Champagne For Everyone

17/06/18

I’ve mentioned before that my French geography is not great, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I realised that we were on the edge of the Champagne area. After the initial surprise was a short flurry of excitement. I do like a bit of bubbly, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, but I would feel guilty drinking anything else while here.

We did still have to move on though, and although Troyes was a tempting destination it didn’t move us far enough. Instead we targeted Reims, a town that has a famous cathedral as well as being one of the main towns of the Champagne district.

We arrived at the municipal campsite of Val-de-Vesle on the Saturday evening. It is about 20km from Reims along a canal with a well defined cycle path. The campsite was pleasant and was good value at just over €16 although it did have one of those complex pricing structures where you pay a small amount for each component of the stay. The toilet block was spotless, even after I had dyed my hair, and trees provided dappled shade. For the first time in ages we bumped into another English couple, exchanging stories of narrow escapes from even narrower roads (most in the UK). With the campsite came an opportunity to barbeque and sit in our chairs in the sunshine, we decided to stay two nights instead of one to enjoy the opportunity.

I had a quick peek on the internet to find out what was possible on Sunday and we decided to cycle into Reims, do a champagne house tour, see the sights and have some lunch. Possibly not in that order.

Reims on a Sunday was a hushed and peaceful town, families were walking or cycling along the canal, but the town itself seemed solely the preserve of tourists. All shops were shut, so only the tourist attractions and the supporting infrastructure were open. We could easily have driven Bertie in and parked up, but it was good to get some exercise. The route went past the town of Sillery where we paused to gaze at the French cemetery and remind ourselves of the depredations of the First World War.

Sillery Cemetery

Reims cathedral was our first port of call; the ‘royal cathedral’ has been the place of coronation for all but seven of France’s monarchs. Ok, the first few monarchs, starting with Henry I in 1027, were crowned in an earlier cathedral which was destroyed by fire. But work soon started on the current gothic cathedral and since then it has remained standing, despite the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution and the First World War. Of course it has been updated over time; the First World War significantly damaged the building and there are beautiful modern stained glass windows which were installed in the 20th century to replace the windows blown out by German bombardment. Apart from the stained glass the cathedral has many statues and carvings on the tall, narrow facades and arguably the outside is more attractive than the fairly stark interior. Look out for the statues of Joan of Arc, one inside and one outside, who liberated the city and cathedral from the English.

Tall and narrow nave of Reims cathederal
Side portals with many carvings

After the cathedral we took a wander round the city centre, following a walking map provided by the tourist information centre. We visited the Saint Remi Basilica, a Gothic style building of more pleasing dimensions than the cathedral which we found exaggeratedly tall and narrow. In the city the first world war devastation provided opportunity for redevelopment and the city has quite a number of art deco buildings, including the market and the Carnegie Library. We found our attention was not captured for long though because most places were shut and the atmosphere was almost too quiet. This was a bit of a shock for two people who don’t really like busy cities, we now know that we don’t like empty cities either!

Clean Art Deco lines of the Carnegie Library
Tiles in the San Remi Basilica

We stopped for lunch before moving onto the Taittinger champagne house for a tour. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the champagne house tours, so we picked Taittinger because it was open on a Sunday and had a very clear online booking system. The tour was quite interesting, a short film about the history of Taittinger, followed by a tour of the cellars. The building you can see above ground is quite modern and uninspiring, but underground in the cellars you are in a network that was started in Roman times as chalk quarries. The upside down funnels of the chalk excavations were then extended by Benedictine monks who were digging the crypts and cellars for their abbey. The wine and champagne houses appropriated the caves and extended them to house thousands upon thousands of bottles of champagne, all stacked neatly and nursed to maturity by patient and knowledgeable staff. The soft chalk provided many opportunities for people to leave their mark through the years and faces and names have been etched into the rock, including marks left by locals who sheltered down here in the Second World War.

A few of the champagne bottles in the caverns
Stairs to the now non-existent abbey
Graffiti on the walls

After the tour of the cellars it was back up to the bar to sample some champagne, being a cheapskate I had booked the lowest cost tour with one glass of champagne each. As Paul doesn’t like champagne I was looking forward to drinking two glasses, but in no time Paul had finished his glass, only to tell me that he still didn’t like it. What a waste! 

 

  

A Long Ride to Another Lake

16/06/18

We moved onwards through France with a long drive north, including a diversion around Bourg-en-Bresse that left us doing some old fashioned paper map reading as the sat nav tried to push us back onto the closed road.

As we continued our steady pace through France I wondered again why we don’t spend more time in France. By avoiding toll roads we were seeing some of what France has to offer, but it felt very superficial as we were only passing through. I snapped a few pictures from Bertie as we went to remind us of the types of places we were seeing.

Some interesting decorative art on a water tower/silo

When we were tired of driving we picked a nearby free aire from one of our apps. Today’s aire was in Pierre-de-Bresse; a mixed car park with motorhome services and electricity. A little manoeuvring got us close enough to plug into the electricity, but it wasn’t man enough for our kettle and we didn’t have any other reason to be on hook-up so we unplugged and moved away to leave the space free for someone who needed it.

The following morning we set off early to the Foret d’Orient through increasingly rural villages. We found a free parking spot on Park4Night that had a position on the shores of Lake Temple with some views. Despite there being one other van in the car park it felt nice and peaceful, insects abounded in the humid atmosphere and we chased a few lazy fat flies out of the van before making sure that all of the fly screens were in place.

Parking spot at Lake Temple

We took our bikes out along the shores of these vast reservoirs. A cycle trail runs along the northern edge of the lakes, mostly on dedicated pathways right alongside the lake shore. The views of the lakes were beautiful, the water as flat as a mirror, and as soon as we started to find the lakeside views a bit tedious we entered the forest between the lakes and completely different surroundings. School children were out in droves on their bikes, each group topped and tailed by a teacher and wearing brightly coloured vests. When I got a puncture we had a rapt audience as we changed the inner tube. We stopped at one of the beaches on the Lac d’Orient for our lunch, sitting at picnic benches and watching the few other people who were using the facilities.

After Lake Annecy, this area felt a little lacking in dramatic scenery, but was far more tranquil, we had a quiet nights sleep and were pleased to wake up the next morning without any insect bites. 

  

A Cycle Round Lake Annecy

15/06/18

Lake Annecy is a justifiably popular tourist destination, a beautiful glacial lake surrounded by mountains and cliffs in the Haute-Savoie region of France. I have to admit to being very hazy about French geography as it is somewhere we have passed through rather than visiting in it’s own right so I cant tell you much about the area apart from the fact that it is extremely attractive and made a sensible stop on our journey back to the UK.

We stayed on a small free parking spot here with a couple of other motorhomes, it had a 24 hour maximum stay and no services but was peaceful enough and shaded under the trees. It was next to the paragliding centre where a steady stream of paragliders were landing after taking off from the high ground on the other side of the lake. We watched their swift descents with our hearts in our mouths as they swung round and round to lose height. Then they would pack their equipment into a large rucksack and catch the bus to go up and start all over again. Although the descent looks stomach churning, the graceful soaring flight over the lake looked like an amazing experience.

Spot the paragliders

While here we cycled around the lake making use of the cycle path that ran just next to our parking spot. This route of just under 40km is not very strenuous. We decided that we would tackle the only hill as soon as possible, so made our way around the south of the lake following small roads through Verthier to get to the eastern side of the lake where we picked up the roadside cycle path. We followed the edge of the lake closely until Talloires where the hill started, a short sharp ascent of around 100m that took us around a nature reserve before we descended back down to cycle through lanes past some rather nice properties who hogged the lakeside views.

Boats moored near Talloires

As we approached Annecy it got busier and busier, the town itself was attractive with a pretty lakeside park and some nice pedestrianised streets, but we were only passing through. The cycle path was partly on busy roads through Annecy which made route finding and manoeuvring a bit awkward, but we were soon back on the cycle path that led down the western side of the lake.

Beautiful blue waters

We stopped for lunch at one of the green spaces where a group of English tourists were swimming in water they described as freezing. Given that the lake is fed by mountain streams I’m not surprised, it must take quite a lot of sun to warm it up.

We couldn’t hang around here as we needed to make our way back for the ferry, so that evening we moved on, but I have no doubt we’ll be back.   

 

 

Gran Paradiso Part 2: Ibex on the Slopes of the Big One

07/06/18 – 10/06/18

These blog posts may get a bit samey…visit a valley in the Aosta region, cycle a bit, walk a bit, see some marmots etc etc. if they get a bit dull then all I can say is that it doesn’t reflect the amazing time we’ve had in this area. We never get bored of mountain views, snow, ice, meadows, rivers and nature all around us, but it gets a bit difficult to find new ways to describe them.

We withdrew from the Cogne area to re-stock with food and wine in Aosta. Aosta is a really nice city, but we have visited before while skiing and only ventured in for food shopping on this trip. We tried to get into the Lidl car park but found it rammed full of cars, so instead we parked with several other motorhomes in a parking area near the roundabout at the east end of town and walked to the shops to stock up on basics.

