Up and Down the French Alps

28th July

As we’d got to the Argentiere campsite early yesterday we’d managed to get all the washing done, leaving today free to go walking. We packed some sandwiches and took the bus towards Chamonix then the Flegere cable car up the mountain, after queuing for tickets for far too long. We knew from our previous visit in 2013 that this side of the valley offers stunning views across to the Aiguille du Midi and to Mont Blanc itself.

chamonix
Looking down on Chamonix

We walked part of the Mont Blanc circuit path which basically contoured along the mountain, up and down a bit, and eventually arrived at the Plan Praz ski lift which we took down. It wasn’t a long walk -we took it at a leisurely pace with a picnic half way.

This lift takes you down to Chamonix town centre so we wandered around the shops for a while before taking the bus back to the campsite.

29th July

Another trip into Chamonix today – this time by bike. There’s a good network of mountain bike trails in the valley and those along beside the river are relatively flat – or so we thought. Remember we have town bikes that weigh a ton and don’t have many gears! Anyway it was mostly downhill into Chamonix on mostly well-made gravel tracks. Got there to discover it was market day so we had a look round that and then a very enjoyable lunch out.

bikes
If only they had pedalled themselves!

Cycling back was somewhat harder work – some parts were steep and rocky and our bikes weren’t at all suitable.

30th July

I’d have stayed in the campsite longer but Ignatius wanted to move on. Lots more mountains to see, he promised me. So we headed out of the Chamonix valley and picked up the Grande Route des Alpes which runs approximately north-south from Lake Geneva down to Nice. The plan for the next few days is to follow this.

I will leave the details of exactly which passes we drove over and their heights etc to Ignatius in a future blog post.

Today we got as far as Val d’Isere, where we have skied in the past. We’d hoped to stay at a camperstop in the town but didn’t like the look of it so drove on and found a lovely car park at the foot of the Col d’Iseran. No sooner had we parked there than a huge thunderstorm came over, including hailstones. Once it had passed the sun came out and I went for a short evening walk to see what was up the valley…

31st July

…up the valley was a gorge with a path running alongside it to a mountain refuge. This morning Ignatius wanted to see it too, and we ended up walking all the way to the refuge where we were served coffee by a Nepalese man. Lovely place, in a very beautiful spot. On the way back we spotted some marmots – having been on hundreds of ski runs and lifts called Les Marmottes but never actually seen them in the wild in the Alps this was an exciting moment!

marmots
Cute marmots out to play!

After walking back to the van we drove on, up the Col d’Iseran, trying to spot where we’d skied in the past.

Lots of dramatic driving in the afternoon on roads used by the Tour de France, and we ended up at the top of Col du Telegraphique where we parked for the night.

1st August

Over the Col de Galibier which Ignatius declared easier to drive than to cycle over. He’s probably right. We saw lots of cyclists though!

And on via more wonderful passes, gorgeous scenery, fabulous gorges, still following the Grande Route des Alpes. Free-camped again somewhere on the Col d’Izoard.

2nd August

More of the same. Firstly the Col de Vars, where we stopped for a picnic lunch at the top and then went for a walk. Then our route left the roads that are used by the Tour de France. The great thing about roads the TdF uses is that they are wide and well-surfaced, even if they are very twisty. But today the Grande Route des Alpes took us up the Col de Cayolle which hasn’t been used by the Tour since the 70s, and which was very narrow in places. Not quite as bad as the Passo di Gavia in Italy about which I still have nightmares, but still very scary. There seemed to be a lot of traffic coming the opposite way, and every passing was tricky. At the top I was considering running away with a German motorbiker rather than face the drive down.

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One of the many passes

It turned out the road down was (thankfully) better than the road up and we found a nice free-camping spot on the descent.

3rd August

(Today is exactly 4 months since we left home, and exactly 2 months until our wedding anniversary which will be our last night away on this trip. So, exactly 2/3 through!)

