Enjoying Piemonte hills and Languedoc wines

We wanted to be sure we had time to enjoy the Piemonte hills and Languedoc wines.  We needed a quick dash across France after our relaxing days in Rome so that we could arrive in Bordeaux in time to meet up with friends at the start of their summer long travels through western France and Spain.

First one last stop in Italy, in the Piemonte hills above the coast between Genova and Ventimiglia.  We never seem to learn and made the mistake first of thinking that we could find somewhere in one of the coastal towns but after slow progress through traffic along the coast road and stopping outside several camp sites that looked more like camper storage places, we admitted defeat and headed to the hills.

At Campsite Terra Rossa we found a peaceful place scattered amongst the trees on a hillside, with a pizzeria restaurant below.  With perhaps only six pitches occupied, we checked if the restaurant was actually open and would the wood fired oven be producing pizzas that evening.  We were assured it would be and when we walked down the hill later that evening and rounded the corner to the restaurant, we got quite a surprise; the restaurant was packed, it looked we had found THE pizzeria in the area.  A need to wait for over an hour for a table meant we had time to enjoy more of the local wine and watch the buzz in the restaurant.  Finally the pizza chef emerged with our Buffalina and Quattro Formaggi pizzas that were fantastic, the best of the trip and certainly worth the wait.

We left Italy replete and content the following morning with our France Passion book pointing the way to a small chateau in Languedoc.  typical french farmyard vineyardMas Montel Chateau proved to be a fascinating location with wonderful Languedoc wines, we are sure we will not find easily outside of France.  We had a very informative and enjoyable wine tasting which included pretty much all of the local produce from the vineyard!  We bought as much as we could fit in the fridge in our van (the warm temperatures still meant our wines needed to be kept chilled).

The evening provided another spell-binding experience, a fairy tale place with us the only people choosing to camp there, though five spots are available in front of the rustic old chateau.

When the yard and shop closed around 6 we were left alone to enjoy the quiet space with our private view across the vineyards.  Adam inspected the vines whilst I opened our bottle of chilled white wine given as a gift from the shop…

Adam wondering when the grapes will be readyDuring the night we even had access to one of the old cellars where the generous host had set up a bathroom for France Passion visitors.

We made friends with the chateau’s chickens as they wandered around our table, disappearing into their pen just before sunset. After a wonderful picnic on the lawn, we danced in the light of the moon to Glen Miller Big Band music, no pictures of this of course but take it from us it was an evening we will cherish for a very long time.

Free camping vineyard chickens

We emerged early from our dream world with the long road over the south of the Massif Central ahead of us and the intriguing prospect of stopping in Roquefort to pick up some delicious cheese and then on to the Bordeaux region.

Roquefort cheese and mountains

Living like a local and relaxing near Rome

We couldn’t miss the chance of living like a local and relaxing near Rome.

Our sketchy plan since setting off from Oxford included seeing our two lucky friends who live in Rome, or at least in an ideal location near Lago Bracciano just to the north west of Rome.   This visit was more about catching up with our friends rather than seeing Rome.  Adam and I have visited Rome on other occasions and Gary and Donna have worn out the circuit with various visiting friends and family.  It didn’t take us long (less than half a glass of wonderful, local Lazio red wine) to agree that we should simply do the things we all love doing; eating, drinking and walking.

We had a fabulous walk in the nature reserve at Monterano and around the beautiful countryside there, not seeing another living soul other than rather splendid looking Maremmana cattle grazing on the dry grass on the hillside.

Maremmana Cattle near Antica MonteranoAdam did tell me they were too far away for a great photo but I wasn’t keen on getting much closer.

The walk took us to the fascinating ruins of Antica Monterano.  No time for photos unfortunately we were all rather hot by the time we got there (we’d chosen midday to set off again and the temperature was already showing 32 degrees Celsius when we left the house).

We all love the sun and the heat but used what shade there was and refuelled…

Refuelling in the shade at Anitca Monterano

As we neared the end Gary took us to one of his favourite spots on the walk a welcome fresh water pool where we all took a dip and enjoyed a little wild swimming to cool off.

Cooling off after walk near RomeBy the time we had walked back, past the sulphur springs and up to the car we were completely dry and ready for a cold beer.

