All posts by SimonWBrown

Day 38 – a day or so in Berat

We arrived at Berat early enough to be able to walk up the steep hill to explore the Ottoman fortress situated high up over the town. Fortunately by this time, it was late afternoon and the day was cooling down. Nevertheless, we were quite sweaty by the time we got to the top.

It was lovely to wander about the cobbled streets and remnants of the castle fortifications up there – old mosques, churches and even a cistern that was constructed to serve the fortress all those centuries ago. A mystery as to how the water was collected, although it might have been collected rsinwatrr over tye winter months. The whole area was very atmospheric.

Being high up it provided amazing vistas down the river valley, over to nearby mountains and the town far below.

As evening fell we took part in ‘La Passeggiata’, the Italian tradition of a social promenade in town taken after work and before dinner. Albanians seem to follow this rather pleasant activity.

As the sun set, the call to prayer provided an atmospheric backdrop to all this social activity. First from one, then two, and then finally all of the three mosques in the town. These were the first calls to prayer we heard on our trip, reminding us of the country’s mixed religious heritage.

Our room, having windows all round the exterior corner meant that as dawn broke the following day, the room was flooded with early morning light. This accompanied the gentle cool breeze coming through the open windows. You  can understand why the Ottomans built houses like this.

The next day we devoted to exploring the many narrow cobbled streets and pathways all over town as well as paying a visit to two of the mosques and four of the Orthodox style churches which are dotted about the town. One church in particular was perched half way up the cliff only accessed by a steep  zig zag footpath. We arrived almost at the same time as the guardian who unlocked for us to see inside. In each of these churches there were lots of icons on the walls depicting the various saints.

The mosques provided peaceful spaces in which to contemplate and the interiors were simple but very attractive. Not quite as old as those we saw in Istanbul, but nevertheless still around 400 years old.

We had our lunch in the shade in the park by the main riverside promenade. The day before we had bought  some fresh apricots and peaches from an old chap who was selling his home grown produce. This fruit was very juicy and absolutely delicious and nicely accompanied the almonds and pistachio nuts we had previously bought in the fresh produce market in Durres.

The afternoon was spent pleasantly enough sipping cool beer and lemonade in one of the many bars that people hang out in to people-watch.

After another bit of wandering it was time to think about dinner and walking along the many restaurant options offered we settled upon a place that provided some delicous stuffed mushrooms, baked aubergines and vegetable risotto at a very reasonable price of 2100 Lek (around 21 euros) including wine. We followed this with ice creams bought from one of the many ‘dyqani i akullores’ (ice cream shops) that were situated along the town’s promenade.

Tomorrow we head for Gjirocastra,  4 hours away in a shared minibus (furgon)  to the south. It promises to be another attractive Ottomon style settlement, this time built at the top of a  hill.

It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the much loathed previous dictator president Hoxha. He ordered one of the massive cold war era concrete bunkers to be built there as a result of his paranoia of the surrounding western orientated countries.

Days 36 and 37 – To Ancona, and then to Albania

It was a very early start to catch the 6.30am Regionale train from Albenga to Genova… it arrived bang on time which enabled us to catch the Intercity to Milano Centrale which then connected with the speedy ‘Freccerosso’ to Ancona, the ferry port for Durres in Albania and other destinations.

We thought we would walk the 3km to the port from the station, since we had arrived in plenty of time for check in for the ferry, rather than find a tabachi to buy local bus tickets.

We arrived at the ferry terminal ok….. but we found out that the check-in place was back 2km almost where we had come from! Fortunately we discovered that there was a free shuttle bus that ran every 15  mins between the check- in, the port terminal and the station! Frustratingly, there was nowhere on ticketing, or email confirmations that gave any indications as to the separation of check-in, passports and boarding.

Ferry ready and waiting to take us to Albania

Having checked in, passports duly checked and stamped to say we were leaving the EU we then boarded our  ferry to Durres, one of the port cities in Albania.

We had booked a cabin for the overnight journey to Durres, so that we would arrive rested to deal with a new country , new language and different ways of doing things.

