25th March……Cinque Terre (5 Villages)
We were up early and at 9.30 we boarded the campsite, free minibus to take us to the station in this small town of Deiva Marina. This is an unmanned station and we had to go to the local tobacconist to buy our train tickets to take us just 5 stops to get to Monterosso al Mare.
Our treat for the day was to visit the five villages that are virtually, only accessible by train, by foot and by boat, depending on the tides. These well-known tourist attractions are called Cinque Terre and the rugged, steep area around all the villages all the way down to La Spezia is called the Parco Nazionale Della Cinque Terre. So at Monterosso station we bought a ticket each costing 12 euros which then allowed us to hop on and off the trains that ran to or near each of these coastal towns built into the hills. The ticket also included free travel on small buses that plied between station and town. Armed with the appropriate guidebooks we went around Monterosso which is the first of these towns and despite the train tickets decided to walk the 3 Kilometers to Vernazza which is the next of these special 5 towns and we had been told that the best views of this place is from the foot path. This was no easy walk, we went up and up rough windy paths which often were so narrow and so rough under foot.
Every time we thought the path was levelling out then there would be another incline. Just to show how dangerous the path was; all the way along there were numbered signs showing the global position of each sign, the contact numbers for air rescue and even pictures to show the correct signals to be able to say yes or no to the rescuer in the helicopter above you. We have done some coastal walking in our time but never on a track like this! Why hadn’t we taken the train? About ¾ of the way on, as we rounded a corner and there was an old Italian man with a table at the bottom of his garden and on it were oranges and various different homemade drinks. We bought 2 oranges off him and he charged us 1euro each for them and they were worth every cent. Finally we came to the view we had worked so hard to see. We had a look around and decided between ourselves that from then on we would take the train between each town.
As the day went on we took the train to Corriglia, then to Manarola and next to Riomaggiore and for good measure we then went on to the large town of La Spezia for a quick tour. To finish our day we relaxed on the train all the way back to Deiva Marina.
We had to go back over the mountains towards our next destination and as we were near the top we came across large sections of the road which had broken up and in places long cracks had opened up in the tarmac. We had, earlier in our travels, been warned about the bad road surfaces in Southern Italy and here we were not even in Tuscany and the jars in ours cupboards were playing quite a tune as we drove along. We headed for Viareggio and then intended to continue on to Lucca. Although this was a longer way to get to Lucca it meant we left the mountain roads much sooner and once on the flat roads then we made much quicker progress. As we pass the towns and villages that are on our route I am all the time looking for the strange, the beautiful or the unique thing that just demands that I pull over to get the camera out once again. The following picture I took in a non-descript village yesterday is a perfect example of the sort of thing that I love to come across.
The why will never be answered but the eccentric that thinks that this is art will always intrigue me and the car parked in the front of the house hides a rowing boat also stacked up with bicycles. It certainly makes you wonder what his neighbours thought when he first erected his artwork to decorate his house in this way.
We had to drive through Viareggio and on the outskirts we came across a car park with six motorhomes parked on it so we pulled in and parked among the all Italian vans. It was quite early so we decided to stop there for a couple of hours before continuing on our way. What a treat because we came across a large train station and suddenly this place was looking like it would be a good base for a few days so we could travel around to various tourist attractions using the rail network. We then headed out towards the sea and the port. In the town we wandered around a market and then came across the widest promenade imaginable where what looked like one side of a dual carriageway had been pedestrianised with boutique and fancy goods shops all down one side and behind that were cafes, restaurants and holiday type amusement arcades. Past that there was a very large beach. I do not know how long this promenade went on for because we turned round and walked back to look at the port. What a lovely place so we spent more time there than we had intended so we didn’t move on. A free night on the carpark parked amongst the other Italian motorhomes. It was not until much later on that evening that we discovered the vans were owned by residents of the houses around us and we were the only ones encamped in our motorhome.
What a great day we have had today. As we drove closer to our destination we saw large plots of land filled with very large lumps of marble and on a couple of these plots we saw men cutting the marble into slices. On other plots we saw marble for sale that had already been cut and polished. Once we had driven the 18 miles to Lucca we parked on a camperstop which was within the town and just a relatively short walk to get to the old city. Lucca is one of the few cities in the world that have maintained its Renaissance circle of walls intact. We walked all around the top of these huge walls along the grassy rampart path which encircles the old city. All the old buildings and the many statues and monuments made a fascinating sightseeing day.
