18-24 October 2011: Lakes and Piedmont areas, Italy (including Venice)

18 October 2011:  Fattoria La Rondine (Fattore Amico)

Back in London I collected some new books for Europe including the Fattore Amico book which is based on France passions so we decide to give this a go.  It gives you access to local producers who let you stay on their property in your motorhome for free.  So after deciphering the GPS coordinates we finally locate a local property and pull up near the vineyard.  The owners are fantastic and speak more English than we speak Italian and we have a wander around and enjoy some serenity.

19 October 2011:  Venice, Italy

We are heading to Venice today via Imola (used to be an F1 race track) and Maranello.  Imola wasn’t that exciting, and also not open for Vinnie to do a lap, so we continued on to Museo Ferrari at Maranello.  Strangely we thought this would be a quiet town, however as we got nearer the number of cars and tour buses soon let you know the museum is a huge tourist attraction, that and the number of Ferrari dealerships.  We find a spot for Vinnie near the entrance to the Ferrari race track and head into the Museo Ferrari (EUR13 each) where Scott proceeds to spend the next few hours in heaven leaving his drool marks from one end of the museum to another.  Apparently if the choice was between me and a Ferrari I may miss out.    

 

If only it would fit under the Xmas tree
If only it would fit under the Xmas tree

We then jump on the motorway to Venice.  The first parking spot we find, I totally read the pay instructions wrong and after we realised it was going to cost EUR37 (Parcheggio Al Tronchetto), we moved to another spot a short bus-ride away for EUR10 per day (Parco di San Guiliano).  Parcheggio Al Tronchetto was however at the port and there were some huge cruise boats in (that will make my Dad drool).  Once we park the van at our new spot we head off to the bus and into Venezia.    There is no motorised traffic in Venezia, so the bus drops you at a bus station and you walk from there.  We wander through the streets, bridges over canals etc having to resort to Google maps as the street signs make no sense whatsoever. 

 

We can’t work out why anybody would build a city that is so   libel to the environment but the engineering feat is impressive.  Venice is built on 117 small islands that are connected via bridges and canals making the only way to navigate Venice on foot or via boat. 

The Grand Canal:   runs from the Piazzale Roma to San Marco and although you can catch a vaporetto or gondola we wandered through the streets passing so many beautiful (and crumbling) palazzos, churches, bridges and various other gorgeous sites it is a impressive city.  Venice starred in four different James Bond films, so it can’t be too bad.

Gondola's on the Grand Canal
Gondola

Ponte di Rialto:  lets you get fantastic photos of the canals, gondolas and other seafaring boats.  This is a large bridge across the Grand Canal and is lined with boutiques and the obligatory tourists.  Up until the 19th century it was the only bridge across the Grand Canal, but that has now changed.    

 

Ponte di Rialto
Ponte di Rialto

 

 

Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs):  One of my must see items was the Bridge of Sighs which we found out is currently undergoing renovation, restoration or whatever and is totally obscured.  Not happy Jan.  The Bridge of Sighs connects the Ducal Palace with the grim Palazzo delle Prigioni (Prisons). There is mystery around the name of the bridge with some saying it is the prisoners’ final breath of resignation upon viewing the outside world one last time before being locked in their fetid cells alternatively some attribute the name to Casanova, who, following his arrest in 1755 (he was accused of being a Freemason and spreading antireligious propaganda), crossed this very bridge. 

 

Not the best view of The Bridge of Sighs
Not the best view of The Bridge of Sighs

 

By now the weather is closing in and getting dark, so we decide to head back to Vinnie, stopping for a drink along the way at a lovely little bar where the prices were about a quarter of the price of Florence. 

We awoke the next morning to gales and a massive rainstorm, but decided to suck it up and rugged up and headed back into Venice.  This was an awesome choice as we were both soon totally soaked and traipsing through inches of puddles all morning was hilarious.    

 

Great day for sightseeing
Great day for sightseeing

 

Tragedy soon struck with the demise of Scott’s umbrella but luckily he was wearing his North Face waterproof jacket which only lets water into the pockets.  We re-traced out steps from the previous day and although the weather was horrible, Venice is still a magical city.

The road linking Venice to the mainland
The road linking Venice to the mainland

 

I was keen to buy a present for my sister as I missed her birthday so we trawled the millions of Murano artisans before finally picking a small shop with a lovely shopkeeper and buying two pieces.

Piazza San Marco:  is full of cafes, well it would be on a nice sunny day, today however there aren’t that many customers around.  The square is surrounded by porticos and of course the stunning view of the Basilica di San Marco onion domes (very eastern).  When you step back out into the Piazza you can now see some of the history that surroundings the Basilica.  The 500-year-old Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) stands to your right; to your left is the Campanile (Bell Tower), and beyond, the glistening waters of the open lagoon and Palladio’s Chiesa di San Giorgio on its own island and is a photographer’s dream on any day except today.  We have left the Camapanile again without travelling to the top due to the weather.

I think this leaned more than Pisa
I think this leaned more than Pisa

Basilica di San Marco:  The Basilica is free to enter, however each part seemed to cost something, so unsure why they don’t have an overall ticket to cover all the parts of the Basilica.  This is an awesome site; every part of the church seems to be covered in mosaics, from gold ones above to beautiful tiles underneath.  The church’s greatest treasure is the magnificent altarpiece known as the Pala d’Oro (Golden Altarpiece), a Gothic masterpiece encrusted with close to 2,000 precious gems and 255 enamelled panels. It was created as early as the 10th century, and embellished by master Venetian and Byzantine artisans between the 12th and 14th centuries. It is located behind the main altar, whose green marble canopy on alabaster columns covers the tomb of St. Mark.  You can’t take photos inside and even if you wanted to sneak them in, it is so dark they wouldn’t come out without a huge flash which may give you away.