Our destination this time was Valsavarenche  – the next valley west of Cogne. Whereas Cogne is the tourist centre of the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is the outdoors capital of the area, this is where most people will leave to summit the Gran Paradiso itself. Sadly we weren’t planning to ascend it on this trip, we would need to pay for a guide because we don’t have the experience to cross the crevassed terrain near the summit on our own. We have been higher, but that was on Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru in Tanzania, and those mountains don’t have glaciers on the ascent route (Kilimanjaro does have a glacier but it’s dwindling fast). Summiting an alpine 4000m mountain is on our bucket list though, so maybe next year.

Valsavarenche was a lot quieter that Cogne, we turned up at the sosta in the main village to find ourselves alone, next to the obligatory river and within sight of the usual flower -dotted grassy meadows. We popped to the town hall (municipio) to make our payment only to be told that they wouldn’t start charging until July. I wouldn’t have minded paying but I’m not going to say no to a free stop over when it’s offered up. Because we were alone and the weather was nice we decided to get the BBQ out to cook up a nice bit of steak for tea. What a treat that was, the Cadac has taken some getting used to but it cooked the steak perfectly, charred on the outside and still pink in the middle. We served it up with some barbequed sweet potato, which we cut into slices, dip in oil and griddle, it’s our new favourite barbeque veg. I’m salivating just thinking of that dinner.

Bertie in the sosta at Valsavarenche
View from the sosta

We spent two nights in this sosta before moving up to the head of the valley and parking in the large car park for a couple of nights. The parking area at the head of the valley is outside a nicely positioned campsite which was closed when we arrived, but did open for the weekend.

As well as being the starting point for the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is where you are most likely to see Ibex. These large-horned members of the goat family were almost hunted to extinction before their population was protected and restored. The Gran Paradiso was one of only two areas where Ibex still existed at their lowest population point. The national park was the hunting preserve of the first king of a united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. His hunting practises both killed and preserved the species (an argument that is often used by hunters of trophy animals today, but today we should be much more enlightened). Nowadays they aren’t hunted and as a result you can seem some older specimens with their unfeasibly long horns that  look as though they would weigh down the heads of the animals. If you want to see some examples of Ibex horns for different aged animals then there is a good display on the outside wall of the municipio in Valsavarenche (it’s on the wall that faces away from the road and towards the river). We were lucky enough to see a male group (probably the same group) several times in the areas at the head of the valley.

Cycling up the Valsavarenche

Our initial foray into the Valsavaranche was on our bikes, we just took the road up to the head of the valley and then zig-zagged up the man made track (route number 4) on the side of the valley. There was a large amount of avalanche damage here and I really didn’t like the looks of the rocks that teetered on the edge of the trail, ready to fall down on the path below. At one point the top of an electricity pylon had been dragged down to the opposite side of the valley and the wires had been temporarily suspended on lower poles. At the head of the valley we popped to the campsite to see if it was open and saw a herd of Ibex crowded onto one of the large boulders that were scattered across the camping area.

The views from our bike ride

A Walk to the King’s Hunting Lodge

This walk was a circular foray up to Victor Emmanuel II’s hunting lodge at Orvielle. It followed trail number 8 from the village up through the forest, a trail that is also used for snow shoeing in the winter. This trail did feel a little interminable as we zig-zagged upwards through trees on a humid day. Wood ants were out in force scurrying around the forest floor carrying their treasures back to the nest; it was difficult to find a spot where we could sit down for a break without ants coming to investigate us.

On our  back and forth route we crossed an avalanche corridor several times, massive rocks had taken gouges out of the soil where they had been flung down the slopes and trees lay in neat lines following the line of descent. Occasionally we had to cross the snow where it had been laid down thickly by repeated avalanche action. I’m sure it’s probably melted by now.

View through the forest

The hunting lodge was enclosed by a fence which said that access was forbidden, we stopped here for a bit of lunch and I said to Paul that I would take a photo from a small rise that was on our onward route. I completely forgot though because an Italian came bounding over to us to show off his photos of Ibex around Lago Djouan. They were great photos and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we’d seen a herd down in the valley the previous day.

We left Orvielle to follow route 7 back down to the valley. Oddly this wasn’t very well signposted, but we managed to spot the obvious path where the trail broke off. This trail went more steeply downhill than the ascending path, past the abandoned buildings of the hamlets of Le Carre and La Ruya. We emerged in the valley at Le Cretou and walked back to Bertie through the wild flower meadows alongside the river, surrounded by butterflies.

Abandoned hillside buildings slowly falling apart

Halfway up the Gran Paradiso

We might not be able to make it to the summit of the Gran Paradiso, but we were definitely going to get as high as we could on the route. We headed up route number 1 with the aim of reaching Refugio Vittorio Emmanuel II. We weren’t alone on this route. We had watched many people ascending in the late afternoon of the previous day, taking their snow shoes, crampons, ice axes, snowboards and skis up to the rifugio where they would spend the night before an early morning ascent of the Gran Paradiso and possibly the excitement of a fast descent on skis. When we started up the path there were plenty of casual walkers just going up to the waterfalls or the hut along with us. There were also the first few people descending from their early morning summit exploits. It was a bit of a shock compared to our previous walks where we had only encountered one or two other people and reminded us of walking in the Lake District or Snowdonia.

Skiers on their way up to the mountain lodge

The initial part of the trail followed the river before turning upwards and following tight hairpins up a well constructed and well maintained path. The zig zags gave us glimpses of the valley and the large waterfall that tumbled down the gully next to us. We quickly emerged from the trees onto the open mountain side and increasing amounts of snow covered our path. However the large numbers of walkers meant the path was well trodden and easy to navigate. We pushed upwards over deeper and steeper snow, at one point we watched people descending a steep slope by sledding down on their backsides. I told Paul there was no way that I was doing that, but still we somehow managed to descend by that route! We could see plenty of ski tracks over the snow and by the time we reached the rifugio we had seen skiers, it didn’t look like it was difficult skiing, but there were plenty of rocks just under the snow that I wouldn’t want to encounter (plus the whole thought of carrying skis and BOOTS up was just exhausting).

The rifugio

The refuge was at 2710m and there was no way we were getting any higher as snow was lying thick on the ground. The building was a cut above any of the other mountain huts we had seen so far, a large building with an arched roof which could hold 120 people. It was busy with people on it’s sunny terrace, some settling in for the day and others packing up their kit to come back down the mountain.

Looking back towards the rifugio

Gran Paradiso Part 1: Cogne and Lillaz

03/06/18 – 06/06/18

South of the Aosta Valley is an offshoot of the Alps, Italy’s first national park. It is named after its highest peak – Gran Paradiso – the only mountain over 4000 meters that is wholly in Italy. We started our visit to this national park by heading towards Cogne (pronounced con-yay with that nasal ‘gn’ sound that you find in words like Gnocchi or Cognac). This pretty town nestles in the confluence of two valleys; where the valleys meet there are broad meadows with steep mountains on all sides. It looked idyllic when we arrived, the sun was shining and the green of the meadows was vibrant against the blue of the sky. The snow capped mountains at the ends of the valleys were picture perfect.

It was a Sunday and the town was lively with weekend visitors enjoying the good weather. The cafes, restaurants, delis and bakeries were open for business with chairs and tables out on the cobbled streets. Shops were selling outdoors equipment and gifts. The whole town had a lovely vibrant atmosphere and the timber framed traditional alpine buildings gave it a warm and homely (maybe a little bit twee) feel.

Cogne’s meadows

The sosta in Cogne is situated next to the river and we spent two nights here before moving onto another sosta in nearby Lillaz. Both are run by the local authority and are free to park in during the day, but cost 10.50 euros for an overnight stay without electricity in low season. So not cheap, but they were large clean parking areas with services, and were well located. In Cogne there was even an elevator to take people up from the car park to the main street. We were looking forward to the evening collection of our money by the ‘girl with hair like embers’, as one review described her. She was indeed as friendly as the reviewer described but her red tinted dark hair was a disappointment; we were expecting a true red-head.

Cogne Sosta
Lillaz sosta

The guide books described the Gran Paradiso national park as tranquil, but this was not really a place for peace and quiet. The surroundings were all about the force and power of nature. Waterfalls, large and small, cascaded down rocky surfaces, rivers rushed and tumbled down valleys. On the slopes we could see the evidence of avalanches, fallen trees, rocks, even electricity pylons, and deep piles of snow at the bottom of avalanche corridors. In Cogne we had the additional noise of building work that was going on while we were there, plus some enthusiastic strimming one morning, at least it got us out of bed and gave us plenty of time to enjoy our days in the mountains.

On the Sunday we arrived we joined in with the rest of the tourists, strolling around town in a constant passagiata with the occasional stop for a bakery treat, drink or a bit of fantasy Solomon trainer shopping (Paul was mesmerised by the displays of all the possible colours). We popped into the tourist office to pick up a map. The lady was reluctant to give us the more comprehensive map and sent us off with strict instructions that we shouldn’t try to walk over 2200 meters and pointed out that the steep slopes of the Gran Paradiso national park made avalanches and rockslides far more likely than they were in the rest of the Aosta region.

