Leaving Meknes we headed North again for the short hop to Moulay Idriss. Moulay Idriss is a pilgrimage town and if you can’t make it to Mecca for the Haj then a visit here counts as 1/5th. We are not sure if you can just visit this place 5 times or you have to go to the other sites with fractional value to fill up your Mecca card. If you’re a beast of burden or an infidel like us, there is a wooden bar across the path to the shrine to stop you visiting the shrine itself but we could have a coffee in the pretty town square.
Just down the road from Moulay Idriss are the wonderful ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis. It was the last post of civilization at the fringe of the Roman Empire before the wilds of Africa and was notably the city that cleared North Africa of its Lions and elephants that were hunted to extinction and sent to Rome to eat Christians and battle gladiators. We arrived as the sun begun to set and had the place to ourselves and could walk the streets and marvel at the impressive opulence of the grand villas and civic buildings of ancient Rome. Oh to be a Roman, actually oh to be a RICH Roman!
The last leg of the journey to Tangier took us along Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The roads got wider and better, the buildings got taller and uglier and for the first time there was litter. Kabylie rattled along as we all listened to a story tape, without noise reduction headphones! The Overdrive that Tom has fitted adds an extra gear that we did not have on our Iran trip and transforms Kabylie and makes her much easier to drive and much quieter at speed. You can now hear yourself think and listen to story tapes – just.
Asilah was on our route and we stopped for an impressive seafood lunch and to peruse the fabulous old fortified town. Painted in white and a deep-sea blues this sleepy fortified town originally built by the Portuguese had a lovely sea-side feel and was full of art galleries and shops. Petra and Justine were sent into a final shopping frenzy but the pressure of having lots of space in the car, tons of wonderful stuff to buy but not enough time to make decisions meant that to Tom’s great relief they bought nothing!
Between the towns on the Atlantic coast there are still large areas of pristine beach with no coastal development. We had run out of time but it is obvious there is an enormous amount more to be discovered in Morocco and we need to come back.
As the Retroroadtrip approached Tangier we joined the throng of impressive 4x4s all heading North to catch their ferries back to Europe. Vast lorries, Toyotas on steroids and hundreds of Land Rover Defenders joined us on the road. We were easily the oldest but arguably not the most impractical! Finding camaraderie in our ridiculous vehicles we stopped for a chat with a fantastic couple of Frenchmen in a vast fireman’s truck from the 60’s that turned out to be essentially a bar on wheels as despite its huge size and ten-tone winch there was no provision for even a bed! As Kabylie is so rare even most Land Rover owners don’t recognize her toolbox style utilitarian shape as being the original genetic line from which the Land Rover Defender was born. To our surprise it turned out later on the ferry that she was not only recognized but one of the overlanders on the ferry actually owned one! He also knows of the whereabouts of the other 12 that are in France with the same Algerian origin as Kabylie so hopefully one day we will be able to meet up with the others.
The ferry from Tangier to Barcelona was a big upgrade from the one in the other direction though to the kids dismay the pool had been drained. We love a ferry ride as long as the sea is not rough and like always it is over too quickly.
Last year in Romania we had met a Spanish couple at Prince Charles’s guesthouse who had warmly invited us to stay when we were next in Barcelona. They were very nice people so we thought we would look then up and take them up on their offer. Parking anything in Barcelona is difficult but if you’re over 2M high its quite simply impossible. After two hours of driving around Tom eventually found a 2.4m high parking and I’ll put the address here incase anyone else is driving around getting old looking for one!
It turned out that we could have probably parked Kabylie in our host’s utility room as their flat in the center of Barcelona was enormous. They told us a story of a friend learning to ride a bike in there but we could imagine that they could have also learned to drive a lorry! It was a wonderful contrast from some of the places we had been invited into in Morocco. Their hospitality and kindness to us was amazing. They were clearly very busy people but took the time to entertain us royally, take us out for two fabulously opulent meals, the second of which started as we had just finished the first, and showed us everything that needed to be seen in Barcelona. This was especially kind given that we were all very much on our last set of clothes with Tom and Hector in theirs for the best part of the last week!
After a fabulous breakfast reminiscent of those in The Mansion House we pilled back into Kabylie with our stomachs all struggling from the richness of the food of the last 24 hours. A long trundle across northern Spain in the rain, a supper of stale bread and sardines and the worst night camping we have ever had, 10m from a busy road soon had us back down to earth!
Sadly, this mini Retroroadtrip has come to an end. The kids have bunked off school for a cheeky extra two weeks holiday, but we had to be back in Biarritz for Hector’s Music theory exam at 17:00. School in France seems quite relaxed about extended holidays, but the music conservatoire is not and we were told that if Hector missed this test he would have to redo the whole year! Reluctantly we packed up our tent to arrive back in Biarritz just in time for him to sing ‘Do Rey Mi’ – Julie Andrews would have been suitably impressed.
In conclusion, Morocco is wonderful. There is very little of the old hassle, its clean (they have banned plastic bags), the architecture is lovely and the people (apart from the ones that poison you with bad bread) are delightful. There is so much of old North Africa that you can still see but you can end your day with a delicious meal, cool down in a swimming pool and find a good but cheap hotel almost everywhere you go. Its apparently changed a lot but its culturally one of the most interesting places we have been and its also safe, so book your tickets and thanks for reading out blog!
Until our next adventure………………..
So far, throughout our adventures in Kabylie, Tom has managed to resolve all her little problems but this fuel pump problem has been recurring every time it has got over 30 degrees since Iran. After much head scratching and goggling it seems that it’s a sickness called Vapor lock where to petrol vaporises in the pipes as it is pumped up from the tank. Old cars apparently don’t like the low boiling point in modern fuels so some modifications are probably necessary when we get home. Luckily, the next day, the temperature had dropped as we wound ourselves up from the plain through the spectacular Todra Gourge to over 2800m into the Middle Atlas.
Nomad families with camels were slowly winding their way up the same slopes to their summer pastures that seemed to us as overgrazed and devoid of vegetation as the desert below. Running dangerously low on petrol we filled up from and toothless old shopkeeper who poured seven-up bottles of petrol into our tank.
The mountains of the Middle Atlas are spectacularly barren and as we started to descend the road became worse with vast potholes and shear drops to the valley below. Not ideal for a herniated disc so much of the journey I lay flat on my back with my head on Tom’s knee or on all fours leaning on the back shelf or occasionally squatting in the footwell so as to absorb the bumps with my legs.
After many orange juice stops we ate lunch at some famous springs, which were lined with little shacks where you could siesta and eat on a carpeted platform overhanging the raging river. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between someone being kind and a ‘shister’ and this time we ended up being scammed for our lunch by the latter!
As the evening drew in we found ourselves with nowhere to stay and resolved to ask one of the farmers if we could camp in their yard, but which one? As the sun begun to set we spotted a man herding his sheep by the road with two children. Perfect.
We screeched to a halt and Tom jumped out to ask and luckily he spoke good French and invited us to stay. In fact he and his family could not have been kinder and we soon found ourselves cross-legged on the carpeted floor of his house being treated to everything he and his wife could lay their hand on. They showed us a kindness and generosity that would be hard to find in Europe and we are told by fellow travellers that this is standard hospitality across much of the country.
They had very little to share and we felt embarrassed to be offered so much. We emptied out our kitchen box looking for gifts to repay the kindness. The best we could do was a really good knife and potato peeler. Madame was delighted. It seems that at almost all levels of Moroccan society French is spoken – we can’t remember a time that we have been able to communicate so freely with people who have so little and whose lives are so different from our own and it was fascinating. The next day we took Abdullah, the dad into town as it was Souke day so Petra took the opportunity to buy some ingredients to cook that night’s supper.
When travelling with no reservations or appointment or things or places one has to go to, one soon looses all track of time and we relised we had no idea what date or even what day it was. I suddenly thought I had better look up how many more days we had in Morocco. With our fuel pump still playing up, Tom was keen not to have to do a last minute dash north or miss the ferry if we broke down.
As it turned out we had enough time to visit Meknes so as we approached the city Petra was tasked with finding us a place to stay in the medina. Moroccan cities are hectic places and as you approach the centre with the mass of humanity crowding onto the roads you begin to think there will be no chance of parking securely. However the ubiquitous toothless parking attendant always jumps out in front of you at the right moment to guide you into the waiting space. You feel like you might be backing into a china shop as he gesticulates wildly guiding you into an invariably massive space as if every inch was a mater of life or death. Our car when locked is far from secure, you could open it with a sharpened banana if you needed to but by giving the equivalent of a couple of euros to the attendant, everything is securely guarded. We would certainly be happier leaving Kabylie in the heart of any chaotic Moroccan city than unguarded in a European city street.
Meknes is not as chaotically beautiful as Fez but its Medina is still a fascinating labyrinth of industrious humanity. It is also one of Morocco’s principle royal cities so is surrounded by impressive walls and elaborate royal gates. With only a few days left this was my last time to fill the back of the car with local delights. Tajines, jilabias, carpets, lamps, spices, perfumes ahhh so much to choose from. To Tom’s great relief the pressure lead to indecision and I actually ended up being quite restrained! Hector however discovered someone who would sell him powdered sulphur that he hopes will work well in his experimental rocket engine so he was delighted he made his first purchase of the trip.
The guidebook says that in Morocco may women find that there single most rewarding experience is to visit one of the hammams used by the locals so Petra and I decided to give it a go! Click on the audio file link to hear what we discovered!!
Her stripy jilabia brushed the dusty ground as she led us through the twisting alleyways of the medina to the hammam. An unmarked doorway led down a dirty flight of tiled steps and down a passageway to a large tiled room. The smiling lady who had led us to the hammam translated the price for us and explained that it was the domain of the women until 8.00pm thereafter only men could bathe.
Petra and I decided we would return to the hammam at 6.00pm and amazingly we managed to find our way back there without our stripy guide. We entered with trepidation, as this was not the rather smart hammam you find in the bottom of your plush hotel, but the traditional bath house used by the locals, particularly those without hot water in their homes. Our guide book informed us that though some women would be topless, most would wear swimming costumes or underwear and be rather modest, facing the wall whilst they changed.
We were met at the doorway by a 60 year old woman in nothing but a pair of large black pants and a handkerchief tied in her hair. As she spoke to us she massaged her drooping naked breasts and gesticulated for us to come in. In a mixture of French, Berber and Arabic, we were instructed to shed our clothes, but were allowed to keep on our bikini bottoms. As we rounded the corner into the baths proper, a bacchanalian sight unfolded. Naked bodies in a multitude of postures and degrees of soaping up were sitting or lying around the room like a centre spread from the Kamasutra. Clearly the person who wrote the guide book had never set foot in a traditional hammam as there was not an ounce of modesty save the occasional pair of large pants. Several people were lying on the floor being scrubbed in every nook and cranny by their friends and others were scrubbing or shaving themselves. Everyone was far more comfortable with their own and other peoples bodies than we are in Europe or America, and it seemed quite normal for women to be busily soaping, shaving or massaging their ‘bits’ in full view or everyone else.
The age range spread from about 25 to 80 with most women quite overweight. The large amount of flesh was only counterbalanced by the plethora of plastic buckets that took up most of the floor space. Around each woman, there must have been about 4-5 knee high buckets of water, which the headscalf wearing woman who welcomed us would continually fill with more water of varying degrees in temperature. We were given a scoop with which to slosh water over ourselves and a lump of squishy jam-like substance to rub ourselves with, which turned out to be salon noir – a type of soap.
Petra was called away first and was instructed to lie on a piece of plastic on the floor as our headscalf wearing friend scrubbed her all over. It was not until my go that I realised the place that our ‘scrubber’ had chosen for us to lie was not ideal. As I lay on my stomach, I looked ahead to see that my head was only about 3 feet from the parted legs of a rotund lady busily shaving her private parts. Awkwardly, she kept trying to engage me in conversation which meant I had to keep looking up at her intricate work. Worse was to come though, for she then started sloshing herself with water, the runoff being carried away with her old soap, dead skin and pubic hair flowing across the marble floor past my arms and face and then when I turned over, through my hair!
Keen to cleanse ourselves of other peoples scrubbed off skin and shaved off hair, Petra and I then sloshed about 36 buckets of water and soap over ourselves and washed our hair thoroughly.
Petra wanted to stay longer, but I was overheating after an hour, so we dressed and made our way back to the find the boys. Tom was intrigued by the image of a multitude of naked and semi naked females all scrubbing and shaving themselves and I agree that in sounded fantastical. I’m sure in Tom’s mind they were all georgouse in their 20’s not in their late 60’s and of elephantine proportions! In reality it was a great experience and clearly a really fun social gathering for the women and fascinating to discover what these modest, head-scarf wearing women get up to, when the men are not looking.
Our thermometer began to raise as we trundled towards Merzouga and a familiar, worrying tick tick tick began to emit from Kabylie.
We had last heard this sound in Iran when the temperature got over 35 degrees and the fuel pump started ticking like a bomb. Unlike Iran, the air was so dry that no one except Kabylie was really bothered by the heat – Petra and I were just relieved we were not clad in head to foot black nylon like in Qom where we had broken down in Iran. We asked ourselves why this damn recurring problem kept happening in the hottest and most inhospitable parts of the desert. We thought we had resolved the problem in Iran but it turned out we hadn’t!
In the distance, through the hazy, sandy heat, we began to make out the orange silhouette of Saharan dunes. We started to spot camels munching on the occasional tuft of scrub and the outline of romantic Kasbahs came into view.
We have only seen a small part of Morocco, so are no experts, but two things that are striking about the country are the lack of litter and the good architecture. Last year we lamented that both eastern Turkey and even worse Iran were giant rubbish tips, with plastic literally everywhere. When we were in Bali a couple of years ago it was tragic to see the countryside covered in plastic and the streams choked with it. By contrast, Morocco has just banned all plastic bags. New architecture in Iran and Turkey is also shockingly terrible. Cement block buildings litter the landscape, just square, badly designed cubes creating eye sores wherever you look. Again by contrast, Morocco (the part we have been in at least) rejoices in it’s heritage and new buildings are either done in the same old style of the Kasbahs or are modern but retaining their Arabic and North African features. Luckily we had done our research and donning our Berber outfits we were able to completely disguise ourselves among the natives.
As the temperature rose we dropped further down into the sandy desert basin. The dust swirled across the road as Kabylie ploughed on with her frantically ticking fuel pump struggling to keep her engine alive.
We spent a delightful night under the stars in a desert camp. Though a pretty touristy thing to do, it was done incredibly well and we sat around a campfire in a carpeted camp drinking mint tea and gazing at the milky way to the sound of the tam-tam and African castanets. Comfy beds and then a camel ride over the dunes to watch the sunrise over Algeria. – perfect. Finding a board in the camp Petra and Hector even managed to do some sand surfing.
Tom’s highlight was learning to drive Kabylie in the sand. The fuel pump was still ticking like a bomb, but with her tyres massively deflated, she swayed her way over the sands with ease. In the soft sand the engine laboured a little but the dunes are surprisingly hard particularly in the early morning and cool evening. As we drove the wind got up and fine dust got into everything. When Tom rebuilt Kabylie he found this fine red dust in everything from her days in Algeria 60 years ago.
Hector spent happy hours filming himself catching the sand from the famous blast ended Moroccan sand worm.
With Kabylie suffering from the heat and us from the dust we begun our reluctant journey north and back up into the High Atlas. Once again as we hit the desert road north and the temperature rose, Kabylie’s fuel pump really started playing up. Typically in the middle of the most barren stretch of road in the middle of nowhere the engine began to konk out.
We spluttered and hopped along, willing Kabylie to keep going as Tom looked more and more concerned. Our will power worked and amazingly we eventually managed to roll into a town and spluttered into a café where we could get a drink and the car could cool down. Two helpful policeman strutted over to give us a ticket for allegedly not stopping sufficiently quickly at the stop sign. The bastard then kindly invited us to pay a bribe in exchange for a reduced fine so we could pay for the repair to the car! As we drank our orange juice scowling, we watched as they stopped every second car on a trumped up charge to extract a bribe. There are in fact police checkpoints all over the country but we have been waved on by all of them and are told you are never asked for bribes in Morocco, so it was sad to find a rare corrupt one like this. It was not long though until our faith in Morocco was once again restored by a delightful local artist who was given the rare privelage of painting some Berber text on Kabylies sides and some Arabic on the back door.
Luckily by breakfast time, altitude sickness had subsided and after a quick look at the lovely village pre-school that our neighbours in Biarritz had built, we said our goodbyes. The night before Barbara, the wonderful nursing nun had told us about a little boy who kept turning up at school soaked with diarreah and that she thought he was gluten intolerant. Barbora was very frustrated as his mother did not get it and just grinned when she told her not to feed him wheat. When we returned from the mine, we bought two big bags of maise flour to give to the boy’s family and before we left, Hector went with Barbora to give it to them. We groan when anyone is wheat intolerant in the West but we do not realise how easy it is, when we have other things to eat except bread!
We headed south towards Merzouga and the start of the Sahara desert. As the temperature guage started rising, we noticed the architecture changing. Ruined Ksars (fortified villages) and kasbahs (fortified houses) littered the roadside and it felt suitably deserty and romantic. Like the nomads, these wonderful edifices will have been washed away in 20 years time as they are built of mud bricks smeared with mud and straw adobe and need constant upkeep. As the villagers move out to new, fired brick Ksars, the old romantic ones just sink back into the mud from which they came.
We decided to stop at the ‘source bleu’ a legendary spring at the start of a palmery. We had been expecting a wonderful pool with grassy green banks we could camp on in the shade of the palms. Alas grass and deserts rarely go together and the campsite was very local and dusty. The sides of the peeling pool had been taken over by the local male youth who were dive bombing every available space so we decided to take our chances with a clear weed bottomed pool which our guide book said was probably contaminated with Bilhazia. We were so hot, that we collectively decided to risk it but may well come to regret that decision over the next few months the parasites take over!
A young man who worked at the campsite attached himself to us and became more and more irritating as the day wore on. As he tried to ingratiate himself with us, he began to end every sentence with ‘lovely jubbly’ and a peel of fake snorting laughter. Even the kids were getting sick of him so before Tom had time to push the guy in the bilharzia pool, I steered everyone into the Palmery for a gorgeous walk. Its often very difficult to filter out the people with ill intentions from the vast majority of delightful people. This bloke was the former.
The Palmeries were the lifeblood of the pre-desert region. They are essentially a forest of palms, under which almonds, pomegranates and a plethora of other things are grown. Each family has about 30 trees from which they harvest and sell the dates, and the whole place is often watered by and ingenious system of underground channels which bring water from the mountains miles away in the middle Atlas. Apparently slaves bought the technology with them from Persia (where we saw similar water channels last year) and taught the Moroccan tribes how to build them, each tribe constructing it’s own channel in parallel 45km long from the mountains. Today the palmeries have been devastated by the palm equivalent of Dutch Elm disease. There is no cure for the disease, which dries the palms out and kills them, except to pour boiling water into the heart of the palm. Apparently if you catch the disease quick enough and are very lucky, it can save the tree. Our walk through the palmery and their wonderful earthen watering system reminiscent of paddy-fields was gorgeous and we explored the crumbling Ksar which presided over the area as the sun went down.
Our irritating friend was there to greet us on our return and gave us a vast loaf of bread that he said his wife had made. He refused to accept payment for it and later we realised why……….he had poisoned us!
