When we last reported we were in Venice, preparing to depart for Florence. We had lazily left the awning up on the Wednesday night before departure, but in the warm dry weather this was no problem – no dew, wet grass or mud to clear off, no condensation on the inside to dry out – we just dropped the awning, brushed it off, packed it and were ready to leave. Sounds so easy doesn’t it? I’ve got the process and more importantly the packing down to a pretty fine art, so it only took about an hour. Not bad. And so we headed south, the sun bearing down on us from dead ahead, creating mirages on the autostrada, the vineyards lining the route gradually giving way to olive groves. From the flat Venetian plains the road began to climb as we headed into Tuscany. I had expected gentle undulations rolling into the distance, but was quickly disavowed as the road began to steepen and the car began to labour. Fortunately, so too did the trucks, and we comfortably kept pace as we climbed higher and higher. The road wound on, through tunnels, across spectacular bridges arching across deep gorges, with churches, monasteries and palazzos crowning the hill-tops to either side of us. Another major road building programme followed our route, affording us views of new tunnels being bored and bridges stretching out across the gorges, creating what will become a massive highway bisecting the mountains. Finally we reached the summit and began the descent towards Florence. We hadn’t booked a site, but used the sat-nav to find one we’d been told about by Robert, a Belgian we’d met in Vienna and again in Venice (happens a lot!) as we approached the city. We followed the directions, and after finding ourselves lost and negotiating rush hour traffic down by the river, we made our way back up the Via Michelangelo a short way to the site, a dusty olive grove on the hillside with grandstand-views overlooking the cathedral Santa Maria and the heart of Florence. We camped under an olive tree laden with ripe (but very bitter!) fruit. As George and I sorted the electric hook-up, water supply, caravan legs and so on, we were approached by a fellow camper. A German, he told us of his adventures in Australia over a couple of years in which he did 130,000kms with 4WD car and caravan, and spent a quarter of a million dollars in the process! He remarked on my reversing and parking – “your Dad is the best driver I have ever seen” he said to George, as I had reversed straight back into our pitch in line with and close to the hedge. If only he knew…
On Friday we walked into Florence, the saving on public transport costs offsetting the very high campsite fees. It took just twenty minutes to reach the Ponte Vecchio, the jewellers’ shop- lined bridge spanning the river Arno glistening in the glorious sunshine (in truth, the glistening river was much more attractive than the glitzy shops). Over the bridge and we were in the centre of this historic and artistic city, surrounded by more beautiful buildings, piazzas and renaissance marble statues. We made our way to the cathedral, resplendent in its multi-hued green, pink and white marble façade, with its magnificent dome and bell tower looming upwards. On recommendation of our great friend Carole Anderson, who I gather is a bit of a Florence devotee, we found our way to Gelaterria Grom, a specialist ice-cream shop – worth the trip to Florence alone! Suitably fortified, we then made the ascent up the 460 odd steps which wind their way up the dome of the cathedral to give spectacular views first of the ceiling paintings depicting damnation in the furnaces of hell and salvation through the gates of heaven, before emerging on the roof of the dome (and almost of the world) for the most incredible views over all of Florence. The magical timelessness of the earthy pastel shades of the city’s houses and their terracotta tiled roofs is captivating.
We lunched in a piazza a little off the beaten track, basking in the warming sun, before heading to the Uffizi to explore the extraordinary Medici family collection of renaissance and religious art. George and Charlie worked their way through a work-book requiring close observation of the paintings and sculptures by the likes of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Donatello. It’s a massively extensive gallery, and in truth we only were able to scratch the surface in a couple of hours, but felt that this was a sufficient immersion to warrant our second Italian pizza in the evening.
We could have stayed in Florence longer, and as we were so close to Rome we debated heading south, but as we were by this stage becoming a bit citied-out we decided to head north the following morning. It may seem a shame to have missed so much in Florence (we saw the bronze replica overlooking the city but not the original of Michelangelo’s marble David), and not to have pressed on to visit the Coliseum, Sistine chapel and other sites of Rome, but in truth there is only so much we could accomplish – and it’s important to leave something unexplored for George and Charlie to discover for themselves in their future. And so on Saturday morning we hitched up and headed back into the Tuscan hills on a very blustery but again beautifully sunny day.
