Flight. A Dubious Pleasure.

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Once we’ve returned home from the Italian lakes in our camper van there’s barely a week to go before we are off again-this time by air. A week is just enough time to tackle the mountain of laundry we’ve brought back, scrub the van until it’s spotless, host a modest family gathering and even undertake a basic garden tidy-up, before we think about what we will need in our next destination: visiting friends in beautiful Norway.

Although our flights are booked, we’ve not opted to check in any suitcases, thinking that with the budget airline we’re using we’ll try and make do with hand luggage. In effect, however this is impossible-there are medicines and basics in sponge bags to take. Whatever do other people do? We suck it up, compromise and pay for one checked in case.

Due to my health shortcomings we are unable to travel to Gatwick early in the morning so I book us into an on-airport hotel for the night which means a rail trip or two, but it all goes smoothly except that my small, ancient cabin bag chooses now to foul up by having its handle stuck out. Then I’m compelled to buy a new one from the bag-wrap man at Gatwick. Once we’re installed in the hotel we can relax in the bar with its outstanding view of the short-stay, multi-story car park.

So far so good-and dinner is acceptable. But the room’s air-con will not sink below 20 degrees and the squidgy bed has a hugely thick quilt, which all makes for a hot and uncomfortable night.

Next morning we cross the road to the terminal and get the dinky shuttle to the south terminal, where the check in queue is mercifully short.

We do the security thing. Queue in the pen, unload everything into trays, walk through the door-frame, collect the trays, repack everything, wait for Husband. Husband, being special, has a personalised scan due to his pacemaker. At last, reunited at the repacking bay, we can trundle past all the ‘duty-free’ outlets for an outrageously expensive coffee, which has not deterred the massed swarms of people in transit, judging by the lack of empty tables.

I wander the shopping outlets, the activity the airport has summoned us early for, picking up a bottle of water and some wet wipes. We get another coffee.

It is time to go to ‘gate’. Our departure gate lies at the outermost extent of the airport’s appendages, which requires us to trundle along lengthy corridors punctuated by travelators. The wheelie case grumbles along the moving pavement like an angry bee. There is another wait and we are finally summoned to the queue for seats in the poky cylinder in which we are to spend our next two hours.

The flight is busier than I expected and we must share our row of three seats with another, but we all smile politely and greet in our British way as the cabin staff do their demo and check that we’re strapped in while the plane rolls along in its own queue towards the runway. From the porthole I spot the assorted planes in front and behind us as we wait our turn; then we are in position, breath-holding until the engines roar and we are hurtling along, that brief momentary flutter of panic that we may not rise before the end of the tarmac but we are up, up and away.

On this two hour flight there is no trolley service [unless you buy it], no small bag of nibbles and a drink, no warm tissue, no screens. We settle down to read until the aircraft begins its descent into Oslo, where we are to change for the onward flight, and have to undergo security again despite going through the transfer corridor. What are we supposed to have procured en route? The rigorous security man confiscates the unopened water I’ve bought at Gatwick and tips the water out of my reusable one. Wonderful.

Later we are high above the snowy peaks along Norway’s west coast and then descending into Aalesund. Looking down on the stunning landscape is enough to make me forget all the hassle of flying.

But the last time we came was by van. Drive to the port, check in, show passports, queue for 45 minutes [enough time to brew up a coffee] and drive on to the ferry. Read, have breakfast, drive off. No contest!

 

Lake Annecy and the Mountain Rescue

The cycle path to Annecy runs past our camp site entrance and it’s an easy ride into the town centre, all off road and tarmac, which is commonplace for France. Since this is an add-on to our Italian lakes trip and part of our return journey I’m not prepared for the gorgeous sight of this lakeside city with it’s historic centre so it comes as a bonus.

And it’s clear from the numbers of tourists swarming all over the streets, embarking and disembarking from leisure boats, sitting at pavement cafe tables and browsing the gift shops that we are not the only fans of Annecy on this warm, late summer day.

The narrow streets and ancient buildings are centred on and around the waterways that snake through and there is also a handsome chateau perched up high in an imposing position above the commercial areas.

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All this is against a backdrop of craggy mountains and serves to assuage some of the mourning I felt on leaving Lake Maggiore.

Next day we are up for a more challenging cycle and take the path the opposite way from our site, around the lakeside until it leaves the water and begins to wind upwards, inevitably.

It is Sunday. The cycle path is full of Sunday cyclists of all descriptions, from family groups with tiny tots to fully fledged, serious sports enthusiasts. We are in neither of these categories but we do still use pedal power and have not succumbed to the relative ease of the electric ‘E-bikes’ that appear to have exploded in popularity in recent years. As a result, I labour up each hill getting overtaken by breezy, carefree cyclists [of all ages] for whom an incline is not an effort. It is impossible to resist a rude gesture at each receding back as they whizz past us. It also becomes clear that the path is congested, with families, E-bikes and sports cyclists all sharing the same route.

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There are points of interest along the way, including clouds of hang-gliders raining down from the mountainsides as the path becomes a little quieter when it leaves the waterside.

After a decent mileage we opt for turning back rather than ploughing on and we begin to make our descent, heading towards a cycle-themed cafe Husband spotted on the way. We pass a gentleman cycling with a large box attached to the front of his bike, which on closer inspection reveals a disabled young person being transported along, musical accompaniment and all, and I give him a wave before crossing the road on to the next bit of path. Straight away we need to pause at a busy bike junction and it is here that a violent impact from behind catapults me over the handlebars of my bike and on to the tarmac, where I lie feeling helpless and trying to decide what has happened!

The man on the bike+box has stopped, having shunted me from behind, his vision obliterated by the buggy he’s been pushing along. Husband comes around and hefts me to my feet and a kind cyclist picks the bike up as I limp to a nearby tree stump to inspect the wounds; nothing broken but a fair bit of skin flayed from arm and leg. There is much apologising and Husband saying ‘It’s ok, it’s ok’ while I continue to be struck dumb, although I’ve dug out my mini first-aid kit and am cleaning up.

After a while we resume, slower now, passing a spot where a sports cyclist has also suffered a crash-but far worse, as he’s lying on the tarmac waiting for an ambulance. When we reach the café we are lucky to find a table but having waited too long to be served we give up and head back to site to sit in the sun. I may be classified as in ‘older age’ but not yet completely decrepit-

It’s time to return-after all we’ve another trip to prepare for!

 

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.

 

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!