Maria in der Tann
(Triberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany)

We jumped in the car at 0700 to get an early train through the channel tunnel. We then had to dash across Northern France stopping only for an improvised picnic at a roadside aire somewhere near Ardennes. We drove through Strasbourg crossing the Rhine to enter Germany around 1800.

As we approached the Black Forest rain clouds started to gather. Whilst we were able to enjoy a bit of the drive a downpour of colossal proportions occupied the last half hour to Triberg . At one point it was even hailing! We got to our hotel and had fun running around in the rain whilst trying to get the car park shutters open.

By the time we were checked in and ready to go out it was 2000 and I could tell from the receptionists reaction that we would have to work fast to grab dinner. We walked down the steep valley into the centre of town and found a restaurant for some typical Black Forest food, pork and spaetzle followed by a black forest gateau. To the amazement of an American tourist (probably after a Waldorf salad) the restaurant stopped serving at 2100 and the whole town was dead so we called it a night.

Saturday, 22 July 2017
Gargellen, Vorarlberg, Austria
Triberg Falls
(Triberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany)

We woke up relatively early to clear skies and decided to take a walk around town. We first went up the hill behind the hotel to go to the Ehrenmal, a small fort tower overlooking the valley. It was closed so we carried on walking around the contour of the valley towards the Triberg waterfall. The walk was a delightful stroll through the edges of the black forest on well paved roads. When we got there what is apparently the highest waterfall in Germany turned out to be a series of falls. Whilst it was not Angel falls it was still pretty enough.

(Triberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany)

We checked out and then drive to Lake Konstanz a 50km long inland sea on the border between Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Here we ran into a big traffic jam but even this was not enough to mar the joys of driving through vineyards at the side of the lake watching yachts idle the day away on the blue sea.

Our lunch stop was at the town of Lindau , an amazing Byzantine town on an islet in the lake. We dropped the car at a huge car park on the mainland and then had a very pleasant walk through the outskirts of the town and over the causeway to the islet. We went to marvel at the harbour where a huge Bavarian lion and lighthouse frame the entrance like some port from Game of Thrones. Walking around the streets of Lindau islet was generally very atmospheric, after a while we sat down at a cafe in a cobbled street and had a board of cheese and meats for lunch.

(Lindau, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany)

On the outskirts of Lindau we picked up an Austrian vignette. Rather than paying motorway tolls in Austria (and Slovenia it turned out) you need to buy a windscreen sticker at a garage. Several years previously we had driven through Austria and had not realised this and had gotten away with it, this time we were scared of being arrested at the border so paid up.

Triberg Falls
(Triberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany)

Plunging into the heart of the Austrian Alps we suddenly found ourselves in deep wooded valleys with huge peaks surrounding us on all sides. As we pulled into the tiny alpine ski resort of Gargellen the sun was shining and our friends Greg and Fiona were sitting on the terrace of our hotel enjoying a beer. They had arrived an hour earlier having caught a plane to Zurich and driven to Gargellen from the south of Lake Konstanz.

A few beers on the terrace later we had to admit it was the place to be. The sheer slopes of the Ratikon Alps rose up in front of us, chalets and farm buildings dotting the lush green lower slopes. A stream gurgled at the bottom of the valley and the sun beat down, it was heaven. But sadly the last we would see of the sun for a while. We had dinner that night in the hotel and around midnight a massive thunderstorm drenched the town.

Lünersee dam
(Räatikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

When we woke the weather was cloudy but dry. We assembled our walking gear, had breakfast and then jumped in a taxi for Brand. We had arranged to do a three day, two night hut to hut walk. The taxi would drop us three valleys away and we would make our way up and down alpine ridges to get back to our hotel. Beyond Brand we were dropped at a cable car which we took up a sheer rock face to the Lünersee  dam, the start of our walk.

Lünersee cows
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

The Lünersee is a bright blue pool in the middle of jagged rocky peaks. We proceeded clockwise over the dam and up a small hill overlooking the lake. Here we found a herd of the cleanest alpine cows we had ever seen. Well crafted bells hung round their necks from brass buckled leather straps. They chewed the cud in the first of many meadows of flowers.

