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.
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.
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.
It was time to leave Italy. We had spent the night at the sosta in La Thuile where heavy showers stopped us from getting out and exploring the area. The sosta manager turned up late in the evening to find out whether we were planning an early escape, but left us in peace when we said we were leaving at about 10. The following morning we had to ring him to come and let us out. He charged us a random price of €12 which he seemed to make up on the spot – but as it was cheaper than both of the quoted prices at the entrance (€15 in low season and €25 for the ski season) we weren’t complaining, we’d had electricity and used the services.
Our reason for being in La Thuile was based on avoidance of the Mont Blanc Tunnel – it’s an expensive option – instead we were going to drive across the Piccolo San Bernardo (or Petit Sant Bernard once you get to the French side) pass. The pass had only been open for a week, it’s usually open in May but the amount of late season snow in the alps had kept it closed a few weeks longer.
We had already completed a lot of the ascent, driving up to La Thuile on good roads (ski buses come up here – although that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing) up multiple hairpins which were helpfully numbered on the road signs. As we set out from La Thuile we wondered what the rest of the road would be like. In the winter the roads are not cleared and the whole area is part of the La Thuile/La Rosiere ski resort so there isn’t the incentive to maintain them. However the Italian side continued to be a pleasure to drive, wide, flat and with barriers pretty much all the way. The same could not be said for the French side which was rougher, narrower and had very few barriers, the Tour de France is coming here this year and I wonder if the French will do anything to prepare the surface.
There were a few vehicles driving across the pass, as usual they were mostly leisure vehicles; motorhomes, motorbikes and pushbikes enjoying the views. The cyclists who were descending towards us looked very cold, wrapped up with scarves around their faces and heavy gloves, they might be on the easiest part of the ride, but wouldn’t have the effort of the ascent to keep them warm.
At the top of the pass the snow was thick, forming banks at the side of the road, at one point a bank of snow had slumped onto the road, but was easily avoided. A gift shop sold Saint Bernard soft toys and the café was open. A couple of statues and a small chapel to Saint Bernard could be seen above the snow, but the Iron Age stone circle, which is bisected by the road, was still covered in snow. The parking areas were also snow bound but there was enough room for a few vehicles to park and their occupants to get out for a leg stretch. The top of the pass is at the heady height of 2188m, it is lower than the pass to Livigno which we crossed during the ski season, which goes to show how much work it must be to keep the Foscagno pass open all winter.
We said our sad farewell to Italy and descended into France, through the ski resort of La Rosiere and down to the busy little town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice. Along the way we watched cows being milked on the side of the mountain; the mobile milking parlours, taking two cows at a time, were ingenious and I wish I had managed to get a decent picture. We parked up by the funicular railway station, which was undergoing maintenance, and popped into town for some proper French bread and patisserie. After the Italian chewy bready the French stuff seemed light as a feather, although our first loaf was disappointingly doughy and we had to go back out and buy a better one.
We had considered stopping here for the night but when we mapped out our journey back we decided to push on and get a few more miles under our belts. Lake Annecy would be our next stop.
At the bottom of the Valsavarenche, just above the village of Introd which proudly proclaims it is a ‘Friend of Popes’, another valley splits off. This is the Valley of Rhêmes. We popped down to Introd in a search for a shop to replenish a few items, passing the posters that show Pope John Paul II in front of mountain scenery. He used to enjoy holidays in the village and Benedict XV also uses the area as a retreat. This has proven enough of a draw to other tourists that a museum to the Pope has been set up in the village, it didn’t really do anything for us though, we were more interested in finding a general store.
After stocking up we drove down the Valle de Rhêmes for our final exploration of the area. In the village of Rhêmes-notre-dame there is a sosta, but we decided to explore further up the valley and ended up parking at Thumel on a large gravel car park. No facilities but it was free and in the usual glorious surroundings. On arrival we didn’t do much. It was enough to wander along the river bank, spotting marmots, yellow billed alpine choughs (as opposed to the red billed variety you will find in the UK) and one very large bird of prey. We hoped that the bird of prey was a lammergeier – they have recently been reintroduced in France and make their way to the Gran Paradiso every now and again – but it’s silhouette and colouring weren’t right and we were seeing a golden eagle, which was a good enough spot in it’s own right but somehow a bit of a disappointment.
The following day we walked up the valley to the Rifugio Benevolo, we were hoping to do a circular walk, following paths 12, 13A and 13. But very quickly we found our first obstacle; the bridge across the fast flowing river had been taken out by an avalanche. We looked at alternatives but decided that we would just cut across the river valley to path number 13 and follow and there-and-back route instead. Part way along the path there were a number of walkers contemplating a steep snow slope that partially covered a waterfall. They didn’t want to go up it, but when we saw a park ranger easily descending we decided that we could go for it. It was a steep little climb and once up I started to look for alternative ways down – I didn’t want to do it in reverse.
As we got closer to the rifugio we met the service track from Thumel – this was to be our path down – a young man on an electric mountain bike was making short work of the ascent, only having to dismount to cross the snowy sections. We were only slightly jealous!
