I decided soon after the pandemic started that I wanted to drive through Europe to the Greek island of Paros, where my house is located on the west side of the island.
I had done this once before, with my kids and an ex back in 2002 and we had all enjoyed it, but I felt the strong urge to get there again, having felt that I'd been effectively in lockdown (or close to it) for the majority of the last year. The feeling of restlessness and discombobulation (never before have I heard this word used as much as at this present time, during the Covid era) was growing stronger and I had a yearning need to widen my horizons, to get out there and see what life might throw my way, to cast fate to the wind, to open myself up to new and unexpected experiences, ideas and challenges.
England has been my home since birth, but I wouldn't be the only one to reach the conclusion that this honey badger of a virus hasn't shown us up as a nation in our best light. There's no doubt that major change is already under way everywhere, but this will be a worldwide disassembling and will require a sense of balance rarely called upon, an overview and a vision that our so-called leaders seem totally incapable of. A lot of this work will be about community and connection, mutual support, local initiatives and certainly will not be about hanging around for clueless politicians to expect to give us any sort of steer.
The revolution is already under way, a 'revealtion' for those who are noticing it and acting upon it. A wake up call for those still sleeping or pretending that something else is going on.
The Paros hideaway has been both my refuge and inspiration since being lucky enough to chance upon it in 2005. It has been the hillside lookout that re-engerises, that replenishes, that fires my immersion in the wonders of nature - whether it is feeling the brisk and cooling meltemi whistle through from the north, the cool dips in the clearest, cleanest water that I have ever had the pleasure to immerse myself in, the daily spectacular sunset rituals that I enjoy from the terrace looking west over Antiparos or watching storms come in from the shore over the nearby fishing village of Alyki, just a kilometre to the south. On the clearest of days, I have identified at least eleven other islands from this elevation and even spotted Santorini a handful of times, 77 kilometres away.
Day One : Teignmouth to northern France
Me and my little Audi A2, full up with various clothes, boxes of cables, magazines and tech gear, was loaded ready to leave Teignmouth - my home for the last few months - with mixed emotions. The mellow fruitfulness and weak early autumn sun at 7am left me feeling wistful but relieved to be 'getting the show on the road' finally, even without my co-pilot, who had pulled out four days ago after weeks of planning. I was determined not to let this sudden blip dampen my mood or spirit of exploration, so I turned the ignition and started on the long haul to Dover, stopping on the hill just outside the Devon town to remember the breathtaking view I'd remembered from my first visit back in January. The weight of an uneven summer rested heavily on my shoulders. I had butterflies. My stomach was actually upset.
It was onwards in an easterly direction to scruffy Dover, strangely empty, with just a dozen or so cars alongside the vast number of haulage trucks. The only person I spoke to was the assistant at Costa Coffee who took five minutes to appear when I was waiting and seemed very surprised to see anyone. "This is all pretty weird. I'm not happy in this all and I sense I'm not the only one."
The boat journey was pleasant enough, although I spent most of it trying to grapple with a fairly unfathomable website where I had to put together my 'sworn statement' (for French authorities, to say I didn't have Covid nort had been around anyone who I was aware had it, etc) which just didn't seem to work in the browsers I used. In the end I managed to download it and fill it in. No one even asked to see it at the other side.
Vive La France. Glistening sea and I spotted many people enjoying the golden hour at Calais beach. I get the feeling there are probably not too many more days left at the tail end of this summer when the English and French can enjoy basking on the beach.
Looking west from Calais towards Le Havre.
Off the ferry an hour after publicised time so I knew I would be hard pressed to get to my stopover, a hotel next to a lake between Raon and Reims, not far from the autoroute but far enough off the beaten track to give me the first taste of the big country, rural France on this trip.
The hotel was ok, a little overpriced for what it offered and with very average food on offer. I plumped for a veggie curry! After so little sleep for two nights, I was fast asleep by 10.30 ready to rise at daybreak...
Day Two : Northern France to Reggio Emilia, Italy
An inspiring start to the day, a red sky dawn over the lake. I was slightly unsure about the day ahead, a big (t)ask I had set myself, to drive over 1000 kilometres and something over ten hours. It was, in many senses, a tall order, but with booked ferries to catch on the onward trip, there wasn't too much free time wother than a precious few hours I had set aside on the morning of day three for Italian exploration.
