Well friends .. here we go again. Our European Adventure has begun. We write
from a Swiss town on the beautiful shores of Lago di Lugano in northern
Italy and southern Switzerland. We had a great summer visiting friends in
Wisconsin and enjoying Madison. My class reunion was great fun, medical
checkups good, 2 fun trips to Door County, visits with brother Pat, a
wedding and anniversary with Larry’s family, time with brother-in-law Donny
and his kids and grandkids, biked to/from Irishfest in Milwaukee … and
especially time with Jaime precious. She is a beautiful little girl and
soooo happy. She had a fun 2nd birthday in late August. Dada must “seat-um”
next to her when Mom drives the mini-van. Grandpa got to “seat-um” when Dada
was at work .. and she would smile at Grandpa and pat his arm so cute.
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh … But she is in loving hands and will not miss us ..
just as she did not miss Mama and Dada when we got her to ourselves one
weekend. We had to learn the bedtime routine before this wish was granted.
We have finally managed to shake her Wiggles songs out of our head. Did I
say shake? Oh no … Shaky Shaky … Fruit Salad, Yummy Yummy. DD visited Labor
Day weekend and we had a few special days with all of our girls once again,
and visited Larry’s family in Manitowoc. Special thanks to Mary and Carl
Tighe for having us visit so often and to Barb and Greg Sheehy who gave us
their condo the days before we left, while they enjoyed Italy.
We flew Polish Air to Milan mid-September. Once again too much stuff, too
many bags, one way ticket, worries, worries. But the airlines just charged
us $120 for each extra bag, and wiped the bags down for security. Good food,
wine, Raising Helen and Shrek 2 movies were all good. A couple of ugly
American Texans seated ahead of us were the only sore point. At Malpensa
airport, we got our passport stamped, picked up our baggage and walked out.
No customs forms, no customs inquiry, no unpacking. Imagine!! One of Larry’s
former co-workers, Tina Hauser, sent us some Internet directions she’d found
on how to catch a bus to Stresa on Lake Maggiore, where we had a hotel room
reserved. The instructions worked like clockwork. Thank you Tina. A taxi guy
offered us a “pronto” trip to Stresa for 100 euros. Tina’s instructions from
2000 said the bus cost 7.75 euro. No thanks .. we’ll wait for the bus. We
sat in front of the biggg bus slot, watching other buses come and go. Just
before 8:30 .. bus time .. a minibus pulls in and folks get out. We paid
nooooo attention, but luckily for us another guy was waiting and recognized
this as the Stresa bus. He motioned to us and we got all our stuff loaded,
the 3 of us popped in and we were off. 8 euro each .. 20 with tip. Neither
guy knew of our Hotel Ca Mea, but the driver asked and found it for us
pronto. A winding scary ride and we were “home” by 9:15.
We put bikes and some bags in a garage, freshened up and went down for
dinner. Our room is across from Lake Maggiore and has a grand terrace with
table and chairs. It has the best terrace of all the rooms. We dined on
garlic spaghetti, pepperoni pizza and a veggie calzone with a liter of house
wine. We slept like babes that night.
The next day we assembled the bikes after breakfast and organized a bit.
Then we had the only rain we’ve seen in 2 weeks .. just a soft rain .. but
we took a nap and biked the 2km into Stresa later. Our first experience of
quaint Italian towns .. stone pavements, narrow winding corridors of roads,
lots of little shops and restaurants. Lots of tourists from Switzerland and
Germany. Do they really eat dinner at 11pm? We may never find out. We ate
after 8 and went back to our terrace with a bottle of wine and some peanuts.
We shopped around quite awhile and took the cheapest good thing we could
find .. lasagna, salad and wine for 8.50 euro each .. about $25 total.
What to do next? We thought we could spend 3 months in Italy, then 3 in
Spain, 3 in France and continue on this way. But all of these countries
signed the Schengen Treaty in 1995 that allows residents of Schengen
countries to cross borders without checking, but we Americanos can only stay
in the “Schengen country” 3 of every 6 months without a visa .. and visa
forms and requirements are vague at best on the internet. So we want to go
to Switzerland for awhile to save some Schengen time. We meander to the
train station and watch trains for several hours. They stop for just a brief
time .. and there is a big step from the platform onto the train. We’d never
get our bikes and trailers and all on in time. I inquire at a tourist boat
place and the guy thinks we could take it all on the boat.
The next day we pack up, not certain if we’ll be traveling by boat or biking
to Locarno Switzerland at the top of the lake. The ticket lady keeps me
waiting for over an hour .. til nearly boat time, before I get the nod and
can purchase tickets. 45 euro ($55) for us and bikes. Not bad. A beautiful
peaceful hot 3 hour boat trip up the lake, dropping day trippers off at
lovely little tourist towns. I chat with a lady from Auckland who says
Switzerland is expensive. Hmmmmmm … The Italian villages have lovely
buildings. The Swiss towns have lovely old buildings but the new ones look
like Howard Johnsons.
We camp and eat bread and cheeses and prosciutto and drink beers. Ahhhhhhhhh
.. la vie e bella. We spend Sunday looking for camp chairs and campstove
fuel. All fuel fits some other stove. A nice campground guy directs us to a
campstore and it looks promising. We return Monday when it is open and find
little camp chairs with no arms for 25 francs ($20) each and fuel that will
work with our stove. Yeahhhhhhh ….
Locarno is beautiful. Great old buildings and piazzas. The lakefront open
for walkers and bikers and lovers. People stroll dressed up in pretty nice
threads. They are dressed for winter but easily dive into the lake to swim
without shivering. My shorts and tank top get many unfriendly stares. Or is
it Rory’s Hawaiian print shirt they’re scowling at? Small children are very
well behaved and dogs travel everywhere with their masters, behaving
beautifully if off leash. A lot of lycra shoots by us as well as lots of
couples on bikes, again dressed in lovely clothes and often ditzy shoes for
the women. Always there is a basket on one of the bikes and the lady’s purse
A lady from Freiberg Germany talks with us at the campground. She and hubby
were in Madison in the early 1990s for a sister city exchange. They were
there around the time the Convention Center opened .. and there was a lady
mayor with a lawyer husband. Yes .. Susan Bauman. She is no longer mayor.
Karen invites us to stay with them when we are near Freiberg. Their college
age children Janek and Nike are delightful and friendly.
We moved across the lake to another campground/campaggio to be on a river.
Lovely spot, big fun beach, wonderful facilities. A lady worker cleaned just
our ablution block all day long. We did laundry, which is a hoot to figure
out. There are different prices for 40, 60, 94 something, but what? Load
size? A German lady gets me to understand it is water temperature. But what
scale? They use Celsius, but these must be Fahrenheit temps, Larry decides
during a sleepless night. He’s always thinking. Then there’s an extra franc
for some other thing and an iron symbol? Huhhh? We pick the cheap version,
then envy the German lady’s load, which is swishing and foamy, while ours
just tumbles a bit, then rests and tumbles a bit more.
I say Hello to all I meet and one day a couple stops to chat. Fernando is
from Nicaragua and she is from near Bern, Switzerland. He did a high school
exchange year in Akron, Ohio. Later he asked his exchange hosts if he could
come back again, when life in Nicaragua was getting scary. They accepted him
happily and he later lived in California for years. He met the Swiss Miss,
married, and they have been in Bern for 14 years, now with their 8 year old
son Lennon. They were great to talk with and we went on for hours. The next
morning he asked us if we’d heard that Willie Nelson died? Nooooooooo…???
“Yes,” said Fernando. “He was playing On the Road Again.” Oh ……chuckle
chuckle. Bet he can’t tell that to many folks around here and they’d get it.
They too invited us to visit them if we get to Bern.
We took a trip up to a mountain top .. one of the Swiss Alps .. in 3 stages:
cablecar, gondola and chairlift. We didn’t interpret the signage too well,
but saw a 6.5 francs for something and thought how cheap. At the ticket
booth, it was Where To? Huh?? The top. That’ll be 70 francs. Oh …. OK. The
view was beautiful but not clear that day. We saw parasailers take off
nearby, saw Scottish Highland cattle all wearing bells, and many places we’d
like to stay for a summer. Back down in the city we split up for some
errands. Heading back to the bikes, Larry came up behind me. Said he could
hear me cough a block away. Guess I don’t need a cowbell.
Our first campaggio cost 52 francs per night. The second only 36 if we stay
more than 2 nights. We shop at campaggio stores for veggies, vino and bierra.
A Coop store in Locarno provides more basics .. spaghetti, pesto, couscous,
yogurt, muesli, sausages, laundry and dish soap. A bike ride to neighboring
towns took us along vegetable fields and a sign for the farm market selling
them. Lots of fruit, veggies, cheese and eggs for 14 francs. We find it can
be cheap and delicious to cook for ourselves. We did enjoy a wonderful pizza
and a couple of grande bierras for 30 francs, but mostly we cook and enjoy
several bierras and a nice bottle of red wine with our dinners. We try fresh
gnocci, spaetzel and some tasty chicken cordon bleu schnitzels. A little
coffee and cognac and a fresh pear for dessert. Bella. Stores sell cooked
eggs dyed pink .. Easter ready … so we make egg salad sandwiches. Mayo comes
in a tube. Beer and wine bottles have a deposit on them in Switzerland. I
take one from one camp store to return to another camp store .. has a 3.45
sticker on the side which I think to remove but don’t. They refuse because
it wasn’t bought there? They charge 5.90 for that wine. Huh??? I say. I paid
deposit. She accepts it, but grudgingly. Plastic bags at the grocery cost
.04 euro in Italy and .30 francs in Switzerland, so we use the nice cloth
bags we acquired in Australia. We also sip our vino from little plastic wine
glasses we still have from the Taste of Tasmania in Hobart in December. Ruth
and Sid, John and Pam, Kampers .. we think of you every day. One thing here
is that there are too many choices of which way to go. New Zealand and
Australia saved us so many decisions.
We are reading Adventure Cycling magazines that have been collecting at DDs
house. It is great to read about more adventures while we are on this one. I
see a letter to the editor from Charlie Northrup of Alabama who says he is
81 years young and he and his wife are still biking. He encourages AARP
folks to get out there and bike. We met Charlie in Winthrop, Washington, in
1994 the day we biked Rainy and Washington Passes over the Cascades. He was
in a bit of a shock having survived the day and had just called his
daughters to say he was OK. He met his wife DD on that trip. She rode next
to me on the Cycle America shuttle bus from Seattle to our starting point of
Bellingham. We haven’t seen them since, but our friends Kathy Wojta and
Denise Sullivan and John Barry keep in touch with many friends from that
tour. I hope all you bikers read Adventure Cycling. It has great bike travel
OK .. so we couldn’t even find someone to stamp our passport in Locarno.
“Libro” the guy says when I try to get a stamp at the boat landing. So why
are we here, we wonder? The campground lady says she flew to London recently
and didn’t even get a stamp. So we might as well head back toward Italy so
we can rendezvous with friends Ken and Sooz Boldt when they come for the
Slow Foods Salone del Gusto in Turin/Torino in October. How to retreat? We
could bike either side of Lake Maggiore .. orrrrrr Larry thinks Swiss bike
route #3 toward Como would be good. It would complete our Lakes tour. Our
Swiss Lonely Planet says something like that the bike routes unhappily avoid
the hill routes. Might not be too bad. Wrong Fluffy .. as our friend Mary
Tighe has taken to saying. We head out and all too soon are spending hours
climbing switchbacks up toward that big scary main road waaayyyyyyy up
there. Only 15 miles later and we’re back on a path but tired and we’ll
never make it to Lugano. Luckily Larry spots a campground sign and we’re
snatched from the jaws of defeat once more. Phewwww … We sleep like rocks
On the next day. We keep losing the bike route .. where are the signs??? So
we invent our own routes and some find us climbing back up to the road that
we left. Many days this week 12 – 15 miles for the day is some of the
hardest we’ve done. We are close to Lugano and Lago di Lugano. We know the
campgrounds are in Agno, near the airport. I ask several students .. all of
whom seem to return to school for 1:30 classes, even school buses drop kids
off .. and we seem to be on the right road. A sign points to Ponte Tresa and
has an airplane? Agno, a kid tells me .. so we take off right. Down and down
and down we go. Are we doing it wrong? We’d sure hate to have to go back up
this hill. But much later we get to Agno and choose a tired little
campground but have the finest spot feet from the lake that we’ve ever had.
Critters visit that night and eat rolls and cookies in my pack. That night
we notice little rodents of some sort on the lake wall at dusk. Ugggh. We
also did have 5 white swans resident. One tried to nip Larry’s toes while we
were setting up the tent and Larry wasn’t offering it bread like the other
friendly campers do. Very aggressive.
Campgrounds get cheaper though tired .. 24 francs, 22 francs. We grazed
through a lot of Europe library books this summer and one thing I picked up
on is that you can get a Camping Carnet from Family Campers & Hikers Assoc
in New York. I got one for 2 years and it is great to present when
registering at campagios. You don’t need your passport with the Carnet. Only
one campground kept it while we stayed.
We took the train into Lugano for the day and again enjoyed wandering along
the lakefront, winding around the old shops, eating pizza at the shore,
meandering thru a lovely park, and taking the gondola for 1.10 francs back
up to the train station. A lady at the Information place gave us a lovely
packet of maps for the Swiss bike route #3 that we’d been following, so that
decided our route out of Lugano. We continue toward Chiasso .. a border town
across from Como, Italy .. and our next Italian lake .. Lago di Como. We
decided to meet Ken and Sooz in Mantova where they will do Madison sister
city activities. Maybe we’ll have time for a short trip to Venice from
We got to Chiasso early afternoon and thought we’d spend the night
someplace, as we had a bundle of Swiss francs. But the city looked more than
a little seedy and nothing looked appealing. We polled a few folks on how to
bike to Como. Unanimously it was over there, but we still couldn’t tell if
we go down there and turn left or go under the train tracks. One nice lady
walked me down to the corner and pointed left so I saw the big Como sign. Oh
.. buono. She spoke at me at great length though I kept saying No Capisco.
She would point to her eyes and say “Cook cook”. She ended by giving me her
name and address and asking me to send a cartolina/post card from
California. Sure .. I can do that in a few years.
We walked our way toward Como and soon were at the Italian border. Lines of
cars were being stopped briefly, one being searched with a dog and another
nice looking family pulled over. They waved us on through but we requested a
passport stamp and got it after a good wait.
Como was busy and scary and we pushed along on such narrow sidewalks for a
long time. I popped into a pasticceria and bought some bread and pizza in
case we needed it for the night. There was a nice park across the street but
traffic was so crazy that we didn’t dare try to go there to eat. We
eventually got to a big roundabout and just stopped and had a piece. It
looked like the lake was right over there a few blocks, so we saved the rest
to eat by the lake. Down and down and down we went. Oh no .. another time we
sure hope it’s the right thing to do. No going back up this baby. I spot a
Hostel and inquire for a room. They only have dorms, but it’s 5 km back up
that hill and beyond to the nearest campground. OK OK .. we’ll have 2 dorm
beds, a first for us. €13 each with brekkie. We park our bikes out back,
purchase a liter pitcher of vino rosso and finish our pizza in the garden.
Snatched once again from the jaws of defeat. Not to worry, there were plenty
of hotels beyond, but we didn’t know that then.
We clean up and go to town. The road to the lake is just around the corner
and Como is charming. Piazza after piazza, a beautiful big church, lots of
shops and restaurants, wonderful public access to the lake. Later we sit at
the Touring Café for beers and pizza. A big parade marches along the
lakefront carrying Swiss banners and shouting something. It may be in
protest of some immigration proposals for Africans or something. The hostel
gate closes at 11 so we hurry back so we don’t turn into pumpkins. It feels
like a real date .. we kiss goodnight and go to our respective dorms.
We like Como so well we’ll stay another night. But there is no room for me
in the inn. A big group is coming today. Sorry. OK .. we’ll find a hotel.
May we leave our bikes here and come back for them? Yes, but we close from
10 til 4. Ohhhhhhhh … better take them and go. A map shows us hotels and
prices. We look for a cheap one, but start with one closest to the Hostel.
The lady can take us for €119 per night. The map said 64 – 120. Pricy but I
say yes .. 2 nights even. She will take Swiss francs, so that is a help. We
can park our bikes, but not check in until 2pm. We wander, come back and nap
and go out for the night and stay out til midnight. Wheeeee … There really
are people out there eating dinner, eating gelato, drinking and smoking and
just walking til all hours. Small children even, behaving very well. We love
our hotel room. It is fun to play tourist for a few days.
Saturday we see staging for a big bike race .. lots of lycra. An Alfa Romeo
car rally of cute little cars comes parading in and parks on the Lakefront
Piazza. Balloons everywhere. Sunday we take the funicular up the steep hill
to Brunate and wander around that lovely town and enjoy liter size beers and
secundo piattas of pork, ham, polenta and mushy peas, all with wonderful
bread. Ken Boldt told us that Barolo is the best wine here and Sangiovase
the next best and the kind you can find in the States. I got a bottle of
Sangiovase at the nearby market for 2.85 euro and it was magnifico. Barolo
is closer to €20 .. cheap for the wine, but pricy for our fixed income.
Monday morning up and out and packed once again, with another bottle of
sangiovase for the evening. Roads are busy and there is much traffic all day
and several to come. All roads point to Milano and we can’t wait until they
no longer do, as there is so much traffic. People are very helpful when we
ask for directions. We quickly learn sinistra, destra, dritto for left,
right, straight ahead. One guy leads us through a town to the road we need.
I ask a man where a Wurstel is that we saw a sign for at lunchtime. He leads
us back to an osteria, usually a small family run place that serves local
foods, calls out the waitress and she explains that we can get a pasta and
meat course for €11 and he shows us where to park our bikes in the back
courtyard. I invite him to join us, but he declines. We chow down greedily
on great pasta, beef & liver, spinach au gratin, bread and a liter of
excellent wine. After that we are ready for a siesta, and now understand why
they all take one, but we forge on many more kilometers. I thought I found
an agriturismo with camping, but when we wound our way there, I was reading
the legend for the place above, which was no where near. This farm is a
restaurant only. Duh!! Another hotel night. Pretty much when we get a hotel
for the night, we have to rummage through most of our bags, quickly take
what we need for the night, lock up the bikes wherever they show us, then
lug it all up to the 3rd or 4th floor usually. We are so beat that we just
shower, eat the bread, cheese, meat and wine we have and crash.
Should we go to Lodi because we can and it would be a tribute to Susie the
Duck and some of Larry’s old workmates? Nahhhhhhhhhhh …. Too busy. We don’t
like those big dots on the map anymore. We head east toward Mantova and
finally find the quiet narrow rural roads we dream of. Biking is lovely
finally. Lots of small towns, corn harvesting and plowing and neatening up
of the canals they use for irrigation.
Larry’s trailer hitch has been dragging and he needs a pipe and some clamps
to strengthen it. He always has a plan. We need a ferramenta / hardware
store. I spot one and though it looks dark and closed, the door is open and
people going in and out. He manages to find a piece of clothes pole or
something that will work, then must communicate the clamps idea. Low and
behold after not too long he comes out with all he needs and has spent only
€4. A young boy on a bike has kept me company in the meantime. He doesn’t
speak English and doesn’t respond to my attempt to ask in Italian when
school gets out for the day. He says “Bella America”. He rides to the edge
of town with us and says “Ciao”.
Another day of quiet roads. I read the map and legend correctly and we get
to an agriturismo on the Po River that says it has camping. We get there at
5:30 after 43 miles and himself says no campago .. no toilettes. But he can
give us a room for €60 which we happily agree to because there is no place
else to go. He cooks us spaghetti and serves us beers and bread and a bit of
prosciutto for €15. We are happy. The place is full of German fishermen and
is just ancient but lovely. We hoped to do laundry but are happy to settle
for a bed and bath. Did you know many toilettes in Italy are the Turkish or
Indian squat variety? It’s supposed to be more hygienic or something. That
from a country where everyone smokes constantly and throws their butts on
the ground and into the lakes. A beautiful 3 star hotel we stayed in even
had one in its lovely new WC in the lobby. So far I haven’t had to use one.
The next morning is so foggy we can’t leave until noon. Close to Mantova, a
truck pulls over and the driver hands me a brochure for his agriturismo when
I bike by. He talks to us a bit and invites us to camp at his horse farm,
just 3km past Mantova. The brochure is lovely .. the place less so we find
when we get there. But the price is only €18 per night and the people very
friendly, so we like it. We are very early to meet our friends Susan and
Kenneth Boldt, who are coming for a Slow Foods meeting with local pig
farmers as a sister city exchange with Madison people.
Mantova is a pretty city on 3 lakes. The area is flat with large farms and
much agriculture. That is why it was selected as Madison’s Italian sister
city. It is the home of Virgil the poet, 70 years B.C. and the home of the
painter Andrea Mantegna, whose tomb is in the beautiful Basilica di Sant’
Andrea. There is also a container that purports to hold some earth soaked by
the blood of Christ that one of the Roman soldiers who speared Jesus scooped
up and carried back to Mantova. The area boasts many pork products and a
pasta specialty is tortelli di zucca, pumpkin-stuffed square cushions of
pasta, which are sweet and delicious.
We train to Venice for 3 nights, Rick Steves style with just a bag, leaving
the bikes and tent behind. We are happy for the break and love Venice. There
are many people despite the October weather. The daytime weather had been
great until our first Sunday in Mantova, when the skies opened all
afternoon. After that it got very fallish and cold. We brought more warm
clothes to Venice than we had planned. A guy from Wales who travels to
schools telling stories in English and doing teacher development work talked
to us at great length on the train about Venice. He said in summer, some
days the canals are dangerously low and give off a killer gas. Gondola
companies must provide gas masks to riders .. so there are many Japanese
tourists in the boats taking pictures of themselves in the gas masks. In
fall and winter .. and we experienced the beginning for 2 days before we
left .. the waters rise. The people of Venice wear Wellingtons and hip boots
and carry on as usual .. standing at the pub lifting a pint. There are
boards and stands all around that get set up as raised sidewalks in the wet.
Venice is a maze of islands, canals, bridges and narrow cobble streets. The
canals are full of gondolas, ferry boats, taxi boats and boats carrying ice
cream, groceries, construction equipment and materials .. everything that we
normally see on a truck. The streets are lined with shops, many selling
Venetian blown glass, fancy masks and hand made lace. Lots of produce stalls
and kiosks selling the masks, souvenirs, silly hats and t-shirts. Many
beggars, many African men selling purses on street corners, vendors with
little cheap toys. I got snookered on a little Mickey and Minnie Mouse that
appeared to dance to a boombox. He even took out my Mickey and he danced.
When I read the directions back in the hotel, you string a line through the
part he magically rubbed on the boombox. I don’t know how he was doing it or
how he would have strung it right in front of my eyes, but I can’t make
Mickey dance. Sorry Jaime.
The guide books say Venice is sinking and that “your children’s children
will know Venice only from memory” or some such. Many countries are working
with specific buildings to try to preserve the buildings and the art of
Three days of walking, riding the ferrys and visiting all the islands was
enough for us and we were happy to get back to our tent. One highlight was a
wine store selling bulk wine. For €3 we got 1.5 liters of darned good wine
in a plastic bottle. It was great to sit along the Grand Canal and drink
from a plastic bag. Another day I saw a lady pick up a 1 liter box of wine
in a food store .. vino de tavola, table wine which the books recommend you
order with your food. This liter was € .64. A new low for us and it was good
Ken and Sooz arrived in Mantova and I got us invited to a wonderful Slow
Foods dinner the local group had for them. Dino and Cynthia, the agriturismo
people where we were staying, are good friends with Lucca Bachetta, one of
the organizers and one Sooz said to contact. They drove us and enjoyed the
dinner with us. Sooz got interviewed and later Lucca took Larry and me up on
stage and we got to tell our story too. People loved the biking idea.
Rosanna from Madison and Milano translated for us. Nancy Cristy from Madison
made wonderful caramel pears as a surprise taste treat Madison style. One of
the participants got up on stage with a guitar and we had a 60’s Italian
hootenanny. Many courses, much wine, great fun. Cynthia was a trooper to go
with us as she was past due to deliver their little Chiara. The farm is
called Corte Chiara, so Dino is very excited about baby Chiara.
