Thursday, 15 September 2016

A Brief Tour of the Italian Lakes

Coming down from the Italian Alps we began our mini-tour of the lakes at the small scale Lake Orta, driving along the eastern shore first as it looked the best bet for campsites. Orta San Giulio was where we planned to stop, but the campsites there seemed very expensive and very crowded to us, and because we’d done practically no research for this trip we didn’t know there was a perfectly nice camper stop in the middle of the Parco del Sacro Monte. We drove around the lake to the north west tip, where we found a nice little area attrezzata at Bagnello, a suburb of Omegna, (€10 for each 12 hrs, inc. hot showers & wifi), by the sports centre, and next to two public beaches - one very open and no dogs, the other, past the sports centre, in a wooded park where dogs can have a good run. Our dogs are both lurchers, and when they run they really run, so we need space where they won’t crash into anyone and where there’s unlikely to be anything to hunt!

Bagnello area attrezzata

Lurchers when not running

The town of Bagnello is a bit of a stroll away from the camper stop, but is very pretty and has a good range of shops, plus boats go from there around the lake. If, no - make that when we come back, we will make sure we pop in there and take a boat tour to Orta San Giulio.

Swimming in Lake Orta was lovely, although the dogs could not be tempted, and we spent much of the next day sunning and swimming here before packing up and driving over the rugged hills to Lake Maggiore to meet friends at Arona.

The road down Maggiore to Arona was quite busy at this tail end of the holiday season, so I’d expect it to be chocker in the summer months, but it passes some very elegant ‘fin de si├Ęcle’ (my new phrase - means turn of the century, end of 19th in this case) villas and hotels painted in ice-cream pastels. Lots of coach parties were unloaded to stroll along lakeside promenades and you can imagine a once chic heyday for the towns we passed through.

Facebook is an interesting thing. You pick up ‘friends’ you’re never likely to meet and reacquaint yourself with people you knew in your youth. On this occasion Rob noticed that a chap he’d gone to school with was posting about his holiday on Lake Maggiore and since we were in the area it seemed like a good idea to go for a meal with him and his wife. Despite not seeing each other for some 32 years, threads of lives were picked up from where they had frayed, career paths swapped and a generally lovely evening was had. Even the dogs behaved themselves under the table.

We slept in a large car park area beyond Arona station, which was almost empty when we went to bed, but which was full by 8:30 the next morning. Needless to say I hadn’t heard any of those cars arriving and parking around us. There was a little park beside us, which, if we’d been braver, would have been a better place to sleep, and there had been a motorhome there earlier in the day, but it had gone by the time we got back from our meal so we guessed it was a not for sleeping place.

Arona - we overnighted just beyond this fountain

We spent the next morning strolling round Arona, having breakfast of croissants filled with a very sweet custard (crema) or an apricot jam (marmelada) and watching the entertainment provided by two cycling acrobats, part of an event of ‘theatre by the sea’ which was on for a few days.

Arona's take on bunting

We drove round Lake Maggiore to Luino, stopping along the way for a swim and a break. Germignaga, just before Luino, had a campsite and a sosta right by the lake, but unfortunately the sosta was full by the time we arrived and we didn’t fancy paying for a campsite when all we wanted was to cook and sleep, and it wasn’t next to the beach, so we drove to the other area attrezzata advertised at Lunio, which is a little out of town by the sports centre (as they so often are), but was free, very quiet (just one French van there), and had areas where we could run the dogs, replace water & dump our ‘you know what’.

Lake Maggiore swimming spot

Lunio area attrezzata
Heading south from Maggiore the next day, we passed a couple of places on the lakeside where motorhomes were allowed to park and where steps led down to public beaches (you could easily wild camp at these), after which we headed for a brief drive through Switzerland to Lugano, which was as busy seeming to us as the last time we passed this way 5 years ago, and we gave up on the idea of trying to park, instead driving on to Porlezza. We would have stopped earlier, as the little lakeside villages were very pretty, but it was that old parking problem again. Still, Porlezza was a nice place to eat ice-cream on the spruced up lakeside promenade. A passer by photographed the dogs, stretched out on the boardwalk, mainly because Betty was doing ‘very cute’ with her head on Pom’s back.

