Our first days in Greece were not quite as I had imagined them. We made several attempts to buy a sim card but each time the chaos and anarchy that make driving in Greek cities a formidable challenge, together with the chronic unavailability of parking spaces and the somewhat surprising fact that shops are closed in the afternoon soon made me give up.

Closed was going to be a keyword in Greece.

Campsites where we thought we would spend the night were closed. Hotels that we then turned to were closed. Restaurants, cafés, supermarkets – closed.

We abandoned thoughts of camping on a beach in a National Park when park rangers passed because I really did not want them to come back in the middle of the night and send us packing.

It was a pity. I was soon fed up with driving around, looking for a place to stay, and wanted nothing more than to find a part of Greece that was not closed. In hindsight, we could and should have camped in the Nestos Delta National Park, we did see good spots. It is not allowed, of course. In fact, camping outside authorised campsites is not allowed anywhere in Greece, and there are road signs to remind us of that.

But what does that mean, not allowed?

In all of eastern and southern Europe, littering is as bad as it is in Indonesia in spite of anti-litter laws. In Romania, not a single car had stayed behind us when we drove through towns at 55 kmh in a 50 kmh no-passing zone – they had all overtaken us. In Greece, we had our first lunch in a restaurant that had no-smoking signs everywhere, which did not deter anyone from smoking cigarettes and cigars.

So what does that mean, not allowed? We hail from a part of the world where laws and rules are thought to exist for a reason and are therefore enforced. We are now in a part of the world where laws are not taken too literally and law enforcement does not strictly mean enforcement of the law.

Right. So we did, briefly, visit the Nestos Delta National Park and saw flamingos and all sorts of migrating aquatic birds, as well as smaller stuff that hid in the reeds, and birds of prey looking for, well yes, prey. We saw a short-toed snake eagle get in the way of a kestrel, and what followed was the same scene I once witnessed in Japan when a red kite intruded on territory that crows considered theirs: the smaller, more agile bird attacked the intruder from above and behind, going for the tail feathers and succeeding in driving the bigger bird away. Kites, I learned later, tend to take food away from crows. The crows do not seem to appreciate that.

Next, Charlotte steered us to an area that, on the map, looks like a hand with three fingers and we settled down for a few days in the easternmost finger, the one that is taken up for two-thirds by Mount Athos.

Mount Athos… I had to look it up. Mount Athos is an autonomous region within Greece (autocephalous, to be more exact) that has been called one of the holiest spots of the Orthodox church, one of the world’s most secretive states, the only monastical state in the world, one of the few remaining theocratic states, and an enclave.

It comprises twenty monasteries, and since the monks’ vow of chastity is taken seriously, only male domestic animals and male visitors are allowed (it is assumed, apparently, that the danger of straying from the path comes from the opposite sex).

Those male visitors have to apply for a visa, are screened and can only arrive by boat because walls have been built on land to keep unwanted individuals out.

We were first told about those walls by an elderly couple who had lived most of their lives in East-Berlin and were therefore something of an authority on walls. Of course, theirs had been built to keep people in, whereas the purpose of the walls of Athos was to keep undesirables out, just like walls and fences built or planned by the Israelis, Hungary and the US.

While enjoying their freedom to travel, the German couple had continued to believe the misinformation and innuendo they had been fed all their lives and were still being fed. Angela Merkel had worked for East-Germany’s secret police, but that was being hushed up, Germany was paying to sustain the rest of the EU, the monks living in Mount Athos were probably getting ‘Hartz IV’ (German unemployment benefits) and sitting on their arses.

He had worked at a nuclear power station that had been bought by the West ‘for one Mark’, and been made redundant (how is that for a euphemism?), because workers were brought in from the West ‘and getting hardship pay’, he sneered. But never mind, there is still so much to enjoy, like watching the sun set over the Aegean…

What is it like, I wonder, to be sent off into retirement and to be basically told that everything you have done and achieved amounts to nothing?

Night after night, we watched the Moon wax and the planet Mars approach the Moon and then pass it. Or was it the other way around? It’s in the eye of the beholder.

The middle ‘finger’ turned out to be a great choice for camping in the wild. Things were taking shape: the ‘hand’ which is situated south-east of Thessaloniki is called χαλκιδική (Chalkidiki is one of many possible transcriptions), the fingers are known as Athos, Sithonia and Kassandra. While in summer, apparently, all the little creeks and bays are occupied by campers and the police writes tickets for illegal camping, the off-season is heaven for those who like to find a quiet beach and spend one or more days there.

We found a nice spot on a small beach and stayed until, four days later, our dwindling supplies and Charlotte’s infected eyelid forced us to find a town and solutions.

The doctor took one look, said there was no reason to worry and charged us 70 euros for a prescription for eye drops and anti-inflammatory pills that turn out to have been banned in most of Europe because some people had died from the side effects.

We stocked up on essentials, drove back down the peninsula and found a beach that was only accessible by 4×4. We stayed there a few days.

Let me show you how we found it.

This screenshot of Google Maps shows Chalkidiki, southeast of Thessaloniki. At the moment the screenshot was taken, we were at a cape in the south of Sithonia which we had found by looking at this map and zooming in.

Zooming in on the cape, a road can be seen leading to it.

In satellite view, it becomes clear that the road leads to a sandy isthmus with the sea to the east and the west. What cannot be seen is what kind of a road leads there. We went to check it out and found that the last 50 meters of the road, coming down the hill, were for 4x4s only: coming down might be possible with a normal car, but going back up would be out of the question.

View of the isthmus taken from the hill in the south, looking north.

Zooming in, the car can be seen where there was shelter from the easterly wind that was blowing when we arrived.

My study. This is where I studied Greek with the help of the Colloquial Greek e-book and mp3 files. The winds have changed: this spot offers shelter from cold northwesterlies.

With the northwesterly wind come clear skies and brilliant sunsets.

