Friday, 2 September 2016
SARDINIA TRAVEL ADVENTURE
Last year we intended to go to Sardinia but after the car broke down, we had to think again as the cost of a new vehicle much depleted our budget. Instead we decided to venture only as far as the Switzerland border and follow the roads along the Rhine from Rotterdam to Basel via Germany.
So this year we determined we would get there even if, to be honest, we weren't sure that it would be possible because we wondered if we could afford the ferry - it gets more expensive at the height of the season - we worried the island would be so busy that camping without pre-booking would be hard to find, and the thought of the road trip ahead seemed daunting in itself. But we are adventurers so even though the thought of getting to Rotterdam and embedding ourselves there for four weeks instead of travelling further seemed the easy option, and tempting, it would also have been intensely boring and inevitably lead to regret that we didn't even try to get to the island that we both longed to see and experience.
We skipped Rotterdam on the way from Calais and followed much the same path to Italy as we did when we travelled around the boot and Sicily in 2014. However, this time we felt more confident about where we were heading and research in advance about where camp sites lay on route helped to avoid hours and hours of driving around looking for camp site signs to follow. We don't have smartphones and we don't have a satnav. We use paper maps and Google route maps, printed off before we leave, which served us well. We also managed to avoid many of the pay toll roads in France and ended up in a delightful country campsite in a village called Val De Vesle for our first stop and then the city of Dole for our last overnight stop in France.
There wasn't much to see in Val De Vesle apart from a church and a house and some lovely countryside. We had a walk around the village, and along the Vesle near the site, but we didn't stay long enough to consider hiking in the area. We stayed one night and moved on.
Dole is a pretty city and easy to get around. We followed a guided walking route led by brass cats embedded in tiles on the pavements which took us for a circular walk around the city and back to where we started near the camp site we stayed at which was next to a canal which had some delightful house boats along its banks.
We suffered a bit of a detour through and around Geneva on our way to the Mont Blanc Tunnel but soon found the right road.
We pitched up in Italy at Sarre in the Aosta Valley. The camp site manager remembered us from our trip there in 2014 which was nice. He often went around the site on his horse and looked more like a Ranch head than owner of a camp site. Our neighbours there had brought their two cats camping. I'd never seen that before but apparently, it is quite common. They did spend some time every day looking for them and making sure they didn't wander far but the cats seemed to enjoy themselves, stalking birds and popping over to say hi to other campers.
Aosta town was only a 4km walk along a track by a river. The heat was intense so we couldn't resist having a paddle in the fast flowing stream at a point where it seemed more stable. Some points were dangerous to enter and big warning notices were displayed at varying parts as we walked along.
I had hoped to move straight on the next day to Genoa and the ferry that would take us to Sardinia but we stalled here for a few days because it is one of my husband's favourite parts of Italy. We both love the narrow streets and the mountainous region that has a slightly French flavour to it. Last time I managed to pick up some Grappa which is very expensive to buy in the UK and this time I found something quite unique, to me anyway, Tobacco Mead.
As a tobacco connoisseur, I was intrigued and stood looking at the bottle on display when the lady in the shop came out and insisted that we try some. It was delicious, really moreish, so I had to buy it. A pretty pack of brown sugar came free with it but I still haven't worked out why. The mead is sweet enough without it. I Google translated the wording on the bottle when I got home and it appears that the tobacco mead is a speciality of the region that was outlawed during the early days of the unification of Italy when local dialects, customs and traditions were frowned upon in the move to make Italy one country, one people, one language, one land. The bottle pays tribute to those who kept this tradition alive when Tobacco Mead from Aosta was made contraband. It seems tobacco has been the target of political attacks from the very first day Christopher Columbus brought it back to Europe from the Americas.
It was another beautiful day when we left Sarre four days later. We took the pretty mountain roads for most of the journey and then crossed over to the motorway when we got a bit closer to Genoa. We followed signs for the port and ended up in the traffic heading for embarkation onto the boat but we didn't have tickets. A nice port worker who was directing traffic kindly allowed us to pull out of the line. He told us where to go to get tickets but only allowed one of us to leave the car. Afterwards, we had to head back to the main road and try and find a way into the port's main reception and shop. Our boat wasn't due to leave for a few hours. We boarded at 9pm for the sailing time of 10pm. It was a 10 hour overnight journey but we didn't have a cabin. That would have been 100 Euros more which seemed excessive when the one way tickets I got cost us 100 Euros. We thought we would work out how to get back once we got there. We both remembered the hell in trying to find the right dock and the right boat operator when we bought return tickets to and from Sicily a couple of years ago so we figured we would wait and see how things lay when we got to the Sardinian port of Olbia.
We realised when we boarded that many other passengers didn't have cabins either. There were adults, children, babies and even dogs, laid out on mattresses and in sleeping bags on every spare piece of floor and every seat in every bar. We could hardly find anywhere to sit let alone find somewhere to sleep. But we did find a small spot in the children's play area where there were already people settled down for the night.
