November 12, 2019 Nice FR

We finally had to reluctantly leave Italy behind.  We will talk more about our impressions of Italy later, but we both found it wonderful.  We had read a lot of negatives about Italy, and were prepared for a tougher experience than we had had in other places.  It turns out Italy was pretty easy to move around in and we did not experience anything that would cause us to discourage anyone from traveling there.  On the contrary we found Italy to be a wonderful country and we encourage anyone who is thinking of Europe to make sure they include Italy in the itinerary.

Arrivederci Italia.

We woke up to sunshine, so we made an early start towards Nice.  The drive over was uneventful but Nice made a bad first impression on us.  First the year round campground that we planned to stay at after much research to make sure it was open, was closed.  One warning if you are traveling in November call ahead and confirm that places that say they are open are really open.  Luckily because of our research  we had a second choice in mind and it was only 10 minutes away, and most importantly they are open year round as advertised.  The next negative to our first impression of Nice was at the train station.  We walked about a mile to the nearest station, which is a minor station.  In Italy every station no matter how small had someone working there, this one had a nice lobby with an information window, but it was closed with a sign saying they were open random hours during the week.  No problem we are serious travelers and can get tickets from any automatic machine.  The one thing that will stop intrepid travelers like us is if the only ticket machine at  the station is malfunctioning (actually completely dead, powered down).  So now we were stuck, our first temptation was to just get on the the next train and if we did run into a conductor tell him our tale, but not really speaking French this seemed risky and could end up costing us an awful lot.  At this point Ton saw an advertisement for an App the train company in France has where you can buy tickets on line so we tried that.  Surprisingly it worked, and armed with our app bought ticket on our phone we boarded the next train to Nice.  

As a quick editorial, one of the things we liked about Italy was the lack of automation, you bought tickets from people, who were able to answer questions, point you in the right direction and deliver a smile.  Maybe that is why even though things are rougher around the edges in Italy we enjoyed it so much, because we were dealing with people and not machines and apps.

The beach in Nice is this pea gravel and not sand, but it does not detract from people heading to the beach.  The gravel makes a really interesting sound as the waves recede.

Nice is much larger than I envisioned, somehow I had an overgrown Monaco in mind and not the big metropolis we found ourselves in.  But it is beautiful and the waterfront esplanade is one of the best we have ever seen anywhere in the world.  It is truly magnificent and I can see how you could fall in love with a city that goes out of it’s way to embrace the sea in the way Nice does.

The extensive waterfront esplanade of Nice, the best one we have seen in our travels.

We ended up walking more today than any day on this trip, just about exactly 10 miles. We climbed up to an overlook on one side of the city and waterfront and were rewarded with some fantastic views of both Nice, and the Alps in the background.  

City view of Nice, with Italian style Duomo in the center.

When we arrived back to our broken home train station of Villeneuve-Loubet I told Ton I thought there was a better route home.  When we were walking to the train station in the morning we had spotted three very large and striking condominium towers.  We both find them striking but neither one of us will own up to liking them.  We walked thru them on the way back and found a giant marina behind them, so they are catering to a very upscale clientele.  It was sunset and the sky and the views over the Mediterranean were eye catching.  From one beach we were able to look at the sea, and turn and look at the Alps with the pink light of the setting sun highlighting the snow caps.  It was worth the diversion for a great sunset.

The striking condos and upper middle class yachts.

November 11, 2019 Sanremo IT

Italy has a hold on us.  Our plans were to head over to Nice in France today but when we woke up this morning the weather was pretty brutal, and it was supposed to stay that way all day with a couple of short breaks.  After some discussion we came to the conclusion if we were going to be trapped in François most of the day why not do it in Italy.

We spent the morning trying to get a veterans discount for our Amazon Prime service.  Amazon was struggling with us applying for a US veterans discount from Italy but after three calls we finally got it sorted.  

Finally about noon we saw a little break in the rain so we made a dash to downtown Sanremo. Ton wanted to get a picture of the Russian Orthodox Church we saw on the bus the other day, and we decided to do one more shop for Italian food in a large Coop (pronounced coupe) here in Italy.  

The waterfront promenade in Sanremo on our way to the Coop for groceries.

We got off the bus near the casino in Sanremo (about the same size as the one in Monaco but not as famous.)   After getting some shots of the only Orthodox Church we have seen in Italy, we took one final walk down the main shopping street, confirming that Sanremo was much more alive for us than Monaco before heading to Coop.

The dome of the Orthodox Church in Sanremo.

One of the pleasures we have had in Italy is the quality of the food in the groceries.  We have each found and enjoyed a bunch of food that we have not seen anywhere else.  Our main motivation was to get one more chance to stock François up with some our favorite new staples such as Blood Orange Juice, fresh pasta (not dried like we are used to in the US), pocket coffee (a chocolate coffee confection that can be eaten as candy, or added to a shot of espresso to make a drink), and the varied pasta sauces.  We also broke our €2.99 limit on a bottle of Primitivo wine as we both wanted to try this particular wine and had not been able to find one within our budget.  So we picked out the cheapest bottle and are now indulging in our expensive €3.69 bottle which is superb!

Italy rewarded us for our loyalty for the two and a half hours we were out the rain held off.  Five minutes after we returned to François the skies opened up again. 

November 10, 2019 Monaco

We decided to take the train into Monaco from Sanremo.  Some places exceed your expectations and some just miss.  I had been looking forward to Monaco with visions of the Grand Prix, and James Bond playing baccarat at the casino.  It is an independent country surrounded by France, and after the Vatican the smallest country in Europe so I had a romantic vision of the place.

The train station in Monaco.