We head back to Vinnie where we change clothes and have something warm to eat in an effort to thaw out and defrost for the drive this afternoon. 

20 October 2011:  Soave, Italy

We didn’t make it far, seeing a castle from the motorway we do a quick detour and find a nice Aire (free including electricity) and walk into the historic town centre which is surrounded by crenulated walls and looks up to a castle via small streets.  Soave is famous for its white wine and Soave town is also the centre for Veneto’s wine consortium so it also deals in Valpolicella.  The town walls are encircled with 24 watchtowers with some being in very good condition.  The Castello itself is a short walk up from town and you enter it through a drawbridge.  The Castello has been resorted but nicely done.  Back at the Aire we met a New Zealand couple travelling through Europe in a massive motorhome that they are also shipping back to NZ to sell and they gave up some tips for Vienna and Prague.

The Castello - well worth a visit
The Castello - well worth a visit

21 October 2011:  Novate Mezzola, Italy

Up relatively early we are heading to Lake Como (and hopefully to see George Clooney) and then if we can make it to an Aire at the top of Lake Como.  We head down the Motorway which turns out to be totally uninspiring and bypass Milan before heading up into the mountains.

Como:  is situated on Lake Como which is ringed by the Alps and is gorgeous with views over the rest of the lake.  This place exudes money and exclusivity.  For those nerds, Lake Como served as a backdrop for the romantic scenes in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones—one of the very few settings in the film that was not created entirely by CGI computer programs.  We had thought of doing a boat trip, but parking is hard and let’s face it, I hate boat trips at the best of time, so instead we decide to take the scenic drive up to Bellagio. 

 

No 5 star luxury for us.
No 5 star luxury for us.

 

 

Well that turned out to be a fantastic idea initially, except then the road narrowed to being single lane for two lanes of traffic.  This was an exhausting and nerve racking drive and in my defence (it was my idea initially) I did give Scott ample opportunity to turn round, but he kept going forward.  Eventually we pull up into Bellagio.  Now this is by far the most stunning of towns we have seen.  It is picture perfect and is also the spot for catching a ferry.  We had thought about this but had also forgotten to find out whether we could actually get a ferry for the motorhome.  Luck would have it we could and we decided to have a coffee and a walk around before putting Vinnie onto the ferry (Ferry EUR16.30) to Varenna which would save us a considerable drive. 

 

Not a huge ferry but great views
Not a huge ferry but great views

 

 

There were only two vehicles on the small ferry and we soon pushed off for the short ride.  It was a lovely view, although I elected to sit in the motorhome with the seatbelt done up, not sure why and Scott wandered all over the ferry.  On arriving in Varenna, again another beautiful town, we took in our surroundings and hit the road for an Aire in Colico which is right on the edge of Lake Como.  On arriving at the Aire we find that you can’t get access to it until 6pm, so we do some shopping and then head to the Aire at Novate Mezzola. 

 

Sometimes being in a motorhome is worth it.
Sometimes being in a motorhome is worth it.

 

 

This was fantastic, we are right on the edge of the lake, have the place all to ourselves (another motorhome pulls in much later) and we get to sit in the sun and enjoy a sunset with a glass of wine.  I have to say this must be one of the nicest camp spots we have found.

Our view of Lake Como
Our view of Lake Como

22 October 2011:  Casale Monferrato, Italy

We caught up with our motorhome neighbour which is currently waiting for his wife to arrive from England.  Dave and his wife are looking for a house in the area and have been here so often know all the ins and outs.  I have to say if I was looking for a place in Italy, this area would have to be near the top of the list.

As we are soon leaving Italy we decide to do a small road trip to the Asti/Alba wine region which is in the Piedmont area and have elected to stop at a Fattore Amico property in San Giorgio Monferrato (Sergio Coppo Vini).  We arrive and score a parking spot at the top of the property and then go down and do some wine tasting and purchase three bottles for EUR10 and they hosts give us a bottle as a gift. 

 

Another day, another awesome sunset
Another day, another awesome sunset

 

 

The family can’t do enough to help us and we also walk away with a pile of pomegranates.  We spend the afternoon watching the hillsides and enjoying the quiet.  This style of accommodation is great as you get to taste local produce, meet local people and see a part of the countryside that is off the beaten track. 

This area is not only famous for its wine (including the Barbera del Monferrato) also produced author Umberto Eco (of Name of the Rose fame).

 23 October 2011:  Cherasco, Italy

I had made a note earlier in the trip about a truffle and wine festival in Alba, so we are heading that way today via Asti.  As the drive progresses we note that considering this area is famous for its wine, there is a distinct lack of grapes. 

Asti:  produces the sparkling white Asti Spumante wine made from white Muscat grapes, while Alba concocts Barolo and Barbaresco, both towns are also famous for their white and black truffles.  There are a huge amount of cars and people in Asti, but we find a parking spot and head into the mainly closed town where only the town centre has a sprinkling of people trawling through an antiques market.  There isn’t much to hold us here, so we decide to continue heading through hoping to find somewhere to park or some scenery to inspire us.

Alba:  is meant to be one of the gastronomic highlights of Italy (it was one of the first towns in the Slow Food movement).  Today we luck in and find a parking spot within walking distance of the annual truffle fair.  The town is an enjoyable walk, helped today with wine and food tasting.  I still can’t see the fascination of spending hundreds of Euros on truffles, but I seem to be amongst the few as there are stall after stall selling this produced.  In the Piazza there is some sort of medieval battle of the bands going on, with drums and banners which we watch for a while.  The narrow streets are lined with boutiques, bars and restaurants and are doing a roaring trade today.