I was awoken at 01.30 am by Hector squirming about next to me. He was asleep but clearly uncomfortable. I started squirming about too and realised that both Hector and were in trouble. Half and hour later, we were stumbling down the tent ladders and running in the dusty darkness to the very grim loo. An hour of violent explosions was most grim but worse for Tom who was running between the two of us checking neither of us has slipped down the long-drop in our impaired state. We finally made it back to the tent and to slept for an hour or two before we were awoken again by Hector vomiting out of the tent door onto the ladder. He was soon joined by his sister vomiting on the other ladder and me running to the loo. Tom felt it was not long till he was hit so an executive decision was made at 05.00 am to abandon the campsite! Dater roaming and google soon directed us to the best hotel in the area and it was hot with the credit card.
Salvation came in the form of the Tinit Auberge, run by a lovely squeekey clean Austrian (sadly no dirndl) who graciously welcomed us at 06.30 in the morning. As Tom carried the limp and groaning Hector into our shiny white bedroom, he too was struck down by the Lovely Jubbly Poisioned Bread Bug and we all marvelled that heaven was in fact the Tinit hotel.
The moment a large male Barbary Macaque spots his reflection in our windscreen!
Wafting about in our Jelibias (we are suckers for dressing up) we feasted on patisseries and fresh orange juice in the town square. Oranges are in season here and freshly squeezed orange juice is seriously cheap and seriously good. We had been drinking gallons of the stuff until our stomachs finally protested and we worked out that Hector had consumed at least 15 oranges that day and the result was not good. We decided to work off our breakfast with a 2 hour walk to an old Benedictine Monastery. The Monks were thrown out of the monastery there in 1969 due to fears they were trying to convert people, but apparently they are fondly remembered by the Berbers to whom they provided vital medical care. Some of the monks left to go to Algeria where they were killed after being kidnapped in 1996 (the film Of God and Men depicts their trials and tribulations) One of the survivors returned to Morocco and now lives in the monastery in Midelt, where we were headed to next.
We had been told that we would find Barbary Macaque monkeys at the monastery so Petra lugged up a large bunch of bananas with which to feed them but was most disappointed when no monkeys could be found. I was most disappointed as she refused to give her own family any to eat, preferring to carry them all down again in the hope of feeding more rewarding primates.
We left Azrou and headed into the cedar forests that cover swathes of the middle Atlas. Taking a vague path, we trundled through the trees until we found a secluded spot in which to camp. Supper comprised of peanut butter sandwiches before another torrential rainstorm hurried us into our rooftent nest.
Over to Petra:
The 25th April 2017 I woke up at 8.30 and climbed down the ladders of our tent to be greeted by a lovely day. I ate a pastry and started making everyone an avocado sandwich. We had laid out a beautiful breakfast, when all of a sudden mummy gasped and daddy said. ‘Oh no no’! I thought they were talking about an insect but as I turned round I saw a group of Barbary Macaques coming our way. They were so cute. We did some serious tidying up as none of us wanted to give up our preciouses breakfast. Daddy was doing most of the work as I was having fun yawning at them and they would copy me. Hector was armed with a spade protecting our breakfast. After we had put everything away and stuffed down our breakfast we sprinkled crackers on the car and the monkeys climbed on. The silverback then tried to drink the engine oil on the roof – daddy was not so keen on that! We hand fed the rest of the crackers to the monkeys. Daddy needed the loo and found it most alarming to have so many primate eyes fixed on him.
At 11:30 we said goodbye to our new found pals and set off to Midelt. Mid way there we stopped for tea in a restaurant. In the restaurant they had two baby lambs. I was asking how old they were but the owner thought I was asking how much they were to buy. Ha ha. We got back in the car and continued our drive.
We arrived at Midelt at lunchtime. We ate a chicken tagine. Then after that we got lured into a so called ‘cooperative shop.’ The guy said it sold handycrafts which was a complete lie. Let me just tell you, that we have been in Morocco one week and already we have been in three hellish cooperative shops. Hellish because mummy cannot say NO! So you end up being there for three hours as a guy tries to sell you a carpet that you find ugly and you don’t need. It was so frustrating!! When we wanted to leave and were finally getting out he brought in the tea with the typical saying “Berber hospitality”!!! Finally mummy came out and even better empty handed. Horrray. We got in the car and drove to Tattouine to deliver our humanitarian aid of stationary for the school and some medicine that was given to us by our neighbours in Biarritz, Josiane and Sylvain. When we arrived we asked for the two nuns Barbora and Marie who help the villagers and the Berber tribes. Barbora is Polish and a good friend of our neighbours in Biarritz. She is the local nurse and spends 6 months a year up in the high Atlas with Marie, an 85 year old French nun caring for the nomads. Marie also teaches the young kids in the school in Tattauine. We stayed with Cheriff who is a sedentary Berber who has settled in the village and now runs a guesthouse. After we had been introduced to Barbora and Marie and had some tea, we gave them the care packages full of paper pads, medicine and money. We listened to their tales of how they became nuns and life in the village and with the nomads over a cup of mint tea and homemade bread and honey. We set of with Cheriff to walk through the valley to meet a nomad family.
We waked through a canyon and extracted lead from the rocks to Hector’s delight. One hour later, after walking through a shear sided gorge with tumbling sides we arrived at a nomad tent. Let me tell you that this family live here all year round in an open sided tent made of goat hair and we are at about 2000m up in the Middle Atlas. In the winter there is so much snow they live in the caves in the gorge.
We were greeted warmly and given tea seated on a carpet that the wife had woven on her loom in the corner of the tent. They were such a nice family. In their tent they had baby goats (kids) running around eating everything. It was rally nice but a very hard life for them. The Nomad husband showed us how he catapulted rocks with a sling to herd the goats. We gave them a very cheap but fantasticly useful soar powered camping light and I’m sure they will find it very very useful. It started to go dark and the sun was setting so we headed back to Tattouine. We went back and ate with Cheriff’s family. A delicious tajine awaited us. Then I washed with a bucket of very cold water and a sponge made of my sock and went to bed.
Back to Justine –
Every family makes it’s own bread – in fact it is actually the women that do the making and in Cheriff’s family it was his daughter in law who was bread maker. Fatima sat on the earthen floor with a huge round washing up bowl full of flour between her knees. Into this she poured water and mixed it with her hands into a vast dough ball. With this she made 6 huge Frisbee flat loaves, which would feed the family and friends for the day. Wheat is the main grain in Morocco and the staple to have with a tajines is bread or what we call cous cous – semolina granuals. (Cous cous for the Moroccans is the entire dish with veggies etc)
After Frisbee bread and honey, Cheriff took us to see two nomad families who were doing the annual sheep-shearing. It turns out that sheep are bendier than a Mongolian contortionist and the poor beasts were trussed up in what looked like un-believably un-comfy positions.
The three shearers started off with a rousing song before snipping away with their huge rustic shearers in an incredibly skilled way. They were so quick and so close to the skin, I was sure the sheep could not get away without being lacerated. Luckily for them and animal lover Petra, the first three sheep were unscathed by the shears and still able to walk after their trussing.
Next stop was the Cirque de jaffar. An off road drive through spectacular scenery – barren, beautiful and a bastard for a herniated disc. I had to become more creative with my travelling positions – squatting behind the driver’s seat, kneeling facing the rear window, on all fours leaning over the back seat, sprawled across the kids on my back or doing an upside down plank with my feet and shoulders braced to lift my bum in mid air.
We stopped to visit some more nomad families and gave them some of our very cunning solar powered blow up lanterns. The life of the nomads is incredibly tough. So much so, that I doubt they will exist in 20 years time. Apparently none of the girls want to marry into nomad families any more as it is such a difficult life, so the families are having to become sedentary and move into town and send their kids to school so that they can find partners.
Their way of life has probably not changed for over 5000 years and over the next two decades it will most probably abruptly come to an end.
On a dirt track we came across a family moving their tent up into the higher mountains for the summer. Tom was asked to help lift the enormous Berber tent onto the Mule as the owners were far too old and decrepit. In the end we all helped heave up the 200kgs of tent and poles onto the poor patient animal. Though rather sad for the passing tourist, for whom rural poverty is usually very picturesque it will be a relief for Mother Nature when the nomads leave. In the last 50 years the highlands have been so overgrazed and the trees eaten by goats that there is little left. The topsoil has been eroded to desert and the valleys are strewn with vast boulders from the consequent flash floods. Cheriff told us that when he was a child the whole area had been a lush forest with babbling brooks and green meadows.
Next stop the desert……
Waving goodbye to the beautiful blue of Chefchauen, we headed over the Rif mountains towards Fez. A good road, very few other vehicles and lovely scenery – the 3.5 hours passed relatively easily.
Driving in Morocco was a concern before we left. Nobody wants to have an accident especially not in a 60 year old car. We have added seatbelts but we would certainly not crumple. The books all say the Moroccans are bad drivers but this has not been our experience. Vast potholes on the back roads and strange cambers have been much more dangerous than the other cars. On one occasion we discovered just in time that the donkeys on either side of the road were in fact tethered together by a rope running across it. This would have been fine, had their front legs not also been tied together thus they could only move very slowly out of the way of oncoming cars. We have since discovered that donkeys cost less than Euro 20 each but it would have been a horrid accident.
The sun was sinking as we approached the wonderful castellated walls of Fez. Looking like an incredible film set, the ancient medina (started in 900AD) beckoned us in the pre dusk orange light.
An old friend from Hong Kong had put us in contact with a mate of his who runs a couple of guesthouses in Fez as well as 4 WD tours around Morocco (Madaboutmorocco.com). We met up with Mark Willenbrock in the car park by the North Gate (Bab Guissa) of the Medina. We were hoping one of Mark’s guest houses might have room for us, but instead, Mark very kindly led us to a wonderful little house he manages called Dar (meaning house) Mignon (darmignon.com) It was indeed very mignon (sweet in French) with a tiny central courtyard going up three floors to a bougainvillea clad roof terrace. Beautiful tile work, beautiful woodwork, crisp white sheets and two incredible bathrooms with vast marble baths. Hector was so dwarfed in it, he looked like he was disappearing down a vast toilet!
As we looked over Fes medina from the roof terrace, Mark called someone to organise us a guide for the next morning, and showed us on a map key routes we should take on our Moroccan adventure – which piest (dirt roads) were good and where there were particularly beautiful valleys etc.
Amina arrived at 9.00am to give us a tour around the Medina. Her bossiness was just what we needed to chivey us down the twisting alleys. We had thought Tetouan was a maze but Fes medina was something else. 350,000 people live in the medina, which is over twice the size of Cambridge in an area that you can walk across in 20 minutes. It was rather like being in someone’s intestine, if you stretched out the twising alleys they would probably go round the globe 3 times or whatever the intestine statistic is. It sounds dreadful but it has to be one of the wonders of the world and we were inthralled by it. A mass of industrious humanity making everything possible in every square inch of space. Wonderful, magical place but not a place to be if Bird Flu ever actually materialises amongst us humans!
We had loved the Tetouan tannery but Fes’ was far bigger and a sight of bizarre beauty. We were given mint leaves to sniff to combat the pungent aroma of curing skin mixed with pigeon poo.
The oldest Univeristy in the world is in Fes and its right at the centre of the Median, surrounded by incredibly ornate Medrassas (Islamic schools – unlike a mosque, these are open to non muslims to visit and study in.)
I had briefed the kids on the hassle we would get from all the salesmen, touts, and passers by, so was astounded when we got absolutely none! The new king really has done wonders for clamping down on tourist harassment. The image of Morocco which still tarnishes the image for most people is the exhausting hassle one get, but I am delighted to say, that it has gone. In general people are delightful and very helpful, though if you do drop your guard you are very likely to be sitting in a carpet shop being strong-armed into an unwanted purchase. We were amused to see that the Moroccan police have equipped themselves with the last batch of Land Rover Defenders so we sneaked Kabylie up next to one in order to take a photo as she too had been a Police car 60 years ago in Algeria.
That night we moved to our pre-arranged guesthouse. It was the other side of the Medina and no one we asked seemed to even know the area. Petra who is our hotel reservation queen had booked it online and as the kids and I wandered through more and more dodgy looking areas of town we began to wonder if she had made a ‘rubber squid’ choice, (so called after one holiday in a Spanish mountain village I mistakenly ordered us a giant rubber squid and a sheeps bladder for lunch.) The streets became devoid of women and the buildings became occupied by mechanics, oil changers and car part workshops and we began to feel that we were being eyed up by more and more dubious looking characters. Suddenly from amongst the drab industrial surroundings, a sprig of bourganvillia beckoned us down a side street – Phew! It was our Riad and much to our amazement, it was very nice and totally incongruous to it’s surroundings and we could wedge Kabylie into the street outside.
We spent the next day wandering about Fes el Jedid New Fes which is not actually new at all but was the quartier built in the 14th century. I had a silver chain repaired in the Jewish quarter by a jeweller man who was stoned off his head and Tom and Hector visited a local barber. Tom’s bead trim made him look even more like a local and Hector finally got rid of his play-mobile haircut.
After breakfast on the terrace overlooking the strange mechanics quarter, we loaded up and headed South to Azrou and the Middle Atlas. We stopped for a patisserie in Ifrane, the ‘Switzerland’ of Morocco. The parks were so manicured that Petra and Hector were immediately told to get off the grass and there was a distinctly alpine feel about the place, which felt as bizarrely out of place as our guesthouse the night before. The patisseries however felt familiarly French and we rejoiced that though the country had been colonised by both the French and the Spanish, that the former had won the great colonial bake-off. We also took the opportunity to kit out for the desert!
We found a tiny campsite in Azrou, full of cherry trees and just got the tent up in time before a monumental storm lit the sky with sheet lightning. The thunder was so loud, we could not hear our audio-book but it was super cosy in our tent with the fat drops of rain drumming on the plastic above us. Our tent has its faults but it does not leak which given how much rain fell was quite an achievement!
After a breakfast of warm flat bread and eggs, delicious milky coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice, the hotel manager led us out from the tranquil beauty of the Riad Dhalia into the melle of the medina. Jedi knights in their woollen jelebias jostled with donkeys so overladen with sheep skins, gas bottles and greenery, they could hardly fit down the lanes. We made our way to the tannery, still working in the same way as it had in the middle ages. The ground was a carpet of vats of different coloured liquid each housing some concoction, vital to the curing and dying of leather. Lime to remove the hairs, pigeon poo to soften the leather, and pools of poppy petal red, indigo blue, turmeric yellow and mint green with which to naturally die the skins and yes, it stank.
We couldn’t leave the city without the obligatory hard sell by a mint tea offering carpet sales-man, and duly left with the smallest carpet we could get away with, which looks most becoming on Kabylie’s back-seat.
The drive to Chefchaouen, was about 1.5 hours and we started off driving through wonderful green hillsides – not at all what we had expected from Morocco. Fields of rippling green corn undulated in the warm blustery wind and patches of bright yellow and purple flowers bloomed amongst the cork trees. Clouds pored over the Rif into the valley like a waterfall.
Chefchaouen sits perched in the Rif mountains and is famed for the wonderful shades of indigo that adorn the walls and lanes of its medina. Apparently it was the Jewish community who, forced out of Spain moved there and mixed indigo with the whitewash of the time to counterbalance the green of Islam. The result is mesmerising and ones eyes want to drink in more and more of the colour. Chefchaouen is a shoppers paradise, being small and easy to navigate with stalls selling beautiful handicrafts that you want to buy everyone for Christmas. (and we have!) As the whole family gave up buying anything excluding food for lent, we certainly made up for it in Chefchaouen and taught the kids how to drive a hard bargain. Hector still has not quite got the hang of it, immediately declaring ‘ well that’s a bargain’ at the first utterance of an inflated price.
For most of its history, Chefchaouen was very isolated and by 1920 had only ever had 3 non-Muslim visitors. It later became a stop on the hippy trail, mainly due to the availability of marijuana (Kif), the main crop in the Rif Mountains. Over the last few years as less French and western tourist have come to Morocco, the cleaver king has waived visa restrictions for the Chinese and they are now the main visitors that you see and are certainly the ones that the carpet sellers go after.
Over baskets piled high with musk in an Aladdin’s cave of a potion shop, we met a couple of Saudi Arabian men who said they loved coming to Morocco because it was ‘tasty to the senses.’ I think it is a good description. Though Morocco is changing fast, it is still a delight to all the senses and is mightily tasty both gastronomically and culturally.
Our hotel was a labyrinth in itself with our lovely room looking onto the garden. We all slept wonderfully until woken at dawn by the minaret meters from our bedroom window. Thankfully the trickling stream in the courtyard begun to lull me back to sleep until I realised it was actually the loo overflowing onto the bathroom floor…………..
We all love a calm ferry ride and Barcelona to Tangiers did not disappoint. The last time Tom and I had crossed the straights of Gibraltar we had been on Shadowfax our 31 foot sailing boat which we had sailed home to London from Hong Kong 17 years ago. The pod of pilot whales that had circled around Shadowfax in the straits was sadly nowhere to be seen, but Jebel Musas rocky outcrop was. The African pillar of hercules and southern brother of the rock of Gibraltar (Jebel meaning mountain) welcomed us with the soft call of the Muezzin’s call to prayer. The ferry was rammed full of grossly overloaded dying cars with vast roof loads of predominantly old sinks, ladders and bicycles. The smell of burning clutches and boiling cooling water filled the air. Ironically we are yet to see such overloaded cars on Moroccan roads as presumably they would be stopped by the endless police checks. Its strange they are free to drive like that on European roads.
We bolstered ourselves for the onslaught of dodgy customs officials, aggressive touts and general hassle and harassment that Morocco is famed for. A nice Frenchman on the ferry with a wonderful curly, colonial moustache, said we could follow him through the port and if the worst came to the worst, he knew the chief of police – clearly we were not going to let this man and his fantastic contacts out of our sight. Though very reassuring, there was in fact no need for contacts or hand-holding as entry into Africa was almost efficient, friendly and devoid of any hassle and harassment. The slightly overweight officials were far more interested in chasing (waddling) after the young, athletic men who were climbing over the vast 20 foot perimeter fence with impunity in an effort to get to Europe. The guards chassed them fruitlessly amongst the cars and we must have seen 40 over the fence under the noses of the police in the time we were waiting for our stamps but where they went from there remains a mystery.
The road to Tetouan had dozens of police checkpoints along it, all there to hinder the flow of migrants towards Europe and there were hundreds along the road. We were stopped only once by a laughing policeman at the bottom of a very large hill who wanted to know where on earth we had found our ancient car as the smoke from our red hot brakes swirled around him.
We arrived at Tetouan just as it was going dark with no idea how on earth we would find our hotel in the maze of streets that make up the medieval medina. Walled medina’s have evolved over hundreds of years to be totally impregnable as they are an impossible labyrinth to anyone who was not born there. As Tom stayed with the car, the kids and I set off through the ancient gate into the warren of streets. Luckily we found a Moroccan who kindly said he would show us ‘Riad Dalia’ as it was next door to his house. I tried to remember every time we turned right or left to be able to find our way back to Tom but it was hopeless. I was well aware that an unusually white woman and her two fair children wandering about an unknown medina at dusk, being led by a Moroccan saying ‘follow me, don’t trust anyone else’ was not and ideal scenario. It would be something I would strongly advise people not to do in my travel security briefings! Our guide stopped in at his house to drop his shopping off and invited us in to see his home. The metal studded door swung open off the tiny street to reveal a wonderful interior of key-hole arches, intricate Arab plasterwork and exquisite tiling. Every alcove housed opulent cushions and sofa’s and made you immediately want to recline and drink mint tea with a sultan.