A much more sedate day next at Lago Bracciano, a beautiful and rather surreal place. We went straight to a pebbly beach (fairly quiet and equidistant between a bar and a restaurant so easy to see why it is Gary and Donna’s favourite spot there).  The beach was scattered with sunbathers and in calm, clear waters, lazy swimmers floated strangely amongst fully wet-suited divers and between everyone, several swans and their signets glided serenely by.

Surreal beach at Lago Bracciano ItalyAs I say, beautiful and surreal…

serene swans at Lago Bracciano ItalyAfter a lazy lunch, the lake took on a different feel as a storm developed on the far shore, the beach emptied and nature moved in. After enjoying the stirring, dramatic weather for a while, we headed to the hills at Bracciano for very good Artigianale beers…

stormy skies over Lago BraccianoA wonderful few days, providing an insight into a local life, playing and working in the sunshine. As we headed off north again, we were all envious of each other, the extensive diversity of what we (Adam and Helen) had seen on our journey contrasted with Gary and Donna’s deep understanding of and familiarity with the beauty of a single location.  Adam and I had enjoyed living like locals and relaxing into the pace of life in Rome.  We concluded that a balance between the two would probably suit us well.

Greek Ruins and Mozzarella of Campania

We knew near Paestum we could see the Greek ruins and Mozzarella of Campania but first we wanted to explore Agropoli; the medieval old town that we missed the day before as we searched for our beach hideaway and to experience it in the evening.

Our map showed a campsite in Agropoli itself but this was not to be found anywhere rather we found a great little camper place at Trentanova, just a couple of miles walk back into town and actually, with its own pleasant village where you find a great delicatessen and a bar restaurant.  Camping Trentanova was a pleasant surprise at first it looked like you would be parking in a disused industrial ground with a huge barn welcoming you to the site but the good mix of sun and shade below the Eucalyptus trees and absolutely amazing, pristine, beautifully decorated toilets, showers and washing up area made it a great base from which to explore Agropoli.

strange quiet camper stop Agropoli CilentoOur first experience of Agropoli was the day before as we had passed through at the beginning of our testing Cilento coast day. As we entered the narrow streets of the ‘new town’ at 8am it already had a charm and bustle about it.  After breakfast, coffee and Coronette (Croisant) in a friendly little bar close to the centre, we noticed a delicatessen type shop that sold mozzarella so went to investigate.  We couldn’t see any at all amongst the great selection of cheeses behind the tiny counter but the lady old us there would be a new delivery in 5 minutes.  We wandered further, buying more wonderful plump Italian tomatoes (our rule is that you can never have enough tomatoes) and returned to the little deli 10 minutes or so later to find a queue out of the door.  The Buffalo Mozzarella had arrived and the locals obviously knew that it did so every day at that time and that the early bird catches a very fresh and delicious mozzarella. We bought our precious ration and couldn’t resist just a taste of the buffalo milk ice-cream too.
Buffalo milk icecream in Agropoli Italy
After a lunch at the van of our wonderful Mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, (too much) Greek Rosé and delicious melon, we lazed in the sunshine rather than risk any crowds at the beach. Later as the sun dipped, we scrubbed up and flip-flopped into Agropoli for dinner.

It was then 9pm and the streets were full of life and intrigue. The fresh fish shop had tables outside where a few enjoyed dinner, the fruit and vegetable stores cascaded colourfully onto the street and the smell of wood smoke from the fresh baked pizza ovens filled the air. As we approached the central square, the sound of hundreds of people promenading, dining and taking in the warm night air gave the town a vibrancy we had not expected.   We strolled, mingled and had just slowed to their pace when the power to the whole town failed; screams and giggles filled the square and a multitude of mobile phone lights soon lit up the evening.  We continued slowly in the dark weaving our way through those paralysed by the dark and eventually found a little restaurant where emergency lights and gas stove meant they could still serve us a great Spaghetti Vongole (clams) and Frittura Mista (wonderful lightly battered and quickly fried calamari and little fishes).

The lights came back on again a few hours later allowing us to find the way up to the old town and explore the cobbled streets, a beautiful and intriguing place but still packed with people at midnight.  A fascinating evening to end our few strange days and now we had seen (sort of) Agropoli and the old town, it was time, we both agreed, to leave the Cilento Coast and head north. Not an easy decision as any direction north now meant closer to home.

