Category Archives: 2015

Days 89-97: Greece… The End of the Trip

Transporting through Epirus – Gjirokaster to Ioaninna – Friday 25 June

Very funny last night with Lushi and Violetta over dinner of whole roasted lamb and several side dishes washed down with red wine from ‘my friend’ [who else!] Not sure of the alcohol content of the brew, but it had us laughing at each other’s jokes whether we could understand them or not.

Our goodbye breakfast was far more sober, as again we realised our time was up, and what would be the chance of us meeting again? Violetta had been up since 4am preparing pita breads so she was certainly tired and emotional as she hugged us tightly. There was still a final laugh though as we checked Lushi’s rear car tyre to see if it was still inflated after pumping it up late the previous night. “Is this the first time it has happened Lushi? I inquired. “No, non first time…second, third, very time… I check very day, garage, is good!”

Left at 6am, and the border customs crossing happily quicker than last time we went from Albania to Greece where we queued for 3 hours. Made it Ioaninna by 10am and lugged our bags towards where we thought the centre of town was. Lucky again as we picked it right as we came up against the old castle wall I spotted a basic hotel with a triple room for 40E per night. Dropped gear and headed through wall gate to the brilliant Byzantine Museum, tomb of Ali Pasha [famous leader of the region during Ottoman period], renovated 400 year old mosque, and display of silver-smithed objects for which the town has been renowned for down the centuries . Very impressive displays and restoration of buildings, for just a few euro entry. All feeling quite fatigued from the midday heat, late night and early start – the kids returned to hotel room while I lay on the grass in the shade of a big tree by the nearby lake and slept like a baby!

In the afternoon I walked to try to find the tourist office and bike hire; it was decidedly difficult as I discovered the place is not geared up for ‘foreign’ tourists despite its popularity and population of 120,000 people. It’s a lovely place though with heaps of young people and a positive, friendly ‘vibe’; 10% of the inhabitants are university students.

Happened to talk with the ‘knocking off work’ Council CEO as I stood checking out the bike user stand outside the council office. “Sorry. The bicycles cannot be used now. It is Friday 1pm and the office is closed for the necessary swipe cards. And you cannot use them over the weekend for the same reason’ . He was a nice inquisitive and helpful bloke, but they need a better bikeshare system arrangement than that.

One tourist activity that has good infrastructure is catching a small boat to Ioaninna Island in the middle of the substantial lake. Restaurants and souvenir shop touts await, all sounding a little desperate, but we made it through them and strolled a lap watching fisherman and trying to walk on our toes without appearing like we’d been late for the toilet. [Walking on your ‘toes’ is better for you than landing on your heels all the time.]

Tea of takeaway souvlaki while ‘easy’ listening to a band by the lake doing covers of rock standards of 80s and 90s with a few Greek numbers thrown in. It seemed to be an awareness/fundraising concert for some local organisation?

As I hit the sack I noted that we had bussed, walked and boated through the ancient region of Epirus.

Heavy Metal or ‘Farnsey’? – Ioaninna – Saturday 26 June

Promised the kids a bit of a sleep-in so I walked out early to the bus station to check times for Athens and potential stopovers at swimming locations en route, and discovered we would have to go down the west coast to find an easily accessible beach town. Walking back I dropped into the supermarket for some breakfast muesli – amazing how you can miss muesli so much after a fortnight.

Maggie had risen and was keen for a walk – so it was off through morning shopping foot and vehicle traffic to a car hire place, as an option to get to Athens and see the area around Ioaninna. No cars available, so back to the bus station to buy tickets. Having clocked up some kms we certainly deserved our big late lunch…and siesta following.

Our trio meandered off later to the City Art Gallery but it was closed when according to our understanding of the Greek noticeboard it should have been open? Still it gave Jordy a chance to buy runners from a nearby shop, which he was very happy with.

Time for evening entertainment! It was a choice between the 3rd Annual Antifa grunge/metal Festival where we would be the only people without black t-shirts; or a male and female duo with a guitar we’d seen advertised on a heap of posters about town? The former hadn’t really kicked into gear, but the sound checks we listened to revealed a noise we may not have enjoyed for too long. So it was the alternative, and a steep walk up to the quaint outdoor Hellenic theatre on a hillside overlooking the town and lake. The audience was rolling up in number, from teens to ‘my vintage’. Turns out it wasn’t a ‘husband and wife combo with balailaika’ – it was two blokes , old rocker with a band ensemble… sort of Neil Finn – Paul Kelly types combining for a national tour! Halfway through we decided it was more Neil Finn – John Farnham as ‘Your’re the Voice’ in Greek had the crowd go wild. One of the artists had recorded it in the mid 1990s and had a huge national hit. Sensational , and boy do the Greeks like a clap-along. Sated after an hour and a half, we absconded early for big sleep prior to our early bus trip on the morrow…singing ‘Farnesy’ all the way home.

On Ya Bike– Ioaninna to Messolonghi – Sunday 28 June

After a picturesque 3 hour bus ride from the interior of north-western Greece, we disembarked by the side of the highway with the driver’s pointed hand indicating the way to Messolonghi. [The only disruption to Jordy’s sleep en route was at one pick-up stop when a young woman complained he was in her seat – she can’t’ have been on the bus before as all seat allocation had been ignored from outset.]

It was a lovely warm morning so a dead-flat 2km walk down the main road into town wasn’t onerous. Just inside the old castle wall we found a hotel, but they wouldn’t budge from their 60E room price, so Maggie and I decided to scout around. An hour later we had passed up another option and settled on a 35E, seen-better-days ‘Hotel Agapi’, spacious triple room with an obliging host. It had the requisite internet, hot shower and comfortable bed. After settling in, we even got walked to his mate’s [nothing- to- write- homepage- internet-entry- about] souvlaki joint! While we munched away, the old hotelier rounded up two bikes for us, lent us his own beaten-up treddlie, and we were off out the 5km causeway to Tourlida beach and healing mud baths en route. It was great to be back on the bike after a month. [And there were plenty of others of all ages doing the same – it is the common mode of transport around the flat roads and town.] We napped like cats on the beach ‘boardwalk’ and had a solid swim in the flat Ionian Sea along with a hundred or so sun-worshippers and schoolkids. The black mud baths on the way back were a laugh – fortunately several middle-aged aficionados were there to show us ‘the go’…step out through the thigh deep estuarine water with ankles sinking into not totally foul-smelling black mud, then smear some all over and…wait. I had read the very salty water and mud was good for something, but certainly not for those with thyroid/iodine issues [?]. Not being able to recall the specific health benefits, Maggie and I decided it must have been a weight-loss or anti-ageing treatment based on those around us!

Set for a decent meal, we dined at a fish restaurant, where Maggie and I went for the local eel specialty. Ok, but if it got number one spot on trip advisor…? As we walked home the crowds of people at the ATMs had grown, so thought we’d better get cash out. Alas the funds I’d transferred over the internet had not come through, so I suggested Jordy and Maggie get some out…

No luck. Nothing. The ATMs were dry! Nobody was getting money from any bank in town! And they weren’t happy. But if you’ve been withdrawing your lives’ savings at one billion a day for a week, it is unsurprising the supply had dried up. At the hotel I checked out the internet news; the government had declared banks to close for a week, with ATM withdrawals limited to 60E, except maybe for tourists? It’s a worry, and I emailed the Australian Consul in Athens to say if anyone was looking for us, we were stranded in a nondescript little town without cash to pay our accommodation debts or leave!

“We are good people” – Messolonghi – Monday 29 June

Maggie completed her Melbourne Uni, Semester 2 enrolment procedures online in the middle of the night. Between that, mosquitos, money and mugginess it wasn’t a good night’s sleep for any of us. My mind was working overtime on the ATM fiasco; supposedly tourists will not be capped with ATM withdrawals, but what if we are?

Fortunately the government was true to its guarantee, and immediately after breakfast Maggie was able to withdraw cash to pay for our hotel and ticket to Athens. Bit of a relief as our host would not have taken a credit card! [Ssssh – this was black market accommodation; no ID needed, no receipt given. Say no more.]

The free entry, small, Municipal Musuem of Messolonghi has been attended to by the same man for 26 years! [I wanted to go, just to say ‘well done mate’!] Checked out the specific gallery room dedicated to Lord Byron and his involvement in the 1823 battle for independence from the Ottomans. Byron ended up dying in the town after contracting malaria [hardly reassuring given our night with the mossies!], though he probably would have died in battle anyway – a poet in charge of artillery! It’s a great story to read up on, even if you are only vaguely interested. We didn’t get a guided tour, as it would have been handy to translate the Greek captions – but the curator was busy with 2 busloads of native tourists rocked up while we were there. Maggie and I were struck by one painting that depicted a woman about to stab herself rather than be captured by the Ottomans, having already killed the child on her knee. Gruesome and poignant…and topical given one of the EuroCreditor Heads, when commenting on the likelihood of payment default tomorrow and the proposed referendum this weekend, said… ‘Greeks should not commit suicide while waiting to die’!

Back to collect Jordy from his sleep-in, and hire a third bike as one of our freebies from the previous day had reverted to its owner. Just down the road a bike shop offered a secondhand ladies machine for the afternoon, for the grand total of 4E. First stop the ‘Garden of Heroes’ just inside the old city walls. It is a well kept area of statues, busts, memorials and the odd tomb depicting the famous figures of the Independence Wars, prime ministers and poets from the town. [That history has resulted in Messolonghi’s designation as the ‘Sacred Town of Heroes’]. Next, the small port area where ‘flag-meister’ Jordy identified the only ship at berth as registered in Togo Africa! Another sedate cruise out the causeway to Tourlida and we were enjoying our second ocean and bay frolic at the no doubt once grand, but still popular beach venue.

Late afternoon and we were a little weary – but not as much as the bakery lady where we paused for some delicious muesli and nut slice. Without prompting she looked directly at us with her big brown tired eyes and said “we are good people, we are not bad, this…” and trailed off into the despondent and confused thoughts in her head. Returning the bicycle, the colour of the eyes had changed to blue but the tiredness and disillusionment was the same. I handed over 5E, with a weak smile and a slight shrug, and walked away wishing him luck in his business and passion for bicycles.

Supposedly unemployment is 27% and youth unemployment is 60%? Comments and slanging matches on social and mainstream media talk of ‘socialism and capitalism’. ‘If Greeks paid taxes and didn’t want to look flash in the most expensive sunglasses they would be ok’. ‘If bankers had more social responsibility things would be ok’. Who knows? But for the record, I reckon a convoluted question in a referendum hardly gives the most informed or unified result for what the future should hold.

On the Brink – Messolonghi to Athens – Tuesday 30 June

We have certainly relaxed over the last couple of days. Maggie and I had thought of doing an early morning swim before checking out, but soon decided that was too hard and too much to a schedule. Hauling Jordy from bed, we went back down to the Municipal Museum to buy some posters, then moved around to a well-credentialed private art gallery nearby. Alas it was closed when it should have been open, and after ordering an iced coffee at the café opposite, the young university-student barista called the lawyer-owner’s office to discover he was in court and would not open today. So it was more sitting, chatting with the barista, and relaxing until a picnic lunch and bus to Athens.

Arrived about 6.30pm and were in no rush as Ionnis at our airbnb had asked we wait until a 9pm arrival as previous customers wanted to stay until they headed for their flight at 7.30pm. No problem. Suburban bussed into central Omonia Square, had the mandatory coffee-freddo, and then realised bussing out to the suburbs again would be extremely difficult. People were flocking down the city streets towards parliament to stage a protest for a ‘Yes’ vote to stay in Europe, as a counter-show to the ‘No’ crowd who had demonstrated the night before. This was obviously a well-dressed, middle class cohort. In the lightest rain, we hauled our luggage down the centre of police-lined avenues devoid of vehicles and joined the throng, eventually worming our way out the other side. It was a solid, 3-4km walk [me towing a 30kg bag!]…but we all made it at the appointed time to Ionnis’ astonishment.

The best football shirt ever – Athens – Wednesday 1 July

The kids missed visiting the 1896 Olympic Stadium last time, so I pressed them into it; as well as taking a foreground photo of my smelly, worn out ‘Donald-Firth-hand-me-down runners’ which I will abandon in Athens! They obliged, and with the best-ever audio-guide found the experience exceedingly interesting. The tight oval shaped track and theatre is open at one end, built of stunning white marble, and houses in a museum underneath, posters and torches from almost all the modern Olympics. [Anyone got a Melbourne one for them?]

With public transport free we luxuriated in taking a bus for a couple of stops and one stop on the Metro, to the famous, shopping bazaar of Monastriaki where Jordy was on his usual hunt for soccer shirts. He got lucky with a George Samaras Greek jersey, and I bought Billy a wonderful surprise ‘strip’. [I won’t spoil it with further info Billy!]

There are a few street ‘salesmen and women’ around Athens, but not a patch on the numbers here three years ago. Either the authorities have cleaned them out, or local traders have used a bit of muscle? But it’s quite hard to buy an umbrella/selfie-stick/pair of sunglasses/iphone 6 cover, even if you wanted one! And the number of beggars has declined [scaringly?] – I reckon we only saw one, maybe two for the afternoon. Funny how something can be noticeable by its absence.

Back to the apartment for late lunch/early dinner of Maggie’s stir-fried rice, and a rest before heading out to the 9.30pm performance of the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre. But more about that tomorrow, as when we arrived to buy a ticket, we found it had been cancelled because of afternoon rain and a slippery ‘deck’. And it was too late to go to the nearby open-air ‘Cine Paris’ which was showing the English film-comedy ‘Trip to Italy’ starring Rob Bryden and Steve Coonan. All the way back home again – what a bother.

