Campervanning Around France

About three months into our trip, Adam floated the idea that we could do one of those motorhome relocation deals. This is where you pick up a motorhome from a designated location and drop it off at the company office all for a discounted price. The catch is that you don’t have control over the time period.   
Whilst we were in a Macedonian coffee shop, drinking possibly the best macchiato of our lives, Adam got on the phone with a sales representative from the UK camper-van company Spaceships. For 15 pounds a day we had ourselves a camper-van for just under 2 weeks. The pick up location was Barcelona and the drop off location was London. This would mean that we would arrive at my sisters apartment in Kings Cross, London just in time to get ourselves up to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games.    
Part of the pick up deal was that we had to meet the previous renters of the car at Barcelona airport for the handover. This meant that we would get the van in whatever condition they decided to leave it in. It turned out amazingly -as these random events often do. They were a Canadian couple who had spent the last 30 days travelling down to Spain from London and they gave us a very detailed run-down of what to expect from the roads and from the van itself. After chatting with them for a bit they decided to give us the bicycles they’d picked up in London and had planned to give away in good faith to someone who needed them. They told us that we could have the bikes on the condition that we pass on the favour to someone in need. We agreed and were stoked with having not only our own set of wheels but bicycles to help us explore the French countryside. 
We made our way up from Barcelona into France without any troubles. Our budget while we had the van was about 10-20euros a night for accommodation so we were on the lookout for budget campsites and Aires de Service. Aires de Service were motorhome stops that exist all along the roads through France. They are on big motorways and on smaller country roads as well. They are free to stay for 24 hours and often have services such as toilets, showers, picnic tables etc. The only issue is that they have been getting a bad reputation in recent years as a target for thieves and criminals. There are horror stories of thieves who put gas in through an open window to knock out the owners while they were sleeping. The owners would wake the following day to find all their valuables gone. Nethertheless, Adam and I wanted to give it a go at least once and it didn’t hurt our pockets either as it is completely free!
   
  

  I am, by nature, a massive scaredy-cat so when we pulled up at our first Aires de Service which was a small park about 300 metres from a major service station, I wasn’t feeling great about the situation. It looked like somewhere dodgy deals take place. But we cooked our dinner and watched as two other campers pulled up, one with a young child and the other an elderly couple. I was paranoid as we settled down to sleep. Adam wasn’t worried and fell asleep almost instantly but I found the constant noises and cars slowly driving past disconcerting. At one stage a car pulled up behind our van, headlights blaring for a few minutes before the engine was turned off. I peeked out from behind the curtains at the back and saw to my relief that it was another family in a sedan who were trying to get some sleep on their journey to wherever.
   
 
After three days sightseeing during the day and sleeping at Aires de services at night, I suggested we start looking for campgrounds instead. I was a bit over waiting in the lines for showers with all the truck drivers. Also the lack of security at the Aires meant minimal sleep for me (not Adam haha) and they weren’t exactly nice to look at either.
The first campground we stayed at was magic. It was on a tiny backroad lined with sunflower fields and stood next to a lake with lots of trees and a few family set-ups. At ten euros for the night we weren’t complaining. We took the bikes out for a spin and enjoyed the serenity.           
From then on, travelling through France was lovely. Having a car meant that we could stop in all the random little towns along the way and we felt like we got a nice feel for French country life. The people were really friendly and the food was delicious (except for the coffee).  

      Saint Emillion was one of our first stops. It was a stunning medieval town famous for wine. Adam bought an opinel knife there and we explored the cobble stone streets on our bikes. 

Bordeaux was the real surprise for us. The city itself was gorgeous and we had fun riding our bikes around to the main tourist spots. We got our hair cut in Bordeaux (our second time on our travels) which was a hilarious experience in itself. 

  

  

  

  And we booked into a personal wine tasting seminar which was a highlight of our time in France. For 15 Euro, we were taken on a tasting journey through the different regions in France and both the food and the wine were exquisite. 

    We didn’t have to worry about asking stupid questions as the sommelier running the tasting session was very down to earth and patiently explained what the hell “appellation d’origine contrôlée” was and how we could tell which wine to buy based on the label and year.

