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Italy 

 

 

20 November

 Floods, rain, savage storms have lashed Italy and Greece in the past two days - or so the news says. Our crossing of the Adriatic last night and this morning was calm (apart from a bit of rolling) and the sun rose over the sea, highlighting the first snows on the Italian Alps as we sailed into Ancona.

 Evidence of flooding was apparent in some of the towns we drove through along the coast today. But, all we saw was a few hours of showers. Now settled in Rome, there are a few showers about but little to show for the storms that passed through last night.

 Over the Alps from the Adriatic to Rome is an interesting drive with long tunnels, spectacular bridges and 'viaducts'. The coast from Ancona south is one continuous city for well over 100 kms. The 'season' is over now and all is relatively quiet. But! It is easy to imagine the chaos here six or eight weeks ago when the tourists were about and the beaches were crowded.

 Talking is a big thing in Italy! One can talk in a car; talk beside the road;  talk on TV for hours on end! When talking in any of these places, one must use the hands. Fine. But on the autostrada in traffic moving at 120 kms/hr, social chats between two women in a small Fiat fluctuating between 100 kms/hr and 20 kms/hr - depending on the intensity of conversation and how much hair adjustment is needed - can become more than a little tedious as hundreds of trucks, BMWs, (at 170 kms/hr), and a lone Campervan attempt today's challenge - surviving another day with Italian drivers! 

The rules are simple. Show no fear. Exceed the design limits of your vehicle by at least 10% at all times and never allow a space of more than 20cms between vehicles. This is an 'if you can't beat them - join them' situation. A faint heart will never survive on these roads. Grit your teeth, put your foot down, use your indicator and horn and go like the clappers. 

Gained an hour today with the change in time zones - VERY noticeable in terms of the sun  - we have come quite a distance west.  

Look out Rome!   Veni, vidi, vici.!!

 21 - 22 November

Another 'lost night' with fellow travelllers has again caused a lapse in our diary discipline as a result of a very late night!

 Yesterday we spent the whole day at the Vatican. For the first time in nearly nine weeks the weather was foul! Wave after wave of squally storms crossed the city culminating in a major down-pour just as we reached the top of the cupola of St Peter's - the end of a mega-climb of several hundred stairs. We avoided the worst of the storm by ducking between columns out of the wind. This one storm was the worst of it but the day was generally glum except for the couple of hours that we spent inside the Vatican museum, when of course the sun belted down outside! 

2000 is the Jubilee year of Christianity and the Vatican has spent a fortune cleaning and restoring St Peter's and most of the church's other significant artistic and historic wealth. The ceiling and The Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel have been cleaned in what has been hailed as the artistic event of the century. The result is spectacular!

 

 Public transport in Rome is relatively cheap and very efficient. A day ticket on all suburban trains, trams, buses and metro costs 6000L ($AUS 5.00). From our camp to the centre of town is about a 10 minute trip. Trains are not overly crowded and the much-publicised threat of theft on trains and in public places by gangs of gypsy children and pickpockets, was not apparent to us. We are however very careful and have everything well out of the way under coats or under our shirts on strings around our necks - grateful for the 'cooler weather'  - ( 8 - 19 degrees centigrade today) -which makes concealment easier.

 But, perhaps Eastern Europe has heightened our awareness? Or dulled our emotions?? Our only response to the gypsy child who got on our train this morning and fell to her knees, weeping, was "Good show, kid, but we don't understand a word!!" And we weren't alone - the only response from the people in the carriage seemed to be one of anger from one man who resented this intrusion on his morning travel. 

Today we walked most of the major sights, under clear (clean!!) blue skies! Rome has a great 'feel'. It is vibrant, noisy, crowded like any other big city, but also 'laid back', easy-going and fun (particularly crossing the roads!). Even this late in the year the city hosts thousands of tourists. The streets are full of Americans who seem to have a real 'thing' for Rome. Every second sound you hear on the streets has an American 'twang' to it, often preceded by a radio signal, as they like to "keep in touch" with the people two feet behind them (also carrying walkie-talkies),- informing all and sundry every time they draw breath -- or fart....