“Couldn’t sell a dollar for a dollar” – Athens – Thursday 2 July

Looked forward to the day, and it did not disappoint. The reasons for staying in Athens for a couple of days were to visit two sights we missed last time – the Benaki Musuem and the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre – and ‘revisit’ a favourite sight, our Greek-Australian friend from university days, Matina.

Chatted about our families and lives over 9am coffee at the Museum, and then drifted through the astounding private collection of paintings and objects from ancient to modern times, with my main interest given our time in Messolonghi, being in the section of 1800’s independence era material. Maggie’s friends Rosie and Mattias caught up with us, and [naughty] Matina purchased some poster gifts from the shop. [We will be forever in debt for the use of her family holiday house on the island of Leros on our last trip.]

Time for a souvlaki lunch, some pre-packing, and last minute essential souvenir shopping [cd’s of our rock legends from Ioaninna!] Then dinner. I did a bit of online research and found two places near the Acropolis and en route to the Dance Theatre which seemed promising – one even advertising ‘happy hour’ so we went there first. “Tell me about Happy Hour” I invited. “Well a bottle of wine is only 10Euro” the tout replies. “Is that a two-litre bottle!” I respond. “No, 750ml”. “What about your house wine?” “That is our house wine sir!”

We moved to the second option where we met Stavros. “How much is your wine?” “Sir, come this way, where are you from, you will try our wine from our own vineyards on the Peloponnese. Only 6Euro for half litre.” “Australia – so that would be 10Euro for one litre?!” “My friend, 12 Euro, or I will be in jail and you will have to come some time and bring me cigarettes.” “Give up smoking and I will visit you in jail every day my friend.”

And that’s how the five of us came to have the most delicious, multi-course ‘last Greek meal’ for 12Euro/head with one litre of wine free! “Because Australians are my favourite customers – they experiment, they know good food and they come back.” Stavros is the Man, and Liondi is the Place. [Even if he complained about his tout not being able ‘to sell a dollar for a dollar’!]

If that was good, the traditional Greek dancing was even better. [Maybe because Jordy enjoyed it greatly and sometimes he can be ‘underwhelmed’ by cultural events!] The dance school has been running for 62 years, retaining and fostering the traditional music, dancing and costumes through nightly summer performances. Apart from the old Greek ladies behind us who distractingly talked and sang along through the 90 minute performance, it was riveting. We all agreed that the Thrace [northern Greece] womens’ costumes were beautiful and the warlike dancing from the Black Sea most distinctive. The concert happened to coincide with an International Conference on Dance Research, and delegates were present. How would you like to spend a day at that gathering?

Though almost midnight we managed to catch a crowded bus home, and then the only disappointment of the day unfolded… though technically it was the next day. In checking emails I noted newly appointed, Adelaide Crows coach Phil Walsh has been murdered by his son in a domestic drama. I spent 5 years of secondary school with Phil who was one year below me [his sister Bernadette in my year] – played footy with and against him, and was on a school welfare committee that helped old folks in Hamilton: visiting them in Hospital, mowed their grass, or just chatted over Sunday morning cups of tea. By coincidence, only the day before, I had mentioned my old Phil Walsh ‘associations’ to Jordy as he went through the AFL matchups for the weekend. And a day later…unbelievable. I can tell you, he was a good kid, and I wish his family and friends well.

Cycled Across Borders – Athens to Melbourne – Friday 3 July

Waved Jordy, and Maggie, off at the departures terminal for their trip to Paris while I wait a few hours for my flight home. Ionnis did a great job getting us to the airport on time; the early morning trip providing the kids in the back with another hour’s sleep, while the men in the front discussed economics and travel. On resolving the former we achieved little, but on the latter Ionnis resolved to visit Australia funded by his successful airbnb rentals, and I resolved, on the basis of his experiences, not to visit Bulgaria in the near future. [He paid a significant amount of euros to police for ‘fines’ that seemed to be randomly imposed!]

So that’s it. The project of taking our three children on a demanding, learning, bicycle-journey as they enter adulthood post-secondary school is completed: Rotterdam to Rome, Ankara to Athens, and Lisbon to Ljubliana. It’s been fascinating and fun; always keeping in mind that relatively few people get the opportunities we have, and the humanitarian work of Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders is for many people the only opportunity they have to survive in life. Consider your fortune and give generously.

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Days 73-88: Return to Albania (Shqipëri)

“People with Love” – Bari to Durres, ferry – Wednesday 10 June

Based on previous experience with Adriatic ferry terminals, we ensured an early arrival at the large port area. Word-of-mouth seems to be the way of finding out where and from whom to buy tickets, where the customs scrutiny might be, and which of the ferries lined up may be the correct one for your intended destination. With 5 hours to spare, it took nearly all of it to do the required tasks…and then we still nearly got on the ship to Montenegro! After all that, the 10pm scheduled departure stretched to midnight. Not to worry, we had a glass of wine with some dinner [at the surprisingly cheap cafeteria], and got ‘upgraded’ to a 4 berth cabin with shower and toilet…and a window. [Bad luck we weren’t going for 7 days, because the sea was calm too.] The delay in leaving, and a further delay docking meant Enea, our Albanian ‘son’ [see 2012 ‘Cycling Across Borders’ travel blog]who was waiting for us on shore from 7am, was a bit frantic by the time we finally got through customs at 10am. You can image the delight in our greetings, though he was still perturbed the ride he had organised for us to get into Tirana had fallen through.

So it was a bus and taxi that reunited us with the juxtaposed mish-mash of scenes that is Albania – of Mercedes and donkeys, of flash coffee shops and piles of rubbish. Dropped at the suburban student digs of Enea and his sister Blerina, they were full of apologies for the small apartment [bedroom, lounge, kitchen, bathroom]; we reassured them it was better than any accommodation Elly and I had experienced as students – and just fine “for people with love” as father Lushi had deemed us. Blerina had prepared a lunch of delicious roast potatos and chicken which we demolished, not having eaten all morning; then it was a walk to the supermarket to get supplies. Through the evening we caught up with what the busy kids were doing: Enea trying to get all sorts of projects finished for his second year of architecture studies, and Blerina doing volunteer work with the Albanian Human Rights Organisation and completing her masters comparing the decisions of international courts on the legitimacy of applications for self-determination of Kosovo and Crimea. Wow!

“We will fix the Roads” – Tirana – Thursday 11 June

With the children busy for the day, Jordy, Elly and I prepared to walk the 2km into downtown , but as just as we were about to leave one of Blerina’s friends came to take us to the local phone-shop so we could be ‘in communicado’ with the Serjani family. For the amazingly low price of $6AUD Jordy got a sim card and a plan! At a tourist agency In the main square we found a map of the city and commenced our official sightseeing at the National Museum. Unexpectedly, but not really after Lushi heard of our whereabouts, we were met by his ‘friend’, one of the curators, to help explain things! Displays started with the Neolithic of 3000BC to the Albanian hero of the 1400’s Skederberg, through to Independence in 1912, King Zog pre WW2, then the overthrow of communist dictator Enver Hoxha in the early 1990’s. Blerina was anxious to meet us after lunch, and be convinced we were ok, under instructions from Lushi! Continued our walk to Mother Theresa Square, the well-used city green park with lake, then back home; a political rally and Lushi awaited.

In a few days time, on Sunday 21 June, elections will be held across the country for mayoral positions in each municipality. Apart from the usual intense interest in politics in Albania, this election has attracted further attention because the municipalities have been rationalised [a la Jeff Kennett] in a process in which Lushi has been involved. The local rally for the socialist candidate for Tirana Mayor was a music blaring, celebrity endorsing, flag-waving festa. Lushi arrived with strong hugs for all, and we were introduced to his brother and son Flori who was co-organiser of the rally and media advisor to the same-party Prime Minister! Blerina translated key points of the candidates speech, and true-to-type, he promised to fix the roads in Tirana…specifically replacing the street grates and utility covers that had been stolen for scrap metal. Well, good luck with all of that.

“Is problem for me Michael!” – Tirana – Friday 12 June

Similar to the previous day, Blerina had work, and Enea was catching bits of sleep after working studiously with mates through the night. But Lushi had some surprises – following a work meeting he met us at the Archaeological Museum, where more ‘friends’ guided us through the exhibits and the revamped basement archive, out of-bounds to the public. The archive, of boxed and shelved antiquities like pottery and sculptures, was renewed courtesy of a grant from the USA, but lack of funds meant progress with cataloguing and research had stalled indefinitely. We felt very privileged, especially when one historian presented us with a recently published [in English] hardback book of ‘Recent Significant Archaeological Finds in Albania’. We immediately asked him, and all the ‘friends’ to sign it. Albanians are very grateful for interest in their country and generously show it.

We wandered off, but before long Lushi was on the phone, and minutes later we were picked up by his ‘friend’, the artist Leon Cika, who also has worked as a photographer for Reuters newsagency for 20 years. His home/gallery in the foothills around Tirana was jammed with his oil paintings, mainly of scenes in the historic shades-of-grey, stone-building regional towns of Berati and Gjirokaster. Beautiful – but typically Elly and I couldn’t agree on one to buy! So Leon was left with all his works, not unhappily, as he was stockpiling for an upcoming exhibition. In the fresh evening air, we drank beers and analysed the world according to Leon…“The government is crazy, people are crazy, everything is crazy.” Again we felt overwhelmed when he presented us with a published book of his evocative photographs of Berati.

The final surprise of the day was having to drive! Lushi had organised a car for us to use over the weekend, so in a mafia-style, night-time drop-off, the car was dropped outside a coffee-shop. A brief exchange about the ‘goods’ and we were left with a VW Toureg…alas for Lushi, an automatic. “Is problem for me Michael, non have experience automatic. Is problem for you?” No, but driving in Tirana is! Still I only had a couple of blocks to negotiate and traffic was light – phew.

Eat, Swim, Pray – north of Tirana – Saturday 13 June

The Serjani family was reunited when Violetta arrived from Gjirokaster by the early morning bus, bringing hugs and our homemade breakfast of chocolate brioche with sweet pastry roses. Forecast for a hot day, we prepared for a day at the beach. With my reluctance to drive [!], nephew Flori drove the borrowed car, both he and wife Eva looking forward to a day’s break from busy lives of political campaigning and supermarket management respectively. Naturally the Albanian trip could not be completed without a stop for coffee [espresso or macchiato, take your pick], and catching up with family en route [Violetta’s sister, her son and his wife and baby, and daughter who joined us at the beach].

Adriatic beaches are either pebbly or sandy – this one a wide stretch of sand with the usual grids of deck chairs and umbrellas. Great for soccer, throwing the tennis ball, and volleyball except that the grey sand was red hot! But still a beautiful swim and relaxing time with the extended family; continued at a beachside fish restaurant where our lunch was all paid for by a friend Mikel who turned up out-of-the-blue! The only hiccup to proceedings was getting slightly bogged in the sand – typically the solution was swiftly [ill] considered and executed – call on ten young lads nearby and have them lift and push to extract us. They did that, but managed to re-align some of the front panels such that the driver’s side door wouldn’t open cleanly. No worries, Mikel borrowed a massive meat cleaver from the restaurant, and in a manoeuver that had Elly and I cringing, used it as a lever between the catching panels to create some space…only a couple of creases and paint chips on the borrowed machine! All this time, Lushi was on the phone trying to arrange tickets and a ride for Jordy and Enea to attend a soccer match between Albania and France about 100km away. All was falling into place but a driver couldn’t be located; reluctantly Lushi abandoned the plan, the ticketseller down-the-line none too happy he was left with the expensive, black market tickets on the eve of kick-off!

Next highlight was the nearby Church of St Anthony of Padua, in the foothills above the village of Milot. It is a massive Catholic, pilgrimage site in the days leading up to the finale on the saint’s feast day of 13 June. Close to chaos and an absolute mess! Flori got through roadblocks by mentioning who he was, saving us a 4km walk uphill, then tried for one too many and incurred the wrath of a policemen who didn’t care for a ‘friend in a high place’ and cursed at him! Prompting Flori in a pique to promise to ring his superior and get him sacked!! I hope all was forgiven when we joined the thousands of other pilgrims burning candles, storming the chapel, touching different statues and bits of rock where the saint had sat, rested his head, and gazed at the rock?? I checked later on Wikipedia for verification of his time in Albania…none, but can you have faith in wikipedia?

The Big Albanian Wedding – Milot – Sunday 14 June

Whilst the Serjani family were attending [with us as tag-alongs] the midday wedding breakfast of the son of a family friend, it still didn’t stop Lushi arranging a morning coffee meeting with couple of journalist mates. It was a red letter occasion, as one of friends was introduced as a hero who had ‘been there’ pulling on the rope that toppled the massive statue in Tirana of communist dictator Hoxha twenty-five years ago. Imagine that! He was very humble of his protest feats, made moreso by his ‘mates’ who quickly re-labelled him from ‘Hero’ to ‘Fallen Hero’ when he rose to leave before they had finished their coffees! Albanians certainly have a sense of humour.

Naturally we arrived late at the wedding lunch [Lushi at the wheel, now feeling confident about the automatic] and felt conspicuous as we entered the packed 250 seat venue and sat at the ‘friends of the groom’s father’ table. There was more meat than a carnivore could eat, more beer and wine than an alcoholic could consume, and more dancing [table by table] than an extrovert could handle. In amongst all that there was money being showered onto the floor in front of the bridal couple who looked content, in a very reserved way! A great, noisy, happy experience complete with some traditional dress dancing.

Leaving a little early and clapped out by the lined-up groom’s family, the festivities weren’t over…we had to honour home-visit invitations from Mikel [from yesterday], and Gheni [a young fellow at our table at the wedding]. More wine, coffee, raki, gifts and stimulating conversation. Mikel, for example, adamant people in Albania are poor because of the government.

