A Travellerspoint blog

Sky L’Arcing Around

sunny 30 °C

Well, it’s the end of our second week at the Arc-en-Ciel camp. It’s been a tonic for the two of us; touring around Europe has been an adventure, but it’s been exhausting. Staying put for a couple of weeks has given us back some normality.

We’ve been able to chat to the campers, most of whom come down year after year and stay for weeks at a time. Their familiarity with the place adds to the sense of permanency that has been missing from our lives for the past five months. In fact I’ve joked to some of the campers that this place should be renamed ‘Hotel California’ – you can check out any time you like but you can never leave!

We’ve been joining in the social activities here. We won prizes at the boules competition last Wednesday; and last Friday night we attended a party for the mainly Dutch and Brit guests (music accompaniment provided by a long-time Dutch visitor playing my least favourite musical instrument – the accordion!) The average age of the campers would be in the low 70’s; so the musical repertoire fits the age group – ‘We’ll Meet Again’, ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ and ‘Lili Marlene’, that sort of stuff. No point me taking my guitar along – while the oldies would recognise most of my material, I’m sure they’d rather sing along to ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’.

We chatted most of the evening to Jim (Gwen his Scots wife accompanied the accordion player on her fiddle), and to Fiona and Elma, mother and daughter and long-standing visitors to Arc-en-Ciel.

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We went down to Marseilles for the afternoon last Thursday; it hit us for the first time how much we are both suffering from ‘travel overload’. After three hours of walking around this very vibrant city we realised how exhausted we both were and how much we wanted to retreat to our little camp. We’ve seen so many cities and towns in the last five months that nothing seems particularly novel or eye-catching anymore. There’s a fabulous cathedral high on a hill looking down over Marseilles - no doubt a magnificent look-out for tourists – yet we never even thought about going there.

We had an exorbitantly priced citron pressé drink at a quayside bar. Ann did her mandatory, but for me extremely tiresome, trawl through the shopping streets; then we came home.

Before going to Marseilles I’d toyed with the idea of staying for dinner and enjoying the town’s most famous cuisine, Bouillabaisse. But after being told the ridiculous prices you pay for it even in the cheaper food haunts, we decided against it. After all, it’s only bloody fish stew! A Scottish couple we bumped into when we arrived off the coach (and who amazingly had lived for a time on the same little street I do in Perth) said they strayed into a restaurant on the foreshore for a bouillabaisse supper only to emerge with their wallets considerably lighter. Apparently (and unknowingly) the bottle of wine they ordered was 58 euros! (about $95). When one considers how cheap good wine is here in France, those kind of inflated prices are at best criminal.

Anyway, Ann and I settled for a really nice mixed entrée dinner at a Lebanese restaurant back in Aix – the weather was perfect as we sat on the street watching the passers-by.

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Since buying some cheap DVDs off a stall a couple of weeks back, Ann and I have amused ourselves in the evenings by watching movies. So far we’ve seen ‘Ali G In Da House’ (hilarious), The Sixth Sense and Minority Report (seen them both a few times before), and LA Confidential (I do like Kevin Spacey).

Ann has been devouring novels at about the rate of one every two days. I on the other hand read more sedately. But I tend to read three books at a time. I’m in the middle of Ben Elton’s ‘Inconceivable’, I’m coming to the end of my fourth French translation of Harry Potter – ‘The Half-Blood Prince’; and I’m studying my Portuguese grammar book.

I play guitar quietly to myself in the van, we take naps during the heat of the day, we take the bus into Aix to visit the thrice weekly markets, and we look forward to meal times when I try to conjure up a masterpiece using three small gas rings and a toaster oven.

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We’ll probably stay at Aix for another week – this will allow us two months in Iberia, most of which will be spent in Portugal. December should see us heading back up through France where we will stop for a week in Paris. Elma (Fiona’s mum) has twice asked us to spend Christmas with her in Portsmouth, which might be nice. If we do, then we may even pop in to see Helen, Steve, Sophie and Joe in Axminster at New Year. We’ll see.