We got back to Bertie knowing that we had to leave the Gran Paradiso area, it had been a great few days in this beautiful national park, motorhome parking was easy, walks and bike rides were clearly marked, the tourist infrastructure was excellent and the cheese was exceptional. I would strongly recommend a visit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While we were in Cervinia we sat and watched as the spring sun thawed the snow and created avalanches. The sound as the snow starts to move is awesome in the most literal sense of the word. Awe inspiring, powerful and frightening the snow starts to creep down the hill until it encounters a ravine or cliff where it spills over the edge, carrying rocks and earth along with the snow. When you see this there is no doubt in your mind that you never want to be on the receiving end; it would not end well. But while safely watching from across the valley we are transfixed.
Breuil-Cervinia sits at the head of the Valtournenche. It’s a resort town, mostly purpose built to support the skiing industry, and we were quite shocked to see the amount of new development since we were there last. There is obviously no shortage of visitors.
The development was pretty much the only thing happening in the town while we were there. Skiing is supported all year round from Cervinia, but the resort has a month off between the winter and summer season. Winter skiing had only finished the previous weekend, culminating with the visit of the Giro d’Italia and also a very progressive (do these things really still happen?) swimsuit show. It’s been a long season with lots of spring snow, and most hotels and restaurants were closed as staff took well deserved breaks from the hospitality industry, probably by visiting someone else’s hotel.
We parked up in the sosta, a 10 minute walk south of the main resort, and took a short walk, sending photos to Aaron to demonstrate the difference between Cervinia’s winter and summer appearance. The resort was so quiet that we decided to move from the sosta up into the main carpark so that we were closer to the start of walks and had a better view. No one was taking payment at the sosta, although when we left on the Saturday the small booth was manned and we felt a little guilty that we had deprived them of some income.
From our parking spot we had a view of the golf course where marmots played. These large rodents, members of the squirrel family and closely related to the groundhog, live in burrows in high pasture land and hibernate during the winter. With the spring thaw they come out from their dens to breed and start fattening themselves back up again in the short time they have before they are back in hibernation in autumn. They obviously enjoyed the tasty grass of the golf course and we wondered whether they are seen as a pest or an asset. While some of them eat and some play, others will stand guard like squat extra-furry meerkats and squeak if they feel there is a threat approaching. They didn’t seem to be particularly worried about their audience, only running to their burrows when we got close enough to take a good photo (of course). We laughed at their run, which seems to involve scampering along and then stopping, lifting their tail a couple of times and then repeating the process – scent marking maybe? It’s a very distinctive gait and allows us to tell it’s a marmot (and not a dog or cat) from a distance.
The other thing we could see from our parking spot, the dominant feature of Cervina, is Monte Cervino itself – aka The Matterhorn. It’s classic pyramid shape rises above the ski resort, easily distinguished from the surrounding mountains and forming a focal point wherever you are. We spent hours staring up at it; whether bathed in sunshine or wreathed in cloud the thought of climbing it’s jagged sides is daunting, something we don’t ever expect to experience. It’s hard to believe the audacity of early climbers who used manilla ropes and climbed in tweed jackets. The first ascent of Monte Cervinio was a race between Englishman Edward Whymper and Italian Jean-Antoine Carrel. They initially cooperated and later competed to ascend the mountain, and it sounds like it all got a bit school-boy, even now the story takes on a partisan edge depending on who narrates it. But it cannot be doubted that, eventually, after several attempts, Whymper made the first ascent. This was marred by the tragic death of four of his companions who fell thousands of feet as they descended, Whymper and his two guides only survived because the rope that joined them to their falling team members broke. It is said that Queen Victoria considered banning mountaineering as a result of the deaths and controvesy.
Cervinia’s altitude is just over 2000 meters above sea level – part of what makes it such a great ski resort – and so any walks from here were definitely going to be curtailed by snow. However we did manage three shortish walks.
This lake is a feature we have often seen from ski lifts. It sits in a bowl on the eastern slopes of the valley and provides the fresh water that is piped to a lot of the slopes to make artificial snow when it’s needed.
We took a chance on this walk because the path (route 16) sometimes follows a maintenance track that we thought may have been kept clear. We ended up following the track all the way because where the path took short cuts it was steep and snow bound, but the track had been scraped clear of snow and we made it easily up to the lake which was still iced over. We came down the same way.
Above the Golf Course
We spied out this walk from our parking position, looking for the path along the snowy ridge above us and below the steep cliffs of Punta Cors. The route up nearly defeated us as we tried to follow route 11 and found the bridge over the fast flowing stream was out. Unwilling to ford the stream we ended up making our own way up steep grassy banks until we got to the path (65) that traverses the slopes on a fairly flat gradient. Here it was very snowy but firm enough to allow us to walk in our boots without the need for snowshoes (although they would have been useful – they’ve gone on the shopping list) and we made our way along our approximation of the path behind a small lake and along to an abandoned and empty reservoir where we took the old service track down to Cervinia. We spent most of this walk, well…not walking. The spring sunshine was triggering avalanches all along the steep cliffs above us and they were mesmerising to watch. It really gave us an appreciation of the violence and ferocity of an avalanche (after all snow is soft…isn’t it?) as we watched large rocks being thrown down with the snow. And that made us very considerate of the angle of the slopes we were crossing and descending. We got down from this walk in time to eat lunch in one of the few open cafes in the town and enjoyed their focaccia so much that we had some as a take away for our tea.
