O Fair Verona! Solo Interrail Part 6

This post gets quite gloomy.  After a short break from this series (because I lost my notebook with all my notes in it) I am going to continue with my solo Interrail journey.  The series starts here and the previous installment can be found here.

Juliet's balcony, Casa di Giulietta, Verona, Italy.

I awoke in the Novotel Hotel Rossi in fair Verona (of “Romeo and Juliet” fame) and it was raining.  So apparently that happens in Italy from time to time, despite their best intentions.  I was quite surprised because I’d never expected it to rain south of the Alps for some reason despite the fact that I know how ecosystems and desertification work.  I guess I was having a blonde moment, which was odd because I was auburn at the time and I tend to be blonde when my hair is blonde.

So the day hadn’t started well, but I didn’t want to stay indoors because I wanted to get a better impression of Verona, given that at the time all I had seen was a) copious discarded syringes around my hotel, b) everywhere (except that one Japanese place) seemed to be closed on a Saturday night.

After deliberating about whether to go out over fresh coffee surprisingly tasty cheap wine in juice boxes that would fit in a child’s lunchbox (seriously), I wandered out into Verona.  I was glad I did.

The Roman Arena in the town centre (amphitheatre) was stunning – smaller, but more complete than the one in Rome, much more manageable to walk around and a really nice thing to find in the city centre.

After that, I went to the thing I’d wanted to see the most in all of Verona – the Casa Di Giulietta.  It’s in a little square and the house is a museum to Romeo and Juliet.  After making my way through the exhibition (which was really professional despite being in a small-ish 16th century house), I got to the piece de resistance – Juliet’s balcony.  Now I will be the first to say (as they do say at the Casa Di Giulietta) that it is highly unlikely that this is the actual house that Juliet lived in.  For starters, as far as anyone knows she was a fictional character in a play made by a man who lived 800 miles away.  Regardless of that, it was nice, just for a little moment, to forget the reality and just imagine that it *was* real, that Romeo somehow scaled the sheer walls and got up to this balcony… after all, isn’t the whole point of fictional and theatrical narrative that we get to imagine realities other than the one we occupy??

Afterwards, I found coffee at McDonalds because it was lunchtime and all the restaurants wanted meal-buying customers not coffee drinkers.  The girl behind the counter who served me was so skinny that she looked consumptive.  She will always haunt me.  I have never seen anyone that thin before for their skeleton size (if you see what I mean).  I still have nightmares about her.  There was literally no muscle mass on her arms just an unnatural and mesmerizing consumptiveness.  I wanted to know why.  Did she have an illness such as AIDS or TB that she was fighting through?  Was she not making enough money to afford to buy food?  I have obviously seen underweight people before, myself being one of them (chronically) but I have never seen anyone as malnourished as this woman.  She looked like she was in her mid twenties, and at death’s door with her gaunt, grey face and her neck silhouetting the rings of her windpipe and the hollows either side of it.  If I’m a size US 2-4, she was like a size -2, and she was taller than me and I’m 5’6. When I returned the next day, she was on the counter again.

I think about her from time to time, even all these years later, and I always wondered what became of her, whether she got the medical treatment she so obviously needed or if she faded away.  Healthcare is not free in Italy – and it shows in so many places.

She was extremely rude to me, but I just got my coffee and moved on, resisting the urge to wrap her up in a blanket, bring her home and feed her soup until she looked alive again.

It made me feel morose – then I got mad at myself because there I was, on an incredible once in a lifetime trip to Verona on Interrail, and I still wasn’t happy.  And I realized it went deeper than my day-to-day mood, there was a cavernous, all-encompassing melancholy that had ensconced my soul so thickly that I had no idea what would make me happy.  I should have been reveling in how wonderful everything was.  Instead I felt like there was something missing, and I didn’t know what it was.

I think this was the first time I asked the question (to myself, in bed where nobody could hear me); ‘am I depressed?’  I quickly stifled it with a boatload of excuses.

The gloom gave way to a cracking migraine, so instead of going onwards to Venice as I’d planned, I extended my stay in Verona to 2 more nights and I went back to the hotel, where I sat in the dark wearing earplugs and downed a few co-codamol (Vicodin) with some wine to try and get the pain to stop.

I passed out, and when I awoke it was a bright new day.

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The Swiss Alpine Route to Verona: Solo Interrail Part 5

New to my Solo Interrail series? Start here

I’m going to pick up where I left off last time, after I had just made it back to Zurich station and was now feeling like I was back in civilization having just spent the morning lost in the alps.  I sat down over a coffee and wrote postcards to my Grandma and Aunt.  This was 2008, a year after the EU smoking ban, which Switzerland was exempt from, so smoking indoors was a bit of a novelty and I did make the most of it (I don’t smoke now so I think I would hate to return to any country without an indoor ban on smoking).  I asked two nice backbackers to take my photo with one of my disposable cameras.

Zurich station Switzerland
Me in a coffee shop in Zurich Station, Switzerland holding a postcard of Switzerland, having just had a mini adventure in the Alps. My backpack is on the left and my handbag is on the right. In front of me were a well-earned coffee and a book by Anne Mustoe, as well as another postcard. I remember strategically moving the ashtray out of the shot because I didn’t want to get into trouble for smoking.