There were about a dozen vans in the sosta on Sunday, but by Monday morning there were only four of us and Cogne felt a little more sleepy. Still there were plenty of shops open and we were able to stock up with baked treats for the coming days.

Cycling the three valleys

Our first outing was a cycle ride that followed the cross country ski trails  (trail number 23) in three directions from Cogne, first we cycled downhill to Epinel and back, then to Valnontey and back, and finally Lillaz. The beauty of these valleys is that they have fairly shallow gradients, meaning that you can choose how long and difficult you want your walking or cycling to be. This was a nice way to explore the area and decide how we were going to spend the next few days; we saw dippers in the river d’Urtier, deer near Valnontey and a fox in the woods near Lillaz. While we were in Lillaz we went to see the powerful Lillaz waterfall which has a wheelchair accessible path through a Geology park (a collection of boulders of different types of rock) to the bottom of the cascade, and other paths and viewing platforms higher up.

Easy bike paths

Walking the Valnontey – how far can we go?

There is a path from Valnontey that follows the valley up and up into the heart of the mountains. While we’d been cycling we’d decided that this part of the area had the most beautiful scenery and was worth exploring further. Because of the snow we were unlikely to get far up the sides of the valley, but the long and gradually sloping path next to the river offered an opportunity for a longer walk that wouldn’t get too high too soon. We drove to Valnontey where the carpark had ‘No Motorhome’ signs but we felt confident we would get away with daytime parking as the carpark was almost empty and we had paid our 3 euros at the parking meter.

The path (number 22) from here follows the river out of Valnontey village through a pleasant wooded valley where deer could be spotted drinking from the river or hiding behind the trees. Underfoot it was mostly dry, but snow melt and left some boggy patches where frogs had taken an opportunity to spawn and tadpoles were frantically swimming in the shallow waters. In the small and empty settlement of Vermiana was a noticeboard with the hours of sunlight, significantly less than most places (about 5 hours less in June) due to the shadow of the valley walls.

Following the river from Valnontey

As we escaped from the tree cover we found ourselves increasingly on snowy terrain. Marmots were here enjoying the open slopes. The slope of the valley was still quite gradual but we were finding it increasingly difficult to find the path amongst the snow and streams. In the end we made it to the final bridge at just under 2200 meters, but decided not to continue any further up paths 22D, E or F. We stopped to take in the views of the many glaciers that were draped across the mountains at the head of the valley before we re-traced our steps back to Valnontey.   

Glacier on the mountain
Deer on the road from Valnontey

Lago di Loie Circuit

From Lillaz we decided we would try to make it up to the Lago di Loie. At 2346m this was higher than we had reached the previous day and we knew it would be snowy. We followed path 12 which took us steeply up via the Lillaz waterfalls and then followed other cascades. When we looked back at the path we had followed it seemed impossibly steep, but as we clambered up the rocky path any exposure was negated by the tree cover.

Looking down on Lillaz

On the way up we met a Canadian couple who told us that the route to the lake was impassable because of snow. We looked at their trainer clad feet and weren’t surprised. They had tried to walk around the snow patches whereas we would most probably walk across them.

The steepest part of the walk was under the cover of trees, and when we emerged from the forest we were in a snow filled bowl which the path crossed diagonally before it followed a wide gully up to the lake. Walking across the snow was easy enough, but the steeper gully was more of a challenge and we didn’t want to find ourselves falling through the snow into the stream below.  We kept to the right hand side and managed to pick a way across snow and grassy slopes until we found the path again close to the lake.

Contemplating our snowy route
Lago di Loie

The lake was partially thawed and quite beautiful – it was a shame that the weather had turned a bit grey, but we were still able to see the mountains reflected in the water. Where the ice had melted we could see frogs lethargically swimming through the water. It’s quite amazing that they manage to live in such an inhospitable environment.

From the lake we were able to continue to follow path number 12, other people must have recently trodden this path because we could see footprints in the snow and the holes left by walking poles. The walk down was longer but less steep, we saw more deer and marmots as we descended though high meadows until we reached the river Bardoney. Here we picked up path 13 (also marked as long distance path 2 – the long distance path numbers are in triangles) which took us back down to Lillaz. This path followed the picturesque gorge of the Bardoney and then the d’Urtier river until we reached a point where we had views of the Lillaz waterfall and our original route up. It was a shame that it started raining as we descended because the scenery was stunning, but the rain made us put our heads down and plod for a bit. However this round trip was a delight and one I would do again.

Signposting on the route
The Bardoney river 

Valle d’Aosta. Perfect Peace in Torgnon

28/05/18 – 30/05/18

We had finally arrived in the Valle d’Aosta, the most westerly of Italy’s alpine regions which has borders with Switzerland and France. In fact French is an official language as well as Italian (and many people also speak a local dialect) and so you will see both on road signs and other information boards and people. The Aosta valley runs from east to west and has subsidiary valleys both north and south of the main artery. The valleys to the south take you into the Gran Paradiso national park, more about that later. For now we were heading north into the Valtournenche.

We’re quite familiar with the Valtournenche (the name of the valley, a town in the valley and the local ‘commune’) because we have skied here a few times now. Mostly our skiing has been at the head of the valley in the resort of Breuil-Cervinia, so, for a bit of a change, we wanted to spend some time lower in the valley.

We popped into the tourist information centre in Antey-St-André to see if we could get some information on walks and bike rides in the area. This was one of the most helpful tourist offices we have been into yet, it probably helped that the lady spoke good English so could ask us lots of questions about what we were planning to do and how long we were planning to be here. We left with a good map of walks and mountain bike routes in the lower and upper valley (€5) and booklets of bike rides, driving routes, local food and drink, castles and motorhome parking spots. She also advised us to head to Torgnon if we wanted somewhere peaceful and surrounded by mountain scenery and walks. The sosta in Torgnon is free outside of the ski season AND has electricity, we took her advice and headed up the switchbacks to the strung out series of hamlets that make up Torgnon.

Looking down on the hamlets of Torgnon

The sosta is beyond the top of the village just under the small ski resort. As promised it was quiet; the restaurants and cafes in the ski area do open in the summer, but not till July. There was a bit of road repair going on, and every now and again a car or van would drive up to one of the buildings. There was a ski lift directly in front of us and every day someone would come up and start the lift up, we wondered if this was a usual summer routine, just keeping things ticking over. One day the chairs on the lift had large blue containers on them, we assumed they were testing the weight capacity of the lift as they had about 100 of the containers stacked up next to it and when we went for a nose they were pretty heavy.

View from the sosta at Torgnon

We stayed here for three nights in glorious isolation, the weather was the typical mountain weather we have been experiencing for the last month or so. Dry and bright in the mornings, cloud building up during the day and rain and thunder at some point in the afternoon. So we tried to drag ourselves out of bed as early as possible in the mornings (which is still pretty late really) so that we could get out and enjoy the outdoors before the rain fell.

On the first day we followed a mountain biking route that doubled as a cross country ski trail in the winter months. We cycled out of the parking area up to the ski resort where signposts pointed the way for us (this was also walking track number 1). This ride took us through mountain scenery to paths around small lakes, over streams and under gushing waterfalls. We stopped for lunch in a dilapidated building to shelter us from the rain and were very excited to see marmots frolicking in the meadow in front of us. The highest point of the trail took us over 2100 meters and we ended up having to push the bikes uphill over snow in this section which was a bit demoralising. It was a shame that the weather wasn’t better for this ride because the views were very beautiful but by the time we got back we were muddy, soaked and had fingers like icicles, hence a lack of photos.

Small lake/marsh area under a crag
Mist getting lower over our cycle route

The following day the sun came out and we decided to see fi we could tackle the Becca d’Aver which had been teasing us with it’s summit for the last couple of days. We knew we probably wouldn’t make it to the top because we could see a significant amount of snow in the saddle between it and the next peak. We were right, we only got as far as Mont de la Fenêtre before we had to give up due to a ridiculously small patch of snow on a steep section. The route up this far was lovely though (route 8 and then 9 from the ski area) so it wasn’t a wasted walk, the narrow path wound up and around rocky outcrops; one section had a chain as a hand rail, but manufactured rocky steps had been added later making the chain unnecessary. To make up for not reaching the summit we followed the southerly part of route 1 (which we hadn’t followed on the bikes the previous day) through the woods, climbing over trees still bowed or felled by the weight of snow, even though it was now gone. On the way we spotted fleeting glimpses of deer through the trees and one hare running across a meadow below us.   

The view from Col Fenetre into the next valley
Picking my way down the snow
Climbing over fallen trees
Looking down over the ski resort
The annoyingly small patch of snow that stopped us in our tracks

After three nights we felt it was time to move on, a few chores to do first.  We did the usual empty and refill, but also took advantage of the fact that the water here is fed from a spring and so is constantly running through a trough. We used the trough to give our muddy cycling clothes a good scrub and washed down the bikes. How long they will stay clean is anyone’s guess.

  

 

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. 

