And two giddy adults. When we left Thuir at the end of June, after scrubbing clean our adored French Mas, the Opel Zafira was neatly packed, the cat was dropped off -fatefully- with friends, lists and reservations were made, we were organized, we were psyched.
Our total gear looked like this, and even (at the start) fit neatly in the van.
Van loaded. Easy peasy, right?
The list -including where we were staying with contacts, places to see and tips about everything from currencies to best kept family restaurants in various places, the result of months of research, had all disappeared by the end of the first day, never to be found. Gah! Most contact details were pieced together later from email.
Numerous months before with a map spread wide, we had drawn a sweeping line around the Adriatic, starting along the south of France, down the coast of Italy with cheerful forays to Florence, Rome, and Pompeii. We drew a line across the Adriatic -yup, there’s a ferry, cool – and noticed that our line ended directly across the Adriatic sea in Albania. Albania, hunh, how ’bout that. Heading back north, our finger wandered across the borders that turned out to be in between Albania and Italy: Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. And all looked to have amazing places to see, so, let’s go! Six weeks? We can dawdle! And then I spent 6 months researching and booking and planning so that we could travel for 6 weeks for about the same amount we would live on at home.
How to do this trip across Europe in the high season, while keeping our costs close to normal living costs? We had no housing costs, since our home in Canada was rented and we weren’t renters. A tent, a slow time frame, and a recognition that we were not there to hit the famous expensive highlights was the plan. I cringe writing how in Florence, I sat 50 m from the treasures of the Uffizi Gallery, having chosen on principal during the trip to avoid 3 hour hot lineups with 3 kids who’d just spent 3 hot hours in the car. Instead we strolled around with gelatos, exploring cobblestone lanes and wide palazzos. Missing the Uffizi was quite painful to me actually, but mostly we soaked up what we did see, art that overflowed courtyards and walls despite not being in the famous galleries. We still googled at some striking well-known sights, the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, the Basilica in St Peter’s Square. We did our part to help try to prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and wandered around Pompeii, a childhood dream for me come true.
“It just won’t budge, mom!”
Keeping it simple meant letting the experiences came to us. We watched a bear be led by a leash along a beach in Albania. The kids swam in icy Bosnian rivers emerging from a mountain, threw up in a tent under a sky carpeted with stars, played with kids in a variety of languages. We walked by moonlight on the marble streets of Dubrovnik, fished as cruise ships rode past the narrow channel of Kotor, had our van break down for several days in Montenegro. But I’ll go back to start in Thuir (pronounced, “Tweer”), on June 30th, as we were driving away “Twearfully” as Claire said, startling us with an apt play on words.
It was an easy start, from our house to the Pont du Gard, near Avignon, less than 3 hours away, an ancient stunning roman aqueduct. We camped for two nights to shake down our systems. While on the road the process became clear; as according to Tris: a treadmill of every 2 days “arrive in a campground set up camp feed kids find activity put kids in car stop kids from fighting go to attraction get lost get found go to store buy food feed kids stop them fighting find way back to campsite put kids in pool take kids out feed kids put kids to bed drink alcohol go to bed wake up and start over again”. Just as exhausting as everybody else had naturally assumed it would be.
But other than the work and stress of all of that, as well as not letting any kids wander off, the car breaking down, and figuring out currencies and language, it was amazing.
The southern coast of France was more gorgeous than the hype, and Nice was stunning. Lots of rubbernecking along the Cote D’Azur, not to mention the yachts outside Monaco. Pulled my dark shades on, let my (imaginary) scarf flutter out the window, and ignored the backseat. Kids? What kids?
Ok, yup, they’re still there.But this is nice.
We had 2 weeks ahead of us in Italy, starting with Cinque Terres, north of Pisa. These 5 tiny villages cling colourfully to the cliffs, linked only by hiking trails or a train. They are famous and therefore busy, but it didn’t matter, it was hot and gorgeous and real. You could jump off cliffs into aquamarine coves, and picnic while watching fishing boats come in. We stopped on the sweltering hike along the cliffs between villages for some fresh squeezed icy orange juice at a home turned juice bar with stunning views.
Everywhere we went was a highlight, that is what kept us from burnout. Though speaking of burns, Kat had a bad burn when tea spilled on her lap at the campsite near Cinque Terres, and we sat up in the night keeping the blisters cooled with ice wraps. Jordan had his own misadventure in Pisa, running with a new ill-advised glass snowglobe in hand to show his dad, tripping, smashing his globe open and glass shards ripping his hand, blood splurting. As it happened, his dad, a one time paramedic, was quickly on hand but he was upstaged by 2 Pakistani doctors wandering past, with fistfuls of bandages in their pockets. Hurt with a paramedic and 2 doctors on hand? Well coordinated, kid. Stitches were thought probably unneccesary, though it was several days before he could get his hand wet, which was a trial to us all.