We packed up and took the train to Torino for 5 days at a Slow Foods Salone
del Gusto .. grazing products from Italy and the world. We were nervous
about our first train ride with all of our gear. We scoped it out carefully
on Monday, even hopping onboard a train to check the bike car. Plenty of
room. There even was a path across the tracks we could wheel the bikes if we
were on a far platform. We got there and sure enough our train left from a
far track and our train was covering the nice ramp to get there. So down the
lift a few times and over and … oh no , the lift back up is Out of Order. We
had to lug each heavily loaded bike and trailer up the steps by hand. We
changed trains in Milano but all one level there, so just had to pick our
way through the crowds and get it all onboard again. Only €24 total for all.
Turin was the first capital of Italy, so one area has beautiful old
buildings. It is also the home of Fiat, so another area is very industrial.
The Mole Antonelliana dominates the cityscape at 167 meters tall and has a
lift to take you up to a museum and a panoramic view of the area. Turin is
also home to the Holy Shroud, which made its last public appearance in 2000,
Ferrero Roher chocolates, Tic Tacs, Nutella and Lavazza coffee. The
snow-covered Alps lie to the west and north, but we never see them through
the haze and smog or pollution. Torino will host the 2006 Winter Olympic
games and there is much bustle spiffing up and building. They are building a
subway, so many beautiful piazzas and the train station area are all torn
I got pickpocketed on the bus the first day heading to the Salone. The buses
were jammed so we just pushed onto the back of the second one we waited for.
At the next stop a man and woman pushed on and kept pushing and pushing
until they were up next to me. I looked down and my purse zipper was open. I
yelled at the guy and he pointed 2 fingers toward me .. as if to poke my
eyes out. He and the woman got off at the next bus stop. He got my little
walkie-talkie radio in the oh-so-cute denim case I made for it this summer.
I’m sure he thought it was a cell phone. Not a big haul for him, but a loss
for us. I have 4-5 locks for that purse and one is on now … if only … There
was sooo much stuff in that purse (not my money) that I can’t imagine how he
was able to finger out just that. They are very good at their trade. Now I
know to yell “ladro” thief.
So we’ve been grazing, enjoying nice dinners with Ken and Sooz and Rosanna
and living the tourist life once more. This is the 4th Salone del Gusto and
it is always held here in Turin. Slow Foods is the opposite of Fast Food.
They encourage sustained agriculture, heritage produce and animals, local
products, and unique producers of cheese or honey or produce. They are all
interested in serving local foods to school children and improving school
lunch programs. This year the first Terre Madre was held in conjunction with
the Salone. Over 5000 farmers from 500 countries gathered to work on their
mutual issues. Sooz was very involved in this program too and Madison had 10
Heidi sent word that baby Calvin is due in June. She already made a Big
Sister t-shirt for Jaime that should be on the web soon. I saw such a cute
one at Irishfest, but didn’t want to push the issue. Heidi says iron-on
letters are great.
Internet prices vary here, but were only €3 per hour in Mantova. Postcards
are cheap too .. as low as € .25. We have an Internet station we can use
here at our Torino hotel. That is great. My brand new MP3 player needs to be
sent back for repair .. doesn’t handle the Universal Power adaptor they sold
me .. and I can’t get an RMA number and shipping address from them. Beware
Archos products. Great when they work but really bad technical support ..
but that’s reported frequently on the net. Ken is taking the player and our
Washington state voting ballots back for mailing. We are doing our part to
depose King George II. DD sent our absentee ballots to Turino for us. Nice
to have an address once in awhile.
We leave Turin tomorrow and will train toward Cinque Terre. There is a nice
campground in Levanto that should be open to take us in. We’ll train and
hike the 5 beautiful cities for a few days. Lonely Planet says the area is
some of Italy’s most extraordinary countryside, so we are looking forward to
it. No smoking, no smog, great views. Wow!! Later on to Florence/Firenze and
more camping. DD’s next door neighbor is studying art for the semester in
Florence and we hope she has time to meet with us.
So .. though October is not quite ended, we will call it a month. Ciao.
We arrived in Levanto and crossed the tracks illegally and got
scolded by the trainmaster. “Mi displace” worked. We did have to be careful
because often trains came speeding through without stopping in Levanto, and
they came from nowhere out of the nearby tunnel. The wind from them would
blow you off your feet. Larry said it would have been the answer to our
hopes to someday have a speedy death. “Rory, was that the 11:59 ……..
We followed the signs to the campground, booked in and pushed the bikes up
to the elevated terraces that were tent sites … in the shade of olive trees.
Lovely but no sea view. Wahhh. We set up the tent and took off .. Larry to
search out camp fuel and me for groceries. It was raining before I got out
of the Supermercato, so Larry put up the rain tarp and we cooked in its
shelter. It rained all night long … and much of every day we were in the
Cinque Terre area. But we were happy to once again find the fuel that works
with our stove .. the first we saw it since Locarno Switzerland. And it is
The next day we did laundry and dried out. The washing machine said “the
program” we chose would take 70 minutes. Well after 140 minutes it ended and
the clothes were dripping wring-them-out wet. I did my best with some, put
them in the dryer, and went back to Reception for more dryer tokens. I
explained the wet clothes and she said maybe someone turned the centrifuge
off. Huh??? There were 2 unexplained buttons on the machine and one was
pushed in. She took me back, set it straight, and gave me 2 free tokens to
run the clothes again to spin the water out. Then the dryer took forever. We
spent the whole day doing 2 loads of laundry .. and drying out our panniers
and such. We are always warm and dry in our tent, but stuff on the floor
gets damp and under our Thermarests. We did the dry out routine 3-4 times
that week. Not fun.
Thursday we walked back to the train station and bought 3-day passes to
Cinque Terre at €13 each. We first rode the train through the 5 towns to La
Spezia … because we could and because we wanted to check out where we could
catch a train to from there. Back on the train to Riomaggiore. We found a
winding path along the sea and up and up and around and through. What an
amazing place. Too bad it was cloudy and rain threatening and Mr. National
Geographic couldn’t get wonderful pics of the place. Back down to the main
piazza and found another path that was made in recent years along the
seashore to Manarola. The brochure says this path, the Via delle’Amore, is
the most famous path of the Cinque Terre, partially cut out of the steep
cliffs overlooking the sea and that Riomaggiore and Manarola, clinging to
the rock face, with their houses piled up in a multi-coloured mosaic
overlooking the sea, are the most typical and unspoilt villages of the five.
What poetry! It also said there are often dolphins swimming about in the
sea, but we think they were elsewhere on holiday just now. Someplace warm.
Cinque Terre is a series of 5 fishing villages that until recent times were
accessible only be sea and footpath. Now the area is a Unesco recognized
World Heritage area and a National Park and Protected Marine area. It must
be crazy in summer, as it was plenty full of tourists even now. Centuries
old paths connect the villages and you can walk between them all or take the
train. The pass allows for both and you are checked for the pass when you
walk these shore paths. Behind the villages are terraced hillsides with
olive trees and vineyards. There are lovely flowers and succulent cactus
growing along the shore cliffs.
We continued on along a shore path to the base of Corniglia. Corniglia is
the only one of the 5 towns that is up on a hill. A map showed camping on
the shore area close to Corniglia and we wanted to check it out. It turned
out to be sets of old dilapidated bungalows along the shore that are no
longer safe to even enter. The shore has receded and eroded the whole area.
It is now only an eyesore.
We saved the other 3 villages for the next days and as we waited for the
train, it began to sprinkle. Somewhere in a tunnel between Vernazza and
Monterossa, the train died. Luckily we had light, save for a few flickers
and then the throngs went wild, but we remained there for nearly 1.5 hours.
A German lady had a panic attack and had to sign her life away later to not
go to hospital when we arrived in Monterossa. It was really pouring when we
got back to Levanto after 7, so we went out for pizza.
It was so cloudy each day, that you couldn’t tell what it was going to be
like for the day until nearly noon. The next day we toured Corniglia, but
didn’t walk the high and beautiful winding path to Vernazza because of the
threatening sky. The next day we toured Vernazza and Monterossa, but again
didn’t do the beautiful hike because of weather. Rick Steves says he likes
to stay in Vernazza and tour the rest of the villages from there. We agreed
and looked everywhere wondering where Rick stays. There were some lovely
windows high up in rocky buildings overlooking the sea. The villages have an
inordinate number of cats about and Corniglia even had lots of souvenirs and
businesses featuring cats. Guess they are all waiting for the fish to
We hung around a few extra days because November 1 is a holiday here and for
many European countries. The campground really filled up with Germans for
the holiday. Many schools had vacation that week or the previous week. A dad
with 3 boys camped across from us and the boys all played instruments and
made beautiful music. They got on so well, we were amazed. They were at the
beach swimming and playing soccer as we biked back to the train station.
Pisa was our next stop. We got off on an inside track and the lifts didn’t
work. We had to lug it all down, over, then up. In subsequent days I tried
to find out how we could access the lifts, but only learned ‘that’s not
possible’. Why do you have lifts then, I aked. Only smiles. A ticket lady
said we could cross the tracks. Really? And who would give us permission for
that? The Information booth. Of course not … but the nice lady did point out
a train we could take from Track 1, not requiring any steps. Hurray.
We visited the Leaning Tower and the Duomo and the piazza Campo dei Miracoli.
The books say this is the loveliest square in all of Europe … but we think
they’re smoking something. The buildings ARE lovely, but the rest is just
grass .. some of which you can’t walk on and some you can sit but not play
Frisbee. We think a great piazza at least has someplace to sit and enjoy it.
The adjacent street is lined with vendors selling trash souvenirs. Not
The Leaning Tower is the Bell Tower or Campanile for the church. We didn’t
know that. It was closed to visitors in 1992 as unsafe, but in 1998 they put
cables around the lower levels, attached them to A frames, then dug out some
dirt from the side not leaning. It worked, now is safe, and a few visitors
are allowed up daily for €15. It is a wonder how they did this excavation
though. The tower is surrounded by about 12 feet of marble flooring which is
surrounded by a wall, then more flooring. Did they dig all of this up and
This done, we had plenty of time to roam the city, hoping to sit and relax
in piazzas and watch tourists and also enjoy the Arno River. Wrongo. All the
little piazza markings on the map turned out to be nothing … parking lots
really. The river was murky awful brown and no sitting areas. We were bummed
and just killed time in Pisa. After the
Tower, there’s not much to do. So we had plenty of time to watch CNN and the
elections. Wahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh …..
On to Florence/Firenze. I booked a hotel close to the Ponte Vecchio and not
right near the train station for a change. We wound our way and found it.
The Reception was on the 2nd piano (third floor to us). The lady gave me a
key and said we could put our bikes in their cave. I thought she meant some
door outside someplace, but it was a narrow door off the vestibule and down
down into what really looked like a cave .. an old damp whitewashed maze.
We had to haul our room gear up a flight, then into a tiny little lift and
up 2 floors. Our room had a sink but we shared the bathrooms. It was a
lovely 15th century building and the floors were all marble and quite nice …
but it had the feel of a nunnery. We stepped down 2 steps to the hallway and
all the doors creaked and squealed. Mama Bear gave us growly looks at each
breakfast and vacuumed and shlepped to ruin our peace. They really don’t
like us fat Americans eating so much for breakfast. We saw that in Turin
too. Italians have a cup of cappuccino and a croissant for breakfast. We eat
cereal and pastries and breads and cheeses and yogurt and whatever they have
We did the usual Florence things and saw the David and the Duomo and the
Synagogue and lots of frescoes and Last Suppers and such. We were
disappointed that you can not photograph David and had to settle for photos
of the two outdoor copies. The Duomo and Bell Tower are being restored and
the sides that are finished are amazingly beautiful while the unfinished
sides are very tarnished and polluted. The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge
not bombed by the Nazis in WWII. It was part of a private corridor walkway
for the de’ Medici family to get from their old palace .. Palazzo Vecchio ..
to the newer Palazzo Pitti across the River Arno and through what is now the
Uffizi Gallery. The bridge is lined with jewelry stores, except for a small
area in the middle that affords lovely views of the town and other bridges.
We took the bus to Fiesole, a small hill town 8km up the hill. Views from
here were lovely. Piazzale Michelangelo across the Arno and up a hill also
afforded great panoramic views of the city. The campground next to Piazzale
Michaelangelo we thought we might stay at, though some books had it closed
and too uphill, was open and would have worked out well. Oh well .. we
enjoyed our hotel room and TV and CNN. Did Yassar die yet? Florence has lots
of nice piazzas, outdoor markets and street vendors. Sometimes you would
turn a corner and have accordion music. Nice. But also lots of men hawking
umbrellas and posters and women hawking scarves … ever waving them in your
face as you waited in line someplace.
We had dinner with DDs neighbor Anelecia Hannah.. a lovely 19 year old art
student from Washington. Barb Sheehy said they enjoyed La Spada restaurant,
recommended by Rick Steves .. and so did we. We learned all about Anelecia’s
studies and life in Florence, though it has been only 2 months. She is there
for the semester, but is working to extend it for the year. Watch for her
artwork in years to come. She’ll probably go by just her first name,
Anelecia. The medium will be a surprise.
We were relieved to retrieve our bikes and trailers from the cave,
reassemble, and head out in the rain and cold back to the train station to
head to Siena. We are always so uncertain when we head to that first home
from the station, but so confident as we head back. We might have biked to
Siena, but just couldn’t figure a good way over all those hills. One regret
is that we’ll not be visiting Cortona where Francis Mays has her villa she
writes about in “Under the Tuscan Sun”, “Bella Tuscany” and other books.
Off the train at Siena and here it seemed it was OK to cross the tracks.
Locals did it so we did too .. and no one scolded us. We liked it already.
There looked to be no Information place or free maps at the station, so we
just headed out. The maps in the tour books begin inside the walls, so how
to get to an opening in the wall? We were down there and the city was
waaayyy up there. It looked as if roads went in both directions up to it, so
we just followed the road to our right and walked and pushed and tried not
to get run over. Up and up and where are we going??? Larry was sure it was
in circles. Eventually we got to a church, traffic was thinning, and we saw
signs to our hotel. Lonely Planet says Siena was the first European city to
close its roads to traffic in 1996, but we don’t know what happened since
then. Traffic isn’t thick, but there is plenty of it and there’s always a
car or motorcycle coming from one direction or another. To watch them turn
into the narrow cobbled roads is a wonder. We are surprised at how few bikes
we’ve seen here though. It is hilly, but it is a logical way to get around
We booked in to a grand old hotel just near Il Campo and settled the bikes
and trailers in a nice little garage. Up to the 2nd piano again, no lift. A
nice big room with sink, again sharing bath. But as in Florence, it seems to
be ours alone. We spent 3+ days wandering Siena, again churches, paintings.
We found a wonderful little store and enjoyed great picnics and lovely cheap
wine in our room .. and take-away pizza from a place around the corner.
Siena was the birthplace of St. Catherine .. and a thumb is on display and
her head is in a tabernacle in the Chiesa di San Domenica, where she took
her vows. The rest of her is Rome. Il Campo is the main piazza around which
the city swirls. Il Palio, a wild horse race is held here each July 2 and
August 16 to honor the Virgin Mary. The outer ring of Il Campo is filled
with dirt and in the evening becomes a racetrack as 10 of 17 of Siena’s town
districts compete for the Palio .. silk banner. Lonely Planet says that “for
scarcely one exhilarating minute, the 10 horses and their bareback riders
tear three times around Il Campo with a speed and violence that make your
hair stand on end. Even if a horse loses it rider, it is still eligible to
win, and since many riders fall each year, it is the horses in the end who
are the focus of the event.”
We took a bus to San Gimignano one day .. another much smaller walled city …
and loved it. There is almost no traffic, were few tourists, and had
beautiful views of Chianti country from many spots .. something Siena does
not have. We thought we’d do some biking in Chianti country, as tour groups
offer many rides here. But once we got our bikes enshrined in our garage,
there was no going back down those hills. The bus ride confirmed this
decision. We are leakers.
We’ve been listening to Bill Bryson’s book “Neither Here Nor There” where he
does a solo tour of Europe, sometimes retracing the route he and his Iowa
friend Catz took in 1972. It is hilarious and really informative. It is
great to be hearing him as we visit the same cities he visited. He was
pickpocketed in Florence by a little gypsy girl who reached into his jacket,
unzipped an inside pocket zipper and withdrew $1500 in travelers checks
without him realizing it until she’d disappeared.
Since Turin, dark cold nights sometimes have street vendors out selling
roasted chestnuts. Larry loves them. I’m not so crazy about them. I guess it
really began in Venice in nice weather and daylight. Our first bag cost
€1.50. Since then they are most often €3. You get about a cup full, often
with a spare sack for the shells. In Turin the vendors were from Bangladesh
and the cooker was an old oil drum. They used paper cups folded from old
newspapers. Here in Siena and in Pisa the cooker is a sleek steel version.
It never fails to get us singing “chestnuts roasting on an open fire .. Jack
Frost nipping at our toes .. or nose .. or whatever …”
Next stop .. Rome. We’ve booked in for a week at another cheap place near
the train station .. Fawlty Towers. Remember the British TV show by that
name? Nice train ride there, again from Binario 1 so no track running,
though we weren’t sure of that til the last minute as they were doing
pavement repair along part of it. But we had to change trains in Chiuso, and
there we almost didn’t run the tracks because there was a Polizia station
near the path, but I asked a train guy and he said try it. We did and no one
noticed. Hmmmm … Cold and windy waiting for both trains. We’re supposed to
only be in nice warm places for this retirement thing. We’re doing it wrong
Fawlty Towers was so easy to find that we wandered many extra blocks looking
for it. Larry was always leaving me to guard the bikes while he did
reconnaissance. This is supposed to be a very scary part of Rome, but it
didn’t seem so. I suppose because it was early, though dark night. Fawlty
Towers put us in a separate set of rooms called Bubbles down the block and
around the corner. They said we could put our bikes and trailers there at
Fawlty Towers on their terrace. It would be 5 floors up in a tiny little
lift, then out somewhere on the tiny crowded little terrace. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm.
We moved our wares over to Bubbles and decided to just bring it all up into
our room on the 3rd floor in a tiny little lift. We lived for a week in a
nice big room with bikes, trailers, bags, panniers in a room with shower and
sink. We’d eat breakfast in the room and Larry got to making us coffee with
the camp stove. We were always in the way of the maid who came to clean the
4 rooms and had to wait for us to leave for the day.
The first day we bought a weekly ticket for the Metrebus that would allow us
to travel on Rome’s bus, tram, metro and suburban railways system, then
headed out to walk to Vatican City. While Larry took pictures, I used the
info from guide books to find free tickets to the Papal Audience the next
day and to see if their were any spots left to tour the excavations beneath
St. Peter’s. Nothing was marked by signs. You’d never know these options
were available if you didn’t read about them in a book. Much of Italy is
like this. Few signs, confusing when they exist. No one being helpful unless
asked for some specific thing. Then whatever you need is 500 meters down the
road in some vague direction. But I digress.
Tickets for the Papal Audience were available “through the bronze doors
under the colonnade to the right of St. Peter’s as you face the church”. I
wandered around and kept coming back to a roped off area guarded first by a
police lady, then by 2 Swiss guards at the door. This can’t be it. But sure
enough, I had to pass by the police lady and approach the guards and request
the passes. One gazed thoughtfully into my eyes for moments, perhaps to
determine if I was worthy. Reservations? Hmmm .. no. But he got 2 for me.
You can also present a letter of recommendation from your hometown pastor,
but alas we were a little short in this area. Same with the place to check
on excavation tickets. The place Frommer’s said to go was gated off and 2
Swiss guards were standing under an arch and guarding. Everyone was taking
their pictures. But .. I told them what I needed and marched off under the
arch to the excavation office. You can book an appointment by writing ahead
of time or requesting in person more than a week ahead. No spots for us. Oh
well … I read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons this summer and wanted to see
all he described. I thought we wouldn’t be able to see St. Peter’s Tomb and
the pope’s tombs without this tour, but I was wrong. Glad we didn’t get the
tickets. We saw a Jesus character in St. Peter’s Square that first day,
speaking perfect American English to whomever would listen. I heard him tell
a guard “it was important that I get to Egypt because …”. I missed the
reason. Check out his garb and hat in the picture section and note his cool
We had wonderful weather all 3 days we went to the Basilica. The Basilica is
as wonderful and big as Bill Bryson describes. Everything is on a much
grander scale than other smaller churches. We spent the big bucks and took
an elevator half way up, then climbed the narrow steep steps to the top of
the dome, from where you have an unequalled view of Rome. It was no place
for the claustrophobic. We climbed 376 steps that wound round and round,
impossibly narrow, eventually you had to lean to the right as the dome wall
curved into you. This was great fun. You couldn’t slow down and catch your
breath, as there were hordes on your heels. The view was wonderful and we
enjoyed it a long while. What we didn’t enjoy were the a$$holes that had to
light up the minute they got to the top. Everyone else was gasping and
trying to breathe as it was.
The next day we took the metro over to catch the Pope’s Wednesday meeting
with his flock. When I got the tickets the day before, I asked where it
would be held. Just follow the crowds, I was told. We heard a tour guide
telling her flock where they would see the Pope the next day, so we had an
idea where we’d be heading. We visited the lovely WC they provide gratis,
bought stamps, took pictures and our time getting in. The guide books say
the audience is at 11:00, so we were surprised that the giant auditorium was
nearly full when we strolled in at 10:25, and even more so when the Pope was
rolled in shortly thereafter. Later I saw that the tickets said 10:30.
Whoops .. We almost missed it. The few seats that were left when we arrived
were great .. in the front half of the auditorium and toward the center. The
Pope gave an address in Italian. A cardinal gave some words in French and
introduced visiting French groups, then the Pope gave the address in French.
This was repeated for Americans, Spanish, German, Polish, followed by more
Italian. There were big groups visiting and much singing and chanting and
cheering when they were introduced. After about a half hour, the Pope
blessed the souvenirs you brought for blessing, then groups went up for
individual blessings, followed by many visitors in wheelchairs, a big group
of Italian military, and finally many wedding couples got blessed. It was
wonderful and the Pope looked much more lively than when you see him feeble
and dozing off on TV on his foreign visits. Vatican TV projected close-ups
of the Pope and visitors on a big screen. I think it all lasted til noon. On
the way out I snapped a picture of a Swiss Guard. He scolded me and said “If
I call you 10 times it still means no”. Huh? Later St. Peter’s Square was
filled with the colorful groups, chanting, dancing, wedding pictures. We did
think we got our moneys worth this day.
We spent the other days walking and walking until our feet steamed (as Bill
says). We visited the Colosseum, the Roman Forum ruins, the Spanish Steps,
Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon .. all the things we learned about in the guide
books. We tried twice to visit the Crypt of the Capuchin Friars in the
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione, highly recommended by Bill Bryson,
where we hoped to see the five chapels whose walls are decorated with
skeletons of 4000 Capuchin friars who died between 1528 and 1870. But alas
it was not open. We did visit the rest of St. Catherine in the Chiesa di
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. We loved the Piazza Venezia area where you could
climb around the Vittoriano, a huge white monument to Vittorio Emanuele II,
called in the guidebooks “the typewriter” or “the wedding cake”. The Forum
is just behind it and we found a powerful documentary inside of interviews
of Roman Jews who survived the holocaust. We found it only because we
followed the Toilet signs down and down and down. Whenever we got too tired,
we’d hop a bus or trolly and see some new part of Rome and back, never
knowing where we’d be taken. We visited Trastevere and its famous Sunday
markets and the views of Rome from the top of Gianicolo Hill.
Larry was disappointed to find that Frank Sinatra was not in “Three Coins in
a Fountain” and that we don’t really know anything at all about it. How come
we can hum a bit of it? Lonely Planet says the famous custom is to throw a
coin over your shoulder into the water to ensure that you return to Rome.
Toss a second coin and you’ll fall in love with an Italian. Chuck a third
and be happy you’ve donated to charity. We tossed none. We’re not taking
chances on any of these options.
On Sunday we returned to St. Peter’s Square and waited for noon when the
Pope comes to his study window and gives his blessing to the visitors and
pilgrims gathered. We couldn’t decide whether to be a visitor or a pilgrim,
but Larry thought being this close to Thanksgiving we should be pilgrims.
The Square was packed by noon and again a very interesting mix of visitors
and pilgrims. Finally a window opened, a purple banner was lowered and soon
the Pope appeared in the window .. way way up there. It was all over in
minutes, but once again it was fun to hang around and watch the crowd.
