Lakes and Mountains
Lake Garda is a very popular destination for campers, especially German and British ones. This means there are scores of campsites, almost all at the southern end of the lake, where the terrain is more suitable because
it’s flatter. However, some of these sites are massive and a bit Butlins-like. A number of theme-parks of various sorts have also sprung up along the south-east shore of the lake. This didn’t appeal to us, but thanks to a review
on a caravan website we found a smaller, quieter site on the south-western shore at Manerba del Garda, a small town that most people have never heard of.
Baia Verde turned out to be the perfect site for a few days of peace and relaxation – well, it would have been, if not for the legendary Jefferis Extreme Weather Effect, but more of that later. The facilities were excellent, the site wasn’t crowded and our fellow-campers were a friendly collection of Swiss, German, Dutch, Belgian, Italian and English. We enjoyed lounging by the pool – I even ventured in, but the water was very cold! The site wasn’t directly on the lake but it was only a few minutes’ walk to a pleasant beach and small marina with a café where we passed a pleasant hour or two watching the boats, the ducks and the swans, not to mention the cheeky sparrows who hopped onto our table and tried to steal our food!
Sightseeing wasn’t a priority, as we’d been to Garda before, but we did want to revisit Sirmione on its peninsula at the southern end of the lake. We came here almost 20 years ago on a family holiday, when Michael was 15 and Helen 11. It was fairly busy even then, but nothing compared to what it’s like now! In those days parking was free but now it’s expensive (although not as expensive as in Leeds on a Saturday!) and to get anywhere we had to fight our way through a seething mass of bodies. We cursed the damned tourists who were getting in our way, before realising we were damned tourists ourselves and no doubt getting in someone else’s way.
After wandering the picturesque narrow streets for a while we stopped for coffee, not far from a church where a wedding was about to begin. Watching the guests arrive was fascinating. The women were all thin, elegant, and very expensively dressed, with killer heels which made it very difficult for them to walk on the ancient cobblestones. The men all wore sharp suits and sunglasses,most had longish black hair, combed back and a good number had facial scars. They looked like the kind of fellows you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of, in case you woke up one morning with a horse’s head in your bed.
After this wonderful free entertainment, we walked to the end of the peninsula to see the Roman ruins known (erroneously) as the Caves of Catullus. Again, this had been free 20 years ago but now it is 4 euros to enter the well-organised site which has a smart new museum – a big improvement, and well worth the money, especially if it’s used to continue the excavation and preservation of the ruins. We decided to have lunch in Sirmione and enjoyed an excellent pizza. It was quite a smart restaurant and some people were having elaborate, beautifully-presented dishes, but the restaurant was happy to serve very reasonably-priced pizzas as well. On a nearby table some people were having a meal with dogs on their laps, enjoying titbits, and no-one turned a hair. I don’t think that would happen in the UK!
During the evening there was a football match on TV which was watched by almost everyone on the site, some on the big screen in the TV room, some (like John) in their vans. Bayern Munich were playing Chelsea, and the match went to a penalty shootout. Cheers and groans could be heard on all sides and when Chelsea won the Germans were not best pleased, to say the least! We’d also had some wonderful news during the day. Helen had not only passed her exam for entry into the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, she’d won the gold Medal! So we went to bed feeling very happy.
We both woke just after 4 am with the feeling that something was wrong. Anyone who has been in a caravan knows that it doesn’t take much to make it rock– sudden movements, cleaning your teeth vigorously, even turning over in bed can cause it to shake. So we each thought the other one was the cause of the movement that had woken us. Then we realised the problem was external. John put his head out of the door to see what was going on, and saw that the chap in the van opposite was doing the same. We came to the conclusion it must have been an earthquake. Next morning we heard there had been a bad one north of Bologna, point 6 on the Richter scale, and not only had many historic buildings been damaged but several people had been killed.
The morning was warm but overcast so we had a short drive up the coast to Salo, a pleasant town which was full of Italian families out for a stroll before lunch. We sat with a coffee at a waterfront café and watched the ferries coming and going.
On our way back to the campsite for lunch it started raining, and got heavier and heavier. The sound of it on the roof was so deafening that John had to shelter under the car’s raised boot lid in order to make his weekly phone call to Mum. We couldn’t hear the television, even at full volume, and soon we couldn’t watch it either as the picture began to break up. The rain continued all night and next morning it was quite a logistical challenge to make it to the showers and back without getting soaked. In fact, I don’t know why we bothered with showers - it would have been easier to just stand in the rain stark naked for a few minutes!