After the wind shifted to the northwest, a storm developed. In the middle of the night, I got out of the car and into an inferno of howling wind that blasted me with sand. Back inside the car, the canvas of the roof tent was holding – for now. We closed the roof and sat ‘downstairs’ for a while, until the storm subsided and we thought it safe to raise the roof again.

Then the storm picked up again and another concern came up: although the Aegean Sea has no tidal changes to speak of, the wind was driving the waves ever further onto the shore and ever closer to us. Not wanting to get stuck in quicksand, we moved higher up, just to be on the safe side. And snuggled up on the lower bed, with the roof closed.

We did not get much sleep that night.

The water came close to, but did not quite reach, the spot where the car had been.

In the morning, we took stock. The wind was still blowing hard. There was sand in everything that had been outside. The car was covered in salt. Making coffee and breakfast was possible if we stayed inside, but… No, let’s move on to the east side of the peninsula. A strange-looking cloud obscured the rising sun.

Charlotte took this photo from the lower bed in the car.

On our way, then. A few more examples of how all of Greece seems to go into hibernation in October. Places where we thought we’d have breakfast were closed. Campsites where we thought we’d freshen up and clean our gear were all closed. Shops where we wanted to buy water to clean everything with did not exist where indicated.

Just south of a town called Sarti and with the origin of the ‘cloud’ we had seen earlier obvious now, we were stopped by police. ‘Where are you going?’ Sarti. ‘No, you are not going to Sarti. The road is closed, there is a forest fire’.

We thought of taking unsealed roads and dirt tracks around the fire, but then decided against that and simply turned back. While driving back, it felt immensely satifying to be driving away from a forest fire. We read later that the fire was out of control and a local state of emergency had been declared.

One last try for a campsite,on our way out of Sithonia. According to its own website, this one was open until Oct 31. A smiling young woman greeted us at the entrance. No, not open. But we read it was open until Oct 31! Well yes, but it was so quiet that we closed earlier. But it was your website that said you’re open, you should change that. Yes, I will change that next year. No, not next year, change it now, so people will not come in vain!

She looked a bit taken aback by my directness. I wished her a pleasant winter. She wished me the same.

And to cut a long story short… 🙂

We are now in the far south of Kassandra, the westernmost of the three peninsulas. How different are these three peninsulas. Most of Athos had been closed to us, Sithonia had been a camper’s heaven, and Kassandra turned out to be an upmarket tourist destination with villas and towns full of shops with signs that advertise their wares in Russian: fur and leather.

Only the far southeast, where we are, is a haven of tranquility, with sunsets made of a million subdued colours and night skies that flaunt the stars of the northern hemisphere.

Photo: Charlotte

And yesterday’s lunch in a small restaurant where one enters through the kitchen and chooses from what a 52-year-old lady is cooking, after which she takes the time to come and chat with us, ah Greece, I love it.

We had found this road on Google Maps. At first glance, route 6206 seemed to stop and then continue a few kilometers further west, but when zooming in, a thinner line could be seen that connected the two bits. However, Google Maps refused to plan a route via that thin stretch. Same for Maps.Me. Waze didn’t even show it. Interesting. Let’s have a look.

‘Have a look’ would have to wait until the next day, because we made a mistake and ended up in a ski resort called Мальовица, written in English as Malyovitsa, Maliovitsa, Maliovica and what have you. Two pomas (drag lifts), two ski runs, two hotels, and a hiking trail that hugs a stream up into the mountains, offering otherworldly scenery and the possibility to continue on multiple-day treks.

The following day, we picked up route 6206 where we had inadvertedly left it and saw what had happened: we had stayed on the sealed road to the resort instead of taking what looked like a dirt road at first glance but turned out to be a semi-sealed road of which the tarmac had been churned up by logging trucks. This was still the part that our mapping apps considered OK.

At the end of that, what had been displayed as a thin line looked, err, well, challenging. Walking a small part of what was now a narrow uphill dirt track, we crossed a stream and encountered big rocks, tree stumps, muddy stretches with deep ruts, and rainwater gullies running down the middle of the track, about as wide as the space between our wheels and deep enough to not get out of on our own. This was serious 4×4 terrain, and yes, this was still route 6206. I would have loved to drive here, but only in a convoy of 4×4 vehicles and with bigger wheels.

We turned back. There was a mountain hut with a man outside chopping wood. We had not had breakfast yet because the early morning had been cold and we thought we would find a sunny spot to stop and make coffee somewhere along the way, or maybe a café. While still heading west, we had stopped at the mountain hut, but the man had looked up from his work only to make a gesture that seemed to mean: go away. We had done that, perplexed. Charlotte said maybe he had simply chased a fly away.

Now, on our way back east, we stopped again. As I walked over to him, he laid down his axe and walked my way, calmly but with a glint of something intense in his eyes.

I tried out some of the Bulgarian I had picked up in the past few days.

– Good day, I said, hesitantly.
– Good day! he bellowed. The eyes, still intense, contrasted with the frankness of his greeting.
– I don’t speak Bulgarian, I said. This phrase, in the language that I don’t speak, indicates that at least I’ll try and often does wonders to break the ice.
– Разбирам! was his booming reply: I understand! He bared his two remaining front teeth in what was probably a grin.
– Can we have something to eat?
– Sure! Come with me! (I think that’s what he said).

He pointed at two things on a hand-written menu: боб чорба and пърж. картофи. That was what was available. Bob chorba is a Bulgarian white bean soup, and the second thing was something with potatoes, as far as I understood. Great, bring it on. He nodded approvingly, disappeared into the building and reappeared not long after that with two bowls of hearty soup and two big plates of french fries. While we ate and tried to keep three cats from stealing our food, he looked on, smiling and saying things we intuitively understood. The sun shone. The forest around us was big and silent.