Lünersee alphine flowers
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

Then we proceeded along the shore of the lake until reaching a hut at the opposite end where we headed up a stream into the mountains. This led into a steep corridor at the foot of the ridge which formed the border between Austria and Switzerland. As we proceeded up the channel to the Verajochl pass some clouds which had been following us all morning caught up and rolled over the top of us.

(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

Acent to Verajochl 2230m
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

From the pass onwards we only had the wild profusion of alpine flowers to entertain us. We needed to descend from 2230m to 1700m to find the hut where we were to spend the night so a lot of zigzags through the mist were required. We were descending from a moraine and beside us there were still patches of snow that had not yet melted. After what seemed a very long time the floor of the valley appeared and we saw some buildings that looked like the hut.

When we got there however it was not the hut but a very enterprising farmer who had set up a lunch stop on the end of a trail. Fortunately the actual hut was only another 200m. When I say 'hut' this is to do the Lindauer Hütte a disservice. It is more like a design hotel with dormitories. A comprehensive drying room allows you to get your shoes off before you go through to the dining room. Upstairs everything has a bare pine finish, from the bunks to the walls and the ceiling. We had the room to ourselves with a double bunk bed, our friends on the upper bunk and us on the lower.

Only at one point during what was a very misty afternoon and evening did the mist briefly lift. This revealed a wall of cliff far above the hut. We spent the afternoon refuelling and playing cards in the cosy environment of the hut's restaurant. One amusement was the showers which were 2 EUR for five minutes. You had to time them very carefully!

Panorama from Bilkengrat 2336m
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

Briefly at 0600 it was clear but not long after it started to pour with rain. A bit disheartened we had the standard hut breakfast of cheese, salami and bread. Then we donned our waterproofs and set off. There had been the option of climbing the 2800m Sulzfluh but we did not think we would be getting a view so had opted for a more direct route to our next hut.

Drenched on ascent to Bilkengrat 2336m
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

The track followed the valley downhill for a way then started to climb. The track switched back uphill through forests ascending from around 1600m to 2336m in the space of two hours. Above the tree line we were rewarded with a sudden parting of the clouds. We could see for miles around and down to the Lindauer Hütte and the route we had taken to get there.

View of Lindauer Hütte
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

It was just after this that we ran into some Austrians and stopped to chat to them. They asked where where our friends were from, they said New Zealand and the Austrians asked whether they were in Europe on holiday. Hearing that they actually lived in London they said "oh that's not so far to travel it is still in Europe". I joked "not for much longer with Brexit" and I was surprised by the response. "Well if they do not like us it is best the British leave". Anna then responded with "it is all a big mistake" to which they countered "yes there were so many lies". We then let them go on their way. It was interesting how the whole situation was perceived.

Near the top of the Bilkengrat pass we had to traverse a scree slope on a fixed cable. This would be only one of two fixed cable sections and everyone coped admirably. A few minutes later we were at the top of the pass over looking the Tilisunasee, a small lake. Another short hike took us to the Tilisuna Hütte where we were glad to get out of our wet gear.

(Tilisuna Hütte, Vorarlberg, Austria)

The Tilisuna was definitely better than huts we had stayed in Switzerland but was not as polished as the Lindauer. There was a heated boot rack room where everyone's rain coats were hung up but failed to dry in the humidity. There were showers but these were 1 EUR a minute with a count down timer so you had to plan even more carefully! We had a room to ourselves with six single bunks. The restaurant has great views of the lake, when the weather clears, and that kind of makes up for the not great selection of food.

We had arrived at lunch time so after a goulash soup to warm us up we had to amuse ourselves for the rest of the afternoon, mainly playing poker and waiting for let ups in the rain to admire the view. After an adequate but much in need of chilli stroganoff we went to sleep around 2130.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017
Lienz, Tyrol, Austria
Cold morning
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

Waking up to rain the morning before we were surprised to wake up to frost and snow covering the ground around the hut. We had breakfast, suited up and headed out into the cold at around 0830. The first part of the walk was very pleasant, a stroll across the moors the side of the path lined with pools in which reeds with white flowers grew.