All this driving from col to col and free-camping had left us in need of water, fuel, food, and to dump waste so part of what we’ve done today is satisfy those needs. We’ve also had coffee in a gorgeous village, lunch in a pretty spot by a river, and driven along even more dramatic narrow gorges and twisty roads over passes.

driving2
He’s not a bad driver…

We have ended up on the Col de Turini which is only about 1600m. As we’ve gone south the mountains have changed – lower now, more forested – and the weather is substantially warmer. Temperature in Gertie reached 37 degrees while she sat in a supermarket car park. We’re spending the night fairly high so it’s cool.

 

(I wrote last time about problems with the gas fumes from the fridge. This had improved but not completely, so we did more online research. The great thing about the internet is, someone somewhere will have had the same problem and will have written about it in a motorhoming forum or blog or whatever. We began to suspect our problem was dirty LPG- the fume smells began after the last fill-up, which was in a remote Swiss petrol station a couple of days before we left the van at Bergamo airport. We were down to half a gas tank, so we filled up yesterday with (hopefully) cleaner LPG, and indeed the problem is much better now. We’re still getting occasional whiffs but few and far between now.)

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

A tour of town car parks

24th June

There were a whole slew of towns in northern Italy we wanted to see, and as overnighting in Loreto’s car park had been so successful we decided to find car parks in each town, either ones mentioned in the Camperstop book or just any that would take campervans. Spent part of the evening at Loreto planning the next few days. What?? A plan?? That’s a first!

First stop was San Marino. What a funny little place this is! It’s an independent republic, claiming to be the oldest in the world. It’s tiny and mountainous. The city of San Marino is built on a crazily steep ridge, with three towers along the top. It’s rich per capita, and there was a good campervan park part way up the hill, from where you could take a series of lifts to the town centre. Spent a pleasant few hours wandering round, looking at the towers, having lunch etc.

san marino.JPG
San Marino ridge

And then drove on to Ravenna. We’d picked out a camperstop near the town, by a beach, which we looked at first but the place was heaving and full of parasols and sunbeds and Italians away for the weekend so we went on to the town itself and found a suitable car park near the centre costing a couple of euro for overnight parking.

25th June

Unloaded the bikes and set off to explore Ravenna. An AA Gill article saved from about 2004 is what drew us here, and it was well worth the visit. Quiet but beautiful. You buy a ticket that gets you into all the main sights, and the thing to see is the Byzantine mosaics. Ravenna was briefly capital of the western Roman Empire, then got taken over by the east and it was then that its amazing mosaics were installed in several churches. Dante’s tomb is also here.

mosaics
Ravenna mosaics

Once we’d seen enough we moved on up the road to Ferrara, and once again found a cheap car park in a good site.

26th June

Bikes off again – it worked so well in Ravenna so we wanted to do the same thing again. Cycled round, checked out the market, toured the huge castle that’s right in the middle of town, and then rode our bikes round half of the town walls. They’ve turned the walls into a park with a wide gravel path running around the top of the ramparts, perfect for running or cycling along. Very enjoyable. In both Ravenna and Ferrara everyone cycles everywhere. The town centres are largely pedestrianised and totally flat.

ferrara
Ferrara castle
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View from top of Lion’s Tower, Ferrara castle

And then we moved onto the next town, Modena. Here we found a large free car park within walking distance of the town centre. As it seemed a little bit cooler we decided to walk into town that evening. Had a couple of beers out, and strolled around the pleasant cobbled medieval streets.

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Modena by night

27th June

We were rudely awoken early this morning by a loud bang at the back of the van. I assumed Ignatius was trying to swat a mosquito or something, as he bounded out of bed and out of the van. ‘Someone’s nicking your bike!’ he yelled, which got me out of bed pretty darn quick too. But the guy and his accomplice were already across the car park with my bike. I ran after them, in my skimpy pyjamas and flip flops. I had the idea if I got close enough and shouted enough they might just drop the bike and run off. But once they realised I was coming after them the git just pedalled off quickly, despite me screaming my best swear words at him. Meanwhile Ignatius had clipped up the bed, started the engine and driven after me. I hopped in and for a while we drove madly through town, with glasses rolling around the floor, the passenger seat facing backwards etc hoping to spot where my bike had gone. No luck. In the end we drove to a parking spot near the Ferrari museum, had breakfast, got dressed etc.

