Which is best? Spain to Italy – Road or Ferry?

Which is best? Spain to Italy – Road or Ferry?

The Age-old Conundrum – Road or Ferry? 

Europe’s shores are calling; adventure, culture and a rich tapestry of beautiful scenery awaits. And where better to explore than the delights of Spain and Italy. Whilst perhaps close in their language root, distance between these two European siblings is great.  So how is it best to experience these two great nations? How can you best dance between the joys of Spain’s Tapas and Flamenco to Italy’s Gelato and rock villages?

On our travels since March 2016 we have visited both countries and indulged ourselves in their beauty for months at a time. Although the thought of trying to get to each one easefully can be a tricky conundrum for us travellers. Do you go by road or by ferry? 

We’ve done both routes and feel that with both experiences under our belt, it’s a good time to share our journeys, the cost comparisons and offer these up to you. Hopefully as a result you can then make your own personal choices. 

 

The Road Route

The road route to and from Spain to Italy is surely a beautiful one. Flirting with the edge of the Pyrenees at one side of the continent, through the southern regions of France’s Riviera and skipping into Italy’s Riviera cousin. With such sights along the route as Carcassonne, the Camargue and Provence’s coastal delights it makes the road-trip an easy temptation. And who could resist the joys of baguettes, the regional Pastis and a croissant or two? Crossing the border into Italy gives you a plethora of seaside resorts to enjoy or the tourist magnet of the Cinque Terre, Portofino and Pisa. And so your Italian adventure can begin. 

With that in mind, let’s look at the stats and costs of choosing this route.

 

  1. It is approx 800 miles from Civitavecchia in Italy to Barcelona in Catalonia.
  2. That’s a rough cost of £140.00 for diesel, based on 0.17p per mile for a 3.5T motorhome.
  3. The Tolls through eastern Italy and France can add up depending on how many diversions you take for sightseeing. Allow around £130 for Tolls depending on the class of vehicle you are driving.
  4. There are potentially two Weighing Station possibilities, both on the France/Italy border and at Perpignan as you head to/from Spain. Whilst we have never been stopped, there are regular stories about campers being taken to the weighing station en route from Spain into France. If you want to avoid this, then the coastal route from Collioure to Roses is an alternative. This will take you an extra hour and an additional 20 miles.
  5. Depending on your travel philosophy and how many hours/miles you are willing to do in a day, it will take between 3-5 days.
  6. Meals/drinks for those days need to be built into the cost analysis together with campsites, Aires or services.

 

Advantages of the Road Option

  • It gives you the chance to explore en route if you don’t know the area.
  • Avoids potentially stormy seas of the ferry crossing.
  • You can be flexible when you make your journey.

 

Disadvantages of the Road Option

  • Much of the most direct route requires Tolls, many of which are nigh on impossible to avoid, can be tricky to navigate and can add to your stress, time and mileage. And the costs do add up. 
  • You need to build in the wear and tear on your vehicle, tyres in particular.
  • There is a risk of being stopped at the Borders for weight checks. 
  • Places to stay alongside the motorway are limited and not recommended so a diversion into the towns are required, adding further to time, mileage and costs.
  • If you are travelling in the winter heading from Italy to Spain for some sunshine, then most of the campsites will be shut, so you are reliant on Aires, wild camping and Sostas.
  • You are at the mercy of bad weather conditions and accidents. 
  • The road quality in the north-west regions of Italy are particularly low quality.
  • You have the Genoa issue to navigate following the collapse of the bridge in August 2018 that carries the main arterial motorway. 
  • If you are travelling in winter, then weather conditions and potentially snow around the Pyrenees are a factor to consider. Also in Italy, from 15 November, winter tyres are recommended and snow chains are compulsory so, if like us, you only have snow socks for your summer tyres, then the ferry is a strong contender.

 

Total cost for Road = minimum of £300 excluding campsites, Aire fees and the wear and tear apportionment.

 

The Ferry Route

From Baracelona to Civitavecchia, just north of Rome is a 20 hour sailing leaving at night between 2000 and 2300 respectively. So for 7 hours of the journey you are asleep. The boats are cruise ship size vessels from Grimaldi Lines and whilst not the quality of a cruise liner, it does what it says on the tin.  The boats for summer trips have a swimming pool and sun loungers and for other season, a Well-being centre, restaurants and bars. With plenty of cabins available you have your own private space and toilet/shower facilities. Or you can choose a reclining seat in a private lounge. 

Here are the costs for the ferry option;

 

  1. Based on an April 2017 from Barcelona the cost was £356.00 and a November 2019 sailing from Civitavecchia was £349.00. Both ferries included a cabin and were booked online with Directferries which was a lot cheaper than going direct to Grimaldi Lines.
  2. There is also a route from Genoa and Savona to Barcelona obviously depending which part of Italy you are travelling from or to and they are slightly cheaper by about £50. So it might make more sense to take this ferry if you are in the northern regions of Italy than to drive down to Civitavecchia. 
  3. Prices are based on the size of your vehicle <6m and from 6m-9m. 
  4. Allow for Breakfast, Lunch and refreshments whilst on board, prices of which average £17pp for the trip.
  5. You can reserve a reclining seat for £5 or a cabin for £80. Bear in mind that if you pay for a cabin when onboard, it will cost you  £10 more than if you reserve it on line. 

 

Advantages of the Ferry

  • It is much quicker than the 3-5 days it takes to drive. With the overnight boat, 2/3rds of your journey is done by the time morning arrives.
  • It saves on the wear and tear of your vehicle. The 800 miles direct route by road accounts for around 5% of your tyres’ lifespan. So this does need to be built in, mentally at least.
  • With a night time schedule, no accommodation the night before is required, so you can travel directly to the ferry, ensuring you check in 120 minutes before the sailing. 
  • If you order a cabin you can have unlimited showers with piping hot water! 
  • Dogs are allowed on the ferry, with either Kennels or Pet Friendly cabins. 

 

Disadvantages of the Ferry

  • The weather is unpredictable, so stormy seas are a factor https://www.instagram.com/ especially during the winter, causing potential sea-sickness if you are prone.
  • The food quality is not great and is expensive.
  • If it is busy then embarkation and disembarkation can take time.
  • The schedule is always open to disruption from operational issues. Although unless it is cancelled you are still across the Mediterranean within 24 hours. 
  • It’s never a great quality sleep on a boat. 
  • On exiting the ferry, a wrong turn could have you in Barcelona’s Low Emission Zone, which without a sticker could be an expensive fine. Although sticking to the outer ring road is not in the city zone. 
  • If you time your crossing over a half-term, there is a risk of school children crossing to or returning from a trip to Rome or Barcelona. This happened to us on our first crossing in March 2017 and it was not pleasant given their teachers were all sitting in the bar having a fine old time.

 

Total cost for the ferry = £385.00 with no additional extras

 

Conclusions

A significant part of our decision about the ferry versus the road is about time rather than costs. As you can see there’s not a huge amount in it, once you factor in the Road Option’s hidden and unexpected costs. For us the speed and efficiency of the ferry far outweighs the road. We all know that travel is tiring and to cut off potentially 3 days travel time is worth doing, in our book. Although of course it is a personal choice based on your individual circumstances and also where your start or end point is in Italy. 

If you have no time constraints and the seasons are in your favour, then the road has some huge sightseeing benefits. For autumn and winter, then the ferry is far more appealing. The choice is yours!  

We hope that this has been helpful in working through the options for you with some stats and facts. 

 

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Travel’s Lessons – Joys and Shadows

Travel’s Lessons – Joys and Shadows

The effects of traumatic events last much longer than the headlines

Travel is the greatest educator, inspirer and leveller. There is nothing I have experienced in my fifty years on planet Earth that has given me so much in such little time.

Travel is like a bag of Pick and Mix sweets that someone might select for you; so many different varieties from the melty fudge candy and sweet marshmallow to the dreaded coffee-centred chocolate and chewy toffee crunch that threatens to break your teeth.

