Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre, Central Italy to Rome and Naples October, 2013
Mark and Vicki shipped their RoadTrek to Europe in May, 2009, and are now in their 32nd month of European RVing. They will return to the US in November. Their website is TheRoadGoesEverOn.com and their blog is at www.roadeveron.blogspot.com.
We left you at the end of September with us headed east toward Genoa driving the Italian Riviera. We really enjoyed this drive, and I think we would have liked it even better earlier in the month before the season ended. However, be prepared with lots of time. From Menton to Genoa is a mere three hours by the toll road and 7 hours by the coast road. We actually drove the toll road decades ago in a car when we were in a hurry, and it scared me half to death. You come out of a tunnel onto a very high bridge linking two mountainous ridges with the town and sea far below—repeat about 40 times! The coast road was terrific except for Genoa itself. This is a big city and the coast road takes you right through its heart and of course included a section “not over 2.5 tons.” At that point, the GPS becomes useless and you are cluelessly trying to find another way through a strange city with tiny alleys, double parked trucks, and Italian drivers—save the stress and bypass Genoa on the tollway. There are also not many places to park for Rvs on the coast road. We saw one big lot for campers on the west side of Finale Ligure.
The area around Portifino was stunning, but I completely chickened out on driving out on the peninsula to the actual town—maybe someday by Smart Car or public bus. It was easy to tell that there would have been no where to park anyway. Just east of Sestri Levante the road leaves the coast and heads back up into the mountains. The towns of the Cinque Terre are down there, but you are way up above them. In fact we spent part of the time in the clouds. No mistake, it is a good road, wide enough for two cars, but very twisty—not for anyone prone to car sickness. I usually hate those roads but really this was gorgeous, but do not think about doing this in the rain. The very first of the Cinque Terre towns, Monterossa, is actually accessible by road, but we didn't try it. When we were there later by way of the train we saw several larger campers parked in the town lot right at the public beach. Cost is €2.5 per hour or €23 a day, but no services.
We stayed at the very end in La Spezia at the camperstop at N44.10417 E9.85917. We actually stayed four nights for a voluntary donation. It is right at the marina and lots of locals store their rigs there. The ambulance service mans the entry booth which was open from 9 to 8 except the usual break for a two hour lunch. You can buy the €1.5 bus ticket from them and the bus stop is only about 2 blocks. To go to the Cinque Terre you get off at the train station and take the elevator or stairs up two flights. The Cinque Terre office at the station has lots of info and sells a combined train/walking/shuttle bus ticket for €12 one day, €22 two days, etc. If you only want train tickets you buy them from the train ticket counter—€4 each way but you can get off and on as long as you stay in the same direction. I was all gung-ho to do part of the walking between the towns. Unfortunately, because of the floods two years ago, the easy hike between Riomaggore and Manarola was closed. So having gotten a late start we went first to Vernazza and started out to hike to Monterossa. The path is fairly good, but even though the temps were in the low 70s the humidity was about 99% and the mosquitoes were swarming. We made it to the top of the first high ridge after about 30 minutes. When we saw how far it was still, we turned right around and headed back. One funny thing did happen. We stopped to talk with a Dad and his young son, and it turned out that he was born and raised in Missoula, Montana--the place we still consider home. Believe me when I say that was a cosmic coincidence as most Montanans consider a trip to Seattle to be plenty far enough away from home!
As I mentioned, we got a late start and spent some time in Vernazza and then took the train to Riomaggiore and had dinner. We had checked the bus schedule posted at the bus stop near the camper and had noted that there were buses until midnight. We assumed that meant return busses would run that late too. Of course, turned out when we got to the La Spezia train station at 10 pm the last bus left at 8 pm. Cost of “assuming”--a €16 cab drive after waiting in the rain 45 minutes to catch one.
The next day the skies opened and we stayed in the camper. Then next day off again to do the other 3 towns. Note that the trains don't always stop at the middle three towns as often as the end ones. Also, the shuttle bus to Corniglia is €2 each way and not included in a train only ticket. Bottom line: read the train schedule and figure out how how to plan your day. I really liked the Cinque Terre, though it was very crowded on both Saturday and Monday at the end of September. Mark thought it only so-so. But plan on its taking at least two days. Our one regret was not taking the boat ride. We definitely will do that next time (they end at the beginning of November.)
