It is over a year since the UK Referendum upset me and a few other people. I cast my last ever vote in June 2017. It clearly didn’t swing things. But life in Monchique goes merrily on. Leo turned five in the summer – old enough, I reckoned, to come with me on my mad dream to travel in the camper van to Corfu, Greece, where my father lives, returning by ferry to Albania and up that part of the map that still remained blank to me. But not on our own. Then my friend Paul, who hates camping, said he would come with us – at least most of the way – but could we stay in bungalows on campsites when possible? My protests were minimal. It was going to be mid-summer and the camper had no air conditioning. The trip was on. We planned the journey there. But not back. Neither of us knew where to start colouring in the blanks. I would research at night while Leo slept. Everywhere has internet these days. The days of lugging around Lonely Planet books are long gone.
‘How long you going for?’ asked my neighbour, who would be looking after the cats.
‘Dunno,’ I said. ‘About five or six weeks?’
Two days after Leo’s birthday at the end of July, we said goodbye to the cats and headed down the mountain, the sun blasting, a grin stretching across my face, my little camper van bulging with Lego, tractors, books, bikes, Lego.
‘Is there internet?’ Leo asked about two minutes later, deftly tapping the iPad.
‘No, Leo, there’s no internet in the camper.’ Noises of discontent.
Our first stop was a campsite near Cordova. It was forty-three degrees at 7 p.m. in the shade.
‘Is there internet?’ Leo asked, as soon as we’d parked at the bungalow.
No. We dived in the campsite pool and ate ice-cream. Back at the bungalow Leo contented himself with playdoh. I made pasta under the air con inside the wooden bungalow while our Spanish neighbours lit a barbecue. The playdoh turned to hard-baked crumbs in seconds. So did the pasta. Paul read a book about Croatia in German. I wished I’d bought some Lonely Planet books on Croatia, Albania and wherever else we were going.
At Ruidera the next afternoon, there was no bungalow. Or internet. Only several beautiful lakes – and a zip wire for kids.
‘Can I go on the zip?’ Leo asked, after we’d swum in the lake and the campsite pool.
We went but there was a queue. When we went back they were packing up.
‘Never mind,’ Paul said. ‘Maybe we go to one in Croatia.’
‘Yes, I read there’s a zip wire in the north of Croatia. It crosses a ravine. We can go there.’
I didn’t say anything. A ravine? For sure little children would not be allowed. Typical of Paul to have these ideas. We raced around the campsite, Leo honing his bike-riding skills.
‘Keep to the right, Leo.’
‘I am keeping to the right,’ he shouted, pedalling on the left. ‘Mentirosa! You told me to stay on this side before!’
I have never lied to Leo so this was slightly annoying. Particularly as he had a point. I tried to explain that the right side is different depending on which direction you are travelling but my explanation fell out of his ears and to the ground and I got called a fibber again.
The next night we stayed in a hotel in Teruel before visiting Dinopolis, a dinosaur park. The sky darkened and a crocodile stole my hat while travelling through time to the Jurassic age in a boat. Then I sat on my phone in a corkscrew metal slide and the screen crunched into a million pieces. From then on I had bits of glass in my thumb. On leaving the park, Leo dropped his iPad in the camper and the screen began to detach itself. The storm hung in the air.
‘I want sushi please,’ Leo declared the next day when we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. It was too hot to make anything in the camper. Also, I really wanted to use the internet too. I didn’t even know where we were, let alone where we were going after Greece.
‘They don’t have sushi in Spain,’ I explained. ‘Part of the joy of travelling is trying new food.’ Legs of pigs were strung around the restaurant. Spain and vegetarianism are not two words that slide easily together.
‘Mentirosa,’ said Leo, sitting down with his broken iPad, staring up at the legs. ‘Is there internet?’
No. We ate some batata tortilla and salada russa. That night we stayed in Alcaniz, a stunning medieval town, like all Spanish towns. Added to which, there was internet. I looked up sushi and Barcelona. There were four sushi restaurants apparently so I was wrong, okay, mentirosa. Even more exciting was the ice house beneath the town with tunnels. We stayed there until we really had to go.