I’m not sure why he had bellowed. It wasn’t because either of us was deaf. Was it because we are foreigners?

We get all sorts of reactions when dealing with people whose language we do not speak. Many are curious and try to help. Some feel threatened and avoid us.

There have been a few who shouted at us, perhaps thinking that we would understand them better that way. Others have shaken their heads in disbelief about our lack of intelligence. That’s what a limited command of a language can do.

Then there are those who are used to dealing with outsiders, though not with Europeans. They will use the language that they routinely speak with ‘others’: in Thailand’s Isaan region, for instance, people switched to standard Thai, and in China’s rural areas people would speak standard Chinese to us instead of their dialect or language. In South-Afrika, San people addressed us in Afrikaans. In Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Kyrgyz will speak Russian with those who do not speak Kyrgyz. All of this is not strange. What makes it interesting is that whatever the lingua franca is, those who use it with us are in no doubt that we will understand it.

The idea that a lingua franca is universal is as understandable as it is wrong. I am sure that some of my readers think that English is a universal language. Right? In parts of the world it would seem so. In parts.

With a big detour, we arrived, a day later, at a chairlift that takes people up to the seven Rila lakes and that we had seen on the map. Just as well we didn’t know this is one of Bulgaria’s greatest tourist attractions. We don’t consult travel guides or websites like Trip Advisor, allowing instead chance to run its course and occasionally following recommendations from people we meet.

A long, leisurely ride on the chairlift took us up to the glacial lakes that are spread out over a relatively small area at altitudes between 2100 and 2500 meters. In summer, people will put up with long waiting times to go up, but now, in October, there were few people there. Perfect.

The pictures will describe this area better than I can:

The Rila lakes are situated in the Rila National Park, on the north side of the Rila mountain range. On the south side, we passed a town called Rila, on our way to the Rila monastery. Somebody must have really liked the name Rila.

Having ticked off the Rila monastery (again, October is a good time to visit, with only a few buses there), and with Greece ever closer, we gave in to the siren song that at least I had been hearing for a while, and pointed the car towards the border.

On the whole, we have been pleasantly surprised by Eastern Europe, so we will be back. But first: a few months in Greece.

There was a lake, there were people fishing, it was a bit crowded, we thought we’d try the other side of the lake. According to Maps.Me, a track went that way. But the track proved problematic and so we came back to where we had been. There was a nice-looking spot and we went to check it out. We soon found out why there was nobody there: it was treacherous, boggy ground. We did not recognise that until it was too late and we were, yes, bogged down.

Right. Number one rule when you find yourself stuck in sand or mud: take your foot off the accelerator, because if you don’t, you’ll get deeper in trouble. Instead of going forward or back, you’ll just go down into the very stuff you’re stuck in.

Fair enough, but we still needed to get out. We tried several configurations. Four-wheel drive, high and low gearing. No luck. So we switch on front and rear diff lock. Still no luck. What the f…

The only way out is in reverse, because ahead, the ground gets even softer. But behind us the ground slopes up.

Time to bring out the sand plates. First behind the rear wheels and with two-wheel drive, so the front wheels won’t dig themselves in. Then in four-wheel drive. No good.

We have wedges that we use as levellers. We push those up behind the front wheels, the rear wheels. Anything to get some traction and back out. Still nothing. Before long, the front left wheel is in up to the axle. Bad news. Time to get out the shovel and dig.

In the end, it took an hour and all of the following: four-wheel drive, low gearing, front and rear diff lock, sand plates behind both wheels on the left side, a shovel, and a man who came to help push, together with Charlotte. Take away any of those ingredients and we would not have got out.

I like to think that we have learned a lesson from that. Something like: when anywhere near water, walk before you drive. Will that be enough to avoid a similar predicament in the future?

So we arrived at this Ukrainian resort town after a harrowing journey on a road full of potholes. There had been billboards with adverts for hotels a long way back, but once there, we could not find any of them. A kind soul helped us out. As we stood looking lost in what seemed to be a central part of town but without anything resembling a hotel, a restaurant or a shop in sight, he asked us, using an idiomatic expression, ‘вам куда?’, to which we replied that we were looking for a place to spend the night. He went into something that turned out to be a café and found out that across the street, there was a pizzeria that had a whole upper floor of rooms to rent for the night. Ah. All you need to do is ask.

The following day, we carried on and found that at the outskirts of town, the road out turned into a dirt road with even more potholes than before.

The choice we had was: continue on it in the direction of the Romanian border and then decide whether to turn left and head back into the mountains or right to cross the border, or turn around and go back to where we had come from. We continued and occasionally passed through a town with a history and decent pavement, such as German Mokra and Russian Mokra, two towns that had been founded by Austrians and Russians respectively, in the 18th century.

Near the Romanian border, we found a hotel to sleep in. Although the weather had improved by this time, a walk through a residential area could not take the pervasive gloom of the past few days away. We walked on muddy roads, lined by half-finished houses for which clearly the money had run out a long time ago. Some were still inhabited, while others had been abandoned. A few residents outside run-down dwellings, mostly old women, eyed us with suspicion and did not return our greetings.

We decided to leave ‘more of Ukraine’ for another time. Driving along the border to a border crossing, we passed rows of recently-built mansions with pillars and castles with towers. Kitsch. Most of these unfinished and seemingly uninhabited, but big, grandiose, one mansion after another. Ukrainians who had successfully traded? Or Romanians who were investing their illegally earned money across the border? Likely the latter.

The border crossing itself was almost a mom-and-pop affair. There was no-one in line ahead of us. We joked with the Ukrainians (in Russian, again), accidentally skipped one step in the procedures, were helped back on track, and then the Romanians (who spoke very good English) just about waved us through. Welcome back into the EU.

And what a difference it was. Is it the difference between the Slavic soul and Latin temperament?