Heading north from La Spezia to Parma we again opted not to take the toll road. In Pontremoli we noticed all the truck traffic disappeared and we started up into the Apennine Mountains. Again a wide two lane road, but for the next two hours the longest straight away was only about 100 feet. This is a very isolated area, hardly any houses, we only passed a couple of other cars, the scenery not really that great, and nowhere to even pull off for a breather. Take the toll road and save your nerves for more worthy pursuits.
Parma of course is the home of Parmesan cheese and parma ham: yum. They had moved the camperstop (maybe we should have bought a new guide) but had posted a sign of where it was. N44.80845 E10.28463. It is right by a large Lidl store and the bus stop to town. No services yet though. We loved the Cathedral with its Corregio Assumption of the Virgin dome. Do pay the €2 to the illumination machine so you can actually see it. We bought our ham and cheese (and gelato) and headed to the Wind store to find out why our USB modem kept cutting out. Luckily, one of the clerks spoke English and after about 40 minutes of his calling tech support and messing around with it, he agreed it didn't work correctly. But if we wanted a refund we would have to go back to the Wind store in Aosta! Great.... So we decided that was a lost cause and headed to the 3 Store since we had our 3 USB modem from England. Nice English speaking women sold us a one month service for 20E and said it would be turned on after midnight. Next morning—nothing. Back to the store. No, it doesn't work. Maybe it's our English modem. Phone call to tech services. Tried a new Italian modem—doesn't work. Okay, can we have a refund? No. Once SIM card is sold, no returns even if it is defective!!!!!!!! Love the Italian way of doing business. Kathy and Rick have had much better lucky with Tim.
Parma is a fairly short drive to Modena—known for its Romanesque cathedral and its balsamic vinegar. We tried to park in the free area next to the stadium (N44.65179 E10.92140) but it was full at midday and also more for a 6 meter van than a 7. Instead we parked about half a block away, €1 an hour except lunch and after 6. You could probably stay the night there or move over to the stadium. This parking is only a few blocks from the centro, so quite convenient. We had a quick lunch and then just wandered around window shopping for a couple of hours till the cathedral opened. Mark liked it but I thought it pretty bare. We did get some 30 yr old balsamic vinegar—only 40 ml worth but for $23, actually on the cheaper side. As it grows older it becomes sweeter and after about 10 yrs is never used on salad but sprinkled sparingly on Parmesan cheese, antipasto, strawberries, ice cream. This stuff is nothing like what Americans are used to, so be sure to go for a tasting here or Florence or somewhere. Most people really only go to Modena to visit the Ferrari museum 10 miles south of town but Mark said he wasn't interested—more of a Porsche guy--so we decided to drive on to Bologna.
Unfortunately, there are no camperstops or discount campgrounds in Bologna. On line I had found possible parking on the north side (sorry, lost the GPS) but it was basically just a city parking lot, crowded, and no extra length spots. As it was growing dark we decided to just follow the signs we spotted for Camping Bologna. It was quite nice, run by the city, but a ridiculous €25 a night even with electric included--currently that's $35. We got a late start the next morning because we decided to wash a load of clothes to take advantage of being in a campground. We caught the 11am bus right at the campground. It is a several block walk to the Plaza Maggiore. Trying to hurry, we visited the wrong church--St. Pietro instead of St. Petronius—and by the time we got to the latter, mass was in session. Okay, 30 minutes until nearby St. Domenico closes, only 2 blocks away. We just got up to the chapel with the tomb and the caretaker is shutting the gate at 12:20. Come back at 3pm he says. Italy has the worst closing schedule in all of Europe. Most churches, museums, shops, close from 12:30 to 3:30 or even 4 pm. That is a really long time to have lunch in the middle of a sight-seeing day. We had hoped to go to at least one church before lunch started but failed completely. We did have a very nice lunch at Osteria dei Poeti, recommended in Lonely Planet and not as expensive as we thought it would be. I was determined to have Spaghetti Bolognese, which was quite different from any American version—hardly any sauce, just meat and not much seasoning. Mark did better with the restaurant's specialty, chicken filled with porchini mushrooms and mozzarella, wrapped in prosciutto and then baked. Yummy, as was their special potato rosemary bread. Plus the restaurant is beautiful.