Avoiding the Zona Rossi of the Sibillini

19/05/18 – 20/05/18

In search of a sosta we left the beautiful Piano Grande (I keep wanting to call it the Grand Piano, but that’s something else entirely), driving the mountain road to Norcia. It was Saturday so there were no workers rebuilding the roads, their heavy duty vehicles were ready and waiting for Monday, sitting on the sides of the road  accompanied by materials for repairing the earthquake damage.

We followed behind a large truck who was taking things slowly down the hills; a lot of this road is single carriageway while it is being repaired, some sections are controlled by traffic lights and others where the traffic is left to it’s own devices. It’s reasonably wiggly, but in normal circumstances would be a run-of-the-mill road, in these circumstances we were happy to be behind a big vehicle.  As we approached Norcia and the roads flattened out the driving got easier. There is a sosta here but we weren’t sure where it was or whether it was still in operation. We followed the roads through Norcia, past the zona rosso and the pre-fab buildings now housing the local shops and businesses. We didn’t spot any signs for the sosta, so rather than get caught in any odd traffic systems we moved onto the next place we knew there was a sosta – Preci.

The drive through the valley to Preci is attractive, along a river valley and past many trout farms teeming with fish. Preci has an old borgo sitting on the hill, and a newer settlement in the valley, including the obligatory prefab buildings for anyone made homeless by the earthquake. The sosta is in the valley and it’s crazy paving surface has a few loose stones that made us cautious as we drove in. A few campers and caravans look like they are being stored here permanently, but only one is being lived in; a lady with a caravan and large awning. There was an Austrian van but we never seemed to catch the owner who was out and about on his moped. It may not sound that great but actually the sosta was free, with electricity and a building with a wet room. We made use of the wet room while we were here, using the shower and also using the large sink to hand wash some of our smelly walking/cycling gear. Before we left I gave the room a good clean (ok, maybe just a clean, it’s not one of my key skills), it felt like the least we could do for making use of the facilities.

Looking down on the sosta at Preci
Preci village
Preci rooftops

While we were here we went for a bike ride and a walk as well as exploring the old town, which was largely off limits due to the zona rosso. The bike ride was flagged as Easy on wikiloc, but for us it ended up being pretty strenuous. It was a well marked route (B12) along the road towards Campi, leaving the road to follow a mule track. We passed a couple who were on a donkey trek, leading their animals from B&B to B&B. Although it seems quite romantic I wonder what it’s really like to try to get them moving on a hot and stuffy day.

The track was stony and steep enough in places that we had to get off and push uphill. We sweated and strained as we fought against the soft surface of the track under the hot sun.  Eventually we crossed the main road to take the path back along the other side. Here the path became fun single track with some interesting drop offs on one side. Eventually the path became downhill, still single track it was more and more overgrown with the undergrowth hiding steep steps and large chunks of rock. Paul persevered for a while but in the end we were both pushing our bikes downhill. Our final obstacle was when we reached a village. The map hadn’t marked this path as closed but our first sight of the village is a collapsed building with a zona rosso barrier. The rubble from the building had collapsed across the path. Maybe we should have turned around at this point but we had no desire to retrace our steps to the halfway point. We carried our bikes over the rubble and down through the village red zone with some trepidation. When we got out onto the road we breathed a sigh of relief, all obstacles had been overcome and all we had to do was follow the road back to Bertie. Phew.

Fields of poppies under one villages seen from our bike ride
Rubble across the path – note the lovely doors

The walk the following day was more successful, the circuit E12 was marked on the map and took us up along tracks and tarmac roads to Collescille. Here we had to contend with another zona rosso, we stayed as far right as possible, following steps up the side of the village rather than the closed road. We emerged at the top of the village just inside the red zone where we encountered a nice man who assured us that the path was open. We followed the track out of the village, past a ruined tower and up to some shepherds huts. The top of the walk was high pasture where we stopped to sit amongst the spring flowers and admire the views of the mountains. When we’d had our fill of the views and lunch we descended through a grassy valley to Saccovescio, a pretty village but mostly deserted, before we joined a nice easy track back to Preci. 

Mountain pasture and distant hills of the Monet Sibillini
This church was just about being held together, I wonder whether it will ever be repaired

Preci had been a good stop, it’s tricky to get round the area due to the various zona rossi (I think that’s the plural) but it’s worth persevering.

A Final Jaunt in the Gran Sasso

14/05/18 – 15/05/18

Yesterday we had walked up to Prati di Tivo, today we drove up. The large car park which had been full of ‘macchine’ was now nearly empty and the cafes mostly shut. We wanted to have a short walk today, and although it didn’t take us long it was a good lung workout.

From the carpark we decided to take a walk up to La Maddonina (which is the top of the main chair lift) following a CAI path that was marked on our map. Frustratingly our map was out of date and so we had a bit of a struggle to find the start of path 100. The route up now seemed to be 103a and instead of traversing through the woods it went almost straight up to the right of the main chairlift. Once we found it, we had no problems staying on it and we puffed our way up the ski run on a steady and steep incline. A group of deer gave us an excuse to pause and a short diversion around a patch of snow allowed us to stop to recce the route ahead.

Looking down on Prati di Tivo

Breath caught we managed to get to the top and had beaten the other couple who were walking parallel to us directly under the chairlift (not that we’re competitive). From here we could see the route up Corno Piccolo, invitingly scrambly but currently too snowy for us to contemplate. Instead we took the broad grassy ridge in the opposite direction, past an incomplete hotel with it’s empty staring windows and to the minor summit of Cima Alta.

Corno Piccolo and the top of the La Maddonina chairlift

Because it was meant to be a short walk we turned around here and took the route down that we thought we should have ascended. Immediately we realised why things had changed; there is now a set of mountain biking routes and a terrain park where the original trail would have been. We went down it anyway, confident that there were no mountain bikers going to come haring down after us given that the lifts weren’t running, and anyhow the trail was so littered with felled trees and branches that we would have heard any mountain biker swearing loudly a long time before they knocked into us. The descent was rather tortuous now that there are so many routes to choose from, but we stuck to the ‘green’ mountain biking trails to avoid a steep descent and soon found ourselves on the road leading back to Prati di Tivo

In the woods

It really had just been a short walk despite the strenuous uphill section so we were back to the van before lunch. We had a bit of a scout around looking for an overnight sleeping spot that might be a bit more sheltered from the winds that were getting stronger in the exposed car park.

As we munched on a couple of speck and cheese pannini we discussed next steps and decided that rather than staying up here in the wind we would go back downhill. That soon led to us agreeing that a lazy day in a campsite would be a good idea. We could rest our legs and do some laundry.

Bertie doubles as a washing line

We weren’t all that far from the coast so we picked a cheap ASCI campsite and drove on to Guilianova. It was one of those Italian beach resorts on a long and uniform (i.e. dull) stretch of coast. The town wasn’t that inviting from the main road, but the campsite was large, busy and well equipped. The seafront had the benefit of a long cycle path so the following day we had some gentle exercise as we cycled alongside the flat road, past small plantations of pine trees, over rivers where herons and egrets waded and through various beach resorts from dilapidated to modern. To our surprise we saw a black squirrel here on the campsite scampering up and down the trees and having a noisy argument with a blackbird.

At the end of the cycle path we tried to go further by following the river bank, but the railway line stopped us.

 

 

 

In the Shadow of the Gran Sasso at Fonte Cerreto

09/05/18 – 10/05/18

We made our way from L’Aquila up through the foothills of the Gran Sasso national park, climbing up on the major road (A24) that chugged almost imperceptibly uphill and through tunnels to the village of Assergi. Ahead of us the crystal white peaks of the mountains peeped out from the green forested hills. We knew we wouldn’t get to the top of these alpine mountains without proper winter equipment so we were heading for a base slightly lower down where we could enjoy some mountain walking with limited ice and snow.

Our parking spot was a large carpark built to service the traffic on the gondola that takes people up from Fonte Cerreto to Campo Imperatore. A large, flat and almost empty car park with grand views of the valley below – it was perfect. We checked out the gondola, expecting it to be shut in May as per the website, but it was running. Very few people were using it, but we soon found out that they were expecting to ferry several thousand people up to watch the end of stage 9 of the Giro d’Italia on 13th, something that took us a little by surprise, was it that time of year already?.

Parked up at Fonte Cerreto

On our first day here we went for a bike ride along a route that was recommended on the national park website. Probably our favourite mountain biking route in Italy so far, it took us up the valley from Assergi following a well marked and wide track gradually uphill to the village of San Pietro. From here we followed the road even further uphill past springs, troughs and herds of cows until we could take a steep downhill track to Vasto. Once down to the river we followed fun and easy single track below limestone cliffs and caves before eventually meeting another track just before Assergi. We had to ford the river four times, using our bike to steady us as we tried to find the stepping stones that were mostly submerged in the spring melt waters. By the time we got back we had wet feet but we’d had a lot of fun.

We took a quick detour into the cobbled streets of Assergi to try and find some tourist information. We found an ‘information point’ i.e. a carousel with lots of useless leaflets in it, but I was sure there must be more. Only once I’d walked into a random office did I realise that the carousel was it. The lady in the office helpfully pointed me in the direction of a local hotel (Hotel Giampy) who had an English speaking receptionist and more books and maps for walking than we have seen for a while. I was in my element and could have spent a fortune, but limited myself to a map and a guidebook.

