Monthly Archives: September 2012

Greek Tragedy

It is currently 4:30am and so stinking hot I’ve decided to write instead of continue my futile attempts at sleep. We arrived in Athens today, by plane from Rome. So much quicker than the ferry alternative, and according to any online quotes I managed to get, about 700 euro cheaper than the ferry alternative. We knew our window for seeing Athens was small, so we had decided to take a taxi from the airport to our hotel in Pireaus to save time. When we arrived at the taxi stand we were informed that there are no taxis for five people in Greece, so our option was two taxis (about 100 euro) or the bus (about 22 euro). We chose the bus. Which would have been fine except that it took an hour and twenty minutes, and then the driver put us off at the wrong stop, and we couldn’t find our hotel. So, it’s 1pm ish in pireaus on a Sunday. Streets are deserted. Everything is closed. And all the street signs are not just in a foreign language, they’re in a foreign alphabet. We are dragging our luggage around. It’s about 40 degrees in the shade. The slight breeze feels like a hair dryer. And the kids have been up since 5:30am. I know I don’t need to use any descriptive words to explain what that was like.
And that was just the beginning. More later.

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Roads

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See this thing? This is the thing that challenged my navigational skills on the way to the campground in Punta Sabbioni. And it just messed me up again coming from the opposite direction. We ended up having to make the same triangle of autostrada detours incurring an extra toll in the process. What a pain!
Otherwise, it’s been pretty good on the roads in Italy. Now that Sat Nav Josie has been banished. The difficult thing about it, though, is that road maps written for English people (including our iPad map) have the Italian place names in English, but the road signs have them in Italian. So, if you don’t know, for example, that Genoa is Genova, Padua is Padova, and Florence is Firenze, you’re kind of in trouble. Be warned.
We are currently on our way to Rome (Roma) with two hours to go. Then we have to sneak into a hotel room with our three kids that only accommodates a maximum of four people. We have to do that again tomorrow night too. If you have three kids and you plan on doing a similar trip, I suggest you leave one of them at home. It will be much easier to find lodging.

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Update on The Greece Dilemma

Booked flights from Rome this morning to save time. Sea jet to Santorini. Going to Greece on Sunday!

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Greece – worth the effort?

It is now Wednesday, and we still have not decided where we are going when we leave this campground. On Saturday.
We want to go to Greece, but that involves two days travel, at least, and then three or four days travel to the place we are staying in the Pyrenees. Which sucks because that only leaves 3-4 days in Greece. So, will it be spectacular enough to warrant the same amount of travel time as being-there-time? It seems like a “when will we ever be this close to Greece again” kind of situation. But on the other hand, just being in Italy for an extra week would be so relaxing comparatively speaking. And we could spend a few days on the Cote d’Azur in France on the way to the Pyrenees. There’s a great little Picasso museum there I’d love to take the girls to…and the beaches are stunning. And it’s familiar. Dev and I camped there long ago in another life, and he spent weeks down there working a couple of summers, so he knows his way around. Safe choice. Which one should we do?!?!

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Food/Nutella

I had a comment recently that remarked on how good the food must be in Cinque Terre, and we did, in fact, have a meal in Monterroso that was exceptional. Risotto a la Mare, complete with eyes and antennae. Dev said it was the best meal he’s had in a very long time, and once I picked the offending items out, I have to agree, it was delicious. We also had pasta one night, and pizza the other, so we covered the essential Italian fare in our first three nights.
However, accommodation has cost us more than we anticipated, gas is ridiculous, and there are tolls everywhere (over 100 euros in tolls just getting to our first destination), so really, food is where we’ve been cutting corners. Our staple picnic fare has accidentally become breadsticks dipped in Nutella (which our youngest calls Nutzerella). And I say accidentally because our first day in Monterroso, I was charged with bringing lunch down to the beach and I couldn’t find anything suitable, so I went to the little store and bought the two items most easily recognizable (and some fruit). The kids said it was the best picnic ever, so it has become a bit of a standby. In fact, at the cafe here on the camp, if you don’t want to eat a raw ham sandwich (which they generally don’t), Nutella is pretty much the only other choice.
I remember a friend of mine travelling in Europe in her early twenties and blaming weight gain on Nutella. Now I can see why. It is everywhere, in very large quantities. And it’s cheap. And when you can’t understand the words on a package or menu because you did not learn enough Italian before you came to Italy, Nutella is a pretty safe option. Europe’s answer to PB & J.

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Back to the Real Italy!

On our third day of Italian camping, we set off on a ferry from Punta Sabbioni to Venice to get back to some real Italy. Our kids begrudgingly joined us (like they had a choice). So much for their week’s respite from sightseeing, but this was small time. A half hour on a boat can hardly be called “travelling” surely. It was an overcast day, so we dragged them away from the waterpark and had a great afternoon walking around Venice, and touring the grand canal by waterbus. The boat there was fairly expensive for all five of us, so we did the freebies – Piazza St Marco, a quick look in the Basillica, the Rialto Bridge, and all the little photo ops in between. Venice has a reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in Europe, but there’s still lots you can do with a family for free.
We even had a great big gelato each for only a euro more than it would have been anywhere else in Italy. In the end, the kids loved it – the gondoliers in their bright stripy shirts and straw hats, the fancy glass shops everywhere, and the elaborate masks in almost every window. well worth an afternoon out of the pool. It wasn’t sunny anyway. In fact, there was a huge thunderstorm on the way home!
Today, however, perfect pool day. Not a cloud in the sky and 26 degrees. Bet they’re glad we did Venice yesterday!

