An Unsuccesful Seaside Jaunt

13/02/18 – 14/02/18

Oour plans to walk on Vesuvius were being delayed for a couple of days due to a rainy weather forecast. We couldn’t decide how to spend the wet days; Naples didn’t tempt us, we were all citied out from Rome. Eventually we decided that we would explore the coast. Even in the worst weather we still enjoy watching the sea even if it’s from the confines of Bertie.

First up we thought we’d drive to Sorrento. The ‘Amalfi Coast’ road that runs along the south of the Sorrento Peninsular between Positano and Amalfi  is not accessible to motorhomes (unless you drive between midnight and 6am), but motorhomes are allowed to drive the rest of the coast, although it’s best to treat it as you would mountain roads. A bit of investigation revealed there were no campsites open and a dearth of motorhome parking, but we thought we’d take a look. We drove towards Sorrento with the hills of the peninsular shrouded in fog, the few parking spots with views were on the edge of the road and weren’t somewhere we would envisage staying overnight. With the poor weather and frustrations of finding parking we gave up and decided we’ll come back in spring when the campsites open. 

Second option was to head down to Salerno. Well, that was a mistake, the beaches here were rubbish strewn and subject to the same sort of development we had seen in Mondragone. Maybe the area wasn’t quite as depressed, we didn’t see any beggars or ladies of the night, but it was still ugly and dirty. Having driven around and looked at a few parking spots we decided we didn’t feel comfortable ‘wild camping’ here so picked an ACSI campsite to spend the night. Thankfully the owners were friendly and helpful which did cheer us up a bit, it seemed that most people used the campsite as a cheap base for exploring Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, which is fair enough, public transport here is cheap and reliable. I cant imagine choosing it as a place to vacation without the lure of the more attractive coast to the north.

View from Salerno – if you keep your eyes on the distance then it looks quite beautiful. Closer inspection reveals the usual beach detritus of plastic bottles and footwear.

The following morning we weren’t sorry to leave and head back towards Vesuvius. We’d decided on the route we wanted to follow to the summit of the volcano and were going to try parking near the start of the walk. This put us in a layby at the end of a mountain road opposite a restaurant. What we had forgotten (we’re not very romantic) was that it was Valentine’s Day. The owner of the restaurant came out and apologised, he didn’t have any tables available that evening (not that we’d even thought about it) and if we were staying the night he would have to charge us for parking. We dithered over this, it was a public highway, why would we pay? But a little wander showed us that he had no where else for his patrons to park. He only wanted €5, so we decided to stay and pay up. We watched him directing the cars in and out of their parking spaces that evening like a game of Tetris. I think we got pretty good value.

Our journey to our parking spot had been an interesting one, and avoiding a repeat of the experience was another factor in deciding to pay up for our parking. We drove through the sprawl of interconnected towns that rings Vesuvius, the roads were busy, with many shops and shoppers. Although the streets were wide enough for two vehicles to pass, the Italian habit of forcing themselves into any parking space at any angle to get as close as possible to the shop of choice meant that we had to continually swerve out over the centre of the road to avoid bumpers and wing mirrors. Delivery lorries and trucks were parked half on the pavement and leaned precariously out into the road, on the verge of toppling over. With so many obstacles the inevitable happened – we hit a wing mirror. Now maybe an Italian driver would have just stopped there and sorted it out without any care for the traffic building up in both directions. But not us, in a bit of a dither we beckoned the lady in the car to follow us to somewhere we could park and let traffic flow past us. This took a bit longer than we expected. As we searched for somewhere to stop the poor woman followed us tooting every now and again to ensure we didn’t forget about her. Finally we found somewhere, maybe 5 minutes later but it felt like an eternity. With the rain sheeting down Paul popped out to see what the damage was. With his trusty screwdriver he popped the wing mirror back onto it’s mount, all the while listening to the lady spout in Italian. She seemed satisfied with the repair though and nodded her acceptance before driving off.

After a couple of frustrating days we were crossing our fingers hoping we would wake up to a good day for walking. 

Up, Down and All Over Pompeii

11/02/18 – 12/02/18

We spent Sunday driving down to Pompei (the town) where were due to visit Pompeii (the ancient city). Our route took us initially through pleasant agricultural landscapes, but it wasn’t long before we reached coast and from that point the scenery became less pleasing. Mondragone summed it up for us, this large town with a romantic name straggles along the coast with many campsites, cafes and car parks. The development is not high rise, but it’s still ugly and uncontrolled with a feeling of a shanty town about it’s unkempt fences and poorly maintained buildings. People were wandering around with not much to do in the off season, most places were closed. Beggars lined the streets and tried their luck at every traffic light, whores plied their trade on the outskirts of town, refuse was piled in each layby. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, maybe it improves in the high season. This is what I imagine the detractors of Italy are seeing, take me back to the mountains and the beautiful Italy!

We were dispirited, and we took the autoroute as soon as we could, bypassing Naples to get into Pompei. As we drove towards Naples we had the sight of Vesuvius – oddly small and unprepossessing compared to the mountains we’d seen so far – and the Sorrento peninsular to keep us buoyed up.

Our choice for a campsite in Pompei was Fortuna Village, there are a few along the strip of land across the road from the entrance to Pompei and we just chose the cheapest ACSI one. €17 euros for a campsite close to the site was good value from our perspective (but don’t forget the tourist tax). It also had awesomely hot and powerful showers, but the smallest cubicles I have ever seen. Paul’s dressing gown came into it’s own as there was no practical way of getting changed (and to think I’d told him it was unnecessary).

So…Pompeii…I have always wanted to visit, having a bit of an obsession with volcanos. We set off, not too early, walking boots on and a rucksack of hot drinks, cold drinks and snacks to see us through what we knew would be a long day (we topped up with a slice of pizza at lunch time – I may never eat pizza in the UK again as even the meanest Italian pizza goes to a whole new level).