Paris was pretty special. The highlights were when we caught up with our French friends who we first met in Morocco. Talking to them gave us a great insight into the alternative scene in Paris and the mentality of the French people. And we also met our Aussie friends Jake and Amy who we keep bumping into, first in Mostar, then Rome and now Paris.         
We also had one of the bikes stolen in the middle of Paris which was a real bummer and meant that Adam had to ‘double’ me almost 5kms back to our campsite past seedy streets and the occasional prostitute. 
Our last few days in France saw us heading up the North West coast on our way to Calais from which we would catch the car ferry over the the UK. The scenery was beautiful. 

    After having the good bike of the two stolen in Paris, we were a little down about how we were going to pass on the good deed by giving our bike to someone in need. We were setting up camp for the night on our last night in France when Adam spotted an elderly man checking out a bike that was for sale for 50 euros near the campground office. Adam approached the guy who turned out to be Dutch and spoke very limited English. After a lot of gesturing Adam finally convinced the guy to take our bike for free. He was so grateful that he came over half an hour later with some amazing craft beers and beer glasses as a thank you. What a nice way to end our travels through France. 
We got up the next morning bright and early and drove onto the ferry at Calais. Our next stop: London. 

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Germany

We were running out of time on our Schengen visa once again and after a bit of a scare at the Greek border we weren’t going to take any chances. So we only had 12 days to do Germany the best we could. We’d decided on Berlin for four days, Munich for three and a night in Hamburg before flying to Spain but we hadn’t chosen our last location.

Leaving Ryan and Audrey was hard. We had already got used to being with friends, not having to cart our backpacks from one hostel to another and the thought of going back to that made us both uncomfortable. But hey, that’s what traveling is all about, being pushed out of your comfort zone.

So it was off to Berlin. Berlin was one of those cities that I had always wanted to visit and had relatively high expectations of. It definitely lived up to its name.

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The hostel we had chosen was right where we wanted to be, walking distance from all of the action.

We booked ourselves onto a Sandemans free walking tour straight away and had the best morning learning all about the history of Berlin.

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Absolutely crazy to imagine everything that went on in one city and not that long ago.

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While we were in Berlin we made sure to check out all of the typical tourist haunts, taking the obligatory photos and indulging in some currywurst and good German beer.

I had a sobering visit to Sachsenhausen without poor Adam who was sick on the day.

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The World Cup was also on, and Germany was going strong. So we made our way to Alexanderplatz Square where we watched the game with 60,000 people in the pouring rain.

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Our second stop in Germany was Munich. It wasn’t as cultural as Berlin but we joined a pub-crawl (Sandemans again) on our second day and had so much fun checking out the beer gardens with our German guide.

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He was very knowledgable and the group of people who were also on the tour made it a really fun experience.

Our third stop in Germany was a big surprise. Dresden was a last minute decision for us and we ended up staying there for three days and having a wonderful time. The city had so much history, culture and was very well set-up for tourism. We also found a cute little cafe serving ‘flat white’ coffees which made every day there all the more enjoyable.

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Exploring Greece

Exploring Greece

By the time we arrived at Corfu, Adam and I felt well and truly at home on the boat. We ate most of our meals on it, slept on it and spent our days sailing on it. The thoughts and feelings about one day doing this ourselves were not going away in fact they were becoming stronger.

When we got to Corfu we pulled into the most beautiful harbour I have ever seen.

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It was right under the fort of Corfu and the views were unreal. As we were parking up, Adam and I were putting ourselves to use dropping down the fenders and getting the ropes ready for Audrey to tie us off. I was at the back of the boat with a rope ready to throw to the harbour man waiting for us on the dock. As I threw it to him, the rope caught one of the straps of my camera case and I felt the clasp break and watched in slow motion as our camera slipped into the sea. I would have jumped in straight away but I was the one in charge of tying us to the jetty. I threw the rope to the man and jumped into the water fully clothed. But alas, our camera had drowned.

We didn’t dwell too much on the demise of our beautiful camera. We had insurance for a reason and told ourselves that we would get a new one in Germany with our pay-out. This meant any photos we took in Greece would be on our iPhones.

Corfu was fun! We had to walk through the fort in order to get to the town which was hilarious as all the other tourists had to pay a hefty entrance fee just to get into it.

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We decided on our first full day in Corfu that we would hire quad bikes. This was the best fun! We had them for a full 24 hours which meant we could spend as long as we wanted exploring the island.

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Audrey and I were the passengers so we enjoyed a few celebratory cocktails throughout the day while the boys had fun mucking around on the quads.

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The weather was superb and the views were spectacular.