Truffles galore
Truffles galore

Cherasco:  Located nearby we decide to end the day at Cherasco which is the home of the lumache (snail).  We park in the local Aire and head back into the town centre which is lovely but very very closed.  It is Sunday after all.  We find a map from the tourist office (smartly leaves tourist maps outside when it is closed) and walk through the old historic centre.  We did find a small bar open for a glass of vino and we also purchased some chocolates which the town is famous for before heading back to the warmth of Vinnie with no snails.  Although Scott did have a fair plate of snails in Marrakech.

The nights are definitely getting very chilly.

24 October 2011:  Tortona, Italy

We are heading through Alessandria and then onto Costa Vescovato to a Coop to spend the night.

Alessandria:  was sort of mid-way to our destination so we thought we would stop there for a walk and also some lunch.  As we arrived it started to rain and was freezing.  It is Monday so we expected the shops to be open, but after finding the town deserted soon realised they didn’t open until 4pm.  Luckily we found a nice little restaurant that served fresh local produce as well as the thickest hot chocolate you can imagine, so we whiled away a few hours here before heading back out into the closed and cold town.

Coop Valli Unite:  This is in the Fattore Amico book so we plug in the coordinates which are wrong (as we soon find out), we try and navigate from the rest of the book and along with some random street signs we find the Coop.  This is a commune where people work producing a range of local products (biological, wine, cheese, salami and has a restaurant).  We meet the owner who shows us where the park and gives us a tour of the compound and we stock up on cheese, wine and bread from the shop after having a lovely cup of Italian coffee in the restaurant.  The ideals of the group are fantastic.  What they don’t produce they barter or swap with other like minded coops in the area.  This style of living really appeals to me and is as far removed from consumeristic lifestyles idealised by those at home it makes a welcome change.  We head back to Vinnie and take a look at a hay bale house under construction (I would love one of these) and soon Scott makes a friend of the local farm cat and they are playing a chasing game until it gets darker and colder. 

 

If only we could bring him home
If only we could bring him home

 

 

Scott comes inside and the poor cat sits outside for a while playing with a piece of string by itself until it gives up.  Of course it is now starting to rain and we can no longer see the views of the valley around up.

Life on a commune - time for a change we thinks
Life on a commune - time for a change we thinks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10-17 October 2011: Tuscany, Italy (including Florence)

10 October 2011:  Montalcino, Italy (TUSCANY)

Montepulciano:  is described in the Frommer’s guide as one of the great art cities of Tuscany (Scott is already rolling his eyes as that description), however we didn’t come here for the art but the wine area itself.  Montepulciano may be a medieval town but it is the Vino Nobile that we are after tasting.  The town sits at 605m and has some fantastic views of vineyards.  We parked Vinnie at an Aires which is expensive to stay overnight but took the overnight option and then caught the little bus up to the town centre where we radically jumped off the bus at what we thought was the towncentre to have to walk up even further.  However it gave us a chance to have a look at the Valdichiana countryside.  We walked up the Porta al Prata to Piazza Grande which is at the top (sort of, there is a fortress come art gallery at the top) of the town and you have some beautiful architecture on all sides with the renaissance Palazzo and Gothic town hall.  The clock tower was inspired by the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.   We wandered through the myriad of wine stores and have to say had a mediocre lunch with the wine and even the wine was a bit mediocre.  It is also overpriced in the town so we picked up some nice wine at the local supermarket for a tenth of the price.  I don’t mind paying a bit more for local produce but hate being ripped off.  We spent a few hours continuing to amble through the cobbled alleyways of the town and slowly making our way back to Vinnie.

Beautiful views from Vinnie
Beautiful views from Vinnie

Montalcino:  Montalcino was a last minute choice as we found an Aire in the GPS and read that is was a pretty medieval town and again some awesome red wines (Brunello, although made of Sangiovese grapes).  We made it to the Aire and walked the 1.5kms back into the town centre where we wandered through the fort that guards the entrance (there is a wine shop in the fort – Entoca La Fortezza).  The Fort (14th century) was used by the Sienese Republic after the final defeat by Florence in 1555.  There isn’t a lot to see except you can walk on the ramparts.  We head to the Piazza del Popola and through some of the wonderful churches in the town before braving one of the stores for a supposed free wine tasting.  It is only free if you buy something otherwise it is EUR1 per tasting.  We did some tasting, but didn’t really feel inspired to buy anything, until we asked some questions about Limoncello which we are struggling to buy.  We really enjoyed our introduction to Limoncello in Buenos Aires, so after some information we bought a small bottle and hence our wine tasting was free.  We then stopped on the way back to Vinnie to sample a glass of some difference wines and also to fortify us for the trek up.

Just a small front door into the fortress
Just a small front door into the fortress

 

11 October 2011:  Greve in Chianti, Italy

Sienna:  Well Sienna was a bit of a fizzer as we couldn’t get any parking for Vinnie, so we gave up and headed to Greve in Chianti via Castellina in Chianti and Volterra.

Volterra:  In addition to its medieval ramparts, Volterra is famous for Alabaster.  For you Twilight fans, it is also home to the principal vampire coven.  The Etruscans settled Volterra in the 9th century and made their living from alabaster and alum and these are still thriving (albeit for the tourist trade) industries today.  We park near the Porta all’Arco which is the only remaining ancient gate and all that is left of the Etruscan walls, however this lowly gate lulls you into a false sense of security as you turn the corner and are faced with a myriad of steep steps. 

