Wow Croatia -Dubrovnik, a gem!

One word for Croatia – WOW. This country is stunning. We had heard about it’s beauty but on arriving into Dubrovnik our eyes couldn’t believe the stunning blue colour of the Adriatic sea. We chose to stay at the Villa Dubrovnik, the perfect spot for us to take in a bit of luxury. Upon driving down a very narrow road along a cliff we arrive to an opening with a metal, wooden and glass box structure hanging precariously on the edge of the mountain. This was to be our transport, an elevator taking us down along the side of the cliff into the hotel.

Access via lift down to Villa Dubrovnik

Access via lift down to Villa Dubrovnik

Entrance to Villa Dubrovnik

Entrance to Villa Dubrovnik

Every room in this hotel has an amazing view of the ocean and Old town of Dubrovnik. A 15 minute walk and you are in town or alternatively you can catch the hotel’s own Venetian vaporetto and be dropped off at the marina right in the heart of the Dubrovnik.

Villa Dubrovnik vaporetto - transfer to the Old Town

Villa Dubrovnik vaporetto – transfer to the Old Town

As we arrived quite late the kids were itching for a dip in the ocean after a hot day. We quickly checked in and headed down to the bowels of the hotel where the rock cliff has been turned into a private beach. We spent our first night swimming, cooling off in the Adriatic while watching the sunset over the Old Town.

Sea access - Villa Dubrovnik

Sea access – Villa Dubrovnik

Heading for a sunset swim- Villa Dubrovnik

Heading for a sunset swim- Villa Dubrovnik

Villa Dubrovnik - Sunset swim

Villa Dubrovnik – Sunset swim

Villa Dubrovnik

Villa Dubrovnik

Villa Dubrovnik - Allanah testing the waters

Villa Dubrovnik – Allanah testing the waters

Villa Dubrovnik - Lucas taking a dip in the Adriatic sea

Villa Dubrovnik – Lucas taking a dip in the Adriatic sea

Sunset - Dubrovnik

Sunset – Dubrovnik

Old Dubrovnik town is a walled city. Governed by many a country over the centuries, it has seen it’s fare share of war. Ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Hungary, and Serbia.Dubrovnik was a rival to the trading routes of the Venetians which made it a very wealthy town but a town constantly under siege.

In 1806 it surrendered to Napoleon as that was the only way to end a month-long siege by the Russian-Montenegrin fleets who bombarded the city with 3,000 cannonballs. At first Napoleon only demanded free passage promising not to occupy Dubrovnik, but not long after French forces blockaded the harbours, forcing the government to give in and let French troops enter the city. On this day, all flags and coats of arms above the city walls were painted black as a sign of mourning.

Fast forward to 1991 and the people of Dubrovnik people were to thank Napoleon for this time of occupation. On October 1, 1991 Dubrovnik was attacked by JNA with a siege of Dubrovnik that lasted for seven months. The heaviest artillery attack was on December 6 with 19 people killed and 60 wounded. Total casualties in the conflict according to Croatian Red Cross were 114 killed civilians.

Our local tour guide from Dubrovnik Shore Tours http://www.dubrovnikshoretours.net shared a few of his own personal stories. Only 9 years old when the war started in 1991 he believed that if it wasn’t for Napoleon’s fort at the top of the mountain overlooking Dubrovnik the whole town would not exist today. The Serbian army tried to flatten the town with army tanks coming in from the top of the mountain but couldn’t get past the Napoleonic fort built for protection all those years ago. Dubrovnik is surrounded by mountains on one side and the Adriatic Sea all around.

A view of the Old town

A view of the Old town

The port of Dubrovnik

The port of Dubrovnik

Taking in the view from the Dubrovnik walls

Taking in the view from the Dubrovnik walls

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Walking the length of the fortified walls

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Taking a break!

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A moment of brotherly love

A personal story of his was the day he first tried lobster. When the city of Dubrovnik was attacked the Serbians cut off all power. Being a tourist town all the restaurants were unable to keep all their seafood and supplies so they were handing out all their lobster, oysters, and other perishables to all the locals. As a 9 year old boy he remembers devouring lobster for a few consecutive days until all supplies had been depleted. It was a positive memory during a time of great hardship for many locals for a few years to come.

The main street Stradun

The main street Stradun

It is a 16-sided drinking fountain built by Onofrio de la Cava (1438. - 1444.). The Fountain is part of the town's water supply system which Onofrio managed to create by bringing the water from the well in Rijeka Dubrovačka. The well is located 20 km from Big Onofrio's Fountain and this construction was a masterpiece of that time.

