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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.

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