We paid our entry fee of €13 euros each and picked up a map, our strategy was to walk around the outside first, and then spiral back into the centre of the city. We didn’t quite walk every street and enter every building, but we did our best and covered just over 15k. I loved it, and even Paul managed to maintain his enthusiasm as we walked around. Our opinion is that you need to see it as a bit of an adventure – look into nooks and crannies, don’t just go for the obvious places, don’t get frustrated when some buildings aren’t open (it’s common for about a fifth of the buildings to be closed), be prepared for a long day with a lot of walking and lots of people (and school groups in low season). Our favourite bits; the roads, their cobbles with the deep scars created by ancient wheels are really evocative. The recently restored Villa of the Mysteries, out beyond the city walls but worth the walk to see the frescos. The forum granary with it’s everyday objects. The casts of the people, animals and trees (yes, there are casts of tree roots) caught in the eruption, gruesome but fascinating. The many shop fronts with their marble counters a testament to the vibrant commerce of the city. Looking for naughty pictures/mosaics/statues as a way of keeping Paul’s interest levels up. Oh and the Pink Floyd exhibition in the amphitheatre adds a bit of a surreal touch after seeing so much ‘old stuff’. 

Our personal suggestion for improving the experience – do more to emphasise the lives of the ordinary people.

I’m really glad that we made the time to fulfil a long held ambition, now to climb Vesuvius. 


Chilling Out in Itri


While in Campodimele we decided that we would drive down to Naples before heading north again for some skiing. We weren’t sure what we would do after skiing so wanted to ensure a trip to Pompeii before leaving Italy.

On the way to Naples we stopped in Itri, a town that is nestled in the foothills of the Aurunci natural park.

We had one of those moments when we approached our parking spot, firstly we narrowly avoided driving down a one way street, earning us our first serious Italian beep (which we were grateful for). When we found the right road it seemed to narrow down to an impassable exit, which caused a slight panic, but this was just an optical illusion as the street made a small turn and opened back up again. The parking was at the bottom of the old town and was nice and quiet for a Friday and Saturday night. We had views of the hills in front of us and the castle loomed overhead.

Itri castle walls

We didn’t do much on our Saturday in Itri, we wandered around the old town’s cobbled streets and then around the shops and cafes of the newer part of town. It was one of those market towns with a positive atmosphere, pleasantly busy with lots of families out in the parks and a good selection of shops, including one very smart butchers and deli (which, due to the decor, I was convinced was a hairdressers until we went in). Our perambulations were interspersed with a bit of rugby watching (from the van, as we couldn’t find anywhere showing it). 

After the Old Stuff, Old People

07/02/18 – 08/02/18

After Rome Paul decreed that he couldn’t cope with any more ‘Old Sh*t’ and needed to detox. So it was time to find somewhere we could walk or cycle and get out into the natural environment. We headed inland to Campodimele, chosen because it gave us access to the hills of the Aurunci Natural Park. What we didn’t realise was that Campodimele is a longevity hotspot. A place where the fabled Mediterranean lifestyle allows residents to live to a ripe old age, in fact they expect the average age of death of the current residents to be 95 years, which – when you think about it – is quite astounding.

Campodimele was yet another Italian hill town and we can’t get enough of them. Even if they are not in tourist guide books there is always something to explore, in fact as we drive past any hill town we end up worrying that we’re missing out on a nugget of interest.

Campodimele from the slopes of Mount Faggeto

The name of the town literally means field of honey, but sadly I didn’t find any honey to take away with me (I like honey with my favourite breakfasts, yoghurt, porridge or sometimes ‘overnight oats’ a combination of the two – oh ok, my favourite breakfast is a bacon buttie, but I like to pretend to be healthy). It perches on a perfectly conical hill, not in the natural park itself, but surrounded by the park on all sides. It’s only a small town and still has it’s walls and towers incorporated into the buildings that lean up against them. The sosta here sits just below the town and at the start of the walk up Mount Faggeto which was our first outing. There are many trails here and the details can be picked up from tourist information, plus there was a good map board at the Sosta.

The free Sosta at Campodimele with lovely views of the surrounding hills

We left the sosta to wander up the marked path through the river valley. The markings on the path were the white and red of the Club Alpino Italiano which meant they were well maintained, unlike the locally maintained route markings in some areas which were funded by the EU and have been left to their own devices since funding dried up. The route was not too taxing as it took us on a gentle uphill through the valley criss-crossing the barely existent water. The sound of cow bells could be heard above us on the sides of the valley but the trees were too thick to see through even though most of their leaves had dropped. Along the watercourse were multiple stone dams, we wondered what they were for; they weren’t in use anymore and the pools behind them had mostly silted up. As we got higher we started to see snow on the ground and snowdrops growing around the path, a heartening first sign of spring. When we finally emerged from the woodland we were nearly at the top of the mountain, just a small climb up the slope to the summit cross, made slightly harder work than it needed to be by the thin layer of snow that slipped under our feet.

The wind was strong at the top and we could see clouds starting to roll up the far slopes towards us, we took shelter by the mouth of a cave where warm air (well warmer than outside) was being expelled and creating a tiny microclimate of frost free ferns and grass. Here we ate our lunch quickly so that we could get moving before the clouds reached us. We didn’t want to get stuck in fog.

We struck off the main path for our return route, following barely visible red marks on the rocks that led along a lovely rocky limestone ridge. The views were pretty good and would have been amazing on a clear day. As we reached the end of the ridge, marked by a post, we encountered a solitary bull guarding a small area of pasture, we edged around him carefully before descending steeply down slopes of ankle breaking shattered rock. There was no discernible path now so it was a case of taking a bearing and heading in the right direction, picking our way over rocks, down muddy banks and between mossy trees. Finally we reached the main track back down to the parking spot, as is always the case we could see the pale red path markers when we looked back.      

A long walk in beautiful surroundings with no one else for company had been the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of Rome. We liked it here so decided to stay another night, this time joined by an Austrian couple in their campervan.

The following morning we took a cycle ride to the village of Pico. We started out following the tiny road between the parking spot and the mountains. This took us past several small farms where the farm dogs enjoyed chasing us, before bounding across the fields to intercept us again later. They knew what they were doing.

