The names Balbianello, Villa Balbianello.

Any James Bond fans reading this? Remember the scene in Casino Royale where Bond is recuperating in the garden of a hospital? Vesper is there and the swiss banker arrives by boat to get the code.

That “hospital” is Villa Balbianello, overlooking lake Como and it’s an absolute stunner.

We bussed it the 15 minutes from our campsite, La Fornace to Bellagio and spent another 15 minutes deciphering the overly complicated ferry timetable. Both Garda and Como ferry services have been poorly designed and chaotic to say the least. Eventually we found the right pier and piled on a ferry to Lenno.

As luck would have it, it was market day in Lenno. I needed some new sports socks. 6 for €4, bagged. That’s how I roll.

The entrance to the Villa was all the way around the pretty harbour which was lined with small speed boats and the occasional sail boat.

If we lived somewhere like this we would defo have a little boat to pootle around the lake. Maybe go say hi to George and Amal.

Villa Balbianello stands on a steep promontory jutting out into the west side of lake Como. The villa was left by the Italian exporer, Guido Monzino, to the Italian National Trust when he died in 1988. We watched a 30 minute video about his life and exploration accomplishments that culminated in saying Balbianello was his ultimate legacy. Some legacy.

It was a 20 minute woodland walk to get up and over the hill from the ferry terminal at Lenno to the villa entrance. It had a totally private and secluded location that gave it a sense of exclusivity. We were grateful of the shade as once again the lakes had delivered a scorcher.

Entrance was €10 each for the garden or €20 for garden and guided tour of the villa. We opted to make the most of the sunshine and nail the gardens.

From the moment we entered we were blown away by the immaculate gardens and the stunning views across the lake.

The gardens are landscaped over multiple levels which added to the drama. We could see why this was used as a location for Casino Royal and Star War II: Attack of the Clones.

Exposed on three sides, the villa had beautiful terraces with sweeping views of the water. It even had its own private jetty for boat access.

There was a separate outhouse which formed a private study and library and had an incredible double balcony with ivy trained up the walls and pillars.

Everything about the property and gardens was ornately designed and immaculately presented with wonderful bursts of colour.

Being a tourist was thirsty work. We grabbed a quick drink and ice cream whilst waiting for the ferry in Lenno.

Once back in Bellagio we found a lovely little trattoria with a cool table right outside in the cobble stone street.

We finished off the day with tasty pasta dish and a few games of Uno. Emily is on a winning streak. Time to think of some different strategies me thinks 🤔.

we arrived back to the campsite to catch a pretty cool sunset sky.

Modena

The next big hitter after Florence was due to be Venice but we thought it a shame to miss out on some nearby smaller cities. Distance wise, Bologna was a perfect half way point but the lack of campsites nearby and bad reviews for Sostas put us off. It’s a real shame as I would have loved to take a tour of the Ducati factory. I ride a Triump Street Triple R back home but would jump at the chance ride a Ducati Monster or 959 Panigale. Another time hopefully.

Instead we opted to stay the night in a sosta about 4km outside of Modena with a friendly tree lined cycle path right into the heart of the city.

The car lovers out there will no doubt already know that Modena is home to many of the top Italian car makers. Ferarri, Lambourghini and Maserati the most notable. Indeed the Ferrari 360 Modena was named after the city.

We also learned that Modena has a prestigious University traditionally strong in economics, medicine and law. As luck would have it lots of students were celebrating graduating with bottles of rum taped to their hands and laurel wreaths around their head. This made for entertaining people watching.

We visited 2 Unesco world heritage sites. The Cathedral and the Piazza Grande.

Famous Modenesi include operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari and the Queen consort of England and Scotland, Mary of Modena. Despite all these highlights the biggest draw for me was that it is home home to Osteria Francescana. A year ago I watched a netflix original called Chefs Table featuring the eccentric Massimo Bottura.

