Read all about our amazing Balkan Tour
On the ferry to Dunkirk
We started our Balkan tour with a Saturday morning ferry from Dover to Dunkirk. We don’t usually travel across the English Channel by ferry. I prefer to use the Eurotunnel when we take the car to France. It’s quick and easy and usually pretty good value. However, I got a great deal on the ferry crossing to Dunkirk with DFDS so here we are.
We’re going camping
Another slightly unusual aspect of our Balkan tour is that we were going camping. We’re occasional campers although we normally prefer to stay in hotels. So, why camping? Well, it’s cheap and we do like the flexibility.
We’ve done enough camping to develop the art of cramming as much stuff as possible into the car. Now, most campers I know drive big cars with masses of boot space but not us. Oh, no we somehow have to cram a tent and all the other camping paraphernalia into our BMW 3 series.
New cooking equipment
First thing I packed was my new Remoska cooker. I love it. You use it as a small oven but it uses hardly any power. Perfect for camping. We have a cable to plug into the campsite electric and so this is so useful. We also have a small 1-ring electric hob. Now, I know most campers like gas but I’m not a big fan. Too much hassle and most campsites now have an electric plugin so we manage with that.
I also bought some nice new fleece sleeping bag liners to keep us warm. Paul didn’t believe all these extra would fit. However, we have run-flat tyres on the car. So the ‘spare wheel’ space is the perfect container for the new remoska.
A late ferry but we got there in the end
We arrived at Dover right on time and joined the slowly moving queue towards French security. A wave of our passports and we was through to the next queue. We watched our ferry unload its incoming passengers so we knew it would be late leaving.
We finally arrived in Dunkirk around 1.30pm so about half an hour late. Still, it was a very smooth crossing and they have free wifi.
Dunkirk is quicker to get out of than Calais so I guess that is a bonus. Now the Balkan tour was really underway. We drove slowly in heavy traffic and countless roadworks. So we changed our plans and decided to stay in Luxembourg.
Overnight in Luxembourg
We rolled up to the site around 7 pm and got one of the last available spaces. Campsite Bon Accueil is just outside Luxembourg city in a nice little village. It is only a small site but the pitches were very large. The lady in reception was very concerned to give us a ‘soft’ spot. This meant stretching our electric cable across the roadway. This, she assured us, was fine. To be fair, everyone else on our row was doing it. For the first time, we had to use the full length of our electric cable but we did manage – just.
Since we’d only picked the site at the last minute, I hadn’t checked if they took credit cards. As it turns out they didn’t. We only had 10 Euros on us and we needed the princely sum of 17. So Paul had to amble round to the cashpoint while I did the paperwork.
A wet end to our first day on the Balkan Tour
Our little spot was place 54. The lady in reception said this was her favourite spot. We had loads of room and things were looking good. However, just as we finished putting the tent up it started to rain. It absolutely poured down – for about the next hour we sat in the tent and looked out on torrential rain. Fortunately, it stopped and we were able to get the rest of the stuff in. Then I put the hob on to cook some food. The new hob worked well and managed to defrost my pre-frozen veggie sausage casserole pretty quickly.
Saturday night was freezing. Paul is always cold in the tent but I have never been so cold before. I woke up in the middle of the night and put my fleece on and a fleece hat. That seemed to do the trick. However, I woke up about 4 am absolutely boiling hot so had to shed some layers.
It rained again in the night so Sunday morning the tent was still soaking wet. Moreover, we had no way to dry it so we packed it away wet. It’s not ideal but it doesn’t really matter when it will be up again the same day.
Overnight in Germany
We were away by 10 am. Unfortunately, we found the motorway entry was closed. We circled around until we found the next entrance down and were soon into Germany and on the Autobahn. Every time we come to Germany it seems as though they are digging up every square inch of the road. Today was no exception. Roadworks after roadworks – and in between heavy traffic and delays. Plus an enormous accident happened a few minutes ahead of us which looked pretty nasty. So, we had to wait at a standstill for quite some time watching ambulances and police cars whizz by.
We made it to our planned campsite on time. They didn’t have any spaces with electric though so we decided to try another one further south. We settled on a little campsite near Augsburg Airport (slightly north of Munich). Camping Bella Augusta is a nice site. A bit bigger than yesterday but still fairly small although again, the pitches are quite spacious.
Cooking with the remoska
I used the remoska this evening so we had jacket potatoes with tuna (which unfortunately attracted the local cat). I also baked some baguettes and croissants for tomorrow. It doesn’t seem as cold today and so far (fingers crossed) no rain since we put the tent up. Hopefully, the weather will pick up as we go south. Unfortunately, there is a lot of rain about right across this area at the moment.
The airport campsite turned out to be a decent choice with reasonable facilities and pretty dry ground. The campsites have been surprisingly busy so far – mainly with motorhomes and a handful of caravans. So far only one other tent.
We met a nice couple of Motor-homers from Swindon. They were on their way to a homebrew beer festival in Munich. Another couple in a motorhome parked next to us had the largest satellite dish I’ve ever seen. Not sure how they got it through the van door. They spent all evening going in and out adjusting it so I assume it wasn’t worth the bother.
Our Balkan tour continues into Austria
We set off reasonably early the next morning. The campsite was right by the motorway so we were in roadworks within minutes of leaving the site. As you can imagine, this continued for most of the morning. We slowly made our way around Munich and south towards Austria.
