All posts by John Ewbank

Casa Eden

We spent a couple of nights at a nice little campsite at San Giusto, just a few kilometres from our destination at Vinci. Being early season the site was almost empty and we had a whole section, including a block with four large shower/loo cubicles, virtually to ourselves. The only other occupant was a friendly little cat which sat diligently outside the ‘van’ for hours on end in the hope and expectation, ultimately fulfilled, of being fed – our first Italian friend.

The locals are friendly!

Casa Eden is exactly what we hoped it would be. The villa is a large, six or seven bedroomed house about three or four kilometres outside Vinci, sitting about 300 metres up among the olive groves with great views over the Arno valley. Plenty of room for eight of us, nine including Gretel, with space to rattle around in if needed.
The weather continues to be fantastic – temperatures on the early 30s, clear blue skies and the occasional light evening breeze to make the daytime heat bearable. Last night we walked a few hundred metres to the local restaurant – great pizzas at crazy low prices and views to die for – and today we walked down to Vinci to spend a couple of hours in the Leonardo Museum for an insight into the Master’s genius.

Sodomita!

Our route took us west from Die through the Hautes Alpes to Gap and then onwards, entering Italy just beyond Barcelonette and crossing over the Col del Larche, which at 1,991 metres is probably one of the highest routes in Europe. In the space of less than a hundred miles the scenery and architecture changes from typically French to typically Italian (surprise!) whilst at the same time the road surfaces deteriorate and the standard of driving goes for a ball of chalk.

Lovely little mountain pool at the improbably named ‘Clap’
If you’ve still got it – flaunt it!

We spent Wednesday night in the town of Borgo San Dalmazzo which generously provides a free space for campervans to overnight next to the municipal cemetery, which is an arrangement that seems to work quite well – at least the residents don’t complain. In the evening we walked into town and found a small bar where they kindly allowed us to watch England being outclassed by a very physical Croatia; our disappointment at the inevitable defeat must have been obvious as at the end of the evening the waitress made sympathetic but completely unintelligible comments (in Italian) and undercharged us for our beers.

The drive from Cuneo south and then along the coastline bordering the Bay of Genoa was a bit of a nightmare. Having initially attempted to stay off the autostradas we quickly realised that following the local roads was going to take an absolute age, so we joined the cast of Mad Max hurtling at what seemed like excessive speeds over countless bridges and through innumerable tunnels – a journey that I managed to make considerably worse by first getting a touch too close to a toll booth and then, when we stopped to survey the damage, by reversing into a fence and breaking a rear light cluster. By the way, sodomita is the Italian word for bugger!

 

 

Le Mans to Die

No, the title’s not a prediction, but it just so happens that the second stop in our journey from Le Mans en-route to Italy was near to the town of Die (we still don’t know how to pronounce it) which sits in the Drôme region of France, between the Ardèche and the Hautes Alpes.

Our first stop, however, was at the lovely village of Montpeyroux just to the south of Clermont Ferrand. Picked out of our book of free overnight stops we were fortunate to stumble on ‘one of the most beautiful villages of France’ (their words, not mine, but not much of an exaggeration) which, in addition to offering free overnight parking, provided us with a picturesque location with the bonus of free toilets. What more could any weary travellers want?

The next day (Tuesday), sticking to the routes national, we headed south-east through the Haut Loire region and across the Rhone, ending the day at the campsite at Die next to the River Drôme. A quick swim before supper and then an hour or so sat in the bar watching France beat Belgium in the company of a partisan audience who didn’t seem to care that their team spent most of the match falling over at every opportunity and then rolling over in feigned agony. Concrete pills needed all round.

Classic Le Mans 2018

Despite seemingly performing a complete circumnavigation of the city of Le Mans whilst trying to find the entrance to the circuit, we somehow managed to time our arrival from Brittany to coincide with the appearance of the rest of the Tufty Club who had driven straight from Le Havre – via a good lunch, of course. The TSSC setup at Tertre Rouge is the envy of many other clubs who eye our location, loos, showers and bar with more than a touch of ‘green eye’; and the Gloucester group is especially well served by having a couple of self-elected resident chefs who ensure that the rest of us don’t starve over the three day event.