After a year of magnificent travel experiences which gifted us exploration in five new European countries, our wanderlust has been satisfied beyond expectation. From the far west of Portugal’s beautiful beaches that caressed our faces with salty breezes, to the charm of Denmark’s surprising hidden depths. Sweden’s sumptuous authentic character had us engaged in a love affair of extreme passion and Norway’s majestic masterpiece blew our tiny little minds. And what of Czechia with its plethora of castles and softly curvaceous landscape?

Amongst our exploratory joys, we have hit travel walls, suffered from blogging burn out and harboured physical injuries. We have navigated a return to UK from Europe’s most northerly junction for a family funeral and had battles with tennants who are not paying their rent. I say this not out of any need for sympathy, just by way of offering a balanced perspective of this life on the road, seen as the dream and yet just the glorious mixture that is life.

And in this mixture of all sorts, we’ve learnt to travel to please ourselves, to rest when we need it and to increasingly find our stillness within a life dominated by movement. We have become aware of travel’s infectious magnetism that fuels our desires and entices us to do more. Yet we are more mindful of heeding our inner-selves’ need for reflection and stillness rather than feeding our insatiable and needy egos. 

In ego’s midst, our hunger paled into insignificance this week, as travel revealed its true face beyond the mask of pretty vistas and cascading waterfalls. A humbling lesson that teaches us about life – beyond the dream of ticking one country off at a time. A peek into the shadows of reality – a perspective of people’s lives that may pique the interest of the world’s media for a nanosecond then fades into global obscurity. A glimpse into real life, one breath at a time.

On 24t August 2016, a small village in Lazio, Italy became the epicentre for a 6.2 magnitude earthquake; tectonic plates rubbing together in a frenzied attack beneath the surface of the earth. Amatrice surrendered to the full force of Mother Nature’s wrath and surrounding regions within a 50 mile radius suffered a matching fate. At 3.36am clocks stopped, cars halted and life was held in suspended animation as earth took over the reigns. Homes crumbled, around 300 lives were lost and 4000 people were made instantly homeless. Within a heart-beat the future fell apart from that moment in time. Italy was in mourning.

Communities rallied to rescue and salvage, whilst red zones warned of impending doom. Homes razed to the floor with rubble and exposed wires the only evidence of their postal address.  Quintessential regions of Italy stripped of their identity in the blink of an eye.

And how cruel fate is, that just three months later, a second 6.5 magnitude quake shook the area with additional force, attempting to battle with the communities’ resolve; a secondary blow to assert domination over our fragile lives. This was the largest seismic event in over thirty years. Oct 30th 2016, we felt the ripples of the 6.40am earth rumblings 100 miles west on the Tuscany coast, above Rome. little did we know the story that preloaded this chapter in Italy’s fragile tale.

In some bizarre twist of fortune, no one died. Perversely, thanks to the impact of August’s quake, many people in vulnerable property had already been made homeless and saved from a more traumatic conclusion. Yet the impact of this second shake of Mother Nature’s dice had actually a more severe affect on the hope that still lingered from August. Whole villages devastated by the twin quake effect, communities looking like war zones and road links severed leaving farms and towns isolated from each other.

Our brush with this drama initiated when we felt the disconcerting rumbles in our camper. Everyone rushing out to seek answers to the mysterious movement of the earth. Even the Italians were bemused. And then the local news uncovered the truth about this massive giant beneath the earth that had made its presence felt.

It wasn’t until our fourth visit to Italy to meet up with friends affected by the quake themselves in the Marche region, just north of the epicentre, that the full picture became clear. Buildings shored up with struts and barriers. Homes impounded and still uninhabitable. Lives transgressed into flight and fight, a far cry from the luxurious destination of blissful happiness often promoted by the glossy magazines.

As our explorations took us around the beauty of the Sibillini National Park, our eyes were opened and hearts severely tugged at. We drove around villages south of the region that would have looked more at home in a war zone than the stunning countryside of Italy’s Apennine beauty hotspot. This backbone mountain range is where we find our earth tremor answers and yet to look at them, you would struggle to see how history played out.

Yet the villages soon made up for the gaps in the story. Our path constantly affected by road closures even now, three years on. Houses that look like a giant has ripped off their walls in a fit of spite, demolished walls looking like an archeological dig and restaurant signs indicating how life used to be.

On our journey painted with frustration, as one road closure after another diverted our route, irritation washing our egos, we drove to our home for the night. An idyllic spot in the foothills of Monte Vittore surrounded by a kaleidoscope of autumnal colours. Yet the stark reality was to reveal in the morning light as I visited Pretare, one of the devastated villages. To wander around this once thriving community, now just a ghost town, was sobering. A wreath still in place honouring the Great War paradoxically made me think about the battle with nature that we all face in different ways. Why oh why we battle against each other when there is tragedy enough from the natural world is beyond me.

I spoke to a lady with the help of my friend Google, who hadn’t been evacuated from her home. She was the only resident left in this ghost town. So whilst on the one hand may be you could class her as lucky; the reality is that she lives life in isolation, without a community and with the suspense of what another tremor might do to her home. The gentle smile on her traumatised face did not hide her sadness that her village would never be rebuilt – there was a strange acceptance to her fate.

Homes here show how that earthquake moment must have struck, as precarious ceiling beams, becoming balancing acts for chairs, suitcases and personal possessions. All left behind in the salvation for life. Cupboards torn apart from their walls revealing crockery and bathroom taps still sitting on tiled splashbacks as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

In our gallery below, I have chosen to distort the pictures out of respect for those whose homes I have captured.

And yet, something incredible has been born from the tragic events of 2016. Evidence of how communities have rallied to support their people. New homes have been built for the locals, once homeless, now safe. Identical prefab-style bungalows in small estates offer protection and hope. Wooden huts for businesses have been constructed to make sure livelihoods can continue and the needs of the locals still served. Tree-lined avenues and parks now holding makeshift sheds for Pizzerias and Post offices give a glimpse into the life that carries on, in spite of the rubble.

Animals were rescued by kind souls like our friends who, despite their red zone property, poured their energy into rescuing the vulnerable and keeping their B&B accommodation going. Communities are pulling together and are determined to promote that Le Marche is still very much open for business. They are ready to welcome lovers of nature, wilderness and spectacular mountain scenery. Le Marche is one of the most beautiful regions of Italy, that surpasses the iconic landscape of Tuscany. Yet it fights for its survival and preservation of dignity and history.

After our time spent exploring this magnificent region, with its historic landmarks, hilltop villages and mountain spectacle, we have been served up with a dose of humility. An important journey that has given us a glimpse into life on the edge. A life that, three years after the tragedy, the media is no longer interested in and yet people still struggle to survive, making the best of all that they have.

Check out our Gallery of how Le Marche looks, compelling visitors to come!

What a humbling experience travel revealed to us. A poignant reminder that life is fragile, often precarious and never static. Whilst a dream lifestyle travelling the world, may well look catwalk perfect, if you just open your heart to see beyond the facade, travel has an amazing story to reveal. And more importantly it will take you on a journey of more than miles, it takes you on a profound journey into yourself and will change you forever.

 

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The Four Faces of Venice

The Four Faces of Venice

If Hollywood is the land of dreams, then Venice is the land of love. With its unique landscape of buildings submerged in the salty waters that brought its wealth and its network of canals, Venice will have you falling head over heels. Each visit leaves me breathless and after trip three in twelve years, a new face was revealed to me that resurged my passion for this aqueous city.

 

As the dawn broke, I could hear the faint rumble of life as it stirred with the morning sun. Ships starting their engines. Ferries gearing up for the passengers they would carry. And the general hum of life that breaks the nighttime silence.  With them all, my anticipation started to awaken as my awareness tuned into the reality of the day ahead. A visit to my favourite city, a new exploration and a rekindled travel romance. Venice! Ah the city of love! 