Our original intention had been to head for Como. But as we headed north and studied the map, we realised that this wasn’t really en-route to where we intended, so instead made our way to Bardolino on the shores of Largo de Garda. We headed to the first campsite we saw signposted, and found ourselves right on the shores of the glittering jewel of a lake, again in amongst trees and Italian dust! The site was a bit of an enigma – beautifully situated, well maintained, and loads of caravans on permanent pitches and touring motorhomes bearing German registrations to bring a good sense of order and discipline to the site….and yet with the now blissfully-rare squat lavatories that used to be so common in Southern Europe. Still, needs must where the devil drives!
On Sunday, we headed out to explore the hinterland – our first objective to find a local vineyard open for tasting. We headed into the hills through acre upon acre of grapevines to Negrar, to the Fratelli Vogadori. It was while en-route that I received the call about Dad, but rather than returning to the campsite to mope, we pressed on to the winery. We were met by one of the three fratelli (brothers) who own, farm, harvest, make wine and olive oil and sell their produce around the world. He gave us a really good look at the recently harvested grapes which we were able to taste, at his production facility and methods, and finally a tasting of his Valpolicela and Amoroni while soaking up the beautiful views from his tasting room – his enthusiasm and passion were so strong they really shone through in the wine. We drank to Dad’s memory, and discussed his own wine making efforts. And we bought a few bottles of wine and oil – with our massively packed car, it could fortunatley only be a few! I’ve drunk very little Italian wine since being in the UK – much to my now deep regret – seeing so much land devoted to its production, such perfect conditions, such passion in its production (evident in the incredibly orderly and well maintained vineyards everywhere we looked) and, I’ve no doubt, consumption, makes me realise that I’ve missed out on some great wine experiences!
As we were now so close, we headed to Verona en-route back to Garda. With no preparation or planning we had little expectation – but as we drove in we immediately realised one of our travel ambitions, to discover ancient Roman remains – the wonderful amphitheatre, Theatro Arena Verona on the banks of the Adige river, built in the first century BC and then progressively overbuilt over the ensuing centuries with a convent before finally being excavated in the 18th century. We only had a short time as it was late in the afternoon, but it was wonderful to sit on the steps of the theatre overlooking the stage, the river and the town behind and thinking of the Roman dignitaries doing the same in their togas over two thousand years before. We drove through the city en-route back to Garda and caught glimpses of the impressive fortifications, and of Juliet’s tomb, but missed so much more – the roman Arena, gates, Juliet’s balcony, the old town! Our glimpsed impression was that it was even more beautiful than Florence, well worth a longer future visit. When we returned to the site, we had some time for contemplation and reflection – George and Charlie took themselves off to the jetty, and returned later to tell us that they’d said a prayer for Grandpa David while chucking stones into the lake. And I looked out over the boats on their moorings thinking how fitting the view was.
With the news of Dad and while the weather was so good I was keen to head north across the Alps, so on Monday morning we packed up. With the words of the German from Florence ringing in my ears and under the watchful gaze of another who had offered to help pull the caravan out of the very tight pitch, I reversed the car straight back into a tree! Fortunately there was not much damage – and the German from Florence wasn’t there to witness it. We set off, and he mountains quickly loomed ahead of us, their foothills punctuated by castles and forts strategically placed to control progress up and down the valleys. The autostrada threaded its way along the floor of the valley, climbing imperceptibly, and with its billiard table smoothness we were able to keep a good pace. For about 100kms we had an open road ahead of us and a trail of caravans and trucks snaking behind us as we bore on towards the Brenner Pass. The Dolomites, the Italian Alps’ magnificent craggy pink granite faces towered impressively above us in the sunshine, with more vineyards lining every available acre of their flanks. We stopped towards the summit for lunch, where the vineyards had finally given way to alpine grazing land. As we got out of the car the fragrance was incredible and the air crystal clear, giving quite a different light to the softness of Venice and Florence. We made the summit and headed into Austria, dutifully buying our highway vignette (once bitten…). The pink of the dolomites gave way to the grey of the craggy, snow-capped Austrian Alps. We headed down towards Innsbruck, past ski fields and cable cars, and then slavishly following the sat-nav we turned off the motorway on the road to Garmisch Partenkirchen to take us into southern Germany.