Heading for the Matterhorn
Our final walk took us up as far as we could go towards the Rifugion Duca degli Abruzzo. Usually used as a staging post for ascents of the Matterhorn it was at 2802 meters a.s.l. and we knew we wouldn’t get that far, but we decided to see how far we could get. The route mostly follows an easy track and when it’s not snow bound it would be quite a pleasant and easy journey, but we hit snow fields just below the hut at l’Eura. In front of us were a couple carrying snowshoes, but they chose to bypass the snowfields and climb an unpleasant steep and grassy bank instead and stupidly we assumed they knew what they were doing (after all why have snow shoes and not use them) and we followed them. As I watched them nervously find footholds on loose dirt and use grass as handholds I decided there was no way I was going to follow. Paul went up next and provided a running commentary of how uncomfortable he was. After seeing his wobbly legs disappear over the top I decided I definitely wasn’t going to follow and texted him my decision. Instead I went back down the slope to find the path and trudged over the snow to join Paul up at the hut.
After our final walk we drove down to Chattilon, back where the Valtournenche joins the Aosta valley. The sosta here was free because the parking meter was not in operation. It was conveniently located by the Conad supermarket and a self service laundry. We washed all of our smelly walking gear, and while waiting for it we shopped in the Conad, picking up some local cheeses from the deli (including Toma, a delicious semi cured cheese that melts beautifully which Paul gave the ‘it’s as good as cheddar’ seal of approval) and some local white wine that had the scent of mountain meadows in the spring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We left the large sosta in Celle Ligure on the Sunday morning, along with many other Italian vans who had been weekending there. Before we departed Paul did his good deed for the day, we had noticed that the rather old van next to us had a plastic bag and elastic band in place of a fuel filler cap. We had finally managed to replace our temporary fuel cap with a proper one (well it says water on it, but it does the job), and so Paul gave the Italian driver our temporary universal fuel cap, we got a bag of bready snacks in return. The services at Celle Ligure were both awkward and busy (if you back into the service area you end up blocking the road), so we just took the toilet cassette to be emptied and left the water for another time. We always make a point of emptying the toilet when we can. If we run out of water it’s pretty easy to find a water fountain or even buy the stuff (we have only been reduced to this in the UK), but if we cant empty the toilet it becomes an emergency.
From here we drove a pretty long way (for us) to Hône. This was our entry point to the Alps, officially taking us into the Aosta Valley where we were planning to spend a couple of weeks. At Hône there is a small and neat paid sosta next to the river. Our sat nav tried to take us through the village, but a quick reverse back across the bridge and we were back on the main road that swings under the A5. It delivered us to another bridge just down the road from the sosta. It’s a pain in the backside having to second guess the sat nav but thank goodness for our phones. It was a sosta with yet another awkward emptying area – this time there were water taps between the pitches, so taking on water was fine, but grey water and toilet waste had to be dumped in a manhole just down the road.
As we approached Hône we could see the bulk of Bard fortress above us, this 19th century fort was built on a defensive position that had been previously occupied by a medieval castle. It’s an impressive sight with ramps leading up to the three levels of the fort. At it’s base is the tiny medieval village, barely more than a street and pretty enough although we’ve seen so many medieval villages now it wouldn’t rank in the top ten. We looked at the website for the fort and found that general access to the restored fort is free, this includes use of the glass elevators that take people up the various levels. Once in the fort there are a number of exhibitions and museums that have to be paid for, but just a ride in the lifts sounded like fun.
We were tempted to leave it to the next day, but the fort is closed on Mondays so we heaved ourselves out of Bertie and followed the path to the fort – it’s only ten minutes or so to get to the entrance where we stood in a small queue waiting for the first elevator to arrive. We were crammed into this one, but there were no queues for the subsequent two elevators which allowed us to enjoy the views of the mountains without the back of other people’s heads.
When we got to the top we decided that the Museum of the Alps might be worth seeing. There are ticket sales points on each level of the fort so we found the one nearest the entrance to the museum and entered a world of complete sensory overload.
The museum was really interesting, and after visiting we agreed that it had been worth the money, but the first part of the exhibition is a series of video and sound installations in darkly lit rooms that are pretty surreal. I would recommend spending a few minutes reading the first couple of pages of the leaflet that is handed out before going into the museum as it helps to set the context for the sounds and images and it is too dark in the rooms to read it as you go.
Once out of this zone the museum became more standard. It had exhibits covering all sorts of aspects of the alps. Traditions, geography, nature, mountaineering, food, transport. We enjoyed the video of mounatineers using traditional clothes and methods to cross glacial terrain (rather them than me). There was a good display of images and videos showing the folk traditions of spring, including some quite disconcerting masks. And of course there was a mock up of a ‘Dahu’ the mythical animal which has two legs longer than the others to facilitate walking around mountains (it took me a few minutes to even work out what was so odd about it).
When we got out of the museum we spent a little while wandering around the fort before descending via the road. On the way back to the sosta we found a café where we could pay for our night’s stay and get our ticket. We returned to the sosta to find another British van, they had just come through the Mont Blanc tunnel and were due to leave straight away the following morning on their way to the lakes. It seems a shame to miss out the Aosta valley, but everyone has different priorities, we haven’t been to the lakes, but were looking forward to spending more time here.
