Milan to Paris, May, 2019
I left you having checked into the sosta (camperstop) in Milan. First day out we took the on-call shuttle from the sosta (free) to the train station and two stops to the end of line to the metro. Very cheap, quick and easy. We were in town by 10:30. The duomo (cathedral) requires a 5E ticket for entry plus different permutations and prices for crypt, roof, roof elevator, and a new wrinkle for Europe—a fast pass to skip the lines! Yikes. We opted to just go inside. Still a 30 minute wait for security screening and I had to discard my bottled coke. Mark took a picture of the “not allowed” sign (at blog.) Longest we have seen anywhere—39 items for cathedral and terraces. The inside is fine but it's the outside facades that are the real show stoppers. We then proceeded nearby to the only Starbucks in Italy and one of only 5 Starbucks roasteries in the world. Located in the old post office, it was jam packed, interesting, and very popular even with Italians. All the pastries and edibles come from a famous Milan bakery as Starbucks did everything possible to appease the Italians.
Next up, Leonardo's Last Supper. Tickets to this are extremely difficult as most are bought up by “tour services” as soon as they go on sale. I started watching the site in January, checking back every couple of days for the announcement of the date tickets would go on sale for May. On that day in February I was on the computer at the opening bell and reserved two tickets for the afternoon to be sure we would have plenty of time to get into town and find it. You can get tickets from private companies combined with a half day town tour but those go for 60E or more each, and even those are sold out weeks in advance. Once there you wait about 10 minutes and then the group of 25 people go into the room for 15 minutes. Frankly, for us, only okay. Perhaps we know too much about the history of the work—Vasari in 1560 commented that the painting was already ruined beyond recognition. It has been through dozens of restorations plus we are just not big Leonardo fans—our favorite Last Supper is Ghirlandaio's in Florence.
We spent the rest of our two days in Milan happily walking around, revisiting the very good Pinoteca Ambrosiana—where there is an actual painting by Leonardo and hundreds of his drawings on display plus the most amazing--Raphael's cartoon of The School of Athens. We also rode the streetcar through many city streets and then out to the Cemetery Monumental, which is in our book a 5 star attraction. We have been to many famous cemeteries—New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Pierra Lachase in Paris, but none hold a candle to Milan. For over 150 years the rich folks in Milan (where there is most of the money in Italy) have been in competition to build the most over the top memorials. Perpetually weeping women, children draped in sculpture over a mother's effigy, three story pyramids, a replica of the Parthenon, a zillion Crucifixions, sobbing angels, really you must go to Mark's blog and search Cimitero Monumentale for pictures. We spent a couple of hours there and only scratched the surface. We also spent a ridiculous amount of money for Mark to have a Negroni aperitif, at the original Campari bar, but the Galleria is the best in Europe and the people watching was first rate.
Last month I mentioned that one of the reasons we returned to Croatia and Slovenia for a week was that we had little interest in going to the Lake District in Italy. I now have to eat those words. Michelin's Green Guide said the Isola Bella islands were three stars, we had a couple of days to spare, so---. The ferry to the islands goes from Stresa so we camped right on Lake Maggiore a few miles south of there at Camping Solcro. 20E a night with our ACSI discount membership. We caught the bus very near the campsite and at the stop in Stresa you just cross the parking lot to the right to get a ferry ticket. They all charge the same price for the 3 islands and make a continual circuit. We enjoyed spending the day touring the two great homes and the gardens were especially lovely in the spring. Lots and lots of steps though. The fisherman's island is basically a lunch stop and that is all we had time for, but the lunch was pretty good for a 100% touristy place. The ornate houses along Lake Maggiore make for a beautiful drive if you like architecture. We thought it so pretty we decided to drive to the top of the lake and then south along the shore of the much smaller Lake Orta—unfortunately, I guess it was the poor folk's lake and not much to see.
So now we had to really turn south to get to the coast to avoid the Maritime Alps. At one point we had thought of driving north and crossing at the Mount Blanc tunnel as Courmeyeur, Italy and Chamonix, France are two of our favorite places. A search of the weather nixed that idea—I don't hike or sightsee when high temps are in the 40s!
We took the old road south through Vernante where we spent the night in a free aire (in off season.) Not much in the town, but dozens of buildings have painted murals from the original Pinochio book. The illustrator spent the end of his life here and about twenty years ago the town decided to let a local artist recreate the illustrations all over town. The next morning we stopped at a junk/flea market we had discovered years ago—alas, not nearly as good as before. One could still see lots of snow in the mountains but the road and adjacent areas were snow free. It has been a cold spring in Europe though, and we have read of snow this week even in southern Germany (and snow on May 10th in Tuscany)! We felt we needed to reach the coast west of Genoa. We love Genoa but had driven the city roads through in 2013 and it was a nightmare. With the collapse of the Genoa expressway bridge last year, well, we just wanted to avoid the whole mess. Our road south ended in Menton—a lovely place but road construction left us on one way alleys trying to find the Corniche Inferior. Never did, and in complete frustration gave up and took the toll road to Nice.
