The route – Italy, part three

I have added another route page on the blog covering details of our trip back up through Italy. We returned from Croatia, via ferry to Bari. Travelled north to the Dolomites, into Switzerland for couple of days, back into Italy and finally said goodbye to Italy as we returned to Switzerland. Route got a bit messy in northern Italy (Fionn joined us for a week, visted Kath’s aunt etc.) but we’re not doing the trip to leave a neat breadcrumb trail on the map 🙂

You will need to visit the blog to read the detail if you’re interested. For non-bloggers, click here and then on the Route page in the top right hand corner. Then click on underlined links (Italy, part three) for the detail.

Ignatius

A brief visit to Switzerland

When I wrote the last Diary blog we had booked in to get new tyres and were spending what we thought would be a quiet afternoon catching up and relaxing, at the Stezzano camperstop. Sadly there was a party in the afternoon and early evening in the park behind us, and boy were those people noisy when they were returning to their cars – spending hours chatting at the tops of their voices!

Anyway at last they all left and we had a peaceful if hot night.

24th July

There was not much to do until the appointment at the garage at 4pm, so we were resigned to most of the day waiting around. In the morning it rained heavily – I mean REALLY heavily so we just stayed in the van. When it eased off we drove to the little coffee shop (didn’t want to walk in case it poured again!). Forgot to buy bread so I went out later to buy some, and fell victim to the crazy Italian opening hours. Every shop was closed.

Finally it was time to go to the garage. We played cards while they fitted the new tyres. They were done by around 6pm and we then drove off towards Lake Maggiore, via the motorways. Reached a camperstop at Mergozzo (tiny town at the end of a tiny lake just off Maggiore) around 8pm, and went for a meal at a pleasant lakeside restaurant. That rain had left the air fresh and cool.

However we were not destined for a good night’s sleep – quite a lot of traffic noise, a rooster, and worse – a smell of gas fumes in the van that has been there since the van was left at the airport and was getting worse. Before you worry too much we do have a carbon monoxide detector in the van. But I spent a sleepless night worrying about it and thinking that just as one problem was solved another one rears its ugly head…

25th July

We spent some time this morning investigating those gas fumes. Eventually after some online research and sniff testing around the van, we realised it came from the fridge flue. The fridge has been running on gas except when we are driving a lot lately as we have not been on campsites to use electric. At the back there’s a flue running up behind the fridge and venting outside via a grill. Above the fridge is a cupboard and the fumes smelt strongest there, so we figured that a seal is broken somewhere letting the fumes in via that cupboard.

There is only one answer to problems like this – duck tape. We taped up all joins between that outside vent and the inside cupboard. It seemed to help.

Drove north, into Switzerland, taking our time through gorgeous Alpine passes. We reached Saas Fee, in the next valley along from Zermatt. Here there is a camperstop – well, a car park where you are allowed to stay overnight. There is some confusion about whether free-camping is allowed in Switzerland at all. It was the most complicated system ever – had to go to tourist information office to get day passes, then to the car park office to get a key so we could open the box and plug in our electric cable (wanted a fume free night!) Both offices were a five minute walk in opposite directions to the car park. Finally we got ourselves settled. It was cold up here at 1800m – Google was telling me 2 degrees but I don’t believe it. Definitely under 10 outside though. Shame I’d left my fleece in Bergamo airport arrivals.

At some point on the drive up here a cupboard had swung open and broke off its hinges. So that was yet another running repair needed – this time Ignatius fixed it using a cook’s match and some superglue to fill the holes and allow the hinges to be reattached. Sigh. One thing after another!

26th July

We made good use of our day passes today – they covered all the cable cars and gondolas in the valley. Went up one to a glacier and had a walk around, at about 3000m. It was a bit cloudy – we were under the cloud but could not see the summits.

Kath walking

saas fee1
Lunch stop 2

Then we went back down to the village and up another gondola to 2300m, and walked to a peak at 2700m (approx). Lovely walk, loads of Alpine flowers, and the weather improved as the day went on. Very enjoyable. However at 25 CHF a night we did not want to stay another night, so we left around 5.30 and headed to the Zermatt valley.

saas fee2
Summit view

Here’s where things went wrong. We knew you cannot drive private vehicles to Zermatt and have to park at Tasch and take a train or taxi. But we’d assumed we’d be able to park overnight at Tasch. You can – but you may not sleep in your vehicle overnight. We checked out the two small campsites in the area – both were very full and very expensive. We aren’t prepared to pay 43 CHF when we don’t actually want to use any of the campsite facilities – just need somewhere to park overnight. Eventually after checking out all the limited options we concluded campervans simply aren’t welcome in the Zermatt valley. We headed back out, looking for laybys that did not have a ‘no camping’ sign. Found one a long way back, and stayed there for the night, feeling very cross.

