Breaking free – Are we dreaming?!

After almost three months stuck in Alimos Marina we have at last broken free and are now sitting at anchor off the island of Poros, just 30 nautical miles from Athens.

Sitting at anchor in Poros

We keep pinching ourselves to make sure this isn’t a dream – but it’s true, we really have managed to drop our lines and start “self isolating”(ie live boat life as we do normally!) on Sunday at sea.

The anchorage is almost empty even though it’s a public holiday

The last few weeks have flown pleasantly by but there has been a mixture of anxiety, frustration and disbelief at the ponderous Greek bureaucracy.

Our anchorage companions

Unbelievably, the process of deregistering Sunday (taking her off the Greek register of ships and “exporting” her on paper so we can register her under the New Zealand flag) which we were told would take three weeks, was only completed last Monday – It took an unbelievable eight months!

Rolling up the sunshades the day before we left the marina

Unfortunately, we were (apparently) caught up in the process of office digitization (yes just installing computers in 2020!) in some government departments, including the one that deals with marine taxes.

The first stage of deregistering a boat is to ensure that there are no debts attached, that it had been used for the purpose it was nominated for (in this case a charter boat) and that all taxes and other debts owing had been paid.

A long away from the frustration and anxiety

Our understanding is that certain forms had to be filled out by the owners and a fee paid. Annoyingly, although this paperwork was apparently submitted correctly the department did not process it within the prescribed one month so then the application became out of date and another one had to be submitted. And so on it went!

We thought we would never get here!

It seems our sellers had to submit the forms three or four times (can you imagine how frustrating this must have been?). So from the end of October when we paid for the boat, until March 17 when we arrived in Athens, the marine taxation department simply hadn’t processed the required paperwork.

The town of Poros twinkling at sunset

We heard variously that there was a log jam due to the number of new boats for charter arriving, the introduction of computers, staff not knowing how to work said computers, staff not having access to the Internet making the receipt of email information impossible, low staff numbers due to Christmas holidays, and the list went on.

The day after our arrival in Greece the country went into complete lockdown due to Covid-19 and of course, government offices closed.

Our first swim – cool but blissful

Fast forward to 12 May when lockdown restrictions were beginning to be lifted. It took another ten days but we were very relieved to hear that on 22 May the first part of the process had at long last been completed. A week later the next stage had been concluded and the following week we would have a meeting with Customs and would be able to receive our boat’s transit log which is essential to have for sailing in Greece. We could then pay the cruising tax (tepai) and be free to go once we had our transit log stamped by the Port Police at Alimos Marina.

The transfer of ownership finally in our hand!
The official Greek version

In the meantime, despite being in lockdown and working from home, a lovely man from the New Zealand boat registration office processed our application to reflag Sunday in New Zealand, despite the fact we hadn’t yet received the required Greek deregistration certificate.

In stark contrast to the Greek process our friend in New Zealand took all of three days to send us a temporary certificate and then courier the actual certificate to Greece at no extra charge. It arrived on 3 June, the day after our meeting with the Registrar of Shipping (a Commander no less) at the Customs Office.

Fortunately for us the Greek Registrar was lenient – normally the actual certificate of registration is required before a transit log is issued. We were also fortunate to be issued a transit log for eighteen months as initially the Registrar was considering giving us only one month (I think because he knew our 90 days Schengen visa-free period was soon to expire and that we would have to move on quickly to a non- Schengen country.)

Quick thinking on the part of our lawyer saved the day. She pleaded with the Registrar to come and talk to us which he did. He listened to what we said about wanting to stay in Greece if we possibly could (still working on that) and would return as soon as we could if we did have to leave. He also took on board that Sunday was our home and we had no intention of leaving her to fly back to Australia (we couldn’t anyway as there were no flights to Australia at that time!)

Eighteen months of transit log although we do have to take the boat out of the country after six months to avoid paying value added tax

The Schengen rules state that you can only stay in the zone for 90 days out of any 180 days. With this in mind, as soon as lockdown restrictions were lifted and government offices reopened, we went to the Immigration Office in Piraeus to seek an extension or better still, to apply for a one-year temporary resident’s visa.

When we arrived we were unceremoniously turned away by a security guard and were handed a piece of paper (naturally, all in Greek). Fortunately Manos, from Zouras Yachts who we had purchased the yacht from, came to visit us that day and was able to translate – he said that we were to enquire by phone.

Welcome to Immigration! Too bad if you can’t read Greek!

We called the number and there was a recorded message. As it was all in Greek, we naturally couldn’t understand what the various options were. Fortunately, Manos was again able to translate. There was a website to visit.

Sunset at Poros, away from all the dramas

We visited the website and found the “contact us” page where there was a box you could type a message in. I dutifully typed in a message explaining that we had been caught in the Covid-19 lockdown and were therefore unable to leave Athens and respectfully asking if we could extend our visa free period or alternatively, apply for a temporary (non working) residents visa.

Infuriatingly before it would upload the message, the site required me to type in a sequence of numbers/letters to prove I wasn’t a “bot” but no matter how many times I typed the sequence it just wouldn’t recognise the combination and allow my message to be submitted.

So I tried to find the correct email address on the website to send the inquiry to and after much searching, found what I thought was the correct address. However, the following morning I received a reply – “Please contact to this email….”. I sent the information to the email provided and the reply I received was “Please follow the link below”. The link had a list of contact details (all in Greek) but no indication as to which address we should use. Argggh!!

Well where to start?!

Using Google translate and my limited Greek vocabulary I deduced the (hopefully) correct address. Manos kindly translated my email which included a quote from the EU advisory that said people caught in Schengen countries due to Covid-19 should automatically be given extensions. This was sent on 22 May and I’m yet to receive an acknowledgment, let alone a reply!

Aah another soothing sunset picture from Poros

A few days later our friend Tim from the Kiwi boat Polykandros, was given the name and office address of an official who had the power to extend our stay. So on 27 May, Jonathan and Tim visited her with high expectations.

She was completely disinterested in hearing any extenuating circumstances or that our homes were on board our boats. A call to the Australian Embassy in Athens confirmed that the official was “unmoveable” and they had tried to assist at least 30 or 40 others in the same situation as us.

Arriving at the anchorage in Poros

They returned looking very grim. Basically she said that she couldn’t extend our stay and that we would be fined 600 Euros each for overstaying. Oh and we should leave the country right away by airplane and “go back home”.

From that day, we went all out to get Sunday ready to leave the marina. Now that the shops were open and trades people working, we could get on with all the jobs, big and small, that needed doing – installing our new 33 kilo Rocha anchor and new AGM batteries, plus two new Cristec 90amp chargers; buying a new dinghy and engine; arranging for our EPIRB and radio to be adjusted to show our MMSI (safety identity); buying new life jackets; getting our freezer and fridge checked and regassed; stocking up on provisions etc.

Our lovely new dinghy – designed in Canada
Our first 4-stroke engine – much quieter and of course, less polluting

Installing the batteries and chargers was a big job. The electricians took longer than they had anticipated and had to come back the following day to do a couple of other jobs – moving a starting battery nearer to our generator, and installing a new shore power switch. The last jobs to be done and we could leave!

Battery chargers ready to install

Unfortunately, just after the electricians left our shore power packed up altogether. What a disaster! We were meant to be leaving on the Friday to make way for another catamaran and this was Wednesday night.

On Thursday the electrician came back and spent an hour and a half looking for the fault. He thought that a fuse had blown between the shore power inlet and the electricity board on Sunday.

The end is in sight for us – takeaway pizza celebrations!
Lucy hoping to share Luca’s McVities biscuit!

The following day (Friday, the day we should have left) the electricians drove up and called across to say they had three other jobs and “might” come back later. We were very disappointed and anxious as we were under pressure to leave the berth and couldn’t leave with such a major fault unrectified.

Our new Rochna anchor – we think they are the best!

Later that day Jonathan discovered the apprentice had installed the new power plug using the old case that didn’t fit correctly and therefore wasn’t sealed against water ingress. He was justifiably cross and rang the electrician to say so. Although it wasn’t the cause of the fault, it was enough to get the electrician back and in the end, rather than spend a long time looking for a fault he replaced the cable between the shore power inlet and our power board.

Designed in NZ – fitting for a Kiwi boat!