You need a vignette sticker to drive on the motorway in Austria. We made a brief stop at a petrol station to buy one. We were able to buy a Slovenian one at the same time. So we were all set for a full day of multi-country motorway driving. Our Balkan tour is getting closer to the Balkans now.
We crossed the border into Austria somewhere west of Salzburg. We spent some time in Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, on one of our previous road trips. It’s a lovely place on the river. They had a huge market last time we were there. We parked in a quirky car park built into the side of the mountain. However, we decided against a detour for a look around this time. Instead, we focused on moving forward on our Balkan tour.
We soon discovered that Austrian motorways are much like German ones. Apart from the speed limit (apparently 130kph although you’d never know it from the Germans roaring by). You don’t see quite so many roadworks either but they still have enough. The scenery picks up as you head into the mountains though. No snow, that I could see, on top of the mountains but plenty of low lying fog – and rain!
Lots of expensive tunnels
A quick stop to eat lunch and then through a handful of tunnels. For which we had to pay on top of the vignette fee. You need to be prepared for the motorway costs for this Balkan Tour. Then into Slovenia. You can still see the old border crossing buildings as you pass from one country to the other. Apart from some kiosks selling vignettes there seemed little activity going our way. The other side of the road was quite different however and the queue snaked back for miles. No idea why but it was taking a long time to get out of Slovenia that day.
A funny thing happened as we went into the long tunnel between Austria and Slovenia. The car steamed up completely in just a few seconds. Paul had to switch all the fans on and open the windows. For a moment we couldn’t see anything at all. It seems it was much warmer in the tunnel than outside and that must have been what caused it. Apparently, the Karawanken Tunnel is the longest in Slovenia at over 7km long.
Finally we arrive in the Balkans
We finally turned off the motorway and headed down a narrow, winding road to Lake Bled. Our first scheduled stop in the Balkans. Sadly, we found the campsite too wet. Waterlogged, in fact. We found another campsite just up the hill. It was a bit muddy. Especially where Paul decided to drive the car over the front part and grind up all the grass. It wasn’t too bad and didn’t look likely to flood.
Slovenia is beautiful and green
The next day, we discovered why Slovenia is so lovely and green. It rained pretty much non-stop from when we arrived. We went for a drive around Lake Bled. It would have been lovely to be able to walk around the lake but we’re fair weather walkers. We saw two coach loads of tourists getting off a coach near the lake. I imagine they were on a Balkan Tour too. All clutching raincoats and umbrellas and looking very downhearted. Glad we weren’t with them. I love that our Balkan Tour is so flexible.
No Balkan tour is complete without a visit to Slovenia’s capital. Since it continued to rain we decided to drive into Ljubljana for a look round. It is only 45 minutes drive down the motorway. However, we took the back route and had a look at some of the little villages en route. It really is very pleasant – and very green – around here. It is a lovely place and would be a nice place for walking in better weather.
Ljubljana is quite a small capital. We took a few minutes looking at the map as we drove along. There are a lot of new capitals around here since Yugoslavia was divided up.
A brief history of the Balkans
I always thought that Yugoslavia came about after the Second World War. In fact, Slovenia and Serbia formed an alliance in 1921 and became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. However, Slovenia was the only part of Yugoslavia absorbed into Nazi Germany during the war. Following the war, Slovenia once more became part of Yugoslavia. Interesting!
During the 1990s the political upheavals that took place in this part of the world allowed Slovenia to assert its independence and become the Republic of Slovenia. Rather an oversimplification of a rather tumultuous history but you get the gist.
Sightseeing in Ljbujlana
Getting back to the sightseeing. We drove around the city for a bit. Crossed the famous Dragon bridge. Which does indeed have 4 dragons on it – one on each corner. Then up to the castle. The castle area is again, lovely, and would be great for walking in better weather. We were content with a view from the car. We really will have to come this way again someday when the weather is a bit kinder.
Our Balkan tour leads us to Croatia
We left a wet and soggy Lake Bled and headed south towards Croatia. They still do passports (twice) at the Croatian border. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Eventually, I found the passports at the bottom of my bag.
Just past the border, we picked up the Croatian motorway and we were on our way to the sun. Croatian motorways are tolls so we took a ticket on entry. We had no idea how much it might cost. When we did finally exit the motorway, some hours (and many long tunnels) later, near Trogir, the machine showed 185 to pay. We were pleased to discover that the Croatian’s have their own currency, the Kuna, and that was not the Euro price. It turned out to be about 25 euros so not too bad.
No space anywhere
The temperature was looking good and we cheerfully headed towards the campsite near Trogir. It looked really nice. Unfortunately, it was completely full. No idea why! As they are part of the ACSI scheme you expect to be able to get on. Still, never mind as there were two more campsites just down the road.
We tried those – all full. So drove further south to Split. Nothing there either. So we drove on a bit further trying each campsite as we went but no luck. The whole area was full up – not a camping space anywhere.
So we keep heading south
So now, we were beginning to wonder what we should do. Should we look for a hotel in Split or drive a bit further. It was about 3 pm by then so we had plenty of time and decided to keep going. There were several more sites on the coastal road. We thought that once we got out of the main tourist areas we would find a space. No, nothing, not a single space at any campsite we passed.
Finally, we found a terraced site where the lady said there were spaces. If there were, we couldn’t find one and it was a crummy little site anyway so on we went.
