Sea level at Falmouth to 6177ft. in the Italian Alps
This is my third year living on the little Greek Island of Skopelos in the Northwest Aegean. I have been moving my possessions over from the UK a bit each year as I get the space ready in my old stone house. This year I decided to drive my 1939 TA over.
Several of my British friends had driven the 1500 or so miles to this part of Greece in modern cars but I knew of no one who had attempted it in a classic car. The route recommended to me was across Europe to Venice and then take the ferry across the Adriatic to Northern Greece.
I had already seen some books on the mountains of Northern Greece which looked very interesting. I had seen parts of the Italian Alps, and also the Black Forest in Germany in fleeting glimpses during some work related visits in the past, but the Swiss Alps were uncharted territory.
Up until the time I moved to Greece I had used my TA fairly regularly in the Forest of Dean and Brecon Beacons area. I had restored the car myself about 10 years previously so I was happy with its mechanical condition, and my own ability to repair it if anything should fail en-route. The car had been used almost entirely by my late wife Glenys up to her death in 2002. It seemed appropriate to use any interest the old car might arouse during the drive across Europe to try to raise some money for Cancer Research UK. An email to the office in Truro resulted in an invitation to drop in and the offer of stickers, banners and collecting tins.
I flew back at the beginning of May, with a friend, in the very first UK charter plane of the season, which returned with us and 8 other passengers. We then spent a week seeing old friends and family in and around Falmouth, Cornwall. The car had been stored in a friend’s barn on blocks, covered in dust sheets and packed out with moth balls (to deter rats and mice from eating the interior). It took a few days and a pair of new batteries to get the starter to turn and the SU pump to tick. Otherwise everything was as it had been when I drove the car into the barn nearly 3 years earlier. The local Cancer Research UK office arranged for a reporter from the local paper to photograph us with the car, and a short article, with a request for donations, was published in the paper a few days before we left.
The morning of 11th May was pouring with rain when we set of for the Forest of Dean with a large suitcase on the rack, a 21 page route plan downloaded from www.viamitchelin.com and the AA European Road Atlas for 2004 which turned out to be sadly lacking in sufficient detail with several substantial towns not even listed. Despite listening to advice from many sources regarding spares, I decided to just take a set of plugs, points, condenser, light bulbs, and a spare set of brake linings, together with my usual tool kit, favourite vintage pump-action grease gun and the usual consumables. Nevertheless every available space in the car was filled with indispensable items for us expats such as tea bags, Marmite and electric toothbrushes. It is amazing how much can be stored in the passenger foot-well in addition to a passenger!
I had arranged an MOT at Steam Mills Garage in the Forest of Dean, a garage I’ve used for many years. It’s an old fashioned garage where if anything needs doing Ian, the owner, will let his customer help do the work. He still has most of the tool kit from the days when his father ran the garage in the 1950s and can even find a king pin reamer for the TA when necessary. He is very thorough with his inspection but is sympathetic to old cars and applies a sensible view to their foibles. In the event EOP 24 passed with no problems.
We continued to Cheltenham where we stayed for two nights with friends.
I managed to call in at my old employer and tap my colleagues for donations to the cancer charity– thanks chaps and chapesses. In the evening we took our hosts and my friend’s eldest son, who is at college in Cheltenham, to a Cheltenham pub where the kind patrons and landlord gave generously as soon as they heard what we were planning with the old MG.
On Sunday 13th we drove to Newhaven. Newhaven Ferry Terminal is quite disgraceful, badly signposted, no visitor facilities, no food within miles, sporadic staffing and very dirty.
Fortunately we had a hearty lunch en-route at a very friendly pub called the Jolly Farmer at Newbury where the MG caused many comments and the kind customers put lots of their small change in our Cancer Research UK tins.
We caught the night ferry to Dieppe in the early hours of the 14th and drove down through northern France as quickly as we could. The Dieppe area is marginally nicer than Newhaven but still flat and featureless. We completed about 165 miles in our first day in France, following mostly quiet regional roads in a generally southeast direction through Picardie to our first stop at Chateau Thierry where we booked into an Ibis Hotel.
