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Montenegro and Albania

Kotor, Podgorica and Budva in the former; Shkoder, Durres, Berat, Sarande and Elbasan in the latter...

sunny 30 °C

Um, it's been over a month since I've updated this, and some of the memories of what I've done are no longer as fresh as previous chapters! At least I still remember where I've been though!

Anyway, my last post would have ended with me leaving Makarska, which was a lovely but crowded little town on the Croatian riviera. I spent an entire week there chilling out, which I certainly needed having barely rested since leaving the UK.

The drive from Makarska to Kotor was a breeze. Passing the border was simple, though it was the first time a border guard did ask for more than just my passport, having to show him registration and insurance details, though the process was over very quickly. The road from the border to Kotor circled the bay, and the scenery already on display was, at times, spectacular. I'll probably use that word a lot going forward.

My accommodation was a little Airbnb no more than ten minutes walk from Kotor old town. It wasn't huge, and I'll be honest, I thought it might have been a little bigger. No harm though, as I just wandered the streets on my first full day, taking plenty of photos, and definitely enjoying a beer or two as the heat was still beating down. For the afternoon, I booked a boat tour to nearby Perast and Our Lady of the Rock, the latter a man-made island in the middle of the bay. There were only a few of us on the speedboat and it's always alarming when the pilot spends more time on his phone than watching the horizon, but we got everywhere and back in one piece, and the breeze crossing the water certainly helped cool everyone down. Perast was a gorgeous little village while the church on the Rock was utterly stunning inside.

For day two, I organised a tour of Montenegro. (I've had to go check my Get Your Guide app to remember everywhere we visited!) We had a mini-bus, choc full of people, and the first event was climbing the mountain road, which I was originally planning on driving myself, though glad I didn't. Again, the views provided were breath-taking in their beauty, particularly when stopping at the 25th Serpentine, giving us views of the entire bay far below. I'll try and upload a picture later.

After that was a stop for breakfast at a traditional village, named Njegusi, where I got to know some of my fellow travellers, and I may have enjoyed a breakfast beer too. After that was the drive to Lovcen National Park, where we climbed the steps to the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, from where you can nearly see all of Montenegro from one spot. From there, we headed to Crnojevic, enjoying a spot of lunch, before enjoying a boat road up and down the river, one or two enjoying a swim in the water as well. The rest of us may have enjoyed some local wine or rakia.

A stop in Cetinje, the old capital, was next up, visiting the local monastery, which includes the remain of St. Peter and other holy relics, including what is purported to be particles of the True Cross. I've been told that more than once visiting churches and monasteries around Europe, but if it's what people want to believe, fair enough. We also did a little walking tour around the town, but it had been a long, hot day, so the guide cut it short and we headed to our last stop, Sveti Stefan, for a quick photo of the now private island, before returning to Kotor.

Nothing to report of my third day there. It bucketed down nearly all day, so apart from heading out for some drinks and snacks, I stayed indoors where it was at least dry.

My drive to Podgorica sucked for most of the trip, as I was caught in either heavy traffic along the coast, or the rain was still heaving down, and driving conditions were horrible. It was only getting close to the capital that the rain finally abated, and finding my hotel was simple.

I had organised three days for Podgorica, as my original intention was for one day there, then do some tours to the north and west. Those plans fell apart quickly. Tour groups don't operate from the capital, generally only doing so from Kotor, and perhaps Budva. And I'll admit, the stories about Podgorica are mostly true. I think there's enough there to see and do for a day, but nothing more than that. There are Roman ruins outside of town, but at the moment, it's not very interesting, and many of the artefacts have been moved away.

One thing you should check out is Ostrog Monastery. The drive from Podgorica eventually followed a road cut into the mountain, providing some... you guessed the word, spectacular views of the valley below. The monastery itself is a marvel of design, cut right into the side of the cliff, and is definitely a pilgrimage site for those of the Orthodox faith. It was well worth the drive there and back, stopping on the way back to my hotel at a waterfall that's also called Niagara. Nothing like those in the US/Canada, but the rock formations were interesting at least.

After the capital, I headed back to the coast and Budva. The town has a reputation more for nightlife, its beach and the partying, and my three days there pretty much back that up. The old town is even smaller than Kotor, and can easily be explored in a couple of hours. There's nothing else really of note there, so I treated it much like Makarska, a place to just sit and unwind in the sun. Prices were reasonable at least, even by the beach, so I spent two and a half days just relaxing.

My crossing of the border into Albania proved interesting. Before leaving the UK, I managed to insure my car for everywhere except Albania, though I knew I could buy car insurance just after crossing the border. €50 for two weeks. However, once I arrived, I was told I couldn't pay by card, only cash. That meant I had to cross the border back to Montenegro and drive back to Ulcinj, the nearest town, to get money. When crossing the border again, that raised plenty of questions, though the border guards were nice, letting me explain the issue. They performed a quick search of my car then let me go. Car insurance bought, I drove the rest of the way to Shkoder.

Lovely town on first appearances, more European than expected, and my hostel was great. First hostel stay of the trip. The owner even let me park my car at his house, which was a bonus. For my first day, I participated in a walking tour, the first one I'd done in quite a while, being shown all the sites offered, before doing a cycling tour that evening, where we rode through the rather horrendous traffic towards the nearby fortress, where the sunset provided a magnificent backdrop to the views of the city.

My second day in Shkoder was rather peaceful, as the heat and humidity prevented me from doing too much more than just more wandering, taking in the few sites I hadn't visited the previous day. The nightlife was good, though, the main pedestrian street full of cafes and restaurants where I could sit, eat, drink and people watch.