Avoiding the Neum Corridor
By now we were at Ploce. This is where you catch the ferry to avoid crossing the Neum Corridor. When the former Yugoslavia was divided up Bosnia was given a little bit of coastline in the middle of Croatia. So you have to exit Croatia, drive 8 miles across Bosnia and then re-enter Croatia. Simple enough. Except our car insurance won’t cover us to drive through Bosnia and you cannot buy any at this border crossing. So the advice was to take the ferry from Ploce to the peninsula.
On the last ferry
We thought we might find somewhere in Ploce. But no. So we decided to take the ferry across and hope to find something once we got there. Unfortunately, we just missed the 5.15pm ferry and so had to wait for the last one at 7.30pm. We got in the queue and bought some tickets at the little shop opposite. It cost 25 Euros for a car and two passengers which is very reasonable.
The free wifi didn’t work. My mobile data wouldn’t connect. Paul’s phone (which has mobile data) had run out of power. We were beginning to panic a bit then as to where we were going to stay when we got there. We even considered driving another 1 1/2 hours to Dubrovnik to find a hotel.
Arriving on the Peljesac Peninsular
We did see a fabulous sunset as we sailed across and it was pitch black when we arrived. Fortunately, we managed to find a cable long enough to charge Paul’s phone in the car. I started researching hotels on booking.com. We found two places with vacancies near Orebic. This was our original destination on the peninsula. It was only 10 minutes drive. We missed both places in the dark but found the campsite we had originally planned to stay at.
Thankfully, the reception was still open. Hoping they might have a bungalow or mobile home for rent we rushed in. They had no accommodation available at all but they did have space for a tent. The only problem was we would have to move to a different space after 1 night. However, the new space was right down near the beach so a much better spot.
We put our wet tent up in the dark
It was a bit of a tight space because it is for tents only. Mainly because the olive trees are still younger here and not too tall. We did manage to fit the tent in ok though and there was space for the car alongside. We had to use the car headlights to put the tent up. It was horribly wet and damp still. However, it was still lovely and warm here at that time so we opened everything up and it dried off enough to put the beds etc in.
The next day we settled into our new pitch overlooking the sea. It was a long narrow pitch and so we sited the tent sideways and it fitted quite nicely. We were between two large trees. One of them formed an extension to our canopy so we have a lovely seating area in front.
Fortunately, our new neighbours were a German couple with a campervan who did not take up very much space. So we have a bit of elbow room to squeeze the car in as well. It is all very tight on the campsites in Croatia. Lots of steep, windy little roads to get down to the beachside area but well worth it. From our tent, you could see the sea which is only feet away through some trees.
Finally, some sun shines on our Balkan tour
The weather here was lovely. The tent dried out nicely and we cleaned off the worst of the mud and debris from the storm. We decided to have a few quiet days relaxing after all the drama of finding somewhere to stay in Croatia. We did venture out to the little supermarket opposite the site to buy some essentials. That’s red wine, beer and a couple of onions.
You’ll guess what happened next. It’s a feature of this Balkan Tour. After a few lovely days in Croatia, the weather forecast turned bad again. It looked like thunderstorms were on the way. Not at all ideal when sleeping in a tent. So the choice was clear. Face sleeping in the car overnight with a soaking wet tent to take down in the morning. Or head south to better weather.
Further south to Montenegro
The forecast told us that our Balkan Tour needed to go at least as far south as Kotor. Then we could avoid the imminent threat of thunderstorms. So we decided to pack up the tent and be on our way. The Slovenian campers next to us were also packing up. Although they were heading north back to Slovenia (where it is still, apparently, raining). In fact, we noticed quite a few spaces opening up on the campsite. Good news for the queue of people waiting in reception.
To get to Montenegro from Orebic we first needed to drive down the peninsula and past Dubrovnik. It is a very picturesque route. This area is mountainous and very green and the roads are windy and slow going.
Before we came on this trip I read online that the quality of driving deteriorates as you go south. Certainly, the Croatians have a way about them. But they are not as crazy as some of their more northerly tourists. There was the Latvian who decided overtaking on blind corners on a tight mountain road was a good idea. Then a couple of crazy Poles who were obviously in a tearing hurry.
In contrast, the Croatian we got stuck behind for miles was extremely cautious. Pottering along well under the speed limit and braking before every corner. Fortunately, we found a straight bit of road and sped past. I suppose the moral of this story is that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read on the internet. And we’ve all seen those youtube videos of Russian drivers. It suggests that the north may not have the best drivers after all.
Back to the views. Just north of a little town called Ston is a quite amazing sight. What looked like the Great Wall of China snaking up the mountain. Right at the very top was a castle. The town itself looked well restored with lots of little tourist shops. A lovely walled city to walk around. We stopped to take a few photos but you could easily spend a day.
Onto the mainland, we picked up the road which comes straight down from Split via the Neum corridor. Such a shame they don’t sell green card insurance at the Bosnian border there. We’d have quite liked a little trip through Bosnia. Another country to cross off our list.
We stopped just before the bridge into Dubrovnik for a view across the harbour. Three cruise ships were lined up in the harbour today – we immediately recognised P&O’s Oceana which we have been on twice. Behind her was a Costa ship – which one I don’t know – and behind that Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. Makes me want to go on another cruise! Dubrovnik looks nice and I would like to spend some time looking around but we are hoping to find a window when the weather is better on the way back so we pressed on.
Leaving the EU
Not far south of Dubrovnik, we found the border into Montenegro. I was very excited about this part of the Balkan Tour. There was not much of a queue and we were through in no time. I was a bit confused as the border guard just looked at our passports and then waved us through – no mention of insurance which we knew we needed.