That night there was a massive thunderstorm and we opened our bedroom blinds to watch the flashes of lightning. What a fantastic display. We could see that the other van had opened their curtains too, it was almost impossible to sleep through…not completely impossible though as I dropped off after half an hour.
When we sat and planned our route north to the alps we decided that we would have one final day by the beach – after all the next time we would see the coast would be when we were preparing for our crossing to the UK, and Britain’s spell of lovely weather would surely have petered out by then. We hadn’t planned a Lido experience, but then things rarely turn out exactly as planned.
On our way south we had bypassed the Cinque Terre due to bad weather, but the area would make a convenient half way point on our journey north. We looked at parking options, which were limited, and then we looked at ACSI campsites, of which there are a good number. I emailed a couple of ACSI campsites to be told they were fully booked, I suppose it was the weekend and the weather was in the high 20’s, we weren’t going to be the only people heading for sea and coast.
One of the campsites told us to just turn up, they keep spaces aside for people who drop in, so we put the coordinates into the sat nav. But as we drove northwards and slowly braised in our own juices in Bertie’s greenhouse-like cab, we decided that the thought of arriving somewhere only to find it was full would probably cause a literal as well as a metaphorical melt-down.
A quick look at Camper contact and Park4Night revealed a large, free, sosta at Celle Ligure. It was north of the Cinque Terre, so yet again we would not manage to see this renowned area of Italy, but we were much more likely to turn up and find a spot. We re-set the sat nav and carried on along the autostrada (it was too hot for navigating smaller roads), enjoying the views as we trundled through tunnels and out onto bridges across deep valleys that led to the sea.
Celle Ligure was in one of these valleys and taking advice from one of the reviews we ensured that we turned right immediately after exiting the toll station. Within minutes we were at the sosta, reversing into a parking space alongside half a dozen other vans.
Italy surprises us sometimes – we’ve had plenty of free beachside parking spots, but most have been in car parks, or places tolerated in the low season, rather than official sostas. Here we were in an official sosta, with about 30 parking spaces and services (no electric), where the maximum stay was 14 nights. You could spend your summer vacation here without spending anything on accommodation. We thought there must be a catch, maybe the resort was a bit down at heel, trying to gather more visitors by offering this freebie.
We popped down into the town, and wandered along the seafront. It was a pleasant tourist resort with a small number of hotels, cafes and restaurants, the evening passeggiata was in full swing and plenty of gelato was being consumed. The downside? As far as we could tell the only negative points were – lots of the motorhome spaces were on a slope, it was a pretty hilly walk back from the beach and a large proportion of the beach is lido territory.
The Italian Lido is a bit of an alien concept to us Brits. We’re used to going to the beach, finding our spot and settling in. We may have paid an exorbitant fee to park our vehicle, but we don’t expect to pay for the privilege of being on the beach – we think of it as one of the last things that belongs to us, the humble public (but don’t you believe it, our right to access the sea is a messy legal question). Here in Italy access to beaches can be tricky. We had found it on the Gargano Peninsula where we couldn’t even get a glimpse of the sea due to private land blocking off access – were we going to be in the same situation here?
Actually Celle Ligure beach has two Spiaggia Libera – free beaches – and if you google (always a source of unadulterated truth of course), you could even take your towels and legally lie between the sun loungers of a lido, so long as you don’t use their services (does that include the shade provided by their umbrellas?). The Lido is there to provide not just access to the beach, but a whole host of services, sun loungers, umbrellas, changing cubicles (none of that under the towel shuffle), toilets, showers, food, music, wifi. Think of it like being at an holiday resort but just for the day.
And so Paul persuaded me that if we were going to have a day on the beach, and if the weather was nearly 30 Celsius, and given that we hadn’t paid for a campsite….you can see where this is going, straight to our first Lido experience. We went to the Direzione where we paid a small fortune for our beach equipment and were then escorted to an umbrella of our choosing (so long as we didn’t want one that had already been reserved). We lazed in the sun, read books, researched our trip to the alps, went for a swim (or five), snorkelled, ate panini and gelato and managed about 5 hours on the beach before it became a bit much. We kept in the shade of the umbrella as much as possible, following it around as the sun moved across the sky, and like the ticking hands of a clock everyone in the Lido moved in the same direction.
It was interesting, but it reminded me of my one and only all inclusive holiday, fun for a short while but after 24 hours…talk about going stir crazy. Paul’s key justification for spending the money was the need for shade – so he’s getting a beach umbrella for his Birthday.
Monte Forato had caught my eye while we were driving south through Italy and we’d immediately put it on our to-do list. There was too much snow on the mountain in February though, so we had saved it for our trip north. The mountain is distinctive because of the large limestone arch that creates a hole in the summit of the mountain. It’s not the highest mountain in the Apuan Alps, but because of it’s quirky summit it seems to be the most popular.
The night before we climbed the mountain we stayed in a free sosta (including electricity) in Bagni di Lucca. Bagni di Lucca is a collection of hamlets spread through the valley and the sosta sits on the banks of the river between two attractive and very different bridges.