The 16-sided drinking fountain built by Onofrio de la Cava (1438. – 1444.). The Fountain is part of the town’s water supply system which Onofrio managed to create by bringing the water from the well in Rijeka Dubrovačka. The well is located 20 km from Big Onofrio’s Fountain and this construction was a masterpiece of that time.

Fresh water supply

Fresh water supply

The sights of Dubrovnik are many, from the city walls, the Franciscan monastery to meandering along the narrow streets of the old town. During the day it is buzzing with tourists but linger after all the cruise ships have gone and the experience is enhanced.

We enjoyed one of our most memorable meals here at Gils Little Bistro ( gils.hr ) Situated down an atmospheric little side street run by a Frenchman and his Australian/Croatian wife. The food is a bit pricey but well worth it for the quality compared the many tourist trap restaurants to be found here.

A satisfied customer

A satisfied customer

Weighing our meat

Weighing our meat

We spent a few glorious days and nights here and were only able to take in a small slice of the region. We didn’t even manage to visit any of the amazing islands we had heard about. Looks like Croatia will be on the list for the future. Our next stop Split!

A glimpse of Montenegro – Kotor

Our visit to Montenegro was by default. Pre planning a 100 day trip can throw some curve balls at times, but a bit of determination and a lot or research can overcome any hurdles you come across.

We had planned to make our way from Ostuni to Bari and catch a ferry straight to Croatia with our hire car. The plan was to end our trip in Switzerland where we would drop off our car and continue our journey by train. This was not to be as there is a quirky little law in Croatia, that does not allow you to travel on their roads without original car ownership papers. After spending weeks trying to communicate with Hertz car rental clarifying they would give us access to these papers with no conclusive result and thus waiting to book our cabin on the ferry we discover that the ferry was now fully booked.

So it was to be that we boarded Montenegro Lines from Bari, Italy to arrive 9 hours later in Bar, Montenegro. Boarding the ferry was a step back in time to the 50’s, I generally like to think of the positive, I can only say the only positive was it did not sink. The negatives – a rickety rust bucket with spartan facilities. The cabin was old and dirty. The restaurant was closed, and the only edible snack the cafe had was potato crisps, the staff were unhelpful, chain smoking continuously. We pulled out a deck of UNO cards and tried to distract ourselves from our surroundings with a few family games. The hours went by slowly and the only consolation as the sun set and night fell was we could see land in the distance getting closer and closer.  Safety precautions seemed non existent so luckily the ocean was calm and we arrived safely.

Lucas patiently waiting to arrive in Bar, Montenegro

Lucas patiently waiting to arrive in Bar, Montenegro

We arrived late at night and had heard that driving in Montenegro could be hair-raising at times, so I had pre booked a transfer to drive us straight to the town of Kotor. Our driver was a cautious one and we managed to avoid many head on collisions on a few of those sharp winding turns. Montenegrin drivers like their speed!

The country is bordered by Croatia to the west, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the northwest, Kosovo to the east, Serbia to the northeast, and Albania to the south-east. A small country with a very turbulent past. We only caught a glimpse of it’s beauty as our time here was short and sweet. We chose to explore the town of Kotor before our journey into Dubrovnik.

The port of Kotor is surrounded by fortifications built during the Venetian period. It is one of the best preserved medieval old towns in the Adriatic and is a UNESCO world heritage site. After a late breakfast we spent the few hours that we had here exploring the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon built in 1166 and walked the perimeter of the ancient walls getting lost in all the tiny cobble stoned streets.

The boys ventured further and chose to climb the 1350 steps directly above and east of the Old Town, on almost vertical cliffs, up the meandering upper town walls. It looks a little like a short version of the Great Wall. From up above,  there is an excellent view of Kotor and the bay from the St John’s fortress on top.

View of the Clock Tower

View of the Clock Tower

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The narrow streets of Kotor

The fortified walls of Kotor

The fortified walls of Kotor

After a leisurely lunch in the Main Square we picked up our bags from our hotel and took the scenic one and 1/2 hour drive (90kms) over the border to Croatia and the beautiful town of Dubrovnik.