Leaving Ancona

We sailed on time for a smooth crossing of the Adriatic Sea saying farewell to Ancona and temporarily to Italy.

On board, the majority of foot passengers were Albanian, who knew the score about occupying potential sleeping areas in the saloons with bags, airbeds…even a mattress! The other foot/cycle passengers were a mixture of nationalities, including Dutch, Swiss, British and German – there was apparently, another couple who had a tandem with them, although we never met them! All were puzzled by the fact we had cycle panniers with us, but no cycle!

Durres Port

At 8am the next morning, after a good sleep, we had our first sight of Albania, a sunny Durres Port.

Disembarcation was straightforward and soon we were outside the terminal to be greeted by a barrage of friendly, but insistent taxi drivers. “Where are you from?”, “where do you want to go”, “I can give you a good price”.

We were focussed, however on three main things to start with:

1) to purchase an Albanian data sim card for our stay to avoid steep roaming charges out of the EU so that we could continue to blog, use maps and send emails and messages

2) to get some Lek, the local currency, from a “Bancomat”

3) to find a market to buy our lunch.

Having achieved all 3 things we then found a convenient bar to have a coffee and fruit juice, to get the Sim card set up, and then decide where to spend the first night in Albania.

We decided to go to Berat, to the South of the country, since it had been recommended as one of the “must visits” of Albania, known for its unique Ottoman era houses, it’s imposing Ottoman  castle and its scenic setting.

But how to get there! There was a sort of bus terminal near the port entrance with many coaches and minibuses each with signs in their windows giving their destinations.. but not Berat!.

Eventually we managed to find out that the bus system in Albania operates on the basis of bus hubs at various points on the outskirts, each one specialising in the routes related to its geographic position. You reach these bus hubs, often located anything up to 5km away from the centre, by a local bus.. 40 Lek…. equivalent to approx 35p, so not expensive.

At the end of the route there we saw the bus stands.. and a minibus with a sign “Berat”. On we got, with the ‘furgon’ only half full. I had read that longer distance transport in Albania doesn’t operate to a timetable.. Buses only leave when full!

Fortunately it wasn’t long before a group of young Dutch people turned up, and with plank seats fitted across the aisle of the minibus we set off.

Whilst travelling to Berat we had a look at what Airbnb could offer for a 2 night stay, making use of our newly aquired Albanian Sim card.

Came up trumps… a room in a family home in the Ottoman era old quarter was available at a very reasonable price. So we booked it for two nights ready for our arrival.

The way to find our accommodation,once we had arrived in Berat, was surprisingly easy, especially when you consider the Ottoman old quarter was a maze of narrow alleyways and cobbled streets.

We were greeted by our Albanian host who spoke no English but some Italian, as well as, of course , Albanian. Nevertheless, as one usually does, we were able to communicate the necessay details of where everything was in her home, and we soon got sorted out. Our room was beautufully presented and had a fabulous view of tye river and town through Ottoman style corner windows.

Days 34 and 35 – two days near the Maritime Alps

We arrived at Albenga just a few minutes later than scheduled to be met by Liz, Molly’s friend from training days all those years ago.

After doing a grocery shop for our stay we wended our way up tiny twisty roads in Liz’s and Shane’s Landrover to arrive at Rezzo, their home for the past 15 years or so.

Once installed in a nice little apartment that Liz had booked for us just down the attractive stone-paved street from where they were living we started to drink in the peace and the fabulous views down the valley, with little hamlets dotted about the wooded hillsides with church steeples here and there.

Because Liz and Shane have lived in the village for such a long time they knew a good percentage of the regular population, as well as the ‘swallows’ who typically live and work on the coast, but own a holiday property in the village.

It also meant they knew most of the tracks and footpaths in the vicinity for rural hill walking.

On our first day Liz drove us to a start point high up in the foothills for a superb upland walk she knew.

On the way we stopped to admire some secret rocky pools fed by the stream running down the mountainside which, in warm summer weather, provided a great cooling wild swimming spot.   Too chilly today with temperatures only around 17 or 18!

We started our mountain walk up to a local peak that had a magnificent panoramic view right across the Maritime Alps and down to the Mediterranean sea some 35km away.