We left Bagni di Lucca to head up to Fornovolasco, initially we had some issues due to a road closure in Gallicano, but we worked around that to find the winding narrow road through the gorge. We held our breath through the narrow spaces and ducked when we encountered rocky overhangs but most of all enjoyed the limestone scenery. There is parking on two levels near the entrance to the village and we manoeuvred ourselves into the uppermost parking area – we tried this a couple of ways eventually reversing up the road and then pulling forwards into the car park. Apologies to the village for the scrape our chassis made in the tarmac where we tried to reverse into the carpark – it was a bit much for our overhang.
We walked through the village to find the start of the walk near the bridge. The walk was well signposted with the usual red and white stripes of the CAI (Club Alpino Italiano). We chose the most direct route up (12) that took us to the famous hole in the mountain. There are meant to be fabulous views from here, but we couldn’t see far and instead had the atmospheric sight of fog creeping through the hole. There were plenty of other walkers, it was one of the busiest summits we had seen in a while, but oddly we didn’t see anyone else on the way up or on the way back down.
The hole at the top of Monte Forato; the arch spans 32 meters and is 25 meters high, the arch’s rock is about 8 meters wide and 12 meters high.After exploring the twin summits of Monte Forato and it’s spectacular arch, (which bore an uncanny resemblance to the arch of the Ponte della Maddalena) we meandered onwards and upwards along the ridge to the next summit of Foce di Valli, the significant drop offs were handily disguised by the cloud which reduced the fear factor to practically zero. Finally we followed path 130 down through a flower studded meadow to the forest and finally back to Fornovolasco.
The summits were low compared to some of the places we had been walking recently (Foce di Valli was the highest at 1266m), but the walk had started relatively low too so we’d had a good workout and seen spectacular geology amongst the fog. The low altitude had taken it’s toll though because it was HOT, we both decided that we could not do any more walks in 28 degrees (pathetic aren’t we) and although we’d like to see more of the Apuan Alps it would have to wait for another, cooler, time. Instead we would head for the actual alps where we could escape the heat.
For the evening we went to another free sosta at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana where we planned our route back to reasonable temperatures.
Florence is on many people’s ‘must do’ lists for Italy. It hadn’t made it to the top of our list on the way south, when we visited Pisa and Lucca, but when we were looking for somewhere to stop on the way to the Apuan Alps we decided it was worth a look.
The reason that Florence hadn’t made it to the top of the list for us is that we aren’t great art lovers. Don’t get me wrong, a beautiful painting, a magnificent fresco, or an evocative sculpture is a joy to behold, but we’re not very good at appreciating art in bulk when the exhibits start to blend into one another.
So, as you can imagine, we weren’t desperate to visit the Uffizi. I really fancied climbing to the top of the duomo’s cupola, but you have to pre-book a time slot and when I looked the night before there were no spaces left. In the end we decided to plan a leisurely walking tour around the sights, including some ice-cream and lunch of course.
Our overnight parking in Florence was in the Scandicci district, a sosta that crammed motorhomes in as tightly as possible. Our sat nav took us on an odd route in ever decreasing circles through one-way systems to get there and we overshot the narrow entrance once. Once we were in it was well organised and plenty of information was available from the office (caravan) in the corner. For a suburb of a city the parking was remarkably quiet, the site is backed by farms so there is very little traffic noise, you might hear a whinny from the horses in the fields. One word of caution though – we arrived in late afternoon and the gates were open. The following morning we headed off at about 10 and the gates were locked – so if you are thinking of arriving in the AM be prepared. Someone will probably let you in.
We walked in from the sosta, it is a good 45 minutes into Florence’s centre. The bus runs very regularly and is easy to catch from a stop up the road – save money by buying your tickets from the tobacconist rather than on the bus. We wandered along the side of the very muddy Arno river up to the medieval Ponte Vecchio, the bridge is lined with jewellery shops on both sides so that in places you’d be hard put to recognise you were on a bridge – there is a lot of gold bling in once place. We marvelled at the highly decorated cathedral – one of the most impressive I have ever seen. We also marvelled at the queues stretching around the cathedral. It is free to enter the main building, but we decided not to wait in the queue. The Mercato Centrale was a good place to indulge our food loving selves, the ground floor was full of market traders selling meat, fish and vegetables as well as more exotic produce (I found some fish sauce which is a bonus for stir fries and thai food) and tourist merchandise. The upper floor had a selection of cafes and bars selling a wide range of drinks, meals and snacks. We admired a copy of Michelangelo’s David (there are two copies of the sculpture in the city as well as the original in one of the museums). For lunch we crossed the river and ate in a piazza in the Oltramo quarter which had a bit of a student/hipster vibe. We did, of course, eat gelato.
It would be true to say that I enjoyed myself more than Paul, who was suffering in the heat. Florence was the busiest place we have been to since Rome and the sheer volume of tourists can be off-putting, but there are plenty of official staff on hand at the main tourist sights and strangely few touts. Our preference is definitely for somewhere a bit less overwhelming and we decided we had preferred the previous day’s trip to Arezzo.
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.