Just past the border we found a layby and stopped to eat our lunch. We did contemplate going back to ask about insurance but there was a huge queue going the other way so we decided that we’d press on and see if we could sort it out later. We needn’t have worried. Just round the next bend, we joined a huge queue. At first, we weren’t sure if it was roadworks or Montenegrian border control but decided it must be another border checkpoint as it was moving so slowly. Eventually, we saw a sign so now we knew why the first border guard didn’t ask about insurance.
Finally, our Balkan Tour makes it into Montenegro
We sat in a long queue of cars for about an hour before we finally crept forward to the kiosk. I handed over our passports and the man asked for car documents. I told him we needed to buy insurance but he wanted our V5 document. Having sorted that out, he told us to park in the area just past the border and go into the office to buy insurance. Then we could go back to the kiosk and get our passports back. We did as he told us. There was nobody else but us in the little office for the insurance but the lady there very helpfully sold us 7 days insurance for 15 Euros.
Montenegro and the Euro
This brings me to the main question of the day – why does Montenegro use the Euro. It is not in the EU – hence why we can’t drive there without buying more insurance – yet they use the Euro as their domestic currency (not just accepting it as a convenience to tourists). Well, apparently the answer to this is that any country can decide to use any currency it likes but if it chooses to use the Euro, for example, it will have no control over that currency so there are disadvantages. Montenegro (like Bosnia) has no currency of its own – it used to use the Deutsch Mark but since that has been replaced by the Euro they have changed to that instead. Fascinating.
Anyway, with our newly purchased car insurance, we walked back to the border kiosk and the nice man gave us our passports back.
A country of contrasts
Our first impressions were that Montenegro is a mix of the very old and crumbly and the very new and shiny. It’s very different from EU countries and very much a highlight of our Balkan Tour. We stopped, briefly, at a new shopping mall to use the toilets. It was very nice – in fact only half fitted out. Fortunately, the ladies toilet was finished – the mens – as Paul discovered – was a hollow shell. There is a lot of new development going on – there were constant billboards advertising new apartment complexes as we drove along the coast.
Where the road snakes along the coast the views are amazing. The coast is beautiful. We drove all around Kotor Lake and it is really spectacular. Definitely the highlight of our Balkan Tour. There is a ferry which takes a short cut across to Kotor but we weren’t sure where it went when we first saw it and didn’t want to end up on some remote island by mistake. We know where it goes to now so will be able to take the short cut back. The drive around the lake is well worth doing though.
Kotor: Highlight of our Balkan Tour
We found Kotor – on the other side of the bay. We only caught a glimpse as we drove through but hope to come back and take a closer look. Our journey took us on south along the coast road – very slow going but eventually, we reached our campsite in a small village just south of Petrovac. Interestingly our car’s satnav does not really like Montenegro. It seems to have a vague concept of the roads but not a single place name so not very helpful. Fortunately, my new big Atlas does have Montenegro on it so we were able to navigate the old fashioned way.
Also, fortunately, the campsite had a big sign which we spotted as we zoomed by – a few u-turns later and we were parked at the reception – which appeared to be closed. Paul surmised that whoever was in charge couldn’t be far away as their coffee was on the table outside and the large fridge full of beer was unlocked next to it. We wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes then a nice man appeared and checked us in. Camping Maslina is not an ASCI site (well it is but not a discount card one) but it still only costs 16 Euros a night with electric so a decent deal. It is more of a giant field/orchard with toilets in the middle and it has attracted an eclectic bunch of campers but it is nice enough and we found a nice flat pitch which is spacious and dry.
Setting into Montenegro
Oddly enough there are more tents on this site than we have seen together since we took up camping (except the display tents at the NEC Camping and Caravan Show). We’d begun to think that everyone else had moved to caravans and motorhomes (there are masses of motorhomes everywhere, every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to have one these days).
Still, here on the Balkan tour we are no longer the minority and there are two fields of mainly tents and a couple of small camper vans – just opposite us is one of the original VW campers and the other side is a couple with one of those roof tents on their Range Rover. Also, lots of small tents. So we feel oddly at home here. The only gripes would be the over-friendly dog which seems to be ownerless (and harmless although nonetheless annoying) and the lack of toilet paper in the toilets (first time we’ve encountered this on the Balkan tour so we’ve been lucky so far).
Enjoying the sun
We had a little walk around and there is a path down to the local beach which looks quite nice although busy. It is shingly but very fine shingle so easier on the feet than Orebic and there are some little bars and restaurants.
If the weather holds off we are hoping to do a day trip to Kotor from here and there is a small island nearby called Sveti Stefan which is attached to the mainland via a causeway and which is apparently the go-to place for celebrities. What sort of celebrities I don’t know but we saw it on the way down and it looks pretty so we will probably take a look. The other place I want to go to is Lake Skadar which is the the Balkan’s largest. Legend has it that it was formed by the tears of a Pixie – believe that if you want!
I have suggested to Paul that we keep heading south since we are now only 11 hours driving time from Athens. I know he is wavering but for now it doesn’t look as though we will be visiting Albania on this trip.
In the morning we set out to explore a bit further afield in Montenegro. First of all, we headed for Lake Skadar which is just about 25km inland of our campsite. This involved driving up – and up – into the mountains where we got some impressive views over the lake – then down and down some more – until we crossed the lake on a causeway.
The lake is probably more impressive from up high than up close as you can’t get a perspective of it from ground level. We’re sceptical about the Pixie tears but it does have an ethereal quality to it.
