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.

 

 

Setting a Route for Greece

Setting a Route for Greece

Sitting in Spain at the beginning of the year, we started contemplating the next chapter in our Motoroaming adventures – our Greek Odyssey.  How best to get there?  Did we go overland and take two weeks to get there with the investment of diesel, wear and tear on the van and campsite fees or use the ferries, via Italy?

A conundrum indeed.  Even after a year on the road, we still feel like we’re building our confidence and we have plenty of green tendencies in our nomadic life. So the thought of travelling through Albania and Bosnia didn’t greet us with huge joy, especially given that our insurance wouldn’t cover us in those countries and we would need to reply on buying insurance at the Borders.

At this stage on our trip, we decided that going by ferry was the right option for us just now.  So we have documented our route, costs, camping spots and experiences so that if you have the same contemplation any day soon, this may help your planning.

Leaving Spain – It’s Grim all the way

Grimaldi Ferry Embarkation

After three months over winter in Spain, we wanted to get to Greece for springtime, given that the summers would most likely be too hot for us (read me – Myles was born in Cyprus so he’s a sun-baby).  So leaving end of March or beginning of April gave the weather enough time to warm up and yet not fry us to a crisp.

We decided to go from Barcelona to Italy, then cross the country to Bari, then catch a second sailing to Igoumenitsa, just south of the Albania border.  Barcelona offers two ferry operators; Grimaldi Lines who go to Savona and Civitavecchia and GNV to Genoa.  Barcelona is such a great option as before you sail, you could fit in a quick city tour, a visit to Monserrat up in the mountains and Sitges to the south has to be on the cards.  Here’s our Guide to Barcelona, without Blisters to help make the most of your visit here.

We took the Civitavecchia route so we would arrive on Italy’s west coast – just north of Rome.  Genoa or Savona are cheaper, although after nine weeks in Italy in 2016, we decided to short-circuit the Italian leg and save the bone-rattling ride.  Such is our eagerness to begin our Greek experience.  Sadly Grimaldi lives up to its name and it aptly describes both their ferry and service. We booked through Direct Ferries to get the best price, which was €410, far cheaper than with Grimaldi direct.

It is no cruise liner that’s for sure.  Sailings leave Barcelona at 2215, so there’s plenty of time to navigate through the rush-hour traffic, check in and have some supper.  Although be warned that as an Italian manned boat, embarkation can be flakey and disorganised at best.  That said we did get away on time, although I think we were lucky, having heard other stories.  The boat is tired and has no personality, although for 20 hours, if you can get your head down for a good night’s sleep, then a third of your journey will be over by the morning.  Our sailing was affected by 500 excitable and un-supervised teenagers running riot until 0100 and not having a working toilet due to a system problem, caused a lot of unnecessary stress.  Still a discussion with reception the next morning landed us a free lunch so that was some compensation.

You arrive into Civitavecchia around 1815 and depending on where you are parked, you will be off the boat within 45 minutes.  Again a bit of a free-for-all, although with no passport control you are through the port in no time at all.  So from here, where to next?

An overnighter outside Rome

If you’ve not visited Rome before, then this is a must.  It’s a beautiful city with an abundance of ancestry and religion to whet your whistle.  Having already ‘done’ Rome, we decided to get out into the country and I had earmarked Bracciano Lake, just under an hour away, east of the city.  There are a lot of camping options along the lake, a number of which are ACSI sites, although we had our eye on Blue Lake Camperstop in Trevignano Romano. ( Co-ordinates N42° 9.522′ E12° 13.441’)   This is a super site for €15 per night, out of season with hook up and only has 28 pitches.  You are right by the lake if you wanted to stop for some RnR, Trevignano is only a mile along the charming promenade full of restaurants, supermarkets and a dominating castle.

From Coast to Coast

Italy, Coast to Coast in 3.5hrs, click to enlarge

We decided to skedaddle cross-country to explore the east coast, which was new territory for us.  Knowing how bad the Italian roads are, we plumbed for the quickest and shortest route possible.  Now sadly this meant motorways, one of which was a toll, although as you’ll see from our route, our 150 miles took us through some stunning mountain scenery, only cost us €27.30, which was cheap at half the price. Within three and half hours we were looking at the sparkling Adriatic Sea with the promise of Greek lands just across the horizon.  Now we were in touching distance.

Petacciato Marina, Italy

Our overnighter was in Petacciato Marina, south of Pescara. ( Co-ordinates N42° 2.175′ E14° 51.078’ )  It was a dedicated Motorhome Parking area right alongside the beachfront and although there were some suspicious looking car manoeuvres that had me on edge, we actually had an uneventful night.  There is a railway not far although there are no trains at night and the views of the beach are to die for. Oh and it was free, out of season.  €3 during season when the Office at the end of the road is open.  There are no services, although for the night, that is ok.

From here we fancied exploring the peninsular that is home to the Gargano National Park, partly because on the map it is full of green – we like green. It was a bizarre journey because our destination for the night – Vieste was only 88 miles, although with a stop for lunch and a bit of shopping took over four hours.  Although you’ll understand why if you do the route.  There are more twists and turns in this road than Shirley Temple’s locks.  Hugging the coast, then up into the mountains, you weave around the peninsular being treated to some stunning scenery. It is totally worth the trip.

