Mediterranean Coast, Part 2
Mediterranean Coast, November, 2017
(Mark and Vicki having been traveling nearly full time since September, 2008. Much of that in camping vehicles in Europe. Their trip along the Mediterranean Coast is one of several they have made in this area over the past years. Further information and pix are at their blog, www.roadeveron.blogspot.com Vicki's Practical Guide to their travels is at their website www.theroadgoeseveron.com)
Continuing our repositioning drive from Barcelona to Rome, October to mid-November...
The only aires on this coast, near Nice, are in St. Laurent du Var just before Nice. Arriving in late morning after leaving Cannes, we had no trouble getting one of five spots at N43.66638, E07.19595. It was somewhat noisy due to nearby traffic but didn't bother us much. Walking away from the traffic circle you turn right and end up on main street with bus stop Pascal to Nice right across the way. You can also continue left on main street to railroad station. The first day we took the bus and had a wonderful afternoon strolling old Nice and the promenade. What a lovely town. The second day we took the train to Beaulieu sur Mer just beyond Nice, walked down to the port and caught bus 83 to Eze. (Thank you, Witts, for directions!) Eze is another medieval fortress village this time on the middle Corniche, so located in a lovely spot—and don't they know it! Every building is achingly gorgeous including the former Prince of Sweden's winter castle—now a 450E a night hotel. Very few reasonable places for lunch—most in the 60 to 85E range—so we split a 14E pizza at La Taverna. Plenty of folks turned away as it filled quickly. Can't imagine what a mad house this place must be in summer, but the bus ride was spectacular. Instead of the 83 bus we crossed the street and got the 82 bus back to Nice. Unfortunately, it ends at the bus station which is not near where we needed to be to catch the 52 bus back to St. Laurent. Wandering around we finally spied a 9-10 going to the station in St. Laurent by way of northern France (it seemed like) and took that. Even though it is out of season the traffic from Nice to St. Laurent in the afternoon was horrendous and the buses packed. We couldn't make our way close enough to buy a ticket and were lucky when the bus ticket police came aboard that they couldn't make their way as far back as we were. When traffic is bad, take the train. It is more expensive at 3.5E to Nice rather than 1.5E, but worth it.
Since our aire had no services we detoured 3k north to the other aire at N43.68584 E07.18459 to get water and dump. It was completely full and I imagine stays that way—we noticed some other campers parked at N43.68113 and E07.18996 if you can't get in the two designated aires.
We took the Grand Corniche with a plan to stop at the Roman Alpine Trophy. Though we are only 19 feet long again the parking situation was ridiculous so I took pix out the window. We did stop in 1979 or 1989 when we were car camping and far fewer folks were traveling in Europe. We came back to the coast road and actually saw far more places to park along the Italian Riviera than we did in 2013. I would say there are now 6 or 7 paid aires along the way—most close to a town and most on the beach or a marina. We were headed for La Vesima Campground about 15k west of Genoa to use our ASCI discount card and anyway it was the only campground open. As with many Italian campgrounds it was smashed between the train and the road with an underpass to the beach. Older but certainly acceptable at 17E per night, and the local bus stops right at the gate. To get to Genoa you take the gate bus to Voltri (a suburb) and then change to a different bus or the train to the city center. If you take the train you need to walk about a long block to get the new station as the bus drops you at the old one. Be sure to buy your other bus or train tickets at the tabac first.
We spent a long but very worthwhile day in Genoa buying the museum pass which at 12E is actually a good deal here. Genoa was immensely wealthy in the 1600s and 1700s and is literally bulging with Italian palaces and manor homes. So many that one street of them is now a UNESCO heritage site. Some are banks but others are museums We hit the four biggies—the Palazzo Reale, the Palazzo Spinola, Palazzo Bianco and Palazzo Rossa. Some stunning art (OK, not Florence) and fine 17th and 18th century furnishings and decorations. Everybody with money was imitating Versailles. Don't miss the stunning baroque church across from the Palazzo Reale—and we don't care for baroque. The rest of the day we wandered the old port and down the dozens of tiny, tiny streets that make up the old town. For lunch we happened upon the Restaurant Pintori—a fifty year institution specializing in Sardinian fare. I had a marvelous pesto pasta (pesto very, very big here) and Mark a plate of anchovies in a lemon sauce. Turns out this restaurant is one of only a few listed in our Michelin green guide and lunch with wine was about 30E, so definitely worth it.