Immediately the road steepened ahead of us and our pace slowed. I selected a lower, and then locked in the lowest gear of the auto-box. We made headway, but only just. I kept my foot nailed down, the engine screaming in protest and we crawled upwards. A hairpin bend appeared, first on the sat nav and then in front of us – with a welcome large, flat car park and a tempting café. We stopped to regroup – could we make it on upwards? What if the road steepened? Or went on like this for miles? What if we got stuck – would the handbrake hold? Should Frances and the kids walk while I drove to lighten the load? Should I unhitch and drive up just with the car to recce? Or was there an alternative route? We went in to the café to consider our options, aided by a coffee for me and hot chocolates for the others. The waitress assured us that there was only a further 800m before the road levelled – “just stick it in a low gear and go slowly”, she reassured us.
We headed back to the car and made preparations – nothing around our feet or on our laps to aid a swift exit of the car if necessary; documents and emergency numbers in Frances’ hands should they be needed; and the chocks, lent to us by Grandpa David before setting off, at Frances’ feet ready for her to spring out and chock the wheels, with strict instructions not to walk behind or between the car and caravan. The caffeine from the coffee was coursing my veins, my heart rate was right up, and the kids were instructed to sit in silence. This really was an homage to Dad, circa 1973! Frances, however, had disappeared. Now, she’s doesn’t have the strongest of constitutions for this sort of adventure, but this was a surprise. I looked in my review mirror, and there she was, approaching the car with an Austrian police woman in tow. She’d seen her and her male colleague sitting in their car in the car park and had approached to ask if they thought we’d make it ok. “No chance” they said – “in fact, it’s prohibited, as you should have seen by the numerous signs on the approach to and up the hill so far prohibiting trailers over 750kgs” – and we’re about 1400kgs laden! “They’re banned because all too often caravans get stuck or go over the edge and have to be rescued” they said! With a smile, the police woman leant in to advise of a much better alternative route via Fussen to the west, over the Fernpass.
Very greatly relieved we headed off, down the mountain, grateful of the locking low gear to slow our descent! We commented on the very nice police woman who’d advised us – Charlie and Frances noted the Pandora bracelet she’d been wearing, just like her own. I noted how attractive she was, just like the waitress in the café! And George recalled the pistol, Taser, pepper spray, Victorinox pen knife, other knives, hand cuffs, truncheon, claxon and other accoutrements attached to her belt. We headed along the prescribed route and wound our way through the most magnificent alpine scenery across the Fernpass, across the border and into Tyrolean Germany. As we did so the autumn arrived like a switch being thrown – from the glorious tee-shirt and shorts sunshine of Venice, Florence and Lake Garda, across the snow-capped alpine pass, and down into the rich bronze and copper colours and crisper, cooler temperatures of autumnal Germany.
As darkness approached we arrived at Camping Brunnen, a typically beautiful, orderly, fabulously equipped site right on the shores of Lake Forggensee, and in the middle of the Konig Schloss district of Bavaria, so called because of the several spectacular Schlosser built by the mad King Ludwig who was exiled here. These include Neuschwanstein, made famous by the opening sequences of Disney films, and by one of our favourite films, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Quick one for the trivialists amongst you:
Q: What do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and James Bond have in common?
A: Much!: both written by Ian Fleming, both produced by the Broccolis, both featuring many of the same actors (Auric Goldfinger was played by the same actor as played Baron von Bomb Burst; Q in the Bond films by the same actor as plays the scrap metal merchant in CCBB)….and several others which escape me.
This morning we’ve had another home school session – Frances and the kids in the caravan, me running around the lake (not a full circumference – I’m not that fit!). The morning has been spectacular – cold and crisp to start, with frost in the fields, mist rising off the lake, and then the sun beating down to create a crystal clear day. We’re overlooking the lake with the Alps in the background – it’s incredibly beautiful. And the kids haven’t been seen for a couple of hours – they’re off fossicking on the beach. Although the weather is forecast to deteriorate (snow on Thursday!), we’ll head off to visit the Schloss tomorrow and then perhaps Dachau the following day (about 120kms away). We’ll make decisions about returning to England for Dad’s funeral when the date is confirmed – but our current thinking is that we’ll keep on with the trip, and that George and I will return by plane or train for a few days, leaving Frances and Charlie on a site with the caravan. We’ll then return to complete the trip with the ferry crossing back to the UK on the 6th November as planned.