People smiled. They watched us with curiosity, not distrust. Their dress was colourful. In the first town we visited, right after the border, shops, restaurants and cafés were inviting. The roads were excellent.

We passed through beautiful beech forests on our way back into the mountains and then climbed on a dirt track. We were soon reminded that autumn in the mountains means hunting season:

And so when we had found a spot to camp and went for a hike through the bed of a small stream, we made sure to wear the fluorescent jackets that are always in the car. Besides that, I was banging on the rocks with a stick, until Charlotte asked me why I was doing that. I told her there are an estimated 9000 brown bears in the Romanian Carpathians (an innocent over-exageration, as one former US president would have said: it’s only 6000), and that was the end of that hike. We probably did come close to bears a few days later – read on.

First rays of the sun that rises above the mountains, first cup of coffee… Bliss.

Following the fringes of the mountains, we found that it is easy to camp in the wild in Romania, even though technically, it is not allowed.

Steppe, seemingly empty…

… until a shepherd passes with his flock. He wants nothing to eat but accepts a cup of coffee. Charlotte took the photo, I played with it.

Ten-year-old sheepdog that trudges along with the flock but leaves the work to the younger ones. Photo: Charlotte.

In Sibiu, just north of the southern Carpathians, houses keep several watchful eyes on the town.

In Slovakia, someone we had met had scribbled two names on a piece of paper. They were Romanian roads that she had said we should drive on, because they were scenic and well-known: Transfăgărăşan and Transalpina. Both cross the southern Carpathians, north to south.

The first is special because its construction had been ordered by Nicolae Ceauşescu with the aim of being able to quickly bring troops across the mountains in the event of a Soviet invasion. Inexperienced soldiers were made to handle explosives and hundreds are reputed to have died, although officially, that never happened.

Apart from this bit of history, we found it only mildly thrilling.

Except: we stopped at one point to take photos of the autumn colours, and noticed a dirt road at the bottom of the valley.

We looked for access to that and found a beautiful spot to pass the night. Now, we had noticed that wherever cars could stop for a rest, a picknick or to spend the night, there were dogs. Strays, probably left behind by their owners, some looking in good shape, others covered in dreadlocks and fleece. During our stay in Romania, we fed some of them from what we had, and in the end, we bought dog food.

In this particular instance, the food we gave the two dogs that came to keep us company assured us of a nightwatch. At one point in the evening, while I was still sitting outside, both of them began to growl, staring fixedly into the night, to somewhere on the other bank of the shallow stream. Bears, we decided. We had been told to expect them here. Time to go into the car and prepare for the night.

I wondered what would become of these dogs when winter came. Their thick fur would protect them from the cold, but would they find food when nobody would stop for a picknick? Charlotte said sure, dogs are resourceful, they’ll find something. When we left we passed a hotel less than a kilometer away…

Having arrived at the southern end of the Transfăgărăşan and driving west to the Transalpina, we noticed a gorge that according to Maps, a road led into. There was indeed a dirt road that wound all the way up to a pass at 1650 meters.

On the other side, there was a lake and an inn where our question: can you serve us something to eat? made the owner get out his fishing rod and pull a few trouts out of a basin. We had found a passage across the mountains between the two scenic roads and there had been nobody there besides us.

After another night out and another dog, we decided to drive the second of the two scenic roads and then carry on towards the Serbian border. The idea was to drive through Serbia into Kosovo, on to Albania and then into Greece, to spend the colder months on Crete.

Others have driven the Transalpina before us.

This was a breathtakingly beautiful road. Alternating stretches of switchbacks and gradually sloping terrain, forest and grassland, ridges and bowls offering sweeping views, and although on the north side we entered clouds, on the south side the sky opened up.

A first pass at some 2100 meters.

Note the clouds coming in from the north, breaking like waves over the mountains, and dissolving. Photo: Charlotte.

A bit of off-roading on boggy terrain near the high point. Photo: Charlotte.

On safari in Romania. Photo: Charlotte.

With only an hour and a half left to drive to the Serbian border, we read that if we were to continue as planned and cross into Kosovo from Serbia, we would then have an entry stamp for Kosovo but no Serbian exit stamp, since for Serbia, Kosovo is still one of its provinces. With the ‘wrong stamps’ in our passports, we would not be able to enter Serbia for as long as those passports are valid, that is, for the next nine years.

This set us thinking. We could drive around Kosovo, or simply avoid Serbia in the future. Or we could… What if we went to Bulgaria instead, from there into Greece, and then wait for early spring to visit Albania, Kosovo and Serbia? Right, that sounds good.

So we turned around, and after some featureless plains, the Danube lay in front of us, wider than we had seen it anywhere, marking the border between Romania and Bulgaria. It took some time to get the ferry across (the ferry could dock in only one direction, so that all vehicles, including the largest trucks, had to turn around on deck) and we had to surrender the sausages we had just bought due to a swine flu scare, but otherwise, things went smoothly.

We looked around. So now we are in Bulgaria. Now what?

A grasshopper has adopted our car.

‘And so we have a duty to travel the world and find good things’, I heard myself say, to my own surprise. It made sense, everything I had said made sense, I just had not previously thought this through.

We had struck up a conversation with a Slovak lady who sat at the table next to us in an Indian restaurant. She had asked us in English where we were from, but had soon preferred to continue in French, happy to have an occasion to speak the language that she had used at the French university she had studied at. We talked about refugees and open borders, about preconceived ideas and the fear that people have of the unknown. I volunteered the thought that since the news we hear and read tends to be bad news and since the internet brings us innuendo as well as bad news, our views of other countries and other cultures are naturally skewed and there is now a lot more fear and less tolerance than there should be, given how enlightened we all are. Hence the necessity to travel. And find good things.

Right. So now, besides a constant need for change, an insatiable kind of curiosity and the wish to keep learning there is one more reason to travel: we are on a mission. Fancy that.

So let’s get to work. Let’s travel.