When we arrived at the train station we could tell there was money in Monaco.  It is also the richest country in Europe, of its population of roughly 40,000, 30% of them are millionaires due to its status as one of the worlds biggest tax havens.  It is also one of the most densely populated places on Earth as it does not have much land to cram the millionaires into.

A view of the densely packed Principality of Monaco, the empty hills above the town are in France.

We walked along the waterfront admiring the harbor, and looking at all of the yachts.  One particular ostentatious one stood out to me, and I wondered what billionaire owned it.  The views of the harbor were nice and Ton took a lot of pictures as we strolled along.

Some of the yachts in the harbor at Monaco.

After getting our fill of the harbor we decided to head over to one of the famous landmarks of Monaco the casino in the Monte Carlo district.  We had read that it was difficult to get access to the building and we thought we would have to pay an admission fee to get inside.  We were surprised when we got there to see that we could walk in and look at the main foyer and the slot room.  Maybe because it was off season they were a little more lax with letting the plebeians in.  In addition to taking some photos we took advantage of their very upscale toilets and they were free.

The lobby in the casino at Monte Carlo in Monaco.

As we walked out of the casino Ton said lets find a real neighborhood with coffee shops and food stores for a light lunch.  So for the next hour we wandered the streets looking for a real neighborhood with coffee shops and normal stuff and failed.  Partly it might have been because it was Sunday and Monaco like France rolls the sidewalks up on Sunday, but we think at least partly it is because there are less of the cafe’s and little shops that we really enjoy in cities here. We ended up having a box of french fries at McDonalds for lunch (they still will not take our American Credit Cards!), not at all what we were looking for.

A typical quiet and empty street in Monaco.  I guess all of the millionaires were out of town.

We did find the carnival that was in town and walked thru that for a few minutes.  It was a big carnival and occupied a good piece of land on the harbor.  The families were behaving just as they do everywhere in the world when they are in a carnival which is fun to watch. 

The carnival along the waterfront, the most exciting place in town today.

Overall Monaco was a miss for us, and if I had to pick between Monaco and Sanremo to spend a week, I would pick Sanremo without hesitation.  It feels like a real town with real people and has a much more interesting atmosphere than the cold richness of Monaco.

November 9, 2019 San Remo IT

We have made our way over to the Mediterranean Sea again at Sanremo.  This is the last city we plan to stay at in Italy before heading back into France.  We woke up early when the electricity we were plugged into decided to stop working, this causes the refrigerator to sound an alarm.  I got up and switched over to propane but the damage was done and we were both wide awake at 6am.  After laying around for a few minutes we decided to get up and get an early start for our drive.

This is an Ape on the dock in Sanremo, a three wheel utility vehicle that reminds Ton of a common Thai vehicle called a  Tuk Tuk.  

We started the day with bright sunshine around Turin, but as we headed towards the coast we passed over a pretty high mountain pass and it got dark and rained a bit, even more concerning the temperature had fallen to the high 30’s.  Fortunately as we headed down to the coast the sun popped out and the temperature climbed into the high 50’s.

Sanremo is a pretty coastal town.  The drive down into Sanremo was a bit of an adventure as Greta got us off of the main road and we had to squeeze down some narrow roads until we got to downtown.  I am getting better at realizing when Greta is picking a bad route and ignoring her, but she got me this time.

A women ocean going rowing team exiting the harbor in Sanremo.

After getting settled in we headed into town to check out the city and to get our experience of the Italian Riviera.  The city is pretty, we decided to check out the casino that Sanremo is famous for, but when we were told we had to check our back packs we decided it was not worth the effort.

The Casino in Sanremo.

The next stop was the waterfront where we ambled along the breakwater looking at the yachts and the working boats.  There was an impressive array of yachts ranging from upper middle class to billionaire.  Ton was most impressed with the fishing boats.

This is a two or three hundred foot yacht belonging to some billionaire, Ton thought it was ugly.

Our last walk was up the hill thru the old Sanremo to the church which had a great view of the town and the sea.  The interior of the church was prettier than the exterior indicated it would be.  Just as we emerged from the church a big thunderstorm broke over the town.  We were not prepared for rain because I convinced Ton it was not going to rain!  We dashed from shelter to shelter until we got down to the main road.  I saw the bus back to the campground just down the street stuck in traffic, we were able to jog down the sidewalk and get to the bus stop before the bus.  The rain was pretty intense on the drive back and we got off the bus we dived into a grocery store to wait out the storm before finally heading back to François for the night.

A rainbow to reward us for our unexpected soaking in Sanremo.

November 8, 2019 Turin IT

It really pored all night last night. The heaviest sustained rain we have seen on this trip.  The last week has been wet and cool and it is starting to wear on us.  Turin is our last major Italian city of the trip.  We picked it so that we could get a brief taste of the Piedmont area.  

The drive over was pretty easy except for hitting a few very heavy bouts of rain.  As we closed in on Turin the weather started to turn and morale picked up in François.  There was even a brief view of the Alps as we got close to the city.  

The Sosta we are parked in is run by the tram company in Turin, while it is very convenient it probably has the most convoluted pay system we have seen.  You take a ticket when you check in and that takes care of the parking. To use the water you are supposed to stick the parking ticket into a machine and it records that you used water.  This also goes for the dump, bathroom, and showers.  To get electricity you have to go get a separate card give a €10 deposit and then take that card to a vending machine to put some credit on it, and after the credit has been loaded you take it out to the electric boxes and insert the card to get your electricity.  The parking lot is located off of “The Soviet Union Boulevard” (Turin is a very left wing city.), so I think whoever designed the payment system must have learned it when they were studying in the USSR.

The Duke of Savoy’s Palace in Turin.