We had thought to stop in Portofino and the receptionist at the campground had said that there should be parking at the train station in Santa Margareta. We took the autostrada around Genoa—which from previous experience we know is a nightmare to drive through, for only 3.5E. However, getting off, Garmina wanted to take us down some steep not-meant-for-camper roads to reach the coast, and we ended up in Rafello—which did have some parking at the marina had we gotten there at 9 or so instead of 11. So we didn't see Portofino—better alternative would have been to stay in the campground another day and take the train from Genoa to Saint Margaret and then the bus.
So having been foiled we just decided to “beat feet” for Florence, bypassing the Cinque Terre, which we visited in 2013. I had visions of doing some of the hikes between the five villages that we missed before, but internet research revealed that all of the reasonable ones were closed. The 5 Lands are certainly worth seeing, once, but it was getting a little chilly for the boat trip so....
We actually got back on the toll road to avoid going into La Spezia—10E. Then followed along the coast and at Pisa the autostrada to Florence is free so we arrived at the aire (sosta in Italian) about 4 pm. (Florence Park N43.76267 E11.20875) When we stayed at this aire in 2013 there were two of them side by side. One is now closed and the other jam packed. Electric and water included for 15E. The bus is only a block or so away so it is very convenient. This is probably our sixth visit to Florence, third since retiring, so we were just going to visit our favorite spots. We were happy that we had picked up a Rick Steves' Florence and Tuscany guide at a library sale as our brand new green guide Michelin Italy only had room for about a paragraph on each site. As Florence seemed pretty busy even this first week of November we called a couple of days in advance and got noon reservations for the Uffizi. We also booked a table at 7 for our favorite beefsteak Florentine restaurant—Antico Ristoro di Cambi. It did not disappoint. But be warned it is where I learned to like rare steak—it only comes one way. But as Rick Steve's notes this beef has been aged for 18 days, so somehow though it looks as rare as an American rare, it just doesn't taste at all raw. It is also easy to get to from the bus line as it is one block further across the Vespucci bridge. The restaurant wasn't at all crowded at 7. All the Italians started showing up after 8. Also you eat pretty quickly here as the steak doesn't take long to cook!
Forget thinking that the tourists will be gone in early November. November 1 is a national holiday and the Italians and tourists were still out and about. The line to buy tickets for the Uffizi was two hours long, so we were glad to have the noon reservation. We spent a lovely five hours there and all the renovations are finished. And—wait for it—wait for it—the national museum policy of “no photos” has been changed to just no flash. Hallelujah!! No longer do you have to sneak a photo—but even better is the absence of the constant “no photo” harangue every three minutes. We even found the northern Europe wing which has some gorgeous Durer, Cranach, etc. The cafe however is extortionist if you sit at a table, and no picnicking is allowed. Just factor that into the cost.
We ended up spending one more day than we planned as the Ognisanti church was only open Monday, Tuesday and Saturday. This fantastic free site has a gigantic Ghirlandiao Last Supper fresco in the refectory that is outstanding, and when they had to remove it for restoration after the 1966 flood, they found the cartoon under it. The cartoon has now been hung separately so you can see the artist's plan and compare it with the final results. The church also has a beautiful Botticelli--who is one of my favorite painters--and he is also buried there at the foot of the woman he loved. Who, unfortunately, was already married. Be warned that though their website said they were open three mornings a week, when we got there Tuesday had been scratched through. As Rick Steves warns, always go to the places that are the most important to you first—strikes, closings...things happen a lot in Europe.
Unfortunately, we tend to get lazy or like to be spontaneous and did not go online for reservations to climb Brunelleschi's Dome—and it was completely sold out for Saturday and Sunday. I was disappointed as I had just finished the book. We did the climb in 2013 and I loved it—maybe in the spring. The renovations of the Duomo museum is now done so the cost to visit the baptistery the museum, bell tower and dome is 15E and there are no separate tickets. Florence is expensive, exhausting, time consuming, and wonderful. In my mind it is also a city (and actually all of Italy) for which you need to be prepared. Years ago we skipped the medieval art rooms and frankly at about fresco five they all began to look alike. Then we watched and actually re-watched The Great Courses series program on the history of European painting. It made all the difference, just like their Cathedral course changed our enjoyment of the great cathedrals of France and northern Europe. We highly recommend their product and if the course you want is not on sale they are usually available on eBay. (Skip the Roman history one unless you are a fanatic).
