Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Lucca (and another change of wine)

The pretty but touristy port of Portofino

As we only stayed one night at the worst campsite in the world it meant we would have three nights in Rapallo giving us a chance to take it easy for a couple of days.  Apart from a quick look around Portofino, we did very little else on Sunday.

I took Buddy for a stroll after breakfast and started climbing a hill out of Rapallo, away from the houses, and came across a rather dilapidated building.  Even though we were off the beaten track there was a sign, in both Italian and English, explaining the history of the building.

The Lazzaretto
The Lazzaretto was built in 1450 as a hospital to house victims of a leprosy outbreak in the area.  A wealthy landowner of Rapallo donated the land and paid for the construction.  In 1475 the plague epidemic devasted this area of the Italian Riviera and brought the building into use again, to house the victims from the village.

The 15th century mural shows the Madonna with child and the three saints Lazzaro, Giacomo and Biagio who, apparently, were miracle workers.  The first saint being the one the building was dedicated to.

We took a picnic lunch to Portofino which involved a pretty drive along the coast for about six miles.  There is only one road into Portofino and the police had a road block a kilometre outside and were only letting cars in when an equivalent number came out.  Whilst we were waiting we got chatting to one of the policemen (who had good English 😉) and it turned out that his wife was born in the same village as that where we let our house out!  Hence his good English.

I suppose we could have guessed that Portofino was a tourist trap as it is a well-known destination.  Mike (of nb Charlie Mo) had already warned us there would be loads of tourists (and he’s right, we are tourists too) and it would be even worse if a cruise ship was in  the area, which it wasn’t 😊 All the restaurants and bars were packed but we found a quiet spot at the far end of the natural harbour to sit down and have our picnic.

Our view back across the harbour was rather spoilt by a shiny boater though:

I looked up the details of the boat and it was last sold in 2015 for just over 39 million euros.  Other than the six crew, it can only accommodate eight people, so it really is rather extravagant.  I suppose if you have that sort of money then you’re probably the sort of person who doesn’t care about other people and whether or not you’re spoiling their view ☹

Contrary to the forecast, we had some rain in the early hours of Monday morning, and it was funny lying in bed listening to the mad panic in the campsite.  Doors were slamming and there were lots of agitated discussions as people got out of their camper vans to bring things into their vans or under their awnings to stop them getting wet.  We were glad we had our tent cover; it has been really useful for keeping us in the shade and on Monday night it kept everything dry too.

We packed up on Monday morning to set off for Lucca. It kept raining intermittently so once again we were glad of our awning as we were able to pack everything away, including the tent without anything else getting wet.  OK, the awning was soaking wet but we knew it would soon dry out when we pitched tent later in the day.

By the time we had paid up and left the site for our short 90-mile journey to Lucca it had stopped raining and the sun was out.  In fact, it turned out to be one of the hottest days so far and we were really glad we had a shady pitch when we got to the campsite at Lucca.

Glad to be in the shade
We were a little sad as we realised this would be our last campsite for a while, but we have a whole new stage of our holiday to start soon – and we’ll have a proper bed too 😊 Anyway, before that we will have a couple of days to explore the wonderful town of Lucca and its four concentric town walls.  Fittingly, we think this is going to be the best campsite we have been to as well.  

Once we set up camp we popped to the local supermarket to stock up for our stay in Lucca, including some wine of course.  I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but whenever I buy wine on this holiday I’m making sure that it is locally grown and produced.  Now we are in Tuscany I am sticking to that rule and am very happy about that too 😉

The site is arranged so that campervans and caravans are in the middle and tents are positioned on terraces above them.  When we were having dinner, it felt quite strange sitting above everyone else and watching their comings and goings.  Karen thinks I am nosey but I say I’m a people watcher, especially as I like to make up people’s life history as I watch them.

We have noticed that the nationalities of campers have changed over the last week; the majority of camper vans are now German but the nationality of people in tents remains cosmopolitan, although we’re usually the only Brits.  The other thing we have noticed is that people in tents tend to be young couples (like us – haha 😊) and the older people are in the vans.

Our rather supercilious view above the camper vans on the site in Lucca

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Rapallo (out of our comfort zone)

A fine example of tromp de l’oeil (see Saturday below)
As we were at possibly the second worst camp site in the world on Thursday night we quickly packed up and set off on Friday morning.  We had expected a heavy dew over the tent as the other two nights that we had camped next to water we awoke to a wet covering.  It seems that our theory was wrong as, even though we were next to the Med, the tent was bone dry and our towels that we had left out had also dried.  We now think the previous two occasions when dew had formed were because we were camped by salt water lakes.

