Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

24 May 2009

Round the World..... and back again!

We've had so many lovely emails asking us for an update since the end of our trip, so here goes.

What can I say? After 322 days, 27000 miles and 35 countries, we headed back to Blighty with the Van of Dreams. The van had made it from the UK to the southern tip of India and back in one piece, via Scandanavia, Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia, Central Asia, China and Pakistan. And all this with only one major mechanical problem and not a single puncture!

The trip was more varied, exciting and enjoyable than we could ever have imagined.... those of you who haven't already taken a look can see for yourselves in the blog below or via our photos and the rest of the website (http://www.roundtheworld2007.co.uk/).

We've had a pretty busy time since then too... I was several months pregnant by the time we came back from our trip and our baby son Oliver joined us in October. His arrival prompted a new house purchase and a very sad farewell to the Van of Dreams (to be replaced by a more child friendly vehicle, but also hopefully another VW van in due course...).

And we are getting tons of questions from the blog and website from people who are planning their own adventures to far flung lands... happy travels to you all!


from Michael, Helen and Ollie

27 April 2008

Back to Blighty.... and farewell RTW2007!

We arrived in Dubrovnik in glorious sunshine and were able to enjoy it at its best: no tourist crowds as you would get in the middle of summer but warm enough to wander around the city walls, the old town and the water front in short sleeves. Its a lovely city and they have done a great restoration job after all the (sickeningly pointless) bombing during the Yugoslav war.

We had by then discovered the happy news that Helen is pregnant with our first child, so we decided to return to the UK about three weeks early in order to get her to the hospital for appointments and scans. We booked ourselves onto the ferry from Zeebrugge to Hull and planned a route back from Dubrovnik through the Alps and into Belgium. Sadly, the weather wasn't playing ball and the beautiful mountain scenery which we had hoped for was replaced by fog, rain and almost no views at all. We broke the journey with a stop in Zurich to see Michael's cousin Steve and his girlfriend, and to consume a rather dramatic meal of steak served skewered on a huge sword and really enormous beers flambéed at the table (no beers for Helen any longer, though!).

We eventually arrived in Brugge just as the rain and fog cleared. We spent a pleasant day wandering around, eating in lovely cafes and sending our last postcards of the trip before heading off to the ferry. It all felt quite emotional: it seemed like such a long time since we had left home all those months ago, yet at the same time the trip suddenly seemed to be coming to an end just a bit too quickly. We went to a cafe on the way out to the ferry and found it full of people from Yorkshire who had popped over for a few days from Hull on the ferry. It felt strange to think where we and the van had been since we left the UK on a ferry..... yet suddenly we were plunged back into hearing Yorkshire accents and watching people sup pints of Belgian lager like they were going out of fashion.

After a night on the ferry, preparing ourselves to break the pregnancy news to our family and friends upon our return, we drove the Van of Dreams off the ship and onto English soil for the first time in a very long while. Needless to say, when we got to customs and they asked how long we had been gone, then looked at the stamps in our passports, we were pulled into the vehicle inspection bays pretty sharpish. The two vehicles in front of us, loaded with booze and tobacco in every nook and cranny, took absolutely ages to process. So we feared that we, with a camper van which had been to India and back and which was stuffed full of a year's worth of kit, would be there forever. But the customs people were friendly and efficient, not to mention surprised and interested in our trip. They obviously decided that our tales of travels to far-flung lands were not as far-fetched as they might seem ("Tajikistan.... are you joking?" was a typical reaction, but our visas helped us to confirm that we were not joking at all). They put a sniffer-dog through the van, but he remained quiet despite the huge bag of none-too-fragrant laundry which we had stashed in the boot.

So we were cleared to leave the port and drove into Blightly proper, heading back to Silkstone where we started our journey and thus ending what has been an incredible trip. Helen's mum was there to greet us on our arrival, madly waving Union flags from the driveway. We have spent our time since we came home sorting things our for our impending new arrival, including buying a new house; getting Michael a much-needed hair-cut; and giving the van some TLC at a VW garage.