Podgorica: The most southerly capital on our Balkan tour
Having driven across the lake we decided to keep going and take a look at Podgorica, the capital. Unfortunately, it is pretty unspectacular – rather small and lacking anything much in the way of tourist sights apart from one rather impressive church on the road back to Kotor.
I would imagine the rather undeveloped nature of Montenegro generally until fairly recently can be blamed on its troubled past. It sided with Serbia during the war and tried to maintain some kind of alliance with them for some years only really becoming independent in 2007. There are pockets of new development – particularly around the coastal areas – which are clearly aimed at the tourism trade but there is still a lot of work to be done outside these areas.
Ships in Kotor
From Podgorica, we drove on into Kotor. There were a number of cruise ships in port – including the Royal Princess – and the Peace Boat, which is on a global voyage from Japan. We had to queue in traffic to get into the town so we had a good look at it as we went by which is just as well as there was nowhere to park. Really, Kotor doesn’t have the infrastructure for the amount of tourism it is attracting – the sheer number of cruise excursion buses on the road was enough to cripple traffic for hours as the roads are just too narrow. Anyway, all we managed to do was drive through, turn round and then drive through again. I guess that’s the best we can do. Next time we’ll come back on a cruise ship so we don’t need to park.
The bad weather caught up with us again and the forecast for later in the week was pretty bad. I was still hoping to get a closer look at Dubrovnik on the way back so we set off early. We enjoyed our stay at Camping Maslina and although it is quite basic it is a quiet site and everything is kept very clean. We were surprised last night by the number of new arrival packing in – especially as there were more tents. The site owner said they are usually busy until the end of September and then it drops off until April as it gets very windy – the site is open all year though for those hardy enough to give it a try.
Back in Croatia
We arrived at the first border post and were pleased to see there was practically no queue. For some reason they make you show your car registration and insurance before they will let you out of Montenegro but as ours were in order we were waved through. There were quite a lot more cars at the Croatian border point though and due to some weird queueing there was one long queue snaking right down the road. It turns out there were actually 2 kiosks open but for some reason, nobody was using the one on the right. I persuaded Paul we should pull into that one and were soon through. They did stop us and ask if we had anything to declare and the chap asked Paul to open the boot. He took one look at all our camping stuff crammed in and waved us through
A quick trip back across the peninsular
At this point, we were quite pleased with our progress and we’re hoping to make the 2 pm ferry from Trpanj to Ploce. Unfortunately, we suddenly came to a halt just south of Dubrovnik and sat there for ages. After a while, we realised that nobody was going anywhere and that people were beginning to turn round. We turned around and headed back to a road a bit further back. When we got there a police car was diverting cars so there was obviously some kind of accident or something ahead of us. Anyway, we followed a stream of cars making the detour and eventually came out by the bridge on the north side of Dubrovnik so we were on our way again.
On the ferry to mainland Croatia
Unfortunately, we had lost loads of time and so we resigned ourselves to catch the 4.30pm ferry instead. This would make it harder to get very far the other side but at least we would have a couple of hours of daylight. Sadly, when we arrived at Trpanj we found out that the schedule had changed and the next ferry was not until 5.15pm. Still, nothing we could do about it so we bought our ticket. We were 2nd in line behind a motorbike so we abandoned the car and went into a nearby restaurant for pizza.
The Balkan tour returns to Ploce
We got into Ploce around 6.15pm so had to rethink our plan. I found a campsite using the ACSI app which looked ok and was just 12 miles from Ploce so we decided to head there and take a look. Camping Vita is a reasonably sized campsite right on the water front. It looked pretty full so we weren’t optimistic about getting in but the lady in reception said there was one tent space left.
We were quite lucky as another tent had come an hour earlier and said they wanted it but then had driven off and not come back. She said we could have it if we wanted it so we decided that was the best plan. It is not a very big pitch but she gave us a parking space a few pitches down so it’s not too bad. The tent fills the whole space apart from a small patch at the front which is on a slope so we’ve had to shorten the guy ropes right down and the canopy is jammed into a large tree but it seems to be holding its own.
A change of plans as the Balkan tour moves to Italy
Because there were still thunderstorms forecast we decided to change our plans completely and head for the Venice area. This holiday did constantly evolve from day to day due to the weather and campsite availability but we just made the most of it.
So, yesterday we were up early and pleasantly surprised to find that it was still quite sunny and more importantly dry at 8 am. We had a quick breakfast and then began packing up the tent. None too soon as it turned out – heavy black clouds began to roll in as we were loading the car. A German couple next to us were also anxiously watching the weather as they were hoping to take their campervan into Bosnia. The weather right across Croatia was forecast as heavy rain and thunderstorms so nowhere along this coast was going to be any good.
In search of better weather
The forecast showed the rain petering out in the Venice area around 2 pm so it should be nice and dry by the time we arrived. So off we went, on the motorway and heading north out of Croatia. The heavens opened not long after we left, the sky was black and the roads were absolutely swimming in water and the lightning started soon afterwards. Not camping weather at all. Still, we were headed north to dryer places.
The motorways in Croatia are usually quite nice to drive on – wide, not at all busy and reasonably priced. Not quite so much so in torrential rain but we made reasonable progress until an accident blocked the road just north of Zadar. A car had hit another and turned over and the police had to stop the traffic to get it cleared up so the whole motorway was at a standstill. Fortunately, we thought, we were by the entrance to a service area so we pulled in to use the toilets and get lunch. Unfortunately, it was a pokey little service area with a huge queue for the toilets and just a small kiosk selling dodgy sandwiches. We decided we’d wait.
