Friday, 24 April 2015

Rome (Beth)

The day after our free site in the car park with the bar, we arrived at our chosen site for visiting Rome and were glad to have saved some money because this new campsite was twice the price of the one in Pisa, although in a very beautiful setting next to the river Tiber.

Tiber Campsite
We set out at 10 am the next morning and over an hour later, having travelled by minibus, train and public bus, we arrived at our first destination of the day, the Colosseum. 

After eating our picnic in the sunshine, we decided to brave the queue to see it from the inside. Apart from Alfie being disgusted by the young couple in front of us (‘Mum, he put his TONGUE in her MOUTH!!’) we managed to wait for our turn to walk around the oldest building we have been in so far. 

This is Bob. We don't know Bob, but he obviously wanted to be in our picture.
For us, it was worth the wait, but the boys, who we had unsuccessfully tried to persuade to watch ‘Gladiator’ the night before, were decidedly unimpressed by the ruins. They endured their trials well for about half an hour but I’m not sure any Gladiator would have been a match for those two when they’re bored and looking to start a fight.

I dunno why we came here in the first place.

Across from the Colosseum are the Roman Forum and the Palatine. If we had brushed up on our history a little more before our visit we might have got more out of the day but we were happy to wander the ruins in our ignorance and marvel that structures over two thousand years old are still visible – not much imagination is required to picture the city as it would have looked in Julius Caesar’s time.

View of the Roman Forum from the Colosseum
<insert joke about Plebs here>

I love how they leave 2000 year old remains dumped in the middle of the path!

Next on our list was Vatican City, but we had a rather stressful half an hour trying to decipher the destinations on bus stops. Nathanial actually suggested asking a passing Nun the way to the Vatican, but I opted for the rather less embarrassing option of a bus driver, who proved to be one of the few helpful ones we encountered. Luckily, it was his bus we needed, although, unluckily it became very overcrowded very quickly and it was a rather hot day.

There was some more confusion at the other end of the stifling journey but we finally made it to Vatican City at about half past four. After queuing for a public loo (these seem to be very rare in the Italian cities and we were all in desperate need) we made our way to get tickets for the Sistine Chapel, only to be told it had closed for the day at 4pm!. Nathanial and I were absolutely gutted (talk about trying to see Rome in a day) but I think the boys were relieved that they wouldn't be subjected to yet another church.

We were too late to this party.

To our shame, we had promised the boys we would dine in the restaurant of their choice as a reward for letting us drag them around ‘such a boring place’ (Alfie) so we dined on greasy meat and fries รก la Burger King before trekking back through the streets to the train station and finally back to the campsite at about 8pm. Then we made them watch the rest of Gladiator.

From Venice back to Pisa (Beth)

After our whistle-stop tours of Pisa, Florence and Venice, we had two days to get Lauren and Steve back to Pisa again. To get some different views of the road, we decided to come back via Ravenna on the east coast. On the first day we thought we had made a horrible mistake, as the roads were some of the worst we had encountered so far, and trust me, none of the roads in Italy are exactly fantastic. To top it off, at the end of that day our chosen campsite was closed, being late to open for the summer season, so we were forced to our only alternative site, a partly nudist campsite! We decided not to tell Alfie. Thankfully though, the weather was apparently too cold for the nudists and we didn't see any.

You can fit six in a van when you're hiding from nudists.

The following day we packed up again and headed out for what we expected to be a tough days drive along pitted roads, with me trying to keep up with Nathanial overtaking juggernauts. As it turned out, we were rewarded for the previous day with what Nathanial described as possibly the most amazing road he has ever driven on. I rather enjoyed it myself,

Funnily enough, driving this nippy little number up the winding roads wasn't quite as tough as being Nathanial's passenger in the van, being high up over the barriers and trying to keep his attention on the road. Note: he was still taking pictures whilst driving!

Driving the A1 up the twisty roads. Rescue Remedy NOT required!

As we crossed the country we had been expecting mountains, and we got them, but the roads winding through them were relatively smooth and the views were stunning.

We stopped at the top and had a coffee break at a roadside bar before weaving our way back down again.

You're never too old for a huggle with your Mum
The sat nav in it's infinite wisdom decided to give us another tour of Florence on the way back to Pisa but we arrived in good time to our new campsite. We had already decided not to re-visit the site we had been in when Lauren and Steve arrived and instead chose one just south of the city, set down a very bumpy, dusty road, but in the middle of green fields and next to a lake. It was beautiful, and just what we needed after all the driving.

It was wise to keep the windows closed at this point.

Lago le Tamerici campsite; note the guest annex.

The following day, we dropped Lauren and Steve (and the Audi - sob!) back to the airport and after a quick Lidl pitstop we limped back to the campsite so Nathanial could undertake the little job of replacing the brake pads on the van.