Abandoned customs hut
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

After an abandoned Austrian customs hut we started to ascend towards the Plassenpass and the Swiss border. Just past the similarly abandoned Swiss customs hut the weather worsened and it started to snow. We trudged up to the pass on a high ridge and into Switzerland. Our walk through Switzerland was to be brief, just a quick traverse between two ridges behind a much higher peak.

The snow on the South side of the peak was deeper, about 20 cm. Thankfully it had just started and there was no ice. There were a couple of slippery parts and I stumbled once but it was more cold than anything. Then we encountered our second fixed cable section across an exposed ridge. You had to hold onto the cable with both hands and slowly edge along a ledge, the drop was not 100's of metres but significant enough. But we made it past and from there it was a short walk to the next saddle and the Austrian border.

Ascending to Plasseggenpass 2354m
(Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Vorarlberg, Austria)

This pass was impressive, a knife edge below a high craggy peak. The snow was falling heavy enough that we could not get any views of Switzerland but it was clear that in good weather it would be spectacular. Just below the pass the snow transformed to sleet and then stopped altogether. We were able to take our hoods down and we got tempting glimpses of the valley below us through the clouds. Behind us it looked as if we had emerged from a set of snow covered black teeth. The path behind us was not discernible, it was incredible that we had found a way through.

End of the walk
(Gargellen, Vorarlberg, Austria)

The clearer weather did not last and soon we found ourselves walking through woods and meadows with a drizzle that persisted all the way to the bottom. We started to encounter farms and stopped at Ronge Alppe, a farm that had cunningly converted their front room into a rustic bar. From here it was another half an hour to the bottom by the side of the waterfall we had been admiring from our hotel terrace only three days before. We were back at the hotel around 1300.

We had wanted to say goodbye to Greg and Fiona over lunch so after a bit of messing around found an Austrian restaurant that was open. They were staying the night in Gargellen but we were heading off towards Croatia. So without a shower we jumped in the car and set off for Lienz in the East Tyrol.

Driving through Arlberg
(Arlberg, Vorarlberg, Austria)

The drive gave us a range of views from the dramatic Arlberg pass, the comparatively dull mountains around Innsbruck to the rolling hills of the Tyrol around Kitzbuhel. At Mittersill you start ascending a narrow river valley, as you work your way up you start to wonder how you are going to escape the high sides. Waterfalls tumble down the sheer sides almost spouting onto the road. Then suddenly you swing into the Felbertauern, a 5km tunnel through the heart of one of the highest ranges in Austria.

On the other side the scenery is equally spectacular as you work your way down another river gorge to join the Drava valley at Lienz . The Drava river, after winding across Slovenia, joins the Danube and flows into the Black Sea. We checked into our hotel in Lienz and went out to explore the town. It is quite a pleasant place, with a medieval castle and many ancient buildings lining the banks of the river. Walking around at 2100 the town was fairly quiet but then it was a Tuesday evening.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017
Opatijia, Primorje, Croatia
Bled Island
(Bled, Upper Carniola, Slovenia)

We did not have so far to travel, just crossing Slovenia to get to Opatija in Croatia. So we decided we would have a nose around a bit of Slovenia. We were on the road fairly early and worked our way down the Drava valley towards Spittal. The scenery was again spectacular with great views of the dolomite mountains.

Town Centre
(Radovljica, Upper Carniola, Slovenia)

Coming from Villach you cross into Slovenia in the middle of a mountain. A tunnel again plunges through the middle of a range and half way through you enter another country. On the other side you have some minor messing around to switch to a Slovenian wind screen motorway sticker and then we were off.

Town Centre
(Radovljica, Upper Carniola, Slovenia)

Driving through the Julian Alps was very pleasant but as we turned off for Lake Bled , Slovenia's biggest tourist attraction we entered a traffic jam. When we finally got there we could not find anywhere to stop, there was little parking and most of it was full. So we just did a quick drive down one side of the lake and exited. There were lots of people having a great time but on this trip we were not one of them.