Before switching the fridge to gas, we had another go at duck-taping up all the seals. This time it worked and we had no gas fume smells overnight – hurray. We will obviously have to get this properly sealed and a full gas service done, but hopefully this fix will last until we’re back home.

And we re-planned. Switzerland, although beautiful, is not particularly campervan-friendly. France, on the other hand, is. We found ourselves longing for the French aires, free-camping laybys, cheap campsites. I had wanted to see the Matterhorn hence our attempts to get to Zermatt, but on checking the weather forecast I realised we would not see it tomorrow anyway -the cloud would be too low.

27th July

So this morning we cut our losses and set off, along the Rhone valley to Martigny then over the pass into France, down to Argentiere near Chamonix. There’s a campsite here we stayed at and loved in 2013, along with the boys, in a large tent. Thankfully they had space for us, and so here we are for a few days. The washing’s drying around me as I type, there are loads of walks we can do, the campsite costs about 20 euro a night and is lovely, and we have free travel on local buses and trains in the valley.

argentiere
Settled at Camping Glacier d’Argentiere. That snowy mountain in the background is part of Mont Blanc

We’ve had a few good days in Switzerland – the little trip to Davos and then Saas Fee. We’ll come back some other time and do more of it.

 

Bye, bye – Italy

We have left Italy and are not planning to return this trip. The previous three times we left Italy we planned to return. We had 16 days in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, 2 days in Switzerland visiting  Kath’s aunt and 4 days in Sheffield for Fionn’s graduation. It was always nice to get back to Italy.
We have spent a little over 11 weeks, covered almost 7,000 kilometres and had a whale of a time. Love the country, love the Italians, love the coffee. Less keen on the state of the roads, the litter and the weird opening hours!
Highlights include Bolzano (South Tyrol* in general), the Great Dolomite Road, Tuscan hilltop towns (especially Certaldo), Pompeii, lots of Sicily (watching Giro on Mont Etna), Cinque Terre … and did I mention the coffee, the ice cream, the little cake things (cornetti, cannoli). I must stop now or we’ll turn round and go back. But we’re in Switzerland and the mountains (and France) await.

Ciao
Ignatius

* or as it’s locally known in Italian, Alto Adige or German, Südtirol

A blog of our route back up through Italy will follow soon.

Four days in England

At the end of the last post we were camped for the night by Lake Como. After writing the blog we went for a gorgeous cool swim in the lake – much needed to cool us down, after returning to the heat from those lovely mountain areas.

18th July

The tyre looked ok in the morning… so we drove cautiously to Bergamo, to the camperstop we’d stayed on Fionn’s first night and parked there for a few hours. Fionn and I went for a walk in the local area. Then drove to our airport parking (we had luckily found airport long stay parking that would take campervans), parked, transferred to the airport, hung around for hours as you do, playing cards etc.

Finally reached Manchester, picked up hire car which I am driving so that Ignatius keeps his left-hand drive, Gertie head on, and drove across the Peak District to Sheffield. Fionn is temporarily sharing a flat with an old course mate so we stayed there, after calling at a supermarket for essential breakfast items – bacon! sausages! – that aren’t available in Italy.

Funny to be back in England though not at home.

19th July

A day of running errands. We had a number of things on our ‘UK shopping list’ to buy, and Fionn needed to do a few things as well, so basically we drove round Sheffield doing all that was needed. Bought some new sandals as mine are falling apart. Had lunch with old friend Simon. In the evening I picked up our other son Connor from the bus station – he’d come up from Leicester. We went out for a tapas meal. Apart from one day in March it’s the first time since Christmas the four of us have been together. family

20th July

Graduation day! Spent the morning scrubbing up – thankfully I had brought a decent dress with me so did not have to show up in jeans and a t-shirt. But it’s fair to say we were not the smartest family at the ceremony. It was the usual procession of graduands marching up on stage, shaking hands with the vice-Chancellor as their names were read out. degree

An honorary degree was awarded to astronaut Helen Sharman who was the first Briton in space back in the 1990s when she went up to the Russian space station Mir, that our cat is named after. She gave a good speech. From a chocolate taster at Mars to the stars. One cool woman.

Outside after for photos with our new graduate. I may have shed a tear or two. Very proud mama.grad3grad2

In the evening we went out to eat at a Thai restaurant Simon had recommended. Very good place.

21st July

In the morning we spent some time online, planning when Connor can come to join us. In the end we picked a week near the end of September, near the end of our trip. We’ll be in northern Spain then. By the time we’d finished we had the flights booked and paid for.

