Keeping the van moving along the big main roads is easy. You can do it for hours.
Driving the van well through the uncared for winding lanes of a Greek island, avoiding the worse bits that’ll shred your tyres, and maintaining a smooth ride for your passengers. Now that’s a different story.
Sometimes a two hour drive is enough to leave you tired out.
Processing hours of new and beautiful surroundings also takes its toll, in a most pleasing way.
The couple of hours we took from Plataria on the west coast mainland down to Sivota on Lefkada were hard, but the excitement of the next chapter kept us going. We drove straight to the little port and wound around the back streets, thankful that the summer crowds were all somewhere else – this was like taking ArchieVan through St Ives. OK in winter, horrible in summer.
Nothing looked open, but we’ve been assured that a couple of tavernas still welcome locals at the weekends.
Arriving at Villa Noe.
Next up we need to find our new home.
Rosa, the owner, has warned us that it’s a mile down a rough lane, and we’ve built ourselves up for it to be a challenge.
The turn off the road is immediately onto a 1 in 3 slope that’s thankfully concreted, but has a loose covering of gravel. First gear. Concentrate. Balance the need for care not to spin the rear wheels with enough oomph to climb the slope.
We passed that first test.
We climb and the view down to the right of Sivota Bay got better and better when I risked stealing a glance. Most of the time though I’m watching for the big pot holes and the joins where concrete sections meet the dirt track. These are often barely meetings at all.
When the track descends it descends steeply, tight bends, and all with a loose top surface.
There’s a lorry coming. A big one. And it’s pushing the trees back on both sides.
We met it at exactly the right point. Probably the only point that we could cross at.
But that shouldn’t suggest that it was easy. ArchieVan was on the outside, and the edge was crumbling, but we got by.
When we arrived at the house we took one look at its drive and decided that was a challenge for later. It’s narrow, very steep, and I wasn’t even sure that there was enough room to swing the van in.
We’d had enough adventure for an hour or too – let’s go and meet Rosa instead.
ArchieVan was left just off the lane, leaning precariously.
Our host. A new friend we hope.
Rosa’s Dutch, her father built the houses about 20 years ago, although sadly he died after only a few years of enjoying them.
There’s the big main house with a huge living space and three bedrooms stacked one on top of the other. In the garden there’s a separate guest’s house that sleeps two.
All for Minty, Polly and I. Plus any friends who make it this far.
Rosa gave us a whistle stop tour of all the things we need to know. I immediately forgot most of it. It included how the natural water flow works and when to use the pump to boost it. Several fuse boxes. Different heating systems. Probably other stuff too. Sorry Rosa, most of it went over my head, but we’ll learn, and while we’re not super practical, we’re not stupid either.
After Rosa had left us we stood around feeling a little dazed.
Instead of excitement we both felt a sense of dread. It’s a strange experience to have your indoor space jump from less than 10 square metres to about 150 square metres in a flash.
After doing the English thing. Making tea. We decided the next move had to be bringing the van into the drive.
Using ArchieVan as daily transport in west Cornwall, and then six months on the road through much of Europe should have prepared me for anything. But it didn’t prepare me for this.
The distance between the gateposts is definitely wider than the van. But only just.
However the van’s seven metre length makes it doubtful whether or not I’ll be able to swing it around enough to take the gap straight on and thereby reduce the need for width.
Clipping the mirror on the telegraph pole opposite before pulling on full left lock, while leaning down the hill gets ArchieVan’s nose between the gateposts, but then there’s a heck of a lot of van to straighten up in a very small space.
At one point we thought we had it.
Just go straight for another foot, then hard left, full lock.
This was at the steepest point of the drive. I was still calm, but I knew the tremors were coming.
Slip the clutch. Gentle on the revs.
Minty’s shouting “Come on”, but ArchieVan won’t budge.
More revs, I’m worried now that I’ll lose it if it surges forward.
Instead we get smoke.