Instead we drove to Radovljica  which is a much more down to earth tourist attraction, a walled city on a hill in the middle of the countryside. Here we easily parked using the official instructions "please write the time of arrival on a piece of paper". We then walked around and found a great wine shop and a shop selling all sorts of local produce including the local honey.

View of Old Town
(Radovljica, Upper Carniola, Slovenia)

After this we drove a bit more through the countryside to Kropa , a place famous for making nails. It is hard to describe but it is a very old fashioned village with a mountain stream running through it and an incredibly old fashioned and charming hotel with a restaurant. We stopped for lunch and sat at a table under umbrellas next to a channel which used to feed the nail forge. It started to rain but the table had a large umbrella and we were able to carry on eating watching the village go about its business, it was very bucolic.

(Bled, Primorje, Slovenia)

After lunch we made a dash through the rest of Slovenia which did not take long given the whole country is 150 km north to south and has a fairly good motorway running through it. At the Croatian border we had our first passport control and weirdly switched from a winding country road to a two lane motorway. We made good time and got to Opatija  around 1630.

We checked into our hotel which was built into the rocks above a very blue bay and donned our swimming trunks and plunged into the Adriatic from the hotels tiny beach accessed through it's garage! After our swim we were pretty tired, so we had dinner that night at the hotel's restaurant and fell asleep to the sound of the waves lapping against the shore.

Thursday, 27 July 2017
Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia
View from Hotel
(Opatijia, Primorje, Croatia)

Hotel room
(Opatijia, Primorje, Croatia)

We woke up to a beautiful early morning view of the sea. Again we had a fair distance to travel so were hitting the road early. It is about five hours drive from Opatija to Split but whilst we had ferry tickets it is not possible to guarantee a place on any given ferry so we decided to arrive early in an attempt to be on the 1430 ferry.

After chatting to one of the hotel staff we decided to take the coast road from Opatija to Senj, avoiding having to travel a long way inland to find the north south motorway. The going was good until the island of Krk where the dual carriageway runs out and you are deposited on a single lane road. Here the scenery is nice but the going is slow as the Croatians tend to drop the speed limit at every turn, bridge or village of which there are many. Finally at Senj you climb a mountain pass and then drop down to the motorway.

Hvar Main Square
(Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

There is not a lot to say about the rest of the drive, the scenery inland is pretty dull. We got to the ferry port at Split in good time which was good as it was very chaotic. We were directed towards a waiting area and after a bit of questioning managed to get comfortable that this was for our ferry. The ferry journey was scenic but long at two hours, the most notable point is where it has to squeeze into a channel between the end of Brac and another island. We poured out of the ferry on Hvar  island and made it to Hvar town around 1700.

(Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

We were staying at a fantastic AirBnb positioned just above a turquoise bay far enough away from the mayhem of Hvar town but close enough to walk in for dinner. We had a terrace with a near 180 degree view of the sea and the Pakleni islands. Yachts and speedboats zipped around the channel and we did not see a single cloud the entire time we were there.

(Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

Dinner was in the old town of Hvar. This has a very picturesque Venetian looking main square next to a marina. Off the side of the square several alleyways climb up the hill and it is in these that some of the best restaurants are to be found. But to get there you have to brave crowds of very drunk people.

Hvar was for many years touted as the new St Tropez. However the availability of budget flights has meant it has become more like Magaluff sur Adriatic. Scores of very drunk guys and half naked plus drunk girls weave back and forth along its sea front. Nevertheless once installed in a restaurant called Giaxa underneath a huge medieval arch we soon forgot about it.

Friday, 28 July 2017
Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia
For lunatics only!
(Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

We did not get up especially early and sauntered down to Hvar harbour to find the boat to Jerolim, the first of the Pakleni islands. Since there are so many people hopping over to the islands the boats are cheap and frequent.

Gate of appartment
(Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

Over on the island we found a spot on a small beach on the North side of the island but as the morning went on this soon became overcrowded with noisy groups. So we went for a walk around the rocks and eventually found a spot far away from the crowds on a flat rock with a scramble down rocks to get to the sea. This was very remote but quite unprotected so around 1430 we decided we had enough sun and went for a walk around the island. This proved easier said than done as you have to navigate your way through low scrub and the pine trees from which the islands got their name of the "resin islands".

