Our favourite places in Oxford

The occasion of Adam’s birthday gave us a great excuse to visit some of our favourite places in Oxford.  Having Oxford as our local town is really a great privilege and we take every opportunity we can to wander the breath-taking streets of Oxford and visit our favourite places.  I wanted to share our favourite places with you to help you make the most of your visit to Oxford…

Oxford has many beautiful and awe-inspiring places and buildings, many of them are out-of-bounds except for the privileged few (privileged not just financially one assumes but in the determination and dedication that they must have in order to have the honour of studying in such a wonderful university town).  However although you will see plenty of private, no entry, closed signs…

No entry private places OxfordThere are still many wonderful places to explore.

We have been locals for several years now and have our favourite places in Oxford.  We never tire of it; we are always finding new favourite places and we still meander the streets, looking up to be sure to see the true beauty of the city its wonderful historic architecture and amazing vistas and skylines.

amazing architecture Oxford historic buildings

There is no denying that Oxford is a transient town, a place for tourists.  Every day of the year the streets are packed with throngs of visitors and rightly so it is a stunning and fascinating town.

The city of Oxford changes throughout the seasons as visitors and students come and go the city, its colours, feel and appearance change with the seasons but our favourite places in Oxford remain the same.

You will see our favourite places in Oxford are a little biased to places to eat and drink however they are also all great places to sit and watch the fascinating world of Oxford for by.

The first of our favourite place in Oxford is really an activity enjoyed in numerous places; walks along the River Cherwell, through University Parks and Christchurch Meadow.  I recommend getting away from the town centre and enjoying the paths by the rivers.  In Christchurch Meadow (behind the Botanic Gardens) the Thames and Cherwell rivers meet.

away from Oxford Crowds Christchurch Meadow

There are many paths along the river Thames but the prettiest and easiest are along the River Cherwell.  You can’t follow the river directly as much of the land is owned by the university but with an OS map it is easy to pick up the paths any quickly get away from the hustle and bustle.

Peaceful walks or punt on River Thames Oxford

Through University parks, north of Oxford town centre, you emerge on Parks Road and are quickly back in town along St Giles to find one of our favourite places The Ashmolean.  Established in the 16th century and refurbished in 2009 a mesmerising museum in a breathtaking building with exhibitions to inspire and amaze.

Ashmolean museum Oxford

We have visited numerous times and still not seen everything.  Since our privileged sneak preview of prior to the reopening in 2009 The Ashmolean remains one of our favourite places in Oxford.  Its only downside is that it is not open on Mondays which has disappointed some of our family and friends on extended weekend visits to Oxford.

Before heading to the town centre perhaps head out of town a little for a spot of lunch at one of two of our favourite places to eat in Oxford. First Gees restaurant is part of a local, privately owned group of restaurants each of which is very individual.  Gees looks very decadent and pompous from the outside but venture in and it is a very relaxed environment with quirky decor, attentive and friendly staff and great food from local produce.  Adam and I have turned up in walking gear on a late Saturday afternoon and stayed all evening but also enjoyed, slightly, more formal evenings there with family and friends.

A little further out of town but worth the walk (or taxi ride) is The Cherwell Boathouse, it’s hidden away in a quiet spot by the river and worth the trek for a special treat.  The week day lunch menu is great value for wonderfully creative and delicious food thought the wine list may still damage the wallet a little.  If you are in Oxford in the summer then you should book in advance, this goes for most places in fact.

On your way back in to town, just north of Gees, have a wander down North Parade, it’s a lovely little street for a mooch with an eclectic mix of cafés, restaurants and shops.  Carry on straight ahead to reach Woodstock Road and turn left to head back to St Giles and Oxford centre.  If you get thirsty on the way you can stop for refreshments at another of our favourite places The Royal Oak pub.  Being out of town it is a more of a locals place and is a good place for a beer and nibbles.

refueled and re-energised you’ll be ready to tackle the Ashmolean or save it for another day and continue the exploration of our favourite places in Oxford with a food and drink theme…

Not so easy to find The White Rabbit, behind the Oxford Playhouse near to Gloucester Green, is a quirky and friendly place.  The young owners pride themselves on their pizzas (which for me are ‘ok’) but the main thing is it’s a lovely little place to while away a little time, watch a diverse range of students, locals and tourists come and go and enjoy a pint of ale in this tiny and stylish place.