After sorting out the electric we headed downtown on the Tram.  Turin is a very prosperous town, and while there is nothing particularly spectacular in town, the overall feeling of the town is quite  organized and well ordered.  In fact it almost felt German except for the driving which is Italian to its core.  Ton had one primary target which was Al Bicerin Cafe which has been in business since 1763.  This place developed this drink consisting of espresso, dark chocolate, and cream in layers.  The drink and the cafe have been celebrated in novels and travelogues for over 200 years.  After walking thru the former Dukes Palace and the main square of town we headed over to the Cafe.  Ton ordered the Bicerin while I opted for a normal hot chocolate.  It is a humble looking place that does not look like it has been impressing great artists and politicians for centuries.  It was everything Ton hoped for (my hot chocolate was good also, but now I feel like a charlatan).

The Al Bicerin Cafe which has been serving the rich, famous, and humble since 1763.

When we finished up with the Bicerin and some light food we headed over to the central market.  We can never go wrong at one of these traditional markets.  We really enjoyed our walk thru the market and the food stalls in a separate building.  Turin looks like a great town to live in, an interesting mixture of big business (it is the home of Fiat) and food.  It reminded me a little bit of Portland without the beer.

One of the stalls in the Central Market in Turin.

We finished the day with a promenade up the main shopping street of town, before grabbing the tram.  On the way back to François we made one final stop at a big grocery store to stock up on some of our favorite Italian groceries before we head back into France.

Street scene in Turin.

November 7, 2019 Milan IT

We woke early to head into Milan as the weather forecast was threatening.  It looked like the best window was going to be in the morning, so we were off for downtown before 8:30.

I expected Milan to be a more elegant city than it turned out to be, based on it being the fashion capital of the world with names like Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton  and Prada located here.  I envisioned it to be a Miami or Los Angeles. Instead it felt more like Pittsburg or Detroit, more industrial than elegant.  

Our camp site is in a working class neighborhood at the end of a tram line which is convenient for getting downtown.  We take public transport in most of the cities so we get to see the less glamorous parts of town.  It gives a view of life away from the tourist centers, and a chance to watch people interacting in a normal environment,  which we enjoy.  Milan is a more diverse city than any we have seen in Italy.  It definitely has the largest Asian population we have seen which seems to be mostly Pilipinos.  We had been commenting on the lack of Kebab shops in Italy compared to the other countries we have visited, but Milan had plenty of Kebab shops.

One of the windows of the Louis Vuitton store in Milan.

Downtown Milan did have some of the elegance we were looking for with all of the big name fashion designers having stores in the Galleria off of the main square.  Right after we arrived downtown it started raining and the Galleria is covered so we headed there to get out of the rain.  We walked around looking at all of the fancy stores and enjoying the Galleria.  I believe it is the inspiration for all of the malls that dot the US, but on a scale that no developer is going to pay for.  

The Galleria in Milan, the inspiration for hundreds of “Malls” in the US.

Between showers we would dash out of the Galleria and head towards the Cathedral which is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world.  It was built over 600 years so it passed thru a lot of design styles.  It is know for the hundreds of statues on the exterior and the interior.  

Ton really liked these two statues, though we are not sure what the story is.

We decided to pay the small entrance fee to visit the interior as there was no line.  We were both impressed with one particular statue of St. Bartholomew.  The statue is in great detail and you can see his bones, muscles, and veins.  We did not realize this was because he was flayed alive.  What we thought was a robe wrapped around him is actually his skin!

St. Bartholomew with his skin wrapped around him like a robe.

We had been remarking on Italy being the first country we had visited in Europe that did not have several Starbucks in every major city.  Ton looked it up and there is only one Starbucks in Italy and it is also the largest Starbucks in the world (until next week when a larger one will open in Chicago).  We decided to visit it as it roasts its own coffee that Starbucks calls a “Reserve Roast”.  They also feature many different ways of brewing coffee.  We expected to have a quick coffee and head out, but ended up in there for well over an hour and enjoying two coffee’s each.

The largest Starbucks in the world.

November 6, 2019 Milan IT

We have hit a lull in the trip.  A combination of poor weather and the need to be much more deliberate in planning.  It looks like nearly every campsite in Northern Italy closed down on November 3rd.  Our plan was to visit one of the lakes that Northern Italy is famous for.  Our first choice was Lake Como, but after looking at over 20 campsites websites they were all closed.  We switched to Lake Garda and seemed to find one campsite that was open.  Their website and the ACSI website both said that it was open until November 10.  So today Lake Garda was our target.

No pictures for today as we spent most of the day driving.  So another picture of St. Marks square under water.

We took our time departing Vicenza as the drive was only an hour to the campsite on Lake Garda.  We began with a shopping trip to Lidl.  After the last two days between the American Grocery at the Army base and Lidl; François is stuffed with food.  Ton had a difficult time getting everything into place.  Heading down the Autostrada to Lake Garda was easy, thought the truck traffic was quite heavy.  It was a short trip to the campsite after we left the Autostrada and it was raining heavily.  We discussed whether it was worth stopping as we did not know whether we would be able to enjoy the lake in the rain.  The problem was solved when we arrived at the campground and found that despite all of our internet research it was closed for the season.  So the decision was made and we headed back to the autostrada for the additional 140 kilometers to Milan.

Our destination this time was an Agritourismo site on the edge of Milan that was reported to be open.  We arrived about 3 pm and were directed down some really small roads, and when the GPS announced we had arrived there was nothing that looked like a place for campers in site.  I remembered that one of the reviews said that the GPS coordinates for the site were not quite accurate so I parked François and went on a foot reconnaissance and found the site tucked away.  

It is definitely  the most eccentric site we have stayed on here in Italy.  It is tucked in the courtyard of a farm building surrounded by construction and apartments.  There are a couple of dogs running around, a cat that seems to be in charge, and 10 or 12 chickens.    It is the only site available in Milan so it will do.