Eighteen months ago in Nice we stayed in a aire but it was small and not that safe we thought. This time we stayed at Camping Le Rossignol in Antibes a few miles west. To get to Nice one caught the bus right outside the campground and then either took the train (faster) or the Nice bus—more to look at. Very inexpensive at 4.80E round trip. Though we only spent one day we immensely enjoyed walking around the city. We also took the free elevator up to the fortress on the cliff at the east end of the city. Lovely park with great views over the city with beach promenade on one side and the marina on the other. Nice is a place we would like to spend a couple of weeks in when we start staying in apartments.
After Nice, we were undecided what to do next, the mistral was blowing, so we resolved to hunker down somewhere on the way to Aix en Provence, do an administrative day, plan, and try not to get blown away. We ended at Brignoles, a small town, staying at a welcoming Casino (supermercado) (same as we had stayed at in 2017) along with several other campeurs. We did the wash, reorganized, did some research and blogging, and also did a couple walks. After Brignoles, we decided we would take a look at the Massif of Sainte Baume, a big ridge and pilgrimage site nearby, famous because St. Mary Magdalene spent the last 33 years of her life here according to local lore. We took the 1.5 lane road up after I saw other much larger campers headed that way. Michelin's Green Guide had said some of the oldest trees in France were located in the National Park on the other side of the massif. Unnfortunately, the road down to the Park had a warning sign forbidding any vehicle more than 2.5 tons. So we followed the regular road (still narrow, but better) down around to where we could join the toll road.
The mistral had calmed down some—from 45 mph winds to 25 so we thought it time to visit Aix-en-Provence In 2017 we had planned to park and not stay overnight but finding parking even early in the morning was impossible. This time we stayed in the very close-in Camping Chantecler, using the CamperContact app, and enjoyed the city at a more lesiurely pace. Though not in our ACSI discount book, the campground gave us 10% off and without electricity it was only 18E a night. Aix has a great street market on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday with more upscale offerings than most. We again went to Chez Charlotte for lunch which was very good and spent the afternoon revisiting the cathedral. Since it was May 8—victory in Europe day—also celebrated as European Union Day, there were several groups performing near the cathedral--Spanish guitars, Bulgarian circle dancers, and informative travel booths handing out tourist literature from around the EU.
Near Aix is the small village of Fontaine Vaucluse where the Sorgue River rises from underground to form one of Europe's largest springs. It is only a short walk from the village. We were hoping it would be really roaring in the spring but not so this time. Camper parking is somewhat hard to find. You have to go through the village, over the tiny bridge and just beyond the town to the lot without height bars. Parking 4E.
L'Isle sur la Sorgue is famous mostly for its 300 antiques dealers and Sunday antiques/brocantes market. We were there is 2017 and were knocked out, not so much by the antiques as by the ambiance of the place. We like water features, and LSLS has channeled the Sorgue to render the place nearly a water park. An old French water park. We'd wanted to go there the week before, but the mistral dissuaded us. How can you hold an outdoor market in a gale?! Another mistral descended almost as soon as we got there, finally, a week later, but the place was still enchanting and nobody among the thousands there seemed much bothered by the perpetual gale force winds. Provence is nice for many reasons, but the mistral is not one of them. At least it keeps everything swept up nicely. It was a lovely, upscale Sunday market but no antique tables at all—I think the wind played a factor in that. Another thing to love is that the aire is free at the train station and only 2 blocks from town. But it fills completely with cars and campers by afternoon on Saturday. We got there Friday after most of the commuters had left so easily found a spot.
Just up the road an hour or so is Orange. We stayed at the only campground nearby as there are no aires in the vicinity. Reasonably priced at 18E with free breakfast pastry of your choice. A first in all our campground visits! We walked into town, only a mile or so. It was Monday and this is not a big tourist place as other cities nearby have more and better Roman ruins. About 90% of shops and restaurants were closed so it was quiet and not an active vibe. Mistral winds were still blowing but down to about 20 mph.