Then there was the break of a drive as we headed in to the Chianti region to, of course, go find and drink some Chianti. This onerous chore punctuated our visits to Florence and Siena. Both incredible places to visit of course, whether you enter the Uffizi Gallery or not. We entered the inexpensive, lineup free Santa Maria della Scala museum in Siena and were blown away, kids too. Frescoes, silent rooms of statues, haunting underground crypts with treasures lit by soft light and eerie music, a children’s art section, an underground ancient chapel… we emerged into the heat and 21st century noise blinking and awed. Florence was heat and glamour and parking problems and ancient stories at every turn. After 3 days in our spacious 2 bedroom apt, fans whirling in the breathless heat of the tiny kitchen, we set off for Rome.
In Rome you just join the throng and tourist your heart out. The Colliseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon. The Vatican. The traffic. Gelatos and palazzos. Fabulous and hot and tiring. Home was a very hot tent on a patch of gravel. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned the camping. No picnic tables supplied, no firepits, no privacy. We had two little folding chairs and tried to cook and chop on the cooler lid. By 8 in the morning it was sweltering. Ants running around. Boy, this camping is FUN! What the campground did have is an enormous resort style pool, where the kids lived when we weren’t exploring. There were hamburgers and a big lounge bar where the Euro soccer fever was happening. We went in to watch and only went back to the tent to crash once the heat abated. We were excited by the sites, but it was a relief to head out of the city, south towards Pompeii. Unfortunately around this time our camera battery died and we realized we had the wrong charger, which didn’t seem to be available in shops. Since we had the video camera and it took pictures, we just carried on, not realizing how severe the drop in quality was. Sob!
The camera, doing no justice at all.
There was one important stop to make en route towards Naples. The Cassino War Cemetary south of Rome. Over 4000 soldiers, more than 850 of them Canadian, lie here. Row upon row, upon row. We walked quietly among them, particularly the Nova Scotian rows, tears dripping as we read inscriptions on graves of young people written by family desperately missing them at home. The writing evoked Nova Scotia in accent, colour, and heart. An ancient monastery on the knobby hill above was the place of German defense for 5 bloody and cold and brutal months with Canadians having a prominent role in the breaching of the Gustav line. We ate nearby, quietly discussing WWII with the kids (how to explain Hitler to a 5 year old?), until the peace and solemnity was broken by screams and tears. Kat had stepped on a bumblebee and been stung on the foot. We left amid howls of anguish, perhaps not misplaced but certainly mis-provoked!
And then another highlight among highlights. The magic of travel when you can’t believe where you are. I’d booked us, somewhat riskily, in to an inexpensive villa half shared with the proprietors, with hardly any reviews. What I saw hooked me though. At first we were cursing, since there was a 2 or 3 hour search for the property, asking everywhere in the village. One of those times like out of a movie, where 8 Italians in a smoky bar discuss animatedly together with no resolution and send you off to follow a long series of directions, most of it incomprehensible. So you move in that direction and try again somewhere else. No one had heard of it since the actual address was just a home with no sign, and it didn’t look anything like the pictures. Also there were several similar street names. Eventually someone waved at us as we passed for the 10th time and it turned out our villa was hidden behind the house behind a tall gate.
It was paradise. Dusk had fallen and we swam in a gorgeous underlit pool set it gardens lined with pathways and reading nooks, overlooked by the marble balconies of the villa. Bats swooped overhead in the warm air and dark hills loomed, with Vesuvius just over their shoulder. We had a full kitchen which contained a pet turtle. Long tables outside with the smell of lemon trees which we picked for fresh lemonade.
And Pompeii itself, leaving aside the tragedy though it was inescapable, was as fascinating as I’d always dreamed. Life from 2000 years ago just left as it happened. Homes, foods, paintings, temples, restaurants, baths, the occupants merely called away. I had shivers. The others were less enthralled and I was dragged away, back to our mini paradise.
Two fallen angels.
We’d been 2 weeks in Italy and it was almost time to leave. From Naples we drove to the other side of Italy, across perhaps the laces of the boot, to Bari, to stay in a modern AirBnB before catching our ferry. We walked a small town and enjoyed a last late restaurant meal (it opened, as they all did, at 8 pm). An extended family showed up at ten pm to celebrate the 1st birthday of a wound up toddler, as you do, I guess. If you’re not me. We ordered lots of small plates from an inexpensive incomprehensible tapas menu. The beef balls in particular seemed chewy and strong until the waitress confirmed for us they were testicles. Oh, ..okay! More beer por favore!
Another food item of note; the kids will still tell you if you order pepperoni pizza in Italy BEWARE, disappointment ahead, they will give you a roasted pepper pizza.