Lunch break finally over, we get back to the Pisano tomb with Michelangelo's sculptures and you can actually get quite close—but no photos allowed at all. Okay, we snuck a couple. We then proceed to get completely lost getting back to St. Petronius. We arrived just before 4pm as the Cathedral is being shut down for another mass. Guess what?—today is the feast day of St. Petronius, patron saint of the city! Not a good day to visit. We saw a tiny parade with a few drums and about 25 costumed marchers and they were setting up a stage for a band in the palazzo. Exhausted, we decided to skip the Painting Museum and head for the bus tp the campground. Can't find the stop, head back to the center for the alternative bus—not running today because of feast day! Hail a cab and luckily only €13 back to campground.
Insane day, but we actually thought Bologna a beautiful city. Most of the buildings are a lovely salmon color and almost all have lovely arcades. Our problems stemmed mainly from trying to see a city in really less than a day—something we learned long ago—allow at least two nights and a full day for any big city or multiple site town. We will be back and more organized next time!
Since we didn't want to pay another €25 we headed out of the campground outer parking lot towards Ravenna and spent the night slightly out of the way at a very nice free sosta in Castel San Pietro Terme at N44.39725 E11.59197. Ninety minutes of driving the next morning brought us to Ravenna. We definitely wanted to see the 5th and 6th century churches again after learning so much about art and architecture in the past two years. We missed the Mausoleum Teodorica last time so parked there and also went to TI next door to get maps etc. The mausoleum is not much and completely bare inside except for a red marble sarcophagi originally dating from the Romans. Normally, €5 each, I said “over 65” and we got free tickets. Again, they didn't ask if we were EU citizens. We are operating on a don't ask, don't tell policy at these Italian monuments. Supposedly, we would get it free if the US had reciprocal rights for over 65s, but since we don't have a US policy, there is no reciprocity. However, I have never been anywhere in the US (except for the lifetime National Parks' pass) where you had to be a US citizen to get a senior discount. The TI had said the quietest sosta was just around the corner at N44.42575 E12.20982, and it was still within walking distance of the main churches. Lots of rain the next day, but we made the rounds to the 5 main sites plus 1—better to do it over two days.
After Ravenna we took the non toll road to Florence where we were meeting Kathy (WWT editor) and Rick south of there at Greve in Chianti. Again a mountainous, twisty road, very slow and not very scenic—avoid it if you can. Greve was a pleasant small town in the the Tuscany hills with a laundromat within walking distance of the free sosta N43.59066 E11.31355. We enjoyed having dinner with Kathy and Rick and got some needed help with changing our fuel filter. It is great to be able to meet up with fellow WWTs on the road.
More rain was headed to Florence so we back-tracked and headed for a different camperstop than we stayed at two years ago. The old one was Flog but it has no electric and we wanted to stay 4-5 nights. The one in our book had moved but we eventually got there at N 43.76247 E11.20889. It was a stiff €20 a night (Social Firenze) with electric and free wifi, a dump, but no potable water. Turns out that 15 feet across the alley is a second camperstop, not as well laid out, but same amenities for low season €12 a night. The fellow at this one doesn't speak English so here are directions into town. Walk out the alley to street, turn left, bus stop 100 meters, number 6 a,b, or c. Runs really often. Tickets €1.2. Get off at bus station or a couple of stops after you cross the river to be near Duomo. Coming back, the easiest place to catch the bus is at the bus station right across from giant McDonalds. Near Santa Maria Novella. Get off at Scandicci 7, turn right and walk back to the alley. Really quite convenient for seeing the city.
Right off the bat we decided to go to the tourist office and get Florence cards for entrance into 33 sites and all day bus passes for 72 hours. Whoa—they just raised the price in July from €50 to €72. Quite a hike. We decided not to press ourselves time-wise, and just buy individual site tickets. The first day we took bus #12 out to Piazza Michelangelo and walked the 200 meters uphill to the Church of San Miniato. Very interesting and actually a better view of the city than from the traditional spot at the Piazza.