Today was spent nursing Bertie back to health. A few days previously we had noticed Bertie’s brake warning light flickering intermittently on the dashboard. Today, as we drove back into the mountains, the light came on fully and not only that but we heard that nasty crunching noise from the brakes when we had to stop at a steep downhill junction.
Coincidentally we happened to be near to a motorhome sosta in Castelangelo sul Nera so we parked up for a cuppa, a quick consultation with one of Paul’s friends and an internet trawl for a nearby fiat garage. The sosta looked pretty nice; flat, free and with electricity points that were being serviced while we were there. It was tempting to stay but we decided we should crack on and get Bertie’s brakes looked at. So we set course for Foligno which had a suitable looking garage.
Before we reached Foligno, as we approached the main road out of the mountains, we drove along a strip of villages and I saw a Fiat sign outside a large workshop in Varano. A quick turn around and we drove into the forecourt where a mechanic was tinkering with a tractor. With limited Italian and English between us we still managed to explain the problem, provide the vin number and confirm that he could get the parts by 2:30 that afternoon. When I asked how much it would cost he just shrugged – a mechanic’s universal gesture – so I asked if we could pay by card. Of course not! Although cards are accepted in many places in Italy – supermarkets, fuel stations and larger campsites – Italy still has a very cash based economy. Smaller businesses only accept cash and many people carry wads of cash. It still shocks me when you see people open their wallets and display thick sheaves of notes.
Anyway we had some time to kill, so we could find a cashpoint somewhere. The nearest bancomat was in a town called Muccia, just up the road. Can we walk? I asked, and when we were told it was just straight along the road we decided to leave Bertie and proceed on foot.
Maybe I should have asked for better directions as we ended up walking along the hard shoulder for a couple of kilometres, an uncomfortable experience even in a relatively quiet area. As we got closer to Muccia we passed a supermarket so I popped in to see if they had a bancomat, but we were just directed on to Muccia. They did make a point of saying that the bank would be on the left side of the road. When we got to Muccia it was obvious why, the old town was on the right and was off limits. The population and all local businesses were now housed on the left hand side of the road where rows of pre-fab bungalows and wooden sheds had been erected.
There was no obvious sign of a bank though, so time to ask for more directions. In the tobacconist they directed us up through the bungalows – still no sign of the bank. Eventually we stopped and asked for directions again (I was getting good at this). The young man shrugged, he didn’t know where it was, but as we thanked him and went to walk off he gestured us to stop and called over someone who had just walked out of a house. This man was able to direct us to the bank, and in English too. We weren’t far away, but I don’t think I would have recognised the white and blue containers as the post office and bank respectively.
At last we were able to get our money, and we took a few minutes to look for a better route back to the garage along back roads. When we got back the parts had been delivered and although it was smack in the middle of the sacred Italian lunch break our mechanic was keen to get on with the work. He directed us to the local café for lunch while he sorted out the brake pads, half an hour later and all was complete. We were able to move on with strict instructions to keep use of the brakes ‘piano’ for the next couple of days, luckily my years of music lessons meant I could translate this instruction with little difficulty. I knew it would come in useful one day.
There is always a great sense of relief when getting problems like this sorted. As well as the fear that there might be a major problem that cannot be solved that day, the language barrier creates an additional layer of uncertainty. I can honestly say that everyone we met today did their best to help us. We left the Sibillini mountains with a lighter wallet but lighter hearts and vowed to come back again one day to spend more time appreciating the beautiful green hills.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We were continuing our homeward journey northwards and the next stop would be the Sibillini national park. This area was hard hit by multiple earthquakes in 2016 and we knew it would be potentially difficult to get around with multiple road closures and ‘zona rosso’ marking no-go areas in many villages and towns. Fortunately the tourist office website had a really useful map showing the roads, towns and footpaths that were closed. From this map we worked out a route that would take us through the national park via stops at Monte Vettore and the Piano Grande to emerge the other side at Norcia. As we drove along the SS4 we saw many signs warning us that the main road to Norcia was shut so we hoped that our reading of the map was correct and we would be able to take the back roads.
We turned off the SS4 at Arquata del Tronto and immediately started to see earthquake damage at a level we had not seen before. The town was reduced to rubble in many areas, some of this was due to deliberate demolition, some of it was just the result of earthquake damage. Some houses still stood, looking perfectly sound from one side but open like a dolls house from the other, with furniture still in the rooms. Army personnel were parked in various spots along the road and construction vehicles went backwards and forwards. After our first exclamations of shock we were quiet as we drove through the town, feeling guilty for driving through and rubber necking at the devastation. The road took us up through more similarly ruined villages until we breathed as sigh of relief as we emerged onto the mountain roads.
We stopped on a flat car park under slopes of Monte Vettore with views down into the valley. We spent the afternoon mooching around the area, taking a short bike ride up to the start point for the walks up Monte Vettore and walking the paths and tracks around the parking area.
The following morning we started early and moved up to park opposite the start point for the walk where there was plenty of parking, just not quite as level as our spot. From here we were hoping that we would be able to walk to the summit – it’s not a difficult mountain, but is still well over 2000m so there would be snow on the top. The theory was that the easy path would mean we would find it easy to cross or avoid any snowy patches.
