Chateau de Sinistere…

an impossibly cheap deal on the booking site, some impoverished Australian long term travellers..…what could go wrong?

How every creepy story starts

Facebook kindly reminded me that it was a year ago today we were excitedly heading toward a Chateau…

We had wanted to experience an authentic French stay on a frankly disturbing Australian budget, and the booking site lead us to this gem.

Looked the goods on the website, only five rooms, large private bathroom, and a chateau, no less.   Somewhere with an open fire to quaff the local drop in front of.  Somewhere to eat quiche, fromage, baguettes and Yoplait. Sorry, Ill stop that now.   There was never going to be any escargot.  For me anyway.

The French countryside was wintery.  Dried autumn leaves still colouring the hillsides, but their ageing splendor was fighting a losing battle with the cold.  Sleet made a few appearances throughout the journey.  How good would an open fire be to retreat to, with the abovementioned accoutrements – (We were in France).

We had telephoned the Chateau a day or so prior to departure, as we had not received any response to our booking communique.  A guttural voice grunted into the phone after only 20 rings, but could not understand me, nor I him.    I had mentioned in the booking information we should arrive around 3 pm as that information seemed to be of absolutely vital interest to any place we booked.   “Pah” was the response. 

With only a small amount of navigational issues, we found a potholed driveway with a sign in disrepair and a different phone number to the one in the booking site.  A wrecked car was parked along the driveway, but that was the only sign of life.   Overgrown Gardens and gnarly trees surrounded the building, but otherwise it was surrounded by empty fields and forest.

We parked, approached the Chateau, knocked on the door.  Nothing.  We tried the door.  Nothing.  We went around the back and knocked on the door.  Nothing.  There seemed to be a coach house which had a television on.  We knocked.  An hysterical dog launched itself at the door from the inside and snarled ferociously, but otherwise…nothing.

We drove away and went into town. Slightly more life, but not much. It was a Sunday afternoon/early evening by now, and getting dark.  We had telephoned by this time around 20 times, just messagebank, or the French equivalent, which is “Go away.  We don’t want to talk to you.”  We asked locals if they knew of the Chateau, but alas, no one knew of it.    We were met with shrugs and …well just shrugs really.

We returned to Chateau de Sinistere and peered forlornly into the windows.  By this time I had envisaged mein host having collapsed on the floor somewhere, possibly being eaten by cats,  but ….nothing. 

At this point,   5.30 pm and darkening, we pulled the pin and sourced alternative accommodation.  Not so fancy but at least manned and the creepy factor was missing thankfully. 

At 6.30 we received a call from Mein Host, who was apparently now home after enjoying a family outing and having such a wonderful time that he could ignore the twenty or so calls to his mobile and the fact that he had some guests arriving.    I imagined more shrugs and everyone around the table having a damn good laugh.

So, we didn’t get to stay in that Chateau, but we did stay in a different Chateau and were entertained immensely by our new host entering into a spectacular argument in French with Booking.com on our behalf as to the prepaid accommodation for Chateau de Sinistere.    We also got out alive.  Winning.

Feel free to comment or share, I am a needy soul…..

Adventures in Spain and why pictures can lie

I keep receiving tantalizing images on Facebook, reminding me of where I was one year ago.    This is both a blessing and a curse, as I still can’t believe that, (a) we actually did it and it wasn’t something I dreamt, and (b) omg its over.

I thought I might like another go around, so, bear with me if you want to take another ride…

The memory looked like this….

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the tranquility…..

 

But pictures can be deceiving…

This time last year saw us in Cartagena, Murcia, Spain.    After collecting the car in Barcelona, being assured that Spanish drivers were way more sane than Italian, hitting up an actual Supermarket, visiting a hospital and smashing a coffee table in the quaintly named town of Peniscola, staying with the Valencian equivalent of Norman Bates where an actual moose head was mounted on the wall, we found the car pointing toward the beach for a couple of days of r and r.    R & R may seem like a weird concept for people ostensibly on a year’s holiday, but – as the title says kids, it wasn’t a holiday.

One or two days at a resort-y place was called for, and we found a nice little bolt hole in Cartagena.  Located in Murcia, I think on the Costa Calida **  (much loved by the Brits) we were mightily impressed by the room, and facilities (toaster-kettle-toaster) and an actual shower with a screen instead of an over-affectionate shower curtain.   A sleep in and breakfast (I did say toaster didn’t I?) we thought we would leisurely drive around very local sights, perhaps the lighthouse and a couple of nice bays, have some lunch and then laze on the sun deck of our hotel, maybe read a book, how decadent.