ON

Posted by OrlandoN 06:35 Archived in France Comments (0)

Somewhere Over The Rainbow...

sunny

Well, it’s the 29th August and we’ve been at the Aix-en-Provence campsite for a week. We’re loving it so much that we have decided to stay at least another week. The weather’s been brilliant, the other campers have been very friendly and the staff can’t do enough for you.

The campsite is basically run by Corinne and her daughter Cecile, who treat it with a passion reserved for those people who have been born and brought up in a place. The 60th anniversary of the site has recently been celebrated, and the 2010 summer season has been highlighted by many events to commemorate its humble beginnings in 1950.

Arc-en-Ciel was started by Corinne’s father and mother, a woman who by all accounts ran the place with an iron fist. Her daughter Corinne, while not so strict, is definitely not a woman to mess with. It’s been said often by other campers here that Corinne has no compunction in refusing entry to anyone she doesn’t like the look of. Legend has it that she usually sends them up the road to the ‘Chantecler’ campsite, a place that is regarded with light-hearted contempt.

[STOP PRESS - Corinne has just told me that only an hour ago she refused a Dutch couple for being surly with her!]

Corinne’s ‘strict but fair’ policy ensures that everyone has a good time, without the usual problems of noisy, reckless or just obnoxious campers. We get on very well with her – she always has a smile for us, and thinks nothing of helping out if we need it. I get the sense that she treats those within the grounds as an extension of her own family (after all the place is where they live as well as work); and the grateful campers (many of whom come back year after year after year) feel part of the whole happy family thing.

This year visitors have been encouraged to paint a tile (an old roof tile) with their interpretations of what the 60th anniversary means to them. A group even created a large patchwork quilt adorned with photos and paintings, all as a tribute to Arc-en-Ciel and its people. All quite touching really.

Every week during the season (which lasts from April till September), they hold boules and fishing competitions; and at various time will run fancy-dress parties, pantomimes and shows of various kinds, all for the benefit of the campers.

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Our first night Liliane and Graham invited us to join their friends - English couples who have been meeting up here for years. We had a lovely evening, and it was so nice to communicate freely in English again (oddly enough this place has been full of Brits).

Sadly Liliane and Graham left three days later on Wednesday – they’d been here a month – and others in the group similarly peeled off on different days this week. However, we weren’t left friendless. On Thursday night we joined in the boules competition and met a nice couple who asked us back for drinks afterwards. He’s a Scouser called Jim and she's a Scot from Edinburgh. They’re lovely folk and a good laugh.

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We’ve noticed a dramatic drop-off in the number of campers this week – the school holidays are over and summer is slowly drawing to a close. This means that there are fewer snotty kids bleating and whingeing, and we’ll get the pool to ourselves too.

Speaking of which – there is an odd law in France which prohibits in swimming pools the wearing of the kind of swimming attire we in Oz call ‘board shorts’ – that is knee-length bathers. I believe it’s more to do with the material they’re made out of than the cut; but anything longer than trunks is prohibited.

This created a bit of a problem for me as I only brought ‘boardies’ with me. I went out to a market and picked up what I thought was an appropriate pair of bathers, but they also turned out to be too long (fortunately they weren’t expensive). Another trip out to a different market ended more successfully when I managed to secure a pair of the style of bathers still commonly worn by men in Europe. They’re not quite ‘budgie smugglers’, but dangerously close! Christ I haven’t worn cossies this short since I was ten!

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This evening there’s a fishing competition. Tomorrow Ann and I head off to a hypermarket on the west of town (our local bus takes us right by the door – I have refused to take the van out while we’re here in Aix). Apparently it’s huge and like all similar French hypermarkets sells everything from Roquefort to road bikes!

Wednesday we’re off to see Marseilles (a town everyone here raves about); and we may also go on a bike ride with Jim and Gwen sometime this week. For the moment though Ann and I are content to read, snooze and just relax in what for the first time on this trip has been a real holiday!

ON

Posted by OrlandoN 08:09 Archived in France Comments (1)

Rains, Pains and Autostradas

sunny

Do I dare venture the prediction that the weather is going to be nice from now on? It’s the 17th August, it hasn’t rained since Florence and it’s been nearly a week! Surely not!