From my travel journal:

“Next, I went to the station newsagent and negotiated stamps in German (all credit went to the pan-European phrasebook I’d packed).  Next I searched for a post-box.
“Excuse me?” I flagged down a passing man.
“Hey there!”  The friendly American accent warmed my soul.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen the nearest post box, have you?”
“Sure!  It’s just out there, on the left.  It’s yellow.”  He said.
“Thank you very VERY much.”  I replied.
“No problem.” He said.
I followed the directions and found the post box just outside the station, then posted my post cards and hoped that was actually a post box (that, or I’d just put them in a used ticket disposal box, but I hoped not because they were nice postcards).

Then I got the 9:00am train to Milan, which terminated at Venice.  Depending on what time it gets in, I may just stay on the train rather than aiming for Verona.  However, I would prefer to stay in Verona as from there it would be easier to get back to Calais.
What followed was a wonderful train ride through the Swiss alps.

Swiss alps
The Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.
The Swiss Alps
The Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.
The Swiss alps lake
A giant lake in the Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.

The scenery is beautiful, especially around Zug station – if I ever get a chance to go to Switzerland again, Zug is the place to go!  Unfortunately, it also means I have already began using up my 3rd disposable camera – I’ll have to get another couple in Italy.  The scenery of grassy fells, snowy mountains and powder-sprinkled pine trees is absolutely breathtaking.  It’s much nicer to see the Alps from the ground than in an aeroplane!  I’m glad not to have tried travelling onwards in the dark otherwise I would have missed this, which would have been unforgivable.

…I think I’ve just done my bit to ensure the continental opinion of English eccentricity; I took a photo of my compartment (because I’ve never been on a train with compartments before, this is like being on the Hogwarts Goddamn Express), but I waited until the other occupants had moved because it’s perhaps a bit over-zealous even for a tourist.

(a little bit later) As we emerge from the Alps, the architectural style has become markedly Italian, with the arched windows and straight-pitched, less high roofs.  We are still in Switzerland, but signs for “ristorante touristes” are at the side of the road which runs parallel with the train track.  There is also significantly less snow, but the sky is still that clear, brilliant blue, and the sun feels warm now.  I feel less close to the sky again – being on the German side of Switzerland was like standing on a very high plateau, and it’s nice, but I’m glad to be at my normal altitude again.  Hopefully it will be sunny in Verona and even more I hope that the tourist office is open so I can find accommodation between now and Tuesday (the Easter weekend is now upon us).”

Changing trains in Milan, I was profoundly disappointed.  It was standard tall buildings type of architecture, nothing particularly chic or attractive about the place, it could have been absolutely anywhere.  I decided to continue onwards.  The next train was, now that I was in Italy, run by Trenitalia.  It had dents all over the outside of the carriages and inside, there was no air conditioning, people were just crammed on top of each other.  Opposite me, a woman sat down with a chicken in a cage.  An actual chicken.  It was squawking up a fuss and flapping its feathers everywhere, and she insisted, on this full-to-bursting train, that the chicken needed its own seat, even when a man tried to sit down.  This tiny old woman clung to the chicken cage with a death grip and started shouting at him until he left the carriage.  I was too timid to get a photo of the ridiculous chicken.

Later that evening, I disembarked at Verona train station and booked 3 nights in a hotel (Novo Hotel Rossi) in Verona, where I decided to remain for the rest of the Easter weekend.  Annoyingly, despite it being the Easter Saturday, when everything is usually business as usual in the UK, in Verona, literally everything (apart from one Sushi restaurant) was closed and since I didn’t speak Italian (I do now, this trip is what prompted me to learn when I got back), I couldn’t understand the signs in the shop doors.

I found the aforementioned Sushi restaurant, only to discover that the staff didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Italian, so I ended up trying to order in Japanese.  Turns out, only the elderly grandmother could actually speak Japanese but she invited me to share a pot of tea with her after I’d eaten, apparently she’d never met a gaijin who could speak Japanese before.  I guess you wouldn’t, living in Verona.  I don’t speak very much though (and I sure as hell can’t read it), so she probably found my conversation lacklustre.  I’d like to learn more at some point so I can navigate Japanese cosmetics but that’s a bit off topic for a travel post!

Anyway, that was my first day in Verona, and I’d used up over half of my Interrail pass (any 5 days of travel valid for 10 days of travel and non travel), but I decided not to worry about that.

I will continue with my Solo Interrail journey here.

As a side-note, if you are wondering why my posts/response times are erratic, it’s because I’m back to work, now teaching at a facility for children who have been expelled from school, mostly young offenders, which is a very intense job, as well as being quite a drive from my house, and I’m a bit exhausted, but I am interested in everything people have to say still!!

How To Drive In Europe: The Basics

Ever wondered whether driving in Europe is different to driving at home? Are you planning a trip that will involve you driving in Europe? This article is an explanation of everything you need to know to drive safely in Europe (including the UK), broken down into key aspects so you can drive safely and confidently on your next European Road Trip.  This is very comprehensive but I’ve written it as concisely as possible from both my own experiences and research I’ve done to check current driving laws around Europe; I have this article saved to my computer to print out to take with me whenever I drive in Europe.  Feel free to do the same.