There are many old churches in all different styles and of course there is the magnificent cathedral. It makes you wonder where they find sufficient numbers of worshippers to make use of that many pew spaces. Largely pedestrianised, the historic centre is a joy to walk around ……….as long as you watch out for the many cyclists that pedal their way around the streets. I think we were nearly mown down about six times during our visit there. This city is well known for its culture, art and music and great composers such as Boccherini, Catalini and Puccini and we came across a grand statue of Puccini near the theatre where he is sitting, comfortably in an armchair enjoying a cigarette.
In July the music world comes to Lucca and between the 1st and the 28th the range of stars that will be appearing at their annual music festival include Elton John, Robbie Williams, Snoop Dog, Bob Dylan and The Script to name a few. I wonder if the motorhome stop will still only be 10 euros for the night with all those stars performing in the city.
Something really nice happened this morning. The sun was shining so I went out in just a T-shirt despite Elaine’s advice to take a jacket with me when we went out. We were just walking around a section of the walls when the sky darkened and it started to hail. We dashed off the exposed walls and headed into the narrow streets to see if we could find some shelter there. We passed an old gentleman who was just taking his bicycle into his doorway. He called me back and reached into his hall and there in his hand was an umbrella which he gave to me. What a nice man and what a nice thing to do. I have decided that I will wait for an opportunity to be able to make someone else’s day by presenting them with the umbrella when they are caught unexpectedly in inclement weather.
Just 13 miles back down some windy roads we arrived at Pisa. We parked in a camperstop and being a weekend and with the weather being definitely on the up then most of the motorhomes were Italian and there were 2 German and 1 French motorhome and we were the only English van there however another English couple pulled in here whilst we were out. Seeing all these Italian motorhomes parked here has made us think that we really need to get somewhere booked for Easter which is fast approaching.
We walked through one of the entrances through the walls that surround the old part of Pisa and walked through the streets until we came to a Piazza where a local fete was going on which included stalls similar to ones you would find on a farmers market. We had a fascinating conversation with a Welsh girl who had studied geology in Italy and had a stall selling self-made jewellery for sale but despite the fact that we had the girl’s life history; Elaine didn’t feel forced to buy any of the brooches and earrings that were for sale.
Obviously we had come to Pisa to see one thing so we made our way there. As soon as that iconic tower came into view my shutter pressing finger started to quiver in excitement. When we came to the area of the cathedral you instantly got to see what every picture ever taken of that leaning tower cannot be without. Photographers everywhere on their knees with their partner looking foolish with their hand held at funny angles, high in the air, getting shouted at to move the hand in or out so that the resultant picture looked like their subject was stopping the tower from falling. We walked round to the other end of the huge square and here the entertainment was even better. Here girls were made to perch precariously on top of rounded topped bollards to get exactly the same effect without the photographer having to be on their knees. Top marks to the Japanese lad who was forced to jump in the air to do karate kicks over and over by his father trying to make out his son was kicking the tower over.
The whole area is called the Piazza del Duomo and the monuments that make this square “the Square of Miracles” are the Cathedral, the Tower, the Baptistery and the Monument Cemetery and the carvings on these buildings are truly amazing. These monuments were built by various artists over a 300 year period.
I think I have a different photo of the leaning tower to everyone else. I put my camera at an angle so my picture of the tower I am most pleased with is one that makes the tower look upright and it is just the ground that is at a funny angle. We came out from the walls and walked down to the river only to see a very wide, muddy coloured river with some quite nice terraces of house running either side. We went down towards the station to a large piazza which was nice to see but nothing special. We headed back into the centre past some churches and followed a wider road with designer shops either side. Still my camera remained untroubled and we crossed the bridge back over the river and even though I did take a couple more photos it was really so that I could see it still worked .
Pisa was great and I am really glad we went there. After 3 hours only we were back at our motorhome and basking in the sun until the owners of the other English motorhome came back and we spent a happy hour comparing notes on our respective travels.