 

Rome's wealth of history is everywhere, from the ancient sites of the Colosseum and the Forum to the more "modern" Piazza Navona and Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Victor Emmanuel monument. Wandering through narrow back streets, we came across buildings which used ancient columns as part of their walls. The very stones speak. Sitting on the Spanish Steps watching the world go by one of the most recognised places on the planet is a feeling only 'millionaires' can really understand!

 While Rome has been great, the 'new-ness' and adventure that has been there for us over the last two months in Eastern Europe and Turkey is just not there. Travel here is easy, comfortable and yes enjoyable! Maybe we have had enough of living 'on the edge' and should just relax and enjoy? Especially the pizza and the gelati?? We think so. 

Tomorrow we hit the autostrada again for Siena. The tolls are more reasonable than we remembered ($AUS 10 for 150 kms - and through mountain passes) and the automation of the system, including payment by credit card, make the motorways the only way to go!

 

23 November 

After almost ten weeks on the road it is time to announce the results of our intensive study of the numbers of various nationalities 'on the road' at this time of the year.

 The overall honours go to the Germans who, while they are not always the most sociable company in camping grounds, are most certainly the most numerous. Next are the Dutch. Generally multi-lingual and extremely well-travelled, those  we have met are generally older ( 50+) and often retired. Australians are a close third, well ahead of the French and Italians. Brits and Americans bring up the rear in the off-season camping travel stakes. Australians, except for our good selves, are usually in their mid to late twenties, on trips of three months or more (as part of a working holiday) and -again with us as the exception- driving UK registered vans and cars that mostly have seen better  days!

 Tonight we are sitting on the edge of a hill in Tuscany about 10 kms outside Siena. Even with the last of the day's fog still lingering in the valleys, the views are spectacular. A cool snap last night brought fog for most of our trip from Rome to Siena. The sun was up there, but it only broke through a few times. 

 Siena has a well-preserved medieval centre which celebrates centuries of rivalry between areas of the city with a horse race around the city 'square' on two days in July. This time of the year that excitement is missing, but the square  and the Duomo are amongst the most beautiful we have seen.  The "square", contrary to its name, is shell-shaped and framed by buildings of various hues of burnt sienna  - quite lovely!!  The narrow, steep, cobble-stoned streets - that we didn't have to drive on! -  and the closely-packed houses, create a sense of familiarity - more a village than a town "feel".

 The Duomo is most unusual, being built of black and white marble, in a horizontally-striped pattern, but with a magnificent interior, with works by famous Renaissance artists. We Catholics do GOOD churches!!!

 24 November 

Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Dante, Donatelli and Machiavelli all walked the streets of Firenze. Under the patronage of the Medici family this city was the centre of a renewal of art design, invention and literature that changed the face of history (the Renaissance).

From our van window we can see one of the most famous skylines in Europe. We can walk to the centre of town across the Ponte Vecchio inside 10 minutes! Rain and high cloud has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the thousands of tourists who still cram the streets of Florence late on this November evening.

 It may be sacrilege, but it is difficult to escape the feeling that once we crossed the Adriatic into Italy we entered a huge tourist 'Theme Park'. Some of this feeling is more than likely attributable to the fact that even travelling as we do, the supermarkets, petrol stations, restaurants, bars and every other western convenience are so easily accessible that we don't need to 'get down' with the locals in village shops, bakeries etc. as we have had to do for the past couple of  months. After all, retired Americans travel independently here - and that's a worry - if any place is so 'American simpatico' that is probably a warning to real travellers to look elsewhere. After all who really goes to Surfers Paradise except Japanese (and retired Americans!)?

 On the other hand, the history that is so tangible in Italy cannot fail to overwhelm. Walking the streets that once comprised the Roman Forum of ancient times; the streets, in Siena, where Florentines once threw dead donkeys and excrement in the hope of causing plague; the streets of San Gimignano (cobblestoned, narrow and almost free of modern vehicular traffic); the streets of Florence (where we started this thought pattern),  we become silent, respectful witnesses of things and people past. 

25 November 

It is possible to experience culture overload - this is not a question but a statement of fact. Every corner of Florence is a Renaissance masterpiece. Every piece in the Ufffizi warrants close study. In the Academia, the masterpieces of  Michaelangelo's "David" and "Prisoners" are only a small part of international treasures gathered here. 