November 5, 2019 Vicenza IT

Today was a maintenance day.  Our campsite is less than 100 yards from the main shipping channel for Venice port so we began the day watching the morning parade of different types of commercial ships go by including Container Ships, Car Carriers, long distance Ferries, and tankers.  They passed close enough in front of us that we could see the faces of the crew walking the ships, it was a fun start to the day.  

Police boat near Venice.

After that we drove less than an hour to a US Army base in Vicenza.  François needed a good cleaning, and we decided to take advantage of the big American washing machines there.  So the day consisted of washing all of our sheets and blankets, while Ton was working on that I gave François a bath in the rain which worked out since I did not need to rinse.

After that we did some food shopping and relaxed for the rest of the day.  

November 4, 2019 Venice IT

After a wet and windy night we woke up to sunny skies with a touch of fog.  The bet we had made on the weather had turned out, so we headed over to Venice for the day.

Our ferry dock was pretty memorable.

As I talked about yesterday I had to decide if we were going to take a gondola ride today.  Instead I decided that we would ride on one of the ferries that acts like a bus called a vaporetto.  Line 1 follows the Grand Canal and it costs considerably less than a gondola, and covers more ground.  After a couple of stops we gained the two front seats in the bow of the vaporetto. This proves (at least to me)that it is possible to have romance without spending a lot of money.

Who needs an expensive gondola when you can take a waterborne bus and get the same views.
Passing under the Rialto Bridge on our trip on the Grand Canal.

We also planned to visit the Rialto Bridge which is the most famous bridge in Venice.  So we disembarked from our vaporetto there after about an hour cruising the Grand Canal.  The bridge and the market next door did not capture our attention, so we headed over to St. Marks square.  The tide was quite a bit lower so the square was not under water today.  The places that were flooded yesterday now had fancy outdoor cafes with bands and extremely expensive coffee for sale.  It was quite a change from yesterday.  While it was a lot prettier it somehow felt less genuine than the square under water.

This is the area of yesterdays picture of St. Marks under two feet of water.  Today it is one of the most expensive cafe’s in Venice.

It was much less crowded than yesterday even with the better weather.  The long Italian weekend was over, and there was only one cruise ship in town instead of the three that were here yesterday.  So when we walked by St. Marks Cathedral we were shocked to see there was no line at all.  Ton was in full photography mode so she sent me off to see how much it cost to enter.  Another shock, it was free, so we headed in for a walk.  St. Marks is the first cathedral we have come to that allows no photography so we do not have any pictures, but it was very beautiful.

Exterior shot of St. Marks Cathedral, as no interior photos are allowed.

By now we were quite hungry so we headed over to the old Jewish quarter of town where we had heard there were lots of restaurants.  It was a nice walk and to our surprise the further we got from the tourist part of town the wider the roads got which spread the crowds out, the shops and restaurants were still intriguing, we found a nice garden with several  interesting art works, and the people watching was still quite good.  

We both really enjoyed this sculpture called “Guardians of Time”.

After our late lunch we decided to head back to the ferry as it was getting towards dark.  While waiting we were treated to the cruise ship in town passing by on the canal with three tugs shepherding it along.  It was a final giant connection to the city of canals.

Sunset over Venice.

November 3, 2019 Venice IT

As planned we moved to the other side of Venice to a campground that was open for the whole time we are planning to be here.  The drive over in light traffic was pretty uneventful except for my inability to follow Greta’s directions.  This resulted in us twice unnecessarily being on toll roads for short distances.  The first time we ended up paying a toll, the second time when I put the ticket in the machine the barrier went up and the ladies voice on the machine said arrivederci before I could put my credit card in for the toll.  She must of felt sorry for the fool who could not follow directions.

We arrived at the new campground early, hooked up and headed over to Venice during a little break in the rain.  We had no real plans for the day and thought we would just walk around and take in the sights.

View of Venice from our ferry.

We followed the signs towards St. Marks Cathedral.  The crowds were plentiful but not overwhelming, despite the three cruise ships we saw docked.  As we walked I contemplated Ton’s offer of whether we take a gondola ride or not.  Last night she told me gondola rides were €80 and lasted 30 minutes.  She said she had taken one with her mother in 1978, so it was completely up to me whether we took one as she had already done it.  We will see tomorrow.

Ton was disappointed that most of the gondoliers did not wear their hats, so she was happy with this guy.

It has been wet and blustery the last couple of days and the tides were pretty high along the water front, the sea was nearly up to the footpath with occasional waves washing over.  This looks like it must be becoming more common as many places have temporary bridges stacked so you can walk without getting your feet wet.

Everyone walking on temporary bridges in front of St. Marks Cathedral.

St. Marks square was interesting because when we arrived about 60% of it was underwater.  The water depth ranged from 6 inches to a couple of feet.  All of the stores and restaurants on one side of the square were closed as they had about 2 feet of water lapping at their doors.

Difficult to have a nice coffee in a foot of water.

We wandered around for another hour or so, mostly people watching.  The weather channel was dead on as about 1pm a light rain began.  By the time we got back to the ferry station about 2pm it was a steady hard rain and the wind was starting to blow.

Waves breaking over the walkway at the ferry stop.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in François.  We have a nice waterfront spot looking across the water at Venice and the cruise ships, it really is a nice view.  Ton cooked up a wonderful seafood pasta.  We have really enjoyed both the restaurants and the quality of the food in groceries in Italy.  We spent some time trying to figure out what food from Italy we should try to bring back home.  

November 2, 2019 Venice IT

The weather today is very Oregon like; steady rain and high temperatures in the 50’s.  Our plan was to simply head up to Venice and hunker down for the day and wait out the bad weather by planning our time in Venice.  