We first visited Venice in 2011 to honour my Dad’s first anniversary of passing. All three of us decided to celebrate his life doing something he loved – exploring new places. And from that point, my love for Venice has grown as fast as a fledging tadpole. Our second visit was a nighttime excursion as this was a city perspective we had missed on our Venice initiation. And boy that was something else. So surely a third trip could not give me anything more! Well we had only ever seen Murano – the island of glass and I had heard so much about Burano, the island of colour. And so our promise was to rectify this missing piece of our Venezia jigsaw. 

​As I reflect, the three visits were all so different. Each one offering a different face and a new personality that just adds to my love for this iconic archipelago. And hence this post that aims to offer a glimpse into a famous city from four aspects. So many people have written about Venice, there seems no space for any more adjectives or creativity. Yet I hope our Four Faces of Venice might just give you a completely different feel for this quintessential travel destination. For our latest video, check this out!

 

Face 1 – Venice by Day

The most obvious choice for visiting Venice has to be during the day. This is how a large majority of people will experience their trip to the city. Any why not? With its maze of intricate and narrow alleyways, canals, bridges of all shapes and sizes you would be hard pressed to cover the same ground twice given its 257 miles² (414 km²).

Venice, with its history dating back to 7th century, built its wealth on salt, silk, grains and spice. And with its coastal position it became a commercial powerhouse in medieval times. Whilst its relationship with water is at times precarious, Venice has managed to somehow create a balance between the forces of man and nature. Although it is a delicate interaction! 

Buildings anchored to the lagoon below have been masterfully crafted in Gothic and Renaissance architecture which gives Venice a living art museum stature. Venice with its interlacing canals, the building facades and their towering beauty reaching to the skies, give this city a real 3D affect. These magnificent structures really do seem to reach out and touch you as you walk or sail by. 

With the morning’s waking light, the 50,000 inhabitants of old town Venice come to life. Washing gets hung from the balconies with a disregard for the crowds below. Boats fill up with their their daily loads of everything you can imagine. And the streets ready themselves for the tourist footsteps about to tread their paths.

The iconic St Mark’s Square eases your soul as its subtle violin serenades float into the air. Doge’s Palace fills any empty space with its impressive architecture, and the Grand Canal’s serpentine navigation takes you to the edge of wonder. And yet Venice by day is as much about the hidden streets that are so easy to bypass. The tiny canals that throb with gondolas and resident’s boats that bob gently against their fragile pontoons. Secret hotels reachable only by water craft and ancient iron bridges that carry your curiosity into the intricate map of Venice’s beating heart. This is its magic. The obvious and the hidden working in unison – it demands your respect and your adventurous spirit, calling you to explore the maze of streets with child-like enthusiasm. 

Intimate tree-lined squares tempt you with cafés and cakes as you rest your weary feet and escape the crowds. Alleyways that lead you to yet another canal, all with the sound of water lapping against the walls. Shops selling Venetian masks remind you of the city’s elegance in days gone by and restaurants offering you the ultimate mastery of their pasta creation. 

Venice by day will have you in awe and fill your wanderlust desires within an instant. The colours, sounds and sensations of this vibrant citadel will appease you and from this point – the love affair will begin. 

 

Top Tips for visiting Venice by day

  • Arrive early before many of the coaches arrive 
  • Take time to wander, stop for coffee and wander some more 
  • Make lunch an experience and not just an event 
  • Pace yourself as you will walk miles
  • Take extra batteries for your camera as they will be as worn out as the soles of your feet.

 

Check out our Venice by Day Gallery by clicking below. 

 

Face 2 – Venice by Night

Our second visit some eight years later was born out of a deep desire for me. Our three day visit to honour my dad in 2008 certainly satiated my appetite. Although my greed for this sensory destination had me wanting more. I was disappointed not to experience Venice by night. Everywhere changes its personality as the sun dips below the horizon, the artificial light revealing a new perspective. And I really wanted to complete my Venice education with this view.

We timed our nocturnal exploration with the arrival of late afternoon. This time of the day meant that the crowds had started to thin as coaches returned their loads to their hotels. And as we reconnected with the city, we discovered a whole new side of our watery Utopia. We stumbled upon streets that we had never seen before and squares that were filled with giggling children as they returned from school.  This felt like authentic Venice. The quarters where the locals sheltered from the millions of fascinated visitors, searching for their own unique experience of this city landscape masterpiece.

We found a quiet bar and sat watching the afternoon’s exploits as the autumn sun started to fade. With the leaves falling, surrendering to their seasonal fate, a welcomed coolness washed over us after the heat of the day.

We had researched that one of the best places to catch the city’s sunset was at the Academia bridge. So with camera poised and anticipation through the roof, the photographer in me dashed with a purposeful pace towards said vantage point. I was fascinated to notice how the vibe of the city started to change as the sun set. The human profile changed. There were more locals wandering the streets mingling with the discerning tourist intent on capturing that picture perfect sunset shot armed with their tripods. It felt so less frenetic somehow. Calmer, more tranquil and almost as if the real Venice could emerge from the facade that the tourists crave. 

The Venice sunset was everything I had imaged and hoped for. And more. The view from Academia down the Grand Canal towards the Basilica of St Maria della Salute was incredible as it donned a pinky hew. The canal looked as if it was on fire, the buildings tinged with a beautiful light that did not come from this world. Dipping deeper, the sun called us photographer hunger shooters towards the southern seaboard Venice.  And it was here that the ultimate shot of the autumn setting sun was at its best. Despite the vista being speckled with Venice’s port, the vision of the golden ball sinking below the industrial armour it made it look quite majestic. My Venice sunset was complete. 

And yet my Venice by Night experience was not. As we reluctantly left the golden light of the sunset sky, we headed back into the city to search out a restaurant. And the night personality started to become clear. Lovers walked entwined and street corner musicians played for anyone who chose to listen.  Natural light was replaced by atmospheric Victorian-style lamps that somehow transported us to a historical haven from another universe – it seemed.

Late autumn warmth was in battle with the cooler night air and yet a meal outside along the canal seemed a fitting. Boats still motored the waterways, yet with a less frantic energy. The night seeming to calm their intentions of getting somewhere. The crowds had reduced by 80% and suddenly Venice became an intimate liaison, shared by just a few. 

Our nighttime experience of Venice was so totally different that is swept us away with its nocturnal melody. A unique experience and a privileged perspective of one of the most popular cities on the globe. 

 

Top Tips for Venice by Night

  1. Either stay inside the Venetian walls so that your night experience becomes a natural extension of your day. Although if you have the luxury of more than a one-day visit, do the night the following day. Otherwise your senses will no longer absorb its special qualities
  2. If you are with your camper, stay in the city walls at the sosta. It’s neither pretty nor tranquil, although it does have the train that takes you into the city hub which runs late into the night. Ferries stop running around 8.00pm and although there are buses, it may not be easy to navigate back to your ‘home’   (45.44008  12.30486)
  3. Whilst it is tempting to come in earlier, head into Venice late afternoon so you can enjoy the quieter vibe, whilst not leaving you too exhausted to enjoy the sunset and nocturnal events.

 

Check out our Gallery By Night below

 

Face 3 – Venice by Water

It’s not difficult to experience Venice from the perspective of its watery master. It encompasses so much of the city, dangerously so at times. And no visit is complete without some sort of ferry or boat ride. 

On our third visit to this beautiful destination, we decided our experience needed to be different. And in truth we had planned on just going to the islands and not revisiting the city itself. Although Venice has such an alluring draw that resisting the temptation was futile. I did however promise to find a new angle to our previous visits. So planting ourselves over on the Jesolo di Lido gave us the perfect opportunity to see Venice from the waterside. 