We passed a restored but empty monastery before eventually left the road to join a footpath that took us up and down over the side of the hill. It was hard going on the bikes, but the views were amazing and it seemed over too soon as we finally made it to a farm track on the outskirts of Pico where we zoomed down the steep gradient to the main road.

Restored Monastery

The way back was along the main road , a long slightly uphill stretch of road, we passed Camopdimele before doubling back on ourselves. As we gazed up at the village on the hill above us we decided that we would take the longer more gentle route back, rather than tackling the steep paths back up to the sosta.     

Beautiful far-reaching views

Six Nations Rugby in Italy


While we were travelling Europe it seemed an ideal opportunity to watch England play a six nations match in Italy. Why Italy? Well firstly because it’s easy to get tickets to see England play in Italy. Try to get tickets for other games and you’re subject, literally, to the luck of the draw. And secondly we were unlikely to be in any other nation.

One of the reasons for choosing our campsite, Camping Village Flaminio, was that it was on a direct bus route to the Stadio Olympico – the number 200 bus runs directly past the campsite to the stadium. In the end we didn’t take this bus route at all, but the intention was there. We walked to the stadium from the city along the river Tiber and got the number 32 bus back which dropped us between the Carrefour supermarket and the Due Ponte railway station, just a 15 minute walk from the campsite. We saw plenty of people leaving the Stadio Olympico and getting on the wrong bus – we met at least three groups who got on the same bus as us thinking they were going back to the centre of Rome – partly the drink and partly the pure confusion. To get the bus back to the centre of Rome you need to be on the side of the road closest to the stadium. The buses on the far side are going north to the suburbs. 

Our tickets were booked through  the official website; a relatively painless process. We chose the Print@Home option, so tickets had to be printed in order to be scanned at the gates, we got printed copies before we left the UK but the campsite would have printed them if we’d lost them.

The atmosphere in Rome on the morning of the match was busy but not manic, there were plenty of people wearing England supporters kit, some in cafes supping mid-morning beers, some cramming in as much sightseeing as possible. We sampled a couple of bars, The Highlander’s Pub and the obligatory Irish pub, but to be honest the bars were dark and dingy and we wanted to be outside because the sunshine had finally arrived.

We walked along the river to the stadium, in a long line of people who were also choosing to enjoy the sunshine. It’s an easy enough route, about 40 minutes from the city. We aimed to get there about half an hour before the match, which was only just enough time to get in and seated. We didn’t have time to buy any beer outside – the queues were huge – but that was ok because there were vendors selling cans of lager inside the stadium.     

Settling in for the match

We enjoyed a spot of people watching while the match was on; in particular one young couple in front of us; he was enjoying his birthday treat and she was being harangued by a lady from another group who thought she was the world’s authority on everything and don’t stop talking all the way through the first half. The authority’s friends turned their back on her, and the young couple moved a few seats away for the second half. I think she might have got the idea that they wanted to watch the rugby and not talk about her opinions on child raising and natural foods.

Not a bad view

And England won – of course – but Italy made it a competitive match so it was a good game to watch. Well worth the experience – I’d do it again even if I wasn’t on a long term tour, maybe combined with a few days skiing in the alps, and there is still so much more of Rome to explore.

Oh, and I nearly forgot, I found out that if you had a ticket for the rugby you could get in to many museums for free on the Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning of the match. I found out too late, but next time…

Overwhelming Rome

03/02/18 – 06/02/18

Rome has won the prize for the most overwhelming location we have visited so far. I don’t think either of us had really been prepared for a visit to this city and it quickly became clear that doing Rome in a weekend was as possible as doing London in a weekend. You could wear yourself out trying to do everything, and still fail, not only that but you could quickly grow jaded with the sights awaiting you at every corner. We’d had similar overload in Egypt where the ancient buildings had merged into one, and when on safari the herds of Wildebeest and Zebra had become commonplace rather than magnificent. 

After our first day in Rome we knew that we had to take it easy. The answer in a city (for us anyway) is to choose a couple of sights for a day, and in between to have lunch, pick up an ice-cream, have a coffee (or tea for me please) and just observe what’s going on around you without forcing it. We decided that we wouldn’t do the Vatican this time, it was just one thing too many, maybe next time, because there will be a next time.

We bought the Roma pass for our visit. We only just broke even on it, so it wont always be worth it. You get a free visit to the Coliseum/Forum, including fast entry (ie not queuing at the ticket office), two other museums free and any further museums at the reduced rate, plus free public transport. Museums come at various prices so it’s cost effectiveness depends on what you want to see. You also have to visit the museums in order as you cannot chose which are your freebies, it will always be the first ones. It doesn’t apply to Vatican City sights.

Here are a few photos from our time in Rome.


All Roads Lead to Rome

01/02/18 – 02/02/18

With apologies in advance to bloggers Paul and Michele of Our Leap of Faith. Yet again we appear to be stalking you. Great minds and all that…

Oh no…another apology…we didn’t take any photos. This is the problem with bad weather, we just don’t think about taking photos and then nothing for the blog. I just hope you like reading.

We were heading for our date with the Six Nations, so it was time to leave Tuscany and make our way towards Rome.

As we drove along the rough potholed roads and over the bump-de-bump-de-bump of bridge sections we wondered if maybe we should have taken the toll roads. But if you take toll roads you miss stuff. Sometimes you miss the bad bits and sometimes the good bits so it’s a bit of a coin toss. It wasn’t a nice day, grey and rainy, but still there were views out of the windows as we skirted the Lago di Bolsena, one of a few lakes in the area that fill ancient volcanic caldera and drove through the town of Montefiasconi.

Our stop on the way to Rome was just outside Montefiasconi. This sosta was a bit of luxury, a free stop over with electricity for every pitch, we could turn the oil filled radiator on and bake the damp from our bones. The reason it was free…it was provided by the local winery who hoped that you might pop into their shop to pick up some wine or other products, this is the type of win-win that we like (ok, Paul would prefer if it was cider). Yes the wine was a little pricier than we had seen it elsewhere, but who minds paying a few cents extra when you get a free stopover.

