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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.

1 comment:

hotel Treviso said...

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