Picking up Ferry 14, with the excitement of a puppy, I hung on the port edge of the ferry looking for my ‘first’ view of the skyline. In the meantime, the vessels buzzing all around us held my attention. Dredgers, ferries, speed boats, cruisers – you name it, it was there. Each one making waves that had everyone bouncing on the choppy waters in the absence of wind. It didn’t take long before the iconic buildings of the Venice cityscape rose from aqua Adriatic Sea. St Mark’s Campanile the first of the most noticeable shapes. As we edged nearer, more and more of Venice’s Gothic buildings came into view and my anticipation was undeniable. Disembarking our ferry, the reconnection with this place from eight years ago soon had my heart beating faster, although we had our sights set firmly on ferry 2. 

Our visit three strategy was all about seeing Venice from the water. And so it was a natural progression to gravitate towards the Grand Canal, given our ferry had dropped us off close to St Mark’s Square. So we darted between the already building crowds towards the number 1 Ferry that takes you all the way along the 2.5 mile (4km) waterway. 

With water sloshing up against the hull, you could tell the tourists from the locals just going about their business. We were the ones clung to the sides to get the best view.  Everyone else merely sat and waited patiently for their ‘stop’. Water taxis sped past us with the same intensity as a road vehicle in any large city. And gondolas gracefully steered their way in between the plethora of vessels. What a buzz this experience was and so different to our day and night time perspectives. 

We could really get a bird’s eyes view of the waterside houses that seem to just be floating on top of the surface in suspended animation. How these houses have lasted through the centuries beggars belief. Each visit, we see some sort of restoration work going on that constantly focuses the community on reclamation from the wrath of Mother Nature’s forces. It is a staggering feat of engineering, only appreciated from the water. 

As we sailed underneath the iconic bridges of Academia and Rialto a whole new perspective was available as we looked left, right, up and down. So many aspects to capture in such a short time, our eyes trying to soak it all up. We got a sense of the authentic life that makes Venice so unique. 

Alas after 30 short minutes we arrived at Ca’ d’Oro, our station stop. It was from here that we peppered our watery perspective by zig-zagging through the streets of Venice. Armed with a map from the campsite, my navigator guided us over bridges, quiet communities I had never seen before and churches that towered above my head. In just ten minutes we had reached the other side of Venice and yet another ferry hub that resembled a bus station for boats. F.te Nove is the main Venezian hub for the ferries that transport you to the myriad of islands that litter this angelic lagoon. 

Seeking out Ferry 12 that would be our chariot to Murano, Burano and Torcello, we fulfilled another part of our watery journey. Saying a sad farewell to Venice’s skyline, we headed past the Cemetery and on into the vast lagoon that signals entry into the Venezian suburbs. The ride took on a new persona as we saw first hand Venice’s attempt to keep the silted waters at bay with huge dredging projects. Massive pylons, driven deep into the sea bed offered our course through the deeper channels into a space that felt like no-man’s land. 

The islands form a respite from the ferry journey giving you the chance to drop off at any one of the main communities that make up this municipality region of Venice. Which is another story all together. 

 

Top Tips for Water Travel in Venice 

  1. If you intend to catch a number of ferries to get a complete Venezian experience, then we suggest you buy a One Day Ticket. For €20 per person you are entitled to take an unlimited number of ferries, anywhere, all day. If you add up the single fares which can be up to €7 each, your €20 investment soon becomes a worthwhile outlay 
  2. If you are lucky enough to be staying in Venice for a couple of days, then there are two and three day passes that you can buy, that are also worth considering
  3. Remember before embarking on any ferry, to validate your ticket at the machine at the entrance to each docking area
  4. Gondala’s are iconic and a major tourist draw. Although if you are on a budget just be cautious of the costs which can be as much as €80 per hour
  5. Water taxis are a quick and fun way to get around the city and out to the islands. They are great for a more personalised view and perhaps you’ll be lucky to get a James Dean lookalike driver to complete your experience. 

 

Check our Watery Gallery below

 

Face 4 – Venice’s Municipal Islands

Venice, the city is of course tourist central. Although seeing Venice through the eyes of the islands is such an important part of the Venezian jigsaw. Given that this whole area is a significant archipelago, you could spend a couple of days just exploring these important communities, aside of the city. Each one has a different character, speciality and draw for the tourist. Some are carbon copies of Venice, with their interlacing canals and characterful bridges. Whilst others are flatter landscapes with important churches that have provided historical sanctuary. 

We visited three islands over the course of our visits:

Murano was our island initiation on our first Venice visit. It somehow felt important to ‘do’ an island whilst we were here, given that we are not generally travellers who like to go back to places. So with that at the forefront of our minds, we chose the closest island to Venice, just to get a feel.

Murano is a mini-Venice although it stakes out its own personality very clearly. And a significant part of that personality is its glass. Small factories and workshops speckle the island and you can watch the glass being blown into its multi-coloured forms. Murano’s assertion to be different and separate to Venice seems significant and mastered beautifully. 

Mazzorbo is a small parcel of land you can drop off at from the ferry and walk to Burano. There’s only a couple of houses and a walled-garden that houses a very plush restaurant. Breathing the air alone feels like it would cost a fortune, although in fairness we chose not to look at the prices, so I may be judging it inappropriately. Although you know instinctively when there’s a fine dinning experience to be had. The tiny estate was quite eclectic, as aside of the restaurant there was a campanile and a vineyard. Yet most bizarre of all was an outdoor art exhibition with the theme of  ‘Suspended Animals’. All very obscure, although a pleasant way to reach the small bridge that joins it to Burano.

Burano is an island that almost defies description. And whilst on a map you can see its relationship with Venice distinctively with its canal sliced formation. Yet this is really the only likeness. Burano is one of the most beautiful villages I have ever had the privilege to visit. It makes a rainbow look pallid such is its vibrance. Every house has a different shade, giving full credence to the spectrum of colour available. It made our eyes pop. 

The ‘high street’ buzzes like a bee-hive with its shops of lace and beautiful Italian clothing. Cafés, bars and restaurants compete for your cash and yet you never feel cajoled. Yet surprisingly it’s not difficult to find your own space in Burano as the alleyways happily offer you a retreat from the crowded centre where you will stumble upon yet more colour, shapes and sizes. None more impressive than Bepi’s house. Hidden away in a side street, Bepi’s house is known for its geometric patterns and is by far the most colourful contribution to the island’s fame.   

We found a small bar for a beer and Prosecco and whiled away an hour watching the water taxis and boats dock for their next set of passengers. And whilst the visitors gawped in awe at the magnificence of this place, washing lines hung across the streets just reminded you that normal life goes on here in spite of us. It gave the island an endearing feel that melted our hearts in an instant. After a couple of hours wandering, it was time to head off and it was, I must admit with a tinge of sadness. Such is the energy of Burano. Charm personified, colour captured and spelling casting magic. 

 

Top Tips for Island Hopping

  1. If you don’t want to visit Torcello, then drop off at Mazzorbo, where you can walk through to Burano and shorten your journey time. Otherwise the ferry continues on to Torcello. It’s not a long journey although if time is short for your island visit, this is a way to maximise your time. 
  2. If time really is short, then Murano is a good option as it is the closest island to experience.
  3. If your visit starts from Lido di Jesolo, as ours did, then you can take Ferry 12 and visit just the islands. Stopping at Burano, Torcello and Murano and then return on the same Ferry to your starting point at Punta Sabionni. 
  4. Or you can take Ferry 14 direct to Venice, St Mark’s Square and explore here first before then catching Ferry 12 over to to the islands from F.te Nove. 
  5. Ideally to get a full ‘Island Experience’ you need a whole day, as trying to fit them all in and fully appreciate Venice is far too overwhelming. 
  6. We stayed at Agricampeggio Scarpa, a lovely farm campsite that for €26 per night gave us the security we needed to visit the city worry-free. It’s only 20 minutes walk to the Punta Sabbioni on the Jesolo di Lido. It’s a perfect place for island exploring. (45.443494 12.439969).

 

Check out our gallery below. 

 

Closing Thoughts

Venice is an icon, there’s no doubt and for sure there is an increasing tourist volume problem.  So visiting this city responsibly feels really important; respecting that this is not a museum, it is a living and breathing home to thousands of people. Its precarious balance with Mother Nature needs to be acknowledged and, therefore, support for its protection seems right in whatever way we can.