 

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An impressive lighthouse on a rocky promontory, which involved a moderate climb, and some lovely views.  We took photos, watched the gulls and the folk in their campers parked in the carpark, assembling their dining equipment and eating breakfast in the sun.      On then to a nice little bay where a man was fishing and the sun was splintering on the water.  We lay in the sun and took a short walk along the cove, headed back to the car and on to the national park, and the beach there.  No rush, we didn’t have to be anywhere by any time, so we had the whole day ahead of us.    We pulled into the car park, found a nice park in the shade and readied ourselves for another bask in the Spanish sunshine.

The tranquility evaporated when a flurry of activity from the other side of the car was detected.  Frantic patting of pockets, urgent inspection of the abyss between the console and seats alerted me that something was, indeed amiss.  “Where are the room keys???”  Steve looked at me as if I had stolen them from his pocket.  “I don’t know, where were they?” “When did you last have them?”   Now I know you will have had this conversation yourself, possibly more than once, but it takes on a new meaning when the keys were the new-fangled security type, not just a key. And you are in Spain.  And the potential cost in Euro is …we didn’t want to think about it.    Inspections of the contents of bags, impressive yoga moves to grope under the seat were in vain.  There began to be moderate yelling and it could have been from either or both of us.  A fearsome debate took place over the definition of “lost” versus “misplaced”.

Okay, what to do.  Retrace our steps?   The day turned out a bit like this….

 

Sketch

Back to the lighthouse, ask the caravanners, attempt to ask the lady at the kiosk at the lighthouse where no one could understand us…one, two, three laps of the lighthouse, including an examination of the spot where Steve had “visited” the outdoor facilities,…no luck.    We went back to the first beach, where many more cars were parked, walked the beach, got down on all fours to look under the newly arrived cars, asked the guy fishing….nothing.    Back to the car, a further forensic examination of the car, removal of items in the boot…nothing.  Back to the second beach, a search of the carpark with more peering under cars….nothing.

Did we check the wall at the lighthouse where we stopped to take some photos?  Not sure, back to the lighthouse….nothing.

At some point, you need to call time.  We called time about 1 pm.  We went back to the hotel, and confessed to losing the key.  Are you absolutely sure?  the receptionist said, with a slightly hysterical note to her voice.   “My boss is coming down from Valencia this afternoon, and he will go crazy”…these are special keys, and the whole complex will need re-keying”.    Oh.  Okay.  We felt wonderful (not).

A sombre afternoon was ahead of us.

We paced, and tried to think where those damn keys may have made a break for freedom.   We decided another round of the morning’s route was as good an idea as sitting there doing nothing.

Back to the lighthouse, nothing.

Back to the first beach…another walk up the beach to the rocks.  Another inspection of the sand and scrub.

Nothing.

Walking back to the car, I heard an utterance from Steve.  It went…

“Are you having a %^$#& laugh????”

And there they were….sitting on the domed cover of the rubbish bin leading to the car park, the work, no doubt, of some good Samaritan and all round great person, who found them, and thought…”someone will be looking for these…I’ll put them somewhere obvious”.

A potentially several hundred euro weight lifted off our shoulders. The day, by then about 4 pm, started to look up, even though we were mentally and physically exhausted.   We breezily returned the spare key to the relieved receptionist, went to the nearest bar and ate the biggest pan of paella we could find.  A  bottle or two assisted in calming the waters.

New systems for key storage were implemented.

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** thank you for the proper name April.

Montenegro

We travelled south from Dubrovnik basically across the whole country of Montenegro, to Ulcinj, very near the southern border with Albania.   The bus took us around 6.5 hours and for the last 2 of them we were the only passengers left.   Montenegro is becoming a beach resort destination in Europe and have a myriad of beach clubs, the one “closest” to us …as in a vertical climb of about 750 metres, was very nice and free to use.  No sand or even pebbles, directly from the decking down a ladder and into the water.  We had four days there, so as to leave on a weekday, as we weren’t sure about the bus schedules on a Sunday.  The only time a weekend annoys you is when you are travelling.

