Back in Europe - Greece & Albania

EuropePosted by Espen Fri, September 27, 2013 12:31:07

As you’ve seen from our border crossing / shipping post, we made it to Europe and Greece. And even if Israel in some ways felt quite European, arriving in Greece definitely took the edge of the adventure level. We quickly decided to skip the “easy” route involving a ferry to Italy and driving north on Italian highways, and instead went for the road up along the Adriatic Sea through the Balcans. Before leaving Greece we stopped for a few days on the beach on the Peloponnese Peninsula.

On the way out to the peninsula we drove across the Corinth Canal, first started in the first century AD, but not finished until 1883. And with this canal cutting 6,2 kilometers through the base the peninsula, it is now, technically speaking, an island.

Our final stop in Greece before crossing the border to Albania, is the impressive and slightly surreal tourist attraction, Meteora. These monasteries were built in the 16th century, so it is not that they are very old (from a European point of view… (but it is almost as old as Machu Pichu)), but the locations are incredible. Yes, that is a real building, and it is a BIG house!

New for us are the crowds of tourists. We were expecting them in Egypt, but as you know we hardly saw any even at the main tourist attractions. Here in Greece it is bus load after bus load, and we fear that it is going to get worse as we drive north along the Adriatic coast towards Central Europe.

Crossing borders in Europe is very different from what we have been through the last couple of years. Even crossing from Greece to Albania, which is not in the European Union (or EEC), it took us only a few minutes. The road changed instantly driving into Albania, and the feeling of adventure was back.

On our map we were following a road marked as a “secondary road”. It was narrow, but the surface was good, and we were doing good time. At one point we were looking for a place to stop for the night, but we saw no obvious places. Normal procedure is then to start asking, but looking at the map we had only about a hundred kilometers left to Berat, the town we were driving towards. We decided to keep going. That became quite interesting. The road got worse, and soon we were on a 4x4 trail. A nice feeling of course, but it was slow going and it was getting dark. We kept going and arrived in Berat around nine o’clock.

Berat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we wanted to spend a day visiting the old castle and walk around in the old narrow streets. We were looking for a backpacker hostel we found in our guide book, but luck had it we stopped at one of the first hotels to ask for directions. Malin went in to ask, but came back out telling me we were booked in. It was a fantastic, small hotel, just opened, and not too expensive. It also had one of the best Italian restaurants we’ve ever tried. Are you going to Berat, check in to Hotel Muzaka (south bank)!

Roads were better from here, and after a stop on the coast on our way north, we drove back inland to the Theth Mountains.

Again, the roads quickly turn into rough gravel roads as soon as you leave the main highways. It is not like a technical offroad trail, but very nice to have a 4x4, or at least solid ground clearance.

This is not a very developed area, and you think this is how the Alps must have been before all the hotels and gondolas came around. Visiting some of these places in the mountains is almost like stepping back in time. Wouldn’t mind going back to Theth to explore more of this area, but now we are on our way to Montenegro…


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Shipping from Israel to Greece

Border crossingsPosted by Espen Wed, September 04, 2013 00:28:19

Coming up the east coast of Africa there are at the moment very limited options for finding your way to Europe without container shipping. The ferry that used to run from Egypt has been canceled, and the other routes from Egypt through Libya or east via Syria are closed because of unrest or sivil war. This leaves Israel and two ferries, and these reach three ports on the European mainland.

From Haifa there is a Ferry going to Greece via Cyprus. You can take the car to both destinations, and from Cyprus you can take a another ferry to Turkey. If you take the Ferry all the way to Greece, you land in Lavrio just south of Athens. The third option is a Ferry from Ashrod to the west side of Italy. This is more expensive and takes almost a week, but take you straight to Central Europe.

The ferry from Haifa was smooth, and the "border"/port to Greece was very easy.
Contact in Haifa is Rosenfeldt Shipping. Alice Rozner will book you on the ferry. We came to the office the day before the sailing to pay for the tickets. It is 690 € for the car and 300 € per person. You get a cabin, and we were 6 passengers on the ferry. All meals are included and quite good (at least from an African point of view). Make sure you have the European Green Card for proof of insurance (but you should have this to get into Israel as well.)

Before driving onboard you have to register at the port office. It is just across the road from the shipping company, and it took us 30 minutes the same day as we payed the tickets. They charge 1308 Shekels (about 280 €) port fee. Less (about 100 €) if your car weighs less than 1400 kilograms. This fee will be the same if you enter through Haifa.

