Practical Italy Part 3 Rome to the Alps, June, 2011
(Mark and Vicki are in their 19th month of travel in Europe over the last two years. Their blog is at TheRoadGoesEverOn.com They are having such a great time that they have decided to store their camper another winter and continue touring another couple of years.)
So far Italy has seemed rather expensive but when I add up our expenses for March and May (April was spent in US) it has been okay. Camping has been a bit more than average at $419 for March and $300 for May. Although wild camping is allowed in Italy there are just not that many places. Instead we have been staying in costas or camperstops which are glorified parking lots. Sometimes they are free but often there is a charge and water and dump are available along with close public transportation. Regular campgrounds are the most expensive in Europe so we have tried to avoid them except where we can use our ACIS card. Admissions and local transportation (including ferries to Sicily and Capri) were $533 in March and $387 in May. (We don't miss much and senior discounts are few here.) We have eaten out more than usual because we love Italian food. Where we have saved money is on diesel--$400 in March and $200 in May. There are a lot of things to see and the entire country is the size of California, so especially in the north things are close together.
The ACIS Discount Camping Card is issued annually and costs about $20 plus postage (see their web site). The way it works is that the campgrounds listed have agreed to charge 10, 13 or 15E per night for 2 people, camper, electricity and 2 showers in the off season. For most places that is anytime but July and August. Last year we never used it because during the off season we were mostly in Romania and Turkey where it doesn't apply. This year we have used it in Italy especially when we were in Pompeii. We had planned to use it in Rome and Florence but have gone to camperstops instead for various reasons. I would recommend it because just using it a couple of times it will pay for itself.
After leaving Volterra we continued on to Pisa which is only a short drive. There are two camperstops and we choose the one at N43 43 44 E10 23 19 for 12E because we had read it was within walking distance of the Tower etc. It is a very short walk and there is also a self service laudromat 10 minutes away that we made use of. We bought the full ticket for the Pisa sites as we had not gone to the Duomo Museum or the cemetery before. We have climbed the tower so we skipped that.
Our Michelin insisted that Lucca was a 3 star town. It is an interesting place and the camperstop for 10E was quiet. To walk to town turn right and then bear right till you get to the walls. However there is not a lot of famous art there, just interesting shopping and the usual beautiful Tuscan buildings. I don't think it will make the list of places to return to.
Consulting Tom Tom we could take the toll road and be in Florence in an hour; the non toll road went back to Pisa and was 25k longer. We took a chance and the toll was only 4.7E or about what the diesel would have been to go the other way. Still $7 for 50 miles is why we avoid toll roads religiously. We decided to check out the camperstop since it was much closer to town than the ACIS discount campground. In previous Florence visits we had tent camped near Piazza Michelangelo. It is a beautiful view but at more than 30E a night we settled in for 12E at the camperstop. The bus is only a block or so and then 20 minutes to the central train/bus station about 3 blocks from San Lorenzo. There are lots of rules at the camperstop—no running the engine, no table and chairs, 4 night limit. We will see if these are enforced. (After two nights the price dropped to 10E, then 5th night at 12 then 10E; lots of people put out tables and chairs. It was also pretty full the entire time we were there even after the holiday weekend. A Dutch couple told us they tried the other one in Florence first—it was smaller and completely full. We ended up staying 8 nights. Luckily there were several thunder storms which allowed us to run the engine to recharge the batteries.)