Crossing the Adriatic on a massive car ferry. Goodbye Italy, hello Albania!
A brief note on expenses. We were a bit over our normal living costs, which was fine, but stuck to about $1200 CAD/week, including getting around, since we already had a van. Camping or cheaper local homes, cooking for ourselves mostly, picnics, and avoiding most of the expensive destinations. The ferry to Albania was I think about $300, no booked seats. All possible if you explore options (which I do like a maniac) and book really early, and can manage the time. Which is our luxury, since we are time rich rather than cash rich.
On the other side of the Adriatic, the flavour changed. Different music and foods, many Islamic influences. We drove off the ferry after a fun crossing and passed customs, late at night. Our private booking wasn’t far, but we couldn’t find it, yet again. In one of those ‘fun’ couples times, Tris insisted I do the asking around, late in the Albanian night in seedy hotels with lots of men hanging around, since he was driving and somehow it was sexist of me to feel uncomfortable and want him to ask. Fine! We eventually made it and brought our stuff up 5 floors to a comfortable roomy apt with beds for 5, a nice kitchen and a gorgeous balcony, long white curtains fluttering romantically in the breeze. It was 50 euros/night, same as camping, so we stayed for two. Our balcony overlooked the beach strip, crowded with lounge chairs from all the hotels, we were in the Albanian Riviera. Ships passed, people went past the beach selling every kind of food and toy or clothing, entertainers, and even the bear mentioned above wandered by. Our kids were soon in the water with local kids there for the family summer vacation. Food was really inexpensive (ice creams, 50 cents) and it was really relaxing despite the crowds.
But ever onwards. We were headed to a campground on Lake Shkodra. A deep lake ringed by mountains, famous for its beauty, to become forever to us the place where two kids woke up vomiting at 2 am all over everybody’s sleeping bags. We took them outside under the deep velvet starry sky to clean them and the bedding up as much as possible. Settled down. Twenty minutes later, more vomit, this time caught in a pot which was held under one mouth and then the next, back and forth! Ahh, living the dream.
Lake Shkodra, famous for vomiting.
Now we backtracked a bit, to Ulcinj at the coast. Staying in rooms with a beautiful terrace still on the Adriatic Riviera, and a salt water pool by the sea.
We hiked, read, swam, played cards, ate, and then time to move on, north towards Montenegro, the “Pearl of the Adriatic”. Montenegro means Black Mountain, and the small country is rocky and rugged. It has a dramatic fjord (actually a submerged river canyon), the deep Bay of Kotor, which is a Unesco site. Walled medieval towns perch at the fjord shore near narrow strips of beach, and boats and cruise ships sail the waters. We spent our time after arrival gaping, but as this was where we were stranded when the van conked out, I found after a few days the ring of high walls of the hills rather claustrophobic.
Just goin’ fishin’.
There were tiny roman churches perched in the hills to climb to, and the fortress above the walled medieval town of Kotor, a stunning place to visit itself, with winding streets and squares and cathedrals.
Bit hot and grumpy now mom!
But we packed up to go, heading on across the border to Dubrovnik in Croatia, only to find the van wouldn’t start. We were insured with a french company and they organized a tow. Tris headed down the main street to wait for and direct the tow truck, while the kids and I waited, already checked out, by a little pool. After more than an hour we went down the hill to the main road just as a tow truck arrived. Tris had been waiting at a cafe, hopped in the truck, and told me on the fly to organize a rental car with these Montenegrin men, here, at his table -why not try using his laptop- and left with a cheery wave. It was an early Sunday afternoon and I grinned a little foolishly at the men. One of them spoke French, we had a brief conversation, and within 15 minutes a little white car pulled up. I gave a 40 euro deposit, we agreed on a reasonable daily rate, he assured me the car could cross the border with the papers in the dash, and the kids and I climbed in. Just like that -on a Sunday – I had a car, and his number, and hadn’t even given my name, phone number, or driver’s licence! I drove away a little stunned.
Tris was quite pleased to see us arrive at the garage, and shook my hand for such a speedy resolution. We threw a few things into the car from the van, and headed off for Dubrovnik, where we had our most expensive rental of the whole trip waiting -150 euros -, non-refundable. It was 90 km, under 2 hours, and we figured one of us would return with the rental to exchange for the van once repaired.
And Dubrovnik was stunning. As Game of Throne fans know, the old city is a walled small town with pink marble streets, and magical. Our well-placed little modern apartment let us sit on a balcony or terrace overlooking the orange rooftops while the sun set, boats jetted around, and lights came twinkling on.
