at the flat, Ignatius and I cooked dinner for everyone. So lovely to spend time with my aunt and uncle!

17th July

Time to head back towards Bergamo as the flight to Manchester to attend Fionn’s graduation is tomorrow. We drove back over the Fluela pass, then through St Moritz and down towards Lake Como. All beautiful scenery. We stopped for lunch beside one small high lake, and stopped again to look at a waterfall just after the Italian border (so we could afford a coffee!!)

lunch stop
Not a bad spot for lunch!

A few miles from our planned overnight parking spot an ominous thump thump began sounding from the right hand rear tyre. We investigated and found a bolt stuck in the tyre. Not good. There was a service station & repair shop nearby (lucky!) so we drove there and asked them to look at it. They have done a quick repair on the tyre and we are hoping it will last – need to check the status in the morning. The important thing will be to get to Bergamo tomorrow for the flight – Ignatius and I can get the tyre replaced if necessary when we return to Italy next Saturday. Fingers crossed!

Regular blog readers may remember the previous puncture in Sicily – right front tyre. That was also a screw embedded in the tyre. Are we just unlucky or what?

We’re off (all being well!) to the UK tomorrow for a few days to attend Fionn’s graduation ceremony. Gertie will be left at airport parking in Bergamo. We return (without Fionn) on Saturday. So the next diary blog should be all about Sheffield! The forecast is for rain.