Florence is not an easy city to visit as there is a lot to see; several places require reservations or long, long lines, and the hours are very confusing. After doing some advance research we had decided to buy the 72 hour Firenze Card as then no reservations would be required. It is pricey at 50E but that included bus tickets. Of course, it also means really long days since I want to get my money's worth. First day we stopped at the Vecchio to buy the pass as we knew the lines would be shorter there. Then we went to the Bargello Museum as the Uffizi is open later. At the Firenze Card website all the times and regular prices are listed. The Bargello took about 3 hours and again we ran into the no photos policy. Since we left Rome almost every church and museum has said no photos at all and it is very frustrating. I swear we are going to buy a binocular camera for Christmas. The Uffizi was packed as it was a holiday weekend. June 2 is Republic of Italy day. But the special line for the Firenze Card meant a 4 minute wait. You must check any backpack and no liquids are allowed so you have to empty any water bottles. We had our green Tuscany Michelin with us but wished we had bought the audio guide as the signage is atrocious. (Later I realized Rick has podcasts for the Uffizi and other things in Florence we forgot to use. I listened to part of the Uffizi one later and it wasn't bad.) All it tells you is where the art has been and when and how the Uffizi got it—nothing about why it or the artist might be important. Rick Steves says the average tourist spends 2 hours as it is not big. We spent over double that as I wanted lots of rest stops and it may not be big but nearly every piece is a masterpiece. The absolutely humongous multiple gift shops are at the end and they had some very nice guidebooks if you don't want to do the audio but we missed it on the way in. We had planned to get an early supper and go to the Palazzo Vecchio but decided to call it a day.
Day two on the card was quite productive. First the Medici Tombs, then close by the Palazzo Medici Riccardi for its beautiful frescoed chapel with the rest forgettable. On to San Marco which we had really been looking forward to after the Uffizi's Fra Angelicos. Again no photos and it was interesting to see the cells but the artwork was not as impressive as I expected but certainly a must see. We were doing well on time and also went to the Academia and then to Palazzo Vecchio and were finished by 5. Of course the David is wonderful and even though we went through the entire building there is just not much else of interest. If the Vecchio hadn't been free, it would have been an easy miss.
Day 3 we started for the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens thinking it would take all day. The main museum is the Palatine Gallery with its numerous Raphaels and Rubens. Good, but they are not the ones that make you come again. The Gallery and Royal Apartments took about two hours. We were not at all impressed by the Gardens or Grotto though we didn't make the long hike to the lake. I enjoyed the Silver and Costume Museums which together only took an hour. We then walked to the Brancacci Chapel. The guidebook had said you must reserve a day in advance but it was empty when we got there and I don't think it would have been required with the Firenze anyway. First we watched the 40 minute film which was worthwhile, then saw the frescoes which were overwhelming. You can get closer to them than any other frescoes we have seen in Italy and you can take photos. Plus the art by Lippi, Masolino and Masaccio—what else is there to say. A three hour downpour nixed the idea of heading to the Michelangelo overlook but it did allow us to run the camper engine for an hour to recharge the batteries without being worried about someone complaining.
We left till Monday morning our last site where we planned to use the card—Maria Novella,. Ours was to expire at 10:30 am so we only had to get there before then. Had our fourth day not been a Monday we would have probably left the Uffizi for last since that took the most time with only one ticket check. In turns out that this site is like San Lorenzo—more than one, each with its own charge. The card was good for the museum which included the cloisters and the wonderfully frescoed Spanish chapel. We especially enjoyed it for the pictures of Dante, Petrarch and others and the allegorical figures and muses. The church itself was not on the card but well worth the admission for its art—no pictures except what Mark could sneak. Then after a rare eat out lunch we finished our short touring day at San Lorenzo and the Laurentian Library which has Michelangelo's beautiful stairs and rare book displays—a must for a retired librarian. On the way back to the bus we stopped at a small specialty grocery, and I got to try the Modena balsalmic vinegars I had been curious about. I tried a 3, 6, 12, and 18 year in regular and cream formulas. They were extraordinary and I actually could tell the difference with age and settled on a 12 yr—expensive at 18E but apparently lasts forever and I want to try it with different dishes next fall when we are settled in an apartment for a while.
Two days of heavy rain kept us in the camper and two more days finished our sightseeing. We enjoyed the central market stocking up on Parma ham, spice mixes for gifts, and a huge slab of bifsteak Florentine to try to cook in the camper. For our 43rd anniversary we had eaten at the Steve's recommended Antica Rustica di Campa. The steak was super. We had no problem getting an outside table at 8, by 9 both inside and outside were very full and most were not tourists.
