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Saturday, 29 March 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Venice to Stia

16th March.
Our departure from Venice was shrouded in a grey mist. The Riviera del Brenta had been mentioned to us several times, so we decided to take a look on route to Padova.
The much touted villas along the river were nothing special, some of the larger ones were in a state of dereliction. We didn't find anything in Padova to keep us there either so it was back to the coast at Chioggia and the reclaimed marshland of the Po Delta.

Sottomarina seemed a bit like an Italian version of Great Yarmouth, plenty of campsites, but all very tight on space for motorhomes.
Feeling there must be something better we pressed on to Rosolina Mare on a spit of land sticking out into the Gulf of Venice.
Near the beach front we were met with the sight of a dozen or so campers on patches of open ground. Sue checked the situation with a guy from the nearest group who basically said "come on in and join the party". After we had parked up, the Italian gent Sue had spoken to came over and with a smile and a bit of chat, presented her with a cutting from an Olive tree. A nice gesture.

Walking to the beach, it was obvious that the resort was waking up from its seasonal slumber. The winter storms had covered the cafes and paths with sand and they had several bulldozers out to clear it all.
The small town was ok, streets sheltered by pines, though it seemed to have as many shoe shops as it did ice cream parlours!
By the time we returned all but 4 of the vans had left. Why? Then it occurred to us that it was Sunday - some people have to work!

17th March.
In the morning Rosolina Mare was utterly deserted, a ghost town of holiday apartments.
Heading down into the Po Delta, we enjoyed the sight of luxuriant green fields bisected by canals, and the sun had finally broken through.
After driving down a few dead ends we found a spot for lunch by the water and it felt so pleasant we decided to linger. Got the cover off the bikes and went for a spin along the bankside.

18th March.
Examining some more of the Po Delta, we drove along the banks of the Po delle Tolle to the headland, then around the Sacca degli Scardovari - a vast lagoon - the banks of which are festooned with hundreds of fishing huts on stilts. Fishing is the main industry in these parts, local species include bass, eels and catfish. The actual waters of the lagoon are covered in mussel farms, and oysters and clams are also collected. It's possible to hire a boat and try your luck with the Pesce Siluro or Fresh Water Shark. Offshore there is Tuna and Shark.

Moving on, we came across this Camper Sosta at Casal Borsetti, a small beach resort, 20km North of Ravenna. It looks excellent, with a couple of hundred large pitches in tree lined avenues (30 with electric hookup), a wooded picnic area and the beach just a few minutes walk away.

It was marred however with this daft system that "end of day" was midnight - which meant that if you arrived mid afternoon and left mid morning (as most people do) you had to pay for 2 days! At €8 a day, it wasn't going to break the bank, but most of the vans, including us, voted with their feet (wheels really) at 0800.
Other minus points were an overly restrictive hookup procedure, and the guy who came late in the evening to collect the money and then tried to open the van door before we answered. A well appointed private site in a good location, but some strange ideas. (GPS 44.5490N 12.2798E)

19th March.
Decided to drive into Ravenna, the idea being to park on one of two sostas in the town, do the sights and move on. Enjoying the pinewood glades of Marina Romea (supposed to have inspired the likes of Dante, Byron and Botticelli) we suddenly emerged from the trees and hit this vast industrial/chemical complex that continues all the way to the city. On one side of the road is the canal and ancient marshlands, with its fishing huts - on the other side, bulk oil storage and huge cement works.

Eventually locating one of the city sostas, we found all the motorhome bays full, the vans mostly covered with a thick layer of dust, obviously not been used for a while. Where next?
Feeling like we should have stayed in Borsetti and come in on the bus, we found our way out of town towards San Apollinare in Classe - noted for its 6th Century Basilica, which is well worth a visit.

Nearby was a totally empty sosta, but not being keen on leaving the van in the area, we headed for Lido di Classe south of Ravenna, hoping for a more secluded parkup. Entering this quiet town past a large "Sexy Shop" sign (a common occurrence since we hit the coast) we failed to find the promised sosta for campers. There did seem to be a lot of mini-skirted young ladies out for a stroll however!

Slightly out of town we came across La Casina, an Agriturismo campsite, complete with restaurant. Charmed by the welcome we received, we decided to stay, even at €20 a night.
A simple but excellent meal of bruschetta, home made pasta and a litre carafe of vino rosso came to €34.

20th March. Lido di Classe.
Flashed up the Vodafone modem again. A network search revealed only 2G roaming but a few minutes in, it suddenly switched to 3G and gave us around 1Mb/sec all day. Brilliant, what a great little gadget.

21st March.
30 minutes walk away from the La Casina is the train station, the journey into Ravenna only 10 minutes ride. A return ticket (once you have sussed the machine instructions) is €3.20

We had mixed feelings about Ravenna, despite its heritage. It was made the capital of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, it's Adriatic port opening up trade with the Greek world and thus assuring its influence over the Italian peninsula for centuries. One result was a collection of ecclesiastical buildings that appear on the must see list.
The key component of these monuments is the interior mosaics, though to the untutored eye (such as mine) they all appear to have had the same interior decorator!

The mosaics are as stunning as you could imagine, and in superb condition thanks to a program of ongoing restoration. The city is home to a school of Mosaic and we witnessed one of its artisans at work in a workshop. The individual pieces are shaped between a sharpened anvil and cross pointed hammer, the mosaic held by the fingers! The artist's dedication to her art was almost painful to watch.

On the modern front, a look at Ravenna's current "Welcome to" tourist brochure reveals its pretensions as a city of culture for the future, though the promotion of a Disney style, interactive video attraction based on America's New York destroyed after the apocalypse seemed a slightly unnerving choice - to a middle aged man with little experience of video games!