Then it was time for more shopping – a Spanish guidebook needed! And Ignatius wanted some novels and sudoku puzzle books. Spent the afternoon walking through various parks in the centre of the city. Dropped Connor off at the bus station in the early evening – he’s off to our home in Bournemouth for a couple of weeks. Fionn went out with his mates so we went out with ours – Simon – to a very nice restaurant and then a pub in the old industrial quarter of Sheffield, now being ‘gentrified’.

22nd July

Lazy morning, had a stroll around Fionn’s local area and lunch in the nearby “Gertie’s Cafe” – well we couldn’t pass that by, could we? Turned out to be a very good spot. And then it was time to say goodbye and head back to Manchester airport. Fionn has a busy couple of weeks ahead – he has a job in Liverpool starting on 7th August and needs to get some accommodation sorted and his stuff moved by then if possible. It’s been so good to spend time with both sons, and nearly two weeks with Fionn.

We drove the Snake Pass road to the airport, did the usual hanging around and eventually arrived back at Bergamo around 10pm. The tyre was still inflated, thankfully. Drove out to the same camperstop we’d used on the day Fionn arrived to spend the night.

23rd July

Neither of us feel very comfortable about that tyre – the screw that went into it was huge and the repair seemed a bit temporary – just some gunk squirted into it. So we decided to at least get it checked before going any further.

After walking up to Stezzano centre for a coffee we headed off to stock up on food and then call at a tyre place I’d found online which was open Sundays. At the tyre shop they offered to properly repair the tyre but said all the tyres looked a bit worn. We had originally intended replacing all four before this trip, but when the van was serviced back in the UK we were told the tyres were good for another 10,000 miles or more so we left them. Anyway, now, after two punctures and with that dodgy repair we agreed it was time to replace the lot. They’ve ordered the tyres which will arrive tomorrow, and we go tomorrow afternoon to get them fitted. So – another night at the Stezzano camperstop and a quiet day tomorrow until it’s time to go back to the shop. I can get some editing done – just as well as I have a deadline looming!graduate

Travels with Fionn

13th July

After a very hot night at the Lake Garda campsite we headed north, via the shores of Lake Iseo and up towards the mountains. We drove over the Gavia Pass, which frankly was not suitable for campervans. It gave a 3.5 ton weight limit at the start of the pass but no other warnings, and we are 3.5 tons, so thought we would be ok. But it is a very narrow road, with not enough passing places and no crash barriers between the road and the sheer drop. We could not even pass an oncoming motorbike (and there were a lot of those driving cautiously over) without one of us having to pull over. Thankfully we met few large vehicles and when we did, there was always a passing place nearby. I was very thankful to reach the top and see the better road down the other side. Well done Gertie and Ignatius for making it over safely!

gavia pass.jpg
Gavia Pass. This was one of the better sections.

Drove on to Bormio, where we had a welcome beer in the town centre and spent the night in a camperstop car park.

14th July

Another day, another mountain pass. The Stelvio pass, which is the second highest in the Alps. The original plan had involved Ignatius and Fionn cycling over it – Fionn using my Boardman bike (the one that was stolen). The Plan B involved driving over it. We knew this pass had a proper road over it so it was a relatively easy drive – just around 48 hairpins on the way up and same again on the way down!

At the top Fionn and I went for a walk. We were at about 3000m (the pass is 2757m) so could certainly feel the lower oxygen levels. In the First World War there was quite a bit of fighting in this area between Austro-Hungarian troops and Italians, and we saw remains of some barracks way up in the mountains. Sadly we could also see how badly glaciers in this area are retreating due to global warming.

stelvio walk
Fionn walking above Stelvio pass

On down the pass, through spectacular scenery, to a small town Glorenza by the river Adige, where we stayed at a very pleasant small campsite. Lovely cool temperatures here!

15th July

To Switzerland! We drove through more gorgeous Alpine scenery, over the Fluela pass. Again Fionn and I had a short walk at the top, then we dropped down the other side to Davos. Once over the border we had a coffee and nearly dropped with shock at the price. We’ve been used to paying 1 euro, maybe 2 at most for a coffee, but in Switzerland you pay more like 4.50 or even 5 Swiss Francs, which are worth almost as much as a euro. There won’t be so many coffees out while we are in Switzerland.

