On the road in Italy – Our Christmas

The busy year was coming to an end and we were already pulling on our reins to get on the road for our traditional Christmas road trip. This year the selection of our destination was easy; our dear friend Maria had moved to Italy in the summer and we were eager to visit her. Christmas vacation gave us the perfect excuse!

Maria lives in the Aosta valley and our plan was to drive there through Switzerland and cross the Alps via the St. Bernard’s tunnel, which arrives directly to the Aosta valley. We would be at Maria’s casetta in no time. We planned to sleep just one night on the way there, somewhere in Switzerland.

On the Saturday before Christmas, we packed our car and caravan and headed south, towards Strasbourg and the border crossing of Basel in Switzerland. The route is quite nice and the French road tolls are quite low there. At the border, we bought the Swiss vignettes and headed on our way to the first sleeping spot a little bit past Basel, scouted from Park4Night.

During the night, the weather took a turn to the worse. There was a storm warning over the Alps and heavy snowfalls were expected. We had to reconsider our route. The St. Bernard tunnel is almost at 2000 meters, and there would surely be snow up there. Our house on wheels was not equipped for such conditions, so we decided to play it safe, and take the lower St. Gotthard tunnel, which would bring us to the lake Como and Milan. A bit of a detour, but it seemed like the best option.

On Sunday, we drove through a soaking wet Swiss landscape, made it to the tunnel with no ice on the road and poked out on the other side of the mountains, where there was sunshine and we could finally relax. The road sloped gently towards the Italian border and Milan. From there we took the heading to the west and Turin.

After the darkness had fallen, we finally arrived in the small village where our dear friends live. They were meeting us at the roadside, as the way to the casetta is quite small and hard to find and invited us into the warmth of their home. We sat to the table and enjoyed a meal prepared with love. I was so happy to be reunited with my dear friends after way too long of a time.

We spent two days with them, eating and walking and sitting around the campfire, giving new names to constellations and so forth. The Christmas was approaching and our friends were called away to their family’s Christmas table. It was time for us to move on too.

As usual, we were looking at the weather and walking regions and after a little bit of browsing decided to go to Parma –region. We spotted a caravan resting area in a small town of Bardone at the foothills of the Apennines, not very far from Parma itself. The mountain walks were also only an hour away from there, so things could not be much more perfect.

It was Christmas day and the church of that small town chimed a melody and woke us up to a sunny day. We squeezed into our boots, packed snacks and water and headed to the higher hills and the Tuscan-Emilian National Park, where we had spotted a nice looking ridge, climbing the peak of Monte Sillara.

We parked at Rifugio Lagoni, a mountain refuge, nestled next to a beautiful lake, and headed on, following the orange line marking our trail in Wikilocs. The trail was wide at that point, following the shape of the lake in the forest, it took a determined upward direction.

The snow was getting gradually deeper as we gained altitude. Which made me happy, since in my books Christmas without snow isn’t a Christmas. A good hour later, we reached the saddle (Sella di Rocca Pianaccia). From there on out we started to miss our crampons; the snow was getting deeper and icy at times, so finding a secure footing was challenging. We advanced very slowly.

Every now and then, the trail slipped to the southern side of the ridge, and the snow pack got thinner and we could walk more freely. But, for the most part the trail was challenging all the way, up until we got to the first peak of the ridge. Already there the view was magnificent! The air was clear so we could see the whole length of the Alps in the north, as a snowy rugged line in the horizon, below us we saw the land reaching down to the Mediterranean. It was very rewarding to sit there and feel like on top of the world!

After the amazement came time to find a way down. The trail was not getting any easier. It followed the norther side of the ridge, and there were large patches of icy snow on it with steep slopes. We weren’t too eager to walk it. Turning back would have been a pity also. Luckily, I spotted a signpost marking a trail crossing at the bottom of the cliff on top of which we were standing. There seemed to be a trail running back to the lakes where we had come from. We just needed to find a way to get to it.

We were in luck! There had been someone before us, who clearly had run into the same problem and that someone had left footprints for us to follow. We carefully followed a zigzag down the slopes, taking a slide on the snow when it got too hard to step on and navigating past boulders. Slowly we made it down to where the trail post was standing. It pointed towards another refuge, nestled a little ways above the lakes where we had started.

The trail was a bit easier to follow from there on. It was still quite snowy, as we were on the northern side of the ridge, so we were still advancing at crawling speed. There were streams crossing our path, making it icy and slippery, and sometimes it was difficult to find a sure footing. Both of our butts made contact with the earth more than once, before we finally reached the refuge.