The drive was, let's face it, fairly tedious. Much as I would loved to dawdle down through French villages and enjoy fresh baguettes and local wines and stinky cheeses, casual swims in lakes and rural sunsets, it was not for this trip. So kilometre after kilometre, toll after toll flashed past, destination Dijon, destination Lyon, then destination Geneva, through the Alps, then destination Milan...
There is not much to do really other than to 'keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel' as some denim-clad rockers had advised us in the early 70s and my friend Pete Holden had reminded me in a comment on a blue social network as I was setting off. A decent musical selection, some periods of silence, thoughtful contemplation and an allowance to be able to glimpse at the miles of forests and rolling hills that populate our vast world. I was living throughout with a growing sense of oneness, in gratitude to this beautiful planet, even with its inhabitants so sick at this time. I really just want, more than ever, to be in service to whatever is best for the earth, whatever it is telling me to do, how to be, while I am lucky enough to be here and to be immersed in its glory. This dawned on me after emeging from the very long tunnel at Mont Blanc, almost talking light language..
So after ten hours of driving, plus a half hour stop for lunch and two petrol refuels, I left the motorway at Reggio Emilia in Italy after by far the busiest stretch yet, compared to the deserted autoroutes of France. There was just a short fifteen minute drive to Oasi La Martina, which I had found at short notice via a hotels and B&Bs booking site on the web and looked enticing because of its rural location, next to farmland and vineyards. I was looking forward to another Italian experience and my host had already booked ahead at what she thought was the best local restaurant for home cooking. It had been a seemingly never ending drive since dawn and - to put it mildly - I needed some time away from the concentration of being at the wheel.
What happened next was unexpected. In the little village of Case Vellani I followed my satnav app to take a left. It was s ingle track road which seemed right. Shortly I was directed to take a right. This led me into a short cul de sac with a few parked cars. An immediate dead end. I looked at the satnav again and it told me to turn around. As I was driving slowly back towards the junction, I was suddenly blinded by the huge sun. It was 18:30 and the sun was in its last hour before sunset so at its most distracting - I saw another car at the corner coming towards me so pulled over onto the grass verge to let it through. As I pulled away again, I felt a sickening crumple sound. The world seemed to stop in that moment and certainly my car did. I noticed when I took my sunglasses off that I had driven into a road sign, in fact almost flattened it. I instrinctively knew that the car was damaged to the point that my journey was on pause. On closer inspection, the front passenger side had a broken headlight casing, the fog lamp was on the grass and the body of car wasnt in the position it should be. I was also leaking windscreen wash, which had been topped up the day before. Excruciatingly, I was about 0.5km from my destination.
Luckily I wasn't hurt, just shaken. I had already instinctively received a text from the host, Raffaela asking if all was ok. Within minutes she had come to help and I ended up limping the car home despite the displaced wheel arch protector's best attempts to stop me.
Thanks Google and your wonderful satnav that had given me completely erroneous instructions.
In my muddled and exhausted frame of mind I gave up on trying to sort anything and instead followed her wise insistence to drive me to have some dinner. The local restaurant of her choice was fantastic with local produce prioritised and very tasty (and great value) pizzas. Plied with local red wine, I went back to enjoy her lovely and historic house - full of cats and dogs and good karma - and I slept like a log in my comfortable bed. I dreamt of roads and tolls, diversions and derailments.
Day Three : Reggio Emilia to the Adriatic coast (first part of a 24 hour boat journey)
A new day dawned over the farmstead and quite a day it was. After an early breakfast, my host was in full flow. That morning, she really went out of her way to sort my car repairs, taking me nearly 20km to her local garage, who immediately rescued my vehicle, did the repairs and as if by magic, called us in little over an hour to say it was roadworthy again. This was assistance and service beyond my wildest expectations and restored my faith in humanity in a week when many expectations had been challenged.