My bike was the one on the outside of the rack, locked to the next bike, and the gripper holding it to the rack was also locked. And there was a cover over the whole lot. They’d quietly unclipped the cover, undone the straps that hold the wheels to the rack, cut through the cable lock, then wrenched the bike out of the gripper – I think this was the bang we heard. Bastards.

We decided on balance we did not want to report the theft. Basically we felt the stress of finding the police station (the right police station – there are several different police forces in Italy), finding somewhere to park near it, making ourselves understood, filling in all the forms etc, was probably more hassle than it was worth. Actually I’m more upset at losing my lovely Madison saddle I’d had since 1985 that was on my bike, than losing the bike itself. But it was all a bit upsetting, especially that it could happen while we were sleeping.

We debated giving up on Modena and just moving on, but decided not to let the thieving bastards totally spoil our day. So when the Ferrari museum opened we went in for a look at various models of Ferraris through the years. It’s on the site of Enzo Ferrari’s family home and workshop. Then we walked into the town centre, visited the market to buy some Balsamic vinegar and the Duomo.

Then we headed out of town via a branch of Decathlon. I bought a new bike for 200 euro – totally different to my last one but more suitable for pootling round towns which is all we’re doing by bike on this trip. To be honest I’d discovered a cyclocross is not the best bike for town cycling, and was still suffering a loss of confidence since my fall in Zadar. So maybe my new black town bike (Ignatius calls it my Ferrari since it was bought in Modena!) will be better for the rest of this trip.

Drove on to Mantua which for some reason is also known as Mantova. We had actually meant to go to Parma next, but decided to cut it out after what happened in Modena. Mantua’s a lovely little town, surrounded on three sides by lakes. Another free car park, by the lakeside. We arrived in time to give my new Ferrari a trial run. There’s a gorgeous track following the shoreline so we cycled around that, then into the medieval town centre. Had a look at a couple of churches then realised it was dinner time, so we had a meal out before cycling back to the van. I think me and the Ferrari are going to be friends.

ferrari
With my new bike, by the lake in Mantua

So, for a day that started out so badly, we managed to pack a lot in, in the end.

28th June

As we’d seen the town yesterday we spent a while researching campsites around Lake Garda, then drove up that way. The weather forecast was for a stormy afternoon and evening and we wanted to get settled before that came over.

So here we are, in a nice campsite by the western shores of Lake Garda (much better than those Adriatic coast ones) and planning to stay a few days. Since arriving back in Italy we’ve not spent more than one night at the same place, and it gets quite tiring! One storm has been over already but there may be more tonight. Hope we get cooler weather afterwards!

Car parks vs campsites – the former are much cheaper and better for town centre exploration. But as we found to our cost, are not always secure. We like a mix. Will be very happy to spend the next few days in a fully equipped campsite.

Back to Italy…earlier than planned!

18th June

The last diary blog said we were heading off to Montenegro. Shortly after writing that we wondered whether Montenegro was in the EU (it isn’t, yet) and therefore whether our motor insurance and breakdown cover would cover travel in that country (they don’t).  We could possibly have phoned the insurers and paid for extra cover, or done something at the border, but you know what, I’d have been worried throughout. There were other issues with going to Montenegro too (phone package doesn’t cover it, ferry timetable from Bar) and in the end we decided to check out ferries from Dubrovnik. The next ferry was due the next day at 12pm – perfect. So we booked ourselves on it, and decided to leave Montenegro for some future trip.

I’m a little disappointed but would rather feel relaxed about travelling knowing we have cover. We’ve already called the AA twice (for the battery and then the puncture) this trip!