Next day we toured the Duomo and campanile and baptistry. We thought the inside of the Baptistry was glorious but skipped the Duomo museum as the Gates of Paradise were in restoration. The San Croce church and museum were very worthwhile but we couldn't see the original statues in the Ornamicheal Church museum as it is only open on Monday. All in all Florence has been easier than we thought it would be, and we look forward to our return for the few spots we missed, and another go at the Uffizi of course.
We headed to Ravena taking the non toll road over the mountains. It was a good road, though winding and took us through the northern part of one of Italy's national parks. Tom's directions did fine until we reached Forli where he headed us down several too narrow country lanes. I think a better way would have been just to follow the signs from there. The camperstop was in a tiny village, Classe, just south of Ravena. N 44 22 42 E12 14 4. It was free with water and dump but no shade. There was a TI next to the Basilica and then the bus stop. 1.2E at a tobac, 2E on board takes you into Ravena. The TI map showed 2 other camperstops that were closer in, maybe not requiring a bus. We bought the Diocese museum pass for the 6 Unesco sights. We have seen lots of mosaics in Turkey and Sicily but these were well worth it and each sight different. With a pilgrimage to Dante's tomb the sightseeing took about 5 hours.
After Ravena again we took the non toll road north to Padua, a very boring drive. Arriving on Monday about noon we found the camperstop full and overflowing, perhaps because of the market and a carnival set up. Also the cost was 1E per hour so we decided to try to find somewhere to park further out of town on the way to the free camperstop in Treviso. We never found anything we liked so ended up in Treviso. Again water and dump but no shade. The town bus stop is a couple of blocks away just past the stadium so we took the local bus to the bus station and paid 7.5E each for the 1hr 10 min ride to Padua. Our reservations for the Arena Chapel were made two days in advance for 3 pm. However, day of reservations looked to be available. It is very near the bus station just over the river. We went to the multimedia room first to see the extra film and use the computer programs which were pretty good but confusing at first. We had also watched 1hr of dvd lectures so we felt prepared. The Chapel was beyond words but next time we will try to get the 20 minute time which they do in the evenings and at slower periods (like last 2 weeks of June.) It is just a lot to take in in 15 minutes. Also they only charge 8 instead of 13E on Mondays because the huge attached civic museum is closed. Very little in the museum is signed in English and not much was worthwhile except the Giotto cross and a small Mantagna that you would miss if the guard hadn't pointed it out. Of course no photos were allowed anywhere, and I even had to check my purse. We also walked to the market in the morning and then on to the very interesting St. Anthony's Basilica which had more actual religious pilgrims than we have seen anywhere except for maybe the Vatican. On heading back to the bus we noticed another parking lot that allowed campers with lots of room but same cost. I am still glad we went to Treviso because both parking lots operated by automatic gate taking a picture of your license plate and then matching that up when you leave to decide on the charge. I think our US plate would have screwed things up and without an attendant it just sounds like a nightmare waiting to happen.
Our first day into Venice we took the bus to the train station in Treviso; ticket 4.8E round trip and about 30 minutes. We decided to walk from the Santa Lucia station to San Marco—supposedly 40 minutes but we did a lot of window shopping, mistakenly crossed the Rialto bridge, and took 90 minutes. Altogether a nice walk but ended up a bad idea as we got awfully tired at the end of the day. First we toured the Doge's Palace. We had remembered it as fairly boring, but thought the art sounded good. The art is mediocre and it is definitely a place where once is enough, though the Bosch was terrific and you could see it up very close. It is 14E which includes the Correr but we bought the Museum Pass for 18E to include the Glass museum which is 8E by itself. We used Steve's terrific info on checking a bag (which is mandatory) to avoid the line completely at St. Mark's. Most people wait in the sun and then find out they have to go check their bag! St. Marks was actually not as good as we remembered—it is just so dark even after your eyes have adjusted. We skipped all the extra pay parts. I did want to see Venice from above and since the Campanile has an elevator we did that at 8E each. Okay, but maybe not worth that much. You really can't see any of the small canals—and only a short part of the Grand Canal. At 5:30 we bought the 48hr. vaporetti pass and waited for 3 boats before being able to crowd on back to the train station. It is about 85 here and humid, which of course, makes it all less enjoyable that it should be.
