Europe : The Final Frontier

I know that technically for the last bit of our time in Turkey we had been in Europe but as we crossed the border into Greece and back into the EU it felt that we were really now on the homeward stretch and back in Europe.. Not that we would be spending much time crossing Europe, it was always going to be a bit of a whirlwind tour. The last week it has seemed as if we have been crossing a border every day, partly due to the countries all been relatively small and partly due to the speed at which we are now travelling. . Greece was a bit of a blur really. We joined a smooth motorway and followed it all along the coast. Every so often there was beautiful glimpses of the sparkling blue Agean and of lovely sandy beaches trying to tempt us down but unfortunately we didn't have time and by the end of the day had turned inland into the wooded hills. We eventually stopped for the night near the border with Macedonia in a clearing down a forest track. . It might not have been as beautiful as the coast but it was a lot quieter. As we return to Europe we realise just how much we enjoy finding solitude and camping by ourselves with just nature for company. As it's peak holiday season in Europe we could see how popular the main sights and the coast were for obvious reasons. This was a lovely spot and we treasured it as we don't know which one will be our last on this journey. The next morning it was another border this time crossing into Macedonia. Not that the Greeks like the country being called that, as they have there own province of Macedonia on their side of the border. It gives rise to rather confusing signs as the first says "Macedonia says goodbye" and then just over the border there is a "Welcome to Macedonia" sign. Still the good news were that the border was very smooth and despite going through two passport controls it took less than 10 minutes to cross. . We were heading for Lake Ohrid but on the way passed by the much less touristy Lake Prespa. We headed down to a spot by the lake for lunch and as it was so nice decided to spend the rest of the day there. Again there was hardly a soul around although unfortunately from the amount of litter around it must have been a popular spot at times. As we drove through the Balkans we could not but notice the amount of litter left lying around and overflowing dust bins. Fortunately we had a quiet night and the next day headed over the mountain pass that lay between the two lakes. The views from near the top were fantastic. As we descended to Lake Ohrid the traffic picked up and by the time we arrived at St Nam's monastery it was decidedly busy. Mind you we could understand why. The lake was set beautifully with the mountains around and every so often churches or monasteries dotted the shoreline. We headed into the main town of Ohrid itself to see the castle and some more picturesque churches. We were hoping that we would be able to find our own quiet spot around the lake but no such look so we thought we would check out the campsite. As soon as we entered we decided there was no way we were staying it was just so dirty so we turned inland and found a quiet spot by a stream to camp. It had been a lovely day and we did not want to spoil it by camping somewhere horrible and for once we hadn't crossed a border. The next day though it was back to crossing borders as we entered Kosovo. We followed a lovely mountain road that gave great views as it twisted and turned through the valley. Again we were able to find a quietish spot by a small river to camp for the night. When we arrived there were a number of picnickers but they left in the evening so we had the place to ourselves for the night. Following the road down through the gorge we arrived in Prizren. From the castle above the town we could see the interesting mix of the town as it was dotted with both Serbian Orthodox Churches as well as Mosques. Unfortunately this coexistence has not always been peaceful as big clashes broke out in 2004. As a result many of the churches were burnt, as well as people's houses. It was hard to imagine as we wondered around the picturesque town enjoying its sights but is a reminder that such violence is sometimes never far away especially when it's whipped up by certain politicians. After enjoying a leisurely lunch by the river we debated whether we should cross another border. As Albania was only 20kms away and it was only 3pm we thought why not, so off we headed to our fifth country of the week. Again the border crossing was really quick and we were soon gliding through the mountains on a smooth motorway. We had thought about finding somewhere to camp in the mountains but before we knew it we were near the coast and things were much busier. . We had read that Camping Legienda was a nice campsite with a pool and decided to give it a try. We were really pleased that we did. It was a pleasant campground with a lovely pool to cool off in the heat. We enjoyed it so much we decided to stay an extra day rather than pushing on to the next border. . This gave us the chance to visit the castle that overlooked the town of Skhoder but more importantly enabled us to get some jobs done that we needed to do before heading back to the UK. We had been planning on doing these at a campsite in Montenegro but you never know we may still find some last wild spots to camp alone. Here's hoping.