Now for the long drive north to Beune about 230 miles. Google maps said 3.5 hours on the toll road and 6.5 without. We decided to go the slow way along the Rhone River. Very nice drive on good roads—just lots of towns and roundabouts. About half way there we heard some clunking noises and on investigation Mark saw a little smoke coming from passenger rear wheel. We stopped at a nearby campground hoping for garage recommendations but office closed till 4. On Google, Mark found some garages nearby, walking to the top of the hill in Laveyron was an authorized Fiat garage with a Welcome Camping Cars banner. They were even open at lunchtime and could see our camper in 40 minutes. The verdict, needs new bearing kit and stub axle (which we had done to the other side 3 years ago) and they could have the parts the next day. And of course, we could stay in the camper in the garage for the night. The entire “conversation” conducted on Google translate. Next morning all fixed by 10 am and a reasonable bill of 317 E. I commented to Mark that we have had oil changes, repairs and maintenance service in seven countries in Europe—all of them good value and good folks even without English (well, except Mercedes dealerships with our first European camper—good folks but crazy expensive.)
We decided to hop on the tollway to Beune so Mark could still get his wine tasting tour in the late afternoon. 21E for 110 miles! We have taken far more tollroads this year than in the past, but still the excessive tolls are irritating. In Beune we parked at the camperstop in town, which is free and a two block walk to the city center. I love France and its long love affair with campers. I strolled around, Mark did his thing, and we were off west headed to Bourges. We were in a hurry because a lot of rain was moving in in two days and the whole point of Bourges is its cathedral's glorious stained glass windows. We spent the night in a free aire in Nerondes. No reviews even in CamperContact app, but just fine. We had hoped to eat dinner out after a long day, but only a hotel restaurant with 2 customers and a grungy bar were open. We had stopped short of Bourges because the aire had been moved from where we had last stayed. CamperContact said only 20 places. Next day we found that the parking lot was actually quite large and had ample room at any time of day. It was a slightly longer walk to the cathedral than the former aire but still only a mile. The cathedral did not disappoint, 13th century windows, nicely cleaned and less than 7 ft from the floor. I was so tempted to stand on my tiptoes and touch that glass. No where else we have been can you be so close. We were there at 2 pm when it reopened from lunch and there was a ton of light streaming in, so worth the stop.
A new stop for us was Auxerre—pronounced “oh sair.” No wonder I did so poorly in French in college! The aire is right on the river near the pedestrian bridge, which ends at the Tourist Office. Auxerre is everything a small French city should be. There is a wonderful walking tour mapped out with brass sidewalk symbols and the TI has the informative guide for 1.5E. This is a town full of 15th century half timbered buildings, hilly but no steps, so I was happy. The cathedral was interesting and even better was the former monastery with its large gothic church and fascinating crypt. Admission to the crypt was 7E pp and the guided tour is only in French. We were amazingly fortunate that we were the only ones going and the tour guide spoke excellent English. The crypt is from the 10th century with several intact frescoes and the 5th century sarcophagus of the much revered local St. Germaine. (no body parts, as his were spread all over Europe as was the custom). Well, if you're into medieval frescoes it was terrific. The monastery also houses the local museum, etc. We had beef burgundy for lunch at The Quai—best ever. The TI told us that the next day, May 18 they were sponsoring a wine tasting tour of the small surrounding Burgandy villages—5E for the bus and wine glass between the 6 village circuit. Much fun, Mark bought a Chablis, and the tastings were for the most part in small family wineries, where Maman had the baby in one hand and poured wine with the other. Lovely, prosperous villages with large churches. I was very happy not to be navigating the one lane village roads and leaving that to the shuttle driver. The most amazing thing about all of it was that we had never been here in all our numerous trips and months and months in France. Two star Michelin—again certainly worth the visit. In France, there always seems more to discover—well actually, all of Europe.
So on to Paris. We needed a place to store the camper for a month as we were sharing an apartment with daughter and granddaughter in the city for 4 weeks. I emailed several campgrounds in the greater Paris area. The best one turned out to be Camping La Belle Etoile—30 minutes by train from the city. 8.2E one way, but if you were staying at the campground to see Paris there was a round trip train ticket combined with an all day metro and bus ticket for 17.80. A super bargain. In addition the campground has a wide variety of accommodations for non campers, everything from platform tents to full cottages at prices much less than Paris. We could store there for 7E per night less 20%. So here we are after spending two nights just camping to sort and pack for Paris, mixed with Mark's blogging and my writing up our last month's adventures. We have also decided that this summer or next would be a good time to sell our little European rig and so have asked Kathy to put our For Sale ad in the newsletter. Not that we're tired of Europe, don't think that is possible, but we would like to switch to city apartments after having spent over 10 years touring by camper. Also my knee issue would be better with building elevators and city escalators. Next month the urban life. Happy travels!