The White Rabbit pub Oxford

Often packed with tourists, because it is easy to find in the heart of Oxford on the corner of Broad St and Holywell St opposite the Bodleian Library, but with an equal mix of locals The King’s arms it’s a great place for a good pint of ale, some very tasty home made pork scratchings or a spicy scotch egg and a good people watching spot if you can grab a seat outside in the sunshine.  We’ve spent some wonderful afternoons there watching the world go by.

Ale and nibbles at Kings arms pub Oxford

If you wander through Christchurch meadow from behind the Botanic Gardens you come out at the other end through a grand gateway on St Aldates, turning right back towards the centre and Carfax Tower and you’ll find another of our favourite place in Oxford.  It’s another pub!  St Aldates Tavern nice atmosphere, friendly staff, a quite usual menu (unusual in that the menu is hidden inside old hard back books but also in that it ranges from pork pie and pickle to Mozzarella and tomato salad or ham, duck egg and chips to fresh pasta).  Needless to say they have great beers too in a great atmosphere so it makes a good place to escape the crowds for a while.

St Aldates Tavern Oxford

Talking of crowds I suppose you have to visit The Bear Inn, the oldest pub in Oxford and a quirky little place. Their website describes as ‘a hidden gem’, and granted it is tucked away but everyone finds it so it is not a place for quiet pint, nice relaxed meal or catch up with friends.  The interior, with its wood panelled walls adorned with the neck ties of previous visitors is worth popping in to see and experience but it is not one of our favourite places in Oxford.

On past The Bear and over Magdalen Bridge towards St Clements and Cowley to the last of our favourite places in Oxford; you guessed it another pub!  The Cape of Good Hope on the corner of Iffley and Cowley road on the roundabout at St Clements is another wonderful people watching place particularly in the summer when you can spill outside and enjoy your pint of local ale.  The staff are always friendly and knowledgable about the guest ales and always offer a little taste before you decide.

The Cape of Good Hope pub Oxford

The very last of our favourite places in Oxford is not a specific place but a general area.  A wander down the Cowley Road at any time of day or night is always entertaining and we have spent many afternoons, evenings (and on into early mornings!) doing just that.  On every block there is a great place to eat, we have our favourite places for Chinese, Nepalese, Greek and Indian food as well as our favourite place to dance into the early hours The Hi-Lo.  It’s a place you should discover for yourself though and find your own favourite places.  Do be sure to venture out away from the tourist and historic centre of Oxford and explore.

I hope that you find our favourite places useful when you visit Oxford and that this blog helps you make the most of your time in our wonderful town.

I know many of you must have your own favourite places in Oxford so do please comment and add your favourites too.

behind closed gates Oxford

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!

Finding our rhythm in Coastal Croatia

Wanting too find an easy rhythm to our travel we planned to return to Coastal Croatia and some of the places we found and enjoyed on previous trips.  Off the coast of the Croatian Peljasac peninsula, the beautiful Korcula island was our destination.  As the ferry docked, near Korcula old town, and all felt very comfortable and familiar we had the desire to improvise a little and so rather than head directly to the small harbour town of Lumbarda we drove instead to the far end of the island and to the Vela Luka.

As usual the guide book had little positive to say about the small town of Vela Luka, not many ancient sites or churches in the 19th century fishing village, it could be just our kind of place. We are not constant seekers of ancient sites but rather search for inspiration and interest in every day life and enjoy the diversity of local cuisine.  Vela Luka and its people looked like it had kept a frenetic pace during the hot summer season but now felt relaxed and sleepy as the ebb of tourists slowed.