Next stop was Durres. I had organised another Airbnb, which was only a short walk from the main promenade, but I'll admit I thought it would have been a little busier than what it was. The walk to the actual centre of Durres was long, so for my first full day, I left my Airbnb early to avoid the worst of the heat. Durres has plenty of Roman ruins on offer, and enough other sites available to fill a day. I was tempted to travel to Tirana on either of my other days, but to be honest, I wasn't particularly interested in visiting the capital. Instead, I spent the other two days by the promenade, either sitting on or near the beach, enjoying the cheap food and drink available. My Airbnb hosts were fantastic, offering to help with laundry that I hadn't been able to do since Slovenia!

Berat is a beautiful inland city but was sweltering as it was away from the coast. My little hotel was fantastic and only a short walk away from the city. Again, I had a couple of days to wander, and did nearly everything the first day as usual. The best site is the fortress on the hill, again leaving early so I climbed that before the heat really started to beat down. Once again, though, it was the nightlife on the promenade that gave the city character, in addition to the architecture of all the buildings. Once the sun started to disappear, everyone seemed to head out and walk around, either sitting in the park or one of the cafes. And the prices of drinks were even cheaper than Durres, finding a place where I could get a Jack Daniels and coke for only a couple of quid. Let's just say I spent my three nights at the same place, enough the waiter recognised me by the third night and didn't even have to ask what I wanted!

The drive from Berat to Sarande was rather long, and involved crossing the mountain from near Gjirokaster to the coast. Probably the worst bit of road I'd driven along in quite a while, not helped by the usual Albanian lunatics, who drive like they're the only car on the road. By I got there in one piece, at least, my Airbnb a fifth floor apartment where, if it wasn't for other apartment blocks blocking the view, I'd have seen the nearby beaches and coast for miles.

There were two reasons for visiting Sarande. One, it's reputation as a tourist destination. But, two, the nearly Butrint National Park, which contains some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the region, if not Europe. I definitely spent a few hours there, glad that trees provided plenty of shade as I took numerous photos. The only shame was that some of the floor mosaics were covered up by sand, done so to protect them from the elements. It was definitely worth the visit, though.

Sarande itself isn't for browsing museums or full of monuments. It's for relaxation during the day and partying at night. As usual, once the sun started to set, everyone headed for the beachside promenade. Some of the restaurants were full to bursting, others were completely empty. The bars generally filled up quickly, and if you wanted to eat somewhere popular, get in quick otherwise you won't be eating.

My last stop in Albania was a town called Elbasan, chosen simply as it was close to the Albanian/North Macedonian border, and I'd heard stories about how long it might take to cross. Elbasan itself was worth a few hours visit. For the drive from Sarande, I followed the coast road. The weather was glorious, some of the views outstanding, though the road at times was awful, the traffic rather busy as I had to make my way through numerous coastal towns and villages. Elbasan itself was rather quiet, my hotel on a hill overlooking the town, and I think I was the only guest that night! Once again, there was a main street full of pubs and cafes, again finding one where I could drink for cheap, though after a long day behind the wheel, I had to pull up stumps earlier than normal.

The next morning, it was time to pack up my car again and head to the border, as I would be visiting North Macedonia, three cities within, before driving south to Greece and the ancient city of Athens...

Posted by benjamin2981 00:04 Archived in Albania Tagged mountains road_trip history sunsets bay monasteries montenegro albania kotor budva mausoleum roman_ruins heat durres butrint day_trip humidity shkoder sarande Comments (0)

Italy and San Marino

Tour of northern Italy (with a stop at one of the smallest nations in the world...)

sunny 30 °C

Been quite a while since I updated this, and I can't remember exactly how I ended the last post so I'll continue with what I remember.

My last night in Nice was rather long and boozy so waking up to leave for Italy didn't leave me feeling all that great. It took some water, juice and food to have me feeling a-okay before getting behind the wheel.

My first stop in Italy was La Spezia, and while I would love to have done the scenic route the entire way, it would have taken almost double the time of going by the motorway, and since I did have toll tags for both France and Italy, that's what I did. It did feel like a long old drive, though I'm sure the fact I was feeling a little tired didn't help, but I made it to La Spezia safe and sound, having to park my car some distance from my Airbnb. The lady who ran it was incredibly friendly, with full of tips and information about where and what to visit.

Of course, my first day was to go visit Cinque Terre. I knew we'd be in for some good weather when I woke up and headed to the train station early and it was already rather warm. I did have to queue for a while to get my pass, but trains ran frequently. Over the course of the day, I did stop and visit all five villages. I didn't spend too much time in the first couple of villages, Riomaggiore and Manarola. I had planned on doing the short hike between these two villages, but was informed the path was closed, and was also closed between Manarola and Corniglia.

I spent a bit more time in Corniglia, though getting to the town itself was hard, having to walk up what felt like a never ending set of stairs, though the views on offer were spectacular. As I always wear my walking shoes, I checked the time and distance between Corniglia and Vernazza and figured, why not, I'll hike this one instead. Considering the heat, it was a long, hard slog, well over ninety minutes mostly heading up to begin with, then a rather quick descent the closer I got to Vernazza. Ended up talking with a group of American tourists on the way, which helped pass the time.

Spent a long time in Vernazza recovering, and definitely enjoyed my first beer of the day! Walked up a nearby hill, again taking in some fantastic scenery (will upload more photos soon too.) Though I do feel quite fit nowadays, the distance between Vernazza and Monterosso was just too far, at least for me. If I hadn't done the previous hike, I might have considered it. Being the last stop, I spent more time in Monterosso than anywhere, the town actually split in two by a large hill.

Each village is full of things to see. Definitely more than one chiesa (church) and usually a museum or two, but most people, including myself, arrive to simply take in the scenery and try and snap our own photo of the rather famous ones you'll see in books or on the internet. The only downside is that it was absolutely packed. No criticism of tourism, considering I'm one myself, but I'm sure it would have been quieter in say... January. But I'm thoroughly glad I did it, definitely enjoyed it, and would heartily recommend.