The old Genova to Ventimiglia railway line running through the campsite (built in the 1860s - the last time the camp site was renovated 😉)
I suppose we were lucky the railway line has been rebuilt this century otherwise we would have had noise from trains to contend with too!  The new railway line is another engineering marvel but not so good for the tourists.  The old line used to hug the coast, corniche style, and was in the open for much of its length.  The new line is nearly all in tunnels.  For example, the tunnel through San Remo is 13km long and has the new San Remo station in the middle.

Our tent can just be seen - four terraces up, two terraces above bare-chested guy
We managed to travel our 1,000 miles through France without going on any motorways but accepted that we would at the top end of Italy.  This was because we have had three days driving on the trot and it was unfair on Buddy, let alone us, so we decided to get to our next stop as quickly as possible; hence using the autostrada.

I love driving through this part of the French/Italian riviera as the journey (on either main roads or motorways) constantly changes.  One minute you are on a high viaduct and the next going through a tunnel to come out the other side onto another viaduct and so on.  There are dozens of tunnels and viaducts on the A10 between the French border and Genova and we soon lost count.

One of the tunnel entrances on the Autostrada dei Fiori (motorway of flowers)…
…and a viaduct
As most people will know, one of the viaducts collapsed at Genova recently so there is a diversion through the city and it was a nightmare.  Not only are there the hundreds of scooters that the Italians love but also lost lorry drivers and tourists creating additional driving hazards.

Motorway closed – diversion is through the city
It’s strange why we Brits call the city Genoa as it’s probably more difficult to say than Genova 😉

Going past the collapsed bridge – the crash barrier is in the way, but you can just see the road comes to end in mid-air just left of centre
We found a camp site north of Portofino outside a town called Rapallo.  As with all the other camp sites in Italy (apart from the nightmare of Cevio) it was practically full.  On the other hand, this was small, clean and quiet and we soon settled in.  The only drawback being the number of cats roaming around which means Buddy has to be kept tightly tied up.  Saying it is quiet doesn’t mean it hasn’t been packed but for some reason everyone seems to be peaceful here.

Dried up river next to the camp site – probably quite a sight when it’s full of Alpine snow melt in the spring
The rivers are rather disconcerting as they are shown on our road maps as thick blue lines but when we arrive most are bone dry so we sometimes lose our bearings.

Quaint packhorse bridge back to the site
It was still a little cloudy, but we were glad the pitches were all in the shade.  We decided to take electricity for the first time on this trip as it is getting increasingly difficult to keep fresh meat and other produce cool.

Our new view
Local water melons
Having moved on the last three days we took it easy on Saturday – that meant having breakfast at midday before going out.  We went down to the port of Rapallo to have a look around.  We are on a large square shaped peninsular with four towns along its east facing coast: Rapallo (where we are), Santa Margherita Ligure, Paraggi and at the far south, the most well-known, Portofino.

An information board at the port puts it all in perspective (we are camped in the far right)
We each use different weather forecasting apps and Karen’s, which is Italian, was forecasting a high chance of thunderstorms during the afternoon.  Although we kept seeing dark clouds rolling off the mountains we didn’t get a drop of rain all day.  In a way it would have been good as it would have relieved some of the constant stickiness in the atmosphere.

Storm clouds behind a rather pleasingly coloured building in Rapallo
There are very large villas along the harbour front, some in a good state of repair and others, sadly, not so:

The top storey of the villa on the left is not good at all with missing windows and area of roof tiles as well as shrubs growing through the roof
The facades of many of the houses in this area are painted in the style known as ‘trompe l’oeil’ (trick of the eye, or literally deceives the eye), which makes flat surfaces looks three dimensional.

The design at the top and the window surrounds have all been painted as well as the shutters on the right

The colonnades and the cornerstones are not real on this house

Another good example where the only ‘real’ things are the green shutters and shutter stops (oh, and the balconies of course 😉)
We walked around the harbour and came to Rapallo castle.  This was built in 1551 following an attack by Turkish pirates in 1549 when dozens of local women and children were apparently taken as slaves.