On the way we passed a profusion of wildflowers and in the distance heard the tinkling sound of sheep bells on sheep grazing on distant hillsides. Lovely!

On the second day Liz took us on a lovely peaceful circular walk down the valley following the stream to another of their favourite rock pools. Passing ancient stone bridges crossing the river from time to time we then walked up on the other side of the valley up to Rezzo again.

Shane, meanwhile, was working hard on the refurbishment/rebuilding of a traditional stone built house which, in due course was to be their new home.

To finish off our stay we had been invited to a barbeque held by some good friends down the valley.

We spent a very sociable evening with them on their patio under the branches of some very old kiwi fruit trees. We had interesting conversations running far and wide, accompanied by delicious food and wine – and I even finished off the meal with a small helping of some rather pleasant  grappa!

An early bedtime ready for our 5.30am start to catch our train from Albenga meant we didn’t stay too late!

Days 32 and 33 – two days in Torino

Catching the direct FrecceRosso train to Torino was straightforward, and the helpful TrenItalia app on which I had purchased and stored the tickets showed the appropriate train number and platform to head for.

For those readers who are cyclists, you may be wondering how we managed our luggage for our onward journey. Our two larger rear panniers had a special backpack attachment so that they could easily be used as small rucksacks…. and our two small front panniers had an easily attached shoulder strap for ease of carrying.

Our arrival in Torino coincided with lunchtime, so we headed for a convenient park near the Porta Sousa station to enjoy our picnic in the sun.

We then were able to check in with our airbnb hosts at their flat to sort ourselves out and plan how we were best going to use our time in Torino. This included purchasing a €4 euro daily travel card at a nearby  ‘tabacchi’ for bus, metro and tram.

Our hosts were lovely and gave us some good advice about where to go and what to look at.

We had a lovely riverside walk down the Po, not far from our apartment, and there we encountered a recreation of a rural medieval village that had been built as an educational and tourist resource. Although it was a 19th century construction it was nevertheless quite atmospheric.

Afterwards we walked up to a good vantage point at a museum up one of the hills overlooking the city as suggested by our airbnb hosts.

Walking back down, we headed for the striking building that is now the Turin photographic and film museum ‘Il Mole   Antonelliana’.

Bizarrely, it was originally conceived as a synagogue when building commenced in 1863 but just 70 years later it was acquired by the city and used as the ‘Museo di Risorgimento’ telling the story of the creation of the Modern Italian state . In the early 2000’s it was refurbished again and then turned into the Museum of Cinema and Photography.

We then headed off to the Central Makets to buy our lunch provsions. Our objective was a to buy a large tomato, some cheese and possibly some fruit.

Little did we know that the traders  expected you to buy somewhat larger quantities than we wanted. So, we ended up with 2 smallish cucumbers for €1 (starting off with 4!), 2 bunches of spring onions for 50 cents (starting off at 4 bunches), 4 tomatoes for €1.50 (starting off with 1kg!) and 500g of strawberies for €2 and half a local cheese (we wanted just 200g and got 500g!) for just €4.50. Amazing prices for such good quality fresh produce but it produced a bit of a logistical challenge for carrying.

Then off to the Roman Gardens, with some of the remains of structures from Roman times still visible to have our lunch in the shade. Molly then had to travel back to the apartment to deliver her workshop (arranged whilst we were on the ferry to Bilbao!). Meanwhile I went to the Museo di Risorgimento, now housed in another grand building not far from the Royal Palace.

After delivering her workshop we arranged to meet at the Royal Palace, a very grand collection of buildings that are perhaps the Crown Jewels of Turin. It included the Royal Palace buildings, chapel of the Shroud of Turin as well as the Armoury and some very pleasant gardens to the rear. Although it was closing at 7pm and we thought that it may just be worth the €15 entrance fee from 5.45pm.

Well, one could call the Royal  Palace the Palace of Bling, since there were huge amounts of ornate gold gilded woodwork and plaster, tapestries and huge paintings in a long series of galleries and rooms. We walked swiftly through the Armoury with its large and historic  collection of suits of armour for horses and humans, together with early examples of pistols, muskets and rifles and then to the Chapel. The Chapel of the shroud was fabulous and well worth the visit… and then we were able to briefly explore the formal gardens before the sirens were sounded, announcing closing time.