Near Třeboň

We had previously left off in the southern Czech town of Třeboň. One day, while walking to town on a dam that separates a man-made lake from the town itself, I watched a series of concrete ponds being filled with water. When one was full, a truck carrying several containers, each with a small door on the side, pulled up. A door was opened, a slide placed between it and the pond, the container tipped sideways, and out came a slithering mass of fish that ended up in the pond. This was repeated a few times, while other ponds were being filled with water.

I asked others who were watching this what was happening. They spoke only Czech, but managed to get across that since the weather would soon turn colder, the fish in the lake (they were carp) would stay on the bottom and be harder to fish. To make sure there would be a constant supply of carp for restaurants and homes (it is a Czech tradition to eat carp during Christmas, I read later), the fish were being transferred to these concrete ponds from where they would be sold when needed. I did not know it then, but carps would ‘resurface’ from time to time in the next couple of weeks.

Black sunflowers near Vienna.

Charlotte arrived in Vienna, I went to pick her up, and we spent a day in the city centre, impressed by its grandeur and thrilled with the busker festival that was taking place.

In Vienna.

Where to next? Back north into the Czech republic or a short hop east, into Slovakia? The idea had formed to travel the length of the Carpathian mountain range, which from Slovakia extend eastward into Ukraine and then curl south and west into Romania. So a short hop it was, across the border to Bratislava.

Bratislava had caused pangs of nostalgia when I had first visited it by train from Vienna a few years ago. It had been like time travel: an hour or so after departing from Vienna’s modern, spacious, light and efficient train station, I had arrived at Bratislava’s dark, small and slightly chaotic station where real people still sold train tickets from behind grimy-looking ticket windows, shops offered travellers’ necessities only from behind counters so that one had to ask for everything, and the board that indicated departing and arriving trains was sure to make many who had arrived from the west look at it with the surprised recognition of something long forgotten. Outside, at kiosks someone would hand you the newspaper you asked for through a tiny window so that you only ever got to see the hands of the person you were dealing with. The bitumen of streets that had obviously never been properly constructed in the first place had been patched up a million times. Old, beat-up trams that must have been in service longer than anyone could remember slogged back and forth, carrying travellers who sat huddled in their coats and hats against the February cold.

I had wanted to show Charlotte all this, but in the space of a few years, much had changed. Shops had been modernised, roads repaired and old trams replaced with new ones, apparently with EU financing.

We set out to find the historic centre and found a very pleasant pedestrian area with restaurants and cafés and only one group of Chinese tourists, looking a bit confused. Was this really where they were meant to be? I decided to start learning Slovak.

On our way east to join the Carpathians, we found out, more or less by chance, that if we wanted to camp in the wild, lakes were the place to go to. Carp fishing is a popular activity in Slovakia, lakes are typically full of carp, and all a prospective camper needs to do is try a few tracks that branch off a road towards a lake to find spots where fishermen tend to spend days and nights (carps are best caught in the evening and early morning, when they are hungry). Find a free spot and you have a place to sleep with a view.

A spot with a view. Photo: Charlotte.

We watched them fish. At first, only beeping things caught our attention. They turned out to be something called bite alarms. When the beeping went wild, we’d see someone run to their fishing rod, start to frantically reel in, and sometimes, only sometimes, come up with a carp.

Then we noticed something moving on the water’s surface. A diver with a buoy to indicate his position? But no, the ‘buoy’ returned to the shore, was taken out of the water, and there was nothing underneath. This was no buoy, this was a bait boat, which is a radio-controlled floating device that is used by fishermen to take the bait further out than they can cast it, in order to increase their chances of catching something. These bait boats can be equiped with fish sonar so that the bait can be dropped where the fish are… All very clever, but we’re not done yet. We saw many of them sleeping in dark green tents, in camouflage sleeping bags. Obviously, we asked ourselves whether you have a bigger chance of fish biting if you sleep in a camouflage sleeping bag. It seems nothing was left to chance. In any case, to fish for carp, you don’t just go and rent some fishing tackle in a nearby café, that much has become clear.

On to the High Tatras, an area of outstanding natural beauty that straddles, as they say, the Slovak-Polish border. Ahh… We hiked.

We saw people approach a load of onions at a trailhead and stuff some of those into their backpacks. Surely, they weren’t stealing? But no. According to local tradition, those who carry supplies to a mountain refuge higher up are rewarded with free tea.

We saw a woman descending, holding a wedding dress bunched up around her waist. And a man in a suit and on very impractical shoes. And another man, holding what could be a photographer’s case.

We also saw people descending with unlikely loads. After reaching a high-altitude lake, we realised that some sort of camp was being dismantled there. We spoke to someone who said he was a geologist. He had just finished studying the sediment in glacial lakes in the area. The people we had seen carrying stuff down were hired porters, also called… sherpas.

He asked us about our trip and we told him we were following the Carpathians through Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. His eyes lit up. ‘I would like to do that some day’, he said.

Photo: Charlotte.

The High Tatras in hindsight.

Košice, in the east, looked unapproachable but turned out to have a very nice pedestrian centre. It was here that we met the lady we spoke to in French, earlier in this report. I asked her if life had improved since Slovakia’s EU membership. She said no, things had gotten worse. Money goes to those who know how to work the system, while the poor just keep getting poorer.

It had been difficult not to see the poverty among the Roma population. Wherever there were shantytowns, they lived there and the roads were lined by dark-skinned pedestrians. We read, to our surprise, that these people had come some 1500 years ago from India (words like gypsy, gitane, tsigane, zigeuner etc. are all evidence of an old but mistaken belief that they had once come from Egypt). How is it possible that they have been ostracised and excluded for so long? How is it possible that they still live in shantytowns, with what appears to be deliberately limited access to healthcare, education and jobs?