As we passed through a piazza proclaimed as an alcohol free zone, we gave an unhappy looking group of teenagers a wide berth. An open case of beer on the grass in front of them, they tossed their empty bottles against the graffiti ingrained white marble of an unused public building, tattered flags still hanging from its poles. It is apparent you can put video cameras on every corner - and Ravenna has plenty - but it's not doing much to solve any social problems.

22nd March.
After a cursory glance at Rimini we passed into the Republic of San Marino, an independent country, founded by Marinus, a Dalmatian stone-cutter in the middle ages.

Only 61 sq km, roughly square, with the 750m Mount Titano at the centre, San Marino has its own government, its own army and police force, even its own currency (though the Euro is in normal use). Perhaps significantly for a political system that has managed to last for centuries, the Captains Regent or Chief Executives have to be reconfirmed in their position every six months!

Driving up to Mount Titano, we entered the town of Borgo Maggiore and were amazed to find an enormous free motorhome park, directly below the cable car for the summit. It is terraced into the hillside, with room for a couple of hundred vans and complete with a motorhome service point, even some electrical supplies. It was more or less packed with Italian vans for Easter weekend but we nevertheless managed to find a pitch with a super view over the countryside below.

The cable car to the ancient town of San Marino is €4.50 for a return ticket and takes only a few minutes. Walking through the narrow cobbled streets reminded me of Mont St Michel on the French coast, but I was soon taken aback by the realistic replica guns, ceremonial swords and grisly knife-based weapons freely for sale - the sort of stuff that would get you a swift arrest in the UK. The rest was the usual tourist tat, but a few serious leather, jewellry and camera shops.
When it was well dark we took the cable car back down, and the view was spectacular.

23rd March.
Decided to have another look at San Marino, there are several museums to see, and the three towers that also appear on the national flag. Fortunately we went prepared for rain. It started a warm sunny day, but soon the rain came, colder and colder, colder still, until the snow began to settle. We took refuge in a jewellry shop, looking for the watch Sue had promised me.

A break for lunch and we ordered calzone - a sort of pizza, rolled up into a huge Cornish pasty, with ham, cheese and mushroom, really excellent.

By now the snow was several inches deep and the rest of the country was lost from view. The streets were treacherous and we revisited the shop. The sales girl was smart, a Slovakian, fluent also in English, Italian, German and Russian and dreaming of living in Australia. Anyhow, we left with my new Swiss watch, assuredly cheaper than Switzerland - a claim which our figures bore out.
Back to the park, and some vans were moving, slip-sliding all over, a nervous time because of our position at the entrance to a terrace. Later it quietened down and the snow plough/gritter came out.

24th March.
In the morning the sun was out and the snow had all but disappeared. Weird.
Our Italian neighbours, who had corralled themselves into a circle for two days thus denying other vans a parking place, departed leaving bags of rubbish in the bushes. Maddening, to us, when there were ample bins a few yards away. The local authorities who had provided such an excellent facility - and free of charge - must wonder why they bother.

Next was Tuscany. Over the Passo di Viamaggio and into the snow again at an altitiude of 750m - a car across the middle of the lane, abandoned in last night's blizzard.
Down from the hills and by mid afternoon we settled in a large Area Attrezzatte in Sansepolcro. Later the 'vans piled in, 28 in all, but we were still the only non-Italian van in sight.
Sansepolcro is the birthplace of Piero della Francesca, the most important Italian artist of the 15th Century and its Civic Museum contains some of his best paintings.
Strolling through the old town late in the evening it gave the impression of affluence, well lit pedestrianised streets, nice clothing shops, restaurants and cafes, but not many people about.

25th March.
Took another walk into Sansepolcro in the morning, the open market was taking over almost the entire main street, and we were surprised to be accosted by a beggar of the persistent, sleeve tugging type - a man in his mid thirties.

We then went into a couple of jewellers to get a battery for Sue’s watch and had to ring the bell push before the doors would open up. Another new one on us was the entrance to the bank – you press a button to enter a beam-me-up-Scotty type circular chamber, press another and wait until you are released into the bank. Repeat the exercise on exit.
Feeling slightly other-worldly, we visited a church, particularly atmospheric thanks to some simple but effective lighting, some fine paintings and the light from the alabaster rose at the end of the nave. Prominent notices inside warning of alarms and video cameras continued the creepy feeling. We decided to return to the van.

Off to the local COOP for a mega-shop, there were more beggars outside, including a young teenage girl, pestering customers as they left their cars. Just to send us on our way, the COOP was cash or store card only - unlike its Swiss counterparts.
The shop assistants (apart from the first jeweller) were friendly and helpful and it appears a well to do town, but I guess it has an immigrant/traveller problem like so many others.

Into Umbria, and a short drive to Citta di Castello, an ancient walled city on the left bank of the river Tiber. It came under Roman administration in the 1st Century AD, but only became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860, having been subjugated by the Pope, various other Italian cities, a few Lords and even Napoleon over the centuries.

We found the official motorhome parking almost immediately, but it had been taken over by fairground travellers and others, some obviously ensconced for some time, the wheels long gone from their caravans.
We looked elsewhere and settled on an Agri Campeggio "La Fontana" on the outskirts of town (€12 a night including electricity), but the traffic noise from the viaduct 50 metres or so above our heads was intrusive.
We don’t often use the TV on the laptop, but we set it up for Terrestrial Digital and amongst thirteen stations streaming in was BBC World, in perfect picture clarity. I had thought it was only available on Satellite, but it was nice to watch some news in English, albeit with adverts.

26th March.
Parked this morning by the old city wall of Citta di Castello where they provide a scala mobile to lift you into town. After a quick look at the Duomo in the Piazza Gabriotti, we slipped through the narrow streets to the Pinacoteca or art gallery in the Palazzo Vitelli - a top of the range, 1530 residence built for a family who lorded it over the city, and also hatched the famous plot against Cesare Borgia, as recorded by Machiavelli. Interestingly, it was built on a “brown field site” the old munitions foundry. The mansion is home to many fine paintings including a very battered Raphael, but is also a work of art in itself.