I was captivated by his story, creating a restaurant from scratch, Osteria Francescana, and building it in to the world’s best restaurant. As one can imagine not without it’s trials and tribulations. “Nothing easy is worth the ride.”

https://www.theworlds50best.com/The-List-2018/1-10/Osteria-Francescana.html

I wish I could say we managed to get a table to eat there but the waiting list is 6 months.

The next day we attempted to visit Parma for an afternoon explore. We were spooked by the total lack of campers in the dodgy looking sosta and the surrounding car park full of transits selling hooky goods.

We decided to abandon our plans (genuinely the first time we’ve had to forgo a destination due to safety concerns) and head to Verona instead. The drive was not without its tribulations, with terribly poor roads full of potholes and loose tarmac that shook and rattled the motorhome. Our satnav also took us to closed roads and sent us on bizarre diversions but this did afford us views of the incredible scenery.

We drove on another two hours to Verona only to find that sosta completly full of campers. Boom or bust it would seem. Exercising patience is not my usual forte but on this occaision it was necessary. We waited about an hour for somone to leave and gracefully ‘jumped in their grave’.

Sainte Maxime, the Patron Saint of Thunder?

We woke to an ominous sky for our last day in the St Tropez area. We decided to enjoy a lazy morning and watch Love Island. Yes we are both obsessed. We finally managed to finish the 1st series. No, we can’t even remember who won but it’s fascinating entertainment.

By the afternoon things didn’t look much better with the sky but we were getting cabin fever so we decided to brave it, pack our cagoules and cycle the 3km to Sainte Maxime. It sits across the gulf from Saint Tropez and I would hazzard a guess that a large proportion of the worlds fanciest and most expensive yachts have anchored off its shores.
Sainte Maxime seemed to be a more family orientated town and recent developments include a new cultural centre built with a cinema and activities for both children and adults. The new road from Le Muy to Sainte Maxime has made the whole area more accessible and it is increasingly attractive as a holiday destination. The largest source of revenue for Sainte Maxime is the summer tourist industry but the city is very much alive all year round with approximately 14,000 local residents. Property is being built along the coastline and restaurants and bars with music are springing up everywhere. However, the town retains its local traditions and there are several festivals throughout the year in celebration of its history.

Unfortunatley for us about 5 minutes after we arrived the heavens opened, the sky lit up and thunder rumbled so loud it shook the shop windows. We ran into a post office to send some postcards to our parents (let us know when you get them please) and then waited under a facade for the storm to fizzle out.

After about 20 mins the rain had subsided enough for us to at least wander around and find somewhere to have a warm drink. We settled upon Maison Du Chocolat as I really felt like a hot chocolate and Emily needed a cake. Yes needed.

Feeling refreshed and realising the rain was not going to stop we dragged ourselves out of the Chocolate shop and wandered the town in our very stylish get up – we really embodied the South of France chic.

Who would have thought that we would find an Artisan Boulangerie with yet more iresistable sweet stuff that we needed. We reasoned (fooled ourselves) that we must try the local speciality of tarte tropezienne.

Oh my they were good. Like little fluffy clouds made of cream. I wish I didn’t have such a sweet tooth. With our bellies full of sugar we peddled extra fast along the empty cycle path back to Harvey for some more Love Island. Losers…

The Gulf of St Tropez

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We spent the majority of the morning trying to locate a local mechanic, gas engineer or motorhome specialist who could confirm the problem with the gas system and order us a new regulator. Knowing that we are on the road for the next four months we needed to get it sorted. This proved much more difficult than we thought and we found ourselves in many awkward phone calls with broken French and poor google translate assistance. We even tried calling some ship chandlers that specialise in sorting issues for yachts in the hope that they’d have some ideas.