Second day we took the vaporetti to the Accademia and listened to Steve's podcast on the way down the Grand Canal. Several rooms were closed and most of the rooms were missing their English language brochure cards so if you don't have a detailed guidebook (we had the Steve's Venice from 07) you should get the audio. This isn't the Uffizi but it is worthwhile and takes about 90 minutes. We splurged for a pizza lunch on the canal and then walked to St. Mark's to catch the vaporetti to Murano, stopping at the cemetery island which wasn't very interesting. Murano has dozens and dozens of glass shops—fairly expensive but the selection is outstanding. We limited ourselves to a Christmas ornament and barrette for a daughter. I had been really looking forward to the glass museum but it was a disappointment, and we didn't have enough time to go to Burano to see the lace museum. By catching the vaporetti at the Murano museum stop we were able to get seats and take it all the way back to the train station which was great. By the way, as we left the camperstop this morning a German couple said the police had taken pictures of our van early last evening. Since we had overstayed the 48 hr. limit we decided we had better move the van to the adjacent large free parking lot where at least 3 other campers were being stored. Hopefully, that will be okay.
Our last day in Venice we had several stops planned. At St. Maggiore the Last Supper was gone for restoration; next we got completely lost trying to find San Zaccaria and when we did it was too dark to see much inside, and we were too tired to pay even the 1E to see the art in the treasury. The weather was upper 80s and very high humidity (June 19) and taking its toll. We did a quick run through of the Correr Museum, though not much is there besides a wonderful Brueghel that you can get very close to. The highlight of the day was the Frari Church which has wonderful art, but we skipped the San Rocco School as we were Vernonese-arted out. We rode the vaporetti to Lido, but beyond St. Marks it is really boring. Returning to the camper we noticed that one of the campers we thought was in storage was being lived in by an older man complete with car and bike, so we stopped worrying about being kicked out or ticketed. Saturday morning Mark walked the laundry to the nearby lauderette we had seen from the bus,and we started on the non toll road to Cortina in the Dolomites around noon.
We went to the Dolomites last year but we really had no guidebook for Italy then and got lost and the weather was cloudy, so we wanted to return for another try. It started raining just as we reached the mountains so we stopped in a layby on the brief part where the road is four lanes (I think this is the GPS but I didn't label it so? N46 12 09 E12 17 21) for the night. The next day we continued taking the Great Dolomite Road over Falzarego pass, Pordoi pass and then Sella pass where we stopped for the night. N 46 30 30 E11 45 52. The scenery was awesome but the clear skies got the temp down to 32 and we lost some sleep worrying about whether we were going to have to dump the water tank. We noticed the next morning that close to the bottom of the pass there was a sign to camper parking but I don't know whether it was free or not. We continued on, stopping in St. Christina to buy some wood carvings and as we drove towards Alp du Siusi passed a possible wild camping spot by a stream at about N46 35 54 E11 32 50 just west of Ortisei. We reached the parking lot for the world's longest aerial cable car at about noon and it was just about full. We paid the 14E RT cable car to ride up to the largest Alpine meadow in Europe. It is a beautiful spot with further lifts available but we opted to walk up to the Panorama Ridge, then another hour or so to a little restaurant with great apple strudel and then back down to the valley to catch the shuttle bus back to the cable car. It was a perfect day for an easy hike in a marvelous environment.
The ticket person had said that we could spend one night in the parking lot (though there were no camping signs posted), but we ended up staying two with no problem and there were 1 or 2 others staying each night. Mark went back up the next day to do the circle loop around the Sasso Lungo which goes back to Sella pass. He thought it fairly challenging since he ran into some snow slopes and because of the necessity of getting back to the Florian lift down to the valley before it closed at 5, but he did enjoy it. We did see a regular campground just beyond Siusi if you don't want to go the parking lot route. The Dolomites are only about 100 miles or so north of the Verona/Venice area so don't miss them.
