Off-piste, back country Snowboarding

Serene-snowscene-Avoriaz

Off-piste, back country is what snowboarding is all about for many keen snowboarders. Previously, we now know, we have been, reasonably safe, ‘side-country’ off-piste snowboarders.

Off-piste, side-country snowboarding is what most snowboarders do, it’s the type of off-piste snowboarding that is likely to be covered in your travel insurance, it’s normally easy to find (not far from or in-between the pistes), doesn’t involve hikes or walks, so long as you keep a lift in sight somewhere, however it does mean you need to be an early bird to get first tracks and fresh powder.

backcountry-guide-morzine-luke-rees
backcountry-guide-morzine-luke-rees
Helen-snowboarding-offpiste-backcountry-luke-rees
Helen-snowboarding-offpiste-backcountry-luke-rees

There is so much more off-piste snowboarding to discover in the back-country!

We are both reasonably good snowboarders and love exploring independently so over time we could get to know the back-country off-piste in the Porte du Soleil however we are also both very impatient.  Rather than spend lots of time searching ourselves we saw the value in joining a guided group on a week long off-piste back-country course and chose the ‘off-piste back-country ‘ with Mint Snowboarding in Morzine.

We had high expectations of the week off-piste and David, our Mint snowboarding guide / guru (the ‘green giant’ disappearing off into the mist below), did not disappoint.

misty-backcountry-hike-offpiste-luke-rees
misty-backcountry-hike-offpiste-luke-rees

When the group, of six, met on the first morning David asked each of us what we wished for from the course; the answers were all reassuringly similar.  To have a better understanding off-piste conditions, to improve our confidence riding in the twists, turns and powder of back-country conditions.

A couple mentioned they’d like to do some cliff drops which scared and excited me all at once.  During the week we practised (and landed!) several cliff-drops which all felt, and looked from above, a lot bigger than they do here)…

adams-cliff-drop-luke-rees
adams-cliff-drop-luke-rees
helens-cliff-drop-luke-rees
helens-cliff-drop-luke-rees

But before we went into the back-country search of fresh tracks off-piste first a refresher for us all on avalanche safety.  We all had avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels and had been on avalanche training courses before and all agreed you can never have too much practise using your equipment, practising avalanche situations and understanding as much as possible about weather and mountain conditions to hopefully avoid the avalanche in the first place.

After practise using our transceivers and probes we dug a snow pit to investigate the snow pack which fascinatingly and worryingly showed a few weak layers.  Here I am separating off one of the weak layers…

offpiste-avalanche-training-mint-snowboarding-rob-palmer
offpiste-avalanche-training-mint-snowboarding-rob-palmer

I hasten to add I am stood in a hole here which makes David look even more like the Jolly Green Giant towering over little me – one of the group, Rob, took to calling me ‘Ninja’ from this picture I can see why ;-).

One thing we learnt quickly was that although it is great to snowboard the ‘off-piste’ that you can find easily from the lifts you are amply rewarded if you hike a little off-the-beaten-track and into the back-country.

ridge-hike-to-backcountry-offpiste-snowboarding-luke-rees
ridge-hike-to-backcountry-offpiste-snowboarding-luke-rees

No matter where you are in the mountains there is always a stunning vista to remind you what an amazing and beautiful world it is and how privileged you are to be in the special place.  Our hikes into the back-country often rewarded us with spectacular views and special moments…

view-worth-the-walk-in-off-piste-backcountry
view-worth-the-walk-in-off-piste-backcountry
helen-and-adam-enjoy-mountain-view-off-piste-back-country
helen-and-adam-enjoy-mountain-view-off-piste-back-country
offpiste-backcountry-course-mint-snowboarding-alex-horton
offpiste-backcountry-course-mint-snowboarding-alex-horton

On each of the five days we had a few ‘five’ minute hikes (or at least five minutes for David with legs twice as long as mine and who thinks nothing of hiking up 700m and snow-boarding down off-piste before breakfast!) and a few climbs…

climbing-offpiste-backcountry-alex-horton
climbing-offpiste-backcountry-alex-horton
climb-offpiste-backcountry-luke-rees
climb-offpiste-backcountry-luke-rees

and more often than not beautiful powder and fresh tracks once we reached the back-country destination…

fresh-powder-worth-walk-off-piste-backcountry
fresh-powder-worth-walk-off-piste-backcountry
more-first-tracks-in-fresh-powder-offpiste-backcountry
more-first-tracks-in-fresh-powder-offpiste-backcountry

One of our group, Luke, is owner and writer for adventure travel website awe365.com and wrote a great article about the five day back-country course with more detail of what we did and where.

magical-mystery-tour-offpiste-backcountry
magical-mystery-tour-offpiste-backcountry

Overall it was a wonderful week when nature was kind to us with frequent falls of fresh snow to make each day different and amazing fun.

more-snow-portes-du-soleil-ardent-car-park-mint-snowboarding-off-piste-back-country-course
more-snow-portes-du-soleil-ardent-mint-snowboarding-off-piste-back-country-course

Vanity struck at some points and on mellower, less demanding slopes we played with videos.