Now for Greek ruins and the Mozzarella of Campania! One last brief stop in Paestum to buy more Mozzarella the following day turned out to be very fortuitous. As we pulled into the driveway of the farm directly opposite the amazing Greek temple ruins we noticed a familiar Camper sign.  It couldn’t be that we could camp in the olive groves surrounding the Buffalo farm right next to the shop and restaurant where they serve an amazing array of Mozzarella and Scamorza could it? It could!Camper van in olive grove Paestum ItalyJust us and one more VW camper in the vast olive grove soaking up the sunshine and marvelling at the Greek ruins just a short stroll from the camper van…

Wonderfully preserved Greek ruins Italy

We toured the farm and said hello to the generous Buffalos…

Paestum Buffalo farm Italy

before a delicious feast of cheese, meats and of course wines from the farm.

Cheese feast at Buffalo farm Paestum Italy

Next stop Rome to see our friends, who have rather fortuitously found themselves living there, so in the morning we bought a huge (500g) Mozzarella, local Aglianico wine for them and filled our fridge with a few of the cheeses from the shop before, sadly now, saying goodbye the Paestum Greek ruins and to Campania.

Coast and castles in the Peloponnese

Our initial outline plan for this trip was ‘head south to the heat’ and therefore we thought why not edge a little further south in the Peloponnese.  We picked a place on the map, as a half way stop over point Koroni, that our guide book said had little to offer other than a castle above the harbour town and a good sandy beach.  Google maps showed us it was a quite picturesque and traditional looking harbour town.  We hoped it would have more character than the holiday destination feel of Kastro Beach.

Afternoon amble in Koroni old town

It was very much as we had pictured it and turned out to be a great place to explore for a few days from our selected campsite on the hill,  just a 10 minute walk along the road or beach into the harbour part of town.

Old town Koroni harbour

As with most of these sheltered coastal harbours, as well as fishing boats, there is normally a line of restaurants along the quay, set up for the flotilla of touring yachts that drift through throughout the summer.  Even in this small town a dozen places offered pizza, seafood, gyros or simply beer.

Great ouzerie Koroni

During our brief stay we chose our favourites; a quiet little taverna where we were only ever joined by locals and a grill restaurant away from the harbour where the owner gave us his recipe for his delicious potatoes roasted with lemon.  Our absolute favourite though, an Ouzerie open on one side onto the church square, where we joined local men on Friday night for a couple of ouzos, and on the other side to the sea front where locals and tourists mixed to enjoy Ouzo Mezedes.quiet cafes only Greek locals

Avoiding the umbrellas of Zaga beach, a long sandy beach which would otherwise be beautiful, we walked up to the castle which was not surprisingly completely void of tourists at midday. We learned later from the Turtle Protection Society, camped for the summer on the same site as us, that turtles choose Zaga to come ashore and lay their eggs. We could join them a 6.00am for the routine patrol if we wanted!

Zaga beach Koroni Peloponnese

The castle was more a collection of churches within its walls, abandoned and crumbling and a few immaculately maintained, frequently used and very spiritual feeling churches.

Abandoned church Koroni

Contemporary church KoroniOn the outer edge, facing out to sea, several small cottages leaned against the outer walls with access to the small plain on the cliff top via an ancient stone archway.  As we watched a shepherd tend his goats in the shade of an olive tree on the dry plain, we noted the extreme contrast of his day versus those laying on the secluded beach below.

Shepherd and sunbathers Koroni

On our way back through town along the harbour side, we were distracted by a few people pointing noisily at something in the water and where amazed to see a huge turtle slowly paddling around in the shallows between rocks in the harbour.  We snapped an picture on our phone knowing that we couldn’t possibly take an image that would represent its beauty and incredible size but we wanted to capture this precious moment.Turtle in Koroni harbour

We excitedly reported back to the bronzed teenagers manning the Turtle Protection campsite. “Oh yes,  he visits regularly” they said, which deflated our moment a little but made us feel good about the healthiness of the sea in this part of the Mediterranean.