Using the guidebook and map we planned another walk from Fonte Cerreto. This time we climbed up a marked track (CAI red and white markings) through woodland to the west of the gondola, taking multiple zig-zags as we got higher and higher and eventually cleared the tree line. Above the trees we started to spot alpine plants, violas and orchids, both in yellow and purple, were the flowers we could identify. Small patches of snow lay in gullies but didn’t impact the path as we traversed along animal tracks to pick up another CAI path down under the line of the gondola. On the downward path we had great views into the valley where we could occasionally make out our car park far below us. At one of the gondola supports, where red paint was splattered on the surrounding rocks and vegetation (it must have been a windy day when they painted), we mistakenly dropped into the gully rather than sticking to the ridge, the gully was uncomfortable walking over large stones and avalanche debris and we tracked back up to the ridge as soon as possible. 

It felt odd to be walking in the mountains without reaching a summit, but summiting seems to be a peculiarly British obsession that we need to get over. With over 800m of ascent and some spectacular scenery and flora it was still a good mountain walk.

Walking back down to Fonte Cerreto with the valley laid out before us
Watching the gondola go past

When we returned from our walk there were signs erected in the carpark forbidding parking all weekend. The Giro d’Italia had reserved the space for press and other support staff. We wondered how the ordinary supporters were going to get to the gondola, presumably they would have to park even further downhill and get the bus to Fonte Ceretto before getting the gondola up, then they would have to slowly be ferried back down at the end of the evening. You would have to be a pretty hardcore cycling fan to contemplate being the last person in that queue.

 

 

Three Gorges in the Majella National Park

04/05/18 – 07/05/18

When we were planning our time in the Majella national park we had looked at various maps and options for walking and cycling. Ambitiously we thought we would be summiting at least one of the mountains, even if it wasn’t the highest (Monte Amaro at 2793m). But as we approached the mountains we realised it was unlikely to happen, the weather was still humid and stormy topping up an already reasonable amount of snow on the summits. We turned our attention to alternative walks that wouldn’t go so high but would still provide a bit of a mountain feel.

The Majella (sometimes written as Maiella) mountains are peaks on a wide limestone plateau that looms over the surrounding countryside like a dark wall. Once you are up on the plateau you are already around 1500 meters above sea level, some 1000 meters above most of the surrounding countryside. The steep sides of the plateau have made it relatively inaccessible and a haven for wildlife as well as an excellent area for walking. The villages in the area surround the plateau and only a steep access road to a ski resort provides vehicular access to the higher altitudes. It is possible to get motorhomes up this road, but we didn’t attempt it. We focussed on the gorges formed by the water that has run off the plateau and created deep narrow gouges in it’s sides.

Gole di San Martino

We parked overnight in the national park car park before we walked up this gorge. There is steep parking on the side of the road leading to the visitor centre, but better parking is found by driving past the visitor centre up the dirt track to the start of the walk where there is a reasonably level car park. The only other people we saw here were a Belgian couple in a van conversion who turned up just for the day. 

This gorge has one of the most spectacular starts, almost as soon as we started our walk we were in a narrow gap just a couple of meters wide with rock walls looming high overhead. It is said that San Martino elbowed the walls of this canyon apart. Elbows might be an exaggeration but Paul could touch both walls with his fingertips at the narrowest point.

Entering the narrows

Once through the narrowest part you find the ruined monastery of San Martino in the Valley. In modern times water rarely flows through the gorge, it is all controlled and piped underground (there are a few drinking water springs along the trail), but this monastery was abandoned after being ruined one too many times by flooding. Guided tours of the ruins can be arranged for a fee, but you get a good view from the path.

The remains of the monastery

After this you can continue up the gorge as far as you wish to go, the path will eventually take you to Monte Amaro but it would be a significant undertaking, a long long day’s walk or a two day trek with a stop at a mountain hut. The path initially ran through dry riverbed with scrubby plants giving off strong herby scents of thyme and oregano (or maybe marjoram) when we brushed against them. The high rock walls inspired gawping and tripping as we tried to walk and look upwards at the same time.

The high walls of the canyon continued for several kilometres, pocked with caves.

As we got higher the walls became less steep and wider apart and the beech forest started, full of bird song but strangely devoid of undergrowth. In the beech forest the path divided by a picnic bench. We took the left hand fork and continued up until we reached the cloud at about 1300m. We hadn’t made it to the top of the plateau but it was still a good amount of ascent and enough for our poor legs that had forgotten what it was like to walk consistently uphill for a couple of hours.

Taranta Peligna

Taranta Peligna is a small town sitting under a split in the rock walls of the Majella. Somewhere up above us was the Grotte Del Cavallone, but the attraction was closed, as was the cable car that can be used to reach it. We were particularly disappointed that the cable car was not running because it’s open one-man baskets looked like a thrilling way to travel up the gorge. I’ll admit now that we didn’t walk up this gorge, even though there is a path/steps, the weather was incredibly wet and our muscles were aching from our previous day’s walk. Instead we cycled away from the gorge, up the hills to the east of the village where we got better views. Our round trip route, planned on google maps, was cut short due to a road that was washed away. In the evening we walked up to the tiny Santuario Madonna della Valle; the sonorous voice of the priest could be heard as we walked up the streets towards the church, we were unsure if it was natural acoustics or electrical amplification.  

The town of Taranta Peligna from our bike ride, behind you can see the gorge we didn’t walk up

We stayed in a well equipped but overgrown sosta in Taranta Peligna, on the notice board at the entrance it told us to ring a number on arrival, but where the number should have been was a blank space. We waited for someone to turn up and take our money but no-one arrived. Like many out of season locations in Italy I assume they just don’t care until summer when I hope they strim the pitches and de-infest the bathrooms before they start charging. The bathrooms were open and we turned on the hot water heater and had the luxury of showers, luckily neither of us are worried by critters, Paul even found a scorpion in his shower tray.

The Orfento Valley

Next stop was Caramanico Terme, a spa town on the north west side of the massif. When we hit a closed road our journey changed from 50ish to over 100 km, but at least our detour took us onto better roads. In Caramanico Terme we stopped in the car parking at the bottom of the hilly town. There is a lift at the back of the car park which allows people to avoid the steep hill to the main street, but by this time our legs were back to normal and probably a bit better at hills.

Sulphur springs in Caramanico Terme come with all sorts of health benefits

We had a quick shop for lunch items in the town bakeries and popped to the national park office to pick up our walking permit. These permits are free, but you have to take an ID document and register your intended route before you walk, then you are issued with a copy of the permit to carry with you. In theory you could be asked for it, but I cant imagine that it happens very often. The national park office here was really useful and stocked with maps and books, I think I would start in this town if I was visiting  the Majella again.

Streets of the old town, our sat nav tried to bring us up through these streets – luckily it was pretty obvious that we were heading the wrong way.

This was another walk up a gorge but of a completely different nature than our first one. For a start there is a river running noisily through the valley, it was slightly opaque, sulphurous and gave off a misty vapour. The overhanging mossy greenery gave it a mysterious and prehistoric feel. We started our walk by descending to the Ponte di Caramanico where a signposted path took us down steps to the bank of the river, it criss-crossed the river several times giving ample opportunity for photos.

The Orfento river
Jurrasic park?

Then we continued along the bank, following the ‘Spirit’ path, one of the three long distance paths across the park. Our registered route was to cross the bridge at the Ponte del Vallone and return along the other side of the river, which we did eventually, but first we continued on a little further – shh don’t tell anyone!

The bridge was more sturdy than it may appear – honest!

After crossing the bridge the path took us high up the other side of the valley, giving us a completely different perspective. We enjoyed the longer views across to deer tracked scree and rocky cliffs and caves. As we walked back along this trail, which took us back into the top end of the town, we bumped into a group from Devon who were on a walking holiday. It’s a small world! We had a conversation with them and like starving people presented with a feast we may have enjoyed our English conversation far too much. I bet they were happy to get away!

Looking down from the high path

Finding a collection of walks whose start points had car parks that were easily accessible by motorhome makes this area really attractive to us. One day we’ll come back for a late summer assault on the higher peaks.

The Day we didn’t get to the Forest

01/05/18

During yesterday evening we searched for a spot to park in the famous forests in the central Gargano. We found parking spots, but they were off road and deeply rutted. With a sigh of frustration we opted to continue to our next coastal parking spot at Vieste rather than carry on driving round the forest roads. Who knows, we might have found the perfect parking spot just around the next hairpin, but we’d run out of enthusiasm for looking.

Vieste has an attractive old town by all accounts, but I couldn’t persuade Paul to walk to it’s streets. We parked in a large carpark behind the wide sandy beach where there was specific prevision for motorhomes, then promptly copied the other dozen Italian vans and parked in the car area where there were better views (there were no cars in the car park as they had all decided to park on the street-side parking). From here we could look out to sea and see the buildings of the old town from afar.