An eye-opening, exhausting, exhilarating and extremely enjoyable five days with a fantastic bunch of like-minded and fun-loving people.  One of those life-changing experiences.

mint-snowboarding-backcountry-offpiste-group-alex-horton
mint-snowboarding-backcountry-offpiste-group-alex-horton
offpiste-funky-views-nature-alex-horton
offpiste-funky-views-nature-alex-horton

Relocating, renovating, regenerating

Sunrise over French alps

We are constantly on the move; regenerating ourselves, our ideas and horizons, through travel and exploring or relocating and renovating houses, all as jobs or life require it.

After a summer of regenerating ourselves and indulging our passion for travel we have also thrived on the changes that our business and our life choices have brought. The result is we are relocating again.

We thoroughly enjoyed renovating and regenerating a 1960s bungalow, transforming it into a contemporary home.  We learned a lot about building, renovating and, enjoying the privilege of living there, we learned a lot about us. We surprised ourselves when the day came by how difficult we found it was to leave.

We both felt a mix of nostalgia, apprehension and excitement as we stood one last time in the now empty rooms together.  A pair of Muntjac deer came to say goodbye and we smiled as each of us silently pictured the wonderful memories of our time there.

Time to move on, we nodded to each other, we had made our home in this house for a short time but our hearts have already relocated and we leave the house to be regenerated into their home by the new, young family.

Relocating this time is driven by our enthusiasm to expand our holiday cottage business outside of the UK and what better way to do it than guided by our passion for the outdoors, the stunning landscapes of the French alps and for renovating houses.

On a visit to the French Alps last year we fell in love with a tumble down barn in dire need of renovating and, though it wasn’t in our plans quite so soon, we decided that regenerating the ancient building into a luxurious and unique chalet could be a perfect fit us and for our holiday property business, sheepskin.

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Over the year we have been through the processes of French planning, selling in Oxford and buying in France and are now, for the foreseeable future, relocated in Morzine, France.

This week we started renovating the ancient French alpine barn, or Grange in French, with the plan of sympathetically, regenerating the scruffy old man into a more contemporary and unique modern gentleman.

This year we will continue to transition each day between laptops and perhaps, not to flip flops but instead to snowboard boots and hiking boots.  We have been out and about getting to know the slopes and back-country of the Portes du Soleil…

…exploring the Aprés ski places, especially our local favourite a micro-brewery and great place to relax, Bec Jaune.

Each day we will be visiting the barn/building site as we help the team with the renovation…

renovating, regenerating French alps property…and then regenerating ourselves with fresh mountain air, exercise and indulging in great local food, ales and wine.

We will be out exploring with the future guests of our chalet in mind so that we can point them to the best spots during their holidays with us.  We will also be searching for other like-minded chalet owners who have done their own regenerating of a beautiful, traditional building here and want to share their home with Sheepskin guests.

When we have a moment during the renovating, we will post the progress on the barn as it is regenerated into a chalet for the Sheepskin holiday property collection.

If you know Morzine and the Portes du Soleil and have tips on best places to eat, drink, ski or snowboard please do comment below.

If you have already done or are in progress of renovating of a chalet in the French alps and would like to talk about joining Sheepskin as we launch in the mountains again please comment below.

Gower holiday, close to nature

Memorable Gower holiday close to nature

Our recent Gower holiday was made all the more memorable with our days spent close to nature.

Before the hours of daylight got too short and the days a little too chilly to sit for hours, by the crashing waves, watching the end of a fishing rod we planned a short holiday for a few days of fishing on the Gower peninsula.

We started each day of adventure and exploration before the sun rose above the horizon and meandered back late each evening.  Every day memorable in its own way and each with new discoveries about Gower.

We had fished off breathtaking Rhossili Bay beach before and know you can reach the small headland at Burry Holms and some great, quiet fishing spots but only at low tide. High tide was 7.30am that day so to get over to the headland and back safely before then meant an early start…Peaceful Rhossili bay beach to Worms Head Gower

The 5am alarm was certainly a memorable part of our holiday; jolting us out of a deep sleep in this peaceful place on Gower.  We thought about snoozing but knew that getting up in time to see the sunrise over Rhossili Bay would be more memorable than a lazy morning.

We were far from disappointed; even stepping out of the cottage in the lane, where few street lights pollute the sky, the stars were bright in the still black and clear sky.