One day we ventured over to the Quirinale Palace where the president of
Italy lives. An old Frommers said, in the section Especially for Kids, that
at 4pm every day there’s a military band and a parade as the guard changes.
We were hopeful when we saw an empty, then full military bus and an empty
military truck nearby. But no .. the guard changed quietly with no parade.
Wahhh …. Every day at dusk millions of small birds would swarm the skys, all
moving around in cyclone clouds of birds in unison. It was like an Aurora
Borealis of birds. Neat. The last evening they all landed in trees near the
Stazione Termini as we headed back to Bubbles, and there was a cacophony of
Finally we’d put our time in and could pack up and leave Rome. We are not
good tourists. And we hate all the smoking hordes. Across the street to
board a train to Naples. Naples has the lovely guidebook distinction of
being described as having a corrupt government, the worst air pollution and
traffic in Italy and with its hordes of street children of being the
juvenile delinquency capital of Europe. Swell. We were looking forward to
just making it through the city alive in daylight.
We caught a train that got us to Naples just after 1pm. Another train system
continued on to our destination, Sorrento, but it doesn’t take bikes. So I’d
called and found out that hydrofoils travel between Naples and Sorrento and
bikes would be no problem. Larry found a map of Naples, did his
reconnaissance mission to scope out a route, and we headed out to find Molo
Beverello and the 3pm boat to Sorrento. Just past the street hawkers and on
the road down toward Via Marino, Larry’s bike hitch to which the trailer
attaches gave up its life on one of the many curbs we were bouncing on and
off of. We played tag team with 2 bikes and a trailer until he lashed the
trailer on and we walked on. There was nothing scary about the city that we
saw, but lots of litter and broken glass and the only place we saw a big old
dirty diaper adorning a street corner, and at the docks more and more
aggressive beggars than we’d seen before. In Rome you’d just see one every
block or church or so, but here there were 6 lined up with their hands in
your face and blocking the exit as you queued to buy a ferry ticket.
We reached the right docks in time to see the 3pm leave. I couldn’t find the
place I’d called, so I approached a vendor that listed a boat to Sorrento. I
asked for tickets for 2 people and 2 bicycles on the 5:05 ferry. He said
bicycles on the next one, at 6:38. I showed him the name of the place I’d
called and asked where it was. Suddenly he could sell me the tickets for
5:05. Huh? Fell in hate with Italy all over again. As the time approached, a
low crowded boat moored in berth #10 where we were to go. Riders had to walk
down a short flight of steps, then cross a narrow ramp onto the boat, where
there was no room for bikes and trailers and all. We were worried. I asked
about the bikes and the guys said the next boat. It will be bigger? Yes. OK.
The ticket agent was right .. why didn’t he explain? We were nervous. If the
next boat didn’t work, what would we do? Find a hotel? Try a taxi to
Sorrento with all this stuff? It was cold and windy and as I sat huddled in
my fleeces covered with a neck scarf and a blanket, I looked like one of the
beggar wimmmen who must wear the ubiquitous babushka for the proper look. I
got wary looks.
Finally the hydrofoil arrived on berth #8. It was big and wonderful and we
could easily roll on in Naples and off in Sorrento. In Sorrento, we pushed
up and up a long winding road from the ferry to piazza Tasso and toward Nube
d’Argento Campground where we had a little bungalow cabin with kitchen and
bath waiting for us for a 2 week stay. From here we will bus along the
beautiful and winding Amalfi coast, visit Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius and the
isle of Capri. Friends Mike and Judy Casler from Madison are joining us in
their own bungalow for a week of adventuring. From here we will somehow get
ourselves 31miles down the road to Salerno where we’ll catch a 2 night ferry
to Malta where we’ve booked an apartment with a wonderful view of the
Mediterranean for the winter. Malta is a set of 3 tiny islands in the
Mediterranean, just off the heel of Italy. We stop in Tunisia for 6 hours
enroute and hope we can get off and explore. We had to get Maltese lira
wired from our bank in Madison to the apartment owner in Malta. New fun for
us. We’re looking forward to cooking Malta meals and drinking Malta milks.
Groannnnnnnnnnn. How would we have done all this before the Web? We have way
overspent our retirement checks these months with the strong Euro and the
many hotels. We hope to recoup this by miserly spending in Malta. Happy
Christmas to y’all.
We were so pleased to hear from Lin and John Irving from Timaru, New
Zealand. When we last saw them in April 2003, they were to be interviewed to
get a Green Card to live in the United States, where their son and his
family live in the Detroit area. The interview was to happen within a day of
the time they were to leave to visit their son in Michigan. I’d sent a
postcard to their house, asking anyone at all to email us Lin and John’s
whereabouts. Turns out they did get the Green Card, had their holiday in
Michigan, returned to New Zealand and rented out their house and went back
to live in the States. Their son had gotten a motorhome for them. They have
now traded up to a 5th Wheeler and are doing casual work in Michigan until
Christmas, then will tour the south. We will catch up with them in a few
years when we are traveling about in a campervan. Yahoo!!
We settled easily in Sorrento .. and brought rain with us as usual. So the
first day we just nested and bought groceries. It was good to have a home
for a few weeks. Then we started getting out and discovering Sorrento and
learning about the trains and buses. Sorrento is a beautiful town with great
cliffs down to the sea and Mt. Vesuvius just over there. Sometimes you can
see it but often it is in the clouds.
Judy and Mike Casler arrived within the week and we had a great week with
them. We had side by side cabins where we cooked some great meals and drank
loads of wine .. and went out a few times. But mostly we explored.
Our first adventure was to Pompeii. We caught the train and found our way
into the ruins, which are conveniently located just across the road from the
stazione. The place is amazing. It is quite a large town that was completely
buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24 AD79. It had just
recovered from an earthquake in AD63. Pompeii was buried under a layer of
burning pumice stone fragments and ash. 2000 inhabitants were killed. It was
discovered in 1594 but exploration began in 1748 and still continues. We
chose to bypass the guides who wanted to take lead our tour for €50, the
audio cassettes you could rent, and any guidebooks. We did grab a good map
and just wandered the place for 6 hours and only saw parts of it. It was
great having 4 sets of eyes to discover all the goodies and pretty rooms and
decorations. It is obvious some buildings have been restored, but it is not
obvious what has been replaced, other than the wooden and steel beams and
such that make it safe to wander about. Many floors are covered in small
tiles in wonderful patterns. Many walls are adorned with paintings. We
couldn’t tell if they had been restored or have survived so well, but they
were wonderful. Likely the originals are in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale
in Naples and what we see are replicas. A guide chatted with us a brief
while, and we learned about room layouts, courtyards and gardens. Slaves had
the front bedrooms facing the street so they could protect the family and be
the first to face any invaders. Roads had 3 big stone blocks across them
every block or two and the guide told us they were stepping stones across
the road when the streets were flooded. Our speculators hadn’t come up with
that possible reason for them. Pompeii has few amenities and none open in
winter, so we were glad we brought our lunch. We did find an auto-loo at the
far end but had to really look and wait.
Another day we took the train to Ercolano which is the new name for
Herculaneum, another town destroyed by Vesuvius, to view Mt. Vesuvius.
Lonely Planet says to take the local bus and to avoid the taxi drivers who
will tell you there are no buses for a long time. So we smiled at the taxi
drivers who said there was no bus for 2 hours and quoted us a fare to
Vesuvius. We found the Information kiosk who confirmed that there would be
no bus for 2 hours. Should we visit Herculaneum and come back for the bus or
deal with the taxi drivers? We opted for the taxi and were so glad we did.
Our intention was to climb to Mt. Vesuvius, walk the rim, and hike to an
adjacent hill described in Lonely Planet’s Walking in Italy book, so we
didn’t like the short time limit the taxi guys wanted to put on us. They
convinced us that you cannot hike the entire rim, you cannot hike to the
other hill and the Mt. closes at 3pm in winter. OK then. Off we went with
the taxi driver, crazy winding road, up and up. From the parking lot it is a
steep 1.5km 30+ minute walk to the summit area and the rim of the crater. A
guide briefed us about the Mt., then we wandered the area that was available
to us and enjoyed our lunch. The Mt. Vesuvius we were looking at is a new
cone. The one that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum was itself destroyed
when it blew in AD79. They now have all kinds of monitors in place to detect
volcanic activity and have great plans of evacuation for the next eruption.
They say it’s not IF but WHEN. It last blew in 1944. The volcano is not as
interesting and exciting as the one on the Big Island of Hawaii, but it is a
significant volcano as 3 million people live in its shadow. People from the
last bus of the day .. the one we were to catch … were climbing up Vesuvius
as we returned to our taxi. They had less than 1.5 hours before the park
closed. It cost us each €6 for Mt. Vesuvius, €10 plus a tip the driver
prodded us for the last 15 minutes of the return trip, and a tip for the
Thanks to the shorter than expected trip to Mt. Vesuvius, we had a few hours
to visit Herculaneum. Herculaneum was buried by a river of volcanic mud
which preserved it for posterity. Excavations were carried out in the 1800s
but most finds were carried away. Serious work began in 1927 and continues
today. Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii .. at least the unearthed
part … but has not been as prettied up and made accessible as is Pompeii,
but they’re working on it. Because of the mud, the buildings are more intact
and there are some great men’s and women’s baths.
Another day we took a ferry to the isle of Capri. That’s ca-pri, not the way
we say it from the song. A tour guy offered us seats on his tour bus that
would whisk us away and hit the hot tourist spots for only €20 each and
enough time to take snaps. We’d done our homework however and stuck to our
plan to use the local bus. We bought a day pass for €7 each and we really
had to move to catch enough buses to make it economical, over the €1.30
single trip fare. The funicular from the ferry dock to Capri Town was
broken, so we headed by bus for Anacapri and took a chair lift to the top of
Monte Solaro. On a clear day you can see for miles from up there but it
wasn’t so clear this day. The views were spectacular if hazy. Back down to
the bus stop and off to Faro, the Blue Grotto and back to Capri Town for a
lazy tour of the Piazza Umberto. Capri is pretty wonderful and luxurious.
The whole area, but particularly Sorrento, is home to Limoncello, a
delightful lemon liqueur. Shops are filled with wonderful
all-sorts-of-shaped bottles of limoncello, limoncello candies and candles
and magnets, tea towels, bowl, glasses, trays, etc. Capri is also home to
the insalata caprese, a wonderful Italian salad of fresh tomatoes, basil,
mozzarella and olive oil. We had to choose the 1:30 or 6:30 return ferry to
Sorrento. We chose 6:30 reluctantly, but there was enough on Capri to make
us glad we were there until after dark.
Other days we took the exciting bus ride along the Amalfi coast … one of the
most breathtaking coastlines in Europe, says Lonely Planet. “A narrow
asphalt ribbon, itself a feat of road-building as spectacular as the views,
winds along cliffs that drop to crystal-clear blue waters and passes through
the beautiful towns of Positano and Amalfi. Peering down from its lofty
lookout is the stunning hillside village of Ravello.” “The coastal road is
magnificient – as a passenger. To drive it can be something of a
white-knuckle ride, as bus drivers nonchalantly edge their way round hairpin
bends, jauntily tooting at every turn. In summer it becomes a 50km-long
traffic jam and can take hours to navigate.” Luckily there wasn’t much
traffic when we were there. We spent time in all 3 villages and they are
wonderful. Positano is the postcard village. Somewhere I read it described
as the town of chutes and ladders, and so it is. You can walk down from the
bus stop to the beach via the steep winding roads .. the chutes .. or take
the many steps .. the ladders. There are lots of cute shops, great clothes
and wonderful houses.
Lonely Planet mentions a short walking track to nearby Nocelle, but we
followed the route described in Mike’s hiking book and wound up on the
Sentiero degli Dei .. Path of the Gods .. and climbed and climbed up to the
top of the hills over Positano. Most days we would have been in the clouds
.. but this day was pretty clear. At the top we blessedly found a bar with a
WC and we refreshed ourselves. Larry and I retraced the path we’d taken up,
but Judy was determined to continue on, find Nocelle and get back to
Positano. It took us 2 hours to get back down, and as we sat at the bus stop
enjoying a couple of big beers, we were sure we weren’t going to see the
Caslers again for a LONG time. But NO .. they showed up before the bus did
and had a grand time on their hike. We were amazed.
We all enjoyed our little bungalows in Sorrento. We had patios beneath olive
trees and orange trees we could eat from. Twin grey and white kittens
visited often and felt at home with us. Their mom took to joining them and
whining for Friskies. It was fun.
Workers in Sorrento spent the whole 2 weeks we were there putting up a giant
plastic pyramid-shaped tree in Piazza Tasso, putting little lit trees on
each of the many balconies on the buildings surrounding the piazza, and
stringing rows and rows and truck loads of lights across Corso Italia.
Saturday December 4 was to be the lighting of the lot .. 6:30 being the
posted time. We hung around until 7:15, with many others. What we saw was
workers on a big boom truck still stringing lights on the big tree. The band
was there and led some people away like the Pied Piper. An organ concert was
scheduled for 7:30 at St. Francis Church nearby. We moseyed over there just
before 7:30 wondering if the concert was indeed free and if there were any
seats left. What we found was an empty church save for the practicing
organist. What a cock-up!! We gave up and went for pizza. We returned on
Monday night to find the whole city awash in lights and much Christmas
gaiety. It was wonderful.
We looked around for a good way to get to Salerno for the ferry to Malta.
Larry really didn’t want to return to Naples and train from there, though it
would be a cheap option. We could ferry to Capri, but ferries don’t go from
there to Salerno in winter. We got a quote of €150 from a travel agent near
the campground. I found some transportation agents on the net and got a €90
quote from one … an 18 passenger van they said, so we booked it and didn’t
pack up the bikes or remove the trailer wheels. We packed our panniers with
lots of beer and wine and picnic supplies to tide us over the 2 nights on
the ferry. We checked the web the night before and found that our ferry dock
was NOT 5 minutes from the train station, as we’d imagined. It was well out
of Salerno. We were mighty happy to have booked the van.
The day was rainy and gray. We were nervous about the van showing up at
10am. It was December 8 .. a holiday in Italy. What alternate arrangements
could we set up in a hurry? But Mario arrived, put everything in his 8
passenger van (I knew 18 must be a mistake), and got us in with 2 seats to
spare. I was hoping he’d take the Amalfi coast road but he took the
autostrada and got us to the dock by 11:20. Getting off the autostrada, he
wound down and down to sea level. We were SOOOO happy we didn’t do the
Naples train route. We still don’t know what we’d have been in for, biking
from the Salerno train station to the ferry dock. We tipped Mario well. Now
we had only to sit in the drizzle and wait til we could board the ferry at
6pm. We sat near the ticket booth, which wasn’t open. So we were the
Information people for the many that came looking to buy a ticket. “No so”
(I don’t know) was our pat response.
Finally we got tickets, made it through Customs and boarded. We settled the
bikes, grabbed our bags and headed straight to our cabin for beers and a
picnic and a freshen up. Later we went out on deck as we slipped away from
port and softly said “Arrivederci Roma” for the last time. We got a last
glimpse of the Amalfi coast, this time from sea and all lit up for night and
for Christmas. It was magic.
Larry pointed out a notice warning of arrest if you are caught possessing or
being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A ship guy had grabbed my
pannier full of wine bottles and gave a co-worker a knowing look when it
rattled. When we returned to our cabin, the port window shade was down, and
Larry swears he didn’t do it .. nor did I. So we were paranoid. There were
empty beer bottles in the basket and a wine bottle on the table. We slept
nervously but well with the gently rolling seas.
The next day we had a stop in Tunis. We thought we had 6 hours there, but
they wanted us back on board early. After customs, we had only 2.5 hours. A
group of 6 uniformed agents were ushered onboard just before they let the
passengers off. We were sure they were going to search our room and find our
alcohol and we’d be arrested when we returned. A jail in Tunisia .. wouldn’t
that be a great adventure?
We didn’t want to exchange any euros for Tunisia money and we didn’t want to
be caught in the town and not make it back to the ferry, so we turned down
the many persistent taxi drivers who wanted to take us to town and assured
us that it was NOT possible to just walk around .. it is a military town and
you just can’t walk around. A taxi ride with me for just €4 and you pay on
the ship. OK .. €3 and you buy the gas. It changed every sentence. And how
and why would we pay on the ship? So we just took off and walked around for
a few hours and did just fine, though we must have missed some exotic sights
in town and the bazaars and such. We sat by the beach and basked until the
rains came. We went back to the ship early and it took a very special
Tunisian official who intervened when the customs agents wanted to make us
wait til 5pm to board. He got us through, no one stopped us boarding the
boat, and no one arrested us when we returned to our cabin. It was untouched
… not even fresh towels. Phewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.
We got to Malta earlier that expected, so Larry wasn’t out on deck taking
photos. It was raining again and it was a wet ride to Spinola Bay to meet
our realtor. We had no decent map, so just had to stay on the major highway
and follow signs to the towns we recognized. We went through tunnels, up and
down hills, got beeped at lots, got helped many time but it was sunny and
wonderful by the time we found St. Julians. So many people offered to help
that day with our bikes. Since then, no one talks to us. The bikes are
really a magnet ... especially here, as there aren’t many bikes. Little kids
have them, some teenagers, few adults. We get looks.
We phoned our realtor and he met us at the head of the bay. We were just
down the hill from our apartment. We got that close without an address.
We’re good. We walked up the hill the wrong way and he drove around and met
us. The landlord was there and soon we were all signed in and acquainted
with the apartment. Our gear was all wet and muddy and we were reluctant to
bring it all in like that, but the landlord insisted. We have a bathroom,
bedroom, kitchen, a big diningroom/lounge that looks out on Spinola Bay, and
a sitting room at the back. The place is about 13 feet wide and 80 feet
long. It’s one long hallway with all but the lounge off it. We have great
windows in the front, a window in our bedroom and a back door. The sun
doesn’t get in and it is always cold. We also have a rooftop terrace where
we can bask and hang our clothes. We have a phone that works with phone
cards only, cable TV with mostly Italian and Maltese stations, and we got
cable Internet. Whoopee.
We got settled in, found grocery markets, walked the promenade and started
to hibernate. We had a quiet warm Christmas and are having a quiet rainy New
Years. We started to bike around a bit and are finding the apartments we
didn’t select and are happy with our choice. http://62582.com/2383.asp We’ll
continue to investigate the island treasures and tell you more next month.
Our friends Sid and Ruth from Melbourne may visit us in February. That will
be fun. Til then, stay warm.
We did spend most of the month hibernating. We got out and around quite a
few days until January 16. That day the wind howled and the skies opened and
the temperature dropped and the seas raged. It was fun to sit in our window
and watch it all. Since then it has been cold and cloudy and we’ve had
thunder and hail and have our little electric heater on morning and night.
We do get out most days for a walk or groceries or something. We sit on the
roof and soak up the sun when it’s there for us. But now we’re all bundled
up, where we basked in shorts before the 16th sometimes. We get way too much
enjoyment hearing about all the storms in the states. Naughty us. Last week
all of Spain and Italy and beyond had a big snowstorm with trucks
jack-knifed and travelers stranded on the autostrada. Snow even on Majorca/Mallorca
and northern Algiers. So we’re not whinging so much about the cold anymore.
In Italy they are all blaming the government for not closing the roads. The
storm was predicted, so why were they allowed to drive. Huhhhh????
We postponed our island adventures until we took a day to bus to Valletta to
buy a bus pass/card type deal with a bunch of lira on it. But when we
finally got ourselves there, the card itself cost Lm1.50 and then you add
the bus monies on. Well .. with most bus trips costing Lm.15 or Lm.40 for a
really long ride, it was surely not worth each of us buying the card. We can
just hoard our change and pay the bus driver. Then we thought we’d just buy
a bunch of single trip tickets. They turned out to be tickets just for that
day … that hour really, though we could use hours later the one we’d bought
earlier. Luckily we noticed and didn’t buy a whole bunch at one time.
So far we’ve had a look around Valletta and Floriana, Buggiba and St. Paul’s
Bay, Mdina and Rabat, Mosta and Marsaloxx, besides our local neighborhoods.
Valetta, the capital, and Floriana share the long finger of the Sceberras
peninsula. Valletta was built by the Knights of the Order of St. John in the
16th and the 17th centuries when the Spanish gave them Malta after the Turks
drove them out of Rhodes. Around 8000 slaves and artisans leveled the
limestone ridge, cut a drainage system around the bedrock, and laid out a
regular grid of streets … the first planned city in Europe. A big ditch 18m
deep, 20m wide and nearly 1km long was cut across the peninsula to protect
the landward approach, and built massive walls and bastions around the
perimeter of the city. So the whole city is up on top of great stone walls.
There are 2 nice garden parks that look towards the 3 cities on the
peninsula opposite .. also built on big walls. It looks wonderful from afar,
but not as great up close, as there is much litter and not enough
maintenance. St. Paul spent 3 months on Malta when his ship was wrecked
offshore taking him to stand trial in Rome. We visited the Shipwreck Church
in Valletta and later biked to the village of St. Paul’s Bay up the coast.
There are always such goodies in these churches. This one has some bones
from the saint’s forearm and part of the column on which he is said to have
been beheaded in Rome.
Valletta has a daily outdoor market we were looking forward to, but it was
just new junk, jogging suits and CDs and socks and such. There is also a
Sunday market outside of Valletta. There are no thrift stores or used book
stores here, so I was hoping to find cheap used novels. But it too was a
disappointment .. much the same junk as the daily market with a few antiques
thrown in. We did find a Malta map book from 1996 of all the small towns.
The tourist maps just explode Valletta, St. Julians and a few others. We
were having trouble figuring out where we were when biking, as roads are not
well marked. We postponed visiting St. John’s Cathedral with its
not-to-be-missed paintings by Caravaggio and The Malta Experience, an
audiovisual presentation showing the history of Malta.
One rainy day we took the bus to Bugibba and Qawra up the coast towards Gozo.
It is the more touristy resort area of Malta. Great sea views, lots of
souvenir shops and hotels. So we hopped on whatever bus came next and found
ourselves headed for Rabat and Mdina and happily it was nice and sunny when
we got there. Mdina is a citadel city fortified from the earliest times. It
was the original capital of Malta, known in medieval times as Citta Notabile
.. the Noble City. Today with its massive walls and peaceful, shady streets,
it is called the Silent City. Mdina is the walled city; Rabat is the town
outside the walls. St. Paul’s Cathedral is the main attraction in Mdina with
lots of beautiful marble and paintings. The bus ride home gave us a glimpse
of Mosta and San Gwann, which we have since visited often.
Mosta has a few bike shops including one recommended by a biker who chatted
with us on Day 1. We managed one visit when the Mosta Dome was open and
visited the beautiful Church of Santa Maria with its beautiful blue, gold
and white marble interior. In 1942, the Italian air force dropped 3 bombs on
the Mosta Dome where 300 parishioners waited to hear Mass. Two bounced off
and landed in the square without exploding. The third pierced the dome,
smashed off a wall and rolled across the floor of the church. The bomb
failed to detonate and no one was hurt. There is a cast replica of the bomb
on display in the church sacristy. The volunteer greeting visitors said he
was in the church when the bombs fell. Scary.
Another day we bussed to Valletta for a folk festival. The newspaper said it
opened at 9:30am. What it didn’t say was that it ended at noon. People came
from all sorts of countries for a festival that ended at noon!!! Naturally
that’s just when we get started, so we saw them just folding up. So we took
a bus to Marsaxlokk (marsa-shlock), a fishing village in the southeast that
has lots of Maltese fishing boats in the harbor. The boats, called luzzu,
are a national symbol. They are painted in blue, red and yellow with the
watchful “eyes of Osiris” on the bows to ward off evil spirits. We have
quite a few in the Spinola Bay harbor in front of our apartment, but there
are many more in Marsaxlokk. There is also a touristy outdoor market selling
Maltese laces and beach towels and nougat candies. We had a pizza, walked
the coast and caught a bus back. A delightful little 4 year old girl from
Australia sat in the back with us and we sang Wiggles songs. I tried to
ignore her as she shouldn’t be cavorting with strangers, but she’d have none
The buses here are a tourist attraction. They are mostly classic 1950-1970’s
Bedfords, Thames, Leylands and AECs painted bright yellow, orange and white.