Entrance to the Old Town

Entrance to the Old Town

The Bay of Kotor

The Bay of Kotor

A glimpse of the Bay of Kotor

A glimpse of the Bay of Kotor

On the road again- discovering the Basilicata and Puglia Region

We were sad to say goodbye to the wonderful region that is the Amalfi Coast and the kids were begging to stay just one more day. But we had a schedule and much more to see. After days of having our rental car sitting in an Amalfi garage we braved the winding roads and headed for the Puglia region. Our first stop was the town of Matera. As we drove into the area I actually thought I’d made a mistake as the buildings in the town were unattractive square boxes built in the 70’s with no architectual interest. The GPS was no help at all here, it directed us to a dead end street and reversing in these tiny streets was a major stress. A quick phone call to our accommodation finally had us heading in the right direction. We turned the corner and there it was…

The town of Matera

The town of Matera

Matter is famous for it’s ancient town , the “Sassi di Matera” (meaning “stones of Matera”). The Sassi originate from a prehistoric settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are houses dug into the rock itself,  Many of these “houses” are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses. The ancient town grew in height on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as “la Gravina”. In the 1950s, Matera was considered the shame of Italy as the infant mortality rate was 50%, the worst in the country. Homes did not have electricity, water or any form of sanitation. The Italian government forced locals to leave their cave like dwellings and relocated them to what is now the modern par of the city. Until the late 1980s the Sassi was considered an area of poverty, with most houses still unlivable. The 90’s bought a new feeling of pride of heritage and some families with government aid were able to renovate their old homes and bring them up to date with modern times. With government grants the current local administration,  became more tourism-oriented, and has promoted the re-generation of the Sassi with the aid of the Italian government and UNESCO. We  based ourselves in the heart of Sassi staying at Locanda Di San Martino. We hired a local guide Antonio who guided us through this well preserved town. The children were kept constantly engaged as we learnt about the original inhabitants from pre historic times to the Benedict Monks who built the cave churches,  through to the poverty stricken streets with raw sewerage and illnesses such as cholera and malaria running rife through the town. Antonio gave us a real insight into this interesting town and the 4 hour walking tour gave us a great insight into the history of this unique town.

A view from the top .. Matter

A view from the top .. Matera

Matera

Matera

Layered cave houses in Matera

Layered cave houses in Matera

Allanah and Thomas deep in thought..

Allanah and Thomas deep in thought..

Matera

Matera

We dedicated 2 nights to Matera on our 100 day trip around Europe. Our plan was a day of touring and a day of respite relaxing in the hotel’s thermal pool. Unfortunately the hotel had failed to advise that children under 16 years of age were not permitted to enter their pool area (one of the main reasons I had chosen the hotel). Spending one more day in a cave room gave us all a bit of claustrophobia, but we had no choice as we had pre paid our room and wouldn’t refund. One full day here is really enough to see all the sights. We filled our extra day repacking and sorting our suitcases , strolling through the winding streets , and consuming an immense amount of gelato (we found the best gelati shop in all of Italy here). We were ready to move on and be on our way to our next destination of Ostuni via Alberobello. Alberobello is in the South Eastern Puglia region. A white washed town distinguishable because of it’s “trulli” homes, conical shaped dry stone huts. This town has been on the tourist route for quite a few years now and it has taken away from some of it’s charm. The souvenir shops are abundant and we found it difficult to find a genuine non touristy restaurant. We managed to have a find quick non-descript meal at a restaurant on the outskirts of the “trulli” district before meandering through the town.There are many theories behind the origin of these interesting homes. One of the more popular theories is that due to high taxation on property the people of Puglia created dry wall constructions so that they could be dismantled when inspectors were in the area. A couple of hours wandering through and stumbling across an industrious local family that opens their home for a small fee to tourists, we were able to glimpse a bit of local life and move on to our destination of Ostuni.

Trulli homes - Alberobello

Trulli homes – Alberobello

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The locals told us to sit on their marital bed for a photo shot.

The locals told us to sit on their marital bed for a photo shot.

View of the Trulli homes in Alberobello

View of the Trulli homes in Alberobello

 

Our drive through the back roads towards Ostuni was very pleasant, olive groves, trulli homes scattered here and there, large expanses of flat farming land. We chose to stay inland rather than coastal this time choosing the Masseria Cervarolo located approximately 6 kms away from the town of Ostuni. This was an A  Puglia style countryside farm lodge. We based ourselves here as we had heard the food was magnificent. We were a few minutes drive from all the sights but a world away from everywhere. Looking back we were dissapointed we didn’t organise to stay here for a week. The setting was so relaxing and we only managed to touch the surface of this region.

Enjoying the pool at Masseria Cervarolo

Enjoying the pool at Masseria Cervarolo

Food was a major part of why we stayed here and we spent the next two nights experience the delicacies of this area. Primarliy Puglian cuisine is based on good honest home grown food, the staff created delicious 6 course meals every evening from fresh produce in the area. We would leave the dining room a few kilos heavier each evening.

We only had the chance to explore a handful of sights in the area. The white washed town of Ostuni was the top of our list. Perched high on top of a hill. The first sight of the town is breathtaking.

