11th – 13th February.
The overnight snowfall was quite heavy and set the tone for the next 3 days. We holed up in Fussen, as heavy low cloud, mist and intermittent snow falls were not quite the conditions we wanted on the Brenner pass, driving over the Austrian Alps into Italy.
I cleared the daily snowfall from the van as much as possible without actually climbing on the roof, but the inevitable thaw of snow due to the internal heat of the van, especially around the windscreen cover, meant that door seams and cab steps accumulated ice despite my efforts.
The inclusive wi-fi on the stellplatz was well used and Sue discovered a couple of new weather websites, but the sophistication they offered by way of local, bespoke rolling forecasts was frequently undone – we only had to poke our head out the door to confound their predictions! You can have all the complex algorithms and fancy graphics you can muster, but the weather will ultimately just do its own thing.
At precisely 0430 I awoke with a start, my face unusually chilled. A glance at the flickering light on the fridge revealed that the gas had run out – surely not! I checked the exterior thermometer and was shocked to see it registering minus 14.5º C. A check of the kitchen taps produced not a single drop of water. Oh ****! The exceptional chill had cut the amount of gas we could get out of a relatively full bottle, and despite swiftly changing over to the reserve and restarting the fridge and all the heating we could not restore water to the kitchen taps – an anxious time.
That's one cold morning!
Even after the sun had risen, the temperature barely moved towards -12º. I gazed in awe at a fairy-tale winter wonderland of frozen trees and bushes; the sparkling frost had thickened every leaf and branch, like iron filings drawn to a magnetic surface, but glistening white. It was comforting however to see that we were not the only ones caught out by the severe cold: there was a queue of men with “empty” gas bottles at the office; it seems that even pure propane will struggle to flow at these temperatures.
Amazing collection of frost on the trees and shrubs
Still concerned that the accidental freeze of part of our water system may have caused some permanent damage, we made our preparations to leave – which included breaking out the hair-dryer to free up the cab doors from the melt water that had run and frozen into the door seams.
Nevertheless it was going to be a good and indeed a beautiful day to be going over the Fern and Brenner passes through Austria. We had elected not to buy an Austrian “go-box” for our transit (as required for vans over 3.5 tonnes on A roads and motorways) and stick to the old Brenner Pass instead. The Fern Pass is toll free.
Note: A recent article in MMM magazine described the horrendous experience of a couple that did buy a go-box. Six months after, they received a demand for payment of a €110 fine for “failing to provide proof of compliance of Euro 4 standard” when purchasing it! Twelve months on; despite phone calls to Austria, much correspondence, and providing as much proof as was available, the stressful incident was unresolved and they still had the threat of a €3,000 fine – for failure to pay the original demand – hanging over their heads. Sounds like good tourism marketing to me!
I was baffled that our usual remedies hadn’t thawed out our water pipes before we left – perhaps the cold had even penetrated the double floor through which they passed? I left the kitchen tap open and the water pump switched off, knowing that the reserve of pressure in the system would push a little water through if and when the ice plug melted.
Half way up the Fern Pass I heard a little gentle trickling sound and Sue glanced back at the sink: yee-haa! A few minutes under full pump pressure confirmed that there were no other leaks – we lived to fight another day!
Descending from the Fern Pass
The old Brenner Pass had a sign that appeared to indicate a 3.5 tonne limit, but we pressed on, and numerous large trucks and commercial vehicles coming down soon dispelled any concerns.
Over the top, we suddenly felt a sense of relief, almost liberation: perhaps it was our longer-than-planned stay in Germany, our uneventful flight through Austria or just our desire to be somewhere a little warmer; but the slightly dishevelled, faintly anarchic flavour of Italy felt good.
As we lost the sun we kept a look-out for a suitable restaurant to get a meal and park overnight, and after a couple of false leads we settled on the Ristorante Bar Cadino on the SS12 between Bolzano and Trento. This turned out to be a large and very pleasant family restaurant with an enormous car park. Two large pizzas and a 1 litre jug of very drinkable red wine (I know!) came to only €23; the place was packed for Valentine's night and some of the food coming out looked very good indeed.
GPS: 46.2174 N, 11.1531 E
Happily content, we retired to the van and immediately discovered that it had disappeared from view! All we could see was a solid row of large truck cabs – our beloved was somewhere hidden behind all their trailers.
We slept well, a good 7 hours, and even the first of the trucks starting up their engines at 0600 didn’t bother us. When we did lift the blinds an hour or so later, the car park was deserted: a mass exodus; and the restaurant was shuttered, as if last night never happened.
The morning after the night before...
As the sun hit the mountainsides, the breadth and beauty of the valley, littered with vineyards, was made plain. Our intention was to move fairly swiftly down through Italy to spend some time in the southern horn and Sicily before the season warmed up too much. Ferrara was selected from the Green Guide as a place of interest that we hadn’t seen before on previous trips to Italy, and could provide us with a fully serviced stopover.
The drive down the SS12 through Trento and Rovereto was pleasant enough, but after Verona it became tedious with endless, seemingly arbitrary, changes in speed limits and sneakily placed little orange speed cameras; I think I’ll invest in some cruise control and just pootle along at 50 km/h (30 mph) the whole way and bugger the queues that build up behind me! Endlessly checking speed signs and speedo just sucks all the joy out of travel on such roads – we do it to get a flavour of the changing countryside, populace and the environment but there is a point where you wonder if it’s worth it.
