Tuscany

(15th June to 24th June)

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Our reproduction of a typical photo of Tuscany!

There was lots on the plan for Tuscany mainly being the Chianti and Montepulciano wine regions.  However we ended up doing a rough figure of eight and that was because we had two random plan changers.  Whilst in Livorno we spied a poster for a pizza/local music festival in Montecatini Terme which was taking place over the coming weekend.  I love pizza and part of our tour’s aims is to take in as many of these local festivals as possible therefore we decided to head that way after our stop over in Livorno, even though it was kind of heading back on ourselves.

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Livorno ferry port, view from front cab

The free stop over place in Livorno was interesting as it was inside the barriers of the port and Livorno itself is an interesting place.  By day we walked Livorno’s town complete with it’s own little Venice canal system and beach side boulevard (5 Kms) and by night we were intrigued by the ‘Italian’ way the ferries to Sardinia and Corsica were loaded, as this was taking place each night right in front of our cab window.

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Little Venice, Livorno

Once in Montecatini we searched high and low for a suitable bar to watch the football (Eng vs Wales) and this led us to our second tour deviation.  Whilst watching the game we met fellow Brits Robin and Juliette who joined us for the pizza festival afterwards but also invited us to stay with them for one night at their holiday villa in Lari during the following week.

In between Montecatini and visiting Lari, we spent the best part of the week completing the ‘Chianti’ road (SS222) which runs from Florence to Siena.  We used Greve in Chianti as our base to visit the other Chiantis (Radda is well worth visiting).  Greve has a great free Aire and for our stay it seemed quite social too.  Under the backdrop of motorhomes and fields growing the grapes we met Auzzie/Brit combo Giles and Kerry who were travelling several months in a 25 year old Talbot, be it one in the best condition I have seen on the road.  G and K, let us know how you are getting on?

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Radda in Chanti

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Helmut from Germany touring complete with a Longbridge Mini Cooper, Giles’s Talbot is in the background.  Greve in Chianti.

After being spoilt in Lari (thanks R and J!) we then circled back again towards Siena staying at both free aires Castelfiorentino and Poggibonsi and completing drive bys of San Gimignano and Colle di Val d’Elsa.

Siena itself is obviously a classic Tuscan city and one we both really liked.  My eyes noticed more the famous ‘Italian’ design with the majority of the small restaurants being presented in ‘quirky’ styles (note to self – remember bicycle seat).  We managed to walk in, around and out of Sienna relatively easily but unfortunately we had completely melted as the humidity was very high.  This led to choosing Bagno Vignori near San Quirco d’Orcia where there are natural spa pools that have been used since before Roman times – and these are free to enter!!!!  Sharon and I were the only ones in our pool which was amazing after the heat of Siena.  The beautiful milky pale blue water itself has high mineral/alkali content giving healing and well-being properties – all good!

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Thermal pools at Bagno Vignori

We seemed to have moved a lot around Tuscany and have seen lots of places and met lots of people.  I can’t help commenting on how friendly the Italians are, every one we have met has been really genuinely nice.  We have had some slightly unpredictable recent examples of this:  the old actor in a bar in Castelfiorentino who insisted in reading his poems and photocopying them for us, even though they were in Italian: the cyclist complete with full team lycra in the same town who passed the van but then turned around to say hello and ask us where we are from how were we doing etc: the shop keeper in Greve who kept me an hour talking (in a mix of Italian and Portuguese) and even shared a beer from his fridge with me: Andre who we asked directions for Vila Vignamaggio (Mona Lisa’s birthplace, reputedly) who chatted on the street corner talking about his organic wine (we were walking towards a vine yard at the time) and the list goes on of more normal examples of people being friendly – bar staff, shop keepers, and 99.9% of all the Italians we have met so far.

Another observation is that the Italians do not seem that bothered about the football Euro Cup, both times we have struggled to see the England games, and this totally has surprised me.  I am sure every game is on the TV in the majority of the pubs back at home…??….

Further to all this we have two slight negatives:  wow it is hot and humid and for some reason my hay fever has returned.  Also, on a slightly different subject, the Italian roads are in a terrible condition, even some of the paid tolls, and we are sure the motorhome will finally rattle itself to death, never minding our ear aches.

Finally, we did not consume as much Chianti as expected as most of the wine tastings you have to pay for!  The going rate seems to be 10 euros for three samples which for my brain seems quite expensive – I would rather buy a couple of bottles from the supermarket or have 2 glasses of wine in a bar watching the world go by.  Conclusion, we will leave the wine tasting for France and Spain or maybe a different Italian wine region.