They are decorated with badges and sayings and religious articles around the
inside front. They ride like old school buses. We are scrunched when we
share a seat. No room for knees or our wide shoulders. They creak and rattle
and you fly to the roof when the driver hits each rut and bump. Better than
Great America!! They cost Lm .15 (x$3.10 = $.45) for most routes all of
which begin in Valletta. They have some Lm .40 ($1.20) direct routes that we
can catch in our neighborhood with no need to travel first to Valletta. No
transfers, no time limit a ticket is good for. One payment, one route. You
must have or buy a ticket to get on, yet about every route we’ve been on, a
guy has hopped on and checked each ticket. We rode for a week in Rome and
never got checked. Interesting. There is a tourist daily ticket for Lm2.00
that takes you to all the tourist sites, but you’d have to just keep on
trucking to make it economical. The island is not big but it seems so when
you are on the bus. It takes a long time to travel 10km on the bus. There
are also lots of classic British cars and vintage trucks on the road. See
the picture of the great hearse and note the license plate.
We have decided that if we get going in the morning, we should be able to
bike to most of the temples and tourist sites. We biked past Mosta to Mdina
and past to the Dingli cliffs. We wandered through the Craft Village, a bus
tourist stop to see glass blowers, lace makers, jewelry makers and the like.
We biked to Balzan to see a Super Store .. a real big supermarket. We bike
straight uphill for .5 miles, then 1.5 miles slightly uphill to get away
from our apartment. Our apartment faces Spinola Bay from the 4th floor. We
also have an entrance to Main Street behind us and there we walk out to
street level. This is one hilly island. There aren’t a lot of bikers. The
only time anyone speaks to us is when we have our bikes. We had 2 nice
conversations with British visitors. One couple bought an apartment here 3
years ago and come on holiday.
We look forward this next weekend to Carnival. The agenda lists many
defilements, which appear to be parades.
We may even venture by bus, ferry, bus to the island of Gozo (goat-so) where
the village of Nadur is supposed to have a spontaneous dark and macabre
carnival .. maybe like State Street in Madison on Halloween.
We are sitting around just now waiting for a FedEx package to be delivered.
Larry needed a new hub for his rear bike wheel, so he ordered a new wheel
with hub and 2 trailer attachments from Green Gear in Oregon. The invoice is
for about $325 plus $75 shipping. Customs called and their bill is Lm35
Malta has no rivers or lakes or much of a water table. Water mostly comes
from several large desalination plants. Sixty percent of all tap water is
desalinated seawater, produced by means of reverse osmosis. It is drinkable,
but tastes pretty awful, even when let to sit to let the chlorine evaporate.
We found if we add a sachet of coral calcium to a 2 liter bottle it becomes
palatable. I had a good supply at Heidi’s and she was kind enough to send it
to us. Thanks Heidi.
We have been looking around and asking for corned beef, as it is nearly St.
Patrick’s month. They only have it here in tins. So we found a recipe and
are now soaking beef in salt brine for a week, trying to make our own. We’ll
let you know next month how that works. We bought peppercorns, bay leaves,
paprika and pickling spice to add when we cook it.
We are starting to think about where to spend next winter. We thought the
Canary Islands, but now don’t think that is far enough south. We don’t like
this cold. Now we’re thinking Costa Rica or Puerto Rico. But first we have
to figure out how to leave Malta in April. We had it all sorted .. take the
ferry we came on from Malta to Salerno, then the same day on to Valencia,
Spain. Now the ferry company canceled the ferry to Valencia, so it will have
to be Salerno, Palermo, Civitavecchia, Barcelona or Genoa to Barcelona. It’s
always something. We are very happy to have inhouse Internet connection to
work it all out. We’ll likely spend 3 months in Spain and France, then on to
the UK, especially Wales and Scotland and visit Wendy and Brian from Bath
who we met in New Zealand. This Schengen thing is really messing up this
The bike parts finally arrived and Larry spent a few days on bike
maintenance. We had a little sun to bask on the roof some mornings and went
to Valletta for the Saturday Karnival parade. The stores had been showing
many fancy dress costumes for children. We learned the fancy dress term when
Prince Harry got into such trouble with his costume. So we figured out
correctly that Karnival is mostly for children, as they were all outfitted
Just inside the gate to Valletta a big arena was set up with bleacher seats
surrounding an empty area. People paid a few lira to sit and watch a dance
competition followed by the float parade. Karnival seems to be a Mardi Gras
type festival without the beads and boobs. The big paper mache floats lined
up and the parade began at 1:30. It went just a few blocks with much
lingering because the point it seemed was to be announced to the seated
crowd after the dance competition ended around 3:30. People wandered all
around and among the floats .. no lining up to watch politely. We were
standing just outside the seating area where the floats waited to enter the
arena. Lots of waiting there. The float people brought out cases and cases
of beer to keep their float lubed. A lot of the dance competition groups
seemed to be linked to a float and joined it after the competition, their
costumes complementing the float theme.
Sunday we thought we might go to Gozo, but at 9:30 we heard lots of music
and went down the block to the center of St. Julians and found the street
blocked off and a dance exhibition going on there. So we watched that for a
few hours. In the meantime I was checking our Lonely Planet Malta book and
it looked like the last bus back from Gozo was early evening, so we wouldn’t
likely see much of the Nadur Karnival anyway.
We planned to go back for the closing of Karnival in Valletta on Tuesday
evening, but the wind and rain began so we stayed home, warm and dry. We
wondered what they would do with those floats in that weather. But the news
later looked like it was just cold and windy but the floats survived. Cable
TV showed night after night of Karnival from Sicily as well. There was a
definite difference in the float styles between Sicily and Malta. Not as
neon there, more feathers and classier.
That wind and rain continued for another 2 weeks. The wind howwwwled, the
sea raged, driving rain came in the window, we froze. Then we’d get some sun
mornings til noon and finally last week it looked like spring had arrived.
So we did lots of reading, Larry practiced his music and we decided on Costa
Rica for next winter. We booked tickets from Shannon Ireland to Costa Rica
and booked a house in Quepos on the Pacific side, about 2 hours bus ride
from San Juan from December 2005 thru April 2006. We have room for you to
visit .. come on down.
When it got nice last week, we biked into Valletta and did the paperwork to
extend our visa here. We also booked our way out of Malta on ferries via
Salerno, Palermo and Civitavecchia to Barcelona. We biked 25 miles roundtrip
to the ancient temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra and those few miles took us
all day .. about 5 hours of biking. Did I mention there are hills and rough
roads??? These temples date from 3600 to 3000 BC and are the oldest
freestanding stone structures in the world. They pre-date the pyramids f
Egypt by more than 500 years. Another day we biked another 25 miles
roundtrip to Golden Bay but only had a short while to sit and admire Ghajn
Tuffieha Bay before we had to head back home. We spoke with 2 women from
Maryland on a 2-week tour here, the first Americans we’ve encountered.
Today winter is back and the wind is howling, the rain driving and the sea
raging. Oh well …
Friends Sid and Ruth from Melbourne are coming for 2 weeks over Easter and
we’ll do all the tourist attractions we’ve been delaying. We’ll feed them
all our lovely dishes with Maltese sausage .. pasta, couscous, jambalaya ..
as well as asparagus crepes, white chicken chili, etc. We still haven’t gone
to restaurants, as we can make our own Italian dishes and the Maltese dishes
of rabbit and octopus don’t call to us. The corned beef turned out pretty
good and we’ve done that twice. It doesn’t get red like in the states.
Wonder what causes the red???
March came in like a lion, went out mildly with a day of rain and now is
howwwwwwwwwwling windy again. But in between, Spring arrived and a bit of
Summer sometimes and it was lovely.
Early in the month we headed to the cinema to see Ray. We got halted by a
young man asking us to participate in a questionnaire. Four hours later we
were the owners of a studio timeshare in the Intercontinental Hotel
apartments. We still wonder how that happened? The guy offered me free movie
tickets is how it began. Then we heard all about Interval International and
low price airfares and Escape weeks and the apartments all over the world we
can trade for and we decided this would fit into our next life. With the
Schengen dilemma we’ll be coming back to Europe for 3 months at a time
instead of a long trip, and we can tie a timeshare exchange into these
visits. We can also book into a 5 star resort when we are traveling the
Americas by campervan. We never did see Ray, but used the tickets instead to
see a 3D sea movie at the IMAX.
On St. Patrick’s Day evening we ventured down the road for a Guinness.
Ryan’s Irish Pub “was out of Guinness” but had Murphey’s Irish Stout on
offer for Lm1. We were happy. The barkeep gave us each a wonderful big
leprechaun Murphey’s hat. We will send one to Jaime for her bedtime “hat
night” routine. The Dubliner was too crowded to consider, so we had our
Guinness at Saddles, a small bar down the street. Nice Irish music playing
at all 3 bars, but none live.
On Palm Sunday a church procession of youth, 2 donkeys, some clergy, parents
and managing adults chanting via a small mobile PA system, processed from a
small church at the top of Spinola Bay along the promenade in front of our
apartment and up to Main Street behind our apartment to the new St. Julian’s
church with the altar boys distributing olive branches from their baskets
and some carrying giant palm fronds.
We did some reconnaissance activities, but mostly waited for Sid and Ruth to
join us on Malta adventures. Day 1 arrival we met them at the airport and
bussed back to St. Julians and enjoyed a sunny happy hour on the roof. Day 2
we bussed to Cirkewwa for the 25 minute ferry ride to Gozo. Malta is
comprised of 3 islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino. Malta is the main island,
Gozo is smaller, more agricultural and less populated, Comino just a barren
chunk of limestone with a hotel closed in the winter and the Blue Lagoon, a
sheltered cove of white sand and turquoise waters .. a popular day boat trip
for swimming and snorkeling. When Larry and I went on reconnaissance, we
found that there weren’t many buses to the tourist towns in the afternoon.
Our landlord recommended we hire a taxi for the day, so that is what we
worked out. The taxi driver turned out to be a Maltese fellow who lived in
Sunshine Australia, back to help take care of the ailing in-laws. So we had
good Ozzie chats with him and got great service.
I had read about a Last Supper display in Nadur, but it was closed in the
morning. We returned later and happened to catch a guy who let us in, though
it was an evening showing. A whole room was filled with life-size statues
arranged around a Last Supper table. We found many such displays in various
sizes throughout the week before Easter. Sid and Ruth just finished The Da
Vinci Code, so we were on the lookout for Mary Magdalene. We visited the
megalithic temples of Ggantija, the largest of the megalithic temples found
in the Maltese Islands. The walls stand over 6m high and the two temples
together span over 40m. They date from 3600 to 3000 BC.
A drive through Marsalforn, a little fishing village that has turned tourist
trap .. and on to Dwerja to get out and see the Azure Window, a huge natural
arch in the sea cliffs, and the Blue Hole, a natural vertical chimney in the
limestone, about 10m in diameter and 25m deep. It is a popular dive and
snorkeling site. Fungus Rock grows a rare plant that was used to staunch
bleeding and prevent infection when used to dress wounds. This is the only
place it is found in Europe.
On for a few hours of touring Victoria and Il-Kastell. The Cathedral of the
Assumption had special Holy Week statue displays and a wonderful flower
strewn altar. Views of Gozo from the ramparts and a beer/tea in the gardens.
Hmmmmmmmmmmmm… Back to the ferry and the bouncy bus ride home.
Holy Thursday we went to Rabat and Mdina and toured the Museum of Roman
Antiquities, newly reopened after restoration of the excavated remains of a
large Roman townhouse dating from the 1st century BC. On to St. Paul’s
Church and the Grotto of St. Paul, a cave where the saint is said to have
preached during his stay in Malta. Down the streets are two catacombs.
Lonely Planet says St. Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs are more interesting
with a series of remarkable frescoes dating from the 12th to the 15th
century. St. Agatha is said to have hidden here when she fled Sicily in the
3rd century to avoid amorous advances of a Sicilian governor. When she
returned to Sicily, she was imprisoned and tortured and her breasts cut off
with shears. Ouchhhhhhhhhh ….. The catacombs were an amazing maze of
connected paths built around rectangular crypts. Some contain skeletal
A quick tour of Mdina and St. Paul’s Cathedral, also spiffed up with Holy
Week specialties. A few Wirja Last Supper or Stations of the Cross displays
were open for touring.
There were several good First Friday processions to choose from and we chose
to go to Mosta. The Church of Santa Maria .. the Mosta Dome .. had Good
Friday ceremonies in session and the church was full. So we queued up along
the ropes outside to await the procession. The taxi driver on Gozo said the
procession can last from 6pm til midnight in Victoria. Noooooooooo way. Well
.. the procession in Mosta was magnificent. Six to 10 men carried giant
statues representing Good Friday events … maybe directly linked to the
Stations of the Cross, I was never sure … preceded by children in costume
and Roman soldiers and participants of the Passion. Each statue was followed
by 6 men in Klu Klux Klan costumes dragging chains on their ankles, most
barefoot, all who made a pledge of repentance or a vow of some sort. We
watched and flashed photos for about an hour before Sid wondered how late
the buses ran. Oops. The last Direct bus was at 6:30 but we caught a bus to
Valletta, then another to St. Julians. The short Maltese people around us
were happy to see us leave so they could belly up to the rope for the
procession. We saw only 4 of the statues, so the event would go on a long
time. We saw many Wirjas and lit crosses and displays on the way to the
re-routed bus and on the road to Valletta. The next day they were all closed
up. None to be found open on Holy Saturday or Easter. Earlier, businesses
and homes were decorated with bulb crosses and a purple banner, much as they
would be with Christmas decorations.
Easter Sunday brought a He Is Risen Band Parade in St. Julians that took 2
hours for them to cover a kilometer. The guys carrying the Risen Christ
statue were older and less fit than those in Mosta on Friday. A new friend
we met, Manoel, told Ruth that the men bid and pay for the honor to carry
the statue. He said you can come back in 10 years and it’ll be the same
guys. He told her too that this wasn’t a Procession because there was no
priest. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh … a fine distinction, that. The band would play a
song and the men hoist the statue and march a short distance, then they
would all rest for 10+ minutes.
With the religious events out of the way, we visited the temples of Hagar
Qim and Mnajdra and the Blue Grotto, a huge natural arch in the sea cliffs
on the west coast.
There was another scare as a bunch of us foreigners waited for the bus at
the temple. The schedule looked like the last one was long past. But another
came and we were all grateful. It’s a wonderful vast wasteland on that side
of the island and you don’t want to be stranded or have to hike into town.
Another day we visited the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum and the Tarxien Temples in
Paola. The Hypogeum is an incredible underground necropolis, discovered
during building work in 1902. It consists of halls, chambers and passages
hewn out of the living rock and covering some 500 sq meters, thought to date
from around 3600 to 3000 BC. An estimated 7000 bodies may have been interred
there. But the bones had ochre marks painted on them, so the bones were
placed there “later”. It is like they carved an underground temple, similar
to the above ground temples they built. The Hypogeum was closed for many
years and restored. Only 8 tours of 10 people are allowed through each day
and you must book well in advance. It is now climate controlled to ensure
The Tarxien Temples were excavated in 1914 and thought to date from 3600 to
2500 BC. There are four linked temples, built with massive stone blocks up
to 3m by 1m by 1m in size, decorated with spiral patterns and pitting, and
reliefs of animals including bulls, goats and pigs. See the pictures for a
large statue of a broad-hipped female figure found there. We finished the
day in Marsaxlokk where a fete was underway following a walk from Zejtun to
Marsaxlokk for St. Gregory’s Day. Lots of Bingo and a market.
A day in Valletta took us to the National Museum of Archaeology to see the
artifacts removed from the temples and Hypogeum. The so-called ‘fat ladies’
– perhaps representing a fertility goddess – with massive rounded thighs and
arms but tiny doll-like hands and feet, wearing a pleated skirt and sitting
with legs tucked neatly to one side. Best of all is the ‘Sleeping Lady’
found at the Hypogeum and dating from around 3000 BC. The well-endowed Venus
is seen lying on her side with her head propped on one arm, apparently in
the depths of blissful sleep. (I copy from Lonely Planet. You know I can’t
write this stuff myself.) Next St. John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum, St.
Paul’s Shipwreck Church, the Grand Master’s Palace for a display of armour
and the State Apartments. The Knights of St. John comprised eight
nationalities or langues and its members lived in an augerbe. Many of the
beautiful buildings remaining in Valletta were these auberges and bear
beautiful crests of the langue. The National Museum of Archeology is housed
in the Auberge de Provence and the Ministry of Tourism is housed in the
Auberge d’Italie built in 1574. The finale was the Malta Experience, a 45
minute audiovisual presentation that showcases the country’s long history
and scenic attractions. A view of South Barrakka Gardens and the Great Siege
Bell, with view to the 3 Cities was the last act. We took the ferry from
Valletta to Sliema and bussed home from there.
Another day we bussed to the 3 Cities, but with little time and pending
rain, we walked Victoriosa and Fort St. Angelo, then headed for Fort Rinella
for an animated tour by volunteers. Fort Rinella was build to hold a 100-ton
Armstrong gun – the biggest muzzle-loading gun ever made. Their 100-ton
shells had a range of 6.4 km and could penetrate 38cm of armour plating. The
gun was never fired in anger and was retired in 1906. Fort Rinella has been
restored by a group of amateur enthusiasts from the Malta Heritage Trust.
Armstrong was a Brit and offered his powerful guns first to the Brits. They
declined, and business being business, he sold them to Italy who put them on
ships. The British had to build this fort in Malta to protect them against
the guns they had first refusal on.
One of Ruth’s co-workers has a cousin living in Malta, so we met her in
Valletta one day. She showed us the beautiful Manoel Theater and Ruth and I
joined her there in the evening for a special concert for an ailing young
musician. We sat way up on the 5th floor of private rooms surrounding the
main floor. It was like a Viennese theater you might see on postcards. We
had a grand tour of her church, St. Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral. There
were a lot of British and Australian coats of arms and warships that visited
and such. A worker/cleaner/tour guy showed us lots of special touches and
made us feel very welcome. Marie Louise (pronounced Mari) was a wonderful
tour guide, having lived here 7 years over time. Sid and Ruth joined her for
church service on Sunday. Larry and I had lousy colds/coughs the whole time
Sid and Ruth were here, so we missed church but I caught up with them,
bringing the wine for afternoon tea with Marie Louise at her flat in a 16th
century villa in Attard. The Villa Bologna’s 17 acres of gardens are open
for tour groups and a made-for-American-TV movie Helen of Troy was filmed
there recently. A beautiful tan and brown cat has adopted Marie Louise and
she takes it on a walk through the gardens each Sunday. Marie Louise found a
small dead snake and held it on a stick for Patience to play with. A very
clever cat, that.
Marie Louise came to our apartment on Sid and Ruth’s last day and we had a
nice happy hour followed by an early tea at a café across Spinola Bay. She
accompanied Sid and Ruth on the bus to catch the airport bus from Valletta.
Sid and Ruth waited for a 1am plane, but discovered to their horror that
they were a day late, should have been there early Monday morning, not
Tuesday. So back they came by taxi, spent the night, and off again Tuesday
morning to Istanbul, this time via Rome. They will do a 7 day tour of
Turkish sites, including Gallipoli where many Australian and New Zealanders
were slaughtered in WWI.
This week the feeding tube was pulled on Terri Schiavo in Florida, Pope John
Paul II died and Prince Ranier is very ill. Prince Charles marriage to
Camilla is postponed from Friday to Saturday due to the Pope’s funeral. We
feel honored to have had 2 great opportunities to see La Papa in November.
We have just a few days left in Malta. We’ll clean and pack up and catch a
ferry to Salerno, Italy. Later that day another ferry to Palermo on Sicily
and spend the night. Another ferry the next day to Civitavecchia, Italy and
on to Barcelona, Spain later that day. We’ll bike up the east coast of
Spain, take a canal route toward Bordeaux and up the west coast of France.
We are trying to print a campground reservation form that will put us at the
beginning of the Tour de France July 2. Then on to the UK and Ireland. We
have November 30, 2005 flights from Shannon, Ireland to Costa Rica. We have
rented a house in Quepos for 5 months. Come join us. Monkeys, sloths,
parrots, toucans, beaches and rum.
Deirdre and Heidi are doing well and enjoying Spring. Little Calvin is due
May 24 and Jaime is nearly potty trained. Happy Spring.
We did the cleaning and packing and got our apartment deposit back. Larry
cleaned every nook and cranny and took the area rugs to the roof and beat
them. He is VERY thorough. Unfortunately he also got a relapse of his cold
the following week. He is SURE that this very same virus killed the Pope and
the Prince and we’re not entirely sure about his condition. But it has since
When we got to the Grimaldi Ferry office in Malta and I presented our
printed ticket information, the lady wondered why we weren’t on the list.
Because your system sucks????? After much time and many phone calls and a
manager coming in, I was told the problem is ours, if Grimaldi had gotten
our money and all, our names would be on the list. “Your names are not on
the list. I’m sorry .. I cannot let you on the boat.” Later I heard .. you
have 2 choices … stay in Malta another week while we work it out … or pay
for 2 more tickets and work it out in Salerno or Palermo … and pay in cash
.. no credit cards there. Damn!!! Not another week in Malta!!! Luckily I had
lots of euro, so we sailed. We had gotten an email earlier from Mario from
Grimaldi indicating a change in schedule and asking for our bank details. I
wrote back that the changes did NOT affect our sail from Malta, but the
“system” must have cancelled our bookings anyway. The lady in Malta was able
to confirm that our trips to Palermo and Barcelona were in the system. “Does
that look like Grimaldi did not get our money?” Poooof .. right over her
head. Had to agree with her that we should have confirmed our booking, any
booking, any vehicle, anyplace in the world. Sure, sure lady. Sure, we’ll do
that next time. We’re still working with Mario, who apologizes profusely,
but still wants our bank info, which I tell him the ladies in Malta and
Salerno have and which I don’t want to send by email. Many emails later he
says he cannot credit our VISA card and wants bank details. Huh??
The ferry sailed 2 hours late and all 4 ferries sailed late. Didn’t cancel
those tickets, nor apologize, nor even a free drink for waiting. The ride to
Salerno was rough, but we slept like babes in our nice beds. Got into
Palermo at 2am instead of 10:30pm. Found our way to the low end hotel we’d
reserved and woke the bloke up to let us in. There was no garage or anything
for our bikes. We’d have had to disassemble and take them up to piano 6 in a
little lift. Not at 3am. Luckily he had no $$$ info, so we walked. We biked
back to the harbor and got a bloke from the President Hotel to give us a
room. 5 stars for €140, but we were happy. Got to park our bikes in a secure
lot for €10. The guy said (we thought) to ring the bell and the parking lot
door would open. Larry rang and rang. Turned out it brought a sleeping
attendant in his robe and slippers and he didn’t like the many rings.
Whoops. Passed the next day out of the rain under an overhang, a couple of
bar meals and we were on the boat to Civitaveccia. Nice sunny day and we sat
on the shores of the Mediterranean and took turns shopping, Larry doing bike
maintenance, beers, nice. Lots of young smokers on this ferry. Even an
escalator to take us all up to the cabin area. This ferry was build like the
one we took from Melbourne to Tasmania. The ones to Citivatavecchia and
Barcelona had swimming pools, but not filled for the season yet. Our mantra
is … we’d sure hate to be here in the summer. Think we’ve been saying that
since we arrived in Europe. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm …
We got to Barcelona late too. 5:30 instead of 2pm. Our plan was to follow
the coast and bike north, heading for El Masnon where we noted a campground.
With the late hour, we altered it just to bike north til we found some place
to stay. Didn’t take time to find an I for maps and info. No travel book on
Spain. Totally winging it. After awhile I asked a lady on a bike if she
spoke English and she was very helpful and after a few stops where she
asked, she led us to a place where Constantina rents rooms. We exchanged
cards and Imma left to get to her home and young daughter. We had beers and
relaxed, confident that Constantina would take us in for €20 each when he
returned IF we could store the bikes. He returned, said the bikes are a
problem. I got a nearby auto body shop to say we could park the bikes ‘por
la noche, no problema’. Constantina said NO NO NO. I guess he thought/knew
that we wouldn’t see our bikes again? So we walked over to the 5 star hotel
across the way that was our backup plan. Full. There’s a convention on and
all hotels full. You tried, Imma, and we thank you for being so helpful and
kind. We heard American English as we left the hotel, and sure enough one of
the guys is from Iowa. His Dad’s football team used to play against Madison
West in the ‘80s. Not sure what the convention was, but the next week we saw
reference to a Seibel User’s Week 2005. Big convention, whatever it was.