Thank you to everyone who has read the blog and posted comments or sent emails during our travels. We have been amazed by how many people have read the site: we had intended it for family and friends to dip into if they wanted to track our progress, but we have had all sorts of people from all over the world following our travels. It was great to get all of your messages when we were so far away from home and it really encouraged us to keep up the blog, which is now a fantastic record for us of everything we got up to on our trip.

We have added links on our home page to the various bits of magazine and other publicity which have come out about our trip and we'll get the rest of our photos onto the site very soon.

Well, that wraps up the blog for RTW2007.... goodbye from Michael and Helen (and the Van of Dreams!)

01 March 2008

Albo-land and on through Crna Gora

"Albania", Tirana
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
As we shivered away at Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, Albania felt like a rather looming presence on the other side of the lake. We weren’t entirely convinced that visiting was such a good idea, primarily due to the scaremongering in our guidebook and on the Foreign Office website, which both suggest a backward country with poor roads, poor manners and lots of guns. In the end we took a deep breath, ignored the fact that we’d be uninsured and un-rescuable, and headed off into Albo-land.

As seems to be the case in almost all of these situations, reality is somewhat different from what we had read. The Albanian side of the lake immediately felt different, but not necessarily in a bad way. Admittedly we did have to divert off-road through a nearby field within the first 5km; the towns were more run down; and the pretty Macedonian buildings had been replaced with concrete blocks. But it didn’t feel at all threatening. In fact, as we wound our way around the coast, pedestrians smiled and waved at us more than they have anywhere since Pakistan. It also quickly became clear that Albania has some awesome scenery, lovely scrubby mountains with sweeping roads which provide excellent views in all directions.

The country seems to have a huge number of men of all ages just hanging around with nothing much to do: grey coats, black jumpers, flat caps and endless cigarettes seems to be the uniform of choice. Albania is also overrun with very old Mercedes Benz cars, which seemed to make up about 80% of the vehicles on the road. According to the mine of information that is Mr Richard Stuart Taylor, they were the only cars that could be brought in during the years in which Albania was a closed country – something to do with the local mafia, apparently. In any event, it appears to be compulsory for all old Mercedes to be in one of a palette of dreadful colours: snotty green, deep maroon, mud brown, mustard yellow… you get the picture. There is absolutely no problem getting your Merc washed, though. Never have we seen a country with so many hand car washes, all vying for your attention by spraying jets of water high in the air or leaving their hosepipes on during the winter to create big icicle displays.

Albania was run by an extreme communist dictator until 1985; was totally closed to the outside world for quite some time; and had, officially, no friends (having fallen out with each of its big three allies - Yugoslavia, the USSR and China – in turn). As we wound our way through the countryside to Tirana, we started to see one of the legacies of the country’s isolation. In his quest to protect the country from the rest of the world, the aforementioned communist dictator (one Enver Hoxha) spent 35 years having 700,000 concrete gun bunkers built. They were so well protected against invaders that the Albanians now can’t get rid of them. So they still dot the landscape like a series of bizarre concrete mushrooms set into the earth: by the side of roads, in the middle of fields, on beaches; in fact pretty much everywhere. Very odd.

Tirana, the capital, is a bustling place where we had been warned that we’d need to find secure parking due to high levels of vehicle theft. We somewhat reluctantly, checked into the central ‘Hotel California’ to get ourselves both secure parking and registration with the authorities. Upon embarking on a tour of the city, it became clear that to enjoy Tirana, one needs to be a fan of rather less conventional sights. There is an impressive tiled mural dominating the main square which modestly shows Albanians winning many wars over the years, from the 1800s right up until World War II (which I hadn’t realised that they’d won – but then what do I know). Alongside the main boulevard are some quite attractive yellow buildings (built by the Italians as a present); lots and lots and lots of concrete; an open sewer standing in as a central river; and a large concrete pyramid labelled ‘Kosovo’. The other ‘highlight’ was a peek at the house where Dictator Hoxha, used to live – it has now been turned into a Foreign Language school but still has shady looking military types wandering around the garden with suitably scary guns. Luckily for us we were able to find a very nice French Patisserie nearby which held our attention for a little longer than the concrete tower blocks.