Though I returned to La Spezia rather knackered, the next day I was out again, this time riding a train for an hour or so as I headed north to Genoa. I had contemplated staying there as I planned my trip, but La Spezia was better for the links to Cinque Terre. Genoa is an absolutely gorgeous city, absolutely steeped in history, and I loved walking the narrow streets of the old town. Better yet, the city had at least three (and probably more) funicular. Some only go up and down between two stations. One, though, heads right up into the hills surrounding Genoa.

For the first time since Andorra, I found myself in nature rather than a city, and on nothing but a whim, figured I would go for a walk, as I found a board suggesting I could take in some scenery while I also walking by some old forts that line the hills. It was rather quiet, not many tourists heading this far, and I eventually ended up following signs for a restaurant which offered panoramic views. Not sure how long it took me to walk there, well over and hour as I stopped often to snap a photo, but they didn't lie. Panoramic views on offer, the food was pretty good, and reasonably price as well. As always, the walk back was a little easier and definitely quicker as I didn't stop all the time! The only disappointment is that the weather did turn that afternoon, a thunderstorm rolling in. I ended up in a cafe, the lady behind the bar suggesting it was a frequent occurrence during the summer. A reminder of Sydney...

My last day in La Spezia was spent in the very town I was staying. It's a small town, and one used by tourists as a base rather than a place to visit. But there are a few hidden gems, and the docks are certainly a nice place to visit, with a number of bars and restaurants around. Being a Sunday, it was actually rather quiet around town, any tourists probably elsewhere, and considering how hot it was again, it was only in the evening that the streets and piazzas once again started to fill up.

Leaving La Spezia the next day, I stuck to the coast this time as my next stop of Pisa was only a short drive away, in comparison to some of the distances I've covered so far. My Airbnb was an apartment quite a distance from the centre of town, but my host provided all the information I required, including how to get into town. Walking wasn't realistic, particularly given the heat, so I ended up getting a bus each day. My first night, all I did was head to the local supermarket, grab some beers, then headed to a local pizzeria, where I enjoyed a fantastic local pizza.

First day was, of course, spent in Pisa itself. I had to be the usual tourist and head to the Leaning Tower, snapping a number of photos, but there are plenty of other buildings to visit while you're there. I definitely headed into the cathedral, which was absolutely stunning inside, and also into the Duomo, which was rather empty inside but still awe-inspiring. I spent a few hours in and around the tower and the other buildings before grabbing a map from a local tourist office, asking what else there was. The map suggested a couple of routes to take, and it was amazing how quiet the city was once you were away from the tourist areas. And Pisa had plenty of architecturally stunning buildings, plenty of museums to wander into, and though it was another stinking hot, humid day, it was pleasant just walking around, though trying to keep to the shade!

Day two had me hopping onto a train and heading towards Florence. Many people do it the other way around, staying in Florence and heading to Pisa, but considering I'm driving, Pisa was the better option for myself. Anyway, Florence is as beautiful and stunning as you can imagine. I booked my tickets for the Uffizi well in advance, and I could have honestly spent all day in there looking at everything. I'm sure I did spend a few hours in there, enjoying the fact it was rather cool. It was absolutely packed, no wonder they suggest you reserve an advanced ticket, and it was amusing to hear some of the stuff continuously telling people to be quiet. Felt more like a church at times.

Aside from the Uffizi, I pretty much saw all the other famous landmarks. I spent at least forty-five minutes queuing up to enter the Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, but I'll admit, the inside wasn't as great as the outside. And I did chuckle to myself when I remembered climbing the cathedral in Assassin's Creed. The Basilica of Santa Croce was definitely worth the entrance fee. To be honest, during this trip, I think the basilica's have proven to be just as beautiful as most cathedrals. And, of course, no visit to Florence is complete without crossing Ponte Vecchio. I crossed a bridge further down near the basilica and walked back, snapping a few shots before crossing it myself. If you're wondering, it's full of jewellery shops nowadays.

Florence is obviously a very old city and I could have spent two or three days wandering around, taking in all the sights. It was stupidly busy, even Cinque Terre wasn't as packed, and nowhere in France or Spain had been anywhere near as bad. I was definitely travelling during European summer! Add to that, Florence was... almost obscenely expensive, but Italian standards anyway, nearly matching the price of some places in France. Understandable, I guess, but it made buying pints of beer rather expensive.

Day three was another day trip from Pisa, this time to the small town of Lucca. And talk about an undiscovered gem. Yes, there were a few tourists around, but I swear the Italians keep this one a secret. 'Si, go to Pisa, got to Firenze. Lucca? No, nothing there. Very boring.' It's definitely worth a day trip as you can walk the four or so kilometres of the city walls, and then simply stroll around the streets of the old town. Plenty of landmarks to see, but as it's so quiet, compared to Pisa or Florence at least, you can sit outside a cafe, have a drink, and just enjoy the peace and quiet. Admittedly, you could easily see everything in town easily within a day, unless you're a completionist and want to see every museum and every landmark possible, but I can heartily recommend it as a day trip from Pisa.

My drive from Pisa to my next stop of San Marino had me driving through the Tuscan countryside. I avoided the autostrada as I wanted to take the scenic route. The road through the mountains was a lot of fun but hard work to drive, but the views on the way were absolutely spectacular, stopping in a small town right at the peak to take a few photos. I was passed by any number of bikers, and there must have been at least fifty of them doing the same thing when I arrived. For those wondering what road it was, it was the SS67. My sat nav took me from Pisa to Florence, driving through there wasn't a lot of fun, exiting the city on the east, following the SS67 to Forli, and then head south-east on the SS9. This would be a nice route to take if you were heading to Rimini from the west coast.