Ostuni

Ostuni

We also got the chance to explore the Grotte di Castellana, one of the most important attractions in Puglia. Located at the entrance of the Itria Valley, these limestone caves are Italy’s longest natural subterranean network. We took a guided tour venturing 60 metres deep into an opening that reveals a large cave full of stalactites, stalagmites and other incredible shapes. The tours ventures 3 kms into a winding path with amazing formations and colours. The tour lasted a good one and 1/2 hours, winding through a narrow path, every so often stopping to have the formations explained by the tour guide. In the dim light we walked single file, sometimes stumbling on a very slippery wet path, the unexpectedly we would emerge into a large cave. The kids were truly enthralled but also a little claustrophobic. I think we were all pleased to escape back into the blinding sun when it was over.

At the cave entrance

At the cave entrance

Entering the cave

Entering the cave

Stalactites & Stalagmites in the Grotte di Castellana

Stalactites & Stalagmites in the Grotte di Castellana

Our last afternoon we drove just a few kilometres from our Masseria to visit the Masseria Brancati, they claim to have the oldest olive trees, more than 2000 years old. We where taken an a tour of the underground olive mill and enjoyed a very informative olive oil tasting.

2000 year old olive tree - Masseria Brancati

2000 year old olive tree – Masseria Brancati

This region of Italy has so much to explore and still seems so untouched. The tourists have starting flocking here in the last few years but apart from the hordes of tourists we experienced in Alberobello the other areas we explored there were only a handful of English speaking people we encountered. We plan a future more in depth visit to this amazing region.

Exploring Southern Italy – Positano

After many hugs and kisses, Yiayia and Papou were whisked away by a taxi and we made our way to the Rome Central Termini to pick up our car rental for our drive to Positano. A two and a half hour drive from Rome we skirted Naples and Pompeii until finally reaching the Amalfi Coast. A boring freeway drive until you exit the freeway and hit the famous winding roads hugging the cliffs. The road is narrow barely fitting two cars with a sheer drop into the ocean on one side and a cliff wall on the other. As passengers we were able to enjoy the jaw dropping scenery but poor John had to keep his eyes on the road. A moments glance could have you in a collision or over a cliff in a heartbeat.

Adding to the stress of the drive is the parts of the road that have been washed away over a year ago and are still to be built.Then there are the motor scooters whizzing by overtaking on everly blind corner. Of course there is the local bus that drives 100km per hour to worry about and too the horn if you are too slow.

Once you reach the town of Positano there is the added bonus of pedestrians walking on the side of the narrow road leading you into the town, so narrow you could touch the sides of the building while driving by. The drive to our hotel was definitely an experience and once our car was parked in the hotels garage we didn’t dare think of taking a drive anywhere.

Arriving into Positano - a nail biting experience!

Arriving into Positano – a nail biting experience!

Amalfi Coast

We picked our hotel perfectly staying at The Hotel Marincanto, a boutique 4 star property precariously sitting on the edge of the cliff just like so many other homes and hotels in this area. Enza was the best host anyone could ask for, she was happy to oblige any request and was full of advice and recommendations for sightseeing and food in the area. Gianni made us feel like he was at our beck and call even though he was the only pool guy/waiter serving all the guests at the hotel. He had Lucas’ number the moment we arrived, calling him the “Manager” for the duration of our stay. The views from our little balcony were breathtaking and it was the perfect base for exploring the town. The pool area was magnificent, the kids would jump in the moment we would walk back from a day out and about in the town. We would sit back and enjoy a glass of wine while the sun set over this beautiful region.

Hotel Marincanto Pool - Positano

Hotel Marincanto Pool – Positano

Thomas enjoying the view form our very petite balcony

Thomas enjoying the view form our very petite balcony

The glorious view of Amalfi

The glorious view of Amalfi

Hotel Marincanto Pool

Hotel Marincanto Pool

One of Enza’s recommendations was to experience this breathtaking coast from the water. We set off on our own private boat tour in a beautifully crafted Italian Wooden Motor Boat. We were able to meander along the water along the way dipping into caves and stopping off at beaches only accessible by boat. These beaches were full of locals, no tourists to be seen. I am still to work out how a restaurant is able to function with no access to a road or any signage to advertise it was here, but function it did, selling delicious Italian dishes served to you on the beach! We were later to learn that this was just one of many secluded restaurants along this amazing coastline.

Beautifully crafted boat - Positano

Beautifully crafted boat – Positano

Cruising the Amalfi Coast

Cruising the Amalfi Coast

Cruising the Amalfi Coast

Cruising the Amalfi Coast

Cruising the Amalfi Coast

Cruising the Amalfi Coast

Cruising the Amalfi Coast - Cave visit

Cruising the Amalfi Coast – Cave visit

View of the Amalfi Coastline

View of the Amalfi Coastline

Views from the water

Views from the water

Unfortunately for me the motion sickness set in so after our beach side lunch the Captain was able to drop me off back at the pier in Positano while the rest of the family continued their journey along the coast line meandering to Sorrento.