And the dreadful acrid smell of burning clutch.
I switch it off.
Let it cool.
I’ve got the shakes now and my hours and hours of hard driving all hit me like a train.
Having looked again, with ArchieVan wedged half in, half out, I can see that if he’s to go in at all then I’ll have to attack the challenge from the other direction.
The wider swing that’s possible from the other side might just be enough.
That will have to wait for another day.
A winter in Greece.
Our rental agreement is flexible.
We’ll stay at Sivota for a couple of months, maybe more. That will depend on how well it works for us. We’re used to either relentless deadlines, or a constantly changing scene. A bit of stability and predictability might just send us around the bend – but then again it might do us good.
Most houses here stand empty through the winter. That’s not good for the house or the area. It’s good to have people living in a place and we were fortunate to find owners who understand that. Not all do and some of the people Minty spoke to were asking for summer type rents from long term winter guests – no chance!
The rent is at Villa Noe is reasonable, with bills on top – Rosa had the decency to point out that those bills might be very high.
There’s oil fired underfloor heating, but in a house without a hint of insulation, and punitive Greek oil prices. Rosa told us last winter’s guests used over £150 of oil in just a fortnight!
We’ll only be using the heating when we have friends staying.
There’s an open fire too (one of Minty’s criteria) and enough scrap wood on the beach to satisfy half our needs. There’s no metal flue and so burning salty wood won’t cause harm.
So far our daily beach swim trips have seen Minty coming back loaded with her rubbish collection (she’s intent on cleaning the beach) and me hauling wood. What a pair!
I suspect that by combining our budget allowance for campsites, and the reduced diesel costs from hardly using ArchieVan we should be able to cover the rent without going over budget. And there’s nothing open for miles so we won’t even have the opportunity to spend money.
Billie Jean is an ancient Seat Marbella, from back in the days when Fiat and Seat produced the same cars under different brands, licensing each other. We know him better as Fiat Panda.
Simon and Rosa recognised that the hardest thing that about living at Villa Noe is getting out to civilisation and back to the wonderful house. The lane is only a mile long, the same as our lane at Tregiffian, but it’s a very slow and steep mile over a rugged lane. Driving it in the van on a regular basis would definitely put you off going out, and that’d turn the paradise into a trap.
Our excellent hosts stepped in and got a good winter car hire price from the company Rosa recommends to her summer visitors. £15 a day for an Astra is certainly generous, but still that’s more than one person’s daily spending budget and so too expensive, especially considering we already have a car, it’s just rather large for bombing around here.
So Simon found Billie for us.
Billie belongs to a friend of his who is working aboard for the winter, and so we’ve borrowed him for a damn good rate.
He squeaks, rattles, shakes, but he goes, and best of all, he’s very small.
I’m sure we’ll be far more cautious with him than his owner, not least because we’re simply not used to taking expensive bits of kit over awful roads.
At home if you can even find a MK1 Panda that still goes it should cost you about £500. The crazy laws around Greek car tax, and an attitude of “drive it until it won’t go anymore” mean that finding a small used car isn’t easy, and they cost a lot of money. This little beauty would probably cost £2,000 or more here.
Thankfully I’ve had a few Morris 1000s over the years and so driving Billie isn’t quite the shock it would be for most people. The gear change is vague, the steering is reminiscent of a fairground dodgem, and the brakes are similarly effective as Barny Rubble sticking his feet through the floor of his car in the Flinstones.
But he has five gears.
The retro fit gearbox is a hoot. Fifth is a long throw that doesn’t as much graze your passenger’s leg as thump it. Clunking into fifth is rewarded with a hefty scuff of your knuckles on the ashtray.
If you have the wipers on full speed for long they don’t turn off, you have to switch on a few other things to calm the voltage.
Oh and if it’s likely to rain make sure he’s parked facing down hill so that the water runs out rather than pooling in the car.