Since we are storing our camper in Rome until late April, we don't feel pressed on which towns in Tuscany and Umbria to visit now. Mark picked his favorites of Arezzo, Assisi and Orvieto. Leaving Florence for Arezzo our GPS took us down the Via di Giogoli for 5 insane kilometers. This one lane, winding, blind corner road was awful on a Sunday morning. If your GPS wants you to take it, find another way. We finally just gave in and took the toll road which was only 5 E. So far the toll roads in Italy have been much less than those in France. (Though the ones in the Italian Alps used to be and may still be very expensive.)
In Arezzo there are two sostas almost next door to each other. One is 8E and the other free two blocks away. We stayed at the free one N43.47237 E11.88362 . It was fairly quiet and clean even though it was obvious that there were people living there pretty much full time. We encountered our first really rainy day since we started this trip. That has been great but what we didn't realize was that Arezzo is an antiques center and every Sunday they have an antiques market. Because of the rain, lots of booths packed up early. We will definitely try to come back on a Sunday in the spring. The good news was it was the first Sunday of the month which in Italy means all state-owned museums are free. So we visited Vasari's house, the incredible frescoes in the chapel of San Francisco and even the medieval museum at no cost. By the time we hit the medieval museum we were dragging though. The fresco chapel does require a reservation which you can get on site, but in season either be there when it opens or go online. We only had to wait about 30 minutes but, remember, it was November 5. Arezzo is a lovely town just for walking around—though hilly and with the free sosta, a good place to stay for a couple of days. It is also a beautiful drive from Arezzo to Assisi especially now with the trees and vineyards is full, golden color.
Our first visit to Assisi was in 2013. It actually is a place you might want to visit before Florence because in the church of St. Francis you get an almost complete picture of what the churches in the rest of Italy must have looked like before their frescoes were damaged, removed or whitewashed. Plus Assisi was painted by four of the very early masters—Cimabue, Martini, Lorenzetti, Giotto. The church no longer charges for entrance but still have a no photo policy. Finally, it seemed the tourist hoards were beginning to thin. For the frescoes here and in Arrezo a good guidebook or the audio is a necessity and don't forget your binoculars. We stayed at a relatively new sosta that was not in our 2017 Camperstop book but that we found on our Parkings app. (Thanks, Jan Witt) N43.06650 W12.59960. It is at an agriculturo-tourismo—or a rural tourist accommodation. 12E without electric or 15 with and only about a half mile up the hill to the monastery on a dedicated pedestrian walk. There is a bus stop within a block if you don't want to walk or want to go into town to see the church within a church and where Francis died.
Again we had a lovely, short drive through the Umbrian hills back to Tuscany and Orvieto. Parking for campers is only allowed at the private sosta at the foot of the funicular. 2E an hour or 18E for 24 hours. It is located between two train lines, so expect noise. However, it has electric, bathrooms and even a 5E washer and 5E dryer. We were there by 11 so headed up the funicular 1.5E and caught the bus to the Duomo (same ticket.) The Duomo closes for lunch during the winter; 4E entry. The facade of the church is absolutely the best in Italy with sculpture and mosaics covering every square inch. Inside the main attraction is the Cappella Nuova's Last Judgment and Apocalypse fresco cycle by Signorelli. Even if you don't like or are sick of frescos, you will like these. Mark says Signorelli should have painted the Sistine Chapel—I won't go that far, but these are spectacular. And popular—despite it being November 7, it was filled with tour groups nearly the entire time we were there. Again a guidebook is essential so you don't miss the parts done earlier by Fra Angelico, or the portraits of Dante, or the devil whispering to the anti Christ or the natural disasters proceeding the the Apocalypse, or the little linen loin wraps added later when all the nudity got to the religious—maybe originally 50 or so full frontal men and women in all their Renaissance Gray's Anatomy splendor. (Don't worry—a few have been unwrapped during restoration!) Orvieto is also a lovely walking town with Etruscan caves to explore, other old churches and fantastic views from the walls. But we decided to press on and hopped on the toll road (3E) for the short drive to the free sosta at Attigliano just off the toll road. N42.51027 E12.29471. Spent a fairly quite night with only a little road noise.