After a walk through the dunes in the twilight we were rewarded with a truly beautiful and memorable sunrise over the Gower coast and along deserted Rhossili Bay.Stars at sunrise Rhossili beach Burry Holms Gower

As we sat, mesmerised, on the rocky outcrop at Burry Holms we both gasped as we spotted an otter peak out from the rocks below then sprint across the sand.  The returning tide was just starting to wash our foot prints away on the beach where the otter dived into the waves lapping on the sand.  We were both so excited to be so close to nature and to share such a memorable experience.Fishing at sunrise Rhossili Gower

Finally with bait in the water we were joined by other natives and were close to nature again when a couple of seals popped their heads above the waves just in front of us.  The seals were certainly more interested in our fishing rods and bait than any fish and for the next few hours followed us to each new fishing mark.

The morning was one of the most beautiful and memorable on our Gower holiday even despite the lack of fish.

We explored the paths to Worms Head in the afternoon.  A crisp clear day meant the view from the coast walk of Rhossili Bay beach towards Burry Holms was spectacular and certainly will be memorable.Beautiful deserted Rhossili Bay Beach Gower

Another twilight walk along the long winding path from Rhossili village to the National coast watch hut, looking out to the causeway to Worms Head, we explored the various beautiful bays along this stunning part of the Gower coast.Walking Gower coast path

Each day different paths, different rocky outcrops, different vistas, always a wonderful sunrise.  Each day also the same attention from the seals which equally amused and frustrated but made each day unique and overall a very memorable holiday on The Gower peninsula.Gower seals enjoy fishing

We gave up fishing and instead enjoyed a few pints of locally brewed Gower Gold ale, delicious and dangerously quaffable.  In the pub we got a few handy tips for fishing spots and bait from the locals that Adam put in his memory banks for next time.

Yet again Gower amazed us; a small corner of Wales where the stunning coastline helped us to experience a very memorable Gower holiday and enjoy, as we always do, being close to nature.Memorable Gower holiday close to nature Gower seals

 

 

Driving across the border into Albania as independent travellers in your own, British, car

Driving across the border into Albania as independent travellers in your own, British, car was something we had been told was not possible.  Based on people’s concerned comments about our driving in Albania and on our fruitless searches prior to travelling and daring to cross the border into Albania we thought is would be helpful for other independent travellers to tell you what we have found.

Before travelling out of the EU, and into countries not listed on our standard car insurance, we did a lot of internet browsing and made lots of calls to insurance companies in an attempt to either get insurance for travelling through countries such as Bosnia and Albania or have some confirmation that it is possible to buy insurance on arrival in the country.

Our searches were not very fruitful but undeterred, and buoyed on by the confirmation that our VW and AA covered us if we broke down, we set off with a hope to drive through Albania somehow despite the fact that our insurance company was clear we could not get a green card and would not be insured by them.

Apologies no pictures in this blog for obvious reasons….

Our first experience as independent travellers driving across the border into Albania

Our first foray into Albania was after a van camping trip through Italy and across into Greece.  After several days of clear blue Mediterranean sea and flip-flopping in quiet Greek villages we had our fill of Tzatsiki, Greek salads, Tyrokafteri and Retsina and were ready for something different so set off in the direction of the Albanian border.  Approaching early evening and apprehensive we decided to face driving across the border into Albania the following morning.  Wild camping on a beach close to the Greece Albania border we met a British freelance journalist on a break from working in Albania.

Our brief chat was invaluable and allayed our fears as to the ease of travelling independently and driving in Albania.  The top things we learnt from the friendly British journalist:

  • It should be possible to buy insurance at the border (they wouldn’t let you in without it)
  • you may need a ‘fixer’ to get you through the bureaucracy,
  • most roads were not good though once off the main north south road pot holes could slow you down
  • at all times you should watch our for police check points who gave on the spot fines.
  • He recommended Albania as a fascinating country to visit.

Most of this was true and actually even easier than he had suggested.  Here’s what we found or go straight to the summary

Driving towards the Albanian border control a short queue, all Albanian cars, gave us time to assess who was who and what we may need to do.  Just before our turn at the passport control a friendly looking lady approached and started to ask us; where were we from, how long we might stay and did we have insurance already.  She walked alongside the car and we answered guardedly as we approached passport control, a fixer we thought.  When we reached the window and handed over our passports, vehicle V5 and insurance document she appeared in the booth behind the border officer. Strange as fixers ore often stay with you on your side.   We were nervous and wary as they perused our passports and chatted between themselves in Albanian.  Within a minute or so our passports were stamped however the border guard kept hold of them and told us to pull over to one side.  Oh dear.