On arrival in Ferrara we found the Camper Service and Sosta relatively easily; tacked onto the side of a huge bus and car park adjacent to the town, the charge is €6 for 24 hrs. There is a full service bay and spaces for 30 or so vans, but the majority are pretty exposed to passers-by, albeit monitored by video cameras. There is electricity available: 50¢ for 2 hours, but only up to 300W. It also costs a euro each time to separately dump your toilet cassette, waste tank and bunker fresh water, so if you use all the services, you are looking at a total cost of €9+, depending on how long you have electricity for.
Cumulative charges at the Ferrara Camper Sosta
GPS: 44.8353 N, 11.6106 E
In desperate need of a haircut, I ventured into town and found a traditional barbershop; an old guy sitting alone, waiting for custom. Seeing the Ferrari badge on the counter we swapped names of Formula 1 drivers and teams as a substitute for conversation whilst he gave me an expert trim (including facial hair!), wash and blow dry that left me €20 lighter – but looking like a “normale” Italian; and he seemed quite pleased with my: molto bene, maestro, as I left!
It was still a chill morning, but bright and sunny with a smoggy sort of haze. It’s a relatively short walk through the old streets to the Via Garibaldi, a pedestrianized shopping street that brings you on to a large plaza in front of the Castello Etense. The castle is one of the “must see” buildings and certainly an impressive sight from the outside, with its four towers, moat and drawbridges. Inside, it is less exciting: mostly plain rooms downstairs with copious and rather wordy (in English) history boards.
The Castello Etense holds some dark history
The dungeons are worth a quick look, for this is where the womanising Marquis Niccolo lll imprisoned his 20-year old second wife and her stepson lover – before deciding to execute them both for offending his dignity. One glance at that 6 inch steel door and the massive hinges is enough to send shivers down your spine as you imagine it clanging shut, leaving you to shiver in the cold, peering desperately up to that tiny window just above the level of the moat: furnished with not one, but three sets of iron bars in the massive 3 metre thick wall.
The upper floors have many more rooms, more artwork and some interesting ceilings – helpfully made easier to examine by large angled mirrors placed on the floor. A lot of the fresco painting seemed to be in a poor state of repair, cracks in the plaster covered over with sticky tape!
The cathedral was now closed and we had lunch at the café opposite; at tourist prices of course: two small plates of beef stew and two beers came to €36, a 35cl beer costing €4 – plus the cover charge of €2 per head!
A view like this adds to the meal!
The opulent interior of the cathedral
Outside again on the Piazza Trento Trieste a Saturday market was in progress, selling books, porcelain and art. The Via Canonica at the east or tower end of the cathedral is another pedestrian street of shops and cafés and leads to the Corso Giovecca, the wide main road that cuts through the town. We had a look at the Palazzo Diamanti in the “Renaissance” part of town, with its 8000 pyramidal facing stones. It must have looked stunning in its day, but now looks curiously modern and rather boring.
We rested our legs with a hot drink in the Café Noir on Largo Castello; my cup of hot chocolate was very dark brown, rich and thick, more like chocolate soup: yumm! Back through the Plaza Castello and into the courtyard of the Palazzo Municipale, where we discovered a temporary ice rink. Sue gazed wistfully on for a few minutes. Finally, we joined the late afternoon throngs on the Via Garibaldi for some light shopping. The castle, cathedral and plazas are beautifully lit at night and are worth going back for a look.
We decided to give Bologna a miss and instead head for Bagno di Romagna, a spa resort east of Florence. This conveniently gave us a lunchtime stopover in Imola, the town that gave birth to the historic Formula 1 racetrack named after Enzo and Dino Ferrari. I thought it worth a look to see if there was any kind of visitor centre or access.
To my surprise (although the pit lane and administration area was closed to visitors), if you drive towards the autodromo direzione, past the main entrance – with its weird and rusting sculpture of Ferrari sports cars – through a small tunnel underneath the actual race track and up the other side, you will find yourself in a large open car park by the main stadium, with direct access to the stands! Three of the main stands are completely open – you can scale the steps, choose a seat right in front of the press boxes and gaze down on the track along which the best and greatest have raced!
Open access to the stands at Imola
By the side of the stand is a photographic memorial to Ayrton Senna – the Brazilian driver who died there on May 1st 1994.
GPS: 44.3441 N, 11.7125 E
At the back of the stands is an “American Graffiti” diner, and further along some private housing and another small restaurant. In the garden of one large residence is a 3-tier private grandstand – petrolheads only!
From Imola, we passed through Faenza and Forli and then took the minor P310 to Santa Sofia – up in the mountains again. The steep climb over the Pasa di Canaio put us briefly into the snow and mist before descending down to Bagno di Romagna.
A murky run over the Pasa di Canaio
From our Camper-Stop guide Sue had found us a pitch by the health club: the large gravel car park was empty and we settled ourselves in a far corner. I went over to check out the health club: very smart inside, clean and well equipped, and a small cafeteria. The only downside was the pool: beautiful, and even smelling of chlorine, it was empty – dry as a witches' teat! From March to October we would have been in luck, you win some...
GPS: 43.8408 N, 11.965 E
Bagno di Romangna is a typical little mountain town, with a pretty pedestrianized centre, central church square, a spa hotel and a few shops, the only surprise being an Irish Pub!
Next: Montecassino and Paestum