A small city, Florence is easily covered on foot. But every corner offers something new and enthralling. This is our third visit in 25 years and we still wander about with our mouths agape! 

As the weather lifted and the sun broke through this morning, the streets filled. Italians love walking about in 'their streets' - and why not? Such animated, intent conversations are all around that one feels as though the whole street is one big Woody Allen scene! 

Pizza is of course the meal of choice for 90% of the people on a coolish (15C) day like today! What choice! Pizza here is not sold as at home. Round and in a flat box. Oh no..no.. buying and eating at a real Pizzeria Rustica is as much an experience as a meal, with hysterics and much drama on both sides of the crowded counter. 

Pizza is sold by the kg and the purchase is made from the shop's special range of pizza which is laid out in slabs about one metre square. Much pointing and adjusting is required to ensure that the exact amount is cut before weighing. And this is not just a language problem. Native speakers can be seen indicating minute movements of the knife before the final cut, just as we do. The end result is slapped on a piece of paper and usually eaten on the move on the street. The taste is, of course, out of this world.

On returning from the shower, Paul opened the van door to reveal a spectacular view of the lights of Florence (obscured by the rain last night). Doesn't rate, he said. The view from the toilet block is incomparable - the Duomo and Campanile featuring from this angle.  We LOVE Florence!!

 From what we can translate from the news tonight the flooding in northern Italy continues. Florence was warm and sunny today. But there is evidence in the river of previous flooding. Further north at Prato, the flooding seems to have been more severe, but we will see tomorrow. Touch wood - we are still blessed with good weather.

 26-27 November

 Call them autostradas, motorways, autobahns or freeways, they are a world on their own. In France, Italy, Spain and most of Eastern Europe you have to 'pay to play'  in this fast-moving tunnel that joins almost every city and major town in Europe. Entry and exit are controlled and every service is provided inside the 'tunnel' to assist and attract the traveller. Italy in particular has a great system. Pick up a card from an automatic dispenser on entry. Stick it in a slot on exit, followed by a credit card, 'grazie.. arrivederci' says the machine, and off you go....

 'Motorway world' generally has its own radio station that beams traffic information, drive time music and news to you on a fixed frequency as you zip across the country.

 For us, these super highways  provide relatively safe accommodation in their 'aires de service', as well as an escape from the narrow, crowded streets of urban, suburban and 'rural' Europe.

 Tolls are the obvious cost of this escape and accelerated path to your chosen destination. Legend has it that motorway tolls in France and Italy are exorbitant. Not true. Crossing Italy from Ancona to Rome and travelling north to the French border cost us about $50. Well worth it in fuel, wear'n'tear and mental anguish. 

Yesterday and today we roamed on and off the Italian and French autostrada/autoroutes trying to see as much as we could of the Italian/French Rivieras close up. At one point we got so 'close up' that we 'slightly bent' a mirror on a parked car in a street only wide enough for two bikes! Recent floods must have caused landslides as much of the corniches (all three options!) were closed with forced diversions to the autostrada!

 Nowhere is the illusion of a separate 'motorway world' so real as in the highly populated areas we travelled through in the past two days. In Germany, Holland, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Greece, motorways are a great mode of accelerated travel. Here, they are an ever-present 'drone'. Above the coastal towns, the via ducts and the tunnels of the motorways call from above every narrow street and from almost every set of traffic lights.

Denying the temptation to escape to the express lane does bring its rewards. In the last two days we have experienced crystal clear skies and 17C - 20C temperatures.(While this sounds cold to us Brisbaneites, inside our "vanworld" it is single-layer time -- no spencers, tights, singlets or sweaties - lovely and warm in fact.) The views from the van ('cause campervans can't stop anywhere on the Italian or French Riviera!) have been spectacular. Monte Carlo, Nice, Menton, San Remo, and San Raphael - our current beach residence - all shone in the freakish late November warmth.

The Cinque Terre in Italy was an exception to the usual 'drive by' as we were able to park the van in Manarola and walk down to the harbour, albeit singly ,as unguarded car parks are a bit of a risk in Italy. This is the price we pay for having a "bed on wheels."  

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