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After two fun filled days in Corfu we started our journey back to where we started, Lefkas. We decided to stop in for another glorious day/night in Lakka on our way.

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Our time with Audrey and Ryan was wrapping up. So we made our last day in Lefkas count by hiring scooters and riding around the whole Island.

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Again, the scenery was spectacular and we had so much fun discovering hidden beaches and in some cases private jetties.

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Our farewell to Audrey and Ryan was so sad. We had such an amazing, relaxing and fun time with them that we were almost considering staying for a few more weeks. But our flights were booked and we had to move on to the land of pretzels and beer. Germany.

Stowaways on a Greek Sailing Adventure

When our friends Audrey and Ryan told us that they had plans to take four months off work, buy a catamaran and sail around the Greek Islands we were amazed. When they invited us to share part of their journey we knew we would have to get ourselves to Greece no matter what.

Getting to Greece from Albania was harder than we imagined. I won’t go into all the details as it would probably take up three blog posts. Let’s just say, our border crossing involved:

1) a post-it with the words “please take us to the border” written in Albanian by our hostel owner,
2) nervously hitching a ride with a harmless but scary looking man in an old beat-up car,
3) almost being deported when the Greek border police miscalculated our time already spent in the Schengen area
4) and a 110 euro cab ride.

But somehow we made it to the island of Lefkada (Lefkas), only a couple of hours late and a bit shaky, where Audrey and Ryan were waiting for us with chilled beers and big smiles.

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The catamaran, Sibia AKA Salty Sea Dog, was fantastic. Audrey and Ryan bought it fully furnished from a Slovenian family who lived on it for years.

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It was surprisingly spacious. Adam and I had one of the four small but very cosy cabins to ourselves which made us feel at home -even if it was only temporary.

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That first night we explored the old town which was beautiful at night and caught up on each other’s adventures. We were so stoked to be with friends finally after 6 months of it just being the two of us. Audrey and Ryan were wonderful hosts making everything so easy for us and explaining the sailing plan for the week ahead. The idea was to head to Paxos for a few days before moving on to Corfu for another few days and then doubling back to Lefkada where we would have to say goodbye. I liked the sound of not packing too many places into our short time -it meant that we could relax into the Greek sailing way of life.

The only thing that made us a little nervous is the fact that Adam gets terrible motion sickness. We had stocked up on sea-sickness tablets in Albania but we weren’t sure how he would go for 10 days spending most of his time on the water.

The first day we were up early and sailed to the small bay, Monganissi. The weather started out quite overcast in the morning and the wind was quite low meaning that we had to motor most of the way. But once it picked up Audrey and Ryan got out the spinnaker and we had fun putting it up and using it to catch the light wind.

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Adam was doing okay with his sea-sickness and when we got to Monganissi we celebrated with an afternoon swim and some cold beers.

Lakka was our destination the next day. My god what a beautiful part of the world – the colour of the water blew us away.

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The place was swarming with mono-hulls parked up in the bay but because we were in a catamaran we glided past and tied ourselves to a small jetty in a shallower and less busy area.

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Adam and I were starting to learn the ropes a little and were able to help out in small ways which was both satisfying and fun.

The weather was absolutely crazy the next day on our way to Corfu.

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The wind had picked up and we were watching storms form on the mainland. The others were busy putting up the sails to make the most of wind and we were flying along when I saw something weird happening to the clouds in the storm. It looked like it was forming a tornado or something. I ran to the back of the boats and pointed it out to the others and by that time it had connected with the water and was a full blown water spout. We couldn’t believe our eyes, I think Adam and I would have felt more nervous if Ryan hadn’t started laughing (nervously -he told us later) and if Audrey’s first reaction wasn’t to run and grab the camera. I joined in and we felt like storm chasers.

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We were scared for the boats that were really close to it but after about 15 minutes it disappeared into thin air. Lucky I have the photos to prove it existed. After that, the weather gave us a miraculous break for a couple of hours. So we stopped up at a beautiful anchorage in the middle of the ocean called Ak Levkimmis for a couple of hours and swam and ate fresh salad for lunch before heading on. The photos do not do the water clarity justice.

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We anchored at Petriti that night and a couple of giant storms hit pushing some of the other boats around the bay. None of us got much sleep that night except for Adam who woke up puzzled at the wet deck asking if it had rained – he’d slept through the whole thing.