Our activities over the long weekend followed a now well-established pattern which included a jaunt into the city on Friday for a good lunch, a trip around the club areas and retail park on the Saturday and a visit to the paddocks on Sunday. In the intervening hours we watched a fair bit of racing, including the Le Mans style start for the Group 1 racers (cars from the 1920s and 30s) and several sessions involving some of the later cars. As 2018 happens to be the 70th anniversary of Porche first appearing at Le Mans the meeting included large numbers of Dr Ferdinand’s best, both on the racetrack, on the club stands and just about everywhere you cared to look around the circuit.

Although personally I can’t see the attraction of paying upwards of £160 for a couple of track laps (and in truth I’m not sure the organisers would have appreciated having a Ford Motor Home thundering down the Mulsanne straight flat-out at 65mph) I do understand the motive of those who enjoy beasting their beloved classic whilst at the same time hoping that it doesn’t disgrace itself too publicly. This year the only significant Gloucester casualty was a very nice Staaaag which decided to commit hari kiri at the far side of the circuit and had to be recovered back to the campsite – much to the evident amusement of all the onlookers. Still, what are friends for? At least the resident bishop (Dave Hardy in clerical drag) didn’t go so far is to administer the last rites.

 

Mustn’t Grumble

Unfortunately you can’t really rely on the French. Or, to be more precise in this instance, you can’t rely on the French weather. For the past week or more the UK has enjoyed wonderful weather – temperatures in the 30s, bright blue skies, not a drop of rain. And what do we get the moment we arrive in La Belle France? Rain! Not torrential, but just enough to make you wonder why, if it wasn’t for the weather, you left home. Still, mustn’t grumble.

After an early start the ferry from Portsmouth to Caen was a painless experience. A few schoolchildren running about screaming and generally enjoying themselves, but not so much that we came close to sending any of them over the side. We were consoled by the thought that their teachers would be suffering more, and for much longer, than us.

The drive from Caen down to Gouarec took quite a bit longer than I’d anticipated. At three and a half hours I’m now concerned that it may be just a little too long for our September trip with the Tufty Club – so at some stage I’ll investigate whether we might be able to change the tickets to the Portsmouth/St Malo route instead. The camping site at Gouarec is a bit like the ‘curate’s egg’ – good in parts. The location is wonderful – situated on the side of the Nantes-Brest Canal and within easy staggering distance of a few shops, a couple of restaurants and at least one bar – what more could we want or need. Unfortunately the site itself is rather dilapidated and needs a good ‘sort out’ – nothing that a large tub of Jif, a pair of marigolds and a couple of hours with a strimmer couldn’t resolve, but not what you’d call ‘smart’. Still, mustn’t grumble.

We spent the day doing not very much at all. A morning cycle ride along the canal bank brought us to the Abbeé de Bon Repos which looked interesting (though we didn’t investigate) whilst the afternoon involved a snooze, a bit of reading and another bike ride. It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken – mustn’t grumble.

Another belated blog

From Colluden we headed south, spending the evening in Grantown on Spey in the heart of the Cairngorms before heading on to Scone just north of Perth.  Our campsite was (and hopefully still is) on the edge of the racecourse, which in turn is adjacent to The Palace of Scone (pronounced ‘Scoon’ and apparently written variously as Scon, Scoon, Scoan, Scoine, Schone, Skoon, Skune, Skuyn, Skuyne, Sgoin, Sgàin and Sgoinde.  Whoever said that blogs couldn’t be educational?)  As is happens our visit coincided with the International Medieval Combat Federation’s annual dust-up, presumably they selected Scotland as a venue on the basis that it would be a good place to start a fight?  Having failed to blag our way in for free to see a bit of gratuitous violence we opted instead for a cycle ride along the banks of the River Tay, which was an altogether quieter, and probably more enjoyable, experience.

View of the River Tay from Scone

The final night of our trip was spent at the campsite in Bellingham where, having failed to book in advance, we fortunately managed to secure the last available space – albeit we had to settle for a slot in the carpark.  Next morning, after a flying visit for coffee with the  Brown family at Wark, we managed to fit in a great walk along a section of Hadrian’s Wall at Steel Rigg.  Our stroll included Sycamore Gap which was famously shown in the 1991 film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves  – quite how Kevin Costner managed to get from there to Nottingham so quickly remains a mystery to me.

Sycamore Gap - otherwise known as Robin Hood's Tree
“Tonight we dine in my father’s house in Nottingham” – yeah right!