On our way home we lamented our poor car. It was overheating and when we stopped for fuel it wouldn’t restart. A call to the owner and we were told just to wait for it to cool and it would fire up! We did that, but still required a jump start with the most dangerous set of MacGyver jumper-leads ever – a couple of lengths of electrical wire wrapped around the terminals. Just in the outskirts of Tirana on a 4 lane stretch of ring-road in the semi-darkness it came to an abrupt stop again! I quickly put on the hazard lights, and suspecting this sort of thing was a regular occurrence in Albanian traffic, Jordy and I managed to push us across two lanes of traffic to a car park! We put the girls in a taxi, and waited again. Half an hour later, without the need for jumper leads, it started again. How’s that for a day out!

“Italians tell more lies in business than Albanians” – Tirana – Monday 15 June

Elly’s holiday was ending – final arrangements had been confirmed to get her back to Sydney to assist with caring for brother-in-law Nigel in his difficult struggle with a brain tumour. [Nobody could do it with more nobility than you Nige – and that’s a fact not a platitude.] She was keen to pack, so Jordy and I went to buy his soccer shirts – we bargained well and he has added to his collection a Paris Saint Germain and Portugal shirt for $27 each. He has enough shirts for two teams now, so when he plays FIFA X-box/Playstation/Whatever he can always be on someone’s team I suppose!

Self-proclaimed Masterchef Lushi prepared macaroni with bean sauce for dinner – and he earned his moniker. We uncorked the Gheni-gifted bottle of 1971 vintage Italian wine purchased there, and found it [unsurpringly] to be ‘off’. Lushi remarked “the Italians tell more lies in business than Albanians”!

The Bicycle Expert – Tirana – Tuesday 16 June

Delivered Elly to the airport at 8am – marvelling at how little traffic there was. Her huge bag weighed in just under 25kg so our worry about excess load was unfounded despite the enclosed wine and books. Waved her off and hoped all would go smoothly over the next two days?

Back home it was a bit of a disaster area: Blerina had broken her glasses and had an exam to go to, and Enea’s late night regime had left him so fatigued he could not hand in his homework! Lushi was off to meetings so I was left to do the dishes, and motivate Jordy into sorting out his travel insurance into the UK. I was unsuccessful in the latter, and openly frustrated strode out on a long walk to see if the National Art Gallery was open. It wasn’t open but I checked out some bikes en route to see if they would suit Enea. They started at 280E – much more than I expected, as many people [mostly students and old men] cycle in Tirana. When Enea returned from Uni in the arvo we checked out a nearby secondhand bike bazaar which amounted to about 10 shops with several bikes each. The cheapest clapped-out, two-wheeler was still 100E – that’s 14,000 lek! I selected one and gave it a thorough check over – an aluminium-framed German touring bike that had been given an overhaul and looked the goods. Tried to get more than his proffered 1000 lek [18000 to 17000] discount but he was unmoving even after we walked away twice. We probably showed too much interest, and he knew the higher prices being asked for inferior machines around the corner. Not wide tyres but front suspension and suspension seat for the rough roads of Tirana. Enea was rapt when we offered to contribute 15000lek [and for once Lushi didn’t complain either!]; he was even happier when Jordy donated his helmet, and I handed over one of our bike locks and front light. He will be the only Albanian cyclist with a helmet! And he immediately used it to study/show it off with some friends that evening.

After tea, Lushi had a sudden idea of driving out to see his friend, an imam, but he had never been there before and was confused by new roadworks and no signage. It was getting dark, the car was overheating again and Lushi’s driving skills at night were no more reassuring than his daytime form. I suggested a return, and he concurred. But with a stop at bar to meet a “friend”! Ended up being two friends – a young policeman [who had married a cousin of a cousin of a cousin?], and an old colleague [the president of the Press Association of Albania and TV political analyst]. Amazing conversations again. A policeman earns 420E per month [just enough to get by on], and there are over 50 analog TV stations and over 120 newspapers in Albania [for a population of 4 million].

“Everyday is still a good day” – Tirana to Drymades Beach, bus – Wednesday 17 June

Jordy and I were off sightseeing to the Albanian Riviera for a few days. ‘Masterchef’ Lushi cooked up an omelette for us, and delivered us to the furgon/bus just before midday. It was a slow trip along the coast- almost 5 hrs including a half hour toilet/drinks break at Llogara National Park. Even the warm rain that pelted down at the top of the spectacular pass could not spoil the stunning views off 2000m mountain to the beaches below. The winding road was the equal of any coastal drive in the world. Love to cycle it! Saw Caesar’s Pass at the top, where the Roman Emperor had tracked rival General Pompey northwards before defeating him near Vlore; and the Flag Tree, a huge pine bent by the strong mountain winds into the shape of the double-headed eagle Albanian flag.

Dropped on the roadside above Drymades Beach, we were thankful the 3km road down had been bituminised since reading the ‘Lonely Planet 2012’… it helped the wheels of my bag run a bit better! Eventually got to ‘Sea Turtle Kamping’, being frantically worked on along with all other tourist businesses in preparation for the delayed summer season. We were the only patrons, and unfortunately the super package deal of tent accommodation and meals I’d seen on the net wasn’t running yet. But it was interesting talking to young host Tom who had dream of seting up the camping in the generations-owned family orange and olive grove, regained after losing it for 50 years during the communist period. He also organises a techno-electronic dance festival on the beach with international DJs and 3000 attendees. Sauntered to the beachfront Noan Resort Restaurant for a peaceful meal with service from an english-speaking waiter, who, when we commented on the lack of trade, optimistically replied that “everyday is still a good day”.

Jordy and I later concurred as we lay in our comfortable, quiet tent with just the gentle sound of the sea rattling the rocks on the beach, playing a game of ‘guessing the person’ we had met on our holiday so far. There have been a lot of people to recall.

Environmental Unconcern – Drymades Beach – Thursday 18 June

Tough life being on holiday at the beach. Should we swim before breakfast, kick the soccer ball, or just read a few more pages of our books? Decided on swim, kick, breakfast, read, sleep. The beach was clean, and luckily got deep very quickly or it would have meant more fumbling barefoot steps on the pebbly shore and sea floor. The pebbles meant we had to dry off kicking the soccer ball on the ‘esplanade’ though, to the curiosity [and probably bemusement in the case of my skills] of the workers and waiters.

A walk up to the shops at the top of the hill, just to prove we weren’t completely lazy, then back along the beach and rocks looking at the old communist concrete bunkers and joining trench lines. I wonder who Hoxha thought would want to invade little old Albania?

Back at our beach we had amusing entertainment watching several blokes trying to make a temporary jetty, using an excavator and piles of pine logs. It was an OH&S nightmare, especially when the piles seemed to be in place and it came time to cut them off level. How else but stand barefoot and barechested in the bucket, lean out over the water with the chainsaw and zoom away. But what to do with the offcuts? Just let them float away of course and provide a hazard for any swimmer, sailboarder, jetskier, yacht! And there’s the problem, there is little collective communal care or aesthetic; there is only concern for their patch and/or task.

Another read, then at the civilised hour of 7pm, we dined at a different restaurant on soup, salad, and seafood. Nice but not brilliant according to Jordy, and even though they had excellent internet they had mosquitos, so they went on a blacklist. Returned to Tom’s campsite and watched he and his workers playing cards – a variety of ‘Emperor-Scum’ which is a family favourite. Chatted over a beer about all sorts of subjects including the understandable lack of an environmental mentality.

Bad Walking – Drymades Beach – Friday 19 June

Same same – swim, eat, read. Oh, and use the internet to check emails.

Feeling a little guilty of the good life, and a little curious, I decided on long walk into Dhermi village, and beyond to an old Greek Orthodox Church and cemetery above it, then further uphill following the town water supply pipe and goat trails to the crest of one of the mountains rising beyond. Chose one peak because it looked like it had the remains of a significant wall at the top, but it was just the outcrop of rugged rocks with some stones moved about to create chest height goat pens or wind shelters for shepherds in centuries past. I rebuilt one wall that had fallen down a bit which was fun. Not fun though, that on the descent I took my glasses off, holding them in one hand on a steep section due to sweat running onto them [and the slight difficulty in judging distance with the multifocal lens], and tripped scraping one corner of a lens on the incredibly sharp and angular rocks. “Bad walking Michael!” Oh well – glasses being relatively new to me I had pessimistically expected to have lost them by this stage of the trip! Stepped more carefully down after that, purchased late lunch of biscuits, apples and water for myself and Jordy, and returned at almost 4pm in time for a swim and shower before [a well-deserved on my part] dinner. Delicious soup and spaghetti with lightly grilled home-made bread from a village nearby. The Noan Resort has served us well and we decided to implement our plan of leaving the camping, and checking in tomorrow for its package deal of room, beach shelter and breakfast for 20E!

“The line connecting these moments” – Drymades Beach – Saturday 20 June

Left Sea Turtle early and went around the corner to the Noan Resort so we could get full use of our free deck chair for the day on the beach! Added bonus was getting our clothes washing done for free.

A few more people had turned up for the weekend, but the kilometre long beach was still sparsely settled. Lovely! Three swims interspersed with lots of pages read of ‘Museum of Innocence’ written by Turkish Nobel Prize awardee Orhan Pamuk. It’s an intriguing tale of a guy who sets up a museum in tribute to an early lover he was never reunited with. It takes careful reading as each sentence is laden with philosophy about life and love, guilt and innocence, time and its passing. One particular premise took my fancy on this sunny shore of the Mediterranean– that time, though divided artificially into equal segments, does not have the segments pass equally. Some moments take an eternity to pass, and some years flit by in an instant. And the line connecting these moments, made me think of all the things happening at home unabated…of Elly looking after Nigel, of Oma needing higher doses of painkillers. Time is not a straight regular line; bit like my swimming really.

Election Day – Drymades to Gjirokaster – Sunday 21 June

What a timely decision it was to move camp. During the night there was a thunderous electrical storm and downpour that may have drowned us. The added bonus was that downstairs eating an early breakfast, the storm may have damaged the stereo system and we didn’t have to eat to the sounds of James Blount and Sia…again.

Luckily also, one of the hotel workers drove us up the steep hill with all our luggage to wait for the furgon to Himare. Another spectacular coastline journey, and we were in the next ‘beach’ town waiting for a connection onwards. Just unloaded onto the footpath and a private ‘taxi’ rolled up. “Where are you going? Sarande. I will take you. 500lek per person”. “Sorry, we will take the bus. Or 350lek?” I reply. “Nooo – the bus is 400.” “Ok, 400”. He accepts and we are in a Mercedes with 2 other blokes heading south. They spoke good English so again it was full on conversation comparing countries, taxi drivers, and politics. They came from the north but had chosen not to vote as it is not compulsory and they were disillusioned with government. Only a brief wait in Sarande before the furgon to Gjiorkaster departed so the 150km trip that could have taken all day ended up being only 4 hours and $9AUD. Bonus.

It was interesting seeing the changes in Gjiorkaster in the three years since our previous visit. Approach roads had been renewed, more of the distinctive grey, stone walled and roofed Ottoman houses were restored, and business premises had been facelifted with new windows, paint and fittings. Foreign philanthropic money, and foreign visitors have been trickling in of late.

After a welcoming Violetta late-lunch, we accompanied the Serjani family to vote. A measure of the country’s development is that this election has been conducted without too much aggravation, manipulation or demonstration. Everyone seemed in a festive rather than dark mood. In just a couple of minutes they emerged with the indelible ink on their thumbnails showing they had voted once, and could only vote once that day! Lushi and I promenaded the streets talking with everyone he knew, while Enea and Jordy did similar in the other direction. A night out for ‘the boys’ – but we were home by 10pm, they at 4am!

Comings and Goings – Gjiokaster – Monday 22 June

With Enea holding off his return to Tirana, in order to see Maggie coming from that direction in the afternoon, it was a quiet morning with a bit of Lushi guided sightseeing: a mandatory coffee at a bar his brother [who had an uncanny resemblance to Spike Milligan] had opened only 2 days, a drink at a flash hotel recently opened in the old town, then ‘cifci’ [shallow fried rice and mint balls] at a restaurant where we were greeted as old friends, having been a ‘hit’ when last in town.

Violetta cooked up another spread of local delicacies in honour of Maggie’s arrival from Tirana. Sadly we had to farewell Enea, and decided to console ourselves with a walk to a lake on the edge of town which had been landscaped into a public picnic and recreation area. Paraphrasing Lushi’s…‘it’s amazing what can happen when there is an election approaching’! It even had a bike path around its 1.5km perimeter.

Theatres and Castles – Labohove, Gjirokaster – Tuesday 23 June

Mid-morning Lushi drove us 10km out the road for a program of well-ruined, ruin visiting. The first was a small Illyrian/Roman village of little note which floods for 4 months of the year, so it’s future is perilous? At the nearby village of Labohove, there was once a significant castle atop its hill, but the interior buildings were demolished in/after WW2 and the soccer-filed sized area within the walls is now used to keep chooks and sheep! Not a bad thing – might as well recycle these places.

More impressive for me in the village was a huge 530 year old plane tree, and adjacent older natural spring, that had inspired writings from Lord Byron on his perambulations across the southern Mediterranean in the early 1800s….”this is a wonderful place and I have never tasted so delicious dishes and I have never seen so beautiful girls”. To check his opinions we wandered about town, and ate a restaurant of a ‘friend’ of Lushi’s . I can report two things have changed in 200 years.

We were in big trouble with Voiletta when we got back late in the afternoon because we couldn’t eat the lunch she had prepared! Instead of eating, everyone but me had a siesta, to rest up before our evening engagement listening to a visiting Swedish choir in the entrance hall of the Gjirokaster castle. We had been in the same venue on our previous trip and marvelled at the acoustics that allowed every Albanian’s phone call, loud conversation with a neighbour, chair scrape, photo click and early exit to amplify and totally dominate the performers singing and playing!! Nothing had changed in 3 years. And the hilarious thing was Lushi told me a story about a visiting violinist last year who stopped playing and said he would leave if people continued to talk…loudly passing this on with a chuckle while the choir was singing a soft love-song! [‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’?]