We’re at a camp in France just outside Sospel next to the Cote D’Azur and already Ann and I feel more relaxed than at any time in Italy. The sites are cosier, less crowded and much less expensive. And it’s still high season. It’s bliss.

I have to say that the last day in Italy was most enjoyable. Ann wanted to get out as soon as possible; so we drove 350km on the Autostrada to the border. Originally I’d wanted to take my time, driving up the coast road, enjoying the scenes of blue Mediterranean and feeling the hot salty breeze against my face. We started on the coast road only to be met with mile after mile of tacky tourist hotels, funfares, playgrounds and all the rubbish that the low-brow vacationer craves. It was awful.

The Autostrada ironically was brilliant. It wasn’t a gigantic four-lane affair – almost all dual carriageway – but that was its appeal. Most of the way the road floated above the surrounding valleys and past the wonderful mountains strewn with magical sun-bleached villages (including the Cinque Terre). The Autostrada is basically built on bridges; and when we weren’t on bridges we were driving through tunnels bored through the mountainsides (I counted about 85 tunnels in all).

The scenery was breathtaking and though it was a six-hour drive, it was pleasant and uplifting. Who’d have thought driving on a motorway could be so enjoyable?

The only tough part was after we entered France – we had to climb about fifteen kilometres up steep winding roads to get to this campsite. Ordinarily it would have been quite fun; but we were both tired and just wanted to stop.

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We stayed at the Sospel site for two nights, then travelled along the coast to see what all the fuss was about the Cote-D’Azur. We headed for Monaco, where we drove through Monte Carlo (really they’re one and the same, the place is so small). Loads of money about, stylish flashy hotels, marinas with gigantic luxury boats, Bentleys, Porsches, Aston Martins, Ferraris, more rich-man’s horsepower than you could poke a gearstick at.

We rode on through Nice which from the hilly approaches looked massive. We considered driving to Antibes, but we thought it would be more of the same; so we headed to Cannes instead – that would be enough for the day. We didn’t drive along the oft-filmed foreshore of Cannes, but rather stayed on the main streets. It didn’t look like much to be honest; but then I suspect Cannes’ reputation overseas comes largely from its association with the movie industry.

We headed north for half an hour and stopped at a very nice little site at Auribeau-sur-Saigne, where we found the host and hostess most welcoming, the bays were separated by hedges, and there was a nice pool. Cost was 28 euros – not cheap – but still cheaper than Italy

It rained the first night and all the morning of the next day, but I felt optimistic that the weather would improve. The weather was warm, there was no wind, and I happily read my books under the awning without any danger of getting wet. By lunch time the weather cleared, and by mid-afternoon it was beautiful.

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We are heading steadily west towards Spain, and our next night was at a place called St. Maximilen. What a dump! When you first drive into a campsite, you cannot immediately tell what it will be like; so you book in, and hope for the best. This place was simply awful - one of these sites where I’m sure half the clientele live there, it was full of French campers doing it on the cheap; except it wasn’t that cheap – 26 euros a night. I think we were the only foreigners there.

All night long, three dogs barked from somewhere nearby, one of them being a big dog locked up in a tin shed, his loud throaty bark echoing. Vehicles crunched up the gravel path till well after midnight (at most campsites there is not supposed to be any vehicular movement after 11pm), together with the seemingly endless whine of young children and the cackle of women. It was gruesome. Ann and I couldn’t wait to leave.

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It has been our intention since leaving Italy so early to find a nice place in France and just stop for a week or two. Well, we’ve landed on our feet this time!

But first, I’d originally wanted to visit Marseilles (it had always held a mysterious, almost ludicrous fascination for me – from watching too many old movies I always pictured smoky waterfront cafes within which you’d see tall slender ladies wearing dark sunglasses with long cigarette holders, berets tilted at an angle and splits up the skirts), but to be honest driving a motorhome through yet another big city filled me with terror; so I told Ann we could instead visit Aix-en-Provence, a town I’d often heard spoken about and which was only half an hour north of Marseilles.