Getting a late start the next day due to Mark's bad cold, we bought the combined ticket for the Duomo sites—€10. You can't just go to the Baptistry for the mosaics anymore. But we enjoyed the Museo with the original Gates of Paradise and Michelangelo's other Pieta. Much of the museum is still under construction but should be done in a year. The best though was we decided to climb the Brunelleschi's dome, since it was included. The line moved quickly and 478 steps later we were at the cupola. I did quite well as the stairs are wider than the usual medieval type since these are Renaissance, and I could pull over and catch my breath when I needed to. There is a catwalk that you walk around the entire inside of the dome with the Last Judgment frescoes up very close. Then you climb a narrower set of steps (but good handrails) up between the domes and out onto the balconies of the cupola. Wonderful views of the city and surrounding hills. If you think you can possibly make it, do try to get up there. We also toured Santa Reparata, the 9th century cathedral ruins which are below the present Duomo. All built on top of the old Roman city.
In total we spent seven nights in Florence, mostly covering things we have seen before but adding the refectory (only open 3 mornings a week) and Ognissanti Church. We particularly enjoyed being able to see both the cartoon and the fresco for the Ghirlandaio Last Supper in the refectory. We also had dinner again at Antica Rustica for the amazing Florentine bifsteak—but don't order it anywhere if you don't like your meat rare. Usually I go for medium, but this steak makes you a believer in rare meat. It surprises both of us how much we enjoy Florence every time we come in spite of the crowds and prices. Mark even found a laundromat within walking distance of the camperstop. Right at Via Scandicci, left (3rd exit) at roundabout, in one block take right fork, laundromat on right. We also finally had to replace our coach batteries, which were the original ones. After a lot of internet searching, we found a specialty battery store just 1.5k from the camperstop where someone spoke English and had our exact same batteries in stock. Bad news was total cost installed was $515—nearly twice what they would be in US. Good news was that this was about $100 less than other quotes we had gotten. The store had all kinds of batteries and chargers: Elettromec SRL, Via Baccio Da, telephone 055355715. I had written them an email, and they never answered it.
We had debated where to go next and decided not to return to San Gimignano or Arezzo but just head to Siena. Unfortunately, the sostas in Siena cost \20 whether you spend an hour or a day. We finally found just a parking spot at N43.34984 E11.30819 very close to the sosta and a bus stop for the #7 bus. The driver doesn't sell tickets and the tabac was closed but a kind lady at the stop sold us two. Very fortunate, as the tabac never did open that day. We spent about 3 hours revisiting the square with most of the time spent in the Cathedral. During a few months of the year (including October), they uncover the entire floor so you can see all the marbles. Of course, then they charge more, but really it was worth it. There is no other floor like this is all Christendom, plus the Donatellos, Michelangelos, the chapel frescoes, and the Pisano pulpit. Plus the Bernini Chapel with a partially nude Mary Magdalene in a state of "spiritual ecstasy." An entire Renaissance in one spot. Though we might have been able to spend the night at the parking lot we headed an hour south to Buonconvento N43.13854 E11.48109 and the free sosta there. Nothing but a parking lot, but free is scarce in central Italy. As we drove through central Tuscany we were surprised to see signs that snow tires were required between November 15 and April 15. If you plan on visiting Italy in winter or early spring, plan on staying south of Rome.
Orvieto was slightly out of our way, but one of our favorite Italian towns. Campers over 6 meters really have little choice but to park at the municipal sosta at the bottom of the hill town N42.72562 E12.12736. €2 an hour or €18 a day. This is a high end sosta with bathrooms and washing machines. We had no trouble taking the funicular and little town bus to the Cathedral and were back in under 3 hours. But if you haven't been here before, staying the night and having time to walk the streets and do other sight-seeing would be worthwhile. Orvieto's cathedral is known for its splendid facade, definitely in our top 3 in Europe. Also the chapel with the magnificent Last Judgment started by Fra Angelico and finished by Signorelli--you may never have heard of him, but after a visit here you will be singing his praises.
We drove an hour south of Orvieto and stayed at the free sosta in Civita Castelliana N42.29905 E12.41520. It is right in town, not very level, but surprisingly quiet. We skipped Rome on the way south since we wanted to get to the Naples area during the fine weather we were having. We located a free sosta on the beach at Latina (about an hour south of Rome) in our camperstop book. But “no camper signs” were posted so we parked on the long strand and the Italians we spoke with (sort of) said we should move down to the marina area to spend the night, as it was safer. This is a wonderful place to walk miles along undeveloped beaches and just enjoy the ocean for a while. However, we think the signs in Italian indicated no parking along the entire area for campers and it is probably enforced during high seasons and holidays. During our walk on the beach, Mark asked at the restaurant if we could park there overnight and they said fine. This lot was the one indicated in our camperstop book and the one with the no camper parking sign. Go figure! N41.38482 E12.91657 You might also try the marina next door.