What a nice easy drive we had this morning after we left Pisa. No mountain passes, no white knuckle ride for Elaine. We were heading for Florence and once we got out of Pisa we picked up on a duel carriageway which took us at 90 kilometers an hour all the way to the outskirts of Florence. The 60 miles was done in no time at all and we were soon parked up and walking towards this walled city. Elaine and I have both read Dan Brown’s Inferno where Professor Robert Langdon describes this city as he ventures through it whilst trying to save the world and ward off people he thought were trying to kill him. We were both very eager to try to find some of the fascinating places that were described in the book.
We walked down the hill and went through the huge arch (The Porta Romana) right beside the entrance to the Giardino Di Boboli, a beautiful, structured garden full of statues which led to the Palazzo Pitti which now houses six museums and over the other side of the park near the end is the Forte de Belvedere. Out of the garden we crossed the Ponte Vecchio which
Professor Langdon crossed in the book and this very old bridge has overhanging shops either side. Long ago these shops sold meat and general supplies but now all these shops are occupied by jewellers and the crowds of sightseers here on this narrow bridge made it impossible for Elaine and I to stay together: I had lost her again! Once reunited, we went either side of the river so I could photograph the bridge and all the building that backed onto the very wide river. We then went through the Palazzo Del Bargello a fabulous, long area where artists sit every day selling their painting. The artists back in history were there to paint the condemned prisoners just before they were executed here and Botticelli spent some time doing such commissions. The huge covered arches either side of this long courtyard make this such an impressive backdrop to the artists and their artwork.
At the end we could see a very high clock tower and entered the massive Piazza Signora and the clock tower was attached to the Uffizi Gallery. So already we had ticked off the gardens, the bridge, the Palazzo Del Bargello and now we were standing in front of the very Gallery where the early action took place in Dan Brown’s book before the plot moved onto Venice. This Piazza had large statues all around it and in one covered area there were lots more impressive statues. We followed the map and found all of the important places as we walked around the city. For me the most impressive building is the Cathedral and this intricately carved marble clad building is beautifully decorated all the way round and I was taken aback by skill it must have taken just to have made the carved spindles of white marble that were either side of every window. The queues to get into the different entrances of the cathedral went a long way round this impressive building but it was well worth the wait.
I could go on and on about what we saw today. After our walk down to the city and around the garden and to all the historic buildings we saw and then back up the mile long trek to the motorhome, we were two very tired but very happy people after a fabulous day touring this enchanting city.
30th March………..San Gimignano
We drove to San Gimignano expecting to stay on a 12 euro a night camperstop. What a shame, the machine to take the parking fee was out of order so the barriers were up and we had to stay the night there for free. The bus service down to this beautiful walled town was a regular service every hour so we were soon on our way into town. On the way there was the perfect place to get a great picture of this town perched on top of a hill with its wall all around it. The only thing is I couldn’t take the picture from the bus because of the telephone wires that would have spoilt the picture.
Once we had gone in through the gate into the town we soon discovered what an unspoilt place this is. Obviously there are a lot of shops selling touristy type goods but it certainly didn’t spoil the ambiance of the place. This is a flourishing medieval city and was a very rich place back in the 13th Century due to the international trade and production of saffron and the financial speculation and usury led to a rich aristocracy of travelling merchants. Some of their money went on building the palaces and public works which are there for us to enjoy today. These rich families living within the walls were bitter enemies so to show their wealth and power each of these families had built huge towers and the higher and more substantial the tower the more, rich and powerful the family were. The enmity of the families, the continuous famines and the decimation of the Black Death brought an end to this golden age back in 1315. San Gimignano’s historical centre is listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
Rather than taking the bus back to our parking place for the night we decided to walk back so that I could take the picture I hadn’t been able to take on the way down.