Following the polished performance, which ended with the Swedes singing an Albanian folk song in passable Albanian evidently, we met Sardi the organiser, and regional cultural affairs director, who happened to be the person who accepted our offer three years to work voluntarily in the Antigonea Archaeological Park. Pleased to see us, he invited us to the after-party of a meal with the choir, and impromptu flamenco concert [a Columbian/English couple!] and traditional dance display put on for the visitors. A true multinational event .

“In Communism time” – Butrint and Sarande, driving – Wednesday 24 June

The program from Kommandant Lushi involved a 80km trip to the UNESCO listed Butrint Archaeological Park and a swim at the summer resort city of Sarande. True to form, he had co-opted contacts to enhance our day, beginning with a guided tour by young Master of Archaeology Gheni, who had worked with Lushi at Antigonea.

Butrint on the shore of a large estuary, is quite a special site, having traces of civilisations dating back 8,000 years covering Bronze Age, Hellenisitic, Illyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, medieval Venetian and Communist. Extensive work has been done since an Italian researcher began in the early 1900’s – his notes remain, but not a lot of the material he uncovered! ‘In communism time’ [as Lushi refers to it], excavation was organised and thorough, though it did not impress Russian Leader Krushcev in the 1950’s…’leave the Romans and Greeks to their history, better to push all these stones into the sea and let us build a submarine station’. That didn’t happen, [though a 3km aqueduct ruin was essentially removed for cropping fields] and Butrint is one of the best studied and tourist-visited sites in Albania.

Gheni pointed out a couple of things that were new to us. Some stones next to the theatre were inscribed with over 600 names of freed slaves and their compassionate masters. Importantly there were names of compassionate ‘mistresses’ also – the only example of females having the power to free their slaves during the Hellenistic period! And in Roman times there was an established order of importance to where people sat in the half-circle entertaining/dining area; the most important person sat on the left front [as you face the half-circle] around to the jester/entertainer on the right front. [I’m going to reorganise out lounge room!]

We were able to thank Gheni by giving him lunch in his nearby seaside, home-town of Ksimili – some delicious fish. ‘In communism time’ the town was an olive grove; on its fall, the resident workers and others recognised its prime location and went on an unregulated construction spree. Now building approvals have stopped as the unpopulated prospective apartments/hotels stand-out like sore builders’ thumbs.

We had time for a swim at Sarande, in front of the Grand Hotel, before catching our private taxi for home. One stop en route, at a huge mountain spring called ‘Blue Eye’. It looked like Ewens Ponds near Mount Gambier at home, where underground torrents bubble to the surface – huge volumes, crystal clear and 10 degrees. Again ‘in communism time’, things were different and the complex of abandoned and decrepit concrete troughs indicated a thriving fish farm, utilising the water supply had been in operation. The road in matched the fish tanks, and the taxi driver was none too happy to have his livelihood risked on the bumps. Fair call too, as we had to save one rental car tourist from disaster – he had driven one front wheel of his vehicle into a hole so deep his sump was grounded! In true Albanian style, the taxi driver jumped in, and while we lifted/pushed on one side he revved backwards out of the mess to the accompanying scraping sound of metal on rock. All seemed to be ok – no fluid leaks or unmuffled exhaust…and the front door still opened properly!

The next incident was more devastating. A few kms short of Gjiokaster there were police road blocks in place. About lunchtime four policeman had been shot [one killed] while checking a car for weapons/drugs/criminals going into the notorious village of Lazarate. In communism time the town had been responsible for agricultural crop production – post-communism the most profitable crop for their skills became…marijuana. And How! For twenty years it was a lawless enclave, and the law stayed well clear. In 2012, as a condition of entering the EU, the government was forced to act, and with 800 army and specialist police they swooped in a one-day, shoot-out invasion that ended the industry and encouraged people to grow zucchinis instead! But it doesn’t take machine guns to produce quality vegetables, and a militant cell were obviously piqued at the vastly different financial returns. Not even the fact the incident got the 24 hour election result coverage off the television stations gave cause for rejoicing.

I looked at Lushi in the front seat – in a past life he would have been there reporting the incident and making forthright comment. Such work post-communism had almost cost him his own life on one occasion when he was bashed by some disgruntled subjects/readers of a feature article. The international association of journalists called on the government at the time to ensure free speech and fully investigate the incident. Lushi and family were offered the chance of resettlement in the USA which he declined – he was, and is still, passionately committed to making his country a better place from within. [All strength to you mate! As one of your ‘friends’ stated, you are ‘a sweet man, as sweet as sugar”.]

Talking the walk – Gjirokaster – Thursday 25 June

Our last day in Albania. Last time I wrote that, I thought I would never return. This time, I am more certain I may?

While Lushi attended a meeting in Tirana, and Violetta was at work [27 years managing the finances of the local university], the kids and I wandered the steep streets and shops chatting and reminiscing, purchasing a couple of souvenirs to use up our local lek, and eating cifci at our ‘friend’s’ restaurant so Maggie could say hello…and goodbye.

All that remained was to eat a farewell feast for dinner – a whole roast lamb with accompanying spinach burek! And try to wake up at 5am to catch our bus to Greece.

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Filed under 2015, Lisbon to Lyon

Days 57-72: Two weeks in l’Italia

By Tunnels to Italy – Cremieu to Turin, driving – Monday 25 May

Managed to leave at 11am on our 3-4hr drive to Turin. Some mountain pass road closures meant we had to take the 13km Frejus Tunnel at a road toll cost of 45Euro, and it was only one of the tolls and one of the tunnels. All up the tolls were about 70E, and Will counted 13 tunnels for total distance underground of over 40km! It was slightly overcast but we could still see glimpses of snow-capped alps above us when we emerged from our burrows.

Lunch at the town of Oulx on exiting the Frejus in Italy – the usual picnic in the park, kick of the soccer ball, and a coffee at a café to use their toilet. Without communications it was with some trepidation we made it into Turin to meet Stefano, our next airbnb apartment owner. After a short wait on the boulevard all worked out ok, and we were let in to a recently renovated first floor flat in an old 3-storey block, a couple of kms from the city centre.

After hauling luggage and unpacking, Jordy did his homework, and for tea found the ‘best-ranked’ pizza house in the area. Yumbo! He was a very happy boy as we even negotiated with Will and Grandma to share a double bed, so Jordy could have one to himself. After two weeks on couches he deserved it.

Don’t Touch the Fruit – Turin – Tuesday 26 May

Turin is an interesting place. Wide grid-planned streets with 4-5 storey buildings from 17-19th centuries reminiscent of Paris and Lyon, without an ‘old quarter’. It makes for spacious movement and ease to get around.

I was keen to walk…and walk, Jordy keen to sleep and Val keen to see the Egyptian Musuem, acknowledged as the best outside of Egypt. While everyone went about their preferences, I got a trendy haircut from the nearest hairdresser. That done, went past the huge market and got into trouble for touching the fruit as I selected some apples for morning tea! Is there anyone more testy than an offended market-stall operator?

Waited in the sun for the Egyptologists to emerge from the Museum, along with excursionary groups of noisy primary school children – certainly provided atmosphere. The team had lunch while I continued to walk: Valentino Park to see the Po River [an intimidating itinerant clientele within the park], a hilltop view over the city, great value kepeb lunch, famous landmark monument/tower [too stingy to go in!], and gelati shop for sustenance for walk home. One discovery is that museums are overpriced in Turin – each cost 12-18E entry and that adds up after two or three museums, and two or three cities.

The Shroud of Turin – Turin – Wednesday 27 May

Again I took to the streets while others went on public transport to town. En route, stopped in at the Shroud of Turin Museum – this one reasonably priced, and very interesting with the history of shroud fully described, its locations over the centuries and historical references, results of scientific studies that had been done, and explanations of all the markings imprints and bloodstains [AB type if you want to pass yourself off as the Messiah]. But the carbon dating indicates the Shroud is from the 12th century? It was mentioned that further conclusive work needs to be done?

Background reading done, it was time view the shroud. With lots of others! It is only on display now every five years; there are lots of signs and volunteers to assist with crowd control , but it was still complicated to get information. Passed the metal detector test into the darkened Duomo and sat about 10m from a projected image hanging vertically in front of the altar with curtains all around. Surely this couldn’t be it? There were people in front of me in a roped off area. How did they get there? Were they seeing the ‘real thing’? I went out to investigate further. “Yes, it is possible to get into that closer area, but you must book a ticket and follow the route over there”. Did all that, only to end up an hour later 5m away from the same vertical image. In the end I wasn’t sure if the shroud was indeed hung that way for maximal mass-viewing, or it was a smoke and mirrors show!

Reported back to the others who meanwhile had been in the Royal Palace complex. Parted company again, this time with Jordy in hand to buy a Juventus soccer shirt, see the Armory Museum, and get him a haircut at ‘my’ salon.

Jordy and Elly had issues still with their phone cards, so that was finally sorted [the shop had sold an out of date SIM card, so that money was returned and they went to another shop!] With the day nearly done, and everyone tired, there were no takers to hear Australian CW Stoneking at the Torino Jazz Festival –everyone opting for pizza and salad and a quiet night in.

Forza Juve – Turin to Gravere, driving – Thursday 28 May

The quiet night in was a good idea as we were all up and packed in good time to venture into the suburbs to the Juventus [soccer] Stadium. It is only about 5 years old, and is a first – being designed with a shopping complex and museum around the expansive grounds and parking area. The museum was sensational: 33 league titles in 120 years or so, Del Piero’s jumper [over 700 club appearances], Jordy met a big photo of his idol Pavel Nedvěd, Platini’s comment about the winning mentality of Juve, and video of their pantheon of champions including current Italian goalkeeper Luigi Buffon. The stadium tour went through the corporate areas, side of the pitch, change rooms, press areas and took in the outside design of the stadium. The capacity of 43K is significantly reduced from the old 70K stadium, but it now sells out each home match with a thunderous atmosphere [according to the guide]. All this time, Elly and Val were at the adjacent shops, and supermarket getting lunch supplies.

Drove towards Gravere, stopping at a small village to have a picnic in the playground and a kick of the soccer ball. [I’ll skite about my 1-0 victory penalty shoot-out victory because it doesn’t happen usually!] Val wasn’t the only nonna in the park as a few others were there on baby-sitting duty with their pre-school grandchildren. Very pleasant on a 27 degree, fine Spring day.

Gravere only has 700 people, and the great airbnb apartment cost a mere 40E/day for 5 of us. But it meant a 4km drive into nearby Susa to check for tourist info, a phone shop, dinner supplies, and a bike rental place. The only joy was with the supermarket, so it was delicious crumbed chicken schnitzel for tea [using some breakfast cereal Maggie had dumped on us], at the Spanish hour of 10pm. [But then we didn’t have lunch until 3pm.]

Checking out the Susa Valley – Susa Valley – Friday 29 May

The late night, dark rooms, and village quiet meant there was no company when I got up after 7am. [Although Elly had woken at 5am with her sore wrist, and snapped a couple of photos of the snow-capped peaks while popping panadol.] Caught up on the Italian blog days, walked up to the town square internet to check emails, then drove to Susa to talk to the Tourist Office to see if they knew more about bike-hire and further explain road closures for tomorrow’s arrival of the Giro d’Italia bike race.

Got back, and Will and Jordy were still asleep at 10am! Invited Elly for a walk to Madonna del Losa – 400m of vertical climbing over 5km, and return. Walked up on old overgrown, narrow, stoned track that looked like it was last used during the Roman Empire, though it was marked as a walking trail and is part of the St James Way from Rome to Arles, then Santiago. [Seems like we can’t get away from St James.]! It was spectacular and serene tramping – passed by a small abandoned village and a couple of tobacco drying stone ‘sheds’, and were stunned by the Susa Valley view from the 1200m height of the ancient church of Losa. Both of us were very pleased with our 2.5hr, 10km walk…and moreso with our residual fitness level which seemed to have dropped off with less days cycling and more evening wines.

Lunch, then a drive to check out the Colle de Finisterre climb, where the Giro riders would tussle and pant to on the morrow. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to get to the summit as traffic upwards was stopped from about the 6km mark on the 19km ascent of 1500m. We parked and walked up a couple of kms to get a feel for the narrow, steep, forested road at the lower slopes. Already people had staked out a roadside place, and handfuls of wannabee riders were coming up and down. Including one Aussie who we sledged for ‘not having a dip’ which made him smile momentarily in his exertion. It was early days for his climb!

Drove up a neighbouring hill to the ski field at Frais – certainly interesting to see the off-season between winter and summer activities: no snow, spring growth, mountain bike tracks not opened, alp-walkers still absent.

Home via the supermarket for tea supplies, where Will and I stayed in the car, ‘entertained’ by watching a beggar-come-trolley assistant who asked people to return their trolley so he could have the 1E coin. We were trying to guess who would accept/reject the offer. At least he was providing service-for-fee.

Giro Stage to Sestriere – Sestriere, driving – Saturday 30 May

Managed to cajole everyone to watch the Giro finish at nearby Sestriere in the mountains. It was a beautiful day for it, even if a little fresh at 2000m. Not quite sure of the crowd to expect, or the time of the drive there, but made it by midday without too much traffic. Wandered around ski village with a thousand or more others, bought all our pink souvenirs and staked out a spot about 150m from the finish line. And waited… for 3 hours!

