Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Captain cook

At this time of year a lot of the campsites have started closing for winter so, as we made our way back towards the Alps, our choices of where to stay became a bit limited and we ended up choosing campsites that we might not normally stay at. Which is how we ended up staying at a fairly surreal place in a little town called Torre Daniele. It’s not a massive town but we still had difficulty locating the campsite itself and, even after spotting it, couldn’t find a way in and somehow ended up driving over a sort of rickety old foot bridge. The place was full of old knackered caravans and looked abandoned, apart from a single dog who was barking loudly. Claire hopped out to see if she could find someone in charge and approximately 20 seconds later was back in the van with the barking dog hot on her heels. We drove a bit further into the camp and an elderly couple emerged from one of the caravans. They were Dutch, very friendly and told us that they came here for two months every year to help harvest the local vineyards. As if to illustrate the point, the husband disappeared for a couple of minutes and returned with a magnum-sized bottle of red wine which he promptly presented us with. “Four euros,” he squealed, “good, no?!” Good, yes!

We were about to open the wine (we’d been in the camp about five minutes by this point) when we became aware of a strange ringing sound, faint at first, but rising in volume until it became an almighty jangling cacophony. A massive herd of cows were being, er, herded down from the mountains along the main road. Each cow sported a very large cowbell and the din was incredible. In fact it was borderline unbearable. The farmers doing the herding must have been deaf or, at the very least, have suffered from extreme tinnitus. Chaos reigned and traffic came to a standstill as the bovine orchestra ambled down the road clanging and rutting. Yes, there was rutting being attempted along the way too.


Back at the campsite, it never really became clear who was running the place and our suspicions were that it might have been the noisy dog – it even had its own chair outside the office. There were humans around but none of them seemed to know (or care) what was going on. When we went to pay the next morning, the dog ran into the office and through a door at the back to fetch a little old lady who came out to take the money. Then she disappeared again and it was the dog who stood at the gate and barked its goodbyes as we left. Very odd.

As some of you may know, we are going to do a season as chalet hosts this winter so we thought it might be a good idea to get some practice in. To that end, we’d booked a place on a “Chalet Hosting and Cookery Course” in the French Alps. To get from Italy to France, we took the very steep and winding San Bernardo pass, the same route taken by Hannibal and his elephants when they famously crossed the Alps to attack the Romans. Those elephants were possibly more suited to the journey than our clockwork campervan.

The cookery course we were booked on was to take place in an actual chalet and we assumed it would be attended by other like-minded couples hoping to become chalet hosts. When the rest of the students turned up it became very clear, very quickly, that they were actual students – all aged between 17 and 19. None of them had ever cooked before, most of them had no interest in cooking and a lot of them were there simply to complete some sort of module on the Duke Of Edinburgh scheme. This meant that the course started off on a very basic level. So basic, in fact, that on day one we were taught how to wash our hands properly and how to chop an onion. As Claire and I looked at each other in despair, one of the students, a fairly posh 17-year-old girl, took it upon herself to faint. It wasn’t clear whether this was caused by boredom or that her brain couldn’t cope with the complex information it was receiving and had simply shut down.

As the week went on we were subjected to highly intellectual lectures with titles such as “Why Germs Are Bad” or “What Is A Herb?” after which we had to answer frustratingly patronising questions and if we answered correctly we were rewarded with a sweet! Even though to us it felt like being back at primary school, for some of the other students that sweet was often a hard won thing – one lad was given a multiple-choice question about where to store raw meat and somehow came up with “by the bins”. 

Each mealtime we were split into groups and were charged with preparing and cooking various cakes, breakfasts and three-course dinners for the instructors and other students – 16 of us in all. The quality of the cooking varied greatly from group to group and there was a fairly high state of apprehension whenever anything was being made by Group D, three 18-year-old lads who actually had to be shown the difference between a sieve and a colander. A memorable highlight of their week’s endeavours was a cake that had been made with salt instead of sugar.