After leaving the campsite from hell we headed for Aix, on the way stopping at a roadside ‘trash & treasure’, car-boot sale, call it what you will. Ann loves all that stuff and I groaned loudly when she asked me to stop. However wandering around under a very hot sun paid dividends – I picked up a stereo cable for twenty cents (would have cost five euros in the shops), a bread knife to replace the one that somehow got lost at one of the earlier campsites, and half a dozen DVDs.

Hoping to make the campsite before it shut for lunch, we drove into Aix en Provence and found ‘Arc en Ciel’ very easily. We stopped, booked in, and at once both felt at home. Our nice neighbours immediately introduced themselves (Graham’s English and Liliane’s originally from France – they’re retired and they have come here every year for the past fourteen years). There’s a lovely pool, a river running through the camp, and the whole place is covered in trees. The owner and her family have been running the place for sixty years, and it has become something of an institution.

The town of Aix is only five minutes away by bus; and there’s even a bus to Marseilles! So I’ll get to see it without the pain of driving down there.

Graham and Liliane have invited us to join them for drinks tonight to meet their English friends who similarly travel down from England each year – should be great!

ON

Posted by OrlandoN 01:50 Archived in France Comments (1)

The Italian Job

sunny

Well, the answer to my last question seems to have revealed itself – finally. The European summer seems to have taken itself on holiday to Italy without telling anyone. The day we left the Tirol region of Southern Austria and crossed the magnificent mountains dividing the two countries the sun emerged and stayed out.

Our first night in Italy was at an unscheduled campsite about two-thirds of the way down to Venice. It was a huge place next to a lake, swarming with summer holidaymakers. While it was inexpensive (for Italy that is – Italy’s campsites are off the scale cost-wise) we had to endure a whole afternoon of an Italian bloke on a bullhorn with the enthusiasm of a race caller presiding over lakeside games.

The afternoon was very warm and sultry; and by 9pm a massive summer storm released its hefty load of rain in a wonderful display of lightning and thunder. The ensuing cataract cleared the campsite of noisy brats and other revellers, leaving the old farts like us to a quiet evening without disturbed sleep.

The next morning we woke to a brilliant blue sky, the only evidence of the previous night’s rain being the pooling of water on the gravel road’s potholes. We left the site, leaving it to the vacationers with whom we have nothing in common.

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Punta Sabbioni is at the end of a long spit which starts north east of Venice and runs south-west parallel to the coast creating a barrier from the sea for the city. The drive there started off on quiet mountainous roads; however the final fifty kilometres leading to the spit saw an enormous logjam of tourist vehicles trying to be the first to their holiday destinations, those being the myriad of campsites along the seaward side of the spit.

Frustrating and time-consuming though it was, we finally managed to peel off from the traffic jam and headed to one of only two campsites on the leeward side of the spit, looking directly across to Venice. Camp Miramare was recommended to us by an English couple we met months back in St. Nazaire-en-Royans; and I’m glad we took their advice. It’s a lovely quiet place for families who aren’t really into fanfares, boat races, circus rides, noise and the hullabaloo that normally accompanies summer holidaymakers.

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For all my flagging enthusiasm for European cities, Venice really is something to see. Apart from the obvious attraction of water-borne public transport, it strikes me as one of the only cities in the world that, if you removed at a stroke the billions of tourists swarming through it, you could plunge it straight back into the middle ages. There are no billboards (save for a cocking great advertising hoarding adorned with the twenty-foot face of a macho-looking John Travolta in San Marco Square), no modern buildings, no traffic lights or white lines, and no graffiti.

Ann bought a tapestry of the Venice waterfront with San Marco Square as a backdrop, barges and gondoliers plying the waters. It occurred to me that if you replaced the water taxis with wooden barges and dressed all the gondoliers in period garb, Venice could be transported back five hundred years.

For the first time on this trip, the horrifying reality of travelling into a city with a woman bent on maxing out her MasterCard never eventuated. Not because Ann didn’t spend the equivalent of a small African country’s GDP on pointless baubles and fabrics, but because the shops actually had interesting things in them. Alongside the absurdly expensive shops like Cartier (and the usual boutiques selling gaudy tourist tat), there were any number of outlets selling the traditional hand-made papier-maché carnival masks, fabulous dimly-lit grottos with thousands of these ornately decorated disguises. From the simple to the exquisite, from the demure to the diabolical, there was a carnival face mask for everyone. I found them fascinating.