We needn’t have worried, the lady came over to us, ‘now you need insurance, a green card, for the car and I arrange the insurance, come with me’.  That explained everything!  We followed her to a tiny office, one of several in the shadow of the huge metal framed border gate where house martins swooped into their nests.   Two or three days would suffice for our first adventure in Albanian but the minimum green card duration is two weeks so that was the only option.  With all of the details from our V5 painstakingly entered into her big book of embossed official forms and our €50 safely in her cash box she stamped the form.  ‘Show this to the guard at the next window for customs.  Enjoy your holiday in Albania, good luck!’ she said as she passed the precious document over the large, dusty wooden desk.

We walked across to the customs window she had pointed to where the official seemed to be expecting us and already had our passports.  He reviewed all of our documents entering some information slowly into his archaic looking computer and finally passed everything back through the window. ‘Good luck’ he said.

I hope we don’t need all this luck we said to each other as we walked back across the rows of queuing cars to the van.  Hopefully it’s just a turn of phrase.

It was, our travels in Albania were; fascinating from a cultural and geographical point of view, challenging from a navigation point of view with a completely blank screen on our sat nav system, few road signs and new roads not shown on our paper map sending us in unexpected directions but not particularly arduous and all of the police check points that we passed (carefully at or below the speed limit) simply looked curiously at us, nodded and waved us on.

We drove back across the Albania border at a point in the north into Croatia a few days later having met some very friendly people, seen some beautiful landscapes, intriguing towns and enjoyed lots of delicious food.  The border guard needed to see passports, V5 and green card documents again and we were quickly waved on our way.

Our second experience driving our own British car across the border into Albania

The next time we visited Albania in our camper van was a little different, entering from the north via Croatia (the same border post through which we had left last time) the process was very fast and simple.  Officials in one cabin checked our passports and we moved to the next where they checked our V5 vehicle document and UK car insurance but did not ask for a green card.  We were  wished good luck again and waved on.  We did as we were told and before we knew it we were on the open road in Albania.  We quickly pulled over confused and concerned that something had changed or were we driving in Albania illegally without insurance.

After a little debate I walked back to the border control and, after causing a little disruption, nervously made my way back to the cabin where the border officer had stamped our passports and checked our V5 document.  Surrounded by border police I reached her cabin window and asked her did we need insurance? She had not asked for it but we were sure we needed it. Oh dear I assumed you had it she said.  Yes you definitely need it and must buy it after the border, she pointed to an unassuming looking grey kiosk at the side of the road.

It looked more like a car park attendant’s kiosk than a bureau for car insurance however the man inside was very helpful, had the appropriate embossed official forms and so after parting with our €50 again we were soon handed our green card insurance and could drive on relaxed, legal and insured through Albania.

In summary if you are thinking of going across the border into Albania as an independent traveller and driving your own car:

Driving across the border into Albania with your British vehicle is possible

  • Your are very unlikely to be able to obtain a green card / insurance from a UK insurance company.
  • Don’t forgot to take your vehicle V5 document, your UK car insurance (just in case) and your driving license.
  • If you normally rely on satellite navigation to find your way, don’t in Albania.  Your system is unlikely to have the map installed and if it does is likely to be out of date.  Buy as recent a map as you can before setting off.

At the border:

  • be patient there can sometimes be long queues entering and leaving Albania
  • you will not need a ‘fixer’ though the border guards may look austere everyone tends to be friendly and as helpful as they can be considering they are unlikely to speak English.
  • You should be asked for your green card or told that you need to purchase one there and then at the border.  It is not always obvious where you need to go for what, the border guards will point you to the right door which is likely to have a sleepy and surprised looking insurance official behind a desk (we judge they don’t get many Independent European travellers on a daily basis requiring Green cards) who may dig around to find the official forms and a pen!
  • If you are not obliged by the border guards to buy your green card be sure to buy it from one of the insurance kiosks you are sure to see just after the border crossing.
  • Green card insurance for a British car driving in Albania is for a minimum duration of two weeks and (at time of writing, in summer 2015) costs €50.

Things we discovered when visiting Albania

Reflecting on all of the things that we have discovered when visiting Albania…

Sadly when you tell people you plan to visit Albania the staple answer remains ‘why on earth would you want to do that?’, ‘is it safe?’ or ‘can you take your car/van and drive there?’

Albania had for too long remained an unknown for us and wanting to explore as much of the European continent in our camper van as we can it did not make sense to keep avoiding it. After some fairly fruitless research aiming to answer the questions above we decided to just go there and find out for ourselves.

We thought a summary of the main things we have discovered so far will be useful and perhaps persuade you to visit this intriguing and blossoming (or perhaps more accurately ‘budding’) country.