Contents:
Side of the Road,
Roundabouts,
Multi-Lane Roads,
Indicators and Overtaking,
Smoking in Vehicles,
Things You Need In Your Car,
Tolls and taxes,
Speed Limits,
Carrying Hazardous/Dangerous Items in Your Vehicle,
Further Reading.

 

Side of the road:

1. In Malta, Cyprus Ireland and the UK (excluding Gibraltar), you drive on the left.

2. Everywhere else you drive on the right.

Roundabouts:

Roundabouts are often used instead of traffic lights where roads intersect each other.

Where you drive on the left (in the UK etc):

Go around the roundabout in a clockwise manner. Always give way to oncoming traffic from the right hand side and ignore traffic on the left (unless it’s cutting you up in which case peep your horn at them to warn them of your presence). You can imagine most roundabouts as a complicated type of crossroads, and some of them have traffic lights on them as well. You indicate as you approach the roundabout to inform people that you are either not getting off the roundabout yet (indicate right, for right turns or straight ahead) or you indicate to inform people that you are getting off the roundabout at the very next exit (indicate left, for the very next left turn). If it’s busy and you are in the wrong lane, people will cut you up as you try to get off the roundabout so always check mirrors and blind spot before changing direction unexpectedly and position your car so other road users know you’re changing roundabout lanes before you pull out.

Where you drive on the right (in France etc):

Go around the roundabout in an anti-clockwise manner. Always give way to oncoming traffic from the left hand side and ignore traffic on the right (unless they’re cutting you up in which case slow down). To indicate, do so whilst you are on the roundabout (or two or three cars away from joining it) and indicate left (staying on the roundabout) or right (getting off the roundabout), EXCEPT in Slovenia where you only indicate to show when you’re leaving the roundabout. If it’s busy and you are in the wrong lane be aware people will cut you up as you try to get off the roundabout, so check your mirrors and blind spot before changing lane unexpectedly, and position your car so other road users know you’re changing roundabout lanes before you pull out.

Multi-Lane Roads:

Where you drive on the left (UK, Ireland etc):

Stay in the left hand lane until you need to overtake someone. If you are on a motorway (3 lanes or more) you may see big blue signs showing that the road is going to split into two new roads. When this is happening, pick the lane that follows the correct blue sign to where you are going. If in doubt, keeping right at a fork is usually to stay on the road you’re currently on. As soon as you are on the new road or as soon as you have passed the fork or new road split, return to the left hand lane if it’s safe to do so.

When overtaking, it’s good practice to pull back over to the left after you’ve overtaken, however, because other people don’t always do this, and because people don’t leave a sensible amount of space between themselves and the cars in front, it can sometimes be more efficient to stay in the right hand lane if you know you need to overtake again soon, because it can be very difficult to rejoin overtaking traffic once you’ve had to slow down. If you see a police car, pull into the left hand lane because it is now illegal to just drive in an overtaking lane (which is every lane apart from the left lane), although nothing’s changed in terms of how people drive because UK police don’t appear to be enforcing this OR the new law against tailgating.
In Ireland, there are a lot of elderly drivers but people seem to be more mellow and courteous on the road, so I always pull back to the left after overtaking although not everyone does. Ireland doesn’t seem to have the same horrific traffic congestion as the UK does, probably because people drive with courtesy and are more tolerant of mistakes (such as being in the wrong lane).

Where you drive on the right (France, Germany etc):

Stay in the right hand lane until you need to overtake someone. If you are on an Autoroute or Autobahn or Autostrada (freeway, motorway), the left hand lane is the overtaking lane. If you need to overtake someone, check your mirrors (especially in Germany where there’s no upper speed limits on some routes) and only pull out where there’s no-one approaching at speed – if someone’s passing you at 150 miles an hour and you’re pulling out at 60, it’s not going to end well for anyone. When you are done overtaking, pull back in, and remember to overtake EACH VEHICLE INDIVIDUALLY. In the UK people have a tendency to stay in the overtaking lane when they shouldn’t, because they can see another car ahead that they will want to overtake in a couple of minutes – in Europe, this can get you pulled over by the police, but not before a VW Kamper has tailgated you for a couple of miles flashing his lights at you to draw your attention to the fact that you’re in the wrong lane. Once you’re done overtaking, get out of the overtaking lane.

Near some European cities such as Florence (and Glasgow), there are now moments when you will either get corralled through the city on a motorway that avoids all the junctions, or you will be moved onto a motorway that HAS all the junctions. It is critically important here that you are aware a) how long you will be on a no-junction motorway and b) whether you will miss your exit. We didn’t understand the signs because the with-junctions motorway was signposted with suburbs of Florence (which should have been closer than our exit), and the without-junctions motorway was signposted with Milan, which was a VERY long way away compared to where our exit was. We were trying to get to Verona. We chose the Milan motorway, thinking the other was a ring road type system around Florence. Big mistake. We were shuttled 50km north of our starting point, all the time in slow moving traffic in 40 degree (Celsius) heat, with no air conditioning and a thick fog of petrol fumes surrounding us; we had realized as we passed the exit to the other motorway that we were on the wrong road. We then spent three hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling until we FINALLY reached the first exit off this road which was far, far beyond the exit we had needed. For the first forty minutes on the shuttle road, our road was directly alongside the road we should have taken, and there was no way to get to it. We had to turn around at the first exit 50km later, and then we had to sit through another two hours of traffic to get back to the place where we could turn around again to choose the correct road because it wasn’t reachable from the other side of the road. Many road signs in Italy make no sense and I would highly recommend you get a sat nav as well as a paper road map if you intend to drive in Italy (and don’t rely on the Google sat nav on your phone because a) you’ll wear your battery down by charging it and using it at the same time and b) it’s dependent on you getting a phone signal as well as a GPS one). The moral of the story here is to be aware of these shuttle roads (I don’t know if they have a fancy name) if you plan to drive anywhere in Europe.

