The Flight of the Snowbirds
As Lesley mentioned in the last instalment, the next part of our journey would have to be based on campsites that were still open rather than areas we particularly wanted to visit. At the end of September most of Italy closes, followed closely
by France in October. We knew of two sites on Lake Garda that were still open, but on contacting them we found that they were full. A little further on is Lake Iseo, about half way between Garda and Como. There was an open site there, and
on the phone we were told that there should be room, but it could not be guaranteed. Lake Iseo had been highly recommended to us, so we thought we would give it a go.
So off we set, round the Venice Lagoon, past Padua, Verona and the foot of Lake Garda, past Brescia and through an incredibly long tunnel to Lake Iseo. I knew we had to turn off just after the tunnel, but there was a truck parked in front of the road sign. Ten miles and three tunnels later I found a spot to turn round and we returned to the correct exit and snaked down the hillside to the lake shore. At Camping Covelo the owner, Luca, hummed and hawed and eventually agreed to let us have a spot. With trepidation we followed him along a long narrow site until he showed us a spot right on the lakeside. We parked up with our caravan dining table just three feet from the lake. Splendid. We booked in for three nights, but so enjoyed relaxing by the lakeside that we stayed a week!
It was good to be away from the mosquitoes of Venice, but there were a lot of flies by the lake and also a lot of wasps. The car was parked under a tree which was dripping sap as it shed its leaves, and the roof of the car had a fine mist of sweet sticky stuff which the wasps loved. It kept most of them away from the dinner table though. Most spectacular though was the grasshopper which paid us a brief visit. It must have been six inches long.
The site was full, and as we explored we found out why. Talking to a group of English near the reception we found out they were part of a large group of motor homers who had been touring together and were now on their way home. Ten or so had remained together and come to Iseo. I looked at this guy, thinking he looked familiar and he stared at me and suddenly burst out "John Jefferis!!! It was Doug Lowther, someone I worked with 35 years ago in Hull. Our paths had crossed several times since, both working for Yorkshire Bank, but we had not met for at least twenty years. What a small world this is.
Most of the week was spent relaxing, feeding the ducks and swans that clustered around the camp lake side, and watching the grebes and coots a little further out. Two of the coots thought they were ducks and spent a lot of time with them, much to the ducks' annoyance. It was funny to see coots in clear water, to see how huge and paddle -like their feet are. (Lesley adds: I now understand what Yeats was on about. “Lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore" – it was the sound that lulled us to sleep, and the sound we woke up to. Just substitute “caravan” for “a small cabin of clay and wattles made.”)
A couple of times we walked into Iseo town. This was once an important port for the silk weaving industry which thrived around the lake. The medieval street pattern remains, but for the most part the current buildings were pleasant but unspectacular. While they were there the local TV station was filming the re-launch of a lovely old (1926) steamship. It was quite amusing watching these two very plastic blonde presenters (why are all Italian female TV presenters blonde?) repeating the same lines over and over again with big plastic smiles until the right take was wrapped. We sat and had an ice cream while the boat steamed off. A delicious ice cream, but unfortunately mine was still alive. A large glob of it leapt out onto my trousers, and while I was attending to that the plastic spoon twanged and another large glob was on my shirt front. I felt a right fool as we walked home. Fortunately I am married to an excellent washing machine, who soon had it sorted.
One day we decided to drive round the lake. In the next village they were having their annual wild boar festival, and there was a huge marquee of people scoffing, presumably, wild boar. Sadly all parking spaces were gone so we drove on. A little further up the lakeside there was a sign to the Pyramids of Zone. We had read about these without realising how close they were. The road wound almost vertically up the hillside and suddenly there they were. Tall limestone pinnacles each topped by a granite boulder. Apparently when the glaciers retreated they left the limestone with boulders embedded in it. As the limestone erodes the boulder protects the top. A very strange sight indeed.
We continued up the lakeside, or rather I think we did, for most of the road along the eastern side of the lake is in tunnels, until we reached the top end, then turned to come down the narrow winding road along the western edge. Perhaps Saturday was not the day to do this. First, parts of the road were closed temporarily with rolling roadblocks for several cycle races. Then, being the weekend, the German motorbikes were out in abundance, roaring along in both directions as if there were no traffic at all. One motorcyclist summed it all up for me. Having rounded a bend coming towards us, narrowly missing a car ahead of us he stopped suddenly, crossed himself, and then roared off again. I suppose it is a bit like the drivers in Cairo, if they have a crash it was the will of Allah. It was not the most pleasant of drives for me, and Lesley was a gibbering wreck by the end of it!