We woke on the 1st still frustrated by our failed attempt to get parked in the forest, so decided to take a bike ride along the coast and then loop back inland where we would get a taste of the forest. Along the coast our frustration continued as we found ourselves stuck on the main road and unable to get to the coast proper due to so many private homes and businesses with locked gates. This is the first time we’ve really been thwarted by Italy’s private beaches. Usually they have been unguarded during the low season and open for anyone to use, but here all access routes seemed impossible (perhaps we were just going too fast to see them – not likely!). Finally we found a dirt track leading to Torre Calalunga and could see that we would be able to work our way back from here around the coast – at least for a while. We abandoned plans to go inland and instead cycled over grassy sward and limestone pavement back along the cliffs, stopping often to admire the views, caves and arches that are one of the natural attractions on the peninsula. At one point we came across a group of four motorhomes parked up on the grassy clifftop, we weren’t sure how they had got there but they were enjoying the May public holiday with the type of lavish spread that one associates with a food-proud nation like Italy. Our picnic was slightly less gastronomic.

We were able to enjoy this less developed coastline for a few kilometres, winding inland a couple of times to avoid hotels, before the Baia di Sifinale where we stopped for a swim and a snorkel back around the rocks. Then it was back up onto the main raod to cycle back to Bertie.

One of the many defensive towers along the coast. Notice the fishing Trabbuco, they are common from this point northwards along the Adriatic coast.
Arches and caves marked the coastline. Some of the caves reached through to the cliffs above where you could hear the strange gurgling of the sea echoing under your feet.

We were a right pair of whingers today, feeling like we had missed out on the forest (both of us) and the town of Vieste (me) but in the end we found somewhere spectacularly beautiful to enjoy, just not forest.

 

Camping Again near Gallipoli

26/04/18 – 28/04/18

We chose Camping Torre Sabea as our campsite to give us time and space to solve our mosquito problem. We ended up staying for three nights at this pleasant ACSI site, the weather was still warm and once we had settled in – set out the chairs and table, rolled out the awning and sorted out the bloodsuckers – it seemed too much of an upheaval to put it all back again. The site got steadily busier while we were there because it soon to be the next public holiday. While we were paying at the end of our visit the campsite owner described the procession of horses and other festivities happening in the nearby town of Galatone. We always seem to miss events and festivals, and were sorely tempted to go back to our pitch, but our minds were already on our next destination.  

The campsite was near the tourist town of Gallipoli, not the location of the famous WW1 campaign, but a historic town that has made it as a tourist hotspot. We decided to walk into Gallipoli, mistakenly thinking that we could walk along the coast. Sadly we were forced back onto the main road when we got to a boatyard, with no pavement we walked along the hard shoulder, both feeling a bit exposed. We would recommend using the campsite’s navette (minibus) service instead. Gallipoli is a good town for wandering around; the medieval castle and walls surround a centro storico that sits on a promontory, separated from the modern town by a causeway. Within the walls you can wander around narrow streets where tourism sits cheek by jowl with more traditional pursuits – particularly fishing. We saw groups of fishermen mending nets, or sorting their long lines and one man weaving traps as well as more decorative items for the tourist market. The streets around the walls have views over the sea and so this is where you find plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes. In the warm weather they were doing well and we heard many northern European accents amongst the Italians, including a few British voices.

Checking nets in Gallipoli
Walls, castle and harbour

Under the walls are a number of harbours and one sandy beach where we took a swim to refresh ourselves from our dry and dusty roadside walk. After wandering around we stopped for a couple of panini for our lunch before heading back to the campsite. On the way back we stopped in the nearby supermarket (almost next door to the campsite) where they had lamb on offer. We hadn’t had any lamb for ages so we bought some to barbeque that evening, marinated in mint and balsamic vinegar and served with charred sweet potato, onions and courgette. Yum. The cadac was doing it’s job.

The beach under Gallipoli’s walls
Decrepit APE being used as a front garden

The following day we decided to cycle north along the coast and to the Natural Park of Porto Selvaggio. This was a lovely cycle, initially along the coast road through villages and past rocky shores with occasional small sandy beaches. As the road headed inland we found a track to take us through the pine forest to the beautiful inlet of Porto Selvaggio. It was a Saturday and all of the beaches we had passed were busy with families enjoying themselves, people looking for a little more solitude had set up camp on the rocks rather than fighting for a sandy spot.

The pedalo was out!
Ruined tower, now a bar and restaurant

Porto Selvaggio cannot be reached by car, but even so there were a good number of people there who had hiked down from the parking areas. We found ourselves a spot on the rocks to one side of the inlet and settled down for a little bit of sunbathing followed by another swim. The water here was deep and cool, a few people were daring each other to jump straight in, but I was happy to make my way in by degrees and then float on the top of the water where it was warmer. When we were dried back out we cycled back the way we had come.  

The beautiful Porto Selvaggio

 

Camping Behaviour in Sant’ Andrea

20/04/18 – 22/04/18

Sometimes writing a blog that’s a couple of weeks in the past is a bit of a slog. Take today for instance, we have had a big detour due to a closed road, Paul is suffering from a painful muscle strain and we reversed into railings, breaking the trim around our rear light cluster. We’re not in the best of moods, and yet I need to write about a few lovely sunny, relaxing and active days. The upside is that writing about the good times should hopefully drag both of us back into a more positive frame of mind. Unfortunately it wont do anything for Paul’s painful thigh. 

We had chosen a campsite/sosta at Sant’ Andrea to spend a few days relaxing in the hot weather. We wanted the freedom to sit outside the van with our chairs out and our feet up, which is something you can rarely do if you are parking in a carpark of municipal sosta. Many of Italy’s privately owned sostas are more like campsites, with all the facilities you would expect, electricity, showers, toilets, washing up and laundry. Camping I Faraglioni (the Sea Stacks) was no exception, the pitches were fresh and grassy, benefiting from being early in the season, and although there were a few vans in situ it wasn’t too crowded. It looks like it is in the garden of the adjacent hotel – the owners probably having decided there is money in motorhomes all year long.

Letting it all hang out at Camping I Faraglioni

Not only was the campsite very nice, but it was right by the coast in a beautiful area. We didn’t quite have a sea view (unless we walked up to the wall and peered over the top of it) – there was a carpark between us and the sea. In fact we could have stayed for free in the carpark, but I’m so glad we decided to spend a bit of money. The coast here is made up of soft stone that is eroded into all sorts of sea stacks and caves, in some places there are small man-made safe havens cut into the rock where a boat could take shelter. There is an ‘undercliff’ which is barely a meter above the sea where we saw many people fishing or readying themselves for an octopus hunting snorkel. A couple of kilometers to the north is a long sandy beach, perfect for bathing and an easy enough walk from the campsite (google will show you just how busy this gets in the summer season, I don’t think we would enjoy it!). To the south are rocky coves that start shallow but swiftly leave you swimming in cold deep water.

We spent four nights here, we walked along the coast to the north, cycled along the coast to the south and even got our big yellow banana (i.e. the kayak) off the roof and into the sea. This was an interesting exercise as the beach next to the campsite was knee deep in ribbony algae. Luckily it was only a few meters to the sea, but not a pleasant walk in or back again. Well worth it though for the amazing views of the coast. The sea was so clear it was almost as good as snorkelling, we saw fish swimming between the rocks and a couple of times small glinting fish flew over the surface of the water when we disturbed them. We were able to navigate the kayak in and out of caves and under arches, waving up at the people who were taking pictures from the top of the cliffs.

Paul also used his time at the campsite to come to terms with the Cadac, we’ve been carrying this gas barbeque around for the past year, but it hasn’t seen much use. Paul had found our version (Grillogas) quite tricky to use because it doesn’t have a good gauge on the gas supply. As a result you can accidently turn it off rather than just turning it down, and as it doesn’t have automatic ignition relighting it can be tricky, you have to take all the food off the BBQ. Paul drilled a hole large enough to insert an igniter from underneath and added a couple of indicators on the dial with permanent marker. Problem solved!  

It was a very relaxing few days and we found it really difficult to make the decision to move on. And what do you know? we’re both feeling more cheerful having bought our memories back to life – a glass of wine has been helpful too.  

 

 

 

Beeping Italians

19/04/18

Our parking spot to the south of San Cataldo had been noisier than we expected. We thought we had chosen a good place as far from the town as possible and nestled against the edge of the nature reserve, but we were close to a bend on the road and the Italian habit of beeping their horn in advance of driving round a corner woke us up early. It’s not something we seem to do in the UK any more, although I have childhood memories of Dad giving a warning beep as we drove down country lanes with high hedgerows. Here in Italy a driver will beep as they round a corner, beep as they go to overtake you, beep as they approach a bicycle (which always makes me jump) or a pedestrian, beep when they see a friend…the car horn is sometimes used in anger, but most often is just saying ‘hey, I’m here’.

We had managed to identify a good campsite for the next few days, but we needed to while away a few hours before we turned up. We drove back into San Cataldo town, parked up and had a bit of a wander to find some lunch. We also found recycling bins for the first time in ages so managed to get rid of two trugs full of recycling.