The entertainment was initially provided by watching others, but eventually the promotional ‘caravan’ came through with song and dance and freebies thrown into the crowd. An hour later the winner, Italian Roberto Aru, zoomed past in a flash with much cheering from home fans as it meant he would finish second overall to Alberto Contador. Wormed our way down to teams’ area where we watched the pro-cyclists drop their bikes, get a couple of photos with fans then disappear into their respective team bus. Jordy was stoked, especially when the GreenEdge boys came in well after the winner, still getting a thumbs-up from team director Matt White as he spoke with an SBS reporter.

Great day made better by a smooth drive down from the mountain to our local Gravere restaurant – Spanish cuisine in Italy for 40 years by the same family! I immediately ordered paella and Galician octopus for old times’ sake, and nobody else was disappointed.

At home, watched the Spanish Cup Final [Barcelona vs ‘our team’ Bilbao] with Jordy and Will, while Elly went ballistic blaming all of us over the loss of her phone charging cord… she eventually found it in one of her own bags!

On the road again – Gravere to Milan, driving – Sunday 31 May

Left Gravere at 10.30 and hightailed on the autostrada to Milan – a sort of smoggy day with little sightseeing possible due to the flat plains of Lombardy and the high solid fences lining the freeway. Due at our accommodation at 4pm, we arrived 2 hours early but luckily Maria the cleaning lady let us drop our bags and Val off, while we drove out to the airport to sort Val’s ticket and assistance requirements prior to her departure on the morrow– she had been fretting, but all was sorted, to her and the family’s satisfaction.

With the afternoon gone, it was choice of evening entertainment – soccer at San Siro Stadium or opera at La Scala Theatre. No surprise the boys chose soccer, and even the girls declined the opera for a quiet walk around the block in the ‘burbs. The stadium was close by, only a few kms, so the strategy was to drive till we were in walking range, park for nothing away from busiest area, and soak up the atmosphere while marching in with the supporters. The strategy worked well initially. Got a takeaway kebab and a beer, bought the required Inter Milan shirt/jersey, fended off all the scalpers and got to the ticket box. “ID please – for anti-terrorist requirements!” Whoopps, I didn’t have any with me! Tried the ‘ignorant tourist’ line, and arguing in the Italian way, to no avail. With 40mins to kick-off, I left the boys with instructions to go without me if I was late back. Jogged 2 kms in my heavy walking boots to the car, drove 3kms to the apartment, just caught Elly returning from her walk with the keys, grabbed my driver’s licence, returned to the same parking spot, jogged the 2kms again, met the boys, purchased the tickets, and made it in to just catch kick-off with seconds to spare! Inter versus Empoli. The stadium capacity is 80,000, but only 35, 000 in attendance – a great view from behind the goals and plenty of noise still. Nil-all at half time but the second half was an action-packed goalfeast… 4-3 to Inter at the finish. Satisfying experience, but the hamstrings will suffer for days!

Arrivederci Nonna – Monday 1 June

As usual, a steady start to the day; Jordy too crook to make a start even. Caught the tram into the city to give Val an afternoon taste of Milan on her last day in Europe. Strolled through the pack of heterogeneous tourists in the famous Victor Emmanuel shopping mall while Elly sorted her mobile phone out. Then to La Scala Museum and café for expensive drink – a hot spritz taking Val’s fancy as much as the museum! Then to the gelati shop a few blocks away, first discovered on our 2007 ‘Rotterdam to Rome Ride’ by Cal and Billy. The tastiest, best value ice-cream in the world – 2 big scoops of the richest chocolate, and coffee with beans in it, for 2 euro. We were thinking of you boys as we ‘took one for the team’!

The big current event in Milan is the World Expo, from May until October. The theme of this year’s event is food – production and sustainability. A hundred or so nations presenting displays – but not Australia or New Zealand!? I queued for 2 day pass tickets [no ID required San Siro!], and met the others back at home who had repacked all Val’s gear… and given her another bag to take full of our stuff! Good move.

Arrived at the airport in stress-free good time, chatted to some New Zealanders in the check-in line who had been touring Morocco and Portugal, and waved off Val with her wheelchair attendant. ‘Nonna’ had gone a great job. Ninety years old and still capable of a ‘European Vacation’…or a ‘European Vacation II’ if we had videoed the amusing/daggy/hairy moments!

Love Your Land, Fight Poverty, Drink your Milk – Expo Milan 2015 – Tuesday 2 June

Jordy was too crook to go to Expo – a sore throat and headache. A shame, but one less sleepmaster to try to rouse in time to leave and utilise our 24 hour tram/bus passes before they expired at 11.18am. Our route to Expo took us through a huge cemetery, and being a public holiday for the Feast of the Republic, lots of people were visiting to pay respects and put flowers at their dearly departed. We expected a massive crowd at Expo, but everyone apart from foreigners must have been at the cemeteries of Italy, because it was surprisingly quiet.

Elly had a schedule, so it was straight to the Albanian site for front-row seats at a sampling of typical rustic cuisine of the north, prepared by one of the famous chefs of that area. Accompanied by wine, the degustation featured antipasti of dried, stone-hammered thin meat jerky strips, lamb stewed in a big terracotta pot, ‘pancake’ of layers of flour and butter cooked with heat from the top, bean soup, spicy cheese melted amongst marble-sized dumplings, and dessert of crunchy things covered in honey and a sweet pickled fig. Lots of things got lost in the Italian and Albanian translations, but we filled ourselves! [But still had a South Korean lunch for good measure.]

Next, a brisk walk down the full 2km length of the event main road to another cooking show…which turned out to be ‘The Cooking Show’ – a live filming of an episode of the Italian TV channel RAI cooking show! Two ‘competing’ Milanese chefs producing a dish typical of their restaurants – a typical Italian doing pasta shells filled with a tomato paste, and a Sri-Lankan doing Japanese trained/inspired entree of grilled beef strips. Bit of a hoot with make-up artists, camera crews, applause and oohs and aahs being directed, and the hostess talking a thousand words a minute. But the funniest thing was several people in the 20 or so strong audience having bits of tape put over any identifying brand names on their apparel for when the cameras swept around for an audience shot. I nearly had to have my ‘Cycling Across Borders’ logo on my t-shirt covered over!

Filled in the next hour or two visiting random exhibits including; a beer with the Czechs, reading a quote from the Tanzanians on how to tackle the future [Love Your Land, Fight Poverty, and Drink Your Milk], and a thought provoking UN display on food waste, sharing and need to preserve memory of ancient agricultural traditions and knowledge while still going forward. By then it was dark enough to watch the ‘Tree of Life’ sound, light and water fountain display. Day One done.

A Camel is a Camel and is worth a Camel – Expo Milan 2015- Wednesday 3 June

Market day in the suburban street outside our apartment block, so Elly and I paid a fruit shopping visit, while the boys were given an ultimatum to be ready for a second assault on Expo when we returned.

The earlier start than yesterday came to nought; we were stalled at the starting gates – scores of schoolkid and pensioner groups were lined up to go through just a handful of metal detectors. It took an hour to get through. Tired feet at midday before we even entered!

Had picked out 10 well-reviewed pavilions, and by evening had seen them all and several others. We had: eaten Sicilian antipasti, drunk glasses of Maltese wine, were informed by the Dutch that God made the World but they made Holland, had a kepab from the Turkish restaurant, watched a Jordanian sand-in-bottle artist, and learned that in Oman the value of a camel…is a camel. Oh, and we got hot and occasionally bothered.

Highlight displays? Undoubtedly Kazakstan, who will host an energy-themed world expo next year. [A 3d film in a motion theatre showed an agri/cultural travelogue, and a sand artist working over a glass table filmed from underneath depicted the country’s history.] Honourable mentions to France, Lithuania, Russia, Israel, Netherlands, Uruguay, and China [only because the film in their theatrette began with the caption ‘you will watch this film’.

But the highlight was the number of free water stations around the grounds – frizzante or natural – and there wasn’t much for nothing.

Overall.Thought provoking, interesting…’been there done that’ type of experience.

All hail Palladio – Milan to San Fior, driving – Thursday 4 June

Everyone must have been happy to move on from Milan, or we found it hard to sleep after a hot night , but all were up and packed before 10am when cleaner Maria wanted us out to ready the place for the next arrivals. It’s a tough gig being an airbnb apartment rentor? Answering online queries, organising cleaning, washing of sheets and towels, perhaps not getting a huge amount of money. All our accommodations so far have cost $20-25/pp.

The freeway east to Vicenza/Vienna/Austria/slavic countries is three lanes wide; the outside given over to a convoy of trucks, the middle one for them to slowly overtake the slowest of the party and cars trying to stay out of the way of the fast cars and mad drivers of the inside lane. Lots of concentration required, strangely more-so than on the single-lane slow roads with cyclists, tractors, pedestrians, turning traffic…and heaps to look at!

I railroaded the others somewhat to visit Vicenza for a street walk around the buildings designed by famous architect Palladio in the mid-1500s [from whom palladium gets its name, and after whose style such buildings as Buckingham Palace and the White House were built.] The flat, spacious interior pedestrian zone of the town was filled with market stalls [on market day], university students having lunch, cyclists of all ages on the widest variety of bikes, a film crew shooting an interview, some architectural tour groups, and a couple of Jehovahs’ Witnesses! The evangelists must bloom when the temperature gets over 25 degrees – we’d come across them in Milan in the central city and hovering outside Expo. Beggars of a different sort?

Dropped into the Palladio Museum which is a detailed and modern presentation of the architects works and place in history – lots of video projections to go with cut-away models of his famous buildings. The bonus was seeing some beautiful enlarged prints of church altars from Spain, planned and painted by El Greco, who for a short time studied architecture in Vicenza and incorporated in his carved wooden altar backdrops features of Palladio’s designs.

Even though the tour was stimulating, as was the coffee halfway around, we still struggled on the 2km circuit after two long days of standing and walking in 30 degree weather. But I think the others appreciated the ‘optional’ [not] experience of learning about one of the great historical figures in monumental building design and construction!

Decided on the 90km ‘cruising’, non-toll, route to San Fior, our airbnb accommodation, at the edge of prosecco wine country [one of Italy’s ‘champagnes’]. Almost caught ourselves out though, as it was slow going at times but still made it by the appointed 6.30pm to meet host Bruno and his english-speaking daughter Julia. Another well-appointed place – half of a renovated farm-house on the edge of a village overlooking paddocks of maize. Handy being rural as it was a straw-drawing exercise between Will and Jordy as to who got the couch and who got the non-master bedroom. [There was a choice for Jordy to sleep in the same room as Willful Snoring – but not even ‘Hobson’ would take it. Sorry Will!]

Opted for dinner at a recommended restaurant nearby – perhaps our last chance to eat ‘authentic italian’. We have been apartment cooking for ourselves mostly in Italy, with a few purchased pizzas and kepabs thrown in. Elly went for spaghetti, Jordy ravioli, Will grilled seafood, and me beef fillet strips. All washed down with house-prosecco. The restaurant sponsored a [semi-pro?] women’s bike team – team car parked outside, and lots of photos inside. Unfortunately the waiter had no English so we couldn’t elicit further info.

Back home, threw another load of clothes in the washer, and Jordy convinced the others to play cards; I having the excuse of writing this absolutely essential and thrilling blog. Maybe tomorrow night mate?

Prosecco, Prosecco! – Prosecco wine route, driving – Friday 5 June

Jordy was a no-show for a ‘winery tour’ – but we saw more than that. First stop was Conegliano where the market was in full-swing; Elly deciding it was a ‘good one’ on whatever criteria she applies? I got some apples, and Will a shirt, so were happy too.

With a map we then tried to follow a 50km, signposted ‘Prosecco Wine Route’, and we were semi-successful. First stop the School of Wine on the edge of town where we purchased some of their products – then to an ‘historic site’, a restored waterwheel mill, where we got an impromptu prosecco tasting. The guardian of the site obviously filled in his day imbibing the local drop, because as soon as he sold our entry tickets he was clapping us on the back and happily handing over plastic cups full of prosecco. It was one for us, and two for him! The only communication we could understand was the laughing “prosecco, prosecco”.

Several flags and buntings were hanging en route, noting a ‘Giroprosecco’ event; we swung into one winery to investigate. “Domenica” [Sunday] was the reply. With downcast looks we asked if it was still possible to taste, as we would be gone by Sunday. Convinced, the winemaker took us into his cave and after a long tangled Italian/French conversation we discovered he was a bit of a legend, and his wine backed it up. Fermented in the bottle without added sugar, and made only with grapes from the one vintage, his 50,000 bottle production/yr was in demand in London and Tokyo! They will now get two less!

Finished our day out with a walk around the village of Valdobbiadene, then Will torturing us on the winding, narrow, hillside drive home! We needed a nerve-steadying prosecco with Jordy’s gourmet ravioli before Will and I headed out again to some cultured evening entertainment. A concert duet of pianoforte and violin playing some Mozart and Beethoven in the courtyard of the Conegliano art gallery. The performers were well-credentialled; one having played concerts in Australia for ABC-FM; but I guess playing with La Scala Orchestra probably ranks higher? After sustained applause from the 100 strong audience, they came out for an encore of Shubert’s Sonatino #384. Now there’s a hit if ever I heard one.

San Fior to Muggia, driving – Saturday 6 June

‘Our’ winemaker from yesterday strongly recommended we visit Trieste before going to Ljubliana, so off we went after thanking Bruno profusely for his parting giftpack of prosecco – giving in return a ‘prosecco’ kangaroo [made from the wire that holds the cork on].

Found a coveted free parking spot near to the centre, got the obligatory map from the tourist info and wondered where to start. Trieste is a port city with wide streets and buildings – nothing in particular standing out. Elly had googled the meal specialty of the town – a dish of pork parts and sauerkraut with beer! When in doubt with what to do, sit and eat! Well, Will and I enjoyed it – the tongue, hocks, sausage as well as the spec and roast pork! Jordy and Elly not so much.