Back on the motorway, the police had got one lane open so we all filed slowly through and then normal service resumed. We looked for ages for a decent service station and eventually found one where they had a reasonable shop at the garage and some toilets (where I managed to whizz past a busload of passengers just in time to avoid queueing). It was still raining – if anything worse than earlier so we ate rolls in the car and then headed on.
We came off the motorway just before the border with Slovenia. Then we queued for a few minutes to get to the border control but they just waved us through both times so no real delays there. We did stop briefly to change our leftover Kuna for Euros. We’d decided not to buy another vignette for the motorways in Slovenia as there aren’t many on the far west side and so we could use the A road into Italy. It was a wise decision and we weren’t even in Slovenia for long – entering Italy just before Trieste. That is the good news, the bad news is that it was now mid-afternoon and still hammering it down with rain.
It’s not really a Balkan tour anymore
It was becoming clear that there was little chance of it stopping raining anytime soon but we pressed on towards Venice anyway. The weather forecast confirmed that it was now due to rain in the Venice area until about 10 pm and that we would need to go even further west to Verona to outrun the rain. At this point we had been driving all day and as we neared Venice at around 5.30pm we decided we didn’t want to drive for another 2-3 hours and put the tent up in the dark so I had a browse on booking.com and discovered that there was a little thermal spa resort town just south of Padova called Abano Terme. I managed to get a decent price at a hotel called Hotel Terme Igea Suisse and so we booked in for the night.
Next, we just had to find it. We headed into the town and all was going well until the satnav insisted we needed to drive through a pedestrianised area in the middle of town. We turned around and looked for another way to the other side but couldn’t seem to get to the hotel so we went back around again. Fortunately, we spotted a little sign to the hotel – which was indeed in the pedestrianised area – so we drove through and grabbed the last space in the car park.
A bargain hotel stay
The hotel was a bit quirky. They could probably have set the Twilight Zone there. It was rather worn and a bit past its best but the receptionist seemed very friendly and most importantly, they had our booking which was pretty impressive since we’d only booked an hour ago. We had booked a half-board deal as it was only £6 extra for evening meals for both of us and after a full day of driving, we didn’t feel like going out looking for somewhere.
We found our room on the 1st floor – old-fashioned key for the door with one of those heavy-weighted ends on it. The room was spacious enough and clean but like the rest of the hotel a bit worn. We decided it was better than putting the tent up in the rain though so were determined to make the most of it. We were a bit dubious about dinner as it was only served between 7.30pm and 8.30pm so we decided it was probably a buffet. Anyway, we made our way down to the restaurant at 7.30pm and it was already packed with lots of (mainly elderly) people who were crowding around what looked like a central buffet.
An impressive dinner for £3 each
The waiter asked for our room number and escorted us to a little table by the window which had our room number on it – it looks as though you get assigned a table based on your room number and by the look of it most (if not all) the residents were on half-board. It turned out that the buffet was just the antipasti and there was a menu on our table. We ordered a very nice bottle of House Red to drink and selected our food from the menu. Apart from the buffet, we had a starter – I had lasagne and Paul had vegetable soup with rice, the main course – Paul had plaice and I had a kebab and finally we both had a summer fruit cake. Really not at all bad for £3 a head. It was very nice food too.
Enjoying the thermal pool
After dinner, we decided to check out the pool. As this is a thermal resort area there are loads of hotels with thermal pools. The one at our hotel was empty when we went down. It was one of those in and out pools where you swim under a barrier to go outside. The water was amazingly warm and it had loads of spa points where you could push a button to get different jets. All the water was lit up with coloured lighting and for ages, we had it all to ourselves and even then only another few people came down. It was really lovely and definitely the best bit of our stay.
We were given our little table for breakfast again – this time it was a buffet – mainly continental choices – some very nice Panecotte and fruit. The coffee machine was a bit temperamental and caused some queues but we did manage to get a couple of cups in. I don’t know why hotels insist on having these stupid machines – every hotel I’ve been in that has them causes huge queues at breakfast. This is one thing the Americans do get right – big pots of coffee on the table in a thermos jug is definitely the way to go.
Our Balkan tour diverts to Tuscany
So, we checked out after breakfast – although tempted by another swim we had to be out by 11 am and anyway we needed to get on the road again. So, who thought we’d end up in Italy. We had originally intended to come to Italy for the entire holiday but I decided it would be nice to see somewhere different. Anyway, we picked out a campsite just south of Florence (or Firenze to the Italians) and we rolled up about lunchtime. We stayed somewhere near here years ago – we hired a villa in the middle of nowhere but it was definitely somewhere near Siena as we went there a lot.
Camping Noncenni Girasole is what I call a campsite. The sun was shining as we arrived at the large reception area which had views across the Tuscan countryside. The nice receptionist lady said we could have a comfort pitch with the ACSI card and showed us the map but we must have looked sad when she said there was only wifi in the public area as she said we could have a gold pitch instead which has wifi. She pointed to a little pitch which looked all on its own on a corner and we said that looked fine so we were assigned pitch 63 and a man on a scooter came to escort us down to it.