After a brief excursion to the Albania coastal resort of Durres (which is another adventure in concrete), we spent our final night in the country at the beautifully located hill town of Kruje. The town features yet another castle (I swear that I will have looked well over 100 castles by the time I get home), this time featuring a rather incongruously modern ‘Albanian War Museum’ built on top of it by no less than Mr. Hoxha’s own daughter. We rejected this for a visit to the ‘Ethnographical Museum’ where an endearing old chap enthusiastically showed us how the local gentry used to live. Once we’d seen him simulating the crushing of olives, making pottery, serving meals and baking bread, it was a case of hurrying back to the shady car park nearby to ensure that the child with whom we’d left $2 to look after the van hadn’t instead flogged it.

From Albania, the coast road travels north and re-enters the old Yugoslavia, now called Crna Gora locally (Montenegro to us). This is, at least until the Kosovo situation is slightly more sorted out, the world’s newest country, though any new-found patriotism doesn’t seem to stop it from having the world’s grumpiest border guards. We arrived in the rain at the coastal ‘resort’ of Ulcinj, where Helen spent the afternoon snoozing on the seafront, watching the waves. I, meanwhile, ran around in the drizzle trying to change our remaining Albanian money and find a suitable policeman with whom to register ourselves. Unfortunately I was having little success on either front. The Montenegrins are about as interested in Albanian Lek as they would be in Monopoly money. Upon arriving at the police station somewhat bedraggled I was laughed at, offered whisky and then sent packing (unregistered) by a burly, rather malodorous officer. Eventually though, a local travel agent both sorted out our registration and rather randomly found an Albanian bus driver who was prepared to only rip us off a bit on the exchange rate.

We slept well on the seafront and then embarked on some beautiful days driving along the picturesque coast. The Adriatic here has some of the finest landscape that we have seen anywhere, with beautiful bays and mountains that sweep down to the clear, blue-green sea below. We had some stunning wild camps high up in the mountains, meaning that we could eat breakfast with gorgeous views. The mountain road over to Kotor, the location of Southern Europe’s deepest fjord, is a really spectacular series of hairpin bends with scenery ranging from moon-like rocks, through to scrub, sheer rocky outcrops and then eventually the fjord. It was difficult not to keep stopping and taking more and more photos of the views from the road, including some beautiful islands with stunning back drops. Allegedly (and rather bizarrely), one of the islands was created by the inhabitants of one of the fjord-side villages, who took it upon themselves to row out with boats full of stones every year on 22nd July for 550 years, until eventually they had a big enough pile of stones upon which to build a church. It does look rather nice though. Hopefully all of this scenery won’t be spoilt too much by development. We felt that we had re-entered tourist territory here. A large number of signs in English offer real estate services and are backed up by some large apartment blocks appearing along the coast road. Hopefully they won’t detract too much from the coast itself.

The only problem for us was that when you are driving around the Balkan Peninsula, it is easy to forget how small some of the countries are. We found ourselves having to be careful not to accidentally leave Montenegro before we intended, because the distance from one coastal border to the other is so small. So in the end, the countries seem to pass by very quickly. Only a few days ago we were shivering away on the shores of Lake Ohrid, but now as I type this I am sitting on a balcony in the sunshine after a day spent wandering the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Of which more later.

18 February 2008

Chilly Nights at Lake Ohrid

A quick update, written predominately in case we don’t survive the night. When we came back to the van at 6pm this evening, our thermometer was already registering an external temperature of minus 5 degrees and the sun had only just gone in. So quite what the temperature will be by 5am, I dread to think. All very well if you are in a centrally heated house or an insulated ski chalet, but not quite the same in an un-insulated camper van. Our waste water outlet has frozen, so currently we can’t drain our sink. That will be fun when we start driving again and we have washing up water sloshing all over the van. It is only a matter of time until the water tap freezes as well and we have to start harvesting the ice sheets from the inside of our van windows so that we can melt it for water.