Walked off the experience towards the central castle-hill and park of remembrance, with memorials to soldiers killed in WW1 on the Italian – Austrian front. Interestingly, great uncle Doctor Dave Greenham had briefly served as a medical officer for the British in this sector, before being sent to AIF lines in France.

It was still well over 30 degrees, so a swim seemed a better option that more walking. Drove to our hotel at nearby Muggia, where we were granted free entry to a private ‘beach’ in town. To be fair, the hotel reception said it wasn’t really a beach – more a section of breakwater with deck chairs and a square of grass. But it was a beach for the locals, and I maintained the record of a sea swim in each country visited: Portugal, Spain, France and Italy – and this was the warmest by far!

Showered and changed for the main attraction of the day – a restaurant for Jordy with the Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus on TV. Sadly the result went against him; Barca having the cheek to win after he had bought a Juve shirt in Turin and done the Stadium tour.

Good Italian, Bad Grass – Muggia to Ljubliana, Trevisio, and Bologna, driving – Sunday 7 June

A big road trip began with a lovely full breakfast at our ‘Park Hotel’. The second delight of the day was the freeway from Trieste to Ljubliana – very new, fast with not a lot of traffic [but eclectic, as Elly counted 12 different country’s number plates en route].

The joys continued – Ljubliana on a warm Sunday afternoon was clean, nicely ‘alive’, and interesting. Listened to a brass band for a while, wandered through a collectables market [Will getting a Yugoslav soldiers cap with tassle, just because he could], walked up the steep central hill to the beautifully restored castle, and bought a cheap-by-comparison-to Italy panini lunch.

In some ways our trip was over. Having initially tagged the ride as ‘Lisbon to Ljubliana’, and got the t-shirts made stating the same, it was quite a buzz to be ‘home’. It is certainly a place to return to.

As is the rest of Slovenia, discovered on our drive back into Italy via Tarvisio, it looked like Switzerland – plains of pasture in various stages of being made into fried fodder [a lot of area is under snow for 3-5 months], neat villages, chalet-style homes, and wood piles being accumulated for winter. All very purposeful and orderly, unlike Italy?

Stopped at the uncle and aunt of Gabi, a friend of Will’s, who was visiting them from Australia. Great homemade tiramisu with coffee, and interesting conversation ,as the uncle was a keen Masters’ Games participant and had competed in the World Games in Brisbane 15 years ago. He joined Jordy and I for a kick of the soccer ball outside, and related a story when one my shots on goal ‘rebounded off the post’ and bounced downhill into a patch of nettles and blackberry. I had shorter socks on, so I sent Jordy down to gingerly retrieve. The uncle then told a joke about the ‘Italian bloke who needed a pee; he walked a distance into the bush so as not to be in full view of passersby, but found himself amongst the nettles. When others laughed at him, he replied ‘I am a good Italian but we have bad grass’.

Will was handed the keys to practice his driving, and managed to negotiate the 300km to Bologna without us dying. Though it did take a lot of backseat driving advice at times Elly reckoned – reminders to drive on the right, but not that far that we sideswiped things! In between closing our eyes, we rang several accommodations in Bologna and ended up with the ‘Elegance B&B’. With such a moniker it was likely to be the exact opposite, but it wasn’t so bad – convenient and clean. Trouble was, it was quite hot overnight and Will had no fan or aircon in his room where we had banished him to snore on his own!

In all, about 6 hrs driving and 600kms covered, and some great scenery and people met.

Bologna and Louisiana – Monday 8 June

A significant day as we farewelled our last ‘Barry Be In It’ [Will] who kindly offered to drop the much-loved Kangoo off in Milan, giving us a day to wander Bologna and prepare for our last hurrah in Albania. It was with crossed fingers we waved Will off, hoping he’d make it accident-free and he wouldn’t be stung with an 80E cleaning fee for the vehicle! [As it turned out he payed 10E at a car wash to have the Atlantic sand, bike grease, and biscuit crumbs vacuumed from inside, and the bird-poo and dirt washed off the outside.]

Another hot day, but Bologna is famous for its portico verandahs so it wasn’t hard to keep out of the sun. Walking around town still requires a great deal of concentration even in the shade – Bologna is a bike town, and they are everywhere. As was the case in Trieste and Vicenze. Good to see people of all ages using them to transport and carry, much like Holland.

Purchased our train tickets for Bari [ferry point to Albania] at the station, then into centre of town to climb the tallest tower for a view. Built in the 11th century, with almost 500 steps up, the 10m x 10m square brick building is still the tallest building in Bologna – amazing. Wandered through the old Jewish quarter, and university district before convincing Elly and Jordy the week-long ‘Festival of Biographical Films’ provided an invaluable chance to see a movie in English, rest our feet in air-conditioned comfort, and mingle with the local culturazzi. The film that was nearest in distance and starting time was ‘The Other Side’, made in Louisiana USA by an Italian director who introduced the showing, depicting the lives of several fringe-dwellers – ice addicts, gun-toting southerners, trailer-park alcoholics…It was an engrossing and gross experience, best summed up by the silence, then polite,hesitant clapping, at the end of the 98 minutes of provoking commentary on the ‘Land of the Free’. I don’t think it will show in your local cinema soon!

Certainly provided a talking point over our spaghetti Bolognese, before returning to our digs to see if the fan could cool the room enough to sleep easily and not dream too much.

The Fast Train – Bologna to Bari – Tuesday 9 June

Needed to be at the station for a 9.42am departure, and panicked a bit when it was 8.45am and we still hadn’t got out the door. We had big bags to lug about 1.5km. Dumped some surplus food and cooking items on the vacant front desk, and hope they went to a good home? And off.

No problem, we walked fast and the train was 5 minutes late anyway!

Very relaxing 5.5hr trip typing up the blog, while Jordy and Elly emailed, played cards and slept. Worst part was seeing all the beaches we skimmed past, though we consoled ourselves it looked a little cooler than Bologna…and we were off to Albania on the night ferry. We could swim there tomorrow!

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Filed under 2015, Lisbon to Lyon

Days 50-56: Lyon and the last of La France

‘Uniformity avoids annoying individuality” – Cucuron to Cremieu [Lyon] driving – Monday 18 May

Left Cucuron at 11am after cleaning up our Balbo ‘apartment’ and saying farewell. Decided on the 3hr, fast, tolled, direct route to Lyon instead of the 5hr, scenic road over Mt Ventoux, a road often used in Le Tour. All was going well until some roadworks on the 130kph autoroute, slowed the speeding mass to a 10km crawl and added an hour to the trip! It was a full-on, lane-changing concentration driving with 3 lanes of traffic differing wildly in speeds, from trucks on the inside doing 90ks to the flashy, marque brand sedans doing 160ks on the outside.

At least we had an appetite when we finally got to Cremieu, close to the airbnb farmhouse we rented for the week. The village is a little known medieval gem – growing rich 500 years ago as it was on the trading route to Italy. Will lunched on charolais steak, Elly on duck andouille sausage, me on goat cheese salad, and Grandma on…crepe Grand Marnier. I guess at 90 years of age you can have dessert whenever you like! A little walk around town brought out Val’s quote of the day; even ‘modern’ homes and buildings mimic the style and color of the heritage surrounds , so it isn’t like Australia where there is “annoying individuality”.

Finding our house was a little tricky and had its moments of tension as we wrestled with google maps, tom-toms, and directions in French. But all was forgotten when we rolled up to our cute 2-storey rural retreat, had a welcome drink and chat with convivial host Nathalie, and settled in.

Department d’Izieu – Dizimieu circuit 42km – Tuesday 19 May

Morning ride, with Will for a few kms, before wandering around the tree-lined roads and lanes of quintessential Springtime French countryside. Undulating neat fields of various crops, pastures grazing Charolais beef and Holstein dairy cattle, and homogenous villages every 5 -8 km. It was everything cycling in Spain and Portugal was not, where it was cramped, busy, and tired-looking by comparison.

Cleaned all the bikes on return, in preparation to sell them in Lyon. They have served us well and it would be great, but expensive and unrealistic, to take them home; I can see why ‘Cycling Rentals’ use them.

By this time it was early afternoon and I drove the others along the route I had cycled in the morning, having reconnoitred restaurants, wine tastings and sights. Didn’t have much luck with the former and about 3pm ended up at a Turkish café in Morestel nevertheless with great doner kebab, salad and chips. As the tourist office lady explained, ‘at zis time, it is not possible to eat at ze restaurant’, as most send the chef packing at 2pm, before commencing later for evening service. Had a win with wine tasting though – a tiny generations-owned House, Domain Meunier, with more than passable Chardonnay and an ‘interesting’ Gamey red. Were shown the storage cave by the proud mother, and the spittoon which was in no danger of being used. Bought more than we needed at 6E a bottle. [Maggie learned in her course it costs about 1.50E to produce a bottle. So I guess there is a handsome profit margin – but why is production cost it so much cheaper than Australia which is about 5.50E [$8]?

Evening entertainment was provided by modern technology – download of ‘Game of Thrones’ for Elly and Will, and replay of Giro d’Italia for me on satellite TV.

It’s all about the food – Cremieu market and Lyon – Wednesday 20 May

Another early morning ride around the picturesque countryside, spotting a deer out of its designated area [not between the roadside warning signs], before heading with Elly to the Cremieu market in its 12th century, open wooden ‘shed’. The feature at one end being some stone ‘sinks’ used as standard measures of quantities of grain amongst traders in the olden days. It is a great market in an amazing location: very friendly and relaxed stallholders with all the local delicacies of goats’ cheese, vegies, pate, meats… we returned laden down with goodies.

As Will and Grandma were not feeling A1, Elly and I drove into Lyon to catch up with Maggie, and boyfriend Moni who was arriving from Cambodia after a stint of university exchange there. Maggie had told us she lived in a castle…and she does! Renting a room with about 10 others in an old chateau in the suburbs surrounded by tall apartment blocks. It had all the round staircase turrets that feature in Lyonnais area castles and chateaux, and had good plumbing and white goods not often associated with student living. Lunch was provided by Moni – banana and rice wrapped up leaves all the way from Cambodia. They wouldn’t have made it through Australian Customs! Left Maggie with all our clothes washing while we took Jordy into the Portugese Consulate to see about a visa to extend his stay. It was an interesting afternoon in the office – a wedding being conducted, a personal chat with the Consul who had been to Australia while working in East Timor, and Elly chatted up a uni student from Madeira who was studying sport in Lyon. Ultimately it proved unsuccessful for Jordy in terms of visa entry, but at least we know it’s not possible. A stroll through the massive central park on the banks of the Rhone River in Lyon, complete with a deer herd; some shopping and then home to a stunning Camargue rice casserole a la Elly.

Far Canals – Annecy driving- Thursday 21 May

Annecy, 100km from Cremieu, is one of the many attractive towns in the region – situated on a huge lake in the middle of a valley, with canals through the old part of town. But it was windy and barely 10 degrees – far canals! And Maggie and Moni were nearly frozen by the time we arrived as they got up at 6am to do a car-share ride from Lyon as they couldn’t fit in with us. What to do but find the top tripadvisor spot for the most delicious hot [real] chocolate and warm-up.

Reinvigorated we wandered around the boutiques and byways until a picnic lunch on the steps of the cathedral, out of the wind and in some stints of sun. Not sure if other tourist didn’t think we were homeless like some of our co-tenants on the steps, but we provided a huddling sight! A quick visit to an exhibition about the history of animation was interesting, and then it was time to head back via the thermal town of Aix Les Bains to see if we could get could get a hot bath. Unfortunately it was a bit late in the day and we probably didn’t have enough ailments – the centres specialising in arthritic and respiratory problems!

Driving home, Val mentioned she would love some minestrone soup – an hour after return we sat down to another Elly special; the best, warmingest minestrone soup in the world.

21 Hairpins – Alpe d’Huez 32km – Friday 22 May

What a way to tick past 1000km cycling on the trip – climb the famous 21 hairpin bends of the Tour de France icon Alpe d’Huez. Jordy and I drove the hour or so out to the base past Grenoble after dropping Elly off to train into Lyon and meet Maggie. We’d watched the weather forecast and this was meant to be the best day of the week…and it was. Fine, with only some cloud surrounding the peaks, not much wind – 12 degrees at the bottom and 6 degrees at the top.

In the summer, up to 1000 cyclists per day make the ride up the mountain! In our couple of hours we probably saw about 50. As it turned out we thought it was a little easier than Col du Tourmalet, longer, but not quite as steep. The 14.2km at an average slope of 7% took 1hr 47min – and we did overtake someone! [Although Jordy thinks it may not count, as it was a hefty woman on a hefty mountain bike.]

Sadly the final 400m in the ski village at the top is badly signposted, and like many others we made a wrong turn and couldn’t do a final ‘sprint’ to the ‘official’ finish line. [But I have no doubt I would have won Jordy!] Magnificent snow-capped mountain scenery, and a recent snowfall had left a dusting around the ski village at the top, so our disappointment didn’t last long. Put on all our layers for the run down, bought a commemorative jersey, and 20 minutes later we were eating down at the bottom – though our descent time was added to by a cattle truck we couldn’t pass, and we only averaged 40pkh! Luckily the adrenalin buzz kept me awake for the drive home – but not my front seat passenger.

We all met in Cremieu for dinner at L’Essential restaurant, serving ‘revisited traditional cuisine’ [eg ravioli escargot], full of stories. Will and Val had successfully minded the fort, and Elly had spent [another] four hours at a hospital with Maggie to see about her broken arm, and felt content with the new cast and diagnosis. Happily, Maggie will survive. Three hours later we were out of stories, and full of tucker.