To give the course its due, Claire and I did learn how to bake at altitude, are a lot more confident about cooking for large groups and (because they were all teenagers) got first-hand experience of what it will be like when guests are tired and grumpy. On the last night we all had a big drink up and, as well as being novice cooks, some of them proved to be novice drinkers. The last lesson of the week for us was that a sieve is the best way to remove teenage vomit from a hot tub. That’s a sieve and not a colander.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The coast with the most

I’d always assumed that the famous leaning tower of Pisa was once straight and that it had gained its unusual tilt over centuries of subsidence. Turns out that it was just a dodgy building job and has been an almighty cock up all its life. One thing is for sure though: it’s one of those landmarks where it is better to be outside looking up at it, than up it looking out. That little gem of wisdom cost Claire and I 18 euros each in entrance fees. You see, aside from the arduous climb up the stairs seeming a bit steeper in places and ever-so-slightly easier in others, all you get at the top is a view of the rest of Pisa which, apart from the neighbouring cathedral, is pretty dull. There are a few bells up there (it is, after all, a bell tower) and some annoying tourists, whose sole job is to get in the way of every single photograph you want to take, but otherwise there’s not much going on. The best views are to be had down on the ground and they are actually best viewed with the tower behind you – that way you get to see lots of people posing for photographs where they pretend to either lean against or prop up the tower. Viewed without the tower, it looks like a group of escaped mental patients taking part in a some sort of wacky yoga class. Even better still is watching relationships fall apart before your very eyes as increasingly frustrated men try desperately to explain perspective to their even more exasperated wives and girlfriends.

Taking the main road out of Pisa, we became increasingly aware of what can only be described as half-dressed women, loitering in laybys, waving at cars. These prostitutes (for that is what they were) were presumably trying to lure men into their particular layby for a bit of light relief, but what we struggled to understand is why any man would want to take part in such a transaction next to what was a very long, slow-moving stream of rush-hour traffic. Especially given the high likelihood of someone they knew being sat in that traffic. One woman was obviously doing it to pay for a new skirt or some trousers because her’s were nowhere to be seen…

The coastline on this side of Italy was really beautiful and a world apart from the depressing desolation we’d witnessed on the east coast. We’d read that one of the highlights of this particular bit of coast was an area called Cinque Terre (pronounced chink-wee terror). Although translating literally as Five Lands, it actually refers to five villages, of varying levels of prettiness, that are accessible only by boat or train. Or that was what we were led to believe. We got a train to the furthest village, Riomaggiore, to find that it was quite nice and consisted of a collection of colourful houses built into the cliffs overlooking a little natural harbour. Just like the tower at Pisa, it was quaint if seen from afar but not quite as stunning once you were in it. More galling was the sight of some cars that had miraculously managed to drive to the village along roads that shouldn’t exist. Maybe the rail company started the myth about them being inaccessible to increase ticket sales.

As we stopped off at each of the villages on the way back to where we’d been talked into parking (an hour away by train) each successive settlement became slightly more disappointing with increasingly large numbers of ‘magic’ cars. On the plus side, it proved to be a good workout and, given the number of steep paths and long sets of steps we had to ascend, I can only assume that the locals must have the biggest calf muscles in Italy.

Getting on and off the trains was a bit of a task too because Italians don’t have any notion of queueing and certainly don’t want to wait for you to get off the train before they start getting on. Add to this mix a herd or two of hapless elderly tourists on a day trip from their cruise ship, being led around by a disinterested tour guide, and chaos soon ensues. In amongst this maelstrom were a couple of teenage girls who seemed intent on getting in everybody’s way… until we realised that was exactly what they were doing, distracting people, bumping into them and attempting to pick their pockets. A guard came along so we told him what we had seen and pointed the culprits out to him but he was a very long way from caring, even a little bit, and seemed much more concerned with telling us we had the wrong tickets.

It was Claire’s birthday last week so it was decided that we should treat ourselves to a hotel in order to celebrate appropriately. Rather randomly (by looking at a map to see what was nearby) we chose a little town called Santa Margherita Ligure and a proper old riviera establishment called the Grand Hotel Miramare. The service was beyond impeccable and they simply couldn’t do enough for us – though when the concierge offered to park our car, his heart must have sank when he saw what we’d given him the keys to. Due to its height, our van wouldn’t fit into their car park so they found a special place for it on a bit of the promenade, right on the seafront outside the hotel, which meant that any guests who’d paid for a sea view now also got a lovely view of our little yellow van. It became a bit of a celebrity while it was there and we spotted several passers by taking photos of it – though I’m not sure whether that was because they liked it or were maybe going to report it.