We wandered around and tried the Casino hotel. There was only a suite left,
for €2400. No thanks. Tried to hire a big van to take us north, but couldn’t
find the driver. No big taxis around. All taxis VERY busy. Tried a few more
hotels and by the time it was getting dark, we ran out of bike route and
found ourselves getting into a less nice neighborhood. So we parked, ate an
“American Hamburger” and cappicinos and parked ourselves on a park bench in
the shadow of the Hotel Barcelona Princess, a 26 story 5 star hotel … fully
booked. We put on all our long clothes, rain pants, mittens, hats .. and sat
out the night. It was about 14°C and a few sprinkles occasionally.
About 3:30am we decided to strike out and head north along the coast. Dead
end industrial a ways up, crossed under a train tracks and inland. Signs
took us to a gas station and the guy directed us north. We kept asking the
way to El Masnon. We got there about 6am and found a campground, but not the
one I had a name for. We kept on, sure it would be a wonderful spot along
the coast .. soon. Following a sign for McDonalds 3km so we could have some
café and brekkie, I asked at a mini-mart petrol station. McDonalds? No.
Asked about the campground and it is 8 km inland, uphill. Oh no. Back to
Centro and some brekkie. Larry saw a sign for a Hotel and I inquired. A room
for €70 but not til noon. I insisted we check out the campground, so I left
him and my trailer behind and biked back there. Got a nice room with a
balcony and seaview for €35. Booked it for 3 nights and retrieved Larry and
gear. We were napping by 10am and made up for the sleepless rough night. And
saved as much as €2400 to boot.
We trained into Barcelona Saturday. Again, no map so we just wandered. Some
nice folks helped us decide us which stop to get off, as we were in a tunnel
and couldn’t see where we were. We soon stumbled on La Rambla, a very
popular and important boulevard street. Lots of people, lots of fun buskers
and street stands and flower and bird markets. We were looking for an I and
some camping and biking information. Found 2, got nice campground info to
Costa Brava. Heading for Gaudi’s ‘Temple Sagrada Familia’, I decide to get
some money. The ATM ate my bank debit VISA card that has served us so well
these 2+ years. No reason … just card captured. Saturday afternoon 3:30 or
so. Later I got a new phone card and called Anchor Bank in Madison. “Spain?
No you can’t use it there. Too much fraud.” “France?” “No .. you got a
letter on it.” Oh noooo …
So we decided to test out our bike exit on Sunday and return to Barcelona on
Monday and Tuesday. We’d try to get the card back, try to get money on our
credit card, and ride the tourist bus on the 2-day pass for €21 each. On
Sunday we found we could follow a coast walking path for 4 miles before we
had to hit the road north. On Monday we got to the bank early and ..
surprise .. the man was able to access my card after he saw my passport and
such. Phewww … Next I was afraid to try my credit card. He accompanied me to
the ATM .. but I panicked as we approached it as I remembered I’d need a PIN
for my credit card. Failed then, but I figured it out and was able to get
€300. Another Phewww ….
We walked way out of the way to the I to buy the bus tickets on credit.
We’ve very deliberately avoided credit card use, as there is a conversion
fee charge of 2% on all foreign exchanges and it is cheaper to get money
with the debit card. Now for the next 3 months or more, we’ll seek places we
can charge so we don’t need so much cash from the credit card. But happy to
be able to do both. So the I said .. ‘buy the tickets on the bus’ .. for
cash of course. Oh well.
Monday we just rode the 3 bus routes and checked out all the stops. Then we
had a nice baguette sub and beer and fries overlooking a harbor .. all for
€8.20 with our bus discount tix. We discovered that our “on the streets”
Friday night was spent in the shadows of the Forum building .. the Barcelona
International Convention Centre, which can host up to 15,000 people, and was
built for a 2004 international meeting lasting 141 days, the Universal Forum
of Cultures. 30 hectares of newly constructed buildings by the sea in a
previously run-down area (right near that not so nice area of which I spoke
earlier). The Forum addressed the challenges of the 21st century: cultural
diversity, sustainable development and the conditions for peace. Imma told
us about it and had worked for the event, held last May thru Sept.
Tuesday we rode the routes again, but got off and toured Gaudi’s Park Guell,
a wonderful free World Heritage Site named for Gaudi’s patron, Count Eusebi
Guell. Lots of kids and lots of picnic’ers. Later we got off at the Palau
Nacional building, which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
It offers great vistas of Barcelona and overlooks the site built for the
1929 International Exhibition and used for the 1992 Summer Olympics. After
another stop at a Chinese Buffet we’d scoped out Monday, we continued on and
got off in the Gothic Quarter. This is a 2000 year old area of an old Roman
town. The Cathedral was very medieval looking and the narrow streets hold
wonderful shops. The Cathedral houses the remains of Saint Eulalia.
We really like Barcelona. It has lovely wide streets and boulevards with
green areas and parks and play areas in the boulevards. Old buildings are
magnificent and stand nicely next to shiny new glass and brass buildings. It
is clean, the smokers aren’t so obnoxious and numerous, people don’t
(always) hog the whole sidewalk and walk wherever. Lots of fountains and
sculpture and not so many churches and religious statues. We thought we were
here to see Picasso, but instead saw lots of Gaudi’s buildings. The Sagrada
Familia is the only Cathedral in the world which is still under
construction. It is Gaudi’s dream, to which he devoted much of his life. At
the time of his death in 1926 when he was hit by a tram, only one of the
towers was complete. “The continuation of Gaudi’s project has become an
unmistakable symbol of Barcelona, not just because of its spectacular size,
but because it also reveals the spirit of a city which has always been
committed to building its future.” The city has lots to do and see, many
museums and parks and you could easily spend a couple of weeks and lots of €
We spent a rest day in our El Masnou digs. Oh ya .. the town is El Masnou,
not El Masnon, as I had written down. But both are pronounced the same, so
it worked out when I was asking directions. The wrong town, the wrong
campground in the wrong town .. and it still worked. Love it when life works
We moved on eventually. Packed it all up again, hit the beach trail, later
N11 and following the campground list the I gave us. Found a nice campground
almost on the sea and booked into a little bungalow for the weekend. Sun,
sand, a stove, fry pan and fridge. Life is great. We were excited when the
guy said TV. Why?? we later wondered .. it’s still all in Spanish. True ..
but we were able to watch Pope Benedict XVI inducted .. live … on DDs 35th
birthday. A day to remember.
We scoped out Blanes up the road, first by train and the next day by bike.
We liked it, so booked a cabin at one of the many campgrounds on the south
end of the city. Five or so are right on the beach and another 5-8 a block
or more inland. There are many permanent sites, most with a caravan with a
big tent annex attached, a big tarped area outside, and a little tent
shelter that we speculated was to hold furniture and such, but which turns
out in every instance to be a little summer kitchen, complete with fridge,
stove, cupboards. None of the sites has water or sewer facilities. They
carry water in big jugs and wash up themselves and dishes in the common
facilities. We had it nice and quiet during the week, but this weekend many
families moved in to open up for the summer. Perhaps the schools have a
break for the next 2 weeks. Our Spanish books said May 1 is a Labor Day
holiday, but a campground lady said last Sunday was special, nothing May 1.
We have also scoped out the trains and hope to catch a train from Blanes to
Macanet at the end of this rail, then switch to a regional train that will
take us through Girona and Figueres and right to Cerbere in France. We will
be missing some lovely areas of Costa Brava but also lots of winding hills.
We are just hoping they’ll take us and all of our gear. They take bikes, but
whole households on trailers as well?
We got up and packed all of our stuff once again. The weather was gray and
cloudy. All the people went home last night. It is not school holidays it
seems. Hate to leave when the campground is so quiet again and we have it
almost to ourselves .. but France is calling us. We biked to the Blanes
train station. When I bought tickets to Macanet yesterday, the guy just sold
them to me. Today the seller questions me, saying Macanet is just a transfer
point .. like WHY would I want to go there? So I say we want to go on to
Cerbere and he sells me 2 tickets all the way for only €12. What a deal! A
sign in Macanet says to buy tickets on the train. We’d planned to do that ..
in case they wouldn’t take us on the train. We get all of our stuff on that
train. Easy because it’s almost empty. Minutes later we’re off and wait for
the busy train to Cerbere. Once again we get it all on, but lots of looks at
our piggish use of space. These are just city type trains, no baggage car.
Larry chose the last car and it’s not so busy. People kindly step around us
and head for another exit door when they reach their stop. This is a 2 hour
ride. Lots of flat fields for a time, then we hit the mountains and see the
road we’d be biking. We ride the rail contentedly. We glimpse seaside towns
between the hills and Larry sees a burro on one of the beaches. Ahhh … the
old Spanish towns we’ll never see this time around.
We got to Cerbere around 3pm and wondered if we could keep going. Yes ..
there’s a train in an hour that goes thru Narbonne and takes bikes. We buy
tickets and ask the nice train people if we can cross the tracks with our
bikes. They say yes!! Hooray. The train is in and a train guy helps us load.
We chat with a couple from Sydney and a young backpacker girl from Ottawa.
Nice to speak English and be understood. A young couple from Paris with
their 2 year old daughter join us in our little train compartment and we
chat. They are on their way to visit Mamie (MaMeeee) and Papi (PaPeeeee) ..
French for Grandma and Grandpa. I learned Grandmere et Grandpere, the formal
version. The train continued on to Avignon and we would have liked to go
there .. to see the Bridge and sing “Sur Le Pont Avignon” and visit at least
one of the spots Heidi saw on her 1990 school trip to France. But we had no
clue to where it is or how hilly it would be to bike back, so next time.
The train made quick stops at each station and we worried about how we’d get
our bikes off at Narbonne. The bikes were in a real baggage car this time
and we needed a train guy to open the big door for us. We hadn’t told anyone
where we were getting off. Miraculously when we got to Narbonne, the
conductor was standing at our door and seemed to know we were the bike
folks. Pheww again. We were on an inside track and they said no to our
crossing the track. So dragged it all downstairs, over, and up again. But we
haven’t had to do that since Pisa, so that’s not bad. We checked into a
hotel just across the street and collapsed. What a day!!! And we made it to
France!! Yeahhh …
We stayed 3 nights in Narbonne. Day 1 we explored the city and got
Information. Cute city, lots of great shops and narrow cobbled streets and a
great medieval church, all along the Canal du Robine. Never got back for
pictures. The next day we followed a bike path to Narbonne Plage (beach). We
thought we’d go back to the Mediterranean for a few days before heading
inland. We didn’t see any campgrounds we’d want to be at, but stopped at one
outside Gruissan and liked the cabins. Very quiet, almost empty. There was
another place across the street with all little cabins, some on the Etang
(lagoon). Of course it was siesta time so we couldn’t book anything. A nice
day of riding on bike paths in the wind, about 30 miles for the day.
The next day we headed out again in the wind. We got to the campground and
asked for a cabin. All full. Huh? Same across the street, but perhaps one at
3pm. What to do .. too windy to head back again. So we booked in, waited for
the wind to calm down, then set up the tent in the shadow of an ablution
block and enjoyed 6 days by the sea. Turns out it was Ascension Thursday
holiday and the first camping weekend of the season for France. Seems we
just witnessed the first weekend for Spain last weekend. That’s why it was
so busy. Also there was a sailboard competition in Gruissan. It was howling
windy some of the days, but Saturday the sailboarders came up the sea from
Gruissan, turned around a sailboat, and headed back. It was wonderful
sitting right outside our campground fence and watching it all.
We met Paul and Liz and boys, Brits living north of Toulouse. Paul used to
own a Bike Friday. They were on a 4 day holiday bike trip with friends. Paul
says the Ascension Thursday weekend in France is ALWAYS the second weekend
of May, no matter when Easter is. We wonder if the Pope knows about this. We
got caught the next weekend too, as it was Pentecost holiday weekend, with
Monday being the holiday. They gave us tips and campgrounds for biking the
Canal du Midi.
It was Mother’s Day and the weekend to call the girls. I couldn’t figure out
how to use our AT&T calling card, so we used *808 and charged calls to Mom
Rusch, DD, Heidi to our VISA card. Two weeks later, after I’d called Heidi
in the hospital, I checked our VISA bill. These first 3 calls cost $140. Big
OUCHHHHH …. Later the calls to Heidi also cost over $140.
We moved on eventually, back thru Narbonne and on toward the Canal. The
Canal du Robine flows thru Narbonne, joins the Canal du Jonction to the
Midi. Several people told us that they are still working on the paths for
the canals to the Midi, so we followed roads. We got to the Canal du Midi at
Le Somail, a charming little town with an old bridge, an old hotel and a
restaurant/bar with a sunny shady sitting area on the canal. We stopped and
enjoyed a big old liter of Pilsner each .. €20. Ouch. Over the bridge and
little back roads to Mirepeisset and a mobilehome at the campground.
We had enough food and wine for the night, so we didn’t investigate
Mirepeisset til the next day. Many French towns are the cutest connected
homes/buildings built in a circle around something .. a park here, an
ancient tower in Gruissan. We had the bikes and a trailer, but when we found
the little grocery/magasin, we had a hard time choosing anything as choices
were slim. So we got some wonderful French breads, cheese, sausage, veg and
a bottle of wine for €17. Enough for snacks and couscous for tea that night.
Later we biked around neighboring towns and went back to an Aldi store we
saw yesterday. It is the greatest Aldi store. A whole wall of wines, tons of
cheeses, smoked salmon, prosciutto and pork and such in the refrigerator
section. We had a field day and got tons of stuff for €58. AND … it took
charge cards. Way beyond the Madison Aldi store we left behind. We got the
best Cab Sav wine for just over €1. Wines, beers, salad makings, dressings,
salmon, eggs, fresh tortellini with canned ratatouille and pasta sauce for
it, crisps, peanuts, TP, a quart of olive oil, dish soap, spices, cookies,
yogurt, you name it. More than a trailer full. Mustard is cheap in Italy,
over $3 in Malta and Spain, €.57 in Narbonne but a big jar of Dijon for €.22
at Aldis and it makes your eyes water.
We biked around the canal towns the next 3 days and got to love France.
There are vineyards EVERYWHERE. Patches and fields of poppies everywhere.
The canals and roads leading into towns are lined with tall maple trees with
a smooth patchy bark like some gum trees in Australia. Cruise boats tootel
along the canal so peacefully. Lots of locks. A cute little bar at many of
the locks. Many opportunities to keep up your wine supply. We found a 5
liter jug of wine near the Gruissan campground. We selected the most
expensive at €12.50 for a nice red. Later we refilled it at Le Chateau de
Ventenac for €6.50. Fun. We’d like to come back and do a boat trip on the
canal some year. May is wonderful for these boats and for biking. Great
We were coming back from Le Somail one day and some bikers were coming in.
We met them coming over the bridge .. a couple and young son. They were Rudy
and Anne with 20 month old Luca from northern Netherlands. We showed them
the way to the campground and shared our wine with them later. We tend to
glom on to anyone who will speak English to us. They are enjoying a 12-14
week trip in France, Spain and England. Rudy can take time for family leave
with Luca. They have a bugger trailer for Luca, but when he is awake he is
in a seat on the bar in front of Rudy. Interesting arrangement. They have a
nice tent with a compartment on one end for Luca, one on the other for Mom
and Dad and a nice space in between for gear and indoor rain days.
We headed out on Pentecost Sunday, back the 4k to Le Somail and the canal.
We heard music and saw festivities. There was a run .. the Concourse du
Riquet. Pierre Paul Riquet completed the Canal du Midi in the 17th century
and it is sometimes called the Canal du Riquet. We met the runners most of
the morning. We passed the Chateau de Ventenac once more and continued on to
Homps. We knew we would not find a campground there, so we checked into the
Auberge de l’Arbousier and got a lovely suite for €75. We had a garage for
the bikes and a covered deck where we enjoyed our tea and brekkie. Aldi’s
sold eggs in a 10 pack, so we boiled the extra 2 and with a few veggies and
mayo and our usual dash of garlic, pepper, hot pepper flakes, basil, made
egg salad for our baguette. Yum.
We’d checked all the towns around Mirepreisset looking for an Internet
location. Heidi was due to deliver Calvin and there was no Internet to be
found. Homps, we were told. So I biked into Homps and found the sole
Internet café. Open Tues thru Saturday. This was Sunday night. No go. We had
a phone in our room but again I couldn’t use the calling card and *808
didn’t work. Oh well .. Trebes maybe. Tomorrow.
On to Trebes the next day. No Inet until Carcassonne. We still had wine in
our jug which rides on the front of Larry’s bike. We get lots of comments on
the wine. I carry an empy jug, so that gets comments too. Most people just
shake their heads at all of our gear, but also lots of Bon Courage comments.
So again we had a comfortable dinner without shopping. But the next day it
rained ALL DAY LONG. We had food, but had to buy wine at the campground
Reception for €7 a bottle. And stayed one more night. Camping costs about
€8-12 per night. Some campgrounds have a big tent you can rent. We haven’t
investigated them yet, but wish we had here at Trebes, with the rain. An
older French trio booked one in the rain.
On to Carcassonne, only 8km away according to the map. But after more than
8km we were getting close. A British guy we met told us there was an easy
route from the train station to the campground. Just across the canal from
the train station we asked 2 guys and were sent the longest way possible
with hills and a detour. 18 miles for the day and we found the campground
and checked into a nice mobile home. We tried to get there in the morning,
but luckily the reception was open when we arrived after 2 or 3. At this
time of year it is costing us about €31-34 for a 2 bedroom unit with full
kitchen and bath and a proper bed. It is fun to cook and wash clothes and
pack and repack all of our gear. We also charge batteries and set up
speakers and listen to music from the MP3 players and catch up on computer
work. We don’t have the right plugs to use electricity in a campsite.
So we cleaned up and headed to the city for groceries and the Internet. We
found out that Calvin was born on Sunday May 15 .. only he isn’t Calvin
Daniel, she’s Emily Samantha. Oh yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh ….. Was Heidi jerking
our chains all these months or were those ultrasound boy bits something
else? We called her that night .. again *808 VISA $$$. She was still in the
hospital and both she and Emily are doing well, going home the next day. Her
water broke Sunday morning 1am and they headed in later. On the way to the
hospital they had a 10 minute chat about what if it isn’t a boy. That’s when
they came up with Emily Samantha. Emily is from Toy Story 2. Jaime loves
Emily and says she is her best friend. We sent her a cute little boy doll
with backpack carrier. If he doesn’t have his Nuk or thumb in his mouth, he
cries. She put it back in and said she turned it off. I forgot kids younger
than 3 have concepts like best friend and turn it off.
Heidi has 12 weeks home with Emily. Jaime will continue with daycare for a
month, then stay home with the girls until August. Nice timing Heidi. Heidi
and Brian will be attendants for the wedding of Chris Harmon and Steve
somebody, who met as attendants for their wedding. They say Heidi and Brian
have to be attendants as it is their fault they’re getting married. Both are
now doctors who have been partners since the September 1997 wedding.
Congratulations to Chris and Steve.
So we explore Carcassonne. It has a wonderful medieval castle part, La Cite
full of shops and restaurants. And a quaint old French town part between the
Canal and the River Aude. We see snowcapped mountains in the distance,
mountains all around in the distance, vineyards, lots of bikepaths. Again we
enjoy our mobile home. We found a wonderful cassoulet combo in the grocery
that has 2 each of 6 kinds of sausages and a bag of kraut. We brown the
meats slowly, then add the kraut, some peppers, garlic, onion, spices and
simmer a long time while we have a big salad. Then serve with baguette and
Dijon mustard. It is soooo good. The kraut is so mild yet flavorful. As Sid
from Melbourne says, it tasted more-ish. So we went back and got more and
had it again, after a night of wonderful sweet and sour chicken with leeks,
peppers, zucchini, celery and Uncle Ben’s sauce. If you like sweet and sour
stir-frys, Uncle Ben’s sauce is great. I never would have bought such stuff
in Madison, but it is very good. Australia has great stir-fry sauces, but we
turned to Uncle Ben’s in Malta and like it.
The first happy hour we had there, after agonizing over the beer prices and
quantities and such at the market, Larry says “what does sans mean in
French”? “Without”. “And alcoool is alcohol I guess”? “What? Did I buy
non-alcoholic beer?” “Hmmmmm ….” And I felt like I was getting buzzed. Larry
noted that my imagination even exceeds my appetite.
We spent our last day biking to a campstore for campingaz. We found some for
the stove we bought in New Zealand and for the one we bought in Spain, so we
should be set until Ireland. A nice Decathlon sport store, like an REI, and
we got our 3rd set of camp chairs for this voyage. We checked out the bike
path along the canal and know where we need to be to leave Carcassonne
We knew we couldn’t make it to Toulouse that day, so we headed for a
campground along the way, about 5km from the Canal. A hard day, tired, and
the campground doesn’t open until June. And the hotel is closed for the day.
We limp back to the Canal and on towards Castelnaudry, which Larry says is
8km but I say is farther, but see signs for another along the way. It is
hilly and 3.5km, but we find it and it is still light. Larry checks us in
when the guy comes and returns with an €8 bottle of wine. Did I mention that
it’s been drizzling most of the afternoon and is now in full rain? The place
has a little sheltered area with tables so we dine out of the rain. The next
morning everyone chats while we breakfast in the shelter. Brits and French.
Very friendly. We stay the day to dry out, later bike into a little village
for bread but everything is closed. It is Monday. You can count on most
things being closed. The bar is open but closes by the time we circle the
village and decide to stop. Oh well .. no bread but another bottle of €8
wine. Frank invites us over for wine. He and Brenda are Brits living in
Spain on the Costa Blanca for 10 years. Ted and Grace are Brits from near
Bath traveling to Spain. They have a dual axel caravan and mention that many
campgrounds don’t allow the dual axels, as the travelers/gypsies have them
and they don’t let them in. Later the older trio that rented the tent in the
rain in Trebes bike in. They’d biked way east on the Midi and were headed
back to Toulouse. I asked why they were in this campground and they said the
one in Castelnaudry isn’t open yet. Oops .. lucky we didn’t push on to that
On again and have 3 objectives when we get to Castelnaudry: information,
bread and to sample the Cassoulet the town is famous for. We find the
cassoulet first and share a big clay bowl it. Cassoulet is like a thick bean
stew with duck thigh, sausages and pork. And lots of salt. That, a green
salad and a beer got us through the day .. €40. We missed the I and saw no
stores open to buy bread. Later we camp in a nice little municipal
campground and make it Toulouse the next day. It is very green and open on
the way in and for many kms we are sure there’ll be a campground just around
the next bend. But no. We get some bread and enjoy ham sandwiches and beer
along the Canal. The town is nothing to stay for, so we pass through. People
say there is camping 6km along the Canal. At one point we see caravans and
go check it out. Hmmm … Larry says they’re all double axle. Let’s not go
there. We go on, circle back on the road to find a hotel or something and
see a camping sign. It takes us back to the double axel area, but then we
see a proper campground across the street. It is well fenced and you must
buzz to get in. The guy doesn’t want tents but I beg. It is 7:30pm already
so I whine. He says tents are a security issue, because of the travelers
across the way, but I say we don’t care and he lets us set up in a quiet
little area that is not open yet. We are happy. It is a seedy little
campground, but it is home for the night.
The next day we shop for bike parts and hardware at a Decathlon and lots of
food at another Aldis. We’ve been carrying our wine jugs empty and doing
without just because we don’t find a winery to fill them up. Enough of that!
We bought bottles of the good Cab Sav and dumped them into the jugs. Voila!
Ben from Georgia is next to us when we return and we chat all night. He is
traveling by train and backpack around the world for most of this year.
The next day Friday we pack it all up … lots of wine, lots of food … and
head once again towards Bordeaux. The Canal du Midi ends at Toulouse and we
ride along the Canal lateral a la Gargonne. Minutes along the canal we speed
down a hill from crossing a road and my bike parts are going whomp whomp
whomp. Larrrryyyyyyyyyyyyyy ….. He sees it as a tire about to rupture, but
on inspection my rear rim is cracked. Oh no. Good thing we’re near Toulouse,
but too bad we have to return to that seedy campground. We set up camp and
bus back to Decathlon and later into Toulouse and no bike store will touch
it. The hub gets them, but we realize finally that they don’t have a rim
with the number of spokes that the hub needs. One place could call to the
rim maker on Tuesday and maybe if they could find it and send it they could
replace it. Oh no .. not a week or more in Toulouse!!!