We couldn’t find any French restaurants near the hotel so resorted to a “Buffalo” American style steak bar. The steak was tough and the “vin plonk” overpriced. So far we were not really finding much of the French Cuisine we had hoped for.
Tuesday 15th saw us continuing a further 90 miles SE using the quiet country roads through the Champagne district.
At last we found a good roadside restaurant where we had a delightful fish lunch with finely sliced vegetables in a rich stock with creamed potatoes, all washed down with a good local wine; at last some real French cuisine.
We drove on for a few more hours looking for a hotel with reasonably secure car parking. We stopped at a rather scruffy auberge called Le Cheval Blanc at Jeuxey near Epinal. We had an indifferent supper (we ordered beef in a mushroom sauce but were told all that was left was chicken – however the landlady continued to serve the beef to her French customers!). We retired to an uninspiring room with a view across the flat landscape to the industrial town of Epinal. The only redeeming feature of that stop was my discovery of a new beverage - Amer Picon mixed with beer – very refreshing indeed.
Things started to look up on 16th as we drove through the National Parc des Ballons. We stopped for several hours at Munster, which is a very pretty town in the Back Forest tradition. Although the French side of the border, the architectural influences are very Germanic with heavily painted gables and overhung upper stories on beautifully maintained cobbled streets. The town was in the middle of a jazz festival and everywhere were superb jazz inspired artworks. In addition every shop window was laid out in a jazz theme. We were tempted to stop over but in the event drove on into Germany and Lenzkirch where we couldn’t resist stopping at a very attractive restaurant where the landlady, seeing our old car drive past, stood at the door waving. We had a hearty Germanic lunch of veal snitsels, fried chips and very good beer in an attractive dinning room. The countryside from the French Parc des Ballons through the southern corner of Germany’s Black Forest is very beautiful with pretty towns and villages in a green and wooded hilly countryside all the way. So far the old car was running like clockwork.
From Lenzkirch we drove across the border into Switzerland and our next stop at a typically Swiss small alpine hotel at a village some 40 miles south of Lake Konstanz called Nesslau. The view from the hotel gave us some foretaste of what was to come with snow clad mountains all around. The hotel was situated in the lush Toggenburg valley.
As we approached the hotel the heavens opened and the TA hood was put to the test. By the time we stopped the inside of the car was as wet as the outside. Needless to say the wipers stopped after a few minutes operation and my companion had to resort to the manual lever as I was reluctant to get even wetter getting out to tweak the fuse under the bonnet. I don’t know if other Octabods have the same problem, but however clean I keep the contacts for the wiper fuse it will always refuse to conduct current when it rains. However, as soon as I lift the bonnet and rattle the fuse in its clips it bursts into life (well perhaps more creaks into life) – until the next shower.
The spotless hotel room looked out onto our TA, alone and very wet, in the otherwise deserted car park, with a fast flowing mountain stream in the valley beyond. Supper was appropriate for a wet cold evening but much simpler than the French and German cuisine of the last few days. We enjoyed our meal which was filling and warming with generous helpings of cheesy sauce and lots of mashed potatoes.
Next morning, 17th May, the rain stopped just long enough for us to dry the windscreen and apply Rain Guard in readiness for the next downpour and wiper failure. Our route took us further up into the Alps to Liechtenstein.
Liechtenstein is one of Europe’s smallest countries, little more than a range of peaks situated high in the Alps and owned exclusively by the Liechtenstein family. It is about the same size as the Greek island where I live, however with a population of over 32,000, despite the terrain, it is very built up. Lonely Planet Guide describes the country as a fabulous wine-and-cheese-hour trivia subject with twice the number of registered businesses as the entire population and the world’s largest producer of dentures. We drove through without stopping.
Once back in Switzerland we travelled south towards the Italian border. The roads in that area are quite amazing with tunnels that look just like the holes in a Gruyere Cheese. At one point we even encountered a roundabout inside a tunnel.