Sign granting permission to stop here
Finding good food shops was becoming quite difficult. If you are happy trolling round a large supermarket (I am!) there’s one outside every town, but Rob always wants local shops selling local produce. There were shops selling tourist wine and salami in Polezza, but the bread shop had closed down (maybe for the season, maybe forever) and the one tiny general store didn’t have a lot to offer. We did manage to find a good butcher, so replenished supplies of sausages, and also found a tiny shop where we managed to buy garlic - we’re alright as long as we have garlic and tomatoes! We briefly discussed stopping at Polezza’s campsite, but decided to push on to Lake Como, which was possibly a mistake since time was rapidly heading towards evening and we always have a habit of leaving finding a resting place until too late.

We passed through Menaggio, on Lake Como, past the place we camped 5 years ago on a car park overlooking the cemetery, but decided to head on a bit. Finding parking by the lakeside seemed a bit of a trial and we ended up heading up a hillside after Gravedona, towards the village of Livo, as our book said there was a sosta at Peglio. The trouble with these books is that they are not always accurate, and in this case the index gave no address for the sosta, which is always going to be suspect. Also, our book is 5 years out of date. Still, for those motorhomers happy to wild camp we can say there is a nice car park at Peglio, near the village recycling point, where we spent a fine night, and got fabulous views over Lake Como on our way down. There’s also a nice church by the cemetery, which is worth a walk around the exterior, and a huge chapel by the car park.

Peglio overnight spot

Peglio overnight spot

A walk around the exterior of Peglio church
We slept well up in the hills, and then wound our way down the next morning to stop at the village of Domaso on Lake Como for a shop, breakfast and a swim, before having to make the decision to head back to Alps or continue around Lake Como. We chose the route to the Alps, got as far as Morbegno, checked the weather reports for the Alps and turned round to head back to Lake Como.



We found a very friendly campsite just outside Colico, at Piona, which had a nice private beach. Italian campsites can look a bit off-putting to us as there are often small caravans permanently sited, which over the years have had extensions and awnings, bringing them so close to their neighbours that they give the impression of some sort of colourful shanty town. Interspersed between these encampments are odd spaces where motorhomes can be squeezed in. We look over the fences at these places and baulk at the cramped spaces. However, all of the ones we’ve stayed on have been fine, and once you are parked and have staked out your area with the awning out, it feels fine, and it’s nice to have electricity, showers and clothes washing facilities. Camping Piona cost €22 with everything, including dogs, electric and wifi (2hrs a day).

Piona beach

Piona camping

The dogs and I stayed put at Piona, while Rob had a day cycling up to the Sanctuary of Madonna di Ghisallo, above Bellagio. The sanctuary is dedicated to cyclists and cycling, and there is a collection of famous bikes going back to the 1920s. It’s a weird place with cycles hanging from the walls inside the chapel, but it was very popular with cyclists, so Rob was not alone in his visit.
Sanctuary of Madonna di Ghisallo

Sanctuary of Madonna di Ghisallo
The abbey at Piona is worth a visit. It’s on a pretty headland and is set in olive groves, which reminded us that this is the first area on our route through France and northern Italy where we have actually seen olive trees. The abbey has some old parts, a ruined apse from the 7thC and 12thC cloisters with frescoes, but much seems to have been rebuilt after the place was revitalised in the 1870s, including a strange little prayer grotto. The Cistercian order took it over in the late 1930s and it now houses silent orders of monks and nuns who spend their time in contemplative prayer or in painting horrendous abstract works of art incorporating some sort of glittery rock.

We drove along the east side of Lake Como towards Lecco, hoping to find a nice restaurant for lunch or a swimming beach, or preferably both, but we couldn’t even find a parking spot, it being Sunday and every lakeside town seeming to have a bric-a-brac market. The road gradually got busier and busier, and it dawned on us that there were more and more motorcyclists on the road. You expect quite a few out on a Sunday afternoon, but here there were convoys out in force - huge numbers of them - running into the hundreds.