I soon feel that I've had my fill of ecclesiastical art, but Sue seems to have developed a taste for it - probably from having her head stuck in the Green Guide too long. Anyhow, for respite, down in the basement of this remarkable house, completely unannounced and unpublicised, is the most amazing collection of sea shells. Stretching over two large rooms with cabinets against every wall, beautifully presented and in perfect condition, there is probably every shell you can find in the world. Every region of the world’s seas have their own section (and sub sections) and a lot of the documentation is in English. There is a curator in a large laboratory attached, so my guess is that it is some kind of research setup. To find it, head for the public conveniences.

After a morning of culture and crustaceans we needed to eat and "L'Osteria" on Via Borgo Di Sotto fitted the bill. Ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, smothered in olive oil and porcini mushrooms, followed by chargrilled fillet steak and more porcini came to €45.50 with a mezzo of wine. It lasted us for the rest of the day.

After coffee, we drove the few kilometres to Monterchi, a small hilltop town of Roman origin, the name deriving from the Latin for Mountain of Hercules (Mons Herculis). Most of the original buildings were lost in the 1917 earthquake, but it's still a quaint place to walk around.

The town's main claim to fame is the painting by Piereo della Francseca (the chap from Sansepolcro) of the Madonna Del Parto or Pregnant Madonna, apparently an unusual depiction. The painting, moved from its original chapel, is now reverently displayed in a special museum.

Our camper guide indicated an AA at Monterchi, but the tourist office knew nothing of a camper service here and at their suggestion we pitched up in the pleasant green park by the river.

27th March.
In the morning we found the camper service whilst parking up for a photo of Monterchi. It's at the back of the lorry park by the main road.
Next stop Arezzo, now well into Tuscany. The big attraction here is the fresco masterpiece by Piero della Francesca in the Chiesa di San Francesco. Painted between 1452 and 1466 it is a series of ten frescos exalting in the name of The Legend of the True Cross. Heavily restored, and still with large patches blank, it is nonetheless a monumental piece of work.

Like Citta di Castello, Arezzo is undergoing a major program of restoration, the Piazza Grande completely dug up one side and the Pieve di San Maria covered in hoardings. According to the plaque, the Astronomical clock in the Piazza was totally unique in its day. So jealously was it guarded, that the builder, obviously a man of considerable intellect and skill, had his eyes put out so that he could not make one the same. Barbarous times.

Had lunch in one of the Piazza cafes, but the pizza was hardly worthy of the name. Made up for that with a tub of ice cream, now you're talking!
Although the van was in a suitable car park opposite some apartments, we decided to move to Poppi for the night. In heavy rain, it took ages to leave the town thanks to the rush hour traffic and the GPS having fits of indecision, as it often does when leaving a city.

28th March.
The Parking Sosta in Poppi is undergoing refurbishment, with the addition of electrical supply for motorhomes - the drill is to plug in, note the number, then put coins in the electronic slot machine at the top of the carpark. No other facilities though.
Climbing up into the town, the Castello dei conti Guidi defines the skyline. Walking through the entrance, the interior courtyard is dominated by a magnificent stone staircase and wooden balcony - fairytale stuff.

We elected to take the free audio guide, but we were given only one handset, with the addition of a pair of headphones connected, so we walked around like a pair of conjoined twins.

The commentary however, was something else. Narrated with verve and gusto by a linguist and actor in the guise of the 13th Century Count Guido Novello, who often sounded like Kenneth Williams of Carry-on fame, it frequently had us in stitches, quite brilliant. The Battle of Campaldino, in which the Count took part, was recounted with great drama. Standing in front of an incredible battlefield model, with almost 4000 lead soldiers, it was a great exposition of a medieval battle and all the more impressive for being a translation of the Italian. Other rooms and the chapel, plus the view from the tower made the €6 entrance well worthwhile.

Looking for a place to have a break before tackling Florence we settled on an AA in Stia. It's in a lovely wooded setting with the town a short walk along the River Arno below. Really nice spot.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Campocologno to Venice

29th Feb.
Entering Italy, we turned right towards Sondrio, hoping to find an Autogas station at Castione Andvenio.
Well, we thought the smog was bad in Switzerland, but this was a brown cloud down to rooftop level, the mountains all around us could barely be seen, quite shocking to our eyes really.
With our gas tanks filled, we retraced our steps towards Trento and turned off for Aprica, but halted at a level crossing, we watched this sorry local train go past - old, rusty, filthy, covered in graffitti - it made the Swiss trains look like shiny new toys. What a difference a border can make.
The road to Aprica is a mountain road but is heavily used by articulated trucks - not a drive for the nervous. Aprica was bigger than expected with wide streets and had a vaguely American feel to me. However, the campsite was all static homes and nobody answered the bell at reception.

We moved on to Edolo and found a small campsite, Camping Adamello, run by a friendly young couple with good English. Again, few touring pitches but a nice view over the valley. Currently undergoing an upgrade to the facilities.

Next morning we bought some lovely fresh pasta in Edolo town and headed for Ponte di Legno. This is a fast developing town and acts as a base for a huge area, linking up with Passo di Tonale via a very long gondola ride.
Passo di Tonale is definitely motorhome friendly, a section of the coach park as you drive in is set aside for campers (€10 day). Off the main drag to the right is another official motorhome park behind a hotel, there was no charge as far as we could see, but no facilities either.

Plenty of bars and restaurants in the town, and a good ski area. The Brits we met in a bar confirmed that the upper reds & blacks were fine, but the lower slopes were turning to slush as soon as the sun got on them.