The Rampant Lyon – Saturday 23 May

Usual start to a French day – nip down to local baker for breakfast baguette and join the queue. The regulars don’t even have to speak as their standard purchase is quickly slid into a paper bag and handed over with a smiling ‘bon journee’. [We all agreed the ‘flute rustique’ from the ‘Maison de Pain’ [House of Bread] is worth returning for.]

Elly finally got us out the door to Lyon about 11am…sometimes it’s like mustering sloths, getting a carload of people organised to move [assuming sloths are difficult to herd?] Met Maggie and Moni at her suburban chateau and put on another load of washing. [Funny how clothes-washing planning becomes almost as important as organising eating and sleeping when travelling.] Into the city for a rampant afternoon in Lyon [the town flag is a rampant/standing lion – poor pun I know.] Grandma Val did a great job walking a kilometre or two as we leisurely checked out the old part of town on the banks of the Saone River. It was an area known for its silkmakers and all the houses and workshops were interconnected by doored, off-street passages and stairs. During WW2 the labyrinth was utilised by the Resistance who could elude German searchers. Maggie informed us the city of Lyon received the highest French war medal post-conflict, because of its role in the Resistance. Her university is named after a particular hero, Jean Moulin. Plenty of shops to catch the eye, and a crepe and ice-cream to maintain nourishment. Will was so overjoyed in buying some ‘Asterix and Obelisx’ comics in French, he lost concentration, and got lost. [And we were worried about Val doing a runner!] Eventually found him by the car in our underground carpark. But a word on those…the cities we’ve visited have all had quite new underground parks that are secure, warm, and have nifty little red and green lights at each bay so you can see vacancies ahead. And not too expensive – 9E for the afternoon.

Lovely chicken and rice dinner at the chateau cooked up by Moni, eaten al fresco in the garden with the sounds of boys playing soccer [ours, and those from the surrounding apartment blocks playing in the park over the backfence.]

What could top-off the day, but a blast of Guy Sebastian at Eurovison on TV.

Au Revoir Mes Enfants [Goodbye My Children]- Isieux – Sunday 24 May

A sad day pended: we needed to sell our lovely bike companions, a trip to the memorial Museum of Isieux Children was planned, and Maggie and Moni were heading to Holland.

An arts and crafts market in Cremieu provided an opportunity to have a lot of people in one place keen to buy? Well, maybe not bikes, but it was worth a shot. Made up an ‘A Vendre’ [For Sale] sign from our cereal packet, packed the machines into the Kangoo and by 11am had installed ourselves at one end of the Market Shed next to a lady selling nursery mobiles of animals made with felt. This proved a masterstroke.

When Val saw the stall, and having a brand new great-grandchild, she was in like shot – buying up and talking up, establishing handy rapport with Miriam [the seller] and explaining the purpose of our rides. Consequently, given Miriam was staying put till 7pm she offered to mind the bikes while we could sight-see for the day. Great!

Although you could hardly call visiting a museum dedicated to 44 children and 7 adults who were taken by the Nazis in 1944 from a country safe-house at nearby Isieux and gassed in Auschwitz…’sight-seeing’. Nathalie, our airbnb host, worked there as an historian and the displays were quite recently opened. Certainly it was a sombre experience, especially when part of the display concentrated on international ‘crimes against humanity’ trials since WW2 following genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, etc, etc… [Indeed Kamahl, “why are people so unkind”?]

Returned to the market about 5pm to find two bikes sold – Elly’s to Eli, to a friend of the stallholder, and mine to Fabien, Miriam’s partner. I found a bottle of wine to share with them to show our appreciation for their efforts, and ‘donated’ the third bike to them. We paid 600E for them and got 350E back – not bad. But it was sad because they were such comfortable, easy-handling bikes to ride. [Thanks for the opportunity – Cycling Rentals in Sintra, Portugal!]

Met Nathalie on our return to our house, thanked her for the accommodation, and promised to have it looking cleaner and neater when we left for Italy in the morning!

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Days 43-49 : Provence

Vedute or Capriccio [truth or dare?] – Aix en Provence, Monday 11 May

In ‘groundhog day’ fashion, another relaxing breakfast with Jacques and Christine who had taken days off work to keep us company. We followed it up by an afternoon drive back into Aix to show Maggie around, go to an art exhibition, and tour Jacques’ workplace.

The exhibition showed the works of Canaletto, a Venetian artist of the mid 1700’s who specialised in buildings and street scenes from Venice, Rome and London. And like most days, I learned something new. His early paintings were in the popular and colourful ‘capriccio’ style – where he would use a bit of licence in his depictions, like transposing buildings into different towns/streets, and, changing the proportions or colors of an edifice. He then made his reputation pioneering ‘vedute’ – where he would produce accurate copies of places and events. In the same gallery Jacques and I also watched a short film on the late-1800’s life of local-legend artist Paul Cezanne, which highlighted the natural surroundings of Aix where Cezannne had lived and painted, including the stunning areas we had walked in.

Jacques, a technician in the air traffic control centre that controls the airspace of south-east France, then showed us his workplace. [A little white-lie to security that our drivers’ licences did indeed show our places of birth, and we were in!] It was amazing to see the controllers in action, and all the technology and backup systems required. Topical too, given the recent ‘German Wings’ crash tragedy in the French Alps had happened on their watch – the controllers issuing a distress notice within minutes of fruitlessly trying to contact the renegade pilot and noting the slow descent, flight pattern change.

Back home, it was another special dinner of ravioli and chicken ‘a la Christine’. Evening entertainment was provided via video snippets of their travels, and the kids’ younger days. [You can imagine how much they enjoyed seeing those!] I put in a request for Jacques to visit Australia tout-de-suite so he could organise all our photos in the same orderly fashion he had theirs! Even anarchists must agree there is Freedom in Order? Final goodbyes said in case we missed them in their morning starts to work and school. Thank you Famille Guivarch!

Beware the nougat stalls – Eguilles to Cucuron driving, Tuesday 12 May

The home village of our French/Australian friend Sandrine is Cucuron, just 30km north of Eguilles. On her demand we had to stay with her parents and visit the Tuesday market! Dutifully we arrived at the market square at 9.30am – about 30 stalls with variety of products. Elly commented on how it was a bonus her Mum wasn’t with us yet, fossicking ‘bargains’ and buy things like pottery, kitchenware, and tea towels…and then Elly immediately purchased a hat and some jam! I can’t criticize though as I nabbed an olive-wood cake-slice server, and some nougat. And that’s a story in itself.

Nougat salesmen never have to work too hard to sell their delicacies to us, but we should have paid closer attention to the price as we sampled every variety in the range. A requested slice of 300gm of the pistachio and coconut seemed very reasonable at 6.90E/kg. We even accepted with an expansive wave the almost 500gm piece he [deliberately?] cut off. Trouble was we misread the sign and it was 6.90/100gm. Oh, la, la! But we have not been the first to come unstuck at a nougat stall – Maggie’s friend Rosie did exactly the same thing at Lyon some months prior. Buyers beware.

Deciding it would be a good present for our hosts, we carried on sampling other wares for lunch: delicious barbequed chicken, duck sausages, and pork ribs…followed by Florentine biscuits, and apricot tart made by the same family in nearby Luberon since 1963.

Found Sandrine’s parents home in the centre of the village, and with Maggie acting as essential translator settled into our upstairs self-contained ‘house’ fit for Provencal-holidaying kings. Last tasks for the day were: a 45min drive to the Aix TGV station to gather Grandma Val and Uncle Will, a shopping spree at the supermarket, and eat the dinner prepared by Elly and Jordy of stuffed tomatos, capsicum and zucchini [following Christine’s recipe sampled just days before].

Biting the Dust – Luberon Valley circuit 53km – Wednesday 13 May

Maggie and I decided to ride one of the signed bike circuits around the villages of the valley, while the others wandered the streets of Cuceron.

Perfect day for cycling with little wind, quiet roads and rural scenery. The agriculture is dominated by grapevines on the slopes and rockier locations, and on the fertile flats wheat and oats, tinged with red from the competing [weed] poppies . A succession of villages passed with their typical mid-brown colored houses and half-circle roof tiles, clustered around a church and small central square: Loumarin, Ansuois, La Tour des Aguies, Saint Martin…A couple of stops for baguette and banana lunch, and dessert of ice-cream at a specialised ‘artisan glacier’ [cinnamon gelati is delicious!], before an unscheduled and unpleasant third stop.

On a slight downhill run, we caught up to a small tractor. Happily chatting about the joys of the day and agrarian life, suddenly Maggie flipped over the front of her bike and hit the bitumen deck at 25kph. If she wasn’t shocked I certainly was – looking back to see her sitting in the middle of the road cradling her arm and shoulder, vulnerable to the next car whizzing over the hill. It could have been worse – fortunately the bike was ok. Oh, and Maggie, despite a large open graze on her shoulder and various sore spots, was able to pedal the last 15kms home – grateful she had been wearing her helmet, and annoyed she had mistakenly jammed on her front brake instead of her rear as she rolled up behind me. Who’d be a cyclist?

Imagine our surprise when we got back and Grandma [retired GP] Val was already in consultation with another patient and we had to join the queue! Elly, while acting as goalkeeper for Jordy’s playtime shooting at the soccer field, had been cracked on the wrist and bruised/sprained it. What a mess!

But we decided to keep calm and carry on…and open a bottle of bubbly…while Jordy, Will and I produced dinner of creamy, pepper chicken and salad. Maybe everything would be better in the morning?

The Extraordinary Museum – Ascension Thursday 14 May

No improvement in the sporting injuries, so it was a day of sedate driving [with 4 in the back seat of the accommodating Kangoo] and walking locally. Began at Lourmarin, thinking the market was on despite the public holiday. It wasn’t, but that’s because I jumbled my days of the week when I was reading the French tourist brochure. Ooops, note to self: ‘Vendridi’ is Friday. Luckily the others weren’t upset as they wandered the tourist shops, and Jordy was stoked because there was a grass soccer pitch and I kicked with him until my knees and groins suggested I might miss the next game if I continued. Moved on to a lake near Cucuron with our picnic lunch, then to the Beaux Village of Ansouis, and ‘Le Musee Extraordinaire’.

It’s an extraordinary claim to be an extraordinary museum…in a small house in a small village in a small valley. But the sign out the front maintained ‘there are many places you leave feeling disappointed, but you will leave the Extraordinary Museum feeling happy you visited’.

With that build up…? Well, it was interesting, and it wasn’t like any other museum. And Grandma Val thought it was extraordinary. It was essentially the eclectic collection of a [now deceased] ‘lover of the sea’ still operated by his middle-aged daughter. The bloke had been an avid diver, amateur artist and gatherer of odd things like fossils, old tools, and gemstones. But basically it was the shells and skeletons of a whole lot of sea creatures and corals, and anything else he’d found on the ocean floor and beach. The English-speaking daughter showed us around and was intrigued we were also museum proprietors! Indeed, it was not ordinary.

Fixing the Injuries – Friday 15 May

Public holiday over, it was time to get expert opinions on the war injuries. While I took Val and Will to Lourmarin market [take-two], Elly and Maggie visited the doctor. The results: Elly a severely strained wrist requiring rest and a splint, Maggie a possible broken arm requiring an xray in Aix en Provence.

Having already booked our lunch date at the Balbos cousin’s restaurant la Belize at Cavaillon, we decided to honor that before going to the hospital. Despite a 45 min drive, it was well worth it – value for money and time. Beautiful presentation and large servings of regional dishes.

Lucky we were fuelled up, as the wait at the hospital was almost 5 hours. Perhaps understandable given it was Friday afternoon at Emergency. Eventually Maggie emerged with a plaster cast past her elbow that weighed as much as her, and a diagnosis of a small break.

Aromas of Provence – Grand Luberron 21km, Manosques driving – Saturday 16 May

Fine clear morning, so decided on an early morning bike ride up the walking and forestry paths to 948m saddle of the Grand Luberron Range above Cucuron. Felt part of an ‘outdoors fraternity’ as being a weekend a lot of other bushwalkers and cyclists were out and about. I was very careful: with the bike as it wasn’t quite robust enough for downhilling on the rough, rocky and loose terrain; and also very careful with myself given the accidents of the week! It turned out to be as slow going downhill as up really. But well worth the considerable effort, and it was a shame not to have company.

At midday we squeezed into Kangoo again and headed for Manosques and the factory outlet/museum of L’Occitane de Provence, the now global cosmetic company founded by a young passionate visionary in 1978. The story of the company was new to me, and told nice things of an ethical emphasis on bio-produce of the region, establishment of fair trade cooperatives out of the region for ingredients coming from overseas, and a commitment to quality. It was inspiring, but it is still an industry based on vanity, and as practical as an antiseptic, even perfumed soap is…it still should not cost a fortune. [Hope you enjoy it Oma!]

Returned to honour an invitation with our hosts Maurice and Geneviève for a 6pm aperitif. Wow! Geneviève had prepared a table length of hors d’oevres delicacies, and Maurice a secret punch recipe that we could only drink ‘two fingers’ at a time… the index and little finger ‘two fingers’ that is! After a couple of glasses the conversation flowed freely, despite the fact everything had to go through translator Maggie. We were also joined by the neighbours, a younger couple whose 12 year old son had a longing to visit Australia – they were super-impressed when Jordy produced a kangaroo out of the wire champagne stopper as a present.

Sound and Light – Les Baux en Provence, Sunday 17 May

Funny how things work out sometimes. The plan for the day was to visit two places of interest at Les Baux en Provence, about 60km from Cucuron: Les Carrieres de Lumieres, and Les Baux Castle . I’d chosen them with Val and Jordy in mind respectively. It was an interesting twist that they enjoyed the ‘converse’ attraction.
Les Baux is famous for two things? It was the source of limestone building blocks sawn from open and underground quarries; and ‘bauxite’ is named after it, as the aluminium ore was ‘discovered’ nearby.