We had been in touch with Kathy and Richard How (editors of World Wide Travelers newsletter) and our paths were crossing in Mantova (Mantua.) We skipped Verona as we had been there before. We had a lovely visit with them but it was very hot and the camperstop was by the lake with all its mosquitoes. N 45 9 11 E10 47 55 It was very convenient to walk to the city center and see the Ducal palace with its wonderful frescoes. It was Thursday and a huge market was also going on taking up all three squares. When we got back the police stopped by and said it was okay to park there (and we didn't fit well and took up 3 spaces) but that they thought we would be better at the stadium. However, the heat drove us on and Kathy and Rick headed for the Dolomites and we for Milan.
We tried to go the the camperstop in Milan on Via Ripomonti but it wasn't there. On a nearby street we parked for the night near a municipal emergency center and an office building. The next morning we headed for Camping Milano as we didn't want to leave the camper on a street unattended all day. We were hoping on the way to maybe park at one of the commuter lots near the metro stations but not only was all parking full everywhere but the lots had height restriction bars. The campground is located by the water park and after finding out that it would be 28E ($41) for the night we decided to park in the lot for the water park which was free and be back well before closing at 7 pm. Leaving the lot turn right, walk 300-400 meters past a corner park, turn right on Romanella, buy a bus ticket, and catch the 72 bus to the metro. You go quite a ways and get off at the last stop at the De Angeli metro stop. The bus actually rounds the corner to the right and then heads back out of town (that is where you catch it back.) We left the parking lot at 11:15 and were back at 5:15 having seen the Duomo, the Emmanuel Arcade, the Opera House, and spent two hours at the very worthwhile Pinacoteca Ambrosiana museum. We especially liked it because you could get very close to the Caravaggio, many Titians, and many, many Brueghels they have. Plus there is a Leonardo and a nearly contemporaneous copy of his Last Supper and 21 pages of his notebooks on display in the library. Usually a hefty 15E they let us in for 10E seniors rate with no mention of the "you have to be EU citizen" we have experienced in most of Italy. The original Last Supper books up weeks in advance, and we just weren't interested enough to try to get left tickets. Back at the parking lot we headed out in pretty bad Friday evening traffic and stopped at a town parking lot south of Ivrea for the night about 3 hours from Courmeyeur our next destination in the Alps. Though we had no problems parking in the lot, we got turned around the next morning and on the way back into town on a different route saw a no overnight camping sign. Oh well. Note that on the non toll road between Pont St Martin (where there is a beautiful Roman bridge) and Chatillon there is a 3 meter height restriction for some rock overhang. You could move over into the left lane to avoid it if you are very careful or just take the tollroad for that section.
Last year in Courmayeur we had tried to find one of the camperstops in the book and ended up backing up a very narrow street with no camperstop in sight. After that we just went to a campground up the Val Veny for several days. This time we found the wonderful free camperstop at N45 47 35 E6 58 01. It has no services but the bus actually stops at it and it is only about 3 blocks to town and a super TI with free hiking maps. The parking area is closed Wednesday for market. However, there is tourist bus parking about 1-2 km south of town so you could stay there Tuesday night and Wed. morning. Mark rode the bus to the end of the Val Veny one day to rehike part of the TMB (Tour de Mt. Blanc) we did 6 years ago and after a rest day rode it down the Val Ferret to redo part of what he did last year. None of the lifts are running until July 1 so I am staying put in the valley. We had another wonderful meal at The Apple Tree before leaving Italy through the Mt. Blanc tunnel for France. Courmayeur is a great hiking center and much less expensive than Chamonix. But of course we love them both.
What can I say about 3 months in Italy except it is wonderful and you would need 4-5 months to really do it justice. We can't wait to come back.