We called our motorhome dealer from back home first thing and when they got back to us they were great. After a chat with their engineer we were confident that it was definitely the regulator that had gone and given that we’d only had the van for six weeks, they offered to replace it as a goodwill gesture. They had one in stock and sent it via DPD to us. We were told this would take up to four business days and we had a weekend in between. The prospect of hanging around for another week in the same place felt like a bit of a waste, so our spirits were lifted when the campsite owner in Biot agreed to hold on to our delivery until we came back. We decided to head east along the coast for a bit then pick up the new regulator when it arrived.

We plumped for a campsite called Les Mures in the heart of the gulf of St Tropez. On first impressions it was a complete contrast to our previous place. Way more contemporary, immaculate facilities and beautiful landscaped gardens. It is sat right on a sandy beach with incredible views across the bay.

Following the stress of the van issues we needed a bit of a release and we’ve had an awesome few days exploring our new surroundings. On Friday we used the cycle lane to visit Port Grimaud located 3km along the bay. It’s a charming little port village that can only be accessed by foot or boat so it feels really peaceful. It’s called the little Venice of France because of the many canals weaving their way throughout the town. All the houses are painted in terracottas, creams and dusky pinks, and some feature wrought iron balconies. There are little Venetian-style bridges crossing the waterways, linking the different ‘streets’ and boutiques and restaurants on the waterfront.

We wandered through the little streets and gawped at the amazing boats in the harbour whilst we ate lunch.

On the Saturday we got up and out earlier to visit the market at St Tropez. Based on the beautiful Place des Lices, the market is a mix of fresh produce, crafts and fashion. There is definitely a St Tropez style and this is reflected in the gorgeous sun hats, white linen dresses and straw beach bags on sale. The whole place is immaculately presented and all the people are effortlessly chic.

It feels like a place to be seen, with cafes and restaurants lining the harbour and luxury boutiques rubbing shoulders with art galleries. The small town is packed with tourists in the day, all wanting a slice of St Tropez life and admiring the huge yachts at Vieux Port. It’s a completely different world, with butlers, private chefs, helicopters on the boats and Rolls Royce transfers to exclusive beach clubs.

Behind the gloss and glam there is a lovely core to St Tropez which was a simple fishing village before the likes of Brigette Bardot arrived in the 50’s and set the scene. We wandered up to a beautiful viewpoint and looked down upon the sun drenched, terracotta town and out towards the Mediterranean. In the afternoon we cycled on to Pampelonne beach which is about 4km along the coast from the town.

The road that we turned off onto was stunning, with vineyards on one side and fields of golden corn on the other. It made for a pleasant cycle away from the hustle and bustle.

The beach is 5km long and host to a string of celebrity studded beach clubs and bars – or so we hear. We ended up in the much less exclusive public section which was equally as beautiful. We sunbathed for a couple of hours before finding a bar that was showing England’s final match against Belgium. We were the only two Brits amongst 30 Belgium fans so losing was pretty grim.

We cycled back in the late afternoon sun, savouring the wonderful scenery. The cycle lane that hugs the coast is great because the main road is super busy and hectic. That said, the French are very respectful of cyclists, much more so than in the UK.

We got back with sore bottoms and hungry bellies. We watched the Bastille day fireworks from the van before falling asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Aix-en-Provence

For those who don’t already know, take a guess as to how to pronounce “Aix”. I would love to hear my Mum’s guess. Maybe some of you thought as I did it was a three sylable “aey-eye-ex”. As it turns out the correct way is much simpler and cooler, you simply have to say “X-en-Provence”.

Using our Camperstop App we found a random overnighter about 2km out of “X”.

The entrance looked promising.

However that was next door. This was our place.

Upon arrival at the correct place I was greeted by a very friendly Frenchman in the skimpiest of skimps. Emily actually guffawed at how ludicrous they were. Monsieur Smuggler showed me our pitch and gave me some useful information about the site and where to get the bus into X. Although super basic the pitch was side on to the most beautiful example of a wild flower border. Eat your heart out June and Mon x.