  1. Independent travel: We always prefer to drive ourselves yourself rather than rely on public transport and this we would certainly recommend is the case in Albania.
    It is possible to drive your own car (from Britain) in Albania.
    We were not able to arrange insurance cover and therefore a green card from the UK but one of the things we discovered was that it is straight forward to buy a green card at the border (€50 for minimum duration of two weeks at time of writing).
    We found that our navigation system did not have any maps of Albania and we have discovered that not many GPS systems do and so you need to, as we did, rely on paper maps.
    A lot of the main roads are new and absolutely fantastic, do take care though as some are not quite finished so you can find a two lane reduce to one lane and change direction with little, or no, warning.  Roads through towns and villages can be a little rough and pot-holed in places but by no means dangerous so just take it easy you’ll want to time to enjoy the scenery anyway.
    Discovering roads in Albania
  2. What we discovered about the capital, Tiranë, is initially intimidating and confusing; multi- lane highways approach busy roundabouts with few meaningful signs to tell you which of the bustling narrow streets is the way you want to go.
    things we discovered in Tirana AlbaniaLarge communist era buildings dominate, some shabby and grey, others amazingly colourful (thanks to artists and Mayor Edi Rama apparently) but still with a more utilitarian and unkempt feel.
    Edi Rama influence of Tirana communist era colourful apartment blocks
    One of the things we discovered however was that, throughout Albania, when you approach a confusing junction or circle a roundabout there is often a helpful and friendly policeman or local to show you the way.We eventually found our way to breath-taking Skanderbeg Square…communist era buildings to discover in Tirana Albania
    When you wander the bustling streets of Tirana you discover a wonderful mix of communist and Ottoman architecture, a thriving cafe and restaurant culture.
    Discover things about thriving Tirana Albania
  3. What we discovered about the people: Albanians seem to be strong, proud, friendly and welcoming.  From 1968 until 1990 for the Albanian people practising of religion was an offence yet now you will see young and old, entering churches throughout the day to pray and you will hear the call to Muslim prayer from the mosques.
    At one of our stop overs we met Tony who has been building his small hotel by Lake Ohrid for over 15 years, spending time in the USA to learn English and earn some money but he told us as he served plentiful dishes of delicious local specialities ‘I always wanted to come home, I love my country, it is a beautiful place for tourists and I want to make it better.  Even if it is just my small part here.’
    Discover camping at lake Ohrid Albania
  4. What we discovered about the language in Albania:
    We found English spoken particularly in the bigger towns and if not then (particularly on the coast) quite a few people speak Italian.  We had a very odd conversation asking directions to a campsite, in a cafe over an espresso, near Vlorë.  The owner spoke Italian and her advice was not to camp at all whilst her son spoke English and thought there may be one at Divjakë Lagoon (over an hour away), his friends seemed to be agreeing with him in Albanian.
    Following their advice and that of two (non-English speaking) night security guards at a bar on the beach we discovered we could camp with our van on the beach of the lagoon – a beautiful place to stay!
    Discover beautiful beach and coast of AlbaniaThe Albanian language doesn’t seem to have much similarity to others even so it’s always nice and welcomed if you try memorising a few important words as at least a few words….Please Ju Lutem, Thank you Faleminderit  for instance.
  5. Things we discovered outside of Tiranë: the landscape is vast and diverse.  In places it shows the scars of having worked very hard with crumbling tin processing plants amongst farmed fields and hillsides ravaged by quarries…
    Communist industrial buildings in Albania
    however it is overall quite stunning
    Discover Albanian landscape around Gjirokasterand the eager and passionate people of Albania are now working hard to make improve this and to ensure their country is more appealing to visitors.Rural Albania working hard
  6. One of the most enjoyable things we discovered when visiting Albania is that local produce and great food is easy to find.Our first experience was in the south of Albania during a slow and fascinating journey through lush and mountainous countryside when around one bend we found a small taverna perched on the hillside. At Taverna Muzina we enjoyed a huge plate of spit-roasted ‘meat’, keci – kid in fact, perfectly seasoned and cooked and absolutely delicious.  discovering great local food spit-roast meat in Albania
    At the time we were unsure of the exchange rate but assumed around 100LEK to the british pound so 1600 LEK for our feast which greedily included an enormous Greek salad, rice AND two local beers seemed about right.  Later we found the exchange rate was around 180LEK per £, it’s easy to see what amazing value this wonderful food was.In Tiranë we wandered off the main Skanderberg square to find highly recommended Sarajet restaurant housed in an Ottoman house hidden behind trees on a quiet back street.  We enjoyed a local breakfast, a timbale or hot rice topped with grated cheese served with thick sour yoghurt, in the tranquil sun-dappled garden but inside we could imagine generations have huddled to discuss politics and business.
    great food in Ottoman building restaurant in Tirana Albania to discover
    At Tony’s place on Lake Ohrid near Pogradec, we slept in our van in his garden looking out to Macedonia and feasted on the local Koran fish caught in the lake and his recommended local speciality Fergese – liver baked in a rich sauce and topped with cheese, sounds odd but is absolutely delicious.  Grilled vegetables, potatoes, Bruschetta and of course just a few beers, enough for a family we thoroughly indulged just the two of us and including our camping (with use of his bathroom in the house) the bill was 5200Lek (around £30).
    Discover Koran fish and local food in Albania
  7. Currency: talking of LEK, you will see that your pounds or dollars will go a long way in Albania.  However take care as you cannot buy or exchange Lek outside of Albania.  So either spend all that you exchange (which is easier said than done given the prices mentioned above) or exchange before you leave the country.  We exchanged our Lek for Euros in a bank in Korçë.
    Discovering great food at great prices in Albania
  8. Historic sites: as well as simply enjoying the scenery, great food and hospitality in Albania there are some wonderful  historic sites to visit and discover.  Two quite different places that we enjoyed were;
    the archeological site at Butrint whose ruins span over 2500 years
    Butrint archaeological historic site Albania
    and approaching from the south you have the added experience of the wooden platformed cable ferry which glides across the Vivari channel towards the ancient city walls and…
    Discover historic Butrint in Albania ferry Vivari channel
    Gjirokastër whose cobbled streets tumbling down the hill from the castle above feels at one moment like a living museum (the town is a UNESCO world heritage site)Gjirokastra unesco world heritage site Albania
    and on the other hand, as you sip an Albanian Korça beer in a local bar, it feels like a very relaxed and charming town.
    Discover local Korca beer in Gjirokastra Albania
  9. One odd thing that we ‘discover’ or at least noticed and cannot explain is an amazing number of car washes by the side of the road in Albania.  At Përrenjas on the way to Lake Ohrid, as we wound our way up the hill through the small town, we counted at least 15 hose pipes spurting water into the road with 1 or 2 men by each one sitting waiting or waving passing motorists in to hand wash their cars.  It is evident that since the ban on privately owned cars was lifted in 1991 the car has become a necessity for many and a status symbol but we just couldn’t figure out the economics or reason for so many car washes!  Does any one have any further insight?
    Discover vast and beautiful Albanian landscapes