To find the office can be tricky, but here are the instructions: Walk up the bridge/ramp (Number 5), past one unmanned gate, and walk over to the gate with a security checkpoint. Check in. Take right across the small footbridge to the nearest building (10 meters). Inside, walk down the stairs one floor, take right from the bottom of the stairs, then first to the left, at the end turn right, and go through the door to an office cubicle/counters landscape. Ask the first person you see how to pay the port fee. Easy :-) A paper/receipt you get here has to be taken back to the shipping office.

We were told to show up next day at 1500 sharp at the same gate as where we went for the port fees. Drive up the ramp and wait. A guy from the shipping company takes you into the port area, through immigration (got a few questions about why we went to Sudan, but no problem at all ("its the only way", seems to explain it)), and then clear customs. There is a few stops and a few hundred meters driving around port to get the exit stamp and to cancel your temporary vehicle import. You drive your car onboard, and park basically just next to the cabins. You have access to the car at all times. Passports are handed in to the crew/captain.

The ferry stops at Cyprus for 6-8 hours, and you can go off and see Limasol (not drive). I don't know much about customs here, but I know they charges for the port and the paperwork. More cargo was loaded, and we were told that during winter the ferry was normally full from Israel transporting trailers with fruits and vegetables to the European market.

Driving off the ferry for the last leg home...

In Greece you drive off the ferry and park. It took about an hour to get our papers as there were a lot of cars (people on holiday) from Cyprus. No passengers though. When we got the vehicle paper (some kind of Bill of Lading, I believe), we got our passports and we just drove out. No inspections, no costs.

Easy! :-)


Contact info:

Alicia Rozner
A.Rosenfeld Shipping Ltd. (Haifa, Israel)
Reservations Dept.
T + 972 4 8613 671
F + 972 4 8537 002

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Israel and the Golan Heights

IsraelPosted by Malin Wed, August 21, 2013 23:46:40
Arriving in Jerusalem on a Thursday, the hostel we had planned to stay in was fully booked. As we were sitting in the parking lot behind the hostel, the parking lot owner offered to help us searching the internet on his cell phone for another place to stay. While looking for other options two men in a Toyota Land Cruiser parked and asked us if we were looking for a place to stay. It turned out they were the owners of the hostel we wanted to stay in. When they heard they were fully booked that night, one of the men said that his family was out of town for the weekend, and if we wanted to, we could stay in his house. But we had to decide quickly because they were going to a beer festival in a few minutes. If we wanted to stay with him we had to join them first to the beer festival and then go to his place around 9 o’clock in the evening. This was a really good and hospital offer to two strangers, and we were really tempted to say yes. But we had had a long day; waking up early by the Dead Sea, we had been out sightseeing at Masada in 40+ degrees Celsius half of the day, and then done other stops on our way to Jerusalem. The thought of a shower, clean clothes, and laying on a bed for an hour or two before dinner was more tempting than going straight to a beer festival. As we declined the offer of beer festival and homestay, the owner of the hostel called another hostel for us and reserved their last double room. This new hostel was within walking distance, and we left the Patrol parked where it was. Next morning when we were back to get a few more things out of the car, another man commented on our Patrol as he was into 4x4 himself. He asked us about our route through Israel. We pulled out a map, and he recommended us a few places in northern Israel.

During our stay in Israel we meet a lot of friendly and helpful people, just like these people we meet in the parking lot in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is a nice city to spend some days in. We spent three nights in a hostel in the city center so that we could walk around and enjoy the city.

On Friday we walked through the Mahane Yeruda Market. It must have been the busiest market I have ever been to, and it seemed like the whole of Jerusalem was there shopping before the Sabbath started. The fresh produce, cheese, bread, spices, tea, and whatever you can imagine on a marked was there, and it looked really good. In between all the stalls were small cafes and restaurants. Too busy for a relaxing meal, we continued our walk through town.

Old Jerusalem is a really fascinating area to walk through. There old city is divided into an Armenian, a Jewish, a Muslim, and a Christian Quarter. Each area has a different feel to it, and if you forget about the tourist people dress differently too.

Because of the long history and years of building and altering old buildings you can find streets and markets on different levels.

It is quite easy to get lost even with a map. Espen was cheating as he used the GPS on his mobile phone. But the best part about walking in the old city is to wander around without a specific plan and get lost every now and then.