So the 18th was spent mostly on the 7.5 hour crossing from Dubrovnik to Bari. Beautiful scenery sailing out of Dubrovnik. We chatted to another English couple who’d been at the same campsite for part of the trip, had a long lunch, played cards, I edited part of my book etc. Not the most salubrious of ships but comfortable enough.

sailing
Sailing out of Dubrovnik, on board the Dubrovnik

Arriving in Italy we then drove to Matera – a place we’d read about in the book and had missed when here before. Got there late, parked at a truck stop for the night. Which was fine until the trucks started leaving at 4am, all beeping their horns at each other…

19th June

Moved the van to a car park dedicated to campervans in the middle of Matera, then went off on foot to explore. It’s a fascinating place – up till the 1950s many people lived in caves here. Now a lot of those dwellings are shops, museums, curiosities. We enjoyed wandering around, up and down steps, in and out of cave churches and houses. There are a few that have been furnished to look as they would have been 100 years ago.

matera
Matera

When we’d seen enough it was back in Gertie and a long drive back to the coast, and into the Gargano peninsula. If Italy is a boot, Puglia the heel, this peninsula (part of Puglia) is the spur on the heel. It’s mountainous, unlike the rest of Puglia, so slow driving around the coast but some amazing scenery. We found a layby with a fantastic view, and free-camped there for the night.

I heard in the UK there was a heatwave. We are also melting – temperatures going up to mid thirties and only down to about 25 at night.

20th June

Time for a campsite visit to get some washing done. There was one near Vieste, at the tip of the peninsula. The coast here is flatter and there are loads of campsites and holiday villages. It was only a short distance from where we’d spent the night so we got there early, nabbed the washing machine and got it all done. Went for a swim. The sea this side of the Adriatic is not as clear as in Croatia, but the beaches are sandier. Also on the promontory was a trabucco – a weird fishing contraption. Loads of poles lashed together with rope to support a net which can be angled according to the currents to catch fish. This one relied on tourist-power to wind it up as far as I could see. We watched it in use in the evening.

trebuca
Trabucco

21st June

We’d planned a driving route around the coast and then through the interior of the Gargano. All very twisty and turny and pretty in the hills. The flatter parts of the coast are occupied by a succession of tourist resorts and sandy beaches. Some looked pleasant others a bit regimented.
We left the Gargano peninsula and headed up the Adriatic coast, on the coast road rather than the motorway. Endless resorts and beaches filled with rows of sunbeds and parasols. The Italians do seem to like their beaches regimented. Ended up at Matinatta where our Camperstop book suggested there was a beach car park where campers could park overnight. Found it and it was free. We ended up having a very pleasant late afternoon and evening here, chilling, having a swim, then late evening a drink at the beach bar. Sometimes you can pay loads of money for a four star campsite and hate it, and other times pay nothing for a spot under a tree in a perfectly sited car park and have a really good time. You don’t know what you’ll get until you’re there.

22nd June

The sun was directly on the van in the morning, waking us up early with the heat. We drove a little way up the coast to Vasto for a brief look at the town. There’s a church doorway that’s of interest – just the doorway, the rest of the church collapsed in a landslide but they kept the end wall and its ornate door in place, with a view across to the sea.

church door
Church door. Me very hot – over 30 and not yet 9am.

Drove on up the Adriatic coast. It’s an endless succession of rather tatty beach resorts, each with hundreds upon hundreds of beach loungers and umbrellas, all in regimented strips and colour-coded to match the hotel or campsite they belong to. We don’t do the sit-on-beach-and-fry thing, so these places really don’t appeal.

Nevertheless, somehow we ended up at a campsite right on the beach with its own set of loungers and evening entertainment. The campers were packed in. We got the sheets washed (main reason for wanting a campsite) and grumbled about the small pitches and noise level and heat.

And then realised that our fridge was not working. A couple of days ago it had seemed warm in the morning after a night on mains electric then cooled down ok when running off battery (when driving) and gas (when free-camping). We’d assumed there’d been a power cut at the campsite overnight. But when it happened again we realised the fridge must be faulty. The campsite technician came to take a look, but he was no Giorgio or Salvo (those wonderful Sicilians who helped with our battery and then puncture problems). Campsite reception recommended a campervan sales/hire/repair shop just up the road who might be able to help.

So we spent an evening grumbling, had a swim, cooked a barbecue dinner and grumbled some more.

23rd June

Packed up (despite having booked in for 2-3 nights) and drove the short distance to CamperLike to see if we could get our fridge mended. Spent the morning hanging around the showroom looking at every gadget, gizmo and accessory they had to offer, and finally got a fixed Gertie back at 1pm, leaving us 200 euro worse off. Apparently some resistor thingie had failed, and the part cost 125 euro. Rest was labour.

