01.08.2008 - 08.08.2008
Our last few days in Provence were relaxed, very very hot, and scenic.
On recommendation from an old work colleague we drove up to the tiny village of St Martin De Castillion, perched high on a mountain top, only accessible by one windy steep mountain road. The drive was spectacular, all the while overlooking the valley below.
(Driving along the crest of a mountain is pretty easy on the eye)
When we got there the 1st thing we saw was a small pizza restaurant with views to die for.
We didn’t even bother looking at the menu, the views were that breathtaking, we knew we were going to have lunch there :- )
Another great lunch. What a place! – We both agree that Provence / Luberon is our favourite region so far. Despite the fame that Provence has attracted since the book, “A Year in Provence”, we found it to be very quiet and far less touristy than the Bordeau region. There were only two other people dining at that restaurant, and this is peak holiday season.
On our last night, as always seems to happen, we got talking to the locals – a chap who lives on the campsite, an older guy who works there, and some chick – can’t remember where she fitted in. We chewed through two bottles of Rose and then were offered Pastis with Grenadine. Lovely and lethal! At one stage the older chap said something slightly disparaging but amusing to the younger guy, about the “Englise”. He immediately responded by warning him we could understand! Haha I looked at him and frowned, he looked sheepish. We had a good laugh. I have no doubt that with a good month or two of immersion in the language we’d be pretty darn good. We are not doing too bad so far.
The next day we set off. We had a loose plan of heading to Lake Como in Italy. Our GPS told us it was a nine hour drive using the small roads (six if using the toll roads), so we decided we’d find a cheap hotel mid route and break up the journey. No rush after all.
The GPS picks some very odd routes if you let it – and we do. So far each time it has resulted in spectacular drives. We are sure it picks the slowest route possible, but to date, it’s worked out great. This time was no exception.
We drove in the valley of the Provence mountains for ages. Totally agricultural and beautiful. The only catch was that petrol stations seemed not to exist. We got some in the end, but it wasn’t a place you’d want to run out – I think you’d be waiting all day for the AA to come out. After a while, we started heading into the Alps. Everything was a surprise; we had no idea about the route we were taking, and we like it that way. One minute it’s fields and farms, then all of a sudden, we are driving straight for the Alps!
A memorable moment was driving along when all of a sudden, with no warning, we found ourselves skirting along the side of a huge turquoise lake with lots of people camping, boating, kite surfing. It was stunning and really caught us by surprise. Our route took us straight across it at the top. No pictures I’m afraid – I stupidly packed the camera deep in the boot, and that’s not somewhere you want to go unless you are unpacking proper.
After the lake we started winding up the mountains. Again, incredibly beautiful and on such a huge scale. Absolutely loads of people camping in the mountains. All very “Alpen”. We drove past the base lift of “Serre Chevellier” – a ski resort I’ve been too. Didn’t expect that.
As we ploughed on I noticed that one of the road signs was in Italian and was just about to mention it to Kirstin when right in front of us was the “ITALY” border sign. We’d driven across the border and not even noticed! :- ) Aureviour France, Bonjourno Italy!
As predicted by a friend, the road quality suddenly increased four-fold and the driving became mentalist! – Really, they are nuts! Maniac overtaking, violent lane swerving, zero patience and a desire to break the sound barrier.
We drove on, gawping at the total change in architecture (neither of us have been to Italy before). A mix of huge ugly manufacturing buildings, and older style “square” Italian buildings. We passed Turin and by this stage the heat had got to us and we were exhausted. Time to stop for the night. Easier said than done. Every village we drove through seemed to be based entirely around the local farming and everything was closed, and not one sighting of a B&B or hotel. When we eventually found a hotel in a larger town, it was closed! :- ( - but a very helpful old guy gave us directions to one that would be open – in Italian of course. And at this stage, we didn’t even know the word for “no” or “left”.
After some dicking about (getting lost) we found the hotel and were delighted. A real bath! And a smart room! I acquainted myself with the receptionist and got her to help me compile a list of key Italian words and phrases and then we tucked into our first Italian meal. It kind of went ok. I played it safe and had Gnocchi followed by pollo rosta – even I could work out roast chicken! Kirstin however, was not quite so lucky. She ordered what we presumed was some kind of Proscuitto dish. That it certainly was…
(Yep, that was it. One giant piece of smoked gammon!)