The refuge was now closed for the winter, but I would imagine it is a very beautiful place when the summer comes and the nature blooms around it. There is water everywhere and magnificent rack walls sheltering it all around.

After hanging around the shelter for a bit, we headed in to the forest on the now wide trail. The forest there is very pretty, even in wintertime. I was mesmerized by the trees, and took a dive again into the snow. Soon enough the trail was done and we were back. We had just enough time to sit at the lakeside and eat our snacks before the sun left us and sunk behind the mountains and we started our return to the village where our trailer was waiting.

The evening of Christmas day was calm for us. We were already looking forward to visiting some cities the following day. More of that part of our vacation in the next post! Photos you can find from our Flickr.

A weekend in Greece

Past autumn I had a severe case of travel fever. I wanted to go somewhere, no matter where, just somewhere. Waffle, amazing as he is, picked up on that and a short while later we had booked flights to Thessaloniki, Greece.

We would be staying just a weekend, just like on our first trip to Greece. We would fly out on Friday afternoon and return late on Sunday. The week before take off we were frantically browsing through maps to find a hikable area and a place to stay, not too far from the airport. A finger landed on the Pindos National Park. It is famous for bears and the Vikos Gorge, so that’s where we went.

We had booked a hotel in a small town of Filippaioi, nestled in the side of a mountain. It was a long drive in the darkness up to the mountain range, just the serpentine of the road was winding ahead of us in the headlights. Every now and then an occasional house popping up at the road side. When we finally arrived it was almost midnight, we were both exhausted and happy to see a bed and fall asleep.

In the morning we woke up to a pleasant surprise: Our balcony had a beautiful view over the snow covered Smolikas -mountain. The weather was beautiful, sun was shining from clear sky and the temperature was pushing towards 10 degrees. Perfect for hiking!

We were the only guests in the hotel, and the host really gave her best to keep us happy. We were presented with a bountiful Greek breakfast, with pastries, breads and sweets more than we could even imagine eating. We were happy enough to be well fed as we headed out to the mountains.

Waffle had scouted a route from Wikiloc, leaving from the next village, Samarina, making a loop of about 16 kilometers over to a lower peak next to Smolikas. We drove the mountain road from our tiny village to Samarina which, as we later found out, was one of the highest villages in Greece and is populated by Aromanians. Now the streets of the town were hauntingly empty, with only a few older men walking around and most of the houses’ windows boarded shut, for the winter, we assumed.

We parked near the church and crossed the town on foot, gradually climbing higher and higher, until we met the trail and disappearing into a pinewood. The trail wasn’t heavily walked, but still well marked and made. As we navigated in between the trees, the height meters went by surprisingly easy and we were soon passing the treeline.

From there on out the trail passed dry meadows of brown grass, every now and then crossing a waterfall or a stream, all of them now dry. The meadows were dotted with massive lonely pines. They looked like they had stood through storms and fires and freezing winters for centuries, quite a thing to see.

Our trail kept ascending steadily towards our peak. It wasn’t a very tall peak, reaching just above 2200 meters, but it already had a small cover of snow on it. The sight that took our breath away, was the view opening from there to the neighboring peak. It was only a few hundred meters taller than the rock we were standing on, but the north face of it was packed with snow. While we were standing up there, admiring the view, we heard a rumble and got to witness a small avalanche on Smolikas!

We enjoyed the sun and the slowly withering warmth it had created, before starting our descend. Our trail had disappeared all together and as the GPS track we were following was actually a snowshoe trek, so we ran into some complications. Navigating through scree and boulders, before hitting the next slope; where the going got flatter and easier.

We strolled down along a ridge, trying to keep an eye on the track and admiring the landscape. The heavily eroded land was glad in soft colors of the autumn, every now and then we saw old marks of forest fires on the trunks of the giant pines.

We were almost our of the mountain, when our GPS track started doing something funky. It climbed over some mad looking rock formations, which we couldn’t possible go over. Clearly the landscape is a bit different in winter. We were forced to negotiate our way around the rocks, through a leafy forest, with no trail anywhere.

That doesn’t sound too bad, but it was indeed a leafy forest and it was autumn time. So we quickly found ourselves wading through a thick blanket of leaves. Still doesn’t sound like a too bad of a predicament. But it was. The carpet of decaying leaves was partially moist and slippery, plus it was excellent at hiding any possible holes, roots and stones that lay in our way. So we had some fun while descending, maybe some bruising in the derriere as well.