Old Jerusalem is a holy city and contains several sites that are sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. You have the Western (Wailing) Wall and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of Rock was closed the day we were in that area of the city, and as it was the Jewish Shabbat it was not allowed to take photos in the Western Wall area. As I took some photos in Old Jerusalem on Saturday/Shabbat I was told off by some Jews, “It is not allowed to take photos on the Shabbat”. I have thought about this afterwards and do not really see how this applies to me as I am not Jewish and do not live by the Shabbat rules, and I only took photos of some buildings.

Taking this photo was probably also an offence, but I thought I was pretty far away and no Jews saw me. Except the ones that are watching on all the security cameras. I have never walked through a city with so many security cameras, they are really all over the place.

After looking at the holy Jewish and Muslim places we had a look at the holiest Christian places in Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The different Christian Fractions who share the ownership of the church does not agree, and therefor a Muslim family holds the keys to the church. There is only one entrance to the church, and the Muslim family unlocks and locks the church every day.

Pilgrims had their photo taken in the church and in front of the Edicule of the Tomb (where there is a fragment of the stone that covered Jesus tomb and the tomb itself), so I though it must be okay to take some photos in the church too.

It is fascinating to walk around a place with so much history, and that holds the holiest places for three religions and is still an important city. One man told us that Jerusalem is the middle point between Asia, Africa and Europe.

Faith and religion does not always make sense to a none-believer. I am sometimes puzzled about how one thing can be described as something, and then when you read the facts, it is not really what it is supposed to be. We visited “The room of the Last Supper” where Jesus and his disciples had their last meal together.

Outside the room is a plaque that reads: “The Room of the Last Supper was part of the “Holy Zion” Church built in 390 BC, and the Crusader church constructed on its ruins in the 12th Century. The room in its current shape was formed in the 14th Century and it preserves architectural and scriptural elements from the Crusader period.” How can you call a room “The room of the Last Supper” when it was built 1300 years after Jesus lived? It could be that it is the same location, but it is not the same room, is it?

In the hostel in Jerusalem we saw advertisement for trips in Israel and it said “Day trips to all over Israel”. You know you are in a small country when everything can be done as daytrips out of the center. We planned to spend a bit more time than a day when we drove north from Jerusalem.

First stop was the Caesarea roman ruins on the Mediterranean Cost and from there we headed to Sea of Galilee.

On our drive north, everything was nice and peaceful and families were out on holiday. This is a strange contrast when you think about the area you are in. As we drove over the Golan Heights we saw more and more military personnel, fenced of areas with warnings about mines, and a tank having driving exercise out on a field. We stopped in a rest area along the road with a view point where you can see the border between Israel and Syria. One man that also had a break there talked to us and told us that he had seen on the news that a couple of days before there had been fighting in the town we looked down on on the Syrian side. Still, it was so peaceful where we had the rest, beside the noise from a car now and then, all we heard was birds. How can there be a war going on a few thousand meters away from us?

This has been a troubled area for a long time, and it has been concurred by different groups over and over again. From the Nimrod Fortress built in the 13th century we had amazing views over the surrounding area, and over the hill in the distance, we could see to Lebanon.

We had been recommended to drive the road along the Lebanon border going south again, as it had nicer views than the road down in the valley. Again, all is so peaceful and you see families sightseeing, but then you are reminded about the reality when you see a UN watch tower on the border. Even if it is peaceful, it is probably one of the more risky areas we have driven in on this trip.

Besides some sightseeing and arranging for shipping to Europe, our last days in Israel was spent the same way as our first - beach camping.


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Arrived safely in Israel

IsraelPosted by Espen Wed, August 21, 2013 17:59:50

It is strange how different the feeling can be for two places just a few hundred meters apart. The Sinai Peninsula is considered dangerous, and most governments around the world have travel warnings for this area. A couple of hundred meters across the border to Israel, Israelis and tourists are camping on the beach and enjoying food and good wine in the holiday-town Eilat on the Red Sea. Israel has only a few kilometers of coast line on the Red Sea, and it is mostly developed into tourist resorts. Almost at the border is a Marine Reserve (for corals), and they allow free camping directly on the beach.