Venice may be a Global Tourist Institution yet its history, art and cultural depth needs to be appreciated through its many faces. And with so many different ways to appreciate its beauty, a trip here will only fill your wanderlusting souls with joy and fulfilment. If your visit or visits can capture just a bit of all her personalities, then you will be richer for it.

 

 

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Bella Italiano – Our Highs and Lows

Bella Italiano – Our Highs and Lows

 

Buongiorno e benvenuto!

Italy has been our home for over three months in the last three years and it’s been an experience of Highs and Lows. One thing we adore is the language. I’ve had some great teachers along the way from a Campsite Receptionist, who is now a friend, to camper neighbours who shared their local knowledge.

Imagine the scene; Emilio in his 70’s, looked like he had come straight off the set of an Italian Mafia film and his younger wife Anna by at least 15 years, who fulfilled most of the duties, not in a subservient way, just as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do. They spoke very little English, so between us we spoke French, pigeon Italian and the odd word of Queeny’s tongue. What an incredible hour we had together and thanks to them, had some amazing experiences in Tuscany. They even gave us their phone number is case of any issues whilst in Italy. And oh boy! Could we have used that half a dozen times in the last month.

During our time here, we’ve experienced Lakes in the guise of Garda and Trasimeno, stayed in a volcanic crater just outside Naples and overnighted outside a Benedictine Monastery up in the mountains; we had two free, wild jacuzzis and mud wraps in the mountains – courtesy of Tuscany’s natural thermal springs. We’ve watched the sun go down on our lakeside ‘home’ in Umbria and watched it rise through Tuscany’s evocative poplar trees.  We found flamingoes on the Po Delta together with a few million midges that must be on their winter retreat from Scotland. We’ve seen Pisa’s tower lean a bit, Florence’s iconic Duomo Cathedral and Pontevecchio bridge, been treated to sunset in our beloved Venice and visited the iconic hillside towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino of wine fame.  And that’s before we mention the Cinque Terre and the famous Stelvio Pass which was hair-raising and brilliant all at the same time. 

And then we had adventures of getting ripped off in San Marino’s tax haven principality, had our bikes stolen from a public space in Lucca, been subjected to the worst roads and motorways we’ve ever been on and took part in a chaotic, free-for-all junk-yard derby that made Delhi look like an empty supermarket car park.  Sadly our road-trip south, which had the intention of experiencing Pompeii, Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, was thwarted by the crowds, crazy-frog drivers and a bit of rubbish navigating on my part. How we came away sane and unscathed is beyond us.

Although despite all this, I have to say that each time we return to Italy, we love it a little bit more. I think our first visit scared the be-gesus out of us. Once you know the rules for navigating Italy mindfully, then it’ll end up being a fabulous experience. So you must come and make up your own minds.

Check out our Interactive Map below for all our Italian highlights from 2016-2018.

 

 

Our Italian Realisations

As we reflect on our Italian adventures over the years, we’ve learnt a few things about our pizza eating, pasta making friends:

  • They have little road sense or road politesse 
  • The country seems strapped for cash and lots of the seaside towns in the south are really run down and unloved
  • Drivers NEVER make eye contact behind the wheel of their cars
  • They disregard any rules of the road – in fact there are no rules
  • They think nothing of driving on your side of the road and overtaking right in front of an oncoming vehicle
  • They love honking their horns
  • They will only fix Toll roads, the rest are at the mercy of time and grass
  • They don’t seem to worry about volcano eruptions or earthquakes – if it happens, they get on with it as they live in one of the most seismic active areas of the world outside New Zealand
  • The north/south divide seems to be opposite that in UK. The north is definitely the most wealthy and most populated with BIG tourists sights. Whereas the south seems to be more rural, less commercialised and where fewer tourists come
  • Italy has by far the best sunsets we have ever seen – there must be something about the seismic dust that makes it so evocative and romantic
  • And talking of romance, Italy has the most romantic vibe of all countries we have visited. Love seems to be expressed everywhere in the most idyllic of places – except behind the wheel of a car
  • And above all, we’ve found some of the sweetest, kindest and most wonderful people here.

Our 14 Highlights

1. Venice

Well you can’t say Italy without immediately thinking about Venice. And whilst it suffers hugely from both tourist erosion and flooding, somehow this community seems to continue life as if there were no problems – typically Italian. With its canals, gondolas, bridges and islands, Venice has to be seen both by day and by night.  Both deliver a completely different vibe.  Check out our experience here.

2. Dolomites

Northern Italy that rubs shoulders with Austria and Switzerland is all about the battle of the mountains. At one end you have the Dolomites with their towering spikes that can be seen for miles, to the more femininely curvaceous Alps at the western end. Both mountains spectacular in their own way, each offering a unique personality and Italian experience. Either way you will hold you breath and gasp. 

 

3. Stelvio Pass

When we think of Italian roads, the image isn’t good. Although think again when you ponder on the driving challenge that is THE STELVIO PASS. We’ve driven a couple of Europe’s ‘most dangerous roads’, although I have to say this was the most challenging of them all. Not only is the road in good condition, it is one of the most beautiful things you will ever experience. Driving from Bolzano is a must, if nothing more than to save your brakes. The wiggles that snake up to the mountain’s snow line are just so testing; one after another, after another. It is exhausting especially in a motorhome, although out of season most definitely doable and we highly recommend it. Check out our footage here.

 

4. Lake Garda

Nestled in the bosom of the Alps, Lake Garda is the largest of all the Italian Lakes and whilst it is incredibly busy, even in September, it is a great experience. Whether you choose to do it by car, bicycle (using any one of the ferries), kayak or moped, Lake Garda is a gift that keeps on giving. Intense blue waters, northern winds that provide the sail power for the windsurfers and atmospheric villages that cling to the lakeside edges, Garda has it all. Limone is a delight, Gargnano charming and Riva in the north, buzzy.

 

5. Porto Venere

Sat on the eastern fringe of the Cinque Terre National Park, Porto Venere has sadly been missed off the ‘Famous Five’ list. And it is beyond our comprehension why. With its harbour, peninsular and iconic Gothic church, its narrow alleyways full of characterful houses, Porto Venere is supremely more beautiful than the ‘five’ in our opinion. With fewer crowds to affect your experience, this is definitely one to put on your list.  Check out our footage here.

 

6. Tuscany

What superlatives can I use to aptly describe Tuscany that won’t undermine its tend charm and infinite beauty? So I will conjure up an image for you that may entice you to this Italian region. Imagine rolling hills, carved with sunflower fields and poplar trees that cluster together along roads and driveways, that in the autumn mists and sunrise light offer you a scene out of Gladiator. With natural springs hidden in forests that bubble and soothe away your aches and villages perched on hills that offer a grandeur in their lofty status and wine oozing from the acres of vineyards that cover the land. Tuscany has romance at its core with divine beauty etched into every piece of soil. I defy you to not fall in love with this region. Volterra, Montepulcanio, Montalcino, Pomerance, Talemone, Bagno Vignoni and the White Whale of San Felippo Bagnoni. Deliciousness on a map.  Check out loads of footage we have here.

 

8. Po Delta

On the western coast, just a stone’s throw from the Venice magnet you come to flat lands that you wonder what beauty they can hold. Although for a completely unique and diverse landscape the Po Delta region is awash with wild life and salt-flats. And with this type of scenery you get flamingoes. Swarms of them – and mosquitos sadly. Although if timed right, a tour around the delta and Comacchio will give you a completely different perspective of Italy.

 

9. Alberobello and Matera in the south

The south has many undiscovered gems and given that most tourists go for the easy to reach northern regions, Alberobello and Matera are relatively unscathed by tourists.  Alberobello with its famous Trulli houses are quaint and one of the most unique buildings I’ve ever seen. White washed buildings and their round stone roofs transport you back in time as you wander around the cobbled streets of this UNESCO village. In contrast not more than 45 minutes drive away you have the rock village of Matera. Carved into the hillside with caves that dwellers called their homes Matera will delight you. Overlooking its river gorge, walks, bird watching and café culture will entice you to this place and make you wonder why you have never been before.  Check out our footage here. 