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We hired a car for some little day trips and one took us to Skadar Lake and, in search of the best view of Horseshoe Bend, we pulled into what could loosely be called a village – well, there were houses there.   An unknown car in the village had the locals out to check us out.  One gentleman invited us up to his bungalow for some refreshments, in the form of pomegranate cordial, and rakia.   A young man who was home for the holidays was pressed into translating duties.    We contributed some danish pastries to the feast and a congenial time was had by all.     We pressed on until the road took us away from the pretty national park so we turned back in search of lunch.

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Visits into the town of Ulcinj were somewhat uninspiring and the tourist information was a misnomer, being steadfastly closed at any time we passed.    Our last day in the country was spent at the nature beach…getting sunburnt in all the wrong places.

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Departure day, and after delivering the hire car, we had a lazy 2.5 hours to fill in at the palatial bus station.

Bus stations on the whole have a certain  aura about them, used as they are generally by those without money or desire for luxurious travel, and this one was no different.  Luckily for us, a little coffee shop was attached and they had no issue with one coffee at 1 euro and a 2.5 hour wait.      When we collected the hire car from this very spot, they bought us alleged cappuccino and long black coffees, which were actually espresso and an espresso with foam on the top, served in thimble sized cups..  Various groups of men occupied the chairs and I expect talked about us, or other boring subjects like soccer and we waited.  Gypsies tried their luck.  Steve decided we needed more euro so went off to find an atm.    Things looked up after we managed to get a wifi code, until a toilet break was required.  The ladies was locked up tight as a drum, and the gents cubicle was all that was on offer, complete, or rather, incomplete, with no toilet seat, no lock, no paper and a floor covered in urine.  Delightful.    It is at times like these when I KNOW God is a man, as trying to hover over the pan, and hold the door shut with one hand, puts you in a somewhat awkward (and gravitationally unfortunate) position.

 

Busses in the Montenegro/Albania area operate on a discretionary timetable, which basically means that the driver will leave when he damn well pleases.    No real public transport exists, so private mini bus drivers fill the gap, and the one we boarded was one of these.  They are manufactured for people who do not exceed 5ft 5inches in height.  In order to sit with my knees in front of me I must employ manspreading maneuvers.  It became obvious that the bus was not only full, but overbooked so one of us (me) was crammed against the window with my knees at 60 degrees to my body and Steve hanging out into the aisle.  The overbooked folk were plonked on folding stools in the aisle.    Another bus trip and a guy carrying his beloved brush cutter boarded, with the brush cutter being lovingly laid in the only aisle, and all passengers having to straddle it to embark/disembark. Our bus to Sarande yesterday still had ashtrays in the back of the seats, and I was thankful that no one took the opportunity to light up.

 

We progressed out of Ulcinj basically going completely in the wrong direction –  Steve was monitoring it on his phone – as he is deeply distrustful of bus drivers, and their directional signs placed on the front of the bus.  He imagines that instead of heading to Shkodra in Albania, we are instead going directly to Poland, thus ruining our plans.    It emerged that the main road was undergoing roadworks, (something you never have to worry about in Albania) and therefore a mountainous detour was required.  Of course.

 

The border crossing was interesting.  Rather than file off the bus and be processed individually, a nice man in a non-descript white polo shirt entered the bus and relieved us all of our passports.  I wondered if he was actually madly cackling to himself and driving off with them, but after 20 minutes or so, he returned and we hope we still have our original documents and not some elaborate counterfeit.  We got talking to a couple – she was from Sweden and he was from South Africa – who commented that he still has difficulty with a South African passport, and she often experiences issues just by travelling with him.  A love-fest for Steve’s shirt also took place as the guy was in love with the zip pocket in the breast where our passports live.

 

Into the unknown….into a country completely closed off until 28 years ago…Albania.

Corfu, in trouble

Corfu..continued

Corfu is, however, part of Greece and Greece is doing it hard. Whatever the reasons, infrastructure is struggling. Great stinking mountains of rubbish languish just out of eyeshot in towns. You will not see them on the main roads, but our little roadtrips encountered so many, hidden from view.

Given that (to be graphic) you are asked not to flush toilet paper here…said soiled toilet paper is bundled up with rubbish and left there..uncollected along with all the other refuse. Cats pick through it, vermin too no doubt. Anyone remember the Plague?? It seems that the answer is to move it out of sight. Not an answer at all.

