Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

The Scenic Route to Istanbul

Posted by jamesandpolls on February 16, 2010

J. We have arrived in Istanbul! After 14 days and 5300km we are at the crossover point between Europe and Asia.  (Our Michelin map says it is about 2400km between London and Istanbul – we have definitely taken the scenic route!)

We left snow bound Slovenia about 5 days ago in two minds, should we either head straight to Istanbul or go through the Balkans to Sarajevo where Hope and Homes have one of their operations. The weather looked like it was set to snow for the next 5 days and PAX has already let us know that he does not like the cold that much. After contacting the H&H gang we decided we would be mad to miss out on the opportunity so decided to go for the second option that would see us in 6 countries in three days!

Before getting to Bosnia our route took us through Croatia, a country that Polls and I have both been to before and will go again as on this occasion the only time we put our feet down on the ground was to have a pee at a service  station. We then cruised into Bosnia (the Croatia / Bosnia border offering us a taste of what was to come) and down to Jajce. It was an easy ride from the border to Jajce. the Lonely Planet had warned us of the scarcity of petrol stations in Bosnia; this could not be further from the truth. There were so many it became hilarious. 5 or 6 big smart petrol stations in 100 metres was a frequent site. Lonely Planet . . .have you been to Bosnia? Our journey also took us past Banja Luka where the Light Dragoons were based on many of their operations in the country. It was also near here where Lt Richard Madden, a Light Dragoon (the army regiment I was in), went over a mine in Jan 1996 and was killed. I definitely felt close to the Regiment as we passed the dreary city. My old Troop Sergeant, Thirla, always used to bang on about the Bosnia days and it was good to finally see the real estate! Not much Slivovice this time though Thirla!

Jajce, our stop for the night, was a citadel town with castle ramparts encapsulating the old town. After a cold brisk walk to see the ‘world famous’ waterfall and a walk along the ramparts followed by a beer in a cave bar we then settled down to a ‘Bosnian Meal’ and bed at the Stari Grad hotel.

Our journey into Sarajevo was beautiful. Although snowy so visibility was a bit poor we both marvelled at the deep gorges and crystalline forested hillsides. Roads were good too making life a lot easier. Sarajevo itself was different. As we came in the high rise concrete apartment blocks crowded the six lane motorway (with a train line in the middle), the sky was grey as were the buildings and the place had an air of depression about it. I am not sure if the buildings were wrecked from the war or just disuse but there were a lot of empty buildings and burnt remains as we came in. As Polls put it there was not one house/apartment that looked cozy or like you would want to stay there. As instructed we parked a the back of the Holiday Inn and waited for the H&H team to meet us.

It was here that our views of Sarajevo changed and it is a lesson that we must remember in that you must not judge a place by what it looks like but by the people (there you go Jonathan – my first signs of traveller chat, bring on the shark tooth necklace !). We had an incredibly enlightening visit to H&H both in terms of what they do and about Bosnia itself. We visited one of their prevention projects just outside Sarajevo where they are helping a family to remain as a family (giving parents who are struggling to look after their children all the help they need). The family was incredibly poor and lived in a tiny house (just two rooms really) with broken windows and no loo. Washing hung on the line outside in the snow in their small backyard where they used to keep a cow but have had to sell it . . and this is in Europe! H&H have many of these projects in Bosnia as well as a large family house where orphans go to become part of a family and get the social care and educational support that they need to prosper. We also went out to supper where spent a large portion of the evening talking Bosnian history and politics – wont bang on about it here but fascinating and it seems it is a country on the brink, which brink is up for debate! Thank you to all of the Hope and Homes guys in Sarajevo, you looked after us so well, taught us so much and managed not to blink when we turned up and were not OAPs as you had thought!

The next day we had set ourselves the target of reaching Plovdiv in Bulgaria, RAC route planner said 10 hours… mmmmm. Things did not bode well when the night before it started to snow heavily and we woke up at 530am to see a good foot of powder on the ground. We got out of Sarajevo OK but at some point near Olympic Mountain (Sarajevo hosted the winter Olympics in the 80s – topical) took a wrong turn and ended up spending about 3 hours in deep snow going up mountain passes (to 1500m!). These tracks had not been cleared so we were getting some fresh tracks! Eventually after 4 hours we reached the Bosnia / Serbia border, and with a glint of a smile and gleam in his otherwise dull eyes the border guard said what I expect was his only word in English ‘ Problem!’. It turns out that the border post we had gone to did not have the right insurance for us so told us to go to the next border crossing which luckily was not that far away. 18 km and another mountain pass later we arrived at the next border post to cigarette stained smiles and palms ready to be greased. We got through after paying 100 Euros for one days car insurance.

The next 10 hours passed by with little event and was punctuated only by occasional grey and depressing villages. I don’t think we will be back in Serbia in a hurry. A particular low point was when we spotted some abandoned puppies sitting in the snow at a layby – Polls was desperate to pick them up but managed to persuade her otherwise – border controls seem to be hard enough with no animals! Luckily the Serbia / Bulgaria border was a breeze as we crossed at 9pm and pushed onto Plovdiv eventually reaching it at midnight, 17 hours after we left Sarajevo. I am sure I remember saying that we could do this by driving small bits at a time and not driving at night to reduce the danger of accidents.Oops.

We raced out of Plovdiv and reached Turkey in a couple of hours (very impressive border post, WDY Turkey) and immediately stopped in Edirne for a kebab lunch (our first of many). Then it was on through the crazy rush hour traffic to Istanbul which is where I am writing this.

