6-8 July 2017
We had a long day’s drive into Italy. Having set the satnav to avoid tolls altogether there was an interesting detour that took us from the south-west side of Nice north into the mountains up roads with a 9m length limit because of the severity of the bends. Next time we see a length limit we will know what it means! Lots of steep hairpins which challenged Danny until he got into his stride, the only good thing being we were going up rather than down. Then we doubled back, heading south to come right back down just north-east of Nice. It added at least an hour and a half but we reckoned it was worth it – the views were stupendous. We didn’t know what was coming.
We climbed slowly, steeply and very carefully upwards to the Col de Braus at 3,300ft then down again towards Sospel stopping above the town for lunch and wondering if we would even make Italy. Inevitably given we were in the Alps we started up again, going over the Col de Brouis, a mere 3,000ft. These roads make the Horseshoe Pass in Wales and the Hardknott Pass in the Lakes look easy.
Throughout the day, just seeing what was coming on the satnav was fascinating :
At Breil-sur-Roya we picked up the road towards Italy which followed the valley of the Roya river through the Gorges of Paganin. With 39C temperatures outside we were glad of the cab aircon. It really was a day for for “wow”-ing at the most beautiful scenery I think we have seen yet, and attractive villages clinging to the hillsides which made you wonder how people made a living out there, apart from agriculture.
The nail-biting wasn’t over yet. The road now climbed again to the Tunnel de Tende. At around 4,300ft and reached via a series of switchbacks through some roadworks, we had a timed 22-minute wait at traffic signals whilst a long queue built behind us. The reason became apparent shortly after – the tunnel is single carriageway.
Opened in 1882 the 2-mile long tunnel runs under Col de Tende between France and Italy. It was the longest road tunnel in the Alps until 1964. A new tunnel is now being built with is not surprising given the shocking state of the road-surface. We led the way through the roadworks which must have been annoying for the traffic behind us, but we didn’t care as we were finally in Italy, in Piemonte, and soaking up the difference.
The architecture was the first thing we noticed, different, as initially we were passing what looked like closed-up skiing lodges and apartment blocks, and the road surfaces were also different (worse). Like the change from Spain to France, the local agriculture was making its impact on the landscape, with sweetcorn and wheat dominating here.
Danny was tiring and it was getting on so we abandoned all thought of making Savona and started looking for somewhere suitable for overnight. We had not seen a single supermarket but had enough in the fridge for dinner. Having looked at some uninspiring car-parks including one at an outlet village, we found a campsite online – Campeggio con Cavalli – at Piero, a pretty cobbled village near Cuneo. We followed the signs up a hillside to some stables whose enterprising owner had converted a small field into some hard-standing with electricity and a small shower block – 2 showers, 2 toilets. Danny had been driving for 8 hours and covered just 153 miles, and was delighted to stop.
At €16 for the night with limited facilities we were already working out that Italy wasn’t going to be a cheap option, but the rural setting looking down the mountain was just what we wanted. We were told that the weather had been very unusual for the time of year and that Piemonte was usually much greener and more temperate. We were happy to just sit and soak up the evening breeze with a G&T followed by a celebratory pasta supper, listening to the bells on the goats in the pasture above us. We were the only people there until, just as dark was falling ,we were joined by a van conversion carrying an Italian family – granny & grandad, daughter and grand-daughter.
Sipping our wine as it got dark, we were enchanted by flashes of light, gold and green, as fireflies courted in the trees and grasses around us. What a lovely way to end a day of beautiful scenery and challenging driving.
Next day we drove down into Liguria, passing through and across steep-sided valleys as we went. The hairpins weren’t finished with us yet but compared to the previous day it was easy going. We passed through villages surrounded by fields of corn and watched a man gathering straw into sheaves which were stacked in small piles ready to be collected and added to the old-fashioned haystack. Traditional methods still in use. As in Germany there were huge log piles in all the back-yards.
We descended to the coast at Savona and turned east, following the coast towards Genoa. Italy’s 6th largest city seemed to go on forever. A major port and ferry terminal it is a real mix of old and new. The traffic was bad – stop-start all the way through, which is made worse when you keep having to overtake a cyclist who then catches up, cuts the lights, and you have to overtake again. After Genoa we were up and down and winding around the coast, through small, pretty villages and towns clinging to the hillsides whilst below them, every stretch of beach, pebble or sand, was completely covered in sun-beds and umbrellas. Clearly the Italians place a premium on being on the beach.
Despairing of finding somewhere to pull in for lunch we spotted a car park just outside Camogli with a trattoria opposite. The Cucina Casalinga (housewife’s kitchen) is a nice, traditional place without menus – the waitress merely explains the dishes of the day. Italy, it had to be pasta. We opted for maccaroni bolognese (Danny) and, having read that pesto was a Genoan thing, Spaghetti with pesto alla Genovese (Kate). Delicious and the best value meal we had had in a long time.
The afternoon saw us going from town to town trying to work out where to get food and where to stop for the night. Just past La Spezia we finally found a supermarket and in desperation ignored a weight limit sign. Danny was really tired but was cheered when he saw sun-beds for sale in the supermarket. We got two and the garage is now officially full.