We finally got back to the dock just before 1500 and the first water taxi to the mainland appeared. Back in Hvar town we had a very light late lunch then went back to the flat to chill out and then go back into town again for dinner. That night on the way back we were to see the worst side of Hvar as we walked all the way back home through "Hula Hula" beach where everyone was so drunk we actually had a guy in front of us vomiting on the walkway - classy!

Saturday, 29 July 2017
Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia
Private beach
(St Klement, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

Our landlord had suggested we rent a boat for the day so we walked down to Hula Hula, which first thing in the morning was quiet apart from a few lads who had either got their early to reserve their place, or more likely had slept overnight on sun loungers. We were given a scarily short lesson on how to drive a low powered boat and then set off to explore the Pakleni islands ourselves.

Franciscan Monastery
(Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

Foolishly we followed the advice of the adolescents who had given us the boat and headed through the gap between Stipanska and St Klements to get to the open sea. Their theory was that it was much calmer than the channel between Hvar and the islands but the truth was every motor boat heads through the channel so you end up having to cope with a lot of wake. We explored a couple of coves but were a bit clueless as to how we would get ashore so had to continue.

In the end we found a jetty on the large bay of a village and clumsily docked the boat whilst being heckled by an old crone sitting on the jetty. From the jetty we first took one path and found ourselves in the neighbouring bay where three mega yachts were tied up. So we retraced our steps then walked over the spine of the island and started walking along the rocky coastline. It was an act of faith but we had seen a map indicating beaches and finally after about thirty minutes of scrambling were rewarded by the discovery of an entirely empty cove.

Humac kitchen
(Humac, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

The beach had quite a bit of debris on it and no shade but instead found an excellent spot on a flat rock under the shade of a pine tree. Here we stayed sunbathing and snorkelling in the crystal clear turquoise waters for a few hours. Incredibly I found a small Moray eel and some green yellow coral. It was idyllic, after a while a sailing yacht moored quite a way off shore but otherwise we had it to ourselves.

Humac sunset
(Humac, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

The journey back was a lot easier now that we were more practised and soon we were back on land at Hula Hula. We spent the rest of the afternoon hiding from the sun in our apartment and getting ready for dinner. This involved another lengthy journey, this time up into the hills at the east end of the island to an abandoned village called Humac. Here there is a restaurant where everything is cooked on wood and you sit amongst the vines eating on old wooden tables. It was perhaps trying too hard to recreate the old ways but it was very pleasant sitting there watching the sun go down.

Sunday, 30 July 2017
Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia
Main square
(Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

Anna at Lungo Mare
(Hvar, Split-Dalmatia, Croatia)

We had too much sun on previous days and were thinking about going diving instead. But in the end Anna wanted to rest so we had a very lazy last day in Hvar. We started off with a swim at the bay below our apartment and then sat on the terrace until lunch.

For lunch we popped into town, mooched around the shops then walked back. We had a bit of a rest and then went for dinner at an excellent seafood restaurant at the opposite end of Hvar. It was a great end to our stay in Hvar.

Monday, 31 July 2017
Rab, Primorje, Croatia
Old town from water taxi
(Rab, Primorje, Croatia)

We wanted to spend half a day at the beach in Rab, our next destination, so we had to catch the first ferry at 0745. This was a much more civilised affair than the ferry at Split and we got back to the mainland just before 0900.

Monastery of St Andrew
(Rab, Primorje, Croatia)

The first part of the drive is motorway but at Zadar you have to switch to the coast road which was a lot more scenic. You drive along side the very lengthy island of Pag, which is almost entirely dry on its landward side. You pass through a series of small dusty seaside towns and eventually get to the Rab ferry at Stinica. Here we got a bit worried as the queue stretched back up the approach road but with ferries leaving every fifteen minutes we only had to wait forty five minutes before departing.

Old town alleyways
(Rab, Primorje, Croatia)

Once on Rab  it was a short drive to the town. The drive offered one surprise in that like Pag the landward side was completely desolate but once you cross over the spine of the island everything is verdant. Apparently the winds always blow such that the sea facing coast gets all the moisture. We checked into our hotel and set off for the beach.