We have been reading that the landfill site is in fact over capacity, and in answer to the quandary, it is alleged the mayor has designated a new landfill site, situated apparently illegally and against regulations, quite near a major tourist resort.   Demonstrations, and repercussions are taking place as we speak. We also read that the EU provided money to Corfu, (or Greece for Corfu) for the purposes of solving the issue, however don’t think too many people are surprised the money was allegedly diverted.

I don’t know the solution…but the answer can’t be to do nothing. Each Thursday night when we take our rubbish a few metres out to the kerb for collection, I think on how lucky we are, and how many millions of people struggle with this issue.

 

Idyllic Corfu (Pt 1)

“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.” ― Gerald DurrellMy Family and Other Animals

I owed it to a lifetime love of Gerald Durrell’s novels, recollecting his childhood in Corfu, to visit.    I imagine what life would be like in the 1930s here, in some ways – out of the bustle of Corfu Town, and away from the package tour destinations, much the same as today.  We are staying in Liapardes, on the north west coast.     Narrow, potholed laneways snake their way through the countryside, from time to time clearing to give breathtaking views.  If you are unlucky you will meet the bus coming the other way, necessitating a major repositioning of all vehicles.    The width of the road forces one driver to stop, and a grateful and cheery wave (usually) is your reward.  It feels like everyone in the island gives you a greeting.  Garden plots spring up in unlikely places.  Cats and dogs wander at will.   Cicadas are deafening.

 

Our villa is managed by the owner, a man who spends early evenings in a mad game of Tetris, frantically repositioning his guests’ hire cars to ensure they fit, and we are instructed to leave the keys in them for such purpose.  Each morning his mother and father arrive on a scooter, shouting a cheery “Kalimera” – Dad will then take his daily position next to the swimming pool and Mum to get on with the cleaning and cooking.    The rest of the family are kept busy attending to the daily business of a guesthouse.    The peace of the swimming pool and adjoining bar is occasionally disrupted by an energetic discussion/staff meeting taking place, involving hands periodically thrown in the air.  Guests basking in the sun pretend not to notice.

Restaurants abound in the village, so it is the afternoon’s lazy discussion as to where we eat tonight.   Dancing and music decide us where it is on offer.  We watch the troup consisting of two girls, an older gent, and two teenagers, dance and dip away, but the star of the show was a little German (I think) girl who was absolutely mesmerised by the swirly skirts.  She edged closer and closer and eventually was asked up to dance and from then on there was no way she was leaving the stage.    After about the fifth dance, she thrust her cardigan to her mother and donned a special sash.  She was in heaven.

 

We have two beaches to choose from here, one is the traditional European setup, with sunbeds, bars/restaurants etc, and a myriad of boats to hire or be ferried to other spots.  The other beach is more what we are used to after a trek through the olive groves, with an enticing peek here and there of bright blue water.  It is a beach surrounded by rocky cliffs, although it is visited by the “Canteen Boat” so you will not go without an iced coffee or beer, which are deemed to be essential to any day out.    Both are blessed with crystal clear turquoise water, where you can see the fish swim around you – and go in for a nip or two.  The more adventurous of us can dive off the rocks.  The salt content is such that you bob around like a cork, there is no need to work to stay afloat.

 

 

We visited Corfu town just to stroll around and it is a riot of peeling pastel colours.  Elegant townhouses, which look to be occupied for the first two floors but get progressively rundown as they go up.    A couple of blocks of shops selling the usual tat, but beyond that it is blissfully quiet.    We visited the church of St Spiridon, the patron saint of Corfu.  In Durrell’s book a story is told of the saint’s sarcophagus being paraded around town, and in the press Margot is separated from her mother and propelled forward toward it.    As it is the custom to kiss the saint’s sarcophagus, mother yelled after Margot “don’t kiss the saint”…to no avail, and with stunningly violent gastric consequences.

 

We ate a nice meal in town, with our drinks sommelier having a belly that hung a good  six inches under his flabby T shirt.

Whilst there are many well-known beaches and villages, the real beauty is finding the quiet out of the way gems.  After following a hunch, we found one such diamond called Agni.  A small half-moon beach of stones with sunbeds, flanked by tavernas and small jetties projecting into the clearest water.     I remember years ago whilst in Crete, worrying about how to pay for our sunbeds, where we had to go to get one etc.  The chap I asked simply looked at me quizzically and said, …”Just sit, someone will come..”  and yes, that is the system.