The boat from Barcelona to Civitavecchia didn’t depart until 10 p.m. so we had time to look for one of the sushi restaurant. We parked in the port, got the bikes down and cycled around this fantastic city. I’d just about given up and then we found one just off La Rambla – and then the other three. It was the week before a misguided person drove a van into a crowd of people, killing fourteen, injuring many more. Leo shovelled the sushi inside him.
I woke up in Italy thinking of Francesco. Thirty-one years ago I had left Berlin to stay with an Italian en route to Japan in the days when I (and most other people in Britain) didn’t even know what sushi was. I remembered Italy then as being very conservative, poor in places, hardly anyone speaking English. I had to pick ham out of the pizzas. But, as soon as I began driving along the motorway with the windows open, I could feel the energy and hear the singing language all around me. When we stopped everyone spoke English, there were more vegetarian meals in one petrol station café than I’d seen in a week in Spain. As for the fashion: Gucci sunglasses, Versace gold T-shirts and designer flip-flops flipped around dirty roads. Most people drove Fiats but, occasionally, a Lamborghini or Maserati thundered past. It was loud, vibrant, colourful – with a touch of decadence. I loved it.
I’d booked a campsite in Pompeii for two nights. There were no bungalows. The pitches were small. I took a deep breath.
‘I don’t want to stay here,’ said Paul. We moved pitch. It was still very tight. ‘Okay, but only one night.’ By two o’clock the next day, after having spent hours dragging ourselves around the ruined city under the scorching volcano in the sky, we’d all had enough. Leo refused to walk anymore. I thought Pompeii was just a few Roman buildings covered in ash but a GPS would have been very useful. And there’s no ash. It took me four hours to find the casts of bodies, which was my main aim. Pompeii was hot, squashed, expensive but historically grand and with great ice-cream and pizzas. However, ‘No more ruins,’ we agreed.
We crossed the shin of Italy, calling in at Lago Grande, near Rionero in Vulture. This was a dark gem – a volcanic lake hidden away in the mountains, full of very well dressed and non-sporty Italians. We hired contraptions and pedalled slowly around the dark lake, winding back time to about the 1870s.
From Bari we had to reverse the camper onto the boat to Corfu. They saved us to last. I had once managed to reverse into a lone olive tree so my heart sank. The sea was big, the ship was small. Fortunately Paul did it. Clambering over all the young people dossing on the decks, in the corridors and in the bar, reminded me of myself thirty-five years ago island hopping around the Greek islands, sleeping on the beaches with nothing more than a sleeping bag. Nothing had changed – except the kids had blow-up mattresses as well as sleeping bags (much more sensible). Having a cabin made me feel old but happy. Both Leo and I slept until the boat blasted its horn.
And then we were in Corfu. Easy-peasy.
We stayed at my father’s house in Pelekas for ten days. Corfu, as expected, was hot, very hot and busy; buzzing with young Italians on mopeds, Russians on lilos and Brits in the bars. I have been to Corfu five times in the last fifteen years but this time I felt that there was more integration between the Greeks and everyone else. A new generation had grown up. More foreigners spoke Greek and more Greeks spoke other languages. Or maybe I was just relieved to get there. I was certainly very content to float in the flat, warm, turquoise sea. Leo loved it. One of the highlights was snorkelling with Leo for two hours just off Agios Gordios. We also borrowed my father’s little Suzuki and drove up to the north of the island in search of somewhere without people. We found it high up in the mountain of Pantokratoras: a cave deep in a fissure in the mountain. Paul told stories of a brown bear that lived there.
I was waiting for Leo to say, ‘Mentiroso’ but he didn’t. A strange silent place. Even the cicadas were quiet.
‘Shall we go in?’ I said.
‘No, Mummy, be careful,’ Leo whispered.
‘Oh, don’t be silly. There are no bears here.’ But it looked a bit slippery. Better not.
We also found peace and quiet wild camping down in the south of Corfu to a beach called Halikunas or Chalikunas. Similar to the west coast of Aljezur with its expansive sandy beaches, sand dunes and waves.