 

10. Paestum – Greek Temples

So many flock to Pompeii to see the famous, ancient Roman city and its fickle volcano Vesuvius.  Although it is for this very reason that we searched for something more authentic and not an expensive tourist trap. Heading past Naples, past Solerno and on towards Agropoli and you will find a far more genuine and less crowded monument. In fact Paestum is a Greek archeological site and its temples are in a great state, the best we have ever seen. It is definitely worth travelling a little further south to see this place.  Check out what we saw here.

 

14. Amalfi

The Amalfi coast is certainly beautiful and given that driving a motorhome along its roads is forbidden, we decided on approaching it by sea. We took a ferry from Salerno (where there is a campsite about 15 minutes down the road) and disembarked at the town of Amalfi. The town is, like many of it sibling resorts, crowded with coach loads of tourists, although if you get away from the main high street some of the views of the town from up above are great. Just for the sheer hell of it, we would highly recommend taking the bus back. Although it takes nerves of steel as the bus driver throws the vehicle around narrow lanes and steep overhanging cliffs, it is certainly an experience. Check out our experience here.

 

Making the most of your Italian adventure

 

1) Despite Italy’s reputation, do come as it is beautiful – if you plan ahead to the specific sites you want to see then it becomes much more pleasurable.

2) To cover Italy’s extensive miles, we suggest you take the toll roads and suck up the fees if you want to minimise brain ache and wear and tear on your vehicle. It’s not always pretty, although the ride is not pretty on some of the main roads.  Even the non-tolled motorways are shocking.

3) Italy has some amazing cities and palatial cathedrals, that rival Spain, although when visiting these Italian icons, stay in a campsite and take the bus. Crime here is rife.

4) Don’t make our mistake – pay for car parks and DO NOT park in side streets, even if there are cameras and other vehicles around.

5) If you go to Pisa, you’ll only need to see the main Cathedral and tower – there is nothing else – so an hour tops we would recommend.

6) Put Venice on the list, although stay at the site (if with a motorhome) on the inside of the city – Tronchetto, which is just over the bridge, that way you can experience Venice by day and night, which is very special.

7) See Florence out of season as the crowds are crazy and go early if you want to climb the Tower. Our advice for the best view of the city, is to walk to Michaelangelo’s statue, up the 167 steps – yes we counted them – the view over the entire city is exceptional.

8) Do not miss Italy’s eastern coast, south of Venice into the Po Delta. It is a nature lover’s paradise and a stunning natural environment, although keep away from the coastal towns as they are not pretty.

9) Bare in mind that any Italian with a motorhome will go away in it over the weekend, even out of season. So don’t expect to find Sostas (equivalent to French Aires) with much space.

10) Italian kids don’t go back to school until third week in September, so campsites are still classed as high season until then and then they close down anywhere from end of September to end of October.

11) I’m sure the Amalfi coast is lovely, although do not go in a motorhome unless you have a very strong constitution for driving. Campsites are limited and Motorhomes are not allowed on the Amalfi road. Go for a week’s holiday instead or even better, go on a cruise! It is the maddest area of Italy that we have experienced and that includes other main cities like Florence and Venice.  

12) Expect the unexpected here and you’ll be ok.

13) The fresh pasta and mozzarella here is incredible, as is their cheap wine. Stock on their baked beans found in larger supermarkets so that in your trip back up through western Europe you have supplies, as the French just don’t do Baked Beans!

14) Learn a few words of Italian as it is the most musical language ever and actually not difficult to converse with a handful of stock phrases. The best phrase I learnt was ‘Posso’, which means ‘Could I?’ From here you can say ‘Could I have’, ‘Could I pay’, ‘Could I buy’.  They appreciate the effort, even if it means you have to resort to Google Translate for the rest.

15) And finally, do come. We’ve not seen half of Italy yet and we still love it, you just keep your whits about you.

 

So our conclusion on Italy? There are many pockets of beauty in amidst some unlovedness, with crazy drivers and rubbish roads.  It is a bit like a sweet and sour dish. There are most definitely two flavours to Italy and whilst we will always go back, we do so with eyes wide open and our nerves braced.  For all our Italian adventures including Florence, this page gives you all our posts and videos. Italy in a nutshell.

 

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Stelvio Pass – Bucket List Drive

Stelvio Pass – Bucket List Drive

Stelvio Pass, Italy – are you game for the ride of your life that gets your heart pumping, your legs wobbling and your eyes bulging with all the incredible scenery? A ride that takes you from the edge of your seat to the edge of fear – and back again.

We had the Stelvio Pass in our sights from the outset of our ‘life on the road’, as we were driven by living beyond our fear. Although for all sorts of reasons, it didn’t happen. Then we had the chance to drive the Transfagarasan Pass, which was soon followed up by the outstanding TransAlpin Route, both in Romania. And what a thrill they both were. So what could beat that experience, especially when the Transfag has been voted ‘the best’ by UK’s ultimate petrol-heads from the Top Gear team?

After crossing through Austria and having to by-pass the Großglockner route because of the threat of 15cm of white stuff, we found ourselves in the Dolomites in Italy. We’ve seen these majestic peaks, with their angular spikes towering over the Venetian region, many a time, so to actually be driving within them was just magical. With scenery looking akin to a Canadian tourist brochure, we were totally wowed by the whole region. Although yet again the weather dampened our spirits, quite literally – low cloud and drizzle meant that any exploration had to be in our dreams – for now it just wasn’t meant to be.

That was until we woke up to clear blue skies after a fabulous wild spot at Cinque Torri cable car, (46.51894, 12.03837). In a flash we had changed our plans and in a fit of child-like giddiness, decided to hit the road and head to Stelvio Pass. It was only four hours away after all! A piece of cake.

Click on the image below to see some of our favourite pictures…

After plenty of ooh’s and ahh’s around every corner, we wondered how on earth we could beat this drive on the Falzarego and Gardena Passes. Although Stelvio is one of those Bucket List places, especially if you seek memorable and adrenalin pumping experience. So onward we drove, past Bolzano – famous for its capital status of the southern Tyrol region and home to the infamous ‘Iceman’ Ötzi – a Neolithic mummy. Heading north, the valley transforms; its angular construction morphs into a more undulating spectacle, with the mountains crocheted with acres of vineyards and patchwork apple orchards. In September to see the fruit literally dripping from the tiny trees is almost as iconic as the Tuscan grape vineyards further south. Every 100m we found a road-side seller enticing us to stop and take the ‘red apple’. Tempting as it was, it was not food we craved – it was the secret hidden within the heart of those towering giants who beckoned us.

Within only 90 minutes and around 50 miles from Bolzano we soon started to see the famous brown signs that told us all we needed to know – Stelvio was coming!

With thirty thousand devices at the ready to record our adventure, we entered the Stelvio Park. At first we were greeted by pine clad forests, sweeping roads and alpine villages that perch over the ice-blue river, which courses its way from the upper glaciers. Little did we know what lay ahead. Slowly we climbed and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves – until the wiggles began. They were gentle at first and then they became steeper, tighter and more heart-pumping. 48 switchback bends awaited us for our uphill trek and for the first 10 or so it was exhilarating. Yet soon they became more challenging and our strings became tighter and the air a little more blue as expletives of disbelief became common-place. Our fear, for now was being silenced by the adrenaline rush of the adventure.

The picture-postcard perfection filled our windscreen – snow capped mountains looming large in front of us, so close we could almost touch them and feel their chill. For a moment the Dolomites became a distant memory as we became hypnotised by Stelvio’s beauty.  At bend 31 (which at the time we hadn’t actually clocked meant there were still another 30 to go) we stopped for some lunch. With legs a little like jelly after navigating 19, 180 degree bends, we took a breather and enjoyed the scenery.  This spot would have made a fantastic place to overnight with our camper and whilst the view was seriously winning the battle to make us stay, Myles was keen to get towards the top – which, after all was only 5 miles away. What could possibly go wrong?

