Simplon or Simpleton?

It is a wrench to tear ourselves away from beautiful Lake Maggiore, but the weather is due to deteriorate and we must begin the slow haul north and west. To do this we must cross the Alps, and the nearest pass happens to be The Simplon, a route that we have not used before.

In the beginning I am confused by large signs displaying ‘Sempione’, which I’m unable to locate in the road atlas, until I realise this is the Italian for ‘Simplon Pass’, which is an example of my ineptitude with map reading…

As you might expect, though it is sad to leave the lakes, the scenery soon becomes breath-taking in an Alpine way; the villages picturesque as we wind up and through the mountains on what is an unexpectedly quiet road.

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The engineering along the pass, the road constructed through, around and over mountains is spectacular and it is not long before snow-topped peaks appear. Before long we’ve crossed into Switzerland again.

The landscape, as we continue to ascend becomes bleaker and less green, the conditions less hospitable to vegetation.

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You know you’ve reached the top of the pass, because the road widens, there is a lay-by, a restaurant and a gift shop. We make coffee and I scoot across to the shop, which is lined from floor to ceiling with all the objects you would never need, from gaily painted miniature cowbells to carved wooden whistles adorned with jaunty birds-all very ‘Alpine’.

We are not alone in the lay-by, and two of our fellow parkers are gargantuan, lorry-style motor-homes travelling in convoy.

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The German occupants hop out for a quick cigarette then rumble on again, leaving us wondering if we’ll be stuck behind them on the hairpin bends, but when we resume our journey they are long gone.

It’s down the other side of the pass and an hour or so later we are alongside Lake Geneva, passing through the Swiss border with France.

Then it’s a quick whisk through ‘Evian-les-Bains’ [where the expensive bottled water comes from] on to our destination for the next couple of days-Lake Annecy; distinctly non-Italian, cooler and decidedly popular, much to our dismay. Every lakeside site is full-and it’s getting late. We are obliged to make a night stop in a site on a hillside, which at least has a lake view. We’ll try the lakeside sites in the morning.

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And when we do we are not disappointed. Lake Annecy may not be Italian but it does have a charm of its own. We discover that the cycle path runs from the site entrance and that the historic town of Annecy itself is not so far-nor is the Carrefour supermarket. The morning dawns clear and sunny and we are set to explore.

 

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Elevating Sights

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The site on the shores of Lake Maggiore seems big enough to swallow its neighbouring village, tiny Feriolo. And it is packed with Dutch and German visitors, making us almost the only British [there is one other unit I can see], unlike Garda, where almost everyone was from the UK.

Maggiore’s beach is sandy, making it a pleasant spot to spend an hour or two with a good book-or merely to stare into the distance as ferries criss-cross from Stresa, a few km along the lake, to the lake islands and back.

Mornings are becoming misty and moist now, although as the sun rises higher the weather is still blistering hot. We decide to give the cycle path that leads from the site a go, and it does appear at first as if it may take us to Verbania-a sizeable town further round the lake. We take a track down through a nature reserve and come to a dead end before finding another path over a small bridge. Following the road, it becomes tarmac and well-managed. We ride on. Then it stops.

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I am far too much of a coward to cycle along with Italian lorries so we turn back. This following paths and turning back when they peter out becomes the theme for the afternoon-but in the end we decide that all the back and forth paths probably gave us a good enough ride-if a little frustrating!

At Stresa, a short bus ride away, we can get a cable car ride up the mountain, Monte Mottarone, a compelling idea. When the bus picks us up from the stop at Feriolo it is packed with school students, most of whom are fixed on their phones. Clearly there is no custom of giving up seats for older passengers here, as Husband has to stand by the driver and I am obliged to occupy the steps by the front windscreen.

After we purchase the cable car tickets there is a short wait then we pile in to the car and it lurches away and up through the trees. Soon there are spectacular views of the lake and its islands, with darting, miniature boats against the blue waters. At the half way point we must disembark and swap on to a new car, which lurches away again. At the top the air is cool and thin but the mountain panorama is glorious.

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We get a coffee, although the restaurant’s terrace with a stunning view is reserved for those ordering meals! A clanking sound precedes the arrival of several bell-wearing donkeys, who wander down and past us to graze in the cable car area.

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I’ve suffered altitude sickness on two previous occasions and am not inclined to clamber about much at this height, so we eschew the chair-lift and the trolley switch-back and ride back down the mountain to the cable-car station, then on into Stresa.