This is the life
Because he was an Italian on a scooter we had trouble keeping up with him – not least because he sailed down a no-entry road – but we were very pleased with our little pitch. In fact, on any of the Croatian sites we’ve been on they would have put 3 (perhaps even 4 pitches on it ). It is very large and set back on its own so that there is nobody anywhere near us. We just have to walk up the nearby steps to the pool complex – indoor and outdoor heated pools – or campsite village with two supermarkets, several restaurants, an ice cream parlour and most importantly a wine shop! Plus, we have decent internet. We are booked in for 3 nights but if the weather holds up we could just move here permanently. It is lovely.
By the time we had set up the tent, the supermarket had shut for lunch so we were forced into the Grill restaurant for lunch. I had a lovely ravioli in bolognese sauce and Paul had a salmon and cream pasta – washed down with ice cold beer. We had medium beers ( a pint) but they served those 1-litre beers. I didn’t think I could manage a litre with lunch though we were tempted.
We spent a day driving around Tuscany – down as far as Siena and across to Arezzo. Although we came to this area years ago we didn’t recognise much of it. I did look to see if we could find the thermal baths we went to that time as they were very nice but I think we must have stayed south of Siena that time as we couldn’t see them near us.
We spent a lot of time relaxing around the campsite – ironically looking online for future holiday ideas most of the time. We even had a dip in the pool at one point – there were 3 outdoor pools but they were a bit chilly for us so we had a soak in the covered pool which was nice and warm.
After 4 nights we decided we should probably move on and so headed north along the Italian coast – past Genoa (where we got stuck in a huge traffic jam due to a 4-car accident further up the motorway) and along the coast into France. Apart from a brief stop at the motorway services just west of Genoa (which only sold doughnuts and sandwiches with ham so it wasn’t a great choice) we kept heading westwards.
We paid our 50 Euro Italian motorway bill as we exited Italy and crossed the border into France (land of hypermarkets and cheaper petrol). We stayed at a little campsite just west of Cannes for a day or two – in a small town called La Colle sur Loup. It was a small terraced site with a nice looking pool and lovely views over the countryside to the river. Ideal to visit Cannes, Nice and Monaco.
In the morning we made the short drive to Cannes. We avoided the motorway and drove through the few small towns en route – all of which were quite busy – and found our way slowly to the seafront of Cannes. Oddly, there was plenty of parking along the marina despite the traffic so we parked and had a walk around. We even got a close-up view of some of the superyachts in town.
The beach area is very nice and the whole seafront area is very clean and quite stylish. From Cannes, we drove up into the hills towards Grasse and then back down the windy roads to the campsite.
It was quite warm (although still cloudy) so we went down to check out the swimming pool. The campsite has a nice pool area with lots of loungers but although we sat there for a while the water was too chilly without some fierce sun to get out into so we gave the pool a miss.
We set off along the coast road to Nice this morning. The road was quite busy and parking was at a bit of a premium but we managed to park at the port and walk back down to the old town area. They have a market there most mornings so we had a wander around. A lot of vegetables and bread and a few local products such as the local lavender (made into all sorts of things), olive oil etc. Paul is always afraid I will buy something at markets if I slow down at all so we moved swiftly through.
The beach here is pebbly but very well kept and the sea was really calm today. The view across the bay is lovely and it is a really nice spot.
From Nice, we drove along the lower coast road to Monaco. It was heaving – in fact, gridlocked in places – so it was slow progress. The number of flash cars on the road seems to increase as you approach Monaco but I can’t imagine anything more frustrating than owning a Ferrari and having to drive it on these roads.
Thoughts on driving
I think I mentioned earlier in the blog that someone on the internet said that driving gets worse as you go south. Well, clearly they have not been to Monaco or for that matter, the south of France (although Monaco is worse!) All the world’s crazy drivers (many of them resorting to mopeds) must be magnetically attracted to this area as it seems to have an unreasonably high proportion of them. Add that to crazy pedestrians who think they should throw themselves into the road at a moments notice – seemingly oblivious to the fact that the French just DO NOT stop at zebra crossings.
The last time I saw lunatics like this on the road was in Hanoi and to be fair it is worse there but only because the mopeds drive on the wrong side of the road and on the pavements. Let’s hope that not too many French drivers visit Hanoi and get that idea!
Adding to the crazy driving is the extraordinary parking that goes on here. Driving through the town is a nightmare because they just park anywhere – on pavements, double-parked (on busy roads) – despite the many ‘no parking – you will be towed’ signs – nothing seems to deter them. Of course, we didn’t see a single traffic warden or policeman doing anything about it so it would seem parking in Nice is a free for all.
Once we finally made it into Monaco (apparently the Germans are here because all the roads are being dug up) we were able to find a car parking spot and headed off to explore on foot. First, we wandered around the very pretty Japanese Garden by the seafront. It is free to enter and although small is very calming (as all Japanese Gardens seem to be) with some excellent Koi Carp.
From here we headed to the port – walking through the tunnel you see them racing through at the Monaco Grand Prix – it doesn’t have quite the same appeal with cars going both ways but at least we’ve seen it.
The marina is fascinating. Some of the biggest yachts I’ve seen up close and all crammed together in one place. As well as the usual luxury yachts there were two really huge super yachts moored there. One of the biggest, Aquarius, is worth over $200 billion – some serious money there. Apparently (and we didn’t know this while we were there) the 2017 Monaco Yacht Show opens tomorrow and so all the big yachts are in port for the event. They are expecting over 125 super yachts and lots of smaller boats for the occasion.