Idyllic Island Life

As the ferry crossed the short stretch of water between the mainland and Bozcaada, Alper, my former work colleague, said people either love or hate the island. It didn't take long to decide which category we fell into.. What was there not to love; the deep blue of the sea, the lovely little beaches, the vineyards and olive groves dotting the hillsides, the cool breeze while watching the sun set into the ocean. Or was it the lovely fresh sea food, the slow cooked lamb or the locally produced wines. Maybe it was just the pace of life, yes it was busy in parts with tourists enjoying the beauty but it was easy to get away from it all. Maybe it was just the islanders themselves. We met a number of them during our short stay, all wonderfully hospitable, some had been living there for years others returned to the island each year being pulled back by its beauty.  In particular Nejat and Umit who ran the Baghane guesthouse where Alper was staying could not have been more gracious hosts. Each morning we were invited for breakfast. As we traveled through Turkey we had seen Turkish breakfasts advertised and were keen to try one. Here we were spoilt for choice; freshly baked bread, local olives, juicy plump tomatoes and homemade jams together with an assortment of cheeses and local delicacies. All washed down with great conversation and company. We were fuelled for the day. We would never have gone to Bozcaada if it hadn't been for Alper. I had worked with Alper for a number of years in Central and Eastern Europe and he had just retired. He had been visiting Bozcaada for years and had recently bought some land on the island where he had planted olive trees. As he had seen we were passing close by he had invited us to stay. We were a little concerned that the truck might prove too big for the small island but the ferry was a breeze and once we had negotiated the narrow street of the only town on the island we easily navigated the country lanes. And Alper had the perfect place for us to stay, on his land with the tiny olive plantations. It was just perfect. We parked on a ridge with views down to the sea. There was a lovely breeze to cool the hot sun and we had the perfect view of the sun setting into the the blue Aegean Sea. We spent a wonderful few days on the island with Alper, swimming in the clear but cool sea, tasting some of the local wines, meeting many of the locals and enjoying some wonderful Turkish seafood at the local restaurants. It was great to catch up with Alper, to hear what he had been up to and what his plans were now he was "retired". It was a perfect end to a wonderful week in Turkey. The beginning of the week had been quite different and was all about the Romans. We had travelled from Sagalassos to Pamukkale. Pamukkale is famous for its gleaming white calcite travertines over which spill warm mineral waters. The waters have been bathed in for centuries as can be seen from the wonderful ruins of Hierapolis just above the travertines. . It was here that we started our tour wandering around the ruins and the spectacular roman theatre. But it was to the travertines that we gravitated as thousands of people had before and the day we went was no exception. Who could resist paddling or bathing on the waters on the glistening bright white terraces especially as it was baking hot. After enjoying a nice soak, we had a choice to make. Should we head on a short distance to some more Roman ruins or should we head up the hill away from the crowds to a campsite with a swimming pool? The baking sun overhead sealed the decision, it was up to the campsite we headed for a relaxing afternoon by the pool. The next day we headed to one of the largest Roman cities, the fabled city of Ephesus. Ephesus is close to the sea so we looked at camping right on the beach but decided we just couldn't face the crowds so instead camped underneath the castle in the nearby town of Selcuk. From here it was only a short walk to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis. Unfortunately only one of the 127 columns is still standing. It did though wet our appetite for the main show, the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. The ruins here were on a grand scale and certainly were the best Roman ruins I have seen outside of Rome. The Great Theatre once held 25,000 people and you could not fail to be impressed by it. Then there was the Library of Celsius which had been extensively restored and whose facade was just stunning. All along the way there were temples and arches and it was fascinating wandering the marbled streets of an old Roman city. At the end we entered a separate section, the terraced houses where the houses of wealthy families had been preserved and restored. Inside here you could see mosaics on the floors and paintings still on the walls. It was a wonderful insight into ancient Roman life. While we were in Ephesus there was another special event we had to celebrate. Alisha's 12th birthday. It was the 5th Birthday that she has celebrated on the road and we are really proud how she has developed into a delightful young lady. She has celebrated birthdays on this trip in Canada, Bolivia, Botswana, Malaysia and now Turkey. . The campsite where we were staying was an ideal spot for a birthday celebration. It was a cross between a campsite and a farmyard so Alisha shared her birthday with the geese, goats, sheep, chickens and a particularly friendly cat. As is customary, Gilly and Lucy baked a delicious birthday cake. It was then a long drive up the coast to meet Alper for him to take us to the idyllic island just a short ferry crossing across the Aegean. A delightful end to a fantastic week. Perhaps we should just stay!