Our last night was going to be one of those by the side of a lake, but when we reached it, all the spots we found were taken up by fishermen. There happened to be an international carp fishing competition on… We found the organisers and after some deliberation, they pointed us to a small part of the lake that was not in use for the competition. We did indeed find a place to spend the night:

Last evening in Slovakia. Photo: Charlotte.

Last morning in Slovakia.

On the day that we left Slovakia and entered Ukraine, the weather changed dramatically.

It took an hour and a half to cross the Slovak-Ukranian border. The Slovaks were cheerful and courteous, the Ukranians were… bastards. Welcome outside the EU.

I am told to go to a window to present our passports. The person there ignores me, another points gruffly for me to go to the opposite side of the road, where after some cueing issues a third accepts my passport without acknowledging my existence. A fourth official takes me away from there before our passports have been returned to me, indicates that I have to get back to the car and then, seeing that I am confused, barks at me in very uncivil Russian. He has no way of knowing I understand what he says, although he must consider Russian a lingua franca, for other than that and Ukrainian, he is unlikely to speak any languages. I am reminded of guard dogs, unhappy with their task of keeping vagrants and troublemakers out, unhappy about being where they are.

It didn’t help that on the other side of the border the landscape consisted of cheerless muddy towns, roads that were beyond repair and on which thirty-something-year-old Ladas were the norm, and a gray sky from which the rain kept falling. Gloomy, desolate, depressing.

We drove through the mountains, or hills, rather, towards a campsite that Google Maps had indicated. It had returned very few campsites, but we wanted our first night in this unfamiliar country to be in an environment that was used to hosting campers. We arrived at the indicated village in the afternoon and found nothing even remotely resembling a campsite. But there was a restaurant and it was definitely time to eat. The owner of the restaurant, who had learned some English by simply talking to people, gave us an amused look when we asked about the campsite. No, no campsite. How about Ukraine in general? No campsites.

He did offer for us to park on his land, though. There was a toilet that was accessible from the outside, and as for washing or showering, why, we happened to be in чан paradise. I’m sorry, what? He took us around the back to show us.

Чан (pronounced chan or tshan, only a bit differently – never take anyone literally when they tell you something is ‘pronounced like’) is Ukraine’s take on sauna, hammam and hot spring. In this case, one sits in something that could be mistaken for a cauldron, in hot water that is being heated by a wood fire underneath and in which dried herbs (much like a bouquet garni) float around. Sure, this can be unsettling, but you’re free to get out whenever you want and when the water gets too hot you just add cold water.

The idea is to spend ten minutes or so in the hot water, then immerse yourself in the icy river that runs past it for as long as you can take it, do a quick dip in the hot water again and get out for five minutes. And repeat. A one-hour session means three or four of these cycles, although we have seen Ukranians who spent the entire hour in the hot tub, getting drunker and drunker.

We did this for an hour in the evening and felt ready to take on the world. But rather than taking anything on, we crawled into our beds in the car and slept like babies. The following morning, there were блини and сырники for breakfast.

So where to next? Charlotte found a report of someone who had camped at a very scenic spot. She entered the location in Maps but did not realise she had made a mistake. I only began to suspect something was not as we had intended when Maps took us off a sealed road and into the mountains on what was no more than a tractor track, with still a long way to go. We compared information and found we’d been going the wrong way for a while.

Rather than turn around and drive into the hours of darkness, we looked for and found a place to camp. It rained all night and there was some concern that we might not be able to climb out of there through a big puddle with a muddy bottom, but that bottom seemed solid enough and we did indeed, in the morning, manage to get out.

Now when I say sealed road, that shouldn’t be taken too literally. We have come through stretches where instead of road surface, there were only deep potholes. On some of these, a safe speed would be, say, 3 kmh, although locals typically drive faster. In Central Asia, a driver once told me he ‘flies’ over potholes at high speed, the higher the better.

Potholes are impossible to avoid when they are everywhere…

… or when they are this wide. Impossible also to see how deep they are when they are flooded.

Under a steady rain, we drove to what seemed to be a resort town in a national park. After a night by a lake, a night on the grounds of a restaurant and a night on the edge of a forest, and with the rain not stopping, the idea of a night in a hotel was an appealing one.

You know what? No idea when I will have an internet connection again. I’ll finish this later.

The German radio station I had been listening to began to crackle and fade. Pressing seek yielded another station with better reception, albeit in a language I did not understand. Then came a group of buildings with writings that I could not read. Almost imperceptibly, I had entered the Czech Republic.

(Charlotte is in the Netherlands, dear reader, so it’s just you and me).

It has taken less than a day in the Czech republic to decide that I love this country. No, that’s not quite the right expression. I am euphoric.

It could be a soft spot I have for Eastern European countries in general. Ever since I spent a few months in Siberia, anything that reminds me of that time brings on a wave of recognition, and in Eastern Europe, there is plenty that makes that happen.

Or it could be the challenge of making myself understood, a new language to address – only now do I realise that I had missed that. In any case, I have just downloaded the Colloquial Czech textbook and audio files and intend to dive into those.

My first morning in Bohemia (ah, the associations that that name brings up!), at the campsite, as I passed a tent with a Czech couple, he and I exchanged good mornings. I stopped to ask him to repeat what he had said a few more times, so that I could remember it. He did, adding a few more useful words for good measure. Then his wife said something to him and he asked me if I was going to drive, gesturing as if turning a steering wheel left and right. I said yes. He brought out the bottle anyway. Home-made?, I asked. Yes, he said, but don’t worry. I wasn’t worried. We downed a small metal cup of the plum brandy in one gulp and chatted some more, and then I went to make myself breakfast. This, I believe, was when the euphoria started. OK, so maybe the alcohol played a role.

Let’s go back to where we had left of. That was in Ireland. That was ages ago.