My husband managed to grab a few hours but I couldn't sleep at all. I was too excited and maybe a bit too British to doss down. I walked from floor to floor, bar to bar, carefully stepping over bodies so not to disturb anyone's slumber and the 10 hours went a lot quicker than they should have done.
Blurry eyed passengers began to wake as we got closer to the island and the sun rose just before we got in at about 7.30am.
The port was much smaller than we encountered in Messina, Sicily, and seemed simple enough to to get to so we decided we would find a camp site somewhere near Palau which is where you can get a ferry over to La Maddelena but the camp site there was crowded and we couldn't take the car to the pitch. We moved on and the next site we saw was one called the Arcobaleno. We didn't know where we were exactly and so the owner showed us on the map. We were near Santa Teresa Gullura in an enchnating little place called Porto Pozzo. We had found a corner of paradise of earth and we would both have been happy to hang around here for as long as we could. The beach was superb and used mainly by campers, so it was never overcrowded, people were lovely and even if we didn't speak the same language, they always said hello, buonasera, buongiorno or even the more informal salve, as they walked past our tent. Those who did speak some English, always made time for a chat when ever we saw them at the sinks, the showers or the bar.
The owner spontaneously appeared with two glasses of Sardinian wine for us one evening as we sat near the office posting pictures to Facebook on the camp wifi. He gave us a bottle when we left as a gift and it was the most scrumptious wine we ever had. My husband doesn't drink, I'm a lightweight, and so this wine had to be shared to be fully appreciated in one sitting. We saved it until we got home and then took it to share with a friend, who also really enjoyed the tobacco mead too and a small bottle of local liquor made from Sardinian red berries that we bought as a present.
After we got settled, we needed to find an ATM. A local shop assistant told us that the nearest place to find one was at nearby San Pasquale a stunning hill top village a five minute drive away.
We had wanted to visit the La Maddelena but apparently, the beach with pink sand, which is what we really wanted to experience, is now closed to tourists after too many of them stole sand from the beach putting its unique colour under threat. We were so overwhelmed with the beauty of where we were that nothing could have topped it and anyway, there were pink bits of coral in the beach at our site so we decided instead to head off to the other place that also inspired our want to visit this island - La Grotta Di Nettuna.
We walked the 654 steps down to the cave and then took the 654 back up. It wasn't as difficult as we thought it might be. There are up and down bits and straight bits along the way, and plenty of vista spots to stop and get your breath back on a day when temperatures hit 36 degrees. One lady stopped and between panting breaths, pointed to a bracelet on my arm and said : "That is lovely." I had enough breath left to squawk out a thanks and a smile.
We had intended to take the steps down and then get the boat back but that would have involved then walking up a big hill back to where the car was parked so we didn't. At the top there was a bar where we both got ice lollies and ice cream and a delicious cup of tea. In fact, it was so nice, I had to have two cups.
The two and half hour drive back was like a white knuckle ride as we found ourselves in the pitch black negotiating twisty roads with mountain drops off the side. The journey was made longer by taking a wrong turning and then having to find the way back to the main road through two small villages which seemed lost in time and with no clear signs telling us which way we should be going. I had faith in the map on my lap and again it served us well, in addition to the small compass I have which always tells us which direction we need to be.
We spent the next day just chilling in the heat on the beach and in the sea and then later explored the site and the area around during a beautiful evening walk.
The next day we headed into Santa Teresa Gallura to find the Capo Testa and the magnificient rock formations unique to Sardinia.
It was another glorious day and there was plenty to explore. We spent time trying to find animal shapes in the rocks, and climbed many, and then later went for a walk in some woods nearby where we found an old bandit look-out point at the highest spot which tourists now visit to get the best panoramic view of the area.
Alas, our time in Sardinia did not last as long as we would have liked. On our fifth day it began to rain a little and so we decided this would be a good day to drive to Olbia and get our ferry tickets back to Genoa. That was a good move because rain began to lash it down for the rest of the day and stopped about an hour after we got back to clear the way for the blue skies to return.
We hoped to stay on the island at least until the end of July, or even into the first few days of August, but the price of the tickets at that time of the summer were at their highest. If we left when we wanted to that would have cost us, without a cabin, 350 Euros. However, if we left in two more days, then we would get tickets for about the same price as our outgoing trip. We had no choice but to take them and then set about planning what we would do on our last full day.
We both wanted to see the ancient olive trees which our guide book said lay at the end of a cul-de-sac at the north end of Lake Liscia. These are between 1000 years old and 4,500 years old.
Getting to the lake seemed easy enough. On the map it appeared to be a one hour drive south from Porto Pozzo but after several hours of driving we didn't find the trees, if we did end up overlooking the lake and wondering how we could get down to it to explore further. We drove all around, ended up back on the main road between Olbia and Porto Pozzo, and then diverted off again in a last ditch attempt to find these elusive wonders. But still we had no luck. We were both so deflated after a day's driving and getting nowhere - even if we did enjoy the breath-taking scenery around us - that when we happened upon the Nuraghi village neither of us felt inclined to take another long walk on a searing hot day. Instead, we stopped in the country when I spotted some ripe prickly pears.