One thing that motivated us to continue was a German outfit that parked up next to us whilst we were having lunch. A guy poised with his camera stood as if in wait for someone or something – and of all the things we could have anticipated – UNICYCLES would not have been one of them. Really? Yes seriously, two guys were in training and cycled all the way up the top of the Stelvio Pass, all 50 odd switch backs on UNICYCLES. Are they mad?  I couldn’t imagine doing that on a bicycle let alone a Unicycle. All praise to them.

With just a bit of fuel inside our bellies we carried on and it didn’t take very many more bends to reveal the truth behind the mere 5 mile challenge. The stark realisation was that the snake-like bends ahead of us formed the vertical route we HAD to drive up. For a second we did think about turning around, as we had already had a little scrape on the back skirt, although we had come this far – we were not about to stop.

One bend at a time. Me craning my neck to see descending traffic and Myles, with the strength of an ox and steely determination, driving wide; first gear, slowly does it, pathway clear, gentle acceleration – another bend successfully completed.

I’ll be honest, at this point, our experiences of Romania’s Transfagarasan Pass seemed like child’s play – this was so much more of a stretching and challenging drive. Not that we like to compare, although this road was more technical. So, sorry Top Gear boys – we think Stelvio beats Transfag hands down for pure driving skill.

Whilst neither of us said it out loud, I think our fear took over our excitement at this point and whilst it was thrilling, the switchbacks are relentless and they test you as driver and a navigator. I think above all it is the traffic that causes as much of an issue as anything; cyclists, buses, sports cars, motorbikes all buzzing around you and with a rig that is 7.5m long, our need to take a wide course was imperative. Still we did it and we would not have missed the experience – it really made us feel alive.

Reaching our summit spot for the night was both a relief and a highlight as we gazed in disbelief down the valley to see the path we travelled.  It is a vision that made me feel proud; proud of Myles’ skill, proud of my calmness, and proud of sticking with it. It was one of our greatest accomplishments since we took to the road. And the reward was heart-filling. With glaciers at eye-line level, chunky marmots playing in the late afternoon sun and choughs flying past our window, we forgave ourselves for feeling just a little smug. It took an hour or so to calm down, although with a ‘home’ like this we soon relaxed into it.

Check out our video footage of this crazy experience by clicking the video below….

 

Given the ascent, we knew we still had to get down! Would that be as hairy we wondered? To be on the safe side, we decided to head out early, yet despite this there was still plenty of traffic around. I had read that the ‘other side’ was grey and boring in comparison – well take it from me – do not listen to that crazy notion. It is different that is for sure although boring, NO WAY.

The roads are more sweeping and the bends much easier to handle with plenty of places to stop for pictures. As we flirted with the Swiss border, we did, for a moment consider turning right into the Swiss National Park, although we wanted to say that we had ‘done’ Stelvio, in all its glory. We were treated to the most amazing waterfalls, the sight of marmots up close and tunnels that were, at times, just a little challenging. We loved the trip down and for us both it was a much more relaxed affair, where we could enjoy the scenery without such an intense feeling. After an hour we found ourselves in Bormio and we were soon on our way towards to the Italian lakes. And whilst our experience of Stelvio was now officially complete, the van was intact, as were our nerves, I felt just a little sad. I was sad because Stelvio is an onslaught of the senses and with 60 or so switchbacks, often our need to concentrate overtook our ability to absorb our surroundings. So I would love to do it again to really soak up the experience.  Still we have done it – I’m so thrilled that we did it and would definitely recommend it.

Here are some facts and tips for making your Stelvio memorable, for all the right reasons.

Did you know…

  • The Stelvio Pass is almost 200 years old?
  • It was constructed by an Austrian Emperor who wanted to join the valley to his homeland.
  • It is pretty much unchanged since that time.
  • It reaches over 2,700m high and is 31 miles long – 49km.
  • There are around 60 hairpin bends and 6 tunnels (although we lost count of the switchbacks after 20 as we were concentrating too much.)
  • For 2 days at the end of August/beginning of September the route is closed to the public, allowing only cyclist to use the road. Do check the exact dates before heading this way.
  • Even Sterling Moss, the greatest driver in the world, got into difficulties’ whilst travelling Stelvio.
  • Stelvio may not be the most dangerous, although it is the highest paved road in the Eastern Alps.
  • Unlike the Großglockner Pass in Austria’s Tyrol mountains, there is no toll road fee. Enjoy it free of charge – except for the energy you will expend in concentration and the petrol you will consume!

 

Tips for making your own Bucket List trip…

  • We suggest to be kind to your breaks that you do the route from the northern edge from Balzano south to Bormio. It is far easier to navigate the switchbacks uphill.
  • Whilst the route is open from May to September, always check the weather before undertaking the journey as unseasonal conditions can affect the area.
  • The 31 miles will take you around 3 hours to negotiate, so time it right if you need to do it in one day.
  • We recommend if travelling with a camper that you take two days and find one of the amazing wild spots to stay overnight. The light of the sunset and sunrise is magical.
  • Avoid the road during the high season; July and August, especially the  weekends as the volume of traffic will undoubtedly impact on the whole experience.
  • Travel early or late if you want to minimise the traffic element of your drive. Whilst there are still plenty of people on the road, we certainly encountered less buses in the morning run.
  • For more information check this website out.
  • It might sound strange, although it is worth checking your brake pads especially if you are travelling in a camper and intend to go south to north from Bormio. No harm in checking all is well. You do not want to be half way down and finding your pads are thinning.
  • If you are taking a camper whilst small buses do bomb up and down, we agreed that anything over 8m would be more of a stretch on this road and if you have a trailer, we suggest finding a campsite and leaving it behind.

We totally loved this road, as we look back. Whilst we were in the moment it was one of the most difficult drives we have ever done, the thrill and aliveness you feel whilst doing it make it completely worth it.  Safe travels for your bucket list ride.

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Cinque Terre – High 5 or Low 5?

Cinque Terre – High 5 or Low 5?

Anticipation filled the autumn air as we looked ahead to Italy’s Cinque Terre.

The Famous Five; a coastal stretch of Italy’s Riviera that is home to five quaint fishing villages, pastel coloured houses that perch precariously on the rock-face where residents live life on the edge, almost literally.  How would our day fare?  Would we be left disappointed or delighted?

Our Italian love/hate relationship

Our feelings about Italy over the last couple of years have been tinged with what can only be described as a love, hate relationship.  Sometimes we adore its romantic canvas and then we take to the road and the love affair comes to an abrupt end as we navigate the highways and bi-ways with their crazy drivers.

Portovenere poster matches its claim

We had a similar connection with Cinque Terre (CT) when we visited last year, after stumbling upon Portovenere just along the peninsular from La Spezia.  We loved this wonderful town and as a working port has somehow held onto its authentic roots despite growing tourism.  And yet Portovenere is NOT on THE LIST, which perhaps accounts for its serene vibe and distinct lack of visitors.  At the other end of the coast you find Monterosso; a surprisingly grey town cut in half, discourteously by the railway line, seemingly severing its once beautiful sanctuary.  We were so disappointed by our initial introduction to CT that we decided to pass on by.

So this year, late September we were travelling with friends who had the Land of Five on their list and felt we wanted to give it a second chance.  Travel is, after all about exploring beyond the magazine cover and seeking real life within the beating heart of the streets.  Perhaps this trip would re-ignite the love we so wanted to feel for CT.

Our Cinque Terre adventure

Strangely, despite our previous experience, we woke with anticipation and excitement.  With the sun reigning supreme, we set off on what felt like a proper adventure.  A bus from Portovenere into La Spezia, a walk to the train station, purchase of an ‘All Day Cinque Terre Ticket’, a quick coffee from McDonalds and on the train within minutes.  It felt like a scene out of an Enid Blyton novel, where four friends accompanied by their dog, a packed lunch and fully-charged cameras, set off in search of exploration.