The weather was degenerating fast with heavy rain turning to sleet as we ascended towards St Moritz Eventually even the Rain Guard failed and I had to get wet tweaking the wiper fuse at too frequent intervals. The weather prevented us really enjoying the views from the car as we crossed the mountain passes. From St Moritz the roads were getting even higher and the sleet gave way to snow as we followed the Passo del Bernina (7644ft) towards the Italian border.
Our first stop in Italy was at Tirano where we had the best croissant I have ever tasted with our first Italian coffee. The waiter was so enthusiastic about our car that he insisted on coming out in the rain to see us on our way. We then wound our way over the Passo dell’ Aprica (3871 ft) to Edole. The weather was deteriorating even more by now with quite heavy snow, although thankfully little was setting on the road. We stopped again at the highest point of the Passo del Tonale (6177ft) and dried out whilst watching the ski lifts carrying the last of the seasons skiers to the slopes above us.
It was now the 7th day since we had left Falmouth and we had covered just about 1000 miles. We were now over the highest peaks and according to the map it would be downhill all the way to Venice.
The old MG had performed remarkably well and certainly had not held up the other traffic on the steep slopes. Several hills had me down to second gear, but the little XPAG engine showed no signs of strain. The brakes, which I had worried about before we set off, seemed to cope well providing I used the gears to avoid fade on the downhill sections. I had a few worries about the drain on the battery from lights and wiper in the heavy rain and sleet but we had no problems. Another worry was our rear end visibility with the typically feeble D lamps low on the number plate. I had not planned for any night driving so did not upgrade the lights before we set of. I certainly had not expected such awful daytime conditions in May. Judging by all the smiles and waves from the modern cars we were more than visible and causing much surprise and amusement. The Italian truck drivers were especially enthusiastic and every time we came in sight of one of the enormous trucks lumbering up the passes we were greeted with frantic hand waves, flashing lights, and horn toots. A couple of times when I had stopped briefly to wipe the screen and check oils etc, truckers slowed down or stopped to check that all was OK. If we had had any problems we would not have been left on our own in Italy for sure.
From the Italian Alps to Skopelos Island
If you read part 1 in last month’s Bulletin you may remember I had driven a little over 1000 miles in 7 days in the MG and climbed through the highest passes in the Swiss Alps. I left you, dear readers, in the rain and snow at Passo del Tonale (6177ft) somewhere in the Italian Alps.
From that high point we descended below the snow line to a small village called Vermiglio where we found what must have been the best hotel of the entire trip. Albergo Parco is a recently modernised small hotel and restaurant in a beautiful setting on the lower slopes of the Italian Alps on the road to Trento. For only €50 a night we were offered a room and the use of an underground garage which we shared with just the owner’s 4WD. At last I would have a chance to check the car over in the dry!
Before anything else I checked all the oils. The engine uses about a pint every 500 miles and had been checked and topped up on a daily basis throughout the trip. I added the required top-up. The gearbox, which has never lost oil in the past, took almost the same amount. I can only assume that the extensive use of low gears as we climbed the Alps had caused some overheating and thinning with consequent oil loss. The differential was fine and needed no oil. With the car in the dry I took the opportunity to grease everything. My TA is one of the later ones with spring and break cable greasers under the bonnet. They make on the road servicing a lot easier as you do not need to get under the car and only need to use the jack to take the load off the king pin thrust washers. On my car I’ve fitted king pin bushes with a grease nipple in the steering box so I can lubricate the drop arm bearing with Castrol waterproof grease which has the added advantage of keeping the heavy oil inside the steering box rather than dripping all over the drag link ball joint. Battery electrolyte was very low so we bought some distilled water to top up.
The reason I said this was the best hotel of our trip was not the garage but the food and room so I must get on with the tale. I love Italian food and wine. In the north of Italy they prepare some of the best dishes in Europe bar none and the meal that evening and the wine that went with it was superb. There was no menu as such, just the meal of the day, which all the guests and the family owners were eating. The red local wine, chosen by our host, reminded me how much we had missed good red wines since we’ve been living in Greece. In addition to all the gastronomy, the weather also improved.