There is a particular wine that is famous in the area; ‘Est! Est! Est!’ is a modern sounding label but has a long history originating with a twelfth century prelate who was sent to scout the route to Rome for a German bishop. His instruction was to write Est! on the doors of the inns with good wine, you can guess how many times he wrote this on the door of the inn in Montefiasconi. It’s white wine, which isn’t my favourite – I like drinks that are served a room temperature like Red Wine and Bitter and Gin and Tonic (oh no – I broke my own rule there) – but a couple of bottles didn’t hurt and it was perfectly acceptable if not mind blowing.

After our night in the drizzle in Montefiasconi the weather wasn’t looking any better, so no sight seeing today. Onto Rome it was. More travelling on lumpy roads awaited us, a brief stop for LPG before driving through Viterbo where all roads really did lead to Rome. I wish I’d take a photo, every junction in our direction were signposted to Rome in multiple direction. After Viterbo we skirted round two more of the volcanic lakes before entering the suburbs of Rome from the North.

We were staying at Flaminio Village and it was a thankfully painless journey to the campsite. We had a quick and friendly check-in, tried to squeeze into our designated pitch with no success, and then picked our own pitch from the many free ones. We had chosen this campsite from the reviews of the toilet block, so number one on the list of things to do was a long hot shower…lovely. The toilet block was heated, large and had abundant hot water with proper taps rather than that pesky button pushing. The showers each had a roomy changing area and there was a whole ‘vanity’ area in the ladies with free hair dryers, although the mirrors were placed for very short people and I could only see from my nose down. Yes, the toilet block was now starting to show a few imperfections, but it has to the best I’ve seen since leaving the UK. I wasn’t sure about the piped classical music though, fine when it was soothing but occasionally it was quite martial and made me feel I ought to be washing in double time. At €19 a night this was a great value campsite…but don’t forget the tourist tax! Another €4 per night and not included in the ACSI rate.

As the weather was so rubbish we decided to stay in the campsite that afternoon and do some chores, so my hair got dyed and lots of washing got done. I do love sleeping between freshly laundered linen.

Hot Springs Eternal


One of the things I’ve missed most while travelling in our motorhome is a long hot bath. I usually prefer a shower, but whenever I’ve been stressed, anxious or just plain tired I have relished a hot bath, a cup of tea and a good book (I find my kindle copes better with the steam and doesn’t go crinkly at the edges –  so long as I don’t drop it in the water).

We’d looked at the baths at Bagno Vignoni but they were too cool for bathing. So, after a few active days and a few sleepless nights (due to it being ‘that time of the month’) I thought it was worth looking for something a bit warmer.

The closest hot springs were at Saturnia, another Tuscan hill town with a spa, but also free public bathing in the warm waters. I’d done a bit more research this time and knew that we would get water at about 38.5 degress, which is pleasantly warm, and that the baths are used year round.

As we drove towards the area we got a view of the pools from a distance, the cascade of pools and milky blue/green water looked almost man made and there were people bathing, so it must be warm. The anticipation of a long soak put me in a good mood, in fact my temper was good enough that I didn’t mind paying to park. We had hoped to park along the short road that leads to the baths, but motorhomes were forbidden and in any case there were no available spots. At the end of that road there is a big parking area with a height barrier – small vans would probably get through but not us. So we ventured about a kilometre away to the local private sosta; at €14 with electricity, toilets and showers it was not a bad price, and you cant blame them for cashing in on the popularity of the place.

The view of the hot springs as we approached.

We walked down the road back to the baths. There were probably 20 people using them, with plenty of people coming and going while we were there. This was a nice number and allowed each group to lay claim to a pool without having to get too close for comfort with strangers. I cant imagine what it would be like in summer, I’ve seen pictures of people crammed hip to hip along the edges of the pools which would negate all pleasure in the experience.

We spent a couple of hours soaking, going prune-like in the slightly sulphurous water. The atmosphere was friendly as people moved slowly between pools trying to find their optimum wallowing experience. The pools nearer the falls were warmer or you could move further away for cooler water, some pools were effervescent and some had waterfalls that pummelled you, some chest deep and some shallow. The people watching was fun, all ages were represented from a baby with her parents to an elderly chap sat on a folding chair in the shallows just bathing his feet. Lots of people just turned up in their cars already in dressing gowns over bathing suits, others did that slow and clumsy ‘under the towel’ dance.

It was such a refreshing and different experience. I would really recommend searching out any hot springs on your travels. Don’t worry about the eggy smell – it’s worth it!

The Hollow Ways of the Etruscans


As we drove south through Tuscany the land slowly flattened out. From the steep sided closely packed hills of the north we ventured through lower hills and wider shallower valleys until it seemed almost flat. But appearances can be deceiving, we were still a couple of hundred meters above sea level, and as we approached Sorano we rounded a bend in the road to see a town perched on a clifftop above a dark forested river valley cutting through the land.

Hilltop towns had been very much a feature of Tuscany, and here in the province of Grosseto the tradition of fortified defensible towns continued with the clifftop ‘Tufa Towns’  of Sorano, Pitigliano and Sovano. Tufa (although it should properly be called tuff) is the volcanic rock that underpins the landscape here – a soft rock that is easy to excavate, which gives rise to some of the archeologic features.

Of the three towns we randomly chose to visit Sorano, like the other towns it had been established by the Etruscans and although their legacy isn’t visible in the town it can be found in the surrounding area. We parked up by the Orsini fortress which dominates the top part of the town. It wasn’t open to visitors but we were still able to walk through it’s courtyard and see the view down towards the medieval buildings of the town below. We wandered down through the narrow streets, down mossy steps and cobbled slopes. It felt like walking through a ghost town, doors and shutters were pinned closed and we could only hear our footsteps. When we tried to get to the viewpoint of Masso Leopoldino the gate was firmly padlocked, it didn’t matter though as there were plenty of other viewpoints through the town.