Late that evening he finally finished and we were good to go. Our good friends on Polykandros had asked us over for a farewell dinner and as we were running late I went ahead while Jonathan put tools away and cleared up a little.

Awww Lucy

As I walked down the pier towards Polykandros I spied Lucy and called out to her. She came running to meet me joyously, jumped up for a rub behind her ear and landed back on solid ground. I took my eyes off her for a second to say hi to Nina and Lucy excitedly jumped up again (maybe she smelled the chocolate I was carrying!). As she jumped she hit my right hand and knocked my phone. The phone did a double flip and half pike, landed on the jetty, bounced spectacularly and dived into the water!

Luca took this gorgeous photo of Jonathan and Lucy

The good news is that my phone had recently become difficult to charge and I was planning on replacing it once our boat spending spree was over and we had a bit of “spare” cash. I had also saved the vast majority of my photos on to a hard drive.

I was able to replace my phone at the local shops for a later model with a bigger screen and with the help of my ever patient son, managed to get all my apps back on and everything sorted.

Finally, on Sunday 7 June, we were able to leave Alimos Marina and head for the island of Poros. Tim, skipper of Polykandros came to see us out and after we had let go our forward mooring lines (attached to the marina bed) and about to let go our aft lines, Lucy dog came running up and leapt across onto our electronic gang plank just as I was raising it!

Perfect exit by Capt’n Birdseye

Poor Lucy got the shock of her life when Jonathan picked her up and manhandled back onto the quay. A moment later and we were away!

The smile says it all

It was a strange and rather dramatic exit with no time for proper “goodbyes” but we know we will be seeing the Polykandros crew very soon, once their paperwork has been completed.

Farewell Alimos Marina
Our last glimpse of the marina

New normal, “Stockholm Syndrome” and some lockdown freedom

During the second month of coronavirus lockdown in a marina in Athens, we started to develop a “new normal” – long joint video chats at the weekend with our son and daughter and partners, chaotic Zoom sessions with my extended family (20 – 25 of us at a time with a range of ages from 7 to over 70) and weekly activities with our “bubble companions” from S/V Polykandros.

Afternoon tea on S/V Polykandros

The little family of four aboard “Polly” were on the brink of a new life – a sailing adventure that had seen them bravely sell up their house and contents and leave their everyday existence in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. Instead of sailing into the wild blue yonder, however, they were, like us, confined to their sailing yacht at Alimos Marina in Athens for who knows how long, due to the Greek Corona Virus lockdown.

Making gin and tonics on S/V Sunday

We discovered that the children Luca (13) and Nina (10) enjoyed art but all their art materials were in boxes that were still stuck in New Zealand. So Jonathan, who went to art college many moons ago and had a couple of sketchbooks and some pencils stashed away somewhere, “volunteered” to run drawing classes.

Some excellent still life drawings

I also elected to join in as I am totally useless at drawing and have always wanted to test Jonathan‘s oft-quoted assurances that “anyone can learn to draw”. Our daughter Hannah who appears to have inherited my lack of prowess with a pencil decided to join in remotely. Then my two sisters (who appear to have more talent than I was blessed with but who also felt their skills needed upgrading) also decided to join in via Zoom.

Hannah really captured this bowl well during our Zoom Art class session.

The children and their Mum Silke could already draw really well so my lack of skill was glaring in contrast. I battle on however, and will now admit that while I could never be a Picasso, or even a half decent amateur artist, it is possible to learn “tricks” and techniques that with practice could allow even me to draw a possibly recognisable portrait. Practice and application is what’s needed now!

You can laugh if you like but compared with anything else I’ve done it was amazing!
My second drawing of a face since I was a school girl! I shall keep practicing for sure!

Another regular activity (for me anyway) has been twice weekly yoga classes with Silke who had a yoga studio in New Zealand called “Heartspace”. (https://heartspace.nz/my-services/online-yoga-classes/)

After ten sessions, Silke’s carefully selected yoga postures have caused the annoyingly persistent pain in my shoulder joints to vanish. Amazing! At weekends, afternoon teas with delicious home baked scones, pies, cakes and biscuits or barbecues have also helped life feel much more “normal “.

Lucy is trying to tell me that were still some biscuits left in the tin
Lucy has another try at telling me that there were still some biscuits in the tin!
Baking on board has its difficulties – missing useful items such as a sieve, scales etc and no thermostat on the oven (it’s either on or it’s not!) etc
The apple pie was good though
Lucy enjoyed her cake
No golden syrup in our local shops but still made Anzac biscuits on on Anzac Day

Jonathan and I have been walking each day – some days along the seafront and on others around the marina and along many of the piers looking at all the boats.

A beautiful sky on one of our daily walks
No people, no rubbish – the water in the marina gradually became gloriously clear
So many beautiful views
There are still some lovely old villas nestled between the apartment blocks on the seafront
Usually, this promenade would be heaving with people but all was quiet during lockdown
Some of the beautiful craft in Alimos Marina
Another lovely evening walk

Some days we hit the suburban streets inland a little for a change of scene and sometimes we have had lovely Lucy dog canine crew member of Polykandros to accompany us.

We walked passed this nursery on one of walks through the suburban streets
An Australian bottle brush bush!
Another reminder of Australia – a lovely eucalypt
Lucy enjoying the beach
The empty lockdown beach!
Along our pier some of the charter companies have planted little gardens in boxes
There was no one to water the plants and we had a spell of very hot weather
Capt’n Birdseye to the rescue!

One day we took a fairly substantial walk (8.5 km round trip) to Lidl to restock our wine cellar which had taken rather a Covid related hit during the previous weeks! We felt rather embarrassed that a dozen wines rolled out of the trolley along with some meusli, a bottle of gin, some lemons and a packet of rocket! Not everyone ‘s idea of essential supplies!

Essential supplies from Lidl!

On one of our strolls around the marina we found a brand new Lagoon 50. We were having a good old “sticky beak” when out popped Igor, the skipper we had hired last year to show us the ropes on Sunday.

Looking at the new Lagoon 50’s anchor

It was great to have a chat and a guided tour of the brand new boat that he had just skippered all the way from the manufacturers in France.

The new Lagoon looking very swish.

The following weekend Igor and his almost nine-year old daughter came to visit Sunday and we met up later with the young people from Polykandros for a game of bat and ball.

Language is no barrier when playing bat and ball

At the end of April we celebrated our 34th wedding anniversary. No dinner out for us but we did pop a cork on a bottle of Prosecco and we enjoyed some luscious pasta with an indulgent mushroom and cream sauce!

Cheers to us! 34 years married – exactly half our lives!
Wedding anniversary dinner

Around this time the marina in which we are staying completely closed down. We hadn’t seen any of the workers from the charter boats since we first arrived in Athens but most days we had seen a few people take a stroll through the marina during their evening constitutional or cyclists enjoying the quiet road to exercise in. Once the marina was closed down we saw nobody except for the security guards who patrolled up and down the marina piers.

Definitely no entry into Alimos Marina!
Our pier would normally have cars, motorbikes and loads of workers and tourists crowded on

We were very lucky to hear of a secondhand Magma BBQ from Tim, skipper of Polykandros. He had made enquiries from the German seller but in the meantime had found a good one locally so he handed the details on to us.

Testing out the new BBQ

The BBQ was in good condition and selling at an excellent price so we grabbed it gratefully. Despite the coronavirus shutdown it arrived quite quickly and we soon had it installed and gave it a trial one Saturday evening.

Chicken kebabs cooking
I even received these beautiful flowers from our lovely offspring for Mother’s Day
They lasted for ages!

Greece had done so well in keeping cases of coronavirus at a very low level (only 146 deaths as of 4 May), that on that date restrictions began to be relaxed. By 12 May it was announced that for the first time since measures were introduced, people could move around outside of their immediate area.

Taking social distancing to the extreme (look up!)

This relaxation meant that after almost two months confined to barracks we were able to hire a car and go shopping for household items (at IKEA) hardware (to fix things on Sunday,) and to larger supermarkets to find items we weren’t able to buy at our small local food store.

Our little car – free at last!
The car park looked empty but by the time we had finished shopping there were queues for miles! We ended up having to dump our trolley and leave after waiting in a queue for 15 minutes and then being told it was closed

I had been hankering after some proper English cheddar cheese. Much to my delight I found Cathedral Cheese (a family member is Marketing Manager for this brand so it’s a must-buy for our extended family!). It was extremely expensive but we threw caution to the wind and purchased three 350g blocks.