We reached the town of Mandello del Lario, only we didn’t find out the name until much later, where we saw a very uninviting area di sosta and a sign to a lido. Traffic on the main rod had come to a complete standstill so we tried to get to the lido, made a wrong turn and ended up heading back in the direction we had just come from. Loath to join the traffic jam again we spotted a parking spot overlooking the lake and stopped for a bite to eat. Time was getting on and we decided our best bet for the evening was the unattractive sosta, but only to park up and sleep, which would mean we could spend the early evening at the lido and then go into town for an evening of sitting at restaurants and bars. After we parked up we noticed that everywhere around us had signs saying they welcomed motorcyclists, and when we reached the lido it was obvious that there was some massive motorcycle event going on, with tents pitched on every green patch of ground, stalls and beer tents set up and hundreds of bikers of all shapes, sizes and nationalities walking around - with Germans over the age of 55 dominating the scene. It turns out that Mandello di Lario is where Moto Guzzi motorbikes have been made since 1921, making this their 95th anniversary, for which they were having a three day celebration event.

An evening in Mandello di Lario

Unattractive area di sosta at Mandello di Lario
Staying on a sosta we’re not overly enamoured with does mean we are more likely to make an early getaway, and in this case we were off and had parked up below the walls of the old citadel in Bergamo by 10 a.m. Bergamo is well-worth a visit. The old town overlooks the newer, planned, 19th century town. There are two different funiculars to the top. Medieval streets wind about to a main square where a beautiful Venetian style palace sits in front of the baroque cathedral and the older church of St. Maria Maggiore, onto the front of which is tacked an ornate red and white striped porch and mortuary chapel, dedicated to the 15thC Bergamo nobleman, Bartolomeo Colleoni. Inside the church every available space was highly decorated with frescoes and tapestries, with the extra icing of copious gilding in any area felt not to have quite enough ornamentation.



The main thoroughfare through the old town, leading to the citadel, was full of lovely local produce shops, including some sweet polenta cakes, which we didn’t try. We did get some delicious pizza slices and some fresh stuffed pasta. The dogs drew quite a bit of attention, especially from an English chap in tour party, who thought Rob and I spoke good English. He had a good old East Anglian accent and it turns out he was from Ely, and he was amused when we said we were from Duxford!

The drive from Bergamo to Lake Iseo was a bit dull and urban sprawly until we reached the tiny Lago de Endine, where the road along the western side of the lake was pretty and well endowed with picnic places, where you could easily overnight. The eastern shore looked to be a more sedate lakeside holiday destination than some of the larger lakes.

We’d deliberately chosen not to drive directly to Iseo town, but to head to Lovere at the north west tip of Lake Iseo, with the intention of driving down the eastern shore and sussing it out, before arriving at Iseo and returning to the campsite we stayed at five years ago. We did this, passing by a couple of reasonable overnight stopping places and some campsites, but on arrival at Iseo we found the three campsites there were full. They were also quite horrendously expensive at up to €35, so we turned round and headed to Marone and Camping Riva di San Pietro, which is by far the nicest Italian campsite we’ve stayed at, being spaciously set out, with good facilities, good wifi, lovely showers & our dogs (by negotiation of Rob pulling faces) free all for €26.50. This campsite was so lovely we stayed here for 4 nights - and it's very unusual for us to stay put that long.

View from Marone campsite
For those interested in food shopping, or other shopping, there's a teeny tiny market in Marone on a Thursday morning (get there early as it starts closing up by 11:30 a.m.), and a ginormous market in Iseo on a Friday morning, which seems big on cheese and fish stalls, as well as clothing, shoes and so much more, and where you need to dart around the very many begging migrants - a sign of how hard Italy has been hit by waves of unfortunates hitting their shores. 