But, on the plus side, we’re saving ourselves a fortune: when we went to the Ice Hotel in Sweden we had to pay an arm and a leg to sleep in a room maintained at minus 5 degrees, whereas now we get to do that every night for free. And if we’re really lucky, the internal temperature might dip below that tonight. If only we could fit ourselves into the fridge to sleep, it would be about 10 degrees warmer….

We are spending a few days at the very beautiful Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, a destination which we would thoroughly recommend should you ever happen to find yourself in F.Y.R.O.M.. The lake is lovely, surrounded on all sides by snow capped peaks which sit in Macedonia on our side of the lake and in Albania on the other side of the water. The town is one of the most pleasant we have been to on our trip, with well maintained, traditional houses; cobbled streets; a restored citadel; and some Orthodox churches in pretty stunning locations. We are camped in the courtyard of a local family’s house, where they are so friendly and hospitable that they have even given us a key to their front door.

Much to our surprise (based on our complete lack of knowledge about F.Y.R.O.M. before we arrived here), there are some very smart bars and cafes around, which are frequented by some very stylish locals. Sadly, we look rather less stylish. We have begun to resemble Michelin men due to the sheer number of layers which we sport each day. Helen tops her look off with a Nordic-patterned hat, complete with fleece ear flaps and a bobble on top, which is attracting some very amused looks from the local girls in their designer gear, high heeled boots and fur coats.

We have decided that we will extend our stay in Ohrid, partly because it is lovely here but partly because we are more than a little apprehensive about moving on into Albania, our “scariest” country since the ‘Stans. Its reputation isn’t great, not least because it has historically been seen as an isolated bastion of heavily gun-toting communism and no-one quite seems to have updated that image yet. Whether that is because it hasn’t really changed much, we shall see. The country was closed to tourists for a long time; communist rule only ended in 1992; and the ten years after that seem to have involved the country lurching from crisis to crisis. Rather ominously, everyone seems to advise against driving there and our guide book says, “Albania has only acquired an official road traffic code in recent years. Most motorists have only learned to drive in the last five or six years. The road infrastructure is poor and the roads badly maintained.” Oh good. On top of all that, it seems to be impossible to buy vehicle insurance for Albania and the borders in and out of the country are reputedly very difficult. None of this is very reassuring.

On second thoughts, maybe we shouldn’t post this until after we have left Albania. Don’t worry Mums, surely Albania can’t be as difficult to travel in as Central Asia? And surely the roads and the driving can’t be as bad as they were in India? Can they? Maybe it is not the cold we have to worry about after all…..

16 February 2008

Bulgaria to the Balkans

Bugarian Mural, Veliko Turnovo
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
After a couple of days of R&R in Istanbul, we were back on the road headed north-west into the border area shared by Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. As we approached the border zone, we wondered whether a war had started and no-one had bother to tell us: unlike the modern checkpoint coming in from Greece, the roads were very heavily strewn with litter and the road-side supermarkets and cafes had been abandoned leaving only empty, dusty shelves and broken windows. At first sight the border looked to be entirely closed, but eventually we found an open lane through which we proceeded painlessly past the pot-holes, plastic bags and bored officials into Bulgaria.

When we visited Romania, which joined the EU at the same time as Bulgaria, we were struck by what a big event their accession had been: there were EU flags lining the streets; “Welcome to the EU signs”; and even “European Union” school stationery in the shops. None of that in Bulgaria. There was one small, torn and rather pathetic little flag at the border, but little after that (we were instead welcomed into the country by a prostitute in knee high gold boots standing in a lay-by, who was rather disappointed when she realised that we were only stopping to have a quick sandwich!!). Perhaps the apparent lack of enthusiasm isn’t surprising for a country which was still trying to join the USSR in the 1970s, though.