We had an extremely relaxing week, otherwise, and it was a shame to have to move on. However, needs must. Our next stop was to be San Remo, a site we had stopped at in December four years ago. On that occasion the San Remo microclimate, which brings warmth and flowers all year round, had failed us and we had seen it in howling gales and a freak hailstorm. We wanted to see what it was really like. We were to be disappointed again, as when contacted they advised us that the site was fully booked. We opted instead for a little Dutch-owned site near Albenga, also on the Riviera dei Fiori, who said they had lots of room. The journey was undramatic, round the urban areas of Milan, across the flat uninteresting Po valley, some scenic hills north of Genoa, then the Genoa tunnel system, which goes on for miles. The approach to the site was a bit hairy, along narrow roads between greenhouses which were full of fruit and flowers, but when we got there the site was very nice indeed. We were given a warm welcome and told to pick our pitch wherever we wanted. We chose what we thought was a quiet spot at the top of the site. There was only one other caravan there, a Dutch couple, but another English van joined us soon after. Turned out the English couple were from Pevensey, just a few miles from us in Seaford!
Sadly the peace and quiet of the site was ruined shortly afterwards. There were some cabins at the back of us and they were occupied by a number of older Italian families. Now the Italians are a noisy race at the quietest of times, but one of these was physically and mentally impaired, and spent most of his time shouting, with the rest shouting back. And then the dogs started barking, all evening and well into the night. We were tempted to move on there and then, but felt we must see some of this coast first.
Next morning we set off for Albenga, with the aim of having a quick coffee there and then driving along the coast. What a very pleasant surprise Albenga was. It reminded us of Luca and San Gimignano in Tuscany, rolled into one. Because not many have heard of it, it is not full of tourists, which on the negative side meant it was a bit run down, but we spent several hours wandering its streets getting sore necks looking at the towers and the mixture of Romanesque, medieval, Renaissance and even Art Deco buildings. It was once a Roman port, Albium Ingaunum, and the Roman dockside is still there by the side of the road as you drive in. But like Winchelsea and Rye, the sea retreated long ago and it lost its importance. The cathedral had all its Baroque ornamentation torn off it in the 1960s to leave the original 13th century building showing, and there are three enormous 13th century towers surrounding it. The 5th century baptistry is unusual in that it is ten sided outside but octagonal inside. The whole town centre is contained within the confines of what were once the city walls, and is mostly pedestrianised (perhaps because most of the streets are not wide enough for a car!).
We continued along the coast road, which climbs over headland after headland, plunging down to little villages and towns with rocky coves or long sandy beaches. At Alassio we stopped for a while to take a walk along the sandy beach. In season this would be a typically regimented Italian beach, with rows of deck chairs and a fee to go on, but off season it was very pleasant indeed. The sea was still warm enough for swimming and quite a few were taking advantage.
Further on we came to a sign for the medieval village of Cervo so we climbed the hill and had a wander. Here is another unknown gem, with narrow streets and staircases like Mont San Michel or one of the Cinque Terre villages. There is an amazing baroque church on the edge of the town, looking out over the bay with a pastel coloured façade. Actually anyone who has driven along the coastal motorway heading east will have seen this, perched on the hill. Here we found a lovely little restaurant and had a Ligurian meal of gnocchi with home made pesto, bacalau fishcakes and ice cream with zabaglione.
We drove on as far as Imperia, a large port, and then headed back to the campsite to pack up ready to leave next day and to listen to the shouting and the dogs. Consulting our guides we had found a large site on the Provence coast at Sanary, between Marseilles and Toulon, which was a convenient half way point between Albenga and the Spanish border. We left Albenga in a misty sort of sun, but it was warm, shorts weather. As we arrived at Campasun (!) Park Mogador in Sanary the heavens opened and it tipped it down. We had picked a pitch that looked reasonably puddle free, but by the time we got the caravan to it, it was ankle deep in water. The same applied to all of them! On this occasion I left Lesley in the car and did all the pitching up myself. There was no point in getting two sets of clothing wet. It continued raining, with thunder and lightning, well into the evening, but then eased off and by morning all was fine again.
We drove down to the town of Sanary next morning, to find a delightful little Provencal port. Working fishing boats were moored on the harbour front, each with its own little stall to sell its catch. These were moored side by side with posh cruisers and yachts, and along the harbour front were a collection of cafes, bars and restaurants. We wandered the narrow streets behind the sea front, which were lined with expensive fashion shops and jewellers (no tack in Provence thank you very much), then headed for the big Auchan supermarket to stock up. Nice to be in a French supermarket again, with a huge range of foodstuff, but oh the prices. I felt like turning straight back to Croatia.
In the afternoon we walked down to the local beach, and the following morning to the other local beach. One was a rocky cove with big waves, the other calmer and more sandy. Interestingly there were a number of big villas with plaques on. Before the war Sanary was a haven of Jewish writers and intellectuals and their sympathisers who had fled from Germany. Among them was Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World at a villa here.