A birthday present from my father for both myself and Leo was a flight in a Cessna. Quite an old Cessna. I’d never had a problem believing small aircraft could fly – until I saw the plane. But the pilot, a gentle French man, worked as an engineer and assured us of his abilities.
‘So when did you get your licence?’ I’d asked.
‘Two years ago,’ he replied proudly.
And Ian had told me that he didn’t fly often as he worked on projects in different countries. But we flapped our arms and slowly went up. Then the turbulence tossed us around the sky like a crisp packet blowing down the street. Below us the pristine seas around Corfu glittered. Ahead the green peaks of the hills loomed before us. I got more glass splinters in my thumb from taking photos. Leo got bored after a while and eyed my phone. I nudged him. Air traffic control could hear us. And I knew they had more important things to do than hear complaints of there being no internet. He did spot five Agualands though. I tried to explain that we were circling as we hadn’t been given permission to land because of the commercial jets flying in.
I didn’t tell him that I could see the petrol gauge on almost empty.
We found a sushi restaurant in Kanoni, the other side of the runway. Not quite the same as the all-you-can-eat for ten euros in Portimão but the view was spectacular watching the planes fly down over the sea around the velvet green hills towards the runway, the sun setting behind them. Even if we were all hungry afterwards.
The time came to leave Corfu. The camper was booked onto a ferry to Saranda that took only four cars. It took hours to get the visas and we were last on again. Backwards. Thank you, Paul. We stood on the deck and waved goodbye to Corfu as we headed towards the parched mountainous country of Albania and unchartered territory.
‘Be careful,’ we were told. ‘There is a lot of crime.’
I still knew little about Albania. My research hadn’t gone to plan. I learned that the last dictator banned moustaches and built hundreds of thousands of bunkers to protect itself from invasion. An isolated Communist country. Even Stalin wouldn’t have been able to visit. But Hoxha was long gone and Albania had had twenty-five years since the collapse of Communism to grow moustaches and dismantle bunkers. Indeed, Saranda seemed a bustling little port town. But as we zigzagged up through the town, the shiny new shopping centres and restaurants near the sea were replaced by crumbling buildings and kids playing in the streets with sticks and squashed balls. We were way out of Euroland. No more Aldi or Lidl, the petrol stations were called Kastrati and Islamaj. We were looking for an ATM but didn’t find one. The land became dry, mountainous, barren, abandoned. We detoured to a beach but were met by a guarded road and sent back. The reasons may have been innocuous but throw in a few bunkers along the way and it is very easy to smell the fear and paranoia of the past.
We finally stopped in a village with a faded monument to the workers lost in the war. A lone cow walked along the road. A café was advertising Money Exchange. I went in. The owner was Greek Albanian, as were many of the people along that part of the coastline. He even spoke Portuguese, having been a sailor in his past. There was internet so Leo joined me. The owner made some homemade chips, exchanged us some Lek, and bottles of spring water for free. Of course, he said, Albania gazed now to Europe. We continued driving, past Himare and up towards an ancient mountain pass. Apparently, Julius Caesar used it to move armies up and down to Orikum. Everywhere cars were broken down, steam coming out of the engines or with flat tyres. The camper zig-zagged up and up without even breaking into a sweat. The turquoise sea was getting further away. By the time we got to the top we were higher than in the Cessna. We stopped for a pause and nearly got blown away. A graffitied ruin stood guard.
That night we stayed in Llogora, high up the National Park, in a hotel that reminded me of an old Soviet style hotel, presumably frequented by men without moustaches and their families. It had a deep indoor pool, saunas, tame deer in the garden and grumpy staff at the reception. That night the criminals struck and stole two plastic wine glasses that I used in the camper. We had left them on a table outside our wooden chalet. They left the broken iPad and iPhone.
The next morning we played mini-golf with the deer. I won. ‘Mentirosa!’