 

So, Corfu.    I’m so glad we went and tasted, for a short time, the life and surroundings so beautifully described in Durrell’s books.  I urge you to read them if you haven’t already.

 

Lake Ohrid, Albania

We arrived at our hotel, with Tomtom using the bookings.com co-ordinates to take us up a winding road completely in the wrong direction.  Eventually negotiated the dirt road past the construction/quarry and found our digs.  Which were lovely, absolute lakefront on the most beautiful lake.  Millions of years old, flanked by mountains, with a border shared with Macedonia slicing through the middle.  What a delight it was to stay here.  We watched, from our balcony,  a storm sweep across the lake and the sky turn dark purple, as the front hit.    Later that night we had dinner and watched the evening deepen.  There was something mesmerizing about it.  Lake Ohrid is the oldest lake in Europe.

 

Pogradec was the closest town to our hotel,  and like many towns in Albania, a bit of a patchwork quilt of new buildings, decrepit wrecks and everything in between.   The country emerged only a few years ago from many years of a dictatorship and sealed borders, where music, long hair, cosmetics or anything deemed to have a western influence was banned, and it shows.  The town itself was chaotic, with shops and stalls crowding any footpath, cars and bikes coming from all directions, and clouds of second hand smoke emerging from the prolific cafes, where no one ever eats anything.

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Our mission was  to find some sunglasses, as the Berlin pair had broken.   Stalls lined the streets, and after some negotiation with the stallholder – or possibly some random who was standing nearby, who then pocketed the $$ and ran, we’ll never know – a new pair were installed on Steve’s head.

We headed for the lakeside promenade.  What a contrast – the foreshore parkland hosted numerous groups of men, playing dominoes, with many more looking on.  I guess it’s the Pogradec version of “men’s shed”, they were all engaged with the game and passing the time in good company.    These men would have lived through the days where the country was sealed off, and experienced the massive changes the collapse would have meant.    Imagine North Korea’s citizens having to adapt to a westernised culture…perhaps that drives them to gather together for a simple game, for company and the comfort it brings.

Honey, the guards need changing

 

I am still somewhat scarred from the whole Copenhagen experience, so it is taking me a while to compile my postcard, so here is a vignette.

We visited Amalienborg Palace, the home of the Danish Royal Family, where they reside in four identical (well they looked identical to me) homes facing a circular palazzo.  Cars, pedestrians and stylish cyclists are permitted to cross the palazzo, and the Royals will often emerge and arrive unheralded  – not when we were there unfortunately – although the flags indicated that someone in our Mary’s home was actually AT HOME.

The changing of the guard ritual takes place at 12 noon, we had had a look around the palace buildings and the lovely church and so decided we would stay.   Police cordoned off the area prior to the ceremony, which is held in the palazzo.  One stylish cyclist, blissfully ignorant of the shouting due to headphones, rode through the square and was quite taken aback to see such a crowd looking at him and the apoplectic police waving their arms at him.

Have to admit we, along with many others, were a bit flummoxed by the whole thing.    There was some marching, but basically it appeared to be a competitive staring competition between two lines of guards.      A group of ceremonially dressed guards emerged, led by a tall man, who appeared to wish he had a different squad.  One, I swear, looked about 14.  They marched across the palazzo, taking up a position opposite the departing guards.    The staring began.  Those guys stared hard, and long, I bet their eyes were watering big time.  This continued for about 15 minutes or so and the crowd was getting restive, some even drifting away. Steve and another guy from Australia started talking about the football.  Kids were whining.   Even the Asians had put their cameras away.  Still the staring went on.

Eventually some marching maneuvers commenced, involving a complex almost-about face involving some shuffling and sidestepping.  One of the junior guards displayed great composure, proceeding in complete darkness, his bearskin hat having slipped and by now completely obscuring any vision.  His commander was inwardly muttering to himself ..”Jones you idiot, can’t you even secure your hat?”…  Luckily the guards seem to be equipped with coms units so they can be directed in the event of a hat failure, along with other nifty equipment like swords and cute little satchels.    After a bit more of this crab-like formation marching , they marched off to take positions in front of the palaces, where important tasks such as telling off tourists who get too close resumed.

The crowd drifted away in search of beers and $20 open sandwiches.