Les Carrieres is a large, mainly underground quarry that has been converted into a sound and light show space. Digital images are projected on the plane 15m high, white ‘walls’ and massive supporting pillars of uncut stone. Hard to visualise, but wow – what a vision. The current exposition was the major works of da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. About 45 min of music and changing images was stunning. [Make sure you see our video of it one day!]

The Castle sits above the village, and whilst a ruin, still commands great views south to the sea, and has medieval weaponry on display, from battering rams to crossbows. Jordy tried the latter, but loved the audio-visual of the morning. Val was intrigued with the models and castle complex, and found the sound and light show, not as good as ‘seeing the originals’.

For the rest of us, including Jacques and Christine who’d joined us from Eguilles, both activities were duly recognised.

Next event for the day was to deliver the kids into Avignon to catch the train to Lyon, as it was impossible to pack all the gear, six people and three bikes into the Kangoo. It’s good, but not that good!

Last job? Record the church clock of Cucuron just outside our window. Maybe there are others around like it, but we haven’t come across one in Europe before. It ‘dongs’ the hour twice, a minute apart, so if you miss the count the first time, you get a second chance. Fantastic. And the half-hour is just a single ‘dong’. [And as had happened most nights, I heard the 2am, 3am or 4am clanging really clearly.]

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Days 39-42: Southern France

Singing Rod Stewart – Carcassone to Saintes Marie de la Mer driving, The Camargue 30km- Thursday 7 May

Mustered early to pack up and rigorously clean the cabin so we could pass inspection by the camp commandant and get our 350E back. Phew, successful! It made for a nice drive through the famed vineyards of Languedoc to the Camargue National Park.

The Camargue is a huge old delta of the Rhone River with dead flat saltbush paddocks, rice paddies, and shallow lagoons dotted with the renowned animal life of the region: black long-horned cattle, white camargue horses, and pink flamingos. I had tried to see it in the 1970’s as a backpacker, but had been unsuccessful in hitchhiking the last 20kms! So it was with great anticipation we walked around the coastal town of Saintes Marie, booked a cheap hotel, and got the bikes out to ride and see the countryside. Elly and I rode along a dyke bikepath with scores of other holidaymakers gawking at the scores of pink flamingos scratching away in the water feeding, or resting on one leg, head tucked under their wing. Sadly, in a revisit to the 70’s backpacker, I couldn’t get the words of Rod Stewart’s ‘Pretty Flamingo’ out of my head!

Back in town, we wandered around to the Notre Dame de la Mer Church with its black wood, statue of Saint Sara, the patron saint of gypsies; and selected a restaurant to sample the flavors of the Camargue: pippies, beef fillet, egg carbonara, and apple tart.

Journee Henri Aubanel – The Camargue 38km, Saintes Maries to Eguilles driving – Friday 8 May

To maintain the record of a swim in every country, the flat, brisk beach opposite the hotel was braved early morning – the air temperature probably the same as the water – high teens? Refreshed and eager for breakfast, Elly and I rode to the edge of town as locals prepared to commemorate ‘the day of Henri Aubanel’, evidently a pioneer promoter of the heritage of camargue life – cattle and horses. ‘For the tourism, for the history, for our children’ was my translation of the speech made while the 100 people assembled tucked into a simple, delicious breakfast of barbequed bacon rashers, lashings of paté on baguette, all sloshed down by red wine. And free!

The next event on the program was the midday running of the bulls into town. Many more expectant people lined the streets now, families with kids down for a beach day given the public holiday for the anniversary of the end of WW2. Suddenly a loud cantering was heard, and in a blur about 10 horseriders, tightly encircling about 4 bulls so they couldn’t see out of the scrum, whisked by en route to the town ‘bull-fighting’ arena. Amazing! [Important note: no bulls are killed in French ‘bullfighting’ – the aim is to pull decorations off the horns of the taunted charging beast!] It was a conversation point as I cajoled the others into another cycle ride north through the swamps and paddocks to Mejanes. But neither were keen to hang around to see the 4pm demonstration of the skills involved, so we drove off, with a deviation along the camino path to Arles, to our weekend destination of the family Guivarch home at Eguilles.

We hosted their son Stevane as an exchange student in 2013, and were looking forward to catching up again, as well as meeting his parents Jacques and Christine and sister Maelle. It was no surprise that after settling in, and having dinner, we all talked until midnight.

Walking in Cezanne Country – Saturday 9 May

With the children sleeping in, the parents conversed over fresh juice, herbal tea and numerous spreads on baguette [Jacques is even a convert to Vegemite!], before driving to the Grand Site of Sainte Victoire, and the Bibemus Park on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence. A significant area of natural vegetation on the dry stony hills, famous for being the landscapes painted by artist Paul Cezanne. Lots of wildflowers in bloom amongst the native pines and leafier plane trees, and a couple of dams and aqueducts made for a lovely and rigorous 4 hour walk. It was great to see lots of locals of all ages out and about, with ‘bonjours’ and a smile.

Not satisfied with that hike, we then targeted central Aix. Christine informed us apartments were as expensive to buy as in Paris, and people want to be seen on the main street of town having a drink at a café or wandering out of one of the upmarket shops with a purchase. It’s a lovely place, but not startlingly beautiful – it’s more the climate, cultural facilities, and small, old town feel that is appealing. We tried our hand at being snobs by purchasing a couple of pastries from the renowned Bechard patisserie. I reckon a spread-hand sized fig tarte for 3.50E was a bargain, only surpassed by Elly’s outstanding coffee macaron. Snobbery for us anyday!

Collected Maggie from the TGV station in the early evening, having come down early from Lyon with some friends for a day swimming at the calanques [walk-in only, bay-beaches] in Marseille.

Olympique Marseille – Sunday 10 May

Another leisurely breakfast [ie an hour or two] before driving to Marseille. Parked under the Hotel de Ville and walked around the harbour – castle, museum, shopping centre all showed signs of imaginary contemporary architecture and a sustained urban renewal program. Downtown Marseille looks good.

With soccer on the agenda for the evening, it seemed appropriate I had one win and loss for the afternoon. Our stop for a special ice-cream resulted in a yummy fig and St Tropez cake, two-scoop beauty; but I was unsuccessful with haggling at the quayside market stall on a 2E postcard. “C’est non possible” came the firm response. I kissed my 2 euro coin and put it back in my pocket.

The mothers [Elly and Christine] left and the dads and kids went to park near the Olympique stadium at 6pm, 3 hours before kick-off. Could soon see why the early arrival, because it was getting busy at the cafes and bars where we bought a sandwich, and despite the seating inside being numbered nobody pays attention to them – at least behind the goals where all the hardcore fans gather and stand on their seats anyway. The loud singing was egged on by screaming, microphones-in-hand, cheerleaders. There were only a couple of hundred Monaco supporters so they were clearly out-bellowed. The game started disastrously for the home team, as the higher-placed opposition scored after 1 minute! It took until well into second half for OM to equalise, then go ahead with 2 minutes to play. The delirious fans were finally rewarded for their continuous chanting and sustained abuse dished out to opposing fans, players and referees. Certainly the atmosphere at a big-team soccer ground is fantastic, but their edgy support is something not missed in family-atmosphere Aussie Rules games ‘at the G’.

Got home at 1.20am!

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Days 35-38: Into France via Grand Tourmalet

Mary Time – San Sebastien to Bagneres-de-Bigorre driving, Sunday 3 May

First town of call on our road trip into France was St Jean Pied du Port, the town in the gateway of the Pyrenees where most pilgrims start their walk to Santiago. Certainly a cute place; looks decidedly medieval in the small centre with remnant entry gates, cobbled streets, fast flowing stream running through the middle and not the preponderance of pilgrim-souvenir shops I had expected. Having missed breakfast, we sought out a meal-deal, but got caught out by a restaurant billboard advertising a cheap lunch – of course when we sat down inside it wasn’t available on Sundays! The most reasonable thing on the menu was a hamburger [the pattie cooked to your preference] with chips and salad, and tap water. The senior French couple next to us with their chilled Perrier mineral water, top-dollar speciality seafood, and quiet whispering s couldn’t look anymore ‘#haters’ [that’s a hip Jordy comment].

Next stop – Lourdes. Talk about pilgrims; this is where it was happening! I had visited it almost 40 years ago and seen Catholics from across the world come to where a girl, Bernadette, had seen the Virgin Mary in a cave. The spring water evidently has miraculous healing powers for some, and I remember taking a photo of all the crutches and walking sticks hanging up around the cave. Nowadays the crutches have been removed, but the masses of people remain and the infirm and invalided are assisted through town to the sacred site and waters by volunteer attendants dressed in the red and white uniform of St John of Malta. Amazing.
Triple room in Le Florian Hotel

The grand, Grand Tourmalet – St Marie de Campan to La Mongie 28km – Monday 4 May

What are the odds of having the perfect day to cycle up one of the signature climbs of Le Tour de France –the prayers at Lourdes must have worked?

Despite the fact we were only 11km away from the start of the major climb, we still drove there – mainly because it takes an eternity to get Jordy moving in the morning, and we needed essential shopping stops for lunch supplies and a soccer ball. Why did Jordy need the ball right then – to kick it off the mountain top and collect it at the bottom? Or maybe it was to have a last kick before he died – he had some trepidation about the 13.9km constant ascent at an average 9%!

He need not have panicked on two counts: he did it easily and won the ‘polka dot jersey mountain points’ and in fact, we couldn’t do the last 3km/300m to the Col because it was still snowed over and wouldn’t be cleared for at least 3 weeks. But we still did a damn fine job, taking 1hr 37min to go up 1086m at an average of 8.6kph, and 16 min to go down at an average of 52kph with sections topping 75kph! And despite me trying to even the score on the final sprint to the car, he still took the honours.

We were surprised and impressed back at the base that Elly had done 9km up, and could have easily finished with more time – “Who would have thought I’d be doing this 3 months ago!” Celebratory photos of everyone were well warranted, as was the drive back up the hill to show Elly what she missed. In an expansive mood, we even bought a small wine pitcher and 2 goblets from a roadside potter.

How could the day have got better? Only by finishing with a 2 hour spa/hammam/sauna/pool session in the Bagneres thermal centre. [No, not the medical centre one where you can be irrigated and salt bathed in different concoctions for different ailments – the recreational/relaxation one next to the casino.] Yep, and only 15E each – bargain. It was a special rate for after 5.30pm, so we shared the facilities with several locals and the rugby team doing a recovery session. We had crinkle-cut fingers when we emerged, but we were clean, refreshed and wide awake. Not so, the rest of the town, and suddenly we were missing Spain. Shops were closed, and being a Mondays lots of bars and restaurants too. Luckily it was still warm, so we sat outside our hotel, chatted with a fellow-lodgers Spanish couple so we didn’t have to talk amongst ourselves [again], and used the wifi. A grand day indeed.

Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Carcassonne driving, Tuesday 5 May

Lucky about the perfect day yesterday. Today was 23 degrees at 6am, and 10 degrees at 10am with constant showers. Luckily by then, we’d purchased some lunch supplies and Jordy a commemorative bikeshirt, and were in the car driving two sleepyheads across the countryside. But even though I was paying attention, I wouldn’t be able to trace the route on a map as the car GPS, avoiding the ‘A’ tollways, navigated a succession of ‘D’ roads through innumerable villages and towns. Still, by driving French style and ignoring all speed limits except the 50kph ones in built-up areas, I managed to shave 30 mins off the calculated trip time. The bonus in that? Missing one rotation of Jordy’s ‘roadtrip songs’! I mean, they’re good Triple J material, but on high rotation…

Eventually got to Carcassone about 4pm, having had a baguette lunch in a village square somewhere, and afternoon tea at Maccas [good toilets and internet.] No accommodation had been pre-booked, so we followed the first camping ground signs encountered to the well-located ‘Camping of the City’. No problem – affordable and vacant cabin for 60E with all cons, but a 300E bond in case we caused any damage. Perhaps they thought the Kanga was a shrunken Contiki bus?

Unpacked very carefully, then struggled through peak hour traffic for a km or two to a shopping centre with a mobile phone store and foodstuffs. While Elly and Jordy went berserk with their new French sim data allowance package, I made the prescribed dinners of grilled steak and gnocchi respectively.

Rushin’ to the Finnish – Canal du Midi 56km – Wednesday 6 May

The medieval city of Carcassonne is impressive- in some ways because the ‘new city’ beside the hilltop, fully-walled ‘old city’ dates from the 1200s! [The ‘old city’ dates from the 700s.] Like Lourdes, I was revisiting after nearly 40 years, and the hill it was on didn’t seem quite as high as I recalled. But other things hadn’t changed – the Youth Hostel was in the same spot, the towers and turrets were just as eye-catching, and the souvenir shops hadn’t disappeared. Further comments should come from the ‘newbies’ : Elly- “glad we’re here at this time of the year and not in high season”; Jordy – “much less ruiny than I thought it might be”. [Unlikely those ringing endorsements will make it to the tourist brochures!]

Jordy wasn’t keen on cycling along the Canal du Midi, the old trading canal that allowed the French to travel from Bordeaux on the Atlantic to Marseille on the Mediterranean without having to go past Portugal, Spain and Gibraltar. Nowadays a large section near Carcassone is used for pleasure, with barge-rental companies doing a roaring trade for people wanting a lock-navigating holiday. The old towpath is used by cyclists, walkers and fisherfolk. It was an easy and enjoyable afternoon, and several stops led to interesting conversations with some Dutch retirees, a lost Finnish couple, a British lady who owned a gite and whose husband came from Sydney, and the French jam-selling lady set up in prime location adjacent to the canal.

Another puncture just as we got home required me to do a puncture repair session as we had used our four spare tubes to date. Just about all the flats had been caused by glass working its way through the ‘second-hand’ tyres.

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