The Piazza dei Priori is fairly austere with huge old mansions and a lot of crumbling architecture.  The Cathedral on Piazza San Giovanni was built in the 12-13th centuries and has some lovely frescos.  The plain facade of the Duomo does not even hint at the interior, it is worth going in just to look at the amazingly intricate ceilings.

Greve in Chianti:  We have found a free Aire in Greve so are off to taste some Chianti.  The driving in Tuscany is relatively easy so we arrive in the mid-afternoon and park Vinnie up.  This is a popular aire and shortly it was full with some overflow parking in the field across the road.  Greve is a short walk away and is the centre of the Chianti region.  In the Piazza Matteotti it is one wine shop next to another with some local produce stores inbetween.  Be warned these are targeting the tourist market.  However it was a lovely little town centre and we did stop for a glass of wine to watch all the tourists go by.  We stopped at the small supermarket on the way back to Vinnie to top up our wine and food supplies. 

 

 

12-17 October 2011:  Florence, Italy (Tracy in London 13-17 October 2011)

We are heading to Florence as I have a flight booked to meet Natalie (www.ourbookclub.net.au) in London and Scott is holding fort here in Florence.  We have found a campsite as close as possible to Florence (Michelangelo) on the Piazza Michelangelo and head there.  It wasn’t too bad a drive, we missed the turn but managed to turn around and pull into the campsite.  What I didn’t realise was the cost (EUR37.70 per night), so we are only staying the one night.  We find a relatively flat site and quickly depart Vinnie for the sights of Florence.  The Piazza Michelangelo gives you a view of the city where the Cathedral rises above everything else.  It is also a short 10 minute walk down the hillside to the Ponte Vecchio, in fact everything is within walking distance and as the city is flat it is very easy to negotiate (well get around, navigating is a whole other story).  Florence is the home of Michelangelo, the Medici, the tomb of Galileo (don’t ask Scott what Galileo did, as it leads to a very long conversation) and so much art you head just swivels.  Supposedly Florence (or Firenze in Italian) was founded by Julius Caesar in 59BC as it was the link between Rome and France.  To Scott’s excitement there is also Etruscan history from around 200BC here as well (sarcasm).  Lots of duelling families, countries, religions etc have left Florence with some stunning architecture.  It was heavily bombed in WWII (the retreating Germans blew up all the bridges with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio) and then there was the Mafia who detonated a car bomb in 1993 which destroyed part of the Uffizi Gallery.  So although it has a fairly gruesome past, the city still outshines a lot of larger cities in Italy.    

 

A copy of Michelangelo's David
A copy of Michelangelo

 

 

We start with a walk along the river towards the Ponte Vecchio and head towards the Piazza della Signoria where you get to see some of the art – there are so many huge statues you don’t know where to look.  So we sat in the Piazza having the world’s most expensive Late (EUR13.60 for two) and watching the tour groups head off whilst staring at the Loggia dei Lanzi where Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa is located in addition to a copy of Michelangelo’s David, the Uffizi, an equestrian statue of Cosimo I by Giambologna, Fontana di Nettuno,  Marzocco and Giuditta e Oloferne by Donatello and the Palazzo Vecchio.  We don’t really have a plan just a few notes of places to go.  We thought we would head to the Uffizi first, unbeknownst to us you need to book a ticket and we couldn’t get a ticket until very late in the day, then queue to actually get in at your time slot.  So we decided to come back after the weekend.

Florence by day
Florence by day

 

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) – this is the huge dominating feature of the skyline that you can see from everywhere.  Started in 1296 it took 150 years to finish (it was consecrated in 1436) with the facade being designed in the 19th century.  The interior of the Duomo is very simple but vast and you can climb up to the Dome.  It should be noted that this was one of the first self supporting domes (designed by Filippo Brunelleschi) and was also one of the inspirations for Sir Christopher Wren in his design of St Paul’s.

Florence
Florence

 

Battistero San Giovanni was also a surprise as it is a relatively simple building next to the Duomo, however the 13th century golden mosaics that line the inner dome inside are fantastic.  It is one of the oldest buildings in Florence and Dante was dunked in the baptismal font.  The outside bronze doors are meant to be the crowd puller here, but I just didn’t get it as they aren’t the originals and I preferred the interior.

Piazza della Repubblica (originally the site of a Roman forum)

Basilica di Santa Maria Novella was begun in the 13th century and has a fantastic fresco of Trinity as well as some others by Lippi, Ghirlandaio (and another painting purported to have been worked on by Michelangelo) in addition to a Giotto (Crucifix c 1290).

Basilica di Santa Croce and although the interior is fairly austere there are some slightly famous tombs i.e. Michelangelo, Galileo Machiavelli etc etc etc.  Again Giotto had his hand in some of the murals, but they are in poor condition.  Although there is some renovation work being undergone.  There is also a cowl and belt belonging to St Francis of Assisi.  You can access the cloisters which are serene and give you a beautiful view of the church.  Considering the church was flooded in 1966 (4m of muddy water engulfed the whole Santa Croce area) you can still view some fantastic art and the famous names just keep on coming.

Galileo's Tomb
Galileo

We eventually leave Florence walking back along the Ponte Vecchio (Florence’s oldest bridge with the current incarnation dating back to 1345) which although famous is really just a long street of very expensive jewellery shops made for tourists.  We head back up towards the Piazzale Michelangelo where you can view the whole of Florence as well as appreciate one of only two copies of David.  This is a fantastic place to take pictures and so we had back there later in the day to get some night-time shots as well.