Khachapuri Heaven

Georgia is famous for many things. It's wonderful mountains; warm and hospitable people ; the culture; churches; and it's wine but as we crossed the border from Azerbaijan we only had one thing on our mind and it wasn't any one of those.. It was the food. Having spent many years in Moscow where Georgian food is deservedly popular we were keen to try it again and especially in its home county. In particular we were looking forward to Khachapuri, leavened bread filled with delicious oozy melted cheese. We had been telling Alisha and Lucy all about this over the preceding days so after a simple border crossing we headed to the hilltop picturesque town of Sighnaghi. Although the town had a lot to offer in terms of churches, views and cobble streets we rushed past all of this to a delightful restaurant where we could gorge ourselves on our first Georgian meal. It was to be the first of many. At the end of it Lucy was as in love with Khachapuri as we were, even enjoying left overs for breakfast. Having feasted on a delicious lunch we pulled ourselves away to explore the pretty little town. With lunches like these mind you there was going to be no need for dinner. We wandered the narrow streets admiring the churches and town walls before finding a quiet spot to camp by the river for the night. The next day it was the time to enjoy another Georgian speciality, its wine. We had heard that the Schuchmann winery allowed you to camp in its grounds so we thought that made a particularly good choice for a spot of wine tasting. First though we were to enjoy another magnificent lunch in the restaurant with wonderful views over the vines. As I wouldn't be driving for the rest of the day it only seemed appropriate to accompany it with some of the local wine. . Later that afternoon we were given a tour of the winery. In Georgia wine is made in the classical European way but also in its own traditional way, "unfiltered" where the wine is made in big clay pots buried in the ground. At the wine tasting later we sampled both types. It's been quite a while since we have been drinking wine so we also thought it was a good opportunity to stock up with a few bottles. We spent the evening enjoying one of the bottles and watching the sunset over the winery. Before leaving the area we spent an enjoyable hour wandering around the Chavchavdze Estate and it's ornamental gardens. It reminded us very much of an English stately home. With any capital city, parking for the truck is always tricky. Tbilisi was not going to prove an exception and with the narrow streets of the old town we decided to park above the town around a lake. We were met by an old friend and former colleagues' driver, George who kindly showed us where to park. It was a great spot from a security perspective and we felt comfortable leaving the truck there while heading down into the city to explore. It was though a popular summer escape from the city and as the evening wore on more and more people arrived until the car park was full. This was fine as everyone was out enjoying the summer weather. As the car park emptied though it was the turn of the boy racers and loud music which meant we didn't get the most restful sleep. . Tbilisi is a lovely old city full of churches and interesting streets. The churches date from around the 5th century right up until the present day with the largest new cathedral being built since Georgian independence. We spent a couple of days exploring the streets, popping into the churches to admire the frescos and iconostasis. We also took the modern cable car up the hill to the fortress to enjoy fantastic views of the city. One of my former colleagues, Altaf is still based in Tbilisi and it was great that he was around while we were there and to catch up over a wonderful Gerogian meal. While the girls enjoyed the dancing and folk music we caught up over what has been going on over the last four years and remembering times together. It was quite symmetrical meeting Altaf just a few weeks before we finish our trip as I met with him at this home in Canada after we had been on the road for only a few weeks. A lot has passed since then but it's always nice to meet with friends. Altaf was a fantastic host and I would like to thank him for a wonderful Georgian meal where we not only sampled Khachapuri but also some wonderful new Georgian dishes as well. We headed out of Tbilisi taking the main road East. We then turned South as we were planning on crossing one of the quieter borders into Turkey. As we turned off the road narrowed and wound its way along a beautiful valley dotted with fortresses. We were here to visit Vardzia a 12th century cave city. As it was too late that afternoon to visit we drove further along a minor road to camp by the river. It was so nice Gilly and Lucy even went for a swim. However we are not having much luck with campsites at the moment. It was a lovely evening at a lovely spot but was obviously well known. At about midnight a car came down with four men who were out for some beers for the night. Leaving their music blaring they proceeded to make a fire. They ignored us but were clearly settling in for the night so we slipped through to the front of the cab and drove a couple of Kilometres down the track to another spot. The next morning we drove back to Vardzia and climbed up the hill to explore the cave city where monks used to live. The monks lived in rock hewn dwellings ranging over many floors. Whilst in ruins now there was still a church carved into the rock and a couple of the caves were still lived in. Unfortunately that was our last sight in Georgia. We are having to speed up our journey now as we near Europe and wished we could have spent much longer in Georgia. Mind you we had certainly eaten our fill of absolutely delicious Georgian food and if we kept eating Khachapuri every day our waistlines would soon begin to suffer. But they taste just so heavenly.