Punta Sabbioni, Veneto, Italy, September 27, 2012
At this stage in our journey an explanation of our proposed future route is in order. From late September onwards campsites start closing for the winter, as temperatures, and demand, start falling. The favoured destination
of most winter caravanners and motorhomers is Spain, specifically the coast from Valencia southwards, because a) it's warm, and b) there are lots of campsites which stay open and cater for all the Northern European "snowbirds" who flock there. But between
Croatia and Spain the campsites which stay open into October are few and far between, so our itinerary and timetable has to take this into consideration. Much as we’d have loved to stay in the warm Dalmatian sunshine we knew we had to start heading
To get from Croatia to Northern Italy involves going through Slovenia, where the most-visited attraction is Lake Bled. The campsite there stays open until mid-October, so that’s where we headed. Slovenia has been described as Europe in miniature. It’s got a small stretch of coast on the Adriatic, fertile plains, lakes and forests, and snow-capped mountains (the Julian Alps.) What it doesn’t have is guaranteed good weather, and as we drove towards Lake Bled the rain obscured the lovely view we should have had of the mountains. We chose a reasonably dry pitch (there were quite a few muddy puddles) and ate our lunch. In a brief dry spell afterwards we walked down to the lake, which is described in the guide-books as “picture-postcard perfect”. Even on a grey day it was very pretty – the water is a deep blue-green and there’s a small island topped by an onion-domed church, the whole ensemble being overlooked by an old castle on a hill.
The rain continued for the rest of the day, with thunder and lightning for good measure, and the puddles around the campsite grew deeper. We looked at the weather forecast on the internet and it seemed that all of Central Europe, Northern Italy and Northern Croatia were going to be wet for the next several days. But against all the odds we woke next morning to blue skies. We walked down to the lake, intending to take some photos while the sun was out, and ended walking round its entire circumference, about 6 km! The water was crystal-clear and full of trout. Boatmen were busy ferrying visitors over to the island in the traditional gondola-like boats called platnjas. Not far from the campsite we passed Vila Bled, now a luxury hotel but originally built as the holiday home of the Yugoslav royal family. After the war it was taken over by Marshall Tito, where he entertained world leaders such as Khrushchev and Indira Gandhi. About halfway round the lake we came to Bled town, a fashionable spa resort in the 19th century, now somewhat marred by ugly modern hotels. Further on we came to a lido area with facilities for swimming and sunbathing, and just before returning to the campsite we passed an enormous rowing centre. The lake was still marked out in lanes from the European Rowing Championships which had been held here a few weeks previously.
After lunch we made the most of the fine weather by driving 20 km to Lake Bohinj. This is a larger lake than Bled, in wilder surroundings, and almost unspoilt as development on the lakeside is banned. There’s just one tiny village, Ribcev Laz, with a hotel, a couple of restaurants and the medieval church of St John the Baptist. This claims to be the most-photographed church in Slovenia, with its lovely setting and frescoed walls, so we added yet another photo to the total!
We decided to eat in the campsite restaurant in the evening, as it specialised in local cuisine. There was only one other couple there, so it was rather lacking in atmosphere, but the food more than made up for it. We both had beef, mine was cooked in a wine and pepper sauce and came with bread dumplings, John’s was cooked with spicy local sausages and accompanied by cheese dumplings. We washed it down with local wine and enjoyed chatting to the friendly waiter.
Unfortunately that was the end of the good weather. It rained all night and all the next day. We had planned to visit the capital, Ljubljana, but given the heavy rain there seemed no point. The campsite became progressively wetter and muddier until our caravan was almost entirely surrounded by water. You know it’s wet when you can feed the ducks from your doorway! Again we consulted weather forecasts but they were dire. In a place like Bled, where the scenery is the only attraction, there’s nothing to do when it rains. Not only that, but making a trip to the shower block involved wading through deep puddles. So with regret we decided to leave Slovenia, but maybe we’ll return one day – it’s a very pretty country, resembling Austria in its scenery and architecture, and the campsite was very good. We just didn’t see it at its best! We consulted campsite guidebooks and found a site near Venice which stayed open until the end of October. Rain was forecast there too, but Venice is one of the few places in the world that looks beautiful whatever the weather, and at least there would be plenty of churches and museums to take shelter in.