After a few wrong turns we found the Porta di Rocco on the lower eastern side of the town and we could escape the buildings and descend to the river below. This was what we had really come to the area to see. Down here are ancient pathways deeply carved into the rock – the Vie Cave – it’s thought they are Etruscan in origin, but no one knows why they were cut so deeply into the rock. They link together the towns of Sorano, Sovana and Pitigliano – we didn’t go that far but allowed ourselves to get lost and turned around exploring the three main pathways that spread out from Sorano. There was something eerie about being between the confines of the pathway walls, the ghostly feeling enhanced by the rock cut caves and burial chambers that could be found in the surroundings.

We found a porcupine quill in the vie cave – we had no idea that there are porcupines in Italy

Emerging from the Vie Cave we could then head in the opposite direction to the troglodyte town of Vitozza, an archeological area of many cave dwellings from different periods. Spread out through the forest it was not well signposted, or at least we didn’t find any informative signs, but we had not approached from the usual direction. We felt that we were probably missing some interesting sights and should have given the area more time, but it was starting to get a bit dimpsy so we needed to get back.

Approaching Sorano from below you can see how precariously the houses perch on top of each other, on top of the ancient walls and all on top of a cave riddled cliff. We wandered back up and through the more modern part of the town where we found evidence that there was a local population and a few shops and bars. Our parking near the fortress was the school bus drop off/pick up point so we investigated, and later moved to, a different parking spot as we didn’t fancy being woken up too early.

From our parking spot we could watch the setting sun shine on the town.

We put this on our list of places to come back to and explore further. Pitigliano is a bit bigger and looks like it has some interesting buildings as well as it’s historic Jewish quarter, Sovana has an archeological park with more Etruscan heritage, there is a mountain bike trail around the area taking in some of the sights which looks like it could be interesting and of course many more miles of Vie Cave to explore. You could easily spend a week in the area exploring these three towns.

Bagno Vignoni and the Via Francigena

28/01/18 – 29/01/18

We moved on from Greve-in-Chianti to find something less strenuous to occupy our time. Tuscany has a number of hot springs and so we thought we’d see if we could find somewhere for a soak.

Not Bagno Vignoni though. This village has a hot spring that fills a large rectangular pool in the centre of the village. At this point it’s about 50 degrees, lovely, but no bathing allowed here. From the village centre the warm water flows through the local spa hotel before cascading down the side of a hill to the public pools which are tepid at best. It’s probably very refreshing on a hot day but not in the middle of winter. I suppose we could have paid to go into the spa, but we’re far too tight for that.

Instead we spent a few hours wandering around the village with many other people enjoying their Sunday outing. We hung out for a while in one of the cafes that were situated around the edge of the village’s central pool. You could feel the warmth from the water, not a fierce heat but just slightly less cold than the surroundings. Steam rose gently above the pool, visible only when the air was very still, and the spring bubbled under the surface of the water. The pigeons enjoyed splashing in the pool even though we couldn’t.

From the village centre we followed the path of the water down past the spa hotel and into the Parco dei Mulini. The water made it’s way through narrow channels cut in the rock to the ruins of the mill. We tested the temperature of the stream here and it was still pretty warm, but the channels were too small for anything more than a quick dunk of the feet.

We followed steps down the small cliff where we could see the water splashing over waterfalls, the rocks here had a thick coating of yellowish sulphur deposits left by the water. There are four mills in this park, set on top of each other with the lower mills set into caves and carved into the rocks, if you were happy to squidge through the mud and be dripped on from above you could take a look inside.

Further down there are two pools where the water is shallow and much cooled. These are the public bathing areas, although I’m not sure they are in use any more and I couldn’t persuade Paul to take a dip. From here the water runs into the river valley. It’s relative warmth is still evident in the amount of vegetation that grows along it’s channels, and even in the middle of winter we could see frogs jumping. 

After our easy perambulations around the village we decided to stay for a second night and the following morning we felt up to something a little more strenuous again. There are many walking routes leading from the village, all well signposted. We walked uphill from our parking area, following a track up to a small fortified village of Borgo di Vignoni with it’s keep, church and walls, then onwards along a section of the Via Francigene, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. We turned off this path to follow a deep cut track between high ferny banks – very reminiscent of Dartmoor – which eventually led us towards the Castello di Ripa d’Orcia, before dropping down to the river and following it back to Bagno Vignoni. 

This area was beautiful, Bagno Vignoni gave a tourist’s eye view of Tuscany with all buildings perfectly maintained and the streets beautifully laid out. In contrast walking around the area took us to some more rural areas with farm buildings much more ‘lived in’. All in all Tuscany was shaping up to be a fabulous area to visit. 


This Green and Pleasant Land


Part of the appeal of Tuscany, we decided, was the amount of green growth we could see. Even in winter when the trees were mostly bare, the hills and pastures, riverbanks and gardens all had a verdant glow. And of course that reminded us of home, the ‘green and pleasant land’ of the UK. No wonder so many British people gravitate here, there is enough similarity to the UK to make it comforting but at the same time there are enough differences to make it feel like a foreign land. The exclamation points of cypress trees, the olive groves with their silvered leaves and the endless vineyards all tell you that you are somewhere else.

Views across Tuscan valleys

We started our voyage through the Tuscan countryside in Greve-in-Chianti, the main town in the area. We arrived on the Saturday afternoon with the market starting to pack up, but still it was a busy town with mainly Italian visitors making the most of a fine weekend. The sosta was free, set in a circle with waste disposal under a cover in the centre (which took us a while to find); if it was busy it could make toilet emptying a spectator sport, but it was fairly quiet today with just a handful of Italian vans.

Because it was a nice day and we still had about three hours of daylight left I persuaded Paul that we should go for a ‘short’ bike ride. This started by cycling through the town and then heading uphill on a road that quickly became a track. Up and up and up we went, past fields and vineyards and those beautiful Tuscan farmhouses of golden stone with glossy dark green shutters. Further up, through wood and moorland now, we were feeling the burn in our calves! The hills of Tuscany may look pleasingly rounded but they are bigger than you think.