Once out of the Palace complex we bimbled through the streets and came upon a straightforward pizza restaurant, that was, fortunately, able to oblige with a delicious gluten free pizza for me and a splendid gluten full version for Molly.  After the complimentary Limoncello we then just had to find a gelateria to finish the meal off in true Italian style!

Tomorrow, onwards to Liguria by train, to visit Molly’s friends Liz and Shane who live in a lovely little village called Rezzo some 650mtrs up above sea level, nestling attractively amongst the hills and forests of the Maritime Alps.

Days 30 and 31- A weekend in Lyon

Staying the weekend at the campsite on the outskirts of Lyon meant we all could be tourists for a while, exploring France’s second city which straddles the Saône and Rhone rivers which meet at Le Confluence.

Lyon has an efficient and low cost public transport network of buses, trams, metro, funiculars and suburban rail network. For just €8 you get 48hour access to go wherever you please on whichever mide takes your fancy. It makes one green with envy when one has to endure the fragmented, inefficient and costly transport system in the UK that Government policy regards as a money making enterprise for business.

Our two days were packed with wanderings around many parts of the central area of this attractive city. A short walk to a local bus stop meant that we could be in the city centre in about 30 minutes in a ‘bendy bus’.

The weather was sunny and pleasantly warm for our stay and we were able to use a “hop on hop off” tour bus to help with our orientation.

An interesting feature of the city is the wonderful collection of tromp l’oeil murals scattered about – one utilising a blank wall to depict famous Lyonnaise residents through time, and another ‘Le Mur Canuts’, which particularly caught our fancy. It was created by a local arts cooperative that was commissioned to brighten up the area.

A huge blank end wall of an apartment block was transformed into a typical streetscape of the area. Not only that, but several iterations of the mural over time incorporated new characters and activities into the scene, even with some characters having been depicted as aging a few years!

Here are a few other murals we came across!

The Vieux Ville was very attractive with many buildings dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. Attractive courtyards could be explored via narrow entrance passages, and the narrow streets were full of historic frontages and curiosities.

We explored the interior of the Cathedral, which, at the time of our visit, had an exhibition of some very expressive modern artworks of Christ’s Passion which were exhibited in the knave . We also enjoyed the stained glass, transmitting the powerful morning light.

The Basilica, reached by a funicular was pretty impressive on the outside, but we didn’t venture in since there appeared to be long queues at the entrance. Instead, we enjoyed the views across the city from the high vantage point on the plaza beside the Basilica.

Lyon, over the last decade or so, has transformed itself into a bit of a cultural hub. Taking advantage of a large area of derelict docklands, an area known as Le Confluence, a bit of a mini eco neighbourhood has been created, together with Le Musée Confluence (a sort of humankind/cultural/eco museum) with much bold architecture in evidence.

With an early start the following day to catch our early train to Torino, we had packed down our tent earlier in the day so that it could be stored in the motorhome alongside our tandem, sleeping bags and cooking equipment that Abi & Guy were looking after temporarily, whilst we continued our travels into Italy and Albania.

We slept soundly in their vehicle in the secondary sleeping area and managed to catch the early bus and tram connection to catch our train from Part Dieu Station to Torino.


Day 29 – Away to Lyon

Today we are on our way to Lyon, to meet up with Abi (Molly’s daughter) and Guy, her husband, who are living in France in Morzine, Haute Savoie.

This time however, we swap modes of transport and start the second phase of our journey without our tandem.

We cycled on return visit to Arles with our tandem to get to the station in good time to dismantle it ready to board the train to Lyon.

Our plan is to spend the weekend in Lyon, sightseeing, camping on a campsite on the outskirts of the city beside Abi & Guy’s motorhome.

All packed up and ready to go. The tandem packs down into two large bags, which means travel by train is an option.