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Birthdays on the Road

Our middle daughter turned 11 yesterday, and we weren’t very prepared. I had booked us into Marina de Venezia, a Eurocamp destination with a massive waterpark, specifically to arrive on her birthday – her gift. What I hadn’t factored into those plans was that it was a five hour drive from Monterroso to the Venice Lido where the camp is. So, instead of waking up on her birthday morning and being able to enjoy the water park, she woke up to packing and then driving. And five hours was the actual driving time. As in, if you don’t stop to pee or eat, and you don’t take any wrong turns, which of course, we did. Although, I must say, I was much more adept at getting us back on the right road this time. I didn’t panic, and now that I know that just because one road crosses another on a map, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can get on it, things are better. Duh.
So, we arrived at the camp ground at about 3:30pm, and by the time we registered, found our caravan, unpacked a few things, and walked a very roundabout route to the waterpark, it was a half hour before closing. No matter, the looks on the kids faces when they saw it, and the squeals of delight as they launched themselves into one pool after another was worth it. Still, a weird birthday for her. No cake. No friends or family to celebrate with (except us of course), no gift wrap for the couple of little gifts we’d been able to find in Monterroso…different. She had mixed feelings about her day. It was fun, and she’s excited to be here for a week, but it was a day of missing people as well. It’s even harder since we have no Internet access now, because she doesn’t have that instantaneous contact with anyone.
This place is great for the kids, and that’s what it’s for, really – a week’s respite from travelling around, sightseeing. For us, the respite from driving, packing and unpacking is great, but this no longer feels like Italy. Actually, it feels a bit institutionalized. You stick your hand out the car window on the way in and have a permanent bracelet strapped on, and then you go out and find reception for your “holiday provider”, one of their couriers shows you to your quarters, and there are occasional instructional PA announcements that feel slightly disconcerting somehow. There is everything you could ever need here, shops full of grocery items with German, French, British, Swiss, and Italian names, catering for familiarity regardless of where you’re from, restaurants, toy and hardware stores…I’m not a huge fan of places like this. Doesn’t seem authentic – I could be anywhere.
On the other hand, there’s also miles of sandy Adriatic beach where I could surely get lost with a book from time to time while Dev takes over the demands of water slides and toy shops…

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Culture Shock

Well, I don’t think you can get much more Italy than this. Cinque Terre, meaning Five Lands, is exactly that – five villages connected by hiking trails and a railway. We arrived in the first of the five, Monterosso al Mare on Wednesday evening at about 6:30, and we wandered aimlessly until the guy we were renting an apartment from, Fabio, appeared on the street calling “Janet” (which was me, as it turns out). The kids were overwhelmed, and I was too, to be fair. It was a lot to take in after two full days of driving. Bustling streets, raucous Italian voices, and colourful stucco buildings – all very unfamiliar.

Here are some of the comments over the first few hours:

I don’t like it here.
I didn’t expect it to be so foreign.
It reminds me of India; I didn’t think it would be like India.
I feel like I’m in Alladin.
I want to leave; it’s scary here.

Here are some of the comments on our third and final night here:

I wish we could stay here.
It’s so comfortable here.
This is the best beach I ever went to.
I love Monterroso the best out of all the towns here; it’s so comfortable here.

It’s amazing how you get used to a place, and how quickly it can feel like home. The first night they were clinging to us, and tonight they were racing around the streets, dodging tourists, laughing and shouting just like the local kids. They can order their own gelato, count to ten, and say thank you. They even hiked the arduous trail from Monterroso to Vernazza today, a stunning part of the Cinque Terre UNESCO World Heritage trail that links the five towns. It was a two hour, steep uphill trek, on which Liah was occasionally “going to die”, but all in all was quite successful. We saw lemon orchards, and lots of grape vines connected by a little “grape roller coaster” that allowed the farmers to pick way up on the cliffs and get the grapes back down again. The views of the ocean were absolutely stunning.
We also took the train to Riomiaggiore to have a little visit there, and then came back to an afternoon of snorkeling. A lot to fit in a day, but a great one.
This quick trip has reminded us that we need to stay longer in places. We are really just getting our bearings, figuring out how to read the menus, where to buy the best bread, where the freshest pastries can be found, and it’s time to go! Well worth the stop though, even though it was a hairy drive getting here – I would definitely consider a train in if we were to ever do this again.
Off to the Adriatic Coast tomorrow!