About half an hour walk or, in our case, a ten minute boat ride along the coast is the small fishing village of Portofino. It is a lovely little village but the operative word in that sentence is little – we’d seen the whole place by lunchtime – which is why it surprised us that it is famous as a being a celebrity haunt. From Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to Jay-Z and Beyonce, from Clark Gable to Michael Douglas, Steven Spielberg, J-Lo, Rod Stewart and Rihanna – this little village draws them all. The old fishing harbour is now full of ridiculously luxurious sci-fi super yachts and the streets off the harbour – of which there are approximately two – are crammed with high-end stores (Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci etc) as if somebody accidentally misplaced a shopping mall. It’s like taking Bond Street and transplanting it into Port Isaac. Only with better weather.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Rage against the (cash) machine

Now back in Italy, our plan was to drive up what we thought would be a lovely coastal route, looking at dreamy scenery, all the way to Rimini. Unfortunately that whole section of coastline is nothing like we’d imagined and was, instead, a depressing 120km stretch of tawdry, dilapidated beach resorts and empty hotels all closed up for the winter. It was like repeatedly driving through out-of-season Morecambe, continuously, for two hours. And, just to make it even more unbearable, the roads felt like the tarmac had been applied by some sort of angry primate, using a fork, while having an epileptic fit.

 Surely this couldn’t be right. We needed something beautiful to look at, so we headed inland to Urbino, a hilltop town we’d never even heard of until a couple we met told us that it was a bit of a stunner. They weren’t wrong. It’s a fairly small town but within its walls is a treasure trove of impressive buildings, pretty piazzas and Renaissance art. It was a welcome respite from the horror of the coast.

The hilltop town theme continued as we headed into the Republic of San Marino, a wealthy independent enclave where Fiats are suddenly outnumbered by Ferraris. In fact they seem to be obsessed with cars and motor racing (it used to be a regular fixture on the Formula One calendar) and it wasn’t long before we saw evidence of this in the form of some rally cars being worked on by the side of he road. A few minutes later, while searching for our campsite, we noticed that the little road we found ourselves on was lined with bales of hay… and there was some stripy plastic tape emblazoned with some sort of warning… and, hang on, why are there people with clipboards making notes about which way the road bends? I think that was probably the moment it dawned on us that we were actually on the rally course. A steep and challenging rally course not suited to a rattling camper van with squeaky brakes and the power output of a hairdryer.

It turned out that our campsite was about 100 yards from this rally course and that the race would be going on until midnight. With no hope of a peaceful evening, we decided to wander up to the course to see what was going on. The event was called “Rally Legend 2014”, a series of races featuring classic rally cars of the Seventies and Eighties. For the car nerds amongst you, we’re talking Lancia Delta, Audi Quattro, Porsche 911, Lancia Stratos – even a Triumph TR7 – in other words, all the cars I had as toys growing up. Only these were the real things – fast, noisy and exhilarating. It was brilliant. Needless to say they made much shorter work of the twisty hill than we had in our little tin box. 

The next day we visited the historical capital of San Marino, an impressively majestic walled city of medieval buildings – and, on the day we were there, host to some of the tackiest weddings we’d ever seen. The other thing we couldn’t help but notice was the very high number of shops selling guns, crossbows, knives and (I’m sure I saw this) hand grenades. It seems to be the ideal place to go for anyone wanting to tool up in preparation for a post-apocalyptic survival situation. Perhaps they’re worried about the Italians invading or crime is very high or maybe there’s an imminent zombie attack forecast. Either way, San Marino will be ready. 

We left the next day and headed north via Imola, actual home of the San Marino Grand Prix – the infamous track where Ayrton Senna lost his life. I wanted to drive past just because I’d never been there but as we approached the town we could hear the unmistakable sound of cars racing. As my excitement grew, and Claire’s heart sank, we drove up to a high concrete wall, beyond which the noise seemed to be emanating. A quick clamber up onto an old concrete junction box and we found ourselves with a great view, not just of the track, but of the latest round of the Porsche Carrera Cup. Bargain!

And so to Florence – or Firenze as the Italians insist on calling it – birthplace of the Renaissance, stomping ground of Michelangelo and Donatello (and possibly the other two Ninja Turtles) and, now, home to what I think must be more American students than there are Italians. You cannot move for American students, they even outnumber the pigeons (I’d say conservatively two-to-one) and seem to spend their time endlessly discussing where the best place is to have “just the most awesome” breakfast/coffee/lunch before seeking out and completely overrunning any cafe that offers free Wifi.