Back to the car we drove up the famous hairpin bend (going in the opposite direction to the racing cars) and headed west and back to the campsite. We drove back along the middle Corniche road which is higher up and has some lovely views across the bay. It took us a while to get back due to the traffic conditions and a short stop at the supermarket en route.
We moved further along the coast to a site near Cap D’Agde airport called Camping Dragonniere. We thought we’d finish with a decent campsite so I found this one in the ACSI list. It is a bit pricier than normal as they add an extra Eur 3.50 per person per night eco-tax but it looked well worth it – and it is.
The site is enormous but is mostly bungalows and chalets and has only a small section for tourers. It is the first site we’ve stayed on which had security on the gate but he was very friendly and showed us through to the new arrivals car park. At reception, a nice man gave us a map with various pitches marked on it and we wandered into the campsite to choose one. The touring section is basically just 4 rows of 6 pitches and we found a nice one with plenty of sun on it – number 25 – and went back to reception to claim it.
A very nice campsite
We were given various information leaflets, a security key for the entry barrier, a sticker for the car so security would let us in and keys to our private washroom. Our pitch is quite large – you could fit two of our tents on it so plenty of room for tent and car. The washroom is in the corner with a large sink for washing up outside. Inside it is quite large with shower, toilet and washbasin. The light comes on automatically when you open the door which is quite handy at night. It makes a nice change not to have to trek across the site for a shower anyway.
Once we’d put the tent up we went for a wander to explore the site. Near us, there is a large pool complex with a rectangular pool, lagoon style pool with kiddie fountains which is deeper at the other end, a racer style water slide and a smaller pool with bikes in it for aquafit. I did have a swim in the bigger pool and it was reasonably warm. Paul only dipped a toe in. All around the pool is artificial grass so Paul was quite happy lounging there.
A beach lagoon style pool
Across the campsite is another huge pool but that is closed for the off-season. We also found an indoor pool nearby. My favourite pool is the beach pool – it has a lagoon style pool with waterfall and fountain and is completely surrounded by sand. Just like being at the beach. We spent quite a bit of time there as it is nice sitting on the sand. The water is a bit on the cold side but it’s been quite hot so that hasn’t been too much of a problem.
The campsite seems to have most things – lots of little shops, a supermarket, various restaurants and takeaways. We’ve only used the supermarket to buy bread and croissants.
Mostly we’ve stayed on the campsite at the pool but we did venture out this morning for a look around the area. My sister and I stayed on a campsite at Marseillan Plage years ago when we came to France by coach – that was a long time ago! Anyway, we set out to try and find it. Marseillan Plage was easy enough to find but it didn’t look much like I remembered it – in fact, it’s grown and the old area is the other side of a pedestrianised area which we did get to eventually. We even found the campsite – Nouvelle Floride – still going.
Minor car issues
Heading back to the campsite a warning light came on in the car to say one of our headlight bulbs had gone. Fortunately, there is a giant Super U near us so we popped in there to get a replacement. Nothing is ever quite that simple though – we did find a little machine to tell us what bulb to buy but of course it was in French. I did tell Paul I thought feu de croisement was dipped headlight but he wasn’t convinced and his phone wouldn’t pick up the internet so we paid for the rest of our shopping and went outside to use mine. Having confirmed that I was indeed correct (in case you doubted it) we went back in and bought the bulb.
Fitting it gave Paul a few issues but with a youtube video and some online photos (and a bit of help from me), the bulb was replaced. We had to get under the wheel arch to get at the light which seems an odd way to do it and not particularly user-friendly. Not something to attempt in the dark!
Heading home on the Balkan tour
So, tomorrow we are heading north towards Calais. We are planning to go over the Millau bridge and then head up towards Orleans where we will stop overnight. More rain was forecast for today so we were up early and packed the tent away before it could get wet. We have enjoyed our stay at Camping Dragonniere and may well come back this way in the future.
Today we planned to drive over the Millau viaduct and stop to take some pictures. We did do this but not long after we left the campsite it started to rain heavier and heavier and by the time we reached the viaduct it was fairly well shrouded in fog. Nevertheless, we did get a bit of a look at it from the observation point and we went into the exhibition to see some videos of it. We saw the construction process in a documentary so it was good to see it close up.
The weather was dreadful all day. We stopped at a supermarket en route and had to run inside through the rain and it only really stopped raining when we got near to our planned campsite.
Fortunately, it is reasonably dry here. We are on a site just south of Orleans called La Grand Sologne. It is ok. Reasonably flat. We got to choose our own pitch – the first choice we had to abandon as a lady in a motorhome kindly pointed out that none of the electrics worked on that station and so they’d also had to move. No indicator on the power point so just as well someone told us as it would have been a bit of a pain after we’d set up.
That’s the story of the site really. It’s ok as a stopover but wouldn’t want to be here any longer. They advertise free wifi which is one of the reasons we chose it but you can only have free wifi for one device at a time. Honestly, are we in the dark ages? What is wrong with France and internet access?
Our Balkan tour comes to an end
We have booked on the Eurotunnel for tomorrow at 14:50 which means we need to be in Calais by 2.20pm at the latest. The crossing after ours was full so we need to be up very early otherwise if we miss it we’ll probably we waiting around for hours. We think it should take about 4 1/2 hours so we just need to hope the perifique is fairly quiet on a Sunday!
The journey home was relatively uneventful. I was reminded why I like Eurotunnel so much as it’s all so easy and efficient. There’s a good duty-free shop at the terminal too. It was a crazy trip but we got to see some amazing sights in the Balkans and we’ll need to go back someday and see some more of it.