1st March.
Left Passo di Tonale in thick fog. A few flurries of snow in the night but still too warm at 4C.
We headed for Madonna di Campiglio, turning off at Dimaro where Dolomiti Camping Village has an Area Attrezzate for motorhomes - though closed for the winter.

Then we came across Campo Carlo Magno, a small roadside resort with links to the main area. We parked ski-slope-side with a dozen other (Italian) ‘vans, though at a price - €19.50 for a day and night, with no facilities. There are several apartments, hotels and restaurants, and a modern church with an illuminated angel opposite, but we could literally ski from the ‘van.

2nd March.
Geared ourselves up for skiing in the morning, despite the occasional gust of wind shaking the van. Then we discovered that all the other vans had left and the early skiers were coming back. A chat with a young Italian lady (in English of course) confirmed that the lifts were closing because of the wind. Typical!

As we needed to service the van we headed down the road towards Madonna di Campiglio. The resort has obviously grown a lot in recent years since appearing in “Undiscovered Slopes” and the piste map is boasting 6 new lifts. It covers a large area, linking up with Marillena below. Best of all for us, it has a lot of blue runs from the mountain tops and very few drag lifts.

Then onto a campsite in San Antonio di Mavignola, even at a 1000m it was 19ºC in the shade and the site was virtually empty. Too hot, we even saw a lizard basking by a gate post!
Frustrated, we walked into the town and did a bit of shopping, but it was so warm we had to stop for a beer – I don’t know how we cope!

3rd March.
Left the campsite early in the morning, definitely to Ski Madonna from Campo Carlo Magno. My Italian acquaintance had assured me that there was a ticket kiosk at the base of the chair lift, so it was no problem to ski down and buy our tickets there. Short of Euros, I presumed the booth would take credit cards - a resort this size – no worries.
The booth, of course, was only a ticket machine which just took bank notes. Oops!
“Nice one” said Susan. We didn’t fancy climbing back up 200 metres of slushy piste, so Sue used her feminine wiles on the lift attendant and we got a free ride up the drag lift.

I was not having much luck with Bancomat cash machines, my card had been refused yesterday, and the nearby Bancomat came up with "Your card is not authorized for foreign withdrawals" Not best pleased, I phoned my bank who confirmed the account was OK. My credit card didn't work either. So into the hotel bar - would they give me cash on a credit card? Yes, maybe, but they wanted commission. Then the boss came in and he said no.

We packed up the van and drove into Madonna, but were unable to get to an actual bank without walking all the way from the top car park. Time to call it a day, Madonna’s peaks will have to wait for another time.

Down in the valley, I tried the first bank we came to and got cash, no problem. It's possible that machines not built into an actual bank are programmed to refuse foreign cards, but is not a problem I recall having before.
Sue had been checking out camper service in our guide "Viaggiare in Camper" (ISBN 88-370-2380-4) a glossy production similar in style to Dorling Kindersley. Once you get used to the Italian directions it’s very useful, though some of them are a little vague, even when translated. Oh, for GPS coordinates on everything.

Anyhow, we chose one attached to a Pizzeria at a place called Merlonga in the Smarano area. We were looking forward to a real Italian pizza. Very nice site it was too, big pitches in a wooded area, with built in barbeques and a proper service area. Only snag was that they were closed for their holidays.
I spoke to some builders nearby who sent us to the bar in town. They sent us back to the site, so we parked outside the restaurant and had a very peaceful night - thankyou, L'Ostaria del Filo. (GPS 46.3497N, 11.1095E)

4th March.
We left Merlonga in light snow, which turned swiftly into rain as we descended to the valley floor.
Climbing again, we entered the vast Dolomite ski region in thickening snow. Dolomiti Superski (http://www.dolomitisuperski.com/) offers 1200km of piste, 12 resorts and 1 ski pass - that’s if you think you can do it all.
We pulled off at the Cermis lift base near Cavalese in the Val di Fiemme/Obereggen area. This is a great spot. The coach and car park is huge and includes a Parking Sosta for campers.

The gondola is accessed by an impressive wooden bridge across the river and connects with Cavalese as well, bringing you down a steep cliff face and over the main road. There is quite a bit of skiing from this base alone, including some long blues at the top, and also a free bus connecting up to the Latemar (Predazzo) area.

The snow continued most of the afternoon and then thinned out. After a walk we were sitting in the ‘van when two drivers from Polish registered coaches walked past the van windows, one each side, about a foot away. They paused and took a good long look in - as if we weren’t there!We stared back and they moved to the rear of the van, then came back on one side and stared in again, drawing on their cigarettes. We glared at them, wondering what was going to happen next. Then they moved off and we breathed a sigh of relief, feeling unsettled that our “joint” had been thoroughly “cased”. It didn’t put us off staying the night, but did raise some concerns in us about leaving the van to ski – shame.

5th March.
Had a quiet night in Cavalese, the morning dawned bright and sunny - finally we could see the mountain tops all around us. We stopped briefly at the Latemar area, which is complete with an Olympic ski jump and parking set aside for motorhomes.

We then checked out an Area Attrezzate just before Moena, but the bar attached was closed. Drove on to Canazei, through the ski towns of Pozza di Fazza, and Campitello. Not much in the way of camper parking, but both with small open campsites.
Canazei is a large and attractive resort, altitude 1500m. The recent snow has obviously re-energised the skiing and there was a buzz about the town.

Camping Marmolada (campingmarmolada@virgilio.it) is set amongst the trees but on the edge of town, with the main gondola just across the road. It's a proper Inverno or winter campsite with a winterized service station. After two free nights it was time to spoil ourselves (€28.50 a night).

Had a wander around the town, a meal in the basement Ristorante Te Cevena (more buzz and great food and service) and then took the gondola up the mountain for a night skiing event.
The air was -10C out of the wind and despite having thermals on the cold was soon biting hard, at least it was into me, Sue seemed to fare better.