We had a lovely wine (ok, we bought a second bottle to take to the room) and retired, where I than enjoyed my 1st bath in at least a month. Heaven!
The next morning it was onwards..
(not my kind of transport)
Again, we found ourselves driving round a huge lake but just as we started to get accustomed to the Italian road signs we hit another border. Now we were in Switzerland! – time to stop for lunch. Couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to leave one country, have lunch in another , then move to another :- )
(The lake at Bissonne)
(the “proof I’ve been here shot”)
Lunch was a little more successful – we played it safe. I had Carbonara and K had Gnocchi (we may have been in Switzerland but it seemed the Italians had taken this part over)
The spectacular driving continued and eventually we got to Porlezza, a small town not far from Lake Como which was “supposed” to be the point from where we followed directions to a campsite in the woods I’d found on the web. It of course didn’t work out that way. The promised road signs were absent and the mentioned roads did not exist. They didn’t answer the phone either. Not good signs at all.
We spend a good hour and a half driving up and down the same roads getting totally confused. The directions simply did not tie up with the roads that actually existed. We stopped for a beer to help lubricate things along and decided to abandon the mission and head onto Como instead. This was when I discovered that the campsite in question was actually listed as a destination on our TomTom GPS! – yay! – so off we headed – 12 minutes away it told us.
That’s not a road, if you look closely, it’s a farmers dirt track. It got worse – muddy and rutted. The GPS had sent us into a farm. Not a hint of camping anywhere, and the car was bottoming out frequently. We really did end up on the boon-docks. We gave up and headed to Como :- )
Driving along the edge of Lake Como is an intense experience. It is a mixture of stunning scenery, VERY narrow roads and tunnels, and of course mad Italian drivers. Oh, and a gazillion looneys on sports bikes trying to chose which bend to use to donate their organs on. The problem of the narrow roads and tunnels is exasperated by the fact you are driving in bright sunshine (well into the 90’s) for a few minutes, then plunged into darkness in a tunnel for 5 minutes. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust, and you are essentially driving blind for the 1st few seconds when entering or leaving a tunnel. And boy, there are a LOT of tunnels.
We checked out a few campsites and they were all worryingly crammed full. The Italian way of camping is a tad different to the French way. They just ram tents in any space available. When you arrive it is akin to being in a busy street bazzar in Morroco, with tents and caravans instead of stalls. Not an inch of privacy. This was worrying us. Especially as we are now well into August and the Italians are famed for ALL taking their holidays in August.
Fortunately we found a site that looked promising. Only problem was that there was only one approach road (one car wide of course) and it was by a church, where a funeral was in progress. The road was blocked by a hearse.
We tried finding another route but that was the only one. Desperation at this point encouraged us to get the hearse to reverse back down the road :- ) There was one tent plot left. We took it.
(Our new view and home. The photo is not warped, the tower is indeed wonky. No wonder Pisa leans if they can’t get something this small right)
By the time we had pitched out tent (which is now starting to rip at the seams already) we had both lost a kilo in sweat. We quickly threw on our cosies and dived in the lake. Heaven! Bobbing about in the fresh water with a backdrop that takes your breath away. Phew.
It’s not a bad place. Very scenic. Only catch is that we are flanked by two church towers. One rings on the hour, and the other, on the half-hour. 24 hours a day. Right by us. Pretty hard to sleep though. That and a group of pissed Dutch girls arriving at the site at 4.30 am and singing and shouting for half an hour. (We are seemingly in Holland now – so many Dutch here).
(The view to the left is unreal but I’ll have to wait until the cloud clears or you can’t see the highest mountains)
(One for Andrew :- ) )
A few observations about Italy so far…
They seem very friendly and eager to accommodate you. Much more so than the French.
Most things are half the price of France, which is odd as we are neighbours. Beer is about the same, but smokes are half the price, shopping is about half the price. A roll of cotton in France was 5 Euros!! You get 10 rolls for 3 here. A bottle of water in France is circa 1 Euro. Here – 12 cents. Even branded ice-creams are less than half the price in Italy than France.I don’t get it. I have a reasonable grasp of economics but I can’t fathom why one country next to another, in the same European Union, can be so wildly more expensive.