We stopped here so we could visit Sacro Bosco in Bomarzo—the park of the monster sculptures that we found in the Atlas Obscura our daughter thoughtfully bought us for Christmas. No, we don't carry it around with us, but try to pinpoint obscure but interesting new sights before leaving California. (Okay, so we do do a little advance planning—but not much.) Atlas Obscura has an excellent website. The morning dawned foggy and 39 degrees and we almost decided to skip it, but we didn't and we were glad. It was only 4 miles from the sosta and the road, though narrow and winding in spots, was not too bad. There is a flat parking area just a block or so from the gates where you could also spend the night as there was no signage It didn't appear in our Camperstop book or the Parkings app though. By the time we arrived at the parking lot after the gate, the sun had come out and the day turned lovely. It takes about 90 minutes to explore the 35 or so stone sculptures set along winding paths among the trees. The park was the property of Duke Orsini and built in the 1500s to be something different and magical compared to the formal Italian gardens of the time. Most of the sculptures are based on Greek and Roman mythological themes. We especially liked the inscription on the La Panca Etrusca (Etruscan bench) “ You who have traveled the world wishing to see great stupendous marvels, come here, where there are horrendous faces, elephants, lions, bears, orcs and dragons.” Seemed to fit us to the T.
Our GPS told us there was an hour delay on the non-toll road to Rome, so we hopped on the autostrada and it took only a little over an hour and 5.20E to reach Prato Smeraldo camper-stop where we have stayed twice before. 10E without electric and 16 with. There was only one other camper there and they left the next morning. We would be staying here for five nights and then storing our camper under cover until the end of April. Storage was pretty pricey at 70E a month uncovered and 90E covered. But since we can't check on the camper and it is 16 years old, we like to have it covered.
Our days in Rome were spent visiting some old favorites, getting packed for our return to the States, and getting our camper ready for winter storage. The latter entailed an oil change and safety check—with more work to be done in April.
The old favorites included St. Peter's, the Pantheon, the Vatican Museum, and the church of St. Paul Without the Walls. Each has a bit of a story. We had a good visit at St. Peter's—they didn't close the main altar area on us, as in a couple previous visits—but we arrived around noon time, when the place is packed with the tour bus crowds. Mornings are best. On the internet, we discovered we could get early arrival reservations at the Vatican Museum by ordering reservations for lunch at the museum restaurant. The food was merely edible, but not having to wait around on a timed-entrance or stand in lines was certainly worth the additional cost. We still think the Vatican has missed a great opportunity by not going to a “theme-restaurant” approach. (Loaves and fishes...rack of lamb of God...old wine in new skins, etc.) We hurried to the Sistine Chapel first because the last time we were there it was very dark inside and not lighted. But this visit by the time we worked our way through the museum to the chapel, it was fully illuminated—so our earlier scramble turned out to be uncecessary.
Mark did the final wash at the nearest lavanderia we've been able to find from Prato Smeraldo that doesn't entail driving: in Rome, at the St. Paul stop. (At the station, exit, turn right, then left, then right...it's on the right just down the block). Somehow, he managed to skirt a transportation workers' strike scheduled for that day. When in Rome, and the rest of Italy, always check for strikes, slow-downs, etc., which often are posted in the news and elsewhere. It is a way of life there, and one has to work around such inconveniences.
We meandered around the old city for some time one day, trying to find a recommended restaurant and later the Pantheon, a favorite building. We never found the restaurant, but found one even better, the Monte Carlo, which featured Naples-style pizza. Even in the misty gloom at the end of the day, the Pantheon was impressive. We found a place to sit and take it in. Like every other place in Rome, you can't do this in solitude. Even in mid-November everything is crowded by tourists.
Everything except St. Paul's Without the Walls, which is, you guessed it, outside the ancient walls, and not on the beaten track. Despite a fire in 19th century, it is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Rome, colossal and beautiful and historic, one of the four Papal churches, and very much worth a side-trip. It is two blocks from the Metro station.
Arrivaderci, Roma! We'll be back in very late April after our winter trip to the sunshine (hopefully) of New Zealand.