My aunt and uncle live in Switzerland, and were staying this week in a holiday flat in Davos that my cousin has rented for the whole summer. We’d arranged to park outside the flat for a couple of nights to spend some time with them. We arrived in the early afternoon and it was good to see them looking fit and well. They took us for a walk up the mountain behind the flat – a couple of hours of walking uphill-  and then down via a funicular. Aunty Miriam cooked us a meal, and Fionn slept in the flat (we stayed in Gertie outside). It was a cool night – delightful to actually need the duvet and blanket over us for a change!

aunt and uncle
My inspirational aunt and uncle

16th July

The 5 of us set off for a trip up the Jakobshorn mountain. We took a bus into Davos centre, then two cable cars to the top of the mountain. From there we walked an easy path to a small lake where we had a picnic lunch. Ignatius, Fionn and I then walked up a peak – the Jakshorn – and along the ridge from there back to the cable car station, while my aunt and uncle walked back the easy path. We took the first cable car down then walked down the second stage. I am not going to admit I was worn out after the walk as my mid-80s aunt and uncle would not admit they were tired either.

summit ridge
Fionn and Ignatius on the Jakshorn summit ridge

Back at the flat, Ignatius and I cooked dinner for everyone. So lovely to spend time with my aunt and uncle!

17th July

Time to head back towards Bergamo as the flight to Manchester to attend Fionn’s graduation is tomorrow. We drove back over the Fluela pass, then through St Moritz and down towards Lake Como. All beautiful scenery. We stopped for lunch beside one small high lake, and stopped again to look at a waterfall just after the Italian border (so we could afford a coffee!!)

lunch stop
Not a bad spot for lunch!

A few miles from our planned overnight parking spot an ominous thump thump began sounding from the right hand rear tyre. We investigated and found a bolt stuck in the tyre. Not good. There was a service station & repair shop nearby (lucky!) so we drove there and asked them to look at it. They have done a quick repair on the tyre and we are hoping it will last – need to check the status in the morning. The important thing will be to get to Bergamo tomorrow for the flight – Ignatius and I can get the tyre replaced if necessary when we return to Italy next Saturday. Fingers crossed!

Regular blog readers may remember the previous puncture in Sicily – right front tyre. That was also a screw embedded in the tyre. Are we just unlucky or what?

We’re off (all being well!) to the UK tomorrow for a few days to attend Fionn’s graduation ceremony. Gertie will be left at airport parking in Bergamo. We return (without Fionn) on Saturday. So the next diary blog should be all about Sheffield! The forecast is for rain.

Mountains and meeting Fionn

5th July

So when I last wrote a diary blog we were parked in the most beautiful location in the Dolomites, the air was cool, the scenery was spectacular. We enjoyed our cool night there. Some animal came in the night and emptied out the car park bin so Ignatius did his duty the next morning aided by Slovenian and Dutch campervanners and picked up all the litter. I love the multi-national mix of people you meet when travelling.

We drove on along the rest of the Great Dolomites Road, through more spectacular scenery. Stopped for coffee at the top of a pass, in a ski resort. It’s fun picking out the runs and deciding which colour they’d be, when all are green and grassy!

dolomites2
Gorgeous Dolomites

Stopped also in Cortina for a look around. This was apparently a very trendy place to be in the sixties but now just felt like a sleepy out-of-season ski resort. We ended the day at Brunica (Bruneck in German) in a car park on the edge of town.

6th July

There are two more of Messner’s Mountain Museums near Brunica, so today we visited the one that’s in a castle in the town. Again, what a great use of an old castle! This museum (Ripa) focuses on mountain peoples throughout the world. A great museum though not as good as the Bolzano one. We also walked around the town, which is small but pleasant and had a late lunch out.

7th July

The other mountain museum is up in the mountains outside Brunica. The only way to reach it is to take a ski gondola (or do a 5 hour hike) so we caught a bus to the gondola then took that to the top of the mountain. There’s a small plateau with the usual ski resort stuff – some accommodation, restaurants, loads of lifts coming up and runs down, and Messner has built a museum here that focuses on the history of Alpine climbing. Another good one in a spectacular location. The views from there are amazing – 360 degree views of Alps and Dolomites.

mmm3
Outside the Corones Messner Mountain Museum. Ignatius taking a photo, reflected in the museum glass

When we went back down we missed the bus by seconds so decided to walk back to town. It became very hot as we walked.

Left Brunica and drove on through deep valleys to a campsite at Ossana which was still offering ACSI discounts (most ended at the end of June). This was in a lovely spot with a fast flowing river running right through the middle of the site.