Delicious local flavours in Southern Italy

We have always enjoyed delicious local favours in Southern Italy though continue to be amazed at just how easy it is to find wonderful local produce and restaurants serving delicious local flavours.  Our last visit through Puglia, Basilicata and Campania was no exception and the variety and quality of the flavours amazed us again.

Having taken the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari we journeyed south west across Italy through Puglia and Basilicata then turned north, along the coast, and through Campania. The scenery varies from barren to dramatic, lush to picturesque but what does not seem to falter is the fact that you can stop in any town along the way and you will find good food from amazing local produce with wonderful flavours.

We’ve travelled from Bari west before so we took a windy route through the hills in Puglia to see something new.  Mile after mile we passed through valleys where every inch of the land was green with farmed crops and at the corner of many of these vast fields, abandoned, beautiful old farm buildings made redundant now by mechanised farming and large cooperatives.

First stop, desperate for coffee after our 6am start off the ferry, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere without a town or village in sight, we came across a tired looking roadside café with just a few builders’ and road workers’ trucks parked outside.  As we opened the door we were hit by the most amazing smell – fresh baked bread and cooked tomatoes. Risorante Il Rifugio really was a wonderful refuge, behind the old bar wooden shelves were stacked with huge fresh rustic loaves, locally made Tartalli (savoury biscuits made with olive and white wine instead of butter), local jams and chutney as well as wines.

Rustic bread south italy

We resisted the massive, fresh-made, crusty panini filled with cured hams and mozzarella that the builders were enjoying but welcomed ourselves to Italy with classic espresso’s after buying provisions for later.

Next stop, lunch in Basilicata, the landscape around Potenza was a mix of farming and industry and predominantly modern building with not many places to eat. Finally at the edge of a modern but scruffy looking town a pizzeria hidden behind a shop selling mozzarella.  We ventured in to find two uniformed policemen and a few people in smart business dress enjoying large plates of pasta.  In our shorts and flip flops we too enjoyed wonderful pasta with fresh porcini mushroom and mozzarella sauce.

On to Campania where the road was lined with Buffalo farms many selling Mozzeralla direct. We chose one at random principally because it had Buffalo in the field next to the car park.