Be warned that out of season, i.e. before Easter, not many of the campsites are open and in fact, throughout the whole journey we only saw two with welcome signs outside. And there really are no wild camping opportunities around here.  Even the Apps indicate Sostas were open, when in reality they are not.  We found our welcome haven just the other side of Vieste – Camping Adriatico ( Co-ordins N41° 51.547′ E16° 10.453’ ) and for €16, paid in cash, we stopped a while to rest our travel weary souls.

The rest of the journey around the peninsular is wonderful, if not a bit hairy with full concentration needed.  Still it is a stunning part of the country and in fact we would go as far as to say that it is one of the better regions of Italy, especially the southern region.  In fact we are really drawn to the south-eastern region and will definitely return.

Alberobello and her Trulli

Our route then took us to Matera and Alberobello.  Matera is an iconic cave-dwelling town that has built up around a limestone gorge, carved by the river and perched on the cliff face.  This stunning place is full of rock chapels and houses that show you life before cement and timber.  An hour away, Alberobello is one of the most unique places that you’ll ever visit, with a whole section of the ‘old’ village still with their Trulli, (small, dry-stone buildings that are made mortar-free, the roofs of which come off to avoid paying tax).  Sounds sensible to me.  With reluctance, we headed off to Bari for our second ferry within the week, with hopes that this one would be better than the previous week’s debacle.

 Ship ahoy!  Bari, Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece

Our second ferry crossing after six days in Italy, sailed from Bari on the south-east coast of Italy.  We sailed with Anek Lines and when we arrived at the port, seeing a burnt out ship didn’t give us great expectations.  Although we were pleasantly surprised, in fact highly delighted.  This firm is terrific.  You can sleep on board your camper, which is a bonus and on board the boat, it is just classy.  A whole different world than GRIMaldi Lines.  One recommendation we would make is, if you want to fill up your fridge/freezer before hitting Greece, don’t do it in Bari.  Trying to find and get to one of the supermarkets and then out again was a nightmare and added unnecessary stress to our journey.  So shop the day before en route, would be my suggestion.

Check-In, however is tricky as there’s no clear signs as to where you get your tickets.  The Greece embarkation is right at the end of the Bari Terminal and when you see a large blue building on your right, stop there.  This is the check-in.

We used a recommended travel specialist from Crete (as we’re moving on to here in May) who co-ordinated our Italy and Greece legs and so we managed to get some great discounts that I was unable to secure through Direct Ferries or the companies themselves.  Aria is seriously worth talking to, so very helpful;

Paleologos S.A
Shipping & Travel Enterprises
5, 25th August Str.
712 02 Heraklion – Crete – Greece.
TEL: (+30) 2810 346185

aria@paleologos.her.forthnet.gr

The best tip for 2018 is to book before 28 February for an extra big ‘early bird’ discount.  I would highly recommend using them to secure every discount you can, given that the prices are quite high.  So with our discounts, our trip from Bari to Igoumenitsa cost us €237.50, given our 7.5m van.  (They charge by the metre of your vehicle).  The sailing is 9 hours, leaving at 1930pm arriving in Greece at 0530 the following morning, which don’t forget is another hour ahead than western Europe.

It was the easiest disembarkation we’ve ever experienced on any ferry and, living on the Isle of Man for 20 years, we did our fair share.  You’re off in 15 minutes and out of the port, check-free and ready to hit the road.  There are two petrol stations just five minutes out of the port and they are open.  They also sell LPG there too.  The prices are marginally cheaper than Italy, at €1.32 – April 2017.

Wild camping, Drepano, Greece

So ready to hit the road?  Perhaps not, given the time of the morning, so if you want to just place your head down for some extra ZZZs and ground yourself in this beautiful country, then head over to Drepano, which is 15 minutes north of Igoumenitsa.  It’s on a road that separates a lagoon from the bay, so you have flamingoes one side, the sea the other and you can camp up right on the beach.  Although there are signs saying NO CAMPING, out of season when the ACSI site just on the corner is not open, camping seems to be tolerated.  Well at least there were four of us when we arrived first thing in the morning. (Co-ordinates; 39.515513  20.212752)  It’s such a beautiful place to start your Greek adventure and it’s great to watch the ferries move in and out.

And so there we have our route to Greece from Spain.  Obviously there are other routes such as taking the road, going through eastern Europe and other Italian ferries, although this was how ours panned out.  In addition you could check out:

  • Ancona – Igoumenitsa or Patras
  • Venice – Igoumenitsa or Patras
  • Brindisi – Igoumenitsa or Patras
  • Trieste – Igoumenitsa or Patras
  • Ravenna – Igoumenitsa or Patras

For a full break down of sailing options and the different ferry companies available, this is a good website, you can then make plans in the best way to suit your budget and your timescales.

http://www.greekferries.gr

We wish you happy Greece adventures and safe travels wherever you are.

The Motoroamers.

Greece Ferry options, click to enlarge

Drepano wild camping, Greece, click to enlarge

Alberobello

As recommendations go this one was a belter. If you’re ever darn sarf in Italy check this place out. Think Clovelly in Devon and you won’t be far off. We really enjoyed our afternoon.

Porto Venere, Italy

Porto Venere, Italy

Along the coastline from Cinque Terre on Italy’s riviera coastline lies Porto Venere, just west of La Spezia. One of our favourite spots along that particular coast, it’s cozy, has charm and is a delight to go and visit.