San Marino, one of the smallest nations on Earth, is definitely worth a visit. I was staying in another Airbnb, on the very edge of the San Marino/Italian border, though in San Marino itself. Having arrived rather late in the day, and feeling rather knackered after an exhausting drive, I headed to a pizzeria which had some fantastic reviews. Best pizza I'd had so far. Hands down, no contest. I headed to one or two bars after that, but I pulled up stumps rather early and got some much needed shut eye.

Public transport in San Marino isn't great, and knowing what I'm like, wanting to enjoy a few beers during the day, driving wasn't an option. But I did have the bus timetable for the service that runs from Rimini, so had to sit around and wait awhile before it arrived, expectedly late of course. The City of San Marino sits on an enormous hill overlooking the rest of the country and what seems like half of Italy. The city and country itself are old, very old. Heading to the tourist office, I made sure I got my passport stamped, grabbed a map, and was offered some sound advice on what to do.

Any plans were stopped, for a while at least, as there was a festival of sorts taking place, and there was a beer tent. After grabbing a pint, I ended up speaking with a German couple for a good few hours, knocking back a few beers, and having a good laugh. Good people, and I've kept their details to keep in touch. But though I could sit and drink beer all day, I did want to check out some sights, so I walked up the hill to visit the three forts. Achingly beautiful views were on offer, while at the highest point, you could see some stunning shots of the City of San Marino itself. It was nice just walking around the old streets, though admittedly, the city is tiny. You definitely don't need more than a day. I did grab another pizza from a restaurant with good reviews, and ended up catching the last bus back, which was only at around 20:30. I did ask about taxi's and was told they can be pricey.

Stop number four of my journey of the Italian peninsula was Reggio Emilia. Not exactly on the tourist trail, but it was convenient for day trips to Modena/Maranello and also for Bologna. Unfortunately, I'd been carrying a cough for a little while by now, ever since entering Italy, to be honest, and it really knocked me for six during my drive from San Marino, so that meant my first day in Reggio Emilia, where I was going to check out the city itself, was a wash out. All I did was head to the local pharmacy, and using Google translate, got my hands on some cough medicine, headed back to my apartment, and got some rest.

Though I still didn't feel all that great the next day, it was time to visit Modena. Actually, though I did want to visit Modena itself, it was time to visit Maranello and the home of Ferrari. The first museum, though, was the Enzo Ferrari experience, where the city has turned the house he was born into a museum, and the building next to it is filled with some of the most beautiful Ferrari's ever produced. They also show a film of Enzo Ferrari during the visit, highlighting details of his life and the history of the marque itself. The collection isn't enormous by any stretch of the imagination, easily visiting in no more than a couple of hours, but if you're a car buff, it's a must.

Through the website, you can also book a bus to take you from Modena to that museum and then onwards to Maranello. I'd booked mine long ago, so boarded for the half hour trip. Maranello is Ferrari, or Ferrari is Maranello. As soon as you enter, the Prancing Horse is everywhere. The bus takes you past the Ferrari factory and various other buildings linked to the marque, before arriving at the Ferrari museum. I can say this right now, it is worth absolutely every penny spent buying the ticket. I could have easily spent all day in there just looking at all the cars. Not just road cars, but sports cars and what everyone probably wants to see, the Formula One cars. The place reeks of history.

While I was there, I decided to try my hand at one of the simulators, just for a laugh. It wasn't cheap but I somehow managed to cram my fat arse in one of the cockpits, and as I was driving a Ferrari, it had to be Monza. You only get seven minutes but I managed a few laps, my fastest only nine seconds slow than Kimi Raikkonen's current lap record. There's hope for me yet!!! I also enquired taking a Ferrari for a drive, as there are plenty of garages offering the Ferrari experience. Let's just say it was well outside my budget, ten minutes being one hundred Euro, and so on. So I figured I could always head back one day with a wad of cash and take one out for an hour.

Back to Modena, I headed to the tourist office, grabbed a map, saw the main sights, headed to a bar which sold craft beer, enjoying a great chat with the barman, whose English was solid after living in the UK for a few years, before returning to Reggio after quite the day.

Day three was Bologna. About another half an hour on the train past Modena, I had toyed with the idea of heading north from Reggio instead of south, but I couldn't miss Bologna, not with everything on offer. It was probably one of the muggiest days of the trip so far, though, the walk just from the station to the main tourist office leaving me almost soaking wet, not in a nice way. Grabbing a map as always, I also booked a ticket to climb the Torra degli Asinelli (Asinelli Tower) for later that afternoon.

Like most maps, it came with a suggested walking route, so I followed that first, definitely visiting the basilica first, which was surprisingly free to enter, and utterly beautiful inside. The route took me past most of the famous landmarks dotted around the old city, before I abandoned it around two-thirds the way around and did my own thing as usual. Bologna is as old as all the other cities I've visited, finding my way down along old narrow streets, buildings seeming to close in on you, but it was the shade I found most enjoyable.

Climbing the Asinelli Tower was quite the experience. It was stiflingly hot inside, so by the time we reached the top, everyone was sweating. Climb was worth it though, the views provided were... well, as I've said about a lot of things, absolutely spectacular. It was a little cramped up there, though they do keep the numbers reasonable, just about everyone managed to get the shots they wanted. Up that high, there was also the slightest of breezes, not really enough to cool right down, and entering the tower to climb down, everyone was sweating again at the bottom. Good fun though.

If you look at the list of things to do in Bologna, you could easily spend two or three days taking in everything on offer. But if you're doing a day trip, you can easily knock off the main sights, while visiting one or two things perhaps overlooked, quite easily. And it's another place I recommend that everyone should visit. Though popular, and it was busy, it was nothing compared to previous stops.

I'd avoided the autostrada through most of Italy, and there was absolutely no point using it to head to my next stop of Verona. This wasn't an Airbnb but an actual B&B I'd booked long ago, as driving near the centre of Verona was difficult, parking impossible, so I was again on the very edge of town, once again relying on buses to get me home.