Buffalo Mazzarella Italy

Behind an unassuming door in the farm’s immaculate courtyard we found the Caseificio (Creamery) where a queue of people with shopping baskets were busy placing their orders, the lady in a white apron disappeared into the creamery behind and emerged to pass over the counter various sized bags of water filled with various sizes of delicious looking white Mozzarella balls.  When our turn came, we ordered Bocconcini, small mozzarellas about the size of eggs, and carried our prize away like a goldfish from the funfair.

Stylish Mazzarella farm Campania Italy

Through another door a stylish, air-conditioned cafe hid where a couple of tourists in shorts and flip flops like us mingled with Italians in business dress evidently on lunch break.  Though there were artisan breads and cakes filling the shelves, we were all after the same thing; ice-cream and yoghurt made from Buffalo milk. A worthy alternative to classic Italian ice-cream, not as rich but bursting with a fresh milk taste.

Now on to somewhere we know already, the Caseificio and Buffalo farm next to the ruins in Paestum where we know we can camp with our camper van for the night in their olive grove and taste some of their amazing local produce.

Caseifiecio Paestum Mozzarella Italy

In the garden next to the shop we feasted on a 500 gram Mozzeralla, Bocconcini with prosciutto crudo and very simple but extremely tasty tomato salad (sliced, fresh plum tomatoes, sprinkled with rubbed oregano and drizzled in olive oil – all from the farm).  Oh yes and a deep, ruby red Jungano wine from the farms vineyard, full of silky blackberry and vanilla flavours.

The next morning we watched the Mozzerlla and Bocconcini being made…

Production of mozzarella bonconcini

…before a run on Paestum beach in the hot morning sun, which was a memorable but rather painful experience due to our feast of wonderful wine and Mozzarella cheese.

We were late setting off to continue our journey and our bellies called lunch shortly after Naples.  Leaving the motorway at Capua; our hearts sank as we entered what felt like no-mans land, a military town with scruffy industrial buildings on the outskirts.  We trundled down street after street trying to see a glimpse of lunch, eventually we spotted a little sign over a door ‘Trattoria Antica’, it seemed our only option.

On tables by the bar a few people enjoyed plates of pasta as they watched The Simpsons on a small tv on the wall, a strange combination but the food looked good so we took a seat in the other room next to a few men who looked to be discussing business over their pasta. We listened discreetly but as we often find in southern Europe, their noise and gesticulation could have been arguing, agreeing but one thing we did understand was their enthusiasm about the food.

Trattoria Antica Capua Italy

They downed their espresso and left us to our simple yet delicious food; freshly made pasta with wonderful ingredients expertly combined to make the sauces.  My seafood pasta was piled high with mussels and clams with a tomato sauce that tasted like it had been infusing and simmering for days to get such an intense flavour and Adam’s simple sounding Spaghetti Pomodoro was perfectly seasoned and packed full of flavour.

Our schedule meant that we had little time left in Italy and after a long day on the road we chose the location for our last overnight camp, on the recommendation of friends who live in Rome, Sabaudia on the west coast just south of Rome.  A little touristy, as our friends had warned, particularly near to the pristine sandy beach dotted with cool beach bars, beds and umbrellas but overall an intriguing and  beautiful place.

Over leisurely morning coffee watching the sun rise over the lagoon, we recalled the amazing food we had had the day before and suggested it was almost inevitable that during the course of the day to come, we would have a similar experience in some unexpected place somewhere.

Sunrise over Sabaudia lagoon

We walked back across the lagoon into the town itself, very sleepy on a Saturday close to the end of the summer season.  In a street off the main square we came across an amazing delicatessen, packed to the rafters with an array of local produce and with tables outside suggesting we may find lunch there.  It looked like the shop had been the same since the 1950’s, there wasn’t a menu, the lady simply told us all she had available that day which was pretty much anything you could possibly desire.  A normal occurrence, it seemed, for several locals who nonchalantly took tables inside and sat chatting to each other or their dogs and reading newspapers until their delicious lunches arrived.

Sitting outside in the sunshine, we were treated to a huge plate of mixed cured meats, marinated, grilled vegetables and fresh crusty bread, simple and simply not reproducible in the UK.

delicatessen local produce sabaudia Italy

After these days exploring Italy, punctuated by delicious, conversation-stopping, local produce our eyes, taste buds and bellies were completely satisfied and full (for now).  We slept, one last night in Italy, dreaming of ruby red wines, the complex flavours of cured meats and melt in the mouth Mozzarellas.

We have travelled a lot in Italy and always we marvel at the unassuming ability to convert local produce into fantastic yet simple food with incredibly rich and distinct flavours. It all seems so natural and effortless, not food for special occasions, just food for every day.