Our first boat trip to Venice was done as the sun started to flag in the sky – it was an inspired idea. San Marco’s and the Rialto area are something to see at night. Gondolas, lights reflected off the Grand Canal, salon orchestras playing al fresco in front of their restaurant patrons, and even the throng of enthusiastic tourists made for a quite magical evening. Add to that the fact that the heat had gone from the day, it was a great night.

We returned next day for Ann to do some proper shopping and we had a good time following the teeming masses, the shaded alleys keeping the temperature down. I think Venice is the sort of place you should spend a week in, staying at a decent hotel, loaded with cash. On a strict motorhome budget you can’t really do the town justice. Even so, our twelve euro Spaghetti al Vongole meal at a local eatery was very enjoyable!

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Oops! I put the kiss of death on it again. After only three days of bright sunny weather, it’s pouring down again. We’re in a nondescript little town just south of Padua called Montegrosso Terme in the grottiest campsite we’ve stayed in – and they have the cheek to charge us 32 Euros for the night! The sanitary block has all squat toilets but one, and everything about the place smacks of neglect. Ann and I are disgusted with the place. Oh, and it rained all night too!

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After leaving MonteGrotty campsite we drove all day in the driving rain; but arrived as the rain stopped at a site just outside Sasso Marconi called Piccolo Paradiso, which was up in the pine forests and a really nice location. It was virtually deserted (great for us but a cause of consternation for the owners). We only stayed one night – 32 euros.

We then drove to Florence in the rain again and stayed just outside of a place called Fiesole; it was a campsite with vans packed like sardines (like Salzburg) – they charge 35 Euros a night. It rained solidly till the next morning – Ann was extremely pissed off! But we spent the next day in Florence (Sunday the 15th) in beautiful sunshine.

We only stayed two nights, and we left today heading south to a town called San Gimignano. It’s a fascinating mediaeval hill-top town dominating the Tuscan countryside. Mercifully the weather was fabulous for driving and sightseeing; so we had a good day.

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It has to be said that for us camping in Italy has been a profound disappointment. This is in spite of the awful weather that continues to plague our trip. The campsites are the worst we’ve found in Europe. That view is not based on cleanliness, but rather on value for money. Tonight we’re in a coastal town called Viareggio, a few miles west of Pisa. It’s a cheaper site thank God (but not much - 27 Euros per night), but it fails on so many levels.

Firstly, you have to pay for the showers; not unusual you may say, except that the showers are barely warm – and I mean barely. And you get four minutes! The washing up facilities have no hot water; so unless you boil a kettle (which we did), then you wash your greasy pans in cold. Speaking of kettles, the amperage is so low, you can’t boil water in the motorhome, because the circuit breaker trips every time. So you have to boil your kettle in the sanitation block. The site has wi-fi (which a lot don’t), but get this, it’s 3 euros for every 15 minutes!

Now I know it’s high season, but I checked the high season prices for camps in France, and they were two-thirds the price of Italy. The fact is that Italy is a total rip-off for campers. My advice is – go on a package holiday! And aside from obvious attractions like Venice and Florence, we’ve found other aspects of the country less than seductive. The roads are shit, the drivers can’t drive, there’s graffiti everywhere (except in Venice), and the people aren’t very friendly (unlike the mosquitoes – they’re everywhere.)

We’re heading back to France as we both feel let down by the high cost of camping and the poor value for money here. France seems to treat camping far more seriously than does Italy – you only have to see the number and professionalism of the publications dedicated solely to camping in France to see that. I think Italy just wants to rip campers off!

ON

Posted by OrlandoN 05:52 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

The Animals Went In Two By Two...

or When Is It Going to Stop Raining!!

We’re in Austria!