Oh yessss! Cathedral Cheese!

We were even able to go out and buy a new dinghy and motor as the one that came with the boat had some serious age-related issues and the engine wouldn’t “idle”.

Jonathan trying to nurse the old outboard back to life

We purchased our new runabout from Leadmar Marine – George (Georgios) and his Dad were very charming, helpful and very easy to work with (George makes good coffee too). We ended up buying a Canadian designed Gala and a six horse-power Mariner four-stroke engine.

Enjoying our coffee in the Leadmar Marine office

One evening we drove north along the beautiful coastline to the Temple of Poseidon for a picnic and to watch the sun set over these lovely and historic ruins.

Taking in the view on the way to the Temple of Poseidon

It felt so good to have the freedom to take a drive, admire the view, have a picnic, feel the breeze on our faces but we almost didn’t go. We were all tired from our mammoth shopping trips but more than that, I believe we had developed a weird sort of “Stockholm syndrome” (https://www.britannica.com/science/Stockholm-syndrome).

The Temple of Poseidon- photo courtesy of Tim Whitaker

We had become so used to being cocooned in the safety of our own space that instead of feeling claustrophobic and confined we started to feel happy to be confined. It was actually quite challenging to push ourselves out of the routines and rituals we had established and to get out of our “comfort zone”.

The stunning Temple of Poseidon

When it came to it, we all felt so glad that we had made the effort as the view of the temple was stunning, especially in the evening as the sun was setting

The temple – stunning in the setting sun

PS In case anyone is wondering how our grandducks are going here is a recent photo of them enjoying a camp fire in our son and daughter-in-law’s garden! Haven’t they grown?!

Staying in one spot but Zooming all over the place!

We were so relieved to have made it to our new home – the good ship Sunday – waiting patiently for us in Alimos Marina in Athens, Greece.

Our view from the front deck

Fortunately we just made it with a day or so to spare as only a day – maybe two -later, all Greek borders were closed and flights to Athens halted in order to keep the Covid-19 virus at bay. On arrival we had to hunker down and stay on board in quarantine for fourteen days.

Quarantine sunset

The time went quickly as we plenty to do – unpacking, finding places for everything and getting to know our new-to-us Lagoon 420 which was not only our new boat but also our new home.

Such a magnificent sky
Lucky we never tire of looking at boats

We had to make ourselves scarce “down below” while the canvas enclosure in the “cockpit” received its final fitting. Aeronautica, the company who we chose for the project did a fantastic job and we are thrilled with the result.

New canvas installed – tick

The new canvas gives us so much shelter from the sun and also fantastic privacy!

The canvas work gives us wonderful privacy
S/V Sunday looking like a new boat!

We were so happy to be back on the boat but it was strange not being allowed to leave it at all for fourteen days. During this time we enjoyed some great “lockdown” meals including wonderful Greek salads and also homemade soup as it really was quite chilly.

So enjoy a good Greek salad
Food takes on a new importance during lockdown. Mmmm mushroom risotto!
Yummy soup for lunch

One day soon after we arrived, Tim Whittaker from New Zealand came and introduced himself. He was on tenterhooks waiting for his wife Silke and two children Luca and Nina, to join him for the start of their sailing adventure on their newly acquired boat Polykandros.

Meeting Tim for the first time

With flights being cancelled all over the planet and Tim’s family in the midst of flying across from the other side of the world, it was it was nail-biting stuff. Would they arrive safely? And even they did, would they be allowed in? Greece had instigated a ban on the entry of non-EU non-resident nationals from March 18.

Thankfully, all was well we found out later (fortunately Silke and the children hold German passports) and there was another joyful reunion when their delightful little dog Lucy arrived in a special crate on a later flight.

Lucy just loves snuggles

We had some pretty average weather during our first couple of weeks including some heavy rain storms that dropped copious amounts of red dust all over our once white and gleaming decks. So quite a lot of time was spent cleaning!

This Sahara sand was all over the boat in every nook and cranny!
Cleaning kept us busy for a few days!
It was everywhere

Soon enough we were able to go out for exercise or to shop for food at the supermarket. The whole of Athens was by then in strict lockdown (from 23 March – six days after we arrived) and we were meant to text a special phone number to detail our movements and our reason for being out and about.

One of the many Athens “street cats” enjoying the peace and quiet
The promenade is usually heaving with people at any time of the day or night

As we just had our Dutch phone numbers, with data only plans, we were unable to comply with this rule. Fortunately we were only stopped once by the police just a couple of days before Lockdown was ended. They were fine and just reiterated what the rules were and gave us the number to send messages to.

So lovely to see that Spring was in the air
This gentleman was the only person we met on one of our strolls

Once we could venture out life was a little more interesting as we could walk along the seashore or around the massive marina (with at least a thousand boats!) or inland to the shopping street ( although the only shop open was the supermarket!)

So lovely to walk along uncrowned beaches
Very strange to see so few people
Spot the cats! Where there’s fish….
Just a few of the many hundreds of boats in our marina

We also paid a visit to the newly arrived Kiwis and met their little dog Lucy. The whole family soon endeared themselves to us and we extended our “bubble” to include each other.

Borrowing Lucy for a walk
Two other local dogs decided to come with us ra

At first it was a matter of borrowing Lucy for walks but then we started having tea and biscuits in the cockpit of each other’s boats and eventually a great mutually helpful and supportive friendship developed.

A completely empty beach – what an amazing sight for Athens!

One day early on in “lockdown”, we sent 13 year-old Luca up the mast to investigate a faulty steaming light. He was amazingly brave and miraculously seemed to enjoy be hoisted up in the bosun’s chair. This was a great relief to Jonathan and I as we both hate heights!

Preparing to go up the mast

His Dad Tim also had a turn as Luca tried but was unable to extract the steaming light globe. Unfortunately nor could Tim but he did take some great photos from the top of the mast.

Nina checks that her brother’s harness is secure
Up he goes!
Oh my, that is too high to even look!
Looking at the light

A photographer by profession, Tim has shared some of his wonderful shots with us. He and Silke also have a You Tube channel – if you are interested (you might get a glimpse of us too!) follow this link: https://m.youtube.com/channel/UC4qQDTkZBmiuWPZyyU4cb5A

Nina looking on anxiously as her Dad is hoisted up the mast
Dad’s turn
Some beautiful drone shots of our marina by Tim Whittaker
Drone shot of our marina with Athens behind

Another of the positive outcomes of “Corona Lockdown” is that we have had wonderful video sessions with family and friends, many of whom we had not communicated with this way before.

Family Zoom chat when our grandbird took centre stage!

We have really enjoyed and appreciated these Zoom, What’s App and Skype sessions and have had many great chats and good laughs.

Extended family Zoom chats are fun! Sometimes there are around 25 of us – all trying to speak!

It’s been especially lovely seeing the younger members of our extended family grow in confidence during these sessions. We have been introduced to hamsters, new kittens, been read creative stories, received demonstrations of home made lip gloss and entertained by one of our great nephews as he struck comical poses as he walked on and off camera behind his unsuspecting parents.

In our own little family one session was devoted to being introduced to our “grandduckies”. They were just so cute and it was delightful to see them at such close quarters while they were still very young.

Our cute little grandduckies
So sweet!
The granddogs aren’t too sure
Aww sleepy head
Saturday morning in Mum and Dad’s bed

Another excellent Zoom session was with the bookgroup I belong to in Brisbane. Since we have been travelling (five years now!) I have just been reading the selected book and sending in my comments, with the occasional “live” participation when back in Brisbane. It was therefore so wonderful to hear in real time what everyone else thought about the book of choice for the month.

Zoom book group!

Our first month of lockdown provided many unexpected elements. Normally when we are travelling our world is very small and we are well used to being “just the two of us”. Lockdown meant reconnection with great friends, more extended family time than ever before, making new friends, and staying in one spot but “Zooming” all over the place!

Not a soul on our arm of the marina – Normally unheard of.

Count down to Quarantine

Our fabulous family long weekend at the beautiful manor house near Stratford-on-Avon was sadly over and we all went our separate ways across England and in our daughter Hannah and her partner Pieter‘s case, back to the Netherlands.