On our third day of  our stay here the heavens opened and our plans to spend the day like locals hanging out at the local beach were thwarted. Enza came to the rescue suggesting we take a cooking course. In no time at all we were whisked up to the village of Montepertuso high above Positano. A cooking course was booked with the Il Ritrovo Cooking School based in a  family run local restaurant. A shuttle service whisked us into the clouds and up we went to experience an afternoon cooking in a restaurant kitchen. Marylou, the owner’s aunt was our teacher allowing the kids to choose the menu. As we are all foodies, we cooked up a storm making gnocchi, zuchinni flowers, veal saltimboca and orange tiramisu. Salvatore the owner helped the kids with dishing their creations restaurant style. The added bonus was we ate it all!!

Views of Positano from the village of Montepertuso.

Views of Positano from the village of Montepertuso.

Il Ritrovo Cooking School Positano - Marylou teaching the kids to make gnocchi.

Il Ritrovo Cooking School Positano – Marylou teaching the kids to make gnocchi.

Il Ritrovo Cooking School Positano

Il Ritrovo Cooking School Positano

Thomas plating up - Il Ritrovo Cooking School Positano

Thomas plating up – Il Ritrovo Cooking School Positano

Il Ritrovo Cooking School Positano  - The reward

Il Ritrovo Cooking School Positano – The reward

For our final day in Positano we decided to book a walking degustation tour of the town. The tour is run by Christine, an Australian who married a local Positanese. We spent our morning strolling through the small streets of Positano, stopping at eateries to taste local produce and places of interest to learn Positano’s history. It was a great way to end our time here and the children were begging to stay just one more day. We’ve only scratched surface of this wonderful place but I’m sure we’ll be back to taste some more.

Views from every corner as we stroll the small streets

Views from every corner as we stroll the small streets

Degustation Walking tour - Positano

Degustation Walking tour – Positano

Italy…Back in Rome

We left Corfu early in 3 taxis and mountains of baggage. Don’t know how we seem to have accumulated so much extra luggage. John has become fixated with the Large North West duffle bags and has bought three since we’ve started traveling. So now we have eight pieces of baggage to worry about everytime we move!

The Easyjet counter at Corfu airport was chaos. Cheap flights sound good at the time of booking but not so great when the lines are an hour long and excess baggage is over EU200.00!

All was forgotten once we landed and the excitement of being back in Rome sunk in. We had a transfer waiting for us and we were whisked away and deposited and the beautiful “Margutta 54”, an oasis in the heart of Rome.Our accommodation was nothing more than exquisite. Situated down a tiny street in the historical part of Rome just a short stroll from the Spanish Steps and the oh so amazing shopping on via Condotti. The entry into our suites was via a locked large iron gate leading to a gravel courtyard shared by a small group of residences. We had two rooms beautifully designed which seemed more like apartments. We could of stayed here for weeks. It didn’t matter that within hours of arriving the heavens opened and a rainstorm kept us inside.

Arriving at our beautiful accommodation in Rome "Margutta 54"

Arriving at our beautiful accommodation in Rome “Margutta 54”

The rain sets in...it's a downpour!

The rain sets in…it’s a downpour!

This gave us enough  time to plan our next three days in Rome. On top of the list was visiting the Colloseum and the Catacombs. We hired our own personal guide (an archaeologist)  for a day which allowed the children a full Roman history lesson ranging from the excesses of Roman emperors to gladiators and the underground cemeteries of the Christian and Jewish communities. A word of advice; by hiring a guide we were able to skip the two hour long queues snaking around the colosseum and the scorching heat. Beats sitting in a classroom!

A view of the Colosseum from the inside..

A view of the Colosseum from the inside

The family with view of the Colosseum

The family with view of the Colosseum

Of course a visit to Rome isn’t complete without a stop at the Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese, and we just had to squeeze in a spot of shopping.

A stop for some respite at the Rosati Cafe, Piazza del Popolo

A stop for some respite at the Rosati Cafe, Piazza del Popolo

Piazza Del Popolo

Piazza Del Popolo

A photo stop at the Trevi Fountain

A photo stop at the Trevi Fountain

A typical street in Rome

A typical street in Rome

Our accommodation here in the historical part of Rome allowed us to spend the day strolling through the streets in awe of all the history surrounding us. Yiayia and Papou were nice enough to babysit while John and I spent some time exploring on our own.  Our time he just flew, truly a beautiful city. I’m sure we left with a few extra kilos as we devoured so much gelato and pasta in a matter of 72 hours.