So we decide to rent a small truck, get ourselves to Fromentine and order a
wheel from Bike Friday. It is late Saturday, but the train station has some
rental places and we learn what we need and are able to order it by phone.
We can pick up our little Kangoo Monday and the place is a short walk from
the campground. Perfect. We have reservations at a campground in Fromentine
for the end of June, as it is the 1st stage of the Tour de France 2005 on
July 2. So we’ll go there and have an address for Bike Friday to send the
order to .. and a great place to rest through June. We are happy.
We get the truck in the rain, go back and throw everything in. We’d
practiced how we’d arrange everything from the dimensions in the brochure.
Luckily it was more generous than described and we could just toss and it
all fit. A quick stop at Aldis for more provisions and one at Decathlon for
bike parts and we’re off. Took the toll road to near Bordeaux for €9.70. It
is a great road with rest stops every 10km. Drove some of the route we’d
planned to bike and confirmed that we never would have made it to Fromentine
by June 26. Also that the road is not even in site of the ocean, so we would
have been disappointed. The coast north of Bordeaux is full of lovely
vacation spots. We camped at Royan and Les Sables d’Olonne. Wally-world,
both places. But lots of great bike trails.
We checked out some of the campgrounds in Fromentine but decided to spend
the whole time in the one we’d booked. We got a mobilehome for 34 days for
about €35 per day. The campground has 800 sites and will be chockers in a
few weeks, but for now there are few of us and it is peaceful. We do not see
the ocean from the cabin, but it is a few minutes walk to it and to town. We
cannot find an Internet spot, so we have to phone our order into Bike
Friday. There just is not much Internet in France. Surprising. Now we just
rest and wait for Lance to arrive. It is not the trip we planned, but this
is a wonderful spot for a rest. It is staying light here until after 10pm.
Pretty much more of the above of the last paragraph. The Tourist Information
office told us of Internet at a nearby campground and in St. Jeans, 30 miles
roundtrip. The nearby one is a new kiosk. The cheaper card is €18 for 2
hours. Très pricey. But we buy one and hope St. Jeans is cheaper. I was the
first to use the kiosk and the owner hadn’t even tried it with a card, just
with his admin access. He couldn’t make my card work, so we got 52 minutes
free as admin and he got it to work by the next time we went. I don’t think
anyone else is even using it. When we biked to St. Jeans, the price is €10
per hour or 2 for €20 and you get 45 minutes free with every two hours. So
we fell for that one twice and now have 2 45 min sessions free. Not cheaper
but we can both use a computer.
We pretty much spend our days at the beach or on our porch reading.
Neighbors come and go and we watch. Nearby towns are 5 – 15 miles and to get
there to visit a store or catch a market before they close at noon is a rare
trick we’ve managed a few times. The Ile Noirmoutier is just over the bridge
near the campground. It has a few small villages and a big tourist area at
the far end. We saw it with the Europcar the first day but missed heaps.
There is lots more to it as we discovered when we biked it. It felt isolated
the first time, but maybe we should have spent our time there. Day 1 of the
Tour de France ends there and the festivities might be fun. It has lovely
Our Bike Friday order came in less than a week. When Larry phoned the order,
the lady said a week to build the hub and a week for shipping, to be safe. I
was heading out to check the kiosk for an update when I checked our message
board. Himself came out and said we had a package. I couldn’t believe the
speed. So I brought it back to Larry and rang my bell and said “Speedy
Delivery” .. just like on the Mr. Roger’s shows. Unfortunately they didn’t
send spacers, a skewer and a clicker that they included in the one Larry got
in Malta, but being the genius he is, Larry adapted parts from my old hub
and made it work for now. We found spacers in St. Jean, but the other parts
aren’t to be found in France the guy said.
You may be wondering how we’re doing with French and are the French as
unfriendly as people say. I’m doing better with French than I did in
Montreal back in the 60’s when Mary Z, Susie Kelly, Erpie and I went there
for Expo. Some people seem to really understand me. Some have no clue that
I’m trying to speak French. Only one guy was somewhat rude saying “we speak
French in this country” in his best English. But he was a train station guy
and they often are the least helpful. I’d been trying French, but too often
I explain too much instead of going for the briefest wording. Most are
helpful and kind, but no one’s talking to us here in Fromentine beyond
Bonjour. I get a lot of “Bonjour Madam”. Irks me. Why the Madam? Gray hair,
old, fat lady? Well ….. But you really do need French. Not many admit
knowing any English, at least here. We think there are more English speakers
down the coast where there are more British and German tourists.
The area around here is sand dunes in parts, marsh in others. Our beach area
is a high dune leading down to the sea. There is a sailing school nearby so
the bay is often filled with bright orange and green sailboats practicing,
wind surfers and kitesailors. There are also 2 ports for tourist boats to
the Isl d’Yeu and a helicopter also taking tourists to the island flies over
frequently. To the left is the long bridge to the Isl Noirmoutier. At low
tide people are out digging up oysters and mussels.
The marsh areas host oyster farms, salt beds and lots of wetland birds and
creatures. We biked to a Sunday event at Ecomusée Daviaud for a Marche
Terroire and free entrance to the heritage recreation of an ages old marsh
farm. Vendors sold local products and later there was an amusing trained
mule show, horse drawn wagon rides, blacksmith demonstrations and a
wandering accordion player who played a good intro and stopped ..
repeatedly. He knew that part really well but never seemed to continue for a
whole song. We enjoyed cider, crepes and wonderful breads and cheese. There
people were really helpful when they found we didn’t speak much French.
Another day there were signs up everywhere for a Foire a la Brocante. I
convinced us that it was a bike race. We found out where it would be and got
there before noon for a change. An antiques market was set up and we thought
it an enterprising addition to the race. I found an old LaRousse French
dictionary I’d been wanting but not finding a new one locally. Paid €1 and
was pleased. Later I cottoned to the idea that there was no race at all ..
the Foire was the antique show. The dictionary helped me verify this. It’s
so easy to get by even when you know nothing at all.
The two weeks before the Tour were wasted. Week 1 we planned to bike to St.
Jeans for a market and Internet Wed, but I got sick the night before and we
didn’t go. Thur we were to go to Beauvoir sur Mer for a market, but Larry
got the sicks and also Friday so we didn’t go to the market on Isl
Noirmoutier. Repeat the next week but rain kept us home. There are 2 routes
to get to Isl Noirmoutier .. the Pont and La Gois. La Gois appears to be a
road from Beauvoir sur Mer and we only see cars during low tide. Can it be
so? We investigated it one day .. and the answer is Yes.
There are still few people at this campground and fewer at the many others
we see on the way to St. Jeans. These people must make enough money in July
and August to see them thru the year. The mobile homes near us are mostly
full Sat and Sun and a few during the week, but the many tent facilities are
still empty. They have 2 types of tent setups. A nice big tent about 15’
square with a tile floor and several windows with curtains. A double bed and
bunks in 2 bedroom areas in the back and a kitchen and table area in the
front. One type has a toilet and shower and more of a kitchen area. The
other has no facilities and just a refrigerator and maybe hotplate. They
look like fun.
Now we’re just waiting for the Tour de France. Trying to figure out what’s
going to happen, with my best French deciphering. It is clear when traffic
will halt and reopen. The bridge is closed except to foot traffic and bikes.
Boats to the Ile d’Yeu are halted for 2 days. On Day 1 and again on July 23
the riders come out of the chute one at a time 1 minute apart. There are 189
riders so the beginning will take 3 hours. 19km later they trickle into the
far end of Ile Noirmoutier. There will be festivities at both ends. We will
have fireworks here. We haven’t decided where to be for best photos but will
probably catch some coming off the ramp, some heading for the bridge and
some from the bridge if we can get up there later. There seems to be no time
slotted for autographs as there is on Day 2 and 3 so we don’t know if we’ll
see Lance .. even if we figure out what he looks like by then. Day 2 starts
in Challans but passes thru St. Jeans, so we plan to be there for a few
July 5 we’ll pick up another Europcar and drive to St. Malo for a ferry to
Britain. Likely we’ll stop for a few days on the Isle of Guernsey. Mid-month
we’ll meet Wendy Emmett from Bath in Tolpuddle for a weekend of festivities
remembering the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were cheeky enough to seek a raise in
pay for workers in the south of England back in the 1830s. A mini-Woodstock
OK .. the Tour has happened. It rained most of the week before. People left
and more of the campground filled up Friday night. We ventured into
Fromentine for the folk group that entertained. Not too exciting. Saturday
the day of the Tour looked promising but later felt like it would rain any
minute. We spent the whole time at the departure ramp and never got much
farther. We never got really good shots and by the time Lance came out, the
crowd was large and tall. We stood for about 8 hours and were tired and
hungry and skipped any thoughts of eating in the village or listening to the
rock bands. The fireworks were not spectacular but accompanied a light show
on a wall of water with nice music. Day 2 we biked to St. Jeans and got good
spots along the route. We saw the riders only thru the lens of the cameras.
A big blur. But fun to be a part of it.
We spent a day recovering from the Tour and packing, getting ready to leave
France. We really didn’t do it justice and must come back. We went to pick
up our Kangoo only to discover they hadn’t one .. gave us a big station
wagon instead. We were not happy. Thought we’d have to make two trips ..
thus got unlimited kms free .. but genius Larry made it all fit. But the
delay in getting and packing made us have to give up plans to drive first to
St. Jeans and each get our free 45 min free Internet and be done by siesta
closing at 12:30.
It was raining and we’d taken the vehicle for 2 days to travel along the
coast, but with the grimness and the totally packed car, we drove directly
to St. Malo .. our ferry destination .. stopping only to tour Ninan a bit ..
a lovely town with an old walled area, recommended by Wendy from Bath. We
located the ferry dock in St. Malo and tried for something nearby, but wound
up in a 4 star caravan park a few miles from the ferry in a €100 a night
mobile home .. fancier than any we’d had before. We spent the spare day
getting our tickets and finding an Internet and such. Our mobile home had a
microwave .. the first since Madison last summer .. and I was sad that I
couldn’t locate any microwave popcorn I am dying for. Forgot to check in the
first store and no one could understand my request in the second.
Microwave???? Found out they call it microonde.
Caught the ferry and got to Guernsey. Found our way to a lovely campground
with some views to the ocean and heaps of flowers and lovely facilities. We
loved Guernsey and could have spent a week or two there. It was great biking
with lots of open rugged coast and bike paths and lots of towers and forts.
Many homes have fruit and veg and an honesty box for purchase outside their
homes. Call it Hedge Veg. Yard sales worked the same way. We bought berries
but passed up tomatoes, broad beans, zucchini and flowers. No time to travel
to the nearby islands, one of which has no cars but great biking.
The Isles of Guernsey and Jersey were occupied by German troops in WWII, so
lots of tourist places about the war. Both islands have underground
hospitals dug by captured labor. May 9 is the date of Liberation and this
year being the 60th anniversary, 1500 war vehicles and lots of people from
Germany, England and a few Americans came to the island and 2/3 of them
stayed in the campground we were at, 4 large grassy fields. Must have been
exciting. The campground guy showed me lots of pics he took of the machinery
lineup. We found a church festival and a tiny chapel made from bits of glass
and china and had some food at the Fete de la Mer twice ..lovely seafood on
the harbor. One day we found our way into a pub and 7 or 8 pints later said
goodby to the new friends who chatted us up. We had a ball and enjoyed their
great stories. The barmaid is from Latvia and convinced us it is a site to
see. The bar manager had great stories about being detained by customs 3
times in the U.S. Someone seems to be using his same credentials and is
living in Minneapolis for too long. Guernsey and Jersey both have their own
currency, spends the same as the Pound Sterling, but doesn’t spend
elsewhere, so you must get rid of it before leaving the island(s). They also
have their own postage stamps.
On by ferry to Poole. The campground we headed to was full, so we asked a
nice man to point us towards another or a B&B. He did both, then went ahead
and knocked at the B&B and found a vacancy. We pretty much felt we had to
check it out and it was a lovely big room just inside the front door, so we
booked in for 3 nights at £44 per night. Luxury and a big English breakfast
and craic with the nice older couples on holiday. We meant to visit Ruth’s
friend Katherine near South Hampton, but she’d just had hip surgery and
thought we’d make better use of our time seeing the sites. So we toddled
around Poole and biked to Wareham. We met Ben on a Brompton who was more
excited to chat with us than we were even to have someone speak to us .. and
you know we do love that. He sent us on to Sandbanks to a small ferry
crossing where we had a great pint of Guinness while watching all the
activity in the harbor. Poole has the largest harbor in the world .. lots of
lovely islands and inlets and such. We had lots of great fish and chips. We
are glad to be back in civilization. We can read and understand what’s going
on, order from menus, ask for help in shops .. and there are lots of
signposted toilet facilities .. all clean with toilet paper, hooks, soap and
towels or hand dryers. Businesses don’t close at noon for hours.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh ….. it’s a great country. No more of those wretched squat
Turkish loos. Yucky.
We biked 20 hilly hot miles to get us closer to Tolpuddle for the night at
Bere Regis, then 5 hilly miles to arrive on Friday July 15 in Tolpuddle. A
pint of bitters at the pub and on to the Martyrs Museum to check in. We are
here for a festival to remember the men who joined together to form a labor
union in the 1830’s in an attempt to gain a decent wage. They were arrested,
convicted of signing a secret agreement and transported to Australia. Public
outcry led to their freedom and they later returned. A nice old gent greeted
us on the street and welcomed us to Tolpuddle and loved that we were on
bikes and Americans. I wondered aloud if we would get the prize for coming
the farthest. As it turned out, there were no wonderings about who came from
where. A few kids suggested we’d win for the most panniers. Think they were
jealous. There was an Australian in our midst, so he’d win any distance
contest. We set up our tent and soon Wendy and friend Tess arrived. She
recognized us and our silly bikes, so we had a nice reunion from our
encounter in New Zealand late in 2002. As it turned out, it was embarrassing
to be Americans as there was no love lost there for President Bush and his
war in Iraq and his prisoners in Cuba. The event could have been a Willy
Street event in Madison .. lots of great hippys, tree huggers, peace-niks,
labor union activists, pensioners, concern for anyone downtrodden. It was
great. Great weather .. hot and sunny, great music and food and nice
camping. It used to be just a 1 day event, so there were many more people
there Sunday than Fri and Sat. 5 or 6 thousand for the music and speeches
and booths and parade on Sunday. Then it was over and Larry managed to get
all of our stuff into Wendy’s station wagon and she took us home to Bath. We
got a good 2 hour view of the hills in England .. frequent long steep ups
and downs, narrow tree lined roads, no shoulders, lovely tunnels of trees
often. We can’t bike here!!
Wendy and Brian have a lovely 2 story Georgian brownstone .. one room wide,
3 rooms deep with an enclosed garden and a garage out back. We spent a day
searching the Internet for a rental truck for the next 70 days, one day
walking around Bath Town Center and the last day traveling by train into
Wales to get our truck and drive back to Bath for our gear. It is bigger
than our cute little Kangoo but nice to camp with. When we stopped in to get
our train tickets, the window was closed due to a fly infestation. Curious.
Still closed the next morning. We loaded up, said goodbye and thanks to
Wendy and headed south toward Devon and Cornwall. It is school holiday time
until early September and things will be chocker blocks til then. We thought
it might be smart to go to Scotland first but Wendy says the hinterland is
full of midges thru August, so we’ll have to endure the hordes and go to
We started off to Bradford-on-Avon after stocking up at Wendy’s co-op for
food and beverages. Wonderful views all the way. Cute town, big outdoor
market on, but no place to park a monster truck. So off to Wells for Cream
Tea (tea, scones, jam, clotted cream) and a view of the Cathedral. Lots of
lovely charity shops. We’re looking for used tour guides of Britain and now
have a few, including a 2003 Rick Steves. Thru Glastonbury and camp at
Porlock in the Exmoor National Park. Lovely towns, good bakerys, great pubs.
Biked to West Porlock and Porlock Weir on the sea and surprised to find a
lovely town at the end. A wedding was taking place and we saw the
bridesmaids, then the bride taken away to a big tent on a meadow. Lots of
rain that day and the next. Soggy wedding. Fireworks late in the night we
attributed to the nuptial celebrations. As we biked up a hill a guy walking
downhill said “What lovely gearing you have”. We’ve never had our gearing so
admired before. Lots of rain and clouds and gray weather. They told us last
week the sun and heat weren’t typical. We didn’t properly acknowledge how
untypical it was. Lots of time to read Bill Bryson’s “Notes From a Small
Island” and James Herriot books. Four trips to the Porlock Hardware Store
and Larry has us wired for campground power with cords for charging,
computer use, and a little reading lamp for rainy times in the truck. Also
hooks and lines in the truck and stakes to turn our beach mats into a wind
break. He’s a genius.
On thru the park, up and up Porlock Hill and lovely winding rainy gray
views. I hope Larry isn’t saying for 70 days “On a clear day …”. Great
views, cute little tourist towns, but no place to pull over and enjoy the
view or take a photo. So on and on. Stumbled on an open air market in a
field with fields of parked cars. A few treasures to add to a collection for
Jaime’s Birthday Box .. and of course a few things for baby Emily. Emily is
one of the top names in America, and here items with names are always empty
in the Emily or E hooks also. We missed her Baptism at the end of the month.
A day hiking Tintagle Castle grounds, purported (but not) birthplace of King
Arthur and Merlin’s Cave made up for the views we couldn’t properly enjoy.
And a few hours at Boscastle covered the best postcards in the shops.
Cornwall is home to 22 fine ales so we try to catch a few. Real ales are the
thing here in England and we looked forward to them .. but though we enjoy
their warm temperatures, they strike us as tasting a bit flat. We especially
love them with Scottish rough oat cake (crackers) and cheese that Wendy
introduced us to. We loved our traditional Cornish pasty and were amazed to
watch them being made in a bakery. They heaped diced potatoes and a big
mound of nice diced beef .. so much you wouldn’t think they could form the
dough edges up and around it all, but they manage.
On in the rain along the west coast down to Lands End .. the westernmost
point in England. Wendy said it wasn’t much and was she right. It ends at a
car park costing £3 and an amusement park of some sort. We read that there
are great views and cliffs and rugged seacoast, but we gave it a miss to
stay dry. Camped at a farm campground near the sea at Falmouth and slept in
the truck for the first time … with the rain pinging steadily on the roof
most of the night. We passed a few hours in Sidmouth on the south coast and
enjoyed the long open promenade with the sea roaring in. Nice Cream Tea and
shops. Thru Lyme Regis and camped near Weymouth .. again near the sea but
not enjoyable from the campsite. We found Frank McCourt’s book ‘Tis’ on tape
in a charity shop and enjoy the drive and views with Frank reading to us in
his lovely lilting brogue.
Weymouth was pretty big and we were happy that we took the ferry from
Guernsey to Poole instead of to Weymouth, as was our first plan. Also lots
of hills between Weymouth and Tolpuddle. We tried to camp at Durdle Door
campground, which does have lovely views of the sea and a nice walk to an
arch in a rock sea attraction and Lulworth Cove. But the sign said
“Campground Full”. We found a spot in Wool and were able to bike 5 miles to
the Cove and the Door the next day and the rain held out til we were almost
back at camp. We drove to Swanage and thru Corfe Castle .. thus catching all
the sites we missed by bike when we were at Poole earlier in the month. The
beach at Swanage was a Wally World with lots of peeps on the beach and beach
chairs. The summer crowds are building.
We keep planning to do laundry at one of these sites, but the continuous
rain stops us. Guess we’ll just have to give in and dry with a dryer soon.
We booked at a Wool pub for one of the ubiquitous Sunday roasts and enjoyed
a tasty roast beef plate with Yorkshire Pudding and 3 veg plus 2 kinds of
potatoes and gravy made with real ale. We had toffee pudding and an apple
rhubarb crumble with ice cream for the desserts included. Bill Bryson waxes
eloquently on the toffee pudding, and we loved it as much as he does. I
expected a dish of soft pudding, forgetting about the great Christmas
puddings Larry used to make which are cake-like, not a soft pudding. The
toffee is a great brown sugar concoction baked at the bottom of the ramekin
then gooey on top when served.
A Sunday drive thru Poole and along the Bournemouth coast and thru the New
Forest. The New Forest is a many acre reserve great for hiking and cycling,
but we continued on to Salisbury. We took a road near Stonehenge and the
only campground sign we saw was for a Caravan Club. Sometimes they take
non-members, so we checked it out. It was an extra £5 per day for
non-members but we could get a 3-month membership for £10. Now we have a
nice booklet with campgrounds all over Britain that we can head for. Nice.
We’ll spend a few days here and visit the Salisbury Cathedral, Stonehenge
and Old Sarum. Then on to the Cotswolds. We have enough books now and
memberships to give the trip some shape and too many choices. So far England
is wonderful and beautiful. The roads are narrow with little or no shoulder,
hedges right up to the passenger mirror. I don’t duck and cringe nearly as
much as the first days. Not so many stone walls but lots of hedge that too
often hide the wonderful view. Roads aren’t too close to the coast which is
reserved for walkers. Hills are frequent and steep and the hillside rolls in
all directions. Huge crop fields quilt the hills, separated by copses of
trees. Often we can say a place reminds us of Michigan or Wisconsin or
Montana or New Zealand or Ireland .. but not so here in England. It has a
hilliness and beauty unlike any other place we’ve been.
Salisbury is grand. We had a nice 2 mile bike ride to town along the River
Avon on bike paths. The Cathedral is as lovely as marketed and the brochures
for it and the Museum include quotes from Bill Bryson’s book ‘Notes From A
Small Island’. It has a ticket booth and a suggested ‘donation’ amount that
you must pay to get in. We signed up for a tour of the spire which is the
highest spire in Europe. The guide books said you must book it and I was
surprised if we could get in that day. Yes .. there is a 2:15 tour. Good ..
I’d like to book it please. It takes 2.5 hours. Good .. I’d like to book it
please. That means you must be here until 4:45. OK .. I’d like to book it
please. Are you quite sure you can be here until 4:45? Yes, quite sure ..
I’d like to book it please. When time came for the tour, the 12 people
booked showed up to meet the tour guide. Immediately one guy said he had to
leave by 3pm. We giggled. He left. Nine of us on the tour were Americans.
The tour was great. We went up 4 stages of 60-80 steep steps and the guide
explained the stages of the spire building and the repairs that have been
made to keep it safe. The entire cathedral is being measured and documented
in a big database. They recently determined that some of the wood they
thought is English Oak from nearby woods is Irish Oak from Dublin brought
over when the building contractor and the nearby woodsman had a tiff and the
woodsman refused to supply the Cathedral. The bells gonged while we were on
high. We stepped out of miniscule doors to view all around the city. It felt
like we were in Hunchback of Notre Dame territory. Much different than going
to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Cathedral is lovely and
doesn’t feel as cluttered and shrine-like as the many old Catholic churches
we’ve been visiting, although it was a Catholic Church when it is built but
became Anglican when Henry VIII split with the Pope. One of the last
remaining 4 original copies of the Magna Carta is on display.
The next day we biked to Stonehenge. Great rural paths .. in with the cows
and sheep at times and along grassy tracks. They give you a free audio
handset to guide you around the roped enclosure around the stones and gets
you feeling like ancient people coming to worship. There is easy parking
along the roads and access to the chain link fence surrounding the stones.
There were lots of cheapskates taking photos from outside the links .. most
of them elderly. The brochure says the plan is to reroute the nearby roads
and build the Info Center 2 miles away so you must approach by bus from the
Center. Once again the stones will be in a quiet place free from modern
Another day we walked around Old Sarum .. the original site of the castle
and cathedral. It was a massive Iron Age hillfort used by Romans, Saxons and
Normans before becoming one of the most flourishing settlements in medieval
England. The site contains ruins of a castle, cathedral and Bishop’s Palace.
The bishop in 1220 decided to build a new cathedral and as the church and
state weren’t getting along so well at the time, the church wasn’t getting
moneys from the lord. So the bishop built the cathedral down on the plain on
land he owned. To make it viable he established a market town around it and
eventually this led to Salisbury being the center of activity and to the
decline of Old Sarum.
We visited another stone site in Avebury where the town is build around a
1400 foot wide Neolithic circle that is 16 times bigger than Stonehenge and
less touristy. We wandered in fields with sheep, up hills, across roads
among the 100 stones, ditches and mounds from the past. Nearby we saw
Silbury Hill, a 130-foot high 5000 year old chalk mound that is the largest
man-made object in prehistoric Europe. Britain is full of mysterious ancient
and religious landscape.