The show however was very good, with some amazing ski and board jumping, precision skiing, dirt-biking and even downhill pedal cycling! They finished off with some fireworks and formation piste bashing.
Soooo cold! Sue pointed out that it was the men who disappeared into the bar first - well of course.

6th March.
Slept like babes after thawing ourselves out with hot coffee topped up with Jamiesons. It fell well below -10 during the night and in the morning the kitchen taps had frozen. These are the only weak spot in the system because of the fridge vent underneath, but we resorted to our usual tricks of opening the fridge door to generate some heat at the back and flashing up the adjacent oven for 15 minutes.
Our new modem picked up Vodaphone 3G and gave us 90 minutes of broadband internet access before crashing out, never to return. Had to make do with 2G. I guess they're not quite ready for us yet.

7th March.
They have a nice line in Alpine architecture in these parts - traditional chalet style, but embelished with little turrets, gabled bay windows and large colourful murals. Verging on the Disney-esque in Canazei, especially at night, it nevertheless adds charm and character.

Just for the hell of it we drove the Fedaia pass to Rocca Pietore. After all the mountain driving we've done, spectacular has become an overused word, but the sheer and brutal face of the Marmolada range takes some beating.

Just before the top of the pass there is a dam and the frozen Lake Fedaia. The causeway along the top of the barrage is just wide enough for two vehicles and has a cobbled surface with low railings. We drove over. We could just imagine the weight of the ice crushing against the dam wall - on one side, virgin snow on ice, on the other, an endless tumble into the valley below - definitely worth a visit.

Doubling back to some extent, we headed north to Arraba, an interesting looking town, also with campervan parking. Through the resorts of Passo Campolongo and Corvara - both with areas for campers, though motorhomes are banned from parking in Corvara at any time.
Next stop La Villa, altitude 1500m.

There is a newish Area Atrezzate here with room for 52 vans (GPS 46.5894N, 11.9006E). It has a pukka service area and the owner even comes out with a fresh water hose and waste water bowser late afternoon. Nearest ski lift 300m. (€20 a night including electricity, €10 just for a pump and dump).

8th March.
Awoke to light falling snow. By midday it had cleared but we decided to stay put for a day and catch ourselves up a bit.

9th March.
The overnight temperature was 5 degrees. We decided to end our discovery tour of the Swiss and Italian Alps with a look at Piculin and Kromplatz. Both resorts were completely bare of snow, the narrow ribbon of artificial snow back to the lifts looking like a squiggle from a giant tube of toothpaste against the dun brown grass.
If you've booked a holiday to ski, I guess you ski, but it held no appeal for us. Kromplatz is easily accessible and has a huge park set aside for motorhomes, it would obviously be popular in the right conditions.

So we turned south, heading for Cortina d' Ampezzo. Maybe it was just the grey day, but this famous resort had the air of faded glory, the Olympic ski jump looking neglected. A lot of redevelopment was going on, probably for their bid for the World Ski Championship in 2013. Don't know how they are going to change the weather though!

Campers are banned from parking in the town, but there is a huge Camping Sosta a few miles north of Cortina at Fiames (pump and dump at Camping Olympia).

Descending gently to the small town of Belluno we were suddenly into impenetrable smog again, how depressing not being able to see the sky. t At Belluno we stopped off for the night in the Limbioi Car Park. There is a full free service for motorhomes, with access to the town via a never ending 4 section escalator.

10th March.
Some amazing views of the suspended A27 Autostrada from the valley floor – how many thousands of tons of concrete did they need for that construction.
Had a look at Conegliano (“City of Art and Wine” - aren’t all Italian cities?) but left neither enlightened nor refreshed, especially after narrowly missing a roof-removing bridge.
Instead we stopped in another free Area Attrezzate at Treviso, it was raining steadily - it would do for the night.

Our verdict on the Italian Alps and Dolomites
Italy's resorts are definitely more geared up for motorhomes than Switzerland, though some Parking Sostas are just an area on a private car park, charging up to €20 a night with no facilities. There are also free areas, but you will pay a premium for better access.

For just servicing the van (fresh water, waste dump, etc), the campsites and private Area Attrezzate/Camping Sostas will sting you, charging up to €15 a time.
We did a whistle-stop tour, but it was obvious there was plenty to go at, all you needed was the snow. We would definitely return.

11th March.
After a lot of searching we finally found a motorhome agent with a decent accessory shop in Zero Branco and picked up a few items we needed. (http://www.giessecaravan.it/) (GPS 45.5945N, 12.1503E).

Then on to Venice, or Camping Fusina to be accurate, a boat ride away from the islands of Venezia. (www.campingfusina.com/) (GPS 45.4210N, 12.2587E).
Driving along the grim industrial waterfront of Mestre towards Malcontenta it was hard to believe we'd come to the right place, but suddenly the Riviera di Brenta appeared and it started to look green and tranquil, like the Venice Verde in France.

And there we were, on a waterfront pitch with St Marks Basilica in clear view across the water, the red brick, white marble and verdigris tower unmistakable. Add in the ships passing in the channel a few feet away and Sue was in seventh heaven.

12th March. Venice.
Venice sits in the centre of a vast lagoon, La Laguna di Venezia, attached to the mainland by the 3.85 km Ponte della Liberta. It's not actually an island, but 117 islands, separated by 150 canals and linked by 400 bridges.
First impressions were slightly disappointing. We got off the passenger ferry from Fusina at Zattere and walked along the banks of the Guidecca Canal, the main thoroughfare between the city and the Island of Guidecca. Surprised by the amount of graffiti and the walls bereft of their plaster, our progress was soon halted by building works. A detour was required.
Cutting through a narrow alley we found the church of Santa Maria della Salute. Inside, the beautiful circular mosaic floor below the dome had sunk like a shallow saucer and was roped off.
We passed by the Peggy Guggenheim museum of modern art, then crossed the Accademia Bridge over the Grand Canal - the inverted S shaped waterway that cuts the city in two. The Campo Santo Stefano is a largish square with some attractive and sensibly priced restaurants.
Here we had a brief look at an exhibition dedicated to Antonio Vivaldi, who was born in Venice in 1678.