Rab is a real find, the old town is walled and situated on a small peninsula. It has no less than four monasteries all with Italian style bell towers. Short on time we were taking a water taxi direct to the beach which was on the neighbouring peninsula of Kampor which is a National park and covered in pine trees. The boat ride was very scenic and we spent a great afternoon at the beach.

View from hotel room
(Rab, Primorje, Croatia)

When we got back to the mainland we got changed and went to walk around and find some dinner. The colours of the late afternoon provided perfect lighting to the old sandstone monastery walls and whilst we did not get to explore any we soaked in the atmosphere. There were other tourists but not too many for August and the majority were Italian or German families, not hordes of drunk English twenty somethings as in Hvar.

After dinner we had an ice cream and sat by the side of the harbour. The water taxis were in full swing, every five minutes a group of Germans or Italians would fill up a boat and it would zip them off to their hotels. It was a very mellow night.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017
Zagreb, Croatia
Old town from water taxi
(Rab Island, Primorje, Croatia)

We were not keen to leave Rab so we got up early, jumped in a water taxi and headed to the Kampor beaches again. The taxi pilot seemed genuinely suprised that we wanted to be picked up at 1300 but we had to get to Zagreb. Rather than taking a sun bed we found a partially shaded spot under the pine trees and jumped in to the water to do some snorkelling. Anna managed to see a cuttlefish, I was not so lucky. Time passed quickly and when it was time to leave it took a lot of effort to leave. The water taxi driver was waiting for us and whisked us back to our hotel.

Sunbathing in Kampor
(Rab Island, Primorje, Croatia)

The ferry back was almost empty and on the mainland we only had a short section of the coastal road before we found the motorway. We were soon in the outskirts of Zagreb  and we got to our hotel around 1800. We took a tram into town and then a funicular up to the old town of Zagreb. This is very charming but almost completely dead. We found a very old pub for a beer and then found our restaurant. Sadly whilst the food was very nice the place had no air conditioning so we sweated to death whilst enjoying very hearty food.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017
Sofia, Bulgaria
(Nis, Serbia)

Because we had not obtained a green card and did not want a lot of bother with border crossings we had decided to make a dash to Greece through Serbia and Bulgaria bypassing Macedonia. We had worked out with a long day of driving we could get all the way to Sofia without having to visit a random city in Serbia. We set out early and after three hours of fairly dull driving through the woods of Eastern Croatia we came to the border.

Gorge after Nis
(Nis, Serbia)

The border proved fairly easy to get through. Once in Serbia however the quality of the roads took a definite downturn and only improved towards Belgrade. We had no time to stop in Belgrade and instead sped south towards Nis. The countryside was mostly featureless until Nis where more mountainous terrain started to take over and you enter a river gorge. Getting out of Serbia was the slowest border we experienced, possibly an hour to go through Serbian border control. The one thing that amazed us was the sheer number of German cars, they were mostly people of Turkish descent making their way back home.

In Bulgaria everything seemed a lot more scenic. The sun was setting which added a golden light to the bucolic rolling countryside. Large fields of sunflowers lined the road and every village seemed to have an onion domed orthodox church. Given the delays at the border we were very late, it was almost 2000 when we got to Sofia  and found our hotel. We quickly checked in and rushed into town for dinner.

Having had so much sea food over the previous week we had decided it was time for a steak restaurant. And we were not disappointed, Sofia has a great high end steak house - the Crystal. I even managed to find horse carpaccio for starter!

Thursday, 3 August 2017
Koropi, Greece
Woods of Bulgaria
(Sofia, Bulgaria)

After breakfast we jumped into the car and headed south to the Greek border. We probably should have stopped off somewhere, there were plenty of things to see but Anna was keen to see her parents so we made a beeline for the border. The scenery was pretty spectacular, as you get to the Belasica mountains the road follows the Struma river through a deep gorge. Then its the border and you are out on to the plains of Thrace.