The town has a swish waterfront promenade, landscaped with beautiful planting and with stunning views of Maggiore. There are also some seriously top-end hotels!

It’s tricky locating the bus stop for our return to Feriolo but I employ some of my ameobic [but burgeoning!] Italian and we find it, managing to get a seat, too.

The weather is set to change and it is time to be heading north and west on a slow journey home. And we are not yet finished with lakes…

 

 

 

Lake Garda by Ferry

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Despite a disparaging response from the receptionist at our site in Moniga, on Lake Garda’s southern end, we discover that the passenger ferry makes a convenient stop a few minute’s walk from the gate leading out to the beach. Hooray!

Husband, abler than myself at these tasks, scrutinises the timetable and ascertains that we can visit two different locations in one afternoon using ferries.

After some confusion we purchase tickets from the promenade café and wait on the jetty, where there is no shade from a relentless sun as the minutes tick by and our faith in the timetable begins to waver. We have, after all been subjected to the vagaries of Italian public transport timetables before…

Nevertheless, 10 minutes late-a ferry approaches and we are ushered on board, the only passengers from this stop. The boat wastes no time and swooshes away towards Guardione-our first choice of visit. En route we pass an impressive villa-turned-hotel on a lush island.

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Soon we are pulling up at Guardione and the waterfront is redolent of a fifties film set, so that I expect Audrey Hepburn to step out of the swish ‘Savoy’ hotel clutching a parasol at any minute.

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On our tight schedule, and after buying our next tickets we have little more than an hour to stroll the promenade-but this enough to catch a flavour of this town-meant for the well-heeled of we tourists [ie-not us]. On the front, a bride is posing for the photographer, a tiny, white, classic Fiat as an accessory. There is no time to see whether, adorned in her mushroom frock she is able to use little car as a conveyance, which is disappointing.

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We get a quick coffee before catching the next ferry to Sirmione, which retraces our journey and stops at our own place, Moniga, en route.

Sirmione, lying on a peninsula that protrudes into the centre of the lake, is picturesque, has an exquisite castle and is heaving with tourists.

The cobbled streets are lined with gift shops and gelati parlours heaped with pastel mounds of ice cream. How can they possibly sell the mountains of ice cream on offer? Among the hoards of visitors there are more people grasping loaded cones than not…

Resisting the siren call of ice-cream, we sit down by the quay to await our ferry back to Moniga and our site, where 2 out of every 3 pitches are occupied by British tourers. Clearly Lago di Garda is popular with our countrymen, or it may be the large swimming pool on site, the dinky beach and the blistering sunshine…

But it’s time for us to move on and we’re not finished with lakes yet because we haven’t seen Maggiore yet, so we up sticks and move on, heading for another lakeside site beside the small town of Feriolo. And this is where you will find us next post!

 

Three Lakes

It is tricky enough to park a camper van at Lake Como, let alone find a place to stay, but we do find a site, albeit at the uninteresting end of the lake. The village is hosting a ‘truck’ festival and is thronged with fans of lorries. At the end of this Sunday the trucks are heading home, bedecked with lights, tinsel and decorations and, unburdened of a trailer,  showing off with a turn of speed.

We wander back to the site, where we are the only touring unit. The surrounding mountains are white-topped and have taken on a pinkish glow from the sunset.P1080117

It is time to get along to another lake and we’ve chosen one we’ve never heard of-Lake Iseo, which has the distinction of Europe’s largest lake island [according to our ‘Rough Guide’]. To get there we drive along a long way through a verdant valley where vineyards, orchards and salad crops line the hillsides and roadsides, eventually turning to climb up into a mountain pass. Here the buildings are Alpine chalets, the industry skiing. The largest town is Aprico, bustling even in the summer season.

Lunch is a stop in a lay-by outside a monastery. An opportunistic van is selling momastic produce: cheese, wine and nibbles, from which I feel duty bound to buy a sample. Soon we are plunging into a series of tunnels and there is our next lake,  Iseo, sparkling in the afternoon sun.

Lake Iseo, we find contains the largest European lake island, Monte Isolo, a circular mound rising from the lake, 9km in circumference and inhospitable to all traffic except deliveries and bikes. We can take our bikes on to the ferry, where a cycle rack at the prow provides parking.

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The cycle path around the island is picturesque, although sometimes challenging!