Then onto St Marks Square, through the typical series of narrow streets, alleyways and little bridges. St Marks Square is not quite like the postcards because there is a lot of restoration work going on and the area around the tower is cordoned off.

The pigeons are a pain - anyone who found Hitchcock's "The Birds" uncomfortable will find their tendency to fly everywhere at human eye level very distracting, I was constantly ducking and cursing. (Bird seed only 1 Euro, €250 fine if you drop the bag)

Back to a canal side restaurant for lunch, very pleasant, watching the Gondoliers do their stuff. A generous plate of spaghetti with mussels, bread and a half bottle of wine came to 26 Euros a head - very good, friendly service - go on, spoil yourselves.

So to the Palazzo Ducale or Doge's Palace. Like a lot of these monumental palaces, it's not just the grandiose scale and artistry on display that impresses, but the sheer quantity. It goes on and on. In this case most of the rooms were for the use of the governing elite - talk about labyrinthine government - no wonder Napoleon scrapped the lot in 1797 when he entered the city!

Finally to the Bridge of Sighs, so called because it gave the prisoners, passing from the courtrooms to the dungeons, their last view of La Bella Venezia.
A walk along the Riva dei Sette Martiri, stopping for an ice cream, then a vaporetti ride back to the ferry pontoon and a coffee in the Gelateria for the journey back. Not a bad day.

13th March. Venice.
After walking our socks off yesterday we decided to get a 48 hour travel ticket for €26 each. This allows you unlimited boat and bus travel, even to the outer islands, which makes it look much better value.

Took a ride along the Grand Canal as far as Piazza le Roma, the terminus for the rail journey to the mainland.
Public toilets are few and far between and cost €1 a shot, but you can get a glass of drinkable red wine and have a pee for €1.50 – what would you do?

Back to the Ca D’Oro and a wander through the streets to the famous Ponte Di Rialto. Another waterfront lunch, this time a seafood pizza and a full bottle of wine for €27 a head. The pizza was nice but the seafood rather sparse – an appetizing looking basic pizza was half the price.

The antics of the Gondoliers can be very entertaining, especially when the Ambulanza came through at 20 knots, it was like a scene from a James Bond film, can’t remember which one.

Back on foot again to Piazza San Marco to visit the basilica. Pretty amazing as these buildings go, the mosaics (and the restoration process) are quite incredible, as are the four bronze horses above the central doorway. Entrance is free, but they soon get you for the extra bits, €6 each for the Pala d’Oro and the Galleria with the original horses (no photos allowed).

To recover, Sue took me to the even more unmissable Café Florian, a Venetian institution going back to the 18 Century. Everything was a throwback to the past except the cost, though the coffee did arrive on a silver tray, with silver jugs and a carafe of eau. The waiters were very smart and even opened the door for us – tourist tramps that we are.

14th March. Venice.
Today we decided to do the Islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. The journey was already paid for with our travel tickets, and we spent most of the day on a boat. The first section was from Zattere to Fondamente Nove, which gives you the chance to see 5 more canals.

A change of boat took us out past the cemetery (at that time receiving an elegant, floral, waterborne delivery) to Burano, where another change is required for the 10 minute trip to Torcello.

Torcello is a sleepy place, perfect for a picnic by the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, a special lunch in one of several nice looking hostelries, or just to get away from the mayhem of central Venice.

A visit to the church, a wander along the canal, a meal – that’s it, thats all there is.

Burano is the lace making island. Bisected by narrow canals, it fully merits the word “quaint”, some of the multicoloured fisherman’s houses reminiscent of Tobermory in Scotland. There are many lace shops with endless wares on display, if you are into that sort of thing, you could spend a lot of time and/or money.

Murano is the glass making island, the industry was moved there from central Venice in the 13th century for fear of setting light to the wooden buildings. It is a bit more boisterous than Burano, with touts calling for you to enter their workshops to see the craftsmen at work. Again, if you are attracted to glassware the variation and choice are mesmerizing.

Finally back to Zattere via the other side of Venice with a quick stop to Lido Island. Waiting for our ferry back to the campsite, we had a glass of Chianti watching the sun disappear behind the Molino Stucky Hilton. Venice is growing on us.

Our verdict on Venice.
Most people have an image of Venice, probably including the iconic silhouette of a gondola. The Michelin Green Guide reckons that everyone takes away a highly personal view of the city. Well, mine is that of a massive flooded building site - Venice has a maintenance and repair problem that makes the painting of the Forth Bridge look like the Sunday afternoon car wash.

Many of the major buildings are nested by scaffolding and hoardings, including St Marks Basilica. For every building that is receiving attention, there are a dozen more that desperately need it. Progress is impeded by the fact that all building materials and waste have to be transported in small boats under low bridges and access for cranes is minimal.

Sadly, they don't seem to have the resources to keep the graffiti at bay, and the African fake Gucci bag/Rolex watch brigade pester you everywhere.

But, like St Ives in Cornwall and L'Ile de Re on the French Atlantic coast, Venice has this extraordinary light which comes from the sea, and which changes its moods as quickly as the sea.
Even in early March it's crowded and its easy to see your money run away - but still, after a couple of days, it starts to work its magic on you.