We sorted Harvey out with his awning, floor matt and chairs and headed for the bus into X. The bus was about a 5 minute walk down a steep hill to Pont L’arc. Mr Smuggler told us to take bus number 10 but as it happens bus 51 turned up first and an old man told us in French to jump on for centre ville. If this was a year ago we would have ignored him and waited for bus 10. Now we kinda just go with the flow and trust random strangers and know it will work out. Indeed, number 51 took us the 2km uphill to the bus station right in the middle of this pocket of left-bank Parisian chic.

X is all class: its leafy boulevards and public squares are lined with 17th- and 18th-century mansions, punctuated by gurgling moss-covered fountains. Haughty stone lions guard its grandest avenue, cafe-laced cours Mirabeau, where fashionable Aixois pose on polished pavement terraces, sipping espresso.

We spent an hour wandering the streets for the perfect place to have some lunch and people watch.

Who can resist a little bit of lemon drizzle cake or a coffee macaron?

We walked off all those calories through narrow polished stone streets from cool squares to the amazing cathedral.

We also needed to catch up on some blog writing as we have been traveling so much it has been hard to keep up. It wasn’t hard to find a suitable place to have a beer and knuckle down.

We even managed to find our French names up in writing.

And for Emily. Strictly speaking it should have been Le Porcelet.

After hard day being a tourist we were tempted by the onsite pool.

But decided it looked more like a swingers hangout so opted to binge watch “Love Island” on the free WiFi.

Summer Solstice Madness in E’startit

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We left Sant Feliu de Guixols and continued our drive north along the coast to our next campsite at E’startit. Positioned right on the coast, and in the shadow of the mighty Montgri castle above, E’startit made for a wonderfully scenic drive.

We pitched up at our campsite, based a mile out of town, for a couple of nights. On arrival we were told that we’d been lucky with our timing given that it was Sant Joans day, a celebration of the beginning of summer. We were told to expect festivities long into the night. The late evening light was so beautiful that we went for a stroll after dinner. We walked through fields of corn made golden by the sun.

It was so peaceful and still. As we approached the seafront we were amazed at the amount of people still enjoying the beach even at 9.30pm. There was a hive of activity with locals hosting parties in their apartments, families having picnics on the beach and holidaymakers drinking at the restaurants and bars along the promenade. There was a huge stage set up for a concert that would begin at 11.30pm – in England most concert’s curfews kick in at 11pm!

Invigorated by the atmosphere we walked along the sea front into town and stayed until dark for the incredible fireworks display and bonfire.

At about 10.30pm the town lights were turned off and the whole sky was illuminated with the most spectacular display. We felt incredibly lucky to have stumbled across this place on the right day to enjoy the party. Then in a frankly terrifying tradition, all the locals started setting off their own fireworks wherever they were. With complete disregard for any vague health and safety rules (or even common sense), people started randomly setting off huge bangers and rockets independently in the midst of the crowds. In a scene that would horrify the strict rule followers of Blighty, we saw all the major violations of firework guidelines. Kids were in charge of lighting massive pyrotechnics, dads were running back to unexploded fireworks to give them a prod and babies were handed sparklers. We couldn’t believe how relaxed the Spanish were and how no one batted an eyelid about the low firing rockets and huge explosions going off left, right and center to a deafening cacophony of bangs, whizzes and cracks. Needless to say we made a swift exit from the pure chaos, dodging swathes of colour that trailed into the night. We arrived back around midnight and could hear the fireworks and revelling well into the early hours. The Spanish do know how to fiesta.

The next day we had a lazy morning at the campsite and then wandered back into town. Of all places, we found a Dutch bar to watch the England vs Panama World Cup match which turned out to be a 6 goal thriller!

If all football matches were this exciting, I could get on-board a bit more.

We then explored the rest of E’startit town and walked around the harbour.

We discovered beautiful villas adorned with colourful Bougainvillea and stunning coastal scenes of dramatic cliff edges giving way to aqua seas.