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Sat Nav Shenanigans

So, for those who are not aware, a sat nav is a gps system, you know the ones that talk to you and tell you when to turn, what lane to be in, and generally lead you straight to your destination once you plug the address in.
We’ve never actually used one before, but on the way down to St Ives, we tried out the one Dev’s brother had lent us, and by the time we got through the motorway confusion at Birmingham, we were sold! The girls named our sat nav voice “Josie Porgie” and Josie quickly became like part of the family. We praised her constantly, and she got us to Plymouth, then Swanage, without incident. Right to the doorsteps of the places we were staying. Fantastic. We even joked about the sat nav in the Picasso and pretended to be Bryn talking to Nessa….(you’ll understand that if you’re British and you’ve ever watched Gavin and Stacey).
So yesterday morning, we left for France feeling pretty confident, and ready for our 10 hour drive. Josie was fully charged and ready to go. But I wasn’t sure I really liked the way she got us out of Swanage – wasn’t the quickest way. So, we lost an hour there. This should have raised suspicion, but I think she may have been lulling us into a false sense of security. And you know how the rest of that day went if you read my last post…
Then when we finally got to France, Josie kept trying to get us off the highways onto little roads. Little roads that would only add time to our already arduous driving schedule. I started to get cross with Josie and turned her off from time to time. But I forgave her each time for her misdemeanors, and when we were finally able to get her to accept the name of the town in which we had booked our hotel, we went back to full reliance on Josie. Even though the route she was taking us was not the same as the one on the iPad. Which again, should have raised suspicion. But we still trusted her (although not as much, it has to be said). So, when she announced, at 10:30pm (which was already an hour and a half later than we were supposed to arrive), that we had reached our destination, we were very relieved.
Until we realized we were at a motorway service station. With one guy working. Who didn’t speak a word of English. Then I wanted to swear at Josie.
Turns out, she took us to the service station because it was sort of close to where we were going. On the map. But unfortunately, there was no exit to get to it. So after three very stressful attempts at communicating with the guy in the services, during which I realized how bad my French actually sucks, we figured out that we had to drive another 12 km down the highway and then double back on a parallel road to get to the hotel. Meanwhile, I had managed to contact the hotel, and a very stressed and tired sounding woman informed me that reception closed at 10pm (it was now 11), but that she would come back when we got there. When we got there, it was 11:53. Which made the grand total of driving time 14 hours, with three short bathroom stops. This was no sat nav misdemeanor. This was a full on felony.
Josie has been disowned. I turned her off today and shoved her in the glove compartment. If she had been ours, and not on loan, I would have shoved her under the tire. Right before we drove off.
Bitch.

On the up side, when we woke up this morning and ventured outside our hotel (Hotel Arts et Terroirs – which I suspected at midnight last night may mean Arts and Terror, and wondered why I would ever book a place with a name like that), we were deep in the Burgundy region. The little walk down the street to find a bank machine for euros, a post office to pay the toll fine we incurred last night when the toll booth would not take a credit card, and a patisserie for some breakfast, we were greeted with right-out-of-a-movie vineyards as far as the eye could see. It was really beautiful, and we regretted having to rush off so quickly to begin today’s driving adventure.
And another upside to the day was confirmation that we have the three best kids in the world. What other kids would quietly endure 14 hours in a car, making their own sandwiches along the way, and silently panicking as their parents flounder until 11:53pm?

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Ugh.

So today is slightly stressful for me. I can’t seem to control everything. Well, I cant actually control anything!
First of all, we stayed at a B&B in Swanage last night, which was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. That’s not the stressful part. We had a fabulous full English breakfast, our hosts at The Castleton were lovely, and the weather was glorious. There is so much we would have loved to explore there. We managed to get to Monkey World, an ape rescue centre the girls had been dying to go to, and we saw Corfe Castle, a spectacular ruin on top of a hill that literally makes you gasp as it appears on the skyline. We also had a great dinner at la Trattoria, a family owned Italian restaurant. This was all good.
The part that gets a little stressful is that we enjoyed our breakfast from 8:30-9:30, so we were much later getting going than we would have liked. Then everything seemed to take much longer than we thought. We did not make the best route choices, so we were delayed even further by that.
Then when we eventually got to Folkestone to board the Chunnel, went in the wrong lane, had to get out of that lane, only to find out our ticket would have been a LOT cheaper if booked in advance. So then we had to go into the terminal to buy a ticket instead of going straight through. Consequently, we missed the crossing and had to wait 45 minutes for the next one. Then we went into the wrong lane to actually get on the Chunnel, and had to go back and start over. Oh, wait, forgot to mention that when we got to passport control the passports were in the trunk in the bottom of a suitcase. “Who planned this trip?” said the passport officer with a little shake of his head. Hmpf.
So, now, we are finally on the thing (which, if you didn’t know, is a tunnel under the ground under the ocean, as Dev keeps enthusiastically telling the children). So it’s hot and claustrophobic in here, and my ears are popping, and I keep thinking of the fact that we are under the bed of the sea…
Oh well, we’ll be out soon. Then it will be about 4pm, and we will have 6 hours of driving to get to the hotel I booked us for tonight. Excellent. OMG. I forgot we now have to go back to driving on the right. But in a lefty car. And it’s not even 4pm because we just entered a new time zone. It’s 5pm. Crap.

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