Meanwhile, I was struggling a bit in the fierce cross winds as we left Vienna – I’d been warned that the winds would be high and that Vienna is notoriously windy, but this still took me a bit by surprise. Fortunately the roads were largely clear and marvellously smooth and straight – a real change from the drive from Prague. We made cracking progress towards the distant mountains, and as we got closer the wind dropped and we began to see the peaks gleaming white with fresh snow. We climbed inexorably on, the car not seeming too troubled by the ascent or the load. Soon we were at over 1,000m, the temperature had dropped from the high teens in Vienna to low single digit degrees Celsius, and the road began to wind through the snow fields. We stopped at a big rest area towards the summit for drinks and photos, the cold air biting through the summer clothes we’d worn to leave Vienna.
We continued on towards the Italian border beyond Graz (we’d earlier planned to overnight in Graz but this seemed unnecessary). Again we approached the big border crossing expecting to sail straight through, but this time were surprised to see a group of paramilitary-uniform clad officials pulling vehicles over. The tension immediately mounted in the car, and sure enough, we were their next victims – and yes, I choose my words carefully! Having dutifully pulled over, a guard approached and asked to see passports and registration papers. Frances rummaged for some time in the caravan and returned to produce the documents – the guard looked at them cursorily, and then produced a document of his own – an Austrian highway vignette which one is supposed to buy and display in order to drive on Austrian roads – purchase price, €8 for a couple of week’s use. “Hadn’t we seen the signs at the border?” he asked with a smirk. “Of course we hadn’t, otherwise we’d have bought the pass” we replied indignantly. “No problem”, he went on “you can simply pay me the €120 on-the-spot fine – we take cash and all major credit cards, have a nice day!”
We were furious, but had no option. I asked the guard to show me his ID – he produced some flimsy photo-card. The uniform, the asking to see passports, the positioning of themselves at the border – all this was just for show, to give innocent travellers the idea of officialdom. In reality, he and his colleagues were just like the car clampers of London – employees of private contractors whose job it is to fleece the unwary. Frances went to his van to pay while my blood slowly came to the boil – so I went to the car and produced the camera, which I took as close as I could to their van and began taking pictures – not as a memento, but just to make them feel as uncomfortable as they’d just succeeded in making us feel. As we left, in my best and recently practiced (at the concert in Vienna to the cloakroom attendant a couple of evenings before) indignant Englishman-abroad voice I told him that I thought this was nothing short of highway-robbery. With his equally well practiced smirk returning, he replied “No, it’s a tourist trap”.
And so smarting from the second fleecing in successive days we bade farewell to Austria and headed into Italy. At least the Italians have the good grace to tell you they’re going to fleece you as soon as you arrive – the very first thing we did was take our ticket at the payage for the Autostrada. We headed into the Italian Alps and soon found ourselves beginning the descent, through a series of tunnels boring their way down the mountains, interspersed by bridges spanning spectacular gorges. And as we’d emerge from each tunnel onto the bridges the again fierce wind roaring up into the Alps would hit us from completely unpredictable directions. We were in the grip of a real mountain storm, with rain lashing down on us, the wind roaring from left or from right. I kept the pace down to a crawl on the bridges, but maintained good speed in the tunnel. And then before we knew it, the last Alps slipped past us like ice-bergs on the ocean and we found ourselves on the plain in glorious sunshine for the last 100km drive to Venezia. The contrast was remarkable – properly Autumn as we left Vienna with the copper and bronzed leaves swirling in the wind; the onset of winter in the Alps, with snow, wind and rain; and then back into summer as we reached the plain, clear blue skies, grape vines in full leaf and fruit lining the roads, beautiful stands of tall, straight and green-leafed trees on either side of us – and that unmistakable Italian light, soft, slightly hazy which makes even run-down or derelict farms and villages look so peaceful and picturesque.
The last twenty or so kilometres were a little precarious as we wound our way towards our destination along the narrow roads on top of the levees which line the rivers. We had wanted to stay at Camping Marina di Venezia which is situated on the Adriatic side of the peninsular to the northwest of the Laguna Venezia – it was a great site when we had two lovely holidays there in the early ‘70s, and looking at it now on the internet, has been massively extended. It looked incredible – beautiful and vast pools, restaurants, supermarkets, secluded pitches – an absolutely wonderful summer holiday destination – but now, sadly, closed for the winter. Instead we are staying at Mira Mare, just on the Venezia side of the point – stepping out of the site allows you to look over the lagoon towards Venice in the South West, into the setting sun – it’s beautiful. The site is nice, many trees providing filtered sunlight to the dusty pitches, each marked out with hedges. The shoreline is the site of a massive construction project (the Mose) to provide Venice with tidal flood defences in response to the alarming increase in frequency of damaging floods. And we’re just a few minutes both from the wonderful Adriatic beach (not quite as wonderful or dramatic as Manly’s beautiful sandy beach) and from the ferry terminal to take us into Venice. We arrived at around 6pm and managed to get the awning up. But then, to quote Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, ‘The horror, the horror’ – we opened the bathroom door to discover that the skylight had, well, disappeared. We both maintained that we hadn’t opened it or left it open, so can only assume that one of the big gusts as we emerged from a tunnel caused it to blow out – that’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it! We contacted the Caravan Club roadside support, and they set the wheels in motion to get it sorted, while we headed out for our first proper Pizza. Italian Pizza – perfect – it’s simple: a thin bread base, not cooked to a frazzle, not thick and bready – a few simple fresh ingredients sparingly spread, and the whole? – Superb, a world apart from the gooey offerings elsewhere in the world.