Our first three days on the boat were magic with virtually no sea-sickness on Adam’s behalf. It was easy to see how this lifestyle could become addictive. It was fascinating to watch Audrey and Ryan sailing the boat, working together like a well-oiled machine.

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We were also struck by how self-sufficient they were. Apart from needing to fuel up and refill water storage they had everything they needed right there on the catamaran. Needless to say, we were about 2 days in when Adam floated the idea that we might one day buy a boat and do the same thing. Tempting, very tempting.

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Albania

One week in Albania

After our whirlwind trip through Italy, we decided that we needed a beach break where we could settle in one place for a little while. We arrived in Tirana, the capital of Albania, and decided to stay a night. We were really surprised at the hospitality of the people and the food was delicious.

Traditional Albanian food:

Meatballs in a light gravy
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Albanian style grilled veg
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Hot feta dip

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Albania gets a bad rap from a lot of the other Balkan countries. A few people we met asked us why we would even bother going there. But we are so glad we did.

One night in the capital was enough and we headed straight to the coast. The town of Saranda was a lovely surprise. A bit touristy but still very pretty, cheap accommodation and lovely seafood.

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We rented beach umbrellas and lazed on the beach for two days before we made the journey to the more secluded, less touristy and highly recommended Himare.

We were not disappointed. The bus ride itself was spectacular. The coastline is pristine all along the coast. The road was a bit hairy at times and the bus took about 5 hours to go 100km but we got there in the end.

Himare is a stretch of two beautiful beaches with the clearest water, tahitian style beach umbrellas and a handful of restaurants and hotels.

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There was virtually no one there. Apparently it was still ‘off season’ but the weather was perfect every day and the sun was ‘Australian summer’ hot at midday.

Each day we would wake up in our gorgeous hotel room and pop down for a cooked brekky knowing that we would have the whole beach to ourselves. Have I mentioned that Albania is inexpensive? Our hotel room was pretty impressive for 25euro a night. And it must be the only place in Europe where the beach umbrellas are free!

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At night we would pick one of the few restaurants to get a cheap bite to eat at. By far our favourite was the Greek restaurant situated between the two beaches. It was painted all white and had a giant deck that was perched over the ocean with beautiful night views of the surrounding bay.

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The owner told us that the menu consists of whatever his mother had prepared that morning.

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We were stuffed to the brim of fresh, delicious greek style food (and a few beers) before we made our way home.

The sunsets were breathtaking, the food was absolutely delicious and we were really sorry we had only three days to enjoy it all.

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But our beach holiday was to continue with our friends in Greece so we had to drag ourselves away and make the trip across the Albanian border.

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Italy Adventures – Part Two

Bergeggi, Pisa, Florence & Rome

It only took a few hours to get from Cinque Terra up to Bergeggi on the Northern coast of Italy. It was there that we were reuniting with one of our friends we walked with on the Camino de Santiago, Christian.

Bergeggi is beautiful. A real hidden gem on the Italian coastline.

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The beaches were made up of white pebbles and shells and the water was crystal clear. We went for a walk along the coast, stopping in at secluded little beaches and caves.

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We had the most wonderful few days catching up with him and meeting his family. We spent our time together reminiscing about the Camino and eating the most delicious food. The weather was glorious and it was fantastic to get an insight into real Italian life. Christian and his partner Irene were fantastic hosts and we bid them a very tearful goodbye as we made our way down to Florence, now over halfway through our time in Italy.

Before we got to Florence we had to stop in Pisa and see the tower. It is the most touristy, ridiculous sight but it was so worth the few hours stop.

Florence was beautiful. Again, we stayed outside of the city centre, but found no hassle in getting in and out of the city at all. Aside from being expensive, Italy’s city transport works quite efficiently unlike their train system.

There was so much to do in Florence that we felt a bit overwhelmed. In the end we made it to most of the famous sites, a highlight being the view of the beautiful city from the square of Michelangelo. We also had some of the best and cheapest pasta we’d had at only 5 Euro for the plate plus water.

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After two full days of sightseeing we moved onto Rome – the end of our whirlwind tour through Italy.

Rome had so much to see and do. We stayed at a campground about an hour outside the city centre which made for very long days.

The vatican was amazing. We missed out on St John’s Basillica as there was an outdoor concert happening in St Peter’s Square when we visited. But the sisteen chapel and the other museums did not disappoint. The coloseum was a bit disappointing. We quewed for hours in the hot sun and found it to be rather unexciting when we got inside, not to mention completely packed with people. But we took photos and indulged in a gelato to cool oursleves down afterwards.