We set off in fog, unable to see much, but as we ascended the fog started to burn off giving us voccasional views over the surrounding countryside; on our left the unnaturally flat Piano Grande, on our right the green foothills of the Sibillini and up ahead the summit of Monte Vettore and the more impressive snow bound ridge that leads to Cima del Redentore. There wasn’t much tree cover here, grassy slopes were the order of the day, luckily the weather was cool – just right for walking – and we didn’t need the shade of trees. At the rifugio (closed due to earthquake damage) we stopped for some snacks and to inspect the route in more detail. There was plenty of snow, but mostly on the flatter sections so we were good to go. Only one patch of snow gave us any concern, not that it was steep enough to have injured us if we had fallen, but it would have been an embarrassing slide to the bottom and trudge back up again. Kicking steps in snow is a bit laborious but I let Paul go first! Finally we have managed to reach a summit, it feels like forever since we were last on the top of a mountain.
When we got back to Bertie it was still only lunch time, so we moved on onto the Piano Grande for the afternoon. This area, translated as ‘Big Plain’, is exactly what it says. Once it was a glacial lake and the sediment from the lake has formed a wide and completely flat plain ringed by the Sibillini mountains. It is hard to describe how beautiful it was; the expanses of wildflowers bobbed their heads in the breeze, sheep and horses were being grazed on the plains. The only buildings look very temporary, wooden corrals for the horses and farm equipment, caravans for the shepherds. We parked by the ranch in their carpark in the centre of the plain, selfishly hogging the only spot that seemed to be firm. They charge at the weekends and during the summer, but today it was quiet, just us and the ranch workers getting on with their usual jobs. In the distance is the village of Castelluccio – the only settlement here and another village devastated by earthquake, residents only started to return this year when the road was re-opened.
Our attention was caught when a shepherd walked past with a huge bag of mushrooms, then we saw an old fiat panda driving up and down the road and an elderly couple getting out and inspecting the ground every few yards. I don’t like mushrooms, but Paul is a big fan so we went on a bit of a hunt, wandering across the meadows with our eyes on the floor. Eventually we spotted a rock…oh no, it’s not a rock, it’s a mushroom. Paul was chuffed, it was the only one we found but a biggie.
We contemplated staying here but we couldn’t find anywhere to empty the toilet and it was getting close to full. We stayed for the night in the peaceful stillness, before we made our way out of the plains early the following morning.
One of the things our map hadn’t told us was that, although the road to Norcia was now open, it wasn’t open all the time. During working hours it was shut so that work could continue on repairs. On weekdays you could only travel early in the morning, lunchtimes and early evening. Overnight travel was banned. We had spotted a few cars driving up to the barrier and then having to turn around, we were thankful that we were leaving on a Saturday so we didn’t have to stick to a schedule.
North of the Gran Sasso mountains is the Monti della Laga area. The two mountainous areas form one national park but are very different in nature. The sharp limestone peaks of the Gran Sasso contrast with the more rounded sandstone peaks of the Monti dell Laga.
We were aiming for the village of Ripe where we hoped to walk the Gole del Salinello. After a supermarket stock up we headed north, taking a scenic route towards Ripe. Our route was thwarted though with 3.5T limits. The limits excluded buses so we could only conclude that there was no physical reason why larger vehicles couldn’t use the roads, but that the village didn’t want to get clogged up with trucks and big old motorhomes like Bertie. We didn’t want to cause any problems so we drove on and found somewhere to pull over so that we could revisit our options.
Our guidebook had lots of walks, but they would either mean turning back to go Ceppo, where there was a campsite, or finding our way up small roads and tracks to find their start points. Trying to work out possibilities was making our head hurt, so we looked at motorhome parking spots closer to Ripe. Maybe we could get a bus?
We ended up in Civitella del Tronto, parked on a mixed car park underneath the medieval borgo and a huge fortress. The fortress was originally commissioned in the sixteenth century by the Spanish king to guard the border between the Spanish controlled ‘Sicilian’ states of Italy and the Papal states. We enjoyed walking around the narrow streets of the town and then visiting the Fortezza itself, which is impressively situated and worth visiting for the views alone. As well as enjoying the commanding views of the surrounding mountains and plains you can explore the buildings of the fort, barracks, chapel and cisterns, large parade grounds and various passageways. At the western end of the fortress you can walk around the walls that were rebuilt after lightning struck the powder magazine that was housed at it’s far end. Our walk was accompanied by the sound of a brass band practising in the church below us.
In the town we found many buildings had been subject to earthquake damage, but it was still a lively little place and had lots of visitors. Later that evening we were in Bertie when we heard music and fireworks from above. We would have gone to see what was going on….but it was raining quite heavily and being dry took priority.
This had been an unexpected stop, but had made up for our disappointment of not getting to Ripe.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
As we travelled around the ridge of the Gran Sasso we started to see more evidence of earthquake damage, this was to become a feature of the next week or so and we never got used to the way in which people’s lives have been turned inside out by such a primal force of nature.
We stopped at Tossicia on the way around the mountains, this small town on the edge of the national park has a motorhome service area near a community centre and some of the ‘temporary’ accommodation that was erected after the 2009 earthquake. The mediaeval heart of the town sits on the edge of a gorge, but wander down it’s lanes and you see buildings that are only standing with support. We watched an older couple drive up and inspect one of the buildings, in my imagination this was their home they were visiting and wondering when or if they would ever be able to move back.