There are two points to enter Venice conveniently from a camping point of view.  One entry is southwest of the city and the other is east of the city and entails going around the city.  Even though it is less convenient  I chose the east one because it had 6 campgrounds in the vicinity and two of them were listed in my planning app as open year round.  When we arrived the first one informed me that they were closing tomorrow at noon.  The alternative is closed for two weeks for renovations.  So again we were looking for a plan b.  After some thought we are staying in the campground we arrived at for one night, and after confirming that the one southwest of the city we passed 65 kilometers ago is indeed open we will head over there tomorrow and carry on with our plan for two days in Venice.

A soggy windshield shot as that is all we saw today.

We are getting nervous about Italy because it looks like a lot of the campgrounds are shutting down after this weekend, so our travels in Northern Italy may get curtailed, and will certainly take more planning.

November 1, 2019 Ravenna IT

We departed Sienna reluctantly, the town really struck us as one of the most beautiful we had seen.  Part of the reason we left today is we had a fairly long drive and we thought it would be easier to do today because it is a holiday here in Italy. Our thinking was there would not be any trucks on the road (which was correct), and there would be fewer cars on the road as people would tend to stick around home (which was really incorrect).  It turns out this is a holiday for extended families to get together to celebrate, and lots of people are on the road.  We ran into our first traffic jam around Florence.  This was just a prelude to the mess we ran into around Bologna.  A drive I thought would take 2.5 hours ended up taking over 4 hours.  We were really regretting not sticking around Sienna.

We picked Ravenna because it is known for having impressive churches with World Heritage Mosaics.  It is also known for its’ writers as Dante finished the Inferno here.  It was also one of Byron’s favorite cities.  We also picked it because it had several campgrounds near the ocean.  When we first entered the town we were in a highly industrialized area with factories and lots of shipping containers so the initial impression of Ravenna was not spectacular.  When we got down to the beach front where the bulk of the campgrounds were it was extremely quiet.  The campground I had programmed into Greta Garmin was closed, I told Ton not to worry as there were two more just up the street, but they were all closed also.  We pulled over and began working on a plan B, do we brave the traffic and continue on to Venice, look for another city to spend the night in, or try the last campground in Ravenna which was on the other side of town. We decided to give the last campground a try before moving on.  It was about 11km away and we ended up on this weird unused freeway thru industrial sites.  We were the only vehicle on the road until we came upon a car that had somehow managed to drive into the center divider and was being tended to by a tow truck and a couple of police.  

Happily when we exited the weird freeway we saw some RV’s parked where we were going so it looked like we were in luck.  When we pulled up the harried looking owner asked “reservations?” which of course we did not have.  She then smiled and said well if you don’t mind improvising on the electricity we can squeeze you in.  

After settling in we debated whether to even go into Ravenna as it was 3 o’clock, and Ravenna hd not made much of a first impression on us.  The owner told us they could take us into town  and pick us up for €2 so we decided to go.  Ravenna turned out to be beautiful.  The center of town is quite clean and easy to walk in.  All of the people heading off to see their families were promenading thru town which made the people watching fun.  

The streets of Ravenna, it was cold and damp.

When we got to the main church the Basilica San Vitala we debated whether to pay the admission fee.  It would be a good deal if you were spending a few days in town as it included admission to 5 different sites.  But we only had a few hours and would only be able to visit the Basilica.  We finally decided to spring for the tickets as we had come this far.  

6th century Byzantine style mosaics in the Basilica San Vitala.

The Basilica was built in the 6th century by the Goths and features Byzantine inspired mosaics that are absolutely stunning.  We were mesmerized by the mosaics and spent almost an hour admiring them.  They are in incredibly good shape for being 1500 years old, and the artistry  of the figures is stunning.   The remainder of the church is covered by Baroque era frescoes from the 18th century, and they are beautiful in their own right.  The blending of art from the 6th century and the 18th century works much better than you would think.  

Mosaic in San Basilica.  It is hard to capture the extent of these mosaics in photos.

At the end on the walk back to our pickup I told Ton, that the first half of the day seemed like a mistake. But in the end I’m glad we hung around to see Ravenna as the town and the church were worth the effort.

Ton liked this grandma advertising a regional speciality.

October 31, 2019 Sienna IT

If you are following our destinations you will notice we have headed south.   The drive was pretty uneventful, the last 45 minutes were thru some pretty rugged hills that are the home of the famous Chianti grape.  Tomorrow is a major holiday in Italy so the traffic on the autostrada seemed a little heavier than normal but still moving well.  

We arrived at the campground in Sienna around 11:30 and after checking the weather decided to head right downtown.  When we bought our bus tickets at the campground office the lady warned us to make sure we stamp our tickets as soon as we got on the bus as they have monitors and they are mean.  In Europe you can buy tickets in bulk and it is your responsibility to stamp the ticket when you use it, this is also true on the trains.  We have gotten used to this and have only forgotten once and of course we were checked.  The conductor on the train let us off with a polite lecture about using the stamp, sometimes it is good to be perceived as a clueless foreigner.  We were checked by monitors both going to town and coming back so they really are strict in Sienna.

Five streets come together in this intersection in Sienna.

Sienna has been on our must see list for the trip and while we had last minute thoughts of skipping it we decided this morning to double back and I am glad we did.  It is a mountain city and has maintained a great deal of the old world feel to it that we like. 

View of Sienna from the bus stop.

It is known for two things the gothic era town hall with a large tower, and of course it’s cathedral.  We came across the town hall first and it is indeed impressive.  But for us the Piazza in front of the hall is more impressive.  In addition to the town hall the Piazza is surrounded by 6 and 7 story brick buildings.  Unlike most Piazza’s it is not flat but kind of concave.  