Our bike ride took us south along a cycle track that ran behind lagoons. Many of the other trails through the woods were closed and the ones that were open were flooded so we weren’t able to get to the coast here. Locusts were making ungainly flights between trees, occasionally hitting us with some force before clumsily flying off. We saw white winged birds that became almost invisible when they landed. We later found out that these are Squacco Herons, their bodies are a streaked brown and well camouflaged when their wings are folded away. Plenty of other small birds and sea birds were flitting around, we tried to find somewhere comfortable to sit and watch them but there were no convenient spots. We did manage to find a group of ducklings hiding in some reeds while we were looking for somewhere to sit.

South of the nature reserve we were able to cycle alongside the coast, sometimes on the road and sometimes over the top of the low rocky cliffs. The sea was a vibrant blue, the coast was eroded into small arches, caves and holes. We stopped for the obligatory dip/paddle before turning around and heading back the way we had come.

Finally we felt that it was long enough after lunch to check into the campsite, so we headed off to Sant Andrea where we would be staying for a few days.  

Finding Feral Trulli

13/04/18 – 15/04/18

The Valle d’Itria is a wide shallow depression that runs from north-west to south-east through the limestone heart of Puglia, roughly between the latitudes of Bari and Brindisi. Alberobello is the most well known town in this area, and after visiting it’s quirky but slightly contrived trulli area we were keen to explore a bit more and maybe find somewhere that felt a little less gimmicky.

The area is welcoming to Motorhomes, the towns we visited all had motorhome parking signposted on entry to the town. We started in Locorotondo, a small town with a compact circular Centro Storico. Here we turned up after following signs to a parking area only to find newly painted blue lines (meaning that the parking space not always free) with signs and ticket machines being installed as we watched. We didn’t think that anyone would be checking tickets on the first day of installation, but just to be sure we checked with the people who were setting everything up – ‘domani’ (tomorrow) was their guidance as we mimed putting money in the machine. Locorotondo was pretty, especially from a distance with it’s distinctive tower, it was also very white, unlike northern and central Italy where there seems to be an agreement that buildings should be painted earth sunset tones. Here painted white walls were interspersed with limestone grey and the occasional soft golden stone. 

Locorotondo

We popped into the town to track down the tourist office and find out what walking or cycling trails existed. We were pointed in the direction of a set of cycle trails centred around the Acquedotto Pugliese (AQP).  Much of Puglia is limestone and so fresh water is scarce, mostly running underground. The acquedotto was an early 20th century engineering project to bring water from the mountains of central southern Italy all the way down through the Puglia peninsular. 500km of aqueduct was created, much of it underground, and the cycle path runs along the service road. In the Valle d’Itria they have created a network of cycle routes that join up with the AQP from the major towns. Well mapped and signposted cycle paths have been rare in Italy so far so we were chuffed to have found this little treasure.

From Locorotondo we followed one route out almost directly from our car park. On road at first until it hit the AQP. We cycled happily through karstic scenery, past villas, farmhouses and many trulli; freed from the captivity of Alberobello these ‘wild’ trullis had a greater visual impact. Some were titivated to the extreme, with extensions, terraces and swimming pools, some were animal shelters or sheds and some were just piles of limestone. Swallows swooped around us, lizards scattered in front of us as we disturbed their basking, flowers bloomed, olive groves were being cultivated and rich red earth had been turned over between trees. The AQP section we included between the SP134 and SP14 was really well maintained and obviously popular; there were more cyclists, runners and walkers than we’ve ever seen on one path before. 

The next day we drove to Martina Franca, bigger than Locorotondo we didn’t venture into the centre of the town but set out immediately on another bike ride, making a circuit taking in a more southerly section of the AQP and heading south to north this time. This ride took in a lot more off road action on rough tracks and the AQP was rougher too with some gates that needed to be navigated around. Still it was a great day out, there aren’t too many big hills here but enough ups and downs to make it feel like you’re getting some exercise.

That afternoon we decided our parking spot in Martina Franca was too noisy for overnight and so we moved on to Cisternino where the motorhome parking was down a steep entry ramp that caused us to scrape  the bottom of our chassis on the ground. There was a service point here but the water was turned off so we decided not to use it.

The following morning we had a wander around Cisternino old town. It was Sunday and everyone was dressed in their finest. Old men gathered spectators as they played a game that involved tossing coins onto the ground, similar to pitch and toss but without the wall as the target. Cisternino is known for it’s butcher restaurants where you can choose your cut of meat and get it cooked for you. We were tempted but it was too early in the day. 

From Cisternino we moved onto Ostuni where we found a carpark with services, again there was no water but in the opposite corner of the carpark was a water fountain with a threaded faucet that allowed us to easily connect our hose. We wandered around Ostuni listening to many British voices, and trying not to feel frustrated with the slow moving crowds. It is known for having one of the highest densities of British expats living in Italy, we wondered if the British had influenced the large number of hanging baskets and window boxes in the town. After a quick trip to a bakery we escaped the turmoil in the narrow cobbled streets and walked around the outside of the city walls.

Saint Oronzo’s column

 

We loved this area, the beautiful historic town centres, the countryside dotted with trullis, the welcoming tourist infrastructure. It’s easy to see why so many people chose to buy property or settle here.

A Chorus of Frogs and Owls

04/04/18

When we got on our bikes the following morning it was with the intention of heading east and exploring the nearby WWF nature reserve. But first of all we had to cross a river. At one point we crossed a canal, thick with reeds and noisy with the burbling of frogs. We thought it was the river but a check of the map revealed we hadn’t gone far enough.

When we found the river we followed it’s bank northwards on a farm track, hoping to find a bridge used by one of the many farms in the area The only thing we found was a railway bridge until we got to the main road. As the main road was the equivalent of a motorway I wasn’t happy to cycle on it – and besides it probably wasn’t allowed.

A quick look at google showed the nearest bridge that was suitable was 14k upstream, of course there was always the possibility we might find that elusive farm bridge but we decided it was time to change our plans. So we set course for the inland town of Nova Siri. At this point I managed to get another puncture which needed a roadside repair, my inner tubes look like they have measles.

We cycled under the main road and got onto the Strada Provincial that heads to Nova Siri. The road inland was quiet, a gentle but consistent uphill along the side of a ridge. The landscape was mostly farms, cherry trees thick with blossom and pear trees starting to bud but vines still looking bare. The verges of the roads were colourful with spring flowers, reds, oranges, yellows and purples. Farm dogs grew excited as we passed, chasing us down their fence lines but well trained to stay inside their territory.

Colourful verges on the road to Nova Siri

As we approached Nova Siri we branched off to the right on a closed road and past a small church. Then finally we went up into the pretty little hill top town. In the distance the higher town of Rotondella looked inviting but we fought off the temptation to go that far, instead we rode downhill out of Nova Siri and this time followed the valley south. We took the Contrada Grotte del Carmine along the valley next to a river still singing with the frog chorus. We had to cycle up switchbacks out of the other side of the valley for a while before we re-joined our outward route where the underpass took us below the main road.

The hilltop town of Nova Siri, a far cry from the beachside resort with it’s modern grid layout

Once back closer to Bertie we spent a while pottering on our bikes around Nova Siri Scalo trying to find a shop that might be open so we could buy some bread. Nothing was open over the extended lunch period so we changed our plans for dinner. Italy, similar to Spain, is wedded to an extended lunch break (sometimes as long as 12:30 – 16:00) when only cafes and restaurants and large supermarkets seem to be open, down in this sleepy holiday resort it was eerily quiet. Later that afternoon everyone was back out for their early evening passegiata down the seafront.

That evening we decided to stay put for a second night, serenaded for the evening by the strangely mechanical car alarm hooting of Scops Owls in the pine forests behind us. 

Black Squirrels in La Sila

30/03/18 – 31/03/18

It might seem like we’re doing the Hokey-Cokey with our regular alternation between coast and inland. It was time to put our left leg in and move inland again. Our destination this time was the Sila mountains. The landscape here is a densely forested high plateau with several lake reservoirs. We were attracted by the well marked and maintained forest trails, unusually for Italy we could find the routes online which gave us lots of opportunity to prepare.

La Sila has several ski areas as well as walking, mountain biking and plenty of interesting flora and fauna. While we were there the ski resorts were in their last throes, but events were being held for Easter and snow conditions still looked ok for a bit of morning skiing in Lorica. Other resorts had lots of brown patches. We weren’t here for the skiing though, tempting as it was. We were here for the walking and biking.

Our first night was spent on the shores of Lago Ampolino, parked on a small spit of land that extends into the lake. The motorhome service point, owned by the nearby café, was shut when we arrived; winter covers were over the water supply and the waste disposal, but the owners must have spotted us and it was uncovered by the following morning.

Parking spot by the lake

Our drive up had been slow and winding but nothing too adventurous, the highlight being just a few meters away from our parking spot when a black squirrel darted across the road in front of us. We saw several other black squirrels while we were in the area, but this was the only one we managed to capture a grainy photo of. The black squirrels here are assumed to be a genetic variant of the red squirrel, although a bit of web trawling reveals an opinion that they are a separate species.