Day 28 – a day in Arles

We spent today in Arles, an attractive town south of Avignon. It was an easy level ride of around 10 miles from our campsite on our (temporarily) unladen tandem and, although it poured with rain just as we arrived (this time we had rain gear!), it soon cheered up to turn into a pleasantly warm day.

Arles is an historic town, with plenty of Roman structures and sites, and interesting medieval streets. It’s also a town very much associated with Van Goch, the Dutch painter who spent a few months here at around the turn of the 19th/20th century. He produced many works here but also, whilst here, suffered a breakdown, during which he notoriously cut off his ear.

Courtyard at the ancient L’Hotel Dieu where Van Coch spent a little time after his breakdown. The picture in the foreground is one of his works.

We visited the Hôpital de Dieu where Van Goch spent some days following his breakdown. The pretty courtyard inside was the subject of one of his more popular paintings.

We paid a visit to the 12th –  14th centhry Cloître de St. Trophime and marvelled at the expressive detail in the world renowned carvings and sculptures which decorated the cloisters.

There are reminders of Van Goch’s works scattered around the town, many of which are marked by visual displays of his painting(s) in the setting in which they were created…. mostly still quite recognisable..

We explored a few examples of Arles’ Roman heritage including a theatre, huge amphitheatre and remains of Roman baths.

We enjoyed wandering around the old streets with its interesting doorways and attractive vistas.

We even visited a little gin distilliery installed by Jamie Baxter one of Molly’s Clerical Error friends, set in an old house with a beautiful courtyard to the rear.

After a happy day, on our ride back we were fortunate to come across a hare at close quarters. It stopped to study us before scampering off into the undergrowth. It was the first time either of us had seen a hare at such close quarters!


Day 27 – A day with the Gypsy Pilgrimage

It has been a tradition since the 15th century that Gypsies from all parts of Europe and further afield come together, taking part in a pilgrimage to Les-Maries-de-la-Mer to celebrate their patron Saint Sara on 24th and 25th of May each year.

Originally, most came in their brightly painted traditional horse drawn carriages, but nowadays, caravans and motorhomes are used. There’s rather a nice piece of background to this occasion written by a blogger, Sara Aran, who lives in Gers and runs a company providing bespoke travel tours in southern France. You can find her article  by following this link to her website.

Vines growing in the Camargue

We pedalled the 23 miles to Les-Maries-de-la-Mer from our campsite in St. Gilles, following quiet backroads across typical Camargue scenery of rice paddies and shallow lakes, interspersed with  farms growing grapes for wine.

Stork’s nest

We passed an intriguing multi-storey stork’s nest that seemed to be shared with a range of different bird species, flitting in and out of crevices and holes.

Because we were following smaller roads we were able to take advantage of a free ferry service that crossed the “Petite Rhône” just before Saintes-Marie.

Cable Ferry on our way

We were glad we were arriving at our destination ‘á velo’ since the Gendemerie were preventing any motor vehicles from entering the town on the outskirts.

Gypsy Street Market and main Church which accommodates the reliquery of ‘Les Deux Saintes Maries.”

Once there, we were greeted by throngs of people – lots of tourists like us, but also plenty of gypsy-like people who were obviously speaking various languages other than French.

Impromptu performances of guitarists and singers all around the town ( think music like the “Gypsy Kings”!) often prompted dancing adding to the general festive atmosphere.. commentators on the festival describe the feeling that Gypsies have in taking part as coming home to be amongst like minded friends.

Music making in the streets

The main objective of our journey was to witness the procession from the Church with the effigy of the black Santa Sara headed up by Camargue horsemen “Le Guardiens”.

Dancing in the streets

There was a supposed schedule but inevitably, timing was a bit wayward;  eventually, after the reliquery was lowered from its niche high up in the church, and lots  prayers and blessings from the churchmen and congregation, the procession began…

It was quite a spectacle with crowds lining the streets and the horseman leading the effigy of Santa Sara, the patron Saint of travelling people.



As the afternoon drew to a close we saw ominous grey clouds on the horizon so we decided to start our journey back to the campsite by the most direct route we could identify. Sadly just a few miles in the rain started with a few heavy drops, then more persistently… and a significant headwind started to add to our discomfort. The weather forecast had predicted sunny weather with a low chance of rain late evening.. so we hadn’t taken our raingear with us…

Two drowned rats arrived at the campsite after an hour and a half of pedalling against driving rain which was not that warm.