Rome was also our final destination with Yiayia and Papou before they departed for their flight back to Athens.

Bye Bye Yiayia

Bye Bye Yiayia

Bye Bye Papou

Bye Bye Papou

Greece…..Catching up with familiar faces

Our time in Greece was our down time. A time to catch up with good friends and Yiayia and Pappou who we would be meeting up with in Thessaloniki. Lucas and Allanah were so excited about meeting up with their friends that the 3:00am wake up call was not an issue at all. Even though we had a long day ahead of us catching a flight from Reykjavik to London, then London to Thessaloniki, then a further one and a half hour drive to Vourvourou there were smiles all round.

We were to spend a few days at Ekies All Senses Resort located in Sithonia, the middle leg of the peninsula in Northern Greece known as Halkidiki. As we arrived at midnight the kids had to wait till morning for their reunion with Maria, Nashia & Costa.

Let’s just say that even though our rooms were close together I’m sure no other guests would have slept in that morning after all their squeals of delight. With swimming bathers on we all toddled down for a big breakfast and hit the pool for some catch up time.

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After a month of non stop traveling I can’t say that we moved more than a few metres for the next couple of days. Our time was spent on the beach chatting, eating, drinking and moving from sunbed to sunbed depending on the heat of the sun.

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We did finally venture out for a boat tour on a traditional Greek boat. The water here is so clear.. I’m not one for jumping off boats but the water was so enticing I donned a noodle and off I went. The water temperature is so warm compared to Australian waters and the water so buoyant due to the high salt content. We traveled around different little coves in the Halkidiki region only accessible by boat.

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The following morning I received a big surprise. Mum and Dad had arrived a few days earlier in Greece but were in Veria visiting friends. As it was my birthday they surprised me at breakfast, turning up unannounced. Best birthday surprise ever. We spent a wonderful day together meeting new friends and finally venturing out of the confines of the hotel to another beach in the area for more swimming and eating…

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After enjoying the beaches of Sithonia for a few days we kissed our friends goodbye and headed for Thessaloniki where our Yiayia and Papou were waiting for us.

It had been over 20 years since I had been here and I was a bit shocked at the state of this beautiful city. The streets and cafes were still full of people but the city looked unkempt. Buildings boarded up, shops empty and graffiti everywhere. The stark example was walking down a street with high end fashion stores and turning the corner to a lone Louis Vuitton Store with no other store open for business in the street. The GFC has definitely taken its toll in this once beautiful city. My heart just broke and I was brought to tears when a little Yiayia was begging while we were enjoying lunch in a taverna. There are beggars all over the world but when you see a woman who could have been any one of your relatives back home it really hit a nerve how bad things are here for quite a number of people in the community.

We spent a few nights here and enjoyed some adult time with no kids in tow as Niko and Aleka were kind enough to take us out for a night on the town. Amazingly the contrast here is there are still many Greeks able enough to go out and have a good time. The perfect weather here even in the evening has many advantages. The outdoor tavernas are full of people enjoying their meals outside in the night breeze and the open air bars are buzzing till all hours of the night.

On our last night here we ate out in the Ladadika area. The city’s old commercial centre which had fallen into decay and was completed renovated and has become an area of old fashions tavernas with music filling the streets.

Maybe I just didn’t give this city a chance this time, we didn’t see it all and there are always surprises in every place, so I hope next time we visit we’ll stumble across a regenerated and reinvented Thessaloniki.

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The next stop on our Greece jaunt was Meteora, a place I have been wanting to visit for years. We were headed for the town of Kalambaka situated on the base of these enormous rock pillars jutting out of the earth. Over 20 monasteries were built here by Orthodox monks trying to take refuge during the Turkish occupation. Only six of these monasteries remain today.

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Our destination after Meteora was Parga. A large picturesque village with a small bay. We stayed in a villa high on the mountain overlooking the village. Beautiful views and a cool breeze in the evening, perfect.

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Parga was our base for exploring the islands of Paxos and Antipaxos. Boats sail everyday for a day trip stopping for a swim in picturesque locations. The day started off well but for me motion sickness set in and I saw absolutely nothing. There was are large swell that day and the sail boat was rocking and rolling. One third of the guests on the boat were sea sick. Luckily it made no difference to John, Lucas or Allanah so they had a great time!

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20130908-202518.jpgBeautiful scenery with every road turn

20130908-202656.jpgA beach in Sivota, A taverna break in Sivota

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20130908-203159.jpgThe nightly stroll on the promenade….