Black squirrel from Bertie’s window

The weather was good when we arrived at the lakeside so we spent the afternoon lazily pottering around, strolling around the village and very low key ski resort (just a hotel and a lift really), watching the wildlife and getting excited (Paul) about a sea plane that skimmed back and forth over the lake a few times. That evening it was pleasant enough to sit outside and watch bats skim over the lake hunting insects. In Italy we have spent a lot of time in car parks with lighting, so it was nice to get a bit of darkness and see the stars for a change.

The following morning we got on our mountain bikes and headed west along the main road, the SS179. Only a couple of cars passed us, the area seemed very quiet considering that it was the Easter weekend. We took a right hand turn off the road towards the village of Zimmaro and followed random tracks northwards through the forest to try to connect up with the SP216. As we ascended over the small ridge between the two valley roads we encountered more snow between the trees, but also signs of spring starting to emerge. Crocuses were blooming and small bluebell like flowers dotted the verges. When we finally reached the other road we headed east between farmsteads where sheep and cattle grazed. We followed the opposite shore of the lake whose banks were high and tributaries swollen with snow melt. Eventually we had made a full circuit of the lake and arrived back at Bertie. 

View of the lake

That evening we decided to move northwards into the heart of the mountains. There was a forecast for snow so we fancied a campsite where we could use our electric heater. Camping Lago Arvo is just outside Lorica and was €8 per person per night in winter. This huge campsite has a lot of very attractive grass pitches by the lake, but we wanted to avoid getting bogged down so stayed near the entrance where the pitches were firmer. 

   

A Small Town with a Big Cathederal

26/03/18 – 27/03/18

After being on the coast for a while we decided to head inland. The town of Gerace was chosen mostly because of it’s location rather than any particular aim to see the place. Our drive inland was slightly confused by some signs that indicated that the main road, the SP1, was closed. We chose an alternative route along single track roads that took us through the valley of olive groves to the south of Gerace and eventually bought us out on the north side of the town. It was a nice drive, but seemingly completely unnecessary. The closed road was actually not the SP1, but one of it’s subsidiary roads. Oh well, we made it safely and Bertie was congratulated for coping well with the steep and winding roads.

We drove south through the Gerace to reach the parking area, a huge car park that had motorhome parking at the top of the hill. The motorhome spaces had free electricity and water, but there was no evidence of waste disposal (we eventually found a sewer manhole behind one of the buildings near the entrance to the car park). Buildings in the car park hinted that further facilities had been planned, but they were empty and shut. The views were stupendous, looking towards the coast at Locri, inland to the Aspromonte mountains and up to the medieval village on it’s sandstone cliff. I expect that there is a charge in the height of the tourist season (there was a little booth for someone to sell parking tickets) but for now this was a lovely spacious car park that was free of charge.

The town had looked lovely as we drove through it, so we decided to spend the afternoon exploring. The medieval centre sitting on the rocky ridge has picturesque alleys for wandering around, the ruins of a castle guard the end of the ridge and in the centre of the town (or maybe it should be a city) is the largest cathedral in Calabria. Everything was pristine, the golden sandstone of the buildings shone in the sunshine and the smooth flagstones of the streets added their lustre, creating a sense of warmth. The views from the top of the town were worth the walk, but there is also a small land train that can transport you around – today it was busy ferrying a school trip of loudly chattering and singing teenagers around the village. We popped into the cathedral, a couple of euros each gained us access to the small museum in the crypt as well as the cathedral proper, a very austere Norman style building with a highly ornate alter as counterpoint.

 

While we stood on the belvedere by the castle, looking out over the view, we spied a path winding up over a hill opposite. Simultaneously we said that  it looked like an interesting cycle route. So the following morning we set out to cycle out of Gerace to the north, through Prestarona and then do a loop through Santa Caterina, Agnana Calabria and the hills behind.  We had underestimated the terrain for this ride, there was a steep drop off to Prestarona which we whizzed down, and then a hearty climb up the other side. Even with switchbacks it was hard work and needed several pauses to regain our strength. Of course then we needed to reverse the process, but luckily there we found a relatively gently sloping road in Prestarona which allowed us to climb back out of the valley with our pride still intact. The circular part of the ride covered ‘roads’ that were shown on google but were barely tracks, alternating grassy sward with deep ruts in the sandy soil. At one point as we zigzagged down the slope I spotted Paul going head first over his handlebars, his front wheel caught in a deep hole. Fortunately it was a slow-mo fail and he wasn’t hurt. Despite the difficulties it was a great bike ride, but very slow over the rough and steep terrain. We got back to Bertie aching and exhausted, and decided to spend another night on this sosta, taking in the views and relaxing our muscles.

This has to be one of our favourite parking spots in Italy so far for the views. We always seem to find something special when we make a foray inland and this was no exception.     

Crinkly hills and valleys around Gerace

     

The Disappearing Roads of Bruzzano

24/03/18 – 25/03/18

We had ended up here – near the village of Canalello and Ferruzzano station – unexpectedly so we had no plans and knew nothing about the area. It seems a little ungrateful to just move on when an area has made motorhome parking available and besides we still hadn’t managed to blow the cobwebs from our hair after our lethargic campsite days. What to do? A little research was called for so we explored on google maps and wikiloc to see what was recommended in the area.

Google maps came up trumps with an interesting looking abandoned village inland. Abandoned villages are not unusual in Italy, we’ve already visited a few, but each has it’s own character and history.

The abandoned village gave us a destination to build a bike ride around and wikiloc gave us a few options for routes, and although none would take us quite where we wanted to be we could knit together bits of the off road routes with roads on google maps and end up with a good day out. 

After we’d found a local bakery for our lunches we set off inland, an initial very steep climb (i.e. I had to get off and push) up via Puglia took us onto a rough track over farmland before we hit a crossroads where we went straight onto the SP170. It looked like a main road, but there were signs forbidding any large vehicles, we could see why when we found part of the road collapsed. There didn’t seem to be any rock supporting it, just dirt that had been washed away. Apparently landslides are very common in the Aspromonte mountains, and although we were only in the very beginning of the foothills it was no different here.

Where did the road go? If you look carefully you can see a round blue cycle route sign.

It is quite common for Italian railway stations to be named for a town inland, miles from the railway line. So Ferruzzano station is by the sea, but Ferruzzano was 10k inland. We had a number of false starts as we tried to make our way up the smaller roads to Ferruzzano. Some ended in fences proclaiming private property and one had been completely washed away, leaving only a stream and some exposed pipes and cables, so in the end we followed direction from google maps. 

From Ferruzzano we followed the road to Bruzzano Vecchio. The mediaeval village was finally abandoned due to an earthquake in 1906 (or possibly 1905 or 1908 – each article I’ve read gives a different date). At the highest point of the village are the ruins of the castle of Bruzzano Zeffirio, built on and around one of the natural sandstone outcrops of the area. To one side there is a ‘triumphal arch’, it’s not clear what the arch commemorates but it was erected in the 17th century by the Carafa family, the local ruling family.

Triumphal arch. Looking quite out of place amongst the medieval ruins.

We wandered around the buildings, alone apart from the ravens croaking rebukes as we invaded their privacy. We indulged in speculation about the buildings and their purpose as no information was available. Someone has made an effort to provide parking, seating and a water fountain, but no one had gone as far as to place any placards or notices. With very little tourist infrastructure in the area it must be difficult to attract enough people to make maintenance worthwhile.

Once we’d had our fill of mysterious history and had eaten our lunch, we cycled down through the new village of Bruzzano, laid out grid style a couple of kilometres away, and finally down to the river. Yet again our proposed route, a minor road on the south side of the river, had been washed away. Instead we took the ‘main’ road on the north side of the river and followed it to the sea, only a couple of cars passed us on the way. The signs of spring were in the air, orange groves were being tidied up after the harvest, roadside verges were gaining colour, small birds were flitting between the trees and buzzards hunted above.

Fiumara di Bruzzano, the end of the road

A short but rather tedious ride along the busy main road back to Bertie finished off the ride. Only about 30k in total, but with an interesting destination and some beautiful scenery. 

About 2k from Bertie it was obvious that I had a puncture. I was getting slower and slower and eventually I could hear the frustrating rumble that comes from cycling without any air in the tyres. Luckily I was close enough to Bertie to push the bike rather than attempt a roadside repair on a busy road. Once back the tyres came off and an examination of the inner tubes shower I had two punctures in the rear tyre and one in the front. The ability of thorns to penetrate the rubber of my tyres is a sign I need a new pair, but that will probably wait until I get back to the UK.

We stayed another two nights here, it was easy and convenient and after a little bit of an explore we found the manhole that is used for waste disposal so we knew we have sufficient services. We exchanged pleasantries with the German couple next to us who were very interested to know why we were carrying our kayak the wrong way up for aerodynamics (the roof bars are too low to carry it upside down). We had a longer conversation with an English couple who turned up later, they were on their way back from Sicily and in a desperate search for some good weather. No luck for them as the forecast for the next day was rain all day. We sat in Bertie and watched a thunderstorm roll in, turning the sky a murky brown before the rain and hail hit us.

Watching the thunderclouds roll in