Moving on from Lake Iseo we headed over the hills, through Sarezzo, to Lake Idro. Sarezzo seemed to be entirely given over to a massive Beretta factory and production of ‘stuff’ for the Italian army (there’s a museum too, if you like armaments), but the whole area we were driving through had begun to be much more focussed on industry, much of it to do with metal working.

We didn’t find Lake Idro particularly motorhome friendly - lots of signs saying no parking for our sort, though it was raining and nothing looks very cheerful in the rain, does it? Lake Idro marked decision time (again) for us though - on to more lakes or leave the area for the Dolomites. We’d been to the southern end of Lake Garda before and felt it was a bit overdeveloped for us, but in the end we decided to head that way and see if the northern end was any better.
Ledro Valley great overnight spot
From Lake Idro we took the road through Storo, to Riva del Garda, which took us through the pretty Ledro Valley. At the highest point across the hills, in the Ampola Pass, we came across a nice big, empty car park and picnic spot where we decided to stop for the night, which meant we got a good, early start the next day.
Lake Garda

Lake Garda

It was just as well that we managed an early start, as we spent a fair bit of time driving along the west side of Lake Garda to Limone sul Garda. The roads either side of Lake Garda are busy, and we’ve only ever seen them out of peak season, so heaven knows how packed they get in the summer months. Needless to say, we didn’t find anywhere to park. We had a bit of trouble even finding somewhere to turn round. Still, it is very pretty along that road, with craggy hills rising steeply above, and we got to see it in both directions, which gave me ample time to notice that all the tunnels are named. Rob says they all are in Italy, but it was on this stretch of road that I noticed it, probably because whoever was responsible for naming had dipped heavily into Greek mythology with tunnels named satyr, dryad, nyad, fury, siren, titan and gorgon, among others.
Riva del Garda

Back in Riva del Garda we found parking in the side streets running at right angles to the lido park and headed into the old town centre, which was lovely - full of tourists, but attractive, especially around the harbour, and a good place to sit outside one of the many cafes and chill. We managed to buy Rob a pair of water shoes here, so all we needed next was to find a beach we could park at. Useful tip for anyone visiting the lakes - bring a pair of shoes you can swim in as it is generally very rocky and you’ll end up wincing and slipping, as Rob has been doing, if you try getting in with bare feet.
Mount Bondone sosta
We found a swimming spot on the other shore of the lake, heading through Torbole and past the various campsites. Unfortunately the spiaggia (beach) was non-dog, so the girls had to stay in the van, but we managed to fit in an afternoon swim before leaving Lake Garda and heading into the hills to Mount Bondone just before Trento. We were thinking of wild camping in one of the picnic spots or laybys in this area, but we had on our ‘let’s get to the top’ mentality, so headed on past suitable places, ooing at the fabulous views over Lake Garda. At the summit the road opened out onto proper rolling Alpine meadow, with a large refuge/restaurant/hotel and a 48 place area di sosta with great views over the lower Dolomites. This wasn’t in our sosta book. It looked like it was probably there for busier winter tourism, but it was perfect for us, and was free, so we joined the Dutch van and UK van already parked up and settled down for a cooler (9°C mid-September) evening in the knowledge that this really was the end of the Italian lakes section of this trip.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A Brief Tour of the Italian Alps

We loved the Italian Alps.

We started this part of our trip by overnighting at the Great St. Bernard Pass, where someone turns up every day to walk a couple of St. Bernard dogs for photo opportunities. We arrived in mist, but the next day turned out beautiful and spent some time clambering around the Roman ruins behind the hotel.

Great St. Bernard Pass

From the Great St. Bernard Pass we wound our way down into the Valle d'Aosta, stopping half way at Etroubles for lunch at one of the many restaurants there.

Aosta looked like an interesting city, though we did the quickest whistle stop tour of the Roman gates, theatre and forum. We managed to park in the very centre, behind the town hall, but we're a panel van, so I'm not sure some of the big beasts out there in motorhome land would find the narrow streets much fun. We've always worked on the basis that if an Italian delivery van can get there, so can we. The aire, or area di sosta, at Aosta didn't look inviting to us. A large screened off parking lot on the side of a main road wasn't our thing, but if all you want to do is sleep and see the sites then it'd be fine, and close enough for walking into town.