The town hall which is the center of the main Piazza in Sienna.

The Piazza is used to stage a twice annual horse race called the Palio of Sienna which is pretty wild.  There are 17 neighborhoods in the city which in the past were organized as battalions for the defense of the city.  10 of them are selected at random to take part in the race.  The first thing is that the Piazza is not an oval nor level so the turns are angles which makes them a lot more intense.  The next thing is that the jockeys ride bare back which makes for a much more precarious perch on the horse.  The jockeys are allowed to use their whips on their horse, but also on other horses (not the jockeys) to “disturb” them.  Finally it is the horse that wins the race not the jockey which means if the jockey falls off sometime during the race and the horse carries on without him and crosses the finish line first it is the winner.

The Piazza where the race is held.

Our next stop was the cathedral.  We have seen a lot of cathedrals over time here, but Ton and I both said wow when we saw the Cathedral in Sienna.  It is not the largest cathedral, but the front is beautiful with intricate carvings and colored marble.

The intricate Cathedral of Sienna.

Having knocked out the two main attractions in town we just wandered up and down roads and alleys for a while taking in Sienna.  We both agreed that it would be easy to spend a few days here, but we are running out of time.  

The town symbol of Sienna.

October 30, 2019 Lucca IT

We woke early to catch the bus as there were only two options, one at 8:15 and the next at 11:10 which we thought was too late.  As I was getting things organized outside we ran into the owner of the Agritourismo, Andrea and he asked what I was doing up so early.  When I told him he said that he could have his father drive us in at a more civilized hour and we happily took him up on the offer.

The sign for the campground we are staying at in Lucca.

Ton did some research on the comic book festival in Lucca and it goes back to 1966.  It is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world with 90,000 tickets sold each day and the festival apparently sells out the 450,000 tickets in hours each year.  It is a much larger event than we expected. We figured the people watching would be interesting even though we do not have tickets.

The people watching was fun.

Arriving at one of the city gates all of the tents we had seen around the city yesterday had long lines leading into them with fans of different cartoons and comics looking to score the latest merchandise.  We wandered the streets pretty aimlessly and Lucca is a great site for this kind of event as the long narrow streets with frequent piazza’s allow it to absorb the people effectively and allows the participants interesting places to stage photos.  

This guy loved having his picture taken and insisted on handing me his weapon.

A lot of the participants were dressed up in costume, though Ton and I are not the right age to identify most of the characters people were dressed up as.  We did have fun trying to guess.  Eventually we climbed up on the wall that encircles the old city and it turns out it is an unofficial promenade for the people in costume to walk and see what other people were wearing.  We ended up walking completely around the city.  We found one exhibit that was open to people without tickets, it was based on the video game Resident Evil so we got to go in and interact with a bunch of zombies in Raccoon City.  

One of the zombies and a guard at the Resident Evil display.

In between all of the characters we also continued to admire Lucca.  After a while we needed a little break so we went to a restaurant Ton had her eye on that has been in business since 1865.  Our waitress was a young lady who spoke English well.  She asked if we were here for the cartoon festival, we told her no, it was a happy accident.  She apologized and said that Lucca is a beautiful city and while the festival was really good for the local economy she is happy when it is over because it was just a little too weird, and to illustrate her point she had to run up to the cash register to ring up the bill of a zombie with his intestines hanging out and a knife in his back.

The view of the Hoben Oak trees on top of the tower.

We returned to François just before the rain that had been threatening all day hit.  I am writing this a little early today because we are heading up to the farmhouse for a 4 course Italian dinner, I will write about that tomorrow.

October 29, 2019 Lucca IT

Today we headed south back into Tuscany.  It was a short trip so we were able to complete an important task which was a stop at Lidl to fill up the cupboards which were pretty bare.  

After stocking up we headed out to the outskirts of Lucca to an agritourismo site.  Like France, one of the camping options in Italy is on farms.  In this case we are on a vineyard with 14 spots dedicated to campers.  When we pulled up to the site there were no campers in site, but we were immediately met by the owner Andrea who asked if we had reservations.  He said I know it looks crazy but we are full.  It turns out Lucca holds the Italian equivalent of Comicon and it is this week and 500,000 people are expected.  But in true Italian fashion with a twinkle in his eye he said we can stay for two nights which was exactly our plan, so it turns out there is no problem.  I then asked him about the bus into town and he said the schedule was posted, but he would give us a lift into town if we could leave soon.

Early arrivals for Lucca Comics and Games Festival.

Lucca was a treat.  It is an old walled town with the walls still intact.  It has suffered little damage over time and has been a settlement since the Romans so it is full of interesting buildings from many different eras.  We wandered the town for a few hours and were rewarded with small revelations around every corner.  There are no spectacular buildings in Lucca, just a bunch of medium sized churches and palazzos with really interesting features.  

One of the towers that Lucca is famous for.  This one has tress growing on the top of it.

While it caters to tourists, (Italian Comicon), it is not overrun with tourists like a lot of the places we visit.  Tomorrow we are going to give Lucca another look and take in the sites of Italians dressed like superhero and comic book characters in a town that goes back to the Romans.  It should be a treat.

Street scene in Lucca. We really enjoyed the atmosphere of Lucca.  

We tried to take the bus back to the campground, but the bus runs on a pretty irregular schedule.  Google told us the next bus was not for 2 and a half hours, the bus stop seemed to imply there was one an hour sooner than that.  We gambled on the bus stop sign and lost, so we decided to take a taxi. This turned out to be a good idea as a major thunderstorm rolled in just after we got back knocking out power in the area.