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In Greve we completed a spring clean of the van.  Everything out, reorg, everything back in.  Dare I say it, it was a bit like 5S!

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Liguria Region, Italy.

(7th June to 14th June)

As soon as we hit Italy we noticed the difference.  In all our time in France the traffic was not really that congested, even when passing through the centres of large busy places such as Marseille and Cannes.  Driving through the first city Ventimiglia I started earning my Italian driver’s stripes as scooters and vans buzzed past the camper on both sides!  It is kind of fun, if not a little stressful, and once you learn that nobody actually stops at a stop sign you can use this to your advantage too!

Our first night in Italy was spent at San Remo, for some reason, we thought we would not like as we had the impression it was a poor mans Monte Carlo. Since we were in Italy we decided to go out for a meal using the tips from the Lonely Planet.  These led us to the windy streets of the historical old town away from the Port where we found a small restaurant (Caffe Corradi, Via Corradi) owned by a smiley overweight Napolitano wearing massive gold framed aviator shades – we took his size and birth right as positive signs that the pizza would be good but we both concluded that we would not be copying his style in sun deflectors.

Once filled with great pizza we strolled around the town and port and found it very enjoyable.  San Remo has the spirit of a ‘normal’ town and not just a holiday destination.  At the port, elderly men can be found repairing nets for the returning fishing boats and college teens on their way home can be found socialising with friends at the cafes alongside the beach promenade.

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Chilling at the San Remo camper stop.  Next to the sea again…..

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Our first Italian meal in the van.  Italian sausage and salad.

The only down side to San Remo is that the majority of the beach is privately owned by numerous beach clubs that charge 15 euros for a sun lounger.  Therefore, once we arrived in Finale Ligure, our next stop over further along the coast, we took the free opportunity to swim in the Italian sea for the first time on the tour.

It seems that we have been driving on the ‘The Corniches’ for weeks now as we picked up this route before St. Tropez and it continues to offer spectacular views but I must admit I am looking forward to some nice easy going dual carriage ways.

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Driving through Genoa, at last a dual carriage.

The Italian towns of varying sizes that we pass through are similar in appearance and are mainly made up of very thin streets lined by houses of a minimum of 3 stories in height that are painted in peaches, yellows or pale blues clustered on the hill side surrounding a bay.  For this reason we felt disappointed with our rail day trip to the Cinque Terre (5 medieval fishing towns between Levanto and La Spezia – listed as one of the top 15 sights in The Lonely Planet -Italy) as in my opinion they were not dissimilar to the rest of the towns we had passed through.  In fact, at a previous stop over in San Rocco before we reached Levanto we literally stumbled across a small village called Mortola which was much more awe inspiring as it was truly only assessable by foot.  Even the villagers that lived there had to leave the communal donkey (a three wheeled Piaggio in this case used for shopping trips) at the foot of the cliff side path and walk the final 800 meters.

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Typical town, this one was one of the Cinque Terre villages.  It is becoming a bit of a blur!!

Levanto itself is an easy going tourist town and offered the normal bars and restaurants.  ‘Appertivo’ or happy hour in this region of Italy can be useful for the travellers on a budget as each drink comes with free food – you can fill up easily if so inclined consuming anything from pizza to deep fried cod balls.  At one of these we met Lucca and Federica, owners of the Salty Dog Cafe, who charmed us with their great hospitality and also introduced us to another local bar the ‘Verde Crusse’ where they were organising a big screen for the Euro 2016 football and this was our chosen venue to watch England draw with Russia on the following Saturday night.

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The Salty Dog Café.  33, Via Jacopo da Levanto, Levanto.  ‘Cheers’ Lucca and Federica

From Levanto the tour will continue into Tuscany………

 

Some motorhome pointers on Italy – when I purchased the LPG Gaslow conversion there seemed to be some doubts as to whether a petrol station forecourt would let you fill up a motorhome with converted gas bottles (note, our conversion has the filler cap on the exterior of the van).  We needed LPG leaving France but we unable to find a station in the Menton area (France’s last coastal town) so we had to try in Italy.  I used the ‘mylpg’ website and found that the nearest station was in Imperia about 30 Km east of San Remo.  We had no problem filling up, in fact the forecourt attendant did it for us, so we are hoping that this experience will continue throughout our time in Italy.