We had planned a few more days in England before taking the ferry back to France and driving to the Netherlands to stay at their place for a short while.

Looking back, we are so grateful to have had the amazing party and to have spent precious time with our family as soon after, Covid-19 stopped the world in its tracks and family visits and get-togethers were no longer possible.

We had a short but pleasant stay with one of my sisters in Beckenham in South London where we had the pleasure of spending some time with two of her grandchildren and taking some lovely walks in the spring sunshine in nearby Kelsey Park.

So many crocuses in the park!

While we were staying in Beckenham I was looking into the possibility of taking a quick trip to Australia while Jonathan flew back to Athens to oversee the last few jobs on our new-to-us Lagoon 420 catamaran before departing to rediscover and explore further the wonderful Greek islands.

Looking at possible flights to Australia!

At that stage Covid-19 was only just becoming an issue in most countries (although China and Italy’s experiences were beginning to get people to take notice) and everything was uncertain.

A magical old fashioned sweetshop in Beckenham

Well thank goodness I didn’t go as very likely I would have been unable to leave Australia and fly back to Europe to join Jonathan in Greece as flights into Athens were halted way before my planned return date.

We visited a small David Bowie-themed exhibition. He came from Beckenham and I first saw him play at the Three Tuns Pub there when he was still undiscovered and I was too young to be in a pub!

After a few days in Beckenham we left for the port of Dover driving via Bournemouth to say goodbye to our very dear friends.

The weather was still very wild and the van was being rocked around like a boat at anchor by the blustery winds on Dover seafront.

We decided to have an early night as we were catching a ferry first thing the following day. We were just drifting off to sleep when a massive explosion reverberated around the White Cliffs of Dover and shocked us awake!

Fireworks!

It sounded as though we were being shelled! We got up and looked out of the window and were relieved to see the explosions were only a sky full of fireworks out to sea right opposite our parking spot.

The new Virgin cruise ship having its maiden voyage celebrations

We realised it must be the maiden voyage party for Virgin’s monstrous bright red 17-storey cruise ship – Scarlett Lady – which was anchored out directly in front of us.

Scarlett Lady lit up like a Christmas tree

The fireworks were truly spectacular and we thanked Richard Branson for the great send off before retiring again for the night.

Thanks for the send off Richard Branson!

It was an early start the next day as our ferry was due to leave at 8am and we were meant to be at the dock at least an hour before. The weather was wild and blustery as we set off and we wondered if there would be delays with the ferries.

We soon found out that there were indeed delays as a big sea had developed overnight and the night ferries had been cancelled. We didn’t mind – being in our van meant we could have another cup of tea while we waited.

All aboard!

We eventually boarded a different ferry to the one we were booked on, at 9.30 for a 10am departure. Instead of landing in Dunkirk this ferry headed for Calais which meant we would save at least half an hour on our drive to Pijnacker in The Netherlands so the delay was minimal.

There were plenty of white caps

There were very few people on board and we had a pleasant if rather rough trip over to France.

Stormy weather!

Soon we were back in the Netherlands to spend the weekend with our daughter and her partner before they headed off to Austria for a week’s skiing. We stayed to house and cat sit!

Welcome back to the Netherlands!

While they were away Jonathan and spent much of the time hunkered down in their cosy little house as it was so cold!

So lovely to see Spring tulips again!

We did venture out to Delft to distribute some posters for a Comedia Del Arte workshop and a parent and child music and movement class that Hannah was organising. Sadly our efforts were wasted as by the time these came around Covid-19 restrictions were in place and they had to be postponed.

Shame, this workshop was cancelled.
This yellow car next to the yellow flowers in Delft were very cheering on a grey day.
Market day in the Cathedral Square in Delft
The town hall in Delft – where Pieter and Hannah are to be married in October.

Disaster struck our daughter on the last day of what had been a fantastic ski trip! She had an accident and damaged her knee! Luckily for her, the first person to ski up to her to help out was a renowned (for looking after top soccer teams) German orthopaedic surgeon who gave her some good advice and his email address in case she wanted to talk through the possibility of surgery and other options.

Such a great trip and then this on the last day!

The group of friends who had been skiing together arrived back on the same day that the Dutch foreign ministry updated its travel advice for Italy, advising citizens not to travel to areas affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

An amazing gourmet dinner at the restaurant where Pieter and Hannah plan to have their wedding celebration meal

By the early days of March the advent of Covid-19 in the Netherlands was becoming big news. On 6 March the first death was reported and by 12 March the government announced new measures that would be in effect until the end of that month. All events (concerts, sports) and meetings with more than 100 people were forbidden and the people were encouraged to work from home. Schools were to remain open but all Dutch universities were to suspend physical teaching until 1 April, but online teaching would continue.

On the same day in Greece (12 March) The first death from COVID-19 in Greece happened and by 13 March Greece closed all educational institutions, cafes, bars, museums, shopping centres, sports facilities and restaurants in the country.

On 13 March the local supermarket shelves In Pijnacker looked like this.

On 16 March, all Greek retail shops were also closed, two villages with infections were quarantined, and all services in all areas of religious worship of any religion or dogma were suspended.

The following day every available employee worked flat out to fill the shelves again

We had purchased our tickets to Greece departing Amsterdam on 17 March to return to our catamaran “Sunday” and were anxiously following developments in The Netherlands and Greece.

Magnolia – one of the first signs that spring has arrived

I can remember wondering if Greece had overreacted as things seemed much more laid back in the Netherlands and even more so in the UK where schools, restaurants, pubs, indoor entertainment venues and leisure centres, (even then, with some with some exceptions) were still open. These institutions weren’t closed until March 20 when there were already more than 200 deaths.

So 17 March came round and it seemed as though we could travel to Greece to return to S/V Sunday. It was hard, as always, to say goodbye to Hannah and Pieter but at that time we had no reason to imagine that they would not be joining us on the boat in May as planned.

Social distancing happening but soon everyone will be crammed together in a tin can!

Schiphol Airport was busy and quite crowded and we felt conscious of the vulnerability of all travellers there so we kept our distance where we could but realistically we were about to sit in a narrow tin can with hundreds of people in very close proximity so there seemed little point in keeping two metres apart in a queue!

Waiting to board

Once on the aircraft we had only just sat down when very fortunately we were moved to the extra legroom seats with no one across the aisle from us.

We were very fortunate to be moved to seats with extra leg room and away from other people

We arrived in Athens around 8.30 pm and were amazed that there was no one in passport control and no notices with information about Coronavirus! Not even in Greek, as far as we could see.

We had hired a car for a week in anticipation of preparing for dropping our lines the week after that. Of course, that was not to be. Firstly because everyone arriving in Greece from 18 May onwards was required to self isolate for 14 days but in addition to that, starting from 6 a.m on 23 March, movement outside the home for all citizens and visitors was permitted only for a number of specific reasons e.g. essential travel to and from work, food shopping, visiting a doctor etc.

Great to be back on Sunday.

People were also allowed to exercise once a day but anyone leaving their home for any reason had to send a text explaining their reason for being out. The measures were to continue (initially) until April 4.

Normally a hive of activity, the marina was very quiet

Fortunately, before the restrictions came into force we managed to get a few things done on the boat, including the installation of sunshades – made while we were away – that enclose the cockpit, giving us privacy (in the marina especially) and shade in the heat of the simmering Greek summer. We were so thrilled with these – they really do look fantastic!

Our new sunshades being fitted
These were going to be amazing in the blistering heat of the Greek Summer
Jonathan looking rather stunned at the amazing change sunscreens

Over the first couple of days we were also able to shop for food and other essential supplies such as wine and beer! Unlike Australia, the Netherlands and the UK, there didn’t appear to be any panic buying. There was plenty of everything – including loads of toilet roll!

It was great to see the supermarkets had plenty of non
We even found a hand blender at the supermarket!

Suitably provisioned for a good two weeks and more, we settled down to wait out our quarantine period.

Enough food for our quarantine and beyond!
There was no toilet paper shortage in Greece
All the essentials!
Everything nicely stowed

Party time – before the world changed

Having been in lockdown for a full six weeks you’d think that I would have had plenty of time to catch up with my blog, but alas, no.

