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.
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|
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.
|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.
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.