Mr Fix-it and his trusty roll of Duct Tape

We had had a warning light telling us they needed replacing just after getting to Italy, so had decided to get Lauren to bring us some out and for Nathanial to do the work, rather than trying to arrange the work to be done in an Italian garage, where we'd be at the mercy of whichever mechanic we were landed with. Over a thousand kilometers later the work was a little past overdue but hopefully the job got done before any other damage was done.

A bit too close for comfort.

We rested in Lago le Tamerici for a few days, and a certain little lad had a birthday and then it was time to hit the road again, destination Rome.

Our first on-the-road birthday boy

After the previous week, we were aiming for a slightly slower pace, but we reached our chosen aire by lunchtime and decided to push on as the roads were quiet, it being Sunday. The next stop down proved to be a large dusty car park, but with the added bonus of a bar, so we decided to rough it. After a pleasant evening in the sunshine we settled in for the night, and by the time we were ready to leave in the morning, nobody had been round to collect a fee, so we were grateful for a free night.

It's tough, all this travelling.

Saturday, 18 April 2015


Our first impression of Italy was unfortunately a bit disappointing. After being in a very wealthy part of France, with smooth roads and beautiful villages that were well looked after and catered for tourists, it was a striking difference only a few kilometres into Italy.

Although the sea was still as blue and inviting, the initial towns had a run-down feel to them, not so well maintained, not so inviting. Other people’s driving became more erratic, and the roads were crumbling with large pot holes scattered all over the road. They had been very poorly repaired, if at all.

However, there are a lot more options of fresh spaghetti and ravioli in Lidl, so it’s not all doom & gloom.

We’ve been hitting the road hard for a few days now in the ‘Liguria’ region in order to meet Beth’s daughter Lauren and her boyfriend Steve, in Pisa in a few days.

A lot of the campsites have just opened here as the season is just starting, but after being charged silly prices for half opened sites, with swimming pools not yet ready, we decide to use the aires for a few days.

We found a great spot after a few hours driving, it was in the mountains surrounded by forests and right next to a stream, so we settled in for the night. After parking up, me and Tom went for our explore and started to walk further up the mountain through the forest by the stream. Tom has been saying he wanted to see a water fall on a mountain for ages, and although this was only a trickle of water falling over stones, it did form large pools which he was very pleased with. So pleased in fact that he insisted on drinking the water from them. I thought it best to join in so we cupped our hands and got a mouthful. It was freezing but really refreshing. Tom was over the moon with this and filled his water bottle up twice.

After our refreshment we walked a little further up through the trees, and then suddenly out of no-where some stone steps just appeared in the forest, leading all the way up the mountain as far as we could see! This was odd and looked very peculiar.

Being the explorer, Tom wanted to walk up them, so off we went. Three hundred steps later and he was starting to flag, but with some encouragement we pushed a little further. Over three hundred more steps and we finally reached the top. We found an old TV/Radio station which looked like it had been closed for some years. It had a spooky feel to it as it was just in the middle of the forest all overgrown with ivy and weeds, as if the forest was taking the land back now that the humans had finished with it.

Round the back there was an old driveway which the workers must have used to get to work, it was now in disrepair but had a great view over the sea below. We walked up the drive which then lead to what looked like an old hotel? Unlike the TV/Radio station this was in good condition but was also closed up and not in use. It looked very grand with what would have been large gardens and verandas overlooking the mountain village below. The steps leading up to it had hand rails made to look like branches of wood and reminded me of something out of Lord of the Rings. I was now starting to feel like we had walked in to a Stephen King novel.

After a little rest and discussion on how weird this place was, we made our way back to the van. Six hundred and sixty two steps later (!) we were back at the pools. After another short refreshment stop we got back to the van. It was now getting dark and I was glad to be back, that walk gave me the shivers and I didn’t fancy being stuck up there in the dark.

Unfortunately we jumped out of the van so quick to explore that I forgot the camera so couldn’t take any pictures. A shame really, the steps leading up the mountain would have made a great photo.

We were up bright and early in the morning to push on. We don’t even start breakfast till 10am sometimes; on this morning we were off the aire by 9am, but not before Tom did one more trek up the hill to fill his bottle up with the mountain water.

After days and days of continuous driving and overnight stays in various aires, we were all starting to go a bit mental. We had made good time and landed in Pisa a few days before we were due to meet Lauren and Steve, so we took the opportunity to relax and stay off the road for a while in a camp site.