The rain didn’t stop until 6 pm, after more than 24 hours continuous heavy downpour. We had left our bucket standing outside and it was almost full of rainwater. Luckily the campsite was well-drained so it never got as waterlogged as L’Amfora, the site at San Pere Pescador, but there were some deep puddles which took a while to drain away.
Next day was sunny again so we walked down to the lakeshore and saw the result of the storm – the water was full of leaves and other debris,
including even some logs and small tree trunks, a lot of which had washed up on the beach and was being raked into piles and removed by the street-cleaners. The small, clear stream that ran alongside the campsite was a muddy torrent and where it emptied
into the lake it turned the clear blue water a dirty brown. Another effect of the downpour was visible on the tops of the mountains surrounding the lake, where the rain had fallen as snow. Garda often has sudden storms but I’m sure this was
an unusually severe one!
It was time for us to move on, as we are gradually making towards Calais and the Channel Tunnel crossing we have booked for June 12. So we drove north, through splendid mountain scenery, over the Brenner Pass into Austria and a campsite on the Natterersee, a small lake near Innsbruck. This site was another one which was highly recommended in various online reviews, and certainly the facilities were the most luxurious we have come across. The showers would not be out of place in a five-star hotel! The staff make their way around the site on Segways ratherthan the usual pushbike.
Unfortunately during this period, the end of May/beginning of June, schools are on holiday in Austria and Germany so the site was very busy and very noisy. In fact, Austrian men are even noisier than Spanish women, and get up a lot earlier in the morning. By half-past seven they can be heard having loud conversations with each other in booming baritone voices outside their caravans. The wives are silent – perhaps they’re inside, boiling up sauerkraut for breakfast. One morning John was so annoyed at being woken early that he went outside in his pyjamas and remonstrated with them. They looked at him as if he was some species of alien, and continued booming at each other.
The scenery, of course, is magnificent – snow-capped peaks on all sides, green valleys, flower-filled meadows and villages of picturesque houses and onion-domed churches. We’ve mostly spent our time here relaxing, walking around the lake or in the forest or just sitting in the sun. The weather has been very changeable. When the sun shines it’s extremely hot, but clouds can come down from the mountains very quickly and there have been some heavy showers. One of the site’s many hi-tech features is a TV screen outside the toilet block with the weather forecast. So far it’s been wrong most days!
Our only major sight-seeing expedition has been into Innsbruck, which is only a few kilometres away and there is a very useful free bus service from the campsite. We tried to pick a clear day for this, as we wanted to take the cable-car up to the top of the Hafelekarspitze, one of the range of mountains that loom over the town. The trip was fantastic – it was in three stages, first by an ultramodern funicular to the village of Hungerburg, then the next stage by a large cablecar to Seegrube, where snow began to appear, and finally a small cable car to the summit (2,334metres or 7,585 feet in old money), although we had to walk the last 250 metres or so. It was pretty chilly and there were people still skiing in a few places.
Even more impressive, the mountain is very popular with mountain bikers who take their bikes up in the cable car then bike mdown some very hairy trails. The sun had been shining earlier, and still was down in Innsbruck, but a cold cloud descended briefly on the summit, but soon moved – the views of the neighbouring peaks were constantly changing. When it got too cold to stay any longer we went back down as far as Hungerburg where we had lunch sitting in the hot sunshine again.
Innsbruck is a historic old city which the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian 1 chose to be the centre of his kingdom, and his magnificent tomb is in the Hofkirche, guarded by 28 bronze statues designed by Durer among others. We also visited the Imperial Palace which dates from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Unfortunately Innsbruck’s most famous medieval building, known as the Golden Roof, was being restored and the façade was covered by scaffolding and a painted reproduction. After wandering through the narrow streets we sat with a well-earned ice-cream before getting the bus back to camp.
Tomorrow we leave Austria and cross into Germany. Normally we go to a supermarket and stock up before moving on, but this time we miscalculated – yesterday was Sunday and, unlike Spain, France and Italy, all supermarkets here are closed on Sundays. And today is a Bank Holiday, so they’re all closed again! This has left us at the mercy of the limited selection in the campsite shop. So it’s frankfurters tonight, and we’ll have to hope tomorrow’s campsite has either a decent shop or restaurant. Will we starve? Will we be reduced to eating sauerkraut? Will John start World War 3 if he’s woken early again? Find out in our next blog!