Heading south again along the coast the road was okay, but we have noticed throughout southern Italy that the roads are patched, trashed and deteriorating. The last few years of austerity budgets is obviously affecting road repair spending. Our headquarters in the Pompei area was Camping Spartacus as it was two years ago. Our discount card allows us to stay there for €14 a night. The train service to Naples, Sorrento, Amalfi Coast, Capri etc. is fairly inexpensive and convenient. We will repeat much of what we saw two years ago Pompei, the National Archaeology Museum in Naples, the Amalfi coast bus trip, and ferry to Capri to actually ride the boat into the Blue Grotto this time. For details on all that see my earlier Practical Europe posts at our website.
Just some notes on our Capri trip. We had to pay for the more expensive jet boat service (€35 RT pp) from Sorrento as the regular ferry had sold out a day in advance. Once on Capri we bought tickets immediately for the boat trip that circles the island and then goes to the Blue Grotto. This is better in the morning as there is more sunlight for the Grotto. We loved circling the island, pulling into the mouth of other small grottoes and passing through a sea arch. It was very crowded at the Blue Grotto but even though our boat ticket said they wouldn't wait over 45 minutes, they did. Another reason to get there earlier. I had no trouble transferring from the larger boat to the rowboat, which I had been worried about. I loved the grotto yes, the singing is corny but you are floating on liquid aquamarines with a color only hinted at in the other grottoes. It is €17 for the circle trip and then €12.50 for the rowboat. Don't waste money on the €13 boat trip just to the Blue Grotto; there is not much to see between the Grotto and the marina. To save money you can take the bus to the Grotto (€3.60 each way) and catch the rowboat there.
The next day we went to Amalfi. Again we should have left earlier as the 10:30 bus from Sorrento was full with people standing and a long line waiting for the next bus. It is about a 75 minute ride each way. Great day, but our favorite restaurant from two years ago turned out to be closed on Tuesdays! We should have checked to see if they had a website. The lack of rain does have a down side. The haze is growing with each day. We stayed in Pompei a week and the final days we could barely see Vesuvius and a trip to Amalfi would have been terribly disappointing. We spent another long day at the Pompei ruins—luckily, there were three open that we had not visited before. They no longer take reservations to see some of the sites—what is open the day you are there is what you get. You absolutely need a good guidebook or the audio to tour the ruins. Try not to miss the Villa of the Mysteries, the walk is not as far as it looks on the map.
We also went into Naples and spent another 6 hours at the National Archaeology Museum. Most people we have talked to skipped this—sad, as most of what was found in Pompei and Herculeum is here. If you do the museum first, then you can imagine the mosaics, frescoes, bronzes, in your mind's eye as you tour Pompei. There is good signage but the audio would have helped in the everyday household goods rooms which we enjoyed but no English signs. This museum also houses the Farnese sculpture collection—it has to be the best collection of Roman sculpture in the world. The best statues from Pompei are in the Villa of the Papyrus rooms, and don't miss the pornography room (The Secret Room) behind the mosaic collection. There is a reason it takes so long to see everything! No cafeteria but a vending area where you can picnic. Check the sign board when you buy your tickets as some rooms close early or open late.
We took the toll road to Paestum (€2). You do not want to crawl through the sprawl in the mountains behind Salerno on ordinary roads. We loved the museum and temples all over again though the price has jumped to €10. We spent the night at N40.41872 E15.0077, 5E for day-guarded parking, €10 for day and overnight, though only a gate and lights at night. Four hours is plenty to see the ruins.
Finally, back to Rome. We splurged and took the toll road all the way for €16, way less than that kind of mileage in northern Italy. The toll road was in excellent condition and we were tired of the bone-jarring old roads. Mark and I loved Italy two years ago and we still love it, but the trash is building up everywhere and the roads are bumpy. Italian drivers were better two years ago too. Now too many are on the phone. To do this they slow down to 30-40 mph and then straddle the right side lane marking. That is the signal that they are chatting or texting away!
We will be staying for 14 days at the sosta Prato Smeraldo for €10 a night with electric, N41.80970 E12.52857, much less than the posted €16 a night. Next month I will wrap up Rome and give a summary of our budget. Happy travels!