Aosta Roman gate

We decided to push on a bit and headed up one of the nearby Alpine valleys, the Valle de Cogne. After not a long drive we reached the town of Cogne, which has a huge area di attrezzata (like a sosta but with water, dumping & electrics) nestled below the town (€10.50 without electric). Very damned convenient of the local council, they had put in a lift up to the town, which was gearing up to the start of an Alpine endurance running race which was to go over the next six days, so the place was full of fit looking maniacs! We had a great night in Cogne - a very pretty place with an interesting lace making exhibition, lovely easy walking in the surrounding meadows and some nice bars/restaurants. There are some good local shops and we bought some very purple softish salami style sausage - budin di berbataiola - which has beetroot in it and was delicious.
Cogne meadows
Cogne area attrezzata
Our next stop was 3km up the same Alpine valley to the village of Lillaz and another area attrezzata (€10.50 + €2.50 for electrics), in a lovely position overlooking the river. There's a large picnic park at Lillaz, directly across the river, and there are both easy and tougher hikes all around the village, which has bars, restaurants, a little shop and very nice gelato (ice-cream). There were several cats out and about in the village, which didn't make for easy walking with two hounds, Pommie being particularly obsessed with the chase concept (Betty's a bit dimmer about most things). Unfortunately, the new tap which we'd had fitted at home to our waste pipe, and felt was a bit of a shoddy repair, has come off, as our Italian neighbours pointed out when our "stinky" water fouled their pitch - guess we take a bowl from here on.

Lillaz area attrezzata



Our final bit of this area was to continue to drive along the Aosta valley on the Turin road, but heading all the time out of the Alps. We passed places not in our guide book, but which looked interesting, such as the fortress at Bard, which was massive, built up a craggy hillside and served by a triple staged funicular. They have lots of different exhibitions there, such as a Chagall one, so if you are in need of some culture it might be a place to go. 

After Bard we left the Turin road and headed into the smaller hills above and between Ivrea and Biella, and ended up at Graglia, because our camper book said there was an area di sosta there. I made it more difficult to find because I'd somehow looked up the address for a different one, but in the end we found it right up the hill at the Sanctuary of Graglia. There are quite a few of these sanctuaries on hilltops, and many have campervanable parking. This one had good roads up to it suitable for large trucks, as the local water has, in the last 20 years, begun to be bottled and sold in a hugely profitable business - fill up your tank for free at the sosta! It was a beautiful little area di sosta (free, water & dumping), overlooking wooded hills and long, sloping meadows, and the sanctuary is worth taking a little peak at.

Graglia sosta

That was our mini-Alpine tour. We have now come down, trundled through the very flat valleys and are camped beside Lake Orta for the next stage, a brief tour of the Italian Lakes!

There’s New Life in the Old Blog Yet

So, we no longer have Charlie dog, and we haven’t done as much travelling in the van in the last few years as we’d have liked, mainly due to Rob working away from home on a series of contracts. The van, however, has been in constant use as he has lived in it during weekdays. Meanwhile, life goes on and small changes occur, which, for us, includes the addition of two dogs as our travelling companions - both lurchers, but quite different from each other.

Pommie is a greyhound crossed with something else, possibly a ridgeback. We have had her for 5 years now, having fostered her and then adopted her at 5 months old. She did travel with us to Germany in the van two years ago, but I didn’t blog that trip as I found the amount of rain we had so depressing!

Betty is a whippet cross, who looks like she has a bit of saluki in her which would explain why she is so skinny. Both dogs are great sofa surfers, so we hope they’ll do well in the van. Our only worry will be where to let them off lead along the way for the mad zoomies they enjoy.

Anyway, we are on the road again for a five week trip to Italy. We’re probably under-researched for this trip and we never over-plan, so we’ll see how we get on.