We booked in one and started to wind down. The bikes came off the rack and the chairs came out, we had a quick look round and were about to crack open the ‘Pinot’ when the two families across from us returned to their very expensive campers. We thought this would be a good time for the lads to mix with some more kids as it was the Easter holidays. Then, one of the Dads opened the boot of a car next to the campers and turned the radio on. He opened all the doors and the boot and cranked up the volume! We thought this was a bit out of order but agreed the odd song wouldn’t hurt, even if it was cheesy Italian stuff. Half an album later and we were beginning to feel a bit put out. Then two of their kids decided to urinate against their camper. We thought this a bit odd as there are toilets on the campsite - and even in the campers - but then, unbelievably, the Dad did the same thing the pikey! What was going off? He then walked over to the car, finally, we thought, he was going to turn the music off, but no such luck; he obviously favoured the next track as he turned the volume up full blast.

That was it, the bikes went back on the rack, the chairs went away and the Pinot went back in the fridge. We’re off!

We went to another campsite down the road and emailed the owner of the last one with the reason we decided not to stay. We didn’t get a reply.

The next campsite was better and had a great park which Tom lived in for the next few days. Both Alf and Tom made friends with some of the kids and I managed to top up my tan. Job’s a good’un, as they say.

The beach next to our campsite near Pisa
After a few days of doing nothing Lauren and Steve arrived. As we can’t fit all six of us in the van we have hired a car. To Beths pleasant surprise we have got an Audi A1. Beth has wanted one of these for ages, but at eight grand a pop (for starters) it will be another age before she gets one.

The views on the other side of the beach near our campsite in Pisa
After a night on the campsite - Lauren and Steve being accommodated in the East wing (a tent next to the van), we headed off to see the leaning tower of Pisa.

This area is nicer than where we drove from but the roads are still awful, it’s a constant challenge to dodge the pot holes and edges of the road where it is crumbling away.

We are lucky enough to find a parking space quite easily and make our way to the tower. The square in which it is situated is lovely. There’s a large well maintained lawn which turned out to be perfect for our pic-nic. No such nonsense like there was in Monte Carlo with no sitting on the grass allowed. We then made our way to the tower, which isn’t as tall as I thought. When Superman straightened it out it looked a lot bigger, but it is very impressive never the less.

A beautiful spot for  pic-nic

Alfie thought the owners were capitalists
Why doesn't it fall over Dad
 Alf wanted to go up the tower but Tom wasn’t allowed because of his age, and for a few of us to go up it was going to cost too much. Alf really wasn’t happy with this and accused the ‘owners’ of being mercenary for not allowing people up for free. The surrounding buildings make the whole square a really nice place to visit, the cathedral being a lovely bonus.

After Pisa we had one more night on the campsite and then made our way towards Venice, via Florence for a quick look around. I hadn’t really heard of Florence so wasn’t sure if it was a small quaint village or a big bustling city. Thankfully there was an aire nearby so we put the co-ordinates in the sat-nav and drove straight to it, through a very large very bustling city. We made lunch in the van and caught a bus to the centre.

Florence was amazing!! What a place. Apparently it is the birth place of the renaissance movement. There is a grand Cathedral here mixed in with the most stunning architecture. We went in the Cathedral and made our way to the Ponte Vechio Bridge. 

Florence cathedral
 On the way we stumbled across the Vecchio Square which had loads of statues of mythological characters scattered around it. These must have been fifteen feet tall. I was totally taken aback at how great they looked, and the detail and size were just intimidating. Once again, Alfie was completely disgusted with the fact that they were all naked and there were dangly bits in every direction you looked.  One being Michaelangelo’s ‘David’

Didn't they have clothes in those days?
This is just weird Dad

Dad, what are they doing?
That's disgusting Dad

Ponte Vechio Bridge
Just in the square is the Degli Uffizi Galary. Whilst the others were eating stupidly expensive ice creams, I decided to have a look round. Unfortunately you couldn’t see the art collection for free so I just meandered around the building which was impressive enough. As I was innocently walking around I noticed a large group of Chinese tourists walking into the art section. The warden had obviously got sick of checking everyone’s tickets as it was such a large group and just waved them through. I saw this as a bit of an opportunity and mingled in with them, turning my head away from the guard as I walked past him. If he noticed my eyes I was sure to be asked for my ticket. But suddenly, I was in.

I hadn’t realised how big the building was. There was room after room on different levels, all full of the most gob smacking paintings of the Gods, of cherubs, loads of topless women, mythological creatures and re-enactments of battles. I’m not a massive art fan really. As you know I like Dali, and I also like Klimt. I wasn’t fully aware of what renaissance art was, but these pictures were so big and colourful and dramatic. It was like watching a film in some rooms as each wall and even the ceilings told a story. I just couldn’t get over the sheer scale of the building, and all the paintings were actually on the walls not pictures hung up. Every square inch of the walls were covered with exquisite paintings by dozens of different artists, all with their own stories to tell.

I could easily have spent the whole day in this building just staring at the paintings but I knew the others would be wondering where I had got to. After tasting each room I made my way back to the others and was welcomed by one of those stares from Beth which said ‘ I am very pissed off with you but  I’m not going to cause an argument here’. Oh well, it was so worth it.

