San Remo, Italy Sunday, November 30, 2008
After our rather trying day in Florence we had a quiet day catching up with the chores. The weather was cold but sunny and the distant peaks of the Apennines were white with snow. I even managed to get some washing done and dried (always
a problem in winter.) The next day, Wednesday, was also sunny so we set out for San Gimignano. The road took us through typical Tuscan countryside of rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves under a deep blue sky. We spotted San Gimignano's tall
towers on its hilltop from several kilometres away. It's one of those famously picturesque places that can be a disappointment in reality but in this case it turned out to be all I'd hoped for. Even John's somewhat cynical attitude to all
things Italian mellowed in the face of such a perfect little medieval town. It was at its peak of power and prosperity between the 12th and 14th centuries when the noble families built taller and taller towers for defence and, I suspect, status. At one
time there were 72 of them, but just 14 survive. Seeing it out of season turned out to be the perfect time - there were a few tourists about, and enough cafes and shops were open to give it a bit of life but not enough to drown the historic atmosphere
under a sea of tackiness. We had a cup of coffee and a delicious cake (one of our favourite sightseeing rituals) before going into the Duomo, which strictly speaking isn't a cathedral but a collegiate church. It was largely as it would have been in the Middle
Ages, with almost every inch of wall covered in frescoes illustrating scenes from the Old and New Testaments. After spending a pleasant hour or so wandering about the narrow streets we returned to the car and continued towards Siena.
We hadn't realised Siena is on top of a hill and of course cars have to be left at the bottom, but the excellent local council have provided what must be the world's longest escalator to take visitors up to the old town. Siena is another wonderfully preserved medieval city but rather dark and dour, being built of brick and stone of a dark reddish-brown colour - Burnt Siena, in fact, which will be familiar to anyone who's had a box of watercolour paints. Tall, solid palazzos tower over the narrow streets, the only real dash of colour being the very ornate marble façade of the Duomo. The most amazing sight is the vast Piazza del Campo, which is unlike any other Italian town square I've ever seen. For a start it's shaped like a huge scallop shell and is dominated on one side by the impressive Palazzo del Popolo with its immensely tall clock tower (which provided the model for Joe, for the benefit of any Birmingham alumni.) Again we wandered the narrow streets, which were extremely chilly, as the winter sun never reaches into their depths. It must be pleasantly cool in summer, though. Finally we went back down the escalator's 6 flights and drove home in the late afternoon sunshine, which turned all the little hilltop villages golden.
Leaving Tuscany a couple of days later we set off (in rain) for San Remo, which according to Mrs Tomtom would take us three and a half hours. I'll let John describe what happened!
All went well until just east of Genoa, where there were flashing warnings of snow at Genova Norve, an area or junction we could not find on the map. Shortly afterwards there were warnings that the A7 was closed to trucks. Ah, no problem, the snow must be on the northbound motorway over the hills to Milan. Then the traffic ground to a halt. We stopped for about 10 minutes, then crawled forward for 100 metres and stopped again for 20 minutes. This pattern continued for about 2 miles until eventually we had a 45-minute stop in a tunnel. In fact, in that mile long tunnel we stopped several times, taking the best part of two hours to get through it. Fortunately we had sandwiches with us, so had a picnic lunch as we waited. Just the spot for a picnic, 1000 metres underground, surrounded by trucks, water dripping from the ceiling. We did wonder about opening up the caravan and selling mugs of coffee. When we finally came out of the tunnel we saw the problem. Thick icy snow blasting down the valley, caking the barriers and forming ice heaps all over the road. This, combined with the fact that most of the trucks on the inside lane were actually waiting for the A7 to open, caused chaos. On several occasions the traffic in the two-lane tunnel had to squeeze to the side to let police cars, ambulances and fire engines through.
We finally passed the A7 exit, which by now was closed completely, and speeded up. We actually hit 50 kph at one stage, before the whole rigmarole started again as the next motorway northbound, the A26, was also closed. By the time we hit a clear road west of Genoa it was dark. Then the wind started. As we came out of each tunnel (there are hundreds of them on this motorway), we hit a strong side wind. The signs started to flash advising trucks and caravans to leave the motorway. What they did not allow for was the fact that there was nowhere to leave the motorway. A study of the map showed that all the exits down to the coast road involved a tortuous series of hairpins. Not what we wanted in the dark. So we pressed on. Our instructions were to leave the motorway at San Remo West. Well, we passed San Remo East, San Remo central, but there was no San Remo West....! By the time we realised this we were 20 miles past. We were not helped by the fact that the street in San Remo we were heading for was not on the Tomtom. We came off at Bordighera, aiming for the coast road back, missed the turn and ended up crawling down an 8ft wide byroad with tight hairpins and traffic coming up towards us. How we got down in one piece I will never know. Lesley is still unable to open her eyes or unclench her teeth.
Eventually we arrived at the site, Villaggio dei Fiori, at about 8 pm, 7 ½ hours after Jane Tomtom had predicted, had a stiff drink or three, a quick meal of pasta, and collapsed into bed. Lesley will continue the saga.....
According to our Michelin Guide, San Remo enjoys a pleasantly warm temperature all year round with an unusually high number of sunny days. This is borne out by the fact that the streets are lined with semi-tropical vegetation - palms, cacti, orange trees laden with fruit and bougainvillea still covered with purple flowers. Ha! That was before the Italian weather gods took offence at something we said and decided to throw everything they'd got at us. (It was probably something John said actually!) It rained all the next day (yesterday) and during last night we were woken by thunder so loud it made the entire caravan shake, deafening rain drumming on the roof, and thundering surf on the nearby rocky beach. Surf in the Med? Oh yes. The campsite has a waterfront promenade and during the night the waves had demolished a metal fence and strewn debris everywhere. Water was still breaking over it like something you'd see on Scarborough's North Shore during a January storm. We decided to drive to the San Remo waterfront to see the fun. Waves were actually breaking right over seafront cafes and the prom was lined with locals looking on with amazement and taking photos. Feeling the need for our ritual coffee and cake we repaired to a café that was beyond the reach of the waves. While we were inside there was more thunder and lightning, followed by an extraordinary hailstorm that turned the entire town white in a matter of minutes. The hailstones were the size of sugar-cubes. Even the staff in the café went out to take photos of it! Still, it could be worse. We heard that in a campsite in nearby Bordighera caravans were blown over in the night!!
So, it's with some trepidation that we move on tomorrow to Aix-en-Provence. What will the weather gods come up with next - a tornado maybe, or a miraculous rain of fishes. Watch this space!