Given that we had only one day and had already visited Monterosso, we decided to start our exploration at the next most westerly point, Vernazza; and within a twelve minute train ride, we had arrived. Yet within seconds of stepping off the platform, we were stripped of our excitement as we were met by a throng of Tour Groups and wall-to-wall tourists resembling something out of Piped Piper.  We followed like sheep, assuming that they were all heading towards something spectacular.  We passed by one souvenir shop after another and selfie-taking enthusiasts, and hoped that if we darted around them, we would find our slice of tranquility.

Vernazza resident

They say that ‘First Impressions Count’ and although I’m not a great believer in this quote, I have to say that today, it felt true.  Above the shop facades, four storey buildings rise above your head, framed by uniform green shutters.  Residents look down upon the bustling crowd below with a mixture of amusement and annoyance it seemed to me.  Washing hangs from their lofty windows, despite the camera-clicking posse on the streets beneath them and houses, dearly in need of some love, line the streets blocking out the sun.

At the end of the main street you are presented with a plaza and harbour, which since the October 2011 floods has certainly regained its structure.  Like bees to a honey pot, people are buzzing and flocking – to where, we were unsure, although the harbour seems to be the place to hang out.  And for sure the sight looking back from the breakwater was pretty, although nothing that, at this point, made us go ‘wow’.  Regular ferry boats pull up to the docking pier for yet more visitors to disembark and descend upon this tiny fishing village.  Despite being one of those visitors, I felt sad for Venazza and the invasion of so many tourists. The bygone days of earning a crust from the sea is now replaced by souvenir shops selling pasta and scented lemon sacks.

Cinque Terre ferry

In our attempt to seek something special, we spied a lofty spot at the castle tower; here surely we would see the beauty?  Steadily clambering up the steep steps, we arrive at the castle gates, only to be greeted by a €1.50 entrance fee that our Day Pass didn’t cover.  So two of us climbed the tower, whilst on principle, the other two stayed below. The view was lovely although it just didn’t quite do it for me.  Perhaps the next village would do this iconic region justice.

 

 

So our starter for 10 – Porto Venere 1, Cinque Terre 0.

383 steps to Corniglia

Back on the train we travel east towards Corniglia, which can only be visited by train or car as it is positioned high up on a rocky crag, making it impossible for ferry tourists to access.  From the train station you have the opportunity, with your All Day ticket to take the Shuttle Bus to the village centre, although with hoards surrounding the bus as though a celebrity was inside, we decide that the hike up the zig-zag pathway would do us good. After climbing 383 steps to the top, we smile at the Pharmacy at the path’s entrance, inviting you to take something for your excessively beating heart?

Corniglia was village number two that left us speechless.  After staggering up the steps, we dashed from one potential viewing spot to another desperately searching that x-factor.  Yet scruffy buildings with broken windows, dark, narrow streets with people competing for air and a couple of vistas promising a view to die for and delivering something very underwhelming, was our prize.  Were we missing something? Perhaps because of our travels we have just experienced too many wows in our memory bank that have to compete for our affections – is this is danger of our travelling lifestyle? And yet, not less than two days previously we found a ‘wow’ at Portovenere, so we knew it couldn’t just be a laissez-faire mindset and we so wanted to feel the love.

For the moment though it was Portovenere 2 CT 0.

Riomaggiore

Such was our disappointment and tiredness, if we’re honest, we decided to miss Manarola. We heard a less than positive review from a lady who was staying there, so would Riomaggiore be our final saving grace? It’s true that this most easterly village had a certain charm as its roads rose steeply into the mountain bedrock above it and its streets swooped down to the sea below.  Some buildings had been newly painted, creating something similar to the  magazine images, although we still felt there was something missing.  You need to be fit to wander the streets of this village, as in your pursuit to explore the real village and not just the high street geared for tourists, you will need to climb towards the gods – and the stairways are unforgiving.

As our experience came to an end and we reflected on our day out in the Famous Five, what would our honest appraisal be in influencing future visitors?  I would love to report that this is a ’must’ on your Italy tour, although with all integrity I cannot.  Clearly all experiences are coloured by our own conditioning and the truth is that you must make up your own mind.  I’m really glad we went and we did have a fabulous day together – travel after all is not a Utopian experience – you must experience all sides of a place to truly be enriched. Although these are the factors that influenced our experience; the villages are over-run with expensive ferry arrivals and tour groups.  The villages seem to have lost their souls, selling them to the Tourism devil and it felt to us that they had sacrificed their authenticity for the sake of the crowds, of which we were part, of course.  The buildings look tired, unloved and shabby and fishing boats had been replaced by motorboats looking for their next experience-hungry customer. The marketing of the area creates an expectation that, in reality didn’t match up for us. We hoped for so much more.

Portovenere

Photoshop certainly gives us an illusion of Cinque Terre at its best and if you are looking for a genuine insight into the villagers’ way of life back in the day, you may be left sadly disappointed.  You can of course say that you have ticked off Cinque Terre, although unless you are wiling to stay in each village for a short period during November to March then I’m not sure you will feel its real heart-beat.  Our advice is visit Portovenere as this is what encompasses our expectation of the Cinque Terre and it was the ‘wow’ that we were looking for.

Final verdict? Portovenere 4, Cinque Terre 1

Travel Tips for Cinque Terre

  • You can buy a One Day Cinque Terre ticket for €16pp and this gives you access to the walking paths, the Shuttle Buses, the Hop On, Hop Off Train and the toilets that are normally charged at €1 per wee!  We bought our tickets from La Spezia Train station.
  • Tickets must be validated at the Green Machines before getting on the train.
  • You can go by Ferry, which depart regularly from Portovenere, Lerici and Levanto.  From Portovenere it costs €33 per person and is subject to weather conditions.  Please remember that the Ferry does not stop at Corniglia. From people we spoke to, the ferry is a tiring option, only because linking up to departure times can cause a lot of hanging around and the transfer from one village to another is a lot longer than the trains, which generally go every 30 minutes.
  • If taking the train, you can buy a single ticket for €4 one-way, although this will only take you to one village.  You must then buy another €4 ticket for each separate journey you wish to take.  So if you only want to do a couple of villages each day, then this could be a cheaper option than buying separate Day Tickets.
  • The tower at Vernazza castle costs €1.50 to enter and you really only spend five minutes up there. You will need to be fit to climb the steps that leads to the Ticket Office, so be aware of this and the costs before you make the climb.
  • You can take a small dog on the train and boat for free.  You will need either a dog carrier for the train or carry the dog and take a muzzle.  For a larger dog, check before you travel and make sure you have your dog passport.
  • If you take the train, take note of the departure schedule so you can manage how long you spend in each village.  This way you don’t waste valuable time waiting for a train’s arrival.  They are not always on time.
  • Visiting all five villages in one day by train is doable, although it is a tough schedule that doesn’t really allow for any chilling or lunch/refreshment breaks.  We did three villages in our day trip over about four hours and with the walks to and from the station, it makes for a long day.  Ideally to enjoy the villages take two days.
  • You can hike between the villages if you are keen walkers, although some of the paths are still damaged by the 2011 storms, so please enquire before deciding to walk.  http://www.cinqueterre.it
  • To visit Cinque Terre, you must have a reasonable level of fitness due to the steepness of the alleyways, towers and paths to and from the train stations.  The villages are not all Pram or Wheelchair friendly, so please consider this in your plans and get advice before travelling.
  • Of course you can travel by car to each of the villages, although this will add a significant amount of time to your visit as there are no direct coastal roads that link each village. So the mountain roads will need to be navigated to reach each one.
  • You can reach Portovenere by car or bus.  The yellow bus leaves La Spezia from Via Garibaldi and it takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the town and costs €5 return.