Fortunately our campsite was close to the town centre, so after changing into warm and dry clothes, we were able to purchase a welcome eat-in meal in the warm at a Turkish takeaway with large greek style salads and two large portions of frites.

Day 26 – Along the coast to a Gypsy Festival

Tandem drying facility

Our tandem provides a very convenient clothes drying facility for the few items we needed to dry

overnight ready for our journey. With the sun being quite strong and with decent temperatures it doesn’t take long to dry off our towels and washed cycling gear.

On the road again, we were headed toward Arles, most often known in association with Van Goch who stayed in the town for a few years whilst receiving treatment for his diagnosis of mental illness.

Coastal cycleway en route to Arles

Most of the way we were hugging the coast, passing salt lakes and rice paddies, with our paths often lined by tall bamboo.

Coastal cycle route
Holiday apartments in La Grande Motte
An attractive roundabout just outside La Grande Motte.

The coast is clearly a magnet for holiday makers, but there were some elegant examples of new builds with a very modern look to them.

These buildings were in La Grande Motte.







We enjoyed another beachside picnic next to a bar for our lunchtime refreshments, before continuing on our way.

Beach picnic

We passed through/round Aigues Morte which had a very old and very impressive wall all around it. Sadly we didn’t have time to explore since we needed to get to our campsite before it got too late.

Aigues Morte, a walled town.

We were headed for somewhere close enough to be able to cycle to the great Gypsy gathering at Les Maries de la Mer. Sainte Gilles fitted the bill  with a little campsite tucked in behind the main street.

Miles travelled: 52 miles approx

Ascent: 625ft approx.

Day 25 – Towards Sete and the Med

We started the day by following little roads from our campsite to take us onto the path beside the Canal du Midi which then took us down the flight of locks, along the aquaduct and away from Béziers.

The path towards the coast was surprisingly well surfaced so we kept a good pace to reach the Mediterranean at Marseillan Plage near Agde.

Canal protection structures

On the way,  we passed a very complicated piece of engineering, where the Canal  crossed a seasonal river.

Canal protection structures

The structures enabled the canal to be shut off completely when the river was in full flood. This meant the silt from the floodwater didn’t silt up and eventually block the canal.

Agde is where the canal flows into an étang  with Sete at the other end. Sete is supposed to be the end of the Canal du Midi, since it gives access to the sea..although we could locate as we passed Sete.

We enjoyed the feeling of achievement of crossing from the Atlantic to the Med, and celebrated with cool drinks at a beachside bar.

Lunchtime drinks at the seaside

Then we paddled in the surprisingly cold feeling water. (our swimming kit and towels were buried deep in a pannier so swimming was off the menu even if it was a lovely warm sunny d

Beach picnic spot

Seaside path amongst the dunes towards Sete

From Marseillan we travelled along a lovely cycle path that ran along a thin spit of land with the Med on one side and a salt lake on the other.

Negotiating Sete was a bit of a trial, with lots of holidaymaker apartments and one way streets, that then led on to port infrastructure and the hgv’s and busy roads that go with it. We didn’t manage to find where the Canal met the Med, but it didn’t seem as though we didn’t miss much.

We passed lots of what appeared to be holiday residences as we travelled, which is not surprising really,  when you consider how close lovely sandy beaches are!

A rather fanciful roof on someone’s holiday home!

Beyond Sete we were then looking for campsites for an overnight stop… deceptively, we found ‘camping’ is a term that often only means motorhome stops… or banks of chalets with no room for tents in between.

Four attempts, after a long day’s cycling, eventually brought us to Vic-le-Gardiol and a small site just out of the village which, we noticed, had its very own flamingo pond!

Arriving after ‘Reception’ had closed we pitched our tent in a spare plot that, although level, had rather a lot of sharp feeling stones which made the groundsheet rather uncomfortable to sit on… fortunately our airbeds provided good cushioning!

Atmospheric night sky at our campsite