Finally we reached the point where we would turn off the main track and descend through the woods on some singletrack, in the distance we could hear the sound of dirt bikes revving. We later met these bikes who were using the same tracks as us, fortunately we heard them coming and quickly got out of the way. The downhill had been described as easy but fun, it was definitely fun, but the rocky drops were occasionally too much for me and I ended up getting off a number of times to push my bike down. I expect in summer when the paths are dry it is slightly easier, but in winter the fallen leaves hid tricky sections and the mud was deep and churned by the bikes.

By the time we finally reached the end of the wood and dropped onto a track through a vineyard we were properly mud splattered, just the way it should be. Already knackered we didn’t realise that the next section was back uphill again, steep enough that an elderly couple in their car stopped to cheer us on and provide encouragement (I think). We made it to the village of Lamole where we stopped for some snacks to provide a bit of energy, looked at the map and decided that we should cut the ride short and only go downhill from now on. So we retraced our steps for a short way and then picked up the road leading back to Greve-In-Chianti. Along the way we managed to pick up a fellow mountain biker heading back the same way, so we followed him back until he turned off for home just a few yards from the Sosta.

That evening we were well and truly shattered. and I felt I’d earned a glass or two of Chianti.  

Cypress lined driveways



Leaning Towers and Impossible Towers


Every blog I’ve read has reported disappointment with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So it was with lowered expectations that we headed for Pisa. A bit of backtracking but the weather forecast was gloomy and we thought it would be a better day for sightseeing than for outdoorsy stuff.

After Lucca this was another location with reports of thefts from vehicles so we opted for a parking spot that seemed slightly more secure with a manned office (not 24 hours, but we weren’t intending to spend the evening out). It was on the Via di Pratale and was signposted at most junctions. Our satnav told us that we were entering the Pisa environmental zone (the Zona Traffico Limitato) at one point, and although we didn’t see any roadsigns for it I cant guarantee there weren’t any – there were lots of signs that I couldn’t keep up with. There is a map of the ZTL entry point cameras on the official site here.

We got to the site and got ourselves parked up – no need for electric so it was €12 for 24 hours – then it was off to explore Pisa and see what all the disappointment was about.

From the parking spot we followed the Medici aqueduct into the city. This work of renaissance engineering once bought waters from the hills north of Pisa. Now, although mostly intact (we had to drive under it to get into the sosta) it is no longer in working order. It still runs all the way to Asciano though and you can follow a bike path along it’s length.

The aqueduct running through Pisa

The old town of Pisa seemed very similar to Lucca, plenty of renaissance buildings, cobbled streets and piazzas. We wandered around for a bit before heading to the tower planning to be underwhelemed.

As we entered the Piazza del Duomo our first impression was of the striking white buildings. In contrast to the earthy tones of the surrounding buildings each of the buildings in the piazza were radiantly white, like the bones of the city exposed. There is more to Pisa than the tower, and maybe this is one source of disappointment. The tower was built as the bell tower of the cathedral, and so was never meant to be the starring feature of the area. The cemetery is a massive block of marble, the cathederal likewise is huge and imposing. The baptistery with it’s impressive dome adds some more graceful curves. The tower is small in comparison to all three, and it’s not even unique – all the buildings in the area are leaning slightly. But despite the relatively small size it really does make an impression, when you stand next to the tower and look up you get the vertiginous feeling that it’s toppling down on you.

Yes – it really does lean
The cathedral and tower, it gives a sense of the angle the tower leans at.
Baptistry, Cathedral and Tower

We visited the cathedral, which is free but you have to pick up a ticket to get a time slot. We would have liked to climb the tower, but at €18 a pop it was far too much for us, especially as we had plans to spend our money later that day. We enjoyed wandering around the Piazza dei Miracoli, although the only thing remotely miraculous was the number of foreign tourists that had emerged from the woodwork. 

Later we wandered down to the Arno river heading for Palazzo Blu. When i’d been googling places to visit in Pisa I’d found out that there was an Escher exhibition being held. It felt like a stroke of good fortune to be able to see this after our visit to the Dali Museum, bringing back fond memories of the posters on my university bedroom walls. The exhibition bought together a large volume of Escher’s work, arranged mostly thematically, but also with a bit of history. I had been a fan of the paradoxical towers and geometrical pictures when I had been younger, but this time it was the reflections that captivated me.  


Walking Walls in Lucca


The city of Lucca was our first stop in Tuscany, founded by the Etruscans and with an abundance of renaissance buildings, it looked like a pleasant place to start a short tour around Tuscany.

Lucca old town is surrounded by intact city walls. After walking around the Roman walls in Lugo we fancied repeating the exercise here in Lucca. The walls here aren’t as old as Lugo’s walls, and their character is completely different but they share one thing in common; they are fully intact and encircle the old city, the ‘centro storico’.

There is a sosta situated outside the old city where there were a couple of other motorhomes. It’s got a barrier on entry where you pick up a ticket and you pay before you leave. At 10 euros for 24 hours it seemed reasonable value, especially when compared with the previous night’s parking. When we read reviews of the sosta there had been warnings of thefts so we double checked the precautions we take when leaving Bertie unguarded. It’s very easy for us to get complacent with our security measures and let them slacken off so it was a good exercise to check them. Making sure that valuables are in the safe, using our deadlocks and double locks on all the doors, ensuring windows are properly closed, putting the steering lock on, hiding our electronic equipment (the stuff that doesn’t fit in the safe) and making sure that our money, cards and phones are on us at all times and not just left hanging around. We don’t have much that would be of value to a thief, but the distress and inconvenience of theft shouldn’t be underestimated. So far we haven’t experienced it ourselves and we want to do everything we can to avoid the hassle and heartache.

Fortunately all was well and Bertie was untouched when we returned from our perambulations around the city walls. They are so wide and spacious, with grassy parks and trees lining the paths and cycle tracks, it is unnerving when you remember you are top of a man made structure.  They are just over 4km around and as we walked we were lapped a couple of times by runners out for their lunchtime jog. I had wondered how people managed to cycle around the walls but there were long ramps providing easy access to the walkways. 