The weather was kind and views along this part of the Wall are fantastic; all-in-all an excellent conclusion to a great holiday.

Full Circle

One of the basic and immutable laws of holiday blogging is ‘the longer the blog goes on, the less frequent the entries become’. It’s not that you have less to say, just that for some reason as the days go on it becomes more of an effort to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve done. So that’s my excuse sorted, now let’s get on with the blog.

The weather in the Scottish Highlands in May can be wonderful – in fact I think that I may have promised as much when I first raised this trip as a possibility. To be fair we have had some sunshine and there have been days when it hasn’t rained too much, but in all honesty the weather has been just a little unkind and not quite what we had hoped for. For night 7 we wild-camped just above the picturesque village of Sheildaig where the wind blew and the rain hammered down on the Van giving us a true Highland experience. Fortunately we managed to fit in a short walk to the village pub before the weather set in, and as we arrived ‘home’ we watched the Hebridean Princess as she anchored for the night in Loch Sheildaig. Now, that’s one way to tour the Scottish coastline in real luxury- and at only £500/night per passenger, what a bargain!

The attractive village of Sheildaig

From Sheildaig we headed south towards Loch Carron. On balance we decided to give Applecross a miss – the weather was poor and the prospect of yet more difficult single-track roads didn’t really appeal. Plus, we decided that Denise’s buttocks probably weren’t up to the challenge. From Loch Carron we headed back towards Inverness and in doing so we completed the North Coast 500 and the circumnavigation – disappointingly there was no fanfare, though we gave ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back.

With a little time to spare and a decent break in the clouds we decided to visit Culloden which, along with our superior World Cup record, is one of the many things for which the Scots won’t forgive the English. We struck lucky and arrived just in time to join an excellent short tour led by our guide, Raymond, who not only had all the facts of the 1746 battle at his fingertips but even managed at one stage to get his audience marching around the battlefield in three ranks. He explained how Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to turn a potentially winning position into a complete military disaster –the fact that as a Scot he told the story without once uttering those immortal words ‘we was robbed’ was especially impressive.

Days Six and Seven in the Big Brother Van

Day 6 took us from The Kyle of Tongue around Loch Ereboll, past Durness and down to Scourie. The scenery in this far corner of North West Sutherland is impressive, not least for the feeling of emptiness it imparts to those passing through. If you’re turned-on by wide open spaces with nothing but moorland, water and mountains then forget New Zealand and save yourself the airfare to the southern hemisphere. Ask yourself why(apart from the fact he’s a Kiwi) did Peter Jackson decide to go all that way to film The Lord of the Rings when he had everything he needed on the doorstep? The scenery’s perfect and Gaelic even sounds like a cross between Elvish and Orkish.

Look carefully and you can just see Mordor in the background

The caves at Smoo (yes, really) were a worthwhile stop. A narrow and deep rocky inlet leads into a series of massive caves that have apparently seen human habitation for thousands of years – including use by marauding Vikings (I’m not sure why, but Vikings somehow just have to be described as ‘marauding’ –whoever heard of ‘visiting’ Vikings?).

A short evening stroll from the campsite at Scourie up to the overlooking headland took us past the local cemetery which we noticed contains a single military war grave of a young sailor who died on 26th December 1939. Presumably he was lost from a passing Royal Navy warship and buried where he came ashore. Over the years we’ve visited a good many Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries, all of which have been kept in wonderful condition. This particular gravestone, however, was badly worn to the point where it was almost undecipherable and the grave was obviously untended and rather sad. A snottagram to the CWGC will follow shortly.

From Scourie we took the ‘B’ road that skirts Eddrachillis Bay through Drumbeg before re-joining the main road just short of Lochinver. The twenty-five mile detour took about two hours with much of the journey done in first or second gear with Denise clenching her buttocks or stretching for the brake pedal every time we went over a blind rise or down a steep slope; given that I was driving neither action had much effect on our progress but was probably excellent exercise.

The drive from Lochinver down to Ullapool was pleasant but uneventful, though we stopped briefly to visit another scenic ruin at Ardvreck Castle, tutting under our breath at those who seemed unable to understand the signs which implored visitors not to clamber on the fragile ruins. Ullapool itself is a nice little fishing port which also acts as the terminal for the ferry to Stornaway.  After a short cycle ride we enjoyed a fish and chip supper whilst chatting to a couple who entertained us with hair-raising tales about the minor road that we’d planned to take to Applecross the next day. We’ll have to see whether Denise’s buttocks will allow us to take that particular route.