Our lockdown view

Perhaps the memories of the freedom we had (until recently) to gallivant around Europe is just too difficult to recall in our present circumstances. Maybe it’s just other activities have seemed more appealing or more likely, I’ve been procovidernating. Regardless, I have resolved to push on now and get writing!

We had been staying with friends in a sweet village called Berwick St John in Wiltshire. The previous day we had had an amazing, exhilarating but thought provoking encounter with the local hunt (https://saltytalesfrombalihai.com/2020/04/14/tally-ho-sailing-friends-and-an-unusual-encounter/).

An unexpected meeting

That night there was a tremendous storm and we were thankful to be tucked up in our campervan and sheltered from the turbulent weather by the sturdy house belonging to our hosts.

By late morning, the weather had settled a little but was predicted to get rough again later in the day, with gales and flooding forecast. We set off for Bournemouth, just over an hour’s drive away, to pay a quick visit to our good friends there before heading to Suffolk to spend a couple of nights with Jonathan’s younger brother.

On our way to Bournemouth in filthy weather

The bad weather brought us good fortune as after leaving Bournemouth the roads were almost empty – in fact we didn’t have to stop at all until we were brought to a halt at by a flooded road and diverted just shortly before we had reached our destination.

It was no surprise that there was hardly any traffic on the road

Once off our planned route, we muddled our way through the back roads and by-ways and eventually arrived at Jonathan’s brother’s house.

The full moon was a welcome sight

After a happy but fleeting visit- one of the highlights of which was an extremely delicious full afternoon tea in a farm shop in nearby Elveden – we headed to Birmingham where we were meeting our daughter Hannah and partner Pieter off a flight from Amsterdam.

Such a delicious afternoon tea!
Evidence of the storms the previous day

We stopped for the night in a pub in Nether Whitacre recommended in the “Brit Stops” book which details places where camper vans can stay overnight for free. Many of these are pubs and all they ask of you is to go in and have a drink or a meal (or both!) in return for a night in their car park.

“Bread and beer, the traditional substance of Englishmen” – hmm not good English but I get what they mean!

The pub was within easy reach of Birmingham Airport and we managed to find Pieter and Hannah quite easily without having to enter the paid parking area (there was no free drop off/ pick up arrangement.)

It was still grey, windy and rainy so we decided to head first to nearby Leamington Spa where my parents and younger brother had lived many years ago.

Leamington Spa

Our children sadly never met my father who died too young. It was therefore very special to show Hannah the Church where he had worked for a short time before he died and where we held his funeral service and his ashes were interred. It was my first time back for almost 40 years so it was a very emotional experience.

The Church where we farewelled our Dad and the garden (right) where his ashes are buried
The stained glass windows of All Saint’s Church

We walked round to look at the house where my family had lived in the upper storey apartment and we had a delightful chat to a lady who had moved into the house many years earlier but quite a long time after my Mother and brother had moved.

My parents and younger brother lived in the upper storey apartment of this house

Still reminiscing we walked in the beautiful riverside gardens nearby. They looked glorious even in the incipid spring sunshine.

Jonathan and I well wrapped up!
The weather was warm enough for the squirrels to wake up from hibernation
It was wonderful to see all the spring flowers
It was a great day for a walk!
The river was very swollen after all the rain but the swans didn’t seem to mind

Eventually our wandering took us over the river to an excellent restaurant in a converted cottage called The Drawing Board.

Inside the Drawing Board with Annuals on the bookshelves

This great little eatery had games and vintage children’s “annuals” (story books issued once a year, usually at Christmas) containing all the favourite cartoons from my childhood such as the Bash Street Kids and Denis the Menace, as well as Dan Dare and Captain Hurricane. Lots of atmosphere and the food was delicious too!

A great little eatery with lots of atmosphere

After a long lunch we drove on to another pub for the night which was close to Stratford on Avon, which in turn, was near to our final destination, Talton House – a grand country residence set in 34 acres of woodland, fields, lawns and gardens.

Our home for the night with Hannah and Pieter
One of the many statues dedicated to Shakespeare and his plays. Alas, poor Yorick!
The River Avon, with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the background
Another view of the RSC theatre
Talton House, just a few kilometres/miles from Stratford on Avon

Twenty-eight members of our family were gathering at this magnificent old manor house to celebrate our brother-in-law’s milestone birthday.

Arriving at Talton House in the campervan
We found a good spot to park round the side

Our first meal together was reasonably chaotic even though my sister had superbly organised every item of food that was to pass our lips over the weekend. The Aga kitchen range was the problem as it didn’t heat things as quickly as we were used to and regulating the heat was quite a challenge! Nevertheless, all of us (except for some poor people who had to work a full day and then drive a considerable distance to get to rural Warwickshire) were able to sit at the magnificent dining table and enjoy a delicious and memorable meal.

The magnificent dining room at Talton House
The host (birthday boy) and hostess

The following day was celebration time. Sadly the weather was terrible but who cared? The house was so big (huge kitchen, dining room, four reception rooms, games room, hot tub etc.) we all found plenty to do – including raiding the massive fancy dress cupboards on the upstairs landing for the birthday parade and cake cutting ceremony.

Relaxing by one of the numerous open fires
Singing round the piano was a popular pastime
…as was sitting round chatting

After a fabulous lunch of home made soups with a variety of cheeses that would shame a top restaurant and fabulous oranges and mandarins that we had bought at the roadside in Portugal, we all went our separate ways to prepare for the festivities.

Cousins catching up

At three pm we reconvened for the dress up parade and after cat walk twirls and many photos we danced with abandon to “We are Family” on repeat.

Spot the sailors

Characters from Hogwarts, English country gentlemen and a stylish Lady of the Manor, University professors, Mary Poppins, a French onion seller, a thief, a crocodile, a jester, a bride and many others jostled for space on the dance floor. My crazy family!

We are family!
Girl power! (Cousins and second cousins)
We were so happy to have our daughter and her partner with us for this weekend of family celebration

After the cake we wandered off for walks or the hot tub or a little lie down before the big feast that the birthday boy most generously paid for.

The birthday boy blowing out his candles with a little help from his friends!
Thanking my sister for all the work she’d put in to making the weekend such a success

The meal was prepared and cooked (with an able assistant) by the proprietor of the beautiful house, who is also a chef by profession.

Pre-dinner drinks

We had dinner in the large hall In order to fit all the adults round the table together. It was such a fantastic experience!

Dinner is served. My brother playing butler
The food was amazing!

The following day there was more eating, walks in the flooded countryside and games in the table tennis/ snooker room.

We loved this notice
We thought we might get flooded in but the roads were just about passable
The flooded fields
There were thick carpets of snowdrops
Follow the sign to the flooded roads

It had been a really wonderful weekend and looking back we feel so thankful to have had this big, joyful, family gathering shortly before the Covid-19 virus stopped the world in its tracks.

Tally Ho! Sailing friends and an unusual encounter

A peaceful stroll with friends across the undulating grassy fields surrounding the tiny Wiltshire village of Berwick Saint John was abruptly interrupted when we became aware of a dull rhythmic rumbling – a thundering sound that was relentlessly drawing closer and closer towards us. Then we heard the sound of joyous barking.

Suddenly over the crest of a hill a large gang of dogs followed by a massive throng of horses and riders appeared – heading straight for us. It was the local hunt!

A large gang of happy dogs came over the crest of a hill

Remarkably, this was the first time that our hosts Meryon and Suzy and mutual friends Tim and Pim had ever seen this uniquely British sight despite their innumerable walks through the English countryside over many years.

The dogs were closely followed by a cavalry of horse and riders

Now I would be the first person to be totally revolted by a gang of riders and a pack of hounds intent on chasing a terrified fox and ending its life in a most inhumane way. However, this was a drag hunt with no animal being chased and I have to admit the sight of the dashing horses and baying hounds was truly breathtaking. (Note: I acknowledge drag hunts can inadvertently end up with attacks on wild animals occurring and do not condone this.)

A sight rarely seen when out for a quiet stroll

It seemed to me that the people on this hunt were perfectly happy to trail the hounds who were following a scent that had been dragged over the fields by a human. Horses, hounds and people were thoroughly enjoying just being outside on this splendid day (see video)

The horn blowing (see video), the thundering hooves and the overjoyed dogs were quite a thrill to see

As a horse lover it was magnificent to see mounts of all shapes and sizes (and colours) enjoying being part of a herd, cantering up hill and down dale in the fresh crisp air of early spring.