The highlight for us was meeting up with our Aussie friends Jake and Amy who we met in Bosnia. They met us on our first night in Rome and took us around to the ‘hip’ area of Traveste and to an amazing pizzaria.

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After a lot of wine and beer we made our way to the coloseum which was very impressively lit up against the dark sky.

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We made sure we visited the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and other major landmarks, but by the end of our three days we were absolutely exhausted.

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Rome was unbelievably hot and we had to keep an eye on how much water we were drinking to avoid dehydration. By the end we were relieved to have a week of relaxation on the Albanian riviera to look forward to. That being said, Italy is one of our favourite countries so far and we have plans to visit for a longer period some time in the future.

Italy Adventures – Part One

Venice & Cinque Terre

Italy was like stepping into a fantasy word that you have been imagining your whole life. As I dramatically told Adam numerous times, it was everything I had dreamed of and more.

We started in Venice and were blown away by how gorgeous it is. I think it was my favourite city purely because it was the one we went to first. We walked around the little streets flanked by canals and broken up with bridges for hours. We stopped in little cafes and ate cannollis Italian style, standing up at the bar and downing an espresso.

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We looked at the gondola prices and happily moved on without a trip down the canal – 80 euros for 40 mins was well out of our price range. Instead we sat at a little cafe bar drinking what the Venetians seem to drink at any time of the day, the Spritz.

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In the heat of the day I was wooed by a lady selling homemade pineapple gelato. I ordered it with a scoop of milk cream flavour as well, it was only the best thing I have ever tasted in my life.

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We bought our lunch at the supermarket and ate it in one of the city’s gated parks which seems to be a ‘lovers lane’ for all manner of couples on their lunch breaks cavorting in the shadows and on the grass.

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For two whole days we pretty much just basked in all the glory that was Venice. We didn’t do much except walk around, take photos, stop for beverages and eat. It was wonderful.

One negative in regards to Italy was the price of accommodation. We found that there were no budget options inside the cities at all and if there were, they were booked weeks and weeks in advance. So Adam and I looked into alternative options and the best we found was staying in furnished tents in campgrounds outside each city. We did this in Venice which was great even though it meant that we had to travel a little bit (15 mins) each morning to get into the city. However it was well worth the money that we saved and could then spend on other important things such as food, of course.

After Venice our next destination was Cinque Terre (the 5 Lands). We had a few difficulties getting out there due to train strikes that apparently happen quite regularly in Italy. After almost 12 hours of waiting in train stations and sitting on trains, we finally arrived at our camp ground in Deveina Marina, a town located a few stops after the last of the five Cinque Terre towns. It was perfect. We had our own little pre-made tent with a double bed and room for our bags.

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The hot water was hot and the campground offered free shuttles to the train station that would take us directly to the towns we wanted to see. Another plus was that there was a family run pizzeria opposite the campground where all the locals would congregate at night. The pizza was the best we had in Italy and at a fraction of the cost elsewhere… and the red wine was free flowing. Heaven!

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On our first day in Cinque Terre, we looked into the famous coastal walk that joins up the 5 towns. To our dismay it had been closed due to part of it falling into the sea and an accident involving a tourist. But after a bit of searching we found out that there were other walks and it was only the coastal section that was shut.

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The upper walk was still open but the lady warned us it would be strenuous. It was. We hadn’t been doing as much exercise as we were at the start of the trip and so we found ourselves sweating and panting almost embarrassingly so on the first leg between Riomaggiore and Manarola. There were just so many stairs, but the views were to die for.

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The whole day was magic. Spring made sure the wild-flowers were out in full bloom for us which made everything all the more beautiful. We made sure to stop for a coffee in the first town, gelato in the second, special anchovy sandwiches in the third and a well deserved beer in the last.

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Overall the walk took us about 4 hours not including the hours spent in the towns along the way. Needless to say we were wrecked as we staggered back to our campground that night… but not wrecked enough to skip going for our second night to the pizzeria across the road.

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We had a few days in Cinque Terra so we made sure to stop back in at our favourite towns: Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.

We joined the locals in Vernazza by taking a picnic down to the shoreline, staking our claim on a patch of cement and heading into one of the little bars to get a bottle of cold local wine and two plastic cups. We sat there basking in the sun, swimming, sipping our wine and eating our grocery-store feast. Vernazza that day was bliss.

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