October 28, 2019 Cinque Terre IT

We had another great day on the Cinque Terre.  We are staying at a basic Sosta run by one of the local ambulance services, so in addition to a bunch of motor homes we are sharing our space with a couple of ambulances.  When the drivers are not out on runs they man the front gate and take payment.  When I went to buy bus tickets into town I tried to do the ordering in Italian (“due persona, biglietta a autobus retorno”) for anyone who speaks Italian you will know that is terrible, but the guy understood and thanked me for trying and then switched to perfect English for the rest of the transaction.

Yesterday we covered the most popular of the three cities on the Cinque Terre, today we planned on covering the last two towns.  After our twenty minute bus ride to the train station in La Spezia we headed out to Corniglia.  It is the least visited town because it does not connect to the ocean, and you have to climb 365 steps to get to the town.  The town is really perched on a promontory overlooking the ocean with great views up and down the coast.  It is also has good views up to the mountains above the coast.  In addition to climbing the steps to town we climbed up above the town into the vineyards that were the primary source of income before tourism took over.  

Corniglia with vineyards terraced on the hills above town.

Our next stop was the town of Manarola.  It is considered by the people who write about the Cinque Terre as the most romantic of the towns.  It consists of one main street running down to a small harbor.  But what makes it romantic are the trails around the town which after a pretty good climb take you thru the vineyards that cascade down the mountainside into the town.  The trail is quite spectacular and you are rewarded for your effort by some great views.

Looking down on Manarola from the vineyards above town.

Having climbed about 770 feet in total between the two towns (if my fitbit is to be believed) we decided to reward ourselves with a nice lunch.  We walked up the road in Manarola scouting for lunch.  Ton would walk up to each restaurant and look at the menu and inspect the food on the tables that the customers were eating.  After a while she pointed at a restaurant and said that is the one.  I noticed that there was a table for two on the second floor balcony and asked one of the waitresses in terrible Italian if we could sit there.  She said of course; and informed the manager/husband that we were going to get those seats (my reward for trying to speak Italian), clearly to his frustration.  It turned into a wonderful meal as we both had great fresh seafood on a balcony overlooking the town.  We shared the balcony with a nice German couple, and inside there was a French tour group who had quite a bit of wine with their lunch, and in the end their Italian tour guide broke into song and the group joined in.  All in all a very memorable lunch.

The rail station at Corniglia looking down from the top of the 365 steps.  The rail line connecting the 5 towns is more or less continuous tunnel, with the tracks only emerging at each town.  Manarola is the town you can see in the upper right of the picture.

Our final plan for the day was to walk from Manarola to Riomagiore but unfortunately the trail was closed.  So instead we headed back to La Spezia.  Ton says I owe her a massage for making her climb 770 feet today, but I think most of the climbing was her idea.

October 27, 2019 Cinque Terre IT

Todays trip was driven by the weather.  So far the weather has been spectacular, the one day it did rain it was nice enough to do it during the night and by morning the sun was out again.  But our good luck is changing and we are supposed to get a week of rain, starting tomorrow night.

One of Ton’s bucket list items on this trip was the Cinque Terre.  This location is really weather dependent, and since today was the last guaranteed good day for a while we decided to head over from Florence.  We will end up heading back into Tuscany for a more extended visit once we are done here.

One of the pastel colored villages in the Cinque Terre.

We were up bright and early, and it turns out today was the day Europe Falls Back from Daylight savings time.  With our early start we covered the 140km’s to La Spezia quickly and arrived at the Sosta on the outskirts of La Spezia at 9am.  After a quick breakfast it was off to the train station to buy our two day Cinque Terre pass.

The Cinque Terre is a series of 5 coastal villages carved into the sides of cliffs along the Ligurian Sea.  They are part of an Italian National Park as well as UNESCO Heritage sites.  While they are difficult to reach by road, the Italian Railway has carved tracks that connect them all.  This is by far the best way to explore the Cinque Terre.  A two day pass is only €27 per person and allows unlimited trips on the line between La Spezia and the five towns (it also includes free access to the walking trails between the towns, and the bathrooms in the train stations!).

One of the UNESCO listed villages on the Cinque Terre.

As today was the only guaranteed good day we picked the three largest villages, Riomagiorre, Vernazza, and Monterosso.  They are all in spectacular settings with small harbors at the bottom of steep roads leading to the ocean.  

We started the day in Riomagiorre and as we got off the train we heard a lot of Thai being spoken all around us.  It turns out we had stumbled into a tour of about 25 Thai.  We listened into the guide for a while until he caught on and we introduced ourselves.  He thought it was funny.

The harbor in Riomagiorre.

Monterosso is the largest of the towns and has the largest of the harbors but probably the least spectacular setting.  I was a little disappointed when I saw a big parking lot on the edge of town with about 20 RV’s parked in it.  It turns out this is the one place you can camp in the Cinque Terre.  I missed it in my app because it was listed as parking and not a Sosta.  In Italy I am not looking at parking areas like I have in France and Germany as places to stay only Sostas and Campgrounds.

The beach at Monterosso.

Vernazza is the smallest of the towns we visited today and is considered by most people to be the prettiest of the towns.  It only has one main road that leads down to a small harbor.  As you walk down to the harbor you see pictures of a massive flash flood that shot down the road in 2011.  After walking around town we headed up on to one of the trails that connect all of the towns on the Cinque Terre.  We wandered up there by accident but the view was so good we kept going.  At one point Ton was shooting some pictures when she overheard 4 Thai taking turns taking pictures of each other, she could not resist and asked if they wanted a picture of all 4 of them.  They reciprocated by taking pictures of us.

The hiking trail between Vernazza and Monterosso, it is steep in this stretch, there are vineyards on the right behind the fence.