The next morning I drove down from the Alps through Trento towards Venice. The temperature rose rapidly as we descended and we soon found ourselves stripping off our woollies and repacking the luggage. A short stop at Albero Conca d’Ona resulted in another gastronomic delight for lunch. As we left the village we were redirected by police as the side of a wooded mountain had caught fire; a sad foretaste of the problems Italy and Greece have had later this summer. The traffic from Trento onwards was very heavy. Our original plan was to use Padova for our overnight stop rather than Venice, but after a few nasty episodes when the car seemed to be overheating and started missing in heavy traffic, I decided to stay on the open roads and press on to Venice.
We arrived at Mestre, near Venice, at about 4 pm in the afternoon and again the car started missing every time I pulled away from traffic lights. We stopped in the town to look for a hotel on foot and the car refused to restart. As soon as I lifted the bonnet I was surrounded by enthusiastic Italians. How old was the car? How far had we come? Could they take their pictures standing by the car? One chap even made a 10 minute movie. I fitted a set of clean plugs whilst my companion found a very reasonable hotel with a lockable off road car parking area. That evening we made a quick trip to the internet café and booked tickets for the 25 hour ferry crossing to Igoumenitsa. We booked a cabin as we felt we deserved that small luxury after all the driving. Our boat left at noon so we had a late breakfast in Mestre and a leisurely drive over the causeway to the ferry port on Venice Island.
Whilst waiting to drive onto the boat, my companion met a couple that she had last seen at a Tina Turner concert in Paris in 1994. At that time they had discovered that they were almost neighbours in Falmouth.
As always, the MG attracted quite a lot of interest at the terminal. Also waiting to get on a boat was a German couple with an immaculate and very rare Opel GT. I could almost have done a swap.
The ferry out of Venice was very spectacular. We were able to see most of the sites of Venice from the vantage point of the top deck as we slowly sailed the full length of the Canale della Guidecca, past the entrance to the Grande Canale and on through the Canale di San Marco, then around Lido Island into the Adriatic Sea.
The boat was a fairly new and very well equipped Greek Ferry called Lefka Ori, run by ANEK.Lines. Our inside cabin was spotlessly clean and very comfortable. We were both very happy to slob out, be waited on and to not have to drive or look at a map for a whole 25 hours.
At 1 pm on Sunday 20th May we drove off the ferry at Igoumenitsa and checked in at the customs.
Before I left for England I had contacted a Greek government office at Athens and been told I would need to complete a “BAO” form at the port of entry.
Unfortunately the Customs at Igoumenitsa didn’t have any forms and didn’t know what they had to do, and anyway it was Sunday! They told me to report again when I got to Volos, our point of embarkation to my island so we set of on the old road that runs up into the mountains near the border with Albania.
I had been warned that it can be dangerous to drive near the border at night due to Albanian bandits who have been known to pose as police and rob cars that they stop. I had planned to go straight to the historic town of Ioannina, which is at the southern side of the mountains, for our first stop in Greece. The distance of 80 km should be an easy run before dusk. As we got near to the city it started raining hard. By now the temperature was in the mid 30s and as the traffic increased I got more anxious, fearing a repeat of our problems in Mestre. I decided to skip the city and head straight for Zagori near the Vikos gorge in the mountains where I was sure I would find a quiet hotel in an area that is part of the Greek National Park and still a good distance from that border area we had been warned about.
We arrived at the little mountain village of Ano Pedina as dusk was falling and stopped at the single taverna in the village to ask for rooms. They suggested we drive up the hill to Hotel Ameliko. There we found a delightful traditional stone built house, sympathetically restored and extended for use as a small hotel using Greek/EC grant money for tourist development in this beautiful but very poor part of Greece.
I switched off the poor old MG in the lane outside the little hotel, but when I tried to restart to put it inside the yard, the starter refused to turn. It had jammed on the ring gear. I had to slacken off the mounting bolts before I could free it. The problem did not re-occur so I put it down to the old thing having had enough driving for that day and throwing a sulk.