We had a lovely afternoon drive inland and up the rocky mountain behind the coast, Le Gros Cerveau. The road twisted and turned along the ridge, giving superb views of the coastline back as far as the naval port of Toulon, and views inland across Provence. This is a part of Provence we had not visited before, and it is so much nicer to be away from the crowds in the usual places. But we had to press on and get onto one of the Modern Pilgrimage Routes, so made a mental note to come back and explore at length another time.
The Modern Pilgrimage Routes are nothing to do with the Camino De Santiago, or the Canterbury Tales or the Hajj to Mecca. They are to do with the religion of winter sun worship. Every autumn Germans and Dutch people of a certain age, and quite a few British too, hitch up their caravans, load up their motor homes and set off for Spain, where their arthritic joints can be eased in the warmth of the Spanish winter. To cater for this there are frequent Pilgrimage stops along the designated routes, known today as campsites open all year round. It was to one of these we were headed, Les Oliviers at la Boulou, where we had stayed four years ago.
Le Boulou is a pleasant but non-descript French town six miles from the Spanish border at Le Perthus, but what the town lacks in character it makes up for in position. Tucked in under the Pyrenees it is dominated by the 2,800 metre Pic du Canigou, one of the symbols of the Catalan people, and yet just 10 miles east is the Cote Vermeille, the long stretch of sandy beaches so popular with French and English tourists. The campsite at les Oliviers is ideally placed just five minutes from the motorway, just off the main road to Argeles and the coast, but nestled in a quiet grove of olive and pine trees. It is a popular night halt for the snowbirds. We arrived early Sunday afternoon to an almost empty site. By 6pm it was full. By 9am it was almost empty again. And so it went for the three nights we were there. Lesley wanted to catch up with some washing and we both wanted to revisit Collioure.
It rained heavily on the first night we were there, and when we woke next morning the Canigou had quite a large snow-cap. Unfortunately (or should it be fortunately?) it was a warm day and much of the snow disappeared. The site owner said it had been like that for a few weeks, snow-capped one minute, bare the next. Nevertheless it was an impressive sight from the caravan.
It was fine for our trip to Collioure. We had visited this little seaside town last time we were here and had thoroughly enjoyed it, so we just had to go again. We had tried to visit in May, but the place was so crowded and there was nowhere to park, so we gave it a miss. This time the crowds had gone and we parked easily. It is easy to see why the Fauves and Impressionists liked this place so much. The light and colours make this one of our favourite places in France. We ambled along the promenade and round the headland, then back through the narrow winding streets, before heading round the castle to the old port and church. Most of the cafes and restaurants here were only serving a full lunch, but we found one on the harbour front which was offering a Catalan sandwich or a plate of tapas. We sat down and ordered two beers and two sandwiches, to be told that they were right out of sandwiches. Never mind, we’ll have two plates of tapas. He brought the beers and advised us there was only one plate left, so we shared five olives, four anchovies, three small bits of bread with tomato paste and two tomatoes between us. The café was also offering crepes, but they were out of those too! We just had to have an ice cream later on.
Next day it was time to continue the flight south, to Vilanova Park just south of Barcelona. There was very little traffic over the Pyrenees, apart from caravans and motor homes, and when we arrived at Vilanova we were allocated a nice big pitch with a bit of sun. It was warm and we were able to sit out and relax. A trip into the town revealed a new Mercadona supermarket, which we visited and bought up. It was nice to see the old familiar Spanish foodstuffs and a typical Spanish fish counter, which provided us with two magnificent gilthead bream to cook on the Cadac.
That night it rained and operation desert storm came into force. Not the liberation of the Kuwait oil wells or the invasion of Iraq, but the strange atmospheric conditions which lift Saharan sand up to cloud level and dump it hundreds of miles away, in this case onto Vilanova. We have had this occasionally in England, appearing as a fine layer of dust or a speckled covering. In the morning everything was covered with a layer of orange sand. We could not see out of the roof lights or even the windows. Cars were all the same shade of orange, and seen from above the caravans all blended into the background. What a mess. I had cleaned the caravan at Lake Iseo, what a waste of time that was. I had not cleaned the car though, and the car roof still had that sticky residue of sap, to which the sand stuck. Remember the days of what we used to call “cheap camera” roofs on cars, that black vinyl that for some unaccountable reason proved so popular? Well I was setting a new trend of sandpaper roofs. So it was off to the do-it-yourself car wash to power hose it off.
Shortly after we arrived at Vilanova we heard from daughter Helen to say she has time off next week so she is flying over to join us for a few days. So we have booked in here for another week and are praying to the rain gods that it is fine for her.