There is a much more laid back atmosphere here. People seem to have bought into the relaxing way of life more. It feels almost like being in Greece.
Off for a walk along the lake now to check out the other campsites.
Small update (going to be a lot of these. When you mention wi-fi the locals look at you as if you’ve just invited them to start war with Germany) – Our neighbours are the new “louds”. Un f’ing real!! We have resorted to putting our music at full volume to drown them out. Something we’ve never had to do before. Their kids SHOUT all the time – as LOUD AS THEY CAN. The adults are no better. There are 8 of them in a huge caravan – 5 of them kiddies. Idtiots. Last night they decided that topping up their water toys (you know, dinghies etc) was a good idea with the electric pump. At midnight. By our heads.
Update – 8/8 – Went for a little explore down the South side of the lake today. Stopped at a lovely village called Menaggio and had a coffee.
Then we moved on to Como itself. Got stuck in horrific traffic. The roads are barely wide enough for one car but coaches and full size lorries frequent the route causing huge tailbacks while everyone has to reverse and let them through. Interesting drive along the lake – you spend over half the time in tunnels.
(Out of one tunnel, into more…if you look there is another tunnel immediately after the nearest one – you can be underground for 5 minutes or more, then out for a few seconds, then straight in another!)
Como was kind of interesting. A larger town, but nearly everything was shut as it was lunch time. We got fleeced for 8 Euros for two tiny beers, enjoyed the most amazing ice creams, then left in search of a better value lunch.
Off to rent a speedboat to take on the lake now. Going to visit Bellagio (Where George Clooney lives no less) – seems appropriate to arrive by boat.
p.s. finding Wi-Fi was a challenge! – None in Menaggio, Como, or anywhere we searched. I then had the idea of using my Playstaystion Portable (PSP) to seach for wi-fi as it has it built in. Far handier than walking around with a laptop open looking like a nerd of Star Trek searching for a signal. I ended up finding it right by our campsite outside a private church library :- ) - I’m posting this sitting on a bench at a bus stop outside!
Further Update – Just got back from our speedboat trip! We hired a 6 seater boat for the day and went on an explore. They are pretty relaxed here – “here is the boat, don’t hit the rocks, if you break the prop it’s 500 Euros, Cio!”
What a superb thing to do. I’d already noticed via pics on the web that the villages on the lake are better viewed from the water, and sure enough, it was spectacular.
(Not a bad pad hey!)
We cruised down the lake checking out all the gorgeous properties along the way, then stopped for coffees and cakes and stocked up with beers and water. Tying the boat up was a laugh – neither of us had a clue what to do. We sussed it in the end, but I’ll admit I was a little surprised it was still there when we returned. I had half expected to be swimming out to get it.
After that we headed down quite a bit further, cruising past Bellagio – the place where all the moneyed types live (and ironically, the only place you are not allowed to stop and moor-up. We eventually got to a small cute island and wandered up to the restaurant but the menu was pricey and not very imaginative, so we headed across to one we’d driven past in the car the other day and had the most fantastic lunch. Really fantastic, and not pricey either. Some cheeky old git tried to tell us off for using his jetty – it was clearly marked “for use by restaurant clients” – we sailed off – what could he do? :- )
(No, she didn’t crash)
(I reckon Postman Pat lives here)
With our 6 hours nearly up we headed back up the lake and pulled into a sheltered cove and had a swim. I can tell you, it’s not a natural feeling jumping off a boat and leaving it abandoned – with no anchor. I had to front crawl to catch it up as the wind got a bit of pace behind it.
Our timing could not have been better – for all of the day we had a pond like calm lake with scattered clouds and then as we set off for the last 20 minutes to return the boat the wind picked up, the sky clouded over and it started to rain just as we got back to the tent (which we left open….)
(Our trusty steed. As you can see, the weather turned a bit just as we got back)
What a super day, and all in all, not too expensive. 195 Euros for the boat including insurance, and 44 Euros for the fuel we used. A lot of money for us in the scheme of things, but well, you have to try these things.
We saw a sea plane flying over the lake regularly so we plan to see if we can fly over Lake Garda when we are there. We are setting off tomorrow morning.
Right! Off to the bus stop to post this monster!