The hotel owner, George Zannis, gave us a typically Greek welcome. He told us a lot about the area and recommended a route for the next day that would let us see something of the mountains before returning to our planned route. He gave us several maps and brochures of the area, as well as recommending the taverna back down the hill for our supper.
Next morning the rain had stopped and we set off on George’s route. Zagori is a massive international wild reserve with some 46 scattered mountain villages, many protected as places of cultural importance. It has unique and rare flaura and fauna which includes brown bears, eagles, wild goats, deer and jackals. We saw no bears but did see a wild tortoise in the road devouring an enormous dead frog.
The area is bisected by the river Voidomatis which runs through a ravine 1,200 m deep and between 100 and 1,000 m wide, believed to be the deepest in Europe.
Greece is trying to support this lovely area with various tourist developments including ski resorts and walking centres. Our route took us to the south end of the ravine and we were able to see a couple of the amazing old stone bridges that cross the river that flows out of this amazing gorge.
Reluctantly we left the area and picked up the main road towards our next stop at Meteora. Even the main road in this area is interesting as it winds its way around the edges of the mountains that form the backbone of Greece. Not for much longer however. To the left and right of our route were many new bridges and tunnels that will become the new motorway that is being cut through the mountains. No doubt the journey time will be reduced but what will people do with the time saved?
Meteora is a geologically unique area on the eastern edge of the Pindos mountain range. The area is made up of massive vertical pillars of black volcanic rock that rank as one of the natural wonders of the world along with Grand Canyon and Hanging Rock. Saint Athananasos founded the first monastery in 1336 on top of one of the largest pillars. By the 16th century there were 24 other monasteries “suspended between heaven and earth” and every cave and rock hole was occupied by hermits. Nowadays only a couple of monasteries are devoted to religion. The rest are tourist attractions. We stayed in the little village which sadly is given over to tourism of the worst type with fake icons, camping sites and coach tours all around. Our hotel was half camp site with a small hotel at the foot of one of the massive pillars.
We rose early on 21st May, before the procession of coaches set off, and drove through the area of the famous monasteries in the quiet of the early morning. The area is truly awe inspiring and I can understand why early Christians felt compelled to build their refuges there. We were glad to leave as the road became crowded with the first convoys of coaches. As I drove out of Meteora we saw the Plain of Attica spread out below us.
The drive down through the Plain to Volos is not very remarkable compared to what we had been through. However the antics of the Greek lorry drivers on the motorway had to be seen to be believed. None could resist blasting their air horns and waving but one chap hung out of his near side door trying to take pictures of us with his mobile phone whilst his truck slowly overtook us.
We arrived at Volos on the east coast of Greece in time to find a reasonable hotel and book ourselves onto a ferry for home the next morning.
On the morning of 23rd I went to the customs office to arrange the MG importation papers only to be told that they didn’t know what to do. They copied my log book and said they would phone me on Skopelos within a week. Needless to say no one ever called. At the time of writing, 4 months later, I am still trying to sort out the import papers. They say the Greeks invented bureaucracy but made it into an art form.
I drove off the ferry at the harbour of Skopelos at about 2 pm on Wednesday 23rd May, having driven 1668 miles and sailed a further 750 miles in 13 days. We were greeted by a welcome party of our friends who directed us to Yani’s bar, on the harbour front, where I had to park the old MG in front of the tables. We were treated to much appreciated beers and lunch.
We were home.
EOP24 was my late
wife’s car. She was still attending local events in it right
up to her untimely death due to breast cancer in 2002. She would
have loved to have done this run but cancer prevented her.
My courageous companion and I tried to collect money for Cancer Research UK whenever we came across our fellow countrymen during the journey. Everyone we met gave generously but I would have liked to have seen more to make a real difference to the fight to cure this disease. If you have enjoyed this write-up of our journey or perhaps remember Glenys driving EOP24 then please send a donation, however small, to Cancer Research UK, 4a River Street, Truro, Cornwall. Please mention “MG to Greece”. Thanks
© Clifford F Knight
First published in Bulletin by Octagon Car Club