Florence by night
Florence by night

The next day we head to Internazionale Firenze (EUR15) which is a short bus ride back to Florence and where I am transiting from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1-6 October 2011: Vieste and Umbria, Italy

1-2 October 2011:  Vieste, Italy

We left Pompeii and decided to drive to Vieste which is on the furthermost tip of eastern Italy.  It is usually a beachside resort, but as it is winter, we thought it might be quite and give us a chance to laze by the beach and do nothing for a few days.  We jump on the motorway and before you know it we are suddenly following a magnificent coastal road clinging to the cliffs with hardly any other traffic and viewing the Golfo di Manfredonia.  We arrive in Vieste to find this town almost entirely shut up, it is like a ghost town.  There are loads and loads of campsites, but all locked up.  We have found a campsite in the ACSI book called Vill. Baia degli Aranci so head there.  It certainly looks stunning from the pictures and is kind of a motorhome park behind the hotel; however you have access to all the facilities.  So we park up and unload Vinnie and find a British couple nearby who advice that the washing machines are free – well it is like Christmas and before you know it we have all the machines going with everything we own.  We also find out there is free wifi, so we are on that like seagulls on a hot chip.  Eventually we have everything on our clothes lines and head off into town.  It isn’t a large town with a population of approximately 14,000 – in summer and about 50 in winter.  There is an old part of the town (centro storico) that is negotiated via small, steep and cobblestoned walks where you get fantastic views of the ocean and the cliffs.  We wandered up and down sideways and every other way through the beautiful streets, noting some of the restaurants that may look promising for dinner.  Eventually we walked back along the harbour and the beach to the campsite to find the washing all dry – perfect.  We put on some clean clothes and headed back into town, which has all of a sudden come to life and found the restaurant Al Cantinone which is recommended in the Lonely Planet and we have been staying away from these, but this was something different, the food was fantastic, wine matched perfectly and the waitress spoke great English and was very helpful.  So replete we headed back to Vinnie.

If only it was warm enough for a swim
If only it was warm enough for a swim

The next day we rewandered the area and Scott went for a run whilst we finished off some more washing.  It was pretty windy today so Tracy lazed around reading and not doing much.

3 October 2011:  Ascoli Piceno, Italy

We are driving along the coast today before veering into the middle of Italy and through some of the mountainous region towards Scanno.  We found a parking spot for Vinnie amongst the local buses (just east of the town) and walked up to through the steep alleyways into the town.  Scanno is beautiful, but alas, we arrived during siesta and everything was shut, so it was like wandering through a ghost town.  According to the Lonely Planet it is an exhilarating drive up (what a total understatement) and it is definitely worth the views of Lago di Scanno and the town is fantastic with lots of old nonna’s grapping any spot to sit in the afternoon sun.  The main square is the Piazza del Popola which has been standing since roman times (by now Scott just glazes over with the mention of Roman or Etruscan ruins and doesn’t even do Monty Python jokes anymore).   If you don’t enjoy the architecture of the town you can just view the gorgeous surrounding mountain views which are along just jaw dropping.  We stopped at a local cafe for a coffee and a cake and enquired about the supermarket and were told it opened at 4pm, however at 4:30pm we gave up and wandered back to Vinnie and drove on.

Why is everywhere up!
Why is everywhere up!

 

4-5 October 2011:  Assisi, Italy

Norcia:  We had been warned that this was the town with lots of wild boar heads in the windows and we weren’t led astray, they are everywhere as Norcia is purported to make the best salami and the area is surrounded by producers of black truffle.  However the area is beautiful and Norcia is lined with shops and local producers as well as being home to a gorgeous church.

We are staying at Camping Village Assisi (EUR15), however although it says in the book you get a shuttle to the town, you have to pay for it, so we decided to walk.  You see Assisi as you are approaching from the distance and it certainly looks like a spiritual capital.  So what is it famous for – St Francis of Assisi was born here in 1181 and preached here until he died in 1226.  This is not just a shrine to him but also a working monastic town and we were lucky enough to arrive on the last day of a festival which saw the pilgrim hoards descend.  After climbing the incredibly steep shortcut (24% gradient) we arrived just outside the main cathedral (Basilica di San Francesco) where we joined the religious masses to visit St Francis’ tomb.  I have to say I am not that religious but this was quite a moving experience.   

The frescoes are gorgeous
The frescoes are gorgeous

 

There are several levels to the Basilica, the lower level (built between 1228 and 1230) where you can go down to the crypt of St Francis and then the upper level (built between 1230 and 1253) which you can access through the monastic cloisters.  I am not sure why St Francis is so popular still today, maybe it is because even back in the 11-12th century he preached the virtues of poverty and equal respect he was also the first Dr Dolittle and this affinity may be what attracts people today.  The frescos in the church are interesting and you can easily spend a lot of time just working through them (purportedly painted by Giotto) and they make a welcome and refreshing change from the Byzantine and Romanesque art in other Basilica’s.  You can also visit the Sala delle Reliquie and view items of St Francis’ life, although it should be noted that you can also see a piece of his tunic in Florence.  From there all roads lead up through a lovely little town littered with shops, cafes, restaurants, local producers, boutique hotels and homes.   And if you are feeling a bit lost without a day of roman or Etruscan ruins, don’t fear there were more here – much to Scott’s excitement (not).   We spent the afternoon wandering through the streets stopping for a wine.  Unfortunately it started to get dark and we realised we had a three kilometre trek back to the campsite in the dark.  It was an achievement to make it in one piece and there was no edge to the road.