We didn’t do much in Lucca apart from wander around the walls and then meander through the city. We saw churches with their beautiful marble facades, one that seemed to have tried a marble of every hue in it’s columned facade. There were towers, including the Guigni Tower which stands out because of it’s rooftop oak trees. The streets and piazzas, including the oval Piazza Anfiteatro which was built on the site of the Roman amphitheatre, were cobbled and lined with beautiful buildings, mainly traffic free they were ideal for a bit of aimless exploration.  

On the way to Lucca we drove past many unfinished blocks of marble, no wonder there are so many marble clad buildings here
The broad and grassy walls of Lucca
We spotted this gorilla, not sure what it’s significance was
San Martino Cathedral
Palazzo Pfanner with the Basilica di San Frediano in the background.
The Palazzo Pfanner, the palazzo is closed to visitors between November and April, but you can see the extent of the buildings and the beautiful gardens from the city walls.
One of the many squares in Lucca, the streets and squares are a joy to wander around

An Important Anniversary and Some Musings on Money

This morning Facebook reminded me that I received my formal notice of redundancy a year ago today.

Although I had known about my impending redundancy for some time (I was made redundant due to an office closure which is a fairly long winded process) the receipt of formal notice was the thing that made it all real. So I thought it was worth marking this important anniversary.

Of course, I’m very lucky to have received a generous redundancy payment that has provided a cushion and an incentive for our travelling. We are not the brave souls who sell everything and go on their adventures without a backwards glance. We are the conservative types who prefer to know that we have the backup of money in the bank and assets to fall back on. Part of me wishes I was the impulsive and risk taking type, but there is very little of that in my personality and I tend to use it all up on outdoor activities.

Even before my redundancy our desire for financial security had started to set the foundation for this type of adventure. All unknowing of what the future would hold we started to save and invest in order to pay off our biggest debt – the mortgage. After watching a TV programme – How to Pay Your Mortgage Off in Two Years – we decided that we would try a similar exercise through the simple steps of earning as much as possible and spending as little as possible. We started with a five year plan, but ended up paying our mortgage off in just under three years.

At this point you might be thinking what a couple of smug b**stards. It makes me feel apologetic and almost embarrassed to be in this situation. We know we are fortunate, but we also know that it would have been really easy to have fallen into a lifestyle that would have tied us to working until we were in our 60’s. Buying ever bigger houses, spending money on ‘stuff’, going on expensive holidays. And we will have to go back to work eventually. We aren’t quite at the stage where we can consider ourselves to be retired.

Not everyone will be able to do what we have done, but many people can make savings and every little saving makes a difference. One of my favourite resources for making savings on a day to day basis is, started by Martin Lewis who you have probably seen on ITV. We used the information on this fab site to cut our costs and there are some really inspiring stories of people who have turned their financial lives around. I’d recommend taking a look and seeing where you could save.   

Avoiding the Riviera


From the Verdon Gorge we had decided that our route to Italy would be along the coast rather than through the mountains. This might have been the wrong decision. As we dropped down towards the French Riviera we came across traffic, other vehicles in abundance. We haven’t encountered much heavy traffic in any of the non UK countries we have visited and we don’t like it.

The traffic was orderly and polite. In the filter lanes each vehicle was being scrupulous about making a gap to let one, and only one, car in. In the UK there would have been passive aggressive avoidance of eye contact as people either didn’t let any cars in or tried to sneak into a gap that had been created for the person in front. It didn’t matter how orderly it was though, if we had to do this all the way to Italy it was going to drive us bonkers. By avoiding toll roads we would end up driving through multiple busy built up areas, so would we be happy to spend the money on toll routes? The clincher was when the sat nav told us that a three hour journey by toll road would be 7 hours by alternative routes. That was it, we were paying the money and getting out of here.

So we made our decision. We had overnighted in Carros, a fortunate find inland from Nice where there was a large carpark for the rather smart village where everyone dressed impeccably. From here we drove via the Norauto store (similar to Halfords) where we picked up snow chains and a spare bulb for our headlights, to the autoroute. And then we drove.

The view north from the parking in Carros was almost enough to make us forget the urban sprawl behind us
The hill-top village of Carros

At one point Paul claimed it was boring. I paid little attention as for once I didn’t need to be studying the sat nav to ensure that we took the right exit off a roundabout or kept right at exactly the correct junction. Boring was good. We passed Monaco, and through the border to Italy. The autostrada took us above the small towns with houses painted in sunset colours of gold, ochre and dark pink that occupied the steep sided valleys of the Italian Riviera. When we had to leave the toll road we had relaxed enough to be ready for supposed mad Italian driving. We didn’t see any extraordinary driving antics or even hear the toot of a horn, but the parking habits were interesting as cars fitted themselves into any possible space in any possible orientation.

Here we go, another country

The smaller roads took us up through towns and villages towards our parking spot. The roads were being resurfaced and their glistening smooth blackness was very welcome. Unfortunately the carpark was also being resurfaced which meant no parking! What a shame, we had really wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon walking down to the coast from here.

A bit of a rethink and search on various apps led us a few km away to an alternative parking spot. This wasn’t so well placed, and walking from here wouldn’t have taken us anywhere particularly scenic. We searched for other spots but couldn’t find anything close enough and suitable so we ended up sticking where we were. A bit of a disappointment. To add to our misery the carpark, which had no prices displayed, charged us € 16 for the privilege of staying overnight with no services. And then the weather took a turn for the worse.

In a bit of a gloomy mood we decided that we would head a bit further south to escape the rain. Portofino, the Cinque Terre and other delights of this area would have to wait. We were setting our sights for Tuscany.

The Route des Crêtes – Better on a Bike


We had spent a few days discussing a possible visit to the Verdon Gorge. Would we go? It was ‘sort of’ en-route, but ideally we would want to spend a week in the area, not just a day. Would it spoil it for us if we went for such a short time? Sometimes I think we just drag these decisions out in order to have something to talk about, after all it was never really in doubt. Unless the weather was atrocious we were going.