And the few Italians that remain are, on the whole, out to get you. They go out of their way to impede a tourist’s enjoyment of their city. If they are not inventing closing times that happen to coincide with the exact moment you want to visit the Duomo, they are conjuring up ingenious ways to extort money from you. Like the two very helpful women in an official Bureau De Change who, because the ATM was broken, very kindly offered – in perfect English – to provide cash on my card. Once I’d entered my PIN however, they presented me with an invoice for 65 euros “service charge” and suddenly their English became a lot worse as they failed to understand why I was so livid and struggled to explain why they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) cancel the transaction. We did eventually manage to get some of our money back but not before Claire was told that if she didn’t stop her one-woman protest outside their shop (she was telling other tourists of the rip-off scam within) the Polizia would be summoned. 

Talking of inappropriate behaviour, were there no pants in 15th century Italy? Florence is, of course, renowned for its art but that doesn’t justify the sheer volume of statues featuring bearded men with their genitals exposed. And they are usually committing the most horrific crimes: molesting women, beheading people, beating the crap out of a centaur or just forcing other nude men into compromising positions. They might have a helmet on or sandals or even the medieval equivalent of a pashmina but, to a man, they all go about their sordid business with their little Renaissance willies on show. Maybe that’s why they’re so violent. Maybe they just needed to put some pants on and calm down.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Sleepless into battle

After a drizzly few days in the mountains it was back to the coast and back to the sunshine. We stayed at a great little campsite in a town called Sveti Filip (immediately re-christened Sweaty Phillip) where we were one of just two vans staying on site. From there we cycled to a town called Biograd (which sounds like some sort of chemical waste by-product but is actually quite nice) and caught a ferry to the nearby island of Pasman. There we had a bit of a cycle round, stopped for a well-earned beer and stumbled upon a nudist camp where I had the pleasure of being confronted by a leathery German chap’s tallywhacker. All in all, a successful island visit.

For the next couple of days we drove down the stunning Dalmatian coast without seeing a single spotty dog. The shores are lined, alternately, with pretty peninsula towns and beautifully quiet little beaches of the whitest… er… gravel. Yes, for some reason Croatian beaches are completely devoid of sand and instead consist of a small white stone that can best be likened to cat litter. It’s not great to walk on in bare feet but, on the up-side, it is surprisingly comfortable to lie in, doesn’t work its way into your bum crack – and probably cancels out unwanted odours too!

Two stops worth a mention are Trogir, another old Venetian outpost with all the trimmings (fortified wall, narrow streets, lots of shutters, Unesco rating) and, of course, Split. Split is a big city but at its heart is the old town which has – you guessed it – a fortified wall, narrow streets, lots of shutters and a big thumbs up from the lovely people at Unesco. What sets this city apart is the people – they are lunatics. The first person we met was a car park attendant who also happened to be the world’s leading exponent of misogyny. We were about to enter his car park but Claire wanted to wait to take a ticket until we could see a vacant space. This simple act made the man storm out of his little kiosk, yank a ticket from the machine himself and thrust it into Claire’s hand while shouting at her to get a move on. Then when Claire tried to point out that there were actually no parking spaces available, he snatched the ticket back off her, shooed her away and gave me the ticket instead! He was a very angry man. So imagine his rage when the next lunatic turned up in a battered old Lada and drove straight through his metal barrier, bending it into a perfect 90 degree angle. And then there was the nutter dressed in an outfit that I’m going to call “Summer Santa”… 

We’d decided to get a ferry across to Italy so booked ourselves on the Split to Ancona crossing. The ferry company were adamant that we should be there by at least 6.30pm to start embarkation, even though it was a 9pm crossing. We actually arrived at 5.30pm which is possibly the first time in Claire’s existence that she has been early for anything. We were really pleased with ourselves. However, three hours later we still hadn’t been loaded on to the boat. The problem, apparently, was that the cars (and campervans) couldn’t go onto the ferry until all the big articulated lorries had been put on – and three trucks hadn’t turned up. So we waited. And waited. And you know that thing where you’re waiting for three lorries to turn up and then seven all come along at once… That happened. Once we’d finally been packed aboard we headed excitedly to our room because, as it was a night crossing, we’d booked a two berth cabin. Unfortunately, due to what I assume was a clerical error, we were instead given the key to a small cupboard with two narrow shelves in it. In this cupboard, I slept not one jot. This was partly due to the confined quarters but also to the paper-thin walls, through which you could hear the people in the next cabin breathe. Let me be clear: not snore – breathe. So thin were these walls that the screws from next door’s fittings actually protruded into our side, which added an extra layer of jeopardy to proceedings. Then, as a literal crescendo to the whole hellish experience, someone came round knocking on everyone’s cabin doors at 6am with what sounded like a metal soup ladle.