We drove him up to town (Lefkada, or Lefkas) and it took longer than in the van, but I’m sure I’ll be used to his idiosyncrasies soon. We already love him.
I’ve included this story so that I can share a couple of our photos from our longest Lefkada walk so far. It was only 10 miles but blinking hard. It’s up hill all the way in Greece, and on the odd occasion that it’s not actually up hill it hurts even more as the downs are so steep. The highlights of the stank left us both grinning with joy right through to the end of the day despite tired legs and sore feet.
I felt emboldened having picked up a reasonable scale map and set off hoping to follow some local trails to walk a fairly long circular taking in a beach along the way.
Well, the first track, even though included on the map as a green lined (natural beauty) trail, now has big gates across it.
“Hey, that’s OK, there’s another that’ll take us pretty much the same way just up here.”
OK, so we took the main road up and out of Sivota. It’s a second and third gear hill in Billie or ArchieVan and walking it brought the first sweat of the day. There are so few passing cars that they all take the time to hoot or wave.
There’s too much to the walk to document all ten miles, but the highlights certainly include our first sight of Afteli Beach from about 3kms up the hill. We decided we’d go down to the beach even though getting away from it without a complete backtrack was uncertain.
Getting to one of the world’s most beautiful little beaches on a prefect temperature day is a wonderful thing. Think Pedn Vounder near Treen, and nearly as hard to get to.
There was no one around and so the fact that we’d left our bathers at home didn’t matter.
We stripped off and had one of life’s great swims in the clear turquoise water.
We then savoured every morsel of the wraps Minty had made earlier in the morning.
Occasionally we remembered that it’s half way through November and not quite like this at home.
Leaving the beach an hour later, feeling refreshed, the 4kms uphill didn’t seem to matter too much. That’s not uphill in the normal sense. Around home you’d need to find the steepest hills in Newlyn, or around St Agnes, to get even a hint of what the climbing is like here.
We tried a short cut that involved scratched legs, precarious slips, and eventually giving up and returning to the road.
Later, passing the Evigros cemetery, I wondered whether the priests of old bought the land for its church at the top of such a steep slope as some sort of lesson to his parishioners. “Drink ye of the vine and smoketh ye of the leaf and ye shall arrive early at the cemetery.” Well, with a view like that it probably wasn’t such a scary threat.
The blog over the next few weeks.
This is all very different from our nomadic road life.
To keep my hand in I intend to keep writing and posting on Saturday mornings. Instead of being purely a tale of the road it’ll be predominantly the story of Brushing Through Thyme, our winter in Greece.
I hope you’ll all like it, that you’ll continue to post regular comments, and that you’ll share it with anyone you think would enjoy the read.
And if you happen to be passing, pop in. That might sound ridiculous, but it will happen for some. We’re meeting a couple tomorrow who comment regularly on the blog. We’ll have a few drinks, share stories, and hopefully enjoy our first night in ArchieVan for a week.
Continuing my answers to the Six Month Report questions:
Social interactions. Do they happen and how?
Meeting folk along the way is an important part of van life, in fact, of life.
We have had great times with people with whom we have only been able to share a few words.
And we’ve had long conversations putting the world to right with vanners, motor homers and others.
I’ve yet to meet a European who doesn’t think that Britain has lost its marbles. Even in Romania, where there’s a fairly strong anti-Europe feeling, folk asked how a broken Britain could go begging to Europe in ’73, and now think that it’s above the collaboration that’s a vital factor in world peace.
Generally though we talk about vans, parking spaces (an everyday concern), prices (especially here in Greece where no one can believe how expensive everything has become) and the inconvenience of having to drive home for an MoT.
Conversations with locals start from asking a few words of language, and the hilarity that results in a Cornishman trying his tongue at a Greek dh, or Hungarian anything. Many times I’ve drawn a map of Britain in the dirt on the van to show Cornwall.
I’ve loved them all, even though sometimes we’ve parted having no idea what our new friends were trying to tell us.