Some chap called 'Dante'

The view entering the square

Florence is definitely a place to return to without the kids.

After walking through extremely busy streets we found our way back to the bus stop and got safely back to the van and set off again towards our chosen campsite.

The scenery was now beautiful with rolling hills, forests, rivers and odd buildings breaking up the country side. This is what I had hoped Italy would be like. Shame the roads are still useless.

After driving through what looked like spaghetti on the sat-nav, we came to our destination, a lovely little campsite in the mountains. We were met by the friendliest women I have ever met, she greeted us with a very warm handshake as if we were long lost friends, and she kept calling me mister, which I kinda liked. Unfortunately we were only here for one night as we had some miles to do the next day to reach Venice.

The following day was Sunday. There was more spaghetti on the sat-nav with more of the stunning scenery, only this time we were joined by dozens and dozens of bikers. I love motorbikes and there were some beautiful machines on the roads this day, but I did wonder how Beth was getting on driving the Audi, as she was very scared when we were on the mountain roads in Spain with bikers. They were the reason she purchased some ‘calm me down’ medicine. As it turns out, Lauren was more nervous than she was.

As Beth was driving the other car, Tom was sat in the front with me in the van, and Alf sat in the front of the car with Beth. Now Tom loves his music, furthermore, he loves my music. There was only me and Tom in the van so the volume went up; really up! The weather was scorching so the windows were down (the van doesn’t have air con) and Tom was singing and whistling and holding his arm out of the window waving it up and down. I swear if he was a dog, he would be the sort to put his head out the window with his tongue blowing in the wind. He was obviously deep in thought whilst doing this because after each song came a question: “What can’t lava melt?”, ”Has the machine got a virus in Person of interest?”, “Why doesn’t the tower fall down in Pisa?”, “How did Frankenstein come to life?” And so on.

We broke the journey up and pulled over for lunch. Me and Alfie sat down and made sandwiches whilst Tom found two stones to play with; he doesn’t need much, if he can find stones he’s happy.

Making lunch with Rooster
I don't know what's tickled her fancy

It was really nice sitting there in the sun, on grass with Alfie; he has been in such good moods of late (well, good by Alfie standards). I would even say Alfie has been happy recently, not that he would admit it. In fact he has been so amiable lately that me and Beth went so far as to talk to him about autism and the fact that he is on the spectrum. We only found this out last year after a year of tests and interviews, but we were afraid to tell Alf because we didn’t want it to affect him, and that he might go into a full on melt down. As it was he took it without batting an eyelid, he seemed to be quite happy to be slightly different in his thinking to the majority of society.  Go figure.

Bless em
After a couple more hours driving we stopped for another tea break, this time in a small village next to the local church. Whilst Beth made the tea, me and the lads played ‘curby’. I hadn’t played this for years, both the lads loved it and we played for ages in the baking heat.

With today being full of technological games, which our two play far, far too much of, I didn’t think they would be interested and would just call me an old man. What a pleasant surprise that they liked it.

The lads playing 'curby' 
Although we spent about five hours driving today, it has been a really memorable one.

After reaching our campsite in Venice, we set up camp and quickly assign Lauren and Steve babysitting duties, then me and Beth have our second night out on this journey getting drunk.

The following day we all caught the bus into Venice. Now I have heard of Venice because I am old enough to remember the cornetto advert, as well as seeing it in Indiana Jones and James Bond. It’s a strange place in the fact that it seems run down and old, but is at the same time beautiful, shabby chic according to Beth.

When I first pitched the idea of traveling in a van to Alfie about two years ago, apart from telling me how much he would hate it, he did say he wanted to go to Venice, and here we are. After so much planning and work, we got him here; I was so excited for him and really wanted him to enjoy it.

Unfortunately he was very disappointed because he expected all the buildings to be on stilts! Not this run down town which even had graffiti in places. Some people are just so hard to please.
The rest of us loved it and it is as beautiful as they say, although I didn’t expect quite so many shops selling touristy stuff.

St Marks Square
 Basilica De San Marco (Shame about the scaffolding)

The bridge if sighs

 Basilica De San Marco, the floor was a piece of art

 Basilica De San Marco

On one of a hundred bridges we walked over in Venice

Whilst we were eating strawberries in St Mark’s Square, waiting to go into the Basilica De San Marco cathedral, I bumped into a bloke I know from Charminster (the place I live in, in Bournemouth) what a small world.

The highlight for me though was explaining to Tom when we first arrived that this place had absolutely no roads, no cars, no vehicles of any sorts, just rivers. He looked around in disbelief and his face visibly showed it when the penny dropped. Followed by just too many questions, but how do the buildings stay up and not sink, etc, etc, etc.