Istanbul is a fascinating city. It is one of those cities with such a rich past, full of wars and conquered lands, Sultans and Sultanas, Christianity and Islam, Europe and Asia. For the first time we have felt like we have travelled a long way from home. We have done all the touristy sights like – Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar and a boat on the Bosphorus but also plenty of kebabs and tea/coffee and just wandering the streets soaking up the atmosphere. We are feeling a little smug that we have driven here rather than flown – it has given us a sense of deserving. (Travel chat No 2 there Jon). We also have the delight of having a mosque literally 10m from our window so at 6am and 6pm we get the muezzin call for prayer. The Monday muezzin was definitely more tuneful than the recent one who, I think, needs a packet of Tunes before he comes back on the mic. We shall see (hear) tomorrow morning as the reveille calls.

It is Polls’ birthday on Thursday so as a present she is booked into a local hammam for a good sweat ‘n’ scrub tomorrow. I have turned one down after my last ‘man only’ bathing session in Budapest with the famous Jon Harris and instead will find a nice cafe and perhaps smoke a shisha and plan the next leg.

London to Istanbul was leg 1. Now it’s Istanbul to Cairo. Leg 2. First stop Cappadocia where we will act as troglodytes as they did thousands of years ago and live in caves in the mountainside, then Syria, Jordan and Egypt beckon. Onwards!

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Masks and Mountain Passes

Posted by jamesandpolls on February 10, 2010

J. It is now about 5 days since we left Polls’ sister in Chamonix. It was a fantastic five days and thank you to Will, Ems, Fozzie and Ellie for having us to stay. We had to leave though and as the Mont Blanc tunnel spat us out into our second country – Italy, we contemplated the next stage of our journey as we headed to Lake Garda and Simione.

Spring was in the air as we explored this small peninsula with its own Roman ruin (the first but I am sure not the last of the trip) and cobbled streets. In the height of summer I suspect this small town is a heaving mass of tourists but with only 2 or three hotels open we almost had the place to ourselves other than a few local Italians. P and I also decided to make this our first destination where we would do some running. We have decided that in order to stop us turning into lard arses we must do exercise along the way. I am not sure Italians do much running, by the surprise on their faces as Polls and I came jogging (very slowly) past I suspect not. It was a lovely stop over and after pushing onto Garda (the town) for lunch we headed to Proganziol where we were to stay for the next two nights with Polls’ parents and use it as a  base to explore Venice.

Many of you, I am sure, have been to Venice so I will not bang on about it. The carnival was on so there were a few more masks and costumes than usual but actually, for a city that is almost completely geared up for tourists, it was remarkably empty. I could not go as far as to say ‘we had the place to ourselves’ but what other tourists there were, were mostly Italians and not the vicious tourist mix of Japanese/Americans.

After arriving by bus we got the ‘water bus’ to St Marks Square which I thought was the highlight of the visit. Venice from the water is clearly the way to see it. St Marks Square was pretty packed and undergoing quite a substantial renovation so a fair amount of scaffolding around. This scaffolding/crowd mix detracted from what I expect is a fantastic spectacle when seen in the right light. We then wound our way back through the alleyways of Venice (loved the map reading) via lunch by the Grand Canal to eventually head home. Thank you so much Alastair and Roddy – for everything.

We left Proganziol early yesterday morning and headed for where we are now, Polje, Slovenia. the route we took looked like the most direct on the map, what the map didn’t tell us is that we were heading straight over some very high, snowy mountain passes. The views were incredible and the driving slightly dodgy, even in PAX but we eventually found our way to Chalet Planina which is owned by some friends and is where I am writing this from.

Slovenia is the forgotten jewel of the Alps and this area epitomises this. Beautiful, stark, snowy, quiet yet in the summer by the sound of it the local area turns into a hiking / walking / rafting extravaganza – in fact I think most sports are covered. We have decided not to ski here but instead have visited Bled (lake/castle/church on island) unfortunately it has started to snow so saw very little of any of it although still very fun. making the most of this cozy chalet now (www.chaletinslovenia.com if you want to have a look) before heading onto Sarajevo to visit Hope and Homes early tomorrow. It looks like it is going to snow for the next four days – PAX will be tested!

We are now over 3000kms into the trip and all is good so far. We have not got lost (too much). PAX seems to be holding up alright and spirits are high. Travelling within the EU is so very easy, I know it will get harder as we head East and we are relishing this challenge. Thats it for the Euro now as well although we are hanging onto what we have left as we have heard that they can still be used in Africa. It looks like we might have internet connection in Istanbul so next post will be from there. So for now, as we head of to Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey we wish you ‘nasvidenje’ and ‘dve stranisce’.

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Farewell, Champagne and Snow

Posted by jamesandpolls on February 6, 2010

P- What a great send off we had from the Ship in London – thanks to all of our lovely friends who came to see us on our way! Once we found our way out of London the trip down to Dover was fine apart from one of the windscreen wipers nearly falling off ( James managed to catch it just in time – could have been a slight problem!).

It took a while for us to find our hotel in Saint Omer, an hour south of Calais – (due of course to confusing French sign posts, rather than my navigating skills!) On the way South to Chamonix to see my sister, we stoppped off at Epernay and had a tour of the Moet and Chandon cellars.  

It is incredible, 18 miles of underground cellars (see picture – bit blurred, our guide must have had the shakes) and after a few taster glasses we were on our way again – strictly under the limit of course.

For the past 5 days we have been in the beautiful Chamonix Mont Blanc Valley, have had a couple of great days skiing with my sister and nieces who are now incredibly good even though they are only 7 and 4! The picure to the right is Ellie sitting on our roof tent, we had about a foot of snow last night..

Now it’s off through the Mt Blanc Tunnel, we’re stopping off at Lake Garda for a night before meeting Polls’ parents in Venice for two nights. The Venice festival is on too which should be fun.. not a bad start!

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