Drove further up the Italian Adriatic coast which was just more ugly towns and packed beaches. Talk about overdeveloped. Oh I am such a grumpy old woman – shouldn’t be, because here I am on long leave travelling round Europe in a campervan and honestly the experience is amazing and I am loving it… on the whole!

Reached Loreto. Ignatius was taught by Loreto nuns at some point in his childhood, and here’s where the order began. But the most interesting thing in the town is the house where Jesus spent his childhood, which was transported here from Nazareth by angels… so the story goes. They’ve built a massive basilica around it and it’s now a major place of pilgrimage for Catholics. So inside the huge and ornate church there’s a little brick building, surrounded by ornately carved marble. Apparently there’s some documentary evidence that the house was brought here by ship during the Crusades by the Angeli family, and some archaelogical evidence that it might have once been attached to the cave in Nazareth which is also supposed to have been Jesus’s childhood home. Believe what you will. It’s an unusual sight.

We’re parked for the night in a car park just outside the town walls. It’s a hilltop town and there is a delicious breeze and not a bad view. Stuff those coastal seaside towns.

car park
Not a bad place to spend the night.

 

The Giro and a puncture…

Last diary blog left us parked in San Leone in a delightful free car park, on May 4th. How can it be May 11th already? I am definitely beginning to lose track of the days.

May 5th

More sightseeing! Certainly making up for lost time when we had the battery problem. We drove to Ragusa, a hill-top town, parked Gertie in a great free car-park which had an area reserved for campervans, and climbed a load of steps up to the old town. We had a happy day wandering through the mostly Baroque streets. This town was flattened in a 1693 earthquake, and then rebuilt in two parts. The Baroque rebuilding on the original Medieval town plan was the most interesting area. One church was closed as they were filming an episode of Inspector Montelbano there. Ate an extremely pleasant lunch out.

We drove on to Noto, and arrived at a campsite 1km from the town centre. Met our first fellow Brits since France. The campsite was set amongst lemon trees and mosquitoes.

May 6th

Spent the morning wandering around Noto – another Baroque glory, also rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake (along with the rest of south-east Sicily from what I can gather). I have seen more Baroque churches in the last few days than in the rest of my life put together.

bells
Church bells in Noto

Moved on to a campsite near Avola on the coast. This one was down a very narrow lane. When we arrived I said to the Dutch woman who ran the site, stating the bleeding obvious, ‘that lane’s very narrow’. ‘Is it?’ she said, horrified, and called her Sicilian husband over, ‘Honey! Our lane’s very narrow!’ I guess everyone arrives and says the same thing in whatever language they speak…  This campsite was full of cats.

May 7th

The plan was to check out a possible overnight car-park in Syracuse before heading back up to Etna to allow Ignatius to cycle up it the day before the Giro, but the car park was stuffed full, and traffic was horrible, so we ended up going straight back to Etna. We were parked in a layby half way up in enough time for Ignatius to do his bike ride the same day. So the road bike came off the back of Gertie for the first time (we are carrying 3 bikes), and he kitted up, cycled down to Nicolosi then turned round and cycled up to the top, then back down to Gertie. I spent the time cleaning the van (oh I know how to live, me!) He had a few problems – his electronic gear shifter seems to be out of charge and guess what, he’s forgotten to bring the charger; and he couldn’t get the bike into lowest gear so had to do the entire ride (up and down) in 2nd lowest gear… So at some stage we will need to find a bike repair shop to get this looked at and buy a new charger. All Ignatius’s cycling buddies will be reading this and laughing, muttering ‘serves him right for having poncey electronic gear shift’.

ig on bike
Ready to ride!

We spent the night in that layby. Pretty cold but not as cold as the night a couple of weeks back when we camped at the top. There were a few stray dogs lurking around. Friendly, but you don’t want to trust Sicilian strays. They freaked me out when I went outside in the dark and two of them were nosing around the van.

May 8th

Took a morning walk up through the woods to a mountain refuge (which conveniently was open and had a toilet!) then drove back down to Nicolosi where we had lunch and went to the Volcanology museum, which was very interesting – free and we had a personal guided tour around. It also shows a 30-minute video of the 2001-2 eruption of Mt Etna. I feel we know this mountain quite well now.