Provence, Cotes D’Azur and the Alpes-Maritimes

On June 1st we headed over towards Orange in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur.  I choose Orange as back in the eighties The Cure played there and in my early teens I video recorded the filmed concert from the TV.  I still have the VHS tape somewhere and I remember playing it many times watching Robert Smith and co drudge through their set against a magnificent back drop as the concert’s venue for the ‘The Cure in Orange’ was the roman Theatre Antique.  There were not any parking opportunities in Orange centre so we stayed at vine yard Chateau Maucoil in near by Chateauneuf de Pape (free) and biked it to the city.  Once at Orange we were disappointed to find out that the theatre had an entrance fee and therefore due to the ‘tours’ rules we were unable to go inside (we have only paid 2 entrance fees so far – the Alhambra and for the cathedral in Palencia on my birthday).  However, whilst wondering around the town we found a path that’s intention is to lead to the botanic gardens which sit on a hill side over looking the town.  It also rises behind the Theatre Antique so we chanced our luck in the hope I could see the concert’s back drop in the flesh.   Sure enough, after a small scramble, you can get an amazing view of the Roman theatre and I enjoyed waving at the paying visitors that were inside from our high view point.

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Backdrop to ‘The Cure in Orange’, Theatre Antique.

Unfortunately, the shop at the vineyard we stayed at was closed as they were preparing for a massive party at the weekend (thanks for letting us stay though Monsieur) and therefore we could not buy any wine on our door step.  A short bike ride away at Domaine Millieres where we were taught an interesting fact – wines with the name Pays de Vaucluse can be very similar to the famed Chateauxneuf du Pape whose quality comes from the stones that are in the soil which keep latent heat in during the night.  Their CNDP was priced at 22 Euros a bottle yet their Pays de Vaucluse was 6, however the field where the grapes came from is only 300 metres away from their CNDP field and has the same stones!  We can confirm that, when combined with a frozen ‘hache parmentier’, the French equivalent to cottage pie (!), the poor man’s CNDP is very good.

Enroute to Saint Tropez we stopped off at the non-flowing Fontaine de Vaucluse, classic Villeneuve D’Avignon, drove through the impressive centre of Marseille and stayed a night (free) in mountain town Genames.

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On the Cotes d’Azur coastal road heading towards St. Tropez

The aire lies about 2 Km from the centre of St. Tropez and we stayed around the local area leaving the centre until the next day.  Whilst talking to fellow motorhomers Danish ‘Bo’ and German ‘Andre’ we learnt that the bars and restaurants on the port front were very expensive.  Bo regaled his horror story of paying 19 euro for a beer and 9 euros for a fanta to the shock of all of us.

St. Tropez is how it is described and we definitely saw how the other half live.  We also cheated the expensive bars as we supped on individual plastic cups of wine pre-purchased at a near by Spar sitting right in front of the yachts.

The next stop was European hotspot Nice where we managed to park for free about 5 Km outside of the city in the suburb St. Laurant du Var.  Unfortunately, there was a rail strike over the weekend and therefore we had to catch a slow bus into the city for Saturday evening drinks.  The city is stunning and was really buzzing with locals and tourists sitting outside all the cafes and restaurants in the historic centre.  We got a little carried away, even though it was pouring down with rain, and missed the last normal bus home so then we had to rely on the night bus service.  Using typical ‘Matt’ logic, if we were going to use the night bus then we may as well stay out much later and therefore we headed back into the centre for a pizza and more wine!!

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Drinks menu at ‘Distillerie Ideal’, Nice.  If all else fails, just go for the grog!

From Nice we drove through Monaco.  Following the signs for Monte Carlo we managed to hit a section of the Formula One grand prix circuit.  Using all my driving efforts I think we averaged about 28 Kph through the bends, including the iconic hairpin.

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Approaching Monte Carlo’s F1 hair pin

For our last few nights in France we choose Sospell in the Alpes-Maritime, a picturesque small town in the mountains close to the Italian border.  We can’t believe how quick this French part of the trip has passed.  In total we have only spent 16 days (21st May to 6th June) here and now, when I write this, I can’t understand why we did not spend more time.  We have enjoyed every single stop over here (my favourite being the Gard region) and we have met some great people along the way.  It seems now that we may have missed some possible wonderful places to spend some time in (Nimes, Marseille, Tourlon, Aix, Cannes etc) but we are desperate to tour as much as Italy as possible.  The reasoning for this is that we are much more likely to return to the south of France in the future than Italy, furthermore we are planning, if time allows us, to touch Slovenia and this was not on the original tour plan.  So, for now, it is ‘au revoir’ France, yet again you have not disappointed.

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Our last place in France for a while, Sospel in the Alps.