We lay on the beach and had a dip in the sea before returning to the campsite for dinner.

We’ve got a good system in place now, where Gary is the BBQ grill king and I’m in charge of salads and sides. The local tomatoes and fruit are so ripe and incredibly tasty here and we try to cook most nights.

The next day we sorted a few admin bits out in the morning and then relaxed by the pool at the campsite. Having never been on camping or caravan holidays as a kid, I have to say that my preconceptions of dated, European campsites with long drop toilets and sad facilities are way off. These campsites are premium, with amazingly clean shower blocks, lovely pools and modern on-site bars and restaurants. So far they’ve all been great with landscaped gardens, bike rentals, saunas and plenty of activity. As we travel further along the coast here in Spain, the average age of clientele lowers as well so we aren’t the youngest by a mile anymore. Happy days!

Cambodia and the Temples

A big shout out to the Phuket Airport hotel. They know their niche and they nailed it. Close to the airport, obvs, beaut of a pool, neat lush gardens, fast WiFi, cheap clean spacious room, free transfer to the airport at 4am!

We arrived at Siem Reap airport at 7am only to realise we had left our passport photos in checked baggage. “Not to worry you can avoid this necessity with a fee sir”. At least we got our visas, even if it did cost us a little extra.

Our hotel, Sakmut Boutique, offered free airport transfer and true to form they greeted us at the arrival gate with a sign and they managed to spell my name right. Exceptional service for roughly £50 a night. They bill themselves as an “Affordable Luxury Hotel”. I think we would both go along with that. As we had arrived so early they offered us free breakfast. Pretty amazing given checkin is normally 2pm and that our room was ready for us to bag drop then chow down.

This bad boy was waisted on us #lazybones

We used the rest of the day to catch up on blogging and sort out accommodation for further down the line and work out our plans to explore Siem Reap.

We decided that the best way to visit the vast amount of temples was to spread it over two days with a pool day in between.

Small Circuit

Angkor Wat – Undisputedly the largest religious building in the world. A massive 3 level temple mountain style structure dominated by 5 central towers.

Two monks enjoying the lake at the entrance to Angkor Wat.

I know it looks empty but we got lucky with this shot before the crowds took over

This little one had enough temple action

Plenty of cheeky monkeys feasting on scraps

Ta Prohm – made famous by the film Tomb Raider.

This was one of my favourites as it was the most atmospheric. The jungle has definitely taken over in parts and has made it more beautiful than some of the restored parts.

Bayon – The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.

It’s funny when you visit a lot of temples in a day or two. You get to understand the saying “same same but different”. On the whole we enjoyed visiting so many as we did it at a leisurely pace and didn’t try and squeeze in too many. It was also nice to quench our thirst with a cold one at the end of a hot sticky day.

Khao Sok Snake Diaries

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Day Two in Khao Sok started bright and early as we headed out for a full day tour of the National Park and Cheow Lan Lake. This destination is well documented as the jewel of the park and having seen lots of awesome blogs and videos about it, we’ve been really excited to explore. Cheow Lan is a 71sq mile artificial lake built in the 80’s in conjunction with a huge dam for power generation and to combat flooding.

Khao Sok village in the Surat Thani province is where we are staying and is the gateway to the park. We were picked up by a mini van and we drove for an hour before we reached the pier and piled onto a long tail boat.

Almost immediately we could appreciate why so many people raved about the lake. It is incredibly vast and it’s surrounding scenery is stunning. The lake is an incredible blue colour and studded with huge limestone cliffs and mountains that majestically jut out of the water. As we ducked and dived around the rocks we felt like we had the lake to ourselves, barely passing another boat.

After 45 minutes on the boat we reached a set of floating houses on the lake. With nothing else around for miles it was impossibly peaceful. We did have the option to spend a night here but having peaked into the rooms which are essentially dark boxes with a filthy looking mattress on the floor, I’m pretty relieved we didn’t go for it.