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Life at a difference pace in Lumbarda, Croatia

Though it doesn’t come naturally and didn’t feel right we felt we should try life at a different pace, a slower pace for just a while and Lumbarda in Croatia was the place to try it. We both notice how we tend to live and travel at a fast pace and we recognise we can skim over and past places rather than taking the time to get under the skin of a place, to get to know it better.

We are hungry for adventure and new discoveries yet at the same time wanted a place that would force a more relaxed pace of life and to have adventure and discovery on a smaller and different scale to normal.

Living in flip flops but attached to our laptops our requirement was; a place where we could connect easily to balance work with wonderful views, sea to swim, places to walk or jog, enjoy great food and wine and generally enjoy getting to know the place and perhaps ourselves a little better.  A tall order but we were confident that Lumbarda, on Korcula island in Croatia, could fit the bill.

Lumbered Harbour Croatia

Sonja at Camp Vela Postrana greeted us with tired looking eyes but a big smile, the summer had been busy and very hot and she admitted she was happy but exhausted. She was pleased we had returned In September, her favourite month when everything was all a little quieter, the sea was warmer and she said with enthusiasm brightening her eyes ‘you’ll see the sea and the sky are different colours, it’s beautiful!’

At the camp site we had wifi and views to the mountains on the Peljasac peninsula, it is staggering distance to places to eat and drink and a short meander to the sea in pretty much every direction.

For several days we woke to blue skies and had a run up through the vineyards or along the coastline to the next bay. One of us would pick up breakfast at the bakers on the home straight; we found that you have to get to the tiny shop before 10am or she sells out. Once we figured out the required routine we enjoyed some wonderful fresh bread and local pastries like Burek Sir (a little like the Greek cheese pie Tyrikopita) and, after a few visits, even a welcoming smile from the shy lady.

In the summer we had seen tiny pips of grapes emerging in the vineyards and now large bunches of red and white grapes weighed down every branch. One morning we were overtaken by a tractor and several scooters laden with empty crates as families busily began to harvest the white grapes. Having waited and watched patiently all summer it seemed the whole town was out lending a hand and joining in the jovial chatter as crate after crate emerged from the leafy rows covering the hillside.

Walking through Vineyards Croatia

As we walked back down lane on our way home we were surprised when one of the men called to us and beckoned us over. The smile creasing his rugged and weathered face showed he was pleased with their harvest as he passed us each a bunch of grapes straight from the vine. We enjoyed our little piece of the harvest as we strolled down the lane; tiny, juicy and delicious you could taste the flavor of very local and unique Grk white wine that these grapes will create.

The following day on our jog we saw the harvest was complete and the vineyards were quiet again. We skipped breakfast planning to enjoy a lunch of local cheese, Prsut (Croatian Proscuittio) and Grk wine at the Posip winery as we had last visit however the terrace, normally set up for hungry and intrigued tourists to taste their wonderful local produce, was completely taken over by crates of grapes and shiny grape crushing equipment. The man who had passed us the grapes the day before didn’t mind breaking off his work to pour us a glass of everything they make including some wonderful fig liquor.

Lumbarda sunset croatia

Croatians can come across as quite austere and, at first at least, don’t seem friendly because they don’t seem to smile very often or be very chatty. Perhaps this impression can be explained more by shyness and the difficulty of trying to make conversation in several European languages depending on who decides to take a seat at your table. Germans, Italians and English seem to be the most numerous visitors and you very rarely hear anyone trying to speak even a little Croatian. More often than not once you break the ice with a few, probably very badly pronounced, words of Croatian and a smile of your own they warm up and normally happy to teach you a few more words so that you can surprise the next person you meet.

Croatian cypress avenue church KorculaSo after chatting for a while with the men at Posip winery, using English, a little terrible Croatian and basic German, we bought several bottles of Grk white wine (which may or may not make it all the way back to the UK before we enjoy them) and we left with a warm glow inside and out.

We found it surprisingly easy to settle in to a routine and leisurely pace of life in Lumbarda…most days we wandered along the coastal promenade for a swim drying off in the afternoon sun.

We explored to the very tip of the island and spent an afternoon lazing in the quiet bay by the light house where an unmarked memorial cross made an unusual foreground to the coastal view…

Lighthouse lumbarda

We walked and, much to our own amazement, on another day jogged the 8 mile round trip into Korcula old town and back.

Korcula old town Croatia

We were warmly welcomed back to restaurants we had visited before and discovered new places where the food, the views and the welcome were equally amenable.

We enjoyed live music in the bar by the harbour that attracted more locals than tourists and spent quiet evenings, just the two of us, by our camper van, never boring of the inky black night sky. We listened to the murmur of the village across the field knowing that most of the chat and laughter was that of locals not the very few tourists who were lucky enough to choose September in Lumbarda.

Our little Mediterranean oasis had not disappointed and before we knew it a week had disappeared!