A rustic bar at a [lofty] half-way point provides cold beers, which are much needed!

On our second day we cycle from our site near the town of Iseo around to the southern end of the lake-pleasant and undemanding.

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Then it’s time to pack up and head off to Lake Garda, the largest of these Italian lakes, where we find a shady spot on a site in an old olive grove and are surprised to find a large number of British tourers for the first time this trip. The site has a large pool and a beach and is dog-friendly [unlike some], which may explain its popularity with my fellow-countrymen?

By now it’s hot and the olive trees are most welcome for the shade they provide. This is our second visit to Lake Garda, the first having been made en route to Sicily a couple of years ago, when we stayed at Peschiera, a few miles further around this southern end of the lake.

It doesn’t take too long to discover that cycling here is not for the faint-hearted [such as myself]-as the roads are not cycle-friendly, nor are the gradients. We will have to find another way to explore the vast expanse of Lago di Garda…

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On to Sunnier Parts

The weather has turned gloomy and drizzly as we leave Unterager and head towards Italy. Lake Lucerne is shrouded in mizzle, its frame of snowy peaks almost obliterated.

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We drive through the St Gotthard tunnel, waiting in line for our batch of vehicles to get a green light [presumably this is to avoid jams inside the tunnel]. Then it’s a short hop to Lugano, which holds a promise of stunning views as we travel through the pretty town and suddenly we are alongside the lake itself, adorned with intriguing towers, villas and churches. A quick glimpse and we are winding up hairpin bends, through tunnels and the border is upon us, vestiges of the old controls still there in the customs sign and the checkpoint.

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The weather brightens and soon we are driving into Porlezza, our first stop in Italy, a large site on the shores of lovely Lake Lugano.

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The town is a tiny, little known gem, with narrow, cobbled lanes against a backdrop of steep cliffs, a miniature square, a little church painted with frescoes on the walls and ceiling, bars and cafes along the waterfront, where I’m surprised to see a terrapin swimming alongside the ducks!

Rain sets in overnight and for half the next morning, before clearing enough for us to set off on along an old railway track turned cycle path towards Menaggio at Lake Como. As it’s a rail track we think the gradient can’t get too steep and to begin with it isn’t, leading off through the back of town and along the side of pretty Lake Piano, a nature reserve.

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The track climbs-and climbs. It becomes a relentless, knee-numbing challenge. We are overtaken by the inevitable E-bikes, prompting teeth-gnashing and finger gestures [from ourselves of course]. I begin to run out of gears. At last we reach the top and begin the descent, during which my hands become numb from holding the brakes on. We come to an abrupt halt at a road which snakes down in hairpin bends into Menaggio and I decide that’s enough, since mixing with Italian traffic on steep bends is not my cappuccino.

Then it’s back up again; up and up, and more up.

And then down.

The next day is to be devoted to Lake Como. We’ll drive to Menaggio and get a ferry across to Bellagio. Easy! But there is nowhere to park a van along the steep sides of the lake and we don’t find a car park until we reach Cadenabbia, which is ok because the ferries cross from here.

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Bellagio swarms with tourists, its steep, narrow lanes lined with designer outlets and gift shops. But it is pretty and worth the effort. After a wander up and down the streets and an ice cream we return to Cadenabbia to drive up the lakeside and find a site. Easier said than done!

 

 