We wandered the harbour and back streets, bought provisions in a small shop and then, reluctantly, headed to the hills to the only camp site nearby.

Camping Mindel promised to be a tranquil site, hidden amongst olive trees on a crest above several bays.

Camping Mindel Vela Luka secluded camping

Within a short wander we found a sheltered bay where waves lapped gently over with rough grey rocks leading down to the clear blue water, a great fishing spot for another day perhaps. We swam in the beautiful crystal waters but were disappointed and concerned to see another bare and almost lifeless sea bed. A great concern and a frustration for Adam who, ever hopeful, had spent several hours sorting and packing his fishing gear this Mediterranean trip.

The evening sea breeze dipped the temperature quickly in the shady cove so we flip flopped home as quickly as we could. We joined a few of our fellow campers on the roof terrace and were treated to a stunning sunset across the Mediterranean to Hvar island accompanied by the rhythmical ticking of Cicadas and the twitter of Housemartins swooping on the breeze that rustled in the olive trees below.

It seemed though that we weren’t all in the same groove; some couples came before the evening sky even started its performance, stayed for the first tinges of red and then left (dinner in the oven?), some snook in half way through, chinking plastic glasses of beer as the orange glow began but still left before the finale.

We stayed until the very last ray of light had disappeared and the Cicadas all fell silent.

Croatian sunset from Korcula island over Hvar

We were woken early and rudely with a dawn chorus of toddler cries and percussion of spoons on plastic plates, really not our favourite tune so we departed quickly to go explore the other bays on the peninsula.

Rather than walk the conventional footpaths to each of the bays we chose to search for a route from bay to bay along the rocks and there was, along limestone and stark white rock formations separated by flinty, pebble beaches in secluded bays.

Beautiful Croatian coastal walk

It was a peaceful interlude as we picked our way along the coast, the vista out to sea was ever changing as were the colours and textures beneath our feet.

It was difficult to see if many others had come this way or not, we seemed not to leave a trace though some of the smoother tops to the white, chalky rocks could be from the tread of human feet over time rather than the wash of the sea.

We crossed small beaches of limestone screes below tree covered cliffs where our path was marked, at least for a moment, by musical notes as our feet shifted the rock fragments to clink against each other making, almost metallic sounds, like the bars of a broken Xylophone.  Though we followed closely in each others foot steps and in the same rhythm the music we each created was completely different. Adam’s foot steps created their tune, my melody was a new one played on a slightly different ‘keyboard’.

As I clambered I wondered how many different compositions there may have been, each fleeting, never to be captured or recorded only to be enjoyed by those there to listen. We had certainly begun to find our rhythm again here in this peaceful corner of Korcula island.

craggy shore line stone scree Croatia

Camper vans and camper van people

We can no longer deny we love camper vans (well ours anyway) and so we our camper van people!  We have had a month attached to laptops back in the UK, focussed on what we know we needed to do but always with an eye on the weather in the Mediterranean.  The promise of an Indian Summer and its arrival was not enough to tie us to our bricks and mortar ‘home’.  We missed our ‘home’ on the road, we missed camper van life and we missed the heat of the sun, so we packed our laptops and flip flops and headed south again.

As usual we set off without a plan, booking our slot on the Channel tunnel as we threw a few shorts, t-shirts and jeans into our bags. We only knew that we couldn’t escape completely ‘off-grid’, we would need to have time, space and connectivity for laptops so wanted to keep it simple.  Still we sought a different route through the alps than we had travelled so many times before; we had stopped briefly in Piedmont a few trips ago and enjoyed the wine and food of this stunning and varied region and so, on the French autoroute, we planned to go over into Italy through Piedmont.

First stop a strangely nice campsite near Fontainemore, squeezed between the quiet road, which wound its way up through the Gressoney valley, and the river that tumbled noisily along the gorge over stark, smooth white boulders.