M’hamad explained how his family were originally from Andalusia and had moved here 80, no sorry, 800 years ago. As Petra rightly pointed out, how wonderful to know where your family were from that long ago.
After much more twisty turneyness, we found the lovely Riad Dhalia and then the charming M’hamad kindly led us back to Tom and then all the way back again to the hotel. – what a nice man.
Though not as sumptuous as M’hamad’s amazing home, our hotel bedroom was most palatial and even came with an excellent outfit for Petra to waft about in – whoop whoop whoop! We love Morocco!
Though not as sumptuous as M’hamad’s amazing home, our hotel bedroom was most palatial and even came with an excellent outfit for Petra to waft about in – whoop whoop whoop! We love Morocco!
Wahay! The Retro road trip is off again. This time we are heading to Morocco in Kabylie so if you don’t want to follow our blog again you can un-subscribe. We won’t mind (much).
As we drove out of Biarritz onto the autoroute on the 14th April, Petra declared that it was exactly a year to the day that we set off on our Iran trip! Clearly the 14th April is a good day to start new adventures.
We do feel slightly guilty to be setting off again so soon but we were all very sad when the last one ended and you never know for how long your almost teenage children will appreciate camping in a rooftent with their parents. Also apparently it is still not illegal to take your kids out of school in term time in France as it is now in the UK so we thought we should ‘profitez bien’ in case Brexit forces us to return to the strict British educational system! The kids managed to catch up the 3 months of school they missed last year pretty quickly so a cheeky extra two weeks on the Easter brake should not be too serious.
Since getting back from our last road trip in September, Kabylie has been busy doing some topless modelling in Biarritz. She looks undeniably good with her roof off. We thought of taking her like this but we concluded we would miss our roof nest too much.
Leaving Biarritz was certainly a lot less stressful than last time and seemed so easy with no visas, currency, route, schooling, dog, house and other issues to deal with. We remembered how overloaded we had been for our last trip so have simplified everything and have probably 50% less crap onboard. Tom has drilled hundreds of holes in the roof rack to lighten it and stripped out everything we don’t think is essential. Now there is a simple shelf in the back with bags and boxes for our stuff. On final weigh-in we are still 2100kg but that’s about 400kg lighter than last time. Tom has also fitted a thing called an overdrive, which effectively means we now have 16 forward gear options and 4 reverse! Having just driven from Biarritz to Barcelona we can confirm that it transforms the car. We even have dead flies on the windscreen and can almost keep up with lorries.
Having left Biarritz two days ago, we are now staying with old friends Ben and Mayu Miller, and their 4 delicious kids in Barcelona waiting to catch the 9am ferry to Morocco tomorrow. It’s cheating slightly but even with 16 gears the idea of driving non stop across Spain did not sound like fun, particularly as I have a herniated disc in my back. I was only allowed out of bed 2 hours before we left after an epidural of cortisone and 48 hours bed rest, but luckily having bench seats, Kabylie is the perfect sore-back vehicle (we think!). Every hour, I can lie down with my head on the driver’s lap and my feet out the window. I must just add that Tom did give the whole family the option of doing this trip in our VW camper-van but we all decided it had to be done in Kabylie, especially as her early life had been spent in North Africa in Algeria so in a way we would be bringing her home.
You can once again see where we are on our tracker by clicking here……………hope you enjoy following our adventure.
Going through some of the gears!
Justine – We left you last in the lovely streets of Salzburg pondering why Britain has few such lovely cities.
We spent the afternoon visiting the wonderful castle and the nunnery where Maria was a novice before she looked after the Von Trapp children and hit the big time with the Sound of Music. Tom was chuntering that we needed to get going across Europe while I kept procrastinating searching for a reason why I should buy a very expensive but very gorgeous dirndl.
We set off dirndl-less and headed for the German border where we experienced our first queue since entering Turkey. This was surprising as we had anticipated the queue to be biggest as we entered Schengen Europe. When we eventually reached the crossing there seemed to be no one checking anything so we sailed through and headed to Lake Chiemsee, where Bavarian King Ludwig II built Herrencheimsee, the last of his three fantastical palaces from 1878.
The roadside manicurists were even more precise in Germany and I wondered whether it was social pressure to keep up with the Shwartz’s that fuelled the perfection of the outside environment or whether the Germans have an extra ‘precise’ gene in their DNA.
Lake Chiemsee was so “herding with tourists” (Petra’s term for the beaches in Biarritz in July and August) that we nearly gave up buying tickets for the paddle-steamer over to the island of the famous palace. With true Germanic efficiency however, the herd was directed onto several waiting vessels and we found ourselves on the shady island in no time. Ludwig certainly chose a lovely spot on this sparkling lake, with the Alps on one side and manicured rolling hills on the other.
Ludwig II was a most interesting king. Had he been born a century or two earlier his eccentricities might have been accepted, but the world had changed and the ideal of a romantic potentate with a belief in absolute monarchy and very little interest in the day to day affairs of state was a little out-dated. Though he was popular, Ludwig almost bankrupted himself in paying for his three fairy-tale castles at Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrencheimsee before his family and his ministers decided that he was mentally unfit to rule and shuffled him off, aged 40, to another family castle. Shortly afterwards he and his doctor were found dead, floating in hip high water after apparently going for a walk around the lake. Their death remains a mystery as does the truth as to whether he really was unfit to rule, or just too eccentric and mad for his ministers.
Ludwig was obsessed with the French ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV and modelled Herrenchiemsee on Versailles. Whereas Versailles lacks the original furniture and fittings, Ludwig’s creation is complete and apparently many French come to see an almost perfect, but smaller, Versailles in all its glory. Ludwig called himself the ‘Moon King’ and when he moved in to Herrencheimsee, he would sleep all day and awake at 4pm and then pace the mirrored hall in his palace until day-break. His dining table was lowered through the floor to be set and winched up so he could dine without seeing any of his staff. He seems rather a tragic figure, probably agoraphobic and so caught up in his obsession with Louis XIV that there is nothing personal or Bavarian in the entire palace, only busts and paintings of Louis and his descendants.
Like Austria, there are so many lovely places in visit in Bavaria and wonderful alpine hikes that we would have loved to do, but we had to get some mileage under our belt and, heads swimming with Ludwig’s excesses, we set off on the long drive to Lindau, at the tip of Lake Constance.
Lindau is another, gorgeous picture-perfect town with winding streets, pastel colours, frescoed buildings, pretty gables.
Sadly we did not have time to stop at our other Happy Family card game towns like the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva, Lucerne or Schaffhausen. Instead, we marvelled at the Swiss countryside as we whizzed past and vowed to come back one day soon.
At 17.48 on the 25th of August, we drove over the French border, wistfully lamenting that our Retro Road Trip adventure was coming home and to an end.
We found a campsite mercifully devoid of August holiday-makers in the hills of the Jura just inside France, by a river that we could cool down in. The following morning we awoke with the tent in star gazing mode (flysheet off and roof windows open) and enjoyed a lazy morning listening to Bill Bryson’s history of the Home as we watched the mist lift off the wooded hill-top.
We set off for another long drive towards Limousin where we planned to meet our great friends Evelyn and Nick Brealey and their children. The Brealeys had most generously agreed to bring our dog Zazou over from the UK where he has been residing with Tom’s parents during our trip. Thank goodness we were ending the road trip with four days with great friends and our gorgeous doggy, otherwise we would be feeling very miserable indeed by this point.
With 2 km to go to reach our rendezvous campsite, and with over 17,000km under her belt, Kabylie suddenly lost all power. Tom pressed the accelerator to the floor but nothing happened. The engine spluttered out and the car started to roll backwards down a slight incline. Ever calm in a disaster, Tom leaped out and started ferreting about under the bonnet. What a cruel twist of fate it would have been if Kabylie had made it all the way to Iran and back, only to break down a few hours from home – though at least in France, I noted, we have breakdown cover. Luckily Tom worked his mechanical magic and with the help of a small nut managed to reconnect the accelerator with the thing that makes it work, and we were off again for a reunion with Zazou our dog.
We spent four lovely nights with the Brealeys in the same field – a duration totally unheard of for the retro roads trippers. It was a great relief not to be moving on every day and to be basking in the company of old friends, French cheese and the lovely Zazou. Having missed most of the Olympics, we staged our own and went canoeing while the kids spent the rest of the time up a tree building a den and constructing new sleeping arrangements, mainly in hammocks or under a mosquito net and the stars.
We said our sad farewells to the Brealeys this morning and we are now, with new team member Zazou, driving the last leg of the Retro Road Trip home. What an adventure it has been and what a joy to experience so many different cultures, peoples, foods and ways of life with our children.
Kabylie has been phenomenal. At almost 60 years old with her original engine, she has been a remarkable mode of transport. Her age and dashing good looks have bought us much good will from the people we have encountered and Tom’s intimate knowledge of all her parts has meant he has managed to keep his mistress going through deserts, mountains, rivers, potholes – essentially all terrain and circumstances.
Though praise must go to the mechanic, it is our children Petra and Hector who deserve the most. They have been immense fun to travel with. It would have been an impossible venture to undertake if they did not get on so well and enjoy each others company so much. Not once have they said ‘Are we nearly there’ (a good thing as I have never been sure where ‘there’ is.) Not once have they said ‘I’m bored’ and not once have they said they don’t want to do something (except Hector about having a shower.) They have only argued a couple of times, both about Petra being messier than her brother, and have occupied themselves brilliantly during all the long, hot drives. Best of all they have been enthusiastic, inquisitive and generous of spirit about everything and every situation. We very much hope they have enjoyed travelling with us as much as we have loved travelling with them.
Hector turns 11 today and as we approach Biarritz, we are munching on the last crumbs of his birthday cake, depicting Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit. In summary, and borrowing wise words from Wallace, all I can say is:
“It’s been a cracking adventure.”
(to view our tracker route Click here)
Justine – We were very sad to leave lovely Romania, with its horse drawn hay-waynes, milkmen delivering churns and magnificent natural wonders. We would have liked to stay weeks longer, but the school clock was ticking and we still had most of Europe to cross. Once more in convoy with our friends the Veritys, we set off for the Hungarian border with Kabylie in front and Violet, the Verity VW van behind. This formation did not last a minute after we crossed the border. The motorway ahead of us was the best road we had been on since leaving Iran. On the bumpy roads of Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Romania, Kabylie held her own and was often faster than most when the roads got really bad. On the motorway however, Violet sped past and so did everything else, whilst we chugged along at between 60 and 70 kph. It gave time for the kids to catch up on a bit of school work as there could be no excuses about the road being too bumpy. Rain was sheeting down but we hoped after crossing the flat plain of Hungary we would find the sun once again.
We rejoined the Veritys in the marzipan museum of Eger,(check spelling) a famous Hungarian Spa town. The works of art made of sugar were incredible. An entire life-size drawing room had been entirely created of the sweet stuff and there was a multitude of other masterpieces. Eger has one of the three remaining minarets, still standing in Hungary as testament to its time under Turkish rule in the mid 1500’s. There must have been strict rules on what the muzeen (the boy who sings the call to prayer) could eat in those days as anyone a little overweight would have got tightly wedged in the very narrow staircase to the top.
Budapest beckoned so we set off excitedly for a three night splurge in an apartment. Cities are not great places to camp. There is certainly no wild camping and campsites tend to be miles from the centre so you waste much time travelling. By contrast our palatial apartment was in the centre of the old town on a very cool pedestrian street full of café’s and shops. As there was no parking near by, we arrived like tinkers carrying half the contents of our respective vehicles in plastic bags, pockets, laundry bags and the like.
Budapest – what a great city, fabulous baroque architecture everywhere, the mighty Danube cutting through the city and thermal baths. Heather, Petra and I quickly ‘bagsied’ a girls morning at the baths whilst the boys agreed to babysit. Tom had visited Budapest in 1991 and in those days the baths were much more Roman, segregated and strictly nude. After descending into the magnificent vaulted bath house appropriately undressed he had been alarmed to discover quite how Roman it was. He ended up being chased around the baths by drunken naked old men who were delighted and much invigorated by the by the newly arrived 20 year old. A comic sight it must have been, like a reverse Benny Hill show, with Tom chased from pool to pool and then rapidly to the exit. It was understandable why he had agreed to babysit so quickly. A lot (including I hope the water) has changed since then and the baths are now unisex, costumed and magnificent.
Before our watery morning, we took a tour on a Hop-on Hop-off Bus around the city, which was brilliant, such a good way to get your bearings and a basic understanding of a city’s history. We saw many sights, ate ice-creams in the shape of flowers and took the kids to an ice-bar where you put on a big cloak and mittens and go for a drink in a freezer where everything from the glasses to the chairs is made of ice.
Joy of joys, our apartment owner managed to arrange a babysitter for us, so for the first time on the trip the adults got ready for a night on the town and Petra got to watch the Olympics on TV, something she had been longing to do.
The next morning, bleary eyed and hungover, Heather and I took the spritely Petra to the baths across the river. What a wonderful cure for too much schnapps and cherry brandy, lying in warm water under a clear blue sky, with the scrolls and domes of wonderful rooftops around us. They were the same bath that Tom had escaped from 26 years ago, very old with beautiful mosaic around the downstairs pools and a deliciously airy rooftop with more pools and deckchairs. Alcohol infused Sunday mornings could not get better than this.
During a river-trip on the Danube a leaflet fluttered onto the table showing that we were midway through Budapest’s mighty SZIGET music festival. The Retro-road-trip members had never been to a music festival. Though I had sorely wanted to, Tom has always been rather reluctant. Knowing however that the Veritys were festival-old-timers I felt this might be my one and only chance to go. Still recovering from our night on the town, Tom decided it was imperative that he service Kabylie the following day. Thus Mr Verity and I stayed up well into the night planning, finding a near-by campsite and buying tickets until we were set for the next morning.
Actually, Kabylie was due for an oil change and had developed a braking problem which is never a good thing, so Tom was had some reason on his side. Apart from the loose connection in the alternator he has managed to identify and fix everything so far without the aid of garages but oil changes are a very messy business and can’t easily be done without a garage to catch the oil. It turned out that there is a garage in Budapest specialising in Series 2 Land Rovers so he jumped at the opportunity to go work with someone who knew what to expect.
The SZIGET festival gave us a brilliant day out and was incredibly well organised with none of the mountains of rubbish and vast queues for the loo and home-bound taxi’s that I had been expecting. It was more like an enormous village fete with the added bonus of some great entertainment and famous musicians turning up. They say that there is a festival for everyone, and Sziget, with its Germanic orderliness and it’s location in the lovely Budapest conveniently close to the thermal baths, is definitely mine.
It was time for the road-trips to part ways. Over a goodbye breakfast we decided on our next destinations, realising what a huge privilege it has been to be so free for the last few months. There are few times in one’s life when one can munch on a bowl of Cheerios and cry ‘shall we go to Slovakia today, or Slovenia, or may be Austria?’ Spontaneity and having the time to experience it, is a rare thing in our busy lives.
As the crow flies to Yorkshire, Violet and the Veritys needed to head north-west, whilst our crow was flapping in another direction, to Biarritz. We said our sad farewells at the campsite gate, with ideas of future road trips together a distinct possibility.
Kabylie purred along the motorway following her service and now stopped reassuringly when required. There were still a few empty spaces on the roof-rack for some more country flags so we made a last minute decision to dip into Slovenia. It also meant that we could visit Graz in Austria if we went that route. When Tom’s grandmother Mary died, we inherited a small box of ‘Happy Family’ playing cards. They were made in the 1950’ and each family consists of four key cities in different European countries. Graz was always one we fought over so we decided it really needed to be visited.
Before leaving Hungary, we stopped at the bottom of the huge Lake Balaton at a town called Heviz which is famed for its own smaller thermal lake covered in purple lotus flowers and surrounded by trees. We arrived too late to go into the lake and it also said no kids under 14, but luckily our campsite was situated on the drainage channel that led from the thermal lake into Lake Balaton and we joined a band of locals plunging into this thermal ditch–river, also lined with lily pads and lotus flowers. It was very very lovely, especially as we knew the thermal waters were doing us no end of good. On returning to the campsite, our neighbour told us how she and her husband go to the thermal lake every year as it is so good for bones and arthritis, though she insisted “children should never go in as it is radioactive”! Oooooops! Why had I not read the small print on the sign?? More deadly than Prince Charles’ gas shed in Romania it seemed.
Our radioactive neighbour was fascinating as she was a Saxon from Romania. She explained how ghastly life was under Ceausescu and his obsession of increasing the population. Women were monitored for signs of pregnancy every month whilst at work and had to give a very good explanation if they were not expecting. Most people did not want more children but were forced to even though they had nothing to feed them with. There was nowhere near enough baby equipment. She had to wait 6 months to buy a pram and had money stored with friends in three towns in case one of them saw a pram they could buy her. Others who had too many children and nothing to feed them on had to leave them on the street and that is why at the end of Ceausescu’s time there were so many street children and the orphanages were bursting. Any child that was disabled was taken and put in a truly terrible orphanage. Exposing my children to radiation pales into insignificance compared to this story.
We headed to Ptuj in Slovenia, the oldest town in the country. Between 1656 and 1802 the castle was strongly owned by the Scottish Leslie family. Slovenia was delightful and our first experience of ‘super manicuring’ of the landscape. Everything looked perfect – every garden, farm, field and road. I searched in vain for one piece of rubbish but there was none anywhere. Britain and France have a thing or two to learn! The rain was still with us, so after a tour of the town and a fruitless search for a Slovenian car sticker we camped by a thermal waterpark and fired down slides in inflatable tyres. We felt cleaner than we had for a long time.
Austria did not disappoint. The manicuring took on new extremes and I felt myself strongly drawn to the wooden cuckoo-clock houses and dirndls, the wonderful traditional dresses the women wear. A great many people still really do wear lederhosen and dirndls with aprons and cleavages that give them perfect dumpling bosoms. As we wandered the beautiful streets of Graz, I was trying very hard to argue why I needed a dirndl while Tom insisted I didn’t need one. These lederhosen/dirndl shops are not for the tourist, indeed, they are a serious part of Austrian culture and make a big dent in the wallet. I pictured myself walking our dog Zazou on the beach in Biarritz in a flouncy dress and apron, or around the supermarket, or just climbing out of the roof tent in my dirndl – it didn’t work. If they hadn’t been quite so expensive and a lot shorter, I might have got away with saying it was a racy outfit from Victoria’s secrets and worn it for Tom on his birthday. I am not sure Tom in lederhosen would have been quite so good, but who knows?
The Austrian countryside is stunning and so ordered that there are few places to wild camp. Until now formal campsites have not existed or been few and far between. Being suddenly confronted with campsites rammed full of August crowds has been a nasty surprise so we make a big effort to keep the magic alive and camp where we can outside formal campsites. After a day going around an open cast mine in a dumper truck with wheels so big we looked like lego people in comparison, we did at last find a place. With hindsight we were daft to choose it but it was hot and sunny and there was a clear blue sky.