On entering Bulgaria, we were now back into the world of the Cyrillic alphabet. Yet again we were glad to have learnt the Cyrillic letters when we were in Russia, because otherwise reading shop / road signs etc would have proved tricky. With that, we managed to navigate our way to two towns: Plovdiv in the south and Veliko Tarnovo which we reached via a trip over a beautiful snow covered mountain pass to the north. Both places had pleasant old towns, but were unfortunately dominated by the ubiquitous large, ugly Yugoslav concrete apartment blocks. We amused ourselves by admiring the outrageously out of date Russian dress sense of many of Bulgaria’s inhabitants, complete with older ladies sporting a range of “blue rinse” style hairdos, though rather than being blue their rinses were in every conceivable shade of red, pink, orange and purple. At least the scenery in between the towns is stunning, though, which made the driving quite pleasant.

Having been pretty uninspired by Bulgarian towns, which are hard to love because they are none too easy on the eye, we opted out of going to the capital, Sofia. Our guidebook assured us that the towns we had already visited were the stars of the show and that Sofia would provide more concrete than anything else. So instead we headed on towards the catchily titled “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (or “F.Y.R.O.M.” for short), stopping only at a VW garage on the ring road to have our front and rear tyres swapped over in anticipation of the icy mountain passes which may lie ahead.

We reached the border post, located at the top of a 1,100m pass, just before nightfall and rather nervously decided to camp there before crossing into Macedonia the following day. Thankfully, the weather had warmed up slightly, so although we woke up to the usual sheet of ice on the inside of the van windows, we didn’t freeze to death. The next morning’s border crossing was slightly more complicated than usual, both because we have left the coverage of our Green Card again (meaning we had to buy insurance from a kiosk that was unwilling to accept or exchange any of the Bulgarian cash that we had crossed with) and because for some reason the gruff customs official was very concerned about exactly how long and for what reason we had been in Turkey. Eventually we escaped and began winding our way down through the mountains towards the capital, Skopje.

Immediately Macedonia has a fresher, different feel to Bulgaria, and our first impressions were very good. The scenery is still pretty spectacular, but on top of that the towns are now much more pleasant; the houses are in a much better state of repair; and we found all the people who we met in shops etc en route to be very friendly indeed. The country is quite small, with only 2 million inhabitants, and well over a quarter of them live in the capital. Perhaps the low population helps us like the place more: we have come to realise on this trip that we are really very adverse to over-populated places and are naturally drawn to wide open spaces where people have decent amounts of land to live on.

Skopje itself is a small but quite pleasant place. Yes, it has its fair smattering of Yugoslav concrete. Yes, the Soviet dress sense has continued (at lest in the older generation), not least in the hair dye (yesterday we saw an older lady who had died her hair pale pink to match her winter raincoat and her scarf… why wouldn’t you?). But it also has a pleasant riverside promenade with some very smart bars and cafes frequented by well dressed young Macedonians. On the other side of the river lies a Turkish bazaar, some impressively restored old Ottoman bathhouses and a bustling Albanian market. The only disappointment of Skopje has been that we are now back in the world of having to register with the authorities on our first night in the country (Soviet style paranoia obviously applied in Yugoslavia too and still seems to run deep), which has forced us to take a room in a hostel and end our run of 24 consecutive nights in the camper van.

09 February 2008

Atatürk and big flags

Turkish Flag
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
The flag theme continued long after we left the border areas: Turks clearly love their flags. Apparently Turkey holds the world record for “Biggest Flag Flown at Highest Height” – I’m not sure how many other entrants there were for that prestigious title, though! Another continuing, patriotic theme is the Turks’ devotion to one Mustafa Kemal: a solider who was valiant and victorious in the Gallipoli battles; went on to become the leader of modern Turkey in the 1920s and 30s; and modestly renamed himself Atatürk (literally “father of Turks”) in the process. He is utterly revered here: his face is painted 20 feet high on the side of buildings and pictures of him hang on the walls of every building from cafes to petrol stations. This situation is no doubt helped somewhat by the fact that it is illegal to say anything remotely negative or cynical about Atatürk, but the Turks’ devotion to their country’s founding father does seem very genuine.