From Tossicia we followed one of the Ippovia – bridleways – on our bikes for a while, but the weather was hot and muggy and after fighting through undergrowth Paul was sweating so much that I was worried he was dissolving like the Wicked Witch of the West. We gave up and turned around getting back just in time for the thunder to start, but the fat spots of rain never really amounted to anything and the muggy atmosphere drove us onwards and upwards.
Our next destination was Pietracamela, we drove along the attractive SS80, following the river gorge before turning south and climbing up steep hairpin bends to the village. We thought there might be parking here but it was difficult to tell from google maps due to the tree cover. We almost overshot the turning just before the village which was unmarked and led sharply downhill to some parking on grass-crete just below the church. It wasn’t a dedicated motorhome parking area but no one else seemed to be interested in parking here so it was very peaceful. The car park also boasted a hi-tec recycling station which kept me entertained for a little while.
From here we followed a walk suggested by the guidebook we had bought, in fact we joined together three walks to create a circuit that has to be one of our favourite walks of all time, firstly following path 102 up into the spectacular Val Maone and then taking path 100 via Prati di Tivo to Pietracamela.
In early 2011 Pietracamela was subject to a different natural disaster; part of the rock outcrop above the village collapsed and a massive chunk of rock ‘the size of a block of flats’ sheered off from the cliff. As we walked up through the village on the first part of our walk we could see the resulting blocks of rock to the side of the path. We were lucky that the path was now clear as it had been closed for some time until the rock had been cleared away.
The path followed the river as it appeared and then disappeared under the limestone rocks. As we walked through the wooded valley we passed memorials to a couple of climbers who had been killed in blizzards here back in the early days of alpine climbing. The steepest part of the walk was a climb up a muddy bank shaped by a landslip and littered with fallen trees before we reached an attractive little waterfall and then broke from the tree cover into the Maone valley. This was the highlight of the walk, a beautiful and dramatic valley between the steep rock walls of Pizzo d’Intermesoli and Corno Piccolo. We walked up here as far as we could, over snow and around huge boulders. On the steep slopes we could see chamois browsing on the short grass and cooling off by laying in the snow.
When we had our fill of the valley (and our lunch) we walked back to the waterfalls and took the alternative path across to the ski resort of Prati di Tivo. This path followed the contours of the valley and crossed a couple of snow banks. As we reached Prati di Tivo we crossed beautiful alpine meadows with narcissi and orchids flowering. It felt like a true Heidi moment.
At Prati di Tivo the car park was busy, it took us a moment to realise that there were an astoundingly large number of Porsches and Lancias amongst the cars. Then we realised it was a classic car rally. Paul was particularly taken with the Sierra Cosworth and Peugeot 206 GTIs. It all just looked like a 1980’s carpark to me.
The walk down took us through woods again, and as we approached the village we had to climb over a new landslide, the rocks clean and freshly cleaved from the cliff. We stayed at Pietracamela overnight, watching the bats flit across the sky as the sun set and enjoying the stars in an unusually clear night sky.
Although we’d deliberately decided to stay lower down the mountains, the lure of the snowy heights proved too much and we decided we had to go up to Campo Imperatore to see the main peaks at closer range. We could have gone up in the cable car, but it seemed that overnighting was permitted at Campo Imperatore so we decided to drive up instead, along a road that first took us away from our destination before swinging around and driving up through increasingly alpine scenery. We drove past abandoned hotels (it seems a ski resort was started but never finished in the 80’s), between high banks of snow and past purple swathes of crocuses on the meadows where snow had recently melted. It was worth it for the drive alone, and the road was reasonable because the cyclists were due to ascend to the finish line here in a couple of days time. Having said that, there were a couple of guys shovelling asphalt into potholes so still a bit of work to be done before the Giro.
We were surprised at the tatty nature of some of the buildings at Campo Imperatore. I know that snow and cold weather takes it’s toll on buildings but we’d expected that some effort would have gone into making it more presentable. The following morning a crew arrived to start sweeping the car park clear of gravel and debris, but it was obvious that there was no time to make the hostel more respectable. I assume the TV crew would work their magic.
As we were driving we were sussing out possible spots to park up and watch the race, but after looking on facebook we realised that the road was going to be closed for at least 10k and no one would be able to park along that stretch even if we were in place before the roads were closed. We investigated parking further down and walking up to the race, but in the end decided we could make better use of the day.
To make the most of our trip to Campo Imperatore and the brilliant morning sunshine we walked up past the silver domed observatory to the Rifugio Duca degli Abruzzi that can be seen on the ridge above the parking area. Even at this altitude we needed to cross or avoid snow patches. A ski mountaineer was hot on our heels. I couldn’t envy him, to me there is no cost benefit to slogging uphill in ski boots for five minutes of skiing, I’m definitely the type of skier who likes to be hoisted uphill by mechanical means. Once on the ridge we were able to walk along it’s crest for a little while before hitting the next patch of snow that was too dangerous for us to cross. It was just a short walk but the views or Corno Grande and the basin beyond the ridge were worth it.
This wasn’t the last we would see of these mountains – in the next few days we were going to tackle them from the other side.