It was still chucking it down next morning so packing up was a fairly miserable task. It continued to rain heavily for most of the journey but as we approached Venice the sun came out and the temperature climbed to the mid-20’s (it had been down to 16 at Bled!) We arrived at Camping Miramare in the early afternoon. It’s at Punta Sabbione, at the Venice end of the long, sandy Cavallino peninsula which has Lido di Jesolo at the other end. They’d obviously had rain too but the sandy pitches had drained quickly. There were plenty of people there, the facilities were good and the vaporetto to Venice stopped nearby. There was just one problem, very common around the Venetian lagoon – mosquitoes! As I’m a mosquito magnet, and come up in huge lumps when bitten, I routinely take precautions from dusk onwards. I close the flyscreens on the caravan windows, cover myself in Autan, have a citronella candle burning outside and use an insecticidal plug-in overnight. However the Venetian mosquitoes were immune to such puny measures, and moreover they didn’t just come out at dusk but were active 24 hours a day! We both got lots of bites before we knew what we were up against. This required serious defensive measures. Despite the warm weather I wore long trousers and a long-sleeved blouse around the campsite, bought some jungle-strength Autan, one of those UVA plug-in anti-mozzie gadgets which emits a weird blue light, and some extra-strong insecticide spray. After that there were no more bites, but it was an awful hassle and made us feel constantly under siege!
However there was no mosquito problem in Venice itself, where we went next day. One of the useful services provided by the campsite is the opportunity to buy tickets for the ferry at reception, thus avoiding a long queue at the port. Another useful service is a free shuttle bus to and from the ferry. We arrived in Venice after a pleasant 40-minute boat ride, ready for a coffee, but with no firm plan of where to go. We’d been before, on a 4-night city break a few years ago, and visited most of the major sights, like St Mark’s Basilica, the Campanile, the Doge’s Palace, the Frari church, Santa Maria della Salute, etc, but there were a few we’d missed. However one of the great pleasures of Venice is just wandering about, preferably away from the crowds, coming across unexpected little corners and crumbling old palazzi. We went to Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo because I wanted to see the equestrian statue of the condottiere Colleoni, which had been in scaffolding on our previous visit, then after lunch of a sandwich and a beer (even though we avoided the most touristy areas, it was still expensive!) we felt ready to tackle the Accademia, the most important gallery of Venetian painting, so got a vaporetto. (Our ticket was for unlimited travel for 36 hours, so we could hop and off the boats at will.) As not everyone is interested in art I won’t go into details, except to say we spent an enjoyable, but very tiring, couple of hours. Then we began making our way slowly back towards the ferry. This involved fighting our way through the hordes thronging St Mark’s Square, but we made a small detour to say hello to our old friend from Split, Diocletian. Tucked into a corner on the outer wall of St Mark’s is an odd little red marble sculpture of four Romans wearing armour, cloaks and strange flat hats. These are the Tetrarchs – Diocletian, Maximian, Valerian and Constantine – appointed by Diocletian to help him rule the Roman Empire. Continuing on our way there was a final logjam of people on the Ponte della Paglia, all taking photos of the Bridge of Sighs. Then it was a short walk to our boat stop at Pieta and the chance to sit down and rest our weary legs for the duration of the crossing. Back at Punta Sabbione the camp’s minibus was waiting to take us back. After a quick meal of pasta we had an early night and slept like the dead!
Next day we had a quiet morning, an early lunch, then back to Venice for an afternoon of sightseeing followed by a meal, as our ferry ticket was good until 11 pm. The weather was overcast, with occasional showers, but still warm. As soon as our boat arrived we hopped onto another one which took us the short distance to the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on its own small island. It’s a large, elegant building designed by Palladio and described in our guidebook as having “perfect proportions and cool beauty.” It also has two enormous paintings by Tintoretto – of whom, more later – but for us the highlight was a trip to the top of the bell-tower. There was a lift, which saved our poor old legs, and the view was well worth the 5 euro fee. Venice was laid out before us like a map, with views across to the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s. We could even see the huge cruise ships moored beyond Piazzale Roma. I think it’s a much better view than the more popular, and much more expensive, one from the top of St Mark’s Campanile. Much less crowded, too.
Back on the main island we pottered around some of the quieter, more obscure canals,
had a delicious ice cream, and then went into an extraordinary church called San Pantalon. Not, as we thought, the patron saint of baggy trousers, but of doctors. His correct name is St Pantaleone and he was the personal physician of none other
than Diocletian, who we can’t seem to get away from. His life story was bizarre. Having converted to Christianity he rejected the practice of conventional medicine as he decided he could cure people by the power of prayer alone. Diocletian,
scourge of Christians, was sorry to lose a good doctor and reluctantly ordered him to be executed. First he was burned at the stake, but the fire miraculously went out. Thrown into boiling lead – the lead instantly cooled. Hanged?