One of Atatürk’s founding principles for Turkey was that it should be a secular country. Whilst that is still in theory the case, in reality the parts of Turkey which we have visited have felt very firmly Muslim. We have returned to our now familiar habit of being woken by the sounds of the ezan being blared from loud speakers on the local minaret. Every village has its own mosque; many small towns have several of them; and Istanbul has so many that we lost count within five minutes of being in the city (though despite that, there still wasn’t enough room for everyone inside the mosques at Friday prayers, so dozens of men set their prayer mats out on the pavements instead). The hot debate going on here is about women wearing headscarves: many Muslim women wear them (in some of the rural areas we have visited they are the norm and full burqa-style coverings even occasionally make an appearance), yet they are frowned upon by the state. If a politician’s wife wears a headscarf it causes a huge furore and headscarf-wearing women are not admitted to universities because those institutions are supposed to be secular. All of which seems very odd in a country which also has some well-known coastal resorts populated by British tourists sunbathing in bikinis and swilling vast quantities of beer: little could seems less Islamic.

One very unwelcome feature of Turkey is the dogs: big scary dogs. Packs of them seem to roam everywhere and none of them seem too friendly. Upon arriving at camp sites, tiptoeing quietly towards to reception, one is normally met by at least two snarling, drooling beasts bolting towards you as a welcoming committee. On one occasion I was somewhat panicked by said scary barking, so I tried to run, but actually just fell over, grazed my arm and tore my clothes. At which point (the dogs having mysteriously vanished) the camp site owner appeared and gazed bemusedly at the rather pathetic, long haired Englishman lying prostrate in the dirt whimpering to no-one in particular.

Anyway, what have we actually been doing with our time, apart from being attacked by killer dogs? Ah yes, ancient ruins – lots of them. To be honest, neither of us had been all that impressed with the ruins at Troy, which seemed to our uneducated eyes to be just a series of labelled piles of old rocks. We hoped that Bergama (ancient name “Pergamum”) would be more impressive. The town itself is pretty typically Turkish: narrow dusty streets with rundown, ramshackle old houses interspersed with lots of stark, tall concrete accommodation blocks, each one topped with a collection of very ugly solar water heaters. Thank goodness that the people are friendly, because their towns certainly aren’t going to win any prizes! The ruins themselves were an improvement on Troy, the highlight being an enormous Roman amphitheatre set into the steep hillside above the town at the Acropolis. Although the seating was somewhat precipitous, it does create excellent acoustics - I was able to stand on the stage and serenade Helen (and a passing Japanese tour group) with surprising ease!

More ancient stuff followed at Epheseus, which was by far the most impressive site, being much more extensive and rather more intact, which makes it easier to imagine what was once a great Roman city. From there we went onto Hieropolis (more ruins: nice main street; well labelled Roman latrine (!); and a still-in-use antique bathhouse) and the remarkable “travertines” that tower over the nearby village of Pammukale. There is a huge white band of calcium in the hillside above the village, with various caves, stalactites and pools carved by erosion into the rock. The pools fill up over time and people go there to bathe in the calcium enriched waters, which are believed to have healing properties for various complaints such as arthritis and rheumatism. It is a really odd piece of landscape: from a distance is looks like a band of snow and close up it reminded us of the smoking blue thermal springs in Iceland.

We drove north through snowy hills back up towards Istanbul, saving ourselves a few hours drive around the Sea of Marmaris by hopping on a short ferry across the water. Although it is not the prettiest city in the world (not helped by the fact that the weather, which has been cold but gloriously sunny for the past two weeks, has now turned into wet, grey drizzle), there is a lot going on in Istanbul. We took the modern light railway around town and the funicular train up and down the hills of the vibrant Beyoglü district; visited the enormous Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya; wandered streets full of cafes and restaurants (very cosmopolitan indeed compared to other parts of Turkey we have visited); and ate dinner at a restaurant with a fantastic view over the busy shipping lanes of the Bosphorus Straight which (like the Dardanelles) divides Europe from Asia.