Indicators and Overtaking:

In every European country, you must not overtake a school bus while it is stopped to let passengers on or off. In the former Eastern Bloc countries (such as Serbia) you may not overtake any buses that are stopped. Use your common sense – if the rest of the traffic has overtaken the bus, or if the bus is clearly stopped for a lunch break, it’s probably safe to overtake if you take care and do so slowly, so you don’t hit any pedestrians crossing in front of the bus.

On autoroutes/autobahns (motorways, freeways) some nationalities continue to indicate even after they’ve maneuvered, until they have pulled back into the right hand (non-overtaking) lane. This might seem strange to people who have driven in the UK where many high end cars (BMWs, Audis, Mercedes etc) don’t actually appear to be fitted with indicators since their drivers just pull out without warning. It is not compulsory to indicate with the expressive gusto of drivers from Luxembourg, but it is compulsory to use the correct indicators to inform other traffic that you are changing lane or turning.

On roundabouts in Slovenia, you do not indicate when entering a roundabout, you only indicate to show that you are leaving the roundabout.

Smoking in Vehicles:

It is now illegal to smoke in any vehicle where children are passengers in the UK.  It might be illegal to NOT smoke in any vehicle in Montenegro (joking; the UK one is true though).

Things you need in your car (by law):

Some things are needed everywhere in Europe, other things are needed only in one country. In general, the Eastern European countries require you to take more stuff than Western Europe. As far as enforcement goes, unless you get stopped by the police and your vehicle checked for some reason, you shouldn’t really have any problems, so if you’re a flexible good driver (as opposed to one who inflexibly follows every letter of the highway code regardless of situation) you will probably never need to prove these items are in your car.

The UK:

A spare wheel.

Most countries in Europe, including France, Germany, Austria, Spain and Scandinavia:

Warning triangle (always 2 in Spain, 2 in some other countries IF you’re towing a caravan)

Hi-Viz vest

First aid kit

Spare bulbs

A spare wheel

A bumper sticker showing which country you have driven from (eg. GB sticker) unless your registration plate states a country code on it.

Countries where it gets very cold and snowy, including Austria, Scandinavia and most of the former Eastern Bloc:

Your vehicle MUST be fitted with winter tyres, usually between October and March. Check each country’s requirement on the AA website before taking your vehicle.

Countries where it is very hot:

In Spain, most window tinting is illegal.

In most hot countries you are not allowed to carry spare petrol, but you are generally allowed to carry diesel.

Former Soviet-Bloc countries (Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Former Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Albania, Moldova, Montenegro, but not Greece):

These are the countries which will often check at the border whether your car has all the correct items, so if you’re travelling to or through any of the former USSR countries, you need to tick all the boxes because they still have a culture of bureaucracy at border checkpoints.

Spare bulbs,

Spare wheel (this must be the same size as the wheels fitted to the vehicle),

First Aid Kit,

Reflective Jacket,

Tow rope and tow bar (or loop e.g. on the Citroen Xsara Picasso),

Warning triangle (two if towing something),

Winter Tyres between November and April (with a minimum tread of 4mm, or 6mm in Ukraine),

Additionally, in all of the former Soviet Bloc countries, you must get the border control officer to certify in writing any damage to your car (dents and scrapes etc) before you enter the country, otherwise you may have serious problems when you try to leave. This is to prevent people from having accidents in these countries then fleeing without prosecution.

It is NOT compulsory to adjust your headlights from a left hand drive to right hand drive country (or vice versa) the laws all state that you must not DAZZLE oncoming traffic. Often this means a headlight adjustment but the law is clear it’s the dazzling that’s the problem, so dip your headlights enough and you will actually probably do a better job at not dazzling traffic than those people who incorrectly use the headlight adjustment stickers.

Tolls and Taxes:

Tolls:

Most freeway type roads (autostrada, autoroute etc) charge a toll.  The exceptions are Germany’s autobahns, which are currently free, and the countries which require you to pay road tax or a vignette.  Tolls in Italy are generally fairly reasonable (usually under E5 every 50-100 miles-ish) and tolls in France are utterly arbitrary (we paid E16 to drive 25 miles at one point and E3 to drive another 40 miles).  This is where buying a roadmap comes in handy – the one I had detailed which roads were toll and which were not, along with the location of the toll booths, so we knew which roads to avoid in France after getting robbed by a toll booth.  The map doesn’t tell you how much the tolls are, but most toll motorways have a non-toll smaller road running next to it which will take you longer, but won’t cost as much in tolls (whether this increases your fuel consumption is another matter).