We stopped at Chalastra  in the Axios delta for mussels pilaf, a Greek version of paella. The mussels are incredibly fresh as they farm them in the delta. Then after another couple of hours we got to Koropi near Volos, our destination. And that was pretty much it for the outbound portion of our trip. I had a few days staying with Anna's family and then was packed off on a plane back to the UK.

Friday, 25 August 2017
Florence, Tuscany, Italy
Ponte Vecchio
(Florence, Tuscany, Italy)

On the return leg Anna drove solo to Igoumenitsa  on the West coast of Greece and then took an overnight ferry to Ancona  in Italy. We would meet in Florence, so that morning I jumped on a plane from city airport and arrived in Florence at around 1300. When I arrived Anna called to say she would be late so instead of rushing to the hotel in a taxi I decided to take the airport shuttle into the station town and walk to the hotel.

Giotto's Campanille
(Florence, Tuscany, Italy)

The centre of Florence  turned out to be very compact. Within five minutes of leaving the station I was in Piazza del Duomo  and five minutes later I was walking over the Ponte Vecchio . On the south side of the Arno it all got a bit heavier going as I had to walk up the Monte alle Croci stairs with my bag in the midday heat. I stopped at the top in some shade and enjoyed the view, which was stunning. Then I walked about 15 minutes more uphill to get to our hotel. For some reason we had picked one of the highest hotels in Florence but as it was behind the San Miniato monastery  views of the city were out.

Arriving about 1500 I had at least a couple of hours to kill and no intention of going back into town. So after a much needed shower I retired to read in the hotel's shady garden overlooking the wooded hills of the Arcetri district. I ended up reading for a lot longer than planned, with Anna arriving about 1800. Then we hit the town to explore and find some dinner.

Sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo
(Florence, Tuscany, Italy)

Uffizi Wedding
(Florence, Tuscany, Italy)

We got down to Piazzale Michelangelo  at about 1930 in time to greet the hordes of people taking the obligatory sunset shots. We then descended against the tide via Monte alle Croci and crossed the Arno to get a shot of the Ponte Vecchio. The colours were gorgeous and it was better than being on the bridge itself which is rather enclosed and rammed with tourists. Finally we got to the Piazza del Duomo just before the sun disappeared at 2000 and got some shots in the last dying rays. The marble work of the Duomo is very refined in contrast to the size of the place which dwarfs the surrounding buildings.

Walking back across the Ponte Vecchio we tried to find some dinner in the towns trendy Oltrarno district. Sadly most of the places were booked up so we ended up taking pot luck in a Osteria which specialised in wild boar. It was an okay meal ruined by having a hyperactive child at the table next to me. We then struggled back up the hill towards bed in an all too muggy climate.

Saturday, 26 August 2017
Benevello, Piedmont, Italy
Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Wikimedia Commons
(Florence, Tuscany, Italy)

We had booked tickets for 1030 at the Uffizi but had to leave Florence as early as possible so after a quick breakfast on the terrace of the hotel we walked back into the centre of town. By now we were getting very used to the Scalea Monte alle Croci and the workout it offered. We stopped in at the rose garden and then headed straight for the Uffizi .

Surprisingly the time on our tickets did not deter the guards from letting us in at 0945 so we got an early start. And we needed it. Uffizi literally means offices and was constructed in 1580 as offices for Cosmo d'Medici. Over time what started out as a largish collection expanded and was finally gifted to the city as the last of the Medici's died out in 1743. Over time more and more collections were donated to the gallery and now it occupies about half of the building with more expansion to come. One refreshing aspect of it is that it is highly focused with most of the paintings being from the 15th to 18th centuries.

Without a doubt the most amazing painting is Botticelli's Primavera with the Birth of Venus and Caravaggio's Medusa shield running a close second. It is a struggle to get round the museum in two hours and to do so we had to miss several rooms out. It is fairly mobbed, one phenomena I could not understand were people taking pictures of the paintings. Why? all of them are available in the public domain at a better fidelity than the average phone camera can manage. Fortunately my usual system of darting around galleries in a random order trying to take advantage of the ebbing of the tide stood me in good stead.