Surreal and unusual Kastro region of Greece

After the full moon on Lefkada we explored further south, driving over the spectacular bridge at Patra (of which a civil engineer somewhere should be very proud) and into the Peloponnese.
bridge to Patra PeloponneseTurning off at Gastouni towards Kastro and Kilini, where several campsites are marked, we found a surreal area of Greece. Camping villages punctuating a coastline of vast sandy beaches, with gates and boundaries separating them from endless fields of water melons, evidently planted by men but seemingly left to nature.

In a quiet rural farming village, we lunched as soon as we could find somewhere open and with food. We were the only guests again and great food as usual, despite the apologies that ‘kitchen not big because no tourist’.

We settled at Camping Meltissa, the most informal and natural ‘camp site’ (rather than the many ‘camp villages’) run by a very friendly Greek family. A wonderful base for us to chill out in comfort with a fantastic, west facing, quiet spot next to the beach.

sunset over Kefalonia

We walked and jogged on the beach (inspired by the retirees and locals’ wobbling along the beach as the sun rose ), snorkeled, swam in the crystal clear water and played in the and afternoon waves.

Great jogging beach earl morning Kastro

Stir crazy after the first day, we walked out along the lanes and up to Kastro and its Byzantine castle (just in time for it to close for siesta). So again, we did our best to ease the Greek financial crisis with beer in one bar with an wonderful view…

Beers in Kastro

and lunch in a local taverna with a small menu but great chef and great local wine.

Great lunch in Kastro at local Taverna

The next day we planned a walk to Kilini, a small port and nearest large town that the guide book promised was ‘cheerless with no reason to stop’ which normally means it’s worth a mooch at least for an hour or so. Heading off north down a lane in what we expected was the right direction, at just before midday as we often stupidly do, we soon came to a dead end. We had been guessing since we hadn’t found a detailed map of the area and when we asked the camp site owners about footpaths, they looked at us very oddly and asked ‘what about Olympia, have you been there?’ Yes and not quite the ‘off-the-beaten track adventure’ we had in mind.

Luckily, at the end of the road, there was a sign for four rental bungalows with a Greek kitchen at the beginning of a long, lawn bordered, rough drive. We wandered down fearing a tourist trap but found a lovely bar, perched on the top of the coastal cliff, with tables under welcome shade and quiet music playing. It seemed we had woken the bar man when we asked if they were they open for food but he happily brought us a beer and told us that the kitchen would open shortly.

An oasis on the coast by Kastro Beach

Within a few minutes we had iced glasses full of Mythos Greek beer and relaxed to Greek calming music from the bar, cicadas in the trees and the waves lapping below. We looked out across the sea to the silhouetted hills of Kefalonia. Within half an hour, I was so relaxed I felt like crying and within an hour we had a wonderful aubergine salad, Greek salad and pork souvlaki (kebabs).

Having seen another couple emerge from the beach below we tore ourselves away from the tranquil and surreal oasis and went to investigate once we were fully refueled and rejuvenated from our stop in the oasis.

Rock pools in sunshine on Kastro beach

The beach below the restaurant stretched north, perhaps we can get to Kilini that way? Tomorrow? And south, only a short way before being cut off by rocks jutting into the sea, separating this beach from our Kastro beach, a mile or so away. Surely we can clamber round, what’s the worst that can happen? And so we did emerging onto the very end of ‘our’ beach where we had walked to yesterday and assumed we could go no further, as evidently the couple of startled beach walkers thought too as we jumped down from the last rock onto the sand.

We wandered the last mile through the lapping sea, flip flops in hand and content smiles on our faces.

Dinner by the camper van enjoying our sea view and the sunset, you can never tire of sunsets…

great camping near arkoudhi

…particularly when they give you the chance to take arty pictures of your cool camper van!

Greek sunset in camper van

We contemplated whether we should walk to Kilini (around 12km away according to our Greece map) by the road or try to get by clambering along the beaches and rocks. Wanting adventure and challenge as always, next morning we set off north along the beach (more in the next blog)…

Peaceful beach walk Peloponnese

Island life on the mainland of Greece

After difficult Albania we needed an easy and comfortable place, hopefully easier on the eye than what we had seen over the previous days.  From the border, we travelled out of a mountain rainstorm through spectacular scenery, on route to the Lefkada peninsula. A hilly island joined to the mainland by a bridge that we knew from spending a few days there in our last trip. It has a beautiful coastline, several campsites and an interesting old town that we missed out exploring last time.