Horses of all shapes, sizes and colours

The humans were also having a ball and were of very different shapes and sizes – from the tall and regal looking red coated master of the hunt to the black hacking jacketed, red cheeked and beplaited little girls on their Thelwell ponies and the hefty, strong and tweedy farm labourers on their sturdy steeds – and everything between.

Having a break

The dogs too looked overjoyed to be running with their pack through the countryside at top speed.

The dogs loved running with a pack

For a little while, dogs, horses and people stopped for a break on a flat piece of land where we happened to be standing – close to where the farmer who owned the land was sitting on his tractor.

The master of the hunt pauses to take stock

The hunt master chatted with the farmer, asking if the sheep in the field below would be worried by the hunt and having a general chat about the weather, the turnout etc

There were some beautiful horses

While they were resting the horses, the riders conversed amongst themselves catching up on the usual topics – family, friends, work etc.

There were also some very skilled riders

Then the dogs were off again encouraged by the harsh tooting of the Master of the Hound’s long brass horn. The hunt participants followed the urgent blasts – some cantering, some at a trot and others, tired from the morning’s exertions, taking up the rear at a dignified walking pace.

The hounds were larger than I expected
On the move again

When the air was still again and peace restored we resumed our walk and agreed that whatever the rights or wrongs of drag hunting, meeting the hunt completely by chance had been an incredible and unique experience.

Peace is restored in the lovely Wiltshire countryside
On our way back to Meryon and Suzy’s
Some of the riders stopped for a drink at the local pub – right next door to our hosts’ house

We had arrived at the Dorset port of Poole from Cherbourg just that morning after a restful but windy crossing.

The trip to Cherbourg from St Georges de Didonne had been easy and we had a very pleasant stop in Mariel-Sur-ley-Dissais where we bought delicious bread and even more delicious pastries.

Always something interesting to see as we drive along
One of the many beautiful chateaux that we saw as we drove
Even the wrapping looked wonderful
These beautiful tarts tasted as good as they looked!
It was great to see that Spring had arrived in France

Our early arrival in Cherbourg had allowed time for a quick stroll, a hasty shop for various cheeses and lunch at a North African cafe near the port before heading to the ferry.

Driving into Cherbourg
We loved this retro poster for the restaurant
Lovely tableware!
A very enjoyable middle Eastern meal

Originally we had been scheduled to depart France in the late afternoon but only found out after we arrived and were sitting at the head of a non-existent queue that the crossing had been rescheduled and would be leaving around midnight.

The ferry route from Cherbourg to Poole in Dorset

We were fortunate to be offered a double room with en-suite at a vastly reduced cost in compensation for the time change so we arrived in Poole feeling very fresh early the next morning having slept most of the way over on the almost empty ferry.

Driving on to the ferry
Shame we couldn’t just sleep in the van!
The ferry was almost empty
Arriving in Poole

It was wonderful to catch up with our four friends who we had originally met on the Sail Indonesia Rally in 2015. We had a great time together eating wonderful home cooked food, drinking wine and talking, talking, talking.

A beautiful Spring day in England
Such a narrow lane to Berwick Saint John!
The tiny village of Berwick Saint John

That night we were very glad to be parked in the front drive of Meryon and Suzy’s beautiful home sheltered from the ferocious overnight storm that brought down trees, caused floods throughout the country and had wreaked havoc on the roads.

There were snow drops everywhere!
Wonder how many souls live there now?
Parked in front of Meryon and Suzy’s beautiful home
Our hosts looked after us superbly

Please note: We are/were not travelling at the time of Corona Virus – this blog is from some weeks previous when we were all free to travel at will!

Meeting the Cockleshell heroes

Our adventure through Northern Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar had been marvellous but we had a big family party to attend in England so it was time to start the long drive back to catch the ferry in Cherbourg, France.

The long trip back begins
We went a slightly different route but you get the picture!

The first part of the trip took us from La Linea in Spain, on the border with Gibraltar, following the coast southwards, and passing famous holiday resorts such as Marbella, Torremolinos and Malaga.

The resort town of Arroyo de la Miel
Torremolinos – the famous Costa del Sol package holiday destination

At Malaga we turned inland and before too long we could see the glowing snow covered peaks of the Montes de Málaga in the distance.

The snow covered peaks of the Montes de Málaga
Strange to see snow when we had been so warm in Gibraltar

We stopped for the night in Valdepeñas, in central Spain and the next morning drove on to El Puente de Sabiñánigo near the French border.

Time to stop the night in Valdepeñas

We enjoyed most of the drive as there was some stunning scenery along the way but around midday we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by thick fog. Fortunately it didn’t last long and we had blue skies for the rest of the day.

No doubt we were in Spain – we saw these black bulls that symbolise Spanish culture everywhere.
A moody sky and interesting rock formations
There was plenty to see en route
Fortunately this fog didn’t last for long but it was quite disconcerting

The area of Sabiñánigo has always been strongly linked to sport and, especially, to cycling. Our stopping place for the night was next to a fine looking municipal building which had a hostel attached and a nice looking restaurant.

Almost at Sabiñánigo

After a wander around the town we went into the restaurant and were told it could serve us but warned us a big group of young people would be coming later. We were in our own little section and had a delicious meal and the crowd was quiet and not at all a nuisance.

The municipal buildings near our camping spot

It wasn’t until the next day and we saw the bikes in the air (photo below) and the sign at the entrance, that we realised that the hostel catered for cyclists and the group at dinner was probably there to take part in a cycling event.

Bikes in the air – taken as we left Sabiñánigo

The area is famous for holding “The Quebrantahuesos” one of the most important amateur cyclist races in the world. The town is also a frequent start and finish point of the Vuelta a Espana.

From El Puente de Sabiñánigo we headed for the French border and within forty minutes we were crossing over into France.

On the Camino trail once again!
The French border post
In France at last

Soon we were driving in the Pyrenees and had some enticing glimpses of snow covered mountains before turning west and making for the Atlantic Coast.

Glimpses of the Pyrenees
Glorious mountain views
A small French village
This overhang looked very worrying from our rather tall campervan
Going through the fly fishing region

By the time the sun was setting we had arrived at our destination – the resort town of St Georges de Didonne. We stopped in a car park right next to the beach and the next morning we decided that a bit of exploring would be in order.

Arriving in St Georges de Didonne.
Winter trees silhouetted in the setting sun
Our overnight spot right next to the beach at St Georges de Didonne.

The beach just beyond our parking spot was littered with oyster shells so it was no surprise to see – in the middle of the harbour – rows and rows of buoys marking out oyster beds.

So many oyster shells!
Lots of buoys indicating where the oyster beds lay

Our walk took us passed the old but still active lighthouse and port buildings – long abandoned by the looks of things.

The lighthouse and old port buildings in the distance
In summer you can take a tour of the lighthouse
The old port office – No longer in use

Around the headland we strolled along the rocky shoreline where we encountered a memorial to the heroes of Operation Frankton, a daring World War II commando raid in which a small group of British Royal Marines were taken by submarine to the area and dropped off at sea near St Georges de Didonne.

The memorial commemorating Operation Frankton

The ten men then paddled (over several nights and hiding by day) five collapsible canoes (kayaks) 100 kms to the port of Bordeaux where they planted limpet mines on German cargo ships halting the distribution of goods and thereby disrupting the German war effort.

A close look at the Cockleshell Heroes’ memorial

As we read the memorial dedication, Jonathan recalled a film from his boyhood that had made a great impression on him called “The Cockleshell Heroes”. This highly fictionalised account of Operation Frankton had left him with a lasting memory of this extraordinary and heroic mission.

The brave men involved in the heroic operation

We walked as far as the sweeping main beach which in the summer months is packed with throngs of holiday makers.

A glimpse of the coastal path
This beach is heaving with people in the summer

Thankful that we didn’t have to share the delightful coastal path with any of the 50,000 or so summer visitors that arrive each year, we slowly meandered our way back to our campervan to head for Cherbourg where we were catching the ferry to England.

We were very fortunate to have the coastal path to ourselves

Gibraltar- You Rock!

We hadn’t seen enough of Portugal but definitely wanted to visit Gibraltar before heading back to England for a huge family celebration.

Farewell Portugal! We’ll be back!