Ten Things about Italy

We moved towards the last leg of the trip, leaving Italy to return to French soil in the shape of Corsica-one hour from and in sight of Sardinia. I began to reflect on the things I’d learned about Italy from having spent a longer and more comprehensive block of time in the country [albeit mainly in the south]. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  • If you want a coffee in Italy, forget about Starbucks and Costa. It will be no use asking for a cortado, a machiatto, a cappucino or a flat white. These are coffees that sound Italian, that someone in marketing has thought up. You may get a latte [although to my mind you may just as well get a cup of hot milk, but in any bar you can have an espresso [beloved by most Italians]-a tiny shot or an Americano-a tiny shot with extra hot water. I achieved my preferred coffee by asking for Americano with ‘piccolo latte’.
  • Despite the Walls ice cream ad, asking for a cornetto will get you a croissant. The custard ones are wonderful.
  • It is well known that Italian drivers are amongst the worst, most aggressive and dangerous in the world.Sicilian drivers are the worst in Italy. The cities of Messina, Catania and Palermo boast the worst of the worst. Intersections in Palermo are akin to some demonic, vehicule version of the Hokey-Cokey, with everyone rushing into the middle, hooting, shouting and gesticulating. Traffic lights are entirely superfluous.
  • Service stations and some cafes have a most eccentric and baffling system for purchasing coffees and snacks whereby a ticket must be got from a cashier in advance of items being prepared. So confused were we the first time that we gave up altogether.
  • Whilst we sweltered in T-shirts and shorts in the fierce May sun the locals went about their business swathed in multiple layers of puffa jackets, body warmers and scarves. I imagine we seemed insane to their chilly selves.
  • Despite the likes of Versace etc Italians slob around as style-less as the rest of us. On the ferry to Sardinia there was a distressing array of bri-nylon track suits. The women are welded to their cosmetics, rarely to be seen without a full face of make-up and the men are fond of their hair, often sporting outrageous styles. Thy are also as weight challenged as anybody else.
  • To chomp your way through a typical Italian menu you would have to be Billy Bunter. There is a bewildering number of courses, the second of which is a full plate of pasta. Best advice is to skip the pasta course.
  • It seems a cliche but Italians are correct to be proud of their gelati. Italian ice cream really is the best. The coffee cone I had in Venice was the most delicious ice cream ever.
  • The contrasts are extreme. In the East of Sicily, where package tourists congregate the roads are akin to the Etna volcanic landscape, the fly tippers have carte blanche and the drivers are suicidal maniacs. The West is a pristine, smooth, quiet haven. In Palermo there are beautiful, renovated piazzas with clean, restored basilicas, cathedrals and monuments. Step away down a narrow alley and you will be instantly into a third world ghetto of open sewers, garbage, feral dogs and dodgy characters.
  • Italian is a most beautiful, musical language about which I intend to devote an entire post in due course…

Oh The Joys of Sicilian Public Transport…

Taorminha. Sicily’s tourist jewel; the magnet for package holiday visitors and justifiably so, perched high on cliffs, the many levels of buildings clinging like limpets in precarious view of the azure sea and topped by the Greco-Roman amphitheatre with its outstanding panorama of Mount Etna.

We shouldn’t miss Taorminha. Having settled into our ramshackle site overlooking a black beach at the edge of the small seaside town of San Alesso Sicula we investigated transport options. Driving up the almost sheer cliff face was out of the question but buses made regular trips and a timetable was posted at reception.  We strolled out into the modest little town and stopped for a seafront beer then found the bus ‘fermata’ ready for tomorrow.

The bus came, and on time. There were some moments of anxiety as it appeared to go in the opposite direction but then it turned in towards our goal, along the autostrada the finally up a series of hairpin bends, up and up into the town, where the driver reassured us that we should wait, later for the return bus. So far so good.

Even now, in April the historic streets were thronged with tourists, the bars and gelaterias doing thriving business. The theatre and its views are worth the hype. The lackadaisical service at the famous ‘Wunderbar’ was not. We gave up waiting and got a drink at the modest bar by the bus stop. Then we waited. And watched the battered, scraped, stove-in and dented vehicles lurching by. And waited.

‘He’s just late’ suggested Husband, ‘It’s the traffic’.

Less sanguine, I nipped into the information booth and learned that the return stop had been changed that afternoon and was now the bus station, many levels down. It had left. The next bus was at 19.40pm. Wonderful.

We got an overpriced and mediocre meal before trudging down to the bus depot to wait. The sun was gone, the evening cooling. Buses came and went with shrugging drivers. At last, cold and disillusioned we returned to the information booth to be told the bus driver, who’d evidently chosen to go home for dinner rather than do his last run, would come back for us at 21.30pm. Unable to face the inhospitable bus station once more we climbed into a taxi. This is Sicily.

We left San Alesso to meander along the south coast towards Mount Etna and a site that boasted an uninterrupted view of this, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. There among a strip of unedifying bars, guest houses and hotels with bizarre South American influenced names-‘Ipanema’, ‘Mokambo’-we found our site. Clearly Sicilians feel there is no advantage in capitalising on proximity to another tourist magnet. There was no ‘Etna Bar’, ‘Lava Lounge’ or ‘Eruptions Night Club’. The site was modest but clean and adequate, with precious few visitors for such a prestigious position. Etna’s head lay still shrouded in clouds but remained an impressive sight, towering above the coast with snow clad slopes.

Next morning, however we were treated to a clear, unsullied view of the entire volcano and its vast crater. Result!