8th July

A day for relaxing around the campsite. We realised we’d had 6 days of living in various car parks – I think that is the longest away from official campsites. Got the washing done, walked around the village where there is a small castle perched on an outcrop of rock, but otherwise we didn’t do much.

bridge
Gertie crossing the bridge in the Ossana campsite

9th July

Time to head south again as we need to be in Bergamo to pick up our son Fionn tomorrow. Beautiful cross country drive, over another mountain pass, and eventually down to Lake Iseo. We’d hoped to drive down the western side but Gertie was too big for both the height and width restriction so we had to take the east, which was pretty enough anyway. Stopped at a supermarket to stock up with food. Fionn is always hungry. We arrived at the town of Iseo and took the last space in the car park – there had been a triathlon on so loads of people in campers and cars with bikes and tri gear.

It was SO much hotter than up in the mountains, so we went down to the lakeside for a very pleasant swim.

10th July

We had plenty of time before we needed to be at the airport for Fionn so we spent the morning wandering around Iseo. It’s like a smaller, quieter Lake Garda and very pleasant.

Drove to Bergamo, checked out the route to the airport and the camperstop, and then basically waited for Fionn. We’d arranged a spot to pick him up – in a camper you can’t just drive into the short stay car park. After a bit of a delay it all worked out and we spent the evening at a camperstop just outside Bergamo. Lovely to see our boy again! Gertie sleeps three – the bench seat converts to a single bed, so Fionn slept there, after we’d drunk champagne with him to celebrate his graduation and also his job offer.

11th July

We walked to the nearby train station and took the train into Bergamo. Fionn’s really into all things medieval, and Bergamo has a medieval old town. There’s a funicular to take you up to the high, old part of the town and we spent the morning exploring that, going into several churches and walking around the town walls.

with fionn.jpg
With Fionn in Bergamo

In the afternoon we drove to Lake Garda, to the last campsite offering ACSI discounts. There were thunderstorms when we arrived but then it cleared up and we were able to go for a swim in the lake before dinner. It cooled down nicely and we ended up staying up late chatting and drinking wine and enjoying Fionn’s company.

12th July

We hired a town bike for Fionn and rode our bikes up to Sirmione – the town on the little peninsular that juts out into Lake Garda. There’s a castle there with moats and drawbridges so we explored that then after lunch walked right round the headland to the remains of a Roman villa. It was extremely hot by this time, so we went for a much needed swim in the lake beside the castle before cycling back to the campsite for a barbecue dinner.

sirmione
View of Sirmione from the top of the castle

Tomorrow it’s back into the mountains. I hope to be cooler next time I write a blog!

Italian filling stations

I’ve been in Italy for 10 weeks and have driven it north to south, south to north and I’m still not sure how to use Italian filling stations. Mind you I’m still not sure who has right of way at unmarked roundabouts … but given the way that many Italians approach them I don’t think they know either!

In Motorway service stations the first thing you realise is that you don’t follow car signs for parking when in a Motorhome, you follow the truck and bus signs. However doing that for filling up gets you shouted at, you have to follow the car signs.
Next up is self-service and service pumps. The latter are up to 40 cents a LITRE dearer! So need to reverse out of those fairly sharpish.
Then there is paying. There are stations where you pull up, fill up and go pay in kiosk.
However others you have to go to kiosk, pre-pay certain amount and then fill up. Yet others you pay by phone app.
But the most confusing are the ones where there is a machine to pay by card and then fill up. Further complication is there is generally not one per pump so you have to input pump number. Just when you thought you were getting the hang of this type they have ones where one machine covers a number of pumps and another covers a different set … so you have done all the card stuff, look up to see what pump number you’re at and find out your machine doesn’t cover that pump, so start again at a different machine, or move Motorhome to different pump!!

Another issue is Italian opening hours which can appear fairly random. Best avoid midday to mid afternoon and late evening. This is not a problem at the card machine ones … as long as they work. I have pulled up at pump, got out and did the card thing at the machine only for someone to holler in Italian that it doesn’t work so fill up and pay at kiosk.

We have driven into filling stations, spent some time on the filling up game, given up and driven away without any fuel.

It’s not like each company has its own system, more like each location has its own variation. I’m now beginning to see why people will pay 40cents a litre more to avoid all the hassle!!

Then there’s LPG (GPL) which we need for cooking, fridge (heating haha!). This can only be operated in Italy by a filling assistant, and that’s when the opening hours drama really comes into play. Station open, kiosk closed, can’t get LPG.

A lot of things in Italy appear ‘designed’ to stop you doing stuff in auto-pilot. Refueling is one of those. Can’t believe many people put the wrong fuel in their car, by the time you have worked out which part of the forecourt you should be on, which set of pumps you need, how to pay, you are fully clued up to what fuel you should be putting in the car!

Having said all that we have managed to fuel over 4,500 miles of travelling round Italy so far 🙂

Ignatius