On trying to enter Eastern European countries, I’ve heard of some drivers being charged a car washing fine for an official to throw a bucket of water over their car because it was too dirty to continue.  This was apparently in Slovenia, although it is definitely illegal to drive an unwashed car in Romania so budget for a car wash every so often.  Then you won’t get charged a E150 fee to enter any of these countries.

Car Tax or Vignettes:

The countries which charge longer term for you to use their roads are:

Austria (the road from Italy to Innsbruck still costs E9 on top of the vignette) which requires a relatively cheap vignette (pronounced vin-yet) which you can buy at petrol stations approaching the Austrian border (say: “eine vignette fur Osterreich bitte” to the clerk then how long you want it for.  “Funfzig tage” is fifteen days and “dreizig tage” gets you thirty days, sorry about my spelling for any native speakers).

Switzerland requires a vignette that in 2016 costs 40CHF (one Swiss Franc is usually worth roughly the same as the Canadian dollar on the exchange rate) and runs from 1st January to 31st December.  If you are travelling during January or December you might get ripped off.  They don’t do smaller units of tax in Switzerland.  According to the Swiss government website, non-EU citizens can buy Swiss road tax online here although I’d get it when approaching the Swiss border to be sure it arrives (and because that exchange rate on that website is very badly messed up).

The UK has a very complicated vehicle taxation and roadworthiness system that I’m not going to go into, because if you’re only there for less than 28 days you can ignore it completely and if you’re there for longer you can consult the British DVLA.

Speed Limits:

Speed limits are signposted very clearly everywhere in Europe, it’s really easy to follow the speed limit and we found there was a way to change the mileometer on the Picasso so it showed the speed in kph.  Germany has very clear speed limits except on the Autobahn, where there is no upper speed limit, only a suggested speed limit in adverse weather conditions.  This teaches you to look at the state of the road, the congestion, the road surface (e.g. is it icy, wet or dry) and use your own judgement.  If you lack this judgement, or if you’re a new driver, stick to 70-80 miles per hour and you’ll generally not be out of place amongst the traffic.  Remember, it’s illegal to take a slow moving vehicle on a motorway or freeway in most European countries so you MUST make an effort to keep up with the slowest moving flow of traffic on the road.

Carrying hazardous/dangerous items such as weapons in your vehicle:

Check the individual country’s requirement as it ranges from 100% legal to hold it whilst driving (swords in Poland) to 99.9% illegal to have it in the car (guns in Britain).  Each country has it’s own definition of what is hazardous or dangerous, just to complicate matters even more.

Further Reading

You may also want to check out these other articles I’ve written to help you drive in Europe and beyond:
Buying petrol in Europe
International Window Tinting Laws Around the World
Travel Money Guide a helpful article explaining how to access your money and what sort of money to take when travelling in Europe, including answering questions about working in Europe, using credit cards and ATM machines. Essential reading if you’re planning a European road trip or driving in Europe.

Coming soon:  Driving with your pets in Europe, and pet-transport laws.

Meat Free Monday: Kale Spinach And Vegan ‘Cream Cheese’ Canneloni

Recipe

A brief note about measurement:  I believe that people go a bit mad sometimes with measuring things to the very gram, and that it’s more important to get a feel for the amount of each ingredient and how they interact with one another, which is why I work in cups (the American measurement; you can buy a cup set in most homeware stores if you’re not in the US or do conversions if you need to) wherever possible.  I like to use fresh ingredients to make nutritious and tasty food whose sole purpose is nourishment.

(OBT) means Optional But Tasty.

Gluten:
Except for the lasagne and canneloni recipes, you can substitute the pasta for broccoli or cauliflower in any of these, if you need to eat more veg, or if you’re totally off processed foods. With the exception of the actual pasta itself, none of my pasta recipes contain gluten, so if you’re gluten free, usually you can replace your pasta with gluten free pasta (or broccoli) and follow the rest of the recipe as normal. I’ve not seen gluten free canneloni but you can pre-cook gluten free lasagne sheets and roll them up if you would like to try out this canneloni recipe and you’re GF.

Kale, spinach and cream “cheese” canneloni

You will need (all food ingredients are per person, scale the dish to fit):

A glass oven proof dish: Choose the smallest dish that fits all the tubes in, otherwise you will end up with a LOT of sauce and not much canneloni.

Four canneloni tubes per person;

1/2 cup of spinach;

1/2 cup of kale;

2 tablespoons of vegan cream cheese per person;

1/2 carton of tomato passata;

Grated vegan hard cheese;

OBT: Basil and garlic (to taste);

1. Boil the spinach and kale until it’s very soft. Drain and set aside.

2. Heat the cream cheese in a small non-stick pan (ideally) and stir in the spinach and kale. Add more cream cheese if needed.