Verona is... gorgeous. Absolutely, utterly, fantastically gorgeous. I loved it. So much that, for my third day, I abandoned any idea of doing a day trip and stayed in the city. There is so much to see and do, but it's not just that. As always, I had a map, and followed that somewhat, but getting lost in the old town was fun, and heading up across the river to the funicular, to take photos from the other side... I spent a long time just sitting on the wall and simply looking, camera in my pocket for once. Of course, those with a love for Shakespeare will go looking for Juliet's house, and you can also visit her grave/mausoleum if you're so inclined. They do have a statue of her outside the house, all the tourists lining up for a photo. Most would go to grab one of her breasts and all I could think was 'She was around 14 in the play, perverts!'

The city also had a lot of Roman ruins. Haven't mentioned them too much above but Verona has an arena, which is still used to this day for events, including opera, and there is also the ruins of a theatre nearby. I made sure to visit both of those. Depending on which side of the river you're on, you can follow the banks until you arrive at the Ponte di Castelvecchio, with a museum attached to it nearby. As always, there is an abundance of churches you can visit, but if you're going to visit just one, make sure it's the Duomo Cathedral di Santra Maria Matricolare. Worth every cent of the entrance fee.

Of course, you can't visit Italy, particularly on a long trip like I'm taking, without visiting Venice, so that was a trip for day two. Was it as good as I expected? Was it as beautiful as everyone says it is? Abso-beeping-lutely! Don't get me wrong, it was so stupidly busy, it wasn't funny. Well, only the toursity parts were. So I had a plan. I followed the signs to the Ponte di Rialto, took a couple of snaps, followed the signs to Piazza San Marco, did all the touristy stuff around there, then went an explored. Walk around five minutes away from either of those places, and Venice is wonderfully peaceful.

Tempted to a gondola ride, just for fun, until I saw the price. Ridiculous, so that was a no. Instead, I crossed the Ponte dell Accademia and kept walking until I was near the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Sitting at the point, you are provided with wonderful views of the Piazza San Marco on the other side of the Grand Canal. Heading back, there were times I was the only person around as I turned down narrow little streets. The main thoroughfares were busy though nothing like around the main hotspots. There are so many churches to visit, you could spend all day doing just that, but I'll admit, at times Venice seemed almost too quiet, even empty of life. Then when you realise that Venice is actually quite large, when thinking about it, but only fifty thousand live there now. To be honest, with all the tourists, and I know I was one, but I almost don't blame them. Little wonder they are bringing in all these initiatives, large and small, to almost stop tourists arriving altogether. It'll never stop completely but it might put off a few. I've read plenty of tourists receiving large fines for the smallest of infractions.

As I said above, my third day, I spent in Verona again. Didn't do all that much. To be honest, I'd been on the road for quite a while, and I was starting to feel a little tired. That's why I was actually looking forward to my next stop, as I planned on relaxing more than I had during most of my trip so far. (And my stops in Italy hadn't finished just yet either).

Posted by benjamin2981 23:42 Archived in Italy Tagged venice road_trip verona bologna italy pisa basilica cathedral roman hot old_city old_town ferrari cinque_terre arena roman_ruins maranello leaning_tower airbnb romeo_and_juliet Comments (0)

Southern France

From Toulouse to Nice (before heading into Italy...)

sunny 28 °C

Can I admit that I'm actually far too busy to regularly write a blog post? Only reason I'm writing this now is that I've just arrived in Pisa, needed something on my car seeing to, and as it's rather sweltering outside, I figured I'd stay in my air-conditioned Airbnb until heading out for dinner later. So I had a few spare minutes at least...

Anyway, my last post ended with my visit to Andorra. Still have some great memories of that place, and I thoroughly enjoyed my journey back into France. I took the old route, avoiding the tunnel, and had some great views passing over the top of the mountains. Going down the other side was quite amusing, particularly once I hit the border and the line of cars looking to enter Andorra, mostly French cars and people, looking for the cheap booze and fags on offer.

I was staying with a local in Toulouse but not through Airbnb, organising it through Booking.com. I hadn't been aware that was on offer and it is something I'll keep an eye out for later. Anyway, Michel was a lovely gentleman, spoke great English, and we enjoyed some good conversations, when I was about.

As I was only spend three nights / two days in Toulouse, I had plenty of time to wander and looking around. Being France, most museums were closed on Monday but I could still wander and take in the sights, the cathedral, basilica and other churches, while also just walking the streets. One thing I learned quickly is that Toulouse shared one thing in common with Bordeaux - the great pubs on offer! One pub I'd visited in Bordeaux was the Frog & Rosbif, and they had another pub in Toulouse. These sort of pubs are also good places to find fellow English speakers, and I eventually found myself chatting with an English RAF serviceman by the name of James. Top lad, and it was amusing to hear he was based only a few miles from where I used to and still live in the UK.

My second day was much like the first, though this time I visited a few museums, learning that Toulouse was once a Roman city by the name of Tolosa. Few Roman remains are left around the city, but the museum I visited was interesting, with quite a bit of information in English. Found museums can be very hit and miss regarding that, depending on the city you are in. I eventually ended up on the other side of the river, away from the centre, but to be honest, there wasn't much on offer. The one place I did want to visit was closed on Monday and Tuesday. Just my luck sometimes!

I can definitely recommend Toulouse as a place to visit. Plenty of places speak at least a little English, and as always, they appreciate if you at least try a little French.

On the way to Avignon, my second destination of three, I stopped at two places on the one. The first was rather unplanned until Michel suggested I really do stop there, a city by the name of Carcassone. I'm glad I did, as although I only spent maybe 90 minutes there, it was certainly an interesting old city, though absolutely teeming with tourists (yes, yes, I know I'm one of them!)