After the forest the trail found its way to a road and the remaining kilometers went fast. A little after the sunset we were back at our hotel looking for our destination for the following day. I have been intrigued already for a while by the monasteries of Meteora. So of course I checked, if it wouldn’t be an impossible journey to go there, before heading to the airport.

Meteora turned out to be just an hours drive from where we were, so that’s where we turned our noble iron steed the next morning. I was looking forward to seeing the area. What I had gathered, was it was a monastery, build on top of a huge stone column. I was very pleasantly surprised once we finally arrived there.

The area is full of those stone columns and populated by several monasteries. It is quite popular destination to visit, and I was more than happy to be there in winter time, with very few tourists around. Once we got through our initial awe, we swiftly looked up a walk in Wikiloc and took off.

We only had time for a short loop, but luckily Meteora isn’t very large, so even our short walk got us to quite some views. The trail rotated around the columns first, before finding a side to go on top of them. The landscape kept going as odd and otherworldly as in the beginning, I was very glad we had made the trip and Waffle started to warm up to it too.

The small hike was great and going smooth all the way until we actually got to one of the monasteries. They all close at 2 PM and it was 3 PM when we arrived. To our surprise, our trail was going straight through the monastery, which was closed. Small amounts of panic occurred. The weather had turned miserable too.

Our plane was leaving around 8 PM and we had to drive for a few hours still, to get there. So an alternative route to our car was urgently needed. The challenge lay in our own stupidity, since we weren’t exactly certain where our car was. After a bit of searching we decided to follow the road down and hope that was the correct direction.

Eventually we met the GPS track again and were able to continue our trail. It took us deep to the valley in between the rock formations, now shrouded in clouds and water pouring down on them. We were rather soaked when we got back to the car, but all in all it had been a beautiful stroll and a beautiful weekend in Greece.

It had been short and intensive break in the everyday life. Greece was saying its goodbye to us in rainy, misty mountains as we returned to Thessaloniki and headed home. Already looking forward to the next travels!

Up! Into the sky – With a balloon!

I recently excited my 20’s and in the celebration of that, Waffle went a little cuckoo in the way of presents. Now I can enjoy complete silence in the train with some noise cancelling headphones and swoosh by traffic jams with an e-scooter. I also received a balloon flight!

I had mentioned about wanting to go flying with a balloon sometime, years ago in a side sentence, and this goofball of mine remembers it and buys me a flight. Love him to the moon and back!

We had been searching for the perfect weekend to go and take our flight and ended up picking a day in mid-September. The departure was scheduled early in the Saturday morning. We were in luck. The sky was clear and the cold night had left some mist lying around here and there, as we drove to the small city of Sint-Niklaas in Flanders. We would be taking off from an industrial area where there was an open plot of land.

As we arrived, there was one huge red-black balloon being stretched out.  All the preparations to get it up were in full swing. It was quite interesting to see, how it all comes together. Massive fans do the first inflation. Only after the balloon is partially inflated, do they shoot some flames into it to get it hot and floating. Once it is reaching for the sky, all the people climb to the basket and wait for the balloon to be strong enough to lift them.

48744749998_2345e1fd82_k48744744173_5773a5a795_k48744741178_7d749c2f28_k48745071311_74719b6b5c_k48745243182_d37286ad77_k

After the red balloon was on its way, they started to inflate the one we would be flying in. It was considerably smaller than the one before us. It had the capacity to carry nine people – we would be eight – in total. The process s we had just seen started around our balloon and soon our blue bubble was ready to take off.

Slowly the basket we were in, hopped off the ground, sliding a little in the wind. The balloon was not quite hot enough to pull us to the sky. To let it get hotter, there were two men hanging from the basket, keeping it from sliding away in too low an altitude. It was bit of a comical situation.

Soon the lift of the balloon was strong enough, and we bounced off to the sky. I was surprised by the speed with which we gained altitude, just a few seconds and we were hanging well above the rooftops and floating towards the city center

48745062521_1c966ee676_k48745058996_ab3f34e55a_k

Takeoff
All of a sudden, they all looked so small!.

48744715528_b5dbe5edc2_k

Sint-Niklaas is famous for organizing a Balloon festival every autumn, and it sometimes happens that a balloon hits the bell tower of the town hall. There was a nervous anticipation in our basket, as we flew over the market square, towards the very same tower. Luckily we were high enough and floated safely above it.

It was amazing to see the familiar streets and buildings from above, sliding by, in the light of the rising sun.  Slowly we passed the city. The huge gas burners were roaring as we rose up higher and higher. Our pilot stated that this time we would reach the altitude of 800 – 1000 meters. 