The people (given that Venice sinks or swims on tourism) seem genuinely friendly and have a lively sense of humour. It is an endless waterfront -the Canal Grande it's teeming centerpiece. I was reminded of Singapore or Hong Kong in the early seventies. Everything moves by boat, even the bodies from the hospital to the cemetery.
Despite the battle against dilapidation, Venice has some wonderful sights, it pulses with life. It felt amiable and safe and if you’re a culture hound you could be sniffing around for years.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Luzern to Campocologno

18th Feb.
Reluctantly, we departed the Luzern Lido Campsite (http://www.camping-international.ch/). In crisp sunshine we headed for Kussnacht and stocked up with autogas, then groceries in the huge COOP at Seewen (Prices seem broadly in line with those in the UK).
Soon back on our favourite spot by the frozen Lake Sihl.

19th Feb.
Minus 6ºC during the night, but the sky was clear again, despite our weather gizmo forecasting snow.
Drove the scenic route around the top of Lake Sihl, then up to a small ski area at Sattelegg. Some skiing going on, but only just. A pretty mountain road nonetheless.
Along Route 3 the view of Lake Walen was spectacular. Then we climbed the steep hairpins up to Flumserberg, the resort village for Flums. The midday temperature was 10 degrees and there was very little snow left on the ground, without the snow canon the run down to the gondola base would have been mud. We did however find a parkplatz for motorhomes (CHF 10 per night, pay at the Bergheim restaurant).

After lunch we moved on to Bad Ragaz, an attractive spar town and base for the Pizol ski area. Unfortunately, the aire de service attached to their wooded campsite is no more, so we moved on to Chur, a decision we later regretted as the campsite here (http://www.camping-chur.ch/) is now hidden behind a huge industrial estate and filled with static homes. A soggy, viewless pitch, up against the wash block, not our idea of camping heaven.
The plan was to use the Rhatische Bahn, or narrow gauge Rhaetian Railway, to climb the 1000m to Arosa the following morning.

20th Feb.
We awoke to the sound of rifle and machine gun fire, I kid you not! It was the Swiss Army, practising down the valley. I suppose in a small and mountainous country like Switzerland they don't have the luxury of disappearing to a remote moor for war games, but it's still disconcerting to hear gunfire within the boundaries of a major city.
Another clear, bright day so we donned our hiking boots and got the bus to the Bahnhof. The return train fare to Arosa is CHF 27.60, the journey taking around an hour. It reminded me of the Festiniog railway, with the red carriages and the tortured screeching of wheel against rail on the tight bends. There the similarities end however, the ride is silky smooth and the power take up from the electric drive effortless. It was a beautiful journey, some of it through deep snow. The highlight was the famous 100m Langwieser viaduct, a pioneering concrete construction in 1914 and still going strong.

Arosa (http://www.schneesicher.ch/) is a top level resort, both in altitude and style. Horse drawn sleighs await you as you step off the train (at a fixed price) and in the town you can buy expensive watches at the most expensive prices. On the slopes there are beautifully constructed snow jumps and halfpipes for the boarders. Not sure we would stay for Gay Ski Week though.
The ski station is a short walk from the train, but the one way trip from the campsite took us nearly 2 hours, a big slice out of your day's skiing. Instead we took the gondola up to the Mittelstation and walked the Wanderweg to Pratschli, a free bus bringing us back to Arosa. Again, contrary to our guidebooks, the campsite in Arosa is open in the winter, so that is an option.

21st Feb.
Moved on to Lenzerheide, (http://www.lenzerheide.com/) a couple of hundred metres lower than Arosa and spread out on two sides of the valley. Early on we saw a notice banning parking of motorhomes and caravans. All the major car parks are metered, though we did spy a couple of free parks near lifts later, if you are really determined to ski from your door.
We elected to stay at the higher of the two campsites, "Gravas" (http://www.campingtcs.ch/) which has direct access to the Crestas T-bar lift and is only 3 minutes walk from the centre of town.
22nd Feb. Lenzerheide.
The overnight temperature barely got below zero and the spring conditions continued - the birds were chorusing and Sue saw a black squirrel.

Our enthusiasm for skiing when the conditions are less than perfect has diminished, so we picked a pink Winterwanderweg route off the guide supplied by the tourist office. If you haven't a need for speed and adrenaline you can enjoy the mountains in a more intimate manner this way and get just as good exercise, very cheaply, without the hassle of lugging skis around.
Our hike would take us past two ski runs and we could see what conditions were really like. As we climbed we discovered that the walking pistes and turned to sheet ice, but they had been covered with wood chips, which give a far more effective grip than grit. Near the top there was little snow cover off the actual pistes. Very few people were about and the bar owner in the little hamlet of Sporz looked despondent as she closed up.
We glimpsed some deer picking at the exposed brown grass and some more squirrels – they really do look black against the snow, but perhaps very dark grey, not at all like the UK variety.

23rd Feb.
A pleasant mountain drive, through the narrow streets of Schmitten, then the 2.2 km Landwasser tunnel, up to Glaris, on the outskirts of Davos (http://www.davosklosters.ch/) Here there is an aire attached to a lodge/restaurant, that we spotted 3 years back. It has now expanded into a campsite with 76 pitches and its key merit is that it is opposite the gondola for the Rinerhorn mountain, plus a train station and bus stop. Its prices have expanded too (CHF 40.50 per night with electricity), but also included are Guest Cards giving unlimited bus and train travel and numerous other discounts. Thus you can ski all the Davos and Klosters mountains by taking the Rhatische Bahn or bus for no extra cost. (rinerlodge@davosklosters.ch). We were the only Brits on site again, most of the vans being Swiss or German, with a sprinkling of Dutch.

24th Feb. Davos.
Another brilliant sunny day and the snow was looking irresistible, so we got the ski kit out. The bruises on Sue's leg were still looking pretty bad, in fact I was surprised to see her get her boots on.
The snow however was disappointing, below the gondola station it was wet and heavy, worn through in places. To get to the top of the mountain there are only T-bars and after one session of that we had had enough.
We abandoned the pistes after lunch, put our hiking boots on and got the gondola back up for the Wanderweg. It's a long route down and it was nearly dark when we returned to the van, but very enjoyable, you just see more of the mountain this way. Boring Old Farts? Probably.