October 26, 2019 Florence IT

After our quick view of Florence yesterday we headed back in today with a plan for a walking tour of Florence.  It is another beautiful Indian Summer day, low 70’s and sunny.  

Florence is beautiful and an easy city to walk around in.  We hit all of the tourist highlights.  Because of the weather the city was teeming with people, but everyone seemed in a good mood.  We had thought of visiting the inside of the Cathedral but when we arrived the line was far too long so we moved on.

Exterior of the cathedral, we never made it inside.

Our next stop was the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge).  We had gone by yesterday to get some photos but Ton was not happy with the results so she wanted a reshoot.  (She is turning into a real professional.)  After getting some good shots we headed up hill on the far side of the river.  It was much quieter and we really enjoyed walking thru some interesting but less busy neighborhoods.  We headed up to the Piazzo Michaelangelo where we had a great view of the city.  On the way up we made a short detour into a very beautiful rose garden that we both enjoyed.

View of Florence from the Michaelangelo Plaza.

 

A copy of Michaelangelo’s David.

Our next stop was the Florence Market which is always a highlight for Ton in every city.  The Florence Market did not disappoint, we wandered from stand to stand for a good hour, and ended up with spices, pasta, and a kilo of parmesan cheese which we have optimistically vacuum packed, but I suspect will not make it home.  The upstairs of the market is a food court unlike any we have ever seen.  There are 50 or more food stands with an eclectic mix of Italian and non-Italian foods.  We were tempted but had two restaurants we wanted to check out for lunch.

A colorful stall at the Florence Market.

The first restaurant was right outside of the market but when we got there it was clear we were not the only one who had selected this restaurant.  The other restaurant on the list was a 20 minute walk away but when we got there it had already closed for lunch.  Now we were really hungry, we discussed going back to the food court at the market but neither one of us wanted to double back.  

As we were walking down the street Ton saw a place offering a two course meal with wine for €10.  It seemed too good to be true, and I was skeptical but Ton talked me into it and it turned into one of our best meals in Europe.  There were 6 choices for the pasta plate, and 6 choices for the meat plate.  We each picked different ones and shared and they were all good.  It also came with a carafe of wine that was a solid Tuscan.  In the end for €10 we had a memorable meal.

When we finished our meal we both had gone into a food coma, so we decided to head back to the Hilton for the day.

October 25, 2019 Florence IT

At the beginning of the trip Hilton informed us that we had to use points by November or we would lose them, so we are spending the next two nights in luxury at a Hilton Hotel near Florence, François is parked safely in the parking lot.

The drive over was relatively uneventful and we arrived early.  We had hoped to see a grocery store on our way to the hotel, but did not.  Since we were early we tried going to one near the hotel, but after wandering around for awhile (and possibly blundering into a ZTL) we could not find it so we headed back to the hotel and checked in.

We headed downtown to give Florence a preliminary look and were really impressed.  We just walked the streets but Ton killed the battery on her iPhone in about two hours she took so many pictures.

Street scene in Florence.

We walked down to the river to see the old bridge which is quite interesting as it is one of the few bridges to survive that continues the medieval tradition of having stores and dwellings on them.

The old bridge with shops built along either side.  The shops are high end jewelers.

We then came upon a Medici Palace and wandered in to check it out and decide if we would return and pay for the tour tomorrow.  We took a walk around the Cathedral and decided we definitely would return for the tour tomorrow.

The interior of the Medici Palace.

Having walked for awhile we decided to have a dinner of pizza and watched some Rugby on TV.  Florence makes a very good first impression.

October 24, 2019 Perugia IT

The weather forecast was threatening so we had a debate about whether to head into Perugia.  But after consulting with the weather channel app and the clerk at the desk for the campground it looked like the rain was going to hold off until late afternoon so we were off for Perugia.

The Passignano train station.  

The next issue was we had about 30 minutes to get to the train station which was about a mile away on foot.  So we took off like someone chasing their water buffalo (to quote the Thai saying), and made it with a few minutes to spare.  When we arrived in Perugia we saw signs announcing the European Chocolate Festival, so the day was definitely looking up.  After taking the mini-Metro (maybe the cutest mass transit system we have seen) from the train station to the top of the hill that Perugia’s city center is located on we were greeted with row after row of tents with chocolates from primarily Italy, with a few of the biggies in Europe thrown into the mix.  

Looking forward to entering Choco Street.

In between visiting chocolate tents we also enjoyed Perugia.  It is a beautiful town set on a hilltop with expansive views in all directions.  We were also surprised by the beauty of the Palazzo dei Priori (Palace of the first People) which dates from the late 1200’s and was the seat of government during that time up to modern times.  We wandered in by accident and then spent about 30 minutes walking around looking at the wood carvings and paintings.

One of the paintings from Palazzo dei Priori.

Across the square is the Cathedral of Perugia and despite a little cathedral weariness we really enjoyed this one.  It is quite different than the cathedrals we have seen in France, Germany, and Spain which seem to have a lot in common in design and decoration.  Like St. Peters this one seems less in a pattern and more unique.  The highlights were the different marble pillars, and the ceilings.  But the surprise was a room off of the main cathedral.  The sacristy (which is the room where the priests keep their formal clothing and other artifacts needed for mass) was covered in frescoes by an artist named Pandolfi and were really beautiful.  It was like a small version of the Sistine Chapel, with the difference being that we had the room to ourselves to enjoy the art.

The ceiling of the sacristy of the Cathedral of Perugia.
Interior of the cathedral.

Keeping the rain in mind we cut our visit short, and headed back to François.  We beat the rain.  Ton really outdid herself with a pasta dish that would make any Italian proud. The rain has arrived and we are being treated to a pounding rain on the roof of François.