We spent a few days driving around the Cotswolds hills, a 25 x 50 mile chunk
of Gloucestershire that made its wealth from wool in medieval times. It is
dotted with lovely villages with homes made from Cotswold golden limestone.
Roads are narrow and winding, views are bucolic, Roadsters tool around for
the weekend. Towns are lovely and full of tourist buses and tourists and no
place to park our big truck .. so mostly we did a drive-by look. We stopped
in Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold for refreshment and looking for
Internet locations in each that Rick Steves mentions in his 2003 guide. Both
are closed. There is once again little Internet available here, though
libraries offer a free half-hour or a token payment hour but so far don’t
allow access to their CD drives that we need to send this log and pictures
Goodrich Castle was a bit southwest of us but we detoured for a visit. It
was started in the late 12th century and became the home of the Earl of
Shrewsbury until Cromwell’s men destroyed it during the Civil War. It is a
nice somewhat intact fortress where once again an audio handset directed us
through doors and up and down stairs and described castle life in the 1200s.
It looks down over the River Wye and into the picturesque wooded valley of
Symonds Yat, which we visited next, with superb views of the Wye rolling its
way through a narrow gorge. It lies on the edge of a huge wooded forest, the
Forest of Dean.
With another sumptuous Sunday Lunch of Roast Beef, Yorkshire pudding, many
veg, profiteroles (mini éclairs) and beer under our belts, we headed for a
few days in western Wales heading north. For an island the size of Idaho
with ¼ the population of the U.S., Britain has vast amounts of agricultural
fields, woods and open park areas. The drive through the Black Mountains is
so beautiful. The road we took followed a valley and the massive rounded
hills swallowed us up. We rested a day at a site on Lake Bala and enjoyed
the lake and the town of Bala. Frequent fighter jets passed over the lake.
It was like our own mini air show. At night sheep baa-ing lulled us to
We made a quick stop at Betws-y-Coed for a dose of Door County type tourism,
then met Ruth’s Cousin Ethel who we had hoped would join us in Malta. We
invited her out for Cream Tea but instead she surprised us with a lovely
lunch of chicken pie, mashies, Brussels sprouts, rhubarb crumble with
custard, white wine and sherrys. We loved every bite and the jolly visit
with Ethel. She has a cute little dog named Scamp who soaked up all of our
We hoped to camp that night on the north coast of Wales, but east of Conwy
it was all awful tourism, wall to wall caravan parks with cabins, busy, no
views. So we pushed on through and got north of Manchester and up to the
Yorkshire Dales. We dream of James Herriot scenes and Bill Bryson’s Dale
home in Malham.
We followed Bill’s description and rode the rail from Settle to Carlisle and
back. It was built at great expense and runs along the western edge of the
Yorkshire Dales National Park. The views are breathtaking .. lovely
glaciated mounds with narrow valleys carved by melting snow and rolling
rocks. Miles and miles of straight gray stone walls separate flocks and
flocks of sheep. Vibrant green fields, green brown pastures, woods. After
Appleby it is just farms and fields again, the stone walls are missing, and
though lovely it is not like the park. The Dent Train Station is for sale
and is the highest station in England. The bar car guy told us many of
England’s stations are now privately owned. The rail lines just own the
platform. A train buff (like several of Larry’s work buddies) would wet
themselves to live in a train station and have trains running up and down
their yard all hours of the day and night. This one is selling for some 300K
pounds but cannot be altered much, he said.
I spent too many hours with the campground folks and their WiFi Service
trying to create an account for their service. We even left the computer in
the Reception eventually so we could do some biking. They think they
resolved it by having us let Windows start access instead of our WiFi
software. It did work but we could only access the WiFi Server in the
mornings. So I did access it with their TEST account they had me trying and
didn’t bother to create our own account on our VISA account. All those years
testing software paid off.
We thought we’d bike to Malham where we thought Bill Bryson lived until he
moved back to the States in 1995. At least he leaves you thinking he lived
in Malham. But the late hours and the many hills had us bike into Settle
instead. We wandered, then had a wonderful Yorkshire Pudding filled with
roast beef, veg, roasty potatoes and gravy. A Sunday Roast in a Pudding. It
Our campground brochure that described all the shops, pubs and restaurants
in the villages all around said there was music that Friday so we inquired
and went over for it at 9pm like the bar guy said. He said it was 2 folk
musicians just back from Canada. So we arrive to find a few chairs arranged
in the dining room and a guy strumming the guitar. He did not go to Canada,
but the guys coming did. Four guys eventually showed up, none the Canada
guys. Seemed like they just meet one Friday a month and folk jam. The format
seemed to be a round robin where they took turns singing a song. Some they
accompanied, some acapella. If the others knew it, they joined in at some
time. We seemed to be the first visitors EVER and whatever they thought they
might sing that night .. they scrapped it and did a concert just to us. They
sang American songs, Civil War songs, Irish songs, and English songs and
explained lots of history to us. It was grand. They poked fun at everyone ..
Scots, Irish, Americans, themselves, Royalty. We learned a lot. Did you know
Pocahontas is buried in London? When did World War I start? II? They say
Americans give the dates America joined in.
The next day it rained until 4pm. We drove the windy narrow road to Malham.
Beautiful country. Lots of walkers. We parked and walked to Malham Cove. As
we approached we wondered how there could be a cove with no sea about. There
was a cove when the glaciers were melting. Now it’s a rocky cove with water
trickling from the rocks. Rock climbers love it. A few beers in Malham and a
bar guy found out that Bill lived in Kirkby Malham just down the road, first
house on the left. Really? We’ll believe it.
The next day we drove through the Dales National Park that we saw by train.
Larry is getting so brave driving these roads with this van. He’s quick at
hitting the brake and swerving left when we meet another car when there’s
one driving lane. Views were marvelous as was the Sunday Roast in Hawes.
There are lots of really cute touristy towns on this backroad through the
hills. We toured the Richmond Castle, then a quick stop in James Herriots
town of Thirsk. The Skeldale House Museum was closed by this time, so we
just had a look around the town. It has grown heaps since he wrote about his
early vetting days. Nice town, lots of shops around a nice square. We had
the worst thick chocolate milkshake ever .. even worse than Australia and
New Zealand and that’s tough to beat.
Rick Steves says York vies with Edinburgh as the second best touring city in
Britain after London, so we had to give it a go. We drove to a Park and Ride
and took the bus right to City Center. It is nice, but … We visited York
Minster but declined to pay the ‘donation’. Saw what we could, then returned
at 5pm for Evensong and got in free. The local choirs vacation in July and
August. A guest choir from Toronto, Ontario did the honors. We visited York
Castle and did most of the walk around the city walls. A great beer at the
York Brewery and the Market filled the day.
A stop at the Pickering Castle and on through the North Yorkshire Dales
National Park. Miles of heather covered moors and sheep. Peaceful, empty,
beautiful. Lots of cute towns. Bill Bryson loved his visit to Durham, so we
headed there on our way to Hadrian’s Wall. We had no camping information but
expected a camping sign somewhere near the town. Not. We drove forever
through the most beautiful country and settled south again at Barney Castle,
which we knew has one of our club sites. Now we can visit that castle too.
We are now only 10 miles or so from where we came down from the hills a few
The next morning we could not find a parking spot in Barnard Castle. It was
Market Day and there were hordes of tourists. So we crossed those beautiful
hills once more and drove into Durham. There too we had trouble finding
parking but eventually settled at the train station to the tune of £4.50.
Ouch. Earlier we turned into an area that said mantatory £2 to get out. I
thought it was OK if we could find parking. We turned into the town square
.. a place only for delivery vehicles and such. Oh Noooooo Mr. Bill!!!
We took a quick tour of the Town Center and the beautiful Cathedral on the
grounds of some college and had a beer and a meat pie. All very agreeable.
Durham felt like a town we could spend a week in. It has a nice town center
with good seating to people watch, with a pub right there. It has the
College area and a quiet river walk and lots of green spaced and cycle
paths. Roger Wittaker sings a great “Durham Town” so I’ve been humming it
for a week. We played his songs from the MP3 player 2 nights as a tribute.
I picked up some brochures with camping information, then set them down when
we bought camp fuel. So we headed for another club site, this one at the
west end of the Hadrian Wall area. The next day we visited the featured
heritage sites of the Wall, meaning the areas that you pay to get into and
which have gift shops and tea rooms and restrooms. Lots of people were
walking the wall trail.
Hadrian’s Wall was built to keep Roman troops busy and to protect the
northern most area of the Roman Empire. The Romans had an easy time
conquering England as the locals were not united. Scotland wasn’t as easy as
the clans cooperated to keep their lands. The wall was 75 miles long and 15
feet high with 34 forts along the way. It took 7 years and 27 million ton of
stones to build it. Most of the stones were later carted away to build farms
We drove to Bellingham because we have a Bellingham in Washington. We found
a nice campground reminiscent of those in the States .. wooded with proper
sites instead of a big grassy field, and with views over a big water
reservoir. The bad news was that the place was full of midges and we got all
bit up before we got all of us covered. We itched for 4-5 nights. We were
surprised when we escaped early the next morning and found ourselves in
Scotland in a few miles. That explained it .. Scotland has midges but
England isn’t supposed to. We guess they can’t discern the border so well.
We stopped off in Jedburgh, then headed to Beadnell for a quiet camping
weekend and on to Dunbar to train into Edinburgh. John Muir was born in
Dunbar. He went to university in Wisconsin. On the way we stopped for a
quick visit to Holy Island. There is a road to it in low tide and we just
made it for a short stop. Exciting watching the tide come back up and over
The camping guy recommended the Park and Ride near Edinburgh, but we went
for the train from Dunbar. We caught a 7:44 and had brekkie in Edinburgh ..
at a shopping mall because we needed a loo. Off to the Castle and the walk
of the Royal Mile .. from the Castle to the Holyrood Palace. It is an
eventful time in Edinburgh .. the Military Tattoo, a Festival and an
alternative festival The Fringe are all in session. Lots of people, lots of
activity. People thrusting brochures at you right and left. Lines to get
into the castle. Lots of security. Lots of trash. Despite it all, we weren’t
in love with Edinburgh as Bill Bryson and Rick Steves had us think we would
be. The buildings are beautiful, but polluted and in need of a power wash.
Lots of trash that wasn’t generated just that day. The high hills just
beyond the Parliament buildings and the Holyrood Palace where the Royal
Family stays in Scotland looked more appealing than the Royal Mile. All
tickets were sold for the Tattoo and most performances went on after the
last train, but we’d hoped for some good street entertainment. We saw lots,
but nothing we’d pay to see again. We saw only one bagpipe band, that from
Pakistan. The Tattoo is a bagpipe band performance of bands from all over
the former British Empire. There is a big performance at the Castle each
evening most of August.
Next month, on into Scotland and up to John O’Groats. And a Highlands Game
or two. Back to Wales and the ferry over to Ireland by the end of the month.
We had another day in Dunbar. We hoped to bike into town but it rained and
threatened too much for us sissies. So later we drove around Dunbar and
along the coast toward Edinburgh. North Berwick is the main town along that
peninsula and a lovely thriving tourist town. The next day we drove around
Edinburgh and again along the coast, heading north. Lots of groceries at a
Lidl store and a stop in Kircaldy for a picnic from our new supplies. St.
Andrews has several golf courses and is often seen on golf calendars of
wonderful places to golf. Lots of tourists. I just read that Prince William
recently graduated from a school in St. Andrews. And that it has a high
number of homeless people.
We’d been looking for a camping spot, as our Camping and Caravanning Club
has no sites along the coast. We rejected a few as too ugly but then the
places we tried for rejected us. They have a policy of no commercial
vehicles and our rental truck has big adverts for Practical Self Drive Hire
and for the garage in Kilgetty where we got it. We were beginning to feel
unloved. Two places would let us tent but we’d have to park the truck in the
car park. As we live and cook out of the truck and it works well into our
rain tarp setup, we declined. Finally we found a lovely spot, way off the
highway and down along the rocky ocean. A woman biker from Amsterdam was our
camping neighbor and we plied her with beer and wine and shared our dinner
with her. She was an inspiration, biking alone thru Norway, the Shetland and
Orkney Isles and now down thru Scotland and into England. We might have
lingered another day, but the owner’s son was having his wedding there and
all the family was coming for the weekend.
We pushed on up the coast, stopping in Aberdeen and admiring the quaint
villages on the way. Pennan is a small coastal fishing village way down a
narrow winding road with a warning that caravans should not venture down. It
is the cutest little town we saw that day. Crovie was another but you were
advised not to even go down to it. It has a footpath but no road. All
vehicles stay in a tiny car park at the edge of town. We admired from a
viewpoint above. We stayed in a little caravan park in Culen. It often has
dolphins in the waters below our tent, but they didn’t show themselves for
We’d booked into a campground in Tarland, 32 miles west of Aberdeen. It was
a 3-day bank holiday weekend and campgrounds in England were booked full in
the last weeks so we thought we’d better book somewhere too. We had to guess
where we might be by then and in fact we could have booked further north.
Turns out the holiday weekend isn’t so big in Scotland. Schools are in
session and stores open. But we enjoyed our stay. We stopped in the wee
village of Crathie on the way. Balmoral Castle is there, the summer holiday
residence of the Royal Family. We couldn’t tour the castle, just look
around, visit the gift shop, see their local church, as the Queen was there.
Another tourist said we’d just missed the Queen, gone out with 2 big Land
Rovers. We’d come through some hills and saw a hunting group assembled.
There were 2 big green Land Rovers up there and we wondered then if perhaps
it was H.R.H. Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh. We drove into Braemar hoping
to see her, but did not.
We asked at the Tourist Information Center about any Highland Games coming
up. We got brochures for the next day’s Lonach Gathering and Games in
Strathdon and the next week’s Braemar Gathering, for which the Queen is a
Patron. We decided to take in the Lonach Games. We’d come through the wee
towns of Strathdon and Bellabeg and saw signs and activities for the
It was pretty rainy and gray Saturday morning and we took our time getting
over there. The brochure said the Lonach Pipe Band would begin marching at
8:00 and visit local Proprietors for some hospitality and march onto the
games grounds at 9:30. “On their visits they are offered Highland
hospitality, assuring true gaiety for the occasion.” That translates to
offerings of wee drams of whisky and plenty more drams were imbibed
throughout the day. The MC even encouraged offerings for himself and the
judges. Games began at noon and we were just parking then. There were 3 rows
of bleachers and all seats were sold out. Standing room only to watch the
many activities taking place on the field at once: Highland dancing,
athletes in kilts tossing the caber which looks like a telephone pole,
running contests, throwing the hammer and putting the stone, pillow fighters
sitting on a log, tug of war, hill race. There were stands selling Scottish
kilt clothing, hats, whisky, clothes, music, food. People watching was the
best. All sorts of kilt outfits on men and children and the women wore their
tartans as well and lots of wonderful hats. Three pipe bands played and
marched. The Lonach Band marched onto the field twice, attired in full
Highland dress armed with pikes and Lochaber battleaxes. The three bands
alternated playing on a play circle every half hour. It was cold and windy
and rainy but lots of people enjoyed a fun day out. Lots of children and
Larry heard a guy say he’d spoken to Billy Connolly. He’s a Scottish
comedian we saw often on TV in Australia. Tall, skinny, long gray hair,
goatee. Could it be him? Later Larry happened to be behind the grandstand
when some security folk cleared the path for someone important. One of them
was Billy. He now has short gray curls. Appears he has an estate just down
the road and is a frequent host at these games. The band marched to his
house earlier that morning for the wee dram. He made the Sunday paper
displaying his shorn locks. The paper said Eric Idle from Monty Python days
was there too, but we didn’t notice.
We had such a grand time we decided to return next week for the Braemar
Games and a chance to see the Queen and family. Seems like the Braemar Games
are like the Super Bowl of Games. Bigger, more athletes, the final
competitions of the year for the Grampian League Circuit, competitors from
all over the world.
Between gatherings we toured the northernmost part of Scotland .. the
Northern Highlands. Through some gorgeous hills, over the Cairngorm
Mountains and up to Inverness. We didn’t take too much time there, just took
a look at the castle and down to the River Ness and through the Victoria
Market and an hour on the Internet. We camped that night on the Black Isle
and again looked onto the sea and might have seen dolphins if we’d gone down
the coast to the lighthouse. After Monkey Mia, we don’t need to go to great
lengths to see dolphins.
On the next day and along the coast. Beautiful. Up to John O’Groats, the
northernmost tourist spot on Britain. Cute gift shops, lots of passenger
boats to the Orkney Isles. It was lovely and warm for a change and we camped
right at John O’Groats, looking out to the sea to the north and east. Lots
of lighthouse beacons throughout the night. We hiked to the Stacks of
Duncansby stones along the coast and again hiked among the sheep. The next
day wasn’t as lovely so we pushed on. A quick visit to Dunnet Head, the real
northernmost point on Britain, remote and beautiful. A sausage roll in
Thurso and to the west coast. The west coast is more beautiful than the
east, rugged, hills upon hills and narrow one lane winding roads of National
Park nothingness .. except midges which attacked Larry each time he stopped
for pictures. It was rainy and gray and buggy. Not hard to keep moving. We
spent the night in Ullapool in a nice hotel. No camping in rain and midges
for us again. We felt very pampered and wondered how we could go back to the
tent. We had tea in a nearby pub and had the most wonderful food. Larry’s
been talking about having haggis for months, but we only see it in butcher
shops. This pub had a special of chicken supreme covered with haggis in
whisky sauce. Larry was in heaven. I had a nice salmon steak with 5 kinds of
veg and 3 kinds of potatoes. Yummmmmmmmmmmmm … Washed down by a few real
Lots more winding wild coast roads the next day, then inland and along Loch
Ness. No Nessie sightings regretfully, but beautiful scenery and a lovely
castle. A night in Nairn and back to Tarland for the Braemar Gathering the
next day. We thought to book the campground, but the manager said it would
be empty and it nearly was. Most of the elderly campers I spoke with were
going to the games.
The Braemar Gathering is much bigger than Lonoch so we went earlier. It was
quite different than Lonoch. More tourists like us, fewer locals in kilt and
great clothes and hats. No shops on the grounds. Only 1 food tent and 1 beer
tent that poured 2 glass bottles of beer into a plastic glass to serve a
pint. Athletes included a guy from Australia and David Brown from
California. Special guests included a group from the Braemar Country Club in
I planted myself with a view to the field and Larry wandered for photos. The
lady at the Balmoral Castle Gift Shop told me the Queen arrives at 3pm and a
lady I stood next to told me she’d arrive on the field in a car and stay 1
hour. So we had the plan. True to plan, at 3pm the games continued while all
12 bands led the Queen and celebrity autos onto the field. Queen Elizabeth,
Prince Phillip and Prince William alighted, shook hands all around, and sat
an hour in a little house watching the games and the Queen presenting a few
awards. At 4pm the bands led them away again. Wonderful day .. sunny with
warm periods interspersed with cool cloudy periods.
The next day we headed for the Isle of Skye, taking the Crathie to Braemar
route over the mountains. We joked about perhaps seeing the Queen coming out
of church. Sure enough, when we got to Crathie there were people and police
standing about. We parked and saw the Queen and Prince Phillip return to the
castle from church. Tony and Cherie Blair were in one of the cars too but
their windows were darkened.
As it was Sunday, we were in need of the Sunday roast. Villages were few and
far between from Braemar to Pitlorchy, so we took a look at Spittal of
Glenshee and found a wonderful inn with an enormous Yorkshire Pudding filled
with beef and veg. As a rare treat it was accompanied by a wonderful seedy
The next day we arrived at the Isle of Skye. We found a wonderful B&B in
Portree with a great view of the town and sound and a TV to watch the
horrors left by Katrina and its aftermath. We toured the coasts, sampled the
local brew and didn’t see one midge.
We took a ferry back to the mainland to Mallaig and spend the night near
Glen Coe, where King William ordered the slaughter of the Clan MacDonald in
1692 because due to bad weather the chief of the clan failed to sign an oath
of allegiance to the English crown on the appointed day. There is a
wonderful song tribute to the clan and the massacre. We listen to the Irish
Next day we headed for Oban. Wendy recommended a visit to the Isles of Mull
and Iona, but didn’t plan that as it would cost us $150 for ferries. Ben in
Toulouse also recommended Oban. It looked like a lively tourist town with
some music possibilities, but the nearest campground 2 windy hilly miles
from town center wouldn’t have us. Other campgrounds were too far away for
we oldsters to drive back to late at night, so we moved on to Loch Lomond.
Another song … the Bonny Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond .. filled our minds but
as we approached it looked wet and buggy and even our own caravan club
wouldn’t allow our vehicle by the tent. What’s going on here? Luckily we
found a hotel and were happy to be out of the rain and wind and midges.
The south end of Loch Lomond found us back in civilization with lots of
traffic and people. A shocker after the quiet of the north. Rain and cold
had us looking for a caravan park with caravan hires. We found 2 but no one
around to help us. We forged on and found a quiet B&B on a remote peninsula
near the border. We spent 2 nights watching more TV and enjoying the cows in
the field between us and the harbor. What a view!! We biked 2 miles to the
headland and a campground. It was more than a bit tired, but what a place.
We would have a site here if we were in the market.
A few days in the Lakes District. A busy place .. lots of traffic, narrow
roads, many tourists, many walkers. We were turned away from the campground
we wanted on the shores of Lake Derwentwater in Keswick because it was
filled by an international gathering of fells walkers. We found a campground
nearby and loved being surrounded by the hills of the Lakes District
National Park. A few days later we drove the main Park roads and enjoyed the
lakes and cities. Windemere was a wonderful tourist town.
We drove back to Wales, hoping to find a wonderful rental on the coast. Two
days and two campgrounds later we decided this is as unrealistic as our
usual such quests. We found a rental inland and enjoyed a restful week in
the country. We ‘decommissioned’ the truck and prepared for its return and
our trip to Ireland. We invited Ruth and Sid’s friends Graham and Mary for
dinner and had a nice evening with new friends.
At Lloyds Pharmacy we had our blood sugar and blood pressure checked for
free and found we’re still good. We moved to new digs near Little Haven for
5 more days, not on the ocean but a pleasant 1 mile bike ride to it, in one
of 5 rental units built from an old stone stable. The bedroom was in a loft
with a skylight view to the sky. Lovely.
Finally we moved into Pembroke Dock and got lodging above a tired pub. We
returned the truck to Kilgetty in the rain. The guy drove us 5 miles to
Tenby on the sea, a lovely walled resort town, to spare us waiting for the
train in Kilgetty. A highlight was buying hot off the griddle Welsh cakes
from little old ladies at a Church bake. Graham had told us of a lady in
Adelaide who would make them for him each time his ship docked there back in
the ‘50s. It was delicious knowing of what he spoke.
On departure day we met Graham and Mary for lunch at a cute harbourside pub.
They surprised us and brought more of Ruth’s friends, Len and Jean.
Pictures, good-byes, and we were off to the Irish Ferries for the afternoon
ferry to Rosslare, Ireland. It was lovely and sunny in Wales but rain
greeted us in Rosslare. We found our B&B and settled in for the start of our
2 month stay in Ireland. We’d written to Kay at the B&B and she agreed to
store 2 of our big bags .. all the camping gear, books and summer wear.
We’ll bike for a few weeks, stopping for a few days in Avoca, home to
Ballykissangel, then train to Sligo and bike to Galway and maybe Shannon.
We’ll rent a car in Shannon, retrieve our bags, enjoy a week in a beach
house in Clonakilty near Cork with Madison friends Barb and Greg Sheehy and
their friends the Hendricksons, then have a few more weeks with the car
before heading to Costa Rica November 30. We’re
hoping you’ll visit us in Costa Rica. Start making plans!!
We spent 3 quiet days in Rosslare Harbour, biking to Rosslare and Lady’s
Island and checking on bus schedules. http://homepage.eircom.net/~oldorchardlodge/main.html
They have some of the new Spanish city trains that have no bike cars. I
checked on Friday if bikes were OK and a guy said yes. By Sunday it seemed
questionable, but they let us on. We trained to Arklow, then biked 7 hilly
Wicklow Hills miles to Avoca, film location of Ballykissangel. We visited
Avoca in 1996 with Deirdre and Heidi, to take a look at the Avoca Weavers.