Lefkada Greece Oasis

Despite the evident lack of tourists as we travelled down the island, Nydri, a weird tourist oasis, if you are sun-worshiping lilo lover, still seemed to be thriving as we drove through – we assumed because it is built on package tourists not independent travellers who have chosen to go elsewhere this year. We headed towards a campsite, Dessimi Beach, hidden in a quiet little cove but still a flip flop walk from Nydri’s entertainment. This time we thought we might try the second of the two campsites in the cove.

We were amazed and disappointed when we were ambushed by one of the campsite owners who was lying in wait in a café on the junction to the cove.  He pursued us on his moped and herded us through to his site where a staggering number of campers huddled on the gravel and grass trying to find shade.  His tactic was obviously proving successful but not for us, we made our escape as soon as we could and continued our search.

Poros Beach at the bottom of a steep windy track had more potential but we were stunned at how many cars and people had taken the trouble to weave their way down the narrow track and never ending hairpin bends.  It is a beautiful place with a surprising number of check table clothed restaurants behind the lovely pebbly beach and only a handful of people in the campsite just behind the beach.

Turquoise waters and beach ahead Lefkada

As we settled down by the van to enjoy the chirrup of the cicadas in the shade of the ancient olive trees with a chilled glass of white wine, the possible cause of the near empty campsite revealed itself….a young German family who seemed unable to hear their two children as they toddled and screamed around each of the vans in turn.

We swallowed hard, the Sancerre helped, retrieved our Lefkada map and headed out to one of the restaurants. Over a lovely dinner tucked away in a corner of the bay, once more in a restaurant for 40 but only with 4 of us there, we decided to move on.  The full moon was in a few days and we wanted to find a special place to see it.

We drove the coast road to Lefkada town where we enjoyed a Gyros at a little café in a charismatic street of the old town We decided to move to another campsite 5km from town, Kariotes Beach.

Delicious lunch in eerily quiet Lefkada old town

Almost perfect, a lovely site to accommodate probably 20 camper vans and 30 tents with a friendly owner who greeted us warmly and showed us round.  I followed him into the office to check in and as he sat at his desk filling out his paper work, two swallows flew back and fore over my head, through the open door and to the corner of the ceiling where their four hungry babies poked out noisily from their nest.  We picked out our nest for the evening away from the other 3 camper van guests and enjoyed a lovely evening. But when the moon arrived we could only just see it through the trees and so decided we needed to try something different if we were to see the full moon the next night.

Our Lefkada map shows tracks to beaches away from towns and facilities, the first at the bottom of a long track, winding its down to the water on the stunning west coast.  The only traffic we saw on our way down was a man on his donkey laden with grass, a good sign.

Peaceful Lefkada

When the road forked we took the dirt track hoping for fewer people and nothing spoiled, it had a sign for a café/tavern that we quite liked the look of.

Cafes along the stunning coast at the sea

At the end of the track was an amazing place, a cool beach bar clinging to the hillside.  Breath-taking views, just for us and the three guys who lived, slept and worked in this special place.

Cool bar clinging to hillside Lefkada

We were inspired and impressed by their creativity, style and determination and pleased to see several other people wandering into the bar from somewhere as we enjoyed a welcome Alpha Greek beer from an iced glass and pondered our next move.

Quiet bar on hillside by beach Lefkada

There were a few other people wild camping on the beach, so along with the cool bar (which they said stayed open until the last person left) meant it was a good option, however because we couldn’t find an appropriate space to park between the other people camped, it was possibly not the hide out we sought.  We decided to contemplate over lunch in Lefkada and headed back up, over the hills and to the old town.

We also wanted to find internet to check on the news to see if any deal had been reached on the Greek ‘situation’ prior to the pending referendum.  In yet another empty café in the old town, feasting on an amazing Greek salad and Skordalia (garlic & potato puree) with beetroots, we discovered no deal had been struck, banks remained closed and saw for ourselves the anxious faces in the ATM queues.  We tried at several ATMs to top up our Euros and found them empty, finally succeeding after queuing at what looked like the only bank in town with money.