25th Feb. Davos.
Chill out day. Took the Rhatische Bahn into Klosters to see what royalty thinks is cool. Very quiet, no sign of Harry.
The station at Rinerhorn is a request stop and there is a box outside the waiting room with a button to press. On the box is a lovely picture telling you how not to do it!

26th Feb.
Another day, another resort. Savognin (http://www.savognin.ch/) This one has a lot going for it - a pretty alpine village, a modern ski base, 80km of runs and all chair lifts to the top. Plus a campsite with brand new facilities and a huge free car park with designated spaces for Wohnmobiles (including ours). If it had had some snow it would have been even better.
An unusual feature of this vast car park is that in the summer they flood it from the adjacent river and turn it into a boating lake. That explains why according to the GPS we had just parked in a pond - obvious really!

27th Feb.
Onto Bivio. This resort has only 3 three lifts, but does have the advantage of altitude: 1800m base, then the top lift up to 2650m. Its main claim to fame is the 18 dedicated ski touring routes (for those who like to walk up their mountains on skis before sliding down again).
There is a large car park opposite the main lift where you can park for CHF 15 a night, plus electricity for another 5 francs and the ubiquitous garbage tax of CHF 2.2 per person giving a grand total of CHF 24.4. Still, it was good value for a slope-side pitch. There is a French style aire de service unit but it's almost impossible to get the van near it, okay to dump the loo though.
The village, 20 minutes walk away, has a few hotels, bars and restaurants, but was very quiet.

28th Feb.
Our main gas bottle ran in the morning so our Swiss sojourn had to draw to a close.
Just over the Julier Pass from Bivio is St Moritz,(http://www.engadin.stmoritz.ch/) home of the Cresta Run and Polo on Ice.

With its huge frozen lake and elegant buildings alongside, you can see what the attraction used to be, but the sprawl of ugly modern apartment blocks and shopping centres have diluted St Moritz's charm. Regular road signs banning campervans from the car parks added to our sense of welcome. If you must stay in St Moritz there is a winter campsite alongside Route 29 towards Pontresina, but be sure to wear your white mink coat and Dior sunglasses when you catch the bus into town!
In the other direction, Route 29 gives you magnificent views of the Bernina Glacier, and the Bernina Express railtrack alongside.

There are two more big drive in and ski stations before you get to the pass, Diavolezza and Lagalb, with huge car parks that could accommodate a van or two, but be prepared for the altitude - over 2000m at base. The plus side is snow, heaps of it, off piste skiing obviously still in full swing.
The run up to the Bernina Pass itself was breathtaking stuff, all done in blinding sunshine. After the descent into Brusio the van brakes had gone a bit soggy but were OK after cooling off.
The Swiss Customs had a little surprise for us. According to the (charming) customs officer at Campocologno, because our 'van was registered at over 3500kg we should have filled in a “Deklaration fur die pauschale Schwerverkehrsabgabe” or Heavy vehicle surcharge payment form, and paid a large number of Swiss francs to the customs officer in Basle when we entered the country. As we hadn't, he was going to charge us a large number of Swiss francs to leave the country. But, we explained, the (grumpy) customs officer in Basle had said that if we didn't use the motorways we didn't need to fill in a form or pay a large number of Swiss francs.

The outcome of our negotiations was that the (charming) officer said that the (grumpy) officer was wrong, but because he was wrong and we were charming (possibly), he would let us off.
We had done our homework before we left and our understanding was that for vehicles under 3500kg, a vignette or sticker had to be paid for and displayed if you used any motorways. If the vehicle was over 3500kg a surcharge was payable instead - based on the type of vehicle and length of stay. BUT, if you didn’t use the motorways, i.e. stayed off roads with green signs – no problem. We still have to get a definitive answer for this one.

Our verdict on central and SE Switzerland?
Some attractive areas are blighted by ugly industrial developments, some towns by large, out of context buildings - but then you can say that about every country we visit. The larger valleys and industrial areas certainly have a smog problem, which is creeping into the alpine areas, but it does vary day to day. There was an almost complete absence of grafitti and litter wherever we went. Compared with some other European countries the overall impression is still of orderliness.

We always felt safe. In Luzern we passed women walking alone at night lakeside, even a guy wheeling himself in a wheelchair. We slept in several quiet car parks overnight and were never disturbed by individuals. The Police are around but take a very low profile, I don’t remember many light flashing, siren wailing, police cars.

The Rhaetian Railway trains are a joy to travel in, warm and spotless right down to the multilingual ticket collectors. The buses and trams are equally clean and mostly modern. The country roads aren’t despoiled by warning signs and road markings like they are in England. It was striking to see workmen making repairs, or felling trees by the side of the road, with only a truck and the tools they needed - the closed lanes, hundreds of cones and parked trucks with mega flashing lights, that the UK seems to require for a spot of hedge trimming, were notably absent.

The people we came into contact with were friendly and considerate, some extremely so. With the exception of some in the skiing areas, drivers were tolerant of a slow moving, hesitant, UK registered motorhome. Many of the young people have fluent English, and many have French if you don’t speak German.

Switzerland does not cater for motorhomes like France, Germany and Italy, but awareness is increasing. The smaller campsites are cheaper than the UK. The most expensive was Glaris Rinerlodge at CHF 40.50, but it was great value if you took advantage of the free travel card. The cheapest was Goldau at CHF 18.30. The lido campsite in Luzern was great, laid back, with top class facilities and the best WiFi access we’ve come across.
Autogas is thinly available in Alpine Switzerland – check out http://www.autogas-suisse.ch/ . The supermarket food prices were comparable to the UK, as were eating out prices – even in Davos and Klosters.

Would we go again? Definitely – go visit!