Sunset overlooking the church
Sunset overlooking the church

Up early the next day and back into town to do some more sightseeing now that the crowds have left and the television cameras etc are packed away. 

Even nicer without the crowds
Even nicer without the crowds

 

We stopped for a coffee towards the upper level of the town and if you are a St Francis buff you can easily visit a plethora of sites attributed to him.  We eventually headed back to a local vineyard to find it shut, but this time made it back to the campsite just as it was getting dark.

6 October 2011:  Torgiano, Italy

Perugia:  We are heading to Perugia which according to the Lonely Planet is one of Italy’s best-preserved hill towns.  Hmm parking was a nightmare and we parked in a motorhome spot but were dubious about it.  We walked up and up and up finally getting to within the city walls to find a dreary town that did not stand out from many of the other towns we had drive through although it was bigger, much bigger and we did a quick walk around the main area including the Corso Vannucci (supposedly the centre of Umbria and also the meeting point for ancient Etruscan and Roman civilisations), Rocca Paolina, Piazza Italia and Piazza IV Novembre (which has a fountain and cathedral). 

Torgiano:  I read about an Aire in Torgiano so we headed there and a walk through the town.  This town is famous for its wine and olive oil and is only a short drive from Perugia.  The village is relatively flat for a change, so we wandered through the streets.  Unfortunately it was mid afternoon so both the Olive Oil and Wine Museums were shut, so we headed to Ristorante Siro for lunch.  This is where the town seemed to have congregated and we had an awesome meal, although the deserts were disappointing.  As we have a parking spot, so also enjoyed some wine.  Eventually we headed back through the town to the Museo del Vino which traces the history of the production of wine in the region, unfortunately it wasn’t so much about wine making as it was about the history, so although interesting, the most interesting part was the pictures etc of how things have changed.  Just up the road was the Museo dell’Olivo e dell’Olio which is also a well organised museum, but again didn’t focus as much on the local area as we hoped.  Back at Vinnie we find the local Aire is also next door to the local football strip, but never fear the Italians showed up late and then only did a quick jog around the field before disappearing.

7 October 2011:  Todi, Italy

Deruta:  I really like majolica ceramics so we are heading to the place it is manufactured.  We find a parking spot and walk up the main street which has a gazillion shops all selling mostly the same stuff with the odd exception of some very huge ugly pieces.  Empty handed I give up and we head off.

Spoleto:  A bit of a drive away, but in the pictures this looks like the perfect Umbrian town.  It is now famous for the Festival dei Due Mondi which we are missing but it is a roman town full of ruins and apparently very wanderable.  Okay my idea of very wanderable is minimal uphill, this is not the case here.  You park at the bottom of the town and then walk up, up and more up.  Although the streets are pretty and there is a huge amount of history here. Umbria was first divided between the Etruscans and the Umbrians, but when Rome fell it was divided again between the Byzantines and the Lombards, Spoleto became the capital of the Lombardy region in AD890 (yes it is a long time ago), but you can see many buildings that hint at this period.  We head for the Piazza della Liberta which is the centre of town and also houses the tourist office.  From this square you can easily view the roman parts of Spoleto via the Museo Archeologico, although we didn’t go in, you can see a considerable amount of well displayed ruins from the streets above.  Back at the Piazza Duomo we visited the cathedral which although consecretated in 1198 was mostly remodelled in the 17th century.

Todi:  After a day of roman ruins, Scott was glazing over so we headed to Todi and an Aire which is at the bottom of the town but easy to navigate.  There is a furniculare that takes you up to the town which takes out all the fun of walking up (what a shame).  So for once we take the lazy option and catch the furniculare.  Todi is then a short walk to the town centre which is really nice and a surprise.  You get a great view of the surrounding countryside.  The cobblestone streets slow you down so you get plenty of opportunity to wander through the shops and take in the fantastic roman and Etruscan walls which are very much a part of the current housing and streets.  We found the Piazza del Popola and sat on the medieval stairs just watching people wander by.  The weather is quite cold today, but there is plenty of bustle around the square.  We eventually make our way to the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Consolazione which is totally different to most churches in look and feel with a huge cupola-topped dome that you can spy from a great distance. 

We want one of these
We want one of these

8 October 2011:  Orvieto, Italy

We drive into Orvieto and find an Aire, bit pricey, but next to a furniculare (liking these methods of getting up to the towns), plus it has showers, toilets, a washing machine and you can even order fresh bread to be delivered the next day.  We catch the Furniculare up to Orvieto which is perched on the side of a cliff and then decide to catch the local bus to the town centre.  The bus is small but only just fits through the tiny streets and you are dropped off in front of the Gothic cathedral in Piazza Cahen.  Now I hadn’t read the guidebook on Orvieto so when Scott mentioned it was supposedly a visual feast, nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of the Cathedral, it is awesome and breathtaking.  Originally started in 1290 and finally finished three centuries later, this is the most detailed facade of nearly every building we have seen ever.  There is so much to look at and see, no the wonder there are crowds on the steps.  The inside is also interesting with a great fresco of The Last Judgement by luca Signorelli which was meant to have been the inspiration for Michelangelo and after seeing both, I think Signorelli’s work outshines Michelangelo.  Of course Orvieto isn’t just the Cathedral and we visited the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Torre del Moro, Chiese di Sant’Andrea, Palazzo del Popolo and finally the Chiesa di San Giovenale before Scott gave up on churches for the day.

