Wednesday, 20 August 2014


The best thing about Aosta is the mountain range. It's the sort of place people stay when mountain climbing or skiing in winter but we were happy just to gaze out at the beauty of it all from a safe distance. The town itself was very enchanting. We walked around for a few hours checking out all the little shops. I bought grappa, a very strong Italian wine, similar to brandy, because it's hard to get or very expensive at home, and my husband bought his first fridge magnet. He planned to buy one from every town we visited as a way of collecting souvenirs.

We went into the Cathedral of the Maria Assunta. I love the heavy silence of churches. It allows space and time to think and reflect. The world outside is a million miles away. They always make me think of my mum who was very religious and especially very Catholic. I lit a candle for her in the many churches we saw and always under an icon of her favourite saint, St Mary, mother of Christ.

My husband saw a different Italy to the one I was looking for. As a non-practising Protestant, he didn't much like all the iconography, he kept making jibes about pervert priests, and condemned the lavish wealth of The Church while homelessness, poverty and begging were rife across the country. His view of Italy and mine would remain at odds as the trip progressed.

We stayed in Aosta for two days before moving on. We were both fed up of driving already and I wanted to do some sightseeing. We also figured the car needed a rest too. We still weren't sure that it would hold up during such a long road trip - especially as he told me he'd got a nail in one tyre and, like the other on the front, the rubber was cracked. There was some drizzly rain but nothing as bad as the downpours we drove through in France - nor the soaking we got the first night at the French camp site we stayed at.

Initially we started with two tents - one to sleep in and the other to keep stuff dry and out of the rain - but we dumped one as the weather improved.Rain was a recurring feature during the first part of the trip and it got me down a bit but my husband kept assuring me that the further south we went, the better the weather would be.

After spending a small fortune on driving the roads in France, we found in Italy the green roads were tolls and we went to great lengths to avoid them. Blue signed roads in Italy were free so when we left Aosta, we headed for Turin and Genoa along smaller narrow roads that wound down the mountain range. I'm amazed that I didn't pull great big chucks out of the car seat as I gripped on in fear as he negotiated his way along, often pulling away from the edge and putting me right in the path of oncoming cars as I was, after all, sat on the left where the driver should be. We found out later, as went along, that free to use blue SS roads were often duelled, straight and well signed, but blue SP roads were narrow, often one car wide, with hairpin bends and twists and turns. There were occasional spots to pull over and admire the beauty of the landscape below us and take a breather and so we did.

Turin was hectic to drive through and the signs to Genoa were hard to follow. My other half still had his English driving head on so when he missed a turning, unlike the Italians, he wasn't prepared to U turn, cut up other drivers to get into the right lane, or hold up traffic while he made up his mind how to navigate from where we were to where we wanted to be while being serenaded by a concerto of car horns pipped by impatient motorists behind. It took until we got to Sicily before he began to feel more confident about his driving and think like Italian motorists.

I checked the map and realised that the signpost we'd been pushed to follow to Savona would do as it wasn't far from Genoa and it did lie at the top of the west coast so was on our eventual flight path. However, using the little roads meant that we drove that day for eight hours before we reached it. It was incredibly hot as we were pulled in to the Camping Charly site which lifted my spirits somewhat and even though it was dark, we managed to get a paddle in the sea to cool down which was just across the road.

We were both starving and the smells from the camp site cooking were tortuous. The eggs we bought in France were still good, the bread was hard but good enough for toasting, and we had a little ham but it clearly wasn't as appetising as the food being served by other campers. We realised quickly that Italians take their camping very seriously. They pitch up in families, grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and all the kids. They had extra awnings and tents to set up kitchens and dining rooms. We noticed as we went along that sometimes campers bought the fridge freezer, the fridge, a cupboard to keep the food in, and one neighbour we later saw even bought her own washing machine.

We stayed two days in Savona and it was too long. The heat gave way to lashing rain and strong wind the day after our arrival, which made the stay pretty miserable, but we escaped into town where we could at least sit in a cáfe and walk under porticoes to stay dry, rather than hunch up in our tiny tent with our backs bent sat in a camping chair and heads pressed up against the top. The town is much prettier with more character than the ugly outskirts but then where in the whole of post war Europe isn't like that?

The heat came back with a vengeance when we left Savona and headed for the Cinque Terra. I'd given up any hope that we might see Genoa as we appeared to have travelled too far down the coast to go back up again. I guess I saw as much of Turin as I was going to see when we drove through it. We stopped in Nervi because the sea just looked so wonderful and then we stopped again in Rapallo, taking time out once we got back to driving to look from the cliff top down on Portofino.

Then we arrived at Lavagna. We found a lovely camp site called Campeggio Panarama where we stayed for four days. It was very hot initially and we both enjoyed our first proper swim in the sea. The town was charming with a huge church and the camp was nestled among olive trees. The owner was a lovely, helpful man who arranged for us to pick up some camping gas from a store in town after ours ran out. In addition, he lent us a gas cannister and small hob so we could cook food and make tea that night. However, the one he brought to us fixed ran out immediately. We didn't know how to fix the new cannister to the hob so my husband took it to the office to ask if the owner could do it for us. Apparently as he tried to attach the hob, gas spurted out in a whoosh. Both he and my husband ran from the office with it and he then he managed to get that hob on. There was just enough gas left for a half boiled cup of tea the next morning which I half enjoyed as my husband carried the new gas bottle from town to the site, complete with new regulator to fix it with. He moaned about the cost - 100 Euros - for most of the rest of the trip and wasn't best pleased when it ran out again a week or so before we finally headed home.

The owner, who my husband insisted was called George, spoke excellent English. He gave us a map of the Cinque Terra and told us how to get there from Lavagna railway station. We enjoyed one beach day at Lavagna and worked out that Genoa wasn't far by train so we had a day out in Genoa after all where we saw a pirate ship, the town and ate seafood and drank wine.

The sun was still shining and all was good in Lavagna but on our third day, when we decided to go the Cinque Terra, the clouds came over, it rained a bit, and it wasn't very warm. The Cinque Terra towns are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. We didn't see them all because we spent too much time that day in La Spezia, which still has a working fishing port, but we did grab some time to see Manorola. Stunning is the only word I can use to describe the place that took my breath away.

We were sad to leave Lavagna, it remains one of our favourite places of all those towns, cities and hamlets we saw, but we realised that we had a long way still to go and we had to move on. We've been to Florence, Pisa and Rome before so we decided to skip these fantastic cities but we found ourselves in Pisa - another place we felt we stayed too long.

Tomorrow's blog post recalls a very wet day walking around Lucca, a quick stop in Grossetto, after missing the turn off to my mother's home town of Marina Di Cecina, a day out at the wonderful Termi di Saturnia and a quick look around the island of Elba before we headed further south.

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