My second stop was planned, and had been on my itinerary from the moment I planned the whole thing. Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct still in great condition. Knowing they were onto a good thing, the French have built an entire park around it, with all sort of restaurants, exhibitions and a museum. Plus you can also take a towel and your swimmers and go for a drip in the river, if you're so inclined. Anyway, the place was as spectacular as I imagined, while the museum was interesting, giving plenty of information about the construction of the aqueduct, but also the history of the region itself, mentioning one city that I would be visiting later on.

Avignon is a lovely French city, one perhaps overlooked by many tourists, though that's not to say I didn't run into a lot of them! I was staying in another Airbnb, not far from the centre. The first day was, of course, wandering Avignon. First thing was the whole reason I was there. The Papal Palace. And, I'll admit to be... slightly disappointed. I'd read plenty of reviews, and while it wasn't awful, nearly all the walls were bare, though there were plenty of artefacts to see. The walls that were still painted, and a couple were magnificent, we weren't allowed to take photos of those. But the rest of the palace was brought to life by THE PAD! Given some headphones and it give the history of the palace and the popes who resided in it.

The second major attraction is the bridge. There's bugger all left of it standing now, but again, in addition to the bridge was a museum which gave plenty of history and the one amusing feature was the rumour about the bridge. Was it ever completely finished? And, if it was, what was it like? According to the museum, it was built, but collapsed centuries ago, and was probably a good idea poorly implemented.

Avignon is full of museums to see, and just wandering the old city can see yourself finding little cafes to sit and enjoy a beer or coffee, or perhaps a small shop or museum. I followed one of the trails on the map which took me through the medieval heart, the streets and paths where cars simply cannot go. Stopped for the occasional beer before hitting the pubs for happy hour. France do love their happy hours!

Next day was a trip to Nimes, another French town with strong Roman origins. The main attraction is, of course, the Arena. Around two thousand years old, it's fair to say perhaps half of it is the original as it had required plenty of work over time. But it's still spectacular, again an audioguide provided, giving history of the arena itself, but they also focused on the gladiatorial contests that once took part. I guess they found a lot of information about them so added that in. The arena is still open to this very day as it will host plenty of concerts during the summer.

Nimes is a gorgeous old city, the old town full of narrow streets, again inhibiting cars from going down most of them. The ruins of a couple of Roman temples are definite attractions, and if you don't mind walking up a steep hill, you can also climb the remains of a tower overlooking the entire city. Admittedly, I'm not a real fan of heights. If I feel completely 'safe', I'm okay, but the climb up the tower itself was narrow, and... well, let's just I didn't look down until I was at the very top! The climb was worth it, though. The view was outstanding.

Day three was another day trip, this time to Arles, another old town with Roman origins. Again, this had an arena, in roughly the same condition as Nimes. But Arles is perhaps more famous as the home of Vincent van Gogh. He only lived there for around a year, but the city takes pride in the fact one of the world's most famous artists once lived there. If you look at his Wikipedia page, his work while in Arles was prolific, but don't expect any museums in the city to have any of his work. Anything to do with van Gogh in the city is simply to entice tourists who don't know any better!

There is a fantastic archaeological museum worth checking out, just a little outside the centre (a 15 minute walk at most). The best exhibit there is of an old Roman ship, which laid buried under sediment in the nearby river for two millennia. Dug up and painstakingly restored, it now takes pride of place in a new part of the museum. Unfortunately, this new part is the only one that really provides English translations of all the exhibits. The other areas, while incredibly interesting, had next to no English translations. Slightly disappointing, but at least entry was free that day!

To be honest, I could have spent another couple of days in Avignon, as there is Orange and Aix-en-Provence nearby that are also interesting to visit. Perhaps another time...

Anyway, my third and final destination in southern France was Nice. Now while I had the idea of travelling the coast road instead of the autoroute, I knew, at this time of year and the day I was travelling, the traffic would be horrendous. So I took the probably quicker way. My Airbnb in Nice was another apartment, quite smaller than my one in Avignon, but I didn't plan on staying there too much during the day, though it was still quite the walk from the centre.

As always, day one would be spent in Nice, but let's be honest, you don't go to Nice to spend all day walking around. You go to stroll the promenade, perhaps wander the old town, definitely hit a beach and just... relax. So the morning and early afternoon was spent doing the 'touristy' things, particularly going up the nearby ruined castle / fort to take in the views. Spectacular! Other than that, it was a wander around the old town, but to be honest, it was far too hot to be walking kilometres around town, so I made sure to stop every so often for... something cold... perhaps with some alcohol in it...

Made a friend that night in another pub, this one with an Irish theme. Yes, yes, shoot me for being typical but all the bar staff spoke English. In fact, most were Irish or American, and one or two couldn't even speak French! Anyway, made a friend that night by the name of Grant, and he was a drinking buddy the next three nights.

Day two was a trip to Monaco. It just had to be done. After grabbing a map, not that I needed one for what I wanted to do first, I walked the track, taking my time, and an enormous number of photos were taken during my walk. Took perhaps a couple of hours, before heading up towards the palace, which provided even better views of the whole of Monaco. The final thing for me to visit was a museum full of cars owned by Prince Rainier (and probably owned by Prince Albert) now. Though called a museum, it's actually a private collection. Quite a few F1 cars, sports cars and normal cars... though I'm not sure you can call a few Rolls-Royce's 'normal' cars. It was a great collection, though, an obvious sign of the family wealth.

But Monaco wasn't as expensive as feared, at least when it came to food and drink. Never paid for more than €5 for a beer, and food was cheap as well. Just stay away from the harbour-front, look around for deals, and it could definitely be cheaper than Monaco. Wouldn't want to know how much a night in a hotel cost though. An Airbnb would probably be far too expensive too! (Doubt anyone would even offer, to be honest.)