A rare sighting of a Highland Stag!

….and I’ll Take The Low Road

Blogging is like Pringles – once you pop, you just can’t stop. Or, at least, if you do stop you leave a story uncompleted, and that would never do. That said, you do have to have the ‘muse’ with you (whatever a muse may be) if you’re going to produce something worth reading, and my muse seems to have been AWOL for the past couple of days. The scenery has been fantastic, the roads empty the company wonderful (of course) and the whole experience enjoyable – just no muse. No matter, plenty of time to catch up, so long as we’re spared.

We made the right call by deciding to tackle the journey in an anti-clockwise direction. Against all expectations the leg from Loch Ness up the east coast was more interesting and varied than we’d expected. We suspect that those who tackle NC500 the other way around are probably knackered or bored by the time they reach John O’Groats and therefore miss out on much that the north east corner has to offer – simply because they want or need to get home in a hurry. Their loss, our gain.

After stopping for lunch at Tain we spent the night at ‘the campsite that time forgot’ just north of Lairg. Run by the lovely and unshaven Mrs Ross it would probably be best described as ‘basic’. We shared the site with a caravan, one other camper van and a minibus load of young Frenchmen who looked to be totally unprepared for a night under canvas. In the true spirit of European unity we ignored them and enjoyed the wild and beautiful scenery of Loch Shin.
Our journey up the east coast the next day was lovely. The sun shone and the sea sparkled. We spent Night 4 at a nice little campsite in Wick. The Victorian town centre was just a short walk away but had nothing to offer – or, at least, nothing that we wanted. Supermarkets on the edge of town have killed off any small businesses that might have otherwise given the place some character and the resulting vacuum has been filled by takeaways and not much else.

A room with a view

The countryside changes as you leave Wick heading north to John O’Groats. The landscape becomes suddenly featureless and grey – no hills, no trees and the houses seemed to be ‘poorer’ than those we’d passed just a few miles earlier. John O’Groats itself is OK, but if it wasn’t the most northerly town (!) in the UK it wouldn’t have much to recommend it. Nearby Duncansby Head on the other hand provided a pleasant walk along the clifftops and great views of the Orkneys and of Muckle Stack and its companions. The drive along the A836 across the ‘top of Scotland’ to our next overnight stop at Tongue was pleasant and uneventful; once we were past Thurso the countryside once again became interesting and decidedly less grey – helped no doubt by the sun making a welcome appearance and some lovely, deserted beaches and stunning mountain views.
Night 5 was spent in the car park of The Tongue Hotel. As this just happened to be our Ruby Wedding Anniversary (Denise was a child bride) we treated ourselves to a fine meal in the hotel’s very comfortable surroundings, having first enjoyed a testing little walk up to Varrich Castle which may very well be the smallest castle with the best views in this part of Scotland.

 

 

 

You take the high road …..

Decisions, decisions!  Everything we’ve read about the North Coast 500 (NC500) tells us that the accepted practice is to tackle the route in a clockwise direction.  Why is that?  Are the views better in one direction than the other?  Are some of the roads ‘one-way’?  Now, we don’t want to be awkward, but the forecast for the next week is for the weather on the East coast to be better than on the West …. so  we just wondered ….. if we go around in the other direction will we upset the applecart , get drummed out of the Brownies or just piss off the locals?  As tonight finds us just to the south west of Inverness it will be ‘decision day’ tomorrow.  Such excitement; far more than one man can bear.

Today was mainly damp, or dreech as its known around here.  Not that we were much bothered by a bit of rain, but it did rather obscure the views as we made our way up from Glasgow, past Loch Lomond, through Glen Coe and around the foot of Ben Nevis before heading up the Great Glen and along the banks of Loch Ness to our overnight stop here at Lewiston just short of Drumnadrochit.  Fortunately the weather eased off as we arrived, just in time for a short walk down to the Loch with views over Castle Urquhart and a stroll to the local for a pint of that well known Scottish brew – cider.  Are we cosmopolitan or what?

Castle Urquhart
Castle Urquhart. I really love what they’ve done with the place …