02 February 2008

Cold Turkey

Temple to Athena, Assos, Turkey
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
We sailed from Italy to Greece in, quite literally, “animal class”. We slept in the camper van on the open deck, next to two trucks packed with tetchy, smelly bulls. This was probably a class above “tourist class” cabins in the ferry itself, though. The ferry looked like it should have been taken out of service in 1975 and was almost entirely populated by surly Bulgarian truckers eating truly awful canteen food at extortionate prices.

Arriving at 3am into Igoumenitsa (or Igou-Igou as Helen has now christened it), we drove down the ferry ramp in our pyjamas and promptly found a space (among said surly Bulgarian truckers) to park up and get some more sleep. The next day, the town turned out to be surprisingly pleasant for a port town, with lots of pavement cafes and smart looking people drinking espresso coffee in the glorious sunshine. We meant to leave immediately, but accidentally spent three nights camping on a nearby cliff-top overlooking the harbour and the town, popping into Igou Igou from time to time to stock up on local kebabs and pizza. When we eventually managed to move on, we made our way swiftly across Greece, on an impressive new motorway slicing through snowy mountain scenery, which neither of us had expected. A day and a half later, we reached the Turkish border and prepared to leave the EU for the fourth time on this trip.

The Greek – Turkish border is surprisingly well fortified (old animosity clearly runs deep), with a group of bored looking soldiers guarding a Soviet-looking concrete bridge across a river between the two countries. The border crossing itself was easy, although Michael did have to stand in a queue for ten minutes whilst they checked that we had no Pit Bull Terriers. There was no mistaking the fact that we were now in Turkey: this must be one of the most patriotic countries we have been to, with enormous scarlet flags (bearing a white crescent and star) billowing in the wind from every house, shop, petrol station or convenient hill side vantage point.

Reaching Turkey puts us back onto the route which we considered to drive back from India: through Pakistan, Iran and then Turkey. Although it is a shame not to have been able to drive back, with hindsight it is a good thing that we didn’t try it, given the terrible recent events in Pakistan (the bombings in Peshwar and Lahore, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, being only part of the story). It is really saddening to see all of that happening in a country which we really enjoyed and where we found the people to be so overwhelmingly hospitable and friendly. On top of that, Iran has just had one of the worst winters for years, with people literally freezing to death waiting for snow-blocked roads to be cleared. So, all in all, a quick whizz through Italy and Greece has turned out to be far less stressful, less life threatening and a good deal warmer.

The Turkish roads from the border were good, so we made swift progress - first east and then south onto the Gallipoli peninsula. Immediately, the towns had a more basic and slightly more Middle Eastern feel than in Greece or Italy. The camper van is such an ideal way to travel here. First, everyone has (without exception) been very friendly, waving to us as we drive past in the van. Second, there are essentially no tourists around and as a result no-one seems to care where we park; we can literally pick the most picturesque spot on a beach or a headland and stop for the night, giving us fantastic views to wake up to in the morning. On Gallipoli, that meant parking right on the beach overlooking the Dardenelles straight, where we recorded our coldest night in the van so far, waking up at 5am to register a chilly -4.2 degrees outside (-2.3 degrees inside) and find a sheet of ice on the inside of the window above our heads. Quite a different story from much of this journey in the scorching temperatures of Central and Southern Asia. Thankfully, a burst of diesel air heating was enough to warm us through in time for breakfast.

The Gallipoli peninsula is a beautiful and historic place to explore. There are pine forests and green hills overlooking the sea in all directions, dotted with cemeteries and memorials to the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in a series of battles to gain control of the straight (and thus access to the Black Sea) in 1915. ANZAC Cove, to the north, attracts thousands of visitors from Down Under each year for a ceremony to honour their war dead. Alongside the many smaller memorials are two huge monuments at the end of the peninsula, one to the Turkish soldiers (led Mustafa Kemal, later Ataturk) and one to the British soliders (directed from afar by Churchill). Between the two is an extensive graveyard to 12,000 luckless French soldiers, who having successfully conquered their side of the straight were called in as ill-fated reinforcements to help out the British and were promptly wiped out en masse by the Turks.