My last day in southern France was one of relaxation. I stayed in Nice and did precisely nothing. Woke up, slowly walked into town, had a rather ordinary lunch (suckered in by one of those cheap three-course meals. Should have read TripAdvisor first!) before enjoying one or two cheap beers, before meeting my drinking buddy for a final night of revelry. In addition to him, we were joined by all sorts. Remember chatting with a Canadian fellow who'd just moved to Nice, and also an old American guy who was living life to the full now that he was retired and widowed. It was a long night, probably not the best idea considering I was leaving the next day, but it was well worth it.

The next day, I did need a couple of hours to feel right before I left. It was time for country number eight of the trip so far.

ITALY!

Posted by benjamin2981 08:26 Archived in France Tagged beaches road_trip walking beach palace palaces cathedral roman hot nice nightlife avignon arena monaco toulouse arles heat arenas nimes roman_history Comments (0)

Sevilla, Cadiz and Gilbraltar

Andalusia and the last time I'll be in an English speaking majority for... a few months!

sunny

Apologies for anyone following this, I've been on the road for over two weeks, didn't take my laptop, so I'll be writing the following just from photos taken and memories. I'll have another blog post up quite quickly, covering where I've just returned from. (I'm currently in a nice apartment in Granada...)

Anyway, my last post was regarding my quick adventure through Portugal. Thoroughly enjoyable, and it's somewhere I would like to spend more time in the future. Damn Schengen rules...

The drive from Sintra to Sevilla was the longest of the trip so far at 308 miles. That's just under 500 kilometres. Didn't do it all in one hit, though I only stopped for fuel and a quick drink before finishing the drive. Experienced the first really bad traffic of the trip so far. It sucked. I was delayed by a good half an hour, but that didn't particularly matter. My Airbnb wasn't exactly in the centre, though I knew that when booking it. Dos Hermanos is only a short metro ride away from the centre, and was convenient for me regarding my car, as there was ample parking. My hosts were fantastic as well. It was a husband and wife team. The husband didn't speak any English, though we managed to communicate through hand gestures, his wife spoke enough that we could communicate, and she was certainly very helpful regarding my stay.

My two days in Sevilla were spent pretty much just seeing all the sights possible. Of course, that meant the Plaza de Espana, the cathedral and the Alcazar, while I also participated in my first walking tour of the trip to get a better understanding, and also learn some tips from fellow travellers. I said it to people at the time, but Sevilla definitely goes into my top three beautiful cities, for the time being. The locals were friendly and accommodating, though it was also the first time I was surrounded by many fellow tourists. Sintra was busy, but Sevilla was something else. Crowds everywhere!

During my second evening, my Airbnb host organised an evening of flamenco. There are plenty of stories as to the origins of flamenco (is it actually Spanish or imported?) but that's an argument for another time. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed the ninety minute show, as did the people I was sharing the table with. Dancers would also perform on the street for tips, one such couple performing as I waited in line for the cathedral.

The weather had certainly warmed up during my trip through Portugal, and by the time I arrived in Cadiz, summer had almost arrived. Sevilla had been quite warm, so I was pleased to be by the ocean at least, my Airbnb only a stones throw away from the seven kilometre long seafront. I could see it was still just out of season, though, as I was told later the beach would be full of sunbathers or swimmers at the height of summer. While I was there? Not deserted but not the crowds one would expect.

I did my second walking tour during my first day, as although I'd done a little research on Cadiz, it wasn't an extensive as other places. Our guide, Mario, was brilliant, with plenty of funny stories regarding the history of Cadiz, and he more than earned his tip. Cadiz isn't a particularly large city, and although geared towards tourists, proven by the fact four cruise ships arrived while I was there, I think most come for sand, sea and surf rather than culture. Still, I managed to occupy myself for two days, finding a number of bars to enjoy a drink and tapas. The Champions League semi-finals were on during my time there, and I found I believe the only Liverpool supporter in Cadiz during my first night! The second night, I was in a different bar sat next to some Dutch guys as they watched their team lose in the last minute. I'm fairly sure they would have been drinking all night...

Again, it was only a short two day / three night stay before moving on again, my next destination Gibraltar.

I had to park my car on the opposite side of the border, as driving in Gibraltar isn't easy, and parking is non-existent for non-residents. And as I was leaving Schengen, I didn't want to return until I had to. That meant ensuring I had everything I needed in my bag before crossing the frontier. (Thankfully, I didn't forget anything!)

My first night in Gibraltar, again at an Airbnb, was again by myself. My hostess, Marie, was fantastic, enjoying a long chat upon arrival as she shares a real love of travel too. I spent my first full day in Gibraltar not doing a hell of a lot as I was waiting for a friend to arrive. Ryan flew in later that night, and after settling in, we headed out for a catch up drink.

The next day, we caught the cable car to the top of the Rock, taking in some of the spectacular views from the viewing platforms. It was a clear, sunny and hot day, and it's true, you can see Africa clearly. We then spent a few hours walking down the Rock (as others were running or walking up it for a charity event), stopping at a few sights along the way. One was an old battery, the gun still in place, which did give the best view of Africa. There were also some old tunnels, from various sieges and the two wars, a few memorials dedicated to various services, and also the remains of a Moorish castle from centuries ago. By the time we arrived at the bottom, we were both knackered so, after a wash back at the Airbnb, headed out from some dinner and drinks.

That was Saturday. On Sunday, we planned to do as little possible. It would be my first day of doing practically nothing since leaving, and I aimed to take advantage of it. The best idea was to head to the biggest sports bar in Gibraltar to watch the Formula One then the last day of the Premier League. The place was crowded, as expected, downing a few ciders in the sun. Once that was over, we had a bite to eat before heading back to shower, then returned to the very same place!