Gressoney valley beautiful moutnain river

The only other camper van people we saw during our stay were two melancholy, empty handed, fishermen who trudged up from the river, heads down, into the campsite at sunset.  Our spot for the night a little grassy oasis between two empty, permanently pitched, vans with an amazing view one way to the mountains beyond and the other down to the river.   We didn’t mind at all having this place to ourselves, our own little camper van peace of heaven.

An evening of wholesome food and relaxed chat, the otherworldly feeling of this peaceful valley I think had physically and emotionally disconnected us from distractions that may lurk in our laptops, topped off a long day of travelling beautifully.  When the Italian stews of local sausages arrived in their rustic pots, along with a huge portion of polenta baked with Fontina cheese, the conversation did halt for a while as we let our taste buds explore and were delighted once again by the enjoyment we can always find in simple but extremely well done local food.

The next evening’s stop was a complete contrast, equally as strange yet so different in many ways.  Trieste was unavoidable on our way to Slovenia and on to Croatia but not really top our list of places to stay (having both visited on business) however as we approached along the coast (seemingly devoid of campsites) we spotted several campers in a car park by a small marina.  Luckily there was a space so we squeezed our little van between the slab sided motorhomes and investigated.  For an unknown reason these 10 or so spaces, at the coastal edge of a car park, are designated for campers.  It’s a great spot just north of Trieste by a lovely harbour and a long promenade which stretched back up the coast to the Castello di Miramare.

Certainly not the usual secluded and peaceful ‘camp’ we search for but we had a great view, a place to walk and jog and most fascinating, the people we met during the evening… the row of campers as diverse as their owners.

Trieste camper stop

So the camper vans and the camper van people we met…

Two, very swish second-home type vans, who travelled together,  whose owners spent most of their retired time out of the uk exploring.  For several years exploring Spain and Portugal, they had decided to try Italy and Croatia.  We thought it very inspiring and amusing that one of the couples had the lady’s 97 year old mother with them.  ‘She’s in a wheel chair and has a colostomy so can’t go particularly fast or far from the van,’ John explained with a smile ‘we told her she could either come with us or go in a home!’ and so they travelled together, very happily it seemed, the three of them and their funny little dog.

There was another British camper van that had travelled through here before and used this as a base for Trieste city. He was very clued in on local parking etiquette and held us and others decipher the ambiguous signage.

A Luton van, converted into a custom camper van, belonged to a young guy who had set off at the beginning of the summer from Headington in Oxford (a very small world since we moved from there only a year ago). He had made this space by the harbour his ‘home’ in his camper van and was keenly learning Italian, probably driven by his beautiful, ever present, Italian girlfriend.

An Italian lady had discovered the parking spot on the internet she told us and was a little disappointed that she couldn’t find a space.  The car park was a local’s favourite too it seemed, as car after car filled the spaces around us spilling out sprightly couples in running gear, who jogged and stretched (in a stylish way that only Italians can) and then disappeared again.  The Italian lady’s van and a couple of German campers circled like vultures, grabbing the spaces as soon as they were vacated and then they too joined the motley club of camper vans.

The most intriguing camper people were those in the van next to us.  A battered old Italian camper van that looked almost rooted to its space.  The dusty windows were open but it remained dark behind the nets that wafted in the sea breeze and none of us ever saw a soul, though we all had our imaginations painting pictures of who our mysterious neighbours might be.

We shared stories and tips, finding something in common despite the diverse backgrounds and ages of the ‘camper people’. John came back to ask us more about Croatia and then beckoned his navigator / wife, ‘ I just drive’ he said ‘I have no idea and no say in where we actually go!’  Pauline swaggered across, it looked like she had enjoyed almost as much wine as we had, dragging their little white dog behind.  We pointed to a few places on the Croatia map, ‘Hang on, I need my glasses and my notebook’ she said and before I knew it I was standing in a car park in Trieste, between two big white camper vans, holding the lead of a little white lap dog!

In the morning we explored as far as the castle, Castella di Miramare, with a jog along the promenade and a quick dip in the sea before all the camper vans, almost in unison, set off and all went our separate ways.

Trieste Italy camping Barcola harbour