Tyre tracks led down from the main road onto a wonderful, wide, shallow, dried-up river bed and not far up it we found an excellent roost for the night tucked round a corner with great views of the mountains. I voiced concerns about flash floods from the sheer mountains above but Tom though that as the river was completely dry with no sign of recent water it must be a spring melt-water river, so we set up camp. We agreed that IF it rained we would move but we were all soon asleep…………until, rain drops began to patter on our roof, small drops at first but then heavier and heavier. Though the river bed was still firm neither Tom or I could sleep, so we decided that for peaceful dreams we should move. This is not easy with the tent deployed on the roof but we had trailed it once before in a campsite so we knew it was possible. There was still not even the smallest trickle in the river but we got the feeling it was not a good place to be. As the rain drummed down with increasing fury we took the bottoms off the ladders and while the kids and I remained in the tent, Tom gingerly bumped back down the river bed to the dirt track that lead to the
main road. It was 1.30am. At about 2.30am we were awoken by a new noise. The rain drumming on the roof of the tent was loud but a roar now filled our ears which at first we thought was a freight train in the valley. We peeked out of the window and saw with horror that the whole riverbed was now a raging torrent with large rocks and trees flying past! The water was rising fast too and though we had moved to higher ground, our back wheels were soon touching the edge of the torrent, so we hurriedly moved again, this time up onto the level of the main road.
As you can imagine we did not sleep very well, deeply shaken at the speed of which we could have been in serious trouble. It is unlikely that we would have been in mortal danger but we would have almost certainly lost the car. I feel we should be avoiding rivers for the rest of the trip. The Georgian foal being washed away and now nearly Kabylie and indeed ourselves – third time could be unlucky!?!
The next morning it was still raining as we packed up the tent. The river, though less forceful, was still flowing strongly. Putting away a soggy tent and then sleeping in the damp interior is never fun, particularly when we had been up half the night worrying about being swept away!
We decided to calm our nerves by visiting an old water-hammer mill that used to make scythes. It was incredible. It was like something out of a Dickens novel. Amazingly it had worked like this up until the 1980’s when it looked as though the workers had just downed tools and left. A little stream powered everything with huge water-wheels, from the knife which cut ingots of steel, to the bellows which heated it to red hot, to the pounders that tempered and shaped it, to the grinders and polishers. Drive belts crisscrossed the ceiling and Tom and Hector were hopping about with excitement. All in all the production of a scythe had 35 stages, so it was pretty handy that water could help with the work-load.
Salzburg was gorgeous and although utterly crammed with tourists it is such a graceful city though that this did not seem to matter. We could not help wondering why Britain lacks the swathes of 16th to 18th century buildings that
make the hearts of so many European towns so glorious. What where we doing when our European neighbours were swelling their cities with civic pride? We can’t blame it all on the bombing of the 2WW. Maybe we spent all our coffers on ships that have rotted away and building an empire, while forgetting to build our own country.
Austria is fabulous and I think that in a former life maybe I lived here in a chocolate box house with flowers cascading over the balcony and needing no excuses to wear a dirndl and flounce about in the meadows, singing. The hills are indeed alive.
The boys complain that at any one time the nose –bag is at least half full of inedible local delicacies enthusiastically bought by the female half of the team. It is certainly true that Petra and I find great enjoyment in gather interesting and bizarre foods in the markets and roadside stalls, so as a result the nose-bag holds an eclectic mixture in varying degrees of bountifulness. There are always a few duff ‘stunt foods’ who stubbornly float to the top, before being hurriedly pushed to the bottom again.
In terms of normal eating we attempted three meals a day. From Turkey onwards, when cereal could not be found, porridge and a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea has been our daily breakfast. Occasionally if time has allowed, Petra has rustled up some pancakes or boiled eggs, with local varieties of bread. I tend to buy something random at the dairy counter in the hope it is yoghurt. In Armenia I struck lucky with both cream and chocolate butter, but at other times I have tipped cottage cheese or sour cream on my cereal.
Having no fridge and a temperamental petrol stove that is quite a faff to prime and light (and blackens the pots at altitude), cooking has not been a highlight. As our table is hard to access, the ground of mud, stone or wet grass has often been the work surface. Also if we have been short on water, the ability to wash up or cook pasta has had to be considered. If the country we have been in has been cheap enough, we have usually eaten out for at least one meal a day, either in a local restaurant or grabbed a traditional road-side snack.
The longer we have been on the road trip, the lazier we have become about cooking. A watermelon or peanut butter or marmite sandwiches, the latter courtesy of Evelyn Brealey and family who sent us a fabulous care package have constituted supper on several occasions. If we have camped late, the mosquitos have occasionally been so rapacious that we have been forced to grab the bread and marmite pot and scurry into the tent.
The most delicious meal we have cooked was definitely the trout we roasted on the fire in Romania with the Verity’s, and the Iranian tomato and aubergine BBQ cooked by our friends when we camped in the desert. Petra’s flap-jacks cooked on the shovel in the fire have been the best (and only) pudding.
Personal observations: – All the places we have travelled through are surprisingly good at making ice-cream, though the best industrial ice-cream has to be the new Mint Magnum, only found in Romania as far as I can tell. Romania also has surprisingly good chocolate bars. Greek food is delishous but a bit repetitive with the old feta and tatziki. Turkish food is plain yummy. Georgian food would be good if they did not always drop the entire salt celler into it and Iranian stews are totally delicious. Armenia has incredible fresh juice called compot full of stewed fruit. In Ukraine, Transdnistra and Moldova we found surprisingly good Sushi. Romanian smoked pig fat for breakfast when made by Prince Charles’s staff is delectable, but quite disgusting when smoked by a drunk shepherd. Milk (cow and sheep) fresh from the udder is 5 trillion times nicer than from the supermarket. Hungarian Goulash is obviously yummy, Austrian pancake soup is delicious and German Brautwurst yum yum yum. The Swiss make a very strange Hawaian Pizza with glacé cherries and kiwi’s amongst the pineapple and have a drink which is delicious, exported nowhere and is made out of milk whey, but tastes like a fizzy fruit drink. And lastly but definitely not leastly, no one comes close to the French when it comes to patisseries.
Justine – We left you as we were looking for bears in the Transylvanian mountains in the company of our friends Heather & Tom Verity and their two kids. Having not had enough time to catch up with them, we continued our journey in convoy to the Saxon town of Brasov. Romania being a relatively new conglomeration of territories created after World War 1 has large areas of ethnic German and Hungarian populations.
Local legend has it that the Pied Piper re-emerged from Hamlin in Brasov and we could certainly imagine it with its cobbled streets, turrets and gingerbread houses. Much out-of-tune singing and out-of-step marching drew us into the main square which was filled with uniformed men and women. As flags fluttered we watched the passing out of the local military division’s latest recruits. Amidst great military pomp three bi-planes roared overhead to mark the occasion. Though more quaint than the red arrows I’m not sure NATO will be rushing to enlist the Romanian air force.
After a night in a rather nice apartment that we shared with the Veritiys, we all headed off in convoy to the village of Viscri, in the heart of Saxon-land. In 1123, the beautiful rolling hills that we were driving through had tempted several thousand ethnic Germans to emigrate to Transylvania. Though still called “Saxons” they came from all over southern Germany and few of them were actually Saxons. It was not just the scenery that bought them here, but an invitation from the Hungarian King (Transylvania was part of Hungary up until the end of World War I) who needed some trusty souls to defend the Transylvanian border from Ottoman invasion. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the ranks needed bolstering as Turkish attacks seemed more likely and more Saxons Germans came to build huge walls around their towns and fortify their churches.
Viscri is a perfectly preserved Saxon village with not even tarmac on the road to hint at it being from the 18th century let alone the 19th and to our surprise we discovered that Prince Charles has a house there which he has turned into a guesthouse . We peered through his gate but he was not there serving tea to his guests. We were relieved as in a few days we planned to stay at his other guest house in Zalanpatak and we wanted him to be free to serve us tea there instead.
The Saxon villages are very distinct and the houses all have a very pretty defensive architecture, the house gables facing the street and next to them a large gate. Behind the gate, each house has an attractive garden leading to a number of barns. We arrived in the rain, and went running up to one of these gates to ask if it was a guesthouse. An old man let us in saying something about us being ‘the dancing troop.’ Thinking he was mad, we hurried down to the end barn to see if they had a room. The occupants were in a flurry of excitement getting ready for a wedding but the bride kindly said we could camp on the lawn and a guest invited all 8 of us to share her bedroom. I thought this was remarkably friendly and so did they until they realised we were not wedding guests at all, nor for that matter the dancing troop!
While the bride generously gave up her precious time to try to find us a guesthouse, we discovered that the happy couple and many of their guests were from Mawson Road in Cambridge and as more guests arrived, we were expecting to see someone we knew at any moment. It turned out all the guesthouses were full of wedding guests, so we braved the sheeting rain and pitched camp on a verge outside the wonderful fortified church. The little artisan café opposite was closed, but the couple who owned it took pity on us and invited us into their kitchen for a bowl of soup and many glasses of beer. We wondered how rude it would be to sneakily have a shower when we used their loo – too rude was the conclusion.
The next day, the clouds parted and we partook of the hospitality of the artisan café once more for a fabulous breakfast (thank goodness we had not risked the shower!). We sat out in their gorgeous three sided wicker-walled barn with flowers cascading from tubs and chickens pecking around the trestle table legs. The Saxons, Romanians and Hungarians all have a wonderful architecture – beautifully rustic and pretty. Deciding we all needed a wicker-barn in our gardens, we peered into the barn next door and found it full of baskets of fantastic multi-coloured felt slippers. The little shop sold slippers all made by the women in the village. Each pair had the maker’s name on them so the money would go back to her. A breakfast of home-made jam, fresh cream and eggs in the midst of a cottage industry of felt slippers – could anything be more perfect and right up my street?
Having been dragged away from my slipper idyll, we investigated the beautiful white fortified church. This region is famous for them. A large tower had served as a look-out post and you could imagine the villagers scurrying behind the fortified walls to defend their church against the Ottomans. These churches are like English churches but the steeple or tower is a fortified keep and the whole complex is surrounded by a vast wall with towers. It was a very clever solution as these Saxons did not need some feudal lord in his castle agreeing to protect them in exchange for the majority of their produce. With a communal fortification, they could run the village themselves and avoid any feudal servitude. Each family had a place in the church grounds where they could keep their goods, but it also meant they could keep an eye on each other. A woman who had to keep going to the church for more supplies would get much tut tutting and medieval curtain twitching as it meant she was not good at budgeting for her familiy’s needs. We thought it more likely it meant she had a Ukrainian pot-bellied husband who ate all the pies and the poor wife had to bear the brunt of village disapproval.
The next morning we felt a bit bad that the wedding party had to pass our Roma encampment but we were good entertainment for them and they all took photos without throwing us coins so we can’t have looked that bad. We wandered the cobbled streets soaking up the yester-year atmosphere. A horse-drawn cart full of milk churns went from door to door, clattering along the mud main street, its horses decorated with red pompoms. Could this village get any more idyllic? Across Romania horses and carts are used for everything. Local builders move materials by horse-drawn cart and villagers pitchfork hay onto over-stacked haywaines. It seems that parts of the countryside have been entirely left behind by the modern world. Much of Romania is as developed and rich as the rest of Europe but then round the next corner you are back in the 18th century, men scything the fields by hand and using wooden pitchforks to heave the hay onto high wooden stooks.
Flushed with rural fervour we headed to the hills for some wild camping. It was also an opportunity to save some shekels as we had just paid the deposit for Charlie’s guesthouse. As it included all meals and activities, it was rather pricey, but hey, if he made our beds in the morning it would be worth it.
We turned off the road onto a dirt track that led up onto a plateau in the hope of finding somewhere to roost. It looked rather like the African savannah, but the only wild animals were sheep and a rather mongrel collection of sheep dogs. Whereas the sheep dogs of Turkey, Iran and the Caucusus are vast and terrifying and for two pins would chew you to the marrow before crapping in your rucksack, these Romanian sheep dogs were a mottly crew of skinny white Dulux dogs and poodle/dachshund crosses. Romania has more wolves and bears than anywhere but it would be hard to imagine these dogs keeping a guinea pig away from the flock let alone a bear – unless they were going to lick them to death. The dogs have a horizontal stick which hangs around their neck. This stops them chasing anything as if they try to run fast the stick bangs in to their legs. Throughout our travels sheep dogs have been used in a very different way from the UK. Whereas a collie in the UK is used to round up the sheep and direct them, in this part of the world, dogs are only there for protection. How does the east European farmer round up his sheep, you may ask? The answer was soon revealed to us by the shepherd who drove his sheep past our excellent camp spot.
For a while, Tom had been formulating a theory about goats playing the role of sheep dogs, as in every flock we had seen there seemed to be five or six goats. His theory was confirmed when the shepherd started shouting some strange words and the goats trotted out of the flock towards him. He stroked their ears and then commanded them to lead the flock down the valley. The goats made their way though the flock and out the other side, and all the sheep then followed them in the chosen direction – ingenious!
We set up our camp with Kabylie and Violet (the Verity’s VW camper) linking their awnings. The kids spent hours making a den with a fire pit in it, modelled on the ones in the ancient cave cities of Georgia. Their pit was a bit too deep to provide under-floor heating for the den, but it did produce some excellent flambéed marshmallows. Petra and Tom Verity went for a run over the hills and as they ran past the shepherd camp they were offered a drink of ewe’s milk fresh from the udder, and a piece of fresh cheese. Part of the job of the shepherds is to make cheese every day. There seem to be two types of shepherd. Type A works for one farmer who pays him to look after his entire flock. Type B is a village shepherd, who collects sheep from every family in the village and looks after them on the hillside (just like in the book Heidi). Every day shepherd B makes cheese with the milk, a proportion of which he keeps and the rest he gives to the villagers in proportion to the amount of sheep each family has given him to look after. I am not sure which villager’s portion of cheese Petra and Tom returned with but it was most delicious. They also returned with two poodle puppies and a mangey Dulux dog who had decided they would be better with us than the shepherd and his large stick. We often find that when we camp we wake with a stray dog under our car but this Dulux dog was very persistent and we ended up naming him Roma. Tom V let slip that they wanted a new dog, so we decided Roma was the perfect gift for his birthday the next day. He was not so sure.
Whilst the runners had been away, I had taken the opportunity to rustle up a birthday cake for Mr Verity. With limited ingredients and no coloured icing my first idea was to make a cake in the form of a pea-pod (Mr Verity is a Yorkshire pea magnate). This proved too difficult. The team had a communal head-scratching. No nits were found but a brilliant idea was. What shape could be made out of rocky-road biscuit cake and remain chocolate biscuit cake colour?? A bear pooh! While pitching camp a nice fresh one had been discovered by the kids between the cars so we had something to copy. The following day we presented the birthday boy with a shovel on which his pooh cake was served. It looked disgustingly realistic and any bear would have been proud of it. Tom was duly delighted and we all spent a heavenly day playing games, sketching, lolling about and gorging on bear stool.
It was time to make our way to the valley of Zalanpatak and Prince Charles’ other guesthouse. We stopped for a night in the Saxon towns of Biertan and Signasoara which were immensely pretty and had just the right amount of things to see, from Vlad the Impaler’s place of birth to the wonderful clocktower that we all climbed. From there you could see the sturdy walls of the fortified citadel interspersed with towers, each belonging to a guild, which would have rush to defend it whenever the Turks came pouring into the valley. Biertan was famed for it’s solution to divorce. For the past five hundred years, any disgruntled couples wanting to separate were locked in a room for two weeks. The room only had one bed, one plate, one cup and one fork. Faced with either death by fork or reunion in the one small bed, Biertan has had only one divorce since this innovative remedy was introduced half a millennium ago.
As we bounced along the rubble road to the Zalanpatak valley, we realised we were driving through a living museum. There was not one piece of farming equipment that was newer than a hundred years old. The horse drawn hay turner (tedder) was the most state-of-the art piece of machinery we saw. There is certainly a role for the EU to try to preserve this rural paradise by paying the locals to preserve their farming practices, which need no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Easy to say from a comfy(ish) car as we watch the peasants toiling in the heat but practically all the small holdings are organic, simply because they have always farmed that way. No wonder the country has struck such a chord with old Charlie.
Our own rural idyll awaited us in the form of a number of rustic wooden cottages with very pretty rooms, all decked out with traditional furnishings. The Three Feathers, the crest of the Prince of Wales, was carved into the gable ends of the main buildings and a little three-sided barn with a roaring fire and a big table with a linen cloth was the venue for all our meals, along with other guests who were staying. Alas Charles was not there to meet us or indeed make our beds, nor sadly was there a Duchy Original Chocolate Ginger biscuit on our pillows. But he had taken the time to put name stickers on the back of everthing to stop us nicking things. The other guests made up for Charles not actually being there as they were great company. An immensely interesting and high-powered couple from Barcelona were excellent value and very amusing and we were up late into the night absorbing their fascinating tales and discussing Brexit. It turned out that she was an ex Spanish Government Minister. Like many people they had come to see what on earth this strange Prince Charles was doing with a guesthouse in Transalvania. The other couple, Schnitzel von Crumb with a very large tum (a Romanian Oligarc) and his young wife were also very nice, and treated us to wine from their own vineyard and medicinal schnapps for breakfast, bringing back fond memories of breakfast cha -cha in Tusheti.
We had three super-relaxing days at the Royal Guest House and while Mr Verity choreographed a blockbusting play with the kids, Tom and I snoozed and read our books realising that this was the first time on the entire retroroadtrip that we had stopped and relaxed! The Prince of Wales had laid on an activity every day for his guests and though it was raining we all decided we did not want to forgo the horse and cart trek through the forest. Our guide was extremely interesting and really knew his stuff about everything, from the mineral make up of the land to every wild flower, animal pooh, foot print, tree, bird and historical anecdote about the area. A large proportion of Transylvania speaks Hungarian and the population see themselves as Hungarian rather than Romanian, mainly because this area was part of Hungary until World War II. There is a begrudging undercurrent. Many Hungarians refuse to speak Romanian and would like Transylvania to be part of Hungary again. In the early 1990’s, Germany paid $5,000 per Saxon to be ‘rescued from Romania,’ hence most Saxon villages have Romanian inhabitants now. The Israelis paid for the Jews to leave too, but the Hungarian government would not pay for it’s Hungarians, probably because it still sees Transylvania as its territory.
Day two’s activity was a guided walk through the woods, past a spring of naturally carbonated water, and some fabulous charcoal burners with a wonderful spiral of wood logs which they covered and set alight to smoulder slowly for days. Milking cows was the evening activity. Heather proved more successful than the rest of us, but we all loved it and obviously now want to get a cow. The afternoon was spent damming the mineral water stream and bathing in the rather murky-looking mineral bath which promised to cure all ailments. Apparently when Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, every village had medicinal mineral water pools, either in spas or dug into the rivers. It would be interesting to see from old records if the health of the population then was better than today.
I was the only one who had the urge to try the ‘Moffat.’ This is a natural gas exhaust with a hut built over it. The sign outside warned that inhalation of the gas could cause instant death hence no children were allowed to use it. I was told that on entering I needed to light a match and lower it towards the ground. When the match extinguished, this indicated the level of the gas which, being heavier than air, sinks to the ground. Alas I could not find the matches, so as the kids stood outside wailing ‘Mummy come out! Don’t die,’ I had to resort to sniffing the air gingerly as I lowered my nose towards the floor. About 60 cm off the ground, I caught a nose-full of gas, but managed to sit up quickly before the grim reaper sent me the way of the dead cockroaches on the floor. The point of risking death by gas is that the gas is meant to seep into your legs and cure you of all manner of things including arthritis. I don’t have arthritis but I could not resist the strange experience and found it extraordinary that no one else wanted to join me.
We waved a sad goodbye to our three nights of immense comfort and crisp white sheets, but we did manage to farm five loads of laundry through the royal washing machine. Though its mattresses may be thin and its walls a bit damp, our roof tent at least had the waft of royal detergent.