And that was the end of the European adventure, part one. On the Monday, we bid farewell to Gibraltar, loading up my car for the short drive to Tarifa. After parking up, we ended up having a rather torrid day. Firstly, we were told the ferry was delayed, unsure of when it would be sailing, and we were advised to head to Algeciras later the same day (having waited until noon for news!) We caught the bus there, only to be told upon arrival that ferries were now sailing for Tangier from Tarifa. So we had to hop a second bus back to Tarifa, eventually boarding the ferry around 5pm.

It would be a ninety minute sailing to Morocco, which will be covered in the next post.

Posted by benjamin2981 08:15 Archived in Spain Tagged beaches alcazar road_trip walking driving cadiz cathedral drinking old_city ferry old_town sevilla gibraltar flamenco the_rock Comments (0)

Country No. 3 - Portugal

Porto and Sintra only. Would have loved to stay longer...

sunny 23 °C

I'm not sure if it's just me, or if many have had the same luck, but all of my Airbnb hosts, even those I didn't get the chance to meet, have been nothing short of fantastic.

My drive to Porto from Santiago was fairly straight forward, though I did worry when entering Portugal and the motorway. Through France and Spain, my little tags would beep to state payment would be taken. It doesn't beep in Portugal, so I wasn't sure if it worked or not. (I'd only find out leaving Porto for Sintra that it was all okay.)

Motorways in Portugal, outside of the main cities, are practically empty. But the drivers? Well, they are... pretty bad. Didn't come close to an accident, but watching some of the antics on display was amusing. Entering Porto wasn't particularly difficult, though I had to ignore the sat-nav more than once due to never ending roadworks on the approach to my Airbnb. Managed to snag a parking spot close by and unload my stuff.

Most of my communication prior to arriving was with Lurdes, but it was Aderito who sat me down and went through everything with me. Utterly fantastic, as basically gave me a two-day itinerary with the map he had. The little cottage I had was perfectly suitable for my needs, so I headed straight out into town, as I had arrived rather early. All I wanted was a beer or two, avoiding most of the tourist sites as I would spend the next two days wandering. I found a sports bar, conveniently located close to my Airbnb, and admittedly I spent a couple of hours there each night as they were playing the Champions League semi-finals, and I can't remember the last time I watched any Champions League!

I spent two days walking around Porto, the first day covering 28 kms, the second day a paltry 17.7 kms. The first day I took the tram out to the very west of the city by the coastline. It was rather misty to start with and I was worried I'd be in for disappointment. But after sitting down for a coffee, I waited until it cleared, turning into a gorgeous, sunny and warm day. I followed the coastline for a good few kilometres before turning inland, wandering here, there and everywhere, mostly following the guidance of Aderito, who didn't disappoint. Visited another contemporary art museum, but could also wander the parks and gardens. I spent hours walking that first day, so was absolutely knackered upon returning to my Airbnb, though after a shower, headed out for at least a couple of drinks.

Day two was more of the same, though sticking to the inner city and I guess more 'touristy' parts. I had lunch at Cafe Santiago, where I feasted on a Francesinha Santiago. Basically a sandwich full of meat, covered in cheese, with a fried egg on top. Calorific, but utterly delicious and I managed to polish off the whole thing. Other than that, it was just another day of wandering. I could list every monument I saw and photographed... But I can only say that you should definitely visit Porto. It's beautiful when the sun is out, particularly if you're by the river. If you cross the river and head to towards another museum, you get some breathtaking views of the old town.

I would have loved to have spent another couple of days in Porto, wandering the narrow streets and simply kicking back and relaxing. I left early on my last day there, and had a mini heart attack when I found the garage I had parked my car in closed. Thankfully the man responsible, who didn't speak any English, turned up, mimicking that he was just eating breakfast.

During the drive to Sintra, I figured I'd stop off by the coast, eventually stopping at a town called Nazaré. For those who don't know, it's where some of the biggest waves in the world have been surfed. There were no enormous waves on the day of my visit, but I spent a couple of hours walking the promenade before taking the funicular up to the nearby hill, the town basically split in two. Again, some stunning views on display, and if I ever return to Portugal, I'll spent a couple of weeks slowly working my way north to south, or vice versa, and would definitely spend a couple of days lazing on the beach.

I'd heard Sintra could be very expensive, and although I spent €30 paying for entry into parks and palaces, everything else was as reasonable as Porto. My host, Filipe, was again fantastic, full of advice, particularly about where to have dinner, which I chose to visit on my second night. I only had one full day in Sintra, so had to make the most of it. Standing in line for the bus, I started talking to a Dutch family, and as we were well to the back of the line, they asked if I'd like to join them on a tuk-tuk. I'm on holiday, so why not? The driver was a bloody mad-man, spending half his time turning around to talk to us, but it was bloody good fun too, though I prayed to all the gods that we arrived in one piece.

The Palacio de Pena was beautiful, and I'm glad we got there as early as we did, as the line I noticed upon leaving was horrific. The park surrounding the palace was stunning, glad I'd taken my hayfever tablet, and I climbed to the highest point in the park, where the High Cross is located. The Moorish Castle was also good fun to walk around, climbing to the very top, where more views could be taken in. And finally, I walked all the way back to the historical centre to visit Sintra Palace. I didn't walk as far as Bilbao or Porto, but I certainly did a lot more climbing!

My last night in Sintra was spent at a local restaurant, partaking in a dish of Portuguese food, before heading out to enjoy a couple of beers before heading back to my Airbnb. The last place I was in had a guy with a guitar, and he was a rather good singer, so I ended up staying for a couple, just to listen. The football on TV in the background was also a good reason to stay.

And that was it. I know I could have done so much more in Portugal, but as I've said time and again, I'm just limited by what I can see and do. However, there is always the chance of another trip in the future, so perhaps I can visit a few places I've had to miss this time around.

Posted by benjamin2981 08:59 Archived in Portugal Tagged museums road_trip walking history driving palaces portugal old_town porto sintra airbnb historical_centre Comments (0)

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