Photos don't do it justice
Photos don

9 October 2011:  Passignatio, Italy

Lago Trasimeno:  We are having a break from Roman, Etruscan and Churches for the day and heading to Lago Trasimeno which is full of walking trails and water sports.  However, the weather is cold and we give up on the two Aires we look at as they are bleak and you have to pay, so decamp to a campsite(Kursaal at Passignano sul Trasimeno) where we got a spot near the lake.  The town was very quiet, almost deserted, but we are now travelling outside of manic August and things shut down very quickly.  The weather is turning icey and starts to rain so we give up on our walk and head back to Vinnie for something warm. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

25 – 30 September 2011: Pisa, Rome and Pompei, Italy

Sunday, 25 September 2011:  Canne, France

We decided to drive to Pisa, so are just following the motorway along the remainder of the coast of Spain and France, stopping for the night in a truckstop along the way.

Monday, 26 September 2011:  Pisa, Italy

The minute you get to Italy everything changes.  Not sure where people learnt to drive, but it is beyond description and there is rubbish everywhere, so unsure if there are any rubbish collections.  We follow the GPS to an aire in Pisa, but can’t find it and the roads are fairly narrow and the drivers are just so in your face, we park near the garage and walk into the main square to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  This actually does lean quite a lot.  For some reason, I thought it was all about camera angles.  The square is also teeming with tourists.  We spend some time wandering around looking at some of the other buildings which are also beautiful in their own rights. 

Yes it is wonky
Yes it is wonky

We head to Carrefor for some shopping and the worlds slowest checkout chick before driving off to a place called Cecina along the coast outside of Pisa and an aire which turned out to have no facilities but you had to pay.  We were too knackered to argue the point and stayed.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011:  Rome, Italy

We have decided at the last minute to head to Rome and find a campsite with a free shuttle to the train, so head to Happy Camping.  We arrive, but it is late, so we go for a swim and chill out.  Of course the drive in brought us past many ladies of the night again working during the day.  Not sure what it says about the countries economic woes when the streets are lined with prostitutes.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011:  Rome, Italy

Up early and onto the shuttle bus to the train station.  We buy an all day train ticket which lets you use all public transport and head off to Rome.  We get off the train and onto the underground for St Peters.  There is a huge queue, so we decide to just walk around St Peters Square.  It is Wednesday and the Pope does a group thingo in the square at 11am.  We walk in through minimal security and then score a spot right near where he came past in his pope mobile.  Not sure why all the queues were on the other side.  Anyway, there isn’t that many people there and we listen to the first bit and decide to wander to the Sistine Chapel.  There are loads of touts out front saying they can help you beat the queues to get in etc, however, there was no queue, so we paid our money, went through many many corridors full of relics, art etc (if the church sold off one room I am sure it would solve world poverty and if I ever hear anyone bleat on about the church needing money they need to come here and see the extraordinary show of wealth that surrounds Vatican City).  Of course as soon as we get to the Sistine Chapel you can’t take photos and it is packed.  Strangely it was a tad disappointing.  I thought it would be breathtaking, but it wasn’t.  I am not saying it isn’t a good painting, but I just had something else in my head.

Just waiting for the Pope
Just waiting for the Pope

We continued following the queues like lambs to the slaughter and eventually made it outside and found a small pizzeria for an early lunch.

Next up is the rest of Rome.  So we fill up on water and head off towards the Coliseum.  We have elected to walk where possible or take the metro and not do the bus tour thing as you just whizz buy and then spend the rest of the time queuing up for the bus again.

The Coliseum
The Coliseum

The Coliseum is amazing – this was breathtaking.  It is huge and still relatively intact in parts.  Plus the surrounding roman ruins are just fantastic, although a lot of things are ruins or just in a jumble on the ground, you can still get a sense for the size and modernity of Rome.  We then walk around to where the chariot races used to be held which unfortunately is now just a field with no signs or anything.  Obviously the focus is on the rest of the roman ruins.  We meander through the streets, it seems like every turn is something new and interesting.

The Pantheon
The Pantheon

We head towards the Pantheon, which again is huge and even better, free to go inside.  Of course the crowds inside and outside are huge, but it is still interesting and aweinspiring to be here.  We walk up one of the alleyways and grab a slice of pizza and continue on through the streets until we are shattered and can’t walk any further.  We head back to the train station and get the train/bus back to the campsite exhausted but I have to say, I loved Rome.  People are friendly, no hassles and easy to get around.

Thursday, 29 September 2011:  Pompei, Italy

Up and off again today.  We are heading to Pompei, so drive out of Rome and through some very narrow streets and the GPS sends us down a road where we find out the bridge is only 3m high, now considering Vinnie is 3.5m high we didn’t think we would make it, but Scott thought we may as well give it a go as there was literally no way of turning around so we gingerly headed off, obviously some of the locals thought we weren’t going to make it either and watched in surprise as we made it through the other side – yeah. 

We arrived at Camping Zeus and parked the van.  This is right outside the front of the ruins and has a restaurant which we use and have yet more pizza.  Loving the pizza in Italy so far, so many different vegetarian flavours.

Finally a spot with no tourists
Finally a spot with no tourists

Refueld we head into the ruins.  Not sure what I was expecting, something like Macchu Picchu, but this wasn’t it.  The ruins themselves seem to be full of modern day rubbish, concrete, gravel and various other things that have just been left where they have been put.  I am also dubious about the sheer amount of renovation or restoration work.  Other than a million bus loads of tour groups everywhere you look, there just seemed so little left that you would call original or authentic.  Oh and if you get the map from the front office, it doesn’t line up with the streets or the buildings that are actually inside.  However, it takes a few hours to wander through the maze of streets and you can only imagine how modern this city was and how quickly things finished.  We were disappointed.