Our last stop in Ireland before getting on the ferry to France was a bit of a pilgrimage. 34 years ago, while training to be a DC-9 copilot, I was part of a group of student pilots, instructors and examiners who flew from Amsterdam to Shannon International Airport with a couple of DC-9’s to spend a few days practising cross-wind landings and take-offs in Shannon’s famously adverse weather conditions. Those few days made a lasting impression.

It was 1984. We took part in a medieval banquet at nearby Bunratty Castle, together with a large group of American tourists who had come to explore the lands of their forebears. We ate with our hands and threw scraps of food to the hapless member of the group who had been thrown into the ‘dungeon’. That was, well, interesting.

But the real gem, the one I carried with me in my heart for many years, was a visit to a pub called Durty Nelly’s. That had offered a glimpse at the Irish soul, and I was not going to forget that.

We arrived fairly early in the evening, had a drink and chatted with the locals, some young, some, men and women, not so young, some definitely old. Then an old man got up and walked over to the piano. Before long, everybody was singing along with the Irish traditionals that were being played. As the evening progressed, others got out the instruments they had brought and joined in or took over. We sang along as best we could, mostly choruses that we picked up as we sang. As far as I know, we were the only non-Irish there, chance visitors to a world of magic that I, at least, had not known about.

Our training completed, we flew back to Amsterdam. I bought a compilation of Irish traditional songs and listened to them from time to time, thinking fondly of that evening in a pub called Durty Nelly’s, where people from several generations had mixed and sung songs to the sounds of the instruments that they themselves had brought while outside, Shannon’s famously adverse weather conditions had continued unabated.

It is 2018. Bunratty Castle is still standing. In fact, it is a popular tourist destination, and not just for the medieval banquets that are still being held there.

We hear a lot of French being spoken and some Spanish, witness to the direct ferry lines that exist between these countries and Ireland. We hear a lot of American English, too.

In the seven weeks that we have spent in England, Wales and Ireland, we have hardly met any foreigners. It must be because they are all here, in Ireland’s southwest. This area must be in some guidebook.

At the foot of the castle lies an open-air museum (which I don’t remember from my earlier visit) made up of replicas (and some originals, I believe) of 19th century houses and shops. To get in and out you have to pass through a giftshop the size of an entire tax-free area of a major international airport.

Durty Nelly’s, just opposite the entrance of all this castle and ‘folk park’ business, looks much bigger than I remember it. Surely, the restaurant must have been added on, as well as the outside seating areas. The service is swift though not faultless: the waitress anounces cheerfully that my order will take a bit longer because she has made a mistake. Two North Americans baulk at the oysters they have ordered with their beer, saying they are too salty. Irish English is not heard much. Menus and other useful texts propagate the Durty Nelly’s brand as if it were… a brand. There is a website that explains it all and offers t-shirts for sale. Durty Nelly’s is no longer the pub that once entranced me, it has become a brand.

We ask about the music in the evenings. Oh yes, there is live music several nights a week, and singalongs on the remaining nights. All very organised, very predictable, well taken care of so that those who have come to visit know what to expect and won’t be disappointed. Let’s practise this together, folks: ‘oh Danny boy, the pipes…’

The analogy is cruel but obvious. Just like the open-air museum around Bunratty castle shows what life was like 150 years ago, Durty Nelly’s today shows what life was like only decades ago. And, typical of open-air museums, the people who once made this all real are gone. What is left is a stage peopled by those who offer entertainment and those who have come to seek it. At a price, of course. It is always about money.

The local pub that used to be the venue for spontaneous get-togethers for people who wanted nothing more than to share has been turned into a tourist attraction.

I should have expected this, because it is happening everywhere.

But wait, this is not all. Do you know how you keep making the same mistake over and over again and it takes time for this to sink in and for you to realise that it is you who will have to change something? Yes, I was about to make the same mistake again. I was again going to revisit the past. But the past waits for no man.

We landed in Brittany, where the weather was not much better than it had been in Ireland. So we headed east, and only a few days later did the realisation sink in that grey skies had turned into blue, the sun had come out and temperatures had risen to very pleasant values. By this time, we were already at the German border. Time to apply the brakes and take it more slowly.

We visited a good friend near lake Constance who just happened to be there, where she grew up, although she lives in London. Happy times.

And then the idea came up to visit Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where I had worked for a couple of months as a waiter, several decades ago, fallen very much in love, and faced an existential question: continue travelling or stay and be happy? I had travelled on.

On the way there, we made a small detour via the famous Neuschwanstein castle. We only wanted to see it from a distance… Mistake: even though we had not even intended to visit it, the thronging crowds, the many cars, caused me to have a severe claustrophobic reaction. Out, now!

The Garmisch-Partenkirchen where I worked, in, I believe, early 1981, was a ski resort that was accessible from Munich by a two-lane road. It was a town made up of two villages where only recently addresses made up of street name and number had replaced names of houses. There was an R&R centre for American armed forces stationed in Germany. They had their own mountain to ski on and otherwise mostly kept to themselves, which suited everybody fine. Clausing’s Post Hotel, where I worked, was a privately owned hotel, where mostly very skilled Italians with first names like Mauro and Giorgio were my colleagues and mentors. The girl I fell in love with was the daughter of my landlord. He was a staunch Bavarian if there ever was one, and he considered me a bad influence for his daughter. He was probably right, although I didn’t think so at the time. She introduced me to the music of ‘Liedermacher’ (Bavarian and Austrian singer-songwriters) and a lot more. These were happy times.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a bit different today. The two-lane road from Munich has made way for one of those motorways where cars storm past at over 200 kmh and brake hard at the last moment to make a clear statement to those idiots who are overtaking at only 130 kmh. The armed forces R&R centre is no longer in use as such; instead, the complex now houses several hundred asylum seekers, mostly Nigerians and Afghans at the moment, who are much more visible in the streets than the Americans had been. They contrast nicely with Saudi tourists, true to form with the women fully veiled and men in shorts. Clausing’s Post Hotel has been sold to a group of hotels and no longer bears the family name. The girl who had made this town special moved and got married a long time ago. What is left is a collection of buildings that continue to be adorned with traditional wall paintings but only serve as a decor to sell the town’s brand to the crowds of visitors that fill the streets. This was once a Bavarian town. It is fast on its way to becoming an open-air museum. Once again, it is all about money.