We headed to the Transfagaras Highway, heralded by Jeremy Clarkson and the TopGear team as the best and most exciting road in the world. Even the officials at the Romanian border control had given us the thumbs up sign shouting ‘TopGear road?’ Now, thanks to this Top Gear endorsement this is a driving hell of hairpin traffic jams that wind up the undoubtedly magnificent road. We found such a great camp spot at the bottom of the mountains that we nearly could not be bothered to drive up the hairpin bends. Eventually we made it to the half-way point where we took a cable car to a lake right at the tippy-top but it was so expensive that we decided a bowl of soup and a small “rustic platter” would suffice at the restaurant
Stuffed with stodgy pudding, we decided to walk back to the car, particularly as the small rustic platter of jellied tongue and other unmentionables turned out to be the price of a modest cottage by the sea. The stroll back transpired to be three hours long with a few, near vertical, scree precipices to negotiate, but it ended with a gorgeous walk through a pine forest strewn with fresh bear pooh. We felt sure bears were all around us but annoyingly (or thankfully) just out of view.
We retuned to our glorious wild camp spot with its crystal clear river, the perfect environment for the kids to create an excellent blow-up mattress water flume.
On the way back, we stopped at a trout farm to buy supper. The lady scooped six lovely trout from the pond and put them in a clear plastic bag for me. I asked if she was going to kill them first and she grinned and said ‘no way.’ I felt hugely guilty as we bumped back to our camp with the six fish slowly asphyxiating and flapping jerkily on my knee. The fact they were in a clear plastic bag looking at me as they slowly died did not help my conscience. Thankfully Mr Verity and, surprisingly, Petra agreed to dispatch them. Petra who is edging towards vegetarianism declared she needed to know where her food came from and proceeded to gut them – watching a horse sacrificed in Indonesia last year obviously paid off!
The trout had not died in vain as they were utterly delectable, cooked on the fire with lemon slices and wild thyme picked from under our feet (well slightly to the left of them). We were truly grateful for their short but worthwhile lives – thank you fish.
As the kids squealed and dammed and undammed the mattress flume, the adults pondered the map of Europe and were surprised to see quite how far Romania is from both Yorkshire and Biarritz. We were running out of time to get back to our respective homes in time for school. It was time to head to Hungary. We stopped in at Sibiu and wild camped on an abandoned railway line. The next morning we could not resist exploring the old Soviet era tunnel at the end. It turned out to be blocked with undergrowth at the far end so unable to turn round we had to reverse all the way back down it again.
Just before crossing over to Hungary we camped by the wonderful Cave of the Bears where the remains of 140 vast prehistoric bears were found, trapped in a huge cave complex by a rock fall. We also stopped in at Corvin Castle, mainly because it said you could dress up in medieval costume and shoot cabbages with a bow and arrow. I have always had a yearning for a wimple so was most disappointed that none could be found: dressing up and cabbages were only offered on Saturdays – damn it! Corvin Castle was very impressive though and quite different from when Tom had visited it 23 years before, with Meriel Fawcus, a
friend from Uni. In 1992, just after the demise of Ceausescu, the castle was surrounded by vast factories pumping out thick black smoke. Everything from the buildings to the grass, the sheep and the people were black with pollution. Happily Romania’s black years (literally) are over and it is now a paradise of wild flowers, horse-drawn carts, hand-scythed fields, breath-taking scenery, abundant wildlife, pretty architecture and smiley people delighted that you have visited their country. Book your tickets now before the modern world catches up and this living museum of ethnography is lost forever.
INSIGHT –education on the road
Several people both at home and on the road have asked how our children keep up with their education. Obviously there is a plethora of cultural, historical and life lessons that Petra and Hector are learning every day, but formal school work is a different thing. It is easier to find time to do this when not touring in convoy with our friends the Verity’s as life is too much fun to do schoolwork when there are other kids to play with and adults to quaff wine with, but on our own, most schoolwork is done in the car when driving or on the occasions when we stop in a place for more than one night.
Had our children been at school in the UK, it would be a lot easier as I would have at least understood what I was endeavouring to teach them and could explain the things they did not understand. As they are at school in France and I was born in the 10 years when the UK decided to bin all teaching of grammar at school, I have not the foggiest what a pluperfect, subjunctive, conditional or a gerundive is in English let alone in French. Thus education has been more tricky than anticipated mainly because internet has been intermittent so sending things to teachers etc has been pretty well impossible. Luckily, because we changed route, the kids have only missed two months of school and have revised their school books and written journals. We are trying to do the CNED revision programme which is a French programme for schooling online. Below is a selection of schooling environments: Photos
Justine – As one of the natural highlights of Europe, we were expecting the Danube Delta to be mobbed with summer tourists, but in fact very few people seem to come to this part of Romania. We arrived in Tulcea, the main town of the Delta, on a Sunday and found the tourist office closed. Not to worry, the souvenir shop next door called someone he knew, who knew someone who worked there and she proceeded to give me a full rundown of all there was to see and exactly how we could find a boat and where we could camp. I cannot
envisage someone from the Biarritz tourist office being so friendly when bothered at home on a Sunday morning by a random tourist. This friendly helpfulness has accompanied us wherever we have been and is something we were not expecting. Interestingly all the ex-Soviet countries have had very friendly people, with the possible exception of Sothern Armenia. Whether that was just the contrast to the ridiculously lovely Iranians or whether they all just enjoy eating lemons, I am not sure, but even they were friendly enough after some persistent smiling and waving on our part.
After a quick tour round the Delta Museum to get our eye in for all the wildlife we hoped to see, we headed to Murighiol, the only place you can get to in the Delta by car. All other areas have to be accessed by ferry or by hiring a boat off a fisherman.
Little campsites lined the main road in Murighiol. They were in people’s gardens and were perfect as we are not fans of formal campsites. This was the first paying campsite we had been to since leaving Greece three months ago. There are no formal campsites where we have been and we much prefer wild camping anyway. One man offered to take us on a boat trip for 300US$ which seemed extortionate, so we sniffed out the tiny port ourselves and found a lovely man who took us for a fraction of this. We set off into the Delta, Hector very excited that our boat had an engine with 50 ‘horse backs.’ Speeding through the reeds and lily pads, green frogs leapt in a Mexican wave in front of us and pelicans took to the skies, their incongruous bulbous bodies and oversized beaks lifting out of the water with a great wobble then taking to the air with extraordinary grace. They look as unlikely to be able to fly as an aeroplane must have looked to the first onlookers.
There is something hugely exhilarating about whizzing through reed-lined channels at speed – it is not just the wind in one’s face, but the terrifying risk of another boat of exhilarated passengers coming the other way round a blind corner! We stopped for lunch and a swim at a little hotel with a gorgeous empty pool which you could only get to by boat.
The afternoon was spent whizzing across lakes or puttering slowly as close as we could towards white tailed eagles, glossy ibis, egrets, pelicans, herons, black head herons, families of swans and a whole host of other birds that sadly I can’t name. As evening drew in, we saw eight kingfishers one of which sat patiently for a whole five minutes as we gawped at it.
There are many wonderful places to visit in the Delta, but we only had time for one other fabulous boat trip. The next day we got up at 04.30 in the hope that a boat trip to an ancient forest, strangely dissected by eight rows of sand dunes and roamed by herds of wild horses, would take us past 300 pelicans. Alas the birds were not playing ball and were not in a vast pelican flock. All the same it was glorious seeing the sun rise over the waterways.
We headed next to Transylvania and marvelled at the beauty of the Romanian countryside. Rolling hills scattered with picturesque old fashioned, trickling clear streams, fluffy sheep which are so clean that they look like toys – and then the wonderful Carpathian mountains. The villages are incredibly picturesque and out of yesteryear, pretty little houses and flower filled gardens. Hay-bailers have not made it to Romania in abundance yet. The fields are scythed by hand and then the hay is pitch-forked up into a mound around a pole or transported on horse-drawn haywaynes back to rickety farm buildings. Flipping hard work, but many rural people here seem to live at subsistence level. They all have their one cow for milk and cheese, a field that the family scythe to feed the cow, a few chickens and a vegetable plot. All the villages we have passed through since Transdniester have a village well. We naturally hope that all the houses have running water but the wells seem to get a worrying amount of use with old people hobbling back to their houses carrying bottles of drinking water. The cities, on the other hand, are modern, although unlike in Georgian and Armenian cities it seems as if every car on the road is a new one, giving the impression that there is a cavernous gap between the haves and have-nots.
Around every corner in Romania there seems to be another geological phenomenon. After some very bumpy roads, we found mud volcanoes which delighted us so much, we went in search of others in the same area. They are shaped like perfect volcanoes, just in a miniature, and instead of hot lava, they bubble with cold mud that makes you want to smear it all over yourself (which you are advised not to do.) Instead, you can pretend you are the chocolatier in the Lindor advert as I did – Umummmmmmm.
Mud smearing cravings over, we went in search of the ‘Focul Viu.’ More bumpy roads and no signs anywhere but we found them eventually with the help of a one-legged farmer who was hopping about his field as he and his family pitchforked hay onto his horse-drawn cart. Now that really is hard work! The farmer kindly sent his youngest son to be our guide. The six year old Y-Noot (I have guessed the spelling) led us on a 30 minute hike up a wonderful flower covered mountain. There, in the middle of a field, was a brown earth circle with several flaming holes in it, escape holes for flaming natural gas. What was bizarre was that no one had used this wonderful source of free energy to heat homes, or bbq food, or even create a tourist attraction. There was just us and Y-Noot, lighting sticks and wishing we had bought the marshmallows. Whereas the Lindor mud pools were my dream come true, the Focul Viu was Hector’s. He is constantly being told off at home for lighting candles and poking sticks into them. Here his pyro-maniac tendencies could be well satisfied.
The “Trovanti” in Costesti are yet another bizarre geological curiosity. These are rocks which apparently grow when it rains. However to my dismay Tom went ‘mongy’ (hunger induced idiocy) and had a sense of humour failure on the bumpy roads at the critical moment, so we had to forage for food rather than for growing rocks. Arrrrrrrrrgh!
Luckily the next day brought another geological wonder – the salt mine of Slanic. Having descended deep underground, we went through a small doorway and stepped into a truly vast chamber. Fifty metre-high walls soared above us, marbled with white and grey salt strata. We estimated you could fit the nave of every cathedral in England into the mine. It really was arresting. There was a small exhibition of how they mined for salt and the most interesting bit was the size of the chainsaw they used to cut salt blocks – see picture.
The Carpathian mountains beckoned and we headed to Sinaia. The pretty, royal town offered no camping opportunities so we headed up the valley where we spent three nights trying to spot bears and going on fantastic hikes and swims in the icy rivers during the daytime. One night we were in an area where some other campers had told us bears would come down and eat at the bin. They indicated to us the best place to spot them which was between them and the bin, where no one else was camping. Only after putting up the tent did we suspect that they wanted us there so we would get eaten first! Other people in ground tents had put electric fences around their camp to keep wolves and bears out. Another person showed us his flare pistol to ward off the wildlife. We were told our roof-tent would be fine as long as we pulled the ladders up, and looked slightly alarmed when we said we couldn’t. Thanks to the overlanders we met in Georgia who filled our hard-drives with movies, we no longer have to watch films in Hindi and that night we were watching the last Harry Potter after a marathon week of Hogwarts. We snuggled in the roof tent watching the Deathly Hallows and I am not sure what was more scary, Voldermort or the thought of a bear climbing the ladder into our tent. Tom had brought the shovel into bed with us to bash the bear with if one came in and we were so excited that we interrupted the film eight times to all peer out of the tent windows with our torches. Alas none were seen but we did see a wolf, which was definitely a consolation but enough to make us reluctant to go for a pee in the night!
The next morning we packed up and rolled down the long hill to Bran, the site of the famous castle which inspired Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’ Since leaving home we have been blissfully alone on our travels giving us the illusion that we were in some way pioneers. In Bran the spell was broken. We found ourselves bogged in the swamp of summer holidays mass tourism. The castle is not big and was dangerously full of tourists rammed shoulder to shoulder in every room and corridor in the sweltering heat. We could not get out of there quick enough – and there was even a queue to do that.
Back in April, just after setting off on our adventure, we had crossed paths with our old friends Tom and Heather Verity and their kids Lyra and Xanthe. They had just finished 3 months living in Chamonix and were setting off on a European adventure of their own in their campervan. We had been in such a rush to get to Iran that we had only managed a rapid coffee in a kids play park near San Tropez before belting off to Turkey. Several months on, we found ourselves in neighbouring countries, both families heading back west for school in September. With the Bulgarian heat fraying their tempers, we managed to persuade them to come up to the cool of the Romanian mountains to do some Vampire Camping, an excellent place for catching up and swapping stories. It has been wonderful to see them and hear all about the Balkans where they have spent the majority of their time. Tom has spotted me eying up the bespoke French-made leather seats and air conditioning in their van. Surely they have been admiring Kabylie’s rugged lines too, but it won’t be because of the comfy seats, speed or windscreen wipers!
Teaming up we hired a super-knowledgeable but rather grumpy guide to take us on a nature walk. We headed up into the mountains in search of bears just as I was overcome with nausea and proceeded to vomit out of the car. Alas no bears were spotted on the walk, but we did find lots of bear poo and fresh foot prints. At this time of year bears eat raspberries almost exclusively, but despite scoping out their favourite bushes they must all have been asleep. Between waves of nausea and vomiting I had an image in my head of a bear delicately picking raspberries and popping them into a basket, but apparently they eat the whole top of the bush so a basket is not needed. As the day cooled off we were taken to a forestry commission hide. Here we were fortunate enough to see about seven big brown bears and were alarmed to learn how easily they could have climbed up into our tent!
Tom – One final observation is that in Romania the tradition is to colour the wool while it is still on the sheep. They do this by dipping the sheep in dye holding onto the tale. Its the strangest thing we have seen but flocks of sheep like this are a common site in the mountains.
Insight into life on the road:
A few people have asked how we wash when we are camping. Well the truth is we are probably never as clean as we would like to be but disturbingly we are getting used to that. Usually we do a lot of swimming and washing in rivers (see photo of Petra in shower tent.) Petra and Tom are always enthusiastic for this icy experience. Hector is a reluctant washer (boy) and I can’t stand cold water and thoroughly disturb the wildlife with my shrieking as I dowse myself. Sadly apart from clear mountain streams the rivers on this trip have usually been an uninviting murky brown, so we often fill a bowser with water and have a syphon shower next to the car playing roulette with the Mosquitos. In Romania we have found a few restaurants with swimming pools so we get our money’s worth and give the pool filter something to do!
Justine – The Odessa Files, Odessa cloth, Pearl of the Black Sea, trade of the world, melting pot of humanity – Odessa conjures so many images. But before we could see if any of them were correct, we had to battle our way through customs and immigration. We arrived in Odessa to the usual customs shenanigans. 40’c heat, no signs or instructions and what turned out to be seven complicated forms to stamp in seven different buildings. The officials were all very nice when we did eventually find them, but it was difficult to stay cool when it was that hot. We followed some of our ferry friends who had a GPS into Odessa and spent a happy day exploring the beautiful old town.
Before the Revolution, Odessa must have been quite a place. Catherine the Great first nicked the area off the Ottomans, founded the city in 1794 and then opened the doors to traders from all over the world to come and build Odessa and create one of the great trading centres of the 18th century. Traders were given land on the condition that they built a house during the following two years. The wonderful classical, renaissance and art-nouveau mansions lining the streets give testament to the fact that the city was awash with money. It was easy to imagine the early years as something like the gold and land rush in America, with entrepreneurs of every nationality scrabbling to make their fortunes.
Odessa’s change of fortune during the pogroms, world wars and subsequent soviet years took it’s tole,but 26 years after the collapse of communism, and the wealth and cosmopolitan vibes are back. Serving by far the best food we had encountered since leaving Biarritz we blew the budget seriously on sushi, gelato ice-cream, milkshakes and vast cakes. We were not the only ones. Ukrainian men seem to have skipped the sushi and just gone for the girth expanding stuff – shaved heads, gold chain and bellies hanging over their trousers. Not a good look, but there does seem to be a direct correlation between the size of the bellies and the number of Range Rover sports on the streets. Conversely, the women of Odessa have left the Soviet Union in the past and are clearly cake-proof. They are all pencil thin and gorgeous. In fact we can’t remember being anywhere with quite so many fabulous looking women and such a disparity of looks between the sexes. I felt really sorry for the women having quite such a rough choice of men, but perhaps Ukrainian males are hilariously funny and kind and the Ranger Rover Sport has nothing to do with it. Full of cakes ourselves, we waddled to the best people-watching beach, which to Tom’s delight turned out to be where all the luscious ladies
moved to in the evening. The sea did not look very inviting and seemed to follow the pattern that the hotter the weather the greener the water, but people don’t come here to swim. They come to promenade, look for Range Rover owners and dance. A last minute internet search (during the 10 minute drive to the beach) found us a fantastic flat right in the middle of the action so we could eat more ice-cream and go on fair-ground rides while Tom focused on the natives.
So far the retroroadtrip has taken us through or along the border of every one of the breakaway states or autonomous regions that Vladimir Putin has nurtured in his neighbours territories. Transdniester (also known as Transnistria) is one of the strangest, so we felt we had to visit. Recognised by nobody (including Russia) except the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it declared independence from Moldova in 1990. It is totally dependant on Uncle Putin but has its own army, currency, police, border controls and its very own oligarch who owns everything. The former policeman amusingly decided to call his conglomerate ‘Sheriff’ and everything is branded with the same sheriff badge logo in this tiny country that took a mini bite out of Moldova and nestles against Ukraine. Sheriff bank, Sheriff supermarket, Sheriff utilities, Sheriff hospital, Sheriff petrol pumps, Sheriff car tyres, Sheriff market place, Sheriff construction.
As we left Odessa for Transdniester, the temperature was pushing 40’c. The kids were clamouring for a dip in the Black Sea but every beach we came to had a barrier at which you had to pay for parking, and then another where you had to pay to enjoy the delights of the water. When I asked a guard if there were any free beaches for a 5 minute dip, he shook his head and said ‘welcome to capitalism.’.
Naturally we were baking hot when we arrived in Transdniester but because our hostel had promised a swimming pool and tennis court (odd for a hostel,) the kids had stalwartly put up with the heat. Sadly the guidebook description of the hostel turned out to be Transdniestrian propaganda. It was in fact a 20sq metre apartment in a communist tower block out of the film Train Spotting, a place that would have even disappointed manky students. Luckily we were the only guests. It would have been quite unpleasant if we had had to share the limited space with some strangers on the sofabed. The good news was that it was managed by a very nice local who showed us around town and explained how things worked in this bizarre little country. It turns out that though the local oligarch Mr Sheriff has been very good at clamping down on criminals, corruption remains rife. Our guide’s girlfriend explained that her university professor had told them that if they wanted a good mark in their exams they would need to pay him, and that this was common practice for all public servants, like doctors, surgeons, teachers etc. Our Greek friends have always told us this is common practice in Greece too, so perhaps Transdniester will take Britain’s place in the new EU. Interestingly, although Transdniesterans seem resigned to paying their teachers, they are not happy transgressing minor traffic regulations. NOBODY will cross the road without the green man illuminated at the lights even if there are no cars for miles. Strangely you can also buy fake Euros in the newsagent.