The evening we crossed the border we drove into town to look for a cheap hostel, but didn’t really find anything. Israel is an expensive place, and the Youth Hostel would charge us 130 USD per night for a double. After checking out a couple of places, we drove back out to the “free beach” and camped there. The plan was to stay for the night and keep driving north the next day, but when two park rangers pulled up (we thought they were there to tell us to get lost..) and wanted to take pictures of the Patrol and the roof top tent, they told us about where we could find water, toilet and shower facilities nearby. We ended up staying four nights relaxing after the long days in Egypt sorting out the shipping that in the end didn’t happen. It was also good the go through some of our emergency food that we’ve had in the car for months coming up through Africa. There were some interesting combinations, but it really is amazing what a Chef can do with dry and canned food.

As we more or less missed out on the desert in Egypt we went for the Negev Desert in southern Israel. We had a route recommended by internet friends from Israel, and we had a fantastic drive up the Nekarot Canyon. Negev reminded us of southern Utah in the USA, and it really is 4x4 country. There must be loads of different routes and camp sites in this area.

Camping under the stars in the Maktesh Ramon Crater. We had the camp for ourselves, and in the light from the full moon the crater was magical!

The road also went up and drove along the rim. The views were spectacular.

Everybody has heard about the Dead Sea and how the saline levels make you float like a piece of cork. The Dead Sea is a lake on the border between Israel and Jordan, and it is about 400 meters BELOW sea level. Yes, this is one of the lowest places on earth. Driving down from the Negev Desert the temperature rose about a degree per 100 meters driving down (300 ft.).

When we reached the lake the thermometer in the car showed 42 degrees Celsius, almost at hot as in Khartoum. As several places along the lake are marked as dangerous because of sink holes, we drove until we found a designated swimming area. We asked the guy at the parking if he knew about any camping nearby, and he told us it would be no problem camping right there at the parking area. Why not? We popped the tent and went for the swim.

Well, it wasn’t much of a swim. You are just too high in the water to get your feet and hands in to push forward. The pictures you may have seen of people just lying there reading a newspaper are actually true. You can. And be careful going in if you have a cut or a wound as it stings like he##. The water is so salt it actually feels thick. Very strange.

We also got a chance to stop at the Masada ruins on a hilltop not far from the lake. They have built a gondola going all the way up to the plateau, and that is probably smart considering the temperatures. We bought a one-way ticket, and decided that we at least would walk back down.

Masada was built between 103 and 76 BC and then got into the hands of Herod the Great in 43 BC. The location is spectacular, and it must have been a very efficient fortress at the time. Unfortunately (for them..), in the end it was conquered by the Romans, the outline of their camps still visible far down below the city. The 967 Jews that had taken refuge at Masada committed mass suicide instead of being captured by the Romans.

The temperature was getting quite unpleasant around midday, and we decided it was time to leave if we should have a chance at all to get down before coming down with a heat stroke. We soaked our hair and shirts in water and went for it. We jogged most of the way down, and 30 minutes later we were eating at McDonalds at the visitor center at the base of the gondola. A dispenser coke has never tasted better…..

Climbing out of the depression around the Dead Sea the temperature dropped, and before reaching Jerusalem it was back down to a comfortable 32 degrees Celsius. Perfect for a few days strolling around town taking pictures and drinking ice coffees.


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Taba in Egypt to Eilat in Israel

Border crossingsPosted by Espen Mon, August 12, 2013 19:47:36

Crossing the border to Israel is another one of the infamous border crossings in Africa. Many travelers have told us about hours and hours of questioning and waiting. Some even say that they don’t even want to try as chances for getting a visa is slim. Some overlanders we knew well drove through Israel a few months before us, and they reported back that the crossing is slow and tedious, but that it’s not really a problem. As you know from previous blogs, our first plan was to cross from Egypt to Jordan, and then from Jordan to Israel. As we were delayed first into Egypt, and then stopped by the demonstration and unrest, we decided to try to ship out from Egypt to Turkey. This didn’t work out as planned, and the only option left to us was to drive across the Sinai, and ship out from Israel. Now we were even more delayed as we’d been waiting in Port Said to arrange the shipping out of Egypt, so we saw Jordan being postponed to a later trip. We drove to Taba and started the process of leaving Egypt. T&he main road ends in the border station..

Compared to the customs in Aswan, the Taba customs came close to be referred to as efficient. Everything is relative in this world. We were three cars driving together, and this slows down the process considerably as the officials for some reason like to get all three of us through a certain step in the process before moving on to the next one.

After driving into the customs zone, and pay 2 EL each (about 35 cents), you take a left a few meters after the gate (and just in from of the Immigration Office) and park on a big parking lot to the left of the Immigration building. Proceed to the building on the other side of the parking lot.