3. Stuff the uncooked canneloni tubes full of the spinach and kale mixture, and put them in the glass oven-proof dish.

4. Mix the garlic and basil into the passata and pour the passata over the canneloni tubes.

5. Sprinkle grated cheese over the top of the food to cover the passata and the tubes.

6. Put in the centre of the oven at 150 degrees C or gas mark 5 for 35-45 minutes.

7. Remove and serve; don’t cut the canneloni to serve them if you can help it or the filling might come out.

How to Buy a Better European Road Atlas

Choose the right map 1: The big road atlas

This post uses affiliate links.  By purchasing anything through them, you are helping to support this blog being able to continue.  All opinions are 100% my own and I am using the links to show you specific products so you know what I think is worth buying and what’s worth avoiding.

Something nobody ever talks about is buying a map. For city-hoppers, who fly from Phnom Penh to Beijing via Ho Chi Min and Tokyo, there’s probably little need for the various types of maps I’m going to talk about here. If you’re driving from A to B, however, you need a good map (even if you have an awesome sat nav) so you don’t end up at the wrong sea.

The two types of maps you need:
1. A big road atlas.
2. Smaller destination maps – this might be an A-Z city map book or a few Ordnance Survey sheets for the wilderness.

This article is going to talk about how to choose a road atlas. Stay tuned for next Travel Tuesday when I’ll talk about how to choose smaller destination maps.

1. A big road atlas. This has largely been superseded by GPS navigation, aka Sat Navs, but it totally depends on where you want to go. If you are travelling somewhere with poor mobile phone/GPS coverage, or you don’t have the right countries in your sat nav (or even if you do) it’s well worth taking a paper map as a back up. At the very worst, you can use it to do big-picture route planning and see where you are compared to your overall travel goal. I bought a Philip’s European Road Atlas last year for driving from York UK to Rome, Italy via Salzburg, Austria and Stuttgart, Germany. I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to which one I bought – I thought I’d spent plenty of time choosing one with the most countries covered and the best scale of detail. At 2am, somewhere in central Germany on our first travel day, lost in a hell of redirecting ring roads and traffic cones, with nothing on the (ample) signposts matching ANYTHING on our map, however, I wished I’d spent that little bit more time (and money) and selected my map a bit more wisely. The AA one looked a lot better when I flicked through it in a shop – so I’m going to get this one. I’m also considering a separate, broader scale atlas just for France and Germany.

Things to look for in a big road atlas:
1. Scale. Does it cover ALL of the countries listed at the scale advertised on the front? We bought the Philip’s European Road Atlas because we wanted to go to Romania, and it was one of very few that covered it. We did not end up going. When the Philips Road Atlas arrived, it transpired that it only did Eastern Europe in 1:4,000,000 scale (which would be fine if they didn’t have roads, junctions, towns, etc etc that weren’t remotely marked on the map) in the route planner pages at the front, and only did Western Europe in the advertised scale of 1:800,000, which wasn’t the best scale for the densely populated countries such as Germany and Belgium that we passed through on our journey, and it did struggle in Italy as well.

2. Coverage. Does it cover the countries between your starting point and your destination in enough detail to enable you to actually get there? For example, if we had gotten a map which only covered Western Europe but that covered it in a better scale, we could have saved about one full travel day not being lost (we lost on average 2 hours a day from accidentally taking the wrong road or not having any of the options on the signposts match up with anything on the map), which would have meant more time and energy for sightseeing. Because our original trip focus was Eastern Europe, I didn’t pay attention to how good the mapping of the Western European countries was, which ultimately made our trip less awesome than it could have been. Because there are more people per square kilometre in Western Europe, there is more infrastructure and there are also more settlements. This means you need a map with the same level of detail as you would need to drive around the south of England, not the north of Scotland.

3. Symbols. WTF do those symbols mean??!! If you don’t know, this might not be your best map. Usually there’s a symbol guide at the front (along with the scale, and approximate times and distances), but if you’re struggling or if it’s all in a funny font or all in a foreign language that you don’t speak, try a different one.

4. Font size. Some maps have a font size that is far too small for driving. I don’t recommend reading maps whilst the vehicle is in motion, but even when you’ve stopped, you need to find where you are as quickly as possible. If you can’t read the words because they’re too small, you WILL struggle, because remember they’ll all be unfamiliar words anyway. Make it as easy as possible for future you to get the job done.

5. Price. Most people buy the cheapest map they see. STOP! Don’t do it. I spent a couple of hours choosing my map, and it still wasn’t a good fit. Buying the cheapest one you see will cost you money in the long run in the form of all that petrol you’ll waste when you’re driving around and being lost.

Final advice on your road map:
1. Never see it as a “just in case” for if your sat nav breaks, even if that’s the intended use. Scrutinize that map so you know whether it will actually get you to where you need to go when it matters most. When you lose sat nav signal (I did once we left Dover, and never got it back all through Europe), you will be stressed, usually in a hurry to make a decision or not in a sensible place to stop, and you will need that map to work fast. My map was a back up, but it wasn’t good enough. There’s no shame in buying a second one after the first one arrives if you bought it online and its crap.

2. Change the page on your map every day of your journey, so you can just pick it up and find where you are when the sat-nav loses signal.

3. Familiarize yourself with what your route looks like on the map, so your brain can speed up your response using it’s pattern-recognition abilities. The human brain is an incredible tool if you use it right – I always do this when I’m road tripping so I can find where my car is on a page as fast as possible.