However things were not to go smoothly with the car repair. Or with the French insurance company. Which we replenished the phone a few times to call. Extra days went by and eventually it was decided the van had to be towed to Podgorica the capital, to the dealership for a part. Tris joined the van, and beyond the delay all did end well: the van repaired, the insurance company on board and even covering travel expenses. In the meantime we had extra time in Dubrovnik and we found a place further from the main town but near a beach where we experienced the most terrific lightning storm in the night, the girls crawling into the sofa bed with me while the room lit up like day, continuously, over hours. Something we still talk about. Then we returned to Kotor Bay and found a spacious set of rooms with a rather dirty pool and a nice view. The trip plans at this point had petered out anyway so there weren’t many reservations to cancel, I’d written down possible places and was waiting to see if we were keen for more camping or not. So we were flexible at this point.
Kotor was worth extra time, and we visited Our Lady Of the Rocks, a tiny ancient island with a church built, as the legend had it, by seamen scuttling captured pirate ships and adding rocks at the same spot a Madonna icon had been spotted. The church had a wall with silver engraved tablets left by mariners over centuries to the Madonna for a safe return, and a huge tapestry made by a women waiting decades for her sea captain lover, incorporating silver, gold, and her own hair in to the cloth. All most dramatic, as was everything in this spectacular bay.
Trying to draw what we see.
But now we headed inland, following some research the extra downtime gave me, and headed over the border to the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Herzegovina is a separate entity in the south of Bosnia, rather like an independent duchy. I will just call it Bosnia going forward. Sorry, Hzg! Bosnia quickly became just about our favorite region to travel. Friendly! Easy! Inexpensive, beautiful!
Cafes in the main squares were filled with people, and the fountains flowed. Lots of remnants of the bombing hadn’t been repaired, and heart wrenching memorials to the bitter Bosnian war, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and genocide, were set up prominently, but in the more than 2 decades since then there was evidence of prosperity, and the centres were lively.
The street where we stayed, just beside our brand new door.
Okay, even I will probably never reread such a long novella, this is rediculous. It was a long journey however and I am enjoying revisiting it before it totally fades from my brain.
Well, our time in Bosnia lasted extra days, maybe 5 total, since we liked it so much. We drove through the rocky countryside and ancient towns to Blacaj, near Mostar, where I had booked a house with a pool. It was inexpensive, yes, (as per our usual) and unrated, but we had to tell the young owner we couldn’t stay and he’d better remove all the black mold from the fridge, repair the missing living room floorboards, and clean the very scummy pool if he wanted custom. In return for not posting a negative review, he abashedly returned our deposit.
Meanwhile we drove down the road, homeless, and came across a local swimming hole, grassy banks, willow trees, and food stalls set along a rapids of a wide pretty river.
It was very popular and busy, so we swam, sat at a table, and hungrily ordered a big plate of fries and sausage followed by something that was pretty much a Beaver Tail (wide long pastry with nutella) while we deliberated. Popular meal with the kids, that was. When we had arrived in Blagaj earlier in the day, we’d first visited the main attraction, a monastery for Dervishes built where icy waters spring from the rock. It was incredible.
Thanks for pic to Talha Şamil Çakır https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20485566
A women at the info centre told me there was no swimming right there because it was sacred, but you could swim downstream at a local spot. We’d gone there for a swim (incredibly brief, the waters were hardly above zero though the day was in the 30s), and noticed there were tents set up along the banks.
So we headed there and put up our tent in the gathering dark, while the kids ran around wildly happy, making friends with our neighbour and his dog, and bouncing their new light-up balls, and we found ourselves perfectly content, enjoying the casual hippy ambiance. A blast from our past even. We stayed the next night as well and spent the day visiting the 1000 year old bridge in Mostar -actually, the original had been destroyed less than 20 years before but remade. Then we headed back to the popular swimming hole to enjoy more fries, swims, and Beaver Tails. And one final trip to the cave mouth in Blagaj just to marvel at it.
Shopping in Mostar, Bosnia.
And now let’s fly to the end of this epistle shall we?
We left Bosnia for Croatia via some incredible falls, and then spent a week making our way up Croatia via Split, Trogir, Zadar, and Crikvenica. Neat times which I will just leave for the dusts of history. Maybe toss in a few mysterious random photos.
And the whole thing ended in Venice, before our return flight to Canada. Venice? Venice was as good as I’d hoped. We stayed in two university dorm rooms somewhere in the heart, with access to a communal kitchen. We finished it all with a 3 am trip through Venice on foot, quiet and dreamlike, on our way to the airport. We were staying in the car-free heart and had to walk out to the car so that Tris could drive me and the kids to the airport for our flight home. Tris, however, was going to drive our van back to Thuir, repack (somehow managing to leave almost every crucial belonging with the supplies we left in the van: note to self, wrong guy for that job!!) and park it in a Caravan Park (200 euros for the year). Oh, and collect Smoky the cat. Smoky refused to come, as was told somewhere else on these pages, but Tris made it back happy and well laden.
And so endith our first year in France.