We zig-zagged down the other side of the mountain, back into the heat, and stopped just past Orikum and bathed, presumably, where Julius Ceasar’s army would have bathed. It wasn’t quite the same as Corfu. The water was still warm but not as polished. The cafes had internet but the houses were mainly ruins or shacks. But every so often there would be a big house. Or castle. Albanians love castles. If nothing else, a castellated wall would be built around a modest shack or bunker. As in the old Soviet Union, in the towns, most people lived in crumbling pre-fabs. Many have a sign outside, ‘Shitet’ which I eventually worked out meant ‘For sale’, not shit. There was no shortage of cars, particularly Mercedes, and at least four Hamas blocked my view. Not surprisingly, car washes came next to castles in popularity. There was one approximately every two minutes.
We shopped in a supermarket (selling everything except plastic glasses) and tried to get to Berat but the road was blocked by a wild fire so we returned to Flore. We stopped in a café (with internet) and went to Booking.com and found a hotel as there were no campsites. That night Leo ate a whole chicken. My vegetarian plans had been derailed when he told me, ‘Men eat meat, Lisa.’
‘Men are vegetarians as well, Leo. Strong men.’
‘Who?’ he asked. Unfortunately I couldn’t name any.
We agreed chicken only (and anything else he could nab from Paul’s plate).
We made it to Berat, a medieval city (and World Heritage site), the next day. Mosques like sharp pencils poked the sky. I hadn’t seen much sign of religion until then. Or moustaches for that matter. A few women dressed in black niqabs floated around. Leo had thought they were ghosts which paved the way for mini talks on religion and respect.
We got the bikes off the camper and attempted to cycle up to the old castled city but we struggled on the cobbles and, defeated, asked a taxi. It reminded me of Monsaraz, a medieval walled town in the Alentejo. Although the Roman remains dated back to 200BC.
‘You said no more ruins!’ Leo said.
‘Hm. They’re not all ruins.’
We cycled round. A boy followed us. I’m not sure what he wanted but we kept smiling. I tried to have a conversation but Albanian is a tricky language. He followed us for about half an hour. We stayed the night at Castle Park up a hill on the other side of the river. They had very small bungalows but slightly bigger than the camper and presented us with jugs of flower and fruit flavoured waters. Leo and I drank about two litres. Not so far away was a canyon where they offered a type of body-rafting trip through the canyon. Leo and I wanted to go but it was quite expensive and a full day trip. Instead we headed back towards the coast. As we approached Durres the landscape turned flat, the concrete worn out.
‘This can’t be right,’ I said to Paul, as we passed crumbling villages on a potholed road. We were looking for a beautiful campsite by the sea. Kids played on rusty bikes, chickens and a tortoise crossed the road. But no sea.
Then there it was. Pa Emer. Just as they said. Complete with a pizzeria on a wooden platform in the sea. A beautiful spot even if there was a thirty minute queue for a trickling cold shower and not very discreet guards were dotted around – presumably to protect plastic glasses. That night there was a spectacular storm and, in the morning, no electricity.
We decided to move on. I stopped at one of the car washes. For 300 Lek (about 2.20 euros) the camper van sparkled and off we trundled on shiny wheels. As well as castles, bunkers and car washes, the other common sight in Albania was weddings, white weddings. And rather long queues of beeping traffic taking up both sides of the road with a bride and bridegroom at the front, either in a dressed up car or horse-drawn carriage. And the holy grail of weddings was a photograph of the happy couple in a castle. By a drone.
That night at an empty campsite near Skopje for the first time I heard a mosque’s call for prayers. The next day we visited Skoder, famous for its castle and the famous bridge in Mes, one of the longest bridges built during the Ottoman Empire. We stayed at Lake Skodra campsite which Paul hated as it was full of Germans. It was still 3461 km to Monchique. We had been travelling for almost four weeks.
We had planned to get to Dubrovnik but it took us six hours to do 150 km. We passed through beautiful Monte Negro, only stopping for lunch in the camper. It was late and I was tired when we finally crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina in a town called Trebinje. The signs were in almost Cyrillic. We were in the Republica Srpska apparently.
‘There’s a bar,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a drink and see if they have internet.’
I walked past the men perched on stools, smoking and drinking beer, feeling self-conscious. But I went into the bar and there was a man who looked familiar.
‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.
‘Yes, of course.’ His accent was almost English.