Spent the night back in ‘our’ layby on Etna.

May 9th

The day of the Giro! As soon as we were organised in the morning we drove 4km up the road to the last layby before the main car park which is where the stage finish was. There were already a couple of campers there. This was about 1.5km before the finish line. We walked up to the finish for a look around, then spent most of the day waiting. Road cycling is an odd spectator sport – you spend all day waiting for a few minutes activity! It’s all about the atmosphere. The layby filled up, and we chatted with a Slovakian family parked next to us, and several Italians. All day there were people cycling up, ahead of the race. About an hour before the race arrives, the ‘caravan’ of sponsors drove through. When we’ve seen stages of the Tour de France in the UK or Ireland the sponsors have been chucking free stuff out as they pass but that didn’t happen today.

Ignatius watched part of the earlier Giro coverage on his laptop, sitting outside. He made a lot of friends as people crowded round to see what was happening. Finally the cyclists arrived – we could see them pass the 5km banner down the mountain. The leaders passed us pretty quickly but the stragglers and ‘autobus’ took 30 minutes or more to arrive.  One of the lads who’d been watching Ignatius’s laptop stripped off to his undies and chased the leader up the road a bit. All good fun to watch!

ig with friends
Ignatius and all his friends
undies man
Underpants Man. He is the same chap wearing a pink cap leaning over Ignatius in the previous pic. I showed him this photo after on my phone and he zoomed in to take a look at his own bum.
giro
The lead group of cyclists going past. That Sky rider with the white-rimmed glasses is Geraint Thomas, the Welshman who came 2nd on this stage.

When it was all over we drove further down the mountain to camp overnight (too darn cold up the top when the sun’s gone down!) So that’s a total of 4 nights spent camping on Etna.

May 10th

The next stage of the Giro was due to start from Pedara, the next town to Nicolosi. We hadn’t planned to see the start, but decided why not? So we parked on the edge of Pedara and walked in. Huge crowds everywhere. The main town park was taken up by the sponsors’ stalls. A central square was cordoned off for the stage on which the cyclists sign in for the stage. There was a lively atmosphere. We watched most of the cyclists arrive and sign in, then moved to another spot to see the race start. So another several hours watching and waiting for a few minutes activity!

Once it was all over and we’d had lunch, we got on the motorway and headed south again, to Syracuse. This time we were able to get into that car park but decided we would not want to stay overnight there. But we had a few hours to walk around the old part of the town (Ortigia) which is another Baroque masterpiece, also largely rebuilt after that earthquake. Parts are much older, and the Duomo (cathedral) was built on the site of a Greek temple, using some original Doric columns in its construction.

We got back to Gertie to discover she had an almost flat tyre (front, passenger side, and no, not a result of my weight sitting above it thank you very much). Thankfully Ignatius had packed a compressor so we were able to re-inflate the tyre running the compressor off the engine battery, but it was obvious it was a slow puncture and would need to be fixed. So we drove a short distance to a campsite 10km from the city centre, checked in and called the AA to advise us where we would be able to source a replacement tyre. Of course motorhomes don’t use standard car tyres.

While waiting for the AA to call back (as it was evening by now and they needed to call round Sicilian garages to see who had the right tyre, and they’d be closed) we got talking to the campsite owners. I say talking, but as we had very little language in common it was mostly points, grunts and Google translate.  Anyway, when I told Mrs Campsite that we had called breakdown assistance assistenza stradale she laughed, hugged Mr Campsite (whose name was Salvo) and said he’s your assistenza stradale.

And he was. He jacked up the van, whipped off the wheel, took it away, came back this morning with the puncture repaired, and replaced the wheel. Turns out we’d driven over a screw which was embedded in the tread. He took just 20 euro for his trouble. We spent the night with the van on a jack (and with a support thingy Salvo had, in case the jack failed) which was a bit unnerving. The repair seems good – we’ve driven a fair way today and it’s stayed at the right pressure.

Salvo, our saviour, alternatively known as Giorgio 2. We are collecting lovely helpful Sicilian men.