Driving here from the Czech border is like driving through a picture postcard – the scenery is lovely. I’d expected it to change gradually as we crossed the border (the Czech Republic countryside is a bit ramshackle); however, as soon as we passed the sign saying “Republik Osterreich” the scenery became all ‘Sound of Music’. It was like passing through the Looking Glass. All of a sudden the houses were quaint and well-kept, the hillsides were crisp and green, and the roads were well-marked and smooth.

After spending a single, very wet night at Camp Bohemia next to the gigantic Lipno lake in southern Czech, we crossed the border into the beautiful country that is Austria. The weather started OK, but by lunch time, the heavens opened and it didn’t stop raining for two days. We spent those two days at a campsite in Schlögen. It’s part of a hotel complex, next to the Donau river. The landscape is beautiful; pine-covered mountains and the wide lazily flowing river Donau make for a pleasant and peaceful view. Sadly the weather was abysmal; therefore as so often on this trip we found ourselves trapped inside the van.

I caught a cold yesterday on the first day and on the second got hit in the eye by a piece of ice (don’t ask, no it wasn't Ann!) badly bruising it. Not a great start.

We moved on to another lovely place at Mondersee where we spent a couple of, thankfully, sunny days looking out at tree-lined mountains. The site’s full of kids, but it’s lively and the staff are friendly. Early days to be conclusive, but the Austrians seem a little less starchy than the Germans. Still, to be fair, they’re a country with a relatively low profile, small population, and in spite of Hitler being Austrian, they don’t seem to carry the emotional scars about the War that Germany does (and sadly will do until we in the West stop perpetuating this ‘Lest We Forget’ bullshit, by hyperbolising and glorifying every single wartime atrocity – hey guys, the war ended 65 years ago, get over it!!)

Oops, I nearly started on one of my pet hates – I really have to stop myself sometimes!

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Salzburg was our next destination; and as if on cue, three hours after we arrived, the sky dumped an ocean of rain on the town. It rained for nearly 24 hours. Some of our stuff got wet in the van (even the best of seals can’t resist that sort of punishment); and it’s time I re-sealed where the satellite dish connects to the roof because water dripped all night into the tiny wardrobe, soaking some of Ann’s clothes. Nothing wrecked, just an inconvenience.

This is our first full day here and thankfully it’s been a beautiful cool sunny day, perfect for walking around a town. Salzburg is a lovely town – like Prague, it’s a mecca for tourists. Ann and I had a good look round the old town yesterday and today.

Tomorrow we pop back into Germany to visit Berchtesgarten, Hitler’s mountain retreat. I’m under no illusion that it too will be lousy with tourists, but we are in the peak of the season. The cost of the campsites bear that out. The one we’re in at the moment is nearly double what we were paying in France.

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Sadly, the Eagle’s Nest never happened. We got to Berchtesgarten OK, but it just rained and rained and rained, the clouds totally obscuring the mountain tops and most importantly, the Eagle’s Nest. They say every cloud has a silver lining; at least we saved ourselves 40 Euros each – yes, that’s what they want to take you a few kilometres on a bus to what may be a famous historical location, but is also now just a lofty restaurant. I’m told the view from 6000 feet is spectacular, but I’ve seen spectacular views before.

Ah well, never mind. We stayed one night at the Berchtesgarten campsite and had to return to Salzburg – Ann had left her set of van keys there. It took the whole morning before we left Salzburg, and we headed south making for a town called Radstadt, where we stayed one night. It’s a ski town in the winter and you can see the runs carved out of the pine-covered hills, like those people who shave letters out of their short-cropped hair.

The weather remained dry but it was overcast and cold, with quite a biting wind. The next morning we left heading south again passing beautiful sub-alpine hills and truly beautiful Austrian countryside. We got as far as Lienz where we camped at an expensive site (the costliest so far), with a backdrop of craggy mountains.

The next morning we left on a promisingly sunny warm day with the intention of heading for Italy. Ann and I are so thoroughly sick of the rain that we thought the only solution would be to head as far south as possible. We calculated that of the four months we have spent so far travelling (and not including England which was sunny every day) we have had three weeks of sunny weather, of which two were hot and muggy and thoroughly uncomfortable. What has happened to the European summer??

ON

Posted by OrlandoN 06:06 Archived in Austria Comments (2)

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