Rapallo castle
The beaches around the harbour were packed with sunbathers and the sea full of swimmers.  We had left our swimming gear back at the tent which was a great shame as the sea looked so inviting and cooling,

Looking back across Rapallo bay
Talking about swimming gear I am paying for not letting Karen check what I had packed for our holiday.  I had misjudged the weather totally and only brought a few tee shirts, everything else is either hippy, polo or rugby style tops – far too warm for the weather we have had ☹  Still, camping on the way back to the boat will be different as it will be at the end of October so I suspect I will be glad I packed the warmer gear.

The reason I said we were feeling out of our comfort zone is because neither us know any Italian other than the standard ciao and boungiorno.; at least we can get by in France with our (improving) 'O' level French.  Karen was in a grocer shop today whilst I stayed outside with Buddy and had several conversations with locals where neither of us knew what the other was saying other than Buddy was used as the focal point.  One old guy even shook my hand on the way into the shop and again on the way out saying, ‘Buonasera’ which I at least could respond to 😊

We will stay a third night at Rapallo, visit Portofino on Sunday and then head off south to find a camp site around Lucca for our final stop before driving on further to the place we have booked in the hills above Seggiano in the far south of Tuscany on Wednesday.

Our approximate route to our ninth camp site at Rapallo

Friday, 14 September 2018

Cevio (we need our Italian speaking daughter!)

A freshly emerged southern white admiral on our washing on Wednesday morning

I was saying how much we like the current campsite and one of the reasons I forgot to mention is that the couple who run it make no attempt to speak English.  Don’t get me wrong, we don’t expect foreigners to speak our language, it’s just that it gets a bit wearing when we speak in French to someone and it doesn’t take long before they start speaking in English.  The couple here are not being deliberately awkward by not trying English, as some are, we just believe they find it even more difficult than us to speak another language 😊

Talking about foreign languages we have just realised that we haven’t been to Italy before without an Italian speaker with us.  That means we don’t really know much, if any, Italian.  Sophie has provided us with a list of how letters are pronounced (Italian is good in that letter sounds tend to be constant unlike English) but as I only asked for it on Tuesday I don’t think we’re going to learn much before we’re there 😉

Tuesday was yet another stunning evening and the new moon looked like it couldn’t be any newer:

  New moon from our tent
We woke on Wednesday to a clear, bright, blue sky and with the promise of it being another hot day.  It certainly turned out to be very hot and, even though quite a lot of cloud appeared during the day, it remained very warm.

We wanted to go for a swim (to hopefully teach Buddy to swim too), visit a couple of villages, have a trip along the Gorges du Verdon as well as pay a visit to a supermarket.  We kept changing our minds about which order to do things in, including going for a swim in the lake first and cooking pancakes on the shore, in the end we decided to drive to the gorge first.

We drove along the eastern side of the lake (Lac de Sainte-Croix) and had some stunning views as we wound through the hills.

Looking down on one of the islands on the lake which is about 6 ½ miles long
The far end was the touristy bit because this is where the river Verdon enters the lake and also marks the end of the spectacular gorge.

The business end of the lake

Looking into the end of the Gorges du Verdon
We both found it really uncanny seeing all the pedalos and kayaks making their way into the gorge – it just seemed so unnatural.  Talking about it later in the evening, Karen did point out that if we had our boat there then we would have gone in as well.

We were soon climbing up the hairpins on one side of the gorge.  We only went about half way along the 20-mile length of the gorge before we turned back but we had some brilliant views.

This was at about 1,300 metres, looking back down to where the river enters the lake

We could just make out the pedalos and kayaks in the blue part of the river far below

There is a view (entirely subjective) that this gorge is the most beautiful in Europe and I must admit, that it is absolutely awesome the further you travel upstream.

We returned along the far side, so we could see the dam and thus complete a circuit of the lake.

The hydroelectric dam (although I think it’s made of concrete etc.)
We returned to the spot on the shore we went to on Tuesday afternoon and Karen was first in the water.  We were hoping that by us going in that Buddy would want to follow suit and thus get confident in swimming.

Far from it, he became very anxious and would hardly step into the water whilst we were in there.  It seems we have taken a step backwards in getting him used to water

Not happy that Karen was in the water…

…and a picture of me in the water to prove to our children that I can now just about swim 😉
We lay on the shore drying off and were thankful that we weren’t by the sea as we avoided the unpleasantness of feeling sticky and uncomfortable with sand and salt water.