Our visit to Siena was not the best day we have had even though it started off in a surprisingly good way. We came off the SS2 main road at the exit showing the centre of Siena. Almost straight away we came across a very large carpark by a large sports area and at one end of the car park we saw around 40 motorhomes all parked together. We pulled in and got ourselves parked. A man was doing something to his car so we asked him which way we had to walk to get to the centre of the city. He pointed and said it was about 3 kilometers away. We started walking and the next minute he had pulled up beside us and beckoned us to get into his car. He spoke no English but we gleaned from his pointing that he was taking lots of short cuts to get us to the centre. He took so many rights and lefts that at one point Elaine whispered to me that maybe he was kidnapping us and who did we know that would pay the ransom to get us released. He pulled up, finally, and there we were right in the midst of the historical centre.
Normally we will walk in to whichever town we are visiting so we can always retrace our steps to get back to where we started. With all his left and right turns we immediately knew we had a problem because as our stop had been impromptu then we didn’t even know the name of the area where we were parked. Difficult to compare but Siena is probably the size of Coventry and our motorhome was somewhere. We weren’t going to let a little problem like our lost “home” spoil our visit so we started going around some of the fabulous sights.
Needless to say my camera was working overtime until we got round to the front of the breath taking cathedral. We haven’t been plugged into an electricity point for about 7 days and have been relying on the leisure batteries for our power. My camera battery was flat so I could now not take that photo or any other. We bought some postcards of the places I couldn’t photograph and then we thought we had better concentrate on finding our home on wheels.
We found a police station but the officer behind the desk was no help at all and wouldn’t pass us onto an officer that understood English. We went to the tourist office and explained that we had come off the road SS2 at the central Sienna junction and we explained about the large carpark and the sports facilities all around. Just as well we didn’t take her advice as the number 20 bus she said to take would have taken us in totally the wrong direction. We hailed a taxi and the taxi driver let me speak to the dispatcher who spoke excellent English. From my description he knew exactly where we were parked and soon the taxi driver was dropping us off by our motorhome. The taxi driver pointed at the sign saying where we were and intimated that we should take a photo with our phone so we could remember where we had left the van.
Note to self……do not take lifts from strangers and make a note of where we leave the motorhome from now on.
We drove 143 miles today to get to a campsite that was opening up for the season on this very day. We had passed Perugia and the dual carriageway / motorway we were on had a solid concrete central reservation right beside the carriageway. Lorries here are restricted to 80 kilometers an hour on this sort of road so we had passed lots of HGV’s up to this point. In front was another such vehicle so I pulled out and as we got to the centre of his trailer he suddenly veered out towards us. Suddenly there was no room for us and I couldn’t pull out any more because of the solid concrete wall on our left hand side. Sudden braking at when you are doing 95 kilometers an hour is not recommended but was necessary at that moment. He missed us but only just and luckily we didn’t have anyone close behind us at that moment. We caught this lorry up later on and I very sensibly opted to follow it at a safe distance until it turned off the motorway later on.
Moving on from the picturesque Tuscany we have now entered the region of Umbria, its beautiful countryside has earned it the title ‘Il Cuore Verde d’Italia’ – The Green Heart of Italy. We have pulled into the campsite and other than Italians who had little encampments around caravans and those that were there were getting their summer homes ready for the season We were the first travelers to arrive and we had the choice of parking where ever we wanted so we chose the lake side of the camp. This is just so peaceful and as long as it stays this way then we will probably stay until after the Easter break is over. We are only 1 hour 20 minutes from Rome and the following photos are just some of the views we are getting as we drink in the peace and quiet and tranquillity of this campsite.
The snow topped mountains are the Gran Sasso d’Italia ‘The Big Rock’ at 2914 metres above sea level and are the highest range of mountains in the famous Campo Imperatore mountain range. We may even find time to sample the favourite dish of this region – vincisgrassis, a rich lasagne made with prosciutto, cream and black truffles. Italy has two key truffle areas, Alba in Piedmont and in and around Umbria in Norcia and Spoleto. So, quite near to where we are staying.
It will be nice just to relax and give the sightseeing a rest. The sun is shining and the field we are parked in has grass as green as any you would see in England. After the parched, baron scrublands of Spain then it is really nice to relax in these convivial surroundings.
This is a very long blog because we have not had sufficiently good wi-fi to upload the photos and to send all of this which I have worked on as we have travelled around. I will give the blog a rest until we get on our way again unless anything happens worthy on me giving and update so, happy Easter to you all and hope you are able to find the relaxation we are finding here.