Police watch queues for ATM in old town Lefkada

Our decision was to wild camp at the tiny pebble beach that had been a sanctuary for us on our previous visit to Lefkada.  I don’t want to say exactly where it is but it is on the west coast at the bottom of a steep, narrow track and has nothing but a rocky beach and view out to sea and the sunset and hills behind.   As we wound down the strangely familiar track we were both a little tense, hoping that this would still be a very special place and that we would have it to ourselves, fearing that it may have been found and spoiled by others.

It remains a tranquil and beautiful place…

our secret place Lefkada

and it made us so pleased that we spent the time to convert our 4×4 transporter into a camper van to enable us to free camp and enjoy such places in absolute comfort.

Finally found our spot

So much so that Adam got distracted and disappeared to take pictures just before sunset…

Adam inspired disappeared to photo sunset

We celebrated watching the sunset with a bottle of Retsina and giddily took a ‘selfie’ of us in our special place

selfie portrait wild camping Lefkada beach

Being on the west side of steep, tall hills the full moon still had not shown itself by midnight.  Continuously amazed at how doing not very much at all can exhaust you, we headed off to sleep and I set the alarm so that we could wake up to see the moon later…

Full moon Lefkada July 2015

and even later.. 4am…

July full moon Lefkada beach

Greek Crisis?

Our sketchy plan included Greece and we were not to be perturbed by the ongoing financial crisis, if anything the lack of monies in Greece and fear that tourists would be put off encouraged us.  Surely it was now more than ever they needed our Euros. We have to admit that, normally travelling in June to avoid busy periods, we thought this could unfortunately but fortunately for us be a wonderful opportunity to enjoy Greece in July in peace.

We filled our tank with fuel and ensured we had plenty of Euros, knowing that the banks were ‘closed’ and continued as planned into Greece, prepared for our own Grexit if needs be.

Initially we thought ‘what Greek Crisis?’; locals sat chatting in cafes swinging their rosary beads, families sunning themselves on the beaches and couples lunching in roadside restaurants.   There was evidence of the crisis though; in every town queues at the ATMs, many with policemen or security guards standing watch.

Police watch queues for ATM in old town Lefkada

We tried to top up our Euros at several ATMs to find them empty, finally succeeding after queuing at a big bank’s ATM for a while.  Nobody, including petrol stations, is taking cards, for fear that their banks will not be able to pass on the cash we assume, and in towns that evidently depend on tourists to fill their many restaurants and cafe’s, tables and chairs stood eerily empty but hopefully laid all the same.

quiet cafes only Greek locals

We enjoyed beers, gyros and delicious lunches in Old Town Lefkada, thankful of the narrow shady streets, again sitting alone other than for a few locals.

Delicious lunch in eerily quiet Lefkada old town

Into the Peloponnese we stopped briefly at Gialova in Navarino Bay, poignantly where the last battle of the Greek war of independence was fought. The last sea battle fought by ships with sails, the British, French and Russian forces joined against the Ottoman Turks in support of an independent Greece.   A beautiful large bay where 70 plus boats battled for an afternoon and would normally now be full of tourist sailing ships, eerily empty and quiet, just a dozen extremely stylish and well finished restaurants with tables by the sea all empty.

Navarinho bay empty tables

Campsite owners greeted us with open arms, evidently surprised and extremely pleased to see us. A choice of pitches with sea views in Camping Meltissa near Arkhoudi.  We were so pleased and sad at the same time to find such a wonderful place with kilometres of sandy beach and clear blue waters with amazingly few people even at the weekends.

On the eve and day of the referendum, if it wasn’t for our regular checks of the news, we wouldn’t have known that anything was amiss.  Sunday was actually the busiest day we have seen so far on the beaches and in the bars.

Quiet bar on hillside by beach Lefkada

In the following days we spoke to several business owners, campsites, bars and restaurants as we did our best to boost the economy (our bellies now feeling the strain!).  One restaurant owner captured the feeling, “I fear we won’t be fat enough for the winter”.  Most thought a vote yes to accept or no to reject the bailout offer would not really make a difference on the coast, away from the big cities, they just know that they need help somehow but it’s always hard to accept you need help when you are so proud of what you have.