I told Scott to use deoderant
I told Scott to use deoderant

Friday, 30 September 2011:  Pompei, Italy

We are staying in the campsite for an extra day as it is in a nice spot and we wander through another part of Pompeii which turned out to just be tourist oriented stalls and shops and restaurants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 – 24 September 2011: on the road to Barcelona, Spain

Tuesday, 20 September 2011:  Tarifa, Spain

We have been travelling for a few days, so decide to take today to catch up on maintenance, cleaning and washing and also a wander along the beach.  Today is still very windy and there are loads of kite surfers, wind surfers all learning the sport.  Although most of them are just on the beach as they haven’t progressed to getting in the water yet.  The walk along the beach was like being in a sandblasting wind tunnel.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011:  On the road to Barcelona, Spain

A long drive – about 10 ½ hours and we are now only about 3-4 hours from Barcelona.  We camp near where there is meant to be an Aries, but isn’t anymore.

Thursday, 22 September 2011:  Barcelona, Spain

Up early for the remainder of the drive which is being done by me, first time I have driven in Spain and luckily most of it was on motorways.  We are heading to Camping Estrella which is just on the outskirts of Barcelona and the drive along the main road was interesting with lots of women of the night selling their trade during the day.

We arrived and quickly decamped Vinnie and then jumped on the first bus which leaves from outside the campsite into Barcelona and get off at Plaza Catalunya where we wander down La Rambla.  La Rambla is a pedestrian boulevard, well except for the bikes, motorcycles and various other cars that seem to not be restricted to the no cars category. 

 

Hmm too much meat - I am probably alone in that thought
Hmm too much meat - I am probably alone in that thought

 

 

There are lots of tourist shops and restaurants stopping at one of the plazas to find out where we actually are and want to head and also to have a drink and watch some of the world go by.  There is a big festival on this weekend so there are lots of areas that have been set up for music, so we listen to the band set up for a while and then wander down to the port area.  This is also the home of the Monument A Colum, the monument to Christopher Columbus. 

 

Christopher Columbus monument
Christopher Columbus monument

 

 

Apparently there is some conjecture on where he came from Genoa in Italy or here, but it is a huge monument in a similar style to the one in Buenos Aires.  We walk around the harbour and there are some huge huge yachts in which Scott spends a while drooling over before heading back up the Rambla and to Palau Guell which is one of Gaudi’s buildings. 

 

Gaudi's buildings are so individual
Gaudi

 

As usual this is an interesting building drawing on a wide variety of architecture styles and inspiration.  I am enjoying his style as it is just so inspiring and different, you tend to look at the other buildings around which are so drab.  Scott isn’t too keen and thinks it is a bit weird.

We then head off towards the roman walls which date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.  Parts of the walls are remarkably intact and blend into the city.  As you walk around there are small bars and restaurants where you can sit and absorb the history that occurred. 

The roman ruins
The roman ruins

Barcelona is a city that is very inspriring, each area different, but the history comes through.  It is now dark and getting late and we don’t want to miss the bus, if we can find the stop that is so head off ready to rush back tomorrow.

Friday, 23 September 2011:  Barcelona, Spain

I don’t think it is anything I have cooked but Scott is sick and unless we find a plug for both ends, we aren’t going anywhere.  I eventually make the 8km round trip to the local chemist and buy some drugs for him to take and then we sit and wait and hope he is better for tomorrow.  There are two other Australian couples here in the campsite who come and introduce themselves when they spot the Aussie flag.  Of course both these couples spend the summer in France and the summer in Australia.  Hmm not sure where we went wrong and can’t afford to do that.

Saturday, 24 September 2011:  Barcelona, Spain

During the night it rained and we are now camping in a mud pit.  I had woken up and thought it was drizzling so closed the windows and put the shoes under the car.  Unfortunately the shoes are now full of mud and the outside table and chairs are soaking and the electric cable is lying in a pool of water.  Scott is feeling a bit better so helps me clean up and dry out some of the things and we then head off slowly back into Barcelona to finish off our sightseeing.

First up is the Casa Batllo is meant to be Gaudi’s whimsical waltz and is a beautiful building.  Even the balconies scream for attention.  Again there is a lot of use of colourful mosaics but there are so many details everywhere you can spend ages just looking at small sections still not seeing the whole.    For me this was the best Gaudi building after Le Caprice. 

Casa Battlo - just inspiring
Casa Battlo - just inspiring

Next up was a walk to La Sagrada Familia.  The queue was amazing, almost around the whole cathedral, but it moved quickly (maybe because of the rain) and it didn’t take long before we were parted with out money and soon inside.  This building is an ongoing work and bits seem to open and close as each new part is completed or an older part renovated. 

An unfinished masterpiece - definately
An unfinished masterpiece - definately

It is amazing on the outside and just as amazing on the inside.  Gaudi himself did not see the end of the work.  What can you say except it is vertical, everything is in aweinspiring columns up.  It is different to any church you have been in before and you are just drawn to the knowledge of the environment Gaudi had to make the acoustics and light just beautiful.  This is a busy place, however, and you need patience to be able to put up with the bus loads of tourists who seem to stand wherever you are trying to gather your thoughts for a minute.  There was also an exhibition about Gaudi and nature and how he drew his inspiration.

Every surface and facet is interesting
Every surface and facet is interesting

We then continued our wander through the streets, but Scott was starting to flag, so we had a sandwich along La Rambla and caught the bus back to the campsite.