And the weather was going to be perfect. The forecast was for sun and very little wind. We had a slight hiccough when we arrived at our overnight parking in Trigance. The forecast of light winds seemed like a mickey take as strong gusts rocked Bertie and trees bowed down to scrape the roof with their branches. We checked the forecast, it was still saying light winds, but now there was a warning of strong gusts until 11pm. We crossed our fingers and fortunately the gusts really did stop as forecast leaving us in an eerie but welcome silence.

So with good conditions we had to decide how to make the most of the day. I really fancied the Sentier Martel, but it’s a walk that takes 7 hours one way and the buses that run in the summer to shuttle people back to their cars were not in service on a mid week day in January. Having looked at various options, and agreeing that we had to do something energetic that included views of the gorge, we eventually decided that we would cycle the Route des Crêtes. This is a 23km round trip on the D23 road, offering good views of the gorge and a nice climb and descent all on tarmac. It’s a popular route with drivers, bikers and cyclists, so we weren’t breaking new ground, but we hoped it would be quiet on this winter midweek day. 

We tackled the route in the conventional way, clockwise, from La Palud-sur-Verdon. From our overnight parking spot at Trigance we drove to Palud, where we easily found parking in the small car park at the eastern end of the village. Not something that would happen in high season, but there are various parking spots along the road and a big campsite by the start of the D23.

Setting off we had a nice stretch of downhill as we cruised down the D952 towards the junction with the D23. We turned off here and before the climb started we came to a big red sign saying FERME. We chose to believe that this only applied to cars, and as there was no chance of snow or ice on the route we felt confident about our safety. The ascent started, it was energetic but not too much so. As we pushed uphill we met another cyclist who was coming downhill on his road bike, apart from that cyclist and one car we had no other human company, what a joy.

The route has the advantage of many belvederes (view points), but our solitude meant we could stop at any opportunity for views of the gorge in front of us or the valley behind, taking all the sting out of the uphill. The viewpoints give opportunities to get a bit closer to the edge on foot, and we peered over the railings with awe to see the sheer sided cliffs and the thread of green river below. Griffon Vultures, re-introduced in the 90’s, flew so close we could hear their wings beat. Attempts to capture this on camera were thwarted by our desire to watch them.

Looking north towards the snow capped mountains
To the east we can see the steep sides of the gorge and the distant mountains. Griffon Vultures fly overhead.
Down below is the narrow river that carved this fantastic feature
Another view of the sides of the gorge

As we approached the highest point we watched a car drive past us and around the ‘road closed’ barrier. We stopped just after the highest point for our lunch and to watch the vultures again. The car was parked just ahead of us, the driver standing and staring at the sight above him. The reintroduction program must have been a great success as there are at least 20 birds wheeling overhead and more gliding through the gorge.

After lunch we let ourselves freewheel downhill, around the hairpin bends and through the short tunnels. It almost seemed a waste to take it so fast but at the same time it was exhilarating. Our only caution was for the fist sized rocks that had fallen from the cliffs, otherwise we had plenty of room to swing around the turns. At the bottom we were full of high spirits. The adrenaline powered us up the slight incline of the next section as we turned right and entered a lesser gorge, wooded and attractive but without the spectacle of the main gorge. It felt too soon to be getting back to the beginning, but as we rounded a bend we could see the village in front of us.

A brief visit to the gorge, but one well spent. We look forward to returning, we want to kayak on the lakes, hike the Sentier Martel and take other walks around the mountains. That’s at least a couple of weeks enjoying all the area has to offer. But right now we’re on a deadline and cant hang around.   

Out thoughts on driving the route in a motorhome.

Firstly, yes we would do it, once you have driven to La Palud you have driven along mountain roads anyway. There is nothing worse ahead. Having said that, Bertie is over 3.5 tonnes (see below) and actually we think this is much more enjoyable under pedal power.

We have no idea what this is like in summer, visions of conveyer belts and nose to tail vehicles come to mind. I think I would avoid July and August if possible. 

Take the opportunity to stop wherever possible, the belvederes just before and after the top were our favourite spots. You are here for the spectacle and, if possible, that means getting out of the van and wandering off the road and down the steps to see the gorge at it’s finest. 

The route is one-way for the downhill section and so should be tackled in a clockwise direction.

There are two short tunnels on the downhill section. The lowest of these is over 4m in the centre and 3.6 meters at the sides. They are wide enough for large vehicles with room to spare (no width is given but I would estimate just over 3.5m).

The road width is generous for single track, there are no points where you would need to be really close to the edge even in a motorhome. We’ve been on similar sized mountain roads where traffic has flowed in both directions. If you’re comfortable with mountain roads and hairpin bends then this will be a straight forward drive.  

The road is closed each year between Nov and April, exact dates vary but can be found on the tourist office website here. The closed section is along the downhill stretch from the highest point, down to the Chalet de la Maline. You can still access the uphill section of the route in motorised vehicles which gives access to good viewpoints over the gorge, and there is a reasonable sized turning spot at the top. The barrier is pretty half hearted (just a low barrier across one side of the road) and while we were cycling the route one car drove past us.

There are signs limiting the route to vehicles 3.5 tonnes or under. I know people have done it in heavier vehicles. It feels as though this limitation is very cautious rather than being driven by the structural capacity of the road. But I don’t know that, and, well…insurance companies and breakdown recovery…I wouldn’t risk it.

And the Routes des Cretes is not the only road that gives great views of the gorge, you can do a circuit around the north and south side of the gorge, these roads have traffic in both directions but are a bit wider. The D71 gives good views, as does the D952 where it runs along the edge of the gorge with fantastic overhanging rocks providing a bit of atmosphere. The Point Sublime is a good spot to stop and take pictures. It is also at one end of the Sentier Martel if you fancy a walk.

The overhangs look perilously low, but as you get closer you realise there is plenty of room