She also drove me out of her way to find an ATM to pay the garage boys and we returned to a delicious lunch of local tomatoes, ham and parmesan, plus the best focaccia I have had in a while. In my spare hour I had managed a recharge by walking around the vineyards just behind her house, laden with thick grapes and she brought out a sun lounger so I could sit by the pond and watch the carps and goldfish. It was perfect idyll in a quiet rural farming backwater just minutes from the highway. I will return and hopefully stay longer…
Raffaela's comment to me afterwards was "Modern version of the "Morgan le Fay and Merlin" legend: not stuck in Italy but freed to reach Paros Island, whilst unexpectedly discovering an Oasis in the middle of nowhere. Welcome home!
Oasi La Martina: no river and no sea, neither hills nor any mountains but a lake spilling over from paradise, where fishes slowly fly in a mirror of liquid sky."
I would recommend this secret gem to anyone and everyone who likes to explore slightly off the beaten track. A proper oasis. (click photo collage for booking link)
I left with a heart full of gratitude almost weeping tears for the sudden encounter with unexpected beauty and generosity of human nature. They say that travelling widens horizons, this was as good an example as I could recall in my many years as a traveller.
So it was back onto the hurly burly of the Italian motorways with tailgators everywhere and unexpected happenings all around. Truly a time to 'keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel', especially when it was touch and go it I would make it to Ancona on time.
As fortune would have it, I made it in one piece, in 32 degree temperatures, and almost on time, joining a number of German camper vans and lots of logistics lorries for the 24 hour crossing). Here is my little car in the queue. Phew!
The Cruise Olympia is a big ship, but mercifully three quarters empty, which was probably good in terms of potential Covid spread. I felt uneasy using air conditioning given reports of cruises around lockdown, but it was good to see the crew and most on board wearing masks inside and at least making an attempt to observe social distancing, even if the one-way arrows on the floors led to much confusion...
The food was pretty average (though I did get the last fresh fish for dinner) and the atmosphere subdued which gave me a great chance to feel into some lateral thinking, some much-needed decompressing and reading - I got totally immersed in the new book by my dear friend of over thirty years (and Campfire member) @Sarah Aspinall. One of the those books that I know I will be sad to finish, 'Diamonds at the Lost and Found' is the story of Sarah's relationship with her mother, Audrey and the world travelling they did when Sarah was a young child, often to her bemusement and all around her mother's endless search for love. I would recommend it wholeheartedly.
Otherwise, with mobile phones not connecting off the long stretch of Albanian coast, there was little else to do but sit back and enjoy the sun and the amazing scenery, the vastness of the open seas and skies.
Day Four : Somewhere off the Albanian coast on a boat to Xelocastro (near Patras, Greece)
After a marathon 24 hour trip, it was back onto land, this time, the promised land of mainland Greece and a relatively short hop to a little hotel in the wonderfully named Xenocastro, just over an hour from Patras. As the early evening cast long shadows along the peninsula and over the Peloponnese to the north, I was almost home. In the meantime I enjoyed the hospitality at the beachfront hotel, arriving just as the light was fading and talking to manager Dimitri about his own epic journey the other way, to Southampton on a motorbike. I savoured the setting, the lapping water and my tasty Greek cuisine, knowing it was an early rise, to be on the road for 04:30 in order to make the early morning ferry to Paros
Day Five : Xelocastro to Paros
It was a hairy drive, just under two hours in the dark through motorways and several tolls and, as ever, finding the port of Piraeus was a little hit and miss, but having arrived in the chaos of the ticketing area with everyone seemingly heading in different directions, it felt a little like my car had been plonked into a dodgem car circuit. It was all a bit challenging for the travel weary at 6am, but all was good and I was once again asked to complete a form confirming I was Covid free (Paros has literally had just one or two cases, as far as anyone is aware, though the Welsh introduced enforced quarantine recently for those returning from several Greek islands including Paros).
I always enjoy the experience at this time of year when the sun comes up over Piraeus harbour just we set sail and this one was as good as ever. Soon, however, we were into choppy waters, though not the vomit-inducing levels I have occasionally encountered. The Blue Star was pretty good, other than that they've covered virtually all their outside area, so sunseekers were challenged. I found a little nook eventually to take in some much-needed Vitamin D and enjoy the passing islands. Before we knew it Paros was within sight and - later in the day - a well-earned swim at my local beach followed by the initiation of an ouzo.