4. Draw with a marker pen where you’re going (if you’re cool with writing on your map). I wish I’d done this at every rest stop. Or at all.

5. If you have a passenger navigator, get them to follow the route with their finger or regularly update themselves on where you are in relation to the map in some other way. Pins, post it notes, or a pen would also work but a finger leaves no trace so the map is still readable.

Stay tuned for next Travel Tuesday when I will talk about smaller scale sheet maps, and feel free to ask me any of your questions about maps in the comments or via Twitter.

[travel] Buying Petrol Abroad

Buying Petrol In Europe and European-language countries

I was actually photographing the misty mountain in the background
The 7am queue, Sunday morning at a petrol station in the Austrian alps. The majority of petrol stations we saw in Austria/Germany were Shell garages.

When we were approaching the ferry at Dover, England, I pulled into the petrol station and filled the tank. My OH’s mum had told us confidently that petrol was much cheaper in France. This should have meant waiting until France to fill up, surely?  Why, then, was I getting petrol now?

Actually, I was deeply worried by particular practicalities of our trip, not least of which, where to actually buy petrol. I didn’t know any of the brand names and was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find these petrol stations. I’d looked online for a list of company names to look out for (Esso, Shell and even BP have stations abroad), but since no list existed I was limited by searching for the overseas locations of petrol stations I already knew the names of. I’d also searched online to find the names of fuels abroad.

I was still deeply worried about running very low on fuel and not being able to find a petrol station. This only happened in Italy, where there were so many different flavours of fuel and colours of hoses that it was rare to find somewhere that carried all of them. The only constant everywhere was diesel, which left me wishing many times that our vehicle was a diesel one. But you got what you got, all you can do is work with what you got.

I’m going to tell you what I learned about filling up abroad, and I’ve included a list of names of petrol types (and which engines they go in) for the countries I’ve been to so far.


Here’s my top hacks for buying petrol in Europe:

1. Service stations generally sell fuel at an almost-reasonable price, but it varies wildly. In Northern Italy on the Autostrade (plural of Autostrada, or freeway), they give you the next 3 prices for diesel and “benzina” from which you can work out the relative prices for your chosen fuel if it’s not either of those.

2. Always fill at two bars or quarter of a tank, and always round down when making the decision; every time we looked at the two bars (1/4 tank) and thought “it’s ok, we can shop around for a better price” something always happened that stopped us getting to a petrol station in good time, and we cut it far too close, far too often. We actually skipped quite a few stations on the way down because we didn’t understand which fuel to put into the car (because the Italians have so many) and they all had black, yellow or red pump handles, no green ones.  There was the time we suddenly ended up in a 4 hour gridlocked traffic jam around Firenze, in 45 degree heat, watching our petrol dwindle. There was the time we took an A-road (I think they’re “routes” or “interstates” in America – the one that’s the next size down from a freeway??) and our 50 mile route suddenly became 100 miles in the dark on continuous hairpin bends every 30 metres or less, so we constantly were doubling back on ourselves, and that hadn’t been marked on our map as such, cutting across from just below Ravenna to the E1. The scenery around there is apparently stunning, but at 1am, it was dark and we didn’t have enough fuel. Luckily the second half was 50 miles of the same, but downhill, so we just rolled it until we got to the E1, and there was a petrol station within 500m of getting onto the Autostrada.  The engine never stopped from lack of fuel, but it came very close a couple of times (making that dreadful hiccuping sound as it gasped for gas).

3. SP95-E10 is the name of a semi-synthetic fuel that is an EU-approved version of petrol. In some countries it’s cheaper than normal 95 octane petrol, in others, it’s more expensive. It’s good stuff though, at least, it was really good in our Citroen Picasso, and I was a little sad when we got back to the UK and couldn’t buy it anywhere. SP95-E10 gave us a vastly improved mileage and the car engine sounded healthier whilst it was using it. I would highly recommend it if you have a Picasso – it’s like they’re made for each other, which could be true, since it’s a French car and since SP95-E10 is prevalent in France. It’s often also called “Super E10.”

4. In Rome, most petrol stations are self-service, but there are men who will insist on filling your car for you (they will be on a mobile phone the entire time, and usually smoking as well, we saw many of these) and then harass you for a tip. Unless you’re sure of yourself physically or speak Italian louder than whoever is on the other end of the phone, you just have to give them some money. I consistently gave 2 Euros on a 20 Euro fill, and it did work out cheaper than the manned petrol stations on the ring road. I don’t think these men actually work for any petrol station company, but Rome is a city whose primary workforce are street hawkers, so you just get used to it.

5. In Austria and Germany, many stations have full service pumps and self-serve pumps, and these mean different things to elsewhere. With the full service pumps, you stop your car and tell the attendant how much fuel you want (like in the olden days of good service) and they’ll fill it for you. At the self-serve pumps, you put your own fuel into the car – but with either option, you still have to go inside to pay. They don’t have a pay at the pump option at these stations so either way you’ve got to waste the same amount of time. The full service pumps are usually about 15-20 cents more expensive per litre than the self-serve, which can seriously add up (that’s 1 euro extra every five litres of fuel. Your fuel tank is usually 25 to 30 litres, so service costs 5-6 Euros per complete tank fill).