Sunday was a day of well needed rest and recuperation – we stayed at the site, read books, did washing, enjoyed the glorious weather. On Monday we had to wait for a visit from a local caravan repair company, so a good opportunity to catch up on more home school. Frances and I went for a run to the lighthouse and onto the beach at the end of the promontory, and took the opportunity to visit the beach front of Camping di Venezia – just as I remembered it. In the afternoon, we all headed to the beach – we swam, sunbathed, made sand sculptures and fished from the rocks (don’t worry, the fish were as safe as houses!) – a wonderful late-summer’s day. Later we paid a visit to the local supermarket – what a contrast to the Scandinavian and northern European supermarkets. Here, fresh, ripe and succulent looking fruit and vegetables were given pride of place, enticingly displayed – huge varieties of salamis and cheeses fought for space with olives and other delights in the delicatessen, the shelves in the aisles had wonderful varieties of pasta and bottled pasta sauces. We stocked up and returned to a supper of fresh pasta and vegetables – delicious.
Finally on Tuesday, yesterday, we headed into Venice on the ferry. The tickets provide unlimited travel on ferries in the lagoon for 36 hours – expensive at almost €100, with no reductions for kids – but they proved good value. The weather was surprisingly cloudy as we made our way across the lagoon, and we were hopelessly under dressed in shorts and tee shirts – at least Venice should be quiet we thought. Ha! As we arrived at Piazzo San Marco (St Mark’s Square) we disembarked into hordes of tourists. We made our way to a tourist information office, and realised that the costs of tours, museums and galleries, and of course gondolas, was prohibitive. So we bought the map and guide book and headed off to lose ourselves in Venice’s extraordinarily intricate maze of beautiful palaces, churches, houses, alleys and canals. It is almost indescribable. All of those other cities that describe themselves as the Venice of the North – well, they aren’t – they’re wrong. There is only one Venice. I’ve heard it said of London that ‘it’ll be nice when it’s finished’ due to the never ending construction that’s around every corner. Well, Venice is ‘nice’ and was finished hundreds of years ago. It’s incredible. Obviously there is some maintenance work going on – but it all looks so right, so complete in whatever stage of renewal or dilapidation. We followed narrow alleys, took random turns to left or right, over bridges, under buildings – and around every corner came upon the next stunning work of art. We managed to lose the crowds as we walked (not easy, and this was a dull Tuesday morning in October – I shudder to think what a busy Sunday in July would be like), and emerged on-target at a small platform at the end of an alley onto the Grand Canal. Here we stepped onto a Gondola ferry – not the €100-plus gondola tour – but a €1 ride across the Grand Canal on a real working gondola used as a ferry by locals. Fabulous. And then we hopped on board a ferry to take us along the Grand Canal. Us and hordes of others, mainly local – extravagantly dressed elderly ladies, elegantly dressed business men and women, a bride and groom with their photographer – and the ticket inspectors in their suede Gucci loafers and bright red D&G glasses – they really do know how to dress. We had our picnic lunch in a park in the increasingly warm sun which had by now made an appearance, and then headed on on another ferry to Murano, the centre of Venice’s famed glass blowing furnaces. We watched an impressive display of the art that’s been practised here for hundreds of years, and then made the obligatory departure through the showroom where we bought the cheapest souvenir we could find! No doubt it will be in a thousand pieces by the time we get it to Sydney!
As we returned via St Marks on the ferry to Punta Sabionne in the beautiful late afternoon sun, we passed a vast cruise ship leaving Venice by the Grand Canal. The views back over Venice with the Alps in the hazy distance were spectacular, the creamy jade lagoon sparkling in the glorious sunshine – a great end to a lovely day. We headed home to lasagne made the previous evening.
This morning is another at base – we had to wait for the camping repair guys to visit. They did so promptly and were finished replacing the skylight in half an hour flat – we’re clearly not the first to have needed their services for this! George and Charlie are busy doing home school, and Frances is out sorting out some minor family medical needs. We’ll have lunch here and then hop on a ferry to the islands – not Venice, but Burano and perhaps Torcello. When we return this evening I’ll take the awning down in preparation for leaving for Florence tomorrow.