The next day we hopped over into Moldova whose roads were lined with vast fields of sunflowers dancing in the heat. When it gets really hot we deploy the aircon, which for us means taking the door tops off. The roads in Moldova are either OK or terrible, and somehow we seemed always to find ourselves on the terrible ones. Its difficult to say there were vast potholes in the road because in many cases the road was just potholes with only the occasional bit which could be called a road. As evening drew in our alternator finally packed up, after behaving strangely for the past two months. Until this point, Tom had always managed to get to the bottom of all Kabylie’s problems himself without the aid of a garage or expert. However the alternator’s intermittent problems had defeated him. As luck would have it we stopped outside a tiny village garage that, strangely, had its door open at 19:00 on a Saturday night and it turned out that the young owner was only too delighted to spend his Saturday evening stripping down Kabylie’s alternator. Remarkably he found and fixed the loose connection, and then refused payment! Tom’s elation was so great that he insisted on payment, particularly as we learnt he was about to take his girlfriend to sample the delights of Odessa. Now he could buy her copious amounts of ice-cream whilst he gawped at the girls. As the sun set, we drove to a nearby sunflower field and pitched camp.
We waved goodbuy to Moldova and it’s friendly people and entered the EU. It felt rather sad to be coming back to Europe as it highlighted the fact that the retroroadtrip will be coming to an end in September. The ease of choosing supper ingredients from a supermarket stocked with familiar products is of course welcome, but at the same time it is sad that the exotic is receding the closer we get to home. Luckily Romania still holds much to delight, from it’s geological wonders to it’s rural way of life.
Caucuses to the Black Sea
Justine – With the alarming Tusheti road behind us, we travelled one valley over to the Pankisi valley. Our guide book said nothing about this area, but Clara the punchy French lady we had met in Tusheti had advised we go. The muslim Pankissi valley is marked red on all foreign office websites denoting it is a high risk area. The reason for this, apparently, is that in the early 2000’s Al-Qaida training camps were allegedly functioning in the valley and it was used as a base for transit, training and shipments of arms and financing by Chechen rebels and Islamic militants. More recently, a greater number of jihadists from the valley have gone to join ISIS per-capita than anywhere else in the world. It seemed very unlikely that potential jihadists would be daft enough to stage attacks in their own valley filled with their families so it seemed an obvious place for the retro-road trip to explore.
The inhabitants of the valley are Kist, Chechens who came to Georgia at the invitation of Russia some 200 years ago. At that time the Kists, unlike the rest of the Chechens, were not Muslim but had their own monotheistic religion, and were brought over to help the Russians and Georgians battle against Shamyl, the leader of rebellious Muslim tribes from Chechnya and Dagestan. 200 years on and Russia is no longer so happy with the Kist valley as during that time they became Muslim. Many Chechens fled into the valley during the bitter war between Chechnya and Russia.
We stayed at a guesthouse run by the charming Nazy who had left her job as a lawyer in Tbilisi to return home to try and help her people change the image of the valley. Nazy explained that the valley is so small that everyone knows the families who have lost children to the ISIS cause and that out of a population of 12,000, only 20 young men have gone to Syria to fight, not the 200 maintained by the authorities. The main recruiter was arrested by the authorities several years ago, but the reputation of the valley is hard to change. Nazy has got several NGO projects started in the valley and is determined to improve the lot of her people. She improved our lot no end by cooking us the best food we have tasted on our whole trip.
Out of respect for cultural sensibilities, Petra and I donned our Iranian cover-all garb as we explored the village. In Georgia you quite often seen veiled women (photo) near the churches, all in black wearing what we would consider a very Muslim outfit and this just goes to show the similarities between orthodox religions. Here no women wore black. They only had a short scarf over their heads. It was the men who gave the place away as being a Muslim valley. Clean-shaven Tom looked positively nude compared to the mullah beards. They sat on every street corner and seemed most incongruous, with beer and vodka being sold in all the shops behind them. The beard style here is long, shaved round the mouth, in the orthodox style.
The locals were less friendly than the majority of Georgians we had met, but Nazy told us that they are suspicious of people who might be journalists. Many come to the village and write articles reinforcing the bad reputation they have because it makes a good story. The last journalist, from Aljazeera, wrote an article trying to dispel the negative reputation of the valley, but her editor said it was not very exciting and made her re-write it, bigging up the terrorism aspect. That’s 24 hour news for you.
Not being a Friday, we missed the whirling dervish women who twirl at the old mosque between 9 and 12. As we said our farewells to Nazy, she asked if we had purposely put a Chechen symbol of a wolf howling at the moon on our roof tent. By chance, our tent was the brand ‘Howling Moon’, but I am sure the company has no idea that their logo is the Chechen symbol of resistance – always fighting.
We headed out of the valley towards the Military Highway, which was built by the Russian hero General Yermolov in 1817 with the aim of subjugating the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus. It is renowned for its phenomenal views but sadly we saw none as the cloud descended and heavy raindrops bounced off the bonnet. A police car stopped us to check we were not planning on going to South Ossetia, the border of which runs parallel to the road. South Ossetia is a breakaway region of Georgia which declared independence with the help of the Russians in 1990. It was the cause of the 2008 five day war between Georgia and Russia which saw Russia invade Georgia and march towards Tbilisi. – so recent!
The route passes a turquoise reservoir as it climbs towards the Russian border. Ever since meeting the hilarious Russian couple in Armenia, who kept shouting ‘Putin- Super good’ we had been toying with the idea of changing route by going into Russia and we had started the process of getting visas. The military highway goes to the only open border with Russia but we learned on the way up that there had just been a huge landslide. The road on the Russian side was now blocked by 800m of rubble and would be closed for the next two months. Our route decision was now made; we would have to get the ferry across the Black Sea to Ukraine.
As the rain turned to hail and we got our puffa jackets out we were regretting our decision to come up the military highway. It was a long, steep drive rewarded only by drippy hiking. We couldn’t face driving any longer, so just before Kazbegi, the last town before the border, we turned into the Sno valley to look for a roost for the night. After driving up a dirt track for about 8km, we suddenly saw a black van that was clearly doing an overland trip. We stopped to say hello. Result! She was French and he was Canadian. Help with the kids school work looked hopeful over a cup of tea! We swapped destination tips and then to general amazement all round, discovered that Fanny, the female of the couple, is a cousin of our friends Nathalie and David Diu! Nathalie and David were our first friends in Biarritz and we have since done a house swap with them now that they live in The Hague. What a bizarrely small world!
The next morning, Fanny helped with the kids’ schoolwork as promised and I was delighted when she told me that there were a number of questions that she did not understand at all. To me this confirmed that we were doing the right thing by heading back to France in September. If a French person struggles to explain the revision course the kids are doing, there is no hope that I, with my pigeon French, would have been able to teach them next year’s syllabus if we had carried on to Asia.
The monastery that sits perched on a hilltop above Kazbegi is renowned as being of huge symbolic importance to Georgians. This is what I read to the children as we climbed the muddy hillside in the drizzle. Hector chirped back that every monastery in Georgia is meant to be ‘one of great symbolic importance’ or ‘the heart of Georgian spiritualism’ and he had a point. Whoever writes the guide books in Georgia uses the same line for every religious spot. That said, Georgia is the most devout country we have visited. In every church believers circulate, kissing beautiful byzantine paintings of saints or prostrating themselves over gravestones on the floor. Sunday services are very well attended and many monasteries remain inhabited by monks or nuns. Religion still plays a very important part in people’s lives.
We had spent two days and one night in the rain and we couldn’t wait to get out of it. Packing away a wet tent is never fun, particularly when your bedding is stored inside it. We set off down the military highway, but had not even made it past 10 kmph when Kabylie started shuddering violently. We stopped and checked the wheels and set off again. Every time we hit 10 kmph the shuddering would start once more. Tom could not work out what the problem was, but as the brakes were not affected we decided to continue the five-hour descent to where we hoped there was sun. It was slow going at 10 kmph, but it gave Tom time to check every component of Kabylie’s undercarriage and wheels in his mind. Then he posted an email about our shuddering problem on the ‘Series 1 Land Rover forum,’ in the hope that another enthusiast might know what was wrong. By the time we were halfway down, three responses confirmed his suspicions. What a wonderful resource is this forum, with enthusiasts all around the world willing to diagnose Kabylie’s problems……
We arrived at last in Mshketa, the spiritual heartland of Georgia – have you heard that somewhere before? We booked the cheapest guest house we could find which turned out to be brilliant. “Old Capital” (Mshketa used to be the capital of Georgia) was in the main square of the old town overlooking the monastery, and for 31 euros we had a little 2 bedroom apartment with a large terrace from which we could sketch the monastery garden. A huge complementary breakfast was brought to our kitchen and Kabylie was parked below us – we could not have dreamed of a better spot.
Mshketa is a really pretty little town and as Tom and Hector fiddled about with Kabylie’s wheels, Petra and I meandered through the little streets and shops buying Churchkhela, walnuts on a string dipped in a thick grape juice kind of caramel to make what resembles a salami sausage. ‘Nature’ clearly won the ‘nature versus nurture’ argument regarding what interests the sexes; Petra and I gave a cursory glance at the wheels and metal bits under Kabylie and immersed ourselves in felt slippers and trinkets.
After a strenuous afternoon of prodding and tightening bits of Kabylie’s undercarriage, the boys were hugely hungry. I am generally given the task of ordering as by the time we decide on a restaurant Tom and Hector have usually gone ‘mongy’ (a low blood-sugar induced state of idiocy.) On this occasion the menu was all in Georgian. Gambling, I pointed randomly to four dishes, not knowing if I was going to hit the jack-pot or the ‘rubber squid.’ Tom ended up with a small piece of meat bobbing in boiled dishwater and Hector got a single, tiny, bludgeoned-flat, crispy quail. Petra and I got something delicious that we ate quickly before the boys stole it. Much male grumbling ensued.
We were awoken at 4am with the sound of retching in the bathroom. The crispy quail was taking its revenge for its short life and Hector was heaving his guts out from both ends. How grateful I was that we were in our little apartment and not in the tent, up a ladder with only one tupperware bowl in which to catch projectile emissions! Amazingly, by check-out time Hector had recovered, and we were able to drive into Tbilisi to pick up the kids’ CNED summer school revision course which we had arranged to be sent there in advance. We also wanted to buy our ferry tickets to Ukraine. We had planned to go to the mountain region of Sveneti to do another horse trek but the incessant rain had put us off mountains and we decided to push on to the Black Sea.
Our Tbilisi chores completed, we headed to the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe inhabited since the early iron age. The hillside is a warren of caves with strange tadpole shaped holes. No one knows for sure what the holes were used for – except Tom, who is convinced that the tail of the tadpole, which always points to the door, would have sucked cool air into the fire and created a convection system which would have provided the caves with rudimentary under-floor heating. It takes a building genius to work out an archeological dimema!
Uplistsikhe is just outside the town of Gori, famed for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The museum there is very good and has a brilliant guide who showed us everything, from the actual wooden house Stalin was born in to the Tsar’s railway carriage that he requisitioned and always travelled in. One of the most fascinating things we learned is that to this day, at least once a month, (but anything up to twice a day), Chinese embassy officials or delegations from the motherland come to the museum to present it with gifts commemorating the magnificent rule of the communist leader. Though the Chinese are well on the way to viewing their own Chairman Mao as having some major failings, for some reason they still revere Stalin and ignore the fact 50 million people died under his rule, excluding war casualties. The museum does not know what to do with all the Chinese presents so stores most of them in the basement. However there is one on display, which was given a couple of years ago and is in the photo below. It is not a photograph of Stalin, but embroidery of silk thread!!!!!!!!
A small section of the museum is dedicated to the 2008 war with Russia over south Ossetia as the Russian troops occupied Gori in August of that year. Our guide informed us that though the EU is here monitoring the border, it moves 400 meters a night and the South Ossetians/ Russians have stealthily taken an additional 7 kilometers! This sounded extraordinary and we were wondering what on earth all the EU officials were doing driving about in Land Cruisers with enormous aerials, if they are unaware of the border moving 400m each night – drinking cha-cha??? This was the only explanation we could come up with until we met an EU representative in the restaurant who informed us that he personally patrols the border and it had not moved a millimetre. The Georgian government seems not averse to a bit of anti-Russian propaganda.
We phoned the ferry company taking us across the Black Sea, to check that it was indeed sailing from Batumi in two days time but they couldn’t tell us whether it would go on the 10th or 11th. This seemed extraordinarily disorganised to us. We get annoyed when our trains are 20 minutes late. We found it hard to believe that every passenger and truck driver taking the ferry had to call the head office to find out when it would sail.
I thought there was just enough time to visit Vardzia, a cave city set in spectacular scenery in the south of Georgia. Tom grumbled the whole way there, saying that there was not time and we should push on to Batumi. Thank goodness for me, Vardzia was indeed incredible otherwise the grumbling would have been unbearable during the long drive the next day! Vardzia is set in a cliff face overlooking a river in a stunning valley, studded with cliff top fortresses. Built mainly in the second half of the 12th century, its cave dwellings are sometimes 13 stories high and houses 13 churches and 25 wine cellars. It is a working monastery to this day and as we camped opposite, we could see three or four lights from the caves which the monks inhabit, with their pot plants and carpets giving the cave rooms a homely feel.
Once again we underestimated the Georgian’s descriptions of their dirt roads. Instead of taking the longer, good road past Kasumi, we decided to take the unpaved road through Adjara as it was only 180km and a mere 50km of that is classed as ‘bad.’ 9 hours later we bumped into Batumi, our bones shaken and poor Kabylie rattled to within a minutes of her rivets coming loose. Luckily Adjara is a stunning province, which soothed our rattling brains somewhat. It has a large Muslim population and it was fun suddenly to hear the mosque call to prayer through the valley. The kids and I rode on the roof of Kabylie for much of the trip, but it was extremely bumpy and my perch had nowhere to hold onto. Having been being nearly catapulted down the valley, I moved inside. Georgia is stunningly beautiful but in addition it’s also the most litter free country we have ever visited. Its rare now to see a river anywhere, with the trees that line it not having plastic caught in their roots but in Georgia there is no litter anywhere. It’s not without effort because there are frequent signs saying don’t litter. The people clearly take pride in their countryside and its noticeable.
The people of Adjara were the most friendly we had met in Georgia and definitely the poorest we have seen on the trip. Kids ran out of their houses to wave and shout at us and old men hobbled up to give us the thumbs up sign and one or two shouted “David Cameron”. Petra noticed the distinct lack of girls and perhaps like many Muslim societies the poor girls stay in the house most of the time. The poverty in this area is marked. On a gorgeous summer day rural poverty is picturesque and has the feeling of yesteryear, but in the snows of winter or when rain churns through the mud streets, this picturesque idyll quickly becomes a very tough grind for existence. The houses were made of planks and flattened metal oil drums. No crazy gas pipes gave any sign that there was heating up here in the mountains (over 2000m) and the few electricity lines looked like they no longer carried the invisible life transforming force. On this sunny, warm, beautiful day, bent old women chopped wood and struggled backwards and forwards carrying bundles of firewood for their winter stores and old men patched up their rickety houses with squares of metal or old planks. The gap between the rich of Tbilisi and poor of this country can be very marked indeed.
Having seen so may beehives and net-clad men taking honey from them, we decided to stop and buy some of the local nectar. A babushka nearby was selling large pots of yoghurt so we prepared to gorge ourselves on yogurt and honey for lunch. Even better than yoghurt, the pots turned out to be full of thick fresh cream so we slathered it on bread and pretended we were in Cornwall eating ‘thunder and lightening’ (a white bap with golden syrup and clotted cream). The Georgian equivalent was even better and we returned to our rattle-trap car feeling very sick after finishing the lot.
Eventually we shook, rattled and rolled into Batumi, its six or seven neon skyscrapers and bustling streets, a world away from the mountain villages of Adjara. Batumi is Georgia’s port on the Black sea and where the Norwegian Nobel brothers (of the prize) were amongst the initiators of the oil trade in 1878. They built the first pipeline from Baku on the Caspian to Batumi. In recent years money has obviously been pouring in once again and the city has been studded with extraordinary architectural statements that rise incongruously out of a sea of decrepit communist apartment blocks. Our hotel was in one of these broken down blocks which seem rather threatening when you are not used to them. To add to the benighted atmosphere there was a large coffin lying in state in the next door apartment, with mourners gathered round knocking back vodka and cake. At first I had thought we were sleeping in same apartment as the dead person but then realised with relief that there was door between us. The Hotel had said nothing about a corpse being included with the booking.
Batumi is where Georgia lets its morals slip. There are huge casinos occupying the bottom of each skyscraper and a lot of Thai massage parlours. Either Batumi has an untold history of Thai immigration or the frangipani baths come with more than the flowers in them. Batumi is becoming a popular destination for tourists from the Middle East, very excited to discover they don’t need to go as far as Thailand for that sort of massage.
While walking through town that night a police car screamed up to a roundabout with officers jumping out as though there had been a mass shooting, screaming at the traffic to move as if their lives depended on it. We were transfixed. Minutes later a blacked out car appeared and the officers, clearly terrified, stood ramrod to attention and saluted for several minutes as the traffic stopped around them. We were not sure who was in the car but one can assume that the police are very scared of whoever runs Batumi.
Petra had planned our night in Batumi meticulously, and after a meal in the delightful old town, we walked around the point with its neon-lit skyscrapers. One had a façade shaped like a hypodermic syringe and had its own Ferris wheel twenty stories up stuck to the outside. It looked like a very appealing children’s toy in Toys R Us. There were some dancing fountains where the Batumi populace promenade at night. We watched them spurt water in time to ‘Time to say goodbye,’ which I suspect is played at all musical fountains around the world. There was a lovely atmosphere as families and kids walked, scooted about in golf carts, perused the souvenir shops or played snooker on rental tables. We hired a ping-pong table until it started to pour with rain and drops bounced higher than the ball. The weather has been really bad this year in the Caucasus and we are forever grateful we are in Kabylie and not on bikes!
As the night closed in we arrived at the ferry to start the long game of “try and guess what the hell you’re meant to do”. Even the time to arrive at the dock was a guess, with different people telling us different times. Tom’s punctuality won the day and we arrived at the dock at 19.30. It was a 7 hour game that must happen every time the ferry loads. Nobody knew what was happening so cars, lorries and even two long trains took it in turns to charge the loading ramp only to be stopped and turned back by the immigration police. Occasionally people were let through and at 10.00pm the kids and I walked onto the ferry, leaving Tom and Kabylie to battle their way forward. During the hour-long wait at the reception desk for our cabin key, I was asked by several Russians if I wanted to start drinking with them. No one seemed to know when the ferry would arrive in Odessa. Scheduled to take 2 nights, one man said “Sometimes it only takes 1 and sometimes 5. When it takes 5 nights, they run out of food and water but not to worry, there is always vodka left”! The kids and I eventually found our cabin, big and airy if a little worn out. We even had a large window that opened looking straight out at the bow – brilliant! As we snuggled into our bunks, poor Tom was still battling to get onto the ferry. He was eventually allowed on (last) at 02:30 after a four and a half hour wait and a search of Kabylie by a very large dog. Then at 04:00, we were awoken to a tannoy asking us all to go to the restaurant for passport control! We woke the kids and stumbled down bleary-eyed with all the other disgruntled passengers.
Sometime between 04.40am when we made it back to bed and 08:00, when breakfast was served, we set sail.