6. Make sure you have a credit card as well as your money, some pay-at-the-pump self service machines only take cards, and they’re the ones you’ll get stuck with late at night.

7. To use the European pay-at-the-pump petrol stations, you actually don’t pay at the pump you’re using. In the centre of all the pumps, there will be a machine that you have to select options from and prepay for the amount of fuel you’re going to put in your tank. There are usually language options for at least French, German, Spanish, Italian and English, but once you’ve used 3 or 4 of these machines you’ll know the menu options well enough that you won’t need English (unless you really aren’t paying attention). Just follow the menu through to select fuel type and amount to buy, select payment method if it’s an option and give the machine the money. Eventually it’ll let you go back to your pump and fill up.

Some of them tell you the price in litres and get you to confirm you are happy with this price before letting you continue. Others just take your money. Once you’re filling up, it will automatically cut off at the amount specified. There isn’t an option with these machines to “fill ‘er up” so you need to guess how much fuel you want to put in. I usually went for 20 Euros because the price per litre was often quite high and I thought that if anything went wrong with the machine I’d only lost 20 Euros. If something does go wrong there isn’t really anything you can do about it because these stations are totally unmanned, so just write it off to experience.

8. Knowing your numbers 1-15 in foreign languages really helps with identifying which pump you’re trying to pay for petrol. In England, you walk into the shop and say “pump number 5” and you do the same thing in foreign countries. Just have the number ready before you go in and they can process your request faster. If you don’t know the numbers of the country you’re in, Europeans often can also do English although it might take them a minute to work out what language you’re speaking in, just like if someone started speaking to you in French at your place of work you’d need to think before responding.

9. Despite my worries, it’s actually really easy to spot petrol stations abroad – because they look like petrol stations. Big roof, booth for paying (usually), sign with prices, petrol pumps. Unless, y’know, you’re really unlucky and end up at a car wash or diner that used to be a petrol station and still has all the trimmings. I think my main worry was needing to look for them on my smartphone which always needed a brand name to search, but since it didn’t have any network at all from Dover onwards, that really wasn’t an issue for me because there were so many roadside petrol stations.

10. As a final hack, none of the petrol we bought in France was anything remotely resembling the prices OH’s mum had found before we left.  I hadn’t been holding my breath, but it’s worth bearing in mind that those price comparison tools are not always very up-to-date and it’s probably going to save you time to not bother looking them up, especially if you’re going to be gone drivin’ for more than a day or two.

Here’s the names of fuel in various countries, and what engines they go in:

France/Belgium:

Super E10 – unleaded engines

Super Carburant – leaded engines (old 4 star cars) don’t put in unleaded engines.

Gazole – Diesel engines

LPG – LPG/autogas engines
Sans Plomb 95 / Sans plomb 98 – Unleaded engines

You can carry up to 10 litres of fuel but not aboard ferries.

Germany/Austria:

Super – unleaded engines (95 octane)

Super Plus – unleaded engines (98 octane)

Super E10 – unleaded engines (synthetic SP95-E10)

Diesel – diesel engines

No lead replacement available.

You can carry up to 10 litres of fuel with you, but not aboard ferries.

Italy:

Benzina – generic term, sometimes used for “fuel,” still unsure if this would go in my car.

Benzina verde – unleaded engines.

Benzina super – unleaded engines (higher octane)

Gasolio – diesel engines (don’t ask for gasoline if you have a petrol engine, they’ll think it’s this)

GPL (gas di petrolio liquefatto) – LPG engines.

No lead replacement available, but you can buy a fuel additive to use with unleaded petrol.

Sometimes unleaded is called “senza plombo” but it’s not an official grade of petrol.

You can carry up to 10 litres of fuel with you, but not aboard ferries.

Over 800 miles of driving in Italy, I only saw SP95-E10 once, and it was far more expensive than anything else they were selling.

Spain:

Bencina – petrol, again nowhere was able to tell me if this was ok to put in an unleaded engine or whether it was a common term for something else.

Gasoleo “A” – Diesel engines

Gas-oil – Diesel engines

Gasoleo “B” – HEATING OIL ONLY DON’T PUT IN CAR!

gasolina super – Leaded 4-star engines

gasolina sin plomo – Unleaded engines.

biogasol – another one that no-one could agree on the meaning of. Most likely biodiesel but might instead be something to fuel houses. Probably best to avoid.

SP95-E10 may or may not be available in Spain – it’s likely because it’s a European initiative, but then we don’t have it in the UK, so I will report back when I return from driving to Moroccco.

You can carry up to 10 litres of fuel with you, but not aboard ferries.

Check out this AA motoring guide for other European countries and their specific driving rules, including what to carry when you go abroad:
http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/overseas/countrybycountry.html

Does anyone have any further experience on the names of unleaded/diesel in other countries? I’d love this to become a reference. Don’t just post website translations because I’m specifically collecting the words printed on the sides of petrol pumps. For example, some Italian dictionaries say “petrolio” means “petrol” but it’s actually never used in the sense that we would mean, because it means “petroleum” like “petroleum jelly” (Vaseline). If you asked for it at a petrol station you would get mocked. So, only contribute what you’ve seen at petrol stations please!

Happy driving!