Walk in through the door in the center of the building, and turn right to find the customs office. And the very first step was for the guys at the customs to call and get the guy with the stamps to come to the office. This never stops to amaze me… Anyway. There is a form to fill in, and to process the Carnet you have to pay 21 EL.

Next step is to go across the hall to the police office (in through the main door and to the left). While we were in the customs office, and engineer was outside to get the vin number from the Patrol. Also here he needed to “rub” off a print on the vin number stamped into the frame of the car. In the police office another form has to be filled in, and then you can hand in the Egyptian transit license plates. The fee is 10 LE. We got receipts for the costs.

From here proceed to the Immigration office. Note that this is the only border where we’ve processed the vehicle before our passports. We walked back to the Immigration building and got the exit stamp in our passports. You leave on the other side of the immigration building, but it is okay to walk around back to the parking lot. Paperwork finished!

But the most meaningless and annoying part is still to come. Before they let you drive over to the Israeli side, they need to inspect the vehicles. Every overlander we’ve talked to say the same. In our case there were two officers going through the whole car. There was a third one coming over and asked Malin to open the backdoors, but she said no, as we like to see what is going on. Each of us watched one customs officer. We’re not sure why it is important for them to do this on exit and not on entry, as there was no inspection in Aswan upon entry. We suspect it is because it would be embarrassing for the Egyptians if the Israelis find things they don’t, but who knows. And because they wanted to inspect all three cars before letting any of us through, we spent about two and a half hours on the Egyptian side. Much of it waiting for the inspection of the two other vehicles.

Finally we could drive across to the Israeli side. Here they have a system where only one car can drive in at the time. Before they let us in they collected our passports and vehicle papers, and looked under the car with a mirror. And as overland vehicles generally are so full of stuff there was only enough space on the parking outside the customs building for two cars. The British guy was “stuck” at the gate while we and a German couple emptied our cars into plastic boxes and “shopping carts”. Fortunately we were mentally prepared for this, and we knew beforehand that EVERYTHING has to come out of the car. I’ll say it again: absolutely everything that is not permanently bolted in place goes out! Knifes and dangerous looking tools, like an axe, is collected, and we were told we would get these back at the exit gate. When everything is out, all this goes through a luggage scanner. It really is incredible how much crap is collected over three years of overlanding… The car also goes through a vehicle scanner, and a customs officer makes a manual/visual check in a closed garage. You are not allowed to drive the car in, and you are not allowed to be there to monitor the inspection. This is slow and time consuming, but everybody involved are very professional and polite. Everything is thoroughly explained, and you’re even offered soft drinks from the custom officers. At no time were we worried about our stuff or things “disappearing ”. When everything has gone through the scanner, we proceed to the Immigration in the same building.

Malin and the retired German couple got their three months tourist visas right away. It took about two minutes. They do not stamp your passport, but give you a small printed piece of paper with the visa. British guy and I were told we had to talk to another officer before we would get our visas. I was called into another office and a nice lady asked me a couple of questions about our trip. The Sudanese stamp in my passport was mentioned, but when I explained that this is the only way to drive through Africa (eastern route) it was not an issue. They wanted my father and my grandfather’s name so they could run a security check on me, and I believe it was the same for the British guy. We waited about 15 minutes for the security check to go through, and she came out with our visas.

When the visas were ready we went back outside and started loading everything back into the car. 30 minutes later we drove towards the exit gate, and parked there. In a building just to the right of the gate, is the desk that issues the temporary vehicle permit and where pick up your vehicle papers. They do not process the Carnet. European insurance companies can issue a so called Green Card, and we had picked up ours when we were home. If you don’t have this you need to buy an Israeli insurance here at the border. There is another building on the left just before the exit gate where you can buy this. In the same building it is also possible to exchange money. We got our temporary vehicle permit and were ready to go. There are no costs at the Israeli side of the border, unless you need to pick up local insurance. I don’t have the prices for the Israeli insurance, but it is quite expensive. I think one of the other guys said he paid over 100 USD for three weeks.

When we drove up to the gate, a guy handed back our kitchen knifes and the axe. The whole process on the Israeli side took us at least four hours, so in total for crossing this border it was nearly seven hours for the three cars. If we’d been alone it would be less, but you should count on five – six hours and make sure to have some snacks or food available. Anyway, we were in Israel!


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