The rope broke. Thrown into the sea with a rock tied to him – the rock floated. Beheaded – the axe became blunt. Eventually he had to give his permission to be killed, and was successfully beheaded. His martyrdom and ascent to
glory are depicted in an epic trompe l’oeuil painting on the ceiling of the church, which gives a tremendous illusion of height. The artist, Fumiani, took 24 years to complete the work then fell to his death from the scaffolding.
It’s quite difficult to follow such an amazing sight but our next destination, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, managed it. This is the mind-blowingly magnificent headquarters of a confraternity, or charitable brotherhood, formed in the 16th century to give aid to the poor and the sick. They did this by building themselves a sumptuous mini-palace, carved, gilded and painted to within an inch of its life, which Tintoretto, himself a member of the confraternity, adorned with over 50 large paintings on ceilings and walls. One can’t help but think of the amount of charitable works they would have been able to perform had they settled for a humbler HQ!
Emerging into the rain, weak-kneed from so much magnificence, we were in sore need of a beer. We sat at a café under an umbrella facing a wall covered in graffiti. Sadly, even the world’s loveliest and most historic cities are not immune from this modern blight. The plus was being able to watch a huge variety of people passing by, local as well as tourists, young students as well as old ladies, and a procession of Roma ladies one by one heading back to their gangmaster after their day’s begging.
Our next port of call – literally, because we had to get another vaporetto to it – was an interesting church, the Madonna dell’Orto, well off the tourist trail in a part of Venice called Canareggio. It had a number of interesting attractions including yet more Tintorettos, and the tomb of the artist himself, but we never got to see them as the church had closed an hour before we got there. Undaunted, we explored the surrounding area, which was full of quaint features such as some intriguing 13th century statues of men in turbans, known as I Mori (the Moors.) These had been local merchants whose palazzo nearby had a carving of a camel on it.
Eventually we found a modest restaurant in Campo Santa Maria Nova where we enjoyed a pizza and some wine while watching the passing scene. Finally we got the ferry back, but were too late for the campsite minibus so had to do the 10-minute walk back to the campsite on legs that felt as if they’d been worn to stumps.
We spent the next couple of days relaxing and catching up with household tasks, but had a brief excursion to the local beach, an enormous expanse of dunes, sand and sea which reminded me of the northwest coast of England. Offshore there is work going on to build a kind of tidal barrage which will prevent the damaging “aqua alta” or high water which periodically floods Venice and undermines the foundations. The current building works are quite unsightly but will be worth it if Venice is saved.
We had one more day of serious sightseeing before moving on. This time the venue was Aquileia, 75 miles north east of Venice, today a very small town, but of great importance in Roman and early Christian times. I have to confess I’d never heard of it until I went to a U3A lecture on mosaics and saw the most wonderful slides. There and then I determined to visit it, so here we are almost a year later. The weather was perfect, warm and sunny, and there were very few other tourists about. We hadn’t realised how extensive the site was, but armed with a map from the local tourist office we set off to explore. At one time Aquileia was a thriving port on a wide river but this has now shrunk to a mere stream, leaving the present small town surrounded by acres of ruins, a reminder of lost splendour. After seeing the Forum and the ruins of the port we went to the Archaeological Museum (which we had to ourselves) and were amazed by the quantities of pottery, jewellery, glass and statuary that had been found in the town. Outside in the museum gardens there were huge numbers of tombs, architectural fragments, sections of mosaic floor, inscriptions and so on, sometimes simply piled up in heaps. John was again reprimanded for taking photos!
However the most interesting mosaics are in the Basilica, founded in 313, altered many times over the years but still in use. There are magnificent floor mosaics in the nave, preserved when a later floor was built on top. Visitors now walk on a glass pavement above the mosaics, and can also see more of them in one of the two crypts (the other crypt has frescoes from the 11th century.) Many of the motifs are the ones developed by the early Christians during the time their religion was prohibited, so while not looking openly religious they have secret symbolic meanings. Peacocks symbolise immortality, small birds in trees are souls in heaven, the tortoise represents darkness and ignorance while the cockerel symbolises the light. There are also some extraordinary depictions of Jonah being swallowed by the sea monster then being regurgitated – again, a symbol of life after death. While not as sophisticated or finely-made as earlier Roman mosaics of the kind found in Pompeii, they are much more lively and interesting. Our visit to Aquileia was a fitting conclusion to our brief visit to Venice, but it was time to continue our westward journey so on our return to the campsite we took the awning down and prepared to move on.