Crossing the Dardenelles was a short, yet inter-continental, ferry journey and took us back onto Asian soil. The Turkish coast is dotted with ancient cities and temples, which we are slowly working our way through as we head south. First stop was Troy. Sadly, we didn’t meet Brad Pitt looking dashing in full battle armour, so we consoled ourselves by playing in the enormous wooden Trojan horse at the entrance to the site. After Troy, we visited the picturesque village of Assos and the “Temple of Athena”, which is in fact only three and a half pillars of what used to be a temple, but which sits in a stunning location on a headland overlooking the sea and the Greek island of Lesvos. A taste of the ancient history lessons to come.

The Spur and the Heel

After a brief sojourn to Malta to meet Helen’s mum and the Sant family in order to celebrate Barbara’s 65th birthday, we rejoined the van in Rome to continue our journey south. It was all too easy to replace our gas canister (the original having been left behind in India due to shipping regulations), which was a shame because it meant that we no longer had an excuse to keep buying vast quantities of delicious, freshly cooked Italian pizza!

We chose a route across the Apennines towards the Gargano peninsula (the “spur” of the Italian “boot”, which sticks out into the Adriatic Sea). This is a little visited but beautiful part of the country, with pretty hill top towns and rolling green hills. We visited the fishing port of Peschini; the far end of the peninsula at Vieste; and the mountain top town of Monte San Angelo. Each town was very similar: tall white washed houses; winding flagstone alleys; lots of churches; and an almost total absence of people. In fact, it seemed that as we moved through Italy, the local day of shop closure moved with us… so every town was basically shut up and eerily quiet. All of which meant that we had limited contact with the Italians, but plenty of peace and quiet to enjoy the surroundings. Quite a contrast to India and, no doubt, to the scene in the heat of summer when we are told that these places are overrun with visitors.

One of our stops was in the town of San Giovanni de Rotondo, high up in the mountains. It used to be a small village, but is now a fast growing new town due entirely to the cult of Padre Pio, one of Italy’s most recent elevations to sainthood. Apparently, a seven-year old child was cured of meningitis after a vision of Padre Pio appeared to him one night. Not only was this the miracle required for Pope John Paul II to promote the (rather Mafioso-looking) PP to sainthood in 2002, but also the green light for his home village to develop a thriving tourism industry and a new 7,000 seater church to house all the pilgrims. We visited the Padre Pio experience, saw his monastic cell, and observed the bizarre waxwork of him holding the baby Jesus (?). Our limits were tested, though, and we decided against both the interactive “Voice of Padre Pio” exhibition and PP’s “Crucifixion Walkway” up the nearby mountain.

We left the “spur” and continued our journey down into the “heel” of the boot, via a dramatic night camp under the floodlit Castel del Monte (an impressive castle perched high on a hill). There, we managed to befriend a pack of local stray dogs which caused Michael huge frustration by failing to understand how to play “fetch” and instead just staring up pleadingly at us for food.

Next stop was the cave town of Matera, the site for the filming of the crucifixion in “The Passion of the Christ”. The town is set into two deep ravines and is made up of a series of fairly primitive “sassi” (cave homes) and cave churches. Our journey through the heel then took us into “Trulli country”: a series of villages set in lush green countryside, all featuring distinctive, round, white-washed circular houses with dry-stone-wall-effect conical roofs, some of which are painted with various symbols to ward off evil or bring good luck. There are huge numbers of Trullis both in the towns and dotted around the fields in the countryside, providing a very picturesque scene.

After some turmoil about buying a house back in England (which was on, then off, then on and then finally off again), we reached our southernmost point in Lecce: a university town with some really over the top Baroque architecture, which made for an interesting wander in the sunshine. Not long after, we were heading up to the desolate dockyards of Brindisi to catch a Greek ferry.