So we were back in Italy, feeling unclean and bleary-eyed. And I’d forgotten just how mental Italian drivers can be. Traffic lights, lane markings and road signs are all treated as mere suggestions. Indicators have been deactivated on every single car so that the drivers won’t be distracted from their mobile phone conversations. Roundabouts are one massive game of chicken and overtaking can, and will, happen at any time – even if there is a blind bend, oncoming traffic or a sign saying “No overtaking”. What you don’t want to do is attempt to enter this melee having had no sleep the night before…

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Get your Croat, you've pulled...

The whole goal of this trip had been to get to Croatia and that finally happened this week. Our first stop was Rovinj, a stunning little coastal town built on a peninsula by the Venetians – so, as you’d imagine, it has lots of narrow cobbled streets and crumbling buildings with lots of wooden shutters. Imagine Venice on a little hill with no canals. It is very beautiful – and thankfully pigeon-free.

We ran out of camping gas while we were there and it turned out the only place we could get this was down the coast in a town called Pula. Just before we set off though, we were approached, rather randomly in a car park, by a man who was the colour of a conker and the texture of a walnut. He told us that Pula was “crap man, just horrible” and that instead we should give him a lift to a nudist beach just along the coast. “Yeah, come with me to the nudist place, get naked, you’ll love it” he pleaded. This was a person that looked like he really shouldn’t be allowed any further exposure to the sun. Our need to get gas suddenly became even more urgent so we left him standing in the car park shaking his little walnut head.

We got our gas and then headed up into the mountains and, almost immediately, the weather changed. We literally went into a tunnel in blazing sunshine and emerged on the other side a few minutes later into a misty realm of cold grey drizzle. We were heading to Plitvice Lakes but it was quite a way, and our little van really isn’t comfortable attempting anything even approaching an incline, so we found a campsite on the map that seemed about half way. Unfortunately, when we arrived, that campsite was very closed. While we were discussing our next move, a smiley farmer appeared beside the van and started to helpfully point out that the campsite was closed. Now, most Croatians seem to be able to speak either English or German as a second language. This farmer spoke German about as badly as I do but we managed to ascertain that he was offering us a room for the night. “Great. Why not?” we thought. He led us to his farm where we were joined by his portly English-speaking wife who directed us to a small building in the yard, proudly opening the door and ushering us in. What they’d managed to do was somehow recreate a Communist-era Gulag camp inside a big refrigerator. It would actually have been warmer – and possibly more comfortable – to sleep out in the yard. But, of course, we are British and when faced with a potentially embarrassing situation we take the path of least resistance. So rather than apologise and say that we’d go elsewhere, we smiled, made approving noises and handed over our passports. And if we were wondering what it was exactly that this farmer farmed, well that was answered upon entry to the bathroom… there were herds of mosquitos lining the walls like a living wallpaper. Presumably we’d been lured here from the roadside to become feed for his livestock. We spent about half an hour in that bathroom chasing down and squishing every single last one of them. After an evening spent wearing our coats indoors and a fairly restless night sleeping on wafer-thin mattresses, we woke early, grabbed our passports, thanked them very much and fled. And, despite the cull the night before, we’d still managed to get bitten.

We are great believers in karma and the redemption for our night of penury came that same morning when we came across a stunningly enchanting village – albeit with a stunningly depressing name – Slunj. This pretty little settlement is literally awash with waterfalls cascading down between, under and through the houses. It is unreal and looks like a ready-made set for Lord Of The Rings.

And if you’re a fan of waterfalls (who isn’t?!) then our target destination, Plitvice Lakes, will have you positively quivering with excitement. This is a series of about ten or so interconnected lakes that cascade down into each other via a series of waterfalls and they are truly awesome and the fact that we arrived on such a misty day just added to the ethereal nature of the place. The crystal clear lakes and their resulting waterfalls vary massively in size but are all equally arresting. It’s hard to know just what is so mesmerising about what is essentially some water falling off a ledge...