We did however stop there for a great lunch of fish and stir fried chicken dishes before we embarked upon a trek in the National Park.

Our tour guide had really been selling this big hike which would take 3 hours in total and culminate in a spectacular cave walk. He reiterated the importance of plenty of water and proper trekking shoes so were anticipating a hefty slog in the midday sun. Turns out the route was no more than 3 km in distance, but did take us across streams, scrambling over rocks and on paths crisscrossed by huge tree roots. Major tripping hazards that, much to the amusement of Gary, I managed to stumble on repeatedly.

Immersed in the greenery and dwarfed by insanely tall bamboo, it was awesome. We saw monkeys and a wonderful array of butterflies sunbathing on the river bank. So many butterflies that dispersed when disturbed that they looked like confetti.

Once we arrived at the cave entrance we were told to turn our headlamps on and advised that once inside to stick to walking and not climbing.

Turns out that the ‘cave walk’ was essentially potholing in the pitch black with no helmets and the world’s worst lamps that illuminated a two cm spot a meter in front of us. Our guide gave us no advance warning of how slippy the rocks were or the best route to take and he went at such a pace that the 13 of us in the tour group were struggling to keep up. We were fumbling along, tripping over rocks and then falling into water. At some points we were in ankle deep water and at others we were plunged into icy cold pools where the water was so deep it came up to our necks and took our breath away. It was so farcical that it was almost funny……that is until I heard the dreaded words shouted back by our guide to “watch out for the snake.” Needless to say, I lost my shit. A horrid snake perched on a little ledge eyeing us up. It’s the only time our guide displayed any real care and attention so I can only assume it was poisonous. After gingerly crawling past and giving the beast a wide berth we continued on our way, this time without gripping the walls and rocks for balance. I was so nervous about touching or grabbing any more snakes lurking in the darkness.

We got to an opening where bats were congregated and then returned the way we came. Whilst an interesting interlude and another new experience for us, it’s not one I need to do again in a hurry.

We walked back to lake and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and sunbathing and drinking beer in the most picturesque of settings in Thailand. The swimming was glorious and easily my favourite part of the day. It’s sometimes hard to fully appreciate your environment when you are there, and already I wish I’d taken it in more. The pictures do a great job of reminding us of the incredible grandeur of Khao Sok though.

We enjoyed the gorgeous beaches of southern Thailand so much that it had to be something pretty spectacular to pull us away. I’m pleased we made the effort to get here and experience a different side of Thailand. I’m surprised that Khao Sok isn’t completely inundated with tourists because it really is beautiful and well worth the trip.

Khao Sok National Park

As we left our great Phuket digs the guy gave us a wonderfully tacky key ring with the name of the guesthouse “Glitter” embossed. I just looked at Emily and she smiled. If your called Gary and travelling around Thailand the last thing you want is a little label that says “Glitter”.

The journey from Phuket to Kao Sok National Park would take around 4 hours on a bus. I don’t really mind the bus journeys too much but they do eat into your day. We decided to get an early one so we could go on a canoe trip in the afternoon. Time for a little nap then.

The bus dropped us off at the side of the road and we managed to score a ride in an old jeep with no roof to the Paradise resort. Sure it was nice but Paradise was over egging it somewhat.

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Being the dry season the river was a little low but we climbed into our inflatable kayak and the guide paddled us down the river.

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As you can see I was still tired from the journey 😜

All along the route a local dog called Coffee followed us. At one point he even tried to get in the boat and I had to fend him off until he got the message. We saw lots of monkeys fooling around on branches over head. We even saw a snake in the water looking up in hope that one of the monkeys would fall in.

The scenery was stunning and at time reminded me of a summers day in a Welsh valley. So green and lush.

Halfway along the river we stopped and the guides heated up water in bamboo and made tea and coffee. A nice treat.