Our final stop in Greece was a quick 2 day stopover in Corfu. We dropped our car off in Igoumenitsa and boarded the one hour ferry bound for Corfu. We have never visited the Ionian islands so we though a quick taste would wet our appetite for a future visit. We stayed in a hotel in the old town and I think it was not the best idea looking back. Even though the hotel was nice and cool inside there was no respite from the heat with no access to a pool or close to the beach. We were able to stroll through the old Venetian streets in the late evening but the midday heat was a killer. We attempted climbing the old fort and aborted half way. Too hot! Next time we visit it will be beach bound….

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20130908-204410.jpgA view of Corfu town from the water

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Iceland …. On the Ring Road Part 2 (East to South)

We headed East from Akuyreri following Highway 1 as per our plans. When we started this trip we planned to stay on the main highway presuming that it was a road that was like a highway to Australia. In the Eastern part of Iceland we were to discover that Highway One is a gravel road with just one lane at times for a few hundred kilometres. This sent us into a state of confusion for a short period of time as John reversed, turned back, reversed again and turned back again after realising that yes in fact this was the correct road and during winter this part became inaccessible during large dumps of snow.

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A stop on the main Highway
The landscape was beautiful and on every turn was another unexpected photo stop.

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And a spot of soup eating for Thomas in the blistery winds…

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And more beautiful scenery…

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Our destination for the day was a town called Hofn. A small seaside Icelandic village famous for Langoustines. This would be our base for a few days to explore this region of Iceland.

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Our aim here was to visit Vatnajokull Glacier. Vatnajökull meaning Glacier of Rivers, also known as the Vatna Glacier, is the largest glacier in area in Europe. It covers more than 8 percent of the country.

We booked a snowmobile tour with “Glacier Jeep Tours”. We were meant to meet at the crossroad of Highway 1 and the road leading to Joklasel, the base of the tour into the glacier. We were to leave our hire car and be collected by the tour company in a Super Jeep ( a four wheel drive car converted into an Arctic truck) as the road leading up to the camp was basically a dirt track cut into the mountain.

On the misadvice of the young girl behind the counter at the tourist office, John though it would be fine to drive the 16 kilometres up the mountain in our rented Hummer. Oh my! What a mistake. The road was barely a dirt track, very steep at times and when the fog set in half way through I had a panic attack. It was a scary experience and one I do not wish to repeat. Once we started the ascent there was no way to turn around so luckily the fog passed and we reached the base.

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We were fitted out in warm gear and helmets and set out on our tour of the glacier with our snowmobiles. One an only describe this experience as exhilarating. We were most fortunate to have beautiful weather and any fog we had passed on the way up had disappeared.

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Seven volcanoes are situated underneath the Vatnajokull ice-cap and most of them are active volcanoes. Grimsvotn volcano is together with Hekla, Iceland’s most active volcano since the Middle Ages. Grimsvotn last erupted in 1996, in 1998 and yet again in 2004.

The guide was very clear that we had to follow his path and not go off track. It was clear why when we pass large cracks in the ice as we climbed the mountain. As the glacier melts large crevices are being formed all over the glacier and appear at anytime. Is this global warming or just the constant changes of the earth. That is the constant discussion here.

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After experiencing the top of the glacier it was time to experience what happens down below at sea level where the ice is slowly falling away into the Atlantic Ocean. A visit to the Glacier lagoon is a must. Jökulsárlón (literally “glacial river lagoon”) is a large glacial lake in on the borders of Vatnajökull National Park, it developed into a lake after the glacier started receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The lake has grown since because of melting of the Icelandic glaciers. The size of the lake has increased fourfold since the 1970s. It is considered as one of the natural wonders of Iceland.

We hopped on to a Zodiac boat tour to experience riding through the various icebergs that continually fall off the glacier.

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The edge of the glacier, the black dirt is actually ash from the volcano.

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As we are sitting in the zodiac behind us we hear a great rumbling sound. We turn around just in time to witness a chunk of ice falling into the water as it breaks off the glacier. The sound echoed all around for quite a long time.

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Icebergs heading for the Atlantic Ocean

20130817-235841.jpgAllanah collecting 2000 year old ice washed out on the beach

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We headed back to our Icelandic digs in Hofn for a good night sleep. The kids were exhausted and we had an early start as we had a few hundred kilometres to cover with a few stops on the way to the little town at the base of Mount. Hekla.

20130823-195300.jpgTypical Icelandic house in Hofn

20130823-195445.jpgOn our way again with views of Vatnajokull
Our first stop for the day was at Skaftafell National Park. There is a major camp site at the visitors centre and you can hike various trails to waterfalls or the edge of the glacier. We only had a short time here so after arguing with Thomas who preferred to nap in the car the rest of us set on the slippery path to the Svartifoss waterfall.