Nearby Grainau is a breath of fresh air. But continue up to the Eibsee, and the crowds are there again. The Eibsee is a somewhat-higher-altitude lake that Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s youth used to cycle to in summer and spend the afternoons swimming naked in. That is no longer the case. It is here that one of two competing cable cars goes up to the top of Germany’s tallest mountain (the other one comes from the Austrian side) and therefore a must-have-been-there of international renown.

I was reminded of Amsterdam which I visited in January a few years ago, where I heard every conceiveable language being spoken except Dutch (well OK, and Silbo Gomero) and where I was adressed in English by shop assistants everywhere. It was there that I first had the feeling of being in an open-air museum, with the original inhabitants probably all gone skiing.

Interestingly, just like a short drive from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Grainau had been enough to lose the crowds, so a hike up from the Eibsee proved enough to be on our own again, save for a few German hikers. We ‘restaured’ ourselves in a Berghütte with Kartoffelnudeln with Sauerkraut and Speck, and Kaiserschmarrn, hearty, timeless mountain fare.

So. The lesson could be: don’t go back to where you have good memories. Keep the memories whole, cherish them.

Also: rely on people rather than places. People don’t change.

The question that remains is, are we, too, responsible for the world-wide plague that tourism has become? The answer can only be: of course! I would be inclined to say in my defense that there have been large movements of people throughout history. But unlike most of those, we do not move out of necessity, we move because we can. And we don’t settle and become part of the scene, we stay long enough to spend some money and then move on. Then others come and spend money. Then more come, with expectations. If there are enough of us, it is our money that eventually makes people sell their souls.

Can I not be a wanderer, a vagabond, who touches nothing, changes nothing?

Charlotte went to the Netherlands for a week and I found myself stuck in what I once learned to recognise in school as a classic Genoa Low. A low pressure area near the Gulf of Genoa whirls the airmass counter-clockwise. With every spin, the part of the airmass that is over the Mediterranean takes a gulp of water. This is then transported to the eastern Alps where it is spewed out over unsuspecting travellers.

Day after day, it rained. Waiting to pick Charlotte up at the airport of Vienna, I saw no solution but to sit it out. She urged me to get out and go somewhere else, and I did.

The first timid sunrays broke through the clouds in Český Krumlov. The manager of the campsite there said to me, ‘you have not been to the town? It is a lovely old town, you should go! People come from all over the world to see it, people come from China’! As if she had read my mind, she went on, ‘Go early. Go before the buses come.’

I did go early, right after the plum brandy and breakfast. I saw a charming town with a torture museum, a wax museum and Chinese tourists trying to navigate the cobblestone streets and footpaths with their suitcases on wheels. I saw shops that sold handmade wooden toys, restaurants with handpainted signs, houses painted with trompe l’oeil stone motifs.

When the streets began to fill with groups, it was time to go. I overheard one exchange where a group member said, ‘So the beer I had last night was Czech? I thought Budweiser was American!’ To which the guide, somewhat curtly, replied, ‘We would never drink American beer. Why would we drink American beer? ‘…

The language course turns out to be a treasure trove and a delight. Of course! What else would it be?

Třeboň, the following day: charming town, colourful houses, spacious park with century-old trees. Oaks heavy with acorns. Nuthatches, as fearless as sparrows are elsewhere. First sunny day in a week or so, a hint of autumn in the air. Walking through the town, I try to pick up words left and right. I hear only Czech spoken around me. I am ecstatic. I think I will stay here for a few days and then pick Charlotte up in Vienna.

Some of these photos should really have been posted with the previous report, but most are more recent. In the meantime, we have booked a ferry out of Ireland. Where to? Find out after the photos.

Bangor, Wales, at low tide. Photo: Charlotte.

Seal off Llŷn Peninsula. Photo: Charlotte.

South Stack lighthouse. Photo: Charlotte.

Car dealer in the town with the famously long name. It is probably one of the earliest tourist traps on record: the name was lengthened in the 19th century to attract more visitors. By the way, although it looks unpronounceable, it helps to realise that the letter w is actually a vowel. Like ou in French (tout, oui), it represents the oo-sound in too, the ue in true, the ew in crew, the ough in through, and so on. If placed at the beginning of a word or syllable, it behaves like the English w. Photo: Charlotte.

A few more pictures of British one-lane roads, of which there are surprisingly many. These roads are challenging enough when around each bend there can be opposite traffic…

… and they present new challenges when the opposite traffic materialises…

… especially when two tractors, each hauling a slurry tanker, meet head-on. Photos: Charlotte.

On a farm in Brecon Beacons National Park.

Brecon Beacons National Park.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. A great place to be: a million flying ants can’t be wrong!

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

Photo: Charlotte.

Near Strumble Head.

Charlotte has found a good spot…

… with some fairly spectacular scenery to contemplate…

… and part of Mahon Falls behind her. Southern Ireland.

Photo: Charlotte.

What is the speed limit on this road?

Photo: Charlotte.

Killarney National Park, Ireland.

Now then: where to, and why? Well… Being confined in a car with the wind howling and rain passing horizontally is not fun. Driving or walking through landscapes that have all the colour sucked out of them by a continuous drizzle is not fun. Seeing weather forecasts that promise only occasional and very temporary relief made us think seriously about a question we had already been asked: why are we still here? The answer had been: because we are on our way to Scotland. But Scotland has the same weather, and worse. So why not… head for the sun? We have booked a ferry to France.