After three days of trying, we finally solved the problem of how to get to Dubrovnik.
Hunched for hours over a dirty and dusty desktop computer in the friendly lakeside reception area of a family-run campsite at pretty Lago Trasimeno in Umbria – and battling an intermittent internet connection – we found a freight ferry from Bari in the south of Italy to Bar in Montenegro, across the Adriatic.
We could drive south to Albania and then return north along the Montenegrin coastline, cross a 12-mile stretch of Bosnia and arrive in the south of Croatia to travel north to Dubrovnik.
It had long been an ambition to visit the famed ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ and walk its seafront walls. On a timetable to meet the ferry, we drove across the breadth of Italy to Ancona heading south down the Adriatic coast and passing through provinces of Umbria, Abruzzo, Molise and Apulia.
Perugia proved to be a highlight. Its glorious hilltop setting was a scramble to reach but once we’d arrived breathlessly in the charming central square of Cattedrale di San Lorenzo the town captivated us.
The elegant ecclesiastical and civil architecture in local white and pink stone masonry was beguiling. Romanesque arches and frescos lined up alongside carved stone balconies and bronze images of griffins and lions.
The place was a hive of energy as it celebrated an early summer festival. Its open, breezy piazzas were busy with visitors mingling with the bustling international student population.
We enjoyed the hillside terraced public gardens of roses, herb beds and fruit trees, before winding under the Papal Fortress along the narrow, cobbled alleyways of the ancient (and now subterranean) township of Etruscans and later Romans.
Ruts left in the road by Roman cartwheels were still visible and pointed out to us by a local girl who proved a happy guide with a newly resident stray cat. She showed us the original Roman entrance gate Postieria dell Conca, and a close by stretch of aqueduct. Having only ever heard of Perugia in association with the ghastly murder of the British student, Meredith Kercher, it was a joy to find it such a beautiful and beguiling place.
At Assisi we walked through wheat fields in late afternoon sunshine to the contemplative old town stretched up and along an escarpment. Unchanged since the 1200s, and without traffic, its skyline is dominated by the austere rooftop and bell tower of the San Francesco Basilica.
Inside the basilica is seemingly hung in sumptuous silks embroidered with colourful scenes of the lives of Jesus and St Francis. It is Giotto’s masterpiece, a series of 28 frescoes which decorate the ceilings, walls, columns and pillars.
It is splendid and moving and in great contrast to the simplicity of the simple stone church lined with heavy oak pews and set amongst olive groves two miles away, where St Francis first heard his calling.
Assisi had a calmness and quietness that was notable after the bustle of the towns we had visited so far. Looking back, it was one of our most foolish decisions to leave such a lovely and thoughtful overnight camperstop on a very still summers evening to end up near a construction site at hilltop Trevi!
Food in Italy was seasonal and cheap to buy, great for us as we cooked for ourselves to keep the budget on track.
We had three meals out – one harbourside lunch of seafood at one of the unique Cinque Terra villages perched on rocks above the sea; a traditional three course dinner of steamed prawns, lobster gnocchi and baked sirloin steak alongside pretty Lago Trasimeno, and as we headed south down the Adriatic coast from Assisi, a ‘slow food’ lunch at breezy Vasto where we waited more than an hour for two elderly sisters to serve up delicious homemade pasta with clams, and fresh baked bread.
We had also discovered the fabulous Billa supermarket. Cooking for ourselves we were faring well too and eating lots of pasta and cous cous ‘one pot’ meals using local vegetables, cheeses (sheep and goat) and hams.
Camping was easy, both on touring sites and ‘free camping’ although along the Riviera this had cost up to Є10 more per night than the official sites. We’ve had some great pitches and Bertha had been parked up alongside the Ligurian, Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas with terrific views, and swimming for us!
Cycling and walking every day we were getting leaner and fitter and looking forward to our first taste of East Europe, across the sea. We found the Italians we met to be charming, friendly and passionate about their heritage and culture. In the south especially, the farmers and food producers were keen to show off and share their quality produce, meats, cheeses, breads, pasta and wine.
We also found them to be incredibly considerate and courteous towards the young Brits in the van taking the wrong turn…again.
We spent the last few days in Puglia – off the beaten track – exploring the promontory of Gargano (look at a map of Italy and it looks the like a wart on its heel!).
It’s a lovely place of forestry and olive groves next to the sparkling Adriatic with coastal fishing villages below white-painted fortress towns above. Peschichi is a good example and it sits like a slice of perfectly white frosted cake wedged on top of sheer, towering cliffs over the waves.
After a couple of gentle days camped at the beach town of Viesta, we had a panicked drive to the ferry port at Bari, somehow ending up on hilltop minor road without fuel, above a well-serviced toll road below.
Stopping for wild ponies and sheep, we gratefully descended the hillside on fumes to roll into a waiting petrol station at Mattinata. It was a first example of what we came to recognise in our many travels as trip luck!
In 2011 telecommunications across Europe had yet to be heavily invested in by the EU, albeit we were leaving the bloc. Within 10 years most of the former Communist states would boast lightning fast broadband at gigabit speeds our politicians would be dreaming of in the UK in 2020.
For now and from an internet café in the Italian port town of Bari we sent a short email home to family: “We hope to be in Montenegro for the next week but our phone contract won’t allow us to send or receive texts, and we’re not sure what the internet situation will be like over there but will try to email. We hope to be in touch once we have crossed Bosnia and reached Croatia. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from us for the next 10 days or so.”
Our night crossing was on board the freight boat Sveti Stefan, named after a tiny island off the Montenegrin coast, which we hoped to see.
The boat was making its only sailing that month and Montenegro Lines had agreed to take us if we paid and registered as a minibus. We were due to sail at 10pm and arrive into Bar at 7am.
Getting onboard proved a challenge as Simon was asked to reverse Bertha onto the boat across a pair of planks. He did so brilliantly and was nodded at with approval by two of the Montenegrin deck crew.
Bertha was the only leisure van on a ship full of large haulage trucks. We bade her excitedly farewell and headed up onto the deck where we expected to wait out the long dark hours of the night crossing. Without a cabin, we were both wishing for calm seas. What an adventure!