After popping into the supermarket down in Aups we went back to the tent.  Whilst Karen was cooking we had a bit of rain which was most unexpected although the forecast said there was a 20% chance of thunderstorms at midnight.  The rain didn’t last long, and we sat out all evening but, as there was cloud cover, we couldn’t stargaze. It did mean it was really rather muggy and we were aware of the buzzing of mosquitos for the first time.

We packed up the tent after breakfast on Thursday and set off on the back roads through the hills to stop for lunch in Monaco.  We passed through many of the hilltop Provençal villages that this area of France is famous for:

Neither of us had been to Monaco before and were a little out of our comfort zone as the place was packed with people.  Monaco is the second smallest sovereign state in the world and the most densely populated.  Over a third of its 38,000+ inhabitants are sterling millionaires and we assume the rest either service them or work there.  We also assume that by millionaire it is meant true millionaire as in having at least a million pounds of free cash as opposed to having it tied up in assets such as houses.  The other fact that surprised us was that 6% of the population are British.

We entered the city through a spiral tunnel – something else neither of us had seen or been on before.  Driving down the start/finish straight we turned and went to the far end of the harbour where a multi-storey car park on five levels has been built beneath the sea.

Walking out of the car park we were faced with the opulence seen in so many of the famously rich ports around the world

This boat had a helicopter on one of the rear decks and was still small enough to fit in the harbour
We had our picnic lunch on the harbour wall where there were some steps leading down to the sea where we could dangle our legs in.  We were opposite the back end of Queen Victoria and the constant convoy of tenders bringing cruisers on and off the boat created such a wash that a load of crap was washed ashore so we decided to avoid the leg dangling.

Cruise ship Queen Victoria anchored out of the harbour
The town end of the harbour where the smaller boats berth
When driving through the packed streets to get out of the city we felt rather sheepish in our car;  the other British plated cars we saw were two Lamborghinis, three Ferraris, two Porsches and two McLarens

Once we were out of Monaco we headed towards Italy, San Remo in particular.  Once again is was a scorching hot day even with clouds in the sky; we were really looking forward to getting to a campsite and setting up with a cold beer.

Crossing the border
In the end we bypassed San Remo as we couldn’t find any camp sites with decent reviews and headed for Imperia instead.  We followed Germans with a caravan into the site and they got the last spot.  It was really ‘resorty’ anyway so we gave all the other sites a miss and headed further east.  We agreed we would stop overnight at the next site we found.

We pulled in at the first site at Cevio and realised immediately that it would only be one night.  The view could have been a lot worse but the site could not have been.  Tired and run down would make it sound not too bad; the site was full of Italians in campervans apart from a couple of Germans and us.

View was OK from our pitch
I won’t begin to explain why the site was so bad but, needless to say, we got up first thing on Friday, packed up and headed in the direction of Portofino.

Our travels and eight camp sites since getting to France 17 days ago

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Aiguines (‘twixt the Med and the Alps)

There was a dew on Monday morning and the awning was damp to the touch. Apart from when we had rain at Camiers on our first night in France, it has been bone dry ever since.  It was very warm when we got up and the dew soon dried off.

Blue skies and neighbours arrived at Messane
During the morning a German couple arrived and set up camp next to us and I saw their car had a fish symbol on the back; I think it’s the first time I’ve seen this on foreign fishermen’s cars.  The site seems to be full of Dutch and French people with us and the Germans tucked out of the way 😉

Karen went for a run whilst I set about planning the rest of our journey down to southern Tuscany.  
We are now at our sixth campsite of the trip and I reckon we will stay at four more, moving about 100 miles or so every other day; we have about 550 miles to go before we to get to our destination in Italy.  Remember that we are not going on motorways so that makes it easier to take things slowly.

Putting our French and Italian road maps together to get into planning mode
When Karen got back, she made a picnic lunch and we set off for Istres as we had found a walk around the salt lake there – Étang d’Olivier.  It was a walk of about 4 ½ miles and we thought that would be far enough in the heat of the day.  We drove to the lake and couldn’t find any access from the road for ages.  In fact, we circumnavigated the whole lake before we realised that the path on the guide was actually on the road itself – not a particularly inspiring walk.

We decided to go back to the campsite and go for a walk along the much larger lake where it is situated – Étang de Barre.