I had never tried them and up to that point all the ones I had seen were green and not ripe. But these were bright orange, hanging down and begging to be picked. We only had some kitchen towel in the car so I grabbed a couple of doubled up sheets and picked three. That didn't protect my hands though as I had tiny invisible thorns stuck in me that made my hands sore for a couple of days. The prickly pears were delicious though and I'm pleased I managed to taste them. Next time, I'll make sure I have thick gloves in the car should I ever get the chance to pick them again.
Because I am a wimp who hates my bare feet on sand in the sea, because I worry what might be beneath it wanting to grab my toes, I bought an inflatable lilo so I could get in the water on it and then drop off it and swim without my feet touching the ground. It then occurred to me that I could take this onto the ferry and sleep on it. When the time came, however, I felt a bit embarrassed to take it aboard so we just grabbed our sleeping bags after we parked up and then found a spot where we would stay all night. This time I did get some broken sleep and I'd bought a book to keep me busy, The Girl In The Spider's Web which I found impossible to put down for the rest of the holiday.
As we pulled into the port at Genoa, there were two ships following us in and it was another glorious day.
We decided on a quick drive straight back to Sarre in the Aosta valley and so we took to the motorway for the whole journey which cost 23 Euros in tolls. We hung around there for a few more days before setting off back to France, through the Mont Blanc, and then on to Rotterdam.
We didn't stay in Dole on our way back but decided to check out a smaller site in Poligny. It should have been an easy straight route from Aosta but again we got scuppered by taking a wrong turning and ending up in Geneva with no clear way out. After a few hours of driving around in circles, going the wrong way, and finding ourselves driving back through Geneva again, we pulled off onto the motorway and hoped we were going the right way. We had no idea where we were at one point so we pulled into a service station to buy a new French map. Mine had become so completely worn out I couldn't read it anymore. The female assistant was marvellous. Not only did she tell us where we were, which wasn't on the map, she plotted our route, told us which way to go and before long we heading straight for Poligny. We had taken a zig zag approach to it. When we arrived, the sun was still hot and the skies a clear blue. That didn't last. The dark clouds began to gather after we had got pitched up and then the most dramatic lighting storm I had ever seen persisted through the night. A loud crack of thunder near the tent and sheet lighting that lit everything up woke me up. I sat a while just watching it. I wish I'd had my camera but I think I was too sleepy to think about getting it out.
The next day was dry and humid. There are lots of walks around the countryside in Poligny and we decided to walk up to the Croix Du Dan which we could see in the distance from our site. Once there, we left our name in the cross as others had done before us. There were other country walks that we rambled through too.
I could have stayed longer and on reflection, perhaps we should have done. Instead we moved on to our next stop. This time we choose a site in Chalon En Champagne but neither of us liked it much. It was on the edge of what looked like a council estate, and you had to pay for wifi, to use the games room, and smokers were definitely not made welcome. This is something that matters a lot to me. It also rained and we didn't have our tent sail on which meant next morning, we packed up in drizzle and arrived at Rotterdam with a wet tent which meant one damp night's sleep.
We both hoped to catch the festival in Rotterdam that we enjoyed so much last year but this time there was a small fee to enter. It wasn't yet open when we wandered along so we walked into town instead and found another festival, Afro-Caribbean, that was free so we hung around there for a while.
The weather in Rotterdam wasn't great but it helped to acclimatise us for when we got back home. We spent longer there than we wanted and because the weather was so bad at one point, we even considered coming home earlier. But then things improved. We spent a lot of time watching the fast moving Rotterdam skies and the shapes of the clouds.
Just before we set off on our camping trip, I bought a sail, which is a square piece of waterproof material that sits above the tent. This kept us dry when wet and offered shade when it was really hot. My husband didn't much see the point of it but reluctantly set it up not convinced of its worth. He changed his mind by the end of the holiday.
During a stormy night with gale force winds, a chunk of tree branch (which my husband said was more of a twig) fell on us in the night but we were saved by that sail which stopped it falling on us. It woke me up with a thwack as it came down. I thought we were being attacked, at first, but when I poked my head out of the tent, I saw what had happened and decided to leave it until morning. My husband slept soundly throughout the drama. For sure, if the sail hadn't been there, then at the very least our tent would have had the hole it that the branch caused to the sail.
After 8 long days in Holland, we made our way back to Calais and home. Usually, the weather at home is grey and cold when we return from our travels but this year it was day after day of sunny and warm weather which felt like an extension of summer.
We both know that next year we want to return to Sardinia to see all the things we missed, and there were plenty, and on our wish list next time we are in the Piedmont region, is to find the Tibetan Bridge in Claviere which is about a two hour drive from Aosta.
Summer is over and now my thoughts return to work. Sadly, I lose my year 3 students who go into the world of work well equipped with the sort of skills they need to get their dream job and I wish them well. I will have a new year one that I am looking forward to meeting for the first time and my new year 3 is full of students ready to face the shorthand challenge and gain their 100wpm industry standard as soon as possible on their return.
Feeling refreshed and invigorated from the summer of travel, I am raring to go and can't wait until term starts again.