Piedmont Landscape
(Perletto, Piedmont, Italy)

When we finished we ran around the corner to Save the Queen! a boutique which started in Florence which Anna would occasionally find clothes from in London. After what seemed like an age we got the hotel to pick us up around the corner from the Uffizi and then (far too early) left Florence. We headed off down the road towards Pisa and then around the Ligurian coast to Genoa.

We wanted to stop in the Cinque Terre  but the time was against us. But the scenery in this stretch of the coast is jaw dropping with the motorway basically more like a series of interconnected bridges and tunnels plunging through numerous ridges. The outskirts of Genoa are no less amazing as its suburbs spread like tendrils into the valleys that sit behind the waterfront.

We were very excited about our next hotel having stayed there almost exactly six years previously. However this time rather than approach from Alba we wound our way up from the coast through the valleys of Piedmont to Benevello . As with our previous visit we were stunned by the scenic villages all perched on ridges with the obligatory square tower.

The hotel was just as we remembered it, perched on top of a hill with an amazing view. We chilled out for a bit and then went down for dinner in their one Michelin star restaurant. It was a great night.

Sunday, 27 August 2017
Beaune, Côte d'Or, France
Sacra di San Michele (on left)
(Avigliana, Piedmont, Italy)

We had a leisurely breakfast on the terrace then packed ourselves in the car for the trip to Italy. Six years previously we had attempted the same journey from Benevello to Beaune and our car had broken down just the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel. Even though we now had a much newer car we decided not to tempt fate and opted for the more southerly route through the Fréjus tunnel .

Fréjus road tunnel
(Bardonecchia, Piedmont, Italy)

The journey was mostly by motorway first through to the outskirts of Turin and then due west to the tunnel. As we approached we entered the a mountain valley and spied the Sacre di San Michele , the abbey that inspired the Name of the Rose, high on a hill above us. A little whilst later after paying the extortionate 43 EUR toll we plunged through the heart of the alps and popped out the other side into France.

Grand houses
(Pommard, Côte d'Or, France)

We had planned to have lunch near Aix les Bains but I made a newbie mistake in timing. We arrived at 1430 and the first restaurant I had picked waggled a finger at us and told us their kitchen closed at 1400. We got the same reaction at the second third and fourth and eventually got the picture. In the end we just bought baguettes and ate them in an Aire by the side of the road. I was a bit disappointed because it was the first time for us driving through the scenic Savoie and I had wanted to try the local speciality of Tartiflette.

(Auxey-Duresses, Côte d'Or, France)

We zoomed past Lyons and got to the Côte d'Or around 1800. We escaped the motorway at Chagny and drove to Auxey-Duresses , one of the most picturesque villages where wine has been cultivated since the 2nd century BC. We had not arranged to stop at any caves so from there took a late afternoon drive through the fields to Pommard where we found an open wine shop where we stopped and had a glass of wine and some cheese.

Having stayed at a series of designer hotels on the trip I had booked ourselves into the Novotel in Beaune  which had the terrific advantage of being able to park the car, a near impossibility in the centre of town. We then got ready for dinner having booked ourselves for another culinary treat at a restaurant in town with and outside courtyard. The food was fantastic and we had an amazing bottle of Auxey-Duresses.

Lac d'Orient
(Orient Forest National Park, Champagne-Ardenne, France)

The Italian job
(Coquelles, Haut-de-France, France)

We got up fairly early and again had breakfast outside. Then we popped into a wine warehouse next to the hotel. Yes it would have been nice to stop off at a few caves and chateaux but I had not fully organised this bit of the trip. I had read that the warehouse had a good selection at comparable prices to the vineyards. This was sort of true although the service was awful with very little in the way of recommendation. We put together half a dozen bottles of Auxey-Duresses and headed off towards the channel tunnel.

Following the previous day's disappointment we were determined to be having lunch by 1400 so had pinpointed a couple of places. In the end we stopped at an excellent lakeside restaurant in the Orient Forest  near Troyes. I plumped for the regional speciality of Andouilette de Troyes a sausage made with pork tripe. It was very pungent but with a bit of mustard edible. We sat in the sun enjoying the view of the lake, sad that the holiday had come to an end. Then it was back along the motorway and a half hour delay at the channel tunnel before finally getting home.