Back in Tuscany

22/05/18

After the Monte Sibillini we were planning to head for the Apuan Alps, a small offshoot of the Apennines that sits behind the coast of northern Tuscany. It was going to be quite a drive and we wanted to break it up. Our first stop, the night we had Bertie’s brakes fixed, was a small sosta at Torrita di Siena. We sneaked into the remaining space (there were only half a dozen) alongside various nationalities and reminded ourselves of the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. Tuscany had seemed so crinkled and hilly when we first drove through on our way south, but we had become used to the drama of mountain views and now it seemed like the green hills folded themselves gently around the golden stone of the local buildings.

The sosta is on a walking and mountain biking (and horse riding if you happen to have bought your horse along) trail – the Sentiero di Vin Santo, so on the following morning we took our bikes out on the trail. Suddenly we were reminded that the pleasant folds of the countryside hid steep sided valleys. Our legs pumped as we ascended along the trail that should have ended at Montefollonico, a town on a hill, but as we got closer to the town we realised that we would have to navigate some very overgrown single track and then have an incredibly steep uphill final slog to Montefollonico. We looked at each other and decided without words that it was too hot to bother. We turned around and made a very swift return to Bertie.

It was only mid morning, so we had a look at the map to see where we could go next. Somewhere we could wander round without too much exertion in the heat. Arezzo was the perfect spot, a tourist town, but not too big. I sold it to Paul; ‘look, there are even escalators to get from the parking to the town’.

We drove to Arezzo and easily found the very large motorhome parking area. There were no services here, but still some of the spaces seemed to be permanently occupied. We lunched in Bertie before setting off for the town, a very easy and gentle uphill walk. I have seen other places that are far more in need of an escalator than Arezzo. It was such a gentle walk that we decided we would look foolish using any assistance.

The old town, within the city walls, was one of those Italian towns that was a pleasure to wander around, with narrow medieval streets and unexpected piazzas. 

The focal area is the Piazza Grande, rather unusually it slopes steeply from one side to the other, supposedly to allow the rain water to run off, although I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason for such an unusual design (but what do I know). We mooched around the shaded side of the streets and then paid a few euros each to visit the Palazzo di Fraternita dei Laici. There is an art collection here which was worth a quick look, but really we had paid our money to climb to the top of the bell tower and see the views. The tower has an interesting clock mechanism which you can watch as it strikes each quarter hour. We waited on top of the tower as thunder clouds started to gather and occasional fat spots of rain landed on us. The chiming of the bell was a bit of an anti-climax especially because it was the hour and so only one bell was in action.

Arezzo is a place that you could take some time to explore, it is just the right side of touristy, meaning that there were plenty of cafes and shops open and a bustling atmosphere, but it was not mobbed with tourists. Unlike Florence which was to be our next stop, more about that in our next blog post. 

Bertie’s Broken Brakes

21/05/18

Today was spent nursing Bertie back to health. A few days previously we had noticed Bertie’s brake warning light flickering intermittently on the dashboard. Today, as we drove back into the mountains, the light came on fully and not only that but we heard that nasty crunching noise from the brakes when we had to stop at a steep downhill junction.

Coincidentally we happened to be near to a motorhome sosta in Castelangelo sul Nera so we parked up for a cuppa, a quick consultation with one of Paul’s friends and an internet trawl for a nearby fiat garage. The sosta looked pretty nice; flat, free and with electricity points that were being serviced while we were there. It was tempting to stay but we decided we should crack on and get Bertie’s brakes looked at. So we set course for Foligno which had a suitable looking garage.

Before we reached Foligno, as we approached the main road out of the mountains, we drove along a strip of villages and I saw a Fiat sign outside a large workshop in Varano. A quick turn around and we drove into the forecourt where a mechanic was tinkering with a tractor. With limited Italian and English between us we still managed to explain the problem, provide the vin number and confirm that he could get the parts by 2:30 that afternoon. When I asked how much it would cost he just shrugged – a mechanic’s universal gesture – so I asked if we could pay by card. Of course not! Although cards are accepted in many places in Italy – supermarkets, fuel stations and larger campsites – Italy still has a very cash based economy. Smaller businesses only accept cash and many people carry wads of cash. It still shocks me when you see people open their wallets and display thick sheaves of notes.

Anyway we had some time to kill, so we could find a cashpoint somewhere. The nearest bancomat was in a town called Muccia, just up the road. Can we walk? I asked, and when we were told it was just straight along the road we decided to leave Bertie and proceed on foot. 

Maybe I should have asked for better directions as we ended up walking along the hard shoulder for a couple of kilometres, an uncomfortable experience even in a relatively quiet area. As we got closer to Muccia we passed a supermarket so I popped in to see if they had a bancomat, but we were just directed on to Muccia. They did make a point of saying that the bank would be on the left side of the road. When we got to Muccia it was obvious why, the old town was on the right and was off limits. The population and all local businesses were now housed on the left hand side of the road where rows of pre-fab bungalows and wooden sheds had been erected.

There was no obvious sign of a bank though, so time to ask for more directions. In the tobacconist they directed us up through the bungalows – still no sign of the bank. Eventually we stopped and asked for directions again (I was getting good at this). The young man shrugged, he didn’t know where it was, but as we thanked him and went to walk off he gestured us to stop and called over someone who had just walked out of a house. This man was able to direct us to the bank, and in English too. We weren’t far away, but I don’t think I would have recognised the white and blue containers as the post office and bank respectively.

At last we were able to get our money, and we took a few minutes to look for a better route back to the garage along back roads. When we got back the parts had been delivered and although it was smack in the middle of the sacred Italian lunch break our mechanic was keen to get on with the work. He directed us to the local café for lunch while he sorted out the brake pads, half an hour later and all was complete. We were able to move on with strict instructions to keep use of the brakes ‘piano’ for the next couple of days, luckily my years of music lessons meant I could translate this instruction with little difficulty. I knew it would come in useful one day.

There is always a great sense of relief when getting problems like this sorted. As well as the fear that there might be a major problem that cannot be solved that day, the language barrier creates an additional layer of uncertainty. I can honestly say that everyone we met today did their best to help us. We left the Sibillini mountains with a lighter wallet but lighter hearts and vowed to come back again one day to spend more time appreciating the beautiful green hills.