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Svartifoss translates to the Black Fall. It is a 2 kilometre round trip hike and the most popular sight in the National Park. It is surrounded by dark lava columns, which gave rise to its name. The little ones did exceptionally well as the walk was uphill all the way.

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We continued on our journey as John was keen to see Fjaðrárgljúfur. This is a canyon in south east Iceland which is up to 100 m deepand about 2 kilometres long, with the Fjaðrá river flowing through it. It is located near the Ring Road, not far from the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur.The canyon was created by constant erosion by flowing water from glaciers through the rocks. Our whole time in Iceland was one big geology lesson.

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As we continue along our journey for the day the scenery is extraordinary. It continually changes from snow capped mountains to moss covered lava fields.

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Then we come across the sight of Laufskálavarða. This is a lava ridge surrounded by piles of stones called stone cairns. All travellers crossing the desert of Mýrdalssandur for the first time were
supposed to pile stones up to make a cairn, which would bring them good luck on the journey.

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20130823-210708.jpgAs we head on getting closer to our destination for the day we make a final stop on the small peninsula, Dyrholeay. The view from up there is interesting, to the north you can see the big glacier Mýrdalsjökull, to the east the black lava columns of the Reynisdrangar come out of the sea. In front of the peninsula, there is a gigantic black arch of lava standing in the sea.

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We arrived at the Hotel Laekur quite late in the evening. Not that that made a difference. The sun was in full view shining bright late into the evening. We settled into what I believe was the best accommodation in Iceland so far. Wonderful people here making us feel very welcome. Hotel Laekur is part of “Icelandic Farm Holidays”. A concept where locals open up their farms to tourists. We had a clear view of Mt Hekla from our room.

The following day we dedicated the whole day to visiting Landmannalauger. Landmannalaugar is a region near the volcano Hekla in southern section of Iceland’s highlands. This was one of the toughest drives we were to have on our trip. Three hours of very rough driving even in a Hummer.
The area displays a number of unusual geological elements, like the multicolored rhyolite mountains and expansive lava fields. The many mountains in the surrounding area display a wide spectrum of colors including pink, brown, green, yellow, blue, purple, black, and white. This area has a very large camping facility that is only accessible from June through to September.

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We only spent a few hours here and didn’t go much further than a kilometre away from the base camp. To fully appreciate this area and because of the effort it takes to get here a few days of camping out is necessary. The weather here is so unpredictable you need to be fully prepared for all seasons. We were not! We were not looking forward to the drive back and the constant jolting and bumping around in our 4WD. It was an exhausting day.
Or last day before finishing our circle around the ring road was to do the typical trip tourists take from Reyjkavik, the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route in South Iceland, covering about 300 km looping from Reykjavík into central Iceland and back.The three primary stops on the route are the national park Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss (meaning “golden falls”), and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the famous geysers Strokkur.
We only managed to visit Gulfoss falls and Strokkur as the weather turned quite nasty.

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20130825-131406.jpgStrokkur about to blow

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20130825-131537.jpgWe were very lucky to have had the time to travel around Iceland as everywhere we went there was always just a handful of tourists and no bus tours with crowds. The only time we experienced major crowds was on this day doing the Golden Cirlcle. We couldn’t wait to visit our final stop of Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon. The cold biting wind was blowing so we cut our final day of touring short and drove directly to our hotel.

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Reykjavik is a hip little city. Our accommodation here was very hip and the food choices excellent with so many restaurants offering world class food. The couple of days we were here the wind was relentless so the photo opportunities were few and far between. The wind was blowing so hard at times we couldn’t stand up straight.

We couldn’t leave Iceland without visiting the Blue Lagoon is Keflavik no matter what the weather. The spa is located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwestern Iceland, not far from the airport. Most tourists visit the moment they arrive or as they depart Iceland. We had a 6:00am flight the next day so we took a bus from Reykjavik for the one hour drive.

The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur. The lagoon is a man-made and is fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plant Svartsengi and is renewed every 2 days.

In 1976 a pool formed at the site from the waste water of the geothermal power plant that had just been built there. In 1981 some workers from the plant started bathing in it and discovered it had healing powers for psoriasis.

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Iceland is a wonderful country, so diverse and unpredictable. We felt like we covered a vast amount of the country yet we feel like we’ve missed out on so much. Even though I’m not the camping type I’d have to agree with John that the best way to see this country is with a motor home. We had to travel great distances everyday from our base to see the sights and travel back again to reach our hotel. With limited accommodation in certain places the best option is a home on wheels. There was definitely many places with magnificent views we could have parked up for the night. So John you were right on this one, yes I would come back in a campervan. Maybe next year……