The Black Sea was a gorgeous deep lapis lazuli blue and we watched the sun sink below the horizon directly in front of us out of our window every night. The sea was always glassy smooth, and the boat so stable that it didn’t feel like it was moving at all. As we went past Crimea, we did in fact stop as maybe they had decided we were enjoying our cruise so much that they would give us an extra night onboard. With no internet or phone reception no one could cancel their onward hotel bookings, but as they did not come with a pod of dolphins along side, we all rejoiced at another night on the boat.
We snuggled down in our bunks for our last night before hitting Ukraine and the evocative city of Odessa.
Tom – Only disappointment was that having driven all the way to South Georgia it was sad not to see any penguins.
Tusheti, Caucus Mountains
High Drama on Horseback.
Justine – The sadness of seeing the dying horse, in the Tushetian mountains could not blunt our excitement as we packed our rucksacks for a three day horse trek. Petra in particular had been desperate to get on a horse and had been grinning like a Cheshire cat ever since we had decided to come to Tusheti in order to do a horse trek. Elaw, the horseman met us the next day after our cha-cha (home brew fire-water) and carrot salad breakfast. The previous evening Petra had chirruped on and on, speculating about what colour the horses would be, what their names would be and whether they would be tranquil or hard mouthed nutters. Not in her wildest dreams could she have dreamed that her and her brother’s horses would arrive with foals in tow, two fluffy little foals with their gangly legs and mini hooves who kept trying to have a quick drink of their mothers’ milk whenever the opportunity arose.
We set off for Dartlo, a village in the next-door valley. As we were walking out of Omalo a French lady who was on foot and leading a horse joined us. Clara was from Brittany and had bought a horse in Armenia and spent the last three months walking over the mountains with the horse carrying her baggage. Previous years, between working for the French government, she had bought horses in China, Tibet and Kyrgyzstan and a variety of other countries. We were deeply impressed that she did these adventures on her own but concluded that we would find it too hard not being able to share the experiences with someone. She had spent three days and two nights leading her horse up the Tusheti road amongst the landslides in the pouring rain. She was nearly as tough as a Tushetian.
We had a fabulous 6 hour ride through the most stunning scenery. The Caucasus are the steepest mountains I have ever seen. Sheer drops plunge down into valleys whose floor is a gushing torrent of water a few metres wide before the next mountain soars up into the sky. The grass, flowers and trees clinging onto the sides of these mountains defy gravity. They are almost vertical in places. Tom and I had been a little worried that none of us had riding hats, particularly the kids but they were oblivious to the dangers posed by the 30cm paths with a sheer drop. We blessed our sturdy steeds who had grown up with this terrain and heaved themselves up the paths with a sure footedness and resignation that only horses can have. I was surprised that Elaw had decided to bring foals with us as it was pretty tricky terrain for their spindly legs, but perhaps he had chosen the mares for the children, knowing that they would never bolt with their foals in tow.
We stopped for lunch in a high meadow and once again savoured the previous two meals in our sandwiches. Elaw, who was quite a chunky man seemed to survive on nothing but cigarettes and declined all offers of sandwiches
We crossed the final river, grey from the slate sediment and arrived at Dartlo. Dartlo is the prettiest village in the Tusheti valley and is being restored beautifully. The Hotel Samtsikhe has taken over 6 old, flint houses in the village and we stayed in a lovely room with a wooden balcony overlooking the river. That evening we walked up the very steep, flower covered hill behind the village to the defensive tower houses on the top and all built our own mini towers out of the slate which forms these mountains.
The next morning, we were all expecting to be walking like John Wayne after our 6 hour ride but incredibly none of us ached at all – could it be that the local cha-cha is not only the medicine of choice for euthanising horses, but also a cure-all for aches. I am sure it also takes stains out of clothing and clears drains with ease.
The next morning we said our farewells to Clara who was heading up the valley to try to cross the snowy pass to the next door valley. Everyone had told her it was still blocked by snow, but she was determined to make the 3 day trek to check if it was passable anyway.
Elaw seemed reluctant to take us on to Diklo, the village on a circular route back to Omalo. It transpired the route was long and difficult and he was concerned the children might be scared on the narrow path with sheer drops of 200 metres down to the river. We had all so enjoyed the previous day’s ride that we told him to were prepared to take the risk. We were so pleased we did, as the route was utterly breath-taking. In the past Tusheti’s population must have been much larger, because we passed the ruins of many slate towers and villages along the route to Diklo.
We continued down a wooded path, lined with fragrant yellow rhododendrons into a very steep ravine, looking out for bear scratches on the trees as we passed. We rode through many small rivers but at the bottom of one ravine was a much larger meltwater river raging under a creaky little bridge. Unbeknown to us, a traumatic event was about to unfold.
Elaw led the way over the rickety bridge. It bowed ominously under the weight of his horse before he made his way up the opposite slope. Tom was next. His horse took some urging and it pawed the bridge’s surface gingerly before crossing safely. Elaw had disappeared into the forest the other side and was unaware of what happened next. Hector’s horse, followed by its little white foal, was too nervous of the bridge and turned to go into the tumultuous river. Petra and I shouted at Hector to stop but he couldn’t stop his horse and it began wading across. The churning water came over Hector’s knees but he clung
on to his saddle. Unbeknown to the horrified spectators, Hector’s reins, which turned out to be made of a Chinese luggage strap, had broken, so he was at the mercy of his horse and the little white foal just bravely followed. Petra started wailing in panic as her horse sensed the danger and began whinnying frantically, prancing and trying to turn in a circle. The path was steep and narrow and as the mare did this, she pushed her own brown foal down the slope to the river’s frothing edge.
Hector’s mare made it to the other side, but there was sudden scream from Petra as Hector’s white foal got washed away by the raging river and disappeared from view under the bridge. With the kids sure that it was as good as dead, I scoured the river until, in disbelief, I saw the white, glistening, sodden foal rise out of the water, like a magical unicorn. My heart leapt before I realised it still had to get to a bank and get out of the vertical sided river. The foal plunged off the rock it was obviously standing on and was swept into a fallen tree with sharp branches protruding in every direction. I ran to the bank calling to it and desperately looking for a way to get to it, but the sides of the ravine were too sheer. I beckoned to Elaw who was coming back to the bridge, to show him the foal was alive although by this time it was trying desperately to swim back to the other bank. Bravely, it went to and fro three times, smashing it’s spindly legs on the sharp slate rocks and debris in the swirling river and disappearing from view under the rapids. I did not see how it happened but somehow the foal finally managed to scrabble and heave it’s way out of the river on the right side and up the slope to it’s whinnying, frantic mother.
There was much consternation on the wooded path. In all the excitement, my horse had got tangled with Petra’s still very distressed mare and suddenly the path collapsed, sending Petra’s mare and brown foal down the shale slope to the river. Hector was sobbing that it was his fault that the foal had nearly died and Tom was consoling him that it wasn’t his fault and that his horse was determined to cross the river. He had had no way of controlling it with his broken luggage strap rein. Petra was still wailing although her horse and foal managed to scramble back up to the path. The foal, now in shock, found its mother’s teat for reassurance but just then the path collapsed again. It hung onto the teat and managed to find a foothold. With the path giving way, and the horses distressed we did not have time to rejoice that the white foal was alive and quickly led our horses on foot up the mountainside to a flat section where we could take stock. As we walked panting up the path, I noticed that my trousers had blood on them. Then I noticed blood on the leaves in front of me and realised that the white foal must be wounded and leaving a bloody trail in the undergrowth.
At the top of the path, we stopped to let both the horses and ourselves recover. The little white foal had a very nasty gash on it’s hind leg, with bits of fat and muscle hanging out. He also had a number of other gashes but none was as serious. We congratulated the kids for holding it together and not letting panic overcome them. The foal could have so easily broken it’s leg in the river and there would have been no way of getting it up the ravine. How hideous it would have been if Elaw had had to kill it by the river. If Hector had come off his horse and been swept down the river too it would have been even worse. We felt immensely grateful that none of these things had happened, although we were worried for the sodden little foal with its leg still pouring blood.
We could have all done with some cha-cha at this moment, but we had to make do with our recycled breakfast sandwiches. The beauty of the rest of the ride soothed our jangled nerves. Petra was distracted and still concerned for the foal, but its wound had now clotted and I marveled at the stamina of the little thing which hobbled bravely after us, up and down the sheer slate paths, for another four hours.
That night in Diklo village, we offered to pay for a vet to be jetted in but Elaw assured us that the foal would be alright after he gave it a good clean. He’d stitch it up when he got back to his farm the next day. We stayed in the one guesthouse in the village and were surprised to find the family all spoke Spanish. It turned out that they were Tushetian born and bred but had lived for 8 years in Tenerife. I asked what they preferred, the beauty of Tusheti or the heat of Tenerife. The glamorous mum, used to the mod cons of Spain and now baking bread in a wood fired, 100 year old oven, said wistfully, ‘ahhh la playa.’ It had been a huge change, too, for the three children. Warm Spanish evenings in the square exchanged for beautiful meadows but no other children closer than a day’s ride.
We went for a gorgeous walk to an ancient fort built on a promontory of rock, with sheer drops on three sides. It looked over both the Checnen and the Dagestan borders, a wall of snowy, jagged mountains. It seemed amazing that the ferocious muslim tribes , united by Shamyl could have come streaming over these inhospitable mountain ranges in the 19th century. On the way up to Tusheti we had stopped at Tsiandali, the estate of the Chavchavadze family, who in 1854 had 23 women and children kidnapped one night from their estate, by Shamyl and his men, causing shockwaves across Russia and Europe. Seeing the terrain they would have dragged these unhappy sole up and over in to Dagestan was quite something.
Next morning we were relieved to find the little white foal alive and well. We rode back to Omalo through the buttercup meadows as the little one limped along behind us. We said goodbye to our wonderful, steady steeds and camped amongst the trees. The next morning as the grey clouds poured over the mountain peaks we packed the tent in the quickest time yet before it started to rain. We were rather nervous about going down the infamous Tusheti road in a rainstorm but Tom was only too pleased to be back on his steel horse. We had reason to be nervous as the rainstorm had caused 9 landslides along the road and we had to wait 5 hours for a digger to clear the way. Hector was beside himself with indignation that there was an army truck full of men from the Chechen border, drinking cha-cha. Hector grabbed our shovel and marched over to them trying to motivate them to help him clear the road. They told him they had tried to dig for an hour but got nowhere so had given up to drink instead…….. Hector was furious.
The other stranded travellers were an interesting bunch. One Israeli told us of her parents’ horrendous holocaust stories and a Czech woman told us how, on the way up the Tusheti road, they had almost been hit by a landslide and she was now so scared of travelling that she was never going to leave her home town again. The local Georgian travellers were delightful. They tried to ply us with cucumbers and cha-cha and gave us rather worrying thoughts of them driving drunk down the rest of the road!
At the bottom of the mountain there is a section where the cliff overhangs the road and a small waterfall cascades down. The cool clear water crashing onto the roof was too tempting because by now we were all hot, dusty and sticky. We all jumped out, stripped off and had the most wonderful and refreshing cold shower in the middle of the road. There was a mass fumbling of clothes as a police jeep appeared round the corner and we all tried to hurriedly get dressed. We found a campsite by the river nearby and were all very pleased to be at the bottom of the mountain. It was only then that Tom discovered that one of the front leaf springs had rattled undone and was hanging on rather precariously. Not what you want to discover after such a terrifying decent!
Tbilisi and the road to Tusheti
Justine – The cool of Armenia’s gorgeous Debden Canyon became a haze of heat as Kabylie
trundled out onto the wide open plain leading to the Georgian border. Immediately declaring he was too hot, Tom refused to stop to give Petra and I time to find a hotel in Tbilisi. By the time we got to the border, I was cross with Tom for not stopping and he was cross because he was now even hotter. When an Armenian border guard told we had use an ‘Agent’ to help us check out of Armenia, he became even more cross as it was clearly a scam as the ‘agent’ stamped one flimsy bit of paper and charged us 30 quid!
Georgia and Armenia did not compete about who had the biggest flags at the border and both were disappointingly modest affairs. We delayed at passport control to savour the air-conditioning and then took the door tops off Kabylie to make our own alternative.
Georgia’s landscape was not such a startling a change as Iran’s had been compared to Armenia’s but there was still a marked difference. One was the hot flat plain we were on after the lush Armenian mountains. Another was the basin of cultivation we were driving through, no longer the occasional small strip fields dotted amongst the flower meadows, but very large fields clearly being worked by large farms.
The roads were also a great improvement. The kids could actually write their diaries and do their school work without scrawling everywhere with the bumps and twists. The quality of driving, though, had deteriorated – Georgians are renowned for their alarming driving.
Before leaving Armenia, we stopped to buy apricots on the roadside having discovered very late that Armenia has the most heavenly fresh apricots in the world and is where they were first cultivated. Another heavenly thing we learnt before leaving was that Noah was both born and died in Armenia and that Adam (as in Adam and Eve) was Armenian. I guess if you are the first country to become Christian, you can baggsi all the main characters.
As well as the occasional fruit stall, the road leading from the border was totally jammed with people selling giant bags of Persil automatic and Fairy washing powder. It was really bizarre as mile after mile the traders sold nothing else. They had clearly heard that there was an un-washed family heading their direction.
As Petra was about to press ‘book’ on the chosen Tbilisi hotel, the Sim card ran out so we decided to camp. We turned off the road to look for a suitable roost and spotted a monastery perched on a hill. It was the first one we had seen that was still being used and when I enquired of the monks if it was safe to camp in the wood next door they said ‘no, not safe.’ This was not the response we wanted so I tried again ‘It is not dangerous to camp is it?’ ‘Yes dangerous’ came the reply. Hummm still not the response we wanted so we decided to ignore their advice and headed for the wood.
Unlike Armenia, there is grazing everywhere that makes a lovely close cut grass surface to camp on, but it also means far less flowers and butterflies. Just when we had set up camp and Petra was having a shower made out of a water bottle with holes cut in it, a Lada bumped through the trees towards us. Darn it! A bunch of blokes looking for a place to get pissed. They came to say hello and informed us they intended to get blindingly drunk. Oh good!
Actually they turned out to be very nice. made no noise and crept away at lights out.
We usually start thinking about where we are going to spend the night at about 18.00. Most of the time we camp and we usually head for the nearest hill or riverbed as there is often common land in these types of places, and they are fairly deserted apart from the odd shepherd returning home with his flock. The trick is to tuck behind something hidden from any road, reducing the exposure to drive-by nutters. It’s almost invariably up a dirt track and this is when Kabylies 4×4 is invaluable. It would be a very different trip if we did not have 4×4 capability as with it we almost always find a fantastic secluded camp spot. This may not be quite so easy once we cross the Black Sea into Europe during the summer!
We returned to the monastery the following morning to see what a working monastery was like. The place was deserted, but we followed the chanting to a little church. Looking fairly like the Armenian churches from the outside, it was very different inside as the walls were totally covered in frescos. It was magical. The singer was a cleric all in black with a very long orthodox beard swaying and chanting at high speed as incense burners swung to and fro. At the side was another long bearded cleric in wonderful white and gold robes and a big rounded hat, taking the confession of an over-weight man on his knees. He had obviously done something very bad as he was getting a roasting from the priest. There was straw all over the floor and we couldn’t work out why. Just as Petra and I were taking off our veils (women have to wear darn veils again) we saw a group of men pulling a reluctant sheep up to the church. They proceeded to walk round the church several times dragging the poor beast by its horns. We enquired whether they were going to sacrifice it and told us ‘yes’ delightedly, for a wedding. Petra refused to stay. Having seen two horses sacrificed in Indonesia last year, she muttered something about being a vegetarian and plodded off down the hill. The rest of us stayed for a while but then realising it could be some time before poor sheepy was dispatched we decided to make our way to Tbilisi.
Tbilisi was a wonderfully welcome surprise. We had no idea what to expect but thought it would probably be similar to Yeravan. In fact Tbilisi is a far more sophisticated and beautiful city, as beautiful as any in Europe. A great effort has been made to expunge the Soviet past and large amounts of money are being spent restoring the fabulous old town, full of colourful houses with large wooden balconies. About a third of Georgia’s population 1.17m to 5.5m) live in Tbilisi and we can see why. It’s a darn nice city that appears to be growing wealthy fast. The Georgians have beautiful architecture that they are preserving and it’s the most litter free country we have visited so far. Tbilisi should definitely be on people’s city break list – it is fabulous.
After gorging on gelato ice cream and milkshakes, we headed for the hills once again. ‘One of the most dangerous roads in the world’ is how the BBC describes the road to Tusheti, a region in a beautiful but inaccessible corner of Georgia, along the border with the infamous regions of Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia. Nestled in the massive Caucasus mountain range, which is higher than the Alps and runs from the Caspian to the Black Sea, Tusheti is cut off from the rest of Georgia for 6 months of the year as it’s only steep, muddy, single track road, is blocked by deep snow. It is so desolate and cold in Tusheti in winter that almost all the inhabitants leave for the bottom of the mountains until the snow melts, when they take their flocks and herds back up to Tusheti for the summer pastures. About 5 families remain, completely cut off from the world for 6 months. In June the herders return with the transhumance, spending five days and nights driving their vast flocks from the plains around Tbilisi up into the high pastures. If it rains, the single track becomes a sticky, sheer sided quagmire through which they chivvy their livestock with little food and water, on and up. They themselves sleep seated with their wool cloaks pulled tightly around them like a tent.
We turned onto the Tusheti road and wondered what all the fuss was about. We saw a pretty meadow and a dirt track through the trees where several long trailers were parked, packed tightly with beehives. Throughout this part of the world, stretching into Central Asia, beekeepers transport their beehives on vast soviet-era trucks and trailers. They transport their hives all over the summer pastures to find the best flowers and it is a wonderful sight seeing them all on the move.
The ‘fuss’ about the road turned out to be justified, for it was not long before Kabylie was grinding up the mountainside in the lowest of her 8 gears. The problem is the single road, if you can call it that. It’s only passable with a good 4×4, so it was with good reason that we wondered if our 60 year old Kabylie could make it. Videos on You Tube hadn’t reassured us. It’s only 75km long but the first section rises almost vertically for over 2500m from the valley floor to cross the 2900m Abano pass and all on a crumbling dirt road with switch-backs that wind terrifyingly up the near vertical mountain side. In Britain maybe we are used to exaggeration so we took ” the most dangerous road in the world” as clever tourist-board branding. Clearly there are many many more dangerous roads in terms of fatalities but it quickly became obvious that you should never risk assuming that a Georgian is exaggerating when it comes to bad roads.
In the first few kms Petra counted 14 graves by the roadside one of which was built around the front end of a Land Cruiser. The problem was that by the time we had passed them it was really too late. The road is far too steep and narrow to turn around and one false move near the crumbling edge and there would be a nasty if spectacular end to the Retroroadtrip
To add to the excitement the weather begun to close in about half way up, leaving us peering at the ridiculously steep road with glacial rivers pouring over it through the tiny area swept by our wiper blade. Actually Kabylie didn’t slip once and we were all collectively astounded and relieved at what she is evidently capable of. Our only problem was her turning circle, which left us often unable to make the tight switchbacks in one sweep. It was a terrifying manoeuvre, holding such an old car on the not very good handbrake on a extremely steep corner with a 1000m drop a metre from the bumper.
After the pass we descended into the stunning, vertically-sided Tusheti Valley. However, the road had not finished with us as it now turned into axle-deep mud, deep enough to hit the radiator fan and spray paint the engine. We arrived with a very muddy car and a whole new admiration for Kabylie. We weren’t the only ones. The locals were satisfactorily impressed by what everyone seemed to think is the oldest car to cross the Abano pass. Quite cool as some geographers believe the Abano pass to be the geological dividing line between Europe and Asia.