‘Do you have Wifi?’
‘Yes, of course.’ He smiled.
I smiled back. He reminded me of someone.
I sat down. Leo and Paul came to join me and we started looking for somewhere to stay. All the time I kept looking at the man behind the bar. Dragan. Dragan was an old punk Serbian friend from Berlin, who later moved to London. His father was killed in Sarajevo by the UN during the Balkans war. Dragan was married and had a daughter by this point but, sometime later, he drilled a hole in his head. If he were still alive he would have been about fifty-five. This man was maybe thirty. As far as I knew Dragan didn’t have a son and I couldn’t imagine he had brothers that young. I was about to ask. Paul interrupted me:
‘So what about this one? It’s on the road to Dubrovnik.’
‘Hm. How about here,’ I suggested. ‘This has parking. I’d quite like to see the town. We’re here now.’
We agreed on a hotel and left. Dragan’s incarnation had disappeared. I would never know.
There are few cities in the world where I’ve thought: I’d like to live here. Berlin is one. Trebinje another. A small city (or town) with huge paved squares, decorated with plane trees and fountains, bordered by dozens of cafes. Castle walls encased an old part of the town with more cafes and restaurants. Part of the river had been filtered off to make a city swimming pool. The architecture was grand, old and full of character. Maybe it was the Cyrillic but, for some reason, I felt very at home here. Paul explained that it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – hence the grandiose squares and buildings.
It was already late when we put the bikes back on the camper but it was only thirty kilometres to Dubrovnik. It took four hours. Crossing into the EU was not easy. I could not help but imagine the queues into mainland Europe after Brexit. Just saying. My first impression of Dubrovnik in Croatia was of a bustling, capitalist and expensive country, much like the rest of the EU. We stayed just south of Dubrovnik in Mlini and the next day took the boat to Dubrovnik. It was beautiful but there were four cruise ships in and about a million tourists. Add fifty degrees to that and it was a tetchy day. I almost got into a row with a woman who was letting her child wander around with a plastic gun which he insisted on holding at Leo’s head while he was on a swing. Leo, following my lead, also began tantrumming. He did learn to swing by himself that day though.
Dubrovnik is part of a Croatian island in Bosnia and Herzegovina and because of the lengthy border crossings we decided not to take the coast road north but to head back to Bosnia through the mountains to Mostar. We found a small border crossing and were over within minutes. Back out of the EU. We saw a sign to some caves and found them. And this time there was a bear. And a white salamander. The temperature was 14 degrees in the caves, forty outside.
The campsite outside of Mostar was one of the nicest we stayed at, despite the freezing river. The owner greeted us, showed us round, gave us a free plate of fruit and a welcome drink. The next day we took a taxi into Mostar to see the famous bridge. Mostar is another Austro-Hungarian built city with its grand buildings, many of which are still pockmarked with bullets and shells, or in ruins. It became the most moving journey of the journey. I was at university studying Russian at the time of the Balkans war. My best girlfriend was Croatian. We didn’t talk about the fighting much. I would shake my head. She would inhale a Bensons and shrug. Then there was my old Serbian friend, Dragan. Thousands of young people, Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics fought street by street. Now cemeteries line the roads and thousands of tourists including Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics wander the narrow streets, watching the scarred men jump off the bridge, wondering what that was all about. As the taxi driver told us, ‘It was the criminal politicians, not the people, who caused the war.’
‘Would you like Bosnia to join the EU?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘We do not want another war.’
A reminder, perhaps, of the importance of an integrated Europe. There is no doubt that the process of homogenisation across Europe makes the countries slightly less interesting from a traveller’s point of view (and certainly more expensive), but that the EU provides the people with security, familiarity, and allows people to travel freely, live and learn amongst other cultures, I think, is a great achievement. Bla bla bla. Anyway, we still had other great things to achieve: it was still another 3195 km to Monchique and Paul and Leo were now set on crossing the four zip wires over a gorge in Pazin, Croatia.
‘Do you want to do it?’ Paul asked.
‘No way,’ I replied. I felt a brick land in my stomach.
This time he was right.