We had to park across from the church and hike a hefty way to the Weavers,
as there was a film crew at the church. It was years later that we realized
we SAW Ballyk being filmed. Imagine!!! So now we took time to again enjoy
the Weavers and buy sheep brooches, enjoy a few pints at Fitzgeralds, buy
Ballyk kitsch at the souvenir shops and see the Garda building where Niamh
and Ambrose lived. It is a beautiful little town and fun to watch all the
tour buses slow down and acknowledge Fitzgeralds. The only references we saw
to Ballyk were from the first few series when Assumpta and Father Peter were
forming an attraction. Lots of Tony Doyle pictures in Fitzgeralds including
one In Memory as he died somewhere in the last series.
Biked uphill 1.5 miles to shoot down 6 more into Arklow the way our B&B lady
http://www.cherrybrookhouse.com/index.html Spent the night to
catch the 9am train to Sligo. Internet, great roast beef dinner, a few
pints, and a quick stop at Lidl .. our favorite cheap store. Our B&B lady
did a load of laundry for us and we were mucho grateful. There are no DIY
launder mats in Ireland it seems. There weren’t in 1996 and it hasn’t
improved. There are some you leave by 11 and can retrieve by 4 or some such.
Who has time for that???
We caught the train the next day, had a few hours in Dublin, then on to
Sligo, all from Connolly Station. Dublin is FULLL of cranes. The Celtic
Tiger is evident everywhere. We thought we’d have no trouble finding a B&B
in Sligo on a Wednesday, but we were surprised. We tried a few, then to Tree
Top where we stayed in 2000, but wound up in another that night and Tree Top
the second night. I told Doreen at Tree Top that her home and rooms are so
wonderful and you’d a thought I gave her a million $$. The Swan Hotel we
stayed at in 1996 is torn down and being reinvented, Leitrim Pub where we
enjoyed meals and music is a Student Bar with neither, O’Neills next door is
noisy. Wahhhh … A nice session night two and a chat with a young couple from
France. They thought I could speak pretty good French. Imagine that!!
Headed out for Ballina in wonderful weather. We both remembered a pretty
ride, not too hilly. What were we thinking or what kind of fit were we 9
years ago? Later much wind and rain and hills and hills and hills. Climb a
crest only to find the next one. Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhh …. We were booked at
Brigown B&B on the River Moy with Marjorie Nolan.
http://ballina.mayo-ireland.ie/Brigown/Brigown.htm She is
the reason we got ourselves to Sligo. In Malta we had Internet in our
apartment and Larry found Shamrock Radio, an Internet Irish music show from
County Mayo with Tommy Murphy.
http://www.shamrockradio.com/ Tommy has Marjorie on for a food segment
each week and the craic between the two is just wonderful. There are usually
the 3 latest shows you can play. We also read a book ‘Round Ireland With a
Fridge’ by Tony Hawks where Tony hitched around Ireland with a small
refrigerator. Marjorie gave him a room for 2 nights and we recognized her in
the book. So we had to push on and make it to Ballina by dark.
Marjorie greeted us warmly, settled us in, then warmed us up with coffee,
cake and sandwiches and she shared our bottle of wine. She is a delight.
Sorry Marjorie .. she sounds like a much older woman or at least sounds like
someone older I know .. but in fact is a foxy ‘young’ vicacious blonde
bombshell. We had such fun with her and her partner Tom for 3 days and hope
they’ll join us in Costa Rica. She offers a long list of breakfast options,
so refreshing after many days of the Irish fry. We loved her scrambled eggs
with smoked salmon, French toast and potato cakes. They had a contest on
Shamrock Ireland for verses proclaiming the benefits of ‘Marjories Homemade
Bread’ and we enjoyed the real thing. We bought one of her cookbooks and
will try to emulate her wonderfulness. She even persuaded Tommy Murphy to
stop in and meet us. He was hurrying to Sligo to be the drummer in a Jazz
As Marjorie was booked, we moved a few doors down to Crockets Pub for 3 more
nights to sit out the rain.
http://www.crocketsonthequay.ie/ Crockets has a Monday Night
Traditional Session with a group called Le Ceile and it was wonderful. Lots
of ballads and a few tributes to us when they heard our American-ese. They
invited Tommy Fleming among the customers to sing and he is amazing. Turns
out he is a well-known singer here and in America, discovered 13 years ago
in Westport by Phil Coulter. He had a CD release party there at Crockets
that Friday for a recording he did at Knock Basilica. He will be taking it
on tour to America next year. We now own 2 of his double CDs and an Irish
Music magazine with him on the cover.
As we packed up at Crockets, Larry entertained 2 blokes driving a big
Guinness truck who thought we were pretty strange with those silly little
bikes and all that kit. On to Castlebar, another 18 hard but beautiful
miles. We’d not been to Castlebar before and found it very busy, lots of
To Westport the next day to follow again in Tony Hawks footprints. We’d been
through twice but never stayed to enjoy the town. Along the way the same
Guinness truck met us and big waves all around. We found a B&B along the
Carrowbeg River along the Mall Streets, just a block or two from pubs and
music. The nice lady gave us the ‘honeymoon suite’ on the 3rd floor. We had
the whole upper floor .. giant raspberry and purplish bedroom and giant
bathroom and 3 skylights. So we booked it for 3 nights and carried our world
up. It was so lovely and big. Sadie looked up our website right away and
asked for her Boulevard Guest House to be added as a favorite link and we
are happy to oblige. The B&B is so great. The breakfast room looks like a
small hotel dining room. Sadie and John and their helpers are so friendly
and chatty. They make you feel so at home. And we had the cheek to ask Sadie
to do our laundry too and she was so kind to oblige.
There are endless places playing music at night. Matt Malloy is the flautist
for the Chieftains and has a pub here with music. But the Traditional
session is in a tiny little hot room where everyone treks through to the
toilet or outside to smoke. There is a bright big new ‘garden bar’ room just
behind, mostly empty, but they do and always have and always will have the
session in the crowded little hot room. Go figure!! We lasted there a brief
while .. one pint I suppose .. then went next door and waited as a guy
billed as ‘Acoustic’ set up speakers and amplifiers and endless
paraphernalia .. then sang one Irish song then on to country or some such.
And of course no one listens .. just yak yak yak. The rest of the places
were country or karoke or loud junk. A sign out front saying ‘Music Tonight’
makes us think Irish .. but we’d be disappointed 98% of the time.
The next night we got to Hobans early enough to get snug seats. We got
friendly with local Anna and visitors from the Midlands Mary and Tom. The
music was wonderful. Sessions don’t always have singing but are so nice when
they do. Here the musicians sang some, but mostly the locals would strike up
and sing or chant a wonderful Irish tune. Anna said she is sometimes there
til 2am so we weren’t surprised to see the singing going on til 1:30 then
slowly breaking up. Music doesn’t start til 10 or later. Hard for us
old-timers to stay perky long enough to even go out. Crockets was our best
night and this a close second. Great local fun. A nice change that we didn’t
see on previous visits to Ireland is that often breakfast can be as late as
10:00 and we love that time slot. Too often in 1996 we’d have too many pints
and a late night and an 8:00 breakfast call. Ouch.
Ireland banned smoking from pubs and restaurants January 2004 and it is
great. But as everywhere all the smokers stand in the entrance so you still
get a generous daily dose of smoke. And it used to be nice and chilly in
buildings so you were grateful for the cosy peat fire. Now everywhere has
central heat and crank it up to unbearable temperatures while it’s still
quite mild outdoors. Doth I whine too much? But the roads are much nicer and
we haven’t experienced the crazy driving we saw as late as 2001. It’s still
here though, as a handful of young people die in one county or another each
weekend .. early morning, speed and likely alcohol involved. County Donegal
had 2 sad weekends in October and were just recovering from such sadness
from a year ago.
Now to start a 5-day push to Galway for music next weekend. To Louisburgh
where we saw Big Tom in 1996. In the rain and the most beautiful valley in
Ireland to Leenane. Again we forgot how f%cking hard it is. How did we do
many more miles in 1996? Dripped into Sullivans for a pint, soup and
sandwich. The closest B&B was ‘The Convent’ and the nice man took us in and
hung our wet dripping clothes. Breakfast is in the chapel with wonderful
stained glass and pew seating. Another hard day to Clifden and a great night
of music with an accordionist and guitar player alternating a jig or reel
and a ballad. Wonderful. Earlier we chose the same pub for a bite to eat.
The menu out front described Pub Food. Larry asked about a meal and was
clearly noted that they do NOT do meals. OK .. food then. We wolfed down
smoked salmon on brown bread with salad and a tuna melt with soup and agreed
it was the best non-meal we’d had in days. We swear some days it’s like we
just got off the boat.
Took the ‘yellow’ road instead of N59 to Galway and 2 Bog Roads. We’d done
one twice before and it was and is wonderful. Six miles each of hills … we
remembered as mostly flat … and bog and sheep and nothingness and hills. It
is so wonderful. We saw maybe 12 vehicles on each stretch. Larry had a
wrecked tire the day before and 2 today in The Bog. Lost an hour and no more
spares. We weren’t sure where there’d be a B&B today. We remembered a few
but all have their signs down. We both remember a bakery we rested at before
but it is a long way today. Thank God there is a new B&B just before it and
the nice lady takes us in .. again pretty wet and dirty .. and gives us
coffee and cookies. This area is the Gaeltacht and they all speak in Irish.
We hear her on the phone and she speaks Irish. We stopped earlier in Cashel
for a pint and a sandwich and there too the craic was in Irish. In Cashel we
saw the old farmers in their woolen tweed jackets and boots and vest
sweaters/jumpers. We saw much more of that other times. Now everyone wears
jeans and sweatshirts and the Old Ireland is disappearing.
During the night I awoke to our bedroom door banging from the wind from a
crack of the window. The wind howled and there were whitecaps on the waters
across the way. But by morning it was just gray, little wind and a soft
rain. We took off .. again hillier than we remembered .. and made it 17
miles before Larry’s last tire gave in. His plan was to patch one of the
wrecked ones from one of the other wrecked ones and carry on. No way!!! I
was totally knackered. I called a taxi and asked him to find us at a Super
Valu and Esso Station 3 miles beyond Spiddal. No we have no contact number.
The nice man was as happy to see us as we were to see him. It was a dodgy
sort of request for him and they never ask for anything more than a name ..
no credit card info, nothing. Same with B&Bs. Amazing.
The nice man brought a big taxi with a big empty back where our entire world
fit and he took us right to Arus Grattan in Salt Hill. As we have 6 days in
Galway before we pick up a car at Shannon Airport, we booked a self-catering
apartment overlooking Galway Bay and a 20 minute walk to Town Center. We
found it on the Internet the night in Clifden and luckily there was one
free. Sean met us, showed us around and we settled in and are as happy as
two kids. We survived the Death March to Galway and finished the last miles
we’ll EVER do with our whole world on the bikes. A good thing about our
vagabond life is how much we appreciate a bed and bath and a frying pan and
our own electric kettle. Here we even have a machine that can both wash and
dry clothes!! Wendy in Bath told us about this new-fangled contraption and
now we have one to use. Very tricky even to open the door .. we almost call
the guy .. but a little muscle and the ‘right spot’ works.
Later we walk to town. In 1996 we had a fabulous music experience and 9
pints at O’Malleys, my log says. The taxi guy thinks O’Malleys is no longer
there. He is right. We can hardly tell where it might have been. We read
that Galway is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. We can see the
difference. There are mobs of tourists walking the pedestrian streets. All
the many pubs are full and heaps of smokers line the fronts. One pub boasts
Traditional Sessions at 5 and 9pm. People are streaming OUT of it and the
bouncer tells us it is pretty crowded. The bouncer is DISCOURAGING
customers. We have some chips at Supermacs and look for a QUIET pub for a
pint. None look quiet. So we buy a Guinness 4-pack and head home.
The next days we learn our way around Galway. We asked our landlord if there
is a Lidl’s. He says yes, but you’d need a taxi to go there. We stumble on
it looking for a bike shop and new tires. He doesn’t know what ilk he deals
with. We’re people who biked here from Sligo, for God’s sake!!
We’ve both ‘outgrown’ our wedding rings, so we bought shamrock bands at a
market so we can look ‘spoken for’. We step into St. Nicholas Cathedral and
renew our vows. Just kidding. Just step in because it is said to be the last
great stone cathedral of western Europe. On our walk into town we pass the
Claddagh Quay with its many white swans in the Bay and the area where the
Claddagh ring originates. The ring is popular as a wedding band and is now
popular all over the world. If the ring is worn on the right hand with the
heart towards the nail it means you are open to offers of marriage. If it is
worn on the left hand, with the point away from the nail, it means you heart
We enjoy watching Irish and British television. ‘The Clinic’ has Niamh and
Fr. Macanally from Ballyk days and we see Assumpta Dervla Kirwan in a movie
‘The Lilac Bus’ by Maeve Binchy. ‘Home and Away’ and ‘All Saints’ from
Australia are also favorites here. ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘Coronation Street’ the
Soaps. The newspapers often have CDs and DVDs in them, so we now have a
collection of free stuff, including ‘The Lilac Bus’, ‘Lion King’, ‘The Most
Fertile Man in Ireland’, ‘Little Britain’, ‘Brigid Jones Diary’ and ‘Clannad’.
We enjoy our little apartment especially as it is raining so much. We watch
as Hurricane Wilma destroys Florida and as King George continues to hack
away at the world. He is not doing so well just now and it shows on his
little paramecium face.
We bus to Shannon Airport, get our car, return to Galway and pack up to
return to Rosslare to retrieve our bags and on to Clonakilty to meet up with
the Sheehys and Hendricksons.
We found a little cottage on the Dingle Peninsula for the last 3 weeks.
http://www.dingle-region.com/bally1.htm We found out Continental
Airlines will only allow 2 bags each to Costa Rica so we’ve decided to cull.
It will be painful to part with our camping gear and extra clothes, but will
be worth it in $$$ and not asking our children to claim our packages from
Hope you join us in Costa Rica. Happy Christmas and winter or summer ..
depending where you are. We are looking forward to some SUNNNNN.
We drove our way through familiar towns .. Ennis, Limerick, Tipperary,
Waterford .. and on to Rosslare. We gave our tent, sleeping bags, mats and
tarp to Kay’s son and he is anxious to get camping. We read that Cork has a
Jazz Festival weekend so we try to contact Jody Scully who owns the cottage
we’re headed to. Turns out she is returning from visiting her daughter in
Minneapolis. By some lucky fluke her daughter-in-law Helen happens to be
checking Jody’s house one of the many times we call, and says we can move in
on Friday instead of Saturday.
So we set out and take the scenic route to Cork. There are some wonderful
rugged views heading to Cobh .. the old Cork Harbour. Cobh is where most of
the Irish immigrants left from … perhaps my ancestors included. It is a
small island, very beautiful, with Cobh a very busy town with lots of shops
on the far end. Cork itself has very narrow streets and is very busy .. the
little we saw of it. We were looking for a Lidl store from a vague map from
the Internet and quickly gave up to try to get back to the highway. We
continued on to Clonakilty and bought our groceries at a Super Valu with a
After a few false tries, we found Dunowen Cottage and Jody Scully. We were
standing outside waiting for someone to let us in when Helen drove by and
once again took us by the hand. The house was wonderful and we got to settle
in and get it all ready for the Sheehys and Hendricksons. We chose the upper
room with the big matrimonial bed and views of the sea for Sheehys, the
lower room with 3 twin beds and view of the sea for Hendricksons and we took
the big room with twin beds and views of the fields.
Jody Scully was wonderful. She was suffering from jetlag but took time to
tell us about the farm they ran until their retirement. It is in the Scully
family since the 1650’s. Their son and Helen run it now and also manage
property in Poland. Jody and John built a home next to Dunowen when they
retired. Dunowen was an old cottage they thought to tear down but instead
built into a lovely modern home for their daughter Cecilia in Minneapolis,
hoping she would return ‘home’ to live in it. But Jody now concedes that
will never happen. Though the area is so lovely you’d never want to leave,
she does admit that life in the States has its draw as well. They just spent
3 weeks with Celia and it was dry and in the 70’s the entire time. We in the
meantime had been chilly in the wind and rain in Ireland. There you have it
We were all set with the wine and crackers and cheese at the ready the next
day when Barb drove in. They were 2 hours late and worried (as they should
be) that we were still waiting outside since our appointed 2pm rendezvous.
They stopped in Cork and picked up Larry and Mary Hendrickson’s daughter
Katy, who is studying in Cork for the semester and having the time of her
life. We got to enjoy her company for the long bank holiday weekend.
Eventually we all got ready and drove the 6 dark winding miles back to
Clonakilty for some pub food.
We had a fun week with lots of rain. We drove to Bantry and viewed Bantry
House. Greg thought the views from it were almost as good as ours from
Dunowen. We used our walkie talkies when we traveled in convoy with our two
cars. We drove the peninsula to Mizen Head, stopping first at the Drombegh
Stone Circle. A highlight that day was some wonderful roast tomato and
fennel soup at the West Cork Gourmet Store in Schull. We have all attempted
it since, though we couldn’t find fennel here in Dingle. It was full on rain
by the time we drove the long narrow miles to Mizen Head and the center
closed a half hour earlier, but no matter. Greg bought us all ice cream on
the way back and delivered ours to our car a long block away .. in the rain
.. he and the cones dripping. He’d been wanting ‘Flake’ for days .. a
Cadbury confection they stick in the ice cream in these British type
countries. But as we were all double parked, he didn’t wait to get the
‘Flake’, so we just enjoyed our cones.
They all visited Blarney and the Hendricksons kissed the stone. We spent
some time in Kinsale and had a great meal at ‘Fishy Fishy’ as recommended by
Rick Steves. Europeans don’t know about Rick Steves. He does write travel
books for Americans, so I suppose it’s no wonder. But still … They never see
his great travel films.
Clonakilty has lots of pubs and some music, but none wonderful. There was a
good ballad singer, an older gentleman, but he accompanied himself with one
of those noisy banging midi machines that he really didn’t need. Another
night we settled in early for a traditional session but a group of men
talked and laughed so loud they drowned out the music. When we left I told
one of the men they were the rudest audience ever. He said ‘We are NOT an
audience. We were here first and that music is really a disturbance to us’.
I’m not often speechless .. but none of the responses firing thru my mind
came out. I should have accused him of being French or something, as Irish
people aren’t rude (and he did sound Irish).
The week passed too quickly and we had fun with Sheehys and Hendricksons. We
renamed Larry and Mary to Fergal and Aoife (Ee-fa), as we couldn’t have 2
Larrys … even though my Larry is Rory of course. So Barb and Greg needed
Irish names and we decided on Siobhan (Sha-vahn) and Seamus (Shay-mus). Katy
became Niahm (Neeve).
They left early to spend a day in Dingle. We followed the next day, also
heading to Dingle. We drove back to Bantry and across the Caha mountains to
Kenmare and on to Killarny. We’d not driven the Caha mountain road before as
we took the peninsula coast roads in ’96 with the girls. It was a beautiful
route and the sky was clear and glorious. On to Killarney and views of the
Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. This was familiar from the ’96 trip. In ’98 we biked
from Killarney to Sneem thru the Gap of Dunloe and there it was below us ..
all rugged and hilly and ‘how in the world did we do that?’.
We got to Dingle and wandered around a bit before calling to be led to our
cottage. Rory was checking the Tourist Information place that was now open
after lunch, when who do I see across the street but the Sheehys and
Hendricksons. Who’d a thunk? We thought they’d be long gone by then. So we
had some fish and chips together, then bid one more farewell as they headed
to a Shannon B&B to fly out the next day.
Our landlady was visiting Disneyland in Paris, so her son met us and took us
to our cottage. It is a lovely stone bungalow as pictured on the website. It
is right on the main road to Slea Head .. between Dingle and Ventry. We
hoped we could still walk to Dingle, but it is a long narrow dark 2.2 miles
to the first pub so we are happy to have the car. There were nightly riots
and fires in Paris so we worried for their safety, but himself says they
didn’t even know about it until they returned home.
There are lots of music events in Dingle with music every night. Some ballad
singers but mostly traditional music. Seems there is an appointed one or two
for each event and others can join. Some have CDs for sale. Good fun, but
always the talkers .. often Americans. Told a couple from Stoughton we
thought they were from Southern California as they talked so much. They got
their plane tickets at Irishfest for $300. Great deal.
So we’re just enjoying our cottage with its little fireplace for pressed
peat and Polish coal, our last days of the soaps and British and Irish tele,
poking around Dingle and Tralee and the peninsula and cooking goodies like
the roast tomato and fennel soup and brown scones. We again had lots of rain
and cold, but also a week of fine weather and we even biked a few times.
We visited the Gallarus Oratory, a wonderful stone beehive church built with
no mortar 900-1300BC. Not far away is a brass sculpture commemorating Saint
Brendan who sailed from Dingle, taking 7 years to find America, 1000 years
before Columbus did. He wanted to bring the Gospel to the unknown continent
to the West. The story of his voyage is recounted the Medieval Manuscript
‘Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis’ and describes his route via: The Isle of
Sheep, The Paradise of Birds, The Isle of Smyths, The Land of the Pillars,
Through the Region of the Fog to The Promised Land. In 1976 Tim Severin
recreated the journey, taking 13 months to reach Newfoundland to prove that
the trip was not only possible but probable. He recognized the Stepping
Stones of Saint Brendan’s as: The Hebrides, The Faroes, Iceland, Greenland,
Newfoundland and America.
Jody Scully has a lamp from Louis Mulcahy’s Pottery shop in Dingle so we
paid a visit to his sale. Now we recognize the lamp, vase and candle sticks
in our Ballymore Cottage as his works. Workers are stringing the streets
with lights for Christmas and it reminds us of all the lights we saw being
strung for 2 weeks last year in Sorrento that weren’t ready yet for the
lighting ceremony 6pm Dec 4.
We toured the Ring of Kerry one day, taking a mountain road from Killorglin
to Sneem. Two out of three signs to Sneem were turned to send us down single
winding lanes to a closed gate. You could tell by the look on the face of
the lone person we’d pass that it was a road to nowhere. We remember the
look first from our honeymoon .. when we drove past a guy with a shotgun on
some back road in Minnesota. ‘Yup’, it says .. ‘they’ll be back’. The real
road was scary enough much less driving the lesser road twice. We wound
gloriously up and up over a mountain pass and down down back to the sea. You
wouldn’t want a breakdown up there.
We forget how beautiful the route from Sneem to Waterville is and again
wonder how we biked so far in ’98, especially after the MANY pints and
laughs we had with locals at the Blue Bull in Sneem the night before. That
night we stayed at The Convent B&B in Sneem and herself is a friend and
neighbor of Batt Burns, an Irish Bard we’d seen twice when he entertained at
Edgewood College in Madison.
We resisted buying more things for the grandchildren until we saw a little
button accordion in a shop window. We got it and the instruction paper
enclosed was so bad we had to decipher and make our own diagram and figure
out a song. Jaime won’t care about that of course, but her musical mother
may want to help her. Heidi sent a video clip of Jaime dancing around in a
little foo-foo gypsy skirt we sent her, playing a harmonica we also sent.
Cutie pie .. so big and such long hair. So we got Emily a woolen vest with
sheepies and can now attach an Emily zipper tag and a sheep pin and send the
‘Jamie and Angus’ and ‘Loch-Ness Monster’ books we’ve been carrying. You
can’t find a Jaime tag, but I did a cut and paste on a Jasmine one and it
doesn’t look too bad. It’s fun seeing the names on offer in different
countries for all the name paraphernalia you can buy.
Barb wrote one day that she was missing Ireland but had the soup simmering
and brown bread in the oven and was enjoying Marjorie’s cookbook and the
‘Irish Gold’ novel we gave her. It’s grand to fall in love with Ireland all
Our cottage has a nice book selection and we both enjoyed Bill Bryson’s
‘Notes From a Big Country’, a collection of columns he wrote for a British
newspaper while he and his family lived in New Hampshire for a few years in
the late ‘90s. In one he describes a trip on Continental Airlines, suggested
slogan ‘Not Quite the Worst’. We’ll be heading out on Continental next week,
flying from Shannon Airport to Newark, then on to San Jose, osta Rica. An
overnight at a nearby airport, to be picked up by a small Interbus the next
morning for a 4-5 hour drive to Quepos where we’ll live for 5 months. We’re
excited and ready for some sun. Deirdre is coming for Christmas and a little
fun in the sun. It’s 10 years since we had Christmas together as she moved
to Washington in 1996.
Happy Christmas to all!!