In one of our books we found a car park ‘with pine trees’ relatively nearby and input the co-ordinates. Just outside Sarzana, on the coast, we turned wearily in and were pleasantly surprised to find a large parking area with trees and amazing views of the mountains. Only €13 a night. We parked up to maximise the view and set up a couple of chairs outside to enjoy our G&T’s.
Kate then braved the heat of the van (35C) to cook dinner as the rules did not allow cooking outside. In the middle of which 2 gentlemen of the watch came over and explained we were parked the wrong way round for safety. All change.
Then peace was disturbed by a loud tannoy- a tiny van selling ‘local’ produce doing the rounds. He had spent time as a waiter in Covent Garden sharing accommodation with Romanians & Albanians and earning minimum wage (£6.50 an hour at the time), and we allowed ourselves to be persuaded to buy some white wine he had produced – he even put a label on it for us and asked us to put it on Facebook (unlikely).
Then we settled and ate our dinner accompanied by the local wine, watching bee-eaters, spotted flycatchers and a lone purple heron, and the sun going down reflecting off the mountains and their villages and quarries. Frogs serenaded us to sleep.
Next morning we headed into the busy Saturday traffic accessing Capannina beach, which was directly opposite our campsite but we had been too tired to notice the previous night. Rising to our left were the Alpi Apuane mountains we had been admiring the previous night, only now we could see better the extent of the devastation caused by the extraction of marble. This is the source of white Carrara marble prized for monuments and sculptures, used extensively during the Renaissance and from which things as diverse as Michaelangelo’s David, the Pantheon & Trajan’s column in Rome were sculpted, as well as the Marble Arch in London, the Peace Monument in Washington DC; and other buildings and monuments in places as far spread as Helsinki, Poland, Manila, India, Toronto, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay are constructed. We passed miles of marble factories with huge blocks of the stone, and navigated roundabouts with huge marble sculptures in their centres. If they keep at it the mountains will be no more.
Not long to Pisa and the satnav behaved herself so we pulled up at Parcheggio Via di Pratale (a large car park with camper service point close to the city centre), paid our €16 for the night, grabbed a map and headed into town.
A wrong turn required a cold beer and we got back on track in the heat of the mid-day sun. More wrong turns took us to the River Arno lined with faded old buildings which showed its former glory.
We found Pisa to be a low rise delight of a city (population only 85,000) with lovely old buildings, many painted ochre and terracotta with tall, elegant shutters (dark green are a favourite), and winding streets in which you can lose yourself (we did). A university city as well as a tourist destination it has many small trattorias and osterias as well as a good number of gelateria selling rich, creamy ice cream. Yes – we succumbed.
After lunch in a traditional old pizzeria (air conditioned) where we watched them being made by hand, we dandered gently to the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) where the leaning tower tilts in all it’s bizarre glory.
Apparently it leaned from the start and successive builders tried to correct it which means its not really straight anywhere. Whilst not as tall as we expected, it is more impressive. and definitely worth seeing – it challenges the brain which just expects it to fall to the ground. It has had millions spent on it to prevent exactly that. What we didn’t expect was to find the tower surrounded by other beautiful buildings, the most spectacular of which were the Duomo (big church) and the Baptistry (a round building next to the Duomo). Both have colonnades and sculptures and are quite impressive in their own right.
There is also the Camposanto and the museums around these 3 buildings, and the old city walls, but it was too expensive and too hot for more sight-seeing so we lay on the grass in the shade of the baptistry and allowed the slight breeze to cool us. Danny managed a small nap and then we wrote postcards to the kids.
We wandered slowly back through the city, passing the remarkable building of the Scuola Normale Superiore in the Piazza dei Cavalieri which had many long tables set out in front of it for some kind of event. Then back to the van, melting somewhat in the heat. Transcool and a cold shower each, and we still thought longingly of air conditioning.
Lazily took a beautifully air-conned bus into the city that evening which took us down the far bank of the Arno giving us great views. As we approached the Piazza dei Cavalieri we started to see people dressed all in white and when we entered the square the tables were partly laid with white cloths, place settings and white table decorations, groups of the white clad people apparently taking over parts of the long tables for themselves.
We were later told that this was an old tradition that took place every year, with any Pisans able to turn up to use a table, provided they complied with the all white rule.
At Il Peperoncino we had a very nice meal – seafood linguine for Kate and spaghetti carbonara (with cheese!) for Danny – and a bottle of local Sangiovese recommended by the owner. By this time we were ready for the long walk home, made somewhat longer by a detour to a huge Carrefour – we really know how to live it up on a Saturday night! It was surprisingly busy for 11pm – Danny thinks it’s because it’s nice and cool. He could have stayed there for ages.
We opened up the van, sat outside with a cold drink whilst it cooled, and watched a 4-berth motorhome park up opposite and 6 adults and a teenage boy, all of asian origin, pile out. They spent a lot of time looking up at the roof and even sent the teenager up to have a look. They seemed clueless so maybe they had hired it – we have come up was countless implausible theories. But despite their antics, tiredness took over and we went to bed. With the Transcool.