Just as mesmerising, for me at least, was watching people turn up in the most inappropriate attire for what ends up being a 7km uphill hike through the lakes. Seeing girls wearing wedged flip flops or high heels slip and slide across the wooden bridges and through the mud was as entertaining as the waterfalls themselves. But my favourites were the group of Japanese gentlemen who turned up in business suits, clutching their packed lunches in little paper bags and wearing hats they’d made from the tour maps to protect them from the drizzle. One guy even spent the afternoon walking around with a cardboard box on his head. Utter genius. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Sparks fly in Slovenia

After Venice, we headed along the beautiful coast road to Trieste. We stopped a couple of times to admire the views and, while they are stunning, they are slightly marred by another altogether unwelcome sight – the entire coast seems to be littered with leathery old men sunbathing in tiny trunks.

We had a nose around Trieste itself before spending the night in what has become our new low bench mark for campsites. I didn’t think those old squatty toilets with the badly placed footplates still existed in Europe but it turns out they do. Feeling not-at-all rested or refreshed we headed to the nearby Grotta Gigante which, as you’d imagine, translates as Massive Cave. So massive, in fact, that the Guinness Book Of World Records has recognised it as the “largest visitable tourist cave in the world” which, to me, sounds like one of those categories that Guinness make up when they can’t pigeon-hole something into an existing category… like the record for how many boiled eggs someone can peel with their feet while bouncing on a trampoline. If Guinness had been there on the day of our visit they could have created a category for “the largest and most annoying group of disinterested German school kids to ever visit a cave” as that was who we had to share our tour with. Anyway, it is undoubtedly a very big cave and, just to illustrate the point, they show you a video of someone base-jumping inside the cave, hurling himself off the uppermost platform and having just enough time for his parachute to unfurl before crashing into a staircase at the bottom. Thankfully it is a short film.

Next stop was Slovenia and some more caves. These were the Skocjan Caves and, weirdly, they are even more vast than the “largest visitable tourist cave in the world” which makes no sense at all as we were clearly tourists who were clearly visiting it. Anyway, while the Grotta Gigante trades on its size alone, the Skocjan Caves go for the “absolutely breathtaking” angle and get a World Heritage Site badge for their efforts. If you like lots of stalactites, stalagmites, narrow bridges and nausea-inducing sheer drops, then Skocjan is the place for you. We went for a 3km hike through the caves and that only took in about a third of the whole thing. In your face Grotta not-quite-so-Gigante. 

Then our van’s battery died. And, as I keep telling Claire, this had absolutely nothing to do with some dingbat leaving the lights on while they went off hiking through caves for the afternoon. We got a jump start and drove to Portorose (Slovenia’s answer to Las Vegas) but it kept dying and just wouldn’t recharge, so we found a garage with a very helpful English-speaking guy called Andrej who confirmed that our battery was “kaput” and who helped us fit a new, bigger, better battery. When he was fitting it though, he couldn’t get the plastic caps back on the positive and negative contacts so simply shrugged, told us we didn’t need them and chucked them in the bin. That all seemed fine to us. The engine started first time and so we happily set off to visit Piran, a quaint little fishing village about three miles down the coast. Now, in a Volkswagen T25, the battery is located directly under the driver’s seat. The underside of the driver’s seat is solid metal. What you don’t want to happen, as fate would demonstrate, is for a piece of metal to connect the two exposed contacts on your car battery. As we parked up in Piran there was a sudden crackling sound and a shower of sparks from beneath my seat, followed by some smoke and the distinct smell of burning. But I was in the middle of trying to parallel park. On a hill. With other cars waiting. So I was desperately trying to manoeuvre the van while simultaneously moving my electrified seat off of the battery and calmly urging Claire to locate the fire extinguisher with all haste. We leaped out of the cab, Claire handed me the extinguisher and I aimed a blast directly at the flames that were by now licking the underside of the seat. I managed to put the fire out but, in doing so, also managed to cover everything in the van with a layer of grey dust making it look a bit like what I imagine Pompeii must have looked like just after Vesuvius went up.

The rest of the morning was fairly uneventful in comparison. We pottered around the picturesque village of Piran as planned – but I couldn’t help but keep one eye on the horizon, just checking that there wasn’t a plume of dark smoke rising up from a burning yellow van...