So we found ourselves bidding a premature “farewell” to Portugal, crossing into Spain and heading straight for the Spanish border town (with Gibraltar) of La Linea de la Concepción.

Rock on (dreadful pun, sorry)

On the way we stopped to sleep the night outside Seville and promised ourselves we would be back to get to know this interesting city famous, among other things, for being the birthplace of Flamenco dancing and the fact that the famous explorer Christopher Columbus is buried there.

On the outskirts of Seville

By late morning the following day, we had arrived in La Linea and were parked in a massive car park next to a marina just a stone’s throw from Gibraltar.

From our parking spot we had an amazing view of the famous Rock of Gibraltar although it was totally shrouded in mist when we first arrived.

Our first glimpse of the Rock (underneath that mist somewhere!)

Regardless of the weather we were keen to cross into Gibraltar as soon as possible. A few minutes walk and we were at the border where we were able to walk through the customs post and just show our passports before arriving on the other side.

Crossing the border from Spain to Gibraltar

We were amazed to find that before entering into the metropolis of Gibraltar we had to walk across the airport’s one and only runway! That was a first for us (in how many other countries can you get anywhere near the airport runway, let alone cross it?) and really took us by surprise.

The extraordinary experience of walking across the runway into the metropolis of Gibraltar
Yup, keep walking no planes about to land!

The first thing we noticed once we had crossed the runway was that the mist that had shrouded the famous rock was gradually dissipating (thank goodness!) and the second was how English Gibraltar was!

Thankfully the mist started to dissipate
And there it was!

Within minutes of entering the country (all under 7 square kilometres of it) we had seen a British telephone box, two red post boxes, several notices in English and the very British street name of “Winston Churchill Avenue”. “Good grief”, “I say”, “how very jolly” we chorused in our best English accents!

So strange to see a British telephone box so far away from Britain!
A British pillar box made in Scotland!
Another post box in that iconic red!
There were even British police cars!
Can’t get more British than that Bulldog!

We decided to head first for harbour (the lure of boats is always hard for us to resist) and on the way encountered many historical remains, particularly from the early 18th Century when Spain tried to regain the territory from the British who had been given control by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, after the Anglo-Dutch victory in the War of Spanish Succession.

Approaching Land Port – originally the only way into Gibraltar other than by sea
Rebuilt in 1727, this gate had been the scene of bitter fighting in thirteen sieges

During the 18th Century Gibraltar was besieged and heavily bombarded during three wars by Spain but the attacks were repulsed on each occasion.

The name of this gate shocked and horrified us

By the end of the last siege, in the late 18th century, poor Gibraltar had faced fourteen sieges in 500 years. It was just fascinating to see the various historical remains in grey stone rubbing shoulders with the stark modern concrete and glass skyscrapers.

The Moorish Castle a medieval fortification on The Rock
Fascinating to see historical remains rubbing shoulders with the stark modern concrete and glass skyscrapers.

We eventually found the marina area with restaurants at the water’s edge. It was pretty but we felt uncomfortable – it seemed to be full of ex-pats who were there to be “seen” rather than to enjoy a meal.

Nice enough marinas but not a good atmosphere quayside

A little disappointed, we moved on towards the centre of the “old town” where there were plenty of dining options – many of them English style pubs with typical English fare including fish and chips,bangers and mash and steak pie.

Typical British pub fare!

In the historic old town we came across various interesting sights – including a Statue of Lord Nelson. Apparently his body was brought to Gibraltar in his badly damaged battleship HMS Victory- after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He was eventually buried at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Lord Nelson will never be forgotten in Gibraltar

Further on we saw the remains of the 16th Century Southport Wall and it’s three gates – one built in 1552, one in 1883 and the latest in 1967. The wall fortifications were first built following an attack by Barbary Pirates.

The oldest Southport Gate

Later, close to the Southport Wall and gates, we stumbled across the small but absolutely beautifully tranquil Trafalgar Cemetery where the remains of some who had died from wounds after the Battle of Trafalgar (and other sea battles) are buried.

The beautifully tranquil Trafalgar Cemetery
The remains of men mortally injured in the Battle of Trafalgar lie here

Another peaceful and lovely spot was La Alameda Botanic Gardens which was full of palms and other plants from many parts of the world (including a Silk Oak from Australia).

Another peaceful and lovely spot – La Alameda Botanic Gardens
It was beautiful to see these bright flowers so early on in the nyear

Above the botanic gardens we could see the historic Rock Hotel in all its Art Deco glory. We thought it would have been an ideal setting for an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery!

An ideal spot for a murder mystery

It was too late to travel to the top of “The Rock” by the time we had found the location of the cable car so we decided to head back to the van and return the following day. As we walked back in the twilight we were anticipating with excitement our trip “up the rock” the following day.

The Governor’s residence
Walking back to the van in the twilight

Well I have to say, we were not disappointed. The whole thing was an extremely memorable experience from the cable car ride to the top of the Rock, 426m above sea level, to meeting the Barbary Macaques, and from walking the precarious paths to seeing a glimpse of Africa over the 14.3 km (8.9 mile strait).

Early morning view of The Rock from our campervan
Our view facing the other way!
This time the cannons were uncovered when we passed the Governor’s residence

I can’t explain why but seeing Africa loom out from the clouds on the horizon thrilled me to the core. Maybe because I was born in Algeria and felt my birthplace calling? Perhaps just the vast range of travel possibilities were beyond that gorgeous strip of blue? Who knows, all I do know is that it was a visceral experience.

A perfect day for our trip on the cable car

I took so many photos that I have found it almost impossible to choose which ones to include in this blog.

That tiny peak above the clouds is Africa!
A little more of Arica
This seagull looks out longingly to Africa

As we only had the morning to explore we decided to spend our time up there walking the trail around the Rock rather than spend time going round the famous St Michael’s Caves, a network of limestone caves located within the Upper Rock Nature Reserve that have been used throughout history for military purposes.

What an amazing view of Gibraltar and in the distance, Spain
Looking down on the other side of The Rock
The dramatic Rock of Gibraltar
Fortifications on The Rock

At the very top of the Rock where the views were stunning, we found O’Hara’s Battery completed in 1890 and continued in active use during World War II.

There was a little museum in the underground area where the gun and engine rooms and shell storage were located. An atmospheric tunnel carved out of the rock led from the engine room to the gun.

Distance across the Straits 25,000 yards – Range of gun 29,500 yards
Down in the engine room at O’Hara’s Battery
The atmospheric tunnel

Apart from the view of Africa, the highlight of our morning on the Rock was observing the very cheeky Barbary Macaques – the only wild monkey population on the European continent.

A baby Macaque checks Jonathan out
Just casually sitting on the wall with Africa as a backdrop

Although they receive plenty of fresh food every day they will still steal from tourists given half a chance. We witnessed a daring attack while waiting to board the cable car back down to the bottom.

On top of the world!

An adult Macaque spied someone eating snack food in the cable car gondola coming up the hill . Before the cable car had even stopped the Macaque made an enormous leap right into the cable car and with one agile and swift movement whipped the bag out of the person’s hand and was out again.

“I once had a farm in Africa”

There were several nervous tourists who started screaming which stirred up some of the other rascals and then there was mayhem. Snacks were flying monkeys and people were shrieking, there was panic in the air.

Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth. Who would of thought these cute little monkeys could be so naughty?

One of the monkeys jumped on the back of a diminutive tourist who was beside herself with fear and just stood there yelling, squawking and cowering which of course made the monkey bolder and absolutely certain that the lady was hiding food. So it kept jumping back on her back each time someone drove it back. Eventually peace was restored but everyone was left feeling a little rattled.

Little baby enjoying a carrot

Despite the dramatic end to our morning we had thoroughly enjoyed our walk on this iconic and historic landmark.

On the way down again

Gibraltar You Rock!

Journey to the end of the world

For thousands of years it was believed that the rugged and forbidding Cape Saint Vincent (Cabo de São Vicente) in Sagres, Portugal, was the end of the world.

The Cabo de São Vicente – the end of the world?

It’s really not surprising as this wild and wind blown spot, with 75 metre high cliffs, is the most southwesterly point of mainland Europe. Beyond that point was the big unknown until all that changed in the 1400s when brave explorers like Vasco Da Gama opened up the world to exploration and discovery.