Here is another of Tom’s car porn videos. Hector’s comment on seeing it was “dad, there is a bit too much car” and Petra and I agree, so he has reluctantly added some horse and foals.
Our guesthouse in Omalo was a very basic family house, where the babushka cooked us huge meals and our four beds all sloped downhill. We were amazed at the huge quantity of dishes that were laid on the table for supper and wondered eagerly what our breakfast would be. The next morning, the same quantity of dishes arrived for breakfast, with exactly the same contents, bar one new dish, of cold spaghetti. I poured the kids a glass of apple juice only to discover it was home brewed wine. I opted for the mineral water, but that turned out to be ‘cha-cha’ a home brewed vodka. The very good looking Slovakian man who was staying in the guest house advised that he always had cha-cha for breakfast because Georgians always start the day with it, because it clears the system and kills all bacteria in the digestive tract. He was so good-looking that I immediately complied, much to the amusement of Tom and the kids.
We climbed the hill to Upper Omalo, another village about a km up a very steep hill. The views were incredible. The Caucasus mountains are snowy and spectacular and the lower mountains are green and verdant, with spruce and silver birch. The wonderful lush summer pastures are a sea of buttercups and forget-me-nots, dotted with horses and cows. Above the village loom six huge defensive slate tower houses unique to the Caucasus. These were defences when warring tribes came over the mountains from Dagestan and Chechnya to plunder the Tusheti villages. The Caucasus have a long history of bitter tribal vengeance and vendetta that could continue through four generations until no one in the entire family was left to fight. They marked their victories by hanging the hands and ears of the defeated around their saddles.
Apparently men only stopped wearing chain mail here well into the 20th Century and these defensive towers were rather crucial if the Tushetians were going to survive to carry out their vengeance on the Chechens the other side of the mountains. During the winter, when the snow blocked the few passes over the mountains, the Tushetians of the past lived in the villages below the towers as they were safe from attack. When the snow melted, they moved into the 6 story towers, each one holding an extended family with cows on the ground floor. The towers have a base of about 4m x4m and go up six stories with tiny windows and each floor a very low ceiling. Thus in summer, it was beautiful but you lived in a prison and in winter you were safe and lived in a house that was so cold you nearly died. Tough as old boots these Tushetians.
We ate the picnic lunch provided by the guesthouse and were surprised to discover the contents of breakfast now between chunks of bread. It turns out that cold spaghetti sandwiches are surprisingly good and it made me realise how regimented we are in our diet. I never think of beetroot, chicken wings and vodka for breakfast, nor pasta sandwiches for lunch. A whole new culinary world is opening up – Good bye Fruit and Fiber.
That evening I decided to ask if this little mountain village had a doctor because Hector’s eye had been swelling up over the previous three days. I had expected a wizened old babushka who had some ancient herbal compress of cow-pat and sheep toe-nails, but amazingly we were taken down the hill by the little boy from our guesthouse to a new medical centre paid for by the Czech government. The doctor was charming. He gave us some anti-biotics for Hector’s eye and then took us outside for some cha-cha with his drinking buddies. Poor Tom and in fact poor me. As Tom gets 3 day hangovers from even a thimble of alcohol, I have to do the drinking for both of us to uphold the honour of Britain. On this occasion I was rather pleased I had fortified myself with cha-cha because, as we walked back up the hill to our guest-house, Hector spotted a horse that was haemorrhaging blood out of its backside. Its head was bent low, it was breathing in a very laboured way and was clearly dying. We quickly ran to a house and beckoned the cha-cha drinking group of men to come. One carried a large knife, a very ominous sign. The little boy from the guesthouse explained that the men thought the horse had been bitten by a snake…….or a spider. Blimey! – avoid all spiders.
Sadly the men folk decided not to dispatch the horse, but the owner laid it down and plied it with cha-cha! Hopefully it went to it’s heavenly resting place in an alcohol haze.
Justine – After leaving the Iranian border, we deposited Stephan, the German hitchhiker we had picked up, in Meghri, the first town we came to as the road started to mount and we were not sure Kabylie could cope with the extra load of man and backpack. We continued to David Bek, which the Lonely Planet said had a lovely village with a river of cascading pools and a place where overlanders and cycle riders could camp. It became quite obvious that the Lonely Plant had never been to David Bek as it lay in a deep ravine which no cyclist in their right mind would descend to sleep and then climb out again next day. I stopped at the village shop to ask where the river and informal camp spot was and was told (through calling the shop keeper’s English speaking niece in Tbilisi) that no foreigners ever stop at the village let alone camp and they would have to ask the village chief if we were allowed to. “Village Chief” sounded more African than Armenian, but a couple of phone calls later and the shop keeper gave us the thumbs up. Two youths squashed into the car with us to show us the way to the river, down a ridiculously steep and very muddy track. We cursed the Lonely plant once more as the river was brown and had no cascading pools. It started to rain which was obviously their fault as well.
We put up the tent in a speed only slightly slower than our speeded up video and bundled inside for our first night with flashes of thunder and heavy drops on the fly sheet. Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home’ lulled us to sleep with his history of the home.
The morning brought us clouds and a wash. A bucket of brown river water over our heads set us up for our climb out of the ravine and we continued on our way to Goris. There is very little development between towns here in the south and the population is pretty sparse as there has been huge emigration from Armenia due to the poor economy. A few rustic villages remain and then nothing but glorious, glorious scenery. Towering peaks, deep gorges, crystal waterfalls and carpets of flowers. The land of purple prose. I have to just bang on about the flowers a little more as they are so wonderful. Very few fields are cultivated and the collective farms abandoned. Occasionally you see three or four small, strip- like fields growing wheat or barley, but even these are dotted between huge expanses of flowers. Everywhere you look is a perfect camp spot and there is no one around to ask if it is OK or indeed to shout at us if it is not. Occasionally a horseman thunders past us whooping and rounding up his cattle, but the sound of hooves, the songs of birds and the drone of happy bees are our only disturbances. There is also very little rubbish in Armenia. Turkey and Iran are strewn with it. Particularly in the places you would like to camp. Armenia certainly has its Soviet legacy of industrial pollution but they seem to be making a big effort to avoid the more casual, roadside type.
You then arrive at a town like Kapan, whose outskirts are old, decaying soviet apartment blocks, but whose centre is faded grandeur, built of a lovely pink volcanic stone called Tuff, which seems to be ubiquitous throughout the country. The curse of the light-weight concrete block has thankfully not yet arrived in Armenia and there is Architecture! Since leaving Italy it has seemed that almost every new building in every town is just a heap of concrete blocks. Northern Turkey has very little else and sadly, apart from the fabulous old structures, Iran’s towns are being wrecked in a similar way. Thankfully, apart from the rusting steel described below, the Armenians still use their Tuff and appear to design buildings. Long may it last.
It seems that Armenia fared rather well under the soviets, especially during the end of the era, and you could see from the grandeur of the municipal buildings that the area was once pretty wealthy. But alongside soft pink buildings is rusting steel. If Iran is built of mud bricks and more recently concrete blocks, Armenia is built of soviet steel and tuff. Steel is everywhere and apparently there is so much un-mined metal ore under Kapan that compasses won’t work in most areas of the town. Almost all the fences in the country are made out of flattened oil drums, the sides of old buses, lorry cabs and bits of old Lada. Massive Soviet steel pipes, pylons, buses, lorries, drums, bars and rods are used for everything. These have now become the building materials of choice or necessity, and hulks from the collapse of the Soviet Union define the architecture of Armenia. In certain areas they make cunning houses out disused steel carcasses.
Our first theft of the trip happened in Kapan on our second day in Armenia. It was not the shovel, from the side of Kabylie, or a ladder from the roof, or a crowbar to the door to get the laptop……..it was the Turkish flag sticker from the side of Kabylie. The drunk perpetrator swaggered towards me grinning and put his arm around me. I had no idea what he was saying, but after many hand signals, he delightedly communicated that he had ripped the sticker off the car. Tom was furious. Knowing Armenia’s relationship with Turkey is difficult we had been at great pains to ask at the boarder if we should cover the Turkish flag but had been told “certainly not” We cursed the flag robber heartily, but as we continued our travels through Armenia and her tragic history, we decided to forgive his misdemeanour. Modern Armenia defines itself through its campaign to have the genocide committed by the Ottomans in WW1 recognised – who knows how many of the drunk thief’s own family were amongst the estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Turks.
At Goris we stopped for a cup of tea at the smartest joint in town, always an error. Generally such places are so much nicer than the other B&B’s or hostels that you cannot help asking the price, and then promptly justifying the non-camping budget splurge with promises to live on cucumbers and bread for the next three days. We were taken in by the rose-filled garden and the palatial bedroom. The cucumber promise was duly made.
We walked to Old Goris, which really is old. So old in fact that it is an ancient cave village. It was gorgeous walking up the steep tracks between the pointy rocks and trying to work out if and how we could get into them. The stillness of the valley was broken by a thundering of hooves and whooping cries as a young horseman riding bareback at full speed galloped towards us. He was rounding up his cows many of which appeared out of a cave house below us. His sweating, frothy mouthed steed hurtled up and down the steep slopes between the rocks, mustering cows, horses and spindly-legged foals from all directions.
We continued our meander through Armenia. Where Iran had been good roads but too many hours on them, Armenia was to be a two week pootle from one flower meadow to the next along empty but awfully bumpy roads. In Iran the roads are so good they need police with speed cameras round every bend, In Armenia we presume they just tax shock absorbers and front bumpers. Most of the cars are Russian and therefore at home with this sort of abuse but as we drove north there are also an increasing number of smart Mercedes almost all of which have had the front bumper removed, either a deliberate or accidental adaptation to the terrain. Most vehicles run on household gas which is compressed in filling stations and squirted into tanks, which sit in the boot of all cars or on the roof of buses. As the gas is not that powerful, all vehicles have to drop down a gear which is good new for us as it slows down the whole country and we are no longer the slowest car on the road.
The further north we got, the friendlier people became. Where we had been greeted on arrival with glum faces, by the time we got to the middle of the country, people had become openly warm with flashes of gold teeth. Armenians love gold teeth. Three or four of their front teeth are often gold which is odd as front teeth are not the normal ones to need fillings. Later enquiries brought the explanation that in soviet times, everyone had to be the same as each other. Same apartment, same Lada, same everything. The only way you could show your individuality or wealth was with your teeth, hence the desire to cap them in gold. Sadly the effect makes the wearer look really dodgy and now everyone has the same gold teeth!
Our next Soviet encounter were the thermal baths of Jermuk. Perched in the mountains, Jermuk was renowned in the days of the USSR as the place to ‘take the waters’ and people would come for 18 day courses of treatment from all over the Soviet Union. Today, what once must have been proud Soviet hotels, lie crumbling, forgotten and sad, but four hotels still offer a variety of interesting treatments. If our Turkish bath experience had been light-years from a beautiful, scented Balinese massage, our Soviet bath was light-years from the Turkish soaping and pummelling. The first eye opener was the menu of treatments
· Mineral bath
· Clay bath
· Stomach and duodenum syringing
· Prostate massage
· Rectal syringing
· Inhalation (hopefully not in the same room as rectal syringing)
We tactfully declined the rectal syringe and thinking it might be an interesting experience went for the clay mineral bath and ‘inhalation’ as they sounded the safest.
We entered the formidable Dr’s surgery and were greeted by a large Russian lady whose forearms looked adapted for wrestling cows. She kept the telly blaring the whole time and took our blood pressure and told us it was dangerous to put our hearts below the water level in the bath – really??
More very large, white coated ladies led us into a tiled utilitarian bathroom, where cloudy, dirty looking water greeted us in vast iron bathtubs with enormous valves clearly recycled from a power station in the place of taps. Next to them were old plastic buckets with dirty mops with up-to-the-shoulder veterinary style rubber gloves adding to the atmosphere. We hung our clothes gingerly on the rusting hooks and grimacing, climbed in to the tepid grey water baths. ‘Tventy minutes’ grunted the large babooshka. Tventy minutes too long, in grey soup, which cooled too rapidly in the iron tub. Feeling more tense then when we got into the baths, we were then led to a room for our ‘inhalation’. We sat in a row with our heads in booths like we were learning a language at school. A little bubbling machine squirted white steam down a long pipe , which ended in a darthvader-like mask that we put over our noses. Hector made a huge fuss as steam escaped from all sides of his nose mask and Tom kept telling him to ‘get on with it and stop making a fuss.’ Hector’s fuss was in fact very minor compared to Tom’s seconds later. The coughing, spluttering and general consternation that came from Tom’s mask was so loud, that the white coated Babooshka declared that Hector and Tom were ‘very weak’ and that only Petra was strong enough to withstand the rectal syringing. Petra and I quickly started spluttering into our nose masks.
We decided to camp that night at the natural hot springs situated up a ‘very very bad road’ in the mountains above Jermuk. We were 15 minutes up the track when we heard a revving of tyres and a Lada Niva (Jeep) and a Lada car, filled with very large Russians overtook us. The Niva ploughed through the mud, bogs and streams, but the overfilled Lada car did not. Kabylie came to the rescue of the bogged Lada and Tom and Hector were beside themselves with pride, particularly Hector as he had worked out the best way of fixing the tow-rope and shackles before Tom had. We were given a bottle of Ararat Cognac (apparently Churchill loved it so much he never drank the French stuff) for our pains and invited to their BBQ at the hot sprigs. The kids were desperate to continue to the springs, but we had seen the photos. Two pools only big enough for two people each. We have also seen drunk Russians before and did not fancy spending the night with them naked in the woods.
Luckily another glorious flower meadow was around the corner and enough wood to quench Hector’s pyromaniac tendencies so we were all happy.
You cannot visit Armenia without spending a lot of time visiting its quite rightly famous monasteries. Armenia was the first country to embrace Christianity in 301 A.D and there is a tiny church or monastery around every corner or perched on a picturesque mountainside. The churches themselves are mini and we wondered if they were small due to the constant threat of earthquakes or the tiny populations when they were built. Our favourites were the ones we had to hike to, through stunning scenery where we were the only people there. These were truly magical, by a small stream, with fabulous views and flowers, silent except for the birds. You could quite imagine those early monks finding inner peace in abundance. Many of the monasteries are in a precarious state, draped in wild flowers and looking like they might topple over at any moment. By contrast, the more famous UNESCO ones seemed almost too perfect and had a lot of other visitors which rather broke the magic.
In the monasteries, which were almost all no longer in use, the kids did a lot of candle lighting and were always surprised to find bags of salt close to the candle piles. We spent much time guessing what the salt was for but none of us guessed correctly………… animal sacrifices! Apparently for weddings or christenings a sheep or goat is often bought to the church, where it is fed salt and water before the priest cuts it throat. – hummm, it wasn’t just the pagan temple sites that were embodied into the new churches when Christianity arrived.
Another observation, which we spent much time musing over, was why many of the dogs in Armenia have their ears and tails cut off. Petra was most concerned when she first spotted this and none of us could come up with a plausible reason why one would do this to a dog. The answer is wolves. Dogs used to round up sheep are at the mercy of wolves, which pin them to the ground by their ears or tail. With no ears or tail to latch onto, the dog has a much better chance of getting away. We liked that answer much better than the salt and sheep one!
After visiting an amazing cave where the oldest shoe in the world was found – 3500BC, we continued to Yerevan. The capital feels a million miles away from the rural villages, where many people live in pretty basic circumstances. Yerevan is very cosmopolitan and feels like you are in the heart of Western Europe, with a great café culture and some lovely architecture. This could not be said for our hotel, – the ‘Venice Palace’ – but it was a total bargain for a huge suite, complete with mock Roman statues on the walls. The dining room had a canal down the centre and a gondola bobbing on it. The kids were in heaven as it had two identical pools each side of reception but we were given strict instructions not to visit the bedrooms up the spiral staircases leading from the pool. It had the definite feel of a Berlasconi bunga bunga venue. There is a surprising amount of bunga bunga in Armenia and a lot of associated signage, which again seems so strange after Iran. We rewarded the kids for their uncomplaining visits to the monasteries with a day at the waterpark next door before heading out of town feeling properly clean for the first time in weeks.
Lovely Lake Seven was our next stop. The sun glinted on black obsidian that lined the roadside on the way to the lake. This wonderful volcanic glass was even more impressive when we actually got to the lake as roadside stalls sold pieces of it in pale green. They called this glass moon-stone and said it came from the bottom of the lake, which was later confirmed by a mineralogist we happened to meet.
The lake was very cold as we were at 1900m, but we braved the water, especially as we had kept my parents blow-up mattress from when they were with us in Iran. Hector and I set sail on the lake hoping to spot moonstone at the bottom of it. We returned empty handed, but with an invitation for dinner with a Russian couple we had met camping on a beach further down the lake. The evening was hilarious. They spoke no English and we no Russian, but they took us all out to a restaurant, ordered us a vast feast, ate nothing themselves and insisted on paying. The evening was punctuated by our host Valory, who would intermittently leap up from his chair to beat his chest and shout ‘Putin – super good! Putin WOW!’ He proceeded to show us wonderful photos of Putin, bare chested riding a vast running brown bear, with cries of ‘WOW PUTIN SUPER GOOD.’ With much sign language, they told us we should definitely go to Russia next and especially Chechnya and Dagestan which they insisted were very safe and looked like Dubai from all ‘Super Putin’s’ investment. Hummmmm… I might do a spot of research before committing to Chechnya.
We stopped in the mountain town of Dilijan where Petra and I did a batik course at the local museum and Hector did carpet weaving, where he made a rather good Kilim for Petra’s dolls house. As Tom was parking outside, an Armenian Iranian admired Kabylie and promptly invited us to camp at his guesthouse because he loved Land Rovers too. Razmik was totally delightful and incredibly generous. He was deeply concerned about us sleeping in our rooftent in the pouring rain and tried to get us to sleep inside but we concluded it would be good to test the tent in extreme conditions when we could always creep inside if it leaked. – it didn’t thank goodness.
At Razmik’s lovely Daravand guesthouse, we met a French couple cycling from Armenia to Annecy in France. Crazy loons, she was three months pregnant and Armenia is seriously mountainous and was suffering a very wet summer. As they helped the kids with their French homework, it transpired that she had been an aupair for a friend of ours (Sigrid) in Grantchester – how small the world is! Armenia is not a big tourist destination, and most of the people we met on our route kept popping up at the next places we went. Another fabulous cycling couple we met were from Holland, aged 64 and 72. We marvelled at their stamina.
Continuing north, we spent our last night in the Debden Canyon, an incredible gorge leading to the Georgian border. In Soviet times it must have been very polluted as every village has vast factories, now broken and ghostly, but once state of the art. They looked fantastic to explore but were such a strange sight amongst the natural beauty of the place. To get there we had to drive though two hair-raising tunnels which were more like driving down mine shafts. Pitch black, we only just missed a digger that was hiding in the tunnel doing some repair work. About 10 invisible workmen were also ferreting about down there and this combined with the quite large river that was running down the tunnel due to the rain and the total lack of a road surface made a perfect recipe for an accident. We knew the pregnant cyclist couple were following in our wake and hoped they would get through without being the cause or recipient of the accident waiting to happen.
As we came to the border, we said our farewells to lovely Armenia and its mix of staggering beauty and nature juxtaposed with the Soviet steel, disused factories and strange yellow gas pipes which line the road and make arches to let traffic underneath.
Armenia Super Good – WOW!!!!!!