Strange cloud formation across the lake
It was a good walk as we were able to let Buddy off and a lot of it was in the shade of the pine trees that came down to the shore.  There was lots of birdlife and plenty of diving birds that seemed to be getting a good supply of fish.  One cormorant literally bit off more than it could chew; it just could not swallow the fish it had caught as it was so large.  We watched it toss the fish in the air a few times, spinning it over and catching it again, but to no avail.  On the final toss it missed the catch and the fish fell into the lake, with the cormorant diving after it, but it came up empty mouthed.

Our shady walk along the beach
When we were having a drink back at the tent before cooking dinner we independently rated the six campsites we have been to so far.  We both ranked them in the same order – I wonder if we’ll agree on the remaining ones?

On Tuesday it was time to continue our road trip.  It was another dewy morning and we wondered if it was because we were so close to water as the nights are warmer than we have had so far.  Anyway, it didn’t matter if we packed the tent away wet as it would quickly dry out as soon as we put it up again.  We were headed for Aups so we could spend time at Lac de Sainte-Croix and the Gorges du Verdon.

Sun rising on the villas on the hills above the campsite after our last night on the Camargue
Funnily enough, as we were heading out of the Camargue we saw a few wild horses, the only ones since we have been here.  It was a very hot day and we were glad we only had about 90 miles to travel.

As we left the Camargue we realised what a brilliant experience Mike & Aileen had had for the last month or so in the area cruising through it on their narrowboat - there would be nothing like it in the UK. 

We dropped in at the first campsite we found in Aups and soon left as it was over 30 euros a night – all sites have been between 14 and 20 euros so far.  We didn’t fancy the second site either so continued out of Aups towards the lake to a little area called Aiguines.  We finally found a site that was right up our street...

…it was so hot that we took ages setting up camp
We had glorious views over the wooded hills and the other way over butterfly meadows that seemed to be swarming so we will be spending time trying to identify the different species of clouded yellows and blues we could see.

Looking the other way at the meadows
In the late afternoon we went for a walk around part of the lake.  Lac de Sainte-Croix was man-made in the early 1970s for hydroelectricity in the valley of the Verdon.  It is now a beautiful spot with clear waters ideal for swimming and sailing and other water sports.  You wouldn’t know it now, but Sainte-Croix du Verdon was buried under the water.  Imagine how long it would take these days if you wanted to displace a whole village.  It reminded me of a French drama series we watched a few years ago, Les Revenants, that was set around a similar looking lake.  Karen wasn’t so keen about the thought at the drama was quite morbid.

Arriving at the lake – Buddy already investigating
Large expanses of water are now confusing to Buddy as, since the salt lakes of the Camargue, he is not sure if he can drink the water or not.  It took him quite a while before he realised it was fresh water.  He still doesn’t swim but we will probably go for a swim tomorrow so that may encourage him.

The closest he gets to swimming
It was nice and quiet with the odd couple sunbathing and/or swimming, so we found a spot where we could sit on a rock with our legs in the warm water an idled away an hour or so throwing the odd stick in the water for Buddy to fetch.

We were right at one end of the lake so the views we had didn’t do it justice.  Tomorrow we will drive round it, maybe stop for a swim somewhere and then have a walk at the Gorges du Verdon.

We don’t get any electricity at campsites, so we rely on our mobile solar panel to charge our phones.  The trouble is, is that it won’t charge a fridge, so we have to be careful how we keep our fresh fruit and vegetables and it means regular trips to a shop or market nearly every day.  We have been to a couple of places where we have been able to leave our car fridge plugged in to a socket in a laundry room or similar which helped but accept it is not the norm.

As I said, this latest campsite is up in the top of our list – rustic would be the way to describe it – no entertainment or swimming pool or lights at night and most pitches are taken by permanent residents or at least permanently taken if not lived in all year round.

It gets dark soon after 8 so we spend the last couple of hours or so sitting outside in candlelight.  All of the other sites we have been to have some sort of lighting around the place but as this one doesn’t it makes stargazing more romantic.  We even both saw the same shooting star at the same time – only the second time that has happened to us.

During the night the dog howling was more in evidence that recently as now we are in the hills, the howls echo around them. 

Getting up this morning to our first day at Aiguines, the tent is bone dry and there is not a drop of dew.  The last two dewy mornings must have been because we were camped so close to a large lake.