The wild and wind blown cape

Standing at the cliff edge gazing down at the swirling and heaving waves far below it was easy to understand how easy it would have been to believe the fearsome legends of serpents and a supernatural vortex where the setting sun was dramatically submerged by the immense, unknown ocean.

The end of the known world pre- 15th Century

Now Cape St Vincent is a popular tourist spot and home to a 24 metre (79 ft) lighthouse which safeguards one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The lighthouse safeguards one of the world’s busiest shipping laneS

Built in 1846 over the ruins of a 16th-century Franciscan convent, the lighthouse hurls a powerful white beam 60 km (the second most powerful beam in Europe) into the dark expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

We were astounded to see quite a number of fishermen hanging off the cliff face trying to catch fish from immense heights. I couldn’t help think what would happen if they suddenly caught “the big one” – surely they could potentially lose their balance and tumble down into the churning sea below! I’ve never thought of fishing as an extreme sport but I understand how it could be now!

Can you see the fishermen? They cast their lines from the top of the cliffs
More fishermen here (circled) crazy!

Near the lighthouse there was a small museum dedicated to ships, exploration and the history of the lighthouse which we enjoyed going round.

The museum had lots of models of ships like this one
There were also a lot of exhibits on the history of the lighthouse

On the way to Sagres we were intrigued to see – having recently been in the Netherlands- many windmills. They were completely different in style to the Dutch ones but there seemed to be as many as you would normally see driving around the Netherlands!

We were amazed to see so many windmills
They were very different in style to the Dutch ones
This one had lost a sail

We called in the Fortaleza Sagres after our visit to the museum and although it has great historical importance, as it ably protected the town from North African raiders in the 15th Century, there wasn’t a lot to see.

The Fortaleza Sagres

It was from this fort that Henry the Navigator devised his 15th century expeditions to the uncharted seas around the western side of Africa, which heralded in the golden era of Portugal exploration.

We were looking for a suitable place to stay the night and took a look at the designated campervan parking spot on the peninsula. To our amazement there were more vans parked together there than we had seen for a long time (the last place being Honfleur, in France.)

After camping on our own for so long it was a shock to see all these vans
Just too many people for us

So we kept on driving and decided to look elsewhere for somewhere to stay – away from hoards of people.

While looking up possible places to stay we discovered that there were some Neolithic remains in the Sagres area. Of course we just had to go on a menhir hunt! It took us a while but we did eventually find a beautiful specimen.

We eventually found this stunning menhir

It was getting late so we headed to Alvor , about 20 km from Lagos. It was a real shock to see once again, stacks of vans all crowded in together in a muddy and stark field which we later learnt is affectionately called “The Pit”. We opted to park near the Alvor nature reserve where it was a little quieter.

More crowds in Alvin
We just had to find somewhere quieter

The following morning we went for a fabulous walk through the dunes in the Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve.

The boardwalk in the Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve was beautiful
This was such a fabulous facility for the townsfolk and the tourists alike
The beach was wonderfully clean

Even though it was early February it felt as though Spring had arrived. There were flowers and trees budding and plenty of bird life. In the distance across the estuary we could see the charming white-washed houses of Alvor town.

It was so lovely to see spring flowers blooming at the beginning of February
Birds were singing and building nests already
Such a pretty town of white washed houses

Later that day we drove on to another spectacular piece of coastline near the resort town of Carvoeiro.

Quite by accident we found Praia da Carvalho – a small but delightful beach, surrounded by steep cliffs that you enter via a “secret tunnel” and enclosed steps.

We set off for a cliff walk
First we had to climb down these stairs
Then this tantalising glimpse of Praia da Carvalho
To get to the beach you have to climb these stairs
Looking back up to the cave entrance

The sand is fine and a rich gold colour and the sea turquoise and as clear as gin. There are caves high up in the cliffs that would have been great to explore and a little one actually on the beach that looked as though it had been a shrine at one time.

The beach from the other side of the cliffs. Lots of caves high up!
Peering out of the small cave which might have had a shrine in previously
The “shrine” cave
The water was crystal clear!

In the footsteps of Vasco Da Gama

Our next port of call after delightful Sesimbra was Sines, birthplace and home of the renowned Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama, commander of the first European ships to reach India in the 15th Century.

Driving into Sines and our first sight of the castle

On the road from Sesimbra to Sines we were delighted to see – for the first time ever as far as we could remember – massive storks and loads of stork nests sitting high up on power poles or tall tree trunks. What an incredible sight!

A bit fuzzy but it was definitely a pair of storks in their massive nest
This one seemed to like perching on a solar panel
What a crazy nest!

Sines has been, for centuries, an important port – and it still is – in fact it’s the largest container port in Portugal. It is also a very interesting place to visit.

Looking over to the container port in the distance
Sines is also still an important fishing port

The Romans used Sines as a port and industrial centre and we were fascinated to see the remains of a Roman fish processing “factory“ and a ceramics kiln very close to the castle walls.

Looking across the beach to the castle and town beyond
The remains of a Roman fish processing factory
Another part of the Roman fish processing facility

The castle sits high on a hill with superb views across the bay and beyond. It was surprising to hear that Vasco Da Gama was born here and had actually lived in the castle as a boy. This was because his father was mayor of Sines at that time.

The castle in Sines where Vasco Da Gama was born

There was a fantastic museum in the castle keep – as we walked in the entrance we gained a real sense of how the fortress would have looked and felt all those hundreds of years ago.

The original fortress walls
The fortress buildings
The dungeons had many Roman artefacts on display

In the atmospheric dungeon there were lots of Roman remains on display.

The dungeons were very atmospheric
Some interesting original brickwork
Roman pillars
We loved the stone carvings

On the next level up there were many more exhibits covering a variety of eras and items of interest.

There were many interesting exhibits on the next floor up
….including this mock up of a shop

One of the highlights was the Treasure of Gaio, found in 1996 during an archeological dig 12 kilometres from Sines town. The treasure comprises a magnificent Phoenician-made necklace and earrings interred with a wealthy woman around the 3rd century BC. The jewellery is so beautiful and timeless that it would not look out of place if worn today on a special occasion.

This jewellery would not look out of place today

There was a lot else too look at including information on the growth of cork trees and the manufacture of cork for wine stoppers, flooring, bulletin boards, wall tiles etc. We found this very interesting as we had seen many cork trees on the road from Sesimbra and had wondered about how it was harvested and processed.

Cork trees on the road to Sines
An exhibit showing how cork is processed

Some of the rooms were furnished as they would have been in the time of Vasco Da Gama’s life.

A portrait of Vasco Da Gama
The ceilings were very ornate

After we had looked at the exhibits we took a winding staircase up to the top floor where we enjoyed fine views to the ocean and over the town.

Up the winding staircase
The view from the top of the keep
The outlook over Sines town
Canons guarding the castle
View of Sines from inside the fortress

One of the most enjoyable parts of the day was sitting down in a cafe for a pot of tea and our first ever taste of Portuguese custard tarts. I don’t normally have a sweet tooth but they were truly amazing!

Portuguese custard tarts are delicious!
We were very restrained and only had one each

We left Sines in the late afternoon and drove along the coast for about half an hour to the glorious fishing village of Porto Côvo. Apparently it is full of tourists in the summer season but we had this gorgeous spot to ourselves.

The village of Porto Côvo
There were lots of tiny white and blue cottages
The beaches at Porto Côvo were stunning

From the top of the spectacular craggy cliffs we witnessed the Atlantic rollers building and building and then crashing spectacularly as they came into contact with the rocky coastline.

The Atlantic rollers crashing onto the cliffs
It was a spectacular sight
Those rollers were captivating to watch

There were many long, narrow bays hidden in between the cliffs with gorgeous sandy beaches. As we strolled along – enthralled and thrilled by the noise and power of the pummeling waves smashing onto the land – we noticed that the sun was beginning to set.

There were many long narrow bays
The beaches inbetween the cliffs were minute
Such a fantastic coastline

It was so beautiful that we couldn’t stop clicking away with our cameras.

We couldn’t stop taking photos
It became even more beautiful as the sun set
Sooo beautiful!
Photos don’t do it justice
Nearly dark

Along the cliff top a little we found one very narrow inlet where hundreds of birds were roosting for the night. They made such a racket (if you want to hear them and witness the sunset click on the video below).