There was a lot of moist in the air that morning, so even from that altitude we could not see too much further than 20 km. That was far enough though, to see our old hometown Rupelmonde and the cooling towers of the Doel nuclear power plant. And the see, or at least the delta of the Skelt. The pilot gave us plenty of time to admire the view from up there as we were slowly drifting westward. 

Witte Molen

Sint-Niklaas
The bell tower we happily sailed over.

48745037481_67abd38cf0_k

Fields of green
The cornfields look like soft pillows from above!

What surprised me up there was the silence. Whenever the burners weren’t roaring, it was completely still. We were drifting in the wind, so we couldn’t hear it blowing. We were also way too high for the noise of the traffic to reach us, the silence was perfect. Every now and then, we broke the silence, noting something about the landscape or asking things from our pilot. We learned he was holding the Belgian record of longest balloon flight, reaching all the way to the Jura mountains in France. And that the small balloon we were flying was just a  toy, costing merely 70 000 euros to buy. If anyone happens to be interested.

We were far from Sint-Niklaas already and the pilot had allowed the balloon to sink, searching for new wind directions. All of a sudden, we were just above tree tops and still descending. I was wondering if we were going to land somewhere there, although I could see nothing but cornfields around us. Surely, we would not land on some poor farmers crops? 

We were still descending and it did seem as we were going to hit the ground. The bottom of the basket was sweeping the tops of the corn plants, still wet from mildew; we could feel the vibration from them to our feet. Then, all of a sudden, the pilot pulled both of the burners to full blast and in a blink of an eye, we were dozens of meter above the ground! It was quite surprising how fast the climb happened, just by hot air! 

Puivelde
The huge church in a tiny village – Puivelde.

48745018741_cbcfaacab0_k

Sweeping by
The basket was touching the heads of the corn. Here we really got a sense of the surprisingly fast speed we were going.

48745187502_f8d999f648_k

The balloon floated back up to the skies and further to west. Before long, we started to see some more familiar sights. Approaching from the distance, we saw the church of Puivelde. Puivelde is the town where my dear Waffle went to ground school as a kid. It is a small town, nothing more than a crossing of two streets, but it has a huge church. Right about there, our pilot dug out his phone, and called his parents to come out of their house to look to the sky. He had grown up in that tiny spec of a village too. He was a couple of years older than Waffle, so they didn’t quite know each other, but did have some common friends. Such a small world. 

We flew by the village of Puivelde and caught a sight of another familiar place. We were passing the yellow house of Waffle’s parents! We passed the town of Sinaai, Waffle’s old hometown slightly from the north. Then we set off to higher altitude again and floated away from the familiar landscapes. It took still about 20 minutes before we actually started landing.

Getting us out of the air wasn’t a simple task. First, the pilot had to find a field, which wasn’t cultivated and was accessible to the cars that were driving behind us. Then he needed to find a wind layer that would take us there while dropping our altitude.

The ground was sweeping past fast and getting closer by the second. We had been guided through landing positions, and now we embraced them as the basket was about to hit the ground with quite some speed.

48745005491_ed5a3e8c82_k

Stekene
That town is Stekene. We quite often go walking along the channels.
Peaking to the backyards
One quite satisfying thing about flying with a balloon, is that you get to peak into peoples gardens. And sometimes spot some weird stuff, or just fancy shrubbery.

All of a sudden, there was a thud and a bounce and the basket ended up lying on its side with us packed inside it. Some of us were commanded out, the basket was tilted back up and the team that had followed us by car started dragging the basket to a better position, so the deflating balloon would have space to fall down safely.

The hot air was seeping out of the balloon and the rest of the weight could climb out from the basket. The pilot jumped out and attacked the deflating balloon. He started pulling the fabric to the ground to hasten the outflow of the hot air. When it was empty enough, he asked some of the passengers to come and help him. The empty balloon was rotated into a long roll. That roll was then packed into a large bag and swayed into the trailer the team had driven to the field.  The bag and basket were quickly hauled into the trailer and all the evidence of our adventure in the sky was out of sight. 

48745151662_267cd44e00_k

Rolling
Rolling the balloon to get it ready for packing.

48744970206_8cbc9ba67b_k

Balloon to sofa
Completely OK to use the package as a sofa.

We got a ride back to the cars and left all in our separate ways. It